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The anti-Richthofen squadron

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Hunting the Red Baron...in a dud aeroplane!




You might be forgiven for thinking that the combination in spring 1917 of Britain's leading fighter pilot and the country's greatest fighter plane would have been the combat aviation equivalent of a marriage made in heaven. Far from it, for Captain Albert Ball DSO, MC (and later VC) was not at all impressed with the Royal Aircraft Factory's new Scouting Experimental 5. 'The S.E.5 has turned out a dud... It's a great shame, for everybody expects such a lot from them... it is a rotten machine', was his verdict. He'd been posted as a flight commander to the recently-formed No. 56 Squadron, working up at Colney Hatch in England before deploying to France. 'There were rumours of an anti-Richthofen squadron' wrote Alexander McKee in The Friendless Sky, 'and this was it.' Or as near such a thing as ever existed. "Fifty Six" was certainly something special. Not only was it first to be equiped with the first of the Royal Flying Corps' new types of fighter ('scout') aircraft, intended to match the Hun's Albatros V-strutters; to the squadron was posted an unusually high proportion of especially skilled and/or experienced pilots. Hence likely the rumour, which reached the ears of the great man himself, that the squadron was tasked with bringing an end to the career of Manfred von Richthofen.


Such was Ball's antipathy to the S.E.5 that he tinkered considerably with his own machine, adjusting amongst other things seat height, windscreen and armament. Some of these modifications were adopted for all the squadron's machines and those produced afterwards, like replacing the semi-enclosed 'glasshouse' windscreen with a smaller, conventional one and removing the little gravity-fed fuel reserve tank atop the wing centre section. Here is Ball in his modified machine, in typically bare-headed fashion despite the wintry conditions.

Ball SE5.jpg


Not only that, but on arrival in France, Ball pleaded with RFC boss Hugh Trenchard to be given a Nieuport Scout. 'Boom' agreed, with the proviso it was to be used only for solo missions, with the S.E.5 employed for all flight operations. While as squadron mate and Sagittarius Rising author Cecil Lewis said, the oiginal 150 hp version of the SE was not quite a match for the Albatros, it was, despite Ball's misgivings, a worthy contender in mid-1917 - and, with a more powerful motor, still a front-line fighter at war's end, a year and a half after it first saw action. Ball seems to have warmed to the type, for he scored eleven of his last thirteen victories in the S.E.5, before being killed in one in unclear circumstances during a disastrous series of patrol actions against Jasta 11 on 7th May 1917. Ball's memory lived on, and the S.E.5 went on to carve out an equally illustrious name for itself, in the hands of men like Jimmy McCudden, Arthur Rhys-Davids, 'Mick' Mannock and Billy Bishop.


A campaign in S.E.'s with 'Fifty Six' is something any WW1 simmer is likely to fly at least once; and this set of mission reports is from my own latest effort, flown in Wings over Flanders Fields. Now in its Ultimate Edition, with its hugely-immersive single-player experience, WoFF can fairly lay claim to being the ultimate WW1 air combat sim. And it wouldn't be WoFF if it didn't feature both 56 Squadron and the S.E.5. Thus equipped, I decided to start my campaign at the beginning of May 1917, at the point the tide had begun to turn and 'Bloody April' was, at last, behind the RFC.


It's good that WoFF features the S.E.5, because it's quite different visually from the 200 hp version we usually get in flightsims, and which didn't appear till late summer 1917. To digress, it's generally stated, based on official rigger's notes, that it was the S.E.5a version which introduced the more powerful 200hp motor, with a visibly-larger frontal radiator. However, in Crowood's Aircraft of the Royal Aircraft Factory, author Paul Hare reveals that works drawings show that the S.E.5a was created after only 23 'true' S.E.5s had been built, by cutting the length of the rear wing spars, reducing considerably the pronounced rake of the original wingtips. The early production S.E.5a retained the 150 hp engine.


As well as the early model I'm flying on this campaign, WoFF features S.E.5as with the geared 200hp Hispano-Suiza and the later (and more reliable) ungeared Wolesley Viper engines. A 'Hisso' S.E.5a is seen below, in foul weather over southern England; I think the wingtips should be a little less raked but she's a fine replica and looks much better since WoFF enabled us to lose the former wide-angle lens external view. The Viper engine had more angular edges to the radiator and a noticeably-lower thrust line/prop.




The mission

It's 1st May 1917 and the weather is fine. 'Fifty Six' has settled down to the war at Vert Galand in northern France and today, I'm leading 'B' Flight on a Line Patrol up to the north-east, near Arras.




'A' Flight has two machines on this show, in addition to my four. You can see one of the others - Rhys-Davids, no less, from his white fuselage marking - taking off to my right front, as I open up the throttle to start my own run. You can also see that painting the upper (and lower) wing roundels well inboard was an unusual feature of the markings of early S.E.'s




I'm soon airborne and climbing away. The WoFF S.E.5 is a fine piece of work, and she sounds just as good as she looks.




What sort of fighting machine she is, I expect soon to find out...which I will, though not quite as I might have expected...


...to be continued!

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An unfortunate misunderstanding...


We have a moderately long leg to the front so I have plenty of time to get up to our assigned patrol altitude of just over eight thousand feet. In 'V' formation, we begin the climb, with one SE to my right...




...and another two on my left...




I have plenty of time to look around my nicely-rendered virtual cockpit...




...and to admire the dramatic cloudscapes as we plough onwards and upwards, towards the front lines to the north-east.




My machine carries a real 56 Squadron scheme, serial B'514 which was flown by Lt Richard T. Leighton. As well as flight and individual aircraft letters (and wheel hubs in flight colours) I have a red dumbell on the rear fuselage. I think the latter is a personal marking, as I think a wide white rear fuselage band was the first official squadron marking, later changed to two thin white bars angled inwards towards the top.


In plan view, I reckon the wing-tip profile - which I think is shared with WoFF's later-production SE's - is somewhere in between the sharply-raked tips of the S.E.5 proper and the much more squared-off wingtips of the 5a.




Shortly after levelling out at our patrol altitude, like the best laid plans of mice and men things go awry. I realise that I haven't checked to see that my labels are set to display dot mode (which renders distant planes as specks, which would otherwise be invisible until they were rather unrealistically close). I decide I should rectify this. Having forgotten the keystroke to cycle through label types, I foolishly resort to trial and error. First, I manage to turn on text labels. Then, I try Ctrl+L. This turns out to be the (non-reversible) command for my flight to land. My comrades obey promptly, breaking formation and falling away!




This leaves me in something of a quandrary. I don't particularly fancy washing out the mission completely, but I don't care much for going on alone, either. But as it happens, my faffing about with the labels helps me make up my mind. For it reveals one or more DFW two-seaters high and right, coming my way. Our AA boys aren't engaging them, so I might have missed them had it not been for the labels, though dot mode might have brought them to my attention soon enough, had I enabled it.




It's strange that the Huns are from Flieger Abteilung 208 A, because the 'A' means their speciality is artillery observation, which they would not generally be doing this far behind the lines (the small 's' in their designation I believe means their unit is from the Kingdom of Saxony). But I can't possibly know any of this. What I do know is that these Huns are on our side of the lines and that it's now my job to deal with the blighters.


I turn off the labels, pull up my nose and turn gently onto an interception course. The Huns are just specks against the blue, but I can just about make out that there's no less than five of them!


This is going to be interesting...




...to be continued!

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Up and at 'em!




I turn back west and run ahead of the Huns, climbing as I do so. I find that despite losing speed in the climb, I am still slowly drawing ahead of them. So far, so good. The enemies fly on impassively, maintaining formation. Evidently they are not terribly worried about a single enemy fighting machine, even if it is from the anti-Richthofen squadron.




The fact they seem so singularly unworried about me serves only to increase my desire to interrupt their cosy little sight-seeing trip. I decide that I am going to attack from head on, which should give them the wind up, good and proper. So I continue to climb.




Looking down from the Huns' viewpoint, it's not hard to see why they appear so unconcerned. My S.E.5 looks rather lonely and insignificant, hardly much of a threat to the impressive Hun phalanx above and behind me.




But soon, I'm up at their level, and I turn left into them. It's time to put a stop to their damned impertinence!




However, I have turned in too soon, and find myself closing from an angle off their course. So I end up attacking the nearest DFW in a curve, pulling around to the right to keep my sights onto him as he flashes left to right across my nose.




I get some hits, but am hit in return as one or more of the enemy observers get me in their sights. A light spatter of blood on the goggles indicates that I have been hit, as well as my machine. This isn't going so well! I tighten my turn and bank away to get out of their line of fire as quickly as possible, nosing down as I go.




At this point, I really should have packed it in. But I can't bear the thought of those Huns smugly flying on as they watch me slink away with my tail between my legs. So I reverse my course and come back after the same DFW. If there is a way of attacking without coming into the field of fire of at least one of the enemy observers, I can't think of it, so I just go for him, coming in from the outside of the formation so as not to make it too easy for the beggars.




I'm not sure who starts shooting first, but very soon, light pencil lines from tracer fire are criss-crossing the skies between us. Bits fly off my target, and suddenly, he noses down to the left. Got him!




I break up and right but collect some hits before I am again out of range. The DFW I have attacked levels out and clearly isn't going down just yet. But I've certainly knocked him out of formation. Now, he's on his own. Not feeling so smug now, are you, I ask him in my mind.




The DFW flies to the east, with me in hot pursuit. This is one enemy machine which won't be making it back to Hun-land, if I have anything to do with it.




...to be continued!

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A narrow escape


I have already attacked this Hun two-seater twice and he can clearly see that another attack is coming. As I close in to make it, he begins a turn to the left, as if to give his observer a clear field of fire...




I cut inside his turn, jink, and then go straight at him. All rather unsubtle, and hits are exchanged on both sides. At about 75 yards, I break low and left.




This has the desired effect of taking me quickly out of his line of fire. But on he flies, seemingly no nearer to going down.




I come around in a tight turn, looking back at the Hun. I can see now that he is losing altitude, and while he keeps his wings level, he is flying a tad erratically, porpoising slightly every so often.




Sensing that another attack will do the trick, I tighten my turn...too much! I promptly spin out, treating the Hun to the sight of my S.E. spiralling earthwards like a falling leaf. The DFW promptly turns away, to make good his escape.





I chop the throttle, put the controls neutral and apply opposite rudder. Nothing happens, except the spinning continues and the earth rapidly draws closer. I feel a tinge of panic. Have my controls been damaged, leaving me to keep on spinning until I hit the ground? Is this the end, already?


Finally, my machine responds to the controls, and I come out of the spin. I keep the nose down to build up speed, then begin pulling up. but at that moment, my engine splutters and the prop spins to a halt. I push the nose down again and try to re-start the motor, but she chugs then comes to a stop again.




Now, all thought of knocking down the Hun is gone and my attention turns to finding a decent field for a forced landing. There are plenty to chose from, but many of them are rather small or lined with trees.




I am mightily relieved when I see that I am close to an airfield. I turn directly towards it, keeping my nose well down in the turn to avoid another spin, which woud be extremely dangerous at this height.




A rather steep, curving approach is the best that I can do, but it seems to go well enough. I see that am coming in rather fast and that I need to be careful not to run into the sheds. The fellows down there will surely not appreciate such a clumsy visitor.




My wheels bounce once and then I'm down. I let the speed drop enough then pull back on the stick, so as to dig in the tailskid. This brings me to a halt opposite the hangars, where the ack emmas won't have too far to haul my kite.




My S.E. is somewhat knocked about but repairable. As am I, apparently. The debriefing tells me that I'll be in hospital for nearly a fortnight. Hopes that my Hun might have come down after my last attack appear to have been dashed; if he did, it won't be credited to me.


56 Sqdn debrief.jpg


Not a great start! I should have washed out the patrol after inadvertently send my flight-mates away. Having decided to fly on alone, I shoud not have repeatedly attacked a superior enemy formation. Oh well. At least I came down in friendly territory, didn't completely wreck my machine, and wasn't hurt too badly. I'll soon be back at the front, ready for another crack at the bally old Hun, and this time, I'll be a bit more careful!

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