The air services of the opposing powers consisted of a motley collection of different aircraft at the outbreak of war in August 1914. The thought of true aerial combat was a long way from the minds of army commanders and any aviation considerations were purely for observation and reconnaissance. If two enemies happened to meet in the air then a few wayward potshots with a pistol or rifle would show that it was virtually impossible to actually shoot down the enemy.
There were, however, experiments with machine guns on all sides but the problem was that the propellor would get in the way of any forward-firing gun mounted for the pilot to shoot. The British approach was to mount guns on the upper wing of a biplane making aiming almost impossible. Otherwise it was a two-seater aircraft with the gunner in the back firing anywhere but straight forward. The French tried a forward firing gun and attached steel plates to the propellor blades in case a bullet hit. In Germany, however, Dutchman Anthony Fokker’s company was developing an interrupter gear that would allow the machine gun to be synchronised with the turning propellor ensuring that bullets would never strike the blades.
At the same time Fokker was building a monoplane light aircraft, the M.5, and he persuaded the German army to test one of these with his new synchronisation gear. The aircraft was tested in actual air combat but had continual problems as the gear kept jamming. It wasn’t until some modifications were made that the true value of this new system could be shown. Some existing orders for M.5s were adapted and the new variant, including the gear and the machine gun, was called the Fokker E.1 or Eindecker which simply meant ‘one wing’.
It was planned that they should be used as escorts for reconnaissance aircraft so no squadron received more than a single aircraft. It would be 1 July 1915 before the first ‘kill’ was claimed when Leutnant Wintgens shot down a French Morane-Saulnier Type L fitted with the new French system of armoured propellor blades. Three days later he shot down another.
And so began the ‘Fokker scourge’ as British and French pilots described it. Neither had anything that could take on the Eindecker. As victories mounted so the Germans ordered higher powered variants, the E.II and E.III.
The two most successful, and most famous Eindecker pilots were Oswald Boelcke and Max Immelman. Both flew with the same unit, Feldflieger Abteilung 62, which literally means Field Flying Company the forerunner of the Luftwaffe squadrons. Boelcke shot down 19 enemy aircraft flying his Eindecker and went on to score 40 aircraft in total before he was killed in October 1916. Immelman was shot down and killed soon after scoring his 17th victory in June 1916. Both these German aces were early exponents of fighter tactics, something that had never really been thought of before, and drilled the other pilots in the best ways to attack. Among them was Manfred von Richthofen, the famous Red Baron, who would go on to shoot down 80 enemy aircraft and always credited Boelcke’s training with much of his success.
More than 400 were built but only 180 Eindeckers reached the Western Front. The Eindecker was the world’s first purpose-built fighter but it was a simple aircraft, a single seater made with steel tubing and bracing wire. However its dominance over the battlefield for nine months from Summer 1915 to Spring 1916, and its long-term influence on air warfare was incalculable.
Oswald Boelcke, perhaps the greatest Eindecker ace
Flying the Fokker Eindecker
‘Unfortunately, I have not yet received the Fokker aircraft that I selected on Thursday. The Fokker is very well suited for the artillery missions that we fly almost exclusively due to its great speed, rate of climb and manoeuvrability. A new machine has been ordered for me from the factory, but there is no way of knowing when and if I will receive it.’
Those words of praise for the new Fokker Eindecker (monoplane) were penned in a letter of 30 November 1914 by Oswald Boelcke, then a junior officer with Feldflieger-Abteilung IT in France. Although he went on to score a number of his initial aerial victories in Fokker Eindeckers, at that early point in the war Boelcke was interested only in the superior flight characteristics of the then-unarmed monoplanes.
Oswald Boelcke notes his preference for the Eindecker, which he compares to the Taube monoplanes produced by Rumpler and others, in his letter of 9 December 1914. He wrote: “Yesterday I picked up my Fokker, which had meanwhile arrived. It is a small Eindecker. with a forward-mounted French-built rotary engine, [the aeroplane is] about halt as big as a Taube. It is the most modern machine. I have not yet been able to fly it. Until now I have flown the same types that we have in Germany. The Fokker was my greatest Christmas present.
`Now I have two aircraft: a big biplane for long flights and the small Fokker for artillery flights. The thing goes wonderfully well in the air and is very easy to handle. Now both of my “children” rest peacefully inside one tent hangar, the small one somewhat hidden, with its tail under the wings of the big one.’
During the early phase of World War I the Germans showed a clear lack of planning the best deployment of their military aircraft. For example, they virtually ignored the German patent granted in 1913 that proposed a very workable system to allow rounds from a forward-firing machine gun to pass through a propeller arc. Instead, unarmed aircraft were sent up to perform visual reconnaissance and other non-combatant assignments.
The perils of the early unarmed reconnaissance flights can be seen in the experiences of Gustav Tweer, an Offizierstellvertreter (warrant officer) who was a pilot with Feldflieger-Abteilung 15 during the early campaign in Russia. A noted pre-World War 1 stunt pilot and exhibition flier, Tweer earned German pilot’s license No 180 on 18 April 1912. His early experiences in a Bleriot monoplane including one of the first public displays of an outside loop-gave Tweer valuable experience in an aircraft with wing-warp controls. That experience was of particular value in flying the Eindecker.
`It is a beautiful bird’, he wrote to an aviator friend, `very solidly built and able to. take much stress. That is important because in our daily flights over the enemy the Russkis fire madly at us. I always try to stay at several hundred metres altitude, but that is not always possible when one needs to go down to see what Ivan is doing. That is when the tremendous power of the engine is my saviour, as I skim along the treetops and swerve regularly to avoid being hit by rifle and small arms fire from the ground
`Many times I have come back to our airfield and have been greeted in astonishment by the ground crewmen, who cannot believe that I have taken 15 or 20 hits during a single sortie and was still able to fly the aircraft. Quite simply, it is a very sturdy machine and the inferior Russki bullets cannot penetrate and break the steel tubing the way they would smash into the wooden frame of other aircraft. To be sure, the bullets have their effect and my comrades and I have suffered some structural damage-dents in the steel frame and an occasional break-but they are not as disastrous as they would be in other aircraft.’
Although aerial combat had been introduced on the Western Front as early as 5 October 1914 when Sergent Joseph Frantz and Caporal Quenault in a French Voisin biplane used a rifle to shoot down a German Aviatik-aerial combat was slow to come to the Eastern Front. While supporting ground units of the XX Armee-Korps in its rapid drive through Poland in the early summer of 1915. Gustav Tweer had an unusual encounter with a Russian aircraft. He wrote: ‘Often the only time we see the enemy is when long columns of his troops are marching back to Russia. Only rarely do we see the enemy’s aircraft . . .
`The first time I saw such a machine approaching our lines, the pilot simply waved to me and veered away to head back to his own lines. It is like the spirit we experienced during air meets before the war. He waves to you and you wave to him and that is the end of it. But lately the Russkis have got very desperate. Our army is pushing them back at every turn and they know that our aeroplanes are reporting their movements and directing our heavy artillery. Hence, they are determined to bring us down at any cost.
`Not long ago, when the rear portion of my seat was occupied by my observer, Freiherr von Schorlemer, we saw just how desperate they are. We had completed our reconnaissance of Bialystock and were following the railway tracks back to Warsaw when von Schorlemer drew my attention to another aeroplane approaching us from the south-east. At first I thought it was another Fokker, because it was a monoplane like ours. But as the other aeroplane got closer to us, I could see the differences in its appearance. I was also suspicious of the dark colour, but I had one last thought that it might have come from the Austrian army to the south.
`Then von Schorlemer became quite excited and yelled into my ear that it was an enemy aeroplane. In approaching us, it had dipped one wing and my observer saw on it the red-blue-white cockade of the enemy. I told von Schorlemer that it would be all right and that the Russki probably just wanted to take a look at us, just as we had flown near some enemy birds to look at them.
‘Yet I was suspicious of the way this Russki devil continued to close on us. What was his intent? He continued to change his approach, first dipping one black wing and then the other, as if he could not decide what to do. Meanwhile, I kept an eye on the railway tracks to make sure we did not become lost and von Schorlemer watched the Russki.
`Some minutes passed and our opponent drew closer and closer. Then, when he was perhaps 50 metres away, he dipped one wing and started to turn in to us, heading straight for our tail. I thought it was a bluff to throw us off course and foolishly pulled up, which caused me to slow down and allowed the Russki to close in faster.
`I suddenly discerned what he wanted to do. He was heading for our tail because he wanted to chew it up with his propeller! This crazy fool was going to risk his own neck just to bring us down; for, unless he had a metal propeller, he would smash his own propeller and have to crash. More important to us, if he smashed our rudder or other control surfaces, we would flutter to the ground like a crumpled leaf.
‘I pushed the stick forward and dived for speed to get away from this madman. He barely missed us and made a wide swinging turn above us. Now of course he had the advantage of altitude and could swoop right down on us and there would be no way to stop him. I had no gun-not even a service revolver or a flare pistol-so we were at the mercy of this suicidal fool.
`He made several further attempts to strike us and each time I barely escaped him. The added weight of my observer made it more difficult than usual quickly to manoeuvre my Fokker away from him. Worst of all, with each evasive manoeuvre, I lost altitude and was in great danger of striking a chimney or some other large object protruding from the ground. ‘Then, thank. heaven, some of our ground troops must have realised my difficulty and assisted me by opening fire on him. By this time we were low enough for our national insignia to be recognised. We had just turned back to the railway tracks when a fatal shot found its mark on our adversary. Freiherr von Schorlemer and I watched in horror as the Russki bucked up, then dropped nose first into the roadway alongside the railway tracks. The wreckage burst into flames.’
Gustav Tweer’s encounter with the would-be aircraft destroyer was only one example of the desperate measures taken by some military pilots to bring down their adversaries. Another Russian pilot, Staff-Captain Alexander Kazakov, tied a grappling hook to his Morane-Saulnier monoplane and ripped apart the wings of German aircraft that he was able to fly over.
In France the pre-war stunt pilot Roland Garros had metal plates fitted to the propeller blades of the Morane so that he could direct a forward-firing machine gun through the propeller arc without destroying the propeller. Shots that did not pass freely through the arc would be deflected by the plates. Through this crude but effective method Garros shot down five German aircraft within a three-week period. His unequalled threat to the Germans came to an end on 19 April 1915 when Garros’ Morane-Saulnier Type L was brought down by ground fire near Courtrai.
Garros was taken prisoner and the undestroyed wreckage of his parasol fighter was closely studied by the Germans. Anthony Fokker was given the challenge of replicating the device. Garros’ deflector equipment was in turn handed over to Heinrich Lübbe and Fritz Heber, two Fokker engineers who were quite familiar with the interruptor gear patented in 1913 by Franz Schneider, technical director of the Luftverkehrsgesellschaft (LVG) factory. Inspired by Garros’ audacity and the feasibility of the Schneider patent, the Fokker engineers successfully married the concept of an interruptor gear to an M5K Eindecker. Thus was born the first of the Fokker fighters, the E I type.
Max Immelmann and his Fokker E.II on 26 October 1915
Among the air units to receive the improved Eindeckers was Flieger-Abteilung 62, which subsequently produced the two early fighter aces Oswald Boelcke and Max Immelmann. Although the encounter did not result in an aerial victory, Boelcke described a fight that took place in September 1915 in which he used elements of his famed dicta, or code of air fighting. In telling his interception of a flight of French aircraft that bombed a nearby city, Boelcke wrote: `After they dropped their bombs, they flew homeward. I gradually reached the altitude of the enemy aircraft and closed in on them. Then I saw one of their big aeroplanes, which appeared to be the escort for the others, start to attack me. It is very difficult if not impossible to fire upwards. [Therefore] I exchanged a few shots with my opponent and then pulled away. That move satisfied the Frenchman and he flew away with the others.
‘I hung along behind the enemy squadron and, since I had the faster aircraft, I soon succeeded in getting close enough to the rearmost aircraft to open fire. But I did not open fire straight away, so as not to draw the attention of the other aircraft too soon. It was not until I was 100 metres away that I began firing. My opponent became frightened and tried to get away. My trouble then was with the others, who had heard my shots and came to help their comrade. Therefore I had to hurry.
‘I noticed that I was successful, as the Frenchman went into a steep dive to escape from me. Eventually, we both went down from 2,500 to 1,200 meters. I fired at his rear as well as I could. But meanwhile two of his comrades came down and sent me friendly greetings’, the future ace noted as a lighthearted way of offering an excuse for breaking off the engagement and returning to his own airfield.
The Fokker E I was admittedly rushed into service to provide German air units with an aggressive weapon. The E II which soon followed it showed a sense of further development, fitted with a 100- horsepower engine and a slightly increased wingspan. The E III was introduced soon thereafter and for a time in 1915 all three Eindeckers-E I, E II and E III – were in service.
The improvements in the Eindecker series, which led to their being called `the Fokker scourge” by their opponents, gave German fighter pilots great advantages. These advantages held true even under the most trying conditions, as noted by Leutnant Gustav Leffers, a pilot with FliegerAbteilung 32 who subsequently won the coveted Pour le Merite, the highest Prussian bravery award.
In describing the first of his nine aerial victories, Leffers noted that on the afternoon of 5 December 1915 he took off from the airfield at Vélu in a Fokker E II on an air defence mission. `At almost 3 o’clock’, he continued, `I found myself over Bapaume and puffs of smoke from our artillery drew my attention to an enemy aeroplane almost over Martinpuich at about 1,500 metres, flying northward. I immediately took up the chase. Between Grevillers and Aichet-la-Grand. I came down to 600 metres and opened fire, which was immediately returned.
`I found myself 200 metres higher than the enemy aeroplane and went into a long dive, firing my machine gun until I was an aeroplane’s length away Now I noticed that the pilot was hit and the aero¬ plane began to flutter. In an instant I was firing furiously with my machine gun at my opponent.
`I was suddenly caught in a strong blast of wind from the strong propwash of the enemy aeroplane and my own aeroplane was thrown into a side-slip for about 150 metres. However, I immediately started after him again to cut off my opponent’s escape to the front lines. But he went into a steep dive and from an altitude of 300 metres plunged straight down and smashed into the ground. Both crewmen were immediately killed.’
Leffers’ victim was most probably one of two BE2c aircraft from No 13 Squadron RFC, that were lost due to enemy action that day. The slow BE, with the observer’s field of fire severely limited by his front seat location, was no match for the fast and nimble Fokker Eindecker. The point is driven home by the ease with which Leffers scored his second victory, a BE2c of No 8 Squadron RFC, on 29 December 1915.
The entry for that day in The Royal Flying Corps War Diary notes that Lieutenants Douglas and Child in one BE2c were escorting Second Lieutenant Glen and Sergeant Jones in a similar No 8 Squadron machine when `about three miles west of Cambrai. Lt Glen and Sgt Jones, flying at about 6,400feet, were attacked by two Fokkers. Almost immediately the BE2c descended in a very steep spiral to 2,000feet and then flattened out. The BE2c was seen to land and then the machine was smashed. The impression which Lt Douglas received was that Lt Glen was wounded with the first burst, and on landing intentionally smashed his machine.’ Douglas and Child were then attacked by three Eindeckers, one of which they hit and forced out of the fight. They fought a running gun battle with the remaining Fokkers and managed to reach the safety of their own lines.
The tenacity of the No 8 Squadron crews was described by Leflers: ‘At 12 noon I was informed by telephone that three enemy aircraft were heading for the airfield at Velu. I immediately took off in my Fokker. Shortly thereafter I saw that two British BE biplanes were being fired at by the guns protecting the observation balloons at Bertincourt. The enemy aircraft flew toward Cambrai. I pursued them and caught up with them near Marquain, along the road from Cambrai to Arras.
`Both aircraft, which flew close together, fired at me with (a combination of) four machine guns. When I got within 400 metres 1 likewise opened fire with my single machine gun on one of the enemy aircraft, while the other came at me from the side with both machine guns firing. When I was just a short distance away, my gun suddenly jammed. But my last shots had hit so well that at the last moment the enemy aeroplane went down in a steep spiral and from an altitude of 300 metres plunged straight down. The second aeroplane immediately turned away and soon thereafter disappeared from my field of vision as I followed the other until just before it hit the ground.’
Although the advent of the machine gun-equipped Fokkers led to the development of specialised fighter units called Kampfeinsitzer-Kommandos, the Eindeckers themselves soon lost their superior edge. New Allied aircraft-such as the de Havilland DH2 `pusher’ fighter and the Nieuport 11 provided the same armament advantage. Even the special three-gun Fokker E IV furnished to Max Immelmann did not regain that advantage. Indeed, when Immelmann himself was killed in an Eindecker on 12 January 1916, many questions were raised about the Fokker Eindecker’s effectiveness.
But it was Oswalde Boelcke, one of the first admirers of the Fokker Eindeckers, who aided in nudging them aside as the premier front line fighter. His 24 March 1916 evaluation of the improved E IV concluded that earlier aircraft in the Eindecker series were better in many respects than the 160-horsepower E IV monoplane. The Eindeckers were soon retired in favour of the new Albatros biplane fighters and the vaunted Fokker fighter ‘scourge’ went into an eclipse that did not end until nearly a year later, when the Fokker Dr I triplane emerged.