The air forces of all the combatant nations kept their raw tenuous grip on a life that was tough, edgy and fraught with nearly as much danger from the tools of their trade as from enemy action. A raucous ironical black humour was also common property. The name which airmen bestowed on the control column, “joystick”, with its phallic connotation, typified their robust brand of wit.
One innovation had already been introduced a few months earlier by the French, earned a frown of disapproval from the British and was looked at askance, but with their usual humbug, envy and imitativeness, by the Germans.
It is now necessary to take a short step backwards in time to one which, it will be seen, fits quite logically here. The great Adolphe Pegoud, whose astoundingly bold aerobatics have been mentioned, was famous also for two other feats of conspicuous bravery. In 1913 he had made the first parachute jump from an aeroplane: a single-seater in which he had gone up for the purpose, and perforce had to allow to crash after he had quit it. In the same year, he was the first man to fly inverted. He had prepared for this by having an aeroplane turned upside down while he sat in the cockpit, then suspended from its hangar roof. When he had timed how long he could sustain this rush of blood to the head, he knew the safe duration of a first inverted flight.
He is mentioned here because he was the first pilot to be dubbed an “ace”. It was the French newspapers, whose reporters and readers were avidly interested in all aspects of aviation and wildly excited by the apparently romantic exploits of their military airmen, which coined the term; or title, as it began to be regarded. When, in 1915, Pegoud became the first to shoot down five enemy aeroplanes, the national press, acclaiming his achievement, sought a term of distinction for him and those who would emulate him. Ace was the chosen word.
Pégoud, sadly, did not survive to enjoy his notoriety for long. On 31st August 1915 an infantry battalion sent an urgent request for an aircraft to drive off an enemy two-seater that was harassing it. Pégoud, when not flying, was permanently standing by for a report of enemy aircraft, so that he could take off in his Nieuport Bébé at once to intercept. This time he knew where the enemy was loitering. When the German pilot and observer spotted him, they began to climb. He caught up and opened fire. The enemy replied. Presently Pégoud had to break off to reload his Lewis gun, then attacked again. The German observer put a Parabellum bullet through his heart. The Nieuport crashed to earth from 10,000 feet. His escadrille found his unlikely good luck charm, a child’s cuddly toy in the shape of a penguin, among the wreckage.
L’Aviation Militaire did not at first officially recognise the status of “ace”, but tacitly had to accept the word’s popular use and its implication. With the passing of time it insinuated itself into official approval. Commandant de Rose saw the value of it in maintaining morale. When he took command at Verdun he officially published pilots’ individual scores. This exaltation was harmless enough, good for the morale of single-seater pilots and for the reputation of the Service. The invidious effect of an elevation of fighter pilots above bomber, reconnaissance and artillery co-operation pilots and observers was apparently not taken into account. This was also the first acknowledgment of public enthralment by the glamorous notion of two knightly figures jousting chivalrously for honour and glory. The myth of chivalry has already been demolished. Nor can there be anything remotely romantic about men being riddled with bullets or incinerated alive. Honour and glory, however, remain valid.
While the Germans did not admit having adopted the ace system, they acknowledged an equivalent by setting a target of eight kills as the requirement for award of the Blue Max, the Pour le Mérite. This was later increased to sixteen. Most fighter pilots also received a silver Ehrenbecher, a beaker of honour, to commemorate their first kill. It was a brutish, ill-proportioned trophy.
To the British, conferring this sort of adulation on an individual was anathema and would have embarrassed the recipients. Air fighting, like any other military or naval engagement, was essentially a matter of team work. Commanding Officers did not like having brilliant individualists on their squadrons. As the air war developed and fighters fought in pairs, sections of three, flights of four or six and squadrons of twelve, the vindication of this became increasingly evident. None the less, and the French and Germans would indict the British for allegedly typical hypocrisy, on 6th May 1918, Lieutenant Colonel Joubert de la Ferté, Commanding 14th Wing, decreed that the minimum score for an immediate award of the newly introduced Distinguished Flying Cross, which replaced the Military Cross as a decoration for flying, would be six victories. There is no evidence of any Commander having laid down a set number of bomber or reconnaissance sorties for a member of aircrew to fly in order to qualify for this decoration. The truth remains that it is impossible to assess merit in action by any such arbitrary yardstick: five, six, eight or sixteen kills, they are all equally spurious as a real measure of what a fighter pilot deserves. They also ignore the existence of other pilots and their crews.
Despite the RFC’s insistence that victory in the air was achieved by team work, individually gifted fighter pilots were more than tolerated throughout the war, as will be seen, and granted many privileges: among them, choice of aeroplane, freedom to take off when, and to roam where, they chose. And, naturally, the British press and public lauded them.
By this time the popular image of a fighter pilot was well established. La Guerre Aérienne really let itself go on the subject. The aviator, it said, was a man exceptional for his physical and moral qualities, an adventurer out of the ordinary; a sort of champion towards whom popular fervour was directed. This was why everyone who entered the aviation Service aspired to fly a fighter.
“Fighter pilots are an élite, a glorious élite, universally praised, officially very much appreciated. To become one of them is to receive a mark of distinction, it is the consecration of exceptional qualities.”
The number of volunteers for fighters greatly exceeded the requirement. A fighter pilot was “entrusted with a supple, highly-strung, prodigiously fast machine. This seduced sportsmen by its lively charms, in particular the intoxicating speed that increased tenfold the sensation of power.”
La Guerre Aérienne frequently insists on the moral qualities demanded: “What justified the fighter pilots’ liberty was the fact that they put it to good use. For that, intrepidity, courage, love of sport and a taste for risk are necessary.”
Corporal Georges Guynemer, one of the earliest French aces, was already at the Front. Serious, ascetic and religious, he had been suspected, as a boy, of being tubercular and still looked frail at the age of seventeen years and eight months when war broke out. For this reason he was twice rejected when he tried to enlist. At the third attempt, in November 1914, he was admitted as an apprentice aviation mechanic. Having achieved that important step, he pressed on until he was accepted for flying school. In April 1915 he got his wings. The next month he was posted to Escadrille MS3, which flew both one- and two-seater Morane-Saulniers. In July, with Private Guerder as air gunner, he scored his first victory and was awarded the Médaille Militaire. Four months later he had added a kill in a single-seater to his tally and was made a Chevalier of the Legion of Honour.
The air war was still a fairly casual and leisurely affair. One Sunday forenoon Guynemer shot down an enemy machine over Compiègne, where his parents lived, and was not sure where it had hit the ground. Seeing people coming away from Mass and knowing that his parents would be among them, he landed in a roadside meadow, hailed his father and asked him to search for his victim. Soon after, he brought down another aircraft in flames, near an artillery battery. He landed, as pilots often did, to have a look at his handiwork. The captain commanding the battery ordered a complimentary salvo to be fired, then tore gold braid off his képi and gave it to Corporal Guynemer “to wear when you are also a captain”.
But the pace and ferocity of aerial combat were about to become much hotter.
The two German pilots who most conspicuously took advantage of their new fighter were Oswald Boelcke and Max Immelmann. They were both thorough and methodical, treated air fighting as a science, systematically worked out its basic principles and arrived at the best ways of applying them. Their theory, which was again followed in the Second World War and remains basically valid today, was as follows.
Opening an attack, a fighter pilot should have a height advantage and the sun behind him.
He should make use of cloud to conceal his approach.
His objective should be to get so close to his target that he could not miss it, yet be in a position where the enemy could not bring a gun to bear on him. In a fight between two forward-firing single-seaters, this meant being astern of, and slightly above, the other aircraft. A single-seater fighting a two-seater that had a rear machinegun needed to position itself behind and slightly below.
If attacked from ahead, a pilot should turn directly towards his adversary. This presented the smallest target and reduced the time in which the other man could aim and shoot.
If attacked from behind, a pilot should bank into the tightest possible turn. This made it difficult for the enemy to get on his tail; and, if he turned inside the enemy, he had a chance to get on his tail.
Boelcke, with his greater number of flying hours and more mature character than Immelmann, was the world’s first great fighter tactician. Immelmann’s outstanding contribution to aerial combat was the turn which is named after him. Aerobatics are, of course, the basis of attack and evasive action.
Before the war, only a few pilots had dared to try such movements, but a surprising variety existed and some were possible only with the very light, slow aeroplanes of the period. Adolphe Pégoud, the famous French stunt artiste, demonstrated his range at Brooklands in September 1913. One item was the bunt or outside loop, a manoeuvre still forbidden in the RAF. Pegoud added two elaborations to it. In one, he half-rolled at the bottom of the bunt, so that he was upright and flying in the direction opposite to that in which he had entered the outside loop. In the other, he described a vertical S, by making half an outside loop, then pulling the stick back and making an equal semi-circle with an opposite convexity. Another amazing feat was to stall at the top of a 45-degree climb, control his aeroplane in so masterly a fashion that it slid backwards in a parabola, then, when it again momentarily hung stalled and motionless, this time as though suspended by its tail on a sky hook, he put on power and dived into his next trick.
Immelmann designed his turn to make a second attack on a target in the shortest possible time after the first. Having dived, he pulled up into a loop, at the top of which, when, of course, he was inverted, he half-rolled out so that he was upright. He would now be above his target, behind it, but flying in the opposite direction from it. By stalling and falling away into a stalled turn, he was able to dive straight back onto the enemy. There were, therefore, two distinct parts to the manoeuvre. First came the “roll off the top”, which might in itself be all that he needed to do if he were taking evasive action rather than breaking off to renew an attack. Next came the stall turn, which took his enemy by surprise.
Immelmann, Boelcke and an observer, Teubern, found a small empty house in Douai and moved in. One can imagine the long discussions which occupied their evenings: the two pilots arguing, the observer making tentative contributions. None of the three smoked, they almost never drank, all were fond of sweet cakes. Immelmann wrote home to say admiringly that Boelcke was an accomplished sportsman “in the most varied directions”. He described him as “an extraordinarily quiet, reflective fellow and he owes it to his mode of life that he shows no sign of the strain, although he has been flying from the beginning of the war and has spent a long time at the Front”.
In another letter to his mother, on 25th June, he tells her that he has been flying 25 to 30 kilometres behind the enemy lines and has made the most flights on the Abteilung: 21, compared with Boelcke’s 19.
When Fokker demonstrated the E1 to Flight Section 62, he was impressed by Immelmann’s ability. He also admired him because he neither drank nor smoked and went to bed at ten o’clock. Learning that this paragon of rectitude and seemly hours was an engineer, Fokker offered him a job after the war, as pilots with his qualities would be hard to find. Fokker even went into detail. He would start as chief test pilot and progress to an engineer’s job when he had acquired the necessary knowledge of aeronautical engineering. He would be paid a salary plus a percentage on the sale of machines and the fees paid by pupils whom he trained. Immelmann was not as callow as he looked. He assured his mother that this offer had been made in front of witnesses.
On 1st August, the British bombed Douai aerodrome. Immelmann records waking at 4.45 a.m. to hear about twenty aeroplanes overhead, bombs bursting, flak firing. By then, 62 had the Fokker EII. He and Boelcke took off. He says he saw both British and French machines, although there were no Frenchmen there. His aircraft recognition seems to have been poor, even making allowances for the pale light of dawn, for the BE2c was unmistakable by anyone with average eyesight. Both British and French aeroplanes bore roundels, but the RFC’s consisted of a blue outer circle, a white inner circle and a solid red “bull’s eye”. The Aviation Militaire had the red and blue reversed.
Immelmann attacked a BE2c that was being flown without an observer — to allow an increased bombload — hit it and forced it down. He had mistaken its markings, so, landing alongside, he called in French, “You are my prisoner.” The pilot held up his arm and replied in English: “My arm is broken. You shot very well.” Immelmann then repeated himself in English. He helped the pilot to climb out of the cockpit and to remove his leather coat and tunic. The arm was badly wounded. Immelmann made his victim comfortable on the grass and sent for a doctor. This was not an example of that much misused word “chivalry”: it was kindness.
He had already been awarded the Friedrich Augustus Silver Medal for gallantry in the face of the enemy, after several artillery spotting and escort missions. He was now awarded the Iron Cross, First Class, for attacking a superior force and bringing one enemy down. Judged by later standards of what had to be done to win a medal, both these seem to be what, in the Second World War, the RAF called “a piece of cake”.
Boelcke, who had also won an Iron Cross, and Immelmann kept pace with one another until by mid-September each had three victories. On 11th October Immelmann went ahead of his rival by shooting down a BE2c.
The long-drawn-out Battle of Verdun was really a siege punctuated by furious bombardments and infantry assaults. In a siege, it is long-range cannon that are the most valuable weapons to both attacker and defender. With nobody flying artillery observation for the Germans, their big guns were being given target indications only by their captive balloons five miles behind their trench lines, whose view was much more restricted than from an aeroplane. It was counter-battery fire that was most needed and the most difficult to direct without aeroplanes. The French were getting some artillery co-operation machines across the enemy lines, but expensively. They needed to shoot down the balloons. These were defended by Fokkers, supplementing specially positioned flak and heavy machineguns. Their own batteries were handicapped by paucity of artillery observation sorties that managed to penetrate the German barrage patrols. They, too, used balloons, but these were vulnerable to attack by the enemy, despite anti-aircraft protection.
General Pétain, in command of the French forces at Verdun, saw that it was essential to take air superiority away from the enemy. Lieutenant Colonel Bares went to Verdun to organise the necessary arrangements. He increased the establishment in that sector from four escadrilles to sixteen of which six, instead of one, were to be fighters. He put Commandant Tricornot de Rose, at present Chef d’Aviation of the Second Army, in command of the latter. De Rose had the robust personality and appearance of a traditional heavy cavalryman, not least of which was his walrus moustache. He had transferred from the dragoons as far back as 1910 and obtained the first military pilot’s certificate in the French Army. He now formulated the basic doctrine for offensive formation flying when he ordained that fighters must always go out in threes or sixes. Enough Nieuport IIs were available to increase the escadrilles’ establishment, which was raised to twelve aircraft; an equally important measure.
Before the Nieuport Bébé entered service, some of the Morane escadrilles had made names for themselves and their commanders because the best single-seater pilots had been posted to them. The first of these was MS3, under Capitaine Félix Brocard, a fierce-looking man of medium height with a big moustache and a body shaped like a barrel, whose habitual straddle-legged stance and straight look were the quintessence of fighter pilot aggression. The others were MS 12, commanded by Capitaine Tricornot de Rose, and MS 23, Capitaine de Vergette.
Brocard’s escadrille had by now acquired Nieuports and had accordingly become N3. Having already achieved distinction in their Morane days, the pilots had a flying stork silhouetted on each side of their aircraft, to let everyone, friend and enemy, know who they were, and were therefore called “Les Cigognes”. They had been serving with the French Sixth Army and were now transferred to Verdun. The Storks, under Brocard, expanded into a group comprising also N26, N23, N73, N103 and N167.
The Fokker EIII was not without its troubles. All three marks suffered from occasional defects in the synchronising mechanism, which led to many pilots, among them both Boelcke and Immelmann, and Fokker himself, shattering their own propellers more than once. But it was still a deadly machine to fight. Even more formidable was the EIV, which was powered by a 160 h.p. Oberursel motor that gave it 110 m.p.h. It had twin Spandau machineguns. Only a few EIVs had been manufactured as yet, but Boelcke and Immelmann each had one. It was now that the frequency of their kills began to mount rapidly. Immelmann even experimented with three guns, but found the extra weight made the EIV too sluggish.
The Fokker was not the only formidable opponent that the French had to face. Germany, after having trailed behind France in aeroplane design and development for so long, suddenly confronted her with two new single-seaters. The Halberstadt DI had a 100 h.p. Mercedes engine and a speed of 85 m.p.h., the Pfalz had the same performance as the Fokker EIII. There were two new two-seaters, the Roland CIII, with its top speed of 103 m.p.h. and the Rumpler CI, which could attain 105.
De Rose had not yet worked out any tactics for fighting in formation, or issued instructions that this should be attempted; so the French pilots broke formation on meeting the enemy and fought individually. Given the nature of fighter pilots at any time and in those early days in particular, and taking into account the French temperament and the strong individualists that Navarre, Nungesser, Guynemer and others were, nothing else could be expected.
Boelcke and Immelmann continued to patrol singly, while the rest in the German flying units set off and fought in twos and threes. Boelcke, indeed, who found escorting reconnaissance sorties stultifying, was allowed to remove himself from Douai to a forward airstrip seven miles behind the Front, with another pilot and sixteen ground crew. It was a time, he said, of “Alles ganz auf eigene Faust … Everyone on his own fist.” Trenchard would have approved of the sentiment, which expressed the epitome of the offensive spirit.
The first Frenchman to gain distinction at Verdun was Jean Navarre. He was just nineteen when war broke out and he joined the Air Service. His twin brother, Pierre, went into the infantry. The first time Jean Navarre met an enemy aeroplane, he showed the stuff of which his character was made. The German flew alongside and waved. It was a foolish thing to do to a youngster like Navarre: who waved back, then put a rifle to his shoulder and shot at him. Navarre had to take both hands off the controls to do so and his Farman almost stalled, while the German dived away. Deciding that the Farman was a useless platform from which to fire any weapon, he transferred to MS 12 and by April 1915 had made two kills; and was often to be seen stunting over the trenches.
At the beginning of the Verdun siege he joined N 67. On 26th February he took off at dawn, found three unescorted two-seater enemy aircraft and promptly attacked. Two of the Germans fled at once. In the rearmost one, the observer stood and raised his hands in surrender. Navarre escorted it to a French aerodrome. Later the same morning he ran into nine German aeroplanes, picked out one, had a fight with it and shot it down.
As flamboyant as Charles Nungesser, he had a skull and crossbones and red stripes painted on his Nieuport. Nungesser went further. His was decorated with a skull and crossbones, a coffin, two lighted candles and a black heart. After a British pilot fired at him, he lost confidence in the official markings and had an additional V in red, white and blue painted on his upper wing.
Navarre’s favourite tactic was to approach his victim from astern and slightly below, then stand up to aim his Lewis gun. This was extremely foolhardy. The unstable Nieuport could easily have tipped him out. Navarre continued his aerobatics over the French lines and the infantry knew him as “la sentinelle de Verdun”.
Another characteristic that Navarre shared with Nungesser — and many other French, British and German fighter pilots throughout the war — was that they both held their fire until they were very close to the target. This is habitually described as “point-blank range”. It is nothing of the sort. The simplest definition of point blank is the point at which a bullet or shell begins to drop below a straight line between it and the target. Taking into account the speeds and relative positions of pursuer and target, lateral displacement and difference of altitude, plus the effect on a bullet of the wind generated by the aircraft from which it was fired, distance to point blank from the pursuer’s gun could be as much as 600 yards. Nobody fired from such long range. What those who carelessly use the term “point blank” mean is a range of 25 to 50 yards. Point blank could fall somewhere within those limits for a revolver or pistol, but by no means for a machinegun or rifle.
Navarre’s score soon reached seven, when Nungesser had six. On 4th April he shot down three German machines in the course of four patrols, but two of these fell behind enemy lines and could not be confirmed, so he was credited with only one. On 17th June he was leading a patrol of three Nieuports which intercepted three two-seater reconnaissance Rolands and shot them all down. After that, when at 12,000 feet, the Frenchmen spotted another enemy two-seater at 9000 feet and went for it. To draw the enemy’s fire, so that his companions could shoot it down, Navarre swung to one side. The German observer put a bullet through his arm, breaking the bone, and then wounded him in the side. He fainted and before being able to make a crash landing he bled so profusely that he was delirious in hospital for several days and was found to have suffered brain damage from loss of blood. One glass of wine was now enough to intoxicate him. He was withdrawn from operational flying, with a total of twelve confirmed victories.
When his beloved twin, who had transferred from the infantry to the Air Service, was killed, he broke down completely. He did not return to active service until September 1918, and never flew again on operations. After the war he became chief pilot at Morane-Saulnier and had recovered his nerve enough to declare that he would fly through the Arc de Triomphe on the day of the victory parade on Bastille Day, 1919. He did not live to do it. He was practising aerobatics four days before his attempt when his engine cut at low level and his machine dived into the ground.
Nungesser, at the same time as Navarre, was also proving highly destructive to the enemy and incurring severe injuries himself. Lady Caroline Lamb’s diary entry on meeting Byron was equally appropriate to him: “Mad, bad and dangerous to know.” Nungesser habitually endangered his own life as carelessly as he did his enemies’. He was totally regardless of pain. His reckless style was exemplified in a cheerful understatement: “Before firing my gun, I shut my eyes. When I reopen them, sometimes the Boche is going down, sometimes I am in hospital.” After having had a bad crash in 1915, he spent four months of intensive fighting at Verdun in 1916. In January 1916 he crashed on an air test. He broke both legs; and the control column smashed into his mouth, penetrated his palate and dislocated his jaw. That cost him two months in hospital. When he returned to the Front he had to use crutches, but despite this he got himself into the cockpit and went out looking for a fight. At intervals he had to return to hospital for treatment, and at the same time was acquiring more wounds and injuries. A bullet split his lip open. Crash-landing in no-man’s-land, he dislocated a knee. In another crash landing with his aircraft shot up, it overturned and broke his jaw. By the end of the war he had been injured seventeen times.
At Verdun, the four fighter pilots who excelled all others were Boelcke, Immelmann, Navarre and Nungesser. They were all caught in the same current of passion for their work and swept along by it. In the two Frenchmen, delight in killing the invader predominated. In the two Germans it was absorption in the exquisiteness of their craftsmanship. All possessed an incandescent spirit compounded of dauntless mettle, superabundant aggressiveness and determination to excel.