Aces High II

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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

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

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

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

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

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

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.’

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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