Fokker Scourge

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Kurt Wintgens' Fokker M.5K/MG "E.5/15" Fokker Eindecker, as used by him on 1 July 1915, in the first successful aerial engagement involving an aircraft fitted with a synchronised machine gun

The Fokker Scourge (also sometimes called the Fokker Scare) was the period during which the Fokker Eindecker monoplane fighter aircraft of the Imperial German Fliegertruppen, with their synchronised machine-gun armament, exerted an ascendency over the poorly armed Allied aircraft then in service.[1] Significant as the technical advantage of the new fighter was, the psychological effect of its unheralded introduction was also a major factor.[2]

The period is usually considered to have begun in July–August 1915[3] and ended in early 1916, with the arrival in numbers of the Allied Nieuport 11 and DH.2 fighters;[4] less accurately, it is sometimes extended to the whole period of service of the Fokker monoplanes on the Western Front – from the arrival of the first two Fokker E.I fighters at FA62 in June 1915, until the final disappearance of the last Eindeckers from the early Jagdstaffeln in August–September 1916.[1]

The term Fokker Scourge was coined in retrospect by the British press in mid-1916, after the German monoplane fighters had been largely neutralised by the new Allied types.[5] This was not unconnected with the political campaign launched by (among others) the pioneering aviation journalist C. G. Grey and Noel Pemberton Billing M.P., the founder of the Supermarine company and a great enthusiast of aerial warfare – the main object of which was to end a perceived dominance of the Royal Aircraft Factory in the supply of aircraft to the Royal Flying Corps.[6]

Background[edit]

In early 1915, the Allies (especially the French) were leading the Germans in the fitting of machine guns to aircraft,[7] as the fledgling aerial warfare arena began to develop. The first aircraft actually used with some success as fighters included the British Vickers F.B.5, and the French Morane-Saulnier L and N.[8]

At this time, the total numbers of aircraft in front line service were very small,[1] and the development of air-to-air combat tactics was at a very primitive stage, but the German High Command was already very concerned about the situation, and were pursuing several different lines in developing machine gun-armed aircraft to counter those of the Allies,[9] including the aggressive employment of their new armed two-seaters (the "C" types), and "fighter" uses for twin engined aircraft such as the AEG G.II.

The situation came to a head on 18 April 1915 with the capture of the Morane-Saulnier L of Roland Garros.[10] Garros had destroyed three German aircraft since 1 April using this machine, which featured a machine gun firing forward through the arc of the spinning propeller. Bullets that would otherwise have damaged the propeller were deflected by small wedge-like blades attached to the vulnerable points on each propeller blade.[11] Although Garros attempted to burn his aircraft after force-landing behind German lines, this was not sufficient to conceal the nature of the device. The significance of the deflector blades was immediately appreciated by the German authorities, who quickly requested several aircraft manufacturers, including Anthony Fokker, to produce a copy.[10]

Diagram of Fokker's "Stangensteuerung" synchronization mechanism.

Fokker's answer was a genuine synchronisation gear, known in German as the Stangensteuerung (push rod controller), using impulses from a cam on the aircraft's motor to control the firing of the machine gun so that it did not (so long as the gear functioned properly) hit the propeller at all.[12] This was not the first such gear proposed – but it was the first one to be actually fitted to an aircraft and proved in flight. Fokker later claimed, in a postwar biography, that he designed and built the gear himself in a concerted 48-hour effort[12] – this has been largely discounted, and it is believed that the gear (possibly based on a pre-war patent by Franz Schneider, a Swiss engineer who had worked for Nieuport as well as the German LVG company) was in fact already in existence,[12] and was most probably the work of Fokker Flugzeugbau corporate engineer Heinrich Lübbe.[13] In any case, it was rapidly fitted to the most suitable existing Fokker type, the M.5K, (military designation A.III), of which Otto Parschau's A.16/15 example became, in essence, the prototype of the E.I.[14]

A close-up photo of Otto Parschau's A.16/15 aircraft, which essentially became the "prototype" Fokker Eindecker.

Antony Fokker himself demonstrated Parschau's newly armed aircraft to the first few German fighter pilots in May and June 1915.[15] The Fokker, with its "Morane" controls, including the oversensitive balanced elevator and problematic lateral control, was difficult to fly,[16] and Otto Parschau, who was already an experienced pilot on Fokker A types, demonstrated and instructed the first German fighter pilots, including Kurt Wintgens, Oswald Boelcke and Max Immelmann, in the use of the new fighter.[17] At this stage, the early Eindeckers were supplied in ones and twos to the normal Feldflieger Abteilung to protect their reconnaissance aircraft from Allied machine gun-armed aircraft.[14]

Front line service of the Eindecker fighters[edit]

The E.I reaches the front[edit]

Otto Parschau's second Eindecker, the E.1/15, with experimental "mid-wing" modification which became standard on production E.Is.

The Fokker Eindecker (specifically E.5/15, the last of the pre-production series) is now believed to have been first blooded by Kurt Wintgens, while flying with FFA 6.[18] On two occasions (July 1 and July 4, 1915) he reported combats with French Morane L "Parasols"; each time well over the French lines.[17] Wintgens' accounts of the fights were modestly equivocal about the actual destruction of the Moranes – and these victories were never officially confirmed, although the first of them matches French records as having been forced down on 1 July 1915 near Lunéville, with a wounded crew and heavily damaged engine.[17] By 15 July, Wintgens (and his Fokker) were at FFA 48 – and on this date, Wintgens scored his first recognised victory, another Morane L.[19] Otto Parschau had received E.1/15 to replace the older A.16/15 machine, which became the prototype for the entire Fokker Eindecker line of aircraft, when it was returned to the Fokker Flugzeugbau factory in Schwerin/Gorries for further development of the design.

By the end of July 1915, about 15 Eindeckers were operational with various units.,[20] including the five M.5K/MGs and about ten early production E.I airframes. Their pilots at first flew their new aircraft as "extra-curricular" activity – being not, as yet, excused their normal duties in their units' two-seater reconnaissance aircraft.[20]

Oswald Boelcke was serving at this time with FFA 62; he scored his first victory in an Albatros C.I on 4 July.[21] The first Eindecker assigned to the unit arrived shortly after this: the M.5K/MG prototype airframe E.3/15 – armed with the Parabellum MG14 gun, synchronized by the troublesome first version of the Fokker gear; at first it was jointly allocated to him and to Max Immelmann, who was also with FFA 62. This machine was flown by both pilots when their "official" duties permitted, allowing them to master the type's difficult handling characteristics and to practice shooting at ground targets.[22] In a while Immelmann was allocated his own machine: a very early production Fokker E.I, serialled E.13/15, one of the first armed with an lMG 08 Spandau machine gun, using the more reliable production version of the Fokker gear.

What is usually counted as the first day of the Fokker Scourge is 1 August, when the B.E.2c aircraft of No. 2 Squadron RFC bombed the base of FFA 62 at 5 AM, waking the German pilots.[22] Boelcke was quickly in the air after the raiders; Immelmann soon followed. Boelcke suffered a gun jam but Immelmann caught one of the raiders and succeeded in shooting it down.[19] His victory was over an unarmed B.E.2c - no observer was carried in order to give the underpowered British machine a respectable bomb load and the pilot answered Immelmann's machine gun fire with an automatic pistol.[23] The "fight" took about 10 minutes of manoeuvring (giving the lie to exaggerated accounts of the B.E.'s stability) and Immelmann fired 450 rounds, riddling his opponent's machine and wounding him in the arm.[23]

Air superiority[edit]

Boelcke and Immelmann continued to score – as did Hans Joachim Buddecke, Ernst von Althaus and Rudolph Berthold, all from FFA 23, and Kurt von Crailshein of FFA 53.[9] In spite of this, the "official" list of victories over Allied aircraft (many of them French) claimed by Fokker pilots for the whole second half of 1915 was 28; 13 of these belonged to either Immelmann or Boelcke; the total number of victorious Fokker pilots being just nine.[24] January 1916 brought another further 13 claimed victories, most of them French; February, and the last month when German air superiority was more or less unchallenged, brought fewer than 20 more. Most victories still belonged to the established aces; few of the newer pilots flying the increased number of Fokkers[Note 1] were scoring.[25]

Although these casualties were very low by later standards, the fact that the Germans were fighting back in the air, and that they possessed a new, supposedly invincible aircraft (whose capabilities were often exaggerated)[Note 2] caused considerable consternation among the Allied commanders, as well as problems in the morale of Allied airmen.

The situation from the British side is summed up by Cecil Lewis in Sagittarius Rising,

Hearsay and a few lucky encounters had made the machine (the Eindecker) respected, not to say dreaded by the slow, unwieldy machines then used by us for artillery observation and offensive patrols ...[26]

British tactics were changed – the hapless B.E. types, as well as the newer F.E. 2b pushers increasingly flew in formation, rather than singly – and the custom of sending the B.E. 2c into action without an observer armed with a machine gun became far less prevalent.[27] Both the British and (especially) the French, on whom the brunt of the new German air superiority still fell, had to accept that it had become more difficult, and dangerous, to acquire the vital aerial photographs that had by now become an essential military resource, and to provide ranging for Allied artillery.[28]

The German Command was concerned that their invention would be discovered, and German fighters were forbidden to fly over Allied lines.[29] This policy was generally continued, for various reasons, until the end of the war. While there were a number of tactical advantages in this approach, the effect of German air superiority was often blunted by the fact that German fighters were rarely encountered on the Allied side of the lines.

The Fokkers mastered[edit]

The beginning of the end of the Fokker Scourge came at the Battle of Verdun. At the time of the start of the battle on 21 February 1916, the German air superiority created by the Fokkers meant that the preparations for the launching of the initial German offensive were largely concealed from French aerial reconnaissance, with the use of a systematic blockade on the French air squadrons called Luftsperre, relying as much on chasing their opponents away as actually shooting them down. However during the course of the battle, the new French fighter, the Nieuport 11 was assigned to this sector in increasing quantities. The Nieuports were not only superior to the Eindeckers in almost every aspect of performance and combat effectiveness, they greatly outnumbered them, as they arrived at the front in specialist fighter squadrons (escadrilles de chasse) – enabling formations larger than the singletons or pairs normally flown by the Fokkers. Before the end of the battle, air superiority had been reversed, the French now having the upper hand.[30]

On the British front – the changes in tactics, by which British aircraft no longer dispensed with gun armament in order to carry more fuel or bombs and generally flew in threes or fours, made the task of the Fokkers much harder,[27] especially in the case of the F.E. 2b. Individually, the British type was a fair match for the Eindecker but in formation, with the gunners covering each other, it became a very difficult opponent. In February 1916, the first complete DH.2 squadron, No. 24 arrived at the front and quickly established an ascendancy over the Fokkers.[31] A pusher type, with a single forward firing Lewis gun, it was, like the Nieuport, superior to the Fokker in almost every respect. Other DH.2 squadrons followed, until there were seven of them altogether. Nieuport single seaters were also acquired by the British.[32]

By March 1916, although combats with Fokkers were still frequent and several of the top German Eindecker aces were still scoring,[33] the Fokker Scourge as a period of German air superiority was drawing to a close. The bogie of the Fokker Eindecker as a fighter was finally laid to rest in April, when an E.III landed by mistake on a British aerodrome and was evaluated against contemporary Allied types, first in the field and later in England. It was found to be very much less than the redoubtable enemy it had been supposed to be.[26]

End of the Eindecker[edit]

The impact of the new Allied types, especially the Nieuport, was of considerable concern to the Fokker pilots.[34] New light single seat biplane fighters ("D" types) from Fokker and Halberstadt had been under test and evaluation since late 1915, and by mid-1916, the replacement of the monoplanes with these types was well underway.[35] In the interim, some Fokker pilots even took to flying captured Nieuports in combat,[36] and the German High Command was sufficiently desperate to order the building of Nieuport copies by its own industry.[37] In order to match the larger Allied fighter formations, the fighters belonging to several reconnaissance units took to operating together – soon being informally amalgamated into Kampfeinsitzer Kommando or KeK (informal units, whose members generally continued to officially belong to their reconnaissance squadrons)[38] – and by the time the "Fliegertruppen" officially became known as the Luftstreitkräfte in October 1916, the first of the famous Jagdstaffeln had already emerged as fully fledged, specialist fighter squadrons.

The last Eindeckers had been retired from the Jagdstaffeln by September 1916 – it is reported that they continued in service in second line roles, but they were by this time hopelessly outmoded as front line fighters.

Aftermath[edit]

Like the Fokker Scourge, the period of Allied air superiority that followed was brief. By August 1916, the Jagdstaffeln were already receiving the first of the new Albatros fighters. These were once more able to turn the tables on the Allies, and were soon inflicting heavy casualties on the Royal Flying Corps, culminating in the "Bloody April" of 1917.[39]

In the following two years, Allied air forces became overwhelming in both quality and quantity, and the German forces were only able to maintain limited control over a small area of the front at any time. When even this strategy seemed threatened, they started a crash programme to develop a new aircraft. The main result was the Fokker D.VII, leading to a short but notable second "Fokker Scourge" in the summer of 1918. The Fokker D.VII was so effective that Germany was required to surrender all of them to the victorious Allies as a condition of the Armistice of Compiègne.

In British politics and aviation history[edit]

Among other British politicians and journalists who grossly exaggerated the material effects of the "Scourge" [2] were the eminent pioneering aviation journalist, C.G. Grey, founder of one of the first aviation magazines, The Aeroplane, and Noel Pemberton Billing M.P., formerly a notably unsuccessful aircraft designer and manufacturer. Their professed object was the replacement of the B.E.2c with later, more combat-worthy aircraft. In practice, it took the form of an attack on both the Royal Flying Corps high command, and more specifically, the Royal Aircraft Factory.[1]

Carricature of Fokker Eindecker published in "Flight" for Feb 3 1916, satirising exaggerated accounts of its capabilities in other publications.[40]

As has been comprehensively documented by Paul Hare[41] – C.G. Grey had long run a concerted campaign against the Royal Aircraft Factory in the pages of The Aeroplane, going back to its period as the Balloon Factory, and well before it had produced any heavier-than-air aircraft. Before the admitted unsuitability of the B.E.2c in air-to-air combat was exposed by the first Fokker aces, this attack was not primarily aimed at the technical quality of the Factory's products, but on the very fact that a government body was competing with the "trade" (that is, the private aviation industry) in Great Britain. When the news of the Fokker monoplane fighters reached him in late 1915, Grey was quick to blame the problems faced by the RFC on past orders, for equipment that the latest developments had rendered obsolete, without suggesting what aircraft might have been ordered instead, even supposing that the rapidity of the development of aviation technology under the spur of war could have been foreseen.

Billing also blamed the initially poor performance of the British Aircraft manufacturers squarely on what he saw as the favouritism shown by the Royal Flying Corps (part of the British army) towards the Royal Aircraft Factory (although officially, a civilian organisation this was also really part of the army). This had produced, he believed, a situation in which:

... hundreds, nay thousands of machines have been ordered which have been referred to by our pilots as "Fokker Fodder" ... I would suggest that quite a number of our gallant officers in the Royal Flying Corps have been rather murdered than killed.[42]

Even among writers who have recognised the hysteria of this version of events this picture of the Fokker scourge gained considerable currency both during the war, and, increasingly, in the following years.[Note 3] As a well known German aviation historian has ironically remarked:

The epithet Fokker Fodder was coined by the British to describe the fate of their aircraft under the guns of the Fokker monoplanes, but given [its] acknowledged mediocrity, it comes as something of a shock to realise how abysmal the level of British aircraft performance, pilot training, and aerial tactics must have been ...[35]

References[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ By now supplemented by the Pfalz E-type fighters - very similar to the Fokkers as they were also copies of the Morane-Saulier H. They were invariably identified by Allied airmen as "Fokkers".
  2. ^ See contemporary caricature at end of this article.
  3. ^ Much of this is probably due to the apparent "vindication" of Grey and Billing a year later.

Citations[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d Franks 2001, p. 1.
  2. ^ a b Kennett 1991, p. 110.
  3. ^ Bruce 1968, v.2, p. 20.
  4. ^ Angelucci 1983, p. 53.
  5. ^ Robertson 2003, p. 103.
  6. ^ Hare 1990, pp. 91–102.
  7. ^ Cheesman 1960, p. 177.
  8. ^ Bruce 1989, pp. 2–4.
  9. ^ a b Van Wyngarden 2006, p. 18.
  10. ^ a b Bruce 1989, p. 3.
  11. ^ Cheesman 1960, p. 178.
  12. ^ a b c Grosz 1989, p. 2.
  13. ^ Woodman 1989, pp. 180-183.
  14. ^ a b Gray and Thetford 1961, p. 83.
  15. ^ Van Wyngarden 2006, p. 9.
  16. ^ Immelmann 1934 (2009), p. 77.
  17. ^ a b c Van Wyngarden 2006, p. 10.
  18. ^ Van Wyngarden 2006, p. 11-12.
  19. ^ a b Franks 2001, pp. 10–11.
  20. ^ a b Van Wyngarden 2006, p. 12.
  21. ^ Van Wyngarden 2006, p. 13.
  22. ^ a b Van Wyngarden 2006, p. 14.
  23. ^ a b Van Wyngarden 2006, p. 15.
  24. ^ Franks 2001, p. 41.
  25. ^ Franks 2001, p. 59.
  26. ^ a b Lewis 1936, p. 46.
  27. ^ a b Terraine 1982, p. 199.
  28. ^ Franks 2001, pp. 11-12.
  29. ^ Franks 2001, p. 6.
  30. ^ Herris and Pearson 2010, p. 29.
  31. ^ Cheesman 1960, p. 40.
  32. ^ Cheesman 1960, p. 92.
  33. ^ Franks 2001, pp. 59–60.
  34. ^ Van Wyngarden 2006, p. 51.
  35. ^ a b Grosz 1996, p. 5.
  36. ^ Van Wyngarden 2006, p. 64.
  37. ^ Cheesman 1960, p. 166.
  38. ^ Cheesman 1960, p. 134.
  39. ^ Cheesman 1960, p. 108.
  40. ^ http://www.flightglobal.com/pdfarchive/view/1916/1916%20-%200103.html
  41. ^ Hare 1990, in numerous entries
  42. ^ Hare 1990, p. 91.

Bibliography[edit]

  • Angelucci, Enzio, ed. The Rand McNally Encyclopedia of Military Aircraft. New York: The Military Press, 1983. ISBN 0-517-41021-4.
  • Bruce, J.M. Morane Saulnier Type L. Berkhamstead, UK: Albatros Productions, 1989. ISBN 0-948414-20-0.
  • Bruce, J.M. War Planes of the First World War. London: MacDonald, 1968. ISBN 0-386-01473-8.
  • Cheesman, E.F. (ed.) Fighter Aircraft of the 1914-1918 War. Letchworth, UK: Harleyford, 1960.
  • Franks, Norman. Sharks Among Minnows: Germany's First Fighter Pilots and the Fokker Eindecker Period, July 1915 to September 1916. London: Grub Street, 2001. ISBN 978-1-90230-492-2.
  • Gray, Peter and Owen Thetford. German Aircraft of the First World War. London: Putman, 1990, First edition 1962. ISBN 978-0-93385-271-6.
  • Grosz, P.M. Fokker E.III. Berkhamstead, UK: Albatros Productions, 1989. ISBN 0-948414-19-7.
  • Grosz, P.M. Halberstadt Fighters. Berkhamstead, UK: Albatros Productions, 1996. ISBN 0-948414-86-3.
  • Hare, Paul R. The Royal Aircraft Factory. London: Putnam, 1990. ISBN 0-85177-843-7.
  • Herris, Jack and Bob Pearson. Aircraft of World War I: 1914-1918. London: Amber, 2010. ISBN 978-1-90662-666-2.
  • Immelmann, Franz (with an appendix by Norman Franks). Immelmann: The Eagle of Lille. Drexel Hill, UK: Casemate, 2009 (originally published in Germany, 1934). ISBN 978-1-932033-98-4.
  • Lewis, Cecil. Sagittarius Rising. London: Corgi, 1969 (first published 1935). ISBN 978-0-55208-222-8.
  • Kennett, Lee The First Air War: 1914-1918 New York, Simon & Schuster, 1991. ISBN 0-02-917301-9.
  • Robertson, Linda R. The Dream of Civilized Warfare: World War I flying aces and the American Imagination Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2003. ISBN 0-8166-4270-2.
  • Terraine, John. White Heat: The New Warfare 1914-1918. London: Book Club Associates, 1982. ISBN 978-0-85052-331-7.
  • Van Wyngarden, Greg. Early German Aces of World War I. Botley, UK: Osprey Publishing, 2006. ISBN 978-1-84176-997-4.
  • Woodman, Harry. Early Aircraft Armament:The Aeroplane and the Gun up to 1918. London: Arms and Armour Press, 1989. ISBN 0-85368-990-3.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]