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CA-WW1 - Winged Warfare

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Recreating the career of Canada's most famous ace in Wings Over Flanders Fields! 

 

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The man and the book 

'I dived at him from the side, firing as I came...I pulled my machine out of its dive just in time to pass about 5 feet over the enemy. I could see the observer evidently had been hit and had stopped firing. Otherwise the Hun machine seemed perfectly all right. But just after I passed I looked back over my shoulder and saw it burst into flames. A second later it fell a burning mass, leaving a long trail of smoke behind as it disappeared through the clouds. I thought for a moment of the fate of the wounded observer and the hooded pilot into whose faces I had just been looking - but it was fair hunting, and I flew away with great contentment in my heart.'

 

So wrote William Avery Bishop in his book 'Winged Warfare', written while on duty with the British military mission to Washingron DC after home leave in Canada in late 1917. He was describing the first machine he shot down in flames, on 20 April 1917.

 

Billy Bishop arrived in France in 1915 as an officer in a Canadian mounted unit but, frustrated with '...the particular brand of mud that infests a cavalry camp', he applied for the Royal Flying Corps and was trained as an observer. He spent four months 'on ops' in France in that role, from early 1916 with No. 21 Squadron, operating the RE7, a multi-purpose biplane whose speciality seems to have been daylight bombing. Recovering from a knee injury in a crash-landing, he was able to learn to fly and after a short period flying the BE2c on Home Defence duties, he returned to France in March 1917, posted to No. 60 Squadron flying Nieuport Scouts in the fighter role.

 

billy bishop nieuport.jpg

 

The squadron converted to the much-superior SE5 over the summer and Bishop flew on until the autumn, mixing conventional patrols with 'lone wolf' missions and steadily increasing his score. After his leave and service in the USA, he returned briefly to the front as CO of No.85 Squadron and before being posted home again, raised his total of victory claims to 72, including five on his last patrol, another solo effort.  Nowadays, Bishop's record is a source of controversy, due mainly to the to high number of claims that were accepted without witness confirmation. In particular, in June 1917, still flying the Nieuport, Bishop staged a solo dawn raid on a German fighter airfield, claiming to have shot down three aircraft attempting to take off. Controversially, he was awarded the Victoria Cross for this attack, despite the fact that the VC was generally never awarded unless the act of valour was confirmed by witnesses. The belief in many quarters - including some of his comrades and contemporaries - seems to be that Bishop's squadron commander actively promoted his protégé who also had some influential friends in English high society; and as his fame mounted, his value as a national hero fed a tendency to unquestioning acceptance on the one hand and exaggeration on the other. However, whatever the truth, Bishop was undoubtedly a very brave man, having more than once pushed to get to the front when he could have lived out a safer existence on other, less dangerous duties.

 

As for 'Winged Warfare' , it covers the whole of his combat career and is full of many accounts of the operations and air fights in which Bishop and his comrades participated. It's very much a product of its wartime origins, often extolling the courage and virtues of his own side while disdaining the enemy for trickery or implied cowardice. His openly-expressed preference for shooting down enemies in flames - because the sight made the victory certain - is also rather distasteful, particularly to modern readers. However, he does credit the Germans with ability and courage when he recognises it - for example, when a single enemy two-seater skillfully repells an attack by an entire flight of Nieuports. And as a forceful and vivid account of the career of one of the most famous of World War One's aces, 'Winged Warfare' deserves a place on any enthusiasts bookshelf. I would strongly recommend reading it in conjunction with Alex Revell's history 'No. 60 Sqn RFC/RAF', published by Osprey, which adds much valuable and interesting detail, in covering the fascinating story of one of the most successful British fighter squadrons, including the period when Bishop served with the unit. Bishop's memoir itself is available online here.

 

The air war in spring 1917

Bishop arrived at the front just before the Battle of Arras and 'Bloody April', when the damage wrought upon the RFC by the German Jastas and their sleek Albatros scouts reached its peak. The arrival of better aircraft in subsequent months - not least the SE5 that replaced 60's Nieuports, but also the Camel and the RE8 - meant that better times lay ahead for the British. The leader of the RFC in France, General Hugh 'Boom' Trenchard, knew perfectly well that the inability of the British to supply aircraft which would close the gap with the German Albatrosses meant that a high price would be paid, but his job was to support the Army whose lot was no better, and he did not shrink from asking his aircrew to risk all in support of the troops for the offensive at Arras. For the Germans, this was the hey-day of pilots like the von Richthofen brothers, Wolf, Voss and Schaefer, who racked up many kills, cutting a swathe through the under-powered and poorly-armed BE's and the obsolete 'pusher' fighters like the DH2 and FE8. In the Nieuport Scout, 60 Squadron were flying one of the few planes that, though under-armed, could even hope to compete with the best of the German fighters. Even so, the squadron suffered heavily during 'Bloody April', according to Alex Revell losing eighteen pilots during the month- a loss rate of 100%!

 

The mission

For this 'Winged Warfare' themed mission, I could have chosen the summer of 1917 or spring 1918, flying the SE5/SE5a. But I've always particularly enjoyed flying the Nieuport scouts in First Eagles, coping well with the Huns (except when outnumbered!) and I was keen to fly the sleek little French machine in WOFF; not least as most of the book features Bishop's experiences flying this type. So 'Bloody April' it was!

 

Naturally, 60 Squadron is included in the WOFF order of battle for this period. Here's the squadron's 'enlistment screen' for April 1917, which shows us correctly based at Filescamp farm. Note that the  squadron roster includes historical aces from the time, although at 1 April, Billy Bishop had yet to score, and neither he, nor 'Grid' Caldwell nor 'Moley' Molesworth had yet made Major (the rank generally held by the squadron leader, alone).

 

60 RFC.JPG

 

Although I neglected to save a screenie of the mission briefing, it was a patrol up to the Lines, to the north-east. I'm leading one flight - just the two of us! - but the rest of the squadron is along for the ride, flying 'top cover'. I wondered if me and 'Jock' Scott are providing the bait on this mission! Here's the loadout screen for my little two-plane flight; this provides the facility to select flight formation, though that's hardly worthwhile on this trip, as there's just the two of us!

 

loadout.JPG

 

And here we are, lined up on the grass at Filescamp. If I recall right, the aircraft next to me is the machine of 'Moley' Molesworth, no less, who's leading the second flight.

 

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I let most of the others take off first, intending to formate on the other flight rather than go hareing off on my own with my own solitary flight-mate. Once airborne, I throttled back to allow Scott to catch up. Soon he was tucked in, to my right rear. The weather was fair, with quite a lot of low cloud but bright and dry. A good day for an air fight!

 

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I orbited above and behind the other flight, then followed them as they climbed up along our route to the north-east and the Lines near the town of Lens. About half-way there, they veered off to the left. As far as I was concerned, this wasn't in the plan. If they had been distracted by some enemies, I didn't see them and there was no sign of friendly AA fire. Perhaps they had decided to orbit to gain height, before getting any closer to the Lines. Impatient with trying to guess the un-guessable, I decided, sod it, I'll carry on and trust them to find their way to the patrol zone later. So on we went, up towards 9,000 feet, leaving most of the scattered cloud below us.

 

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Soon, we were over the shelled area, which was getting a fairly regular pasting from artillery fire, although the start of our offensive was still several days away. It wasn't long before the anti-aircraft gunners were also in action; the first black bursts of Archie appeared around us, exploding with a 'crump' that I could hear above the buzzing of my le Rhone rotary engine.

 

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On the ground ahead of us lay a large town, which I took to be Lens. Much of the place was a wasteland, devastated by shellfire, with only its eastern margins looking to be relatively intact.

 

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At this point, happening to look around, back towards my flight-mate, I saw a rather strange thing. One moment Scott was in formation to my right rear, then he swung suddenly off to the left. For a second I watched him, thinking perhaps that he had decided to go off hunting on his own, and looking in his direction of travel, to see where the Hun might be.

 

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Seeing none, the penny dropped and I broke hard right, after Scott. The Hun was obviously behind us. One look confirmed I was right.

 

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...to be continued!

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From bad to worse!

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I nosed down and tightened my turn, but it didn't save me. I should have got some practice in the WOFF Nieuport 17 before taking to the campaign skies; not having done so, I was rather caught out by my plane's tendency to roll out of a tight left-hand turn, whether down to adverse yaw of the gyroscopic effect of my rotary engine. A burst of fire whacked into my machine, then another one. Blood spattered my goggles as I looked back at the red nosed Hun.

 

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I didn't fancy my chances against the more powerful Albatros in a climbing fight so in an effort to turn inside him I put my nose down and tried a yo-yo-type manoeuvre. This of course cost me altitude but at least it got me out of the beggar's line of fire. A turning fight developed in which I was gradually able to get the upper hand, despite feeling that something, somewhere wasn't quite right with my machine's handling, having taken those rounds in his first attack.

 

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Finally, profiting from my my Nieuport's ability to turn better to the right, I got in a couple of good bursts at long-ish range. I may or may not have got any hits but the Albatros decided enough was enough and ran for it at full throttle, heading back into Hun-land.

 

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I chased him for a bit but he gradually drew away from me and so I gave up. There was no sign of Scott - apparently he was engaged with some other Albatrosses I didn't see - but looking around, I did see something on which I might usefully take out my frustration. There, slightly right and just below, was a German observation balloon.

 

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You'll do, I said to myself. Archie started up again as I approached the gasbag so I swerved first left then right, climbing as I drew level with the balloon, preparatory to winging over and diving on him. I knew fine well that injured and in a damaged machine, this was not really a very good idea. But I was still annoyed at having let myself be surprised by the Hun in the Albatros and was out for whatever revenge I could exact in exchange.

 

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So I rolled left, chopped the throttle and went for him, with Archie still bursting around me. I saw my rounds raise dust on the balloon's flanks, and held down the trigger. At this low level, I was not going to risk a second pass, so I was determined to keep firing to the last moment, if necessary. Necessary, it was.

 

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At the last moment, with the gasbag filling my forward vision, I pulled back on the stick. Actually, it was after the last moment. My plane lurched and there was a flash of orange fire. Then it all went quiet.

 

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My machine nosed down, near to the vertical. I pulled back on the stick, to no avail. Whether I had collided with the balloon or was caught by its explosion, I will never know.

 

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I'd learned a lesson or two on this mission, but it was too late, for this campaign, anyway. Injured and with a damaged plane, I hadn't done too badly to see off the Albatros. But I should have left it at that, instead of tackling a balloon, especially at such low level.

 

The debrief confirmed my demise, although the detailed results screen showed that my flight-mate, Scott, had been more successful, despite being on his own, with two victories claimed. A stout fellow! As for the other flight, they had been of no assistance to us, not having been engaged, apparently.

 

debrief details.JPG

 

In the real world, 60 Squadron had suffered heavily at the hands of the Albatrosses and in my recreation in Wings Over Flanders Fields, I had nearly myself fallen foul to one of the Huns, being lucky to have driven him off. I should have got out while I was ahead, or at least, in one piece!

 

Coming next in CA-WW1 - 'No Parachute' by Arthur Gould Lee

 

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