In accordance with the German policy of concentrating their best pilots into single crack units, most of the above-named men served with von Richthofen’s Jagdstaffel 11. A Jagdstaffel, abbreviated to Jasta, usually consisted of twelve or fourteen aircraft, although later this was increased to twenty-one. In June 1917 Jastas 4, 6, 10 and 11 were merged into a single Jagdgeschwader (Fighter Wing) under Richthofen’s command. Although patrols were still flown at Jasta strength, Richthofen could, in response to an increase in Allied air activity, concentrate a large number of fighter aircraft in any particular sector of the front. Moreover, the Jagdgeschwader was highly mobile and could be switched quickly from one part of the front to another in support of ground operations.
The principal German fighter aircraft in the spring of 1917 was the Albatros DIII, which had first been issued to Jasta 11 in January of that year. Powered by a Mercedes DIII engine, it had a maximum speed of 108 mph and carried an armament of twin synchronized 7.92 Spandau machine-guns. By April 1917 all thirty-seven Jastas at the front were equipped with either the DIII or the earlier Albatros DII.
However, the most widely used of all the Albatros fighters was the DV, which made its appearance in mid-1917. It was not a great improvement over the excellent DIII, but it was produced in large numbers, over 1,500 serving with the Jastas on the Western Front alone.
Later in the year, starting in August, some Jastas also began to receive the Pfalz DIII, which like the Albatros was powered by a Mercedes engine and featured twin Spandau machine-guns. However, even at its peak the Pfalz fully equipped only about a dozen units, and for some reason German pilots seem to have been prejudiced against it; this attitude is hard to understand, because the Pfalz was a sturdy machine, capable of absorbing a great deal of battle damage, and it could be dived harder and faster than the Albatros.
The other new German fighter type introduced in 1917 was the Fokker DrI Triplane. Its design was inspired by the Sopwith Triplane, an excellent and highly manoeuvrable fighter which served with Nos 1, 8, 9, 10, 11 and 12 Squadrons of the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) on the Western Front during most of 1917. The Fokker Triplane was never used in very large numbers, but it registered astonishing successes in the hands of leading German aces such as von Richthofen and Voss.
To counter the threat posed by the Jagdgeschwader in the summer of 1917, the RFC was forced to adopt a similar policy of concentrating its best fighter squadrons and pilots in opposition to von Richthofen wherever his squadrons appeared. These elite RFC units were the cradle of the leading British fighter aces. No 56 Squadron, for example, in addition to Albert Ball, numbered among its ranks such famous fighter pilots as Captain James McCudden, Lieutenant Rhys-Davids, Captain Brunwin-Hales with twenty-seven victories and Captain Henry Burden with twenty-two; then there was Captain W. A. (Billy) Bishop of No 60 Squadron (and later of No 85), a Canadian who was to survive the war as the second-ranking RFC fighter ace with seventy-two victories, being narrowly beaten to the top by Major Mick Mannock, who had a score of at least seventy-four. Mannock flew with No 40 Squadron, as did two other leading fighter aces: Captain G. E. H. McElroy, a Canadian with a score of forty-six, and Major Roderic Dallas, a New Zealander, with thirty-nine.
In fact, the formation of large, concentrated fighter groups had been pioneered by the French during the Battle of the Somme in the summer of 1916, when the Cachy Group (so-called after its operational base near Amiens) came into existence under the command of Captain Brocard of N3 Cigognes. (To avoid confusion, it should be pointed out that the French squadrons bore the initial letter of the aircraft type they were flying; the Cigognes were using Nieuports at the time, and later, when they converted to SPADs, their designation was changed to SPA 3.) The Cachy Group comprised N3, with Guynemer as its leading pilot, and Captain Féquant’s N65, which included Charles Nungesser.
At the end of 1916 the French Aéronautique Militaire possessed three Groupes de Combat: GC 11 under Commandant Le Révérend, GC 12 under Commandant Brocard, and GC 13 under Commandant Féquant. Eleven more would be formed before the end of hostilities. Each Groupe comprised four Escadrilles, each with fifteen aircraft and fifteen pilots. The Groupes de Combat came under the orders of the French army commanders and, like their Royal Flying Corps counterparts, had the task of establishing air superiority and protecting observation aircraft. In 1917, mixed units of fighters and bombers were employed in carrying out offensive operations.
The aircraft on which most of the French aces cut their teeth was the Nieuport 11C–1 Bébé, which entered service in the summer of 1915 and which was also used in some numbers by the RFC and RNAS. It was this little aircraft which helped to redress the balance of power following the appearance over the Western Front of the Fokker E.III Monoplane, with its synchronized machine-gun firing through the propeller. The Bébé was followed into service, in May 1916, by the Nieuport 17C–1, which equipped Escadrilles N3, N38, N55, N57, N65 and N103. It also served with eight RNAS and five RFC squadrons.
In the autumn of 1916 many Escadrilles began to re-equip with a new fighter type, the SPAD VII (the initial letters stand for Société Pour l’Aviation et ses Derivées). Although less manoeuvrable than the Nieuport types, the SPAD VII was a strong, stable gun platform with a top speed of 119 mph and an excellent rate of climb. The SPAD VII was also used by the RFC and RNAS, and filled a crucial gap at a time when many units were still equipped with ageing and vulnerable aircraft.
In May 1917, however, the French Escadrilles de Chasse began to standardize on a new type, the SPAD XIII. Like its predecessor, it was an excellent gun platform and was also extremely strong, although it was tricky to fly at low speeds. Powered by a Hispano-Suiza 8Ba engine and armed with two forward-firing Vickers guns, it had a maximum speed of nearly 140 mph – quite exceptional for that time – and could climb to 22,000 feet. The SPAD XIII subsequently equipped more than eighty Escadrilles.
Such, in broad outline, was the state of air power on both sides of the front – discounting bomber and observation types for the moment – when the British opened a new offensive in Flanders in June 1917, the main effort taking place in the Messines sector. The attack was supported by eighteen RFC squadrons with a total of 300 aircraft, about one-third of them single-seat fighters. On the first day of the offensive, 7 June, Captain W. A. Bishop of No 60 Squadron was awarded the Victoria Cross for destroying four out of seven enemy aircraft in a daring single-handed attack on an airfield near Cambrai. He was flying a Nieuport 17.
By the end of the month the RFC’s reserves were sadly depleted. The situation was further aggravated by the withdrawal on 21 June of two of its best fighter squadrons, Nos 56 and 66, for home defence. This also helped to delay the re-equipment of RFC units in France with new aircraft, notably the Sopwith Camel.
For the RFC crews, stretched to their utmost during July, it was some consolation to know that von Richthofen was out of action for a time. On 6 July, forty fighters of the Richthofen Jagdgeschwader had attacked six FE2ds of No 20 Squadron, escorted by four Sopwith Triplanes of No 10 Squadron RNAS; two FEs were shot down, but an observer in another – 2nd Lieutenant A. E. Woodbridge – got in a good burst at Richthofen’s red Albatros and sent it down to make a forced landing. Richthofen was wounded in the head.
The days before the third battle of Ypres, which opened on 31 July, were marked by intense air activity on both sides. At this time the combined strength of the RFC, RNAS, l’Aéronautique Militaire and the small Belgian Air Corps on the Western Front was 852 aircraft, of which 360 were fighters; the German strength was 600 machines, of which 200 were fighters.
To bolster the Allied fighter strength in Flanders, two French Escadrilles – including the Cigognes – were sent to Dunkirk from the Lorraine sector. Charles Nungesser, having experienced engine trouble, was flying alone a few hours behind the rest when he was suddenly attacked by a British aircraft near Arras and took fifteen bullets through his Nieuport. Convinced that the attacking aircraft was a captured one, flown by a German crew, he engaged it and shot it down, landing nearby to inspect the wreck. The pilot was dead, and Nungesser, finding some identity documents on the body, discovered to his dismay that the man who had tried to kill him was in fact an RFC pilot – a very inexperienced one, as a subsequent enquiry established.
The air offensive that preceded the battle opened on 11 July, and on the first day fourteen German aircraft were destroyed for the loss of nine British. A few days later von Richthofen was back in action, his head still in bandages, and a series of massive dogfights took place between his Jagdgeschwader and Allied fighter formations. On the twenty-sixth, no fewer than ninety-four single-seat fighters fought one another at altitudes varying between 5,000 and 7,000 feet over Polygon Wood, and the following evening thirty Albatros fighters attacked eight FE2ds over the same area. It was a trap; no sooner had the German fighters come down to intercept than they were attacked by fifty-nine SE5s and Sopwith Triplanes. Nine enemy aircraft were destroyed for the loss of one SE5.
The Cigognes had seldom encountered pilots of the calibre of those who made up the Richthofen Jagdgeschwader in the skies of Lorraine, where they had helped to defend the embattled fortress of Verdun, and they found Flanders a tough battleground. Georges Madon had an incredible escape when, flying a new SPAD XIII with which the Escadrille was equipping, he collided with an enemy two-seater. With his upper wing torn completely away, he spun out of control through a terrifying 10,000 feet. Literally at the last moment his aircraft miraculously righted itself before crash-landing in the Allied lines, breaking itself into pièces. His only injury was a broken finger.
Another ace, Lieutenant Albert Deullin, was not so lucky. During a fight with an enemy monoplane, he took two bullets in the region of his kidneys and crash-landed, gravely wounded. He survived to fly and fight again in 1918. Alfred Heurtaux, attacking a two-seater near Ypres, was hit in the thigh. Fainting through loss of blood, he went into a spin and recovered just in time to right his aircraft. He spotted a field dead ahead and went down to land on it; it turned out to be an RFC aerodrome, and the British whisked him off to hospital. Among the other French pilots, Lieutenant Chaput crashed and was injured, while the ace of aces, Guynemer, was wounded and hospitalized. Nungesser, Fonck and Jean Navarre fought on, but it was an increasingly grim business.
One day in July, Nungesser made a lone diving attack on six German scouts over Houthulst Forest. He made a single pass, shooting down two of them and then using his superior speed to get away. The others made off eastwards under the command of a young pilot who, after flying two-seater reconnaissance missions with a unit known as Abteilung 5, had recently transferred to single-seaters with Jasta 27. His name was Hermann Goering.
When the ground offensive began on 31 July much of the Allied effort was switched to attacks on enemy airfields and infantry columns with light bombs as well as machine-guns. For the first time in the war, large-scale ground attack operations were carried out by the fighter units, with devastating effect on the closely packed enemy troops and supply columns. However, it was dangerous work, and casualties from ground fire were heavy. Moreover, the terrain was by no means in the favour of any pilot who had to make a forced landing. ‘In front of us,’ wrote René Fonck, ‘there was nothing but miles and miles of spongy ground, where water crept stealthily into the tiniest hole. The whole area was a vast quagmire that could swallow up an object as big as a tank without trace.’
By September 1917, the Allied fighter squadrons in Flanders had succeeded, for the time being, in establishing a measure of air superiority. On 25 September, the RFC’s fighter squadrons claimed nineteen victories for the loss of only one British aircraft. No 56 Squadron, which had returned to France in July after a brief stay in England, continued to be in the forefront of the battle; by the end of September its score of enemy aircraft destroyed had risen to 200. This figure was matched, on 9 October, by No 1 Squadron, now equipped with Sopwith Camels.
Then, just as the Allies were starting to gain the upper hand in the air, there came a new and alarming development that was to have an enormous bearing on the conduct of the entire war. In November 1917 the revolutionary Bolshevik regime in Russia signed an armistice with the Germans. This meant that the hundreds of thousands of German troops, together with large numbers of guns and aircraft, which had been tied down in the war with Tsarist Russia could now be released for service on the Western Front. There was every possibility that the Germans would attempt a final massive offensive designed to smash the Allied armies once and for all in the early part of 1918, before American forces began to arrive on the Continent in large numbers.
In the last weeks of 1917, with substantial enemy troop movements from east to west already apparent, air reconnaissance became of paramount importance to the Allies. The observation squadrons embarked on an intense period of flying, and suffered heavy losses in the process. One such was No 10 Squadron which, equipped with Armstrong Whitworth F.K.8s, was based at Abeele, in Belgium; its tasks were corps reconnaissance, line patrol and night bombing, all of which it carried out successfully but unspectacularly during this period. During the night of 30/31 October, for example, this squadron dropped thirty-nine 20-lb Cooper bombs on enemy communications at Henin Lietard and Billy Montigny; the next day, in co-operation with a daylight attack by the 46th Infantry Division, the F.K.8s dropped three 112-lb high explosive, sixty-three 20-lb high explosive and twenty 40-lb phosphorus bombs in the front and on the flanks of the enemy positions. To round off the attack, the pilots and observers also fired 1,200 rounds into enemy communications trenches.
Designed by Frederick Koolhoven, the F.K.8 – known as the ‘Big Ack’ by its crews – equipped Nos 2, 8, 10, 35 and 82 Squadrons on the Western Front in late 1917. Its 160 hp Beardmore engine gave it a top speed of around 90 mph and it carried an armament of one synchronized Vickers gun, operated by the pilot, and a Lewis gun in the rear cockpit. Although heavy on the controls, especially the ailerons and elevators, it was well built and robust, could absorb a lot of battle damage and was well liked by its crews. Major K. D. P. Murray, No 10 Squadron’s commanding officer, said of it:
‘The big A-W was slow, but my pilots liked it for the particular job they had to do, and never regarded themselves as “cold meat”. Owing to the nature of their work, they were rarely in a position to attack, but when attacked, as they were frequently enough, they gave a good enough account of themselves.’
One of No 10 Squadron’s crews who definitely gave a good account of themselves were Captain John Pattern and Lieutenant Leycester, who took off together on a photo-reconnaissance sortie on 29 November 1917. Pattern himself, shortly before his death (he was then in his nineties), told the story to the author:
‘I was due to go home on leave the following day, and when you had been warned for leave you weren’t supposed to fly. But after several days of fog and rain the weather had finally cleared and there were reports of large enemy troop movements south of Passchendaele, so as the Squadron’s most experienced pilot I was detailed to go out and get the photographs that were urgently needed. It wasn’t that I was a particularly good pilot; it was just that most of the others were dead. On average, a crew doing our sort of job, flying straight and level over the enemy lines, could expect to last three weeks before being shot down. Some of us, myself included, were lucky; I had been shot down only a week before, and had walked out of the wreck with only a few scratches. That was one of the good points about the big A-W: it was so strongly built that crews could often walk away from the most horrendous crashes.’
On that November morning, Pattern and Leycester – it was their seventh mission together – took off from Abeele and climbed to 5,000 feet, heading towards Ypres and the front line. Unknown to them, some thirty miles away another pilot was also taking off from an airfield near Lille. He was Lieutenant Erwin Boehme, a Staffel commander in the Richthofen Jagdgeschwader.
This was a big day in Boehme’s life. In a few hours’ time he was due to receive Germany’s highest award for gallantry – the Ordre Pour le Mérite or ‘Blue Max’ as it was nicknamed – from the hands of the Kaiser himself. The medal was Boehme’s reward for shooting down twenty-four British and French aircraft, but to him its significance was much greater. It would help to remove a burden of guilt he had carried for a year now, since October 1916.
Together with his Staffel commander, Oswald Boelcke – the most famous German air ace of that time – he had been involved in a dogfight with some British aircraft. Boehme had made a slight error of judgement. His wingtip had touched Boelcke’s and the ace’s aircraft had gone down, breaking up as it fell. Boelcke had been killed instantly. Desolate, Boehme had gone to his tent on landing and taken out his revolver, intent on committing suicide, but had been prevented by von Richthofen. Now, in November 1917, Boehme commanded Boelcke’s old unit, Jagdstaffel 2.
Boehme headed for the front line, accompanied by five more Albatros Scouts, intent on claiming one more victim before he received his decoration. That victim should have been John Pattern, whose F.K.8 was crossing the front line just north of Westhoek. Pattern takes up the story:
‘About a quarter of a mile on the enemy side of the lines, I turned south-east and Leycester started to work his cameras. The anti-aircraft fire, which had been intense, had not stopped, but I didn’t take much notice. I should have known better; it was a sure sign that enemy fighters were in the vicinity. Suddenly, I heard the clatter of Leycester’s machine-gun above the roar of the engine. I looked round to see what he was shooting at, and nearly had a heart attack. Slanting down from above, getting nicely into position thirty yards behind my tail, was an Albatros.
‘I immediately heaved the old A-W round in a split-arse turn, tighter I think than I had ever turned before. I felt a flash of panic as I lost sight of the Hun, but Leycester must have been able to see him all right as he kept on firing. My sudden turn had done the trick. The Albatros overshot and suddenly appeared right in front of me. Because of the relative motion of our two aircraft, he seemed to hang motionless, suspended in mid-air. I could see the pilot’s face as he looked back at me.
‘I sent a two-second burst of Vickers fire into him. His aircraft seemed to flutter, then slid out of sight below my starboard wing. I was pretty certain that I had hit his petrol tank. Behind me, Leycester was still blazing away. He was using tracer, and it may have been one of his bullets that ignited the petrol pouring from the Hun’s ruptured tank. When I caught sight of the Albatros again, it was burning like a torch and side-slipping towards the ground, trailing a streamer of smoke. For an instant I saw the German pilot, looking down over the side of the cockpit. Then the smoke and flames enveloped him.
‘I pushed the A-W’s nose down and headed flat out for home, aware that the other Hun scouts were coming down fast after me. They would probably have got me, too, if some friendly fighters had not come along just in time and driven them away. To say that I was relieved would be the understatement of the century.
‘In due course I learned the name of the man I had shot down, but I didn’t take much notice at the time. It was not until fifty years later that I came across the full story of Erwin Boehme’s career in some book or other. My first reaction was that if I had known who he was at the time he attacked me, I would have shoved the A-W’s nose down and landed in the nearest available field. But then, maybe I wouldn’t have. Who knows?
‘All I do know is how lucky Leycester and I were, on that day over Flanders.’