Nieuport fighters over Verdun I

While the French were massing their Nieuport fighters over Verdun, the RFC prepared to support its Somme offensive with Nos. 24, 29 and 32 Sqns, equipped with DH 2 pushers. The RFC had also acquired a handful of Nieuport 16s, but those were allotted to reconnaissance squadrons. A notable example was No. 11 Sqn, whose FE 2bs had an escort flight of three Nieuports, one of whose pilots was Lt Albert Ball. On 29 May 1916 Ball flew scout 5173 (one of nine 16s purchased directly from Nieuport) on a lone sortie in which he engaged four Fokkers and an LVG, driving down the latter in a vertical dive and chasing off the Eindeckers. Later that day he was credited with an Albatros `forced to land’. In the action depicted in this artwork, which took place on 1 June 1916, Ball flew Nieuport 5173 over to Douai – home of Oblt Max Immelmann’s KEK, among others – and circled above the aerodrome for the next 30 minutes until an Albatros and a Fokker finally rose to his challenge. The two-seater attacked first, but after Ball fired ten rounds at it the Albatros pilot dived away and returned to the aerodrome. At that point the Fokker got on Ball’s tail, closed the range and opened fire. The moment it did Ball, who had been waiting for that all along, whipped his Nieuport around and returned fire. The Fokker then turned away, dived and alit in a field two miles from the aerodrome. Ball was credited with the Fokker as `forced to land’ for his fourth victory. He would score his fifth by burning a kite balloon on the 25th, thus becoming only the third British pilot to achieve that milestone.

The Battle of Verdun began on 21 February 1916 with scout pilots from both sides targeting the enemy’s reconnaissance aeroplanes, as would be a logical first priority. The first French claim over a Fokker E type that day was by a Maurice Farman bomber crew of escadrille MF29. First blood between the rival fighters may have finally been drawn on 26 February, when Adj Jean Navarre, newly transferred from N12 to N67 at Vadelaincourt, was credited with a double victory. French records refer to two two-seaters brought down, one of which was intact, but this is contradicted by their identifying two pilots killed – Ltns Georg Heine and Alfons von Zeddelmann – and an observer (Oblt Heinrich Kempf) taken prisoner at Dieue-sur-Meuse. This suggests that the aeroplane Navarre drove down at Dieue was a two-seater of Kampfstaffel 4 of Kagohl 1, while his second victim, which crashed at Manheulles, was a Fokker E III assigned to that unit for escort duties.

Whatever the case, they brought Navarre’s score to five, and references to him as an ‘as’ set a standard that his colleagues would soon strive to attain and surpass – notwithstanding the fact that at that point Adolphe Pégoud, Eugène Gilbert and Georges Guynemer had already done so, with six, five and seven victories, respectively.

In spite of Navarre’s morale-raising feat, the five French observation units covering the Verdun sector (C11, C13, C18, MF63 and MF71) were finding themselves hard pressed to carry out their missions. Reinforcements in the form of MF19, MF20, C27 and C53 were quickly transferred in, but losses in the first three weeks rose to four aeroplanes destroyed and another 15 returning damaged, with crewmen dead or wounded. The overall effect of these casualties added up to the situation that led Gen Pétain to call Cmdt de Rose to his headquarters on 28 February and issue his order, ‘De Rose, je suis aveugle! Balayez-moi le ciel!’

Nieuports proliferated, and so did the mutual carnage among two-seaters, but the next positive claim over an Eindecker, on 8 March, was by a Farman crew of MF5. On the same day Asp Pierre Navarre (Jean’s twin brother) of N69 forced an enemy aeroplane to land in German lines – a promising start that nevertheless did not qualify as a victory by French standards. In a second sortie, however, he was shot down over Verdun with three bullets in his arm, having probably become the first victim of Oblt Hans Berr, who was serving with a Fokker Kommando at Avillers.

After visiting his brother in hospital, Jean Navarre returned to the fray swearing revenge – which he achieved ten days later with a two-seater over Vigneville. Before that, one of his comrades at N67, Sous-Lt Jean Peretti, was credited with a Fokker in flames over Fort Douaumont on 11 March, although there are no German casualties that match the claim.

Meanwhile, the recently arrived Hptm Oswald Boelcke had judged the front to be too far away for him and his pilots to observe with their telescopes from Jametz. Therefore, he moved up to Sivry on 10 March, taking Ltn Werner Notzke, an Unteroffizier and 15 enlisted men with him, but leaving the rest of his Fokkers at Jametz. The next day he downed a Farman for his tenth victory. Coincidentally, Navarre was unwittingly emulating Boelcke when he obtained permission from his CO, Capt Henri Constant de Saint-Sauveur, to establish a small camouflaged airfield closer to the frontlines so that he too could respond more quickly to enemy air activity. In order to conceal the location of the secret base for as long as possible he would cut his engine and glide in for a landing at dusk. Eventually the Germans did cotton on, and they targeted the airstrip with their artillery. Navarre was forced to abandon it and return to Vadelaincourt.

On 12 March Ltn Parschau of Kagohl 1 was credited with a Nieuport in the Verdun area, Adj Auguste Metairie of N49 coming down wounded in French lines. The next day Boelcke, taking off from Sivry, reported seeing a German reconnaissance aeroplane over Fort Douaumont beset by a French fighter, which he attacked and drove away. This presents the intriguing possibility of a chance encounter between two of the war’s most illustrious names. During his second patrol that day the newly commissioned Sous-Lt Georges Guynemer – who had scored his eighth victory 24 hours earlier – was attacking an LVG head-on when a fusillade of enemy fire suddenly struck the cowling, wings and struts of his Nieuport 11 N836, also putting two bullets in his left arm and peppering his face with bullet fragments. After descending about 300 metres he recovered and landed at Borcourt. Hospitalized in Paris, Guynemer would not rejoin his escadrille until after N3’s departure from the Verdun sector on 16 April.

In a letter to his comrade’s parents that downplayed his wounds, noting that no bones had been touched, Lt Deullin wrote:

The accident occurred this afternoon, at about four o’clock. Guynemer attacked a Boche and fired at him in his usual way. Another Boche about 200 metres away came to the rescue and fired a belt at an angle, of which you know the result. Guynemer was able to disengage easily and landed at our field.

Whether it was his or the LVG’s forward-firing gun – or both – that may have terminated Guynemer’s career over Verdun, Boelcke, having only seen his enemy disengage, made no claim, contenting himself with having aided the two-seater. There is, however, a time discrepancy against Deullin’s placing Guynemer’s wounding at 1600hrs, even allowing for German time being an hour ahead of the Allies’. Soon after his encounter over Douaumont, Boelcke attacked a French formation east of Malancourt at 1300hrs, and was credited with a ‘Voisin’ driven down just inside French lines for his 11th victory. The latter seems to have in fact been a Breguet-Michelin IV of BM118, whose crewmen were both wounded.

On 17 March Sgt Marcel Garet and Lt Jean Rimbaud of N23 were returning from a long reconnaissance in a Nieuport 10, escorted by two Bébés flown by Sgts Maxime Lenoir and Eduard Pulpe, when they spotted another French two-seater being attacked by several Fokkers. All three Nieuports hastened to its aid, but Garet and Rimbaud soon had to disengage when a Fokker wounded them both, only to be itself shot down near Dun-sur-Meuse by Lenoir and Pulpe. The Germans subsequently recorded the death of Ltn Horst von Gehe of Kampfstaffel 26/Kagohl 5 at Merci-le-Bas – far to the east of Dun, although it is possible that he may have been escorting his Staffel’s two-seaters and succumbed to his wounds later that day.

In any case, the Fokker was the third victory for Lenoir and the first for Pulpe, a 34-year-old Latvian teacher from Riga who had been studying in France when war broke out and who had volunteered to serve in the Aéronautique Militaire. Rimbaud, one of whose arms had to be amputated, was subsequently made a Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur, while Lenoir and Garet were awarded the Médaille Militaire.

Meanwhile, a 21 March directive from the German army headquarters declared the assigning of Fokkers in ones or twos to Feldflieger Abteilungen a failure as far as keeping Allied aircraft out of German airspace was concerned. As of 1 April, it declared, the fighters would be collected into two Staffeln:

Airfield of the West-Staffel will be at Le Faux Ferme, northeast of Coucy. Airfield of the Ost-Staffel will be just west of St Erme. To Fokker-Staffel-West will go the aircraft of Abteilungen 7, 11 and 39 – four aeroplanes. To Fokker-Staffel-Ost will go the aircraft of Abteilungen 26 and 29 – five aeroplanes.

On 24 March Boelcke, who had been flying a Fokker E IV, wrote an extensive, far-from-glowing report on its performance:

The machine loses much speed in climbing, so that several Nieuport biplanes escaped me in consequence. The climbing capacity falls off considerably at great heights (over 3,000m). This defect could be avoided by bringing out a light biplane. The manoeuvring power of the 160hp machine is considerably inferior to that of the 100hp and 80hp types because of the difficulty in countering the active force of the heavy engine.

Given the greater numbers of Allied aircraft they faced, the Fokker pilots still had to take a defensive stance, but the formation of Kampfeinsitzer Kommandos did allow them to concentrate what they had towards more aggressively dealing with incursions into their airspace. Idflieg promised to address their technical concerns with a new generation of biplanes, but for the time being the Eindecker pilots would have to soldier on with that they had.

The vagaries of war were on display on 31 March when Nieuport 10 N454 of N12 was shot down near Laon by Uffz Hans Malz of FFA 39, flying one of the much-maligned Pfalz E Is – both crewmen perished. The outcome was reversed a few hours later when the crew of a two-seater from FFA 60 downed a Nieuport 11 from N57, killing its pilot, Sous-Lt Louis Beaujard. One of his escadrille mates, Lt André Dubois de Gennes, forced a Fokker to land in German lines, which was not credited to him, but so did Capt Joseph Vuillemin and the observer of his Caudron G 4 from C11. More definitively, Lt Deullin of N3, flying new Nieuport 16 N962, avenged Guynemer by sending a Fokker down to crash between Beaumont and Consenvoye, although its pilot apparently survived.

On 9 April Capt Louis Robert de Beauchamp, commander of N23, claimed his first victory in collaboration with Lt de Lage, a visiting pilot from Groupe de Bombardement 4, and the crew of the embattled Caudron of C42 they assisted, sending an attacking Fokker down to crash near Esnes. The Germans had mixed fortunes on the 10th. Lt d R Walter Höhndorf, flying a Fokker E IV with Fokkerstaffel Falkenhausen, brought Nieuport 11 N653 down for his third victory – its pilot, Sous-Lt Marcel Tiberghein of N68, was captured. The French, however, also obtained a valuable prize when E III 196/16 came down in their lines after Uffz Roessler of FFA 22 became disoriented and ran out of fuel. The French test flew the aeroplane and concluded that it was inferior to the Nieuport 11 in every respect except armament. A second E III similarly fell into French hands near Reims five days later.

Navarre claimed three Fokkers on 24 April, but none were confirmed. The next day Sous-Lt Jean Robert of N57 was credited with an Eindecker crashed near Hattonchâtel. Four days later the French reported a Fokker shooting down and mortally wounding Sous-Lt Jean Peretti, who had recently transferred from N3 to N67, after which a two-seater Nieuport 12 of N67, crewed by Sgt Robert de Marolles and Brig Léon Vitalis, sent Peretti’s assailant crashing south of Hill 304, some 200m from the trenches. Curiously, there is neither a corresponding claim nor loss recorded among the Fokker units for that day.

The Germans lost three Fokker pilots on 30 April. Ltn Otto Schmedes of KEK Bertincourt was killed near Combles, having possibly fallen victim to N3’s Sous-Lt Charles de Guibert, flying Nieuport 11 N917 – he had claimed two Fokkers destroyed over nearby Carrepuis and Roye. A third Fokker claim had also been made in the same area by 2Lt David M. Tidmarsh of No. 24 Sqn, who was flying a DH 2 at the time.

The second Fokker pilot killed on the 30th was downed by a Nieuport 16. Rittm Erich Graf von Holck of FFA (A) 203 had previously served in FFA 69 on the Eastern Front, where one of his observers had been Ltn Manfred Freiherr von Richthofen. Both were pilots serving over Verdun when von Richthofen, now flying an Albatros C III, witnessed Holck being shot down by Lt Deullin of N3 over Courriers Wood near Douaumont at 1100hrs – Deullin’s fourth overall victory and his second Fokker.

The third German Eindecker pilot fell at 1745hrs after a bombing attack had drawn Sgt Jean Chaput of N31 skyward in pursuit. As the Frenchman crossed the lines he spotted ‘a superb Fokker’ above him at an altitude of 3,800m, with another following 500m behind it. Chaput attacked the first, but his gun jammed after one shot. As he pursued his diving quarry he had to rectify three more jams in quick succession before he got off three more shots. His weapon then jammed once more, but by then one round had struck home. The Fokker crashed in the Bois d’Eparges, its demise corresponding with German reports confirming the death of 39-year-old Vfw Erich Kügler of FFA 70 at Remy-la-Calonne.

‘During this time his powerless little comrade, 500m behind me, frantically fired off his belt of explosive bullets at me’, Chaput added. ‘A rapid climb got rid of him, after which I descended again.’ Kügler was his third victim of an eventual 16 before Chaput was himself mortally wounded in action on 6 May 1918.

A recent addition to Boelcke’s flight at Sivry, Ltn Friedrich Mallinkrodt, claimed a French aeroplane over Verdun on 30 April. Although it was not confirmed, the French recorded MdL Paul Suisse of N37 coming down badly wounded in Allied lines. He succumbed to his injuries the next day.

The next two French Fokker claims for May came from Farman crews on the 4th and 10th. On the latter date a patrol of N69 Nieuports led by Capt Robert Massenet-Royer de Marancour forced a Fokker to land at Maucourt, but it was not credited. On 11 May the escadrilles de chasse lost their founding mastermind. Having turned down offers of a bomber command or a joint fighter and bomber command, Cmdt de Rose had convinced the military authorities that an independent French fighter arm should have a free hand to pre-emptively seize control of the air over critical areas of the front, taking on defensive or escort roles as secondary options when needed. Upon his return to the Verdun sector, he was performing a demonstration flight for the Ve Armée’s new quartermaster general when his Nieuport 11 suddenly crashed.

It was an ironic death for an officer who had often criticized Jean Navarre for the unnecessary risks he took with his aerial stunting – and a terrible loss to the Aéronautique Militaire. But de Rose’s disciples, starting with his successor, Capt Auguste le Révérend, would continue what he started, expanding the fighter force within larger and larger organizations in the next two years. As it was, his provisional groups had at least stalemated the Eindeckers above Verdun, as Nieuports and Morane-Saulniers, flying in flights of six or more, countered the advantages of the Fokkers’ interrupter gear.

On 12 May Sous-Lt Georges Pelletier-Doisy of N12, in concert with Cmdt Paul du Peuty and Lt Henri de Chivre of N69, sent a Fokker crashing near Vaux. FFA 70 reported Ltn d R Hans Protz killed in an Eindecker at Charleville, but that he had perished in a flying accident.

The German fighters came out second best during two encounters on 17 May, starting with a Fokker sent crashing near Bezonvaux by Pelletier-Doisy. Elsewhere, Lt Jules de Boutigny of N23 was reconnoitring over Conflans and Longuyon when he was engaged by two Eindeckers, but he managed to force one down near Mangiennes.

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