Aces High I

Georges Guynemer, the frail, almost sickly pilot who had risen like a meteor to become France’s ace of aces with fifty-four victories, was dead.

Those who had seen him on that last day, a hazy September morning in 1917, recalled that he had seemed particularly nervous, pacing up and down anxiously while his mechanics prepared his aircraft for flight. He had been scheduled to fly a patrol with three other pilots, but two were late in arriving and so Guynemer, impatient as ever for combat, had decided to fly with only one companion, Lieutenant Bozon-Verduraz. They had taken off together for an airstrip near Dunkirk in their SPAD S. VIIs, on whose sides was painted the white marabou insignia of Escadrille SPA 3 – L’Escadrille des Cigognes.

Less than two hours later, Bozon-Verduraz returned alone. There had been a dogfight, and he had lost sight of Guynemer. His combat report told the terse story:

‘Pilot: Bozon-Verduraz. Take-off time: 08.35. Time of landing: 10.25. Maximum altitude: 5,900 metres.

‘At 09.25, together with Captain Guynemer, attacked an enemy two-seater over the lines at Poelcapelle. Made one pass and fired thirty rounds. Captain Guynemer continued to pursue the enemy as I was obliged to break off to avoid eight single-seaters, which were preparing to attack me. I did not see Captain Guynemer again. At 10.20, attacked a two-seater at 5,900 over Poperinghe. Fired ten rounds at point-blank range, then gun jammed. Pursued the enemy, but was unable to clear the stoppage and returned to base.’

The hours went by. Guynemer was long overdue. Commandant Brocard, commanding officer of the Cigognes, spent all morning on the telephone, searching for news; there was none. Then, in the afternoon, there came a message from an infantry unit to say that a French aircraft had been seen diving into the German lines, although as yet there was no confirmation that it was Guynemer’s.

The first hint of Guynemer’s fate came three days later, when a German newspaper carried the report that Guynemer had been shot down by a German named Captain Wissemann, but it was to be another month before the news was officially confirmed. In response to a note sent via the Spanish Embassy, the Department of Foreign Affairs in Berlin issued the following statement:

‘Captain Guynemer fell in the course of an air flight at 10.00 am on 11 September last, close to Cemetery of Honour No II to the south of Poelcapelle. A medical examination revealed that the index finger of the left hand had been shot away, and that the cause of death was a bullet in the head.’

Some time later on that September morning, the British artillery laid down a heavy barrage on the area where Guynemer was said to have fallen. After the brief examination by a German patrol soon after the crash, the pilot’s body had been left in the wreckage. After the barrage, a second patrol was sent out to bring in the remains, but they found no trace of either pilot or aircraft on the smoking, shell-cratered ground. Both had been completely obliterated.

A week or so after the death of Georges Guynemer, Captain Wissemann, who claimed to have shot him down, wrote home to his family: ‘Don’t worry about me. Never again will I meet an adversary who is half as dangerous as Guynemer.’ Only nineteen days after writing those words, Wissemann was himself shot down and killed by a man who was destined to emerge from the holocaust of the First World War as the top-scoring Allied fighter pilot. His name was René Fonck.

Fonck, who had scored his early victories over the terrible battleground of the Somme in 1916 and who had joined the Cigognes in April of the following year, soon began to establish his position among the ranks of France’s leading aces. In October 1917, in the course of thirteen and a half hours’ flying time, he destroyed ten enemy aircraft using fairly simple tactics. He would fly high, so that he was almost always above his opponents; then, choosing his moment carefully, he would use his height and speed advantage to gain surprise. His aim was excellent, and a single firing pass on the dive was usually enough to send down his enemy.

By the end of 1917 Fonck’s score stood at nineteen enemy aircraft destroyed, putting him in equal third place with two more talented pilots, Captains Albert Deullin and Georges Madon. In second place was Captain Alfred Heurtaux, with twenty-one, and leading the field was Lieutenant Charles Nungesser, the senior surviving French pilot with thirty victories.

The British, too, had lost their ace of aces in the bitter air fighting of 1917. Early in the year, the score of Captain Albert Ball DSO, MC, the rising star of No 56 Squadron, Royal Flying Corps, had been running neck and neck with that of Georges Guynemer, and the newspapers had been quick to seize on the friendly rivalry that had been growing between the two. At the beginning of May 1917 Ball had actually passed Guynemer’s total, and there had been much speculation about whether he would catch up with the leading German fighter pilot, Manfred von Richthofen, who at that time had fifty-two kills to his credit.

Ball and No 56 Squadron had skirmished with von Richthofen’s Jagdstaffel 11 on several occasions, but Ball had never made contact with von Richthofen personally. Then, in May 1917, the British learned that von Richthofen had gone home on leave and that his unit had been taken over by his brother, Lothar; it seemed an ideal opportunity to bring Jagdstaffel 11 to combat and, in the absence of its normal talented commander, inflict some losses on it.

In the evening of 7 May 1917, therefore, two Royal Flying Corps squadrons – one of them No 56 – set out to mount an offensive patrol over Jagdstaffel 11’s airfield at Douai. One of 56’s pilots, Cecil Lewis, described the scene:

‘The May evening is heavy with threatening masses of cumulus cloud, majestic skyscapes, solid-looking as snow mountains, fraught with caves and valleys, rifts and ravines . . . Steadily the body of scouts rises higher and higher, threading its way between the cloud precipices. Sometimes, below, the streets of a village, the corner of a wood, a few dark figures moving, glides into view like a slide into a lantern and is then hidden again . . .

‘A red light curls up from the leader’s cockpit and falls away. Action! He alters direction slightly, and the patrol, shifting throttle and rudder, keep close like a pack of hounds on the scent. He has seen, and they see soon, six scouts three thousand feet below. Black crosses! It seems interminable till the eleven come within diving distance. The pilots nurse their engines, hard-minded and set, test their guns and watch their indicators. At last the leader sways sideways, as a signal that each should take his man, and suddenly drops . . .’

As the fight was joined it suddenly began to rain, cutting down the visibility. The section leaders of No 56 Squadron tried hard to hold their men together, but in the confusion of the dogfight the squadron became badly dislocated. Some of the SE5s ran for home, others headed for a pre-arranged rendezvous over Arras. There, Albert Ball joined up with another flight commander named Crowe and the two continued their patrol, joined by a lone Spad. Near Loos, Ball suddenly fired a couple of Very lights and dived on a red-and-yellow Fokker Triplane, following it into a cloud.

It was the last time that Ball was seen alive. Of the eleven SE5s that had set out, in fact, only five returned to base.

On the German airfield at Douai, the Germans were celebrating. Not only had Lothar von Richthofen returned safely to base in a damaged aircraft, but he claimed that he had shot down Albert Ball. The claim was incorrect, and to this day controversy still surrounds Ball’s death. He was either shot down by a German machine-gun mounted on a church steeple, or became disorientated in low cloud and went out of control. The Germans buried him near Lille, and dropped a message to that effect over No 56’s aerodrome. A month later, it was announced that Ball had been awarded posthumously the Victoria Cross. His score of enemy aircraft destroyed at the time of his death was forty-three. Like Guynemer, he was just twenty-two years old.

It was the action of No 56 Squadron which, later in 1917, brought about the death of the second top-scoring German pilot after Manfred von Richthofen. He was Lieutenant Werner Voss of Jagdstaffel 10, who by the time he went on leave early in September 1917 had achieved forty-seven victories.

Within a couple of hours of his return to duty on 23 September, Voss took off in his Fokker Triplane and went looking for another victim. The triplane had first made its appearance over the front early in September and, in the hands of experienced pilots such as Voss and Richthofen, was a formidable opponent. Nevertheless, it was not invincible; Lieutenant Kurt Wolff, the leader of Jagdstaffel 11 and an ace with thirty-three victories, had been shot down and killed in one on 5 September by Flight Sub-Lieutenant N. MacGregor of No 10 (Naval) Squadron, flying a Sopwith Camel.

Voss’s victim on this first sortie of 23 September was a de Havilland DH4, which he caught and shot down as it was heading towards the British lines. On his way back to base he experienced some engine trouble, so he turned his usual aircraft over to the mechanics and got another machine ready for the next sortie. It was similar to his own in every respect apart from the colour scheme, which was silver-blue with a red nose.

At 6.00 pm, despite poor visibility, Voss took off in company with two Albatros Scouts, which then formed the main equipment of Jagdstaffel 11. Over the front line they saw an air battle in progress between a variety of British and German aircraft, including the SE5s of No 60 Squadron. Voss immediately manoeuvred into position to attack one of these, which was flown by Lieutenant H. A. Hamersley and which had become isolated from the others.

Twenty minutes earlier, six SE5s of ‘B’ Flight, No 56 Squadron, had taken off from their airfield at Estrée Blanche to carry out an offensive patrol. The flight was led by Captain James B. McCudden, who was accompanied by Lieutenants G. H. Bowman, A. P. F. Rhys-Davids, K. Muspratt, R. Maybery and R. T. C. Hoidge. Almost as soon as the SEs arrived over the front, McCudden spotted an enemy two-seater and attacked it, sending it down in flames. Re-forming his flight immediately, he then climbed hard to intercept a formation of six Albatros Scouts, slipping along just under the cloud base.

At that moment, McCudden sighted Hamersley’s lone SE fleeing for its life, with Voss in hot pursuit. Abandoning the Albatros formation, he went after the triplane in a diving turn, followed by Arthur Rhys-Davids. The pair closed in rapidly on the German, one on either side, and began to open fire in short bursts. Voss, with four more SEs coming down fast to join the other two, took the only course of action open to him: he decided to turn and fight, doubtlessly hoping that the Fokker’s manoeuvrability would enable him to hold his own until reinforcements arrived. He stood the Fokker on its wingtip and pulled round in a steep turn to face his attackers, firing as he came.

McCudden, taken completely by surprise, took the first burst through his SE’s wing and broke away sharply. At that moment, a red-nosed Albatros DV arrived and joined the battle. Its pilot, almost as skilful as Voss himself, took on the task of protecting Voss’s tail, and with his assistance the German ace abandoned his purely defensive tactics and got in some damaging shots at the SEs that were trying to out-turn him. For ten minutes the six SEs and the two German machines gyrated around the sky, the Germans looking out all the while for the expected help that would enable them to escape. It never came, and the outcome was inevitable. The combat report of Lieutenant Rhys-Davids describes the last frantic minutes of the fight:

‘The red-nosed Albatros and the triplane fought magnificently. I got in several bursts at the triplane without apparent effect, and twice placed a new drum on my Lewis gun. Eventually I got east of and slightly above the triplane and made for it, getting in a whole Lewis drum and a corresponding number of rounds from my Vickers. He made an attempt to turn in and we were so close that I was certain that we would collide. He passed my starboard wing by inches and went down. I zoomed, and saw him next with his engine apparently out, gliding east. I dived again and got one shot out of my Vickers. I reloaded, keeping in the dive, and got in another good burst, the triplane effecting a slight starboard turn, still going down. I had now overshot him, zoomed, but never saw him again.’

McCudden, having broken off the fight for the moment to change an ammunition drum, saw the triplane’s last moments. It seemed to stagger for a brief period, flying erratically; then it went into a steep dive, streaming smoke, and exploded on impact with the ground. A few moments later it was joined by the red-nosed Albatros, destroyed by the other SEs.

Later, James McCudden wrote of Voss: ‘His flying was wonderful, his courage magnificent, and in my opinion he was the bravest German airman whom it has been my privilege to see fight.’ But perhaps the feelings of the British pilots were best summed up by young Rhys-Davids himself, the man who had ended the career of the ‘Hussar of Krefeld’, as Voss was nicknamed. As his colleagues gathered round to congratulate him, he shook his head sadly and murmured, as he set his glass aside: ‘Oh, if only I could have brought him down alive!’

Such were the young men who, in that year of 1917, brought new skills and tactics to the embryo science of air warfare, and often paid the price of experimentation with their lives. Early in 1917, the problem of making good the severe losses suffered by the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) during the previous year had seemed almost insurmountable; in an effort to fill the gap, the War Office had ordered regimental commanders to appeal for volunteers for transfer to the flying service. Hundreds came forward, and at the same time the first Commonwealth volunteers also began to arrive. They were led by the Canadians, who, by special arrangement with the United States, had done most of their flying training in Texas and already possessed a high degree of skill.

The steady influx of these new personnel during the first weeks of 1917 did much to raise the morale of the RFC as it strove to gather its forces to meet the demands that would be imposed upon it by the coming spring offensives. These demands were dictated, first and foremost, by the continual need for effective air reconnaissance and artillery observation. Since the slow two-seat observation aircraft had to be protected, this requirement in turn gave rise to the development of offensive fighter tactics, designed to gain air superiority over an area of considerable depth behind the enemy lines and secure the observation machines, as far as possible, from interference by hostile aircraft. Also in 1917 came the growing realization that the aircraft was a highly effective weapon for harassing enemy troops and communications, and with it the development of bombing and ground-attack concepts.

The first Allied offensive of 1917 involved a major French attack on the Aisne while the British pinned down a large part of the enemy forces in the north, the main objective in their sector being the capture of Vimy Ridge. The offensive began on 17 March and ended on 4 April. The First and Third British Armies were supported by twenty-five RFC squadrons, about half of them equipped with single-seat fighters. During this battle a new British combat aircraft, the Bristol F2A Fighter, made its operational debut. Fifty F2As were built; powered by a 190 hp Rolls-Royce Falcon engine giving it a top speed of around 115 mph and armed with a centrally-mounted synchronized Vickers gun and a single Lewis mounted in the rear cockpit, the first examples arrived in France with No 48 Squadron towards the end of March.

The squadron had only six Bristols in operation at the time of its arrival at its new base, Bellevue, and they were rushed into action before their pilots had time to get used to them or to develop proper tactics with them. At first they were flown like previous two-seaters, orientated around the observer’s gun as the primary weapon, and losses were heavy. During their first patrol on 5 April, six Bristols led by No 48 Squadron’s CO, Major W. Leefe Robinson VC (who had earlier distinguished himself by shooting down the German Shütte-Lanz airship SL11 at Cuffley on 2 September 1916) encountered five Albatros DIIs led by Manfred von Richthofen. The British pilots adopted the standard two-seater tactic of turning their backs on the enemy to allow their observers to bring their guns to bear. It was a serious mistake, and four of the six – including Leefe Robinson, who spent the rest of the war in a prison camp – were shot down.

Later, in an interview with a Berlin newspaper, Richthofen was openly contemptuous of the British machine, with the result that many German pilots came to regard the Bristol Fighter as easy game – with fatal consequences to themselves. When flown offensively, in the same way as a single-seat fighter, it proved to be a superb weapon and went on to log a formidable record of success in action. Several hundred Bristol Fighters were ordered in 1917, these being the F2B version with a 220 hp Falcon II or 275 hp Falcon III engine, wider-span tailplanes, modified lower wing centre sections and an improved view from the front cockpit. The F2B eventually served with six RFC squadrons – Nos 11, 20, 22, 48, 62, and 88 – on the Western Front, as well as with No 67 (Australian) Squadron in Palestine, No 139 Squadron in Italy and in the United Kingdom with Nos 33, 36, 76 and 141 Squadrons on home defence duties. The pilot who perhaps did most to vindicate the Bristol Fighter was a Canadian, Lieutenant Andrew McKeever, who destroyed thirty enemy aircraft while flying F2Bs, his various observers shooting down eleven more.

Another new type to enter RFC service in the spring of 1917 was the SE5 single-seat fighter, which was delivered to No 56 Squadron in March. Powered by a 150 hp Hispano-Suiza engine, the aircraft had a maximum speed of 120 mph. Armament comprised a synchronized Vickers gun firing through the propeller and a drum-fed Lewis mounted over the wing centre section. Although less manoeuvrable than either the French-built Nieuports or Spads, the SE5 was faster and had an excellent rate of climb, enabling it to hold its own in combat with the latest German fighter types. The SE5s of No 56 Squadron flew their first operational patrol on 22 April 1917.

The original SE5 was followed into service, in June 1917, by the SE5a, with a 200 hp Hispano-Suiza engine. The type was first issued to Nos 56, 40 and 60 Squadrons, and by the end of the year had been delivered to Nos 24, 41, 68 and 84. Deliveries were slowed by an acute shortage of engines, but the pilots of the units that did receive the SE5a were full of praise for the aircraft’s fine flying qualities, physical strength and performance. It is probably no exaggeration to say that, in most respects, the SE5a was the Spitfire of the First World War.

It certainly had none of the vicious tendencies of the Sopwith Camel – although in fairness, once the Camel had been thoroughly mastered it was a superb fighting machine, and in fact it was to be credited with the destruction of more enemy aircraft than any other Allied type before the conflict ended. Early production Camels were powered either by the 130 hp Clerget 9B or the 150 hp Bentley BR1 rotary engine, but subsequent aircraft were fitted with either the Clerget or the 110 hp Le Rhone 9J. Armament comprised twin Vickers guns mounted in front of the cockpit, and four 20-lb Cooper bombs could be carried under the fuselage for ground attack. The first unit to receive Camels was No 4 Squadron Royal Naval Air Service, followed by No 70 Squadron RFC, both in July 1917.

Delivery of the SE5 and the Camel came too late to prevent heavy RFC losses, which continued to mount steadily during the spring of 1917. There were three main reasons for the growing casualty rate. First, the RFC was still critically deficient in adequate combat aircraft; secondly, the prevailing westerly wind – which tended to carry the mêlée of air combat deep into enemy territory – was in the Germans’ favour; and thirdly, the RFC insisted on maintaining an offensive policy throughout, no matter what the cost. Faced with superior enemy aircraft, it inevitably suffered an increase in losses because of this. By April 1917 new pilots were being sent to the front with as little as seventeen and a half hours’ flying experience, which precipitated a vicious circle: the more inexperienced the British pilots, the higher the success rate of the German fighter squadrons. By the middle of ‘Bloody April’ 1917 the average life expectancy of an RFC pilot in France had dropped to two months.

During the first week of April 1917 the RFC lost seventy-five aircraft in action, mostly victims of an emerging band of tough, resolute German air fighters nurtured in the traditions of Germany’s first air aces and fighter tacticians, Oswald Boelcke and Max Immelmann. At their head was Rittmeister Freiherr Manfred von Richthofen, and other German pilots were potentially just as dangerous to the Allies: men like Bruno Loerzer, the leader of Jagdstaffel 26, who destroyed ten British aircraft during the Battle of Arras and who was to end the war with forty-five victories. More than two decades later, the highly experienced Loerzer would command Luftflotte II during the Battle of Britain. Then there was Werner Voss, the brilliant Jewish ace (what would his fate have been, one wonders, had he survived the war to experience the Nazi regime?); Erich Loewenhardt, who had forty victories in the spring of 1917 and who later went on to score sixteen more; Karl Allmenroeder and Karl Schaefer, with thirty victories each; Kurt Wolff, with twenty-seven at the time of the Battle of Arras; Otto Bernert with twenty-six; and many others who were to be numbered among the German Flying Corps’ fifty top-scorers before the end of the war.

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