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Flying the 'spinning incinerator' in Wings over Flanders Fields!




"Led by Lanoe Hawker, No.24 Squadron (DH2s), Britain's first single-seater scout squadron, arrived in France on 8 February 1916 in great excitement but was immediately absorbed in a crisis of its own. The day after their arrival, one of the flight commanders, on the first flight of a DH2 from a French airfield, got into a spin and failed to recover. Five days later, another pilot spun in, and this time the machine caught fire. It had happened before, earning the DH2 the grisly sobriquet of the 'spinning incinerator'...Hawker responded by taking up a DH2 and, according to his biographer, spinning it from every conceivable angle, engine on and engine off, and demonstrating how, with correct remedial action, and provided there was sufficient height, it always recovered."


Ralph Barker, 'A Brief History of the Royal Flying Corps', Constable & Robinson, 2002


Major Lanoe George Hawker, VC, DSO, deserves to be remembered not so much as a famous early victim of Manfred von Richthofen in November 1916, but rather, as the aggressive pioneer air fighter who won a VC for victories over three Germain aircraft - all I think machine-gun armed 2-seaters - on a single day in July 1915, flying a Bristol Scout with a Lewis Gun which had to be fixed to fire at an angle ahead to clear the prop disc - a real feat of arms. This is the actual machine he flew:


Hawker's Bristol Scout.jpg


As a Flight Commander in those days, Hawker's motto, pinned to the notice board, was 'Attack EVERYTHING!' and it was certainly a dictum he lived up to. Later, he was a natural choice to lead the Royal Flying Corps' first real single-seat fighter squadron. Just as No.24 Squadron was a natural choice of unit, when I decided to fly an early-war British fighter campaign in Wings over Flanders Fields.


I had only just ended a 1916 campaign in another 'pusher', the two-seat F.E.2 - after one mission! We crashed after a dramatic collision with a Fokker...




...which didn't survive the encounter...




We lasted a bit longer, surviving further damage in another Fokker attack as we drifted down with a dead motor and elevator control gone, but didn't live through the ensuing crash landing...




So, you might say that I had a score to settle, when I chose to try my hand with another lattice-tailed aircraft, the De Havilland D.H.2, which was credited with a large part in ending the 'Fokker Scourge'. My new career starts in early March 1916, with 24 Squadron's first operations following its deployment to Bertangles in Flanders. You can see from the roster that the redoubtable Major Hawker is very much on the squadron roster - COs were forbidden to fly on ops due to the need to preserve experienced leaders, but Hawker still flew, letting one of the other flight commanders lead. One of whom is me, for my pilot, Lieutenant 'Jock' Higgins - no relation to famous pioneer RFC flier 'all bum and eyeglass' J.F.A. 'Josh' Higgins - is the leader of 'B' Flight.


24 sqn roster.jpg


Our first mission is a patrol up to the lines, more or less directly to the east. I'm leading no less that six machines, and 'A' flight are putting up another four, so we should be able to give any Huns we meet a run for their money. The C.O isn't flying with me today, but I see one or two other famous names in my flight, including the later Air Marshall Sir Robert Saundy, who wasn't a 'Sir' (knighted) in 1916, butI think should be an officer by that point, rather than the Sergeant he's recorded as...maybe the Recording Officer has made a bit of a mix-up in the squadron roster somewhere.


24 1st mission brief.jpg


We make a fine sight on the grass before the sheds at Bertangles in the fine early morning March weather...




...and it's not long before we're off the ground and climbing away.




Those Huns had better watch out - 'Twenty-four' has opened shop and means to do some business this day!


...to be continued!

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Meet the Fokkers...




The WoFF D.H.2 is a nice replica. This being early 1916, our machines are still in clear doped linen finish - it was only during the course of the year that the RFC started finishing machines in camouflage uppersurfaces, using the famous P.C.10 brown (some sources give it a greenish hue; I'm in the 'more brown than green' camp). Our nacelles are in the 'battleship grey' colour commonly used for plywood or metal surfaces, here extending to the fabric covering the sides; hence the sawtooth pattern underneath, commomly seen on D.H.2s during this period. And our kites have the distinctive checkered outboard interplane struts used as flight markings on 24 Squadron's De Havillands. You can rely on Wings over Flanders Fields to incorporate this sort of detail and get it right.


Our six D.H.2s are soon in formation and headed for the front lines which we are to patrol...




...so I take a bit of time to get the feel of my new mount. She’s no speedbird, but as you’d expect with a ‘pusher’, the view ahead is rather good.




And unlike the big F.E.2b I crashed out with on my last WoFF campaign, the view behind is not too bad.




It helps, that I’m using the latest version of Ankor’s DX9 mod, which to aircraft & cloud shadows and a natural external view perspective, has now added subtle head bobbing and mouselook. One result is that if you look down to the left or right, it’s like you’re leaning in the cockpit, so you have a better downward view, as you can see.




Helpfully, the view pans back to straight ahead if there’s no mouse movement within about 5 seconds. This combination of features (head bobbing and moueslook) is a great addition to WoFF and for me, significantly enhances the flying and fighting experience. It can also make gunnery more challenging, as changes in G forces can push your head slightly out of alignment with the sights at times. Overall, the look and feel of flying, scanning and fighting is, I already have found, much more convincing.

Ahead of me for a time, I see the four D.H.2s of ‘A’ flight.




As there are six of us in ‘B’ Flight, I feel strong enough to make my own way to the front, rather than staying with them.




A glance down and left shows the south-eastern outskirts of the town of Doullens slipping underneath the leading edge of my port lower main plane. I know from the map this town is just north of our track up to the front, so this is a good reference point. There are printable maps, made by 'WoFFer' RAF_Louvert, for those who disdain the annotated inflight map. So for folk who like or have the time for such things, it is perfectly possible to navigate visually in Wings over Flanders Fields. Me, I just like admiring the view, en route, and Ankor's latest DX9 mod has just made that look and feel a whole lot more natural.




The early morning March sun's in our faces as we rumble east...




...and as we near our assigned patrol height, the clouds begin to obscure much of our view of the ground all around us...




But the cloud cover is sufficiently broken for us to see enough of the ground below to realise we have arrived at the front. Here, the farmer's fields give way to the muddy earth-brown of the wide area churned up by regular shellfire. It is at this point, looking down and left, that I see two aircraft, dark specks which stand out against the ground haze.




They're roughly on the same course as ourselves, towards Hun-land. A closer look confirms they're our machines - two-seater B.E.2s, probably on a reconnaisance or artillery observation job.




'It's your lucky day, chaps!' I tell them mentally. RFC 'working aeroplanes' like these rarely received a direct escort, except sometimes from machines of their own type from their own squadron, preferring reliance on patrols timed to be in the general area and so provide indirect support. The policy seems to have worked out pretty nicely for these fellows. I decide we''ll shadow them from above, ready to deal with any Huns who try to interrupt their vital work for the boys in the trenches.




The B.E.'s plod on, out across No-Man's Land, as we slowly criss-cross the skies above them.




At one point, I get a bit of a fright as my formation appears to break up behind me. This is often a sign that someone has spotted an enemy and decided to do something about it.




But not this time. The skies remain clear, and I'm none the wiser at what apparently spooked my people, who are soon catching me up again, rather sheepishly I suspect.




I throttle back a little and continue to watch out for the B.E.s, who may or may not be directing the artillery fire that you can see whacking into the ground, roughly below my undercart in the picture below.




At one point, the two-seaters seem to decide to split up, for they begin drifting apart. If they carry on like this, they aren't going to make my role as their self-appointed protector any easier.




There's a bit of zigging and zagging, and it looks like they may have worked this out for themselves...




...for they come together again, before setting course to the east, on towards Hun-land.




Looking down, I can see that we are already passing beyond the trenchlines into enemy territory, just to the south of the River Somme. This presents me with a bit of a poser. Do I stick to my assigned patrol area, or carry on after these people, at least for a while longer?




At about this point, things go from merely interesting to potentially dangerous. For some reason I've since forgotten, I decide at this precise moment to turn on a visual aid which I leave off 95% of the time, the Tactical Display or 'TAC'. And the red aircraft icon this paints to our rear reveals that at least one Hun is stalking us.




Now just to be clear on this point, I prefer to play all my games with as little reliance on on-screen aids as I can manage. The exception in WoFF is that I’m happy to use the default in-game map with 'own plane' icon and flight plan, for navigational purposes. And because I use padlock, I also need to turn on the Tactical Display when combat begins – I think you can only start padlocking after turning on the TAC and picking your first target on it (though I can cycle targets after turning it off again). I also occasionally turn on the TAC for a quick ‘nav check’ since it displays the route to the next waypoint, without needing to look at the default in-flight map (which dominates the screen). To prevent it acting like a radar screen, I have set the TAC’s range to about a mile. I could also set it to display ships rather than planes, but leaving it on planes (with this very short range) and turning it on only briefly at long intervals is, I think, a reasonable representation of the possibility that one of my other people will spot an enemy aircraft I haven’t seen, allowing for all the usual limits of ‘MonitorVision’. I still feel slightly like I’ve cheated, when the TAC does show up a plane I haven’t spotted with the Mark I Eyeball, though, and so it is on this occasion.

The Hun so revealed is apparently alone and tailing us within the short range I've set. 'He’s keen as mustard', I think to myself, 'trying to sneak up on six of us.' Perhaps he doesn’t realise we’re flying the latest English fighters, thinking instead that we are the old, slow Vickers ‘gun-bus’ two seaters he may be more used to bullying about.


Regardless of what he thinks, it’s time we spoiled his fun!



...to be continued!

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"Twenty-four" takes on the Huns!




I bank hard around to get at the silly Fokker who's been trying to sneak up on us - and nearly succeeded! As I go, I order an attack, then look back to observe results. These are quite satisfactory. Two of my De Havillands have gone for the Hun, forcing him to break away. The other three D.H.2s, instead of getting in the way, sensibly break in the other direction and keep their height. AI-wise, this sort of thing is a welcome change from the common flightsim behaviour, where the AI pilots all charge the same target.




The Fokker makes a run for it, with my two bravados hounding him all the way, making slashing passes as the Hun jinks. He still seems to be alone so I hang around, keen not to get in the way but ready to make a pass of my own, should the circumstances seem to favour it.




The relentless D.H.2s force the Hun lower and lower, and I decide to leave them to it, rather than losing any more height myself. Finally, they get him. The Hun plunges vertically earthwards...




...and a cloud of brown dust, on the ground far below, marks where he hits the ground. By this time, our own AA gunners are shooting at him, too, evidenced by the white airbursts. But I have no doubt that this victory has been scored by one or both of my flight-mates.




Transferring my full attention to the skies at my own level, I look around for the rest of 'B' Flight.




But the first machine I see is another Fokker. He's above me, and I hastily turn in underneath him. Too hastily...for now, it's my turn to find out that the D.H.2 is quite happy to enter a spin. My next discovery is that recovery, as Major Hawker demonstrated to his pilots just the other day, is not difficult. However, it costs me more height, and at that point, down comes the Hun.




But up to meet him come my two comrades-in-arms, fresh from their victory over the green Fokker and just as keen to add this light tan-coloured fellow to their tally.




The Hun breaks in my direction, and I get a good burst into him as he flashes past my nose.




I come around after the eindekker, but he's no slouch, as regards either speed or agility - more so than I'd expected from a machine with crude wing-warping for roll control. Still, I manage to get behind him, though fearful of another spin at this lower level.




Down goes the Fokker! My flight-mates return and are fussing around him as he goes, but the last rounds into him are mine, so this is one that I'll be claiming, in my combat report.




A glance at the 'magic map' confirms my location - on the enemy side of the lines near Pozieres, between Bapaume on the German side and Albert on the British. This, and the time of day, will help my claim be confirmed.




The skies now seem clear, apart from our three D.H.2s. I swing west towards our side of the lines, throttling back to help the others catch up, which they will by default unless they are otherwise occupied. To my right front, German artillery fire is bursting on our positions...




...while a glance behind shows my tail is clear, apart from a rejoining D.H.2 and a distant observation balloon on the German side of the lines.




I linger for a while in the hope that the rest of 'B' Flight might re-appear - I haven't seen the other three D.H.2s since the start of the fight with the first Fokker. It's very common for flights to become split up, but as flight leader, all the boys are my responsibility and I'm hoping they've not come to any harm. I decide not to go looking for them, though, and continue to the west, as the other two close up. If there has been some kind of disaster, there's no point adding to it now, by taking the three of us back into harm's way.




Soon, we're passing over our rear-most trenches and back into the unspoilt countryside of unoccupied Flanders.




I set course back up to Bertangles, and realise that our route is going to take us close to the town of Albert. This brings an idea into my mind. The town, I know, is the location of a famous church tower statue of the Virgin Mary, that was knocked askew by shellfire. Hanging from the tower at an impossible angle, the statue's fall, it was said, would signal the end of the war.




It didn't, but I think to myself, I'll check out this landmark in Wings over Flanders Fields. I'm not really expecting much, but as we draw nearer, I can make out that WoFF's Albert does in fact feature a prominent church-like building, visible from a fair distance.




Sure enough, the famous church is there, about where it should be.




And as I make my fly-by, I can see that it's a passable rendition of the real thing, complete with statue, albeit not yet knocked-about by shellfire. Now, that's what I call attention to historical detail!




Touches like this earned a certain WW2 combat flightsim - Rowan's Battle of Britain and it's successor BOB II (with the help of its mod community) - the reputation of a time machine, with its players. For the Great War for Civilisation, as it was called, truly Wings over Flanders Fields is no less.


24 1st mission debrief.jpg


Back at base, the debriefing brings tolerably good news. Everyone has fired their guns. Cowan's and Saundby's machines have been written off, with both men lightly wounded. However, Haw and myself are both claiming a Fokker, which seems about right. Not a bad showing, for our first fight with precisely the enemy we've come here to sort out. Let the Huns beware of 'Twenty-four'! We've surely good cause for a jolly sing-song around the old piano in the mess, tonight!


We went to Cambrai, all in vain,
The F.E.'s said, "We must explain;
Our camera's broke - we must do it again."
Oh, we haven't got a hope in the morning!

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