By Rob Morgan
I was in the Oxfam shop the other day, and picked up half a dozen copies of Cross and Cockade, the World War I aviation history journal, for a pound. Never having read this publication before, I sat down and thumbed through. Air war is a fascinating concept and complex to, at least to my mind, which is set firmly on the horizon and deals in 16” guns. In one of the issues, from 1997, Volume 28 No. 2, there was an account of 9 Squadron Royal Flying Corps, later RAF, in France from 1916 to 1918, and filled with statistics on air war matters which clearly would interest any wargamer. I was surprised that the critical time for aircraft losses and casualties was not the big German 1918 offensive, but the Battle of Ypres in the previous Summer. Almost as many aircrew, by the way, were killed in accidents as in combat, 22% compared to 30%, in an incredible number of sorties — almost 500 each month during the Ypres battle.
The Squadron flew two-seaters, BE2’s up to the middle of 1917, and then RE8’s, slow aircraft in both cases. Now the RE8 sticks in my mind as the worst Airfix aircraft kit ever made; it took hours of effort to keep the hefty top wing sitting right on the spindly struts, as the cement dried! All I can recall of that 1/72nd scale model 40 years on is that it had a strange decal for the fuselage side, reading “A Paddy Bird from Ceylon.”
Anyway, during those latter years of the war, 9 Squadron was supplied with an incredible 320 machines, of which only 52 were lost in combat to ground fire and enemy aircraft. The rest were written off in accidents, or replaced as “worn out!” The RE8’s seem to have been particularly prone to “crashes, engine failure and collision,” while the BE2’s were more likely to fall prey to “archie” than to an enemy Albatross scout.
These aeroplanes were used in a number of types employment in 1916. Artillery observation was the most common use, and very few BE2’s were used to bomb, or for recce or photography purposes, which is what’s generally thought of with both of these aircraft. It was a similar picture (no pun intended!) in 1917 at Ypres, which was a hard campaign for the RFC in terms of losses of men and machines, but by 1918, things were significantly different. The RE8’s were being used for 60% of their missions as low-level offensive patrol bombers, and also for ammo dropping as the Allies began to advance. There were other new uses for these aircraft, “smoke laying,” for instance, a task usually thought of as an artillery job by most wargamers, while there was remarkably little artillery observation work or photography by September 1918.
Indeed, as Cross and Cockade gives the details of day-to-day combat missions, it’s remarkable, at least remarkable to me, that two slow, two-seater biplanes could either be so lucky or indeed get involved in so much combat and survive it! In January 1918, Captain Hilton and Lt. Clayton were going about their gun-spotting business at around 3,000-5,000 feet when their RE8 was attacked by no fewer than six German Albatross scouts over the East Houthulst Forest. Clayton shot one down with his rear Lewis gun (it turned out to be the minor ace Max Krauss of Jasta 27, and the rest of the Huns cleared off! Later that year, Lts. Dismore and Rollinson in another RE8 were flying a photo recce at 2,000 feet over Dompierre, when they were bounced by five Fokker DVII’s, hardly an equal fight, but again the observer drove them off with his mg. The German air force seems to have been relatively ineffective during the last months of the war as these astoundingly one-sided encounters grow in number.
Hardly Blue Max stuff, eh?
I noted with interest that in October 1918, when 9 Squadron were acquiring new splendid Bristol fighters, one of their aircraft was shot down not by the enemy, but by a British Armstrong Whitworth FK8. An RE8 was hit by a stray shell from an Australian barrage as it dropped ammunition to forward positions at very low level, both pilot and observer were killed, and another RE8 was lost in similar circumstances later the same day, July 4th 1918. Friendly fire?
The issue is full of detailed wargame related information, and it has given me as a non-air wargamer, but one who might take it up one day, a great deal of food for thought. There seems to be a lot of potential that I’ve missed in WWI air warfare, though the Zeppelin’s not lost on me, and neither is the “pretty” colour schemes of the German scouts. What surprises me is the stated fact of these seemingly drab and slow maids of all work, punching their way along the lines, and winning more often than not. Or at least seeing their opponents off the premises. Real “Biggles strafes the Bosches” stuff.
Perhaps I’ll take it up. I know the Tumbling Dice range is pretty extensive, and reasonably priced.