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So much for chivalry!

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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!


The mission

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!

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Over the front!


Having reached the front, I’ve swung ‘B’ Flight around, to follow the trenchlines back up to the north-west. In doing so, like a sentry on his beat, I've turned towards the enemy, into Hunland, so as not to expose our backs to the enemy. This brings me closer to the large town of Cambrai, near to which are several German airfields. There’s no sign of aerial activity, though, but as if to make up for it, we are heavily 'Archied'.




The black bursts of shellfire fall sufficiently close and thickly that I fear somebody will be hit, so I throw in some changes of height and heading to fox the gunners. Soon, the fire becomes more scattered and less intense as the range increases, and we all appear undamaged, much to my relief.




After a few miles, I decide it’s time to reverse our course and patrol back down the lines. But as I’m about to turn about, I see several dark specks in the sky up ahead. All I can tell is that they’re not drawing ground fire, and are just inside Hunland but drifting slowly to the west, towards our side of the lines. They could be friend or foe. Hedging my bets, I adjust our course so as to cut them off. They’re slightly lower, so I maintain my height, with the intention of still having that advantage when I get up to them.




The unidentified aircraft slip over onto our side of the lines, then begin to turn left, drawing steadily closer. Soon, I can make out that there are four of them. They seem to be making a wide left turn which, if held, will take them back into Hunland. I adjust my intercepting couse accordingly.




Whoever they are, we won't be long in finding out. They could well be our boys, but if not...well, it does no harm to err on the side of caution.




The specks grow bigger and become biplanes. It’s not long afterwards that I decide they look like S.E.5.s, just like ours. A closer look confirms that they're ‘A’ Flight, flying the same patrol but not seen since a few minutes after take-off.




The other S.E.s pay us no particular attention, but slowly swing around in their wide left-hand turn, until they are headed back down the lines to the south-east. That’s where I’m going, too, so I tag along, slightly higher and to their right.




Nine S.E.s should be enough to give any bunch of Huns we're likely to meet a fairly hot time. In fact, I begin to worry that the enemy might be put off from making an appearance. So, when we reach the point where we originally reached the lines, opposite Cambrai, I turn around again, and let ‘A’ Flight continue on to the south east.




This time, we're more or less directly over the lines, a little further away from those nasty men on the ground who shelled us heavily, the last time we passed this way. Cambrai, sitting just outside the shelled area, can be seen to the centre left of the picture below. I'm hoping we will be far enough away to escape Archie's attention, this time.




We're not fired on, but it seems that other hostile eyes may be watching us. Right and ahead, at about the same level and well on the enemy side of the lines, I notice a cluster of dark specks.




As I turn into them, I can see that they have already opened out, which indicates that this formation is rapidly drawing closer. In fact, they seem to be coming straight for us. This doesn't look terribly friendly!




...to be continued!

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Sportmanship takes a back seat!


The onrushing five aircraft are, of course, Huns. In fact, they are Albatros D.IIs, readily distinguished from the more modern D.IIIs by their parallel, rather than V-shaped, interplane struts, and their square-cut wingtips. Happily, I get a burst into the leader as our two formations come together, forcing him to pull up and out of my way.




A glance behind shows the two flights merging, as I give the attack order and re-focus on the fellow I have hit. Not to be left out, Archie is now blazing away into the middle of it all, silly fellow that he is.




By this time, I'm pulling hard around to get after my intended victim.




I get in another burst and am gratified to see the Albatros apparently dropping out of the fight!




This is where I begin to come unstuck. In my haste to get onto the Hun's tail, I fluff my turn. In many WoFF aircraft - Albatrosses and Nieuports come to mind, as well as my present mount - ailerons have little effect, in producing a turn - you need a good dose of rudder, not just to balance a turn but to get and keep it going. This is much more pronounced than other sims I've 'flown', WW1 or otherwise. Not only that, but often, when I'm in a turn, I seem to hit a 'hard stop' at about 45 degrees of bank - further stick deflection to the side will not roll me beyond this. It's not quite adverse yaw, where aerodynamic forces can roll you out of a turn, in the opposite direction. I think this hard stop may happen when I don't use enough rudder - it's hard for me to get into the WoFF rudder habit as it's not the only propsim I 'fly'. It's like I have allowed my plane's nose to drift high, out of the plane of the turn, so that an increased angle of attack or greater lift on the lower wing is preventing it going down any futher. To break this, I usually either back off the turn and apply the correct rudder to get it going again; or, if I'm high enough, push the nose down really hard, so that I go into a steep downward spiral, which enables me to get the nose around the turn, but with a realtively huge loss of height.


This time, I make matters worse by spinning out of my turn. By the time I recover, my intended victim has got away. Worse, a friend of his is now having a pop at me. The first I know of this is the sound of bullets zipping and whacking into my S.E.5. Looking behind as I try to get out of the line of fire, I see him boring in.




By pushing my nose down again, I manage to tighten my turn - this time, without inducing a spin - to the point he starts slipping wide. Now, to turn the tables!




But it's not to be! Suddenly, I can feel the power and hear the sound of my engine fading away. My machine begins to decellerate. Soon, I'll be flying a glider, and this is no place for that. I dive away with what speed I have, and quickly come around till I'm heading west, towards relative safety.




I'm still over No Man's Land, but it looks like I have a fighting chance of making it to our trenchlines. But first, I need to get clear of the dogfight. At this point, my engine dies completely and my prop spins to a halt. I push the nose well down, to build up speed before levelling out on my run for home.




I usually leave the Tactical Display turned off, except to initiate padlocking, but now, I turn it on, the better to keep tabs on my recent assailant. This reveals two things, neither of them terribly welcome. First, I see that I am still some way short of the middle of No-Man's Land, indicated by the crooked black line across upper part of the display. And it tells me that my foe is no beginner - he's an historical ace, Hans Auer (according to the Aerodrome website, at this time serving with Jasta 26).


It's worse than that. Leutnant Auer, it seems, has no intention of taking a chance on my reaching friendly territory and living to fight another day. He slips in behind me and starts pumping nickel-coated lead into my near-helpless machine. So much for chivalry!




Would he have relented if I had opted to force land where I was, behind German lines? I have no intention of finding out. Instead, I jink as best I can, at the cost of more of the precious altitude that I need to expend my glide far enough to reach safety. My tormentor overshoots, but wheels around to come in for another crack at me.




My S.E. survives more hits from his next burst, but catch a bullet wound in the process. Before he can attack again, I run out of height and plonk my kite down onto the shell-scarred ground. By some miracle, the terrain here is reasonably level and I manage to get down without a wreck. And to my boundless joy, I find that I am on our side of the lines!




Looking up, I see Auer fly off to the east, through blood-spattered goggles. Was he put off by MG fire from our trenches? I didn't see any, so perhaps I should be grateful that he wasn't so unchivalrous as to strafe me on the ground.




Perhaps I'll have the opportunity to discuss the matter with him on another day, I tell myself...preferably, with my guns doing the talking.


I'm mollified somewhat to find that I'll be back at the front after another short spell in hospital, and that I'm not the only one in 'B' Flight to make a claim today - Hoidge got one, though also lightly wounded, as did old Broadberry. I submit my claim form, noting witness name, type brought don, location, height and time. Hopefully, all three of us will get confirmations. We'll certainly be able to lord it over 'B' Flight, who missed all the excitement and fired not a round!


56 mission 3 debrief.jpg


It's hard to believe I'm just three missions into my 56 Squadron campaign. I've certainly had an eventful enough time of it, a heady mixture of experiences - flight-leading; navigating across a convincing WW1 landscape, with suitably majestic visuals; scanning the skies; being 'Archied'; the suspense from sightings of other aircraft, friend or foe, going about their business; manoeuvring my flight to best advantage; the thrill of combat; the fight to survive, and bring my boys home too, if I can. Wings over Flanders Fields certainly brings it all to life...if those darned Huns let you live long enough!



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