November 1916: The Somme Air Battle

The legendary circling duel between Lanoe Hawker and Manfred von Richthofen by Russell Smith

By November, the state of the war in the air over the Somme was clearly defined. The arrival of German reinforcements; the reorganisation and refocusing of the German Air Force; the fighting legacy of Boelcke bequeathed to the young pilots of Jasta 2; but most of all the swing of the technological pendulum – they had all combined to leave the RFC in a position of marked inferiority. It was obvious that the DH2s had had their day. The use of pusher aircraft to overcome the lack of an effective machine gun synchronisation mechanism had been a successful stratagem, but now more powerful and faster tractor aircraft were dominating the skies.

I know I felt very uncomfortable with two HA well above me, and in spite of the fact that I climbed to about 13,500 they were still above, which is very demoralising. We shall have to bring out some very fine machines next year if we are to keep up with them. Their scouts are very much better than ours now on average . . . the good old days of July and August, when two or three DH2s used to push half a dozen Huns onto the chimney tops of Bapaume, are no more. In the Roland they possessed the finest two-seater machine in the world, and now they have introduced a few of their single-seater ideas, and very good they are too, one specimen especially deserves mention. They are manned by jolly good pilots, probably the best, and the juggling they can do when they are scrapping is quite remarkable. They can fly round and round a DH2 and made one look quite silly. Second Lieutenant Gwilym Lewis, 32 Squadron, RFC

Lieutenant Francis Cave had been showing signs of stress in midsummer, and this increased, as he witnessed many less fortunate pilots perish. On 1 November, he was on an artillery observation patrol with his regular observer Lieutenant Duke when he saw another machine go down.

We were just calling up 80th Siege when we saw a Hun chasing a BE2 C right down to the ground. It crashed near Courcelette before we could get up, but we fired at the Hun as he went off; but he got so low that we had to zoom over some trees near Miraumont. The BE2 C belonged to No. 7 Squadron, the pilot had shell shock and the observer was wounded. Lieutenant Francis Cave, 4 Squadron, RFC

The pilot was Second Lieutenant Percival and the Observer Air Mechanic Brindle.

One obvious tactic to try and bypass the German superiority was to increase the night bombing of the lairs of the Albatrosses – to get them on the ground where they were helpless.

Crossed the line at Le Sars at 8.50pm at 4,500 feet. Velu at 9.00pm. No activity at Velu but could see conspicuous lights on the ground in a northerly direction. So went to see what they were. They were at Villers Lez Cagnicourt. There were three lights on the ground – two white ones and one red one. The two white ones were about 50 yards apart and the red one formed the apex of an isosceles triangle and were about 200 yards distant from the white lights. The red light pointed into the wind. Green and white Verey lights were being fired into the air at long intervals. We had a good look at the place and could see hangars on the Western side of the flares. The position of this aerodrome is (51B) V.4b 4.c (centre of the landing ground). At 9.15pm from 5,000 feet dropped 3 Hales 20 lb HE bombs. The first two burst about 200 yards South of the hangars and the other two were about 100 yards South of the hangars. All lights were immediately put out and as we hovered over the aerodrome to drop our remaining bombs a machine was wheeled out of a hangar and took off into the wind. We followed him and by keeping our nose down kept him in sight. We were getting quite close to him (we were at 4,000 feet and he was about 1,500 feet) when he turned sharply and we turned to get on top of him. He was drawing away from us so I opened fire on him and gave him a drum. He then went out of sight and we followed in his direction. As we came over the aerodrome again we dropped our remaining three bombs – two burst on the aerodrome and the third one hit a hangar. No fire was caused. We hovered round but could not see the hostile machine. Captain Joseph Callaghan, 18 Squadron, RFC

Yet the flow of casualties could not be staunched. In early November, the RFC suffered a significant loss. Captain Lord Auberon Lucas, the Flight Commander of B Flight, 22 Squadron, had an enormous personal hinterland in comparison with most of the young pilots in the RFC. Already aged 40, he had rowed for Oxford and acted as war correspondent for The Times during the Boer War, where he had the misfortune to lose his leg. This inconvenient mishap did not however stop him, for he continued to ride in steeplechases and indeed joined the Hampshire Yeomanry. In 1908, his political career took off when he joined the Liberal Government, where he served in various capacities as an Under Secretary, before joining the Cabinet as President of the Board of Agriculture in 1914. Even such a political animal as Winston Churchill, was impressed by the power of his vivacious personality.

To know him was to delight in him. His open, gay, responsive nature, his witty, ironical, but never unchivalrous tongue, his pleasing presence, his compulsive smile, made him much courted by his friends . . . Young for the Cabinet, heir to splendid possessions, happy in all that surrounded him, he seemed to have captivated Fortune with the rest. Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty

Lucas had played a constructive role early in the war in the deliberations of the munitions committee, but could not resist the lure of active service. On the formation of the coalition government in May 1915, he retired from politics to enlist and train as a pilot with the Royal Flying Corps. He may have been young for the Cabinet but he was an old man in the officers’ mess. Offered command of a squadron he refused until he had had active combat experience as a Flight Commander on the Western Front. At last he was posted out to join 22 Squadron.

He had an artificial leg and had to use a pair of steps to get into the nacelle of his FE2 B. I remember his tall figure mounting the steps one at a time. Flight Sergeant H Stoddart, 22 Squadron, RFC

Lord Lucas was a personal friend of Maurice Baring.

On October 30th, 1916, I went to Bertangles and saw Bron Lucas. We walked across the Aerodrome to Hawker’s Mess. It had poured with rain all day, but in the evening the clouds lifted over the horizon, leaving a low gold wrack, against which the sheds stood out black. Above there was a great tumult of clouds drifting and streaming and reflecting the light below, with here and there a rift. I said to Bron that it was like one of my pictures. He laughed and said, “Yes”. I wondered what it meant. Captain Maurice Baring. Headquarters, RFC

Perhaps Baring suspected that Auberon Lucas was not always so chivalrous with that ironic tongue of his! Lucas was delighted to throw himself into the thick of the fray – to test himself in the new battleground in the sky.

He was an undergraduate once more and an active soldier, as active, as athletic in the air as he had ever been on the ground. His youth had been given back to him with interest, and for his disabilities he had received a glorious compensation. Apart from the work and his keenness and whole-hearted interest in the war, in his Squadron, in his mechanics, and in his machine, he enjoyed himself with all the great gift of enjoyment and fund of gaiety with which he had enjoyed everything else in his life: his houses, his fishing, his pony-hunts, his steeplechases, his horses, his pictures, his dinner parties, the performances of the Follies, or, so long ago, the days, whether of strenuous rowing or idle punting on the river at Oxford.. They could not keep him out of the air . . . Captain Maurice Baring, Headquarters, RFC

At 13.37 on 3 November, Lucas and his observer Lieutenant A Anderson took off with two other FE2 Bs from their airfield for a photographic reconnaissance of the German rear areas. Lucas and Anderson were soon separated from their comrades and forced to carry out their risky trade below the broken cloud cover and tormented by stiff breeze. It was then that fortune chose to cast aside her favourite.

We could see no sign of the formation, so we made for the lines and picked up three of our escort about two miles this side of the lines. Of the other escort we never saw anything and after waiting about ten minutes we decided to go over with the other three machines and as we knew we were faster than they, we were going to circle round after every half minute or so to allow them to catch up. We went in over Pierre St Vaast Wood and we started taking our photographs with two of our machines sitting on our tail and the third a little under us. It was then I noticed how strong the wind was which was blowing approximately from the South West and which kept blowing us further over. After taking our third photograph, I saw that we had drawn rather far away from our escorting machines and so I signalled to Lucas to turn round and we turned into the wind. It was then as we were half way round that one enemy aircraft came out of the clouds for our tail. We had to turn to meet him but as we were firing at him, two more machines dropped out of the clouds on to our tail firing steadily. The first burst blew half our service tank away, so Lucas swung her round and put her nose down for our lines. I fired away over the top plane but they did very good shooting and our machine was simply riddled with bullets. Suddenly the machine started side-slipping violently and at the same time the engine gave a jar and stopped dead. Looking down I saw that Lucas was bending down in his seat and, thinking that he was working with his switches, I put out my hand to shake him, but then I discovered he was hit through the back of the head and was unconscious. At this time we must have been at about 6,000 feet and so I set to work to try to get his left foot off the rudder bar, as she was still side-slipping. This I eventually managed to do but at this time we were only about 3,000 feet and the three German machines were still on our tail firing away. I saw that with a head wind and no engine we could not hope to reach the line as we were then over Haplincourt, so to avoid the machine guns (we were also being fired at from the ground) I put her down very steeply. Unfortunately Lucas half slipped off his seat and when I tried to land I found I could not flatten out enough, the undercarriage was swept off and she crashed on the wing. I was thrown clear and Lucas was brought in a few minutes later, but never recovered consciousness and died about 4pm. Lieutenant A Anderson, 22 Squadron, RFC

From the victory claims made that day, it appears that pilots of Jasta 2 had shot down Anderson and Lucas as well as the other two FE2 Bs on the mission. The Germans buried Lucas that night with due ceremony in a little cemetery just half a mile outside Haplincourt. Ironically, Trenchard had that very day, written out the telegram that would have given Lord Lucas his own squadron had he returned safely. His governmental experience would have been invaluable to the Royal Flying Corps in many capacities over the next two years had he survived.

On 13 November, the Battle of the Ancre was launched as the last gasp of the Somme Offensive. General Sir Hubert Gough’s relatively fresh Fifth Army lunged forward into the valley of the River Ancre to the north of the Somme. Assisted by a reasonably effective artillery bombardment, the infantry made considerable initial progress. Beaumont Hamel fell at last, Beaucourt was captured and the positions on the Thiepval Ridge further developed. However, the attack on the Serre and Redan Ridges further North had failed. The attacks continued for a few days, but the weather worsened and it soon became obvious that nothing more of real value would be achieved. And so, on 18 November, Haig suspended the attacks – at long last the agony that was the Battle of the Somme was over.

Of course, conflict on this gigantic scale cannot just be cut off abruptly. The metaphorical corpse of the Somme battles carried on twitching for several more weeks. Hard fighting continued on the ground and in the air, only gradually dying down as winter took its icy grip. So it was that Lord Lucas was not to be the last grievous loss to the RFC above the Somme battlefield. At 13.00 on 23 November, Major Lanoe Hawker VC, who had led his squadron from the front throughout the long battle, took off for yet another patrol. Hawker, as the first British ace, as both a VC and as a man had been a fine example to his squadron.

From the earliest days he was an inspiring leader and its devoted ‘parent’ and friend. Before we left Hounslow, he had moulded the raw material on the right lines and it was in the beginnings that the seeds of its future greatness were sown. Those early runs in the morning which he himself led, those parades which we at the time thought rather unnecessary, those modest, almost confidential lectures, and equally those ‘rags’ when all of us, himself included, dashed off to town for an evening’s amusement – all went to form that ‘character’ which was peculiar to 24 Squadron from it’s earliest days. When we met with our first reverses, three of our best had gone west, his was the grit and determination that controlled us all. His personal example as a fighter was first and foremost the cause of his Squadron’s success. As a friend and man he was delightful – wonderfully childish in many ways, but at the same time, always its correct, calm Commanding Officer with ample reserve when required. Although the Commanding Officer, nothing amused him more than an orange thrown at someone’s head, or a soda water syphon fight, and in what we jokingly called ‘the Battle of Bertangles’, between ourselves and 22 Squadron, he used I know more syphons than anyone. Captain A M Wilkinson, 24 Squadron, RFC

On that fateful day, Captain John Andrews led the ‘A’ Flight patrol of four DH2s across the German lines on an offensive patrol to cover a photographic reconnaissance necessitated by the final death throes of the offensive. With him were Lieutenant Robert Saundby, Lieutenant Crutch and Major Hawker himself, who once again was making up the numbers to ease the situation for his hard-pressed pilots. As they took off, Crutch was forced to turn back as his engine failed him, but the remaining three carried on regardless. It had been arranged that two other squadron pilots – Lieutenants Long and Pashley – would reinforce the patrol at 14.00. After gaining altitude to around 11,000 feet the patrol crossed the lines heading towards Bapaume. Here, at about 13.50, they sighted two German aircraft flying below them at about 6,000 feet.

I attacked two Hostile Aircraft (HA) just North East of Bapaume and drove them East when I observed two strong patrols of HA Scouts above me. I was about to abandon the pursuit when a DH2 Scout Major Hawker, dived past me and continued to pursue. Captain John Andrews, 24 Squadron, RFC

We will never know why Hawker continued to pursue the decoys, he may not have seen the lurking German hunting pack above him, or perhaps he was just carrying out his own dictum to attack everything.

We were at once attacked by the HA, one of which dived on to Major Hawker’s tail. I drove him off firing about 25 rounds at close range. My engine was immediately shot through from behind and I was obliged to try and regain our lines. When on the lines another DH2 came diving past me from our side and drove the HA off my tail. I last saw Major Hawker at about 3,000 feet near Bapaume, fighting with an HA apparently quite under control but going down. Captain John Andrews, 24 Squadron, RFC

Andrews had been rescued by Lieutenant Saundby.

We were dived on by a patrol of seven or eight Walfischs. One followed by another, dived on me. I spiralled two or three times and the HA zoomed off. Then I saw patrol leader being attacked by Walfisch and went to his assistance, diving on to the HA’s tail, I emptied three-quarters double drum into him at about 20 yards range. He suddenly wobbled and dived so steeply with engine on that I could not follow him, although I dived up to 130mph. I flattened out and looked round but could see no other DH2s and the HA appeared to have moved away East, where they remained for the rest of the patrol. I turned to see if patrol leader was all right and saw him go down and land at the French landing ground behind Guillemont. I continued the patrol defensively, alone until two other DH2s joined me at 2.30pm. Lieutenant Robert Saundby, 24 Squadron, RFC

Both Andrews and Saundby had lost contact with Major Hawker who had come face to face with Lieutenant Manfred Von Richthofen – Boelcke’s heir apparent. It was to be a desperate duel to the death. It was not a fair fight, but that was irrelevant. All that the DH2 could offer in aerial combat against the Albatross DII was the ability to turn fast in tight circles without losing too much height. This was an essentially defensive attribute and the DH2’s single Lewis gun provided inadequate firepower in contrast with the belt fed, twin German Spandau.

So we circled round and round like madmen after one another at an altitude of about 10,000 feet. First we circled twenty times to the left, and then thirty times to the right. Each tried to get behind and above the other. Soon I discovered that I was not meeting a beginner. He had not the slightest intention to break off the fight. He was travelling in a box which turned beautifully. However, my packing case was better at climbing than his. But I succeeded at last in getting above and beyond my English waltzing partner. When we had got down to about 6,000 feet without having achieved anything in particular, my opponent ought to have discovered that it was time for him to take his leave. The wind was favourable to me, for it drove us more and more towards the German position. At last we were above Bapaume, about half a mile behind the German front. The gallant fellow was full of pluck, and when we had got down to about 3,000 ft he merrily waved to me as if he would say, “Well, how do you do?” The circles which we made round one another were so narrow that their diameter was probably no more than 250 or 300ft. I had time to take a good look at my opponent. I looked down into his carriage and could see every movement of his head. If he had not had his cap on I would have noticed what kind of a face he was making. My Englishman was a good sportsman, but by and by the thing became a little too hot for him. He had to decide whether he would land on German ground or whether he would fly back to the English lines. Of course, he tried the latter after having endeavoured in vain to escape me by loopings and such tricks. At that time his first bullets were flying around me, for so far neither of us had been able to do any shooting. When he had come down to about 300ft he tried to escape by flying in a zigzag course, which makes it difficult for an observer on the ground to shoot. That was my most favourable moment. I followed him at an altitude of from 250ft to 150ft, firing all the time. The Englishman could not help falling. But the jamming of my gun nearly robbed me of my success. My opponent fell shot through the head 150ft behind our line. Lieutenant Manfred von Richthofen, Jasta 2, German Air Force

Hawker was dead, just a few yards and seconds from safety. The circle was complete. The death of Immelmman in June 1916, just prior to the start of the great battle, had signified the rise to ascendancy of the RFC and the supremacy of the DH2s over the Fokker EIII. Now Immelmann had been avenged, as the death of Hawker marked the swing back of the pendulum and the eclipse of the DH2 by the Albatross. To add piquancy, the instrument of revenge, Richthofen, was the pupil of Immelmann’s hunting partner Boelcke. Richthofen would go on to lead the slaughter of the outclassed RFC machines throughout the next six months before the next generation of Allied aircraft made their belated appearance in May 1917.

The Battle of the Somme will never escape the infamy generated by the horrendous losses of 1 July. Yet, despite all the doom and gloom gestated by the appalling casualty lists, the British Army was beginning to make rapid strides up the military learning curve of competence. The use of artillery to chaperone the infantry to their objectives with a crushing combination of preliminary, creeping and standing barrages had shown the way forward. The difficulty in piercing the fog of war meant that the British High Command did not always draw the right conclusions from their successes and failures, but they did not have the benefit of hindsight and our criticism should be muted by a fair minded recognition of the difficulties that they faced. There would be many more disasters and false dawns, many more errors of commission and omission in the planning process before they became fluent in the new language of war.

Haig always considered that the break in the weather in October had denied his armies the victory they had deserved. He believed with some justification, that the German Army was rocking on its heels, as it attempted to cope with the long attritional nightmares on the Somme and Verdun fronts.

The fighting had made the most extraordinary demands both on commanders and troops. The relief arrangements inaugurated at Cambrai, and the new system of reserves projected for the West Front, no longer sufficed. Divisions and other formations had to be thrown in on the Somme front in quicker succession and had to stay in the line longer. The time for recuperation and training on quiet sectors became shorter and shorter. The troops were getting exhausted. Everything was cut as fine as possible! The strain on our nerves in Pless was terrible; over and over again we had to find and adopt new expedients. It needed the iron nerves of Generals von Gallwitz, Fritz von Below, von Kuhl, Colonels von Lossberg and Bronsart von Schellendorf, to keep them from losing their heads, to systematically put in the reserves as they came up, and, despite all our failures, eventually to succeed in saving the situation. Above all, it needed troops like the Germans!  General Erich Ludendorff, German Headquarters

Ludendorff recognised that the British and French offensive on the Somme was not the end of the matter but just the first instalment.

GHQ had to bear in mind that the enemy’s great superiority in men and material would be even more painfully felt in 1917 than in 1916. They had to face the danger that ‘Somme fighting’ would soon break out at various points on our fronts, and that even our troops would not be able to withstand such attacks indefinitely, especially if the enemy gave us no time for rest and for the accumulation of material. Our position was uncommonly difficult and a way out hard to find. We could not contemplate an offensive ourselves, having to keep our reserves available for defence. There was no hope of a collapse of any of the Entente Powers. If the war lasted our defeat seemed inevitable. Economically we were in a highly unfavourable position for a war of exhaustion. At home our strength was badly shaken. Questions of the supply of foodstuffs caused great anxiety, and so, too, did questions of morale. We were not undermining the spirits of the enemy populations with starvation blockades and propaganda. The future looked dark. General Erich Ludendorff, German Headquarters

Thus, ringed by their enemies, desperate for a way out, Germany was tempted to use unrestricted submarine warfare to try and implement their own blockade.

As for the RFC, the Battle of the Somme marked the point where it finally came of age as a fighting service. Its reconnaissance and observation role had been clearly defined earlier in the war. But the Somme was its first real air campaign fought in the teeth of a skilful, well equipped and determined opposition. General Gough summed up the general appreciation of the role played by the RFC.

During all the three months of fighting, the Air Service had been increasingly active and efficient. Fighting was not confined to operations on the ground and in the muddy trenches. Much went on in the air. Gradually and surely our Air Service established a moral and material superiority over the enemy, though at the cost of many gallant young lives. But the work done was invaluable – especially in the direction of ‘blanketing’ the enemy’s observation of his artillery fire, while they assisted, guided and directed ours most helpfully. No one of the complicated miscellany of services which comprise a modern army so commanded the respect and admiration of the infantry as did our air service. General Sir Hubert Gough, Headquarters, Fifth Army

Haig, Rawlinson, Gough and their respective staffs greatly valued the regular, detailed photographic reconnaissance of the trench systems facing their forces; they recognized the crucial role in artillery work; they appreciated the harassing raids on the German billeting sectors; they looked for bombing raids on strategically significant railway junctions to disrupt the German movement of reserve divisions; and of course they insisted that the RFC scouts should deny similar facilities to the Germans. The RFC could, and did, look back on the whole Somme campaign with considerable pride.

I have often heard officers of other arms state that at times the supremacy of the air passed to the enemy. I challenge this statement. The side possesses the supremacy of the air which is able to keep army cooperation machines in the front and to prevent the enemy from doing so. The question of which side has most casualties in doing so is immaterial to this question. Lieutenant Robert Archer, 42 Squadron, RFC

Most of the 583 RFC casualties suffered on the Western Front between June and December 1916 were over the Somme battlefields. These figures pale into insignificance compared to the crippling losses suffered by the infantry, but as a proportion of those involved it bore a grim comparison. In the tragic ledger of the Somme, the losses they suffered were set against the enormous value of their work. For the RFC at least it was ‘Somme Success’.

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