Learning a hard lesson in Wings over Flanders Fields!
'Knights of the Sky', they called them, the aircrew of the First World War. They fought their jousts above the battlefield, in personal combat with their foemen, their flimsy mounts often bedecked with the sort of personal markings or colours that would have marked out the mounted warriors of a bygone age - the so-called Age of Chivalry.
Most of us have heard of the fellow feeling sometimes displayed between aviators on opposite sides, notably in WW1, when aircraft were initially unarmed (barring side-arms). When, at first, enemies met in the sky, the encounter was as often marked by curiousity and perhaps a comradely wave, as by hostility and the exchange of gunfire.
Well, that didn't last long, and by the war's end, fighting pilots thought nothing much of gunning down an unspecting foe from behind, whenever they could. Examples of chivalrous or sporting conduct were sometimes still reported, though, like Ernst Udet's famous solo fight with a French ace he believed to be Georges Guynemer, which ended with the latter waving farewell after seeing that Udet's guns had jammed. The less romantically-minded might have concluded that Udet's foe was beset with similar problems, rather than motivated by a chivalrous reluctance to knock down a worthy foe in other than a fair fight. By all accounts, much of the time, things were rather more ruthless; as I was to find for myself, thanks to my latest campaign mission in Wings over Flanders Fields!
It's early on the morning of 14th May 1917, and apart from some clouds, the weather is fine and clear. I'm leader of 'B' Flight in No. 56 Squadron, based at Vert Galand, and this is my third show. It's a Line Patrol up to the trenchlines, in this case slightly south of east, opposite the major town of Cambrai in the German side.
'A' Flight is joining us on this trip, so there are nine S.E.s on the flight line - I'm leading five of them and 'A' Flight has another four. You can see from the picture below that we have several 'historical aces' with us (visible from their machines having a 'skin' of their own, not just the default one for 56 Squadron). And I've decided to pick a skin for myself, from the many avaiable. In fact, I've chosen the markings of Albert Ball - as he was killed a few days before, there should be no chance of seeing a duplicate, today. My machine, A4850, looks unusual because of its white centre section. Here, Ball, in modifying his S.E.5 to his own tastes, had the prominent 'raised teardrop'-shaped gravity fuel tank removed, and a more conventional centre section fitted - a modification copied by the rest of the squadron, and standardised on the production lines. This was how A4850 appeared when photographed in England; I don't know if the white was overpainted in France, but in WoFF, it makes for a nicely distinctive colour scheme.
Amongst the pilots accompanying me in 'B' Flight are two aces. One, with a red crocodile on the nose, is Eric Broadberry. I'm not sure who the fellow with the completely red-nosed machine is, but the other members of my flight are Barlow, Hoidge and Maxwell, all real-life aces, so it's one of these three.
The first excitement of the day comes over the town of Bapaume, about half-way to the front. We're at about eight thousand feet and climbing gently, when I see three specks in a clear patch of sky, about three-quarters left and somewhat higher. They seem to be flying west, deeper into our territory. They could be our people, returning from a sortie, but as I watch them, I notice faint grey puffs in the sky nearby - British AA fire. That seems to settle the matter. These are Huns.
As I watch, one of the Huns dives and comes towards us. The other two stay high, but also turn in our direction. This feels a bit dangerous, as if they are setting us up for a co-ordinated attack. Hun scouts shouldn't really be so far over our side of the lines, but these particular people seem to have their own ideas.
I pull up and bank around as the lower Hun runs in, giving the boys the order to attack as I do so. The Hun flashes past below me, at which point I see that he is in fact a Roland, a two seater. These were fast and advanced machines when introduced during 1916, although back then, the man whose machine I'm flying today rather specialised in knocking down Rolands, describing them as 'the best German machine now'. In mid-1917, they haven't got much longer before being withdrawn from active service on the Western Front. And they should really know better, than to try to tangle with a larger formation of modern single-seaters. Perhaps they mistook us for obsolete B.E.12s. If so, I hope we'll give them a nasty surprise.
But it's me, who gets the first nasty surprise. In my effort to level-turn sharply after the Roland while staying above him, I push my S.E. too hard, and spin out. This gives the Hun the opportunity to turn the tables, which he duly does. By the time I have recovered, he's coming for me.
However, by pushing my nose down as I come around, I manage to get out of his way and then turn inside him. This is more like it!
By this point, I've briefly committed the cardinal sin of losing track of the others. But I go for the Hun, relying on the fact that I have four other S.E's in the air nearby to keep the other two Rolands occupied. In the picture below, you can see two other aeroplanes up above, just left of the drum of my wingtop Lewis Gun. But at the time, I had eyes only for my Hun.
I get my sights onto the Roland and crack out a few short busts. This does the trick. The Roland rolls over...and dives away hard for the ground.
He recovers, and I spiral down, thinking that I'm going to need to make another attack. However, the Hun falls into a series of spins and finally crashes into a cornfield by a railway line, just west of Bapaume.
I pull up in a spiral climb at full power, finally clearing my tail. But the only machines that I can see around me are the other S.E.5s of 'B' Flight.
Soon, all five of us are back in formation. I look around for the other two Rolands, just in time to see two specks disappear into a cloudbank to the north-west, a good deal higher up. I'm slightly miffed that the others don't seem to have had any luck with them, but I'm glad all the same that there have been no friendly casualties.
I decide that rather than get into what's likely to be a long and uncertain tail chase, I'll leave the other Rolands and resume my mission. 'Selection and maintenance of the aim', and all that. I climb back up, and by the time we are nearing the front, we are at just over ten thousand feet, nearly as high as the summits of the big cloudbanks nearby. Reaching the lines, I wheel around and we begin to patrol our beat, up and down above the trenchlines in our appointed sector. So far, so good, but it's early days yet.
...to be continued!