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Anthony Fokker gave the Germans air superiority in 1915

Posted in Aviation, Engineering, Historical articles, History, Weapons, World War 1 on Friday, 1 November 2013

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This edited article about World War One originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 445 published on 25 July 1970.

Fokker in WW1, picture, image, illustration

A German plane is attacked by bullets shot from behind the French planes' propellers; Anthony Fokker (top), by Frank Bellamy

There was a memorable opening sequence in a World War I flying film of a few years ago. It showed the hero, a wretched infantryman, caked with mud and lying in a shell hole in No-Man’s-Land. Suddenly, he looked up as, above the crash of the guns, he heard a sound like a gnat in the sky. There, high above the battlefield, far from the churned-up mud, the acrid gunsmoke and the stench of death, a frail biplane soared between blue sky and gossamer clouds. The camera panned to a close-up of the soldier’s upturned face. Beneath the grime and the stubble was an expression of wistful envy.

It must have seemed just like that for the men in the trenches in 1915, after the indescribable carnage of Ypres – their comrades in the sky must have appeared to them like favoured beings from another world.

Indeed, as we have already seen, air fighting as we know it today was very nearly non-existent in the first few months of the war. Flying the hair-raising contraptions was difficult enough; added to that, there was the exacting task of observing troop movements below. Who wanted to court mutual disaster by trying to make trouble for enemy pilots?

Quite soon, the airmen began to carry guns on their missions. The first attempt with a machine gun ended in a fiasco, because the airplane could not reach a useful altitude with the burden of the additional weight. They went back to pistols and rifles – till more powerful aero engines solved the problem.

Aerial bombing began. Bombs came in weights of eight or ten pounds in the Royal Flying Corps, and the pilots tied them to their belts. They served to harass marching troops, and were particularly effective against cavalry. An unknown R.F.C. flyer stampeded a squadron of Uhlans with a couple of these small bombs near Villiers-Cotterets. It was a start.

The French devised flechettes, which were steel arrows about five inches long. The idea was to drop them in clusters upon marching troops, where it was calculated that they would penetrate helmet, rider and horse. No casualties from this fiendish device were ever recorded. The R.F.C. found them useful for games of darts in their messes.

These primitive beginnings of air warfare were fleabites compared to the holocausts on the ground. Well might the muddied infantryman feel envy.

But the time was to come – and soon – when the life-expectation of the pilots and observers of the opposing air forces was to become even more slender than that of the soldiers beneath them.

Anthony Fokker was the son of a rich, retired Dutch tea planter of Haarlem. He was a genius. At the age of 16, he built an airplane in his mother’s kitchen; by the time he was 20, he had built the fastest and safest monoplane in the world.

His own country was not interested; neither were England, Russia or France. He found his fame and his future in Germany. By the outbreak of the war, he was building his airplanes for the Signal Corps of the Imperial Army.

We must now switch to an afternoon in February, 1915. Four German reconnaissance machines were heading back to base. Suddenly, a single-seater French airplane gave chase, but since the enemy was coming straight at them, the Germans were not much concerned. And then – it happened. There came the rattle of a machine gun – and bullets streaked through the spinning propeller of the single-seater!

Two of the German machines fell: one with a dead pilot at the controls, the other in flames. The survivors winged back to base as fast as their labouring engines would carry them – and delivered the shocking news.

The German Air Force was in an uproar. If the allies had discovered a means to fire through a propeller, they could clear the skies of all opposition in a matter of weeks!

In the event, it did not happen this way. The device had been thought up by one Roland Garros, a pre-war stunt airman – and only his machine had been so fitted. It was Garros who had shot down the two reconnaissance airplanes, and four others.

Garros had the misfortune to be forced down behind the enemy lines with engine trouble. He was feted with champagne in a German mess, after the chivalrous manner of the times.

But his secret was out.

The device – which was suicidal to the extreme – was no more than triangular steel wedges fitted to the propeller blades, in such a way that they would deflect any bullets which would otherwise have shattered the wooden blades. Sooner or later, the constant impacts must have torn the propeller from its bearings; Garros was lucky to have been made prisoner before that happened.

But the idea – though crude – was a battle-winner. The senior officers of the German Air Force looked around for someone to make the idea disaster-proof. Who else should they choose but Anthony Fokker?

The Flying Dutchman resolved the problem in short time. He turned Garros’s idea upside-down, and devised a method of making the propeller fire the gun by means of a revolving can, and a wire attached to the hammer of the gun.

The high-ranking Air Force officers were sceptical. Not even a demonstration would convince them that the device was snag-proof. Not even when Fokker himself dived an airplane towards a target and riddled it with bullets – and incidently sent the monocled and jackbooted observers running for cover – were they satisfied. Nothing would satisfy them but that Fokker himself would take an airplane over the lines – and prove his invention by himself shooting down an allied machine.

Fokker protested that he was a neutral, but they forced him to put on a field-grey tunic and take to the air. He actually had a French Farman two-seater in his gunsight – but the whole thing went bad on him. As he wrote afterwards: “Let them do their own killing!”

He returned to base without a kill. But within days, pilots of the German Air Force were shooting down allied airplanes with the aid of The Flying Dutchman’s device.

One of these pilots was named Immelmann.

The single-seater Fokker E-2 was fitted with the synchronised gun, and one of the first of them went to Lieutenant Max Immelmann. He was an intelligent young man with an extraordinary dedication to the art of killing in the air. His method was to dive down out of the sun, point his machine at the enemy, and down it with a short burst of fire. Immelmann had trained himself to become a crack shot: if he missed with the first splatter of ten or twenty rounds, he would pull back sharply on his “joystick,” and do a half-roll on the top of a loop – regaining his original height, and coming out of the evolution in the opposite direction. The manoeuvre – which is to this day immortalised as “The Immelmann Roll” – puts the attacker in position for another immediate assault, and was swiftly taken up by combat pilots as a standard aerobatic.

To Max Immelmann went the distinction of becoming the war’s first ace. The German General Staff decided to turn him into a public hero after his fourth victory in the Fokker E-2. Immelmann, who was an anti-social and dedicated fighting man, became the subject of a publicity campaign which would not have disgraced a pop star of today. All Germany rang with his exploits. When he went on leave, he was feted like a prince, at Berlin’s best hotel. Immelmann hated it all. His escape was to take Anthony Fokker on one side, and discuss how best to up-rate the performance of the E-2.

Out of the talks between the air ace and the Flying Dutchman came the improved Fokker E-3, with twin Spandau machine guns – synchronised to fire through the propeller, of course.

In its day, nothing in the allied air armoury could touch the twin-gun E-3. It’s success was due to good basic design, the gun-arrangement – and to the men who flew it: Immelmann and Germany’s other great early ace, Oswald Boelcke.

An eighth victory brought Max Immelmann his country’s highest decoration: the Pour le Merite, nicknamed “The Blue Max.”

In the first six months of 1915, allied airplanes went spinning out of the sky before the guns of Immelmann and his fellow-pilots of the Fokker E-3.

The British and French airmen coined a wry nickname for themselves: they described themselves as “Fokker Fodder.”

It was a bad time for the allies in the air. But in war, nothing stands still.

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