November 1916: The Somme Air Battle

The legendary circling duel between Lanoe Hawker and Manfred von Richthofen by Russell Smith

By November, the state of the war in the air over the Somme was clearly defined. The arrival of German reinforcements; the reorganisation and refocusing of the German Air Force; the fighting legacy of Boelcke bequeathed to the young pilots of Jasta 2; but most of all the swing of the technological pendulum – they had all combined to leave the RFC in a position of marked inferiority. It was obvious that the DH2s had had their day. The use of pusher aircraft to overcome the lack of an effective machine gun synchronisation mechanism had been a successful stratagem, but now more powerful and faster tractor aircraft were dominating the skies.

I know I felt very uncomfortable with two HA well above me, and in spite of the fact that I climbed to about 13,500 they were still above, which is very demoralising. We shall have to bring out some very fine machines next year if we are to keep up with them. Their scouts are very much better than ours now on average . . . the good old days of July and August, when two or three DH2s used to push half a dozen Huns onto the chimney tops of Bapaume, are no more. In the Roland they possessed the finest two-seater machine in the world, and now they have introduced a few of their single-seater ideas, and very good they are too, one specimen especially deserves mention. They are manned by jolly good pilots, probably the best, and the juggling they can do when they are scrapping is quite remarkable. They can fly round and round a DH2 and made one look quite silly. Second Lieutenant Gwilym Lewis, 32 Squadron, RFC

Lieutenant Francis Cave had been showing signs of stress in midsummer, and this increased, as he witnessed many less fortunate pilots perish. On 1 November, he was on an artillery observation patrol with his regular observer Lieutenant Duke when he saw another machine go down.

We were just calling up 80th Siege when we saw a Hun chasing a BE2 C right down to the ground. It crashed near Courcelette before we could get up, but we fired at the Hun as he went off; but he got so low that we had to zoom over some trees near Miraumont. The BE2 C belonged to No. 7 Squadron, the pilot had shell shock and the observer was wounded. Lieutenant Francis Cave, 4 Squadron, RFC

The pilot was Second Lieutenant Percival and the Observer Air Mechanic Brindle.

One obvious tactic to try and bypass the German superiority was to increase the night bombing of the lairs of the Albatrosses – to get them on the ground where they were helpless.

Crossed the line at Le Sars at 8.50pm at 4,500 feet. Velu at 9.00pm. No activity at Velu but could see conspicuous lights on the ground in a northerly direction. So went to see what they were. They were at Villers Lez Cagnicourt. There were three lights on the ground – two white ones and one red one. The two white ones were about 50 yards apart and the red one formed the apex of an isosceles triangle and were about 200 yards distant from the white lights. The red light pointed into the wind. Green and white Verey lights were being fired into the air at long intervals. We had a good look at the place and could see hangars on the Western side of the flares. The position of this aerodrome is (51B) V.4b 4.c (centre of the landing ground). At 9.15pm from 5,000 feet dropped 3 Hales 20 lb HE bombs. The first two burst about 200 yards South of the hangars and the other two were about 100 yards South of the hangars. All lights were immediately put out and as we hovered over the aerodrome to drop our remaining bombs a machine was wheeled out of a hangar and took off into the wind. We followed him and by keeping our nose down kept him in sight. We were getting quite close to him (we were at 4,000 feet and he was about 1,500 feet) when he turned sharply and we turned to get on top of him. He was drawing away from us so I opened fire on him and gave him a drum. He then went out of sight and we followed in his direction. As we came over the aerodrome again we dropped our remaining three bombs – two burst on the aerodrome and the third one hit a hangar. No fire was caused. We hovered round but could not see the hostile machine. Captain Joseph Callaghan, 18 Squadron, RFC

Yet the flow of casualties could not be staunched. In early November, the RFC suffered a significant loss. Captain Lord Auberon Lucas, the Flight Commander of B Flight, 22 Squadron, had an enormous personal hinterland in comparison with most of the young pilots in the RFC. Already aged 40, he had rowed for Oxford and acted as war correspondent for The Times during the Boer War, where he had the misfortune to lose his leg. This inconvenient mishap did not however stop him, for he continued to ride in steeplechases and indeed joined the Hampshire Yeomanry. In 1908, his political career took off when he joined the Liberal Government, where he served in various capacities as an Under Secretary, before joining the Cabinet as President of the Board of Agriculture in 1914. Even such a political animal as Winston Churchill, was impressed by the power of his vivacious personality.

To know him was to delight in him. His open, gay, responsive nature, his witty, ironical, but never unchivalrous tongue, his pleasing presence, his compulsive smile, made him much courted by his friends . . . Young for the Cabinet, heir to splendid possessions, happy in all that surrounded him, he seemed to have captivated Fortune with the rest. Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty

Lucas had played a constructive role early in the war in the deliberations of the munitions committee, but could not resist the lure of active service. On the formation of the coalition government in May 1915, he retired from politics to enlist and train as a pilot with the Royal Flying Corps. He may have been young for the Cabinet but he was an old man in the officers’ mess. Offered command of a squadron he refused until he had had active combat experience as a Flight Commander on the Western Front. At last he was posted out to join 22 Squadron.

He had an artificial leg and had to use a pair of steps to get into the nacelle of his FE2 B. I remember his tall figure mounting the steps one at a time. Flight Sergeant H Stoddart, 22 Squadron, RFC

Lord Lucas was a personal friend of Maurice Baring.

On October 30th, 1916, I went to Bertangles and saw Bron Lucas. We walked across the Aerodrome to Hawker’s Mess. It had poured with rain all day, but in the evening the clouds lifted over the horizon, leaving a low gold wrack, against which the sheds stood out black. Above there was a great tumult of clouds drifting and streaming and reflecting the light below, with here and there a rift. I said to Bron that it was like one of my pictures. He laughed and said, “Yes”. I wondered what it meant. Captain Maurice Baring. Headquarters, RFC

Perhaps Baring suspected that Auberon Lucas was not always so chivalrous with that ironic tongue of his! Lucas was delighted to throw himself into the thick of the fray – to test himself in the new battleground in the sky.

He was an undergraduate once more and an active soldier, as active, as athletic in the air as he had ever been on the ground. His youth had been given back to him with interest, and for his disabilities he had received a glorious compensation. Apart from the work and his keenness and whole-hearted interest in the war, in his Squadron, in his mechanics, and in his machine, he enjoyed himself with all the great gift of enjoyment and fund of gaiety with which he had enjoyed everything else in his life: his houses, his fishing, his pony-hunts, his steeplechases, his horses, his pictures, his dinner parties, the performances of the Follies, or, so long ago, the days, whether of strenuous rowing or idle punting on the river at Oxford.. They could not keep him out of the air . . . Captain Maurice Baring, Headquarters, RFC

At 13.37 on 3 November, Lucas and his observer Lieutenant A Anderson took off with two other FE2 Bs from their airfield for a photographic reconnaissance of the German rear areas. Lucas and Anderson were soon separated from their comrades and forced to carry out their risky trade below the broken cloud cover and tormented by stiff breeze. It was then that fortune chose to cast aside her favourite.

We could see no sign of the formation, so we made for the lines and picked up three of our escort about two miles this side of the lines. Of the other escort we never saw anything and after waiting about ten minutes we decided to go over with the other three machines and as we knew we were faster than they, we were going to circle round after every half minute or so to allow them to catch up. We went in over Pierre St Vaast Wood and we started taking our photographs with two of our machines sitting on our tail and the third a little under us. It was then I noticed how strong the wind was which was blowing approximately from the South West and which kept blowing us further over. After taking our third photograph, I saw that we had drawn rather far away from our escorting machines and so I signalled to Lucas to turn round and we turned into the wind. It was then as we were half way round that one enemy aircraft came out of the clouds for our tail. We had to turn to meet him but as we were firing at him, two more machines dropped out of the clouds on to our tail firing steadily. The first burst blew half our service tank away, so Lucas swung her round and put her nose down for our lines. I fired away over the top plane but they did very good shooting and our machine was simply riddled with bullets. Suddenly the machine started side-slipping violently and at the same time the engine gave a jar and stopped dead. Looking down I saw that Lucas was bending down in his seat and, thinking that he was working with his switches, I put out my hand to shake him, but then I discovered he was hit through the back of the head and was unconscious. At this time we must have been at about 6,000 feet and so I set to work to try to get his left foot off the rudder bar, as she was still side-slipping. This I eventually managed to do but at this time we were only about 3,000 feet and the three German machines were still on our tail firing away. I saw that with a head wind and no engine we could not hope to reach the line as we were then over Haplincourt, so to avoid the machine guns (we were also being fired at from the ground) I put her down very steeply. Unfortunately Lucas half slipped off his seat and when I tried to land I found I could not flatten out enough, the undercarriage was swept off and she crashed on the wing. I was thrown clear and Lucas was brought in a few minutes later, but never recovered consciousness and died about 4pm. Lieutenant A Anderson, 22 Squadron, RFC

From the victory claims made that day, it appears that pilots of Jasta 2 had shot down Anderson and Lucas as well as the other two FE2 Bs on the mission. The Germans buried Lucas that night with due ceremony in a little cemetery just half a mile outside Haplincourt. Ironically, Trenchard had that very day, written out the telegram that would have given Lord Lucas his own squadron had he returned safely. His governmental experience would have been invaluable to the Royal Flying Corps in many capacities over the next two years had he survived.

On 13 November, the Battle of the Ancre was launched as the last gasp of the Somme Offensive. General Sir Hubert Gough’s relatively fresh Fifth Army lunged forward into the valley of the River Ancre to the north of the Somme. Assisted by a reasonably effective artillery bombardment, the infantry made considerable initial progress. Beaumont Hamel fell at last, Beaucourt was captured and the positions on the Thiepval Ridge further developed. However, the attack on the Serre and Redan Ridges further North had failed. The attacks continued for a few days, but the weather worsened and it soon became obvious that nothing more of real value would be achieved. And so, on 18 November, Haig suspended the attacks – at long last the agony that was the Battle of the Somme was over.

Of course, conflict on this gigantic scale cannot just be cut off abruptly. The metaphorical corpse of the Somme battles carried on twitching for several more weeks. Hard fighting continued on the ground and in the air, only gradually dying down as winter took its icy grip. So it was that Lord Lucas was not to be the last grievous loss to the RFC above the Somme battlefield. At 13.00 on 23 November, Major Lanoe Hawker VC, who had led his squadron from the front throughout the long battle, took off for yet another patrol. Hawker, as the first British ace, as both a VC and as a man had been a fine example to his squadron.

From the earliest days he was an inspiring leader and its devoted ‘parent’ and friend. Before we left Hounslow, he had moulded the raw material on the right lines and it was in the beginnings that the seeds of its future greatness were sown. Those early runs in the morning which he himself led, those parades which we at the time thought rather unnecessary, those modest, almost confidential lectures, and equally those ‘rags’ when all of us, himself included, dashed off to town for an evening’s amusement – all went to form that ‘character’ which was peculiar to 24 Squadron from it’s earliest days. When we met with our first reverses, three of our best had gone west, his was the grit and determination that controlled us all. His personal example as a fighter was first and foremost the cause of his Squadron’s success. As a friend and man he was delightful – wonderfully childish in many ways, but at the same time, always its correct, calm Commanding Officer with ample reserve when required. Although the Commanding Officer, nothing amused him more than an orange thrown at someone’s head, or a soda water syphon fight, and in what we jokingly called ‘the Battle of Bertangles’, between ourselves and 22 Squadron, he used I know more syphons than anyone. Captain A M Wilkinson, 24 Squadron, RFC

On that fateful day, Captain John Andrews led the ‘A’ Flight patrol of four DH2s across the German lines on an offensive patrol to cover a photographic reconnaissance necessitated by the final death throes of the offensive. With him were Lieutenant Robert Saundby, Lieutenant Crutch and Major Hawker himself, who once again was making up the numbers to ease the situation for his hard-pressed pilots. As they took off, Crutch was forced to turn back as his engine failed him, but the remaining three carried on regardless. It had been arranged that two other squadron pilots – Lieutenants Long and Pashley – would reinforce the patrol at 14.00. After gaining altitude to around 11,000 feet the patrol crossed the lines heading towards Bapaume. Here, at about 13.50, they sighted two German aircraft flying below them at about 6,000 feet.

I attacked two Hostile Aircraft (HA) just North East of Bapaume and drove them East when I observed two strong patrols of HA Scouts above me. I was about to abandon the pursuit when a DH2 Scout Major Hawker, dived past me and continued to pursue. Captain John Andrews, 24 Squadron, RFC

We will never know why Hawker continued to pursue the decoys, he may not have seen the lurking German hunting pack above him, or perhaps he was just carrying out his own dictum to attack everything.

We were at once attacked by the HA, one of which dived on to Major Hawker’s tail. I drove him off firing about 25 rounds at close range. My engine was immediately shot through from behind and I was obliged to try and regain our lines. When on the lines another DH2 came diving past me from our side and drove the HA off my tail. I last saw Major Hawker at about 3,000 feet near Bapaume, fighting with an HA apparently quite under control but going down. Captain John Andrews, 24 Squadron, RFC

Andrews had been rescued by Lieutenant Saundby.

We were dived on by a patrol of seven or eight Walfischs. One followed by another, dived on me. I spiralled two or three times and the HA zoomed off. Then I saw patrol leader being attacked by Walfisch and went to his assistance, diving on to the HA’s tail, I emptied three-quarters double drum into him at about 20 yards range. He suddenly wobbled and dived so steeply with engine on that I could not follow him, although I dived up to 130mph. I flattened out and looked round but could see no other DH2s and the HA appeared to have moved away East, where they remained for the rest of the patrol. I turned to see if patrol leader was all right and saw him go down and land at the French landing ground behind Guillemont. I continued the patrol defensively, alone until two other DH2s joined me at 2.30pm. Lieutenant Robert Saundby, 24 Squadron, RFC

Both Andrews and Saundby had lost contact with Major Hawker who had come face to face with Lieutenant Manfred Von Richthofen – Boelcke’s heir apparent. It was to be a desperate duel to the death. It was not a fair fight, but that was irrelevant. All that the DH2 could offer in aerial combat against the Albatross DII was the ability to turn fast in tight circles without losing too much height. This was an essentially defensive attribute and the DH2’s single Lewis gun provided inadequate firepower in contrast with the belt fed, twin German Spandau.

So we circled round and round like madmen after one another at an altitude of about 10,000 feet. First we circled twenty times to the left, and then thirty times to the right. Each tried to get behind and above the other. Soon I discovered that I was not meeting a beginner. He had not the slightest intention to break off the fight. He was travelling in a box which turned beautifully. However, my packing case was better at climbing than his. But I succeeded at last in getting above and beyond my English waltzing partner. When we had got down to about 6,000 feet without having achieved anything in particular, my opponent ought to have discovered that it was time for him to take his leave. The wind was favourable to me, for it drove us more and more towards the German position. At last we were above Bapaume, about half a mile behind the German front. The gallant fellow was full of pluck, and when we had got down to about 3,000 ft he merrily waved to me as if he would say, “Well, how do you do?” The circles which we made round one another were so narrow that their diameter was probably no more than 250 or 300ft. I had time to take a good look at my opponent. I looked down into his carriage and could see every movement of his head. If he had not had his cap on I would have noticed what kind of a face he was making. My Englishman was a good sportsman, but by and by the thing became a little too hot for him. He had to decide whether he would land on German ground or whether he would fly back to the English lines. Of course, he tried the latter after having endeavoured in vain to escape me by loopings and such tricks. At that time his first bullets were flying around me, for so far neither of us had been able to do any shooting. When he had come down to about 300ft he tried to escape by flying in a zigzag course, which makes it difficult for an observer on the ground to shoot. That was my most favourable moment. I followed him at an altitude of from 250ft to 150ft, firing all the time. The Englishman could not help falling. But the jamming of my gun nearly robbed me of my success. My opponent fell shot through the head 150ft behind our line. Lieutenant Manfred von Richthofen, Jasta 2, German Air Force

Hawker was dead, just a few yards and seconds from safety. The circle was complete. The death of Immelmman in June 1916, just prior to the start of the great battle, had signified the rise to ascendancy of the RFC and the supremacy of the DH2s over the Fokker EIII. Now Immelmann had been avenged, as the death of Hawker marked the swing back of the pendulum and the eclipse of the DH2 by the Albatross. To add piquancy, the instrument of revenge, Richthofen, was the pupil of Immelmann’s hunting partner Boelcke. Richthofen would go on to lead the slaughter of the outclassed RFC machines throughout the next six months before the next generation of Allied aircraft made their belated appearance in May 1917.

The Battle of the Somme will never escape the infamy generated by the horrendous losses of 1 July. Yet, despite all the doom and gloom gestated by the appalling casualty lists, the British Army was beginning to make rapid strides up the military learning curve of competence. The use of artillery to chaperone the infantry to their objectives with a crushing combination of preliminary, creeping and standing barrages had shown the way forward. The difficulty in piercing the fog of war meant that the British High Command did not always draw the right conclusions from their successes and failures, but they did not have the benefit of hindsight and our criticism should be muted by a fair minded recognition of the difficulties that they faced. There would be many more disasters and false dawns, many more errors of commission and omission in the planning process before they became fluent in the new language of war.

Haig always considered that the break in the weather in October had denied his armies the victory they had deserved. He believed with some justification, that the German Army was rocking on its heels, as it attempted to cope with the long attritional nightmares on the Somme and Verdun fronts.

The fighting had made the most extraordinary demands both on commanders and troops. The relief arrangements inaugurated at Cambrai, and the new system of reserves projected for the West Front, no longer sufficed. Divisions and other formations had to be thrown in on the Somme front in quicker succession and had to stay in the line longer. The time for recuperation and training on quiet sectors became shorter and shorter. The troops were getting exhausted. Everything was cut as fine as possible! The strain on our nerves in Pless was terrible; over and over again we had to find and adopt new expedients. It needed the iron nerves of Generals von Gallwitz, Fritz von Below, von Kuhl, Colonels von Lossberg and Bronsart von Schellendorf, to keep them from losing their heads, to systematically put in the reserves as they came up, and, despite all our failures, eventually to succeed in saving the situation. Above all, it needed troops like the Germans!  General Erich Ludendorff, German Headquarters

Ludendorff recognised that the British and French offensive on the Somme was not the end of the matter but just the first instalment.

GHQ had to bear in mind that the enemy’s great superiority in men and material would be even more painfully felt in 1917 than in 1916. They had to face the danger that ‘Somme fighting’ would soon break out at various points on our fronts, and that even our troops would not be able to withstand such attacks indefinitely, especially if the enemy gave us no time for rest and for the accumulation of material. Our position was uncommonly difficult and a way out hard to find. We could not contemplate an offensive ourselves, having to keep our reserves available for defence. There was no hope of a collapse of any of the Entente Powers. If the war lasted our defeat seemed inevitable. Economically we were in a highly unfavourable position for a war of exhaustion. At home our strength was badly shaken. Questions of the supply of foodstuffs caused great anxiety, and so, too, did questions of morale. We were not undermining the spirits of the enemy populations with starvation blockades and propaganda. The future looked dark. General Erich Ludendorff, German Headquarters

Thus, ringed by their enemies, desperate for a way out, Germany was tempted to use unrestricted submarine warfare to try and implement their own blockade.

As for the RFC, the Battle of the Somme marked the point where it finally came of age as a fighting service. Its reconnaissance and observation role had been clearly defined earlier in the war. But the Somme was its first real air campaign fought in the teeth of a skilful, well equipped and determined opposition. General Gough summed up the general appreciation of the role played by the RFC.

During all the three months of fighting, the Air Service had been increasingly active and efficient. Fighting was not confined to operations on the ground and in the muddy trenches. Much went on in the air. Gradually and surely our Air Service established a moral and material superiority over the enemy, though at the cost of many gallant young lives. But the work done was invaluable – especially in the direction of ‘blanketing’ the enemy’s observation of his artillery fire, while they assisted, guided and directed ours most helpfully. No one of the complicated miscellany of services which comprise a modern army so commanded the respect and admiration of the infantry as did our air service. General Sir Hubert Gough, Headquarters, Fifth Army

Haig, Rawlinson, Gough and their respective staffs greatly valued the regular, detailed photographic reconnaissance of the trench systems facing their forces; they recognized the crucial role in artillery work; they appreciated the harassing raids on the German billeting sectors; they looked for bombing raids on strategically significant railway junctions to disrupt the German movement of reserve divisions; and of course they insisted that the RFC scouts should deny similar facilities to the Germans. The RFC could, and did, look back on the whole Somme campaign with considerable pride.

I have often heard officers of other arms state that at times the supremacy of the air passed to the enemy. I challenge this statement. The side possesses the supremacy of the air which is able to keep army cooperation machines in the front and to prevent the enemy from doing so. The question of which side has most casualties in doing so is immaterial to this question. Lieutenant Robert Archer, 42 Squadron, RFC

Most of the 583 RFC casualties suffered on the Western Front between June and December 1916 were over the Somme battlefields. These figures pale into insignificance compared to the crippling losses suffered by the infantry, but as a proportion of those involved it bore a grim comparison. In the tragic ledger of the Somme, the losses they suffered were set against the enormous value of their work. For the RFC at least it was ‘Somme Success’.

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Fighters Over Poland

P11 VERSUS THE LUFTWAFFE

During the summer of 1939 the Polish air force found itself dealing with repeated violations of its airspace by photoreconnaissance Do17s of the Luftwaffe, and the experience of the P11c, the principal Polish fighter, was not encouraging. Unable to reach either the speeds or the altitudes of the German intruders, the P11c was clearly obsolescent by this time, and the intruders were able to evade the Polish fighters’ attempted interceptions virtually at will. In preparation for the conflict which by this stage was widely anticipated, the Polish Air Force had been reorganized in the spring, with around a third of the available fighters concentrated around Warsaw and the remainder allocated to the various armies. By the end of August most of the operational aircraft had been dispersed to concealed airfields in preparation for the assault, which duly began before dawn on September 1. Because of heavy fog on the opening day of the war, German plans were changed, with the intended mass attack on Warsaw postponed in preference to raids against airfields and other tactical targets. Flying low to locate the airfields, the bombers of Luftflotte 4, allocated to the advance against Kracow in the south, gave the defending fighters a chance at interception.

Built by the Pánstwowe Zaklady Lotnicze (National Aviation Establishment) and first flying in August 1931, the PZL P.11 was the descendant of a series of clean monoplanes designed by Zygmunt Pulawski, incorporating a unique gull wing that was thickest near the point where four faired steel struts buttressed it from the fuselage sides. When the first PZL P.1 flew on September 26, 1929, it thrust Poland to the forefront of progressive fighter design. In 1933 Poland’s air force, the Lotnictwo Wojskowe, became the first in the world to be fully equipped with all-metal monoplane fighters as the improved P.6 and P.7 equipped its eskadry. When the production P.11c, powered by a 645-horsepower Škoda-built Bristol Mercury VI S2 nine-cylinder radial engine, entered service in early 1935, it still rated as a modern fighter, with a maximum speed of 242 miles per hour at 18,045 feet and a potent armament of four 7.7mm KM Wz 33 machine guns, although its open cockpit and fixed landing gear were soon to become outdated. By 1939 the P.11c was clearly obsolete, and efforts were already under way to develop a successor to replace it within the year. Poland did not have a year, however—on September 1, time ran out as German forces surged over her borders.

A morning fog over northern Poland thwarted the first German air operation, as Obltn. Bruno Dilley led three Junkers Ju 87B-1 Stukas of 3rd Staffel, Sturzkampfgeschwader 1 (3./StG 1) into the air at 0426, flew over the border from East Prussia and at 0434—eleven minutes before Germany formally declared war—attacked selected detonation points in an attempt to prevent the destruction of two railroad bridges on the Vistula River. The German attack failed to achieve its goal and the Poles blew up the bridges, denying German forces in East Prussia an easy entry into Tszew (Dirschau). The “fog of war” also handicapped a follow-up attack on Tszew by Dornier Do 17Z bombers of III Gruppe, Kampfgeschwader 3 (III./KG 3).

Weather conditions were better to the west, allowing Luftflotte 4 to dispatch sixty Heinkel He 111s of KG 4, Ju 87Bs of I./StG 2, and Do 17Es of KG 77 on a series of more effective strikes against Polish air bases near Kraków at about 0530, Rakowice field being the hardest hit. Assigned to escort the Heinkels was a squadron equipped with a new fighter of which Luftwaffe Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring expected great things: the Messerschmitt Me 110C-1 strategic fighter, or Zerstörer.

The Me 110 had evolved from a concept that had been explored during World War I but which was only put into successful practice by the French with their Caudron 11.A3, a twin-engine, three-seat reconnaissance plane employed as an escort fighter in 1918. The strategic fighter idea was revived in 1934 with the development of the Polish PZL P.38 Wilk (Wolf), which inspired a variety of similar twin-engine fighter designs in France, Germany, Britain, the Netherlands, Japan, and the United States.

Göring was particularly enthralled by what he dubbed the Kampfzerstörer (battle destroyer), and in 1934 he issued a specification for a heavily armed twin-engine multipurpose fighter capable of escorting bombers, establishing air superiority deep in enemy territory, carrying out ground-attack missions, and intercepting enemy bombers. BFW, Focke-Wulf, and Henschel submitted design proposals; but it was Willy Messerschmitt’s sleek BFW Bf 110, which ignored the bombing requirement to concentrate on speed and cannon armament, that won out over the Fw 57 and the Hs 124. Powered by two Daimler Benz DB 600A engines, the Bf 110V1 was first flown by Rudolf Opitz on May 12, 1936, and attained a speed of 314 miles per hour, but the unreliability of its engines required a change to 680-horsepower Junkers Jumo 210Da engines when the preproduction Bf 110A-0 was completed in August 1937.

Although more sluggish than single-seat fighters, the Bf 110A-0 was fast for a twin-engine plane, and its armament of four nose-mounted 7.9mm MG 17 machine guns and one flexible 7.9mm MG 15 gun aft was considered impressive. Prospective Zerstörer pilots were convinced that tactics could be devised to maximize its strengths and minimize its shortcomings, just as the British had done with the Bristol fighter in 1917. The Bf 110B-1, which entered production in March 1938, was even more promising, with a more aerodynamically refined nose section housing a pair of 20mm MG FF cannon. Later, in 1938, the 1,100-horsepower DB 601A-1 engine was finally certified for installation, and in January 1939 the first Messerschmitt Me 110C-1s, powered by the DB 601A-1s and bearing a new prefix to mark Willy Messerschmitt’s acquisition of BFW, entered service. By September 1, a total of eighty-two Me 110s were operating with I Gruppe (Zerstörer) of Lehrgeschwader (Operational Training Wing) 1 (I(Z)./LG 1) commanded by Maj. Walter Grabmann, and I Gruppe, Zerstörergeschwader 1 (I./ZG 1) under Maj. Joachim-Friedrich Huth, both assigned to Luftflotte 1; and with I./ZG 76 led by Hptmn. Günther Reinecke, attached to Luftflotte 4 along the Polish-Czechoslovakian border.

Intensely trained for their multiple tasks, the Zerstörer pilots, like those flying the Stuka, had been indoctrinated to think of themselves as an elite force. Therefore, the Me 110C-1 crewmen of the 2nd Staffel of ZG 76 were as eager as Göring himself to see their mettle tested as they took off at 0600 hours to escort KG 4’s He 111s. To the Germans’ surprise and disappointment, they encountered no opposition over Kraków.

During the return flight, 2./ZG 76’s Staffelführer, Obltn. Wolfgang Falck, spotted a lone Heinkel He 46 army reconnaissance plane and flew down to offer it protection, only to be fired at by its nervous gunner. Minutes later Falck encountered another plane, which he identified as a PZL P.23 light bomber. “As I tried to gain some height he curved into the sun and as he did I caught a glimpse of red on his wing,” Falck recalled. “As I turned into him I opened fire, but fortunately, my marksmanship was no better than the reconnaissance gunner’s had been, [for] as he banked to get away I saw it was a Stuka. I then realized that what I had thought was a red Polish insignia was actually a red E. I reported this immediately after landing and before long the colored letters on wings of our aircraft were overpainted in black.”

As the Stukas of I./StG 2 were returning from their strike, they passed over Balice airfield just as PZL fighters of the III/2 Dywizjon (121st and 122nd Eskadry), attached to the Army of Kraków, were taking off. By sheer chance one of the Stuka pilots, Ltn. Frank Neubert, found himself in position to get a burst from his wing guns into the leading P.11c’s cockpit, after which he reported that it “suddenly explode[d] in mid-air, bursting apart like a huge fireball—the fragments literally flew around our ears.” Neubert’s Stuka had scored the first air-to-air victory of World War II—and killed the commander of the III/2 Dyon, Kapitan Mieczyslaw Medwecki.

Medwecki’s wingman, Porucznik (Lieutenant) Wladyslaw Gnys of the 121st Eskadra, was more fortunate, managing to evade the bombs and bullets of the oncoming trio of Stukas and get clear of his beleaguered airfield. Minutes later, he encountered two returning Do 17Es of KG 77 over Olkusz and attacked. One went down in the village of Zurada, south of Olkusz, and Gnys was subsequently credited with the first Allied aerial victory of World War II. Shortly afterward, the wreckage of the other Do 17E was also found at Zurada and confirmed as Gnys’s second victory. None of the German bomber crewmen survived.

In spite of the adverse weather that had spoiled its first missions, Luftflotte 1 launched more bombing raids from East Prussia, including a probing attack on Okacie airfield outside Warsaw by sixty He 111Ps of Lehrgeschwader 1, escorted by Me 110Cs of the wing’s Zerstörergruppe, I(Z)./LG 1. As the Heinkels neared their target, the Polish Brygada Poscigowa (Pursuit Brigade), on alert since dawn, was warned of the Germans’ approach by its observation posts, and at 0650 it ordered thirty PZL P.11s and P.7s of the 111th, 112th, 113th, and 114th Eskadry up from their airfields at Zielonka and Poniatów to intercept. Minutes later, the Poles encountered scattered German formations and waded in, with Kapral (Corporal) Andrzej Niewiara and Porucznik Aleksander Gabszewicz sharing in the destruction of the first He 111. Over the next hour, the air battle took the form of numerous individual duels, during which Kapitan Adam Kowalczyk, commander of the IV/I Dyon, downed a Heinkel, and Porucznik Hieronim Dudwal of the 113th Eskadra destroyed another.

The Me 110s pounced on the PZLs, but the Zerstörer pilots found their nimble quarry to be most elusive targets. Podporucznik (Sub-Lieutenant) Jerzy Palusinski of the 111th Eskadra turned the tables on one of the Zerstörer and sent it out of the fight in a damaged state. Its wounded pilot was Maj. Walter Grabmann, a Spanish Civil War veteran of the Legion Condor and now commander of I(Z)./LG 1.

In all, the Poles claimed six He 111s, while the German bombers were credited with four PZLs; their gunners had in fact brought down three. Once again, Göring’s vaunted Zerstörer crews returned to base empty handed. When the Germans sent reconnaissance planes over the area to assess the bombing results at about noon, Porucznik Stefan Okrzeja of the 112th Eskadra caught one of the Do 17s and shot it down over the Warsaw suburbs.

As the weather improved, Luftflotte 1 struck again in even greater force, as two hundred bombers attacked Okecie, Mokotow, Goclaw, and bridges across the Vistula. They were met by thirty P. 11s and P.7s of the Brygada Poscigowa, which claimed two He 111Ps of KG 27, a Do 17, and a Ju 87 before the escorting Me 110Cs of I(Z)./LG 1 descended on them. This time the Zerstörer finally drew blood, claiming five PZLs without loss, and indeed the Poles lost five of their elderly PZL P.7s. One Me 110 victim, Porucznik Feliks Szyszka, reported that the Germans attacked him as he parachuted to earth, putting seventeen bullets in his leg. The Me 110s also damaged the P.11c of Hieronim Dudwal, who landed with the fuselage just aft of the cockpit badly shot-up; two bare metal plates were crudely fixed in place over the damaged area, but the plane was still not fully airworthy when the Germans overran his airfield.

For most of September 1, the Me 109s were confined to a defensive posture, save for a few strafing sorties. For the second bombing mission in the Warsaw area, however, I. Gruppe of Jagdgeschwader 21 was ordered to take off from its forward field at Arys-Rostken and escort KG 27’s He 111s. The Me 109s rendezvoused with the bombers, only to be fired upon by their gunners. When the Gruppenkommandeur (Group Commander), Hptmn. Martin Mettig, tried to fire a recognition flare, it malfunctioned, filling his cockpit with red and white fragments. Mettig, blinded and wounded in the hand and thigh, jettisoned his canopy—which broke off his radio mast—and turned back. Most of Mettig’s pilots saw him head for base, and being unable to communicate with him by radio, they followed him. Only upon landing did they learn what had happened.

Not all of the Gruppe had seen Mettig, however, and those pilots who continued the mission were rewarded by encountering a group of PZL fighters. In the wild dogfight that followed, the Germans claimed four of the P.11cs, including the first victory of an eventual ninety-eight by Ltn. Gustav Rödel. The Poles claimed five Me 109s, including one each credited to Podporuczniki Jerzy Radomski and Jan Borowski of the 113th Eskadra, and one to Kapitan Gustaw Sidorowicz of the 111th. Podpolkovnik (Lieutenant Colonel) Leopold Pamula, already credited with an He 111P and a Ju 87B earlier that day, rammed one of the German fighters and then bailed out safely. Porucznik Gabszewicz was shot down by an Me 109 and, like Szyszka, subsequently claimed that the Germans had fired at him while he parachuted down.

In addition to challenging the waves of German bombers and escorts that would ultimately overwhelm them, PZL pilots took a toll on the army cooperation aircraft which were performing reconnaissance missions for the advancing panzer divisions. Podporucznik Waclaw S. Król of the 121st Eskadra downed a Henschel Hs 126, while Kapral Jan Kremski shared in the destruction of another. After taking off on their second mission of the day to intercept a reported Do 17 formation at 1521 hours, Porucznik Marian Pisarek and Kapral Benedykt Mielczynski of the 141st Eskadra spotted an Hs 126 of 3.(H)/21 (3 Staffel (Heeres), Aufklärungsgruppe 21, or 3rd Squadron Army of Reconnaissance Group 21), attacked it and sent it crashing to earth near Torun. The pilot, Obltn. Friedrich Wimmer, and his observer, Obltn. Siegfried von Heymann, were both wounded. Shortly afterward, two more P.11cs from their sister unit, the 142nd Eskadra, flew over the downed Henschel, and one of the Poles, Porucznik Stanislaw Skalski, later described what occurred when he landed nearby to recover maps and other information from the cockpit:

The pilot, Friedrich Wimmer, was slightly wounded in the leg; his navigator, whose name was von Heymann, had nine bullets in his back and shoulder. I did what I could for them and stayed with them until an ambulance came. The prisoners were transferred to Warsaw. After the Soviet Union invaded Poland on 17 September, they became prisoners of the Russians, but were released at the end of October. When they were interrogated by the highest Luftwaffe authorities, Wimmer told them of my generosity. The Germans, who later learned that I had gone to Britain to fight on, said if I should become their prisoner, I would be honored very highly.

The observer, von Heymann, died in 1988. . . . I tried to get in touch with the pilot for three years. The British air attaché and Luftwaffe archives helped me to contact Colonel Wimmer. I went to Bonn to meet him in March 1990, and the German ace Adolf Galland also came over at that time. In 1993, Polish television went with me, to make a film with Wimmer. Reporters asked why I did it—why I landed and helped the enemy, exposing my fighter and myself to enemy air attack. I was young, stupid and lucky. That is always my answer!

I came back late in the afternoon and I had to land on the road close to a forest—Torun aerodrome had been bombed already. I then gave [General Dywizji Wladyslaw] Bortnowski, commander of the Armia Pomorze, the maps that I had captured from the Hs 126, which gave all the dispositions and attack plans of German divisions in Pomerania. He kissed me and said this was all the information his army needed.

On the following day, Skalski came head on at what he described as a “cannon-armed” Do 17 in a circling formation of nine and shot it down, then claimed a second bomber minutes later. Dorniers were not armed with cannon; but Me 110s were, and Skalski subsequently recalled that the Poles were completely unfamiliar with the Zerstörer—nobody had seen them in action until September 1. Moreover, I/ZG 1 lost a Bf 110B-1, its pilot, Hptmn. Adolf Gebhard Egon Claus-Wendelin, Freiherr von Müllenheim-Rechberg, commander of the 3rd Staffel, being killed, while his radioman, Gefreiter Hans Weng, bailed out and was taken prisoner of war (POW). Skalski’s “double” was the first of four and one shared victories with which he would be officially credited during the Polish campaign. Later, flying with the Royal Air Force, he would bring his total up to 18 1/2, making him the highest-scoring Polish ace of the war.

Although Poland was overrun in three weeks, its air force occasionally put up a magnificent fight, though its efforts were rendered inconsistent by poor communications and coordination. Polish fighters were credited with 129 aerial victories for the loss of 114 planes, and many of the pilots who scored them would fight on in the French Armée de l’Air and the Royal Air Force.

The fall of Poland terminated the career of the PZL P.11c, but only marked the beginning for the Me 110, which, after a further run of success, finally met its nemesis in the form of the Hurricane and Spitfire. Relegated to fighter-bomber and photoreconnaissance duties after the Battle of Britain, the Zerstörer would undergo a remarkably productive revival as a night fighter.

Poland’s main front-line fighter in September 1939 was the PZL P11c. Obsolete in comparison with the German Me109s, it nevertheless gave a good account of itself before Poland fell.

Poland was first in the firing line. Early in the morning of September 1 a force of about 120 Heinkel He111s and Dornier Do17s, escorted by Messerschmitt Bf110 fighters, were reported by Polish ground observation posts to be heading for Warsaw. The Luftwaffe had made giant strides since the first German pilots went into action with the Condor Legion in 1936. It now possessed 3652 first-line aircraft comprising 1180 medium twin-engined bombers (mostly He111s and Do17s), 366 Stuka dive bombers, 1179 Me109 and Me110 fighters, 887 reconnaissance aircraft and 40 obsolescent ground-attack Hs123s. Transport was provided by 552 Ju52s, and there were 240 naval aircraft of various types. For the Polish campaign the Luftwaffe deployed 1581 of these aircraft.

German intelligence had estimated the front¬ line strength of the Polish air force at some 900 aircraft. In fact on 1 September the figure was nearer 300, made up of 36 P37 `Los’ twin-engined medium bombers, 118 single-engined `Karas’ P23 light reconnaissance bombers and 159 fighters of the PZL P11c and P7 types. Light gull-winged monoplanes, with open cockpits and fixed undercarriages, they had been an advanced design in the early 1930s but were now hopelessly outclassed by the Luftwaffe’s modern aircraft. Neither the PZL P11c nor the P7 could get high enough to intercept the high-flying Do17 reconnaissance aircraft.

On the opening day of hostilities, however, the German attack came in at low level, aiming to knock out the Polish air force on the ground. The Luftwaffe failed to achieve its objective as during the last days of peace the Polish air force had dispersed its aircraft to a number of secret airfields. On the morning of September 1 not one Polish squadron remained at its pre-war base. As a result only 28 obsolete or unserviceable machines were destroyed at Rakowice air base.

The first air combat of WW2 took place during this action when Captain M Medwecki, commanding officer of III/2 Fighter `Dyon’ was shot down by a Ju87 soon after he took off. Another pilot, Lieutenant W Gnys attacked the Ju87 and later shot down two low-flying Dornier 17s – the first Polish kills. Warsaw too was attacked by Luftwaffe bombers and the first to be shot down, a low-flying He111, was destroyed by Lieutenant A Gabszewicz.

A more spectacular victory occurred later that day during a running air battle above Warsaw. Second Lieutenant Leopold Pamula shot down a He111 and a Ju87 but ran out of ammunition when the fighter escort came down on the P11s. Pamula rammed one Me109 before parachuting to safety. In the same battle Aleksander Gabszewicz had his P11 set on fire and had to bale out. On his way to the ground he was shot at by a fighter, an event experienced by other parachuting Polish pilots as the battles continued.

Despite the inferiority of the Polish fighters, they achieved at least a dozen victories on the first day of WW2, although they lost 10 fighters with another 24 damaged. This gave the Polish pilots some confidence. Even with their outmoded aircraft they seemed able to cope with the Germans. Their pilots found that one good method of attack was to dive head-on where a tail-chase was more or less out of the question. This collision-course tactic unnerved the German bomber pilots and was most effective in breaking up formations and inflicting damage on the Heinkels and Dorniers. The Polish fighter pilots unexpectedly found the twin-engined Me110s more dangerous than the single-engined Me109s. The first German kill of WW2 was in fact scored by a 110 pilot, Hauptmann Schlief, who shot down a P11 on September 1.

By mid-September German pincers from north and south had closed around Warsaw. Then on September 17 the Red Army intervened from the east, destroying the last Polish hopes. Warsaw surrendered on September 27 and the last organized resistance collapsed in the first week of October. Despite the obsolescent equipment of the Polish air force, and its inferiority in numbers, it had inflicted heavy damage on the Luftwaffe, which had lost 285 aircraft with almost the same number so badly damaged as to be virtually noneffective. Polish fighter pilots were officially credited with 126 victories, which indicates modest claiming by them, for Polish anti-aircraft fire claimed less than 90, leaving an unclaimed deficit of some 70 aircraft. The last German aircraft shot down by a Pole in this campaign was claimed on September 17 by Second Lieutenant Tadeusz Koc. The highest-scoring Polish pilot was Second Lieutenant Stanislaw Skalski, with 6 1/2 kills. The highest-scoring German, and Germany’s first `ace’ of WW2, was Hauptmann Hannes Gentzen, who scored seven victories in a Me109D.

A total of 327 aircraft were lost by the Polish Air Force. Of these 260 were due to either direct or indirect enemy action with around 70 in air-to-air fighting; 234 aircrew were either killed or reported missing in action. One of the chief lessons learned by the German bomber force operating over Poland (and as the RAF bombers were soon to discover) was that they were susceptible to fighter attack. The immediate requirement, therefore, was for the bombers to have heavier defensive armament and additional armor protection for their crews.

STANISLAW SKALSKI

When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Stanislaw F Skalski was in his early 20s. and a regular Polish Air Force officer, flying PZL fighters with 142 Squadron. On the second day of the war, he destroyed two Dornier 17s, and by the end of the brief Polish campaign was the top-scoring fighter pilot with 6 1/2 victories. He escaped to England, and joined 501 Squadron RAF in the Battle of Britain, scoring four victories. In June 1941 he was made a flight commander in 306 Polish Squadron and shot down five more German aircraft. He received the British DFC, having already won the Polish Silver Cross and Cross of Valor. He then had a spell as an instructor before commanding 317 Squadron in April 1942, winning a bar to his DFC.

In 1943 he led a group of experienced Polish fighter pilots into the Middle East, flying Spitfire IXs attached to 145 RAF Squadron. This ‘Fighting Team’ or ‘Skalski’s Flying Circus’ as it was also called, operated during the final stages of the Tunisian campaign, Skalski adding three more personal kills. He was then given command of 601 Squadron – the first Pole to command an RAF fighter squadron. He received a second bar to his DFC as well as the Polish Gold Cross before returning to England.

As a Wing Commander in April 1944 he commanded 133 (Polish No 2) Fighter Wing, flying Mustangs, raising his score to 19 victories when he forced two FW190s to collide on June 24. He ended the war as a gunnery instructor, decorated additionally with the British DSO. Returning to Poland after the war he was imprisoned by the Russians; and, following his release, drove a taxi in Warsaw.

THE A-36 MUSTANG

First off, only for a very short time in mid- to late-1940, was the name ‘Apache’ applied to the Mustang – the A-36 specifically. In fact, at the time, the A-36 was not even on the drawing boards. The name was used, however, in several magazine advertisements in the late 1940s including Popular Science that showed the NA-73 or Mustang Mark I as it was named by the British Purchasing Commission. Moreover, except for an attempt by MTO A-36A pilot, Lt. Robert B. Walsh, around mid-1943 to name the A-36 the ‘Invader’ to distinguish it from P-51s, P-51As, F-6As and F-6Bs, was the name ‘Invader’ was not even considered. Officially, but temporarily, the name ‘Invader’ was seen in an official government document. In the Aircraft Recognition Guide issued by the US War Department on 15 October 1943, under the NAA P-51 Mustang heading, it reads: ‘Dive Bomber version [of the P-51] known as A-36 Invader.’ Nevertheless, the name ‘Invader’ was never officially adopted for the A-36A. Finally, the name ‘Invader’ was officially assigned by the Douglas A-26 series of attack aircraft. Thus, as it stands, the A-36 was never named ‘Apache’ or ‘Invader’ and it remains a Mustang – period.

On 5 June 1944, a flight of four A-36As led by USAAF First Lieutenant Ross C. Watson flew through a heavy overcast on the approach to their target: a large, well-defended rail depot and ammunition storage facility at Orte, Italy. During this well-planned attack, this quartet of A-36As scored several hits while under intense anti-aircraft artillery fire. Watson’s A-36A was hit and damaged by ground fire. However, under heavy ground fire, Lt. Watson continued his attack and was able to destroy the ammo dump before he made an emergency landing at an advanced Allied airfield. This mission alone dispelled any doubt of the true effectiveness of the A-36A as a dedicated light attack dive bomber.

The North American A-36A Mustang was nearly identical to the RAF Mustang Mark I, but was equipped with four wing-mounted Browning M2 .50 calibre machine guns, two nose-mounted .50 calibre machine guns, wing-mounted dive brakes and two under-wing bomb racks to carry 500 lb bombs for its intended use as a low-altitude dive bomber. They had the same fuel, water and fluids capacities, radio equipment, measurements and so on, but were powered by the single-stage supercharged 1,325 hp water-cooled Allison V-1710-87 (F21R) engine. The Mustang Mark I used the 1,150 hp V-1710-39 engine.

There was a growing need for suitable light attack aircraft in the early months of 1942. NAA immediately offered a modified version of its P-51 Mustang – its proposed NA-97 – to address at least part of this urgent requirement. With USAAF approval to proceed with its NA-97 proposal, NAA initiated work on 16 April 1942. The design, most similar to the NA-73 Mustang I, was given the designation A-36A and it was to be a low-level dive bomber with speed brakes. On 7 August 1942, the War Department approved USAAF contract AC-27396 for the manufacture of 500 North American A-36A-1-NA Mustang airplanes at NAA’s Inglewood, California, facility. The premier A-36A (42-83663) was completed and rolled out in September 1942. Piloted by Bob Chilton, this new version of the Mustang made a successful first flight on 27 September from Mines Field next to the Inglewood factory where it and all subsequent A-36s were manufactured.

After contractor flight testing had been completed, two NA-73 (Mustang Mark I) airplanes were delivered to the USAAF as XP-51 prototypes for evaluation at Wright Army Airfield in Dayton, Ohio. They came with USAAF markings and the serial numbers 41-038 and 41-039. The first XP-51, which was first flown on 20 May 1941 by Bob Chilton, arrived at Wright AAF some three months later on 24 August 1941. Since this airplane was not a ‘sibling’ of the USAAF, it languished on a ramp for several weeks before it was finally evaluated by several USAAF test pilots including Major Benjamin S. ‘Ben’ Kelsey who became one of its staunchest supporters. Kelsey, chief of the Pursuit Branch in the Production Engineering Section of Wright AAF, had high praise for the XP-51 and became instrumental in the A-36A production programme along with his boss Brigadier General Oliver P. Echols. It was these two officers that were wholly responsible for getting the contract to NAA for the production of 500 A-36A airplanes for the USAAF.

After the USAAF had finished its evaluation of the first XP-51 at Wright AAF to which it had first arrived on 16 December 1941, it was flown to Langley Army Airfield in Hampton, Virginia, for National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) flight test evaluations of its laminar flow wing in particular, its performance and aerodynamics in general. It arrived there on 1 March 1942 and the first test flight was made that same day. The last test flight was flown on 15 May 1943 totalling twenty-two flights and about twenty-four hours’ flying time. Thirteen months later, NACA published a Wartime Report entitled Flying Qualities and Stalling Characteristics of North American XP-51 Airplane (A.A.F. No. 41-38) in April 1943, two months and several flights before flight testing had finished.

Operations

The 27th Fighter-Bomber Group of the 12th Air Force was operating in the European-African-Middle Eastern (EAME) Theatre of Operations and was based in North Africa at Ras el Ma Airfield, French Morocco, when it first received its A-36As in April 1943. It subsequently moved to Korba, Tunisia, and from there it flew its first combat mission on 6 June 1943.

The 86th Fighter-Bomber Group (Dive) was the second unit to receive combat-ready A-36As in North Africa during May 1943, but it was the first outfit to get pilots that had been specifically trained and qualified to fly combat missions on the A-36A in the EAME Theatre. The A-36As were at first based at Oran Es Sénia Airport in Oran, Algeria, but moved to Marnia Airfield in French Morocco when it first flew its initial combat mission on 6 June 1943.

The 311th Fighter Group (Dive) and its 382nd Bombardment Squadron (Dive) of the 10th Air Force arrived from the US via Australia with its A-36As at Nawadih Airfield in India beginning in July and became operational on 14 September 1943. It flew its first combat mission on 16 October against enemy aircraft near Sumprabum, Burma, and three of its A-36As failed to return. This unit transferred from Nawadih Airfield to Dinjan Airfield, India, on 19 October 1943 for continued operations in the CBI. The 383rd 384th and 385th Bombardment Squadrons (Dive) likewise became part of the 311BG (Dive).

For the most part, the 311BG (Dive) performed ground attack missions over northern Burma and fighter escort missions throughout the theatre. It also helped protect transport aircraft flying ‘The Hump’ air route to China. In July and August 1944, after moving once more to Tingkawk Sakan Airfield in Burma, it helped to support numerous troop movements including the famed Merrill’s Marauders. Its final move was to the 14th Air Force in China where it remained until the end of the war. It was based at Pungchacheng Airfield from 28 August 1944 to 14 December 1945. At the end of the war, it helped ferry P-51s to China to equip the Chinese Air Force before it returned to the US in December 1945.

The 311BG (Dive) was the third and last group to receive the A-36A light attack dive bombers during the Second World War.

One A-36A-1-NA (42-83685), the 26th one built, was turned over to the RAF in March 1943 to be evaluated by the A&AEE at Boscombe Down. It was designated Mustang Mark I (Dive Bomber) and issued RAF serial number EW998. This evaluation process found that it was no better than the Hawker Typhoon series of fighter-bombers that served the RAF and no orders were forthcoming.

A-36A Specifications

Length: 32 ft 3 in.

Height: 12 ft 2 in.

Wing span: 37 ft ¼ in.

Wing area: 233 sq ft

Empty weight: 6,087 lb

Gross weight: 10,700 lb

Propulsive system: one 1,325-hp Allison V-1710-87 (F21R) Vee

Propeller: three-bladed constant speed electrically pitch actuated 10-ft-6-in.-diameter Curtiss Electric Propeller

Maximum speed: 366 mph at 5,775 ft (level flight)

Armament: six Browning M2 .50 calibre machine guns – two nose-mounted, four wing-mounted; two 300 or 500 lb bombs

A-36A Combat Units in the Second World War

27th Bomb Group (Light); 16th Bomb Squadron (Light); 17BS (L); 91BS (L); 86BG (L); 309BS (L); 310BS (L); 312BS (L); 86th Fighter Group; 312th Fighter Squadron; 523FS; 525FS; 526FS; 527FS;

86th Fighter-Bomber Group; 522nd Fighter-Bomber Squadron; 523FBS; 527FBS; 111th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron; 311FBG; 528FBS; 529FBS

86th Fighter Group

British Carriers at Suez 1956

Sea Hawk FGA.6 XE364 was assigned to No.899 NAS when photographed complete with a full load of rockets. The aircraft and the squadron would both take part in operations over Suez.

After the Korean War many of the Colossus class carriers were withdrawn from use and placed in reserve causing the Royal Navy to shrink yet again. HMS Glory would finish its working life at the beginning of 1956 having acted as the base ship for a swarm of helicopters acting in the relief role over a deeply snowbound Scotland. A few of the surviving fleet carriers would also go to the breakers’ yards during this fleet rundown. One of these was HMS Illustrious, being paid off in December 1954. Also destined to disappear were two of the modified Illustrious class carriers: Implacable and Indefatigable. The former was paid off in September 1954, having acted as a troop ferry ship, while the latter was also retired during the same month. Indefatigable would be retired in October 1953, its withdrawal being hastened by an explosion which caused serious damage below the island, killing eight crew and wounding a further 32. During the subsequent fire and rescue ten gallantry awards, including two George Medals, were given in recognition of the crew’s bravery.

The maintenance carriers were also decimated, HMS Perseus, having served with distinction in Korea was de-stored by the end of 1954. The original intention had been to tow the carrier to Belfast for conversion to a submarine depot vessel. Arriving in Belfast in early 1955, the carrier was worked on until work was suspended in 1957 and it was placed on the disposal list; finally being broken up in 1958. One of shortest carrier careers was that of HMS Pioneer which had been commissioned in 1945. After service as a ferry vessel in the Far East the Pioneer was finally disposed off for scrap in September 1954. HMS Unicorn would also be retired during this period having served with honour during the Korean War. Arriving at Devonport in November 1953 the vessel was paid off and sold for scrap in June 1959.

In October 1951 the dictator president of Egypt, General Gamal Abdel Nassar, unilaterally seized control of the Suez canal in abrogation of an Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936 which gave Britain access to the canal and its established bases in the area for a period of 20 years. The seizure of the assets of the Universal Suez Canal Company had been precipitated by the withdrawal of the financial support by America, Britain and the International Bank that was required for the construction of the Aswan Dam. The cause of this withdrawal was Egypt’s move towards the Eastern Bloc for the purchase of weapons and other materials. Both Britain and France were alarmed by the threatened closure of the canal as this waterway was deemed essential for the transport of oil and it gave access to the trade markets of India and the Far East.

In response, Britain, France and Israel together decided to launch an armed seizure of the canal. Planning of the operation began in late July 1956 when the Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, the French Prime Minister Guy Alicide Mollet and the British Defence Minister met in secret in the French town of Sevres near Paris. During this meeting the British Prime Minister, Sir Anthony Eden, was kept informed of events and decisions reached throughout the conference.

In response to Egypt’s move General Sir Charles Keightley was appointed as commander in chief of all British and French forces on 11 August for the forthcoming military operations. Supporting the General would be Air Marshall D H F Barnett as the Air Task Force Commander. The rear echelon command for the Royal Navy was supplied by the Commander in Chief Mediterranean Fleet who moved, with his staff, from Malta to Episkopi, Cyprus on 30 October. As this was a joint Anglo-French operation an ultimatum was issued to the Egyptian government to withdraw its forces, however Nassar had sabotaged the canal by sinking 49 ships along its length. Even as the Anglo-French forces were moving towards a war footing Israel had already launched its own attack on Egypt codenamed Operation Kadesh on 29 October. American disapproval of British and French actions saw the French Navy carrier group sighting units of the US Navy just north of Egypt. The Americans would make their presence felt throughout the entire operation. When the Anglo-French ultimatum expired the US Navy sailed two destroyers into Alexandria and the carrier group moved slightly closer to the area of operations. On 1 November the C-in-C Mediterranean Fleet sent an urgent signal to the Admiral of the 6th US Navy asking that he and his carrier go and play somewhere else as the British had no desire to inflict damage on the ships and equipment of a close ally. Further reports of American interest were received on 3 November when submarines were detected. However, a flow of signals between the British and American navies soon saw the submarines being ordered to patrol on the surface.

The Royal Navy sent the aircraft carriers HMSs Albion, Bulwark and Eagle. Albion had just completed a full refit and had sailed from Portsmouth on 15 September 1956 with Nos.800 and 802 NAS with Hawker Sea Hawks, No.809 NAS with eight Sea Venom FAW.21s and No.849 NAS ‘C’ Flight with Douglas Skyraider Airborne Early Warning(AEW) aircraft aboard. Also sent to support the Suez operations were the carriers HMS Ocean and Theseus. Flying operations would begin on 1 November when Operation Musketeer began with air attacks. Aircraft from Albion would cover the parachute drops by the 3rd Battalion of the Parachute Regiment on El Gamil airfield near Port Said on 5 November. After the airfield had been captured and made secure, helicopters from Ocean and Theseus plus Albion’s Skyraiders undertook relief missions into the airfield taking in vital supplies and flying out the wounded. The vital supplies included beer; it had been discovered that by removing the rear observer seats at least 1,000 cans of beer could be carried, a load most welcomed by the troops. Albion would return to Grand Harbour, Malta, after hostilities had ended.

HMS Bulwark sailed for Musketeer duties on 6 August and embarked Nos.804, 897 and 810 NAS with Seahawks en route. During its part in Operation Musketeer the Bulwark aircraft flew over 600 sorties in support of the various segments of the Anglo-French landings before departing the area for a much needed refit in Portsmouth. The newest carrier in the fleet, HMS Eagle, with the Flag Officer Aircraft Carriers, Vice Admiral Manley Power, aboard had been undertaking exercises off Malta when warned for Musketeer duties. Aboard Eagle were No.898 NAS with Seahawks, Nos.892 and 893 NAS with Sea Venom FAW.21s operating eight and nine aircraft respectively, No.830 NAS with Westland Wyverns plus No.849 NAS ‘A’ Flight operating Douglas Skyraiders in the AEW role. Eagle would be in position to undertake its share of the air cover duties during the landings of 1 November. The Sea Venoms began operations on 1 November with a surprise attack on the Egyptian airfields in the canal zone. No.893 NAS was responsible for the destruction of many of the MiG 15s on Almaza airfield near Cairo while the other Sea Venom squadrons also shot up the other airfields nearby. Alongside attacking ground targets the Sea Venoms also supplied Combat Air Patrols(CAP) over the fleet against possible retaliation that never materialised. Continued operations by the Sea Venoms were carried out against various ground targets using both cannon and rocket fire.

When the Port Said landings began on 3 November the Sea Venoms provided top cover. This was integrated into the ‘cab rank’ holding pattern from which aircraft were sent to attack targets of opportunity. It was during one of these attacks that the Commanding Officer of No.893 NAS, Lt Cdr R A Shilcock, attacked and sank an Egyptian ‘T’ boat that was attempting to close in on the fleet. During the entire period of Musketeer only one Sea Venom was lost: WW281 of No.893 NAS which crash landed on HMS Eagle during which the cross deck nylon-barrier was used for the first time. Fortunately the crew escaped, although the navigator, Flt Lt R C Odling was badly injured while the pilot Lt Cdr Wilcox suffered minor injuries. The aircraft was written off. During the ceasefire period the Sea Venoms acted as top cover for the troop withdrawals.

In the early hours of 1 November the Sea Hawks began their briefed objective of destroying the Egyptian air assets either on the ground and the air (while avoiding the possible heavy flak if possible). Surprisingly, the Egyptian Air Force did manage to get a patrol of MiG15s airborne, although, given the lack of training in combat techniques and a lack of ammunition, combat was not engaged. Fortunately, the flying time to the targets was only in the region of 30 minutes as the carriers were only 60 miles offshore. As the Sea Hawks closed in on Almaza Air Base the pilots were astonished to see the shiny silver MiGs parked in long rows on the airfield hard standing. Although the local defence gunners did their best to shoot down their attackers the Sea Hawks swept in firing their cannons at the parked aircraft. As the aircraft passed off to the north they left behind a shambles of exploding MiGs. Although the Sea Hawks had used a High-Low-High flight plan to reach and leave their targets the aircraft arrived over their carriers with little fuel available should a diversion have been needed. The successful first day attacks on the EAF air assets had the desired effect of giving the attackers air superiority, however, the anti-aircraft gunners obviously caused problems because, by day five of the attacks, many of the Sea Hawks were sporting minor repairs after being hit sometime during the campaign. Only one abort was called during Musketeer which was against Cairo West. This was fortunate because this part of the airfield was being used as the evacuation point for American citizens leaving Egypt. During Musketeer the Sea Hawk pilots flew a minimum of four sorties a day, they also paid the anti-aircraft gunners the compliment of attacking them once they had completed their missions.

No.830 NAS commanded by Lt Cdr C V Howard embarked on HMS Eagle in April 1956 with a strength of nine Westland Wyvern S.4s. When the carrier was warned that it would be needed for Operation Musketeer the Wyverns had the obligatory yellow and black stripes applied to the fuselage and wings. When offensive operations began on 1 November the Wyverns were briefed to attack the airfield at Dekheila, once a home to the Fleet Air Arm. Eighteen sorties were flown by the squadron, their remit was to strafe and bomb the airfield and its aircraft during which eighteen 1,000 lb bombs were dropped and 420 rounds Of 20 mm were fired. During this attack some light flak was encountered although none of the Wyverns were hit. The second day of operations saw the number of aircraft missions drop to 15 during which Dekheila was attacked again and military vehicles south of Cairo were attacked. On 3 November the squadron suffered its first casualty when Wyvern, WN330, piloted by Lt McCarthy was hit by anti-aircraft fire while attacking the bridge at El Gamil near Port Said. Fortunately the aircraft was still controllable and the pilot was able to glide his aircraft towards Eagle before ejecting and was quickly picked up by the rescue helicopter. No.830 NAS flew no sorties during the fourth day but resumed operations on day five. Instead of attacking airfield and structures the Wyverns were assigned to the support of Army units. A total of 16 individual sorties were flown during which rockets and bombs were dispensed as required. It was during these missions that the squadron’s senior pilot Lt Cdr W H Cowling was forced to eject from WN328 when the engine was hit by flak. Again the pilot was able to glide towards Eagle before ejecting safely being rescued quickly by the carrier’s rescue helicopter. Overall, three strikes were launched from Eagle during which the squadron dropped seventeen 1,000 lb bombs, fired 176 rockets with 60 lb warheads and 2,250 rounds of 20 mm cannon ammunition were fired, all being used during that day’s 473 sorties. The final day of operations on 5 November saw the squadron flying 17 individual sorties during which they were employed on ‘cab rank’ duties for which they all sported long-range fuel tanks and bombs or rockets. During Musketeer the squadron lost two aircraft while others suffered minor damage to their tailplanes and engine installations. Aircraft deployed by No.830 NAS included WL888, WN325, WN326, WN328, WN330, WN336, WP337, WP338 and WP341. Although No.830 NAS would receive two replacement Wyverns its life was short as the squadron was disbanded in January 1957.

As mentioned before, also sent to support the Suez operations were the carriers HMS Ocean and Theseus, both veterans of the Korean war. Ocean, having returned to Devonport for refit, had been used as a troop ferry during 1955, moving troops and their equipment to Cyprus. When the Suez crisis started to develop Ocean in company with Theseus transported the 16th Parachute Brigade to Cyprus. As the helicopter was now the favoured transport the carrier was quickly returned to Britain for conversion for their operation. During October 1956 with No.845 NAS and Whirlwinds aboard, and in company with Theseus, she undertook commando assault exercises in the English Channel. At the completion of these exercises No.845 NAS had transferred to Theseus while Ocean had embarked the Joint Service Experimental Helicopter Unit. Both vessels arrived in Grand Harbour, Malta, at the close of October 1956.

During the attack on Port Said the troops of 45 Royal Marine Commando were landed by helicopter. This was the first time that vertical replenishment had been used in action, this method of deploying troops and materials meant that 415 men and 23 tons of stores were landed in one and a half hours. After this last military adventure Ocean would return to Britain where it would enter Devonport to be converted for the training role. Theseus had also undergone a quick conversion for the operation of helicopters. It too would be involved in the Port Said landings although its career would end when it returned to Britain in December 1956.

Hostilities ceased at midnight of 6 November after pressure was put on both British and French governments by the United States acting through the United Nations, whose Security Council recommended the placement of an Emergency Force to safeguard the canal and ensure the withdrawal of the combatants. Much to the chagrin of the British and French, who had been making good progress along the canal, they were forced to withdraw. During this short sharp conflict the Fleet Air Arm had lost two Hawker Sea Hawks, two Westland Wyverns and a pair of Whirlwind helicopters. The final fallout of this debacle was the resignation of the British Prime Minister Sir Anthony Eden who resigned from office in January 1957.

Spitfires in North Africa I

Squadron Leader L. C. Wade, Officer Commanding No. 145 Squadron RAF, sitting in the cockpit of his Supermarine Spitfire HF Mark VIII at Triolo landing ground, south of San Severo, Italy, shortly before the end of his second tour of operations in the Mediterranean area, where he had become the top-scoring fighter pilot with 22 and 2 shared enemy aircraft destroyed.

WING COMMANDER LANCE WADE

Born in Texas, USA, Lance Wade joined the RAF in Canada in December 1940. After completing his flying training he went to the Middle East in September 1941, flying a Hurricane off the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal to Malta, and continuing on to Egypt the following day by flying boat. Once there, he joined No. 33 Squadron, flying Hurricanes, and gained his first victories on 18 November 1941, when he shot down two Italian Fiat CR. 42 fighters.

When his combat tour ended in September 1942 his score stood at 12 enemy aircraft destroyed. He then returned to the USA for a few months, but in January 1943 returned to North Africa and was appointed to No. 145 Squadron as a flight commander. Wade assumed command of the unit just months later upon his promotion to squadron leader. In March the squadron exchanged its Spitfire Mk Vs for Mk IXs, then in the following June re-equipped with Mk VIIIs. Wade remained in command until November 1943, when he was promoted to wing commander and moved to a staff appointment at Headquarters Desert Air Force.

In January 1944, during a routine flight in an Auster, the aircraft went into a spin at low altitude and crashed into the ground, killing the fighter ace. At the time of his death Wade’s victory score stood at 22 destroyed (five while flying Spitfire Mk VIIIs or IXs) and two shared destroyed, one probably destroyed and 13 damaged in the air, plus one destroyed and five damaged on the ground. He was the top-scoring American-born pilot to complete the whole of his combat career in the RAF.

NORTH AFRICA

`Spitfires made ten sorties acting as high cover to Hurricanes. Flt Lt Sabourin and Sgt James attacked two ME 109s southwest of Tobruk. One ME 109 destroyed.’ Thus, in the dry and prosaic language of the handwritten Operational Record Book (ORB) of No. 145 Squadron for 8 June 1942 did the diarist record the first victory of a Spitfire over the Western Desert. Joseph Sabourin, a 27-year-old Canadian who already had three victories to his name from flying Curtiss Tomahawks with No. 112 Squadron, and his wingman, Sergeant James, had shot down a Bf 109 over the desert some 15 miles southwest of Tobruk.

With the Luftwaffe achieving a degree of ascendancy over the RAF’s Hurricanes, Tomahawks and Curtiss Kittyhawks in North Africa by early 1942, the despatch of Spitfire-equipped squadrons to Egypt was seen as a matter of urgency, despite demands elsewhere. Number 145 Squadron was an experienced Fighter Command unit and in mid-February 1942 it had left for the Middle East along with another experienced Spitfire squadron, No. 92. The end of April also saw No. 601 Squadron arrive in Egypt, having come via Malta, and it too began readying itself for renewed operations. By then, No. 145 Squadron had begun to receive its Spitfire VBs at Helwan, on the Nile, south of Cairo, where it had worked up as part of the Desert Air Force (DAF).

By May 1942, Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps and his Italian allies had been steadily building up against the Allied front in Cyrenaica that ran from Gazala south through Bir Hacheim. On 24 May No. 145 Squadron had moved forward to Gambut, between Tobruk and Bardia, and commenced flying defensive patrols. Two days later Rommel attacked Gazala, thus beginning six weeks of violent fighting on the ground and in the air that eventually resulted in a British retreat deep into Egypt.

The situation on the ground continued to deteriorate, with the British suffering heavy losses at Knightsbridge, pre-empting a withdrawal from the Gazala line, resulting in DAF squadrons `leapfrogging’ in an easterly direction. No. 145 Squadron flew intensively throughout, completing some 22 sorties on 16 June. The unit’s diarist recorded the intensity of the air action the following day, as the battle reached its zenith:

Standing patrols over base were resumed and 18 sorties were made. Plt Off Weber encountered a Macchi 202 near Gambut and pursued it to Sidi Rezegh. Plt Off Hanley and Sgt Barker attacked two ME 109s and Flt Lt Monk and Plt Off Malins attacked two others. Plt Off Hanley and Sgt Barker provided a most inspiring spectacle as they chased the two MEs at a low altitude away from the aerodrome. The standing patrol was ended at 1705hrs. It is not possible to know how many enemy aircraft were destroyed by the squadron. The moral effect of the squadron’s operations was considerable, and it was felt respectively by the enemy and the units we operated with against him. It was a new experience for Messerschmitt pilots to have to look up instead of down!

Despite much gallant fighting, the enemy’s inexorable advance continued, and on the 21st Tobruk, so long a symbol of dogged resistance, surrendered. Its loss was a huge blow to Allied morale and prompted Rommel to continue his advance into Egypt; eventually leading to his assault on El Alamein, which saw heavy fighting.

Despite the ground fighting settling into an exhausted stalemate, the air fighting continued through June and July, and into August. On 1 August, No. 92 Squadron at last received its first Spitfire and became operational on the 13th, flying its first Spitfire patrol the following day when it ran into a big fight around a returning bomber formation. Appropriately, it was the CO, Squadron Leader Jeff Wedgewood, who opened the unit’s account in the desert by hitting the cooling system of the Bf 109 flown by Leutnant Mix, who had to crash land and became a prisoner of war (PoW).

As the battle for El Alamein continued, aerial operations intensified through August, and on 7 September Bruce Ingram of No. 601 Squadron became the first Spitfire ace of the desert campaign. The decisive Battle of El Alamein opened with a massive artillery barrage on a narrow front during the evening of 23 October, and the three Spitfire units were out early the following morning covering fighter-bombers and countering enemy air attacks as Axis forces fiercely resisted the `push’.

In succeeding days the RAF was committed to preventing any enemy attempt at concentrating forces and in interdicting supply lines, so there were innumerable combats fought. For example, during the afternoon of the 25th a quartet of Spitfires from No. 92 Squadron attacked two Bf 109s, one of which was shot down into the sea by Flight Lieutenant John Morgan for his sixth victory. A short while later five more Bf 109s were attacked by a patrol from No. 145 Squadron, allowing Flight Lieutenant Cecil Saunders to claim his seventh, and last, success.

Finally, on 4 November, after further heavy fighting, the 8th Army began a general breakout and the race across the desert in pursuit of the Afrika Korps began. The speed of the withdrawal was breath-taking as both sides raced for Benghazi. Spitfire squadrons regularly moved forward during this period, taking off from Egyptian airfields and returning to newly captured landing grounds in Libya.

By the turn of the year the four Spitfire units had moved to, or were soon to arrive at, the desert strip at Alem El Chel, some 30 miles southeast of Sirte and deep into Libyan territory.

On 7 January, for the first time since El Alamein, No. 92 Squadron met enemy fighters in large numbers that stayed and fought, and two Bf 109s from II./JG 77 were destroyed. Climbing to 12,000ft, John Morgan claimed his eighth, and last, success. The other victory went to former US `Eagle’ squadron pilot Flight Officer Leo Nomis, but two Spitfires were also lost. Strafing attacks by Bf 109s and C. 202s were repeated the next day, the first raid being intercepted at 8.15am by No. 145 Squadron and resulting in Flight Lieutenant Bert Houle shooting down a Messerschmitt. It was the Canadian’s first victory in a Spitfire, but it elevated him to ace status:

I got behind one which flew straight into the sun and fired a few bursts at him. The pilot panicked and turned down sun while diving for ground level. When he levelled out I was a few thousand feet above him, and I used my height to close the gap between us. When well within range, I pressed the firing button and two cannons and four machine guns started to register hits…

On 16 January Rommel issued the order to pull back, and as his forces headed for the Tunisian border they were constantly harassed by the DAF and advanced elements of the pursuing 8th Army. On the 22nd the last German troops evacuated Tripoli, leading to a curtailment of DAF operations.

Tunisia

As axis forces retreated from El Alamein westwards across Lybya, the sea off Algiers harbour on 9 November 1942 was covered with a forest of ships. Small boats and landing craft were shuttling back and forth with troops, tanks, vehicles, and other equipment and supplies of war. High above the ships a Ju88 reconnaissance bomber probed daringly into the Allies’ airspace. Two Spitfires quickly found the enemy intruder, and sent it into a smoking dive into the waves. The fighters’ interception would prove to be too late.

As twilight gathered later that day, three waves of Ju88s and Heinkel He111s began their bombing runs over the anchored invasion fleet and above Maison Blanche airfield. Spitfires from No. 81 Squadron RAF and Hurricanes from No. 43 Squadron RAF scrambled to intercept. More Spitfires from No. 242 Squadron RAF, who were escorting two B-17 bombers flying US General Mark Clark from Gibraltar across to Algiers, were also called on to attack the enemy raiders.

The Luftwaffe bombers were soon in disarray. Pilots of 242 Squadron claimed their first victories, Sergeant Mallinson an He111, Pilot Officer Goulding and Sergeant Watling a Ju88 each, while Flight Lieutenant Benham and Pilot Officer Mather shared a Ju88 kill. Five other pilots claimed half-kills and damages on the German aircraft.

Squadron Leader ‘Ras’ Berry, Commander of 81 Squadron, and his section shot down an He111 over Maison Blanche airfield, and fellow pilot, Canadian Flight Lieutenant James Walker, did the same for a Ju88. Having achieved two previous victories in the skies of UK and Russia, it was Walker’s third kill, and perhaps a unique record in those three theatres of air warfare.

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The Spitfires’ engagement with the Ju88s came a day after Allied landings in North-West Africa.

At around midnight on 7/8 November 1942, Operation TORCH, the first major Allied operation of the Second World War invaded Morocco and Algeria. Only a few days after the start of the third battle at El Alamein on 26 October, the Anglo-American invasion fleets had sailed from the east coast of USA and the west coast of Scotland. The enormous task force was in excess of 100 ships, and over 107,000 troops.2

Although the battle of Stalingrad was an immense distance from the Middle East, the German Army’s struggle to overcome the Russians’ stubborn and desperate defence was not immune to the impact of Eighth Army’s victory at El Alamein, nor to the Operation TORCH invasion. Despite their defeats on the Russian Front, the Germans felt forced to transfer their Luftflotte II (Air Fleet) to Italy and Tunisia. If Rommel, or any others in Hitler’s Reich, still harboured dreams of dominating the Mediterranean, and occupying the oilfields of the Gulf, Iraq and Persia, they were now collapsing.

Operation TORCH was made up of three invasion fleets – the Western, Central and Eastern Task Forces. The Western Task Force, commanded by Major General Patton, and under the protection of the US Navy, sailed from east coast USA to land at Casablanca. US Navy aircraft carriers, off Casablanca and Oran, provided the air cover with ship-borne fighters. The Central Task Force, with some British but predominantly American troops, set out from Britain under the command of Major General Fredendall, heading for the port of Oran on the north-west Algerian coast.

The US Army’s Twelfth Air Force, commanded by the already legendary Brigadier General Jimmy Doolittle, also provided air cover for the Oran-bound fleet. General Doolittle had commanded the first US air raid on Japan after Pearl Harbor, when B-25 Mitchell bombers took off from aircraft carriers, without sufficient fuel to return. After releasing their bombloads over Japan, the B-25s flew on westwards to land at friendly bases in China.

The closest landing to the Tunisian border, by a convoy despatched from the Clyde in Scotland, was to be made by the Eastern Task Force. Although it carried a small number of US troops with designated officers to assist negotiations with the Vichy French authorities, this invasion force comprised elements of the British First Army under command of Lieutenant General Kenneth Anderson. While the Royal Navy escorted both the Oran and Algiers invasion fleets, air support for the Algiers landings was provided by the RAF Eastern Command. To strengthen air support at Algiers, on 6 November two DAF squadrons, the Beaufighters of No. 272 Squadron RAF and the torpedo-carrying Wellington bombers of No. 221 Squadron RAF, flew from Egypt to Malta.

One of those pilots in 221 Squadron was Australian Flying Officer William ‘Bill’ Stocks from Sydney. After a period in the Empire Training Scheme in Canada, Bill had arrived in Britain in November 1941 and, after training on Wellington bombers, in April 1942 he joined No. 221 Squadron at Sidi Barrani. In one anti-shipping operation with 221 Squadron, at a height of around 500 feet, Stocks made two severe hits on an enemy vessel. In another interdiction flight his wireless transmitter, rear turret and petrol gauges became unserviceable. Despite great difficulties he continued and completed the operation successfully. In what seems so typical of so many bomber pilots, Stocks’ leadership, coolness and efficiency would in due course see him become a squadron leader in No. 28 Squadron RAF, and be awarded the DFC.

Despite the widest dispersal of troop landings over 130 miles north and south of Casablanca, General Patton’s US Western Task Force encountered the stiffest resistance. The Vichy French were alert to the invasion. At approximately 0700 on 8 November their naval air force, Aeronavale, had their Dewoitine fighters strafing the landing beaches. However, in three days the Vichy French lost 119 aircraft out of 200, as well as having their airfields put out of action. The US Army Air Forces lost only forty-four aircraft out of 164, and all the US Navy aircraft carriers remained intact. Early on 11 November the French Commander in Casablanca surrendered and signed an armistice.

At Oran in Algeria at 0100, also on 8 November, the US 1st Infantry and 1st Armored Divisions went ashore. Before dawn the Royal Navy’s aircraft carriers, HM Ships Furious, Biter and Dasher, launched ten Seafires, eight Albacore torpedo-bombers, and twelve Sea Hurricanes. During 8 and 9 November considerable air combat ensued with the Aeronavale over Oran’s la Senia and Tafaraoui airfields.

This provided cover for American tanks to capture Tafaraoui on 9 November, which then enabled a Hurricane squadron and some Spitfires from the RAF’s 31 Fighter Group to fly in from Gibraltar. When one Spitfire was shot down on its landing approach by a Dewoitine fighter, a quick response claimed three of the French fighters. The surviving French aircraft at la Senia took off and escaped to Morocco.

Later, when the Tafaraoui airfield came under fire from an approaching column of the French Foreign Legion and its artillery battery, the Spitfires were again called up. Their strafing attack blew up a truck carrying troops, spattering one Spitfire with body parts, and causing the French to withdraw quickly. By the end of the day on 9 November the French authorities declared a cease-fire to end any threat to the la Senia and Tafaraoui airfields.

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Farther east along the coast near to Algiers, also in the early hours of 8 November, the troop landings of the British First Army went ahead. Operation TORCH gambled on a land spearhead that in the main comprised only 11 and 36 Brigades of the 78th Battleaxe Division, some light tank units of Blade Force, and an American field artillery battalion. The task force, under command of 78th Division, was being used in an urgent but risky drive to occupy Tunis.

While all three landings were equally important in order to occupy northwest Africa, in the short term those at Algiers were critical. A proposal to land farther east at Tunis had been rejected because of the threat of Luftwaffe and Regia Aeronautica attacks from their bases in Sicily. Yet the immediate goal of the Allies’ ground forces was to squeeze the Axis armies in a pincer movement between Operation TORCH and Montgomery’s Eighth Army. A rapid advance was planned to gain control quickly of the major port of Tunis before German forces could be landed there, and before the start of winter and the rainy season in late December.

The decision not to land at Tunis itself, or even the Algerian port of Bone near the Tunisian border, was driven by a fear of enemy air attack. Axis bombers based in Sicily could easily reach both Bone and Tunis with fighter escorts, whereas the British and American air forces could offer little support to any landings there. Even after air bases were established at Algiers and Bone, Allied fighter aircraft would be at the extremity of their range to reach Tunis, which would allow little time over the battlefield to support ground forces. In the event the capability of the Germans to react quickly and transport well-equipped troops, tanks, guns and aircraft to Tunis, was grossly underestimated by the Allies.

Spitfires in North Africa II

At the moment of the landings, there were no garrison troops in Tunis, and the German and Italian High Commands were taken completely by surprise. But Axis reaction was swift, and effectively assisted by the conduct of Admiral Esteva, the French Resident-General. The first German troops arrived by air at El Aouina airfield, near Tunis, on November 9, only a day after the Allied landings.

They seized the key points of the two cities; they executed or imprisoned the known and suspected Allied sympathizers; they took over the ports of Sousse, Sfax and Gabes and the inland town of Kairouan. Within a week there were 5,000 front-line troops in and around Tunis and Bizerte; they had tanks; and they were still flying in Messerschmitt and Focke-Wulf fighters.

The landings at Algiers were not only the most crucial to the Operation TORCH strategy. They were the most risky, and no-one knew what the Vichy French authorities would do. The French possessed dangerous squadrons of both fighters and bombers at their Algiers airfields of Blida and Maison Blanche. In addition, while the Allied ships and troops were going ashore, they would be within range of Luftwaffe bombers.

When a French Douglas DB-7 bomber from the Blida air force base threatened the invasion fleet, two Seafire fighters from the aircraft carrier HMS Formidable shot it down. Successive flights of Martlet fighters from HMS Victorious then attacked Blida airfield in waves, shooting up aircraft on the ground and those attempting to take off. Around 0830, when the Blida air base signalled its surrender, naval fliers landed and took control.

Luckily bad weather had kept many French aircraft grounded, such as fifty Dewoitine fighters, and six Potez bombers, preventing them from causing mayhem amongst the invading forces. The French Air Force base of Maison Blanche, where there had been no order to hold fire, was captured by 0900. Apart from a failed attempt to capture Algiers harbour, troop landings along the coastal beaches went well. Many Vichy French army units had been ordered not to resist.

During the morning of 8 November Hurricanes of No. 43 Squadron RAF, and Spitfires of 81 and 242 Squadrons RAF, flew from Gibraltar and landed at Maison Blanche. But, as the day neared its end, a Luftwaffe raid of fifteen Junkers Ju88 bombers attacked the ships off Algiers, damaging three Seafires on a carrier.

On the ground at the Maison Blanche air base, relations between Allied forces and the Vichy French were tense. British troops stood guard over parked French fighter planes. The newly landed Hurricanes and Spitfires remained on the tarmac for lack of fuel. Cold and hungry, their pilots huddled by their planes facing a Tunisian winter’s night.

Next day, 9 November, fighters of both 43 and 81 Squadrons had enough fuel left in their tanks to scramble against another Luftwaffe raid and were joined by Spitfires of 242 Squadron, already aloft, to disrupt and fight off the German bombers. When the fighter pilots returned to Maison Blanche their combat stress was no doubt quickly forgotten when the first food since their earlier arrival from Gibraltar was awaiting them.

The decisive impact of Allied air power in support of the Operation TORCH landings has not been well recognized. Even with a large number of inexperienced pilots, within two days Allied air forces had overwhelmed their French counterparts across Morocco and Algeria. Most important of all, the airfields at Maison Blanche and Blida near Algiers, and soon after at Bone, the closest to the Tunisian border, were captured with little damage. French ground forces, with their air support eliminated, and their leaders in disarray with conflicting loyalties, were left with no options. Allied forces were pouring in by air and sea. On 13 November General Eisenhower reached a final agreement with French authorities in Algeria under Admiral Darlan and hostilities came to an end.

The Royal Navy aircraft-carriers lost a total of forty-five aircraft over Oran and Algiers – fifteen Sea Hurricanes, eight Martlets, eight Albacores, two Fulmars and at least twelve Seafires. Despite a large number of inexperienced pilots, they had destroyed or driven the Vichy Air Force from the skies. Allied air power was clearly a huge factor not only in protecting the invasion fleets and troop landings, but also in gaining air superiority to force the early ceasefire by Vichy French Authorities.

Although it was not known at the time, the early successes in Morocco and Algeria had a consequence. By the end of November there would be some 20,000 Axis troops in Tunis, specifically the 334th Infantry Division, the Italian 1st Division, and 10th Panzer Division. The Germans continued building up and, on 8 December, General von Arnim arrived in Tunis to take command of their forces which, on that date, were designated the Fifth Panzer Army. Perhaps the German reaction to Operation TORCH had been foreseen by the Allies as a possibility, but with a hope that it would not happen so fast.

In contrast, the Allies’ initial attacking force from 78th Division with the two brigade groups and Blade Force to make the first thrust at Tunis totalled only 12,300 men. It was recognized as a gamble. With air bases close to Tunis, as anticipated the Luftwaffe quickly established air superiority in Tunisian airspace. It meant that Allied ground forces came under regular attack from enemy fighters and dive-bombers.

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Unlike the Desert Air Force (DAF), which had been based in Egypt, and had experience in extending its supply lines and moving to temporary airfields with Eighth Army, the air force squadrons sent from the USA and Britain to support Operation TORCH had to be self-sufficient on arrival. In comparison, the Germans were flying in ground forces and aircraft from Sicily, only about 100 miles distant from Tunis, to all-weather airfields close to the port of Bizerte and the Tunisian capital, such as Blida and Maison Blanche.

In early-December winter rain and mud made many dirt airfields inoperable. To support the army’s advances with air support and get within range of Tunis, Allied squadrons had to make use of temporary landing grounds and often had to roll out a dirt strip themselves. As the British First Army moved to within striking distance of Tunis, their closest operable air base was 114 miles to the rear at Bone. This meant that Spitfires were at the limit of their range, resulting in restricted patrol time over Tunis and German positions before having to turn for home.

RAF photo reconnaissance flights on 12 November revealed at least 120 Luftwaffe aircraft at Tunisian airfields, including forty Stukas and some Fw190s at Bizerte and Tunis. The Focke-Wulf Fw190 was fast, with a maximum speed above 380mph, well-armed and, apart from the Spitfire, superior at that time to other Allied fighters in North Africa. In addition there were some 270 German bombers based in Sicily and Sardinia that were raiding Algiers every night.

Basing themselves at first at the Maison Blanche airfield outside Algiers, the Spitfire pilots of No. 154 Squadron RAF, led by New Zealander Squadron Leader Don Carlson, quickly made their name known. On 15 November Carlson shot down a Ju88 bomber. Adding this to his four victories with 74 Squadron in 1941 it made Carlson one of the first Spitfire ‘aces’ over North Africa. In their first two weeks, 154 Squadron claimed nineteen Luftwaffe bombers shot down, and nine more at least hit and damaged.

In mid-November 81 and 111 RAF Squadrons, with Spitfires, were able to move farther east to Bone, 275 miles from Algiers but only fifty miles from the Tunisian border. The Bone airfield, not much more than a landing ground, had been captured on 12 November by 300 British paratroopers, flown in by C-47 transports of the USAAF 64th Group. Next day more C-47s brought in anti-aircraft guns and fuel, which enabled the escorting P-38 Lightning fighters to land and base themselves at Bone. The airfield was very basic and under continual bombing and strafing attacks from the Luftwaffe bases at Bizerte.

For the Spitfire pilots the arrival of winter rain, together with the Spitfire Mk VC’s inferior performance to the Bf109, made the life or death struggle in the air even worse. The fight for supremacy of the skies was a tenacious struggle which would have profound consequences for the armies on the ground.

On 14 November Canadian Flying Officer Harry Fenwick of 81 Squadron RAF began a momentous five days of dogfights when he was shot up by a Bf109. Luckily, he managed a forced landing with a leg wound. On 16 November he was back in the air, first inflicting damage on a 109, only to be shot up himself again by another 109. Once more he found a way to return safely to base. The next day he made his first kill with a Macchi 202 and on 18 November his revenge was complete when he shot down a Bf109.

Although two Spitfires at any one time were required to be in constant patrol over the Bone airfield, and two more fuelled with pilots in the cockpit ready to go, not all Axis air raids could be countered. Soon after arriving at Bone on 19 November, No. 72 Squadron RAF lost eight Spitfires to a bombing and strafing attack by twelve Bf109s. On 20 November thirty Ju88s bombed Maison Blanche airfield heavily, destroying the RAF reconnaissance aircraft.

On patrol on 28 November over an Allied convoy near Algiers, Flying Officer ‘Paddy’ Chambers of 154 Squadron sighted five Italian Savoia-Marchetti SM.79 Sparviero aircraft, which were beginning a bombing run at the ships. Chambers closed with the SM.79s from behind and above. One by one he picked them off, to send four spiralling into the sea. Out of ammunition and his plane damaged, Chambers broke away. Flying Officer Alan Aikman shot down the remaining bomber, so that in this engagement both pilots reached their fifth victory and became Spitfire aces.

On 3 December, close to Tebourba and Djedeida and about twenty miles from Tunis, 78th Division was being driven back by German Panzers. Over the battle area Pilot Officer ‘Robbie’ Robertson of 72 Squadron spotted some approaching Fw190 fighter-bombers. Diving to attack them he was shot at mistakenly by an American P-38 Lightning fighter. Despite the friendly fire Robertson shot down an Fw190 for his fifth victory. His success in becoming an ace seemed to continue on 18 December when he accounted for another Bf109. Soon after on the same sortie he took a hit from a cannon shell in the cockpit.

A splinter penetrated one of Robertson’s eyes, leaving him bleeding and half-blinded. Somehow, Robertson kept control of the Spitfire to make a forced landing, but he lost the eye to finish him as a fighter pilot. Yet Robertson and the other pilots of 72 Squadron had taken a toll of the Axis air forces. In four weeks the squadron had racked up a score of twenty-one enemy aircraft destroyed, and another eight damaged or worse.

On 6 December Flying Officer Fenwick, with fellow Canadian James Waller, shared a kill of an Italian Reggiane Re.2001 Falco II fighter. Fenwick then shot down a Bf109 of his own. These two victories took both Canadians to ace status. Every sortie could end in a life or death struggle, with the incidence of death or maiming of aircrew increasing on both sides. A pilot could become an ace one day, and then be dead or invalided out on the next.

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It is a common but false perception that the Tunisian campaign was fought in the desert. In fact, the major part of the fighting took place in the mountains and valleys of northern Tunisia. Much of it was in the cold and rain of winter, and the icy winds of the Atlas Mountains. The bad weather also disrupted the Allies’ longer-range bombers, which were using airfields even farther away in Algiers.

Unaware of the enemy’s gathering strength, by 27 November leading elements of 78th Division and Blade Force had advanced down the Medjerda River valley, through the strategically placed market town of Medjez el Bab to Tebourba. They were literally within sight of Tunis, no more hills could be seen, only a flat plain less than twenty miles wide lay between them and the Tunisian capital. Major General Evelegh, the 78th Division commander, hoped to be reinforced very quickly and even had thoughts of entering Tunis on the next day.

Before noon on 28 November such thoughts were gone when 10th Panzer Division counter-attacked with some fifty tanks. Also the Luftwaffe’s near freedom of the skies at this time enabled their Stuka dive-bombers to hit troops of the spearhead 11 Brigade of 78th Division at will. As well as defending their build-up in and around Tunis, the Germans were also intent on driving the Allies back beyond Medjez. Although by 4 December the superior German armour with unchecked air support sent the Allies reeling back from Tebourba, a week of stubborn resistance by 78th Division, and the American forces, gave First Army time to withdraw, and consolidate stronger forces at Medjez el Bab.

In response to the Army’s desperate plea for urgent air support, on 4 December Wing Commander H.G. Malcolm led off ten Bisley light bombers of No. 18 Squadron RAF, in daylight without any fighter escort, to bomb a Luftwaffe airfield. They were intercepted and also outnumbered by Bf109s. The ten Bisleys, obsolete, slow and poorly armed, were all lost. It was an illustration of the many selfless efforts by Allied airmen to stem the German ground onslaught. Wing Commander Malcolm received the posthumous award of the VC.

A lack of forward airfields, and almost non-existent co-operation processes between the Army and RAF spelled disaster. That same day, 4 December, twelve other Allied aircraft were lost, five P-38 Lightnings, a Boston bomber and six Spitfires destroyed on the ground. To add to the Allies’ setbacks, on 6 December the rains came. ‘It rained for three days and three nights,’ said Cyril Ray the official historian of 78th Division. ‘There was no cover for the men and the slit trenches filled with liquid mud.’

Despite the Tebourba setback the Allies regathered in Medjez and planned another assault on Tunis. Political pressure intensified and the festive season was ignored. The offensive was to resume on the night of 23 December 1942 with a plan to capture Djebel el Ahmera, a mountainous ridge some six miles north of Medjez, known as Longstop Hill. Until it was seized nothing could move down the valley to attack Tunis.

The torrential rain swamped airfields, grounding planes. At times the mud was too heavy for even mules to move supplies. The Tunis offensive was cancelled. Even so it was decided that an attack on Longstop Hill must go ahead. During the night of 23 December and all of the next day, Christmas Eve, the Coldstream Guards and the US 18th Infantry Division fought in waves to gain Longstop’s peak. And like the ebb and flow of the tides, they first gained the summit, lost it, recaptured it, and lost it again. On Christmas morning, after the second German counter-attack, the Allies withdrew to Medjez with over 500 casualties, and another bitter, and costly defeat.

This failure to take Longstop Hill, combined with the rain and mud, brought the Allied advance to a shuddering halt. To add to that was the lack of close air support. It all meant that any further move on Tunis was impracticable. The forced back down from the plan to capture Tunis and the nearby port of Bizerte before the end of December meant that Rommel’s Panzerarmee Afrika, which was retreating across Libya to Tunisia from the pursuing Eighth Army, was likely to join up with von Arnim’s growing Fifth Panzer Army. The only option was for the Allies to build up their strength during the winter.

Air Vice Marshal Tedder knew that the Allies must first win the air war before a spring offensive on the ground could succeed. In their gamble to capture Tunis by the end of December 1942, the Allies’ lack of air superiority in Tunisia had been a major contributory factor in the failure. Or in the converse perspective, if the Allies had enjoyed air superiority, the outcome may well have been different.

The battle for air superiority also now had to be fought and won on two fronts, over Tunisia and the Libyan desert. The DAF was continually on the move in step with Eighth Army, from one isolated desert airstrip to another. While the Allies had lengthening supply lines and temporary airfields, the Axis had permanent airfields in Tunisia, Sicily and Sardinia. To undermine this advantage, air power and interdiction were seen as the key by choking off the enemy’s supply routes, whether by sea freight or air transport across the Mediterranean.

Belgian Air Force WWI

Nieuport-Delage NiD-29

The immediate successor of the SPAD fighters in the French squadrons after World War I. Although slower than the Wibault 1, it was preferred by the French for its better control harmonization and efficiency.

An answer for a 1917 fighter program, the first of three prototypes flew in 1918. Production models of the NiD-29C1 reached operational units in 1922. Five years later, 620 had been delivered to the French air force, and a total of more than 700 were produced for France until 1928. Only three saw active service, used during one month in Morocco for bombing and strafing against rebels.

The NiD-29C1 was a great export success. Spain bought 30, Belgium 109, Italy 181 (including 175 produced under license), Sweden 10 (called J2), and Argentina and Siam unknown quantities. The most important customer was Japan, with no less than 608 built as the Ko 4 between 1924 and 1932. It was the front-line fighter of the Japanese army for several years and fought during the Japanese war against China. Some Ko 4s were still used for training when Japan entered World War II. The NiD-29C1 is one of the very few aircraft whose service life spanned both world wars. In its heyday in 1924, it was considered by U. S. General Billy Mitchell to be the best pursuit plane of the high-speed diving type in the world.

Hanriot HD-1

Belgium’s Aviation Militaire, dependent on British and French sources of supply for its equipment and apparently undaunted by its unfortunate experience with Dupont’s Ponnier L.I took advantage of the French refusal to place an order for the HD-1, drawing up an initial contract for twenty aircraft in June, 1917, It was the Belgian government’s desire to have an aircraft manufacturer working directly for them, but when the first HD-1s reached Belgium on August 22, 1917, it looked as though another mistake had been made. The HD-1s were assigned to the lére Escadrille de Chasse to replace the unit’s Nieuport XXIIIs, and HD-l No.1 was offered to Jean Olieslagers, who was to be Belgium’s fifth ranking ace. Olieslagers immediately announced his preference for the Nieuport, passing the unwanted HD-1 to Andre Demeulemeester. Demeulemeester would not accept what Olieslagers had refused, and passed on the HD-1 to his new wingman, Willy Coppens, who had just joined the lére Escadrille. Coppens was delighted to exchange his old Nieuport XI (in which the standard 80 h.p. engine had been supplanted by a 110 h.p. Le Rhône) for the new Hanriot, and his report on the HD-I was highly enthusiastic. For awhile, Demeulemeester and Coppens made an odd pair, the flight commander flying a Nieuport and the wingman flying an Hanriot, but Demeulemeester and Olieslagers soon admitted that they had misjudged the HD-1, although it was with some reluctance that they adopted the new fighter in October, 1917.

The Hanriot HD-1 carried only one machine gun, and this was mounted over the port side of the nose. This arrange- ment was, in the viewpoint of the Belgian pilots, most unsatisfactory, and the HD-1s were immediately returned to the Parc de l’Aviation Militaire Belge at Beaumarais in France, where the gun was centralised on the fuselage. At the same time, the pilot’s seat was reinforced and an attempt was made to fit the fighter with a Nieuport-type tailskid. One of the HD-1s was tested with an experimental 150 h.p. Le Rhone engine, but this proved unsatisfactory. Both Demeulemeester and Coppens considered the HD-1 to be under-armed, desiring a fighter with twin machine guns. Demeulemeester actually had a pair of guns fitted to his machine, but reverted to the single gun arrangement when he found that the extra gun had an adverse effect on the HD-1 ‘s ceiling.

In view of the limited enthusiasm with which the HD-1 had been greeted upon its arrival in Belgium, the Command proposed its replacement with the Sopwith Camel at the beginning of January, 1918. The Camel, with its 130 h.p. Clerget engine, lacked the extreme maneuverability and delicacy of handling which characterised the Hanriot. Belgian pilots found that the Camel could be dangerous during aerobatics and that visibility from the cockpit left something to be desired. Thus, by the end of January, the camels were quietly transferred to the new 1léme Escadrille and the HD-1 was finally accepted as standard equipment and the 1 ére Escadrille never had cause to regret its choice.

In August, 1917, the 5éme Escadrille had received the splendid new SPAD S.XIII, but despite the tremendous reputation of this fighter and that of the redoubtable Sopwith Camel, by October, 1918, all three Belgian fighter squadrons had standardised on the nimble little Hanriot HD-1.

Willy Coppens, who had been enraptured by the little scout from the outset and was to become the Hanriot’s greatest exponent and Belgium’s leading ace, used several HD-1s until October 14, 1918, when he was hit by shrapnel while attacking an observation balloon and seriously injured in the ensuing crash landing. Initially he flew HD-1 No.1, but from October 26, 1917, he flew HD-1 No.9, which had the centrally-mounted machine gun. When that aircraft was damaged on January 19, 1918, he exchanged it for No.17, which he later fitted with a 0.303-in. Vickers gun, and on May 3, 1918, he received yet another Hanriot, the HD-1 No.24. In addition to this aircraft, Coppens flew Nos. 6 and 23, the latter having a Lanser fireproof fuel tank which was a personal gift of Rene Hanriot. His last HD-I was No.45,which had two 0.303-in. Vickers guns.

In all, seventy-nine HD-1s were built for Belgium, and some of these were still flying in 1926 with the 7éme Escadrille de # Chasse at Nivelles, alongside the Nieuport 29C.1 fighters fitted with 300 h.p. Hispano-Suiza engines

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Belgium’s small size, limited resources and intention to remain neutral in any conflict, all led to meagre beginnings for the Belgian Air Service – the Aviation Militaire Belge (AMB). Despite this, King Albert was very air minded, and although never a pilot himself, he was flown several times over the lines during the course of the war, although occasionally the pilot responsible had to pretend to misunderstand his requests to go deeper into German Occupied territory!

It was King Albert who had encouraged the setting up of the Military Aviation School in 1911, although its original establishment stood at just five pilots, two mechanics and one carpenter, but no aircraft. And it was the King who presented the school with its first aircraft, when he handed over to them a machine which had been given to him as a gift by Baron de Caters.

Perhaps it is natural that any small organization will have its share of individualists, and the AMB seems to have had more than its fair share of innovators. In September 1912, Belgium became the first European country to fit a machine gun to an aeroplane and fire at a ground target (a sheet). The same crew travelled to England in November to repeat the demonstration at Hendon, then at Aldershot, for the benefit of the British Army. Their favourable reception contrasted with the original demonstration in Belgium when they had been castigated for damaging the sheet!

By 1914, there had been some expansion, as four squadrons existed. This increase was not as great as it might seem, however, as each squadron numbered just four Henri Farmans, flown by five pilots and six observers. Ground equipment consisted of five lorries, one for each squadron and another used as a workshop. So at the outbreak of the war, the AMB was nothing if not compact and highly mobile.

Belgium had a small aircraft factory which after the occupation became the Military Workshop or depot in Calais. As a result throughout the war the AMB was reliant on the French, and, to a lesser extent, on the British to provide its machines. As a result it tended to be given surplus and obsolescent aircraft by its allies, which makes the achievements of its aces all the more remarkable.

The aircraft supply situation was not helped either by the weather. Most of the AMB’s aircraft were destroyed on the ground by a violent storm on 13 September 1914, and every one of its aircraft was lost in a hurricane on 28 December. On a day to day basis the weather along the coast was perhaps the worst anywhere on the Western Front, and between February 1915 and November 1918 on 432 out of 1380 days the weather was too bad for any operations to take place at all.

For reasons of limited range and patriotism, most of the operations of the AMB were conducted from airfields squeezed into the small portion of Belgium still unoccupied by the Germans. The natural aggression of the pilots, trying to avenge the invasion of their country, had to be tempered with their being such a small number of them that the loss of just one or two would cause significant difference to the crew establishment. The prevailing westerly winds, the bane of Allied pilots, drifted any combat eastwards deeper behind German lines, so prolonged combats were not encouraged. And even if combats were successful, unless the German aircraft came down in Allied territory, or near enough to the front lines to be observed by Allied troops, victory claims were hard to establish.

In February 1916 the first dedicated fighter squadron was formed when Escadrille I became the 1ère Escadrille de Chasse equipped with French Nieuport scouts. However, aeroplanes were never numerous and in January 1917 the AMB only had thirty-nine machines available. They eventually received more modern equipment from their allies, such as Spads and Sopwith Camels but they were in small numbers. By March 1918 the AMB had increased to twelve escadrilles of which one was a maintenance unit and another operated seaplanes. One of the escadrilles, though, still had Farmans, which had been condemned as operationally obsolete by the British in 1915.

One complication for those personnel operating from the airfield at Houthem was that squeezed into the same tiny village were the Belgian royal family, and the headquarters of the Belgian army. So every move was made under the gaze of the highest echelons of the powers-that-be.

A further by-product of the AMB’s small size was that it often fought alongside units belonging to its Allies, most commonly squadrons of the RNAS. But this in itself could be a mixed blessing as 4 Naval, perhaps the most active unit in Flanders, on more than one occasion attacked Belgian aircraft and forced them down. Fortunately, no Belgian fighter pilots were seriously wounded during these encounters.

Though small the AMB was an efficient and effective force and produced a number of aces, including Willy Coppens, who was the highest scoring kite balloon ace of any nation. Their skill flying obsolescent machines is demonstrated by the fact that all their aces survived the war.

Houthem Aerodrome

After their occupation by the Germans the Belgians were left with just a tiny corner of their country. For nearly four years the village of Houthem became the capital of free Belgium and as such was a heaving scene of activity. The headquarters of the Belgian army was on the edge of the aerodrome and King Albert and the royal family lived nearby. The front line was only seventeen kilometres to the east and the French border three kilometres to the west.

Following the end of the ‘Race to the Sea’ towards the end of 1914, the front line remained in virtually the same place in the few miles near the coast until the final advance to victory in 1918. As a result the squadrons of the AMB tended to remain at the same airfields through the course of the war, not being moved about by the ebb and flow of the war. It was only during the ‘last hundred days’ that it was able to help in the final advance of the Allies, commanded in Belgium by King Albert who had been so instrumental in encouraging its formation just a few years before.

The fact the aerodrome was so close to the French frontier was a bonus as the Belgians would take a big-bellied Farman F40 to the French aerodrome at Hondschoote and load up with crates of alcohol for the squadron, which was in contravention of orders from High Command!

The initial aerodromes employed by the AMB once the front line had stabilised were Coxyde/Furnes (page 123) where I, II and III Escadrilles were based, and Houthem where the IV and V Escadrilles were established. There was also a seaplane unit at Calais.

Willy Coppens, Belgium’s highest scoring ace, after completing his pilot training at Étampes, in early 1916 was posted to 6me Escadrille at Houthem where he was to fly the Royal Aircraft Factory BE2c. He described his arrival in his book Days on the Wing:

Leaving my kit in the station, I climbed on to a lorry proceeding in the direction of Houthem. Travelling thus, I covered that long, straight road, bordered on either side by willow trees, past an endless succession of low-lying meadows, separated by endless dykes. My lorry deposited me at some distance from the village. A very severe spell of weather had set in, and the country was deep in snow. It was bitterly cold. I stepped out briskly, glowing inwardly with ambition and hope, and at last certain of the immediate future – even though I was not on my way to a Fighter Squadron.

As night drew in and I approached Houthem, the village stood out in dim silhouette against the dark wintry sky – the low-built houses, following the main street in its Z-shaped course past the church, just visible on my right, and, beyond, the windmill, with its sails outstretched in a broad cross above the mound it stood on, and the yellow shafts of light escaping through the rifts in the doors and the shuttered windows. Dark shadows lay on the snow, and my feet sank at every step and made no sound.

At Houthem I lived in a cosy little room in the village that I had decorated with brightly-coloured cretonne. I had naturally tapped the electric current serving our G.H.Q., and my quarters were exceedingly comfortable. Even so, I was later to grow much fonder of my little room at Les Moëres, by the side of the aerodrome. An aviator must live in the shadow of his shed to enjoy life and get the best out of his calling. The dispersal of the pilots at Houthem was fatal to the corporate spirit, and as a result the Squadron was divided against itself. The squadrons at Les Moëres possessed much more esprit de corps.

At Houthem, almost all the officers of the Squadron – therefore too many – shared a common mess, a vast, unattractive hall. A small minority lived in the junior mess, also known as the Potinière, which was established in a wooden building on the other side of the village.

Belgian General Headquarters had established themselves at Houthem, wishing in their innocence to have an aerodrome close by for their defence. They showed less keenness for this defence when the Germans came across and bombed the aerodrome, and I know of many pilots who were subsequently able to gain possession of the best rooms in the village…

At conference time, Houthem was as animated as an anthill; the High Street was full of cars and officers greeted one another cheerily. But it did not last long, and as soon as the meeting was over, the village relapsed into slumber. The flying men were all in their various messes, and all was quiet save for an occasional outburst following some high-spirited ‘rag’. The G.H.Q. officers, although more numerous, were conscious of their position, and therefore made less noise. They never came near us. They were divided according to their rank, into three messes, one for the juniors, one for the officers of Field rank, and the third for General Officers. Their colleagues in the army called these messes the ‘Hospital’, the ‘Asylum’, and the ‘Mortuary’.

In April 1917 Coppens was transferred to the 4me Escadrille, also based at Houthem and still flying two-seater reconnaissance machines. While here he was able to fly the Nieuport scout which belonged to Commandant Hagemans, the commander of the centre at Houthem.

On 15 July 1917 Coppens realised his ambition to become a fighter pilot when he was posted to 1ère Escadrille based at Les Moëres. They were commanded by Commandant Fernand Jacquet and operated Nieuport scouts.

Les Moëres Aerodrome

This aerodrome is associated with the formation of the Belgian Groupe de Chasse and Belgium’s greatest fighter pilot, Willy Coppens. He claimed all of his thirty-seven victories while based here.

The site of Les Moëres was taken over when the aerodrome at Furnes became untenable due to shelling by heavy calibre German guns.

Coppens described the aerodrome:

From the point of view of an aerodrome, the place was far from being ideal as it stood, and a considerable amount of work was necessary to reclaim the marshy land, on which the squadron had made its home, before it was really fit for use. This flat country is criss-crossed by ruler-straight roads, intersecting at right-angles. These roads are lined with gaunt willow-trees whose grizzled, long-haired heads frown sullenly across the low-lying landscape, and are separated from the fields that lie alongside them by dykes that are both wide and deep.

A road, identical with every other road, leading to two isolated farms in Les Moëres, finished up at one corner of the aerodrome. Here, away from all traffic, the green canvas sheds and the various buildings housing the squadron had been erected. The first wooden hut one reached sheltered the mess, and next to this stood another, which was partitioned off into ten cubicles occupied by ten pilots, with a hall in the centre. Additional living accommodation was provided by two large aeroplane-cases (originally used for the transport of Sopwith two-seaters), each the size of a railway-carriage, and each subdivided into three little cubicles opening direct on to the aerodrome. These cases and huts stood in line, in the shade of a row of willows, alongside a dyke, where the wind, bringing with it the fragrance of the dunes, used to come and sigh among the reeds.

The mess had six windows. In front of each of these was arranged a table to seat four, giving the whole the appearance of a dining car. Chairs of light oak upholstered in green velvet, found in an abandoned villa at Coxyde, added to our comfort, and a piano, at which André De Meulemeester sat for hours at a stretch – for De Meulemeester was a born pianist of very great skill – lent a note of gaiety that was greatly appreciated.

The Groupe de Chasse

In March 1918 there was a reorganization of the AMB, when a dedicated fighter wing was formed. Prior to this, fighter pilots were called out to escort two-seater machines, or for offensive patrols at the request of a ground unit or at the individual pilot’s initiative.

Despite the rigid Belgian army policy of promotion by seniority, King Albert insisted that Fernand Jacquet became the commanding officer over the heads of more senior officers. His confidence was well-rewarded as Jacquet welded it into an effective force, although limited in numbers and still operating a number of types that were obsolescent.

A little of tradition was lost in this reorganisation, as the 1ère Escadrille became the 9me, the 5me Escadrille was re-numbered the 10me and a new unit, the 11me, was formed. The Groupe de Chasse established itself on Les Moëres. Nominally the 9me operated the Hanriot HD1, the 10me the Spad and the 11me the Camel.

Willy Coppens and the Hanriot

Born on 6 July 1892 at Watermaal-Bosvoorde, near Brussels, Willy Omer François Jean Coppens started the war with the 1ère Regiment Grenadiers. Like a number of Belgian aviators, he learned to fly in the UK and received his Royal Aeronautical Club certificate, No. 2140, on 9 December 1915. Following further training at the Belgian Aviation School at Étampes he joined 6me Escadrille in April 1917. Initially he flew Nieuport scouts in the 1ère Escadrille but shortly a new type of machine arrived. Coppens again:

I was present when the first Hanriots came, and on this occasion I can assert that the Squadron very nearly refused them, as I believe it had refused the Spads.

André de Meulemeester had the first and declined to keep it. He therefore handed it over to Olieslagers, who declined to keep that which De Meulemeester had no use for. And so on, and I, being about the last to have joined the squadron, finally had it offered to me. I fell in love with the Hanriot at first sight. It was light as a feather on the controls, and the pilot had a wonderfully clear field of vision.

The Hanriot was extremely easy to handle and pleasant to fly. It was strong in spite of its apparent fragility, and was faster and climbed better than the Nieuport.

The HD1 was designed by Emile Eugène Dupont for René Hanriot’s company in the summer of 1916. Proof tests were carried out on it in January 1917. Unfortunately, though it was a good design, the excellent Spad was just coming into large scale production. Also the Hanriot employed the same engine as the Nieuport scout, which the French were trying to replace, and was not enough of an improvement over the Nieuport to warrant production for the French air service. However, it was tested by the Italians who adopted it as the principal replacement for their Nieuports. A total of 1,700 served with the Italian air service, of which about half were built in Italy under licence.

The Belgians ordered 125 HD1s, the first being delivered on 22 August 1917. The enthusiasm Coppens displayed for the type eventually persuaded the doubters, and the 1ère Escadrille was fully equipped with them. The Hanriot would soldier on into the mid-1920s with both the Italians and Belgians.

On 22 August 1917 Coppens became the first Belgian to fly a Hanriot on an operational sortie. During the latter part of the year he made three claims but they were unconfirmed. On 25 April 1918 he obtained his first confirmed victory, when he shot down a two-seater, which crashed near Ramscapelle. The great disadvantage with the Hanriot was that it was only fitted with one fixed Vickers machine gun. Coppens was able to obtain twenty rounds of incendiary ammunition and on 8 May he attacked a German observation balloon and brought it down. This was the first kite balloon shot down by a Belgian pilot. Just under two hours later he brought another down in flames. After each of his victories, in his enthusiasm, he gave an impromptu aerobatic display, much to the enjoyment of the Belgian frontline troops.

From this moment Coppens specialised in attacking observation balloons. These were difficult and dangerous targets and many pilots avoided them. On 22 July he shot down three when he had been poaching on the British part of the front. This was frowned upon by Belgian General Headquarters but a reprimand was avoided when the British awarded him a Military Cross for the feat! By the first week in October 1918 Coppens had claimed 33 balloons and become the most successful ‘balloon buster’ of any nation.

On the morning of 14 October he took off with Etienne Hage to destroy a balloon near Vladslo. Coppens again:

I soon caught sight of the Thourout kite-balloon, ‘flying’ at about 1,800 feet, and at the same time I saw another at 2,100 feet, over Praet-Bosch. The latter balloon was the higher, and would therefore require to be attacked after the first – which would have to be taken by surprise, as quickly as possible, before it was pulled down too far.

At 6 a.m., I fired four rounds into the Praet-Bosch balloon now at a height of 2,400 feet, and the envelope began to burn.

Etienne Hage failed to see the flames, and instead of following me, went back to the balloon, while the ground defences fired at us for all they were worth, and the Thourout balloon, warned, started to go down.

Turning back towards Thourout, and flying – so far unscathed – through that maelstrom of incendiary projectiles from the ‘onion’ batteries below, I pondered on my chances of getting through.

At 6.5 a.m., I sailed in to open fire on the Thourout balloon, now hauled down to 900 feet, and in addition to the bursting of the shells, I heard the vicious bark of the small-calibre machine guns. I was 450 feet away, when I felt a terrible blow on the left leg.

An incendiary bullet, after passing through the thin planking of the floor, had struck my shin-bone, smashing everything in its passage and inflicting a wound all the more painful for the fact that the bullet, being hollow, had flattened, becoming in effect a ‘dum-dum’ bullet. The muscles were torn apart, the bone shattered, and the artery cut in half.

Because of the shock and pain Coppen’s right leg went rigid, pushing the rudder bar, which caused the machine to yaw and enter a spin. At the same time his hand involuntarily clutched the trigger control, firing his machine-gun and hosing the bullets in all directions, a few hitting the balloon and setting it on fire. Fortunately his rudder bar had a foot strap at either end, so he was able to control it using only his undamaged right foot. He turned for the safety of the Belgian front line.

A sweat on my forehead made me snatch down my goggles, so that they remained hanging round my neck, and pull off my fur-lined cap. I had done all my flying at the front with this cap, and nothing would have parted me from it; with an effort, I stuffed it under my coat. On the other hand, I tore off and shed my silk muffler protecting my face from the cold. I wanted air, ice-cold air, to bathe my face and keep me from fainting.

Crossing the lines Coppens put his machine down in a small field by the side of a road, where the weakened undercarriage collapsed. He was quickly removed from his Hanriot and transferred to the hospital at La Panne, where he was operated on. For several days he suffered from terrible pain and fever. King Albert visited him twice and on the second visit insisted that the doctors amputate Coppens’ leg in order to save his life. While in hospital the Armistice was signed and he was transferred to hospital in Brussels, until finally discharged in July 1919.

As befitted his position as Belgium’s most successful fighter pilot he was heavily decorated, being made an Officier de l’Ordre de Leopold, an Officier de l’Ordre de la Couronne and received the Croix de Guerre with twenty-seven palms and thirteen Lion Vermeils, plus twenty-eight citations. In addition he received the British DSO and the Serbian Order of the White Eagle. After the war he became a Baron and was persuaded by King Albert to remain in the army. This was a decision he came to regret, as he spent most of his years as a military attaché in Italy, France, Switzerland and Great Britain, receiving little promotion. He left the army in 1940, still only a major. During the Second World War he lived in Switzerland, organising resistance work, but in the late 1960s returned to Belgium. For the last five years of his life he resided with the only daughter of Jan Olieslagers, Belgium’s fifth most successful fighter pilot of the Great War, until his death on 21 December 1986.

Furnes/Coxyde Aerodrome

With the fall of Antwerp, four of the five Belgian escadrilles moved to Ostend on 4 October 1914. A week later all five evacuated to St-Pol-sur-Mer but on the 17th I Escadrille moved forward to the aerodrome at Coxyde (or Furnes as it was known to the British). They were shortly joined by Escadrilles II and III. Initial equipment consisted of a mixture of Maurice Farmans and Voisin pushers. Being so close to the front line, the aerodrome was a target for the batteries of heavy guns established by the Germans along the North Sea coast.