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Re-living another classic WW1 air war memoir, in Wings over Flanders Fields!



This is a rather late addition to my earlier series of WOFF mission reports inspired by real-life WW1 aircrew memoirs. The inspiration in this case is ‘Flying Minnows’  which was, in turn, a late addition to my library, picked up the other week from a local second-hand bookstore. The book was first published in 1935 under the author's pseudonym ‘Roger Vee’, my 1979 reprint appearing under the author’s real name of Vivian Voss. Though sharing the surname of the famous German ace, this Voss was a South African, with family ties to my own home town of Belfast, in Northern Ireland.

flying minnows.jpg


The man and the book
‘Flying Minnows’ – which I haven’t finished reading yet – begins with Voss’s flying training in 1917, in Canada, having crossed from the USA where he was studying at John Hopkins University, Baltimore, to join up. From his account, the standard of basic training seems only slightly evolved from the beginning of the war. At Camp Mohawk near Deseronto, Voss learns to fly in the ‘Buffalo Curtiss’ type JN-4A, which is what we today would commonly call a Curtiss ’Jenny’. Slightly more advanced training then follows, after a move to Camp Borden, flying both the 'Buffalo Curtiss’ and another ‘Jenny’ they called the 'Canadian Curtiss', with reduced dihedral and a normal joystick instead of the Buffalo's one with a wheel for aileron control. Amongst other things, Voss receives instruction in artillery spotting, providing a usefully detailed description of the basic procedure, including examples of the actual Morse Code signals used.  He receives his commission in Toronto then leaves via steamer from Halifax for Liverpool. In England, flying first at Shawbury in Shropshire, Voss records briefly his impressions of other types he flies during ‘continuation training’ there and later. He says of the Avro 504 trainer ‘It took me some time to get used to these rotary engines, and to the extermely sensitive "balanced" rudder. But they were remarkably stable machines and easy to land.' Of the Sopwith 1 1/2 Strutter, he says 'They were easy machines to fly', capable of being trimmed so they could be flown 'hands off' - literally: he tells the story of a Strutter which landed in a field 70 miles behind the Lines, and how the officer who walked over to offer assistance found that '...the petrol tank was empty, but the airmen needed no help. Both the pilot and the observer were dead.'


Voss moves to Netherhavon on Salisbury Plain and fears he is doomed to artillery spotting rather than a fighter pilot career, when he hears they have RE8s there. However, he soon finds out he's destined to be flying Bristol Fighters and that these are not the obsolete Bristol Scouts he had known off, but modern 2-seaters, said by some of his fellows there to be '...considered to be the finest fighting machines ever built.'


Taking up a BE2e at Netherhavon for the first time, his instruction consists of being told 'Don't spin or loop it, as it won't stand it.' He finds the BE is '...an easy machine to fly, and did several half rolls (Immelmann turns) and vertical banks with it. It was very light and felt like a toy after the the heavier 1 1/2 Strutters I had been flying.'  The DH6 trainer also on station is ‘...a very slow machine...hideously ugly...commonly known as a 'Clutching Hand' or a 'Crab'. I have seen Crabs flying against the wind with such low air-speeds that they were actually drifting backwards relative to the ground.' Of the RE8 he says 'It was the heaviest machine I had yet flown...fortunately all the serviceable RE8s were crashed just about this time, so I was put straight on to Bristol Fighters.' Of his first solo in the latter machine, Voss says 'I felt at home at once...the engine, a 250 hp Rolls- Royce, was infinitely more powerful than anything I had come acrross so far. It gave a full-throated roar and shot away across the aerodrome and then up, soaring into the air like a great eagle. She was a massive machine but so beautifully designed that she did not feel heavy on the controls. She responded surperbly to the least touch of the stick or rudder-bar.'  Such are the impressions that we WW1 air war afficionados love to savour!


Voss's most memorable experience from this time is when he’s sent on an ‘altitude test’ to confirm he can tolerate the conditions. This he manages, but his base is clouded in below him. Having without visible reference points drifted well south in his wide spiralling ascent, he ends up coming back down through the overcast to find himself well out over a blustery sea, land no-where in sight. Luckily, he runs out of petrol close to a solitary fishing boat, which quickly rescues him.
Completing his training, Voss is posted to France and is on operations from February 1918 to the end of the war, flying first with No. 48 Squadron, then with 88. With the reticence that was typical of the times, the squadrons are not identified by number and individuals are identified by more pseudonyms; but all is revealed in detailed appendices by renowned WW1 author Norman Franks, which include lists of casualties and claims for both squadrons during the author’s period of service. I haven’t done more than skip through the rest of the story but from what I’ve seen, it’s a fascinating one, different from but well up there with the likes of Norman MacMillan’s ‘Into The Blue’ or Duncan Grinnell-Milne’s ‘Wind in the Wires’. Based largely on an incident during training, one online review unfairly slates Voss for being a ‘chinless wonder’ type of officer, looking down his nose at the ‘other ranks’ - but leaving aside the fact the review mis-reports or mis-represents the incident, Voss is a man of his times not ours. And a brave man at that. To me, he displays a real charm and a self-effacing sense of humour. He does not disguise his fears, while maintaining the usual (for that era and that author base) stoical stance when recounting some of the crashes and other nastiness he encounters. I’ll not spoil the book for anyone else by saying more...besides, I haven’t finished it myself, yet! But it has already prompted me to start another Bristol Fighter campaign – I think my last serious one of these was in Over Flanders Fields, WOFF’s predecessor, so this outing in the Bristol is long overdue.

The campaign
Though Voss’s war started in early 1918, my favoured period for WW1 in the air is 1917, taking in ‘Bloody April', the RFC’s subsequent resurgence, and the appearance of many classic types like the Albatros D.III and D.V, the Pfalz D.III and Fokker Dr.1, and on the Entente side, the SE5 and the Camel...and of course, the Bristol Fighter. I decided to start in March 1917, with the type’s debut at the front with 48 Squadron. A side-benefit of this is that my low-spec PC isn’t going to be over-taxed by the higher volumes of air activity generated by WOFF for later-war periods, or need me to dial back my graphics settings.

At this point, we have the early F2A version (tho WOFF visually represents this with a typical, later F2B). And our ranks include as a flight leader no less a man that William Leefe Robinson VC, feted back home as the slayer of a ‘zepp’ raiding England, in fact not a Zeppelin but the Schutte-Lanz airship S L11. Sure enough, WOFF’s order or battle lets me not only fly with the same squadron Voss was to join, but from its inauguration at the front and with Leefe Robinson on its duty roster. And of course WOFF puts us where we should be, at the airfield of la Bellevue. Naturally, I’m hoping that's as far as the recreation of history goes - because I want to avoid the fate of the squadron in what was reported to be its first foray over the Lines into enemy airspace (termed an 'Offensive Patrol', which Voss reminds us was known at the time as a 'O Pip'), when it met Manfred von Richthofen’s Jasta 11 and lost four out of six, including Leefe Robinson’s Bristol.

The first mission
As befits our first excursion since arriving at the front, our opening mission is a trip up to, but not over, the Lines. Having no particular interest in formation flying and preferring the extra tactical challenge of the flight leader, I have selected ‘Always lead’ so I’m at the head of the four Bristols for this trip. Bad weather – WOFF’s option to replicate the effects of historical weather, is another feature of this truly great sim – 'washed out' the previous day’s flying, so I’m keen to get away and at the Hun. I check the controls and start her up, the others doing likewise, including ‘A’ Flight, which will have three machines operating in loose support in the same area.

I open her up and off we go! The ground is soon falling away behind us and I’m relishing the powerful, low snarl of my big Rolls Royce engine, such sounds being another of WOFF’s outstanding features. Up ahead, there’s still a lot of cloud, and if we go for our briefed altitude of 7,500 feet, I’m not yet sure whether we’ll be below, above or amongst all the white stuff. I’ll worry about that when I get up there, I decide.




At a couple of thousand feet, I throttle back and level off while the others catch up. We make a series of gentle climbing turns, opening up and climbing harder as the formation comes nicely together. ‘A’ Flight slides across behind and below us and is last seen as a group of three dark specs, to our left and somewhat lower down.




As we gain height, I settle onto a course that will take us to our assigned turning point above, but not across, the famous Lines. Grey and white clouds gather all around, but we plough on. The cloud stays fairly well broken and visibility is acceptable at our patrol height, which we reach after a long climb.




With no ‘warp to next waypoint’ feature in WOFF, I much prefer to fly in real time. Even with autopilot, I dislike flying in accelerated time, but the short flights make this bearable. This, and the fact that if there’s a sim besides WOFF which captures with such uncanny depth the feeling you get from so many accounts of flying over the front in the First World War, I have yet to find it.


Even over my own side of the Lines, with contact with the enemy not especially likely and with enemy fighters less so, I was kept busy enough scanning the skies above, around and below, in between admiring the view.

And there is much to admire.  For one thing, the Bristol, always one of the best-rendered kites in OFF, looks better than ever, in WOFF. As does the landscape, in this case including the battered town of Arras, near the Lines below us and soon to give its name to the battle that will spawn 'Bloody April'.



The cloudscapes are equally good (especially with Arisfuser's cloud mod). They're not volumetric and sometimes it shows; but to my eye, they are as good or better than anything else in the business and their presence and appearance adds massively to the feeling that 'you are up there', over the front and at the mercy of everything from the elements, to the Archie (AA fire) and of course, the wily Huns, in the sun and elsewhere.


But on we go, the eight of us, pilots and gunners, in our big new Bristol Fighters, ready for anything...we hope...




...to be continued!

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Alarms and excursions!




Nearing the Lines at the head of my flight of four Bristol Fighters, I cut out the sight-seeing and concentrate on scanning the cloudy skies all around, for any sign of the enemy. I also take the opportunity to pick out the major landmarks, comparing what I could see with the map. The in-flight map was one of WOFF’s big improvements over CFS3’s truly awful one, and now I’m using a modded version by Nibbio (of CFS2 'rollfix' fame, if I recall right) which helpfully improves the correspondence between what you can see in the 3D world and the map itself.

Another WOFF improvement over OFF is aircraft visibility, which without labels or the ‘Tactical Display’ was poor. Aircraft 3d models are still not visible as far away as they should be. But to remedy this, WOFF introduced a ‘dot more’ for labels, whereby you can choose the range at which planes are rendered as a small dot. I have picked 6 Km as the dot rendering distance and use a ‘black dot’ mod by Robert Wiggins which replaces the default lightish grey version.


So equipped, I suddenly see three aircraft ahead and slightly below, on a roughly reciprocal course a short way to our right. They show no particular sign of reacting to us, so it seems likely they are friendly. However, in such situations I apply the advice of RFC ace Mick Mannock, to treat all spotted aircraft as hostile, until proved otherwise. As the other formation comes abreast of us, I lead our formation around in a ‘curve of pursuit’, calculated to take us in behind and above them.




As  I do so, I realise that these are indeed friendlies, three British 2-seaters - almost certainly our very own ‘A’ Flight, which we had not seen since soon after we all took off. Better safe, than sorry! I turn back onto our previous course and complete the run-up to our turning point, at the limit of our patrol, above the front.

I had intended to patrol around our final turning point for a time, but these plans are duly interrupted. Ahead and slightly right, somewhat higher up, I spot three more aircraft, just distant specks against a patch of blue between white and grey cloudbanks. As I watch, I can see that their track is taking them across our front, from right (friendly territory) to left (the enemy side of the Lines).




It seems unlikely they are ‘A’ Flight, last seen not long ago, headed away and lower down. There is no Archie, so I have no particular clue as to their identity – black bursts would have indicated friendlies engaged by enemy AA fire, white, enemies, shot at by our own.  At full throttle I start climbing gently, concerned that we might be up against enemies with a height advantage. We draw steadily closer, but the other formation flies steadily on, the lack of an aggressive reaction hopefully indicating they are not enemy scouts (as fighters were then known). A friendly flight, outbound for Hun-land, perhaps? Or maybe enemy two-seaters, returning from a raid or a recce? I begin to turn in behind them, ready to attack if they should prove to be Huns.




And Huns they are! As the aircraft cross ahead of us, I can see they are German aeroplanes, DFWs by the look of it, mainly from their 'wing nut' tailplanes. I swing in behind and below them. The range winds down quite rapidly. With three aircraft in Vic formation able to cover each other’s blind spots, there is little prospect of a surprising them, and even if we get underneath the tail of one, we will be exposed to crossfire from the others. But I am anxious to catch the Huns before they get too far over on their own side of the Lines. So I select the enemy on the right of the formation and continue to close, giving the order to attack as we do so. My observer seems keen to contribute for as we close, I suddenly see the muzzles of his twin Lewis Guns appear, just above my head.




I wait for him to fire, but he doesn’t, so I wait no longer. Probably blocking his line of fire with my upper wing, I pull up my nose and cut loose with the Vickers. Correcting my aim from the tracer smoke trails - which are rather nicely done, in WOFF - I am soon getting hits. The DFW ploughs on, though. Worse still, return fire from an enemy on my left whacks into my machine, about the same time as I pop up into the field of fire of my target’s own observer. I push down the nose then pull up again, for a final burst before breaking away.




That does the trick! Suddenly, the DFW rolls over to his right and falls away, his nose dropping. Got him! I am sure of it. I break right and watch him fall into a vertical nose dive, from which I feel sure there will be no recovery.




Looking back to my left, I can see the other two DFWs are maintaining formation, harried by at least one other Bristol. No longer receiving fire, I reverse my turn and head back into the fight.




I very quickly become aware that all is not well with my machine. She seems to want to roll right and it takes significant opposite stick pressure, to overcome this; even more, to turn left after the DFWs. Rolling out of my turn behind and below them, I under-correct and nearly spin out. By the time I am back in control, I can see what looks like a second DFW going down vertically, trailing steam and black smoke.



By now, I am conscious also that my motor doesn’t seem to be developing full power. My efforts to catch up on the rapidly-receding air fight seem to be getting no-where. As the flight leader, I am reluctant to leave, but with the three Bristols now against one DFW, no sign of further Huns, and the fight now heading over the Lines, I decide to call it quits. Unfortunately, I cannot not resort to WOFF’s ‘Rejoin formation’ command (‘Rally’, in RFC terms, usually signalled by a pre-arranged colour of flare) because this only works to recall planes previously ordered to attack ground targets (strange, but there it is). It's time to go home, I decide. My engine could fail at any time and I'm not going to chance ending my career prematurely, with a forced landing on the wrong side of the Lines. I throttle back and dive gently away to the west.




The others are soon out of sight. A decent amount of aileron is needed to stop my kite rolling over and holding this on, I check my map. My home base lies quite a way to the north west, but I can see that there is a friendly airfield much closer, a short way to the west. A minor course adjustment is all that's needed to take me there and I am soon into a right-hand circuit for landing.



This time I am more careful to keep things gentle, as a loss of control at lower level could easily end in disaster. But I am soon down safely, chopping the throttle then switching off as I bump and roll across the grass towards the sheds....and a nice strong cup of tea in a friendly mess.




Mission over, and having taken the proverbial and virtual tender back to la Bellevue, I am able to review the mission results. We no longer have the rather cryptically-annotated, Red Baron-like mission replay feature of Over Flanders Fields, but WOFF has a much better post-mission info screen. From this, I am pleased to see that my kill has been recorded - as a victory claim, but guaranteed to be credited as, for this career, I have turned off the claim form submission drill (I will likely turn this back on as it’s not only a nice feature, but also because the ‘automated claims’ option doesn’t record the aircraft type of your victory).


Less pleasing is the fact that two machines had been destroyed, with one crew killed and an observer wounded. Feeling rather guilty at having missed all of this and that perhaps as flight leader I now have something to prove, I am keen to return to the fray.


...to be continued!

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Another eventful trip...



It’s not long before I have the opportunity to make any amends necessary, after leaving my flight due to engine and airframe damage, during the battle with the three DFWs. My machine has been repaired and ‘B’ Flight, of which I’m effectively the leader, has licked its wounds from the earlier patrol. We have four aircraft and crews on the roster for the day, ready for operations.


WOFF F2B campaign briefing room.JPG


Our mission this time is similar, another trip up to the Lines, this time with three Bristols. The weather has improved somewhat. There’s still quite a lot of cloud, but not so much. We’re soon away and climbing up to our patrol altitude of between seven and eight thousand feet.




Our route this time is somewhat shorter and more northerly, with a little dog leg up and across to the Lines, not far to the east.




No sooner have we reached them, than I spot two dark specks, right and about the same level. They are moving from right to left – and moving quite quickly, at that.




As we draw nearer, roughly on an intercepting course, the two specks separate. One keeps moving quickly left across our front, while the other hangs back. This doesn’t look like the behaviour of 2-seaters, which typically stay together for mutual protection. And it doesn’t look terribly friendly, either. In fact it’s all decidedly menacing – deliberate, and aggressive. Huns, and probably hot-shot Huns at that, I have no doubt.




I turn in towards the enemy aircraft and make my first mistake, The WOFF Bristol Fighter is rather tail heavy and requires strong forward pressure on the stick, to maintain level flight. I don't recall if the real Bristol had elevator trim but, though I can use CFS3's trim controls to apply it - simulating the rigging of my plane, if real trim wasn't available - I haven't set it. In a turn, it's easy to back off the forward pressure without realising it. This is what I do, and my plane mushes rather badly, giving the second Hun a chance to slot in behind me. Fortunately, he's a long way off - and I'm not alone.




I correct my mistake and concentrate on the enemy leader, giving the attack order. The hostile red icons that appear on the Tactical Display confirm what I had already deduced. In my settings for the 'TAC' I had turned off the ‘tactical advice’ sub-text, but it still identified my opponent - not just as an Albatros D.II, but one flown by a particularly dangerous foe, Historical Ace Eberhard Voss of Jasta 20 - ironic, as that's the name of my inspiration and my pilot in this campaign. Incidentally, WOFF uses the abbreviation HA, unfortunate since this was a ‘reserved term’; a long-standing RFC abbreviation for ‘Hostile Aircraft’, later replaced by ‘Enemy Aircraft’ when the top brass decided that ‘hostile’ somehow didn’t convey quite the right message. 




Anyway, there was I, and there was the Hostile Ace – sorry, Historical Ace...well, both, actually. As it turns out, he is extremely hostile. And he is exhibiting said hostility by throwing his kite about the sky in a most ace-like manner. In what seems like no time, he has turned the tables and is now above and behind me.




Round and round we go in the approved fashion, like two dogs trying to get a bite at each other’s tail. I even throw in a bit of the vertical, trying to do what they nowadays call high or low yo-yos. None of this seems to do me a great deal of good. It certainly doesn’t get me onto his tail, and barely manages to keep him off mine. I don’t recall my observer doing much if any shooting, but considering that both Bristol and Albatros seemed to be constantly changing relative positions, I’m not terribly surprised or disappointed. After a bit, for some mutual support, I try to steer the action towards where I could see the other two Bristols fighting the other Albatros, which seems to help a bit.




I’m acutely conscious, though, that I’m being forced increasingly onto the defensive, with the Hun spending more time behind my ‘three to nine [o’clock] line’ than I behind his. In these circumstances, retaining altitude seems less important than keeping body and soul together. I have already lost some height but I now start making altogether more aggressive low yo-yos, regardless of height loss. This seems to work rather better and by the time we are near the deck, I have actually managed to get off a couple of short bursts at him, from my Vickers.




The down-side is that I am now so low that the only way is up. And I must be careful in my turns, not to spin out. Worse, there’s the crackle of MG fire and grey lines of tracer smoke trails come arcing up at me from the ground. I am no longer over friendly territory and now the Huns on the ground are also after me. I twist and turn. But a burst from somewhere down below whacks into my Bristol and blood spatters my goggles.



Coming around in as tight a turn as I dare after another snap-shot at the Albatros, with mounting elation I suddenly realise that the Hun has not turned after me, but away. He’s had enough! I whip around after him, but – just when I didn’t need his help any longer! – a flight mate cuts in, behind me. Hopefully he will cover my tail as I make the kill, rather than try to steal it from me!




I hesitate, then suddenly fling the big Bristol into a sharp right-hand turn, as the second Hun comes at me from a flank. No fair! One of the other chaps - who should have been covering my tail, instead gets to finish off the hot Hun I had shed virtual blood to best, then to top it all, a fresh enemy gets to finish off me!




I’m back where I started, except this time wounded and no height to play with. I soon notice, though, that the Hun seems to have different ideas. Not contenting himself with level turns to get onto my tail, he starts some yo-yos of his own, up and down. Dangerous stuff! I manage a quick pass without getting my sights onto him, but after flashing past, I can see his diving escape is taking him nearly vertically towards the ground, ground which is so very close...too close. I suddenly feel calm, certain that he is doomed!




And so it comes to pass. I don’t see or hear him crash, but looking back, there he is, the proverbial smokin’ hole in the ground. I am sure I won’t merit a confirmed kill for that one, but equally sure that I don’t care. Survival is victory enough. That I had bested the hot-shot Hun, and then seen his kamerad augur in, is sufficient icing on the survival cake.




This time, wounded, low, under fire from the ground and with no other aircraft in sight, I feel no compunction at going home.




Once again, a glance at the map shows me the way to the nearest friendly airfield and once again, I am soon there and back on terra firma.






The mission debrief brings me mixed news. We’ve had no further casualties - barring myself and my observer, who will both be spending a week and a bit in hospital. But the flight has brought down that pesky ace in the first Albatros and confirmation has come in of my own claim from my first operational flight. Not so bad a day’s business!

Coming up to two years on from my CombatAce review, with a good many more hours on the sim under my belt, I have a few niggles with WOFF. These range from the ‘minor/easily remedied’ end of the scale (eg some of the terminology is unduly idiosyncratic or irksome, like ‘craft’ for ‘aeroplane’ or ‘aircraft’; and the very modernistic ’Intell’ for ‘Intelligence’) to the more significant (eg the lack of a fully-functional ‘recall/rejoin formation’ command, and the relative lack of single aeroplanes plying their trade, either 1915-16 or, later, 2 seaters near the Lines doing ‘art obs’ or strip photo shoots). In between, there’s the limited view system and the relative paucity of AA fire (and sometimes also, planes for them, or the player, to see and shoot at). Even with the welcome addition of the Nieuport 12, there still just aren’t enough French 2-seaters, while a DH-4, an FK-8 and a representative 1916-17 German 2-seater would also be good (as would giving squadrons with missing planes a suitable substitute, rather than leaving them present, but inactive, in the otherwise hugely comprehensive WOFF Orders of Battle). Unsurprisingly, I remain a big fan of First Eagles 2, which does rather better in many of these areas, with great air-to-air and (with freeware mods) a much bigger planeset, complete with additional theatres and individual markngs for every plane in the air.

However, playing WOFF regularly over all this time, I've found nothing to sway my review opinion, that this is truly a sim amongst sims, one of the best ever and a 'must have' for any WW1 fan.




I can't imagine not playing WOFF, regularly; not least, being able to step back into the shoes (ie the squadrons) of just about any of the writers of the iconic WW1 air war memoirs, knowing the unit will be there, where it should be, and finding yourself transported back to their world, recreated with hugely immersive effect by a team whose love and grasp of their subject matter shines through so strongly. Wings over Flanders Fields still earns my very highest recommendation, two years on.


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Ive been away for a while...love reading your reports pal and i agree with everything youv,e said,im still in love with WOFF and cannot wait until V3 hits us

Thanks 33Lima 

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