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Sopwiths over Flanders Fields 4

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33LIMA    762

The Camels are coming!




Such was the title of one of the WW1 Biggles books by Captain W.E Johns  - the others being 'Biggles of 266' and 'Biggles of the Camel Squadron'. And while adapted for a younger readership - a case of beer became one of lemonade, for example - they were for me a useful, informative and entertaining introduction to the lore of World War One in the air, written by one who served in it. As the titles indicate, our hero Biggles flew a Camel. And why not, for the Camel is one of the few WW1 aircraft whose name is still widely-known to the English-speaking general public, credited with the destruction of more enemy aircraft than any other British or French type. The Camel also seems to have destroyed rather a lot of its own pilots, due to some tricky flying characteristics. But it was one of the planes that helped the Royal Flying Corps put 'Bloody April' of 1917 behind them and was still in widespread and effective front-line service at the end of the war, in both fighter and fighter-bomber roles. Named it seems from the hump wherein were mounted its twin Vickers .303' machine-guns, the doughty Camel is surely a worthy subject for this, the fourth installment of Sopwiths over Flanders Fields.




For this campaign, I elected to fly with 46 Squadron, after she had fully converted from Pups to Camels in November 1917, about the time of the Battle of Cambrai. Unfortunately, due to not having FRAPS running, I neglected to get pics of the mission briefings and the like! We're based at Filescamp farm, a bit north-west of Arras and much further north from Cambrai, where a massed tank attack was to achieve a breakthrough of the German lines that the British found themselves unable to exploit.


Our first mission was nearly my last!


Leading 'B' Flight's seven (!) Camels, I was tasked to catch enemy aircraft reported to be in the area of the front lines just south of Arras, as described in the map view in the pic below. By the time this was taken, we were about half-way to the target area.




There was nothing much to be seen when we got there, so I took the flight a little further south of Arras, keeping a careful eye all around. The weather was quite good but there was a fair bit of cloud about which, combined with a ground haze, somewhat restricted visibility.




We were at just over ten thousand feet, high enough for Huns to be able to slip in underneath us, where they would be hard to spot against the shelled ground far below.




In fact, had it not been for turning on the Tactical Display briefly for a navigation check, I would not have spotted the Huns who were, it seems, stalking us from below. You can just about see one of them, an Albatros D.V which I have just padlocked, in the centre of the screenshot below.




I ordered an attack and spiralled down to the right, after my chosen target. The Hun, not to be outdone, spiralled up to get at me.




As you can see, the Albatros had distinctive black and white fuselage and tail markings, as well as the common mauve and green on the upper surfaces of his wings.




Using my height advantage and superior turning ability, I was soon on his tail, but he kept his speed up and didn't make it easy for me. In the picture below, you can see some of the rest of my flight arriving. I had seen a second Hun on the way down, so I trusted to the others to deal with him, while I knocked down this one.




I got some hits, causing the V-strutter to reverse his turn and break left. I had to fight some adverse yaw bringing the nose around, and this enabled him to gain some ground on me.




But not for long. He levelled out. I knew that I'd definitely done him some harm, and wondered if he was going to make a run for home. He wouldn't make it, if I had anything to do with it!




Suddenly, a burst of fire whacked into my machine from somewhere astern. 'B' Flight didn't seem to be doing a very good job of keeping the other Hun or Huns occupied! I broke hard to get out of the line of fire of my attacker, even as my own intended victim rolled right and came down after me. A second ago, I'd been the hunter. Now, I was the prey. This wasn't working out at all as I had intended!




My virtual blod had spattered my virtual goggles and I twisted and turned to escape my pursuers. One of them was an historical ace, Werner Dahm of Jasta 26, evidently intent that I should be his next victory.




But if there's one thing Camels can do, it's turn. I was losing a lot of height in the process but I'd nothing to lose, and I even got one of the Huns in my sights, for a time




But the roll-rate seemed to have dropped off, like my wounds were sapping my strength. Just when I thought I was done for, other Camels hove into view and I rolled over and nosed down, in an effort to get clear.




It didn't work. A pair of beady Hun eyes were watching my every move. And then, down he came.




At this point, I was being shot at from the ground, too, and my one thought was to get away, back to the west and over our own side of the lines, just a few hundred yards away.




The Hun made a single pass, coming in so close he all but chewed my tail off with his prop. But by then, I was over our trenches and, pursued by rounds from our ground MGs, the Albatros pulled up and around, and that was that. I'll bet that the drivers in the motor transport convoy that was trundling along the road just behind our trenches were as glad to see him go, as I was.






There was a friendly aerodrome close to the lines and I made straight for it. Happily, I remembered to avoid flying into the the cable of the observation balloon which was tethered nearby...




...and I was soon safely back on terra firma.




That little show cost me a damaged kite and thirteen days in hospital. It was some consolation that I had damaged at least one of the Huns, and that the others were claiming three victories between them, all later confirmed. It wasn't a very auspicious start from a purely personal standpoint, but I had survived, and 'B'' Flight had won its first battle with me at the helm. A start had been made, of sorts.


...to be continued!

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33LIMA    762

Behind the lines...our lines...




My next two missions were...well, to be perfectly frank, a bit of a let-down. Both were patrols, in squadron strength, to areas behind our own lines. The RFC commander in France, 'Boom' Trenchard, would I think have been appalled to see a full squadron of valuable Camels so deployed, when they should have been operating offensively. Typically, RFC scouts are described as flying three kinds of patrol - Line Patrols, roughly over the trenchlines; Offensive Patrols (known as 'O Pips' in the phonetic terminology of the time) up to about 4 miles over; and Distant Offensive Patrols, up to about 10-12 miles into enemy territory. Which is not to say they didn't do other work, most commonly ground strafing as 1917 drew on, and sometimes escorts or what would in a later war be called 'scrambles' to intercept enemy aircraft. But patrols were the 'default' RFC fighter mission and Trenchard's tactical doctrine required - nay, demanded - that the patrols be flown offensively, that the enemy be confronted in 'his' skies, not 'ours'.


There being no particular indication that enemy incursions were being experienced or were expected, I had my own doubts about this sort of tasking. So on the first such show, down towards the area west of Arras, I pushed my course on the last leg well out to the east. 'A' Flight could look after the designated patrol area, for all the trade I expected them to find. Hun scouts rarely ventured over our side I knew, and the odd 2-seater should be no particular problem for the other flight to knock down or drive off.


All very disobedient, but if challenged later I'd put it down to checking out something suspicious over in that direction, strong winds, haze, or any combination thereof. Soon, we were over the lines and I turned south to patrol them for a bit.




Despite the fact that our main point of attack at this time was towards Cambrai well to the south, there was a fair bit of ground fire below, as our gunners pounded the Germans.




It wasn't long before other, German gunners were shooting at us. Dark puffs of Archie began to burst in the skies nearby. The fire was about right for height and not too bad for line, but rather desultory, so that I hardly bothered with evasive action. I threw in the odd turn, as much to clear our tails and guard against surprise attack from 'the Hun in the sun', in the mostly clear blue skies.




Soon, even Archie disappeared, and I was left tootling up and down the lines, wondering if I might have had more luck sticking with the original patrol area. All there was to see, was the continuing shellfire. Somebody at least was having an eventful day, but it wasn't us.




To stave off incipient boredom, I started fiddling with the label settings, and managed to turn on aircraft labels, which showed that there was air activity all around us, even if I couldn't see it. In the haze lower down towards Hunland, a flight of Pfalz scouts was 'going home'. I have no idea why my own flight, ahead and left, were labelled as 'fighting'.




Over on our side of the lines, to my right, about five miles away, the labels revealed that some RE8s were arriving back at their base. All this activity was well outside the short, c.1 mile radius I had set for the Tactical Display, beyond also the 4000 meter radius I had set for 'dot mode' display of more distant aircraft. So I didn't succumb to temptation and go after the Pfalzes, but, as is my way, treated them as 'Not seen' and carried on, regardless.




Soon after, I gave up and went home. Had my squadron commander been Robert Smith-Barry, later famed as the father of the modern flight training syllabus, but who tore strips off a patrol which returned early after a stiff fight, I'd have been given a rocket for 'deserting my post' while we still had fuel in tanks and rounds in ammo belts. But for me, enough was enough, and home we went.


The next mission was worse again. This time - perhaps in punishment -  'B' flight was just me and one other Camel, again relegated to a patrol behind our lines - further behind, this time. And again, with 'A' Flight similarly assigned. This time, more bored experimentation with keystrokes ended up in my ordering my solitary flight-mate home, and I soon followed him, in disgust.


My fourth show would more than make up for all that preceeded it. We were assigned a railyard attack, and my 'B' Flight was back up to strength. I wasn't massively keen on getting shot down by ground MG fire so early in my career but consoled myself with the thought that this time, 'contact with the enemy' would certainly be forthcoming. I equipped our Camels with four twenty-pound Cooper bombs apiece, and this time gave my machine a skin to replace the stock 46 Squadron one - that of the unit's most famous pilot, Victor Yeates, whose semi-autobiographical Winged Victory is one of the classic works on the air war of WW1. Would this mission be even a minor classic? I would soon find out.




...to be continued!

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33LIMA    762

Target below!




So, it’s off towards Hunland we go, to hit a railway yard in open countryside a few miles east of the lines. This is not my cup of tea. I'm a virtual scout pilot who wants to be jousting with other 'knights of the air' and all that other jolly, 'Boy’s Own' stuff. But it’ll have to do - after two rather tiresomely uneventful shows on my own side of the lines, this foray into enemy territory is an opportunity that I’m going to make the most of. I won’t be too unhappy if we meet the enemy in the air en route and have to dump our little bombs. And if we do make the target unmolested, I’ll dump my eggs there promptly, and maybe fire off a few rounds, but I'll save the rest for the Huns in the air I hope we’ll meet on the way home - if not sooner.


On our way to the front, I have a bit of time to admire my 'office'. Truly, the cockpits are one of Win gs over Flanders Fields' very many big improvements over its precesessor. Now, not only are the textures a whole lot better, but it no longer looks like cockpit lights are a-blazin' - now, interiors have a more suutably gloomy appearance.




I have five Camels in ‘B’ Flight, with as many again in ‘A’ Flight flying ‘in support’ – whether as an escort, or attacking the same target, is not entirely clear. As they’re in full strength too, this time I make the effort to stay close, getting into a position slightly below and ahead of them, where they can cover our tails and we can generally support one another. If and when the Huns run into this lot they are liable to regret it, I tell myself smugly as I look around at our impressive little force.




There’s quite a bit of cloud around and as we make a sharp turn at a waypoint beyond the lines, I lose sight of ‘A’ Flight and don’t see them again. Hoping neverthess that they will still be heading in the general direction of the railyard and therefore not too far away, I press on at the head of ‘B Flight. Our turn has brought us onto the last leg up to the target, but for a while, I can’t make it out between the clouds lower down.




We can’t see the target, but maybe the target can see us, for we are soon bracketed by Archie. It’s a fairly light barrage and I ignore it – by now, the railyard must be almost directly below us and we’ll soon be diving down onto it and leaving Archie's unfriendly black puffs well astern.


As I bank around to get a better view below, I see the target through a gap in the clouds – a stretch of railway with sidings and some large sheds. We’re here!




I turn on the Tactical Display, switch to display ground objects and order a flight attack on one of them, amongst the cluster which represents the railyard. Then I begin to spiral down, ready to make my own attack. As I lose height, I study the yard to pick out a specific target. I’m in no hurry – I want to attack at about the same time as the others have begun to make their runs, so that I won’t be the sole recipient of the ground MG fire that I know we must expect.




Round and round I go, edging lower, but my flight-mates seem reluctant to begin their attacks. I look around and now, I can’t see them anywhere, even after I come out of the low, broken cloudbase.


The first pencil-line smoke trails from the tracers of ground fire pierce the skies around my Camel. This isn’t going well! I’m either going to have to get out of here and start all over, or give up on a co-ordinated attack and make my own run without further ado. I quickly choose the latter option. I’m already under fire and so half-committed; and there’s no certainty that I’d be able to regain touch with the flight, if I back out now. So, mind made up, I grit my virtual teeth, bank around, and come in for the attack.




...to be continued!

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33LIMA    762

Trains, planes and gasbags...




There are some wagons and a locomotive in sidings but I have already decided that I’m going to attack the large sheds with my bombs. They’re a much bigger target and it’s unlikely they are empty of something worth wrecking. However, I mess up my first attack because I forget the bomb release key!





I bank up and away, leaving the target undamaged and lucky not to have been hit by ground fire for no return.




Repeating my first effort, in a shallow dive, I run diagonally across the length of the sheds and this time, I manage to let fly with all four of my 20-pound bombs in quick succession. Blasts of dark smoke mark their impact as I race over the yard and away, pursued by more MG fire. Looking back, I can see that I’ve got some hits – the sheds are still there but pock-marked and crooked.




I push my luck by making a couple of runs across the yard , firing my Vickers at anything that comes into my line of sight. This includes the locomotive, but my .303 rounds seem to make little impression on it. It’s a far cry from the climax of the old WW1 movie ‘The Dawn Patrol’, where Errol Flynn alone attacks a huge target, with results that any Strike Eagle jockey would have been proud of.   






My Sopwith Camel is no F-15 but air-to-air is its business, and I decide, according to plan, that it’s time to conserve my ammunition for the scrap with the Hun airmen that I expect may lie ahead. The railyard is soon slipping away behind and beneath my tail.




However, what I hadn’t expected at this point was to be on my own, in addition to being low, coming off the target. Suddenly, I’m not so keen on a scrap with enemy scouts. ‘B’ Flight remains obstinately out of sight somewhere, and I haven’t seen ‘A’ Flight since that last waypoint. What I have seen, however, is an enemy observation balloon, more or less along my route back towards the lines. You can just about see it in the pic below, above the horizon well to the right of my Camel's nose.




I gain height and fly in its general direction, quickly leaving the ground fire behind. Neither ‘A’ Flight nor Huns appear, which makes up my mind. I’m going to have that ‘sausage’ for breakfast!

As I get close to him, still climbing and steering offset rather than on a direct course, Archie opens up again...




...but by this time, I’m high enough and close enough to roll over and dive on the balloon, coming in along his long axis.




I start shooting as he comes into range, easing off the trigger at short intervals to avoid a jam – I don’t want to have to make a second attack, if I can possibly avoid it.

The balloon seems unimpressed by my shooting (they are not winched down in WoFF and there’s no ‘Flaming Onions’, strings of big tracers from a large bore automatic cannon the Germans commonly deployed to defend such targets). Just when I think he’s going to escape, there’s a smudge of dark smoke on top of him...




...and the next split second, up he goes, in a massive and rather impressive billow of orange-red fire, as the hydrogen filling the gas-bag is violently consumed.




No doubt about that one – one observation balloon shot down!

As I come off the target I find myself over the German reserve tranches and come under more ground MG fire. I twist and turn like a snipe to get away to the west, very much not wanting to be brought down on the very last lap after what’s been a moderately successful show, marred only by the apparent reluctance of my flight to make a contribution.

Happily, I escape with nothing more than a few non-fatal bullet hits which leave pilot and machine performing normally. The lines are so close together that no sooner am I clear of the enemy trenches, than I’m approaching our own.




I take another look behind, on the off chance that one of more of ‘B’ Flight has decided to show themselves.

Coming up behind is another aircraft. Head on, he’s hard to identify – a single-bay biplane with a straight top wing and a slight dihedral to the lower one, which fits a Camel…but also an Albatros. The lesser lower-wing dihedral and slimmer nose tells me he’s a Hun. And he’s coming right at me. If I’d delayed looking back a second longer he’d have got me, too!




Clearly, this mission's not over yet!

...to be continued!

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33LIMA    762

Him or me!


I break hard right, suddenly forgetting whether it’s to the right or the left that the Camel is supposed to be able to turn more tightly.  I'm in luck, as it's to the right!




I've narrowly missed being caught napping, just as I've reached the safety of my own lines. Now, with the rest of 'B' Flight no-where to be seen, whether I get home or not will depend entirely on who comes out on top, in the next few minutes - me or this Hun.


I’m not especially keen on a dogfight at low level. I’ll be relying on hard turns, and although I expect to be able to make them tighter than the Albatros, I know that this will risk a spin. At this altitude, a recovery is going to be unlikely. So if the Hun doesn’t kill me, it’s very possible I’ll do the job for him. I wonder if some Camel pilots were, at times, as afraid of their own machines, as they were of the enemy’s; and I'm conscious of the keen-ness lent to this question by the fact that I'm now facing it myself, something only a combat flight sim, or the real thing, can deliver.


I'm soon gaining on the Albatros; he's turning hard too, but he can't out-turn a Camel. So long as I don't over-do it and spin out, I'll soon be warming his hide with my Vickers.




And so it quickly comes to pass. I come in behind him and give him a burst. Bits fly off the Hun and he runs for the lines in a shallow dive. He's fast, opening the range, but I line up another shot before the range is too great and force him to turn again.




This time, he gets cute and pulls up and around, converting his speed into height and threatening to roll in onto my tail...




...but I quickly turn in under him and he gives up on that idea. Instead, he makes another dive for the lines. By the time I have cleared my tail and worked out that he's no longer there, the Hun has opened out the range again.




However, I'm able to cut across his course and soon, I'm slipping into his blind spot, below and behind.






He breaks hard left as my first burst whacks into him...




...but it it doesn't do him much good. There's no obvious sign of damage, but his speed is falling off and I get in another burst at close range, then have to break to avoid flying into him.




I come around for another pass, but it's not going to be necessary. The Hun noses down into a spiral to the left...




...and I pull up and watch as he goes down for a forced landing in no-Man's Land, pursued by tracer fire from our trenches. The boys down there evidently do not share my conviction that the business at hand has now been settled in my favour.




The Hun puts his kite down without wrecking it so I leave him to his fate and resume my return flight. The shellfire drumming up clouds of dirt behind me makes me doubly glad that it's him, and not me, down on the ground back there.






Soon, the muddy earth of the shelled area is giving way to green fields again, and I begin to relax.




On my way back to the airfield, I pass one of our own observation balloons. If he has any sympathy for the crew of the Hun balloon he may have seen me shoot down a few minutes back, he doesn't show it. At least these fellows have the luxury of parachutes to escape from a blazing mount, unlike we fighting pilots!




The sun is sinking in the skies to the west as I fly home, highlighting the folds in the ground which, from high up, can look rather flatter than it really is. In WoFF, such fine vistas are worth savouring; they add considerably to the sense that you are in a dynamic world with lighting and weather that's as variable as the air and ground activity all around.




Amongst which activity is a train passing by the airfield, as I make my approach...




Unfortunately, I didn't get a screenshot of the full debriefing. But 'B' Flight must have eventually hit the railyard, for they were credited with doing some damage, for no losses. For myself, I received no such credit despite the wrecked sheds, but I was awarded the balloon and the Albatros shot down. Which will do nicely. Especially as, from his fancy markings, the Hun was probably an ace of some description. 'Forty-sixes' Camels have come and they are making their mark, in the air and on the ground - let the Huns beware!

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