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Aces and Aircraft of World War One. An introduction to the series of first world war Aces aviation paintings by artist Ivan Berryman.
It is easy to forget that when the Great War broke out in 1914 the aeroplane was actually only eleven years old and yet, by the time of the 1918 Armistice, it had been developed into a hybrid instrument of war that was capable of bombing, reconnaissance, ground strafing and, of course, one-on-one aerial combat. And by today’s standards – or even those of World War Two – these machines were still extremely primitive and flying them, let alone fighting in them, was fraught with danger.
Fragile in the extreme, their fabric skins were prone to tearing away in the slipstream when damaged and were so very vulnerable to the ravages of a fire that few crews survived an aerial conflagration. These flying machines’ flimsy frames and wings were strengthened and stressed by taut wires that, like the standing rigging of a sailing ship, kept everything in place…until shot through or burned away in combat. Very little protection was afforded the pilots and observers in World War 1 and frequently jamming guns and seizing engines only added to their peril. Spares were hard to come by and makeshift repairs at the front line temporary airfields tested the ingenuity of the mechanics and ground crews whose job it was to keep the aircraft in combat-ready condition. Add to this volatile mixture of potential misadventures the fact that pilot training was minimal and that air fighting was still so new that no hard and fast rules had been established, then the more we might understand the mettle of the young men who first dipped a toe in the waters of the air war.
Not until the advent of the fixed,
forward firing gun did the single seat fighter become the killing machine that
we know today. Advances in firing mechanisms that enabled the single or twin
machine guns to fire through the spinning propeller revolutionised the fighter
or scout aeroplane. Pilots began to score more and more victories, many of them
becoming national celebrities in their homelands and gaining notoriety among
their enemies. So many of these ‘Aces’ were quiet, unassuming individuals
who cared little for the war and even less for shooting down young opponents who
were, after all, no different to themselves and yet they would find themselves
thrust into the spotlight by their admirers and thus put under even greater
pressure to continue raising their tally whilst at the same time leading and
Yet, from this melee, some semblance of order did emerge, often the product of great leaders like Oswald Boelke who single-handedly wrote the first book of rules of engagement which, for the first time, gave young pilots a guide to how to fight in the air, how to surprise the enemy and how to avoid being shot down. So precise and so prescient were these rules that they still stand today. Boelke also was partly responsible for the instigation of the Fighting Group, bringing together a force of 37 Jagdstaffeln – or Hunting Squadrons – whose job it was not to venture into enemy territory, but to seek out the intruding observation aircraft and their escorts and shoot them down. This they did with ruthless efficiency, their superior Albatross D.IIIs decimating the aged BE.2Cs and RE.8s of the Royal Flying Corps. Indeed, during April 1917, the RFC alone suffered the loss of 316 pilots and observers to the German Jastas that prowled the skies above the Western Front. In what became known as ‘Bloody April’, the sparse numbers of Bristol F.2Bs, Sopwith Triplanes and Nieuport Scouts had no answer to their superior German counterparts. Not until the arrival of the Sopwith Camel, the SE.5 and Spad S.VII did these adversaries meet on even terms, thus beginning the era of the dogfight and the aspiration to become a top scoring ‘Ace’.
Whilst many pilots continued with their lone vigils into 1918, popular opinion supported the German idea of large formations of aircraft piloted by better trained crews with the premise of operating as a single fighting force, rather than as individuals. Leaders such as Edward ‘Mick’ Mannock amply demonstrated the benefits of such formations whilst Commander of 74 Squadron, Mannock himself adding 36 victories to his personal score in the space of just three months.
Major John Gilmour
The Germans, meanwhile, suddenly found themselves unable to
match the Allies for sheer numbers. As the tide began to turn against Germany
early in 1918, the Jastas began to form into larger groups which earned the
nickname ‘Circuses’, largely because they travelled from location to
location to bring pressure to bear wherever it was needed instead of operating
from fixed airstrips. The most famous of these Circuses was, of course, that led
by Manfred von Richthofen, the ‘Red Baron’ who would ultimately be
recognised as the highest scoring Ace of them all with a staggering 80 confirmed
victories to his credit. Made up almost exclusively of the nimble Fokker DR.1
Triplane, the Albatross D.V and Pfalz D.III, Richthofen’s Flying Circus,
comprising Jastas 4, 6, 10 and 11, took the fight to the Allied squadrons and
wrought a terrible toll on them but, with the death of von Richthofen in April
1918, their appetite to fight seemed to visibly wane and even the introduction
of the superb Fokker D.VII was unable to stem the impending victory of the
Allied pilots in the skies above France.
In August 1918, a huge force of aircraft comprising the newly christened RAF’s 43, 54, 73, 201, 203, 208 and 209 squadrons launched a final offensive. The Sopwith Camels and SE.5As tore into the demoralised German formations and great pilots such as Werner Voss fell to their guns in the closing months.
Otto Pusher Type M
So ended the first
era of aerial combat in which the aeroplane proved itself to be a potent
fighting machine in the hands of young men who had learned their art in an
incredibly short time and who had set in stone the rule book on how it should be
done. The equipment and technology may have changed almost beyond recognition in
the ensuing 90 years or so, but many combat techniques and principles have
remained, a legacy of those tentative years when the World’s first air forces
and brave aerial gladiators took their first faltering steps and changed the
course of history for ever.
This series of
paintings of just some of the many Aces and their aircraft are intended not to
glorify war, but to salute their innovation and their bravery. We will never see
their like again.
Ivan Berryman, 2008.
One of the completed paintings in this series :
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