Nieuport fighters over Verdun II

The first Fokker E I appeared over Flanders in September 1915 when Flgobmt Erich Bödecker began escorting naval two-seaters on their reconnaissance sorties. This was in response to the appearance of the first Belgian scout, a single-seat Nieuport 10 flown by Lt Henri Crombez, on 26 August. Although an able and dedicated aviator, Crombez lacked a fighter pilot’s temperament. However, the third Belgian assigned a modified Nieuport 10, pre-war motorcycle champion and aerobat Sgt Jan Olieslagers, did. On 12 September he sent an Aviatik crashing in enemy lines for Belgium’s first single-seater victory.

The Fokker’s presence in Flanders, relatively modest though it was, did not go unnoticed by the British. Even while the French were marshalling their Bébés for introduction in escadrille strength, the RNAS began assigning its Nieuport 11s to ‘squadrons’ within its squadron-sized wings almost two months before the first one arrived at N31 in January 1916. Their presence along the Flanders coast led the Kriegsmarine to acquire more Fokker E IIIs and create fighter detachments for them, starting in April 1916 with a Kampfeinsitzer Kommando within Marine Feldflieger Abteilung I at Mariakerke, led by Ltn z S Gotthard Sachsenberg, and a second KEK assigned to MFFA II at Neumünster.

Encounters between the fighters were rare, but on 8 July Flt Lt Thomas F. N. Gerrard, in Nieuport 3989 of 2 Naval Flight, ‘A’ Naval Squadron, 1 Naval Wing, operating from Furnes, drove a Fokker down OOC two miles from Ostend. The next day Stanley Dallas, in Nieuport 3994, claimed another E type OOC near Mariakerke. After their unit evolved into 1 Naval Squadron RNAS, ‘Teddy’ Gerrard would add eight more victories to his tally in Sopwith Triplanes in 1917, and a tenth victory in a Sopwith Camel in April 1918. Dallas’ total had risen to at least 32 by the time he was killed in action in an SE 5a of No. 40 Sqn, Royal Air Force, on 1 June 1918. By then the German naval fighter units had also expanded, starting with the amalgamation of MFFA I and II’s KEKs into Marine Feld Jasta I, under Sachsenberg’s command, on 1 February 1917.

While the French massed their fighters over Verdun, the RFC likewise fielded its first single-seat fighter unit, No. 24 Sqn with DH 2s, at Bertangles in preparation for the offensive along the Somme River scheduled for 1 July. Although it had balked at purchasing Nieuport 11s from the French, the RFC acquired a handful of Nieuport 16s, which it allotted to reconnaissance squadrons. One such unit was No. 11 Sqn, which after replacing its Vickers FB 5s with FE 2bs also had an escort of Bristol Scouts, flown, among others, by 18-year-old Lt Albert Ball.

Transferred from No. 13 to No. 11 Sqn on 7 May, Ball was flying Bristol 5312 (fitted with interrupter gear designed by Vickers employees Harold Savage and George Henry Challenger) nine days later when he drove an Albatros C III of Kampfstaffel 17 down in German lines. The Vickers-Challenger gear’s connecting rod proved too long and flexible to be reliable, however, and shortly after Ball’s exploit No. 11 Sqn obtained three Nieuport 16s to supplement the Bristols.

Tricky though the Nieuport 16 was to fly, Ball took to it quickly enough to engage in three inconclusive combats on 22 May. Although he damaged A126’s lower right wingtip in a bad landing on the 27th, during the course of the next month he mastered Nieuport 5173 sufficiently enough to use it effectively in combat. His first encounter with the enemy in the new aircraft came on 29 May, as he described in a combat report that revealed his trademark aggressiveness:

I had four fights in one patrol in my Nieuport, and came off top in every fight. Four Fokkers and an LVG attacked me about 12 miles over the lines. I forced the LVG down with a drum-and-a-half, after which I zoomed up after the Fokkers. They ran away at once. Out of all the fights I only got about eight shots into my machine, one of which just missed my back and hit the strut. However, on my way home, the Hun ‘Archie’ guns hit the tail of my machine and took a piece away, but I got back and have now got a new tail. The other fights were with Albatros machines.

Ball was credited with an LVG last seen in a vertical dive, counted as OOC, and another forced to land. The next day he flew the repaired 5173 over to Douai aerodrome – home of Oblt Max Immelmann’s KEK, among others – and spent 30 minutes circling at 10,000ft before two enemy aeroplanes (an Albatros and a Fokker) finally took off. The two-seater attacked first, but after Ball fired ten rounds at it, its pilot dived away and returned to the aerodrome. At that point the Fokker came up from behind, but the moment it fired, Ball, who had been aware of its presence all along, whipped his Nieuport around and returned fire. The Fokker turned away, dived and alit in a field two miles from the aerodrome – a ‘forced landing’ that was credited as another victory for Ball.

A balloon burned on 25 June brought his official tally, tenuous as some of it might have been, to five. Ball had become the third British pilot to ‘make ace’, although the RFC was prone to discourage the sort of cult status that that distinction was coming to attain among the French and Germans.

By that time the reorganized Belgian air arm had acquired some Nieuport 11s, which were assigned to the 1e Escadrille to escort reconnaissance aeroplanes of that and other units. One of its members was recently promoted Sous-Lt Jan Olieslagers, who marked the cowling of his Bébé with his pre-war nickname ‘Le Démon’. On 17 June he was escorting Farman F 40 2265 of the 4e Escadrille, crewed by Adj Charles Kervyn de Lettonhove and Capt Roger Lesergent d’Hendecourt, when he saw his charge come under attack by a Fokker E III over Poelkapelle at 1515hrs. The Farman crew drove down that assailant OOC, only to be shot up by another Eindecker, but by then Olieslagers had reached them and he despatched the Fokker. His adversary, credited as his second victory of an eventual six, was apparently Gfr Alfred Jäkel of FFA 221, who died of his wounds three days later.

Olieslagers was not the only one for whom 17 June proved to be memorable. Sgt Victor Chapman of N124 was on a lone foray that day when he spotted two enemy reconnaissance aeroplanes, one of which he forced to land near Béthincourt, although he had no witnesses to confirm it. He was then jumped by the two-seaters’ three Fokker escorts, whose fire severed his Nieuport’s right aileron control rod and creased his skull. Grabbing the ends of the control rods and gripping the control column with his knees, Chapman managed to land at Froidos aerodrome.

On that same morning Sous-Lts Jean Navarre and Gaston Guignand of N67 were patrolling with Navarre’s friend Sous-Lt Pelletier-Doisy of N69 when they encountered a two-seater over Samogneux, which Navarre and Pelletier-Doisy shot down at 0600hrs. Continuing their sortie, they came upon another German aeroplane directing artillery fire over Grandpré, but as they were manoeuvring into position to attack, Navarre was suddenly shot through the right arm and chest. Spinning down, with his comrades diving after him, Navarre recovered sufficiently to land at an airfield near St Menehould. From there he was rushed to hospital at Chanzy. This ended the fighting career of the ‘Sentinel of Verdun’, whose score then stood at 12.

It has been suggested that Chapman or Navarre may have been victims of Walter Höhndorf, then operating with KEK Vaux and credited with a Nieuport in French lines near Château-Salins that same day. Neither pilot was wounded anywhere near Château-Salins, however, Höhndorf’s victim more likely being a Nieuport 10 of N68 in a fight during which Sgt Jules Vigouroux and Sous-Lt Théophile Burgué were credited with a Fokker that crashed east of Bezanges, but Sgts Joseph Borde and Blain were driven down wounded in French lines.

Kiffin Rockwell believed that Chapman had been wounded by Boelcke, which is possible given their close proximity in the sector. Moreover, Boelcke described a fight with six of the ‘Americans’ that he’d heard about and had sought out ‘to say how-do-you-do’, during which he got behind ‘a fairly raw beginner’ and at a distance of about 100m ‘sat on his neck and started work on him’. At that point, however, Boelcke reported one of his E IV’s guns jamming after 20 rounds and the other after 50, forcing him to sideslip and dive to an altitude of about 800m so as to escape the other five Nieuports that followed him down. Under the circumstances it is not surprising that he claimed no success in the action.

Of eight Fokkers claimed by the French between late May and the end of June, only one was credited to a single-seater, when Sous-Lt Gaetan de la Brunetière of N68 drove one down after a hard fought engagement over the Forêt de Bézange on 30 June. His probable victim, Ltn Leopold Reimann of FFA 32, crash-landed in German lines in Fokker E III 347/15, shaken but unharmed, while de la Brunetière was wounded.

On 1 July the British Somme offensive became the main focus of activity on and over the Western Front, even though the Battle of Verdun would rage on to the end of the year. The Nieuport 11 and 16 Bébés had virtually ended the ‘Fokker Scourge’ there, but by June they were being rapidly replaced by the improved Nieuport 17. On the German side, eight Halberstadt biplanes had reached the front by the end of June, to be joined by Fokker biplanes such as the D I, D II and D III. Each of these transitional designs had its limitations, but in late August two new biplane fighters began to reach the front that would dramatically alter the tempo and very nature of the air war – the SPAD VII and the Albatros D II.

The struggle for Verdun – more of a campaign than a battle per se – saw the first use of massed air assets and for several months pitted a frail German monoplane with a highly effective weapon system against a French design of somewhat superior structure and performance, armed with a makeshift, rather awkward gun mounting suspended above the pilot’s head. Their confrontation more often took the form of attacking one another’s two-seater reconnaissance aeroplanes than each other – as well it should, since ‘blinding’ the enemy was very much their primary purpose. Their actual encounters were relatively infrequent, yet sufficient to convince the Germans that the Fokker monoplane’s fortunes were on the wane.

In analysing the instances of when Bébé met Eindecker one must keep in mind that this was the first clash of its kind, and the antagonists were learning the finer points of their deadly art as they went. Their task was simply to drive the enemy from the sky by attacking whatever aeroplane they encountered. This fact is reflected in a survey of French claims over ‘Fokkers’ and ‘scouts’ during the Nieuport Bébé’s time as the principal French fighter – roughly between February and June 1916. According to French aviation historian David Méchin, the Aéronautique Militaire claimed a total of 74 German aircraft in aerial combat between 21 February and 1 July 1916 (when the British launched their Somme offensive), but most of its claims were over LVG two-seaters. During the same time period German pilots made 37 aerial claims, of which 27 were credited to aviators flying Eindeckers. Only six of their claims were over Nieuport single-seaters, however.

The examination of French claims during that five-month period identified 12 Fokkers being credited to Nieuport 11 or 16 pilots, along with one shared with a Nieuport 10 crew. Two others were credited exclusively to Nieuport 10s. In that same time period, however, another 11 Fokkers were credited to Caudron G 4 crews and 12 to Maurice Farman crews. On the face of it, one might infer that the two-seaters were not all that helpless, and the single-seat Nieuports not quite so decisive a factor in breaking the ‘Fokker Scourge’ as posterity has been led to believe.

Hard numbers are not necessarily the whole story when the human factor is taken into account. A comment by Ltn Rudolf Berthold, translated by German aviation expert Peter M. Grosz, reveals a professional assessment of the Nieuport’s impact on German fighter operations in the midsummer of 1916:

We had too few qualified monoplanes. We lacked an aircraft that was easily manoeuvrable in combat. We had fallen asleep on the laurel wreaths that the single-seaters in the hands of a few superlative pilots had achieved. It was not the monoplane itself, but the pilots who were responsible for the success. One need but compare the number of Fokker fighters at the Front with those few pilots who had victories. I had already requested a new type of aircraft in January 1916 – a small biplane. People laughed! The Frenchman meanwhile takes our experience to heart, quietly builds small biplanes and then launches hundreds at once against our lines. He has achieved air superiority and, with grinding teeth, we must watch while he shoots down our monoplanes and we’re helpless.

The ultimate endorsement. After managing to bring down Nieuport 11 N1324 intact on 1 July 1916, Oblt Kurt Student had a synchronized LMG 08 machine gun installed and the French markings overpainted in a light colour with a crossed swords fuselage motif. He then used the Nieuport to supplement his Fokker E IV at Leffincourt.

Actions could speak louder than words. On 1 July 1916 Oblt Kurt Student, commanding Armee-Oberkommando 3’s Fokkerstaffel at Leffincourt, showed his skill with the Fokker E IV when he brought Nieuport 11 N1324 down intact behind German lines, where its wounded pilot, Sous-Lt Jean Raty of N38, was taken prisoner. After evaluating his prize Student judged the Nieuport’s flight characteristics to be so much better than his own aeroplane’s that he installed an LMG 08 with interrupter gear on it, repainted it in German markings, complete with a personal motif of crossed fencing swords, and flew combat missions in it.

Student was not alone. In September 1916, at a time when newly formed Jagdstaffel 1 at Bertincourt was operating a maddeningly mixed bag of Fokker monoplane and biplane scouts, as well as Halberstadt biplanes – while Jasta 2 was fully equipped with game-changing Albatros D Is and D IIs – Ltn d R Gustav Leffers often flew a captured Nieuport 16. Like Student, he too had installed a synchronized machine gun and repainted the French scout with Maltese crosses.