The Fokker Scourge (or Fokker Scare) lasted from August 1915 to early 1916 during the First World War. Fokker Eindecker fighters fitted with synchronised machine-guns, came into service with the Imperial German Flying Corps (Die Fliegertruppen). Over the Western Front, the Fokkers gained a measure of air superiority against Allied aircraft. The new fighter came as a surprise to Allied aviators and the psychological effect was an important factor in its success.
This period of German air superiority ended with the arrival in numbers of the French Nieuport 11 and British DH.2 fighters, which were capable of challenging the Fokkers; although some sources describe the "scourge" as the period from the arrival of the first two Fokker E.I fighters at FFA 62 in June 1915, until the last Eindeckers were replaced from August–September 1916.
The term "Fokker Scourge" was coined in retrospect by the British press in mid-1916, after the Eindeckers had been outclassed by the new Allied types. This coincided with a political campaign to end a perceived dominance of the Royal Aircraft Factory in the supply of aircraft to the Royal Flying Corps, launched by 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.
- 1 Background
- 2 Operational service
- 3 Aftermath
- 4 References
- 5 Further reading
- 6 External links
Early air warfare
In early 1915, the Allies (especially the French) were ahead of the Germans in the fitting of machine-guns to aircraft as aerial warfare developed. The first aircraft used with some success as fighters included the British Vickers F.B.5 (Vickers Gunbus), the first specialist fighter aircraft type and the French Morane-Saulnier L. The number of aircraft in front line service was small and the development of air fighting was rudimentary but the German Oberste Heeresleitung (OHL the high command of the army) had ordered the development of machine-gun armed aircraft to counter those of the Allies, including the aggressive employment of the new armed two-seaters (the "C" types) and "fighter" uses for twin-engined aircraft such as the AEG G.II.
On 18 April 1915, the Morane-Saulnier L of Roland Garros was captured, after he was shot down (by ground fire) behind the German lines. From 1 April, Garros had destroyed three German aircraft using this aircraft, which carried a machine-gun firing forward through the arc of the propeller. Bullets that hit the propeller were deflected by small wedge-like blades on each blade. Garros attempted to burn his aircraft after force-landing behind German lines but this failed 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.
Fokker designed the Stangensteuerung (push rod controller), a genuine synchronisation gear. The gear used impulses from a cam on the aircraft engine to control the firing of the machine-gun, to prevent bullets from hitting the propeller. This was not the first such gear proposed but was the first to be fitted to an aircraft and proved in flight. In a postwar biography Fokker claimed that he designed and built the gear in 48 hours but this has been largely discounted. It is believed that the gear may have been based on a pre-war patent by Franz Schneider, a Swiss engineer who had worked for Nieuport and the German LVG company and had probably been built by Heinrich Lübbe, a Fokker Flugzeugbau engineer.
The device was fitted to the most suitable Fokker type, the M.5K, (military designation A.III), of which A.16/15 assigned to Otto Parschau became the prototype of the E.I. Fokker demonstrated A.16/15 to the first few German fighter pilots, including Kurt Wintgens, Oswald Boelcke and Max Immelmann in May and June 1915. The Fokker, with its "Morane" controls, including the over-sensitive balanced elevator and dubious lateral control, was difficult to fly and Parschau, who was experienced on Fokker A types, converted the first pilots to the new fighter. The early Eindeckers were supplied in ones and twos to the normal Feldflieger Abteilung (FFA, Field Flying Detachments), to protect the reconnaissance machines from Allied machine gun-armed aircraft.
Fokker Eindecker E.5/15, the last of the pre-production series, is believed to have been first flown in action by Kurt Wintgens of FFA 6. On 1 and 4 July 1915, he reported combats with French Morane L "Parasols"; each time well over the French lines. Wintgens' accounts of the fights were modestly equivocal about the destruction of the Moranes; the victories were never confirmed, although the first matches French records of a Morane forced down on 1 July, near Lunéville with a wounded crew and a damaged engine, with one more three days later. By 15 July, Wintgens had moved to FFA 48 and scored his first recognised victory, another Morane L. Otto Parschau had received E.1/15 to replace the older machine, which became the prototype for the 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 fifteen Eindeckers were operational with various units, including the five M.5K/MGs and about ten early production E.I airframes. The pilots at first flew the new aircraft as a sideline, when not flying normal operations in two-seater reconnaissance aircraft. Oswald Boelcke in FFA 62, scored his first victory in an Albatros C.I on 4 July. M.5K/MG prototype airframe E.3/15, the first Eindecker delivered to FFA 62, was armed with a Parabellum MG14 gun, synchronised by the troublesome first version of the Fokker gear; at first it was jointly allocated to him and Immelmann when their "official" duties permitted, allowing them to master the type's difficult handling characteristics and to practice shooting at ground targets. Immelmann was soon allocated a very early production Fokker E.I, 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.
The first RFC sightings of the new Fokker aircraft were recorded at the end of July 1915 and continued until the end of September but large numbers of Fokkers were not encountered until October, towards the end of the Battle of Loos (25 September – 14 October). These aircraft included the similar Pfalz E-type fighters (derived like the Fokker Eindeckers from the Morane-Saulier H) which were also called "Fokkers" by French and British airmen.
RFC pilots reported that the new fighter could make long, steep dives and that the fixed, synchronised machine-gun was aimed by aiming the aircraft. The machine-gun was belt-fed, unlike the drum-fed Lewis guns of their opponents. The Fokker pilots took to flying high and diving on their quarry, usually out of the sun, firing a long burst and continuing the dive until well out of range. If the British aircraft had not been shot down, the German pilot could climb again and repeat the process. Immelmann developed the Immelmann turn, a zoom after the dive, followed by a roll when vertical to face the opposite way, then a turn to attack again.
In retrospect the Fokker Scourge is usually considered to have begun on 1 August, when the B.E.2c aircraft of 2 Squadron bombed the base of FFA 62 at 5:00 a.m., waking the German pilots. Boelcke was quickly into the air after the raiders, in Fokker M.5K/MG Eindecker E.3/15 and Immelmann followed in E.13/15. Boelcke suffered a gun jam but Immelmann caught one of the raiders and shot it down. His victory was over a B.E.2c, flown without an observer or Lewis gun to carry bombs, the pilot armed only with an automatic pistol. After about ten minutes of manoeuvring (giving the lie to exaggerated accounts of the stability of B.E.2 aircraft) Immelmann had fired 450 rounds, which riddled the B.E. and wounded the pilot in the arm.
The mystique acquired by the Fokker was greater than its material effect, exacerbated as it was by the hard winter of 1915–1916, and some aggressive flying by the new "C" type German two seaters, which added to Allied losses during this period. Boelcke and Immelmann continued to score as did Hans Joachim Buddecke, Ernst von Althaus and Rudolph Berthold from FFA 23 and Kurt von Crailshein of FFA 53; the "official" list of claims by Fokker pilots for the second half of 1915 was no more than 28 and many of these were over French rather than British aircraft. Thirteen aircraft had been shot down by Immelmann or Boelcke and the other fifteen by seven other Fokker pilots. January 1916 brought a further thirteen claims, most of them against the French and there were twenty more in February, the last month of the "Scourge" proper. Most of the victories had been scored by aces rather than the newer pilots flying the increased number of Fokkers. Allied losses were paltry by later standards but the loss of air superiority to the Germans, flying a new and supposedly invincible aircraft, caused dismay among the Allied commanders and lowered the morale of Allied airmen. Cecil Lewis in Sagittarius Rising (1936) wrote,
Hearsay and a few lucky encounters had made the machine respected, not to say dreaded by the slow, unwieldy machines then used by us for Artillery Observation and Offensive Patrols.— Cecil Lewis
The RFC changed tactics for the sedate B.E. types and the newer F.E. 2b pusher fighters. On 14 January, RFC HQ issued orders that until better aircraft were delivered, long- and short-range reconnaissance aircraft must have three escorts flying in close formation. If contact with the escorts was lost, the reconnaissance must be cancelled as would photographic reconnaissance to any great distance beyond the front line. The custom of sending the B.E.2c into action without an observer armed with a machine-gun also became less prevalent. The new tactic of concentrating aircraft in time and space had the effect of reducing the size of the RFC, when the demand for information by the army remained the same.
Much effort went into devising formations; a II Wing RFC method was for the reconnaissance aircraft to lead with an escort on each side 500 feet (150 m) higher and another escort behind and 1,000 feet (300 m) above.[Note 1] On 7 February, on a II Wing long-range reconnaissance, the observation pilot flew at 7,500 feet (2,300 m); a German aircraft appeared over Roulers and seven more closed in behind the formation. West of Thourout, two Fokkers arrived and attacked at once, one diving on the reconnaissance machine and the other on an escort. Six more German aircraft appeared over Courtemarck and formed a procession of 14 aeroplanes stalking the British formation. None of the German pilots attacked and all the British aircraft returned, meeting two German aircraft coming back from a bombing raid, which mortally wounded one of the British escort pilots. The British ascribed their immunity to attack during the 55-minute flight to the rigid formation, which the two Fokkers were unable to disrupt. On 7 February, a 12 Squadron B.E.2c. was to be escorted by three B.E.2c, two F.E.2 aircraft and a Bristol Scout from the squadron, two more F.E. and four R.E. aeroplanes from 21 Squadron. The flight was cancelled due to bad weather but twelve escorts for one reconnaissance aircraft demonstrated the effect of the Fokkers in drastically reducing the efficiency of RFC operations.
The British and French had to accept that it had become much more hazardous to get aerial photographs to provide intelligence information and ranging data for Allied artillery, in conditions of the new German air superiority. The German command was concerned that the interrupter gear would be discovered and German fighters were forbidden to fly over Allied lines, a policy which for various reasons, was persisted with for most of the war. While there were a number of tactical advantages in this approach, the effect of German air superiority was limited by the rarity of German fighters appearing behind the Allied lines.
End of the Scourge
The beginning of the end of the Scourge came at the Battle of Verdun (21 February – 20 December). When the battle began, air superiority created by the Fokkers meant that German preparations had mostly been concealed from French aerial reconnaissance. The German aircraft established a Luftsperre, a systematic blockade on the French air squadrons, relying as much on chasing their opponents away as actually shooting them down. During the battle, the new French Nieuport 11 fighter was assigned to the Verdun front in increasing quantities. The Nieuports were superior to the Eindeckers in almost every respect. They arrived at the front in escadrilles de chasse, specialist fighter squadrons, which could operate in formations larger than the singletons or pairs normally flown by the Fokkers and quickly regained air superiority.
The British pressed for more fighters and better designs from England, the first of which was the F.E.2b, early examples of which arrived in France in late 1915. In the new year, F.E.s began to replace Vickers F.B.5 Gunbus fighters. The F.E. was relatively fast, had a reliable engine and a good view from the pilot's and observer's cockpits, from which the observer could also fire over the tail. 20 Squadron, the first full F.E. unit, arrived in France on 23 January 1916, for long-range reconnaissance and escort flying. The Fokker pilots attacked the F.E.s without hesitation but soon found that the new aircraft was a formidable opponent, particularly in formation. The second "counter-Fokker" fighter was the Airco DH.2 single-seat pusher. Although its performance was modest, once its single forward-firing Lewis gun was fixed to fire forwards its superior manoeuvrability gave it an advantage over the Eindecker. 24 Squadron arrived with D.H.2s on 8 February, commanded by Major Lanoe Hawker and began patrols north of the Somme and another six D.H.2 squadrons followed. On 25 April, two of the D.H. pilots were attacked and found that thet could manoeuvre against the Fokkers; a few days later, a D.H. pilot caused a Fokker to crash onto a roof at Bapaume, without opening fire. The Nieuport 11 proved even more effective and the first similar Nieuport 16s in British service were issued to 1 Squadron and 11 Squadron in April.
By March 1916, despite frequent encounters with Fokkers and the success of the German Eindecker aces, the Scourge was over. The bogey of the Fokker Eindecker as a fighter was finally laid in April, when an E.III landed by mistake on a British aerodrome and its performance was found to be much inferior than thought. The first British aircraft with a synchroniser gear was a Bristol Scout which arrived on 25 March 1916 and on 24 May, the first Sopwith 1½ Strutter aircraft were flown to France by a flight of 70 Squadron.
End of the Eindecker
The impact of the new Allied types, especially the Nieuport, was of considerable concern to the Fokker pilots. Some pilots even took to flying captured Nieuports and OHL was sufficiently desperate to order the building of Nieuport copies by German firms, such as the Siemens-Schuckert D.I. New D type single-seat biplane fighters, particularly the Fokker D.II and Halberstadt D.II had been under test since late 1915 and the replacement of the monoplanes with these types had begun by mid-1916.
As early as February 1916, Inspektor-Major Friedrich Stempel began to assemble Kampfeinsitzer Kommando (KEK, single-seat battle units). The KEK were small units, mostly of two to four fighters, equipped with Eindeckers and other types which had served with FFA units during the winter of 1915–1916. KEK were formed at Vaux, Avillers, Jametz and Cunel near Verdun and other places on the Western Front, as Luftwachtdienst (aerial guard force) units, consisting only of fighters. In the second half of May, German air activity on the British front decreased markedly, while the commander of the new Luftstreitkräfte Oberst Hermann von der Lieth-Thomsen reorganised the German air service. The fighters of the KEK were concentrated into the first Jagdstaffeln, true fighter squadrons and by this time, the replacement of Eindeckers with better aircraft had begun. By September the last of the Eindeckers, by now long outmoded as front line fighters, had been retired.
Among other British politicians and journalists who grossly exaggerated the material effects of the "Scourge", were the eminent pioneering aviation journalist C.G. Grey, founder of The Aeroplane, one of the first aviation magazines and Noel Pemberton Billing M.P., a notably unsuccessful aircraft designer and manufacturer. Their supposed object was the replacement of the B.E.2c with better aircraft but it took the form of an attack on the Royal Flying Corps command and the Royal Aircraft Factory. C. G. Grey had orchestrated a 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 unsuitability of the B.E.2c for air combat was exposed by the first Fokker aces, criticism was not primarily aimed at the technical quality of Factory aircraft but on the fact that a government body was competing with private industry. 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. Pemberton Billing also blamed the initially poor performance of British aircraft manufacturers on what he saw as the favouritism shown by the RFC, part of the British army, towards the Royal Aircraft Factory, which while nominally civilian, was also part of the army. Pemberton Billing claimed that,
... 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.— Pemberton Billing
Even among writers who recognised the hysteria of this version of events, this picture of the Fokker scourge gained considerable currency during the war and afterwards. In 1996 Grosz wrote,
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....— P. M. Grosz
The period of Allied air superiority that followed the Fokker Scourge was brief. By mid-September 1916, the first Albatros D.I fighters were coming into service. The new aircraft were again able to challenge Allied air superiority, culminating in "Bloody April", during the Battle of Arras (9 April – 16 May 1917). In the next two years, the Allied air forces gradually overwhelmed the Luftstreitkräfte in quality and quantity, until the Germans were only able to gain temporary control over small areas of the Western Front. When this tactic became untenable, development of new aircraft began, which led to the Fokker D.VII. The new aircraft created another "Fokker Scourge" in the summer of 1918 and as a condition of the Armistice, Germany was required to surrender all Fokker D.VII aircraft to the Allies.
- From 30 January 1916, each British army had a Royal Flying Corps brigade attached, which was divided into wings, the corps wing with squadrons responsible for close reconnaissance, photography and artillery observation on the front of each army corps and an army wing which by 1917 conducted long-range reconnaissance and bombing, using the aircraft types with the highest performance.
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