Grand Harbour, Malta. Furthest away is the Royal Navy’s aircraft carrier HMS Victorious (R38). In the centre, steaming right to left, is the Italian Navy’s guided missile destroyer Intrepido (D571). In the foreground is a U.S. Navy Casa Grande-class dock landing ship..

The Royal Navy was the only fleet other than the United States Navy that operated a carrier force immediately after World War II. With six fleet carriers and six light carriers in commission in December 1945 it possessed a much smaller force than the United States Navy. It also had a large wartime carrier construction program that was as yet incomplete. Although much of this program was cancelled with the war’s end, the Admiralty decided to continue building many of the unfinished carriers, ultimately completing two further fleet carriers and twelve light carriers, although many of the light carriers quickly transferred to the service of other navies both within the Commonwealth and elsewhere.

The problems associated with jet aircraft operation loomed large in the Royal Navy, especially because its carriers were smaller than those of the United States Navy, exacerbating the difficulties. Solutions were found in the steam catapult, angled flight deck, and mirror landing aid, but on the way a number of more radical options were explored, including landing aircraft without undercarriages on flexible rubber decks, which was tested on the light carrier Warrior in 1948. Steam catapult trials took place aboard the Perseus beginning in 1951 and the angle deck concept was tested aboard the Triumph the following year.

The only large carriers to enter Royal Navy service after World War II were the Eagle and the Ark Royal, the two carriers of the Audacious class at the most advanced stage of construction at war’s end. As de- signed, they essentially were substantially enlarged versions of the Implacable class. The Eagle, when completed in 1951, did not differ substantially from the original design but the Ark Royal commissioned in 1955 with a 5-1/2-degree angled deck, steam catapults, a mirror landing aid, and a deck edge elevator on the port side, which did not prove very satisfactory since it served only the upper hangar. The Eagle refitted in 1954-1955 to a similar standard but without the steam catapults or deck-edge lift and then underwent a major re- construction from 1959 to 1964, emerging as the Royal Navy’s most modern carrier with an 8-1/2-degree angled deck, steam catapults, an advanced radar suite, upgraded machinery and auxiliary systems, and an all-missile antiaircraft battery. The Ark Royal, too, underwent modernization refits in the early 1960s and again later in the decade, though it never quite matched its sister’s standard of equipment.

Unlike the United States Navy, the Royal Navy did not embark on a wholesale reconstruction program for its wartime carriers to make them suitable for jet aircraft operation. Only one ship, the Victorious, was reconstructed. The project amounted to a virtual rebuild, since the hull was lengthened, widened, and deepened, the machinery replaced, the flight deck rebuilt with an 8-degree angled landing zone, steam catapults, and a mirror landing aid, the superstructure replaced, and a modern radar suite installed. This seven-year project proved so expensive that plans for reconstructing the other five wartime carriers were abandoned and the Victorious remained a prototype.

The Royal Navy found its light carriers very suitable for peace- time operation. They were economical, both in terms of operating costs and as far as crew requirements were concerned, and proved most appropriate for service policing the still extensive British Empire. In the mid-1950s the first generation of light carriers gave way to newer ships of the Centaur class that had been laid down late in World War II and were completed over an extended period to an improved design with an angled flight deck and, via a refit in the late 1950s, steam catapults and mirror landing aids. By the 1960s, how- ever, these light carriers were too small to operate an adequate air group of large modern aircraft and two, the Bulwark and the Albion, became helicopter assault ships. The final ship of the class to complete, the Hermes, was very different from its sisters. It had a bigger angled flight deck, more powerful steam catapults, a much updated radar suite, and a deck edge elevator to port. The Hermes, too, transferred to assault duties in 1971, became an antisubmarine warfare ship in 1977, and then was refitted to operate Sea Harrier VSTOL aircraft, using a ski-jump ramp at the forward end of the flight deck to launch these aircraft.

In 1959 the Admiralty began planning for new carriers since the late war generation of ships that formed the carrier force would need replacing by the early 1970s. This process took place in a rather unfavorable climate: there were very stringent fiscal constraints from the Treasury, the Royal Air Force was opposed to the emergence of a powerful attack carrier, and there was strong political pressure to minimize the carrier’s size. These constraints forced some unusual approaches to the design of what became known as CVA-01. The flight deck was offset to port and incorporated only a shallow angle for the landing area. There was a wide passageway to starboard outside the island to allow movement of aircraft without interfering with the deck park. The hangar had an opening at its after end to allow aircraft to run up their engines inside the hangar. Two elevators (of a novel “scissors” type) linked the hangar to the flight deck, which carried two steam catapults and had water-spray cooled arresting gear. The power plant was sufficient only for 28 knots and used a three-shaft arrangement, similar to that seen in the Illustrious class of 1940.

Displacement: 53,000 tons (standard), 63,000 tons (full load)

Dimensions: 925’0″ (oa) x 122’0″ x 32’0″ (full load)

Flight deck: 884’0″ x 184’0″

Machinery: Geared turbines, 6 Foster-Wheeler boilers, 4 shafts, 135,000 shp = 28 knots

Aircraft: 45

Armament: 1 twin Sea Dart SAM launcher, 2 quadruple Sea Cat SAM launchers.

Complement: 3,230

Detail design work began in July 1963 but the entire project was cancelled in February 1966 when Secretary of Defence Denis Healey’s Defence Review determined that the Royal Navy should give up its fixed wing carriers and transfer the aircraft to the Royal Air Force. This decision not only ended plans for new carriers (two were envisaged) but also led to a rapid run down of existing carrier strength.

The Royal Navy continued to require a seaborne aviation capability and, in 1967, began design work on a helicopter-carrying com- mand cruiser using a gas turbine power plant. This was essentially an updated version of the Tiger class cruisers with missile and gun armaments forward and hangar and flight deck facilities for helicopters aft. It soon became apparent that a more efficient vessel would result from moving the superstructure to the starboard side and constructing a through flight deck from end to end of the ship over greatly enlarged hangar and workshop spaces. The design of the resulting through-deck cruiser was unusual in its capacious internal volume, a result of extensive use of alloys for construction and the elimination of most armor protection. This large internal volume al- lowed the incorporation of extensive modularity into the arrangements of machinery and workshop spaces. Almost all machinery and auxiliary equipment was designed to be maintained on an exchange basis, with modules being removed for repair and maintenance and replaced by new units. The modular arrangement of workshops also allowed great flexibility in operation, since new workshop blocks could be embarked to suit different air groups.

The through deck cruiser received an additional boost with the advent of effective VSTOL fighters in the form of Sea Harriers. Operations with these aircraft did not require catapults and, as a result of experiments at the Royal Aircraft Establishment in Farnborough, the design also received a 7-degree ski lift jump at the forward end of the flight deck, which allowed launching Sea Harriers with a short takeoff run with much heavier payloads. Just as these ships entered service they were officially reclassified as support carriers, and proved very useful in operations in the South Atlantic, Adriatic, and Persian Gulf.

In July 1998 the Defence Review included provision for the addition of two conventional aircraft carriers to the Royal Navy. Details of the design are still unclear but best estimates are that the new carrier will be 945 feet long with a beam of 125 feet and a flight deck width, depending on whether it features an angled deck or not, of 210 or 270 feet. The power plant is to be four Rolls-Royce WR21 intercooled recuperative gas turbines driving shaft-mounted electric generators for both ship propulsion and service power. At present, the navy anticipates operating an air group primarily of American F- 35 Joint Strike Fighters along with large antisubmarine helicopters as yet undefined Maritime Airborne Surveillance and Control plat- forms, for a total of about forty-eight aircraft. This air group would not require catapults or arresting gear but provision for this equipment is to be incorporated and a contract has been assigned for de- sign of a novel electromagnetic drive catapult. These two 60,000- ton ships are programmed to enter service between 2012 and 2015.

Although the Royal Navy’s aircraft carriers were equipped with reasonably modern aircraft, it was not until the early 1960s that they deployed an effective strike aircraft, the Buccaneer. This was a reflection of the primary mission of British carriers in the early Cold War era, imperial policing. By 1966, as Britain’s imperial commitments contracted, it was clear that its finances would not allow the deployment of large attack carriers analogous to those of the United States Navy, not least because of the costs entailed for their air groups. The primary roles of British carriers became operations in the littoral and antisubmarine warfare, requiring rather different vessels. The Royal Navy’s adoption of VSTOL technology endowed its carriers with greater flexibility and operational effectiveness within the limits of its mission profiles so, despite the British origins of the angle flight deck, steam catapults, and mirror landing aids, its new Cold War-era carrier designs have been somewhat outside the mainstream represented by the big American ships.



On 5 October 1914, French Corporal Louis Quénault downed a German Aviatik while firing a Hotchkiss gun from the observer’s seat in a Voisin III pusher piloted by Sergeant Joseph Frantz.

October 5, 1914, Sergeant Joseph Frantz (born in 1890, died in Paris in 1979) and his mechanic Louis Quénault (dates unknown), were attached to flotilla V 24. Flying a Voisin Type 3 biplane, they fired on a German Aviatik with a Hotchkiss machine gun. It was being piloted by Sergeant Wilhelm Schlichting with Lieutenant Fritz von Zangen as his observer. They were engaged in a reconnaissance mission close to Jonchéry on Vesle. After they exhausted the ammunition for the machine gun, they found themselves being fired upon by the German observer with his rifle. Sergeant Quénault responded with his own rifle and one of the shots hit the pilot. The plane, out of control, crashed to the earth and was destroyed. This event marked the first confirmed air victory of the First World War, and indeed in History at the same time.

There had been occasional exchanges of shots between the pilots of planes during the first weeks of the conflict, but Frantz and Quénault are credited with being the first aviators to shoot down an enemy plane.

Following this event, and in light of the subsequent victories which followed, the French high-command became aware of the new role which aviation could play when units specialized not only in observation and bombardment, were fitted with armament suitable for battle between planes in the air.

At the very start of the war French Voisin and Farman pushers shared the skies over the Western Front with tractor reconnaissance aeroplanes such as the British BE 2 and the German Albatros B II. Then in late August 1914 some airmen decided to stop sharing and start shooting.

The quest for control of the skies was initially pursued in one of three ways – mounting a machine gun to fire above or around the propeller; devising a means of synchronising the weapon with the engine so it only fired when the prop was not in the way; and literally avoiding the problem by putting the engine behind the machine gun. The last, seemingly simplest, method lent the pusher aeroplane a renewed martial validity. Indeed, it led to a series of Allied pusher fighters that were able to hold their own against their German counterparts – including the Fokker Eindeckers, with their synchronised machine guns – until 1917, when the gap in performance between them and their tractor-engined counterparts became indisputably hopeless.

Until then, pushers made history. The first destruction of an aeroplane in air-to-air combat using firearms was achieved from the nacelle of a French Voisin 3LA on 5 October 1914. Belgium’s first ace scored his first five victories in two-seat pushers. Britain’s first production fighter, the Vickers FB 5 Gunbus, earned one of its pilots a Victoria Cross (VC), and made such an impression in 1915 that when in doubt the Germans referred to nearly every British pusher they encountered as a ‘Vickers’.

In mid-1916 Maj Lanoe G Hawker’s No 24 Sqn, with its Airco DH 2s, became the first single-seat fighter unit in the Royal Flying Corps (RFC). DH 2s were involved, directly or indirectly, in the deaths of pioneer German aces Otto Parschau and Oswald Boelcke, and of Staffelführer Stefan Kirmaier – and, on the debit side, in the rise of his most famous protégé, the future ‘Red Baron’ Manfred von Richthofen. One DH 2 pilot, Lionel W B Rees of No 32 Sqn, also earned the VC.

The most successful pushers of them all, however, were large two-seaters built by the Royal Aircraft Factory – the FE 2b and FE 2d. Even as late as mid-1917, their crews were demonstrating how deceptive their ungainly appearance was, with exploits that included the valour that earned Fit Sgt Thomas Mottershead a posthumous VC. Moreover, ‘Fees’ were credited with killing German aces Hans Berr, Max Immelmann, Gustav Leffers, Karl-Emil Schafer, Kurt Schneider, Alfred Ulmer and Ernst Wiessner, and with wounding the ‘Red Baron’ himself.

Advanced Air Striking Force in France

Hawker Hurricane Mark Is of No. 73 Squadron RAF, based at Rouvres, France.

The day before Britain declared war on the 3rd of September the Advanced Air Striking Force was dispatched to France, in it were ten squadrons of Fairey Battles. During the Phoney War one of the missions that the Battle undertook was photo reconnaissance. For these missions three aircraft would take off, conduct their mission and return.

Throughout the autumn and winter of 1939 and the spring of 1940, activity on the Western Front was largely limited to the interception of enemy reconnaissance aircraft. Flying Officer W.O. ‘Boy’ Mould of No. 1 Squadron drew first blood for the RAF, downing a Dornier Do 17 over his own airfield on 30 October. Flying Officer E.J. ‘Cobber’ Kain shot down another on 8 November, opening what was to be an impressive score. This first engagement took place at 27,000ft and marked the highest air combat recorded to that date. On 23 November, Kain downed another Do 17 and on that same day No. 73 Squadron accounted for three Do 17s, while No. 1 Squadron bagged a pair of Heinkel He 111s. The tempo of air fighting increased in March 1940, giving Kain the chance to become the RAF’s first ‘ace’ of World War II, downing a single Bf 109 on 3 March, followed by two more on 26 March.

While Nos 1 and 73 Squadrons served with the Advanced Air Striking Force in France, and Nos 85 and 87 with the BEF’s Air Component, Fighter Command units in the UK were also getting to grips with the enemy. Nos 43, 111 and 605 Squadrons in particular saw action against German bombers and reconnaissance aircraft attempting to attack Scapa Flow, several Hurricane pilots opening their scores with Dornier Do 17s and Heinkel He IIIs.

The period of genteel jousting over the French borders came to an end on 10 May 1940, when Hitler revealed his strategy for avoiding a frontal assault on France’s heavily fortified frontier. He attacked through the Netherlands and Belgium, ignoring the neutral status of the two countries. The Netherlands fell after only four days, its air force being virtually annihilated on the ground, while Belgium lasted little longer. The supposedly impregnable Fort Eben Emael fell to a glider-borne assault force, cracking open the entire Belgian defences.

The Germans captured the key crossings of the Albert Canal and this allowed the Wehrmacht to continue its advance. The German forces involved in the offensive (136 Divisions) were actually smaller than those of the combined British, French, Belgian and Dutch armies which faced them. Yet they were better equipped, considerably more mobile, with more and better armour and artillery, and the advantage of surprise and well-rehearsed plans. Crucially, the German forces on the ground were supported by a bigger, experienced and well-equipped air force, and operated under a unified command structure. Germany fielded 3824 warplanes for the attack on France, including 860 Messerschmitt Bf 109s, 350 Bf 110s, 380 dive bombers, 1300 bombers, 300 long-range reconnaissance and 340 short-range reconnaissance aircraft. This represented massive superiority, with the Bf 110s alone outnumbering the combined strengths of the Belgian and Dutch air forces, and with Germany fielding more Bf 109s than the entire frontline strength of the French Armee de l’Air.

Quite apart from the situation at the front, France was in deep trouble. A pervading pessimism (verging on defeatism) permeated government, the populace and the armed forces. As if this were not bad enough, the armed forces were equipped with obsolete and inadequate weapons, a direct result of the rampant corruption of the recent years. During the immediate pre-war period a favoured furniture manufacturer had been given the contract to build an all-metal aircraft, for example, while a paint-maker had gained the contract for parachutes. The newly-nationalised aircraft industry was in chaos, and modern aircraft ready to enter service failed to reach the front in time to make any real difference. Crippling shortages of spare parts and modern servicing equipment further eroded preparedness, while ill-trained aircrew received little direction from a General Staff which had no real grasp of strategy or modern tactics, and lacked a modern reporting system. Small wonder then that the French air force ‘Shattered into a thousand pieces at the first blow’. Thus the small (but highly professional) British force in France was of disproportionate value.

Britain’s BEF under Lord Gort had moved forward into Belgium as the German offensive began, forming part of a defensive chain stretching between the Meuse, N amur and Antwerp. But any chain is only as good as its weakest link, and when the retreating Belgian Army failed to fill the gap between the BEF and the French. Seventh Army, von Rundstedt broke through on 13 May. This cut off the BEF and the Seventh Army from the rest of France, and marked the beginning of the end.

Before the breakthrough, the RAF had eight Hurricane squadrons in France, with Nos 3, 79,501 and 504 Squadrons reinforcing the BEF’s Air Component from 10 and 11 May. These were reinforced by No. 11 Group squadrons flying patrols from their English bases. On 13 May, pilots from home-based squadrons were sent to reinforce the French-based units. No. 3 Squadron received pilots from Nos 32, 56 and 253 Squadrons, No. 85 from Nos 145 and 213, No. 607 from Nos 151,242, and 245, and No. 615 Squadron from Nos 151,229 and 601 Squadrons.

In one week from 10 May, no less than 27 Hurricane pilots became aces, while during the entire Battle of France up until 21 May, Hurricane pilots claimed 499 kills. Some 299 of these were subsequently confirmed as falling to RAF fighters by a post-war study of German records. The battle as a whole produced 41 RAF fighter aces. This was a remarkable achievement, and one accomplished despite the RAF’s continuing reliance on discredited tactics, and despite the fact that many of the aircraft involved were early Mark I Hurricanes, with two-bladed wooden propellers. It would be a mistake, however, to regard the Battle of France as having been fought by the Hurricane alone. British fighters based in France formed only a small proportion of the overall Fighter Command effort, and the Spitfire also played a major role, albeit while operating from airfields in southern· England. Even the Defiant had a part to play No. 264 Squadron actually amassed a tally of 65 victories by 31 May, and accounted for 17 Bf 109s and 11 Ju 87s and Ju 88s in a single day. But the undoubted achievements of the RAF fighters in France were quite naturally over-shadowed by the terrible losses suffered by the Battle and Blenheim light bombers, and, of course, by the fact that the campaign ended in humiliating defeat.

Many called for greater efforts, and pushed for the despatch of further squadrons to France to try and stem the German advance. ‘Where’, asked some, ‘were the Spitfires?’ Air Marshall Sir John Slessor, for example, pointed out that ‘500 or 600 good short-range fighters sitting in England’ would be unable to influence the course of a war which would effect Britain’s future. ‘Our quite natural and proper obsession’ with the danger of a knock-out blow in France, he thought, was leading to an over-insular outlook. Defeat in France would, after all, inevitably increase pressure on Britain, and the battle to save England was effectively already being fought over Belgium and France.

Churchill and his war cabinet were quite ready to respond to French Premier Reynaud’s appeals for more fighters, but Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding objected in the most forceful manner. On 16 May he reminded the Air Council that it had been agreed that a force of 52 Squadrons was felt necessary to defend Britain against even unescorted raids from the East (let alone raids launched simultaneously from France and the Low Countries, and escorted by single-engined fighters based on the French coast). He pointed out that he was now down to only 36 Squadrons, having lost the equivalent of ten units to the French campaign within the last few days.

In a remarkably candid letter he advised Churchill that ‘if the home defence force is drained away in desperate attempts to remedy the situation in France, defeat in France will involve the final, complete and irremediable defeat of this country… I believe that, if an adequate fighter force is kept in this country, if the Fleet remains in being, and if home forces are suitably organised to resist invasion we should be able to carry on the war single handed for some time, if not indefinitely.’ Privately, Dowding worried that the ‘Hurricane tap is now full on’, and that his Command was in real danger of being. ‘bled white’.

As a result of Dowding’s timely intervention, plans to send yet more whole squadrons to France were put on hold, though aircraft and pilots continued to be sent out piecemeal as replacements. Fighter Command also formed three composite squadrons (later six) from single flights of six (later twelve) Hurricane squadrons, and these were despatched across the Channel to operate from French bases on a daily basis. The first of these units (56/213, 111/253, and 145/601) began operations from French bases on 16 May.

Their fight was to be short, however, since the BEF’s Air Component began withdrawing to UK airfields on 19 May, and had completed its withdrawal by 21 May. As early as 18 June, Churchill had stated baldly that ‘What General Weygand has called the Battle for France is now over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilisation.’ The withdrawal of the Air Component left only the AASF Squadrons (retreating to the south and west) actually in France, though RAF fighters continued flying from their British bases. The BEF soldiers, meanwhile, were themselves becoming encircled, and the possible ports which could be used for an evacuation fell one-by-one, until only Dunkirk remained.

On 23 May, Goring announced that the Luftwaffe would now destroy the British singlehanded, and told Milch that he had ‘managed to talk the Fuhrer round to halting the Army. The Luftwaffe is to wipe out the British on the beaches.’ On 24 May, Hitler did order the Panzers to halt, but probably because von Rundstedt and von Kleist worried that the armoured divisions might be worn out if they pushed on through the lowlands of Flanders, which had, by now, been flooded. The Panzer divisions had also raced ahead of their logistical tail, rendering them vulnerable to counter attack, and they had left the extended southern flank dangerously exposed. Suggestions that the tanks were halted specifically to give the Luftwaffe a chance of glory, or to allow Hitler to negotiate with the British (capturing the BEF being felt to be somewhat provocative, and perhaps likely to undermine peace talks), would seem to be somewhat far-fetched.

History records that an extraordinary fleet (including some small and barely seaworthy rivercraft commandeered for the operation) lifted 338,226 men to safety between 26 May and 4 June, snatching a moral (or morale) victory from the jaws of what remained a military defeat. Churchill had expected that only about 30,000 men would be evacuated, but the total number was more than ten times this, and included about 50,000 French and Belgian troops. This meant that only some 60,000 members of the BEF were left behind in France killed, missing or as Prisoners of War. This was a great achievement, not least for the unpopular Lord Gort, of whom little had been expected beyond personal bravery. But it was the ‘brusque and pedantic’ Gort who realised that his allotted task (to advance on and relieve Calais and re-join the main body of French troops advancing from the Somme) could no longer succeed, and it had been he who rapidly drew up a new plan to withdraw west to Dunkirk, and to save his soldiers with their hand-guns and personal weapons.

The Battle of France continued after Dunkirk, with the Germans launching Fall Rote (Plan Red) the next day, storming south across the River Somme. Field Marshal Erwin Rommel broke through at Amiens on 6 June, and the Germans took Paris on 14 June. Mussolini, eager not to lose out, had joined the war on 10 June (the very day that Norway surrendered), but even at this very late stage, it seemed that Hitler was not bent on the total defeat of Britain and France. The original communique announcing the formation of the German/Italian axis read: ‘Germany and Italy will now march shoulder to shoulder and will not rest until Britain and France have been beaten’. Hitler personally crossed out the last few words and wrote instead’ … will fight on until those in power in Britain and France are prepared to respect the rights of our two peoples to exist.’ This made little difference in France, where it was as easy to complete the campaign and take Paris, as it would have been to halt the advance. France finally surrendered on 22 June, with Hitler taking great delight in ensuring that the surrender was signed in the very same railway car that had been used for the German surrender in 1918. This was a powerful symbolic gesture, and at a stroke wiped out the humiliation and shame of Germany’s Great War defeat. Hitler himself was so excited that he danced a jig as he waited to enter the railway carriage.

But even in France, Hitler stopped short of invading the whole country, and left a massive swathe of territory nominally independent under the Vichy regime headed by the Great War hero, Marshal Petain. That portion of France actually under direct German control was fairly small, and arguably sufficient only to safeguard Germany’s own borders and prevent the Allies having an easy ‘back door’ for invasion. But France was, decisively, out of the fight. Former President Reynaud had wanted to send the army to Switzerland to be interned and to move his government, air force and navy to North Africa to continue the fight (just as British contingency plans saw a move to Canada). Unfortunately, his deputy Petain, and General Weygand, the head of the armed forces, had been more in tune with the defeated mood of the country, with many famously preferring ‘slavery to war’. When Reynaud’s group was finally outnumbered in the cabinet by the defeatists, he resigned and was replaced by Petain, and full surrender became inevitable. His order to hand over 400 Luftwaffe pilots (held as POWs by the French) to the British for safe-keeping were overturned, and Petain refused to let the fleet escape to Canada, fearful of German reprisals should he agree.

Meanwhile, large numbers of British troops remaining in France retreated in good order to western ports for evacuation, covered by the three remaining AASF Squadrons and by UK-based fighters. Nos 17 and 242 Squadrons briefly joined the AASF in France on 7 June, but all fighters had been withdrawn from France by 18 June, the last No. 73 Squadron Hurricanes flying from Nantes to Tangmere on that date.

By 22 June, RAF losses in the West had reached 959 aircraft of all types, including 66 in Norway. Of these, 509 were fighters, with 435 pilots killed, missing or captured. Only 66 of the hundreds of Hurricanes dispatched to France made the return journey, and many of these were severely damaged – some so badly that they were scrapped on the spot. Even as early as 5 June, Fighter Command had an operational strength of only 331 single-engined fighters. But fortunately German losses had been heavy too, including 247 of the much-feared Bf 109s and 108 Bf 110s.

French efforts included 67,000 air missions and about 600 air victories, of which only 277 can be officially confirmed. The French air force suffered the heavy toll of 557 losses.

Escort fighter 1941–5

A damaged B-17 bomber being protected by two P-51 fighters.

In the Second World War the bedrock of US strategic bombing tactics in Europe was formation flying in a self-defending 54-aircraft combat wing, which was both dangerous and physically exhausting. Extreme physical effort was required from the pilot to keep station in the turbulence generated by hundreds of propellers. The pilots flying in wing positions depended on the skill of element leaders right up to combat wing level. Poor flying by the leaders, and the constant seesawing of positions, added to pilot fatigue and ran the risk of collisions or breaking the formation, thus providing Luftwaffe day fighters with “cold meat”—isolated aircraft.

Flying consisted of sliding the B-17 Flying Fortress and B-24 Liberator bombers around to maintain the integrity of the formation. Banking was dangerous because of the close proximity of other aircraft. Frequent throttle changes were required, which could lead to excessive fuel consumption, particularly by aircraft flying in high groups. By the spring of 1943, heavy losses to German fighters had forced the USAAF’s 8th Air Force to adopt the “tucked-in wing” formation of three 18-aircraft squadrons stacked closely together with one squadron flying lead, one high and one low.

A combat wing, dubbed a Pulk (herd) by the Luftwaffe, deployed formidable defensive power and was a daunting sight to novice fighter pilots. The B-17G’s defensive armament consisted of thirteen .50 machine guns. A combat wing could bring to bear 648 machine guns firing 14 rounds a second with an effective range of 600 yards (548 m). The two-ounce bullets remained lethal on the human body at ranges of up to 4 miles (6.5 km).

“… the progressive destruction of and dislocation of the German military, industrial and economic system, and the undermining of the morale of the German people to a point where their capacity for armed resistance is fatally weakened.”

Directive on the air war issued by the Western Allies after the Casablanca Conference, January 1943

Self-defending fallacy The USAAF began to make shallow penetrations into Germany in January 1943, and from February losses began to mount steadily. The Luftwaffe’s day fighters were as well armed as the US bombers, and by autumn 1943 they were carrying 30-millimeter (1.2-in.) heavy cannon and 210-millimeter (8.3-in.) rockets. The latter were not particularly accurate, but were effective in loosening up the bomber formations.


Heavy losses over Germany became the norm. The attrition reached a peak on August 17 when the 8th Air Force attacked the fighter assembly plant at Regensburg and the ball-bearing factories at Schweinfurt. Of the 376 aircraft dispatched on the double raid, 60 were lost and many more written off. A second raid on Schweinfurt in October cost the Americans 77 aircraft lost and another 133 damaged out of 291 dispatched. After the second Schweinfurt raid, bombing operations were temporarily suspended. It was brutally clear that the bombers would have to be escorted to and from targets deep in Germany. However, there were no aircraft capable of fulfilling this role.

The USAAF’s P-38 Lightning and P-47 Thunderbolt fighters lacked the performance to meet enemy fighters on equal terms and the range to escort the bombers over Germany. The Luftwaffe could now choose the time and place to attack, even when the P-47’s range was extended by 490-liter (108-gallon) drop tanks. German fighters would often draw the P-47s into combat, at which point they would have to jettison their drop tanks and reduce their escort range. The P-38 had a longer range but poor performance over 6,000 meters (20,000 ft.), the altitude at which most combats over Germany took place.

Major George Earl Preddy Jr. (February 5, 1919 – December 25, 1944)

Preddy was killed by “friendly fire” on the morning of December 25, 1944. As commanding officer of the 328th Fighter Squadron, 352nd FG, he was leading a formation of 10 P-51 Mustangs. They had been patrolling for about three hours, when they were directed to assist in a dogfight already in progress. Preddy destroyed two Messerschmitt Bf 109s, (the Bf 109G-14/AS Werk.No. 784111 “Yellow 6” of Uffz. Heinrich Zinnen, Killed and Bf 109G-14 Werk.No.785758 “Yellow 9” Fw. Karl Heinz Schröder, wounded) before being vectored to a lone Focke-Wulf Fw 190, strafing Allied ground forces southeast of Liege, Belgium. As the Fw 190, Preddy, and two other Mustangs passed over the Allied front line at tree-top height, a US Army anti-aircraft (AA) battery (believed to be part of the 430th AA Battalion, XIX Corps), fired at the FW-190 but missed and instead hit all three P-51’s. Preddy managed to release his canopy but was unable to bail out before the aircraft hit the ground at high speed and a low angle. He had a chance of surviving the crash but his wounds from .50 calibre fire were mortal.

Enter the Mustang

The crisis was resolved with the arrival of the North American P-51B Mustang in December 1943. Powered by the Rolls-Royce Merlin and fitted with a 340-liter (75-gallon) drop tank, the P-51B had a range of 1,000 miles (1.6 km), enabling it to fly escort to such targets as Emden, Kiel and Bremen. The bubble-canopied P-51D, which arrived in May 1944, had a boosted performance with reinforced wings, allowing exceptional fuel loads and, with drop tank, a range of 1,500 miles (2,400 km) sufficient for escort to any target and even for the shuttle missions that flew to the Soviet Union.

The P-51D matched the Me 109G in level maneuvering flight and had the edge in climb and dive. Only the rate of roll left the German fighter on equal terms. It could remain in the air for over nine hours. In the P-51D the USAAF possessed a superb escort fighter that it could use to provoke and win a series of air supremacy battles. In January 1944, the Americans had introduced a modified bomber support relay system, which remained standard for the rest of the war. Rather than flying to a predetermined rendezvous point and then accompanying part of the bomber stream until relieved by another unit, a group was allocated an area along the route, which it patrolled while the bomber stream passed through.

Air supremacy battles

On May 30, 1944, 8th Air Force Mustang ace Major George Preddy wrote in his combat report:

As the bombers were approaching … Magdeburg, I was leading a section of seven ships giving close escort to the rear box which was quite a distance behind the main formation. I noticed 20 to 30 single-engine fighters attacking the front boxes, so we dropped our tanks and headed toward them. We came up behind three Me 109s in rather tight formation. I opened fire on one from 300 yards and closed to 150 yards. The 109 burst into flames and went down. I slipped behind the second 109 and fired while closing from 200 to 100 yards. He started burning and disintegrated immediately. He went down spinning. The third enemy aircraft saw us and broke down. I followed him in a steep turn, diving and zooming. I got in many deflection shots, getting hits on the wing and tail section. I ran out of ammunition, so my element leader, Lt. Whisner, continued the attack getting in several good hits. At about 7,000 feet the pilot baled out.

The most experienced P-47 groups were assigned those sectors where enemy opposition was anticipated, while the target leg of the bomber route was flown by P-38s and P-51s. The arrival of the Mustangs prompted another tactical adjustment of the bomber formations. They were reduced to three squadrons of 12 aircraft, with the lead squadron in the center and the trail squadrons formed up above and below. Although overall strength had been cut by one-third, the new formation occupied 17 percent more air space than its predecessor, reducing the strain on pilots and making it easier for the Mustangs to provide escort. The Mustangs were employed not only as escorts, hugging the bomber formation as had the German Me 109s in the Battle of Britain, but as fighting patrols whose role was to seek out and destroy the enemy.

RAF Aces of the French Campaign

Only rarely can all the victory claims of the aces of any nation, and in any theatre, be verified from surviving records of both sides. The debacle in France resulted in the loss of many squadron records and diaries, and in some cases the pilot’s logbooks. Consequently actual scores are in some cases debatable.


A New Zealander, Cobber Kain was the first RAF fighter ace of the war. Posted to the Gladiator equipped No 73 Squadron, he was selected to give an aerobatic exhibition at the Empire Air Day at Hendon in 1938. Having converted to Hurricanes, No 73 Squadron arrived in France in September 1939.

At first there was little doing, but on 8 November, Kain stalked a high-flying reconnaissance Dornier Do 17P of 1(F)/123. Hit, the German aircraft fell into a near-vertical dive, with Cobber in hot pursuit. He only just pulled out in time as the Dornier went straight into the ground near Metz, for his-and the squadron’s-first victory. Just over a fortnight later, he shot down another Dornier.

Over the next three months there was little air activity, and Cobber had to wait until 2 March 1940 for his next success. Patrolling at 20,000ft with one other Hurricane, he spotted seven Heinkel He Ills high over Thionville and climbed to engage. While hotly pursuing the bombers, he was bounced from above and astern by Bf 109s of III/JG53. Hit by cannon fire, he broke hard to the right, and then, as his assailant overshot, he turned back and opened fire. Almost immediately he was hit by a second 109, which also overshot him. Pulling in behind it, he fired three bursts, and was rewarded by seeing it go down pouring black smoke. But again he had neglected his rear, and he was hit for the third time; his cockpit filled with smoke, and his engine cut out. His assailant was probably Luftwaffe Experte Werner Mölders, one of the most successful of the German fighter pilots. Engine-less, he was left over Germany with a burning aircraft. Somehow he coaxed his stricken bird back across the frontier, and fortunately the flames subsided, allowing him to make a good landing on a French airfield.

Cobber had an even narrower escape on 26 March, when, leading a section of three Hurricanes, he once more encountered III/JG53. Undeterred by superior numbers, he immediately attacked and claimed two 109s in quick succession, which made him the first RAF ace of the war. Paddy (all his aircraft were called Paddy) was then hit on the cock pit canopy, the engine caught fire, and he was wounded in one leg. This time there was no alternative to baling out, which he just managed before losing consciousness. He came down in no man’s land, and managed to limp painfully to the French lines.

The 17 days following the opening of the Blitzkrieg on 10 May saw Kain claim 11 more victories. He has been described as a type-hunter who spent hours searching for a Henschel Hs 126 observation aircraft to add to his collection, but this seems highly unlikely. Like all other pilots of the period, he engaged whatever turned up, in his case mainly Dorniers and 109s. His final total included two Hs 126s, but not one Ju 87 or He 111; types that were hardly in short supply at the time.

Impetuous by nature, Cobber Kain showed little finesse in his fighting. Whatever he saw he attacked, regardless of position or odds. Operationally very tired, he was ordered back to England on 6 June. Taking off from his base at Echemines, he attempted a final low-level beat-up. For once his judgement failed him; his aircraft hit the ground and he was killed, his final score standing at 16.


The press acclaimed Carey as ‘the Cockney Ace’, but as it is highly unlikely that the sound of Bow Bells ever carried the five miles to Brixton, this is a misnomer. A sergeant pilot with No 43 Squadron from September 1936, in the pre-war period he was, with Peter Townsend (9 victories), and Caesar Hull (4 victories), part of a strictly unofficial aerobatic team, in which Townsend generously admitted that Carey flew the most difficult position.

In the first three months of 1940 he shared in three interceptions of Heinkel He 111s off the north-east coast of Britain. On the third occasion, Carey was one of four pilots of No 43 Squadron which attacked a Heinkel and set it on fire. When it turned back and tried to make the Scottish coast, they escorted it. Carey later commented that he was extremely anxious that the helpless German crew should survive.

In April 1940, Carey was commissioned and posted to No 3 Squadron, also with Hurricanes, which was sent to France at the onset of the Blitzkrieg. Once there, he rapidly became a bomber specialist, destroying 12 bombers and a solitary fighter, with another four bombers unconfirmed, in the space of five days. It was not planned; it was just that he encountered far more bombers than fighters during this period. It is now one of the enduring myths of the early war years that bombers were easy to shoot down. This was not the case. As slow and unmanoeuvring targets they were relatively easy to hit, providing that one managed to run the gauntlet of return fire from their gunners. Doing sufficient damage with .303 calibre machine-guns was a different matter, which makes Carey’s feat the more remarkable. But sometimes, unusual aid was forthcoming:

I got behind this Ju 88 and pressed the button, and to my utter amazement bits flew off and the damage was astonishing! Our .303 guns weren’t heavy enough to do so much damage. Then I saw fire over my head. There was a 109 trying to hit me but shooting high, and we were both knocking the hell out of this poor old Ju 88! It went down.

There was a price to be paid. On 14 May, Carey attacked a Dornier Do 17, which did a snap half-roll and dived vertically. Not realising that it was finished and worried that it might escape, he followed close behind, only to be hit and wounded in the leg by its rear gunner. Force-landing in Belgium, he was evacuated to England, only to find that he had been posted missing.

Frank Carey returned to No 43 Squadron in time for the Battle of Britain. Several more victories followed, but on 18 August, shortly after shooting down a Ju 87 in a confused melee off the South Coast, he was hit in the knee by a spent bullet, and force-landed once more. This was his last victory in Europe.

Posted to Mingaladon in Burma in 1942, still flying Hurricanes, he accounted for seven Japanese aircraft during February 1942, five of them supremely agile but under-gunned Nakajima Ki 27 fighters. Most activity from this point on was air-to-ground. Carey’s final air combat took place at Chittagong on 25 October, when he was attacked during take-off by a number of Ki 43 Oscar fighters. A desperate battle ensued at zero feet, ending when one of the Oscars appeared to fly into a hill. It was claimed only as a ‘possible’. Frank Carey scored hits on a total of 44 German and Japanese aircraft, of which 18 German and seven Japanese were confirmed destroyed.


A short-service officer, Bob Tuck joined No 65 Squadron in 1936 to fly Gladiators. Having converted to Spitfires before the war, he was posted to No 92 Squadron on 1 May 1940 as a Flight Commander, just in time to take part in operations over Dunkirk. The first patrol over the French port on 23 May nearly ended in disaster as No 92 Squadron droned up and down in the regulation tight Vic formations. With too much attention paid to holding position, it was sheer luck that the 109s were spotted as they came snarling in behind the port beam. A Spitfire burst into flame, then the sky was full of turning, twisting fighters all jockeying for position.

Bob Tuck latched onto the German leader, who zoom-climbed through cloud, then levelled off and set course for home. Using emergency power, the Spitfire gradually closed the distance, keeping slightly low, shielded from view by the tailplane of the Messerschmitt. Seconds passed; the range shortened. The red aiming dot of the reflector sight was centred on the canopy; 1,500ft range- fire! Tuck’s guns were loaded with a high proportion of De Wilde ammunition, which flashed as it hit. The wings and canopy of the 109 sparkled under the hits; its nose rose gently, and an aileron came fluttering back. Then the entire starboard wing broke away, and the doomed German fighter spiralled down. But with no witnesses, this first victory was not confirmed.

That afternoon, No 92 Squadron returned to Dunkirk. This time they encountered a Gruppe of Bf 110s. The Zerstörer pilots had not yet learned that they were no match for British single-seaters, and dived to the attack. Once again, the neat formations dissolved into a whirling confused mass. At first Bob Tuck could not settle on a target, but then a 110 rose from the depths just ahead. Bullets from its rear gunner hit the engine cowling and windshield of the Spitfire, but then the fire of its eight Brownings tore into the German fighter. Flames burst from its port engine and it yawed, rolled over and went down vertically.

There was no time to think-already the Spitfire was taking more hits; another 110 was charging at it head-on. Tuck held on, firing back, then just as it seemed that the two aircraft must collide, he ducked. He never knew whether it passed above or below him, but screwing round, he saw it heading inland, and set off in hot pursuit. A minute or two later, he was within range, about 1,500ft (457m), and once more opened fire. The rear-gunner replied, while the German pilot took his aircraft down to just above the ground, jinking violently to throw off his attacker’s aim. It was too late; the damage had been done and the 110 belly-landed in a field for Tuck’s third victory of the day. But his own aircraft had been badly shot up, and he barely managed to stagger back to base.

The squadron commander had been shot down during this action, and for the next few days Tuck was given command. On May 24 he was back over Dunkirk at the head of eight Spitfires, all that could be made serviceable. Now he made his first tactical experiment, ordering his pilots to open the formation wide for greater flexibility. They encountered a formation of Do 17s, and attacked from astern. Tuck again did the unorthodox; to obtain a longer firing pass, he throttled back and lowered his flaps to match his speed to that of the bombers, then opened fire at 1,200ft range, hitting the port engine of his chosen target. The Dornier slowed, the range closed to 300ft (90m); then two more bursts set it alight. Bob Tuck then shot down a second Dornier, for his fifth victory in two days after three sorties.

By now he had realised that the three-ship section contained one too many aircraft. From this moment on, No 92 Squadron flew in loose pairs. Tuck’s usual wingman was Bob Holland (5 victories), with whom he developed a close understanding.

Bob Stanford Tuck scored seven confirmed victories over Dunkirk, plus a one-third share in a Dornier and the unconfirmed 109. He was unusual in that he was a long-range marksman, often scoring from distances which other pilots could not match. He fought in the Battle of Britain, and over France in 1941, flying a Hurricane. In an epic solo engagement with three 109s near the Dutch coast on 21 June 1941, he accounted for two and damaged the third before baling out over the sea. He was finally shot down by ground fire over the Pas-de-Calais in January 1942 and became a prisoner of war. His final confirmed score was 27, but may well have been higher.


Free French Spitfires

Following the dissolution of the Vichy French naval aviation arm, the second escadrille of the combat fighter group GC II/7 accepted several navy pilots into its ranks. In March 1943, it received its first British aircraft; Supermarine Spitfire Mk.Vb fighters. When GC II/7 was broken up in August, the squadron received two designations – one of which was French, the other British – by virtue of the fact that its complement included both French and British pilots. While the British designated the unit No.326 Squadron of the RAF, the French knew their squadron as GC 2/7, even though it was attached to No. 345 Wing of the Mediterranean Allied Coastal Air Force (MACAF). Its first mission as GC 2/7 was an armed reconnaissance mission on April 30, 1943, during the final phase of the war in North Africa, by which time the Luftwaffe had all but vanished, but ground-based Flak units still remained. By May 13, the Germans had surrendered in North Africa, and GC 2/7 had by then flown 42 missions, accumulating 296 sorties. On June 18, the squadron replaced its Mk.Vb Spitfires with the more agile and maneuverable Mk.IX variant, built originally to combat the German Focke-Wulf Fw 190, an example of which had been credited to GC 2/7 just seven days earlier.

September 1943 witnessed the participation of GC 2/7 in the liberation of Corsica, claiming seven enemy aircraft destroyed for the loss of two of its pilots. On the 27th, the squadron, alongside GC 1/3, had the distinction of becoming the first Armée de l’Air unit to be stationed on French soil, since the dissolution of the Vichy French air force the previous December, when it occupied the airfield at Ajaccio-Campo dell’Oro. Now part of No.332 Wing, the squadron’s duties encompassed patrols over the island of Corsica itself, interception of German bombers attacking the island, protection of Allied convoys traversing the Mediterranean, attacks against German shipping berthed in Italian ports, and, from January 1944, the escort of USAAF bombers attacking targets in Italy. From the spring of 1944, GC 2/7 would involve itself both in strafing and dive-bombing attacks against ground targets in coastal regions of western Italy as well as the island of Elba, famous as the place of temporary exile of Napoleon in 1814 prior to his escape.

Finally, in September 1944, GC 2/7 found itself based in metropolitan France itself and was assigned to the same kind of missions that it had conducted over Italy. However, its commanding officer, Captain Georges Valentin, was shot down by flak over Dijon on the 8th, while another, Captain Gauthier, was shot down a week later, only he managed to reach Switzerland from where, having been interned, he “escaped” to rejoin his unit. As the front line advanced eastwards towards Reich territory, GC 2/7 went to Luxeuil, from where missions flown in early October resulted in four enemy aircraft being confirmed destroyed and another one counted as a “probable”. Christmas Eve saw GC 2/7 escorting B-26 bombers. “Around 20” enemy fighters attacked the formation, and GC 2/7 claimed four of them destroyed, but the French lost one of their pilots in the process.

GC 2/7 frequently clashed with the enemy as the Allies advanced farther into Nazi Germany – including a sighting of two Messerschmitt Me 262 jet fighters on March 22, 1945, which were just too fast for the piston-engined Spitfires. On April 14, sixteen of the squadron’s aircraft were escorting Lockheed F-5s when they were intercepted by a mixed formation of Bf 109s and Fw 190s, two of which were claimed by GC 2/7 pilots, yet one pilot was shot down and became – for the brief duration that the war in Europe yet had to run – a prisoner. By the time the war did end on May 8, GC 2/7 had, since its formation two years earlier, accomplished just over 7,900 sorties.

French Spitfire pilot Pierre Closterman opens his score

Pierre Closterman had joined the Free French, No.341 Squadron in the spring of 1943. Now based at the famous RAF station at Biggin Hill in the south of England, under the leadership of Henri Mouchotte, they were as experienced as any squadron in Fighter Command.

Twenty two year old Closterman had spent time developing his skills under the tutelage of the older pilots, including Mouchotte and Martell, but he had not yet made a name for himself. When the time came for him to open his score, he did so in dramatic fashion. They were engaged in a sweep over France when suddenly a dozen Focke Wulf 190s attempted to ambush them out of the sun:

Led by a magnificent Fw 190 A-6 painted yellow all over and polished and gleaming like a jewel, the first were already passing on our left, less than a hundred yards away, and turning towards us. I could see, quite distinctly, outlined on their long transparent cockpits, the German pilots crouching forward.

‘Come on, Turban Yellow, attack!’

Martell had already dived straight into the enemy formation. Yellow 3 and Yellow 4 immediately lost contact and left us in the middle of a whirlpool of yellow noses and black crosses.

This time I did not even have time to feel really frightened. Although my stomach contracted, I could feel a frantic excitement rising within me. This was the real thing, and I lost my head slightly. Without realizing it I was giving vent to incoherent Redskin war-whoops and throwing my Spitfire about.

A Focke-Wulf was already breaking away, dragging after him a spiral of black smoke, and Martell, who was not wasting any time, was after the scalp of another. I did my best to play my part and back him up and give him cover, but he was far ahead and I had some difficulty in following his rolls and Immelmann turns.

Two Huns converged insidiously on his tail. I opened fire on them, although they were out of range. I missed them, but made them break off and make for me. Here was my opportunity!

I climbed steeply, did a half-roll and, before they could complete the 180° of their turn, there I was — within easy range this time – behind the second one. A slight pressure on the rudder and I had him in my sights. I could scarcely believe my eyes, only a simple deflection necessary, at less than 200 yards range. Quickly I squeezed the ring-button. Whoopee! Flashes all over his fuselage. My first burst had struck home and no mistake.

The Focke-Wulf caught alight at once. Tongues of flame escaped intermittently from his punctured tanks, licking the fuselage. Here and there incandescent gleams showed through the heavy black smoke surrounding the machine. The German pilot threw his plane into a desperate turn. Two slender white trails formed in the air.

Suddenly, the Focke-Wulf exploded, like a grenade. A blinding flash, a black cloud, then debris fluttered round my aircraft. The engine dropped like a ball of fire. One of the wings, torn off in the flames, dropped more slowly, like a dead leaf, showing its pale yellow under-surface and its olive green upper- surface alternately.

I bellowed my joy into the radio, just like a kid: ‘Hullo, Yellow One, Turban Yellow Two, I got one, I got one! Jesus, I got one of them!’

The sky was now full of Focke-Wulfs, brushing past me, attacking me on every side in a firework display of tracer bullets. They wouldn’t “let me go; a succession of frontal attacks, three-quarters rear, right, left, one after the other.

I was beginning to feel dizzy‘and my arms were aching. I was out of breath too, for maneuvering at 400 m.p.h. a Spitfire whose controls are stiffened by the speed is pretty exhausting work – especially at 26,000 feet. I felt as if I was stifling in my mask and I turned the oxygen to ‘emergency’. All I could feel was a hammering in my damp temples, my wrists and my ankles.

Moments later Closterman was ‘flabbergasted’ to shoot down a second German.



The First Aces

Bavaria, though part of the Kaiser’s Reich, had a strong tradition of independence. It was the South German wing of the air service which formed the first three bespoke (if ad hoc) fighter groups, latterly the brilliantly named Kampfeinsitzer-kommando or KEK, combat single-seater commands. This facilitated the rise of two men who were to symbolise the emerging cult of fighter aces – Max Immelmann and Oswald Boelcke. In January 1916 both would be awarded the Pour le Mérite – the legendary ‘Blue Max’; Germany’s highest gallantry award. For an ace, it was the badge of stardom. Celebrity was becoming important. Propagandists on both sides realised that these heroic lone wolves offered the cloak of chivalric glamour in this most un-chivalrous of wars. It was on that day perhaps that the fighter ace fully ‘arrived’.


Immelmann, ‘the Eagle of Lille’, was famed not just as a fighter ace but as a technical innovator of the half-loop, half-roll combat tactic, ‘the Immelmann turn’. Born in 1890, he was an early enthusiast for flying. He was sent for pilot training in November 1914. He was a gifted student but, like von Richthofen, something of a loner, devoted to his mother and his dog and not imbued with the boisterous camaraderie of the mess. His early missions were entirely reconnaissance. In June 1915 he was shot down by a French Farman, only to emerge unscathed and with an Iron Cross (second class).

The arrival of the Eindecker at Douai aerodrome was the spark that ignited both his and Boelcke’s careers. On 1 August ten British planes shot up and bombed the airfield. Both German aviators leapt for their machines and mounted hot pursuit. Boelcke’s gun jammed, forcing him out of the fight. Immelmann did rather better. He took on two of the Brits and forced one down. Though wounded the Englishman landed safely and Immelmann courteously took him prisoner. This exploit earned him another Iron Cross, this time first class.

In the third week of September he brought down two more victims but was himself shot down a couple of days later when a French Farman peppered his fuel tank and shot away his wheels. He walked away from the wreck and, undeterred, chalked up kill no 4, another British plane, above Lille. He downed another over Arras and the sixth on 7 November. Just over a month later on 5 December he claimed a French Morane. By the standards of 1915, seven kills was a lot. The war in the air hadn’t reached the immense numbers of 1917–18. He and Boelcke became rivals that autumn, matching score for score.

One Royal Aircraft Factory BE2c was luckier. Captain O’Hara Wood was flying with Ira Jones as observer. The single Lewis gun operated by Jones had a series of mounts and for a full traverse had to be swapped between these. No easy matter especially when, as they’d dreaded, a lone Eindecker began stalking them over Lille. The hunter manoeuvred below and behind, the classic blind spot and came in gun blazing. Jones, unable to swap the Lewis fast enough, grabbed it and tried to fire holding the cumbersome weapon with its fearsome recoil like a Tommy gun. Not a great idea. The gun, like a living thing, leapt free of his hands and disappeared overboard. They were defenceless but Immelmann had run out of ammunition and flew off. Wood and Jones lived to fight another day.

It was on 12 January 1916 that the two rival aces both downed their eighth opponent. Eight kills was enough to win a coveted Blue Max, the talisman of success. With other manufacturers hot on his heels, Fokker attempted to up-gun the EIII model by adding two more machine guns and beefing up engine performance. In April 1916, Immelmann tested the new plane but the interrupter gear just couldn’t handle three guns and he shot himself down. Even two proved tricky and led to another crash in May.

Nonetheless, by early June he’d scored 15 victories. On the 18th his considerable luck ran out. He got into a dogfight with some of the ‘pushers’ of 25 Squadron. In the melée Lieutenant G. R. McCubbin and Corporal J. H. Waller claimed they’d hit Immelmann’s Fokker, causing his fatal crash. German sources claimed it was anti-aircraft fire, ‘Archie’ as it was known, that brought him down. Fokker himself was prepared to accept this verdict as it neatly avoided any questions about the working of the interrupter gear. Immelmann’s brother Franz was convinced otherwise, claiming he’d examined the wreckage and found the propeller shot in half. Whatever actually occurred, the first true fighter ace passed into legend.


Oswald Boelcke was far more gregarious. Born a year later in 1891; he was an outstanding young sportsman and enthusiastic advocate of aggressive German militarism. At 13, he wrote a personal letter to the Kaiser asking for a place at a military academy. His turn came in 1914 – at Darmstadt he had his first taste of flying. He was still only an NCO for, in those very early days, the observers had most of the kudos, flyers were just the ones who drove. His older brother Wilhelm had also joined up and both won gallantry awards during that first year.

Boelcke was grounded by illness for a period but, early in 1915 he was assigned to Aviation Section 62 where he met his rival Immelmann. By the start of 1916, he was a star and, in January scored another four kills. These included a Vickers FB5, another two-seater pusher. Although these were rapidly approaching obsolescence as a design, they were very agile in the air and this crew gave Boelcke quite a fight. The two duelled for over half an hour, the pusher’s gymnastics enough to deny him a killing burst. The Englishman’s luck ran out almost directly above Boelcke’s own aerodrome at Douai.

He was not only a hit in Germany, he also won a decoration from the French. Nothing to do with flying this time, he had averted tragedy when a local lad slipped into the canal. Boelcke, a strong swimmer, dived in to rescue the boy from certain drowning. The French government awarded him a life-saving medal, though obviously not in person.

In February 1916, the great German offensive at Verdun opened up, the fearsome shrieking of the guns a doleful summons to months of hideous attrition. Boelcke’s jasta (fighter squadron) flew into this sector. Their prime role would be reconnaissance but on 13 March he clashed with a lone Voisin and set off in pursuit. The much slower French plane, pilot already rattled, made for the sanctuary of the clouds. The next Boelcke saw of it, the hapless observer was engaged in a desperate bid to stabilize the unwieldy brute of an aircraft by clambering out onto the wing.

This wasn’t recommended in any textbook or manual. Boelcke lacked the innate cruelty which spurred his successor von Richthofen and refrained from firing. It didn’t really matter as a sudden lurch sent the Frenchman off into the clouds and the long, very lonely fall to his death. Within a few days Boelcke had added another three Farmans to his growing tally.

The battles of 1916, across the ravaged landscapes of pounded fields and skeletal forests, grew larger and more intense, dwarfing anything that had gone before. So too in the skies. By September 1916, Boelcke was leading Jasta 2, equipped with the much-feared Albatros DII. He had his pilots fly in big formations, ‘circuses’ as the Allies dubbed them. Flying these formidable, fast fighters Boelcke pushed his score up to 40. In September alone, now battling over the Somme, he downed 11 British planes. He was Germany’s top ace yet he had none of the hubris that often went with that status. His belief was that victories belonged to the unit, more than the individual. It is perhaps ironic that one of his most promising novices was Manfred von Richthofen, the man who would come to exemplify the self-seeking glory of the individual hunter.

Boelcke was an inspirational and conscientious leader. He trained and mentored his pilots exhaustively and preached the gospel of successful air combat throughout the German air service. He issued his tactical doctrine for dog-fighting early in 1916 as the great battle for Verdun was beginning to unfold. This is the voice of experience:

(1) Always try to secure an advantageous position before attacking. Climb before and during approach in order to surprise the enemy from above, and dive on him swiftly from the rear when the moment to attack is at hand.

(2) Try to place yourself between the sun and the enemy. This puts the glare of the sun in the enemy’s eyes and makes it difficult to see you and impossible for him to shoot with any accuracy.

(3) Do not fire the machine guns until the enemy is within range and you have him squarely within your sights.

(4) Attack when the enemy least expects it or when he is preoccupied with other duties such as observation, photography or bombing.

(5) Never turn your back and try to run away from an enemy fighter. If you are surprised by an attack on your tail, turn and face the enemy with your guns.

(6) Keep your eyes on the enemy and do not let him deceive you with tricks. If your opponent appears damaged, follow him down until he crashes to be sure he is not faking.

It was on 28 October that Boelcke’s store of luck ran dry. All pilots, aces especially, lived with the knowledge that their life expectancy was finite. For beginners, it could be measured in weeks, sometimes days. With no parachutes the only hope was to nurse a stricken plane into a soft landing somewhere. Few slept well when they were set to fly the dawn patrol, that mystical time when light filters and brightens as the new day rises. Up at 04.30 with a brew of tea or cocoa and perhaps a shot to calm the nerves, then out and into the cockpit, the loneliest place on earth. This is five o’clock in the morning courage, no red mist or heat of battle, no comfort of comradely cloth at the touch. Each patrol may be your last, the way to flaming death. Pilots carried revolvers and pistols, not for cowboy antics but to spare themselves the agony of burning alive.

On that day, Boelcke had von Richthofen and Erwin Böhme as his wingmen, six Albatroses in the patrol. They dived to scrap with some DH2s and Böhme flew that bit too close, that second of inattention. His wing sliced clear through his chief’s upper wing struts, like a knife through cheese. The wing collapsed; all torsion and strength gone and Boelcke plummeted to his death. Ironically, he did manage to crash land the crippled Albatros but he had forgotten to fasten his seat harness and was killed on impact.

Erwin Böhme, born in 1879 and, like his boss, a serious sportsman, was devastated by the accident for which he blamed himself. Indeed, at one point, he became suicidal. Von Richthofen (nobody’s first choice for counselling perhaps) managed to talk him out of it and he went on to score 24 kills and win the Blue Max. He was killed in action on 29 November 1917.

Oswald Boelcke was buried in Cambrai Cathedral to a packed house, ablaze with gold braid. Even British prisoners of war from Osnabrück sent a card and the RFC dropped a wreath. There was still some romance left, for the moment anyway.