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‘Bloody April’, 1917, the RFC’s worst month of the War

Posted in Aviation, Bravery, Heroes and Heroines, Historical articles, Weapons, World War 1 on Thursday, 15 September 2011

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This edited article about World War One originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 815 published on 27 August 1977.

Bristol F-2B, picture, image, illustration

Bristol fighters on a mission in the First World War by Wilf Hardy

“Bloody April” indeed! This month in 1917 was truly a treacherous one with the men of the Royal Flying Corps trying to stay alive in a sky full of German Albatrosses. As the death toll mounted in those terrible days of the First World War, survivors found ways  of relaxing despite the almost constant combat. By now the pilots were coming from all over the Empire, and, like the men who had flown to France in 1914, were a rugged assortment of individualists. Their expectation of life during “Bloody April” was 23 days.

They were a superstitious lot. Some would not drink until a drop had been spilled on the floor; others touched wood, and few would sit down at table if 13 people were present. Most of the pilots lived in wooden Nissen huts almost as bare as the ones used by the all-important “grease monkeys” – the mechanics who serviced the planes.

In those pre-radio and television days, entertainment had to be home-made, though there was usually someone with a hand-wound gramophone. Some played instruments, others sang everything from songs from the latest shows to more traditional melodies. And there were letters to write home between sing-songs in the mess, where some men took refuge in too much drink. Meanwhile, the C.O., whether “chairborne” or an operational pilot, had letters to write to the parents or widows of men killed in action.

Of course, it was a better way to live and die than the men in the trenches endured, yet at least the infantry – if they survived – got rest periods out of the line at regular intervals, while between offensives there were often comparatively quiet spells. There were no quiet spells at all for the men of the R.F.C.

“Bloody April” taught the R.F.C. a bitter truth about aerial combat. General Trenchard, its commander, was determined to maintain the offensive spirit at all times, fighting over enemy lines. But at this desperate period, when the Battle of Arras was raging below, British planes proved technically inferior to the German ones. In fact, there were 365 British fighters in the front line (on April 9) to 114 German fighters, but as the history of air warfare has shown ever since, quality will beat quantity unless the odds are impossible. The Germans, superior in numbers in the Battle of Britain in World War Two, were beaten by the superior Spitfires.

Many British planes were obsolete. DH2s and F.E.2s and French-built Nieuports were no match for the new Albatros fighters and Halberstadts: on one grim day, five F.E.2s were shot down on a single patrol. Only the Sopwith Pups and Sopwith Triplanes, along with a few Spads, loaned from the French, were true rivals of the Germans. The Bristol fighters were good, but not in the hands of novices, who believed them structurally unsound, and who put their observers into a firing position instead of using their own gun to fire forwards.

The high casualty rate and lack of reserves led to a tragic reduction of the time taken to train new pilots. Incredibly, in the middle of “Bloody April”, they were being sent to the Western Front with only 17Ω hours instruction behind them, which made it even easier for crack German pilots to shoot them down. By September, however, the training time had been raised to 48Ω hours. By then many brave men had been killed in what the German air ace, Baron von Richtofen (the Red Baron) called “prehistoric packing cases”.

The climax of the month came on the last day when the Red Baron introduced his famous 20-strong massed formation, known as “Richthofen’s Circus”, which pounced out of the clouds to attack ten British planes; three triplanes guarding seven F.E.2d’s.

The triplanes saved all but two of their charges, but there was plenty more action that day for the circus.

It was so called, because of it’s non-stop aggressive manoeuvres in the sky and the bright colours of its planes. Richthofen had an all-red plane, and his men’s aircraft were also red, but with parts of them in another colour, each having his own particular “brand”.

They had gone over to red that April to make their leader less conspicuous. They enjoyed a gala month of glory, especially against reconnaissance planes and artillery spotters, but fortunately, as we shall see, their days of superiority were numbered.

The British, too, had begun to switch to formation flying, but there were still great flyers who fought alone. The story of one of them, Albert Ball, V.C., has been told earlier in this series. The other master was Billy Bishop.

Major Billy Bishop, ruthless Canadian ace who, in all, shot down 72 planes and won the V.C., D.S.O. and M.C. in less than two months, recalled an evening when everyone was happy and forgot the war (but did anyone, except himself, really forget?) and enjoyed a sing-song. After it, the boys “borrowed” some small pigs from a local farmyard and put them in the room of a pilot who happened to be out to supper. Then all 15 merrymakers stationed themselves to wait for his return, their ears glued to the thin wooden partition in the next room, eagerly looking forward to the inevitable squeals and scamperings.

The plan misfired. When the pilot opened his door, the pigs ran out and hid under the huts. The fun-loving 15 spent several hours catching them and returning them to their correct quarters. At least it made for light relief.

Bishop was an ex-cavalryman and, unlike many aces who, if they survived, became very overstrained and lived on their nerves, he seems to have relished every moment of his spectacular career. Typical of his dashing style was the morning when he won his V.C.

Bishop had a theory that surprise attacks at dawn on German airfields were the best way of getting at the enemy. He put this into practice shortly after the death of Albert Ball, who had wanted to make such an attack with Bishop.

Shocked by Ball’s death, Bishop decided to make the attack alone. Making a 4 a.m. take-off on 2nd June, 1917, Bishop flew through cloud and rain towards Cambrai, a town in northern France near which there was an aerodrome used by Jasta 5.

Dawn was just breaking when Bishop reached his destination and saw a line of Albatroses standing before their tent-hangars. The noise of Bishop’s plane alerted the German pilots, four of whom began rushing to their planes.

Bishop dived and began firing at one of the German planes as its wheels rose from the tarmac. Turning back over the field. Bishop fired again. Although he missed this second target, its pilot crashed in fright. Taking off in opposite directions, the remaining pair of Albatroses curved and headed for the kill.

Pausing to exchange fire with one of them and returning the fourth machine’s fire, Bishop then headed for home . . . a tough survivor after a tough mission and a worthy winner of the V.C.

Before the war ended, he was summoned to Buckingham Palace to receive a V.C., D.S.O. and M.C.

For once he was nervous, especially when his boots squeaked as he marched towards George V, who observed that he had never given anyone a V.C., D.S.O. and M.C. at the same time, Bishop tried to speak, but could not even manage “Yes, sir!”, then he marched away, still squeaking – to win a bar for his D.S.O. and the D.F.C.

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