The German Flying Corps had failed to achieve the air superiority that was necessary to the success of their offensives of March and April 1918. Had the Jagdgeschwader been able to avail themselves, at the start of the Ludendorff Offensives, of the new combat aircraft that were at last beginning to reach the front-line units in late April, it might have been a different story.
The first of the new types was the Fokker D.VII, which had its origins late in 1917. At that time the German Flying Corps was beginning to lose the ascendancy it had enjoyed for nearly three years, as Allied air units became equipped with more modern aircraft such as the SPAD, SE5 and Camel. The German High Command considered the situation to be so serious that it ordered German aircraft manufacturers to develop new fighter types without delay. The various fighters would take part in a competitive fly-off at Johannisthal, and the winning firm would be awarded large production contracts for its design.
Anthony Fokker’s contender, the D.VII fighter biplane, was completed in November 1917 in something of a hurry, as Fokker later described.
‘The competition date arrived several days sooner than I found desirable. I was working day and night on the plane, but in order to be represented at all I had hurriedly to finish off a model considerably short of what I had in mind. It was a biplane and, in deference to conservatism, the wings were connected near the tips by single ‘N’ struts. The fuselage section I left square to facilitate manufacture. I retained the tiny aerofoil surface (which had characterized the D.VI and other Fokker scouts) which streamlined the landing gear axle, and the whole plane was designed around the coveted 160 hp Mercedes six-cylinder motor, for it was part of the competition rules that every entrant should use this engine – the only one available in quantity! With only just enough time to make a sketchy test hop at Schwerin to determine whether my plane would fly at all, we loaded it on a truck and raced to Johannisthal.’
Even the hasty trial had shown that the aircraft had an excellent all-round performance, but it was very sensitive, with tricky habits, and a tendency to spin on the slightest provocation. It was much too responsive on the controls, particularly in turns. The rules of the competition permitted manufacturers to demonstrate their entries either personally or with an official test pilot, and Fokker took advantage of this on the first few days to make a thorough investigation of the aircraft’s faults. Subsequently, all manufacturers were to be barred from Johannisthal and the aircraft turned over to operational pilots for a comparison of their fighting qualities. The judges were the cream of Germany’s fighter pilots.
Fokker, as it turned out, was the only manufacturer to fly his own aircraft.
‘I flew each day, learning as much about the ship as possible, and showing by direct comparison that it would out-perform any other plane in the sky. Keeping it well in hand, watching its tricks, I played with the other pilots, diving on them, circling them, swooping in under their tails, looping around them, driving their planes down to earth and in general enjoying myself to the utmost while displaying my ship to best advantage. The manoeuvrability of my plane in short, sharp turns at low altitudes was particularly impressive. At the same time I began to realize that if one of the operational pilots took the ship up in its present form and endeavoured to emulate my performance, he would probably kill himself. Finally, I concluded that the fuselage lacked sufficient rear side area, had too much front side area, and that the fin and rudder were too small. Something had to be done for, on Monday, the planes were to be turned over to the operational pilots.
‘That Saturday I telephoned Schwerin for two of my best welders to come at once. As soon as night fell we locked ourselves in the dim hangar to reconstruct the ship. In its cavernous depths we laboured like gnomes under the violet glare of acetylene torches, cutting through the fuselage to weld in another bay of two feet, and enlarging the fin in equal ratio. It was a long, exhausting job all through the night and lasting until Sunday noon. In the end the fabric was patched so smoothly that nothing appeared to have been done to the ship. Weary though I was, I had yet to take my ship up once more to determine whether the alterations had remedied its faults. In the main they had. The fighter was no longer dangerous to its pilot, though it still swung around corners at a fast clip. Properly employed, this characteristic was an asset. The spinning tendency had disappeared . . . in the hands of an experienced pilot, aware of its weakness, that sensitivity of control became its strength.
‘With a lighter heart I landed, and next day my plane was turned over to the Contest Committee. Before leaving the field for good, however, I sauntered over to a group of pilots who were waiting to test the various planes. I pulled Oberleutnant Bruno Loerzer, who commanded a front-line Jagdstaffel, on one side. ‘You’ll notice a special feature of my ship, Herr Leutnant,’ I said, ‘its quickness in turns. Let the others in on it so that they can show it off to best advantage.’ Then I left, having put them on their guard without their realizing it, ostensibly to seek some much-needed sleep.
‘With that little tip, they demonstrated the plane as well or better than I could have done myself. At altitude the plane’s performance was particularly good because of the thick wing, and this factor was highly important.’
Fokker secretly took off from the other side of the airfield on an old experimental aircraft which he had planted there earlier and climbed to 15,000 feet to watch the fly-off.
‘I was delighted with the manner in which the Fokker was showing up the others. None of my chief competitors, the Rumpler, the LFG, the Albatros or the Pfalz was in the running. The pilots, following Loerzer’s tip-off, flew my ship in much the same way as I had done from the first day, playing with the other planes and out-manoeuvring them all the way down from 15,000 to 1,000 feet, displaying in every way the unmistakable superiority of the Fokker. The Rumpler was much faster and had a nice climb but suffered a rather high wing loading. It was my most dangerous competitor. The arrangement of the radiators on the fuselage sides, however, disturbed the airflow around the control surfaces so that it handled badly at awkward moments. Otherwise it was a clean ship and gave a good account of itself.’
By the fourth day of the fly-off it was clear that the Fokker was by far the best all-round design, and superior to the other prototypes in mock combat. At high altitude the Rumpler slipped away in turns, losing height rapidly while the Fokker stayed firmly under control; the Albatros DVI was almost a duplicate of the earlier DV and showed no improvement, the Pfalz showed dangerous structural weaknesses, the Roland-designed LFG had hardly any visibility from the cockpit, and the AEG contender was a hopeless failure on all counts.
Nevertheless, Fokker was staggered when Captain Falkenhein, adjutant to the German Flying Corps C-in-C, General von Hoeppner, asked him to name a price for building four hundred aircraft. Up to that time, the largest order Fokker had ever received for a fighter aircraft had been for sixty DRI triplanes. He told the officer that the total cost would be ten million marks. Falkenhein agreed without hesitation, and told Fokker that the Albatros factory was also to build the new aircraft on a royalty basis.
‘Momentarily I was stunned,’ Fokker admitted. ‘Although all efforts had been directed towards staging a comeback, the thoroughness of it rather swept me off my feet. After nearly a year as the front-line favourite, the Albatros was scrapped and the Army was forcing the Albatros Werke to build my plane on a five per cent royalty basis. Soon the so-called Hindenburg Programme was to come into effect, calling for an enormous expansion of the air arm, and the AEG factory was also to be ordered to build my D.VII.’
Despite all the priority given to the production of the D.VII, it took time to set up the necessary machinery and it was not until the last days of April 1918 that the first examples were delivered to Jagdgeschwader 1, which was now commanded by Captain Wilhelm Reinhard. The new aircraft cost Reinhard his life, for he was accidentally killed while flying one a few days later. So JG 1 received its third and last commanding officer, a leader of proven worth who had twenty victories to his credit and who wore the Pour le Mérite: Lieutenant Hermann Goering.
Other German pilots, however, believed that the finest fighter at the front in the summer of 1918 came from a different stable. This was the Siemens-Schuckert D.III, a stubby, compact little biplane of wooden construction powered by a 160 hp Siemens-Halske rotary engine. During flight trials in October 1917, the prototype D.III had reached a level speed of 112 mph and climbed to 19,600 feet in less than twenty minutes, a performance good enough for it to be ordered into production. At the same time, the IDFLIEG – Inspektion der Fliegertruppen – placed orders for two further developments, the D.IV and D.V.
The first batch of thirty SSW D.III fighters were delivered for operational trials in January 1918, and in February the IDFLIEG ordered thirty more aircraft. Beginning in late April, forty-one examples were sent to the Western Front; most of them went to Jagdgeschwader 2, which equipped its Jasta 15 with the type. The pilots were delighted with the new aircraft, and a typical verdict on the SSW D.III was that it was highly sensitive on the controls, possessed excellent flying qualities and climbed like a rocket.
One German ace who firmly advocated the SSW D.III was Captain Rudolf Berthold, a talented pilot who had begun his combat career with Fliegerabteilung 23 in 1916, scoring his first victories while flying a Fokker Monoplane. He survived a series of close shaves – including a tricky forced landing after a fight with three BE2Cs and a crash while testing a Pfalz Scout – and in October 1916, while commanding Jasta 14, he scored his tenth victory and was awarded the Pour le Mérite. In August 1917 he assumed command of Jasta 18, and in one month he destroyed fourteen RFC aircraft before being shot down himself and severely wounded in the right arm.
Returning to action in the spring of 1918, he took command of Jagdgeschwader 2, comprising Jastas 12, 13,15 and 19. When JG 2 received the Fokker D.VII, he had his aircraft specially modified so that he could fly and fight with his one good hand and the limited use of the other. He was in constant pain from his injury and his determination was greatly admired by his fellow pilots, who nicknamed him the ‘Iron Knight’. His SSW D.III, which he tested in action during the first weeks of May 1918, was distinctively painted with a red and blue engine cowling and a flaming sword insignia.
Berthold’s report on the aircraft, which he submitted to the IDFLIEG on 23 May, read:
‘Basically the new Siemens-Halske Sh.III engine is sound and the pilots have faith in it. One particular advantage is that engine power remains constant even at high altitude. After rectifying the defects reported to the Commanding General of the Air Service by Jagdgeschwader 2 on 17 April 1918, and particularly after reducing the control forces and the excessive left-hand torque suffered by the aircraft, the SSW D.III can be considered a perfectly acceptable front-line machine, but the aircraft cannot be used at the present time as, after seven to ten hours’ running of the Sh.III engine the pistons seize, the crowns being torn off and the pieces dropping into the crankcase.’
Berthold went on to list the possible causes of this major defect, including inadequate engine cooling, inferior castor oil substitute and weakness in the alloy used for the pistons, and concluded: ‘It is urgently required that this fighter be made available again for front-line use as quickly as possible, for after the elimination of its present faults it is likely to become one of our most successful fighter aircraft.’
As a result of Berthold’s report, the thirty-five SSW D.IIIs were withdrawn from front-line service at the end of May and returned to the Siemens-Schuckert factory for airframe and engine modifications. It was to be two months before they returned to operational service, and then they were used mainly for home defence duties. Jasta 15 reverted to the Fokker D.VII, and it was while flying one of these, on 10 August 1918, that Rudolf Berthold scored his last two victories, bringing his final tally to forty-four. Soon afterwards, in a fight with Sopwith Camels, he was shot down and suffered yet more injuries. He survived them only to be murdered by German Communists in Harburg on 15 December 1919.
The French were among the first to encounter the new Fokker D.VII. On 6 May 1918, sixteen SPADs of Lieutenant Jean Chaput’s SPA 57, operating in support of the 8th French Army on the Oise, encountered an equal number of D.VIIs. This time the French came out on top, claiming five Fokkers in a dogfight that left the pilots utterly exhausted. One by one they straggled back to base, but one pilot was missing. Troops in the French front line saw a SPAD spiral down and make a heavy landing in no-man’s land. They rushed to drag the pilot from the wreck, but there was nothing they could do. Jean Chaput had three bullets in him, and he was dead. He had sixteen victories.
Three days later, Chaput’s death was avenged by René Fonck, who equalled the record of RAF pilots John Trollope and Henry Woollett by shooting down six aircraft in a single day, three of them in the space of a minute. These were all two-seaters, which he caught flying in formation over Grivesnes. The first one went down before his guns at 4.05 pm, the next one ten seconds later, and the third after a forty-second running battle. He landed to refuel and have something to eat; then, on a second patrol, he sighted a formation of Pfalz Scouts and engaged them at 6.40, shooting down the first one almost immediately. He destroyed a second at 6.45, and another ten seconds later. The destruction of all six aircraft had cost him just fifty-two rounds of ammunition.
If May 1918 was René Fonck’s month, the same was certainly true for Mick Mannock, whose No 74 Squadron was everywhere in the thick of the fighting. A glimpse at the official record for the month tells its own tale.
‘May 6th. Captain E. Mannock . . . engaged one EA triplane and forced it into a spin. He followed the EA down, firing short bursts and the EA finally turned over on its back and crashed.
‘May 12th. Captain E. Mannock, 74 Sqn, with his patrol, encountered a formation of eight EA scouts; he attacked the rear machine at close range and at right angles, and the EA side-slipped underneath him and collided with another enemy scout, both enemy machines falling to pieces in the air. Capt Mannock then engaged another EA scout from behind and fired a long burst into it from both guns; the EA went down vertically and was seen to dive into the ground.
‘May 16th. Capt E. Mannock, 74 Sqn, fired about 40 rounds at one EA scout which went into a vertical dive and broke to pieces in the air.
‘May 17th. Capt E. Mannock . . . attacked the rear machine of a formation of EA scouts and fired a long burst from both guns into it, and the EA spun down out of control. Capt Mannock was then attacked by another EA and forced to spin away, but 210 Squadron confirm the first EA attacked by Capt Mannock as having crashed in flames. Later in the day Capt Mannock observed an EA two-seater crossing the line near Ypres. He climbed north and then east and approached the EA at which he fired approximately 200 rounds at close range during a fight which lasted about one minute, the EA going down alternately diving and spinning. At about 4,000 feet the EA burst into flames and was seen to crash and to burn itself out on the ground.
‘May 18th. Capt E. Mannock engaged an enemy two-seater at right-angles, firing a burst of 40 rounds into it. The EA went down in a vertical dive and crashed near Steenwerck, and burst into flames on hitting the ground.
‘May 21st. A patrol of 74 Squadron encountered six Pfalz Scouts, upon whom they dived, shooting down five of them – of which Major K. L. Caldwell destroyed one, Captain E. Mannock three, and Captain W. E. Young one. Captain Mannock also destroyed another EA earlier in the day.’
Mannock’s young pilots were justifiably proud of their leader’s prowess in action. One of them, Lieutenant Ira ‘Taffy’ Jones, who himself was to destroy forty enemy aircraft before the war’s end, noted in his diary on 25 May:
‘The CO saved Giles’ skin today. Giles very carelessly allowed a black Albatros to pounce on him while he was concentrating on the destruction of a silver-grey two-seater. Giles has had his leg pulled unmercifully; we declare he was decoyed. Pilots hate admitting that they have been taken in as a sucker!
‘Clements tells me that Mick saved his life tonight, too. Mick and Clements went up for a bit of fun after tea. They each got what they wanted . . . Clements spotted a large formation of Huns obviously making a beeline for them. Clements put on full throttle . . . to catch up to Mick, who as usual was wasting no time in getting at his enemy. Mick had seen the Hun formation all the time . . . he turned west quickly and dived, the Huns following and firing. Mick saved Clements by losing height directly beneath them and so drawing them on to him, while Clements got clear. Clements says it was a rotten sight to see one SE being attacked by such a bunch, and that had it been anyone except Mick, he would have been anxious about his safety. (We all believe that no Hun will ever shoot down Mick.) One Pfalz followed him very closely, and suddenly Mick went down out of control; on his back – spinning – and doing everything imaginable from 8,000 to 4,000 feet. At 5,000 feet the Hun, completely fooled, flattened out to watch the crash. Mick then decided he had had enough, and flattened out too and made for our lines – diving hard.’
Four days later, on 29 May, Jones wrote:
‘Mick took Clements and me up at 7.00 pm . . . Mick spotted about a dozen Huns coming from the direction of Roubaix; we were then over Lille. As we had not too much time for a fight, having already been up for over an hour, he decided to go straight at them, as we had a slight advantage of height. The Huns, who were Albatros Scouts, were of the stout variety, and they accepted our challenge. Both Mick and the Hun leader opened fire at one another as they approached from about 300 yards’ range, but nothing happened. This burst of fire was the signal for a glorious dogfight – as fine and as frightening a dogfight as I’ve ever been in. Friend and foe fired at and whistled past one another at a tornado pace . . . I have never been so frightened in my life. Of late I have been able to keep very cool during the actual fight, but tonight I became so flustered that occasionally I fired at my own pals in an effort not to miss a chance – thank God, my shooting was erratic. How terrible it would have been if I had, say, shot Mick down! The thought gives me the very creeps . . . Mick sent two slate-blue Albatros down out of control, and Clements crashed his first Hun. He is very bucked about it. It is wonderful how cheered a pilot becomes after he shoots down his first machine – his morale increases by at least a hundred per cent. This is why Mick gives Huns away – to raise the morale of the beginner.’
Taffy Jones himself destroyed his first enemy aircraft on 8 May and ran up a steady score during the remainder of the month. He drove an Albatros down out of control the next day, and on the 17th, with his patrol, attacked ten Pfalz Scouts. During the battle he saw a two-seater slightly in front and just below him, and opened up with both guns. He saw hits on the engine and both cockpits and the enemy went down vertically, trailing smoke and eventually bursting into flames, to crash near Estaires. On the following day he attacked another two-seater, which was being engaged by anti-aircraft fire at the time, and fired 250 rounds into it from underneath its tail. There was an explosion and the enemy aircraft caught fire and crashed. More anti-aircraft bursts led him to another two-seater over Hazebrouck; he attacked this aircraft too from below but ran into heavy defensive fire from its observer, who was shooting through a hole in the fuselage floor. Jones described what happened then:
‘Very suddenly he tilted his machine very steeply, and it seemed as if a black object had been deliberately thrown at me. I thought at first it was the observer’s gun, so I slithered quickly to the other side and as I did so, looked for the object. To my amazement, I saw the body of the observer, falling with arms outstretched and legs wide apart, and going down in a series of tumbling circles. It was a horrifying sight. He fell in the trenches near Meteren.’
Jones turned back to engage the two-seater, which was heading east at high speed, but a shortage of ammunition and a gun jam compelled him to break off the action and the enemy got away. A Pfalz Scout which he engaged on 22 May was not so lucky; its wings broke off and the fuselage went down like a bomb to explode on impact.
Another leading pilot who added to his score during the hectic air fighting of May 1918 was Captain A. W. Beauchamp-Proctor of No 84 Squadron (SE5as), a South African who was to end the war as the fifth-ranking RAF ace with fifty-four victories. On 10 May Beauchamp-Proctor stalked a two-seater which he had sighted climbing for altitude before crossing the British lines and fired fifty rounds into it, killing the observer. He then closed right in and opened fire again, at which the two-seater went into a vertical dive. The RAF pilot watched it fall through 4,000 feet until he lost it in the haze, but it was confirmed as having crashed by another 84 Squadron pilot.
Five days later, Beauchamp-Proctor took off from No 84 Squadron’s airfield at Bertangles in the darkness before dawn to intercept enemy bombers that had been attacking Amiens. He failed to find them, so flew east in the hope of catching them over their airfield as they returned from the bombing mission. Landing flares led him to the enemy aerodrome; he throttled back and glided down to 3,000 feet, then circled a few miles west of the enemy field to await events. A few minutes later a twin-engined aircraft – probably a Gotha – flew just over him and he turned to intercept, but its gunner was on the alert and opened up. Proctor fired a long burst and the enemy gunner fell silent. Proctor’s own gun then jammed, and by the time he had cleared the stoppage the enemy aircraft was almost over the airfield. He opened fire again and saw the enemy machine shoot off a red flare, which was answered from the ground. The next instant all hell broke loose and Proctor found himself flying through a storm of heavy machine-gun fire and tracer shells. He was forced to break off the combat at 2,000 feet, having driven the enemy aircraft some distance away from its aerodrome. He later reported that it was in a dive when he last saw it, and although it was still probably under control it had almost certainly suffered heavy damage.
It was the Canadian, Captain D. M. MacLaren of No 46 Squadron (Sopwith Camel), who was to share joint fifth place with Beauchamp-Proctor at the end of hostilities. MacLaren’s first success in May came on the 3rd, when he fired 75 rounds into a two-seater from a range of fifty yards and sent it down in flames. Almost immediately afterwards he shared in the destruction of a second two-seater with another 46 Squadron pilot, 2nd Lieutenant V. M. Yeates.
On 6 May MacLaren, together with Yeates and three other 46 Squadron pilots, harried another two-seater to destruction, and in that same week MacLaren drove two more enemy machines down out of control, but was unable to confirm them as positive victories. A few days later he shared another with Lieutenant C. R. Chapman, and on 20 May he shot down two enemy observation balloons in flames.
Major Roderic Dallas of No 40 Squadron entered May’s air combats in determined fashion by shooting down a Pfalz Scout on the morning of the 2nd. Later in the day, he took his SE5 to the enemy airfield at La Brayelle and attacked it at low level, strafing the hangars. Ignoring desultory fire from the ground, he turned and flew back over the aerodrome to drop a parcel. In it was a pair of army boots and an accompanying message which read: ‘If you won’t come up here and fight, herewith one pair of boots for work on the ground. Pilots – for the use of.’ Circling in the haze, he waited until a party of Germans had gathered to examine the parcel and then made another low-level run, firing 100 rounds of ammunition and dropping two Cooper bombs on their heads. To complete his day’s work, he caught an Albatros Scout on his way home and sent it down in flames.
Dallas destroyed two more enemy aircraft in mid-May, and another on the 27th. It was his thirty-ninth and last victory, although some sources put his score at fifty-one. His SE5, always in the thick of the fighting, was well known to the enemy; instead of the drab khaki upper surfaces and cream underside that was the standard British colour scheme, he had it painted in a distinctive green and brown pattern resembling that which the RAF was to adopt many years later.
On 1 June 1918 Dallas set out on another of his lone patrols, intending to lurk up-sun over the front line and trap an unsuspecting enemy observation aircraft. He never returned. Later, his wrecked aircraft was found near the village of Lieven. A German account later told the story of Dallas’s last minutes. It appeared that he had dived down to attack a solitary Fokker Triplane, unaware that two more were cruising several thousand feet higher up, waiting for just this moment. They pounced on him and the SE went down, its pilot riddled with a score of bullets.
Captain R. A. Little of No 203 Squadron also scored his last victory in May. On the 22nd, having been forced to leave his patrol because of oil pressure trouble, he was on his way home when he encountered an Albatros CV two-seater. He attacked it at close range and sent it down at St Leger, watching it crash into a railway cutting.
The next day, the Australian pilot was shot down and killed in the course of an offensive patrol. He had forty-seven victories to his credit.
Other leading RAF scorers in May were Major James Gilmour of No 65 Squadron (Sopwith Camel) and Lieutenant A. C. Atkey of No 22 Squadron (Bristol Fighter). Gilmour destroyed a pair of two-seaters on 2 May, and on the 9th he shot down another and damaged a fourth. On the next day he and his patrol caught a lone Albatros Scout and shared in sending it down, and on 18 May he led his patrol into an attack on twelve enemy fighters, causing one to break up with his first burst of fire. Soon afterwards he dived on a two-seater and fired a long burst into it; it turned away eastwards and went into a long dive, then crashed and burst into flames on the ground.
Atkey, who had previously flown DH4s with No 18 Squadron and who had been awarded an MC in April, was posted to No 22 Squadron at the end of the month and teamed up with Lieutenant C. G. Gass as his observer. A formidable team they proved to be, as an air battle of 7 May showed. That morning, Atkey and Gass were in one of a pair of Bristol Fighters patrolling in showery weather when they ran into a formation of seven Albatros and Pfalz Scouts in the vicinity of Henin-Liétard. The two Bristols – the second aircraft was crewed by Lieutenants J. E. Gurdon and A. J. H. Thornton – immediately went into the attack and soon found themselves in the middle of a fierce fight, for the original enemy formation was quickly reinforced by two others which brought the number of enemy aircraft involved to twenty. Of all battles, this one proved conclusively that the Bristol Fighter, in expert hands, could more than hold its own against a far superior enemy force. During a dogfight that lasted half an hour, Atkey and Gass shot down two enemy aircraft in flames and saw three more crash, while Gurdon and Thornton disposed of three more, two of them in flames. The remainder did not stay to fight.
Two days later, the same team of Atkey and Gass destroyed another enemy scout, and on a second patrol that day they carried out a single-handed attack on a formation of eight enemy machines, Atkey firing fifty rounds into one at close range. Flames burst from the fuselage behind the pilot’s seat and it went down to crash. Later in the week they drove three more enemy aircraft down out of control – which, in the parlance of the First World War, meant that they were probably destroyed – and on 19 May they shot down a two-seater near Douai. During the next few days they drove four more Germans down out of control, and rounded off the month with a spirited engagement on the 25th. The official record tersely tells the story:
‘A patrol of 22 Squadron, led by Captain A. C. Atkey and 2nd Lt C. G. Gass, while escorting DH4s of 18 Sqn, encountered a large formation of about 40 EA. A fierce fight ensued, in the course of which so many EA were seen spinning and diving away that it was impossible to tell whether they were out of control or not. At the conclusion of the fight four EA were seen crashed on the ground, and in addition, one Albatros Scout, attacked by Lt S. F. H. Thompson and Sgt R. M. Fletcher, was seen to go down in flames.’
During May, the German Flying Corps did what it ought to have done during the crucial weeks of March and April: it launched a determined bombing campaign with the object of disrupting the British lines of communication, which were now heavily congested as a result of the earlier retreats. On the night of 19/20 May, fifteen Gothas attacked a vital railway bridge at Etaples over the Canche Estuary. They failed to hit the target, but their bombs fell on a nearby military hospital, killing 182 patients and injuring 643. The crew of one of the bombers, which had to make a forced landing after being hit by anti-aircraft fire, expressed incredulity that the British authorities had placed a hospital so close to a vital military objective, maintaining that they had no prior knowledge of the hospital’s whereabouts. There is no reason to doubt their claim. On the last night of the month the German bombers had better success against their assigned target, destroying one span of the bridge.
The bombers’ real success, however, was against the British ammunition and supply dumps. On 19/20 May, in conjunction with the Etaples raid, Gothas dropped some 500 bombs on No 12 Ordnance Depot at Blarges, which contained 27,000 tons of explosive. In all, 6,000 tons were destroyed. One dump containing mortar bombs received a direct hit and simply vanished, leaving a crater fifty yards wide and ten deep. On the next night the bombers attacked No 20 Ordnance Depot at Seigneville, wiping out 5,600 tons of ammunition including 69 million small-arms rounds. Now the Allied line in the north was stabilizing, these losses were severe, though not critical. Had they occurred a few weeks earlier, with the field commanders crying out for supplies of ammunition and equipment to sustain their battered and retreating armies, they would almost certainly have been disastrous.
Some British divisions, which had suffered particularly severe losses in the spring fighting, had been sent south to rest and recuperate on the Aisne. They were accompanied by a single RAF squadron, No 52, with RE8s. On 22 May the squadron’s crews reported large clouds of dust swirling over the roads in the German rear areas, a sure sign of large-scale troop movement. They reported the same phenomenon the next day, and the day after that. The British commander in the area brought the RAF reports to the notice of the French general commanding the 6th Army, under whose orders he was serving, but the general took no notice.
Soon after midnight on 27 May, one of the heaviest bombardments of the war thundered down on the luckless British divisions. Two were virtually wiped out and a third suffered heavy losses. The fourth British division, in reserve, remained intact and was thrown into the battle, together with French reserves. By the time the German advance was halted it had penetrated the Allied front to a depth of twelve miles and had reached the Marne. The disaster prompted a stern reminder from the RAF C-in-C, Major-General Salmond, who ordered that in future every likely approach route was to be reconnoitred twice nightly and again just before dawn, the pilots flying at low level. ‘The responsibility that the British Army is not surprised,’ said Salmond, ‘is on the Royal Air Force.’
Never again, in this war, would British troops in the field suffer through lack of adequate air reconnaissance; and never again would an Allied field commander fail to act upon the information supplied by the crews of the observation aircraft who daily risked their lives over enemy territory.