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The Fokker Scourge

Written by Sakhal

An important revolution

In 1915 it took place a revolution in the tactics of air combat: the apparition of a technique that allowed to fire a machine gun through the propeller arc. Until then, the only way of arming a biplane aircraft, with the propeller in fore position, with a machine gun firing forwards was to install this one above the upper wing, so the bullets passed above the propeller; this solution made very difficult to aim and reload the weapon. The answer to the problem was the synchronization; this meant simply to adapt the rate of fire of the machine gun to the rotation of the propeller, so the bullets could pass between the blades without hitting them. Before the war some experiments had been carried with this purpose: in France by Raymond Saulnier, from Morane-Saulnier, and in Germany by Franz Schneider, from LVG. In fact, Schneider had patented a primitive synchronization mechanism in 1913. In the early 1915 it was installed an updated version in a monoplane E.VI of the LVG, but the aircraft was destroyed in an accident and no more models were built. In France, and despite some positive tests, Raymond Saulnier could not achieve funds from the authorities to develop the invention, so he resorted to a cheaper and more primitive method, which was to install wedged deflector plates in the propeller blades, so the bullets hitting them would be deflected without harming the pilot.

In March 1915, Roland Garros - a famous aviator already before the war, aggregated to Saulnier -, from the Escadrille MS.23 tested operatively this system. In less than three weeks he destroyed five enemy aircraft; however, the 19th July 1915 he was forced to land behind the German lines after his aircraft was damaged by ground fire. He could not burn the Morane, which was studied by German technicians. These copied the idea, but the tests were not satisfactory. The French bullets had a lead coating, while the German ones, coated with chrome, tore into pieces the propeller blades. The technicians showed the French mechanism to the Dutch projectist Anthony Fokker; this one - to whom the British nor the French had paid attention - was producing aircraft for Germany. Fokker promptly realized that the idea of the deflector plate was excessively dangerous to have true success; the strong vibrations produced by the bullets when hitting the blades would end loosening the mounting of the propeller...

Consequently, he designed a simple mechanism of cams and tappets moved by the engine which, when the pilot pressed the trigger, would activate the mechanism of a machine gun only when the propeller blades were in a certain position. This means that it would be the mechanism of the propeller which would fire the weapon; probably for the first time in History, a weapon would not be directly operated by the human, but by an intermediate mechanism. It is often said that the machine gun fired on each propeller revolution, but actually propellers had far more revolutions per minute than rounds per minute a machine gun could fire; usually the weapon would fire every two or three propeller revolutions. Good part of the project work of this mechanism was carried by three members from the technical team of Fokker: Heber, Leimberger and Lubbe. The mechanism was tested with success in a monoplane Fokker M5K, which received the military denomination E.1 ("E" meaning "Eindecker" or monoplane), becoming so the first German aircraft dedicated to pursue and shoot down enemy aircraft. Until February 1916 the British aircraft operating in France were not equipped with a synchronization mechanism created by Vickers; the aircraft of the French military aviation received a similar mechanism almost at the same time.

The Fokker Scourge

Meanwhile, British and French aviators had been suffering a terrible martyrdom at the guns of the "Fokker Scourge". It started the 1st July 1915, when Lieutenant Kurt Wingens, from theFeldflieger Abteilung 62, piloting a Fokker M5K shot down a French monoplane Morane. There are no doubts about this downing but, since the Morane fell inside French lines, the German High Command did not count it. Meanwhile, in June, had started to arrive to the German first-line units the series aircraft Fokker E.I; the small number or aircraft available, at the hands of pilots whose names would soon become legendary, started to make their presence felt. Among the first were the Lieutenants Max Immelmann and Oswald Boelcke, both from the Feldflieger Abteilung 62. Immelmann had the chance to test the Fokker in combat the 1st August 1915, when he took off along with Boelcke to attack a number of British aircraft that were attacking the German airfield at Douai. The history is told by the following combat report:

"At 06.00 hours of the 1st August, Lieutenant Immelmann took off in a monoplane fighter Fokker, to repel the numerous enemy aircraft (about 10 or 12) that were bombing the airfield at Douai. He managed to engage in combat with three aircraft, with French distinctives, in the zone between Arras and Vitry. Without worrying about the numeric disproportion, he boldly and forcefully attacked one of them at close distance. Although his enemy tried to avoid the attack with turns and dives, and the other two French aircraft tried to assist the attacked one with machine gun fire, Lieutenant Immelmann forced him to land west of and near Berbieres, after having hit with several shots vital parts of the aircraft."

The British pilot, injured, was made prisoner. Albeit there were several other skirmishes in the days that followed, until late August Immelmann did not annotate his second victory. He recalled the event in a letter to his mother:

"Suddenly, I saw an enemy biplane that attacked Boelcke by the rear. Boelcke seemed to not have seen it. As if we had agreed, both of us turned around. First it got within range of Boelcke and then of mine and, by last, both of us attacked it from a distance of 50 to 80 meters. The machine gun of Boelcke seemed to have jammed, but I fired 300 shots. I could not believe it when I saw the enemy pilot raising the arms; he lost the helmet and started to fall describing large circles. A second later, the aircraft nosedived against the land from 2200 meters. From the place where it crashed in the ground, emerged a column of dust."

The Fokker Scourge

The Fokker E-III, first aircraft specifically built to destroy other aircraft and first aircraft fitted with a synchronization mechanism to shoot through the propeller arc. Engine: Oberursel U.1 radial of nine cylinders and 100 horsepower; maximum speed: 134 kilometers/hour; weight (empty): 500 kilograms; weight (maximum at takeoff): 635 kilograms; wingspan: 9.52 meters; length: 7.3 meters; height: 3.12 meters; armament: one fixed 7.92-millimeter machine gun LMG 08/15.

New tactics

In the late 1915, Immelmann had increased his score to five. While the majority of his fellow pilots understood air combat as a sort of sport, Immelmann focused on it from a point of view that we could call "scientifical", developing new tactics and improving the effectiveness as he achieved more experience. He devised a new combat maneuver that would be norm in the air combat manuals during many years: the "Immelmann turn". This one consisted of accumulating speed in a dive against the enemy to place the Fokker below his aircraft, and then pulling the controls to climb up and open fire by surprise from beneath. After firing, the pilot of the Fokker continued climbing until reaching an almost vertical position, at which moment he completely turned the tail rudder, effectuated the turn in stall and dived against the enemy from the opposite direction. This tactic worked well while the Fokker was superior to the rest of the aircraft in the front; later it became dangerous when the Allied aircraft, with more powerful engines, climbed after the attacking fighters when these were in the critical moment of entering the stall.

The definitive version of the monoplane Fokker was the E.III, armed with two machine guns Spandau; the Abteilung 62 was equipped with this new model in the late 1915. The 13th January, Immelmann and Boelcke shot down a British aircraft each flying in the E.III; they both were awarded with the highest German condecoration: the Ordre pour le Merite. According to the German tactic of that time, to each Fokker pilot was assigned a zone of space over the front, a procedure mentioned by Immelmann in another letter to his home:

"Lieutenant Leffers is further to the south (of Douai). Bapaume, where I have operated so many times, belongs to his sector. Since there is nothing to do in our zone, one has to enter the hunting reserve of the others. Baron von Althaus is even further to the south and Parscau a bit farther (Verdun). Berthold is even farther to the north. Until now, each of them has downed four enemies. Our territories are perfectly delimited by the trenches. As it is logical, the artillery fires against us when we are within its range..."

The blind spot

The monoplane Fokker was the first aircraft expressly dedicated to fighter role that entered operative service and, during months, it made that the Allied reconnaissance flights over German territory were practically a suicide. The aircraft BE.2 of the British aviation suffered specially severe losses at the guns of the Fokker; apart from being normally stable and because of that of little maneuverability, the BE.2 had a vulnerable blind spot under the "belly" that the German pilots exploited to the maximum, firing their machine guns while climbing from beneath their victims. For the Allies, the lack of the vital air reconnaissance was a serious matter and measures were taken to quickly counteract the threat posed by the Fokker. The first one to react was the French Aviation Militaire which, in the summer 1915, put into flight the single-seater biplane Nieuport 11, nicknamed "Baby" because of its small size. But this is already matter for a different article...

The Fokker E-I of Max Immelmann

Together with his friend but also rival Oswald Boelcke, Max Immelmann created a legend in the History of Aviation. These two men were the first ones who successfully incarnated the figure of the war pilot. And the Fokker Eindecker, with its machine gun firing through the propeller arc, was considered during many months, in a critical period of the First World War in the Western Front, as an invincible aircraft. Born in the ancient Saxon city of Dresden the 21st September 1891, Max Immelmann was admitted in the Fliegertruppe with a mission the 12th November 1914. After being assigned to him a first-line position, in April 1915 he received the order of joining the Fieldfliegerabteilung 10, an artillery unit based in Vrizy. Fiteen days later he returned to Germany, where he was destined to the Fieldfliegerabteilung 62, serving in Doberitz under command by veteran combat pilot Hauptmann (Captain) Hermann Kastner. When the front reached Douai the 13th May, Kastner was dedicated to instruct Oswald Boelcke, one of his pilots, in the subtleties of the first monoplane fighters Fokker, which were being delivered in those days. Boelcke, after becoming one of the pilots qualified to fly the Fokker, passed his knowledge to Immelmann.

The 14th July Immelmann was promoted to Deputy Lieutenant and, the 31st July, he piloted a Fokker for the first time. The following day, at the controls of the aircraft number 3/15 (the one depicted in the illustration), he downed his first victim. After Boelcke, who piloted another E-I, had abandoned the combat when his machine gun was jammed, Immelmann attacked the British aircraft, probably a BE 2c piloted by Lieutenant William Reid. After a long and acerbated combat Immelmann managed to force his opponent to descend to the point of making him to crash on the ground. The British aircraft was practically defenseless because it flew without an observer, and what caused to Immelmann the difficulty to shoot down the enemy aircraft was that his machine gun was jammed three times. During a short period Immelmann and Boelcke continued flying and fighting together, but the latter one was destined in September to an escort mission of a bomber, and Immelmann remained as the only fighter pilot defending the area of Lille. He would result dead the 18th June 1916 during a combat against a two-seater FE 2b from the 25th Squadron of the Royal Flying Corps. His aircraft was seen as hit in the air, and the downing was attributed to Lieutenant G. R. McCubbin and Corporal J. H. Waller. However, the Germans established that the Schneider synchronization mechanism had failed - as it had occurred already two times in the Fokker of Immelmann - and that it was the destruction of the propeller which actually caused his death. To Immelmann, known as "The Eagle of Lille", was attributed the destruction of fifteen Allied aircraft.

The Fokker Scourge

Fokker E-I piloted by Lieutenant Max Immelmann of the Feldfliegerabteilung 62, in Douai, August 1915. Wingspan: 9.52 meters; length: 7.2 meters; height: 2.4 meters; engine: Oberursel of 80 horsepower; maximum speed: 130 kilometers/hour; service ceiling: 3000 meters; operational range: 1.5 hours; armament: one Spandau machine gun.

Categories: Aviation - World War One - 20th Century - [General] - [General]


Website: Military History

Article submitted: 2015-06-28

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