Background to the British Ace Series

If I have introduced a technology slightly early or moved an action it is in the interest of the story and the character. The FE 2 is introduced a month or so before the actual aeroplane.  The Red Baron is shot down, for the first time, six weeks before he really was. The Sopwith Camel arrived at the end of May rather than the middle. I have tried to make this story more character based. I have used the template of some real people and characters that lived at the time.

The Short Magazine Lee Enfield had a ten-shot magazine and enabled a rifleman to get off 20-30 shots in a minute. It was accurate at 300 yards. Both cavalry and infantry were issued with the weapon.

For those readers who do not come from England I have tried to write the way that people in that part of Lancashire speak. As with many northerners they say ‘owt’ for anything and ‘Eeeh’ is just a way of expressing surprise.  As far as I know there is no Lord Burscough but I know that Lord Derby had a huge house not far away in Standish and I have based the fictitious Lord Burscough on him. The area around Burscough and Ormskirk is just north of the heavily industrialised belt which runs from Leeds, through Manchester, to Liverpool.  It is a very rural area with many market gardens.  It afforded me the chance to have rural and industrial England, cheek by jowl. The food they eat is also typical of that part of Lancashire. Harsker is a name from the area apparently resulting from a party of Vikings who settled in the area some centuries earlier.  Bearing in mind my earlier Saxon and Viking books I could not resist the link, albeit tenuous, with my earlier novels.

The rear firing Lewis gun was not standard issue and was an improvised affair.  Here is a photograph of one in action.

The photograph demonstrates the observer’s firing positions in the Royal Aircraft Factory F.E.2d. The observer’s cockpit was fitted with three guns, one or two fixed forward-firing for the pilot to aim, one moveable forward-firing and one moveable rear-firing mounted on a pole over the upper wing. The observer had to stand on his seat in order to use the rear-firing gun.

This artistic work created by the United Kingdom Government is in the public domain. This is because it is one of the following:

  1. It is a photograph created by the United Kingdom Government and taken prior to 1 June 1957; or
  2. It was commercially published prior to 1964; or

It is an artistic work other than a photograph or engraving (e.g. a painting) which was created by the United Kingdom Government prior to 1964. HMSO has declared that the expiry of Crown Copyrights applies worldwide.

An F.E.2 without armament

This image is in the public domain because the copyright has expired. This applies to Australia, the European Union and those countries with a copyright term of life of the author plus 70 years.

Radios were fitted to aeroplanes from as early as 1914.  They could only transmit.  The ground radios could only receive. By 1916 320 aeroplanes had radios fitted.  Oxygen was introduced, mainly in bombers, from 1917 onwards.  It was needed when the aeroplanes were operated at high altitude and by the end of the war aeroplanes were capable of operating at 20000 feet!

Sopwith Camel courtesy of Wikipedia

Bristol F2b Courtesy of Wikipedia

This variant was faster than the F2A of which only 52 were built. Ted and Gordy’s are the F2A variant and the later ones, the faster F2B, which could reach speeds of 80 mph.

Fokker Dr.1 Triplane

Baron Von Richthofen was actually shot down by an FE 2 during the later stages of the Battle of the Somme in one of his first forays over the Western front.  In this novel it is Bill who has that honour. The Red Baron is portrayed as the pilot of the Halberstadt with the yellow propeller. Of course, the Red Baron got his revenge by shooting down the leading British ace of the time, Major Lanoe Hawker VC. Major Hawker, was flying the DH2 while the Red Baron flew the superior Albatros DIII. The Red Baron took over Jasta 11 in January 1917 and he made a huge difference.  Until he had arrived not a single aeroplane had been shot down by the Jasta.  He had a kill on his first day. His squadron was known as the Flying Circus because they were all painted differently and in very bright colours. His was all red but every one of his aeroplanes had the colour red somewhere in the colour scheme. In the summer of 1917 the Germans reorganised their Jastas so that Richthofen was in command of four fighter squadrons. He was shot down while flying a Fokker Dr1 Triplane.  It was painted in his favourite red colour.

The circle devised by Bill and Billy really existed.  It was known as a Lufbery circle. The gunner of each F.E.2 could cover the blind spot under the tail of his neighbour and several gunners could fire on any enemy attacking the group. There were occasions when squadrons used this tactic to escape the Fokker monoplane and the later fighters which the Germans introduced to wrest air superiority from the Gunbus. It made for slow progress home but they, generally, got there safely. It was a formation that two seaters could employ in the latter years of the war when they were faced with the newer, faster fighters.

General Henderson commanded the RFC for all but a couple of months of the war. The Fokker Scourge lasted from autumn 1915 until February 1916.  It took the Gunbus and other new aircraft to defeat them. The BE 2 aeroplanes were known as Fokker fodder and vast numbers were shot down. There were few true bombers at this stage of the war and the Gunbus was one of the first multi-role aeroplanes. The addition of the third Lewis gun did take place at this stage of the war. The Germans had to react to their lack of superiority and in the next book the pendulum swings in Germany’s favour when the Albatros D.III and other new aircraft wrested control of the air away from the RFC.

 

This is the Immelmann Turn as a diagram. The Immelmann Turn was named after the German Ace Max Immelmann who flew the Fokker E1.  He was apparently shot down by an FE 2 although one theory is that his interrupter gear malfunctioned and he shot his own propeller off.  I prefer the first theory.

I have no evidence for Sergeant Sharp’s improvised bullet proofing.  However, they were very inventive and modified their aeroplanes all the time. The materials he used were readily available and, in the days before recycling, would have just been thrown away. It would be interesting to test it with bullets.

The Mills bomb was introduced in 1915.  It had a seven second fuse. The shrapnel could spread up to twenty yards from the explosion.

The tunnels at Arras were astounding. Work had been going on underground to construct tunnels for the troops since October 1916. The Arras region is chalky and therefore easily excavated; under Arras itself is a vast network of caverns, underground quarries, galleries and sewage tunnels. The engineers devised a plan to add new tunnels to this network so that troops could arrive at the battlefield in secrecy and in safety.  The scale of this undertaking was enormous: in one sector alone four Tunnel Companies worked around the clock in 18-hour shifts for two months. Eventually, they constructed 20 kilometres of tunnels, graded as subways for men on foot tramways which had rails and was used for taking ammunition to the front and bringing casualties back; and railways. Just before the assault the tunnel system had grown big enough to conceal 24,000 men, with electric lighting. Bert and his company are part of this undertaking.  However, the Germans knew of the tunnels and they were digging countermines.  Both sides fought a deadly war beneath the surface.

The Battle of Arras was delayed because the French were not ready and consequently began during a snowstorm. Despite that the British and Commonwealth troops made astonishing gains in the first few days. The German front line troops were, quite literally, shell shocked from the two week barrage they had endured. The defences ceased to exist.

General Trenchard was in command in France although he was a controversial figure. He was not universally popular. He was the first Chief of the RAF.  He was known for his penchant for offensive rather than defensive flying.

More aeroplanes were shot down by ground fire than other aeroplanes and I have tried to be as realistic as I can but Bill Harsker is a hero and I portray him as such. He does achieve a high number of kills. Lanoe Hawker was the first ace to reach 40 kills and he died just at the end of the Somme Offensive.

The Spring Offensive almost won the war for the Germans.  With Russia out of the war and the Americans still feeding men across the Atlantic Operation Michael almost succeeded. The Offensive was four attacks.  The first was in the Somme.  It was followed by one close to Ypres.  A third was to the south of the Somme and the final one was an attempt to enlarge the Somme salient. The Offensive cost the Germans almost 700,000 casualties whilst the allies lost nearly 900,000. It was stopped, in no small part by the RFC or, as it became on April 1st 1918, the RAF. The new German aeroplanes could not defeat the RFC. There were a few Fokker D.VIIs in the air but by the time they reached the front the Spring Offensive had been halted. The battle cost many aeroplanes but once it was over then the RAF dominated the skies of Northern France.

I have tried to base the relationship between Bill and Bates on that of Frodo and Sam in Lord of the Rings.  This is not as bizarre as it sounds for Tolkien served in World War 1 as an officer in the trenches and had a close relationship with his servant.  It is widely believed that the Frodo/Sam relationship is that of Tolkien and his batman. For those readers who have commented to me about the lack of servants for the other officers I say that all of them would have had a servant and the relationship would have been a similar one to Bates and Bill but I was trying to encapsulate in Bates a sub plot to do with the stress of war and the remarkable changes it brings in the most mild mannered of people.

I have taken the idea of Bill’s injured legs from the true story of Douglas Bader who defied the odds in World War II not only to be able to walk again with artificial legs but also to fly a Spitfire and lead a whole wing of aeroplanes.

The swastika was used by pilots in Jasta 17 and appears to have been the personal emblem of Oblt Hermann Pritisch who was the acting Jastafuhrer.  He scored one victory.

The war in 1918 surged one way and then the other.  The Spring Offensive came within a whisker of succeeding but the German plan wasted their finest troops in their assaults. Ludendorff, in particular, did not use the elite troops well. Their job was to punch a hole through and then the rest would flood through the gaps they made.  Ludendorff had these storm troopers making costly attacks on the British redoubts.  They could have been bypassed.  Another crucial factor was the control of the air.  The Germans were between their good fighters. The triplane was on the decline and the new Fokker D.VII was not ready in enough numbers. Even though the German air force was never defeated it could never control the skies because of their lack of production.

The Hundred Days Offensive began in August and lasted until November 1918. It ended with the allies in Germany. Ironically the worst month of the war was September when 560 allied aeroplanes were lost on the Western front. The previous worse month had been bloody April in 1917 when 305 Allied aeroplanes were lost. In both bloody battles the bulk of the losses were amongst the pilots of the RFC/RAF. These figures pale into insignificance when compared with the losses on the ground and amongst the infantry.

WW1 Aviation Casualties  
CasualtiesBritishFrenchAmericanGerman
Killed616628726815853
Wounded724529221277302
Missing32121461722715
Total16623725588015906

Selected Specifications for the aeroplanes mentioned in the novel

FE2b

2 crew

47 feet wingspan

12 feet 6 inches height

Rolls Royce Eagle engine 360hp

Maximum speed 81 mph (up to 88 at higher altitude)

Ceiling, 11000 feet

2 Lewis machine guns and up to 517lb of bombs

AEG G1

3 crew

52 feet wingspan

11 feet four inches height

2 Mercedes 8 cylinders in line engines 100 hp each

Maximum speed 78 mph

Ceiling 7874 feet

2 machine guns

Aviatik B1/B11

Crew 2

Wingspan 40 feet

Height 10 feet 10 inches

Mercedes D11 Engine 99hp

Maximum speed 60 mph

Ceiling 16404 feet

1 machine gun

Bristol F.2A

2 crew

39 feet 3 inches wingspan

9 feet 9 inches height

190 hp Rolls Royce Falcon v-12engine

Maximum speed 123 mph

Ceiling 18,000 feet

1 .303 Lewis (rear facing) machine gun (+an optional Lewis on a Foster mount)

1 Vickers .303 (synchronised) machine gun

Fokker E1

1 crew

29 feet wingspan

9 feet 5 inches height

.7 Cylinder air cooled rotary engine 80 hp

Maximum speed 81 mph

Ceiling 9840 feet

1 machine gun (later variants had a machine gun firing through the propeller)

Arco DH2

1 crew

28 feet wingspan

9 feet 6 inches height

Gnome Monosoupape 10 hp Rotary engine

Maximum speed 93 mph

Ceiling 14,000 feet

I machine gun either fixed or moveable

Nieuport 11

1 crew

29 feet wingspan

7 feet high

1 Le Rhone Rotary Engine 80hp

Maximum speed 97 mph

Ceiling 15,000 feet

1 machine gun

Fokker D.1

1 crew

29 feet wingspan

7 feet 5inches high

Mercedes D 111 160 hp Engine

Maximum speed 93 mph

Ceiling 11000 feet

1 7.92 Spandau mg

Albatros D.1

1 crew

27 feet 10 inches wingspan

9 feet 8 inches high

Mercedes D 111 160 hp Engine

Maximum speed 109 mph

Ceiling 17000 feet

1 x 7.92 Spandau mg

Albatros D.11

1 crew

27 feet 10 inches wingspan

8 feet 8 inches high

Mercedes D 111 160 hp Engine

Maximum speed 109.4 mph

Ceiling 17000 feet

2 x 7.92 Spandau mg

Albatros D.111

1 crew

27 feet 6 inches wingspan

9 feet 6 inches high

Mercedes D 111 160 hp Engine

Maximum speed 102 mph

Ceiling 18000 feet

1 x 7.92 Spandau mg

Fokker D.11

1 crew

28 feet 8 inches wingspan

8feet 4 inches high

Oberursel 100 hp Engine

Maximum speed 93 mph

Ceiling 14700 feet

1 x 7.92 Spandau mg

Halberstadt D111

1 Crew

28 feet 10 inches wingspan

8 feet 8 inches high

Argus As.11 inline 120hp engine

Maximum speed 99.4 mph

Ceiling 14764 feet

1 7.92 Spandau mg

Bristol F.2B

2 crew

29feet wingspan

9 feet 9 inches height

Rolls Royce 275 hp engine

Maximum speed 113 mph

Ceiling 20,000 feet

1 synchronised Vickers .303 machine gun

1 rear mounted Lewis .303 machine gun

Sopwith Pup

1 crew

28 feet wingspan

9 feet 6 inches height

La Rhone 9C 80 hp engine

Maximum speed 105 mph

Ceiling 17,500 feet

1 synchronised Vickers .303 machine gun

Sopwith Camel

1 crew

28 feet wingspan

8 feet 6 inches height

Clerget 9-cylinder air cooled rotary piston (130 hp) engine

Maximum speed 117 mph

Ceiling 19,000 feet

2 synchronised Vickers .303 machine guns

Fokker D I (Triplane)

1 crew

23 feet 8 inches wingspan

9 feet 8inches high

Oberursel 110hpEngine

Maximum speed 115 mph

Ceiling 20015 feet

2 x 7.92 Spandau mg

Fokker D VII

1 crew

29 feet 1 inches wingspan

9 feet 6 inches high

Mercedes DIII 180hpEngine

Maximum speed 118 mph

Ceiling 22695 feet

2 x 7.92 Spandau mg