“In late July of 1915, British pilots and observers were reporting encounters with a strange new German monoplane that seemed engineered specifically to destroy airplanes: the Fokker Eindecker.”
By Mike Peters
ONE HUNDRED YEARS ago during the summer of 1915, the air war over the Western Front suddenly took on a deadlier, more ruthless character.
In the early days of the First World War, pilots from opposing sides of No Man’s Land largely left each other alone while aloft. Most fliers preferred to concentrate on keeping their flimsy crates in the air long enough to complete their assigned missions; dogfighting was an afterthought.
Yet as the war slogged on, both sides found themselves facing the stalemate of trench warfare and the warring armies became obsessed with finding weaknesses in their enemies’ defences. Aerial reconnaissance promised to break the impasse. It wasn’t long before the unofficial truce between airmen began to unravel.
War in the Air
Britain’s newly established Royal Flying Corps launched daily reconnaissance patrols over occupied territory. Observers photographed, sketched and mapped things like enemy defences, gun emplacements, troop concentrations and supply depots. German planes carried out similar missions over French and British controlled territory. Soon anti-aircraft units were formed on both sides; gunners sought to destroy (or at least drive off) these unwelcomed eyes in the sky. Inevitably, British, French and German pilots, armed with rifles and hand-guns, were ordered to bring down enemy reconnaissance flights too.
By 1915 aircraft engines were becoming powerful enough to carry machine guns aloft; aerial combat was becoming far more serious and definitely more dangerous.
Meet the Fokkers
Then in July, British pilots and observers began reporting encounters with a strange new German monoplane that seemed engineered specifically to destroy aircraft: The Fokker Eindecker E.1. Fast and agile, the new machine featured a forward-mounted machine gun that was fitted with a mechanical “interrupter” device that synchronized the weapons to fire between the plane’s spinning propeller blades. The technology was a game changer that offered German pilots an unprecedented edge in combat. It let fliers aim their guns by simply pointing the nose of the aircraft at the target, which was much easier during a dogfight than trying to swivel a mounted weapon with one hand while keeping another hand on the stick. Fokker pilots soon dominated the skies. Worse for Britain and France, the propeller-synching technology was a closely guarded German secret.
The RFC tried to master forward-facing gunnery with “pusher”-style aircraft, like the Airco DH.2 – planes fitted with rear-facing propellers that left the front of the aircraft free for weapons. The planes were certainly capable, but they would not be available in large numbers for some months.
The summer of 1915 was a dark time for the RFC; Germany was clearly winning the air war. British pilots called the period the “Fokker Scourge” or “Fokker Scare”. And things were about to get worse.
In August, the planes of 2 Squadron RFC mounted a pre-dawn raid on a vital airfield behind German lines. Flying their slow-moving BE2c aircraft, the British pilots caught their unsuspecting enemies on the ground at 0500 hours. Many Eindeckers were destroyed before they could get airborne, yet some Fokkers managed to get aloft after the raid and tore off in pursuit of the retreating RFC aircraft. Among the German pilots flying that day were Max Immelmann and Oswald Boelcke, two the Kaiser’s finest fighter aces. Opening their engines up to full throttle, the Fokkers quickly closed to within range of the BE2c raiders.
In order to carry their bombs and extra fuel, the British pilots had been forced to leave their observers behind. With no rear gunners to protect them, the RFC fliers were helpless before the German guns. Luckily for one of the 2 Squadron pilots, Boelcke’s weapons jammed just as he got a British plane in his crosshairs. He was unable to clear the stoppage. Immelmann suffered no such misfortune. He chased one BE2c for ten minutes, pouring 450 machine gun bullets into the British aircraft, wounding the pilot in the arm. The damaged machine crashed into the French countryside and the legendary flier added another kill to his rising tally.
Fokkers continued to bedevil the RFC all through August 1915 and well into September. RFC pilots who had survived encounters with the monoplanes reported the Eindecker not only allowed for precision firing, it was far more agile than most British aircraft. Worse, its belt-fed machine guns offered even deadlier efficiencies. Unlike their RFC counterparts German pilots did not have to change drum magazines mid-combat.
Armed with improved E.III variants of their famous monoplanes, Eindecker fliers soon developed a whole new set of tactics for air-to-air combat, many of which are still used to this day. Led by a handful of pioneers like Immelmann, Boelcke and other emerging aces, Fokker fliers preferred to attack from higher altitude, diving down out of the sun, firing long concentrated bursts of machine gun fire, diving past their target until they were out of range. As the summer progressed RFC losses mounted, Immelmann and Boelcke claimed 13 kills between them. Seven other German pilots downed another 15 British and French aircraft. The scourge would continue into the first months of 1916. The seemingly invincible German fighter shattered the morale of British and French pilots. Fortunately for the Allies, the Eindecker’s days were numbered.
The End of the Scourge
By the Battle of Verdun, new cutting-edge planes like the France’s Nieuport 11 were available, and in large numbers. Formations of massed fighters, known as escadrilles de chasse, enabled the French to steadily to overpower the Fokker formations. For their part, the British introduced more powerful pusher planes like the F.E.2b. These coupled with Nieuport-equipped RFC squadrons began to tip the balance in the Allies’ favour. Finally, in March of 1916, aircraft engineers with the Sopwith Aviation Company introduced the 11/2 Strutter, the first British warplane with synchronization gear. The playing field was effectively levelled and the Fokker Scourge was history.
Mike Peters is the chairman of the International Guild of Battlefield Guides and is the author of the books Glider Pilots at Arnhem and Glider Pilots in Sicily. A version of this article originally appeared on his military history blog on the Galloway Tours website. He lives in Ipswich, Suffolk. Follow him on Twitter at Galloway Battlefields.