War history: The Fokker Eindecker was the new demon of the skies in 1915

A Fokker A-series monoplane - basically the prototype for the Fokker E-series Eindecker fighters

A Fokker A-series monoplane - basically the prototype for the Fokker E-series Eindecker fighters - Credit: Archant

It was the moment a technological breakthrough changed the stakes of aerial combat. Mike Peters, Galloway’s resident military historian, explains how Germany gained the upper hand.

Otto Parschau's Fokker M.5K/MG Eindecker prototype - the first Fokker Eindecker produced

Otto Parschau's Fokker M.5K/MG Eindecker prototype - the first Fokker Eindecker produced - Credit: Archant

A century ago, the realisation that the world’s major powers were locked in a titanic struggle that would absorb every ounce of effort from every citizen was sobering. On the battlefields, both sides were striving to create technological advantage to secure victory. Germany’s use of Zeppelins, gas and submarines were obvious examples.

The technological struggle was also evident in the skies over the trenches; aircraft were becoming more and more important, particularly on the Western Front. During the summer of 1915, the air war suddenly took on a more deadly, ruthless character.

In the early days of the war, aircraft from opposing sides of no man’s land pretty much left each other alone, preferring to concentrate on keeping their flimsy and unreliable aircraft in the sky long enough to complete their missions. Slowly but surely, the status quo eroded as aerial reconnaissance and photography became more important.

Both sides were bogged down in the stalemate of trench warfare and were striving to find a weakness in the other’s lines. The British Royal Flying Corps launched daily reconnaissance patrols, attempting to fly over and beyond the German trench lines and photographing, sketching and mapping what they saw. This led to the introduction of dedicated anti-aircraft guns on the ground and the carrying of weapons by RFC and German aircrew.

German First World War ace Max Immelmann with his Fokker E.I.

German First World War ace Max Immelmann with his Fokker E.I. - Credit: Archant

By 1915 aircraft engines were powerful enough to lift machine guns and aerial combat became far more serious and definitely more dangerous.

At the end of July, 1915, British pilots and observers reported sightings of a new monoplane German fighter. The new shape in the sky was the Fokker Eindecker. The single-seat scout had an innovative design feature, giving it an unprecedented advantage in combat. The machine gun was fitted with a mechanical device allowing the German pilot to fire forwards through the arc of his own propeller ? something neither side had been able to do.

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Observers had acted as gunners, and using rearward-firing machine guns. The RFC had even fielded squadrons of pusher aircraft with rear-facing propellers that left the front of the aircraft clear of obstruction. This new German interrupter mechanism made aiming, firing and clearing stoppages much, much simpler. The Fokker pilots had a significant edge in combat they were very quick to exploit.

Summer, 1915, was a bad time for the RFC. It became known as the “Fokker Scourge”. The new Fokkers were faster, more manoeuvrable and, with their forward-firing guns, more deadly than any aircraft in the RFC’s inventory.

The Fokker Scourge ? or Fokker Scare, as it was also known ? really began on August 1, 1915, after 2 Squadron RFC were ordered to bomb an airfield behind German lines.

Flying their slow-moving BE2c aircraft they caught the unsuspecting Germans on the ground at 0500 hours, waking the sleeping pilots with a jolt or two. Unfortunately, not all the Fokkers were destroyed and the German pilots were soon strapped into their faster Eindeckers and taking off in pursuit.

The pursuing aircraft were flown by two of Germany’s best aces: Max Immelmann and Oswald Boelcke.

Opening their engines up to full speed, the Fokkers were soon within sight of the BE2 raiders. The British pilots had been forced to leave their observers behind in order to carry bombs and extra fuel; they had no rearward defence at all and were practically helpless.

Luckily for one of the 2 Squadron aircraft, Boelcke’s gun jammed and he was unable to clear the stoppage. However, Immelmann chased another BE2c for 10 minutes, pouring 450 machine gun bullets into the British aircraft and wounding the pilot in the arm. The damaged aircraft crashed and Immelmann added another kill to his rising tally.

The new German fighter continued to cause problems for the RFC all through August and into September. RFC pilots who had survived encounters with the monoplanes reported the Fokker was far more agile than any British aircraft. The German machine could make longer, much steeper dives than any other aircraft. The interrupter gear allowed the pilot to aim his gun at a target by simply pointing the nose of the aircraft straight at the target. This was much easier to do during a dogfight than trying to aim a mounted gun while flying an aircraft.

The Fokker had another technological advantage; its machine gun was belt-fed. Unlike their RFC counterparts, German pilots did not have to change drum magazines mid-combat.

German pilots exploited all these advantages and developed new tactics for air fighting. Led by Max Immelmann and other emerging aces, the Fokker squadrons preferred to attack from higher altitude, diving down out of the sun, firing long, concentrated bursts of machine gun fire, and diving past their target until they were out of range.

As the summer progressed, RFC losses continued to mount, Immelmann and Boelcke claiming 13 kills between them. Seven other German pilots claimed another 15 British and French aircraft. The scourge would go into the first months of 1916, the seemingly invincible German fighter having a negative effect on the morale of British and French pilots.

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