Conflict over the Bay, 1943

Gradually the boffins and engineers had improved the lot of the air crews by developing ASV radar, more reliable depth charges, anti-sub bombs and acoustic torpedoes, while they now had better aircraft. The fact that Dönitz had now effectively withdrawn from engaging in the mighty convoy battles of the North Atlantic, was as much due to the losses inflicted on his boats, as the losses, also in 1943, of boats traversing the Bay of Biscay.

As 1943 got underway for 19 Group, so the actions increased week after week. Space does not provide as much detail of these actions as described in previous chapters, but in my book Conflict over the Bay (Grub Street, 1999) full coverage is given in a blow-by-blow account.

In the early months of 1943, German tactics had not yet changed. The Leigh Light had prevented U-boat commanders crossing the Bay at night, and they were forced to travel for the most part on the surface, especially if their batteries need to be recharged and the boat’s fresh air supply replenished. This made them vulnerable as ASV could pick them up more easily.

By May U-boat captains had been ordered to remain on the surface and fight back, their chances, Dönitz believed, would be better if they deflected an aircraft’s approach in the face of gunfire at low level – and the big Sunderlands and Liberators particularly, offered a huge target for gunners who held their nerve. As mentioned earlier, Coastal Command’s counter to this was to circle some way off, and either call up other aircraft in the vicinity in order to make a co-ordinated attack from different angles, thereby dividing the defensive fire, or, if in luck, one of the Navy’s anti-sub escort groups might not be too far away and could be homed in.

The 2nd Escort (or Support) Group in particular seemed to be able to roam the outer Bay areas with impunity, and was constantly on the alert for U-boats, coming or going. Captain F. J. Walker CB DSO*** RN, with five sloops, would be responsible for a number of U-boats attacked, sunk and damaged. Sadly he died in July 1944, aged forty-eight, from cerebral thrombosis, brought on by overwork and exhaustion. He lost a son serving aboard a submarine in the Mediterranean in August 1943.

By this time too, the USAAF had joined the fray, sending Liberator squadrons to England where they, like the Iceland-based USN units, came under Coastal Command control, joining the Battle of the Bay. Their first success came on 20 February, First Lieutenant Wayne Johnson of 1 Squadron USAAF damaging U-211.

Six days later one of Coastal’s best pilots, Squadron Leader P. J. Cundy, flying with 224 Squadron (Liberators), damaged U-508. He had already flown many sorties with 53 and 120 Squadrons and his experience was about to pay dividends. Wellingtons were still being used by 19 Group, and so too were Whitleys of No.10 OTU, released by Bomber Command in order to help support the group. On 22 March one 10 OTU crew damaged U-665. Quite a few boats were damaged in these early months, but some were also sunk. Pilot Officer J. B. Stark of 58 Squadron put his Halifax over U-528 on 11 May and his depth charges sent it to the bottom. Four days later, Wing Commander W. E. Oulton DFC, CO of the same squadron, sank U- 266. The next day, the 16th, Flying Officer A. J. W. Birch made it three for 58 by sinking U-463 – a tanker supply boat.

Another new innovation by the Germans, now that they were beginning to stay up and fight, was the introduction of flak boats, carrying extra defensive armament. They were intended to be ‘flak traps’ to surprise and destroy attacking aircraft. One was U-441. Most U-boats encountered were the Type VIIC and it was a few of this type that were converted (others being U-211, 256, 263, 271, 621 and 953). Sailing for her first mission in her new role on 22 May, U-441 was found by a Sunderland of 228 Squadron, piloted by Flying Officer H. J. H. Debnam. He attacked in the face of extreme anti-aircraft fire and, although he placed his depth charges around the sub, the boat’s gunners were on target and the flying boat dived into the sea with the loss of all on board. However, U-441 had been damaged sufficiently, and sustained crew casualties, for it to be forced to return to base for repair.

On the last day of May, Wilfred Oulton again encountered a U-boat, and began stalking it during an approach through cloud. Finally diving, he made a good straddle, leaving the boat in obvious difficulty and a second attack was made, after which the boat was seen to be trailing oil. Oulton kept the sub under observation while calling up another 58 Squadron aircraft, flown by Pilot Officer E. L. Hartley, but his charges fell short. A Sunderland of 10 RAAF Squadron was next on the scene and after two attacks the boat stopped and began to sink, with men appearing on deck in life-jackets. Another Sunderland arrived, from 228 Squadron, and made an immediate attack, bodies being seen thrown into the air as its charges exploded about the vessel. Oulton later received the DSO, and the two Sunderland captains received DFCs. There were no survivors from U-563.

“Biscay Excursion”
In March 1942, 236 Squadron RAF received the Bristol Beaufighter MkI.At first the squadron was used for shipping reconnaissance and escort duties, before in July it began operations against enemy shipping off the Dutch coast. At the same time detachments operated over the Bay of Biscay to protect anti-submarine aircraft against German attack.
David Pentland Art

These large four-engined aircraft were not the only aircraft operating over the Bay in 1943. The Germans had Junkers 88C fighters on the French coast and often made forays into the Bay to attack the RAF aircraft. It is amazing that the Germans did not make more of this, but fortunately they did not, although a number of running air battles between them did take place, and Coastal aircraft were lost. As a counter, the RAF sent Beaufighters out, hopefully to engage these Ju88s, but they also searched for U-boats. No. 236 Squadron also carried rockets and, on 1 June, Flying Officer M. C. Bateman found U-418 which he attacked and sank with his RPs. As these were still on Coastal’s secret list, Mark Bateman had to report sinking the sub with depth charges. He was awarded the DFC, although no mention of this attack was mentioned in his citation.

Another fight-it-out duel on the night of 13/14 June had U-564 shooting down a 228 Squadron Sunderland, from which nobody survived. The boat was damaged, however, and limped away, only to be located the next day by a Whitley of 10 OTU, piloted by Sergeant A. J. Benson RAAF. Buzz Benson shadowed the sub, and another boat (U-185) that had suddenly appeared to help, while carrying out homing procedure but was then given permission to make an attack. Benson selected U- 564 and also met gunfire, but his depth charges went down and finished her off. Benson’s Whitley was badly hit, with his hydraulics knocked out and one engine giving problems. He radioed base saying he was heading home but did not make it. He and his crew survived a ditching and were fortunate enough to be rescued by a French fishing boat, but when they suggested to the skipper that he take them to England, he had to refuse, as his family would suffer if the Germans discovered what he had done. Thus Benson and his crew were taken to a French port and ended up as prisoners, although he later heard he had been awarded the DFM and promoted to warrant officer. Survivors from U-564 were taken aboard U-185 although twenty-nine of them had been lost. U-564 had been a successful boat, having been credited with sinking at least nineteen ships and damaging others.

A Wellington of 172 Squadron sank U-126 on 3 July (Flight Sergeant A. Coumbis, who had damaged U-566 in April), while Peter Cundy of 224 sank U-628 on the same day. On board his Liberator was Lieutenant Colonel Farrant, an army officer helping to promote the use of a new anti-submarine bomb. These were called Hedgehog bombs, a 35lb device with a hollow charge. With enormous luck they found a surfaced U-boat and Cundy went in dropping depth charges and eighteen of these small bombs, that needed a direct hit to be effective. The boat engaged the approaching Liberator and did score some hits while the Lib’s gunners also hit the boat, knocking one man into the sea. In the first attack one depth charge actually bounced off the conning tower and in the second run more charges straddled the vessel. As the water cleared, several men could be seen in the water, and the Colonel was seen taking off his Mae West prior to throwing it down to the ‘poor devils’. He was, however, persuaded not to, as there might be a chance it might be needed for ‘the poor devils up here’. Cundy, who got home on three engines, received the DSO.

Despite the Germans staying up to fight, July was proving a successful month as far as kills were concerned. On the 7th one pilot, Flying Officer J. A. Cruickshank of 210 Squadron, damaged U-267. It would not be his last contact with a U-boat.

Terry Bulloch was now in 19 Group, flying with 224 Squadron. He had lost none of his skill and on 8 July sank U-514. He had been given something of a roving commission to fly where and when he wanted, so now flew a Liberator equipped with rocket projectiles which he was testing. On board he had Flight Lieutenant C. V. T. Campbell, an armament specialist, who just happened to spot the U-boat in amongst a group of Spanish fishing boats. Turning towards it, Bulloch could see half a dozen men on the conning tower and fired a pair of RPs at 800 feet distance, two more at 600 and then four from 500 feet, from a height of 500 feet. The boat disappeared, but came up again stern first at about a 20-degree angle. Not in the official report was that Bulloch also carried an acoustic torpedo, which he dropped as well, plus a couple of depth charges for good measure. Whatever got the sub, it was fatal and U-504, set for South African waters, was destroyed.

U-441, the converted flak boat, was back out after being damaged on 24 May, but it did not fare any better this time. She was found by Beaufighters of 248 Squadron on the 12th, and not some large Coastal aircraft that she could trap. The Beaus worked her over with their 20mm cannon, felling some of the crew who were on deck. After several strafing runs the boat went down, badly damaged, to return to home port once more. Ten of her crew had been killed and thirteen more wounded, including her captain. The flak-trap did not seem to be working.

Junkers Ju-88C-6 F8+BX, 13.KG40 Battle over the Biscay

No. 19 Group were still using their patrol areas; Musketry was mentioned previously. The areas did alter slightly from time to time, and other areas, named Derange, Seaslug and Percussion were also being used. Between 14 and 27 June patrols in Musketry had sunk one sub and damaged another, while outside them one had been sunk and five damaged. In July Musketry was extended, and within it Coastal sank seven and damaged two; outside it, four more were sunk and another damaged.

Another case where U-boat and aircraft were lost together came on 24 July. Flying Officer W. H. T. Jennings, 172 Squadron, was guided to a surfaced U-boat by his radar man and went in for an attack. The boat’s gunners opened up, hitting the Wellington and presumably killed or wounded the two pilots, for although the depth charges were released, the Wimpy ploughed right into the sub and blew up. Only the rear gunner, Sergeant A. A. Turner, survived. One charge had landed on the boat’s deck and exploded when the crew pushed it overboard. A Wellington of 547 Squadron arrived and attacked the crippled boat, its crew abandoning it. A RN destroyer later picked up thirty-seven Germans, but not, however, its captain, and, hearing shouts from the rear gunner some way off, found him too. Turner had been involved in two other damaging attacks earlier in the year, with other pilots.

Coastal Command HQ still had a fair idea where the U-boats were from the code breakers, but they needed to be on the surface if they were to be located by aircraft. One of the most dramatic events during this period occurred on 30 July. By this time the month had seen five sinkings, one by Flying Officer R. V. Sweeny, an American with 224 Squadron, flying with Pete Cundy’s crew. In company with another Liberator, from 4 Squadron USAAF, U-404 had been sunk on the 28th. The American B-24 had been damaged by the boat’s fire. Bobby Sweeney had been adjutant of the first American Eagle Squadron, his brother Charles having been the inspiration behind the Eagle Squadrons.

On the 30th, U-461, a type IV supply boat, was seen by Flight Lieutenant D. Marrows and his 461 Sunderland crew. By a strange coincidence, the aircraft letter was ‘U’, so it was U-461 meeting 461/U. U-boats were still making crossings of the Bay in groups for mutual protection, and the Marrows’ crew spotted three of them shortly before noon. Other aircraft had found them already, a Halifax from 502 Squadron coming over, and an American B-24, both of which were circling. As the B-24 made a move towards the boats – U-461, U-462 (another supply boat, a Type XI, and U-504, a Type IXC) – the B-24 met the full force of the boats’ gunners. This gave Marrows an opportunity to nip in, managing to straddle U-461 to good effect. Meantime, his gunners blazed away at the other two boats. As the water cleared, survivors could be seen in the water, and a dinghy was dropped, some sailors being seen to get into it. With one remaining charge on board Marrows went for another sub but gunfire made him break away after hits caught the Sunderland.

In the Halifax, Flying Officer August van Rossum, a Dutch pilot in the RAF, had seen the sloops of the 2nd Escort Group heading for the U-boats, and when he arrived, all three aircraft began making attacks, and even another Liberator, from 53 Squadron, joined in, but was hit by flak and headed off. By now the gunfire from the U-boats was making it necessary to bomb them from height, Van Rossum putting a bomb close to the stern of U-462, but he could also see that the U-boat attacked by the Sunderland was being abandoned. Just then shells from the approaching sloops began to explode near the subs. U-504, attacked by Rossum, limped away and began to dive, but the sloops harried her and depth charges finished her off.

On the first day of August, two Sunderlands, one from 10 RAAF, the other from 228 Squadron, sank two U-boats, U-454 and U-383, while on Musketry patrol but the Australian crew were shot down, just six of them being rescued by a sloop, and 228’s machine had also to limp back home, damaged ailerons making it impossible to turn. Everything was being thrown into the Bay battles, even a twin-engined Hampden of 405 RCAF Squadron, that, on the 2nd, assisted a US Liberator of 1 Squadron to sink U-706 in Musketry. This same day U-106 was destroyed by a 228 Sunderland flown by Flying Officer R. D. Hanbury, shared with a 461 Sunderland. Gunners on the boat continued to fight back even as their comrades were taking to dinghies, but then the sub blew up. Thirty-seven of its crew were picked up by a sloop.

A further U-boat group of three was spotted by the crew of a Wellington of 547 Squadron, flown by Pilot Officer J. W. Hermiston RCAF, on the 2nd. They were on their return to base when the airman manning the front gun saw the wake of the first boat. Informing his skipper, he was instructed to take photographs and then open fire when in range. Knowing they would meet the combined fire of the boats, Hermiston decided to drop an anti-sub bomb from 2,000 feet. Sergeant W. Owens, manning the gun, opened accurate fire at the boat, as the others began to close up. Hermiston then decided to drop depth charges, lowering to fifty feet to do so, but they overshot. Bill Owens opened up on other runs, but then all three boats went under. U-218 had been their main target and, while undamaged, Owen had caused so many casualties that she had to abort her mission to Trinidad and return to Brest.

The Germans now countermanded the order to remain on the surface and fight, for this had obviously caused considerable losses. A few still did stay up, but these were generally cases where the boat was surprised and it was too late to dive safely. Those encounters on 2 August were the last for the month, and there were only two in September, a Wellington of 407 Squadron RCAF sinking U-669 on the 7th and a Halifax of 58 Squadron destroying U-221 on the 27th. However, in this attack Flying Officer E. L. Hartley and crew, which included their Station Commander, Group Captain R. C. Mead, was hit by flak as he went in, forcing Hartley to ditch. Two men did not survive the crash, and the others were not rescued for eleven days by the Royal Navy. They had not been searching for them and it was pure luck that they saw their signal flares.

November saw just three successful attacks with two boats sunk and one damaged and just one sunk in December. It had been a momentous year and desperate summer but, with the losses in the North Atlantic, the U-boat arm was all but smashed. However, with the coming invasion, the U-boats and 19 Group, would have one last encounter.



264 Sqn. L7013, PS-U, Martlesham Heath,Suffolk July 1940

War induces combatants to seek advantages by any means possible. In regard to World War II aircraft, the quest for an edge encompassed numerous aspects, such as size, bomb capacity, speed, rate of climb, altitude, maneuverability, and potency of armament. Even though the fundamental configurations of aircraft had been established by the end of World War I, the quest for an advantage in the air brought a spate of new variations into the sky. For every successful innovation, such as the radar-equipped all-weather fighter, there were interesting failures, such as the turret fighter and the lightweight interceptor. And for every evolved or carefully conceived design, there was a wartime improvisation that occasionally worked—though not always as originally intended.

The British should have known better than to develop the turret fighter. The two-seat fighter from which it evolved, the Bristol F.2B of 1917, had achieved its phenomenal success by being flown as a single-seater with a sting in the tail, rather than relying primarily on the rear gunner’s weapon. The F.2B’s successor in 1931, the Hawker Demon, differed little from it in armament, but the problems encountered by the gunner in handling a .303-inch gun in the open cockpit of an airplane flying at nearly twice the Bristol’s speed led the Air Ministry to seek a more advanced weapons system.

One solution to the problem was offered by Boulton Paul Aircraft Ltd., which had been subcontracted to build Demons for the RAF, and which had also obtained the rights to produce an electro-hydraulically operated turret—invented by French engineer Joseph Bernard Antoine de Boysson—capable of traversing 360 degrees and incorporating either a 20mm cannon or four .303-inch machine guns. After seeing the turret demonstrated in the nose of a Boulton Paul Overstrand bomber, the Air Ministry issued a specification for a fighter armed with four machine guns in the de Boysson turret and capable of flying as fast as the Hawker Hurricane fighter. Since Hurricanes were expected to protect the turret fighter from enemy fighters while it attacked enemy bombers from the side or below, the specification limited armament to the turret. Such a measure saved weight, but in essence it made the pilot nothing more than a chauffeur for his gunner—hardly a role that went over well with aggressive fighter jockeys.

Designed by John Dudley North, the Boulton Paul Defiant was a commendably clean and compact airplane, powered by the same 1,030-horsepower Rolls-Royce Merlin III engine used in the Hurricane and the Supermarine Spitfire. A retractable fairing helped to smooth the airflow behind the rear turret when it was not in use, and in spite of the drag that the turret still imposed on it—as well as a gross weight of 8,600 pounds compared to the Hurricane’s 6,218—the Defiant managed a maximum speed of 302 miles per hour at 16,500 feet compared to the Hurricane’s 316. It took the Defiant 11.4 minutes to climb to that altitude, however, whereas the Hurricane could reach it in only 6 1/2 minutes. First flown on August 11, 1937, the Defiant was approved for production, but because Boulton Paul was then relocating from Norwich to a new plant at Wolverhampton, the first operational Defiants were not deployed with No. 264 Squadron until December 1939. When the Germans invaded the Low Countries on May 10, 1940, the unit moved from its training base at Martlesham Heath to Duxford; from there, A Flight flew to Horsham Saint Faith and B Flight returned to Martlesham, where it would operate alongside the Spitfires of No. 66 squadron.

The Defiants did their intended job fairly well in their first combat. On May 11, No. 264’s commander, Squadron Leader Philip A. Hunter, and Pilot Officer Michael H. Young flew an evening convoy patrol as far as the Happisburgh lighthouse. The next day Flt. Lt. Nicholas G. Cooke led A Flight on a patrol off the Dutch coast, accompanied by six Spitfires of No. 66 Squadron. They soon encountered enemy aircraft, and the Defiants drew first blood five miles south of The Hague as a Junkers Ju 88A fell victim to Hunter and his gunner, Sgt. Frederick H. King, while a second was claimed by Young and Leading Aircraftman Stanley B. Johnson. Cooke added a third victory to the squadron’s opening tally when he caught an He 111 six miles south of The Hague and his gunner, Cpl. Albert Lippett, shot it down.

On the following morning, six Defiants of B Flight, accompanied by six Spitfires of 66 Squadron’s A Flight, were flying another sweep over the Dutch coast when they spotted Junkers Ju 87Bs dive-bombing a railway line and attacked. Between them, the British claimed ten of the Stukas—four of which were credited to the Defiants—before themselves coming under attack by Messerschmitt Me 109Es of the 5th Staffel of Jagdgeschwader 26. Flight Lieutenant Kenneth McLeod Gillies, a Spitfire pilot who had shot down a Stuka east of Rotterdam, damaged an Me 109 before 66 Squadron disengaged. One Spitfire fell victim to Ltn. Hans Krug, but its pilot managed to force land his damaged plane in Belgium.

The fight had a much grimmer outcome for 264 Squadron. In their first encounter with enemy fighters, the six Defiant crews found themselves unable to evade the Me 109s, and five were shot down in short order, although only one German, Fw. Erwin Stolz, identified his adversary as a Defiant at the outset; the other victors—Ltn. Eckardt Roch (who claimed three), Leutnant Krug, Uffz. Hans Wemhöhner, and Fw. Wilhelm Meyer—all claimed Spitfires, before subsequently learning the true identity of their adversaries. The sole Defiant pilot to return, Pilot Officer Desmond Kay, claimed that five German fighters went down in the course of the massacre, and they were duly credited to the squadron.

In actuality, the Defiants had managed to shoot down only one of their assailants, who—contrary to popular misconception—already knew what he was up against and fell victim to overconfidence, rather than from mistaking the turret fighter for a single-seater. As Ltn. Karl Borris himself recorded it in his diary:

Enemy contact with a mixed British formation . . . I bank toward a Defiant, I can clearly see the four machine guns in its turret firing; however, I do not think they can track me in a dogfight. I approach closer, and open fire at about seventy meters range. At this moment, something hits my aircraft, hard. I immediately pull up into the clouds and examine the damage. The left side of my instrument panel is shot through; a round had penetrated the Revi [reflex gunsight]; and a fuel line has obviously been hit—the cockpit is swimming in gasoline. The engine coughs and quits, starved of fuel. I push a wing over and drop from the clouds. Unbuckle, canopy off, out!

Borris parachuted onto a dike wall near the mouth of the Rhine River and made his way back to 5./JG 26 four days later. Having lived to profit from this reminder of the price one pays for cockily dismissing any armed opponent, he would survive the war with forty-three victories.

For the next ten days, No. 264 Squadron refrained from operations, but on May 23, its Defiants joined in the RAF’s desperate effort to cover the evacuation of Allied troops from Dunkirk. By the end of the month, the squadron had claimed forty-eight victories—thirty-seven on May 29 alone—but lost nine planes, including that of Cooke and Lippett, killed on the thirty-first. Occasionally, the Defiant’s superficial resemblance to the Hurricane did mislead German fighters into attacking it from the rear, with sometimes fatal results for the attackers. Soon the Germans learned to distinguish between the Defiant and its single-seat stablemates, however, with results that spoke for themselves. A second Defiant unit, No. 141 Squadron, had a disastrous combat debut on June 28, when nine of its planes tangled with Me 109Es and lost seven while claiming only four victories. On July 19, nine more Defiants of 141 Squadron encountered Me 109Es of JG 51 and again lost seven planes, while one of the two surviving crews, Flt. Lt. Hugh N. Tamblyn and Sgt. S. W. N. “Sandy” Powell, claimed one of the enemy in return. In August the Defiant units’ air bases were moved farther north, but the RAF’s need for anything which could fly and fight at that time kept them engaged—and suffering mounting losses. By late 1940, the Defiant Mark Is were being relegated to the night-fighting role, and a radar-equipped version, the Defiant Mark II, was introduced. As such, they did well, being in fact the most successful night fighters of 1941 until sufficient numbers of Bristol Beaufighters and de Havilland Mosquitos became available to phase them out of first-line service.

Vickers Valiant

The Valiant was the first of the famous V-bombers and became the first British aircraft to test-drop nuclear weapons. Ironically, metal fatigue terminated their short and rather useful service.

The aftermath of the U. S. bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki underscored the necessity of nuclear deterrence to maintain peace and security in the postwar period. This was especially true in a world dominated by East-versus-West confrontation. Such prerogatives were in mind when the British Air Ministry issued Specification B. 35/46 in 1946 for a fleet of jet-propelled nuclear bombers. Both Avro and Handley Page submitted designs that were extremely advanced and complicated, culminating in the splendid Vulcan and Victor bombers. However, rather than go charging off into uncharted waters, Vickers forwarded a plan that was deliberately less complicated and promised lower performance. The Air Ministry, wishing it as insurance in case the more advanced machines failed to materialized, then drew up Specification B. 9/48 around the craft. The prototype Valiant first flew in 1951 as an ultramodern, all-metal jet bomber. It was a highwing configuration, with four jets buried in the wing roots, and a high tail. The Valiant flew well enough to warrant production, so in 1955 the first 30 examples of the B 1 model became operational. These were followed by 11 B(PR) 1 reconnaissance versions, 14 B(PR) K 1 reconnaissance/tankers, and 48 BK 1 bomber/tankers. Total production amounted to 104 machines.

Operationally, Valiants highlighted all the diplomatic and military perils of the age. In 1956 several flew from Malta and dropped bombs on Egypt during the Suez Crisis. On October 11 of that same year a Valiant test-dropped the first British atomic weapon over northern Australia. The feat was duplicated on May 15, 1957, when a Valiant dropped Britain’s first thermonuclear device in the Pacific. But as the more capable and modern Vulcans and Victors became operational, Valiants gradually were transferred to refueling duties. They were thus employed until 1964, when widespread metal fatigue caused the active fleet to be scrapped.


Including three prototypes, a total of 107 Valiants were built.

    Valiant B.1: 39 pure bomber variants, including five pre-production Type 674, which were powered by Avon RA.14 engines with the same 9,500 lbf (42 kN) thrust each as the earlier Avon 201 and 34 Type 706 full-production aircraft, powered by Avon RA.28 204 or 205 engines with 10,500 lbf (47 kN) thrust each, longer tailpipes, and water-methanol injection for take-off boost power.

    Type 710 Valiant B(PR).1: eight bomber/photo-reconnaissance aircraft. Edwards and his team had considered use of the Valiant for photo-reconnaissance from the start, and this particular batch of aircraft could accommodate a removable “crate” in the bomb-bay, carrying up to eight narrow-view/high resolution cameras and four survey cameras.

    Type 733 Valiant B(PR)K.1: 13 bomber/photo-reconnaissance/tanker aircraft

    Type 758 Valiant B(K).1: 44 bomber / tanker aircraft. Both tanker variants carried a removable tanker system in the bomb-bay, featuring fuel tanks and a hose-and-drogue aerial refuelling system. A further 16 Valiant B(K).1s were ordered, but cancelled.

    Vickers also considered an air transport version of the Valiant, with a low-mounted wing, wingspan increased to 140 ft (42.7 m) from 114 ft 4 in (34.8 m), fuselage lengthened to 146 ft (44.5 m), and uprated engines. Work on a prototype, designated the Type 1000, began in early 1953. The prototype was to lead to a military transport version, the Type 1002, and a civilian transport version, the Type 1004 or VC.7. The Type 1000 prototype was almost complete when it, too, was cancelled.

Valiant production ended in August 1957.

Specifications (Valiant B.1)

General characteristics

    Crew: five – two pilots, two navigators (one navigator plotter + one navigator bomber), air electronics officer

    Length: 108 ft 3 in (32.99 m)

    Wingspan: 114 ft 4 in (34.85 m)

    Height: 32 ft 2 in (9.80 m)

    Wing area: 2,362 ft² (219 m²)

    Empty weight: 75,881 lb (34,491 kg)

    Max. takeoff weight: 140,000 lb (63,600 kg))

    Powerplant: 4 × Rolls-Royce Avon RA28 Mk 204 turbojet, 10,000 lb (44.6 kN) each


    Maximum speed: 567 mph (493 knots, 913 km/h) at 30,000 ft (9,150 m)

    Range: 4,500 mi (3,910 nmi, 7,245 km) with underwing tanks

    Service ceiling: 54,000 ft (16,500 m)

    Rate of climb: 4,000 ft/min (20 m/s)



        1 × 10,000 lb (4500 kg) Blue Danube nuclear bomb or

        21 × 1,000 lb (450 kg) bombs



Fokker G-1 jachtkruiser – Deel 2

When the Germans finally launched their offensive in the West on May 10, 1940, a powerful new Dutch fighter were ready to stand in their way, though there was not enough of them to do so for long.

Designed by a team headed by Dr. Erich Schatzki, the prototype of the Fokker G-1 twin-engine fighter was first unveiled at the 1936 Paris Salon, where it caused a sensation. A twin-boomed heavy fighter with a central nacelle that could be modified to fulfill a variety of tasks, the G-1 made its first flight on March 16, 1937, and entered service with the Royal Netherlands Air Force in May 1938. Officially referred to as a Jachtkruiser, it came to be nicknamed Le Faucheur (The Reaper) by its crews.

The original G-1, powered by two 830-horsepower Bristol Mercury VIII nine-cylinder radial engines, had no less than eight 7.9mm FN-Browning M36 machine guns in the nose of the nacelle, as well as a ninth gun in a rotating tail cone, in addition to which it could carry an internal bombload of 880 pounds. Another G-1 variant, twelve of which had been intended for use by the Spanish Republican forces before the Dutch government placed an embargo on their export, was powered by two 750-horsepower Pratt & Whitney R-1595-SB4-G Twin Wasp Junior fourteen-cylinder radials and had a nose armament of two 23mm Madsen cannon and two 7.9mm FN-Brownings.

The primary duty of Dutch aircraft during the first months of the war was to guard the country’s neutrality, and it was in that pursuit that the Fokker G.1 first fired its guns in anger. At 2305 Greenwich time on the night of March 27, 1940, Armstrong Whitworth Whitley Mark V N1357, call sign KN-H of No. 77 Squadron, departed Driffield to drop propaganda leaflets, but strayed into Dutch air space on the homeward leg and came under attack at 0630 by a Mercury-powered Fokker G.1 piloted by 1e Luitenant-Vlieger (First Lieutenant) Piet Noomen of the 3e Jachtvliegtuig Afdeling. Set on fire, the Whitley came down on the Vondelingenweg at Pernis. The bomber’s observer, Sgt. J. E. Miller, was killed and is believed to have fallen from the plane seconds before it crashed. The rest of the crew—Flying Officers T. J. Geach and W. P. Copinger, Leading Airman S. E. E. Caplin, and Airman 2nd Class R. B. Barrie—were interned but soon released and returned to Driffield by the Dutch, who may have little suspected that the unwelcome intruders Noomen had intercepted would be his allies just seven weeks later.

A total of twenty-three serviceable Fokker G.1s were available to the Dutch—eleven with the 3e JaVA at Rotterdam/Waalhaven and twelve with the 4e JaVA at Bergen—when the Germans invaded. Expecting trouble, pilots of the 3e JaVA had started their engines at 0300 hours Amsterdam time on May 10, just to warm them up before shutting down again. That would be to their benefit at 0350 (0530 Berlin time), when twenty-eight He 111Ps of II./KG 4, in a succession of three-plane Vs led by the Geschwader-kommandeur, Oberst Martin Fiebig, skirted the Dutch coast, then turned shoreward over the Maas estuary and came from the southwest to bomb the Koolhoven aircraft factory near Waalhaven.

The first of 3e JaVA’s G.1s to get off the runway was apparently No. 312 crewed by Luitenant Noomen and Korporaal (Corporal) H. de Vries, who attacked the three lead Heinkels, damaging one and wounding three crewmen before attacking Fiebig’s He 111P 5J+DA. Noomen was credited with both bombers before return fire compelled him to land with one damaged engine and two punctured fuel tanks after ten minutes in the air. Retiring to the southeast, Fiebig belly-landed south of Zwartedijk fifteen minutes later with his rear gunner mortally wounded; he and the rest of his crew were taken prisoner.

Hard on Noomen’s heels, at 0351 1e Luitenant Jan Pieter Kuipers scrambled up in G.1 309 and engaged a second wave of bombers from KG 4’s 5th Staffel. He had to abort his first attack when his rear gunner, Sgt. Jan Reinder Venema, reported three German aircraft approaching from behind and to the left. Kuipers made a climbing turn to the left, found himself behind three He 111s and opened fire at two hundred meters distance. He subsequently reported:

The enemy gunners immediately responded. The combat offered a fascinating spectacle: all the bullets that the antagonists served up were tracers. My first reaction had to be to try to put the machine-gunners out of action. For that effect, I fired successively on all three airplanes. During that action, the distance between the squadron and I finally came down to 25 to 50 meters.

As we flew over Rotterdam (Charlois quarter), the squadron turned south, all maintaining a tight formation. Southwest of Waalhaven aeroport, the first bomber was finally forced to land on its belly east of Pernis, another Heinkel went into a pronounced turn and fell into a dive. I would not observe the result further because I had already thrown myself into the pursuit of the third machine. However, my Fokker had not left the fight without harm and at a given moment my left motor’s power diminished and then it stopped completely. Forced to make a half turn, it was only with great effort that I succeeded in landing at Waalhaven airport.

It was 0410 as Kuipers and Venema scrambled out of their disabled plane and joined the ground forces defending the airfield. Kuipers assisted an antiaircraft section at the northeast part of the field until Ju 88As of KG 30 attacked them so vigorously that he was forced to take cover in a crater, miraculously emerging unhurt. Most of the antiaircraft gunners were less fortunate. Only after the war did Kuipers learn that Venema was among those killed in the attack.

Meanwhile, at 0352, 2e Lt. Gerben Sonderman, an experienced G.1 test pilot, took off in No. 311, with Sgt. H. Holwerda as his gunner, and headed west to engage a plane he’d spotted milling around the area. This was apparently a Do 17M of the Fernaufklärerstaffel (Long-Range Reconnaissance Squadron) of General (Lieutenant General) Kurt Student’s 7. Fliegerdivision, who was there to observe the airborne assault about to occur. Sonderman drove the Dornier off in a damaged state and claimed to have shot down an “Me 110.”

While the G.1s that scrambled up were engaging the bombers, at 0450 a horde of Ju 52/3m transports of 9th Staffel, Kampfgeschwader zur besonderen Verwendung (Special Purpose Battle Wing) 1 arrived over Waalhaven. G.1 315, crewed by 1e Lt. G. A. van Oorschot and Sgt. W. P. Wesly, attacked an He 111P of 1./KG 4 that had just bombed Ypenberg, chased it as far as Arnhem, damaging it and wounding the rear gunner, and then returned to the Rotterdam area in time to shoot down a Ju 52. Van Oorschot then landed at De Kooy, only to damage 315 on an obstruction on the airfield. Less fortunate was 2e Lt. Johannis van der Jagt in G.1 319, who was last seen attacking a Ju 52 when he was shot down, probably by an escorting Bf 109D flown by Obfw. Hermann Förster of the 12th Staffel (Nacht) of Jagdgeschwader 2.

Sergeantmajoor-Vlieger (Sergeant Major) Jan J. Buwalda was preparing to take off in G.1 No. 330 at 0400 when he saw three unidentified single-engine planes approaching, while Dutch antiaircraft gunners, equally uncertain of their nationality, held their fire. Then the trio—which turned out to be Me 109Es—began strafing the field. Gunning his engine and slaloming between barrages of cannon shells and machine gun bullets, Buwalda managed to get his plane airborne. While he fought for altitude his gunner, Sgt. J. Wagner, noted German bombers coming, while two kilometers to the left, flights of Ju 52s were dropping paratroopers over the airfield. Buwalda recalled:

The Germans destroyed Waalhaven aerodrome to assure their airborne operation. It was 4:00 in the morning, and as the bombardment reached its paroxysm, I succeeded in taking off and found myself in the middle of a packet of bombers flying at 150 meters. In my first attack, I downed a Heinkel . . . then I saw another and I got on his tail, my eight machine guns spitting three short volleys at a distance of 100 meters.

Buwalda was credited with the second plane, a Dornier Do 215 of 2nd Staffel (Fernaufklärung) of the Oberbefehlshaber (Supreme Commander) der Luftwaffe, but then he came under attack by twelve Me 109Es. He dived with the enemy in pursuit, his gunner firing at each in turn, allegedly causing one to explode in the air and shooting down a second. “Then they fired at us from above,” Buwalda said, “hitting both motors and forcing me to the ground. I was unhurt, but Sergeant Wagner was wounded.”

Buwalda’s was probably the Fokker G.1 credited as downed over Zevenbergen at 0450 hours to Obltn. Richard Leppla of 3./JG 51. The other three Fokkers fared somewhat better. Sonderman claimed a Ju 52 and two fighters before being damaged by fighters. One of his assailants, Fw. Peter Keller of 10(N)./JG 2, crash-landed his Bf 109D near Rotterdam, was subsequently transferred from a Dutch compound to England, and spent the rest of the war in a Canadian POW camp. Sergeant H. F. Souffrée in G.1 328 brought down He 111P 5J+DN of 5./KG 4 and claimed an Me 109E, while Lt. K. W. Woudenberg in 329 claimed two Junkers. Unable to return to Waalhaven, the three planes landed on the beach west of Oostvoorne, where they were hurriedly camouflaged. Amid the confusion of the German offensive, however, it was not until the morning of May 14 that Souffrée and his gunner, Sgt. J. C. de Man, managed to return to the beach with fuel, oil, ammunition, and ground personnel for the three G. 1s—only to discover that they had been strafed and set afire by Me 109Es just half an hour earlier.

At Bergen, the Luftwaffe found all twelve Fokker G.1s of the 4e JaVA parked wingtip to wingtip when they attacked at 0359. One Fokker was destroyed and ten damaged, leaving only aircraft No. 321 to take off, with Lt. J. W. Thijsse at the controls, to intercept the next wave of bombers. As he did, however, he came under fire not only from enemy fighters but from Dutch antiaircraft gunners, who were already assuming anything in the air to be German. Thijsse therefore gave up the idea of fighting and sought a safe haven at Schipol airfield—only to find it in flames. He then headed for the beach at Katwijk, where he found three newly landed Ju 52s, which he strafed and set afire. After reconnoitering Ypenberg and Schipol airfields, he opted to return to Bergen, which was having a momentary respite from German attack, and landed at 0620.

Considering the circumstances, the Fokker G.1s—of the 3e JaVA, at least—gave an extraordinarily good account of themselves, shooting down at least a dozen German aircraft in their first chaotic two hours of combat. Heavily armed and easy to fly, though too slow to compete with single-engine fighters, the G.1 had lived up to its nickname of Le Faucheur, but it would only have four more days in which to fight before the Netherlands was overrun. After that, most surviving G.1s became part of a growing trove of war booty, to serve the Germans as trainers for their twin-engine fighter pilots.


The search for ways to improve the flight performance of the CR.714C1 would inevitably lead designers to the idea of using a larger engine. One of the suitable samples was the RC-40 engine of the Italian firm Isotta-Frascini. According to the scheme, it corresponded to Renault 12R – 12-cylinder V-shaped inverted, but developed much higher power – 730 hp. At the same time the working volume of the Italian engine was 21 liters, while the “Renault”, which produced 450 hp, – 19 liters. The project for this engine was initially designated C.715. In December 1938, two prototypes were built (factory numbers 8978 and 8979). The second of them received an Italian motor, as well as the new designation CR.760 and serial number 01.

CR.760 differed from CR.714C1 not only by the engine – its fuselage was not wooden, but had a metal set of chrome-molybdenum pipes. The capacity of the fuel tank was increased to 305 liters. Armament also became more powerful-six 7.5 mm machine guns with an ammunition of 500 cartridges per guns. The production version planed  to replacement the machine guns with a pair of 20-mm guns.

The first copy of the CR.760 in the last quarter of 1939 was ground tested, but for the first time it took off on April 6, 1940, piloted by R. Delmott. In May, the aircraft flew well-known Italian pilot Arthur Ferrarin. The aircraft showed excellent flight data: the maximum speed was 570 km / h, the altitude of 4000 m reached 5 minutes. But  the mass production of the Cr.760 (due to the defeat of France) was never started. The only constructed specimen became a German trophy.

The Cr.770 is an easy fighter developed by the French firm Caudron. The aircraft became the further development of the lightweight Cr.714 Cyclone fighter. Work on the aircraft was conducted since 1939 in parallel with the development of Cr.760. The aircraft was equipped with a sixteen-cylinder air-cooling engine Renault 626 with a power of 800 hp. The aircraft received a reinforced (in comparison with Cr.714) armament consisting of six 7.5-mm MAC-34 machine guns. The first flight of the aircraft took place in June 1940. Further work on the aircraft prevented the German invasion of France.

A concept which persisted throughout World War II was that of the lightweight interceptor, inspired by the matter of mass production amid the exigencies of war. The lightweight fighters’ exact roles varied as much as did their builders’ approaches to achieving them; but they all sought to wring the highest possible performance from the smallest, lightest possible airframe, built using the greatest amount of easily available materials (usually wood) in lieu of strategic materials (such as aluminum). Another thing that most of them held in common was failure. Of the many lightweight interceptors created just before or during the war, only three attained production status, and only one could truly be called successful.

During the mid-1930s, the Service Technique de l’Aéronautique of the French Armée de l’Air laid down a specification for a lightweight interceptor that was influenced by the monoplanes, which were then attracting much publicity in speed competitions. The chosen design, the Caudron-Renault CR.710, was designed by Marcel Riffard and was based on his sleek C.460, which between 1933 and 1936 had been outperforming larger, more powerful aircraft in international competitions. (During which time Renault had bought up the Caudron firm in 1933.) Like the racing plane, Riffard’s CR.710 fighter was of wooden stressed-skin construction and characterized by a long, slim fuselage. Its power plant was a 500-horsepower Renault 12R 01 twelve-cylinder inverted-V air-cooled engine. The first prototype had fixed, spatted landing gear and oval-shaped vertical tail surfaces when it first flew on July 18, 1937, and later carried two wing-mounted drum-fed 20mm Hispano-Suiza HS-9 cannon. The second prototype, CR.710-02, featured more angular vertical tail surfaces, and the CR.713 introduced retractable landing gear. A third version, the CR.714, first flew on July 6, 1938, and differed from the CR.713 primarily in armament, the cannon being replaced by four 7.5mm MAC M39 machine guns, housed in two underwing trays.

After some final modifications, the CR.714, also known as the Cyclone, was ordered into production on November 5. The production CR.714 featured an improved 12R 03 engine, which had a carburetor that allowed negative-G maneuvers. It had maximum speed of 286 miles per hour at 16,450 feet, and climbed to 13,125 feet in 9 minutes and 40 seconds.

The original production order was for twenty CR.714s, with an option for a further hundred eighty, but once the fighter entered service, the Armée de l’Air judged it to be unsuitable for combat. Six were sent to Finland but arrived too late to take part in the Winter War, and desperate though the Finns were for any combat aircraft, they never used the Caudrons in battle. The other Cyclones were assigned to two training squadrons at Lyon-Bron, made up of expatriate Polish pilots. By June 2, a total of thirty-nine CR.714s had been delivered to the Poles, who flew them operationally as Groupe de Chasse I/145, also known as the 1ère Groupe Polonaise de Varsovie, under the joint command of Commandant Józef Kepinski and his French advisor, Commandant Lionel A. de Marmier, a six-victory World War I ace.

For all the Cyclone’s racy looks, the Poles soon became disenchanted with their new mount. It required a long takeoff and landing run; the landing gear release often jammed; the variable-pitch propeller mechanism was prone to failure; the rate of climb was slow and so was the aileron response. Worst of all was the 12R 03 engine, which had trouble starting, was plagued by a weak crankshaft, had a tendency to overheat, and suffered from fuel and oil leaks. Sous-Lieutenant Witold Dobrzynski was killed in a crash on May 19, and three other Caudrons were written off in landing accidents on May 25. After inspecting GC.I/145 on May 25, Air Minister Guy La Chambre considered grounding the interceptors. Kepinski chose to keep them in spite of their faults, however. His men wanted to fight, and with the German offensive in the West under way, they had little choice but to make do with the fighters they had until their intended replacements, Bloch MB.152s, became available.

On June 2, GC.I/145’s Cyclones flew from Villacoublay to the former RAF airfield at Dreux. Combat was joined on June 3, when Commandant de Marmier, Lt. Tadeusz Czerwinski, and Sous-Lt. Aleksy Zukowski dived on three He 111s and shot down two over Villacoublay. The unit carried out further patrols, but its next fight did not occur until June 8, when a flight led by Capitaine Antoni Wczelik engaged at least fifteen Messerschmitt Me 110Cs over Rouen. One Caudron was damaged, but the French confirmed the destruction of two Me 110s by Czerwinski, one each by Wczelik and Zukowski, and one shared between Sous-Lt. Jerzy Godlewski and Caporal Piotr Zaniewski. Kepinski and Sous-Lt. Czeslaw Glówczynski, who was already credited with three and a half enemy planes during the German invasion of Poland, scored probable victories over another two Me 110s.

Perhaps inevitably, GC.I/145’s luck took a turn for the worse the next day, when seventeen Cyclones encountered twenty-five Dornier Do 17s escorted by twenty Me 109Es. Malfunctioning radios prevented the CR.714 pilots from making a coordinated attack, and while Wczelik’s flight hurled itself at the bomber formation, other Poles found themselves engaged in individual duels with the German fighters. Glówczynski was credited with one of the Messerschmitts, along with probable credits for a second Me 109 and a Do 17 (he would add one more German to his score on December 30, 1941, as a Spitfire pilot in the RAF). Sous-Lieutenant Jerzy Czerniak and Sgt. Mieczyslaw Parafinski were credited with one Me 109 each, while Wczelik, Lt. Julian Kowalski, and Sgt. Antoni Markiewicz shared in the destruction of another of the bombers (the Germans reported no Do 17 losses, but Fw. Fritz Specht of II Gruppe, Kampfgeschwader 54 returned to his base at Köln-Butzweilerhof on one engine with the tail and rudder of his Heinkel He 111P badly damaged after being attacked by enemy fighters over Evreux). Lieutenant Jan Obuchowski, Sous-Lt. Lech Lachowicki-Czechowicz, and Caporal Edward Uchto were killed, however, and Kowalski was wounded in the right arm, although he managed to land his damaged plane at Bernay. In addition, the riddled Caudrons of Commandant Kepinski and Sous-Lts. Jerzy Godlewski and Bronislaw Skibinski crash-landed in the Norman countryside, Czerniak crash-landed his shot-up plane at Dreux, and most of the other CR.714s returned in various damaged states.

Twelve of the group’s thirteen remaining CR.714s were operational as they attacked fifteen Do 17s and twelve Me 109s over Étampes on June 10. The Poles’ radios failed again, as de Marmier led them in a head-on attack against the bombers. One Dornier fell to de Marmier, a second to Czerniak, and Zukowski downed a third, while Capitaine Piotr Laguna accounted for an Me 109 over Henonville following a long pursuit. Kepinski was wounded in a lung by Me 109s, but in spite of a considerable loss of blood, he managed to make a wheels-up landing in a field. Capitaine Juliusz Frey, Lt. Waclaw Wilczewski, and Lt. Zdislaw Zadronski were also compelled to force land their shot-up planes.

Kepinski’s executive officer, Capitaine Laguna, took command of what remained of GC.I/145, but there was little left to take charge of. On June 11, French technicians removed the instruments from eleven of the group’s defective Caudrons and then burned them. The remaining twelve Cyclones were withdrawn to Sermaize, from whence eight of GC.I/145’s pilots were assigned to GC.I/1 and eight to GC.I/8, both of which were equipped with MB.152s. The Poles continued to fly missions until June 18, when they learned of France’s capitulation. Released from French service, they departed by ship from La Rochelle on the twentieth, to carry on their fight in Britain. Using hit-and-run tactics to make the most of their faulty fighters, the aggressive Poles of GC.I/145 had managed to shoot down twelve German aircraft and probably downed two others in the course of the Caudron-Renault CR.714’s brief fighting career.


Jet fighters He 162 Volksjäger at Leck May 1945

As the war turned irretrievably against the Third Reich, Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring proposed a Volksjäger, or “People’s Fighter”—a cheap, simple jet made of nonstrategic materials and capable of being flown even by hastily trained Hitler Youth. “Projekt Salamander,” issued on September 8, 1944, was not beyond the technical capabilities of Germany’s advanced aircraft industry at that time, but the requirement that the design be drafted in twelve days and the prototype flying within ninety days placed it in the realm of fantasy. Generalmajor Adolf Galland, chief of the Jagdwaffe, opposed the whole idea, and only the Ernst Heinkel Flugzeugwerke made a serious effort to fulfill it. Working round the clock, the Heinkel designers managed to come up with a basic layout in four days. Of mixed construction, the Heinkel He 162V1 had a fuselage of light steel with a wooden nose cone, a single-piece wooden wing with metal down-angled tips, and twin vertical stabilizers at the ends of a V-shaped tail plane. A BMW 003E axial-flow turbojet engine, producing a maximum of 2,028 pounds of thrust, was mounted above the fuselage aft of the cockpit.

First test-flown by Gotthard Peter on December 6, 1944—incredibly, within the required time frame—the He 162V1 displayed a good turn of speed but marked instability along its longitudinal axis. During a subsequent flight on December 10, it reached a speed of 560 miles per hour at 20,000 feet—faster than an Me 262—but during a final high-speed run at low altitude, the He 162 suddenly rolled hard to the right and crashed in a fireball, killing Peter. An investigation concluded that the glue used in the plane’s wing had failed under the aerodynamic stresses of high-speed flight.

By that time, Göring had already committed Heinkel to the production of his pet project, so its engineers did their best to make it more stable, increasing the wing area and the span of its tail plane. Because the twin 30mm MK 108 cannon intended for the He 162A-1 placed excessive stress on its light airframe, two fuselage-mounted 20mm MG 151s had to be substituted in the He 162A-2. Given the location of the engine intake, waiting to suck in the pilot if he had to bail out, an ejection seat, activated by an explosive cartridge, was added. The definitive He 162A-2 model was rushed into production, but a two-seat version was never built, and training consisted of veteran pilots getting a cockpit briefing at Erprobungskommando 162 at Rechlin-Roggenthin, and then going up to take its measure solo. In February 1945, the He 162 Spatz (Sparrow) entered service in JG 1, commanded by Oberstleutnant (Lieutenant Colonel) Herbert Ihlefeld.

Ihlefeld, a 123-victory ace who had scored his first nine flying Bf-109Bs over Spain, was not impressed with this latest Heinkel product. “The jet was rubbish,” he said in a telephone interview in 1989. “Wood and glue. In very cold temperatures it became brittle. The shaking from the engine made it a death trap, but when the weather warmed up it became flexible. In my opinion it was a flying torch. Just a sad waste of resources, really.”

By mid-March, JG 1 had twenty-five combat-ready He 162s, but the loss of nine experienced pilots killed and five injured in accidents, against only one to enemy action, gave a clue as to how the Volksjäger would have fared in the hands of a neophyte Hitlerjugend. The earliest combat loss, Harald Bauer, was ferrying an He 162 to Varel on March 24 when he was spotted by the lead navigator of a B-17G of the 390th Bomb Group, who directed escorting Mustangs to shoot him down. Wounded in the leg and discounting bailing out as too chancy an option, Bauer belly-landed and found himself surrounded by American soldiers of the 2nd Armored Division, who promptly took him prisoner. Oddly, no corresponding claim has been found among VIII Fighter Command’s Mustang pilots for that day.

On April 15, Ltn. Rudolf Schmitt of 1./JG 1 claimed to have had a brief, bloodless run-in with a Spitfire. On the nineteenth, a captured Royal Air Force pilot claimed to have been shot down by a jet, and Oberst Ihlefeld attributed the victory to Fähnenjunker-Feldwebel (Sergeant/Officer Cadet) Günther Kirschner of the 3rd Staffel (3./JG 1). Kirschner himself was unavailable to testify, however, because shortly afterward he crashed to his death. He was apparently the victim of Flying Officer Geoff Walkington, a Tempest V pilot of No. 222 Squadron RAF, who claimed to have attacked a small twin-tailed jet fighter he’d never seen before, and although unable to catch up at 360 miles per hour, he saw it make the fatal effort of turning sharply to the right, allowing him to close the range and shoot it down.

With casualties mounting, Ihlefeld, joined by Galland and other veteran officers, confronted Göring at his estate at Karinhall. As Ihlefeld recalled it:

Galland was very much against the Volksjäger, claiming that it was a waste of time, money and lives. He argued that it was stupid to place these young boys in this thing. I agreed, and this was in front of Göring, in April. Göring waved away our concerns, and he told Galland, “You will do as you are told, and so will you, Ihlefeld.” Well, I told him that unless I saw that a pilot was well qualified, I would not be responsible for killing young men. Galland then said that he would never follow that order. Göring turned red and became angry, but said, “Then do what you can.” We left Karinhall with the others, and everyone just looked at me. [Günther] Lützow said, “What will you do, Herbert?” I told him that as far as I was concerned, my new pilots would all be unable to pass the flight physical.

JG 1 formally began operations against low-flying Allied fighter bombers on April 21. Three days later, Hptmn. Paul Heinrich Dähne, Gruppenkommandeur of II./JG 1 and a Ritterkreuz recipient with ninety-nine victories previously scored over the Eastern Front, lost control of his He 162 and crashed near Warnemünde, dying due to a malfunction of the ejection system. On the twenty-sixth, Uffz. Helmut Rechenbach of 3./JG 1 claimed a de Havilland Mosquito, with his Staffelführer, Obltn. Emil Demuth, and Stabsintendant (Staff Director) Siegfried present to bear witness, but again the victor fatally crashed soon afterward, before he could submit a combat report.

On May 1, JG 1 was based at Leck in Schleswig-Holstein, from which Ltn. Rudi Schmitt was flying his fifth mission on May 4 when he caught what he reported as a low-flying Hawker Typhoon and sent it crashing to earth. In fact, Flying Officer M. Austin of No. 486 Squadron, Royal New Zealand Air Force, was shot down, bailed out of his Tempest, and was taken prisoner. Unfortunately for Schmitt, however, his claim was disputed by a local flak unit, which got the credit instead. Any further hopes for the Volksjäger to balance some success against all the sweat and blood which had gone into its hurried creation ended that evening, as British troops occupied Leck.

Because of Göring’s crash program, numerous He 162s were available for the Allies to evaluate—and later to preserve in their museums. While the Me 262 pointed to the future, however, the He 162 endures merely as an aeronautical curiosity, a monument to desperation, and a far-fetched deviation along the road to jet-plane development.

The Heinkel He 162 Volksjaeger

Heinkel He 162 Volksjäger in Detail

AIRPOWER 1918 Part I

1918 Gotha G.Va – Taras Shtyk

1918 Fokker DVII Hermann Göring – Taras Shtyk

1918 Siemens Schuckert D.III Ernst Udet – Taras Shtyk

1918 Caproni Ca-42

Integral to the balance of intelligence advantage was air superiority, which had never been more fiercely contested than in 1918. During the war aircraft speeds and ceilings had doubled, engine horsepower quadrupled, and bomb payloads grew even more. German aeroplane speeds had risen from 80 to 200 kilometres per hour, and maximum loads from 3.5 to 1,000 kilograms. Since the development of fighters (or ‘pursuit’ aircraft as the Allies called them – ‘hunter aircraft’ or Jagdflugzeuge was the German term), combat had spread into the skies. Aircraft took up roles that they would keep through the Second World War and beyond: not just guiding the artillery but also striking ground targets as a form of flying artillery themselves. They operated at sea and in every theatre on land. They also embarked upon strategic bombing.

By 1918 ‘strategical’ bombing existed as a concept and was discussed as such in the newly formed British Air Staff and Air Ministry. It meant attacks on home-front targets such as cities, factories, and railways rather than the enemy forces. Militarily the two sides’ efforts in good measure cancelled each other out, but bomber raids on Paris and London hardened Allied public opinion against Germany, and prompted reprisal raids, which if the war had continued would have become much bigger. An escalation dynamic was in evidence that anticipated later tragedies, although as yet the technology was scarcely comparable to that which a generation later laid waste to Europe.

The first Hague Peace Conference in 1899 had banned the dropping of projectiles from balloons but only for a five-year period, and before 1914 the popular press and fiction writers had foreseen air attacks on cities. London’s vulnerability caused a panic in 1913.83 After war began, humanitarian considerations caused little hesitation. The French bombed Ludwigshafen in 1914, and they and the British continued to raid enemy border towns into 1915–16, although neither had yet developed specialized bomber aircraft and the damage caused was slight. From Germany, only Zeppelin airships could reach London, and they came under the German navy. Gradually Wilhelm – who had scruples about targeting historic buildings and his cousins’ palaces, while the Chancellor was worried about neutral public opinion – ceded to the navy’s enthusiasm, and raids on London began on 31 May 1915. For some months the British had no answer, but during 1916 new BE2C aircraft arrived that climbed higher and were stable at night, and fired incendiary ‘Buckingham’ bullets. Supported by better anti-aircraft guns, searchlights, and an improved ground observer system, they shot down so many Zeppelins that from September 1916 raids on London ceased. Because of raw-material shortages the airships’ skin was no longer rubberized, and their ribs consisted of wood rather than aluminium, making them even more flammable. The danger seemed over, and in early 1917 the British authorities were winding down their civil defence arrangements.

But the Zeppelins prepared the way for bombing by aircraft. German engineers had been working on the Gotha G-IV bomber since the start of the war, and the OHL wanted it ready for raids to coincide with unrestricted submarine warfare. London, 175 miles from the Gothas’ bases in Belgium, fell within their 500-mile range. Unlike French cities, it could be approached over water, without ground defences, and the Thames estuary provided a conspicuous guideline. Gothas carried a smaller payload than did Zeppelins, but they were faster (87 mph), higher (up to 10,500 feet), more heavily armed (carrying three machine guns), and harder to shoot down. Moreover, whereas the British decrypted the Zeppelins’ wireless code and always had warning of their arrival, the first daylight Gotha raids (codenamed Operation Türkenkreuz) were unanticipated. They killed and injured 290 people at Folkestone on 25 May, and on 13 June they killed and injured 594 in bombing centred on London’s Liverpool Street Station and the East End, including eighteen children at the Upper North Street school in the East India Dock Road; on 7 July another raid on the capital claimed 250 more casualties. By this stage there was media uproar and tense discussion in the War Cabinet. Two fighter squadrons returned from the Western Front (over Haig’s protests) – and a new agency, the London Air Defence Area (LADA), was created under Major Edward B. Ashmore, a gunner moved from Flanders. Ashmore added another barrier of fighters east of London and altered their tactics so that they attacked the Gothas in groups rather than singly, and the same bad weather that bedevilled British troops in Belgium assisted him. In three raids during August the Gothas failed to reach London, and in the last they lost three aircraft, one to AA fire and two to fighters. Perhaps prematurely, they switched to night attacks.

Night bomber attacks were the last and most challenging of the threats against London during the war. Now the Gothas were joined by Riesenflugzeuge or ‘Giants’, with a 138-foot wingspan (that of a B-29 Superfortress in the Second World War), a maximum height of 19,000 feet, nine crew wearing heated flying suits, six machine guns, and a payload of up to 2 tons, including 1,000-kilogram bombs that could wreck a housing block. They could take enormous punishment, and none were ever shot down. During ‘the blitz of the harvest moon’ between 24 September and 1 October 1917 night-flying bombers visited London six times. For the British this was the most trying time: their anti-aircraft batteries were nearing exhaustion due to ammunition expenditure and deterioration of the barrels, 100,000–300,000 people took shelter in the Underground each evening, and up to one sixth of munitions production was lost, although contemporary estimates ran much higher. Worsening weather and wear and tear on the bombers and their crews then provided relief, and during the winter Ashmore installed better searchlights and balloon barrages while the Sopwith Camel proved itself as an effective night fighter. As in the campaign against the U-boats, there was no one spectacular turning point but gradually the defenders inflicted greater losses and the attackers caused less damage. From October the British read German wireless messages, and once given more warning their aircraft destroyed an average of one tenth of the Gothas on each raid. Terrible episodes still took place, such as the bombing of a basement shelter in Long Acre on 28 January, with over a hundred killed and wounded. But in the biggest raid of all, on 19 May 1918, forty-three aircraft took off but six were lost in action and seven in accidents, while according to a survey by the medical journal The Lancet the civilian mood had now improved. From this point raids on London (though not the provinces) ended, in part to redirect the bombers to the Western Front. In addition the campaign was taking a growing toll of aircraft, a total of twenty-four being lost in action and another thirty-seven in accidents. Partly because of raw-material shortages the Gothas were shoddily made, and their undercarriage was liable to collapse on landing. By 1918, moreover, British fighters could be mobilized much faster and Ashmore established an operations control room where observers’ reports were centralized and instructions coordinated in a manner prefiguring the second and more celebrated Battle of Britain.

A parallel Gotha campaign against Paris began on 30–31 January 1918, leaflets dropped over the trenches justifying it on the grounds that the French had refused peace. By 15 September a total of fourteen raids had dropped 664 bombs, although the heaviest attacks came in the spring, seventy people dying on 11 March in a panic crush at the Bolivar Métro station. As against London, the Germans launched a multi-faceted attack on the city’s morale, as the Gotha raids preceded the ‘Michael’ offensive and on 22 March the first shell landed from the ‘Paris gun’, the precursor to 370 more between 23 March and 8 August. In fact the gun caused greater shock than the Gothas, which dropped 30 tons of bombs compared with 100 tons on Britain. Fighters played a smaller role in air defence than in London, partly owing to a shortage of planes, so anti-aircraft guns were the main – and quite effective – defensive implement. Even though Paris was only two hours’ flying time from the enemy trenches, few of the bombers reached their destination and most got lost or turned back. Only eleven of the thirty Gothas that departed on 30 January arrived, and of 483 sent in total thirteen were shot down and only thirty-seven got through to the city.

Total casualties in Paris from air raids were 266 killed and 603 wounded (the Paris gun killing a further 256 and wounding sixty-two), while British casualties in the Gotha and Giant raids numbered 856 dead and 1,965 wounded, and the property damage was estimated at £1.5m. Ashmore later compared these figures to the more than 700 lives lost annually in London in the 1920s on the roads. Certainly they were small in comparison with the thousands dying daily on the Western Front, and the Germans could have pursued the campaign more ruthlessly. By August 1918 they had ready a new device based on magnesium and aluminium, the Elektron Bomb, which was incendiary enough to set off firestorms. After delays due to bad weather, a raid on London was planned for 23 September. But at the last moment Ludendorff called it off, because the German government feared reprisals, but perhaps also because he was already contemplating the ceasefire appeal that he demanded five days later. Humanitarian sentiment, however, formed no particular constraint. When in 1917 Bethmann Hollweg complained that Gotha bombing was ‘irritating the chauvinistic and fanatical instincts of the English nation without cause’, Hindenburg replied that being conciliatory would gain nothing and the raids kept war material away from the Western Front: ‘It is regrettable, but inevitable, that they cause the loss of innocent lives as well.’ More important as a limiting factor were technical considerations. A Giant cost over half a million marks and each one needed a fifty-man ground crew: only eighteen were built. Even the cost of a Gotha doubled between 1916 and 1917. Although supposedly aircraft were second only to submarines in their claims on manufacturing resources, Germany lacked the manpower and raw materials to fulfil its construction programmes, and strategic bombing competed with the needs of army support. In addition the prevalent cloudy weather over North-Western Europe hindered all kinds of air activity (as over Kosovo as late as 1999), but especially bombing: which meant sustained attacks as in September 1917 were rare. And in comparison with their Second World War successors, 1918 bombers carried tiny payloads and delivered them inaccurately, not least because bombsights were still under development. The Gothas attacking London operated at the limit of their range, under fire, and mostly at night, and achieved little beyond random terror. They hardly damaged docks and railways or the armaments industry, even the enormous complex at Woolwich Arsenal being hit just once. Hence the main practical consequence was to tie up Allied resources in air defence, which Hindenburg and the commanding general of the German air force, Ernest von Hoeppner, recognized as an objective. At least in this respect they had considerable success. Britain lost forty-five aircraft and seventy-eight aircrew in the battles over its home islands, all the latter in accidents, whereas German casualties were several times heavier. But while in 1917–18 Germany committed approximately 100 Gothas, 15 Giants, and 30 Zeppelins to the British campaign, Britain committed some 200 aircraft to its defence, supported by searchlights and by anti-aircraft guns crewed by 14,000 ground personnel.

Nor was this the end of the reckoning, as the Gotha raids caused a redirection in British air policy, which otherwise would not have happened at this time, nor met so little resistance. After the Liverpool Street bombing, the Cabinet decided almost to double the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) from 108 to 200 squadrons, with most of the extra aeroplanes being equipped for bombing. Although this target was never reached, production rates rose substantially. Jan-Christian Smuts, the South African general and former defence minister who had joined Lloyd George’s War Cabinet, reported to it on 9 August that ‘the day may not be far off when aerial operations with their devastation of enemy lands and destruction of industrial centres and population centres on a vast scale may become the principal operations of war, to which the older forms of military operations may become secondary and subordinate’. He recommended merging the RFC with the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS), under an Air Ministry with its own air staff to plan for the employment of an aircraft surplus that the Ministry of Munitions – overconfidently – expected. Motivated partly by reports that Germany planned a huge bomber expansion, the government approved Smuts’s recommendations and passed legislation to create the Air Ministry in January 1918, the merger into the new RAF following in April. Finally, in the wake of the ‘harvest moon’ raids, the Cabinet authorized immediate reprisals. The climax of the German raids on London and Paris was followed by the climax of the Allied air assault on the Rhineland.

The 1918 strategic air offensive against Germany was predominantly British. The Americans took part, using British DH9 bombers, and suffered heavily, but the French high command was ambivalent, partly because it feared retaliation and partly because it believed that bombs were better employed against the German army and its staging areas. The French had developed the fast and high-flying Bréguet XIV B.2 two-seater bomber, which could be escorted over Germany by a long-distance heavy fighter, the Caudron R.XI. During 1918 they fought a battle of attrition: in the first quarter they dropped 200 tons of bombs and lost 20 aircraft; in the second they dropped 500 tons but lost 50 and the authorities hesitated over whether to continue; but in the third quarter they dropped 700 tons and lost 29 and in October they dropped 600 tons and lost 3. They were slowly winning mastery of the German skies. As for the British, from October 1917 their 41st wing carried out day and night attacks on Germany from Ochey in Lorraine. In June 1918, the Independent Force, RAF (or IF) was created, under the command of Sir Hugh Trenchard, previously commander of the RFC. Now the raids were intensified and their radius lengthened. According to Sir Frederick Sykes, the Chief of the Air Staff, ‘as the offensive is the dominant factor in war, so is the Strategic Air Offensive the dominant factor in air power’, and the offensive would aim to dislocate the enemy munitions industries, attack the U-boats in their bases, and ‘bring about far-reaching moral and political effects in Germany’. Between October 1917 and November 1918, 508 raids took place, dropping 14,911 high-explosive bombs and 816,019 incendiaries. In July and August the British went to the limits of their range, bombing Cologne, Frankfurt, Mannheim, and Darmstadt. The Air Staff priority for 1919 was the Ruhr’s steel and chemical industries, and the new Handley Page V/500 bomber, becoming available in November 1918, could reach Berlin.

Yet if anything the Allies’ raids were less destructive than Germany’s. German casualties from air raids during the war totalled 746 killed and 1,843 injured: the damage was valued at 24 million marks (£1.2m), but industrial disruption was slight. Sykes cited photographic evidence of damage to factories and German press reports that the Rhinelanders were demanding more protection, but a post-war RAF investigation was more sceptical. Although alerts and sleepless nights disheartened the workforce, few blast furnaces were damaged and the huge BASF chemical works at Ludwigshafen, a major target, never had to shut down. Similarly the French tried to halt supplies from the Briey iron ore mines in Lorraine, a location close to their border that produced 80 per cent of Germany’s output, but their efforts were completely ineffective.

Three main explanations can be cited, the first being technical. By late 1944 Britain and America were dropping 90,000 tons of bombs on Germany per month in 18,000 sorties, as a result of which the Third Reich’s armaments output finally began to decline: between October 1917 and November 1918 the British dropped 665 tons in total, and less accurately. Similarly an Allied campaign in June–July 1918 dropped 61 tons of bombs over the Germans’ railways but demonstrated that bombs could not destroy trains unless landing within a few feet of them. Germany’s fruitless efforts in June to smash the Allies’ crucial railway viaduct at Etaples pointed to the same conclusion. Moreover, the Allied bombers had just five and a half hours’ endurance, so only Germany’s south-western corner was in reach. The weather was another obstacle, the campaign winding down as the autumn skies became more clouded. And although the British DH4 bomber was a dependable workhorse, the new DH9 proved constantly unreliable and many missions were abandoned because of engine failure.

The second explanation was the Germans’ countermeasures. In 1916 they introduced a centralized observation system and unified fighter defence, later supplemented by searchlights, anti-aircraft guns, and balloons. In summer 1918 they reinforced their fighters to 320; and British losses became formidable: 104 day bombers and thirty-four night ones were lost to German action and 320 crashed behind Allied lines, while in September the IF lost 75 per cent of its aircraft in one month. By the end of the war air defence, like the rest of German aviation, was being slowly paralysed by shortages, but until then it exacted a high price.

The third and final impediment came from the Allies’ own priorities and policies. Foch shared the general French lack of enthusiasm, stating in a 1 April directive that ground attacks against the enemy troops should be the main objective (and air fighting only as necessary to achieve it) alongside bombing of key railway junctions. He wanted the IF under his authority. In October the British agreed to an inter-Allied bombing force under Trenchard that would be answerable to the Marshal, and this body would have overseen strategic bombing in 1919. But Trenchard himself never carried out operations as the air staff had intended, and like the French he was a strategic bombing sceptic who as RFC commander had seen his primary duty as assisting the army. Although Sykes instructed the Independent Force to ‘obliterate’ first the German chemical industry and then the Lorraine steel industry, in fact of 416 raids between June and September 1918 only thirty-four were against chemical plants and another thirty-four against steel plants, whereas 185 were against rail targets and 139 against aerodromes, objectives that Trenchard had been told to leave for other parts of the RAF. Even the locations on which effort was concentrated escaped critical damage: the ‘railway triangle’ round Metz and Sablon was the most heavily attacked single target, but traffic there was never halted for long. It was also true that Trenchard never received a force commensurate with the government’s initial intentions, as although the IF grew from five to nine squadrons he had been required to plan for thirty-four. Only 427 of the 1,817 bombing aircraft sent from Britain to France in 1918 went to the IF, and at the armistice only 140 of the 1,799 RAF aircraft on the Western Front were assigned to it. Various reasons lay behind this, notably that the expected production surplus did not materialize and losses during the Ludendorff offensives were heavy. But even a much larger Independent Force would have achieved little, and airpower’s most important function remained direct support of the armies.


1918 Aviatik Berg D.I at War – R. Zanello

1918 Gotha GL VII -Taras Shtyk

1918 Sopwith 2F1 Camel N6603 HMS Pegasus – Taras Shtyk

1918 SE5a 40 Squadron Gwilym Hugh Lewis – Taras Shtyk

Since 1914 reconnaissance had been a vital function of airpower, in the rudimentary period of trench warfare much of it still carried out from balloons, although sturdy two-seater observation planes increasingly replaced them. By 1916 specialized fighters were emerging, to shoot down the balloons and observation aircraft, but also to escort and defend them. By 1917 further new functions of ground attack and long-distance bombing were coming into their own. Throughout this evolution, in a microcosm of the war as a whole, the Allies had the advantage in numbers but the Germans were their equal and often their superior in quality, and regularly inflicted heavier losses. The latter’s advantage arose partly from an early lead in engine technology (assisted by their development of airships), but also from the peculiar characteristics of the air campaign. Two thirds of aerial combats took place over the German side of the line, the prevailing pattern being for the British (and to a lesser extent the French) to seek command of German airspace while denying Allied airspace to the enemy. According to an RFC memorandum, ‘The successful performance of the roles of the RFC in defence must primarily depend on its ability to gain and maintain the ascendancy in the air. This can only be done by attacking and defeating the enemy’s air force.’ Thereby the Allies exposed themselves to the hit-and-run tactics of which the ‘Red Baron’, Manfred von Richthofen, and his ‘circus’ were masters. None the less, by 1918 patrols by multi-squadron units and dogfights between dozens of aircraft were not uncommon, and the exploits of individual ‘aces’ – many of whom perished during the year – were becoming more peripheral. At times, particularly during the ‘Fokker scourge’ of winter 1915–16, and ‘bloody April’ in 1917, new aircraft types had given the Germans an extra edge, but at the end of 1917 Allied fighters such as the British Sopwith Camel and SE5a and the French Spad XIII (the most manufactured aircraft of the war), had restored near qualitative parity. Although the Germans hoped, with a new fighter generation, to tip the balance back their way, they never quite managed it.

Airpower was integral to the OHL’s new offensive doctrine. Pre-attack reconnaissance would be ‘of deciding importance’. Once the attack began, aircraft should hit enemy aerodromes, camps, and railway stations before turning to their infantry and artillery. Preparations in winter 1917–18 included war games under Hoeppner’s direction. Overflights began in January, using Rumpler and LVG reconnaissance aircraft, to identify targets along the Allied lines and behind them. In keeping with their concern to avoid detection, the Germans maintained high activity even away from the attack zone, while above the latter they tried to disarm suspicion by not preventing Allied overflights. Similarly, new hangars were built all along the Western Front, not just in the designated area. None the less, over half Germany’s fighters and bombers were concentrated on the ‘Michael’ sector, as well as new and strongly armoured two-seaters that were specially designed for ground attack and gathered in thirty-eight Schlachtstaffeln. As of 21 March along the entire British front the British had 1,255 aircraft and the Germans 1,020 while on the French front 2,590 French aircraft faced 471 German ones, but in the battle sector south of Arras the British were outnumbered by 579 to 730. Whereas the British spread their airpower the Germans could focus it because they knew where the battleground would be, and their adversaries were slow to detect it. In fact, the RFC in January and February did spot preparations opposite the British Third and Fifth Armies, including railway and aerodrome construction, forward dumping of supplies, and extra railway movements. It dropped bombs night and day on German aerodromes, railways, billets, and munitions dumps, and although the German air force was deliberately inactive it engaged in dogfights, including one on 18 March over Busigny station that involved Richthofen’s circus and was one of the biggest yet seen. But even though the RFC could generally operate over German lines, its bombing caused little disruption, and it failed to detect the southernmost extension of the German attack opposite Gough’s Fifth Army.

‘Michael’ was accompanied by the biggest aerial confrontation yet seen. The morning mist on the opening days impeded the Germans from exploiting their superiority while it was greatest. None the less, they monitored their infantry advance, and harassed the retreating British, the Schlachtstaffeln going into action on the first afternoon. On 24 March, German pilots observed the gap emerging between the British and French armies. But abundant targets presented themselves to both sides, as the infantry, artillery, and supply trains emerged from cover to cross open ground in daylight, and one pre-eminent feature of the battle was ground attack. A second was that the normal liaison between aircraft and artillery broke down. On the German side this was partly due to an avoidable error, against which Hoeppner had warned: the OHL had transferred from the air service to the Signals Corps the ground crews and materiel needed to assure communication, and inexperienced and inadequately trained personnel replaced them. On the British side, gun batteries in makeshift positions often failed to put up their wireless masts, so that even when the RFC reported enemy troops and batteries, no bombardments were directed against them. Although aircraft-directed artillery fire might have been preferable to using the aircraft themselves for ground attack, in the confusion of the retreat it was frequently unavailable as an option.

In the opening phase the RFC lost many more airfields than expected, but it improvised new ones and moved back its supply depots, while enough reserve machines were available simply to replace damaged aeroplanes without spending time repairing them. Conversely, as the Germans moved forward, they too needed to improvise new airfields, but the old Somme battlefield offered few favourable sites: a problem the more serious because German fighters (typically designed for high-performance interception) had an average endurance of only ninety minutes, whereas that of Allied fighters was 150. Moreover, the RFC could reinforce any part of the British sector of the Western Front in at most one and a half hours’ flying time. For these reasons, after 23 March the British (assisted by French aircraft) regained superiority, which they used to avoid dogfights and concentrate on aiding the ground troops, the Chief of the Air Staff instructing that ‘very low flying is essential. All risks to be taken.’ Over the battle as a whole, RFC losses were twice those of the Germans and many were due to ground fire. Yet even in these desperate circumstances, the British were as usual counting: so that whereas on 21 March they fired 21,000 machine-gun rounds and dropped 15.5 tons on ground targets, by 27 March the figures were 313,345 rounds and 50 tons. At first the priority was to help the Third Army prevent a break-out across the old Somme battlefield, but thereafter the focus shifted south to the Fifth Army. German reports to the OHL testified to the chaos and disorientation caused by incessant Allied strafing, which forced columns to scatter and reduced the roads to chaos. In general, airpower delivered to the Germans the reconnaissance needed for Bruchmüller’s bombardment, but little more: fog grounded the Schlachtstaffeln for much of the first two days and thereafter the Allies regained the advantage. On the other hand, aerial observation told the British much of the story about where and when the attack was coming, but missed some crucial details. At first the RFC gave the ground troops little assistance, but later its role expanded, even if the infantry and artillery played the principal part in halting Ludendorff. On 4 April Trenchard told the Cabinet that since 19 March the RFC/RAF had dropped 319 tons of bombs and fired over 1 million machine-gun rounds at ground targets. It had destroyed 244 enemy planes and driven down 122 more: ‘there was a feeling at the front that we had definite air superiority over the battle zone’.

‘Michael’ set a pattern. British overflights detected the German transport movements towards the Lys in early April, and on the 6th reported advanced preparations against the Portuguese, but GHQ supposed this attack to be diversionary and ordered only limited pre-emptive bombing. All the same, the Germans again lost numerical superiority after the first two days of the battle, partly because the swampy terrain made it difficult to create new forward aerodromes. Fog and cloud again prevented them from maximizing their advantage, and by the time the battle reached its crisis on 12 April the weather had cleared and the RAF been reinforced. It flew more hours, took more photographs, and dropped more bombs than on any other day of the war, firing 114,904 machine-gun rounds and issuing eighty-nine calls for artillery support, while 137 aircraft harried the enemy drive towards Hazebrouck. The Germans’ infantry complained of inadequate protection, and they suffered another blow when Richthofen was brought down and killed on 21 April. In the later stages of ‘Georgette’, although German aircraft contributed to the taking of Mount Kemmel, bad weather again restricted airpower’s role. Overall, as in the ‘Michael’ battle, it helped to stem the German tide in the critical phase, but it is hard to see its contribution as indispensable.

During ‘Michael’ the French had moved aircraft to Picardy to bomb the German crossings of the Somme and the Crozat Canal and to attack enemy troops in formations of up to eighty. But although the French air force was bigger than the RAF, during March and April it remained quiet. Unlike the British, GQG’s approach was not to maintain a continuous fighter presence but to create mixed groupements (groupings) of fighters and bombers for mass intervention in critical sectors. Even so, above the Chemin des Dames in May the Germans again won the initial advantage, largely due to surprise. Intensified French overflights had missed the German preparations, while British pilots in the sector had detected only clouds of dust. On 27 May itself liaison between the Allied artillery and aviation broke down along with everything else. The Germans had just taken delivery of the Fokker D-VII, widely considered the best fighter of the war, and they overran many French airfields intact. In addition, communication improved between the German pilots and headquarters, so that this time the Schlachtstaffeln could act as intended, and delayed French reinforcements by interdicting rail traffic. Yet even when the Germans held so many advantages the French still responded rapidly, Pétain ordering a groupement to depart early on 27 May and the first planes taking off an hour later. Between 31 May and 4 June the French shot down or damaged over 100 German aircraft and dropped 200 tons of explosives, and the Chemin des Dames marked the high-water mark of the Germans’ air effectiveness as of their effectiveness generally. In the Battle of the Matz French fighters commanded the skies two days after the start, and French bombers attacked the German artillery during Mangin’s counteroffensive. The British also assisted, and assisted again against the final German offensive on 15 July, nine RAF squadrons flying down a day beforehand at Foch’s request. Night reconnaissance – which first became important in 1918 – gave warning of this attack, and one of the most striking uses of Allied airpower was against the German bridges over the Marne. In Italy, similarly, the Italians had enjoyed the air advantage before 1917, but they lost it when the Germans reinforced the Austrians before the Battle of Caporetto, only for the Allied air forces to regain it early in 1918 and add it to their other intelligence advantages before the Battle of the Piave. When the Austrians attacked, the cloud was too low for the RAF to assist the British troops in the Asiago sector, but they were redirected to helping the Italians, up to fifty British aircraft at a time in the following days attacking the Austrian pontoon bridges. Repeatedly the Allies deprived the Central Powers of air superiority, and whether over the Somme, Marne, or Piave, they benefited more from airpower than did their enemies.

In the offensive phase after mid-July the Allies maintained this advantage, although it was smaller than the raw numbers might indicate. For the Battle of Amiens they assembled a crushing initial preponderance of 800 British and 1,104 French aircraft against 365 German ones, most of the German air force being still away in Champagne. During the first morning, after the mist lifted, the RAF attacked enemy artillery, rail and horse-drawn transport, and infantry columns, but in the afternoon all available aircraft were concentrated on attempting to destroy the Somme bridges. This effort continued for two days, and led to some of the fiercest aerial combat yet seen. Unusually, the Germans abandoned their guerrilla tactics and also committed their forces en masse, including the Richthofen circus, commanded since its founder’s death by Hermann Goering. On 8 August the RAF lost ninety-six aircraft and on 9 August another forty-five, and by 10 August it had thrown in over 70 per cent of its single-seat fighters; yet although the Richthofen circus was pulled out and never recovered, not one of the fourteen bridges was seriously damaged.

Certainly air mastery helped assure surprise, from Amiens to Megiddo, and the Allies used it to conceal their preparations – for example, flying at night to drown out tank noise – although generally like the Germans they avoided intense pre-battle activity in order to avert suspicion. By September they were shooting down great numbers of the Germans’ observation balloons. On attack days they struck at enemy infantry and artillery, particularly successfully in the Drocourt–Quéant Switch battle on 2 September. On the same occasion they dropped ammunition to the forward troops by parachute, and they used air drops again when the Flanders attack got bogged down in October, delivering 13 tons of rations in one day. Yet the weather continued to limit airpower’s potential. In the Battle of Saint-Mihiel, for example, the Allies assembled 1,500 aircraft, but poor visibility impeded support for the advance, and did so again during the British assault on the Hindenburg Line. Moreover, until almost the end the German air force was a tough opponent. 30 October 1918 was the heaviest day of air fighting in the entire war, the Germans calling on all available forces against British bomber attacks on one of their principal lines of retreat, the Liège–Namur railway. They lost sixty-seven aircraft and the British forty-one. Yet what the Germans were doing by this stage was concentrating their remaining fighters in formations of fifty or more to protect their communications, and when forced to fight they suffered attrition from which they could no longer recover. During 1918, the Western Front advantage slowly moved in the Allies’ favour, and the surviving German pilots felt increasingly beleaguered. They kept going partly because of a qualitative advantage: the Fokker D-VII and Pfalz D-IIIa were excellent aircraft, and even the finest Allied fighters could not match them. The German official history claimed that the Germans shot down over three times as many Allied aircraft as they lost themselves; according to Hoeppner, between January and September 1918 Germany lost 1,099 aircraft on the Western Front, but the Allies 3,732. But other factors weighed against them, especially a shortage of aviation fuel, which began to bite from June–July, and from September fuel was severely rationed. Moreover, First World War air fighting was extraordinarily resource-intensive. By later standards 1918 airfleets seem very large, but the performance of each aircraft was very low. Enormous numbers of ground crew were needed to keep one aeroplane aloft – pilots were only 2 per cent of the British Royal Flying Corps – and by 1918 the losses meant almost entire fleets had to be replaced every few months. Even if the crews usually survived their machines’ destruction, the strain was immense – no fewer than 30 per cent of French pilots and observers in the war lost their lives, most of them in 1917–18. The Germans were less well placed to withstand these pressures, and by the armistice their aircraft numbers had shrunk to about 2,200, from 3,668 in March, whereas Britain and France had Western Front forces of 2,600 and 3,700 and American strength was 740.

The American air service was still the weakest of the three, even though the AEF built itself up from no military aviation at all to forty-five squadrons. Flying mainly French-manufactured aircraft, the Americans saw action from April 1918 onwards. They engaged in 150 bombing raids, took 18,000 photographs of enemy positions, and lost 235 killed in action.160 French losses were heaviest during May and June, but even so they deployed more planes than the British on 8 August and provided most of the air support at Saint-Mihiel. The British believed they had brought down three times as many German machines as they had lost themselves, but this was a mirror image of the Germans’ claims, and all contemporary estimates tended to be large exaggerations. They also reckoned that between 1 July 1916 and 15 October 1918 they had destroyed 6,361 enemy aircraft compared with France’s 4,011, and it does seem that the Germans sustained most damage in the British sector, in the battles of March–April and August–October, although the British air force was smaller than the French one and more of it was stationed elsewhere. At the time of the armistice 84 British squadrons were supporting the BEF, but 4 were in Italy, 13 in the Middle East, 10 with the Independent Force, 18 engaged in home defence, and others employed in anti-submarine warfare. The Western Front was the highest British priority, but far from overwhelmingly so, and the RAF destroyed 405 enemy machines in Italy, 59 in Salonika, and 81 in Palestine.163 And everywhere in the final phases strafing retreating columns became characteristic, whether Bulgarian, Turkish, or Austrian. In Palestine on 21 September, for example, the RAF dropped 9.25 tons of bombs and fired 56,000 machine-gun rounds.

Although aircraft production was a brand-new industry, Allied manufacturers – and until near the end, also German ones – continued to make good stunning losses. But whereas in 1917 all the Western Front belligerents had placed aircraft among their highest priorities, none hit their output targets. The French in 1918 achieved the world’s largest output of aero-engines and the second largest (some authorities say the largest) of airframes, but even so they fell behind schedule. The British overtook them during the year in monthly airframe output, but the goal of doubling Britain’s Western Front squadrons remained unaccomplished, owing to unexpectedly heavy losses, personnel and labour shortages, and mistakes in engine procurement. The American air force proved smaller than either the Germans or the European Allies had expected, in good measure as a result of production failures. Yet on the other hand, although Germany’s ‘Amerika Programme’ of June 1917, designed nearly to double monthly aircraft output before the Americans arrived in strength, delivered an increase, it too was less than planned. Over the year as a whole the Germans’ enemies outbuilt them by more than two to one. This effort behind the lines – short of target for the Allies but for Germany even more so – was the story behind the story of the air superiority that the Allies finally won in the last weeks of the war.