Enter the Hun
It was not only the aircraft but also the pilot’s tactics which developed rapidly between 1914 and 1918. Initially pilots stuck to an unwritten code exemplified by Max Immelmann when he had shot and wounded a British pilot in the early days of the war. When the victim had crash-landed, Immelman landed nearby, took his adversary from the wreckage and tended his wounds. The Briton, a Lieutenant Reid, was then taken to Immelmann’s headquarters where he was treated more as a guest than a prisoner. For two days Reid and his captor dined and drank fine French wines. After the festivities, the Englishman was confined to comfortable quarters in a prison camp reserved for captured airmen. When Immelmann was killed in 1916 Germany went into mourning.
Not all pilots shared Immelmann’s gallantry. Baron Manfred von Richthoven, Germany’s greatest air hero, had two passions, as revealed in his diary, slaying men and animals. Known as the ‘Red Baron’ from the bright red colour of his Albatros biplane, Richthoven took frequent leave to shoot stag and boar in the German forests. He also destroyed eighty Allied aircraft, killing eighty seven men, the highest score of any airman in the war. After each victory, he ordered an engraved sterling cup, inscribed with the date and type of aircraft shot down.
The Red Baron was already dead when No 92 Squadron arrived in France but the Richthoven Geschwader (popularly known as the Flying Circus) were to be 92 Squadron’s adversaries for the remainder of the war. Carl August von Schoenebeck, the youngest scout squadron leader on the western front in 1918, was a member of Jagdeschwader 1. They were established in June 1917, and by the Armistice in November 1918 they had destroyed 644 Allied aircraft against a loss of 56 pilots killed and 52 wounded. When discussing the performance factors in combat of their aircraft and ours he said:
“The most important was rate of turn; it was highly important. Second was speed. Of course, one needed a combination of good performance features. Looking at the Second World War for a moment, the Spitfire could perform better than the ME 109 at some altitudes because it had greater manoeuvrability. The ME 109 was faster in my opinion.
“Our best scout in the First World War was the Fokker D VII with the BMW engine. I think the SE5A was the best Royal Flying Corps scout of that war. The British scouts could often turn sharply. I wouldn’t say as many claim, that the English were over our lines more. They were of course more sporting and we were more military.
“I remember once, however, when three Royal Flying Corps scouts flew over our field at a height of about 1,200 feet. We thought this was puzzling, especially when they returned some thirty minutes later and flew over the field again at the same height. It was about midday and when one of them was brought down he told us he had thought German pilots would be eating lunch. He and his comrades had made a bet that they could fly over our lines and return safely during the lunch hour. You might be interested to know that when English pilots were downed and brought to our base they lived with us, without guard, ate and slept with us until they were taken off to prison. They were very sporting. The one shot down that day at the lunch hour gave us a cheque for the bet he had lost, which we dropped to his comrades.
“Our bases of course were usually located near some fine chateaux, which we could utilise for living quarters. We joked that whenever someone came upon a splendid chateau he would very likely find that an airfield had been created nearby. The aircraft at my field were parked only about four hundred yards from our chateau under green tents.”
No performance ever drew the attention of more spectators than the combat pilots, high above the battle fields of France and Belgium. While down below the incompetent Generals in the Army, sent thousands to choke their lives out, while vainly attempting to reach the almost impregnable pill-boxes, across a sea of mud at Passcherdale; the fighter pilots of the newly created Royal Air Force were rapidly learning the tactics that would help the Alllies to end the war.
Raymond Collishaw, who at the end of the war was the fourth highest Allied scorer, and later became Air Vice-Marshal of the Royal Canadian Air Force, in World War Two; described these aerial antagonists as ‘Waltzing Partners’ dodging each other’s bullets. The theatre was in the clouds as fighter pilots on both sides played to audiences of infantrymen, cheering them on from the trenches below. The Waltz started when one plane would get on the tail of another. The two aircraft would fly in even smaller circles until finally one could bring his guns to bear on the other, then the dance ended. The enemy pilot would stick with it and refuse to break off even though the gap was closing, fascinated like a goat by a snake until he was shot down.
The most widely known manoeuvre devised in this war was the so-called Immelmann turn. The pilot would pull up into a steep climb as if he were about to do a loop. At the top of the loop he would do a half roll, level out and speed off in a direction opposite than expected. Most books on the First World War credit the invention of this manoeuvre to Immelmann, but a number of fighter pilots said that Immelmann could not have invented it. Among those is Air Vice-Marshall Collishaw who writes:
“The Royal Flying Corps pilots, always understood that Immelmann did not invent the manoeuvre attributed to him, instead it was devised in 1916 by the famous Royal Flying Corps stunt merchant Armstrong, of No 60 Squadron. The Immelmann turn at the outset did not consist of a rapidly climbing turn followed by a half roll at the top of a loop. At first it consisted of a rapid climb then, at the top of the climb, full rudder was applied so that when the aircraft stalled, it fell over towards the earth to regain flying speed, and in doing so the plane made an about turn. These days this is called a stall turn.
“The so-called Immelmann turn developed in 1918 was again thought to have been devised by Armstrong of the Royal Flying Corps. The 1918 version consisted of a half roll at the top of the loop. The object was to rapidly alter course. It was the manoeuvrability and flexibility of the Sopwith Camel that permitted this manoeuvre when under assault, and it was designed to turn the tables on an antagonistic who would then find himself at a disadvantage.
“The 1918 pilots, particularly the Americans in the Camel squadrons, became confused between the act and function of the 1916 so called Immelmann turn and the 1918 half roll at the top of a loop, and so they called the 1918 manoeuvre the ‘Immelmann turn’.”
Collishaw continues, “The 1916 Fokker Eindekker (Immelman’s aircraft) was structurally too weak to withstand the manoeuvre of the half roll at the top of the loop. What is more certain, however, is that the Fokker monoplane was fitted with an engine of insufficient power to perform the act.
“As a matter of interest one can say that the half roll at the top of the loop was not the sort of thing a practical war fighter pilot would indulge in to upset the gun aim of his adversary. The first warning usually reached the attacked pilot from the noise and impact of the hostile bullets. The assailed pilot would instantly take violent avoiding action and often this resulted in momentary loss of control, but it effectively offset the hostile pilot’s aim. When under assault from the rear it would be manifestly silly to calmly put the nose of the aircraft down to gain the requisite speed needed to execute a loop and a half roll. The hostile pilot would simply depress the nose of his aircraft and easily follow his target until it turned upward to commence the loop. What was needed when under fire, was instantaneous and rapid avoiding action.”
Between the 22 July 1918, when Captain Robb had shot down the Squadron’s first enemy aircraft, and the end of that month, the Squadron claimed another three victories. It was ‘B’ Flight’s turn to claim the Squadron’s second victim on the Monday 28 when Lieutenant E.F. Crabb, practising his newly acquired tactics brought down a Hun machine. On the Tuesday, Lieutenant Gordon crashed on take-off and ‘wrote off’ his aircraft. Then later in the day Lieutenant E. Shapard shot down an enemy aircraft which was seen to go down in flames.
Another exciting encounter took place on 30 July. This was the first kill made by Lieutenant O.J. Rose, an American who became the top scoring officer on the Squadron. He recalled the ‘Dog-Fight’ afterwards:
“The kill was made at about 2pm. Our patrol was led by Captain Robb, Commander of ‘A’ Flight, and was on Offensive Patrol at about 13,000 feet, over enemy territory east of La Basse (Merville Salient). At 10,000 feet we sighted seven D VII's Captain Robb signalled to attack, I was flying rear, right of our group. I selected the Hun on their extreme left, started firing as soon as I had him in my sights, and kept my two guns going continuously until I nearly collided with him. (Incidentally, both my gun barrels were ruined.) I pulled up, levelled off and headed for home, landing about ten minutes before the remainder. When we assembled for a report, Captain Robb asked who made the desperation dive. No one answered. He said, “Well, whoever did, shot him down in flames”. It was then I found the courage to say it was I. What a bloody awful way to start operations on the great 92 Squadron.”
On 1 August 1918 Captain Robb was hit by anti-aircraft fire while crossing back over the Front Line at the end of a patrol with Lieutenant Holbrook. Ground fire was never particularly effective, as on this occasion, when another main plane change was all that was required to have the aircraft serviceable by the following morning. Some pilots maintained that the inability of gunners to identify aircraft made them more of a threat to their own aircraft than to the enemy. Feelings haven’t changed much amongst the pilots since.
On the following day, Friday, the Squadron flew from Drionville to Serny, and Saturday was spent mainly air testing the machines. On Sunday, 4 August, Lieutenant Gordon crashed again and ‘wrote off’ another aircraft at the end of the sortie.
Wednesday 7th was a particularly successful day with four Huns shot down on Offensive Patrol. The patrol led by Captain Robb took off at 7am. Robb and Lieutenants Crabb, Good and Holbrook each got one. Then two days later, though encountering no enemy aircraft another patrol succeeded in shooting down several enemy propaganda carrying balloons. The Squadron Commander, Major. Conningham, was the next pilot to claim a kill bringing the Squadron total to eight enemy aircraft destroyed.
Thursday 8 August signalled the opening of the Somme offensive and 92 Squadron, operating with the Royal Air Force Fifth Brigade in the Fourth Army, flew daily operational patrols covering the Allied advance from Amiens until the ‘Granite Wall’ of the Hindenburg Line was broken. On 10 August the Squadron experienced its first taste of air to ground gunnery when a patrol was sent to the roads near Estaines. Later that day a returning patrol of three aircraft sighted the enemy but the log book reads:
‘Went after eight Huns but they did not wait’
However, on the following day, with Major Conningham leading, four Huns were shot down. The Commanding Officer got two, Lieutenant H B Good, one and Lieutenant W.S. Rogers, one. The only Hun he ever saw according to the remarks column in the Authorisation Sheets. The patrols that morning landed at Allonvillers on the Somme and spent the day helping out No 1 Squadron based at nearby Fienvilliers. No more enemy aircraft were seen that day and in the evening the Squadron returned to Serny. During the day Second Lieutenant G.F. Metson went missing and was later reported to have been taken prisoner-of-war.
Serny, France, November 1918. A score board recording the claims for enemy aircraft destroyed by No. 80 Wing RAF from July–November 1918. The squadrons listed are: No. 92 Squadron, No. 4 Squadron, Australian Flying Corps (AFC), No. 88 Squadron RAF, No. 2 Squadron AFC, No. 103 Squadron RAF, No. 46 Squadron RAF, and No. 54 Squadron RAF. The other columns are headed "In Flames", "Crashed", "O.O.C." (Out of Control), "Driven Down" and "Balloons Destroyed"."
On Wednesday, 14 August, the Squadron flew to the Somme again to help the Squadrons there against the German offensive. No 92 Squadron contributed ten aircraft and destroyed three Huns. Lieutenant Rose got two more to his credit and Lieutenant H.B. Good got one. Unfortunately Lieutenant H.A. O’Shea was missing at the end of the patrol. He had been forced to land and was taken prisoner. On the way back to Serney Captain Robb added another Fokker to his growing score!
The first massed low level attack by Allied aircraft was made two days later on Friday, 16 August. Communique No 20 recorded it as follows:
‘The raid was carried out on Haubourdin Aerodrome near Lille by 88 and 92 Squadrons and 2 and 4 Squadrons American Flying Corps. The raid was led by Colonel L.A. Strange of the 8th Army Wing, and was part of a force of 480 fighters employed in low level softening up attacks in preparation for the Allied advance. No 92 Squadron’s SE5As joined in with some sixty five machines in all, including Camels, Bristol Fighters and DH4s. The attack was a great success. One hundred and thirty six 25lb bombs and six 40lb bombs were dropped and large quantities of ammunition were fired from heights down to 50 feet. Three large hangars containing machines were completely burnt and two machines standing outside were set on fire. Several fires were also started in huts, and what was believed to be the Officers’ Mess was blown up and burnt. Several other hangars, in addition to those burnt, received direct hits. The station at Haubourdin was also attacked with machine gun fire from a low height, causing confusion among the troops. Two staff cars were fired at, one of which upset in a ditch and another ran up a steep bank; the occupants were not observed to leave. A train was shot at, which stopped. Considerable casualties were caused among the personnel at the aerodrome who were seen rushing to take refuge in a hospital. All our machines returned and landed safely. Over 400 photographs were taken by 25 Squadron of a very large tract of country, almost the whole of which was over 20 miles behind the enemy’s lines. Several machines were attacked by hostile aircraft, all returned safely.’
Unfortunately Captain Robb was wounded in the left eye and had to be taken to hospital.
On the following day a similar attack was made on Lomme Aerodrome. Again Colonel Strange led the Wing. One hundred and four, 25lb and two 40lb bombs were dropped from an average height of 200 feet. Some pilots who dropped them from 50 feet had their machines damaged by their own bombs, but none of 92’s was among those. Many direct hits were observed on sheds, hangars and huts. From photographs taken during the raid, two sheds could be seen burning fiercely and from the strength of the wind it was probable that the others also caught fire, but the sheds to the leeward were obscured by smoke. Several other fires were seen among the huts and workshops. A large number of rounds were also fired and casualties inflicted on the personnel on the aerodrome, and on a party of mounted troops who made off for Lille at full gallop. Two hostile machines dived down to Haubourdin Aerodrome on the approach of our machines and crashed without a shot having been fired at them. The aerodrome defences were much stronger than on the previous days’ raid on Haubourdin. One of our machines, a camel, did not return.