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True Stories of Dramatic Air Actions
By Alfred Price
The History PressCopyright © 2009 Alfred Price
All rights reserved.
Above the Fields of France
The story of No 84 Squadron Royal Flying Corps, which was sent into action over France in the autumn of 1917, and of its commander Major W. Sholto Douglas, who became one of the leading air combat tacticians of his time.
Air-to-air combat had its origins over the Western Front during the First World War, after reconnaissance planes started to carry machine guns so that they could engage their enemy counterparts if they chanced to meet them. Then in the summer of 1915 the German Air Service introduced the Fokker monoplane, the first aircraft to be an effective destroyer of its own kind. A single-seater, the Fokker had a performance that no two-seater of the time could match. More importantly, its machine gun fired forwards through the propeller disc and had an interrupter system to prevent rounds striking the propeller blades. The deployment of the Fokker monoplane in small numbers enabled German pilots to seize air superiority, but the effect proved transitory as its features were soon copied by the enemy.
From then on each side strove to wrest air superiority from its opponent, or hold on to it. This led to the accelerated development of all aspects of aviation and in particular that of the fighter aircraft. The warring sides fielded a succession of new types that with ever more powerful engines, could fly faster and higher and climb faster. Structures became heavier and a lot stronger and aeroplanes' armaments became more lethal.
As the fighter aircraft became more effective, talented individuals began to amass sizeable victory scores and establish their names as exponents of the new form of warfare: Germans like Max Immelmann, Oswald Boelke and Manfred von Richthofen, Frenchmen like Georges Guynemer, Charles Nungesser and Rene Fonck and from Britain men like 'Mick' Mannock, Albert Ball and James McCudden. Every country needs to have heroes in time of war, and almost overnight the ace pilots became national celebrities.
Yet although these men were prepared to fight each other to the death and on rare occasions did so, they had much in common. Invariably they were gifted with excellent eyesight, which allowed them to see their enemy at great distances and usually before they themselves were seen. They had learned to use the sun or cloud cover to approach an enemy unseen, and they could size up the tactical situation at a glance and assess the quickest way to reach a firing position on their foe. Some of them were exceptionally fine shots, while others compensated for a lack of this ability by closing to short range to deliver their lethal burst. Most of their victims were taken by surprise and never saw their assailant before their aircraft was hit. Contrary to popular belief, the high-scoring aces scored relatively few victories in one-versus-one turning combats, or during the swirling dogfights. Those who survived long enough to reach that status knew that the risks incurred in this type of fighting were too great and the chances of success too small. By the end of 1917 the day of the lone aerial hunter – the man who went out alone to stalk enemy planes – was nearing its end. Few could operate effectively in this way, and the pilots of average ability achieved much more if they flew as part of a well-led unit than if they were left to their own devices. Air fighting had become a team affair and, as in a football match, the well-led team would usually defeat the bunch of talented but undisciplined individualists.
Born in 1893, William Sholto Douglas joined the Royal Flying Corps in 1914. Early the following year he flew his first operational flights with No 2 Squadron. In April 1916 he commanded No 43 Squadron equipped with Sopwith 1½ Strutters and led the unit in action. In August 1917 Douglas took command of No 84 Squadron, then in the process of forming at Lilibourne near Rugby with eighteen S.E.5A fighters. Of the 24 pilots assigned to the unit, only Douglas and his three flight commanders had previous air fighting experience.
In September No 84 Squadron moved to Liettres in northern France, ten miles behind the front line, and underwent a short period of preparation for combat. Its first mission over enemy territory took place on 15 October, when it escorted six de Havilland 4 bombers attacking an ammunition dump. During a tussle with enemy fighters Lieutenant Edmund Krohn claimed the destruction of an Albatros fighter, the unit's first victory. But any elation that might have been felt was tempered by the loss of Lieutenant Lord, who was shot down and taken prisoner.
Although the S.E.5A had the edge in performance over the Albatros D V, the main German type it met in action, the Squadron suffered painful losses during its initiation into combat. At the time the Battle of Passchendaele was in full swing, and the unit was in action on almost every day and suffered severe losses. During a particularly hard-fought action on 31 October, for example, Captain Leask lead a six-aircraft flight down to attack four hostile aircraft seen below them. Then a dozen Albatros fighters pounced from above and the would-be hunters became the prey. Two S.E.5As were shot down and their pilots killed, while the Squadron claimed the destruction of two enemy aircraft.
During its first sixteen days in action, No 84 Squadron lost nine pilots killed or taken prisoner, more than one-third of its complement. Its total claim over the period amounted to five enemy aircraft. On this inauspicious start Douglas later reflected:
It was a hard school for a new and untried Squadron and at first, owing to the inexperience of the pilots, we suffered casualties. But bitter experience is a quick teacher ...
In November the Battle of Passchendaele petered out and the ground fighting slackened. This, coupled with a general deterioration in the weather, led to a marked reduction in air activity. Replacements arrived to fill the gaps in the ranks, and those pilots that had survived the harsh initial baptism of fire emerged with a better grasp of the realities of air combat. Now the unit was allowed a breathing space to consider past mistakes and build on its hard-won fighting experience. After a couple of moves it ended the year based at Flez near St Quentin.
Douglas soon revealed himself as a shrewd tactician and a perceptive commander. Although his own victory score would never be impressive, he produced a workable set of tactics and ensured that his pilots complied with them. The lessons of the bloody initiation into combat were well learned and No 84 Squadron evolved into an effective force, confident in its abilities and with a high ratio of victories to losses.
After the war Douglas wrote a long report on his experiences as a fighter commander, in which he set down the techniques that led to success in air combat and those that did not. He quickly grasped the fundamental lesson that has been part of the combat philosophy of every successful fighter pilot, before or since:
A lesson that we soon learnt was that there are occasions when it is wrong to accept battle, that one must always strive to take the enemy at a disadvantage. Equally, one must not be taken at a disadvantage oneself and this often entails a deliberate refusal of battle and a retirement so that the enemy's advantage may be nullified. If for instance that advantage is height, then one should retreat, climb hard, and go back and seek out the enemy at his own height or higher. Of course there are occasions when battle has to be accepted at a disadvantage – if, for instance, one sees another British squadron being overwhelmed by superior numbers, then obviously whatever the odds one must accept battle. But normally one should force the battle upon the enemy, not have the battle forced on oneself.
Douglas appreciated the strengths and weaknesses of the S.E.5A, compared with the enemy types that his unit met in action. As well as its excellent speed, climbing and diving performance compared its opponents, the S.E.5A had other useful attributes. It was a rugged aircraft that would accept a lot of mishandling, and the commander felt that that was particularly important:
The S.E. was strong in design and construction, and it did not break up in the air when roughly handled as certain other types were apt to do. Nothing undermines a pilot's confidence in his machine so much as doubts as to its strength [author's emphasis].
The pilot's view from the S.E.5A was better than from most other contemporary biplane fighter types – an important characteristic in an air action where the side that was the first to detect its opponent possessed the initiative in any combat that followed. The aircraft was also a stable firing platform, particularly in the dive, and this was another factor that Douglas considered useful:
It was very steady when diving fast; the pilot could therefore take very careful aim when diving to attack (and nine times out of ten he attacks by diving). This is an advantage pertaining to all stable machines – the faster one dives, the steadier becomes one's gun platform. An unstable machine like a Camel or a Sopwith Dolphin is apt to 'hunt' when diving at high speeds, i.e. to vary its angle of dive from time to time in spite of the pilot's best endeavours to prevent it ... Good shooting under these circumstances is rendered very difficult.
If an S.E.5A pilot were forced on to the defensive in combat, a steep dive would enable him to pick up speed quickly and draw away from his opponent, even one that was faster in straight and level flight. It was a useful method of breaking out of an action if a pilot was hard-pressed, if his guns had jammed or if he had run out of ammunition.
The S.E.5A was less manoeuvrable than many contemporary fighter types, though Douglas played down the importance of this attribute in combat:
The S.E. has often been criticised as being heavy on the controls for a single-seater, and so insufficiently manoeuvrable. In the days when aerial fighting was a series of combats between individuals, it is true that the manoeuvrability of the individual machine was all-important. In 1918, however, it was no longer the individual pilot but the flight flying in close formation that was the fighting unit; and the distinction will, I think, become more and more pronounced in future wars. In the present development of aerial fighting it is the flight that fights as one unit [author's emphasis]. Therefore it is the manoeuvrability of the flight that counts, not the manoeuvrability of the individual machine. If then a machine is sufficiently handy (as was the S.E.) to keep its place in the formation in any flight manoeuvre, it is of minor importance whether that machine is individually of a high degree of manoeuvrability or not.
It was found that supremely quick manoeuvring was nearly always a defensive measure; when attacked the pilot escaped the immediate consequences by swift manoeuvre. The attack on the other hand was usually delivered by a flight formation diving at high speed, so that in attack it was the manoeuvrability of the flight that counted. Now if you have a machine superior in performance to the enemy (as was the S.E. till the autumn of 1918), and your patrols are well led, you should very rarely be attacked or thrown on the defensive. Instead, you should be able so to manoeuvre your formation that, by virtue of your superior speed and climb, you yourself are always the attacker; which leads us to the conclusion that if your machines are superior in performance to those of the enemy, manoeuvrability is a very secondary consideration.
By trial and error Douglas arrived at what he considered to be the optimum fighting unit: a five-aircraft formation flying in 'V', stepped up from front to rear. Lacking radio, the aircraft flew close to the leader to observe his hand signals. The leader could also communicate by manoeuvres, though there was only a small range of easily understood messages that could be passed in this way. For example, banking gently to one side then to the other meant 'Close up'; flying an undulating path meant 'Open out'; to signal his intention to turn, the leader banked twice in the required direction, then began turning; and 'Enemy in sight' was indicated by banking the aircraft steeply from side to side several times.
Douglas ordered that flight leaders make all of the tactical decisions, and the other pilots in the flight had to concentrate on maintaining position in formation and following instructions. The technique of coordinated search, in which every pilot in the formation scans an area of sky keeping watch for the enemy, was unknown. Given the poor training and experience level of the average squadron pilot at the time, it would probably have been unworkable.
By this stage of the war the German fighter units usually flew in formations of a dozen or more. They rarely ventured over the land battle, preferring to engage the enemy over their own territory. Lieutenant-Colonel, the commander of the 22nd Wing of which No 84 Squadron was part, sent multi-squadron formations over hostile territory in an attempt to force the German fighting patrols into action. Typically, such a formation comprised a squadron of Sopwith Camels at 15,000ft, one of S.E.5As 16,000ft and one of Bristol fighters at 18,000ft. The tactic was a complete failure. The force could be seen from several miles, and any German fighting patrol in its path quickly drew away to the east. When the formation turned for home, having punched at an empty sky, the enemy fighters harried it from the sides and flanks and attempted to pick off stragglers.
Douglas took part in a few of these fighter sweeps and was scathing in his criticism of them. In his view the squadron-size offensive patrol was much more successful as a means of engaging the enemy. That, he felt, was the largest force that could be led effectively into action by one man. He developed a technique of using three flights flying some distance apart but in concert, each with a set role. In a typical patrol of this type, 'A' Flight flew in the lead at 15,000ft and its commander was in charge of the entire formation. 'B' Flight, in support, maintained position about half a mile behind 'A' Flight and flew in echelon some 500ft above it. 'C' Flight, also in support, flew farther behind 'A', echeloned on the opposite side to 'B' Flight and at 18,000ft. Describing the tactical employment of this force, Douglas commented:
Role: Single-seat fighter.
Power: One Wolseley Viper 8-cylinder, liquid-cooled engine developing 200hp at take-off (other types of engine were also fitted, but the Viper was standard on No 84 Squadron's aircraft from March 1918 to the end of the war).
Armament: One Vickers .303in machine gun synchronized to fire through the propeller disc; one Lewis .303in machine gun mounted on top of the upper wing, firing above the propeller disc. There was provision for carrying four 25lb bombs on racks under the fuselage.
Performance: Maximum speed 128mph at 6,500ft; climb to 10,000ft, 10min 50sec; climb to 15,000ft, 20min 50sec.
Normal operational take-off weight: 1,988lb (no bombs carried).
Dimensions: Span 26ft Thin; length 20ft 11in; wing area (both wings) 245.8 sq ft.
Date of first production S.E.5A: May 1917.
The duty of 'B' Flight is to follow closely and conform to the movements of 'A' Flight. It does not attack on its own initiative – the initiative lies absolutely in the hands of the squadron patrol leader, i.e. the leader of 'A' Flight. This somewhat rigid formalism was found to be necessary owing to the tendency of the following flights to be drawn away into subsidiary combats, leaving the squadron leader unsupported. If the latter attacks, 'B' Flight does one of two things: it either reinforces 'A' Flight, if the enemy is sufficiently numerous to make this worthwhile; or it flies directly over the top of 'A' Flight and affords protection to 'A' Flight against enemy machines attacking from above. The third flight ('C' Flight) is the covering force: it flies as high as possible, and some two or three miles behind and to the flank of 'A' Flight. The leader follows 'A' Flight at a distance, and has orders never to come down to assist 'A' and 'B' Flights except in great emergency. The mere fact that 'C' Flight is circling high up over the combat is usually sufficient to prevent any but a very strong enemy formation from attacking the two lower flights.
Douglas took the view that the well-led and disciplined flight formation was the most effective means of destroying enemy aircraft for minimum losses, and in action he set great store on maintaining flight cohesion:
It was soon discovered that, as soon as the flight lost formation and was split up, casualties occurred. Also, that it was not when attacked that the flight was so liable to break up, as when [it was] attacking. When attacked, pilots naturally hung together for mutual protection; but when an attack was begun, pilots were apt to break off in pursuit of the particular German machine that they had marked down as their prey, and were then set upon while so isolated, and overwhelmed by superior numbers.
Excerpted from Dogfight by Alfred Price. Copyright © 2009 Alfred Price. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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