AFC Flying Schools
Aces of the AFC
Aircraft of the AFC
Roll of Honour
AFC in Scale
This is an extract from the now out of print history of 4 Squadron Australian Flying Corps, "Australian Airmen" by E.J. Richards. This is an extract of one of the Appendices of the book on the topic of aerial fighting by Captain Arthur H. Cobby.
Flying has of late years been a muchly discussed topic, and to-day the interest in the subject is even more keen, owing to the successful termination of the war and the striking part that the aeroplane played in bringing about that happy conclusion. Again, the problem of commercialising the aeroplane for the peaceful work of trade, and of rapid transit from place to place, has been very much before the public, culminating at the moment in the trans-Atlantic flight. All these things have made the man in the street cognisant of the powers and possibilities of flying, and have awakened in his mind thoughts which five years ago it would have been impossible for him to have imagined.
War flying has been dealt with by scores of writers. Some of the them have been familiar with their subjects by actual personal experience - and some have not. Many of them have derived their knowledge from hearsay, which - from my experience of Flying Corps messes - they must have gathered from yarns told well on in the evening after a good dinner, as some of the high-flown stories indicate. But there are many very fine points in aerial fighting that have not yat been expounded.
The experiences of all pilots preparing for active service are alike in the main; their feelings are similar on the whole. When he takes off for his first solo flight it is not fear which grip shim - rather a very sensitive realisation that he knows very little about what the machine is doing, and nasty, sinking apprehensions every time he feels a bump. Thoughts career through his mind of rudders coming off, tail planes twisting, etc. coupled with the knowledge that the ground is a long way off. Then he recollects that a body dropping through space rushes earthwards at the rate of thirty-two feet the first second, double that rate the next second, and so on. He wonders what he would look like if he dropped 3000 feet. Presently, as nothing very startling occurs, his thoughts come back to nearly normal, and he remembers that hundreds of others have successfully done a first solo. So he more or less contrives to continue his flight without accident. Eventually he makes up his mind to land, shuts off his engine, and glides towards the aerodrome. Realising presently that his machine is travelling dangerously fast, he jerks back his control lever, and gets a fright accordingly. Approaching the ground, he is assailed with all the old fears, and recollects having often heard instructors say : "Any blithingly ass can fly a machine, but it takes a pilot to land 'em." However, he gets down more or less successfully - according to the way his guardian angel is looking at the moment - and so another prospective sraafer of Huns is started on his way, the length and breadth of which is determined mainly by luck, but an appreciable amount by his own judgement and discretion.
Before he finally gets overseas to a service squadron, he has to do an aerial fighting course, which invariably gives him a fair amount of "wind up." Perhaps his fighting instructor ( whose business it is to go up in another machine and fight him ) eventually refuses to go into the air with him as he is frightened that during one of the many strange, uncontrolled evolutions of the pupil's machine they will both collide - the fighting instructor being a wise young man in his generation, and knowledgable of the habits and faults of the young and eager. So he passes the pupil as qualified in category "B".
He proceeds overseas, and experiences another period of fear. Every time he sees a strange machine near him in the sky, he dies - metaphorically. Frequently during a patrol he gots lost, and his Flight Commander vainly endeavours to catch him up and attract his attention. But the new hand is vary hard to catch; and finally the leader gives him up, collects the remainder of the formation, and continues the patrol - cursing all new pilots generally, and with simple directness. In the meantime, the newcomer either manages to come to earth some fifty miles from home, or to get safely back and recount the story of how the patrol was attacked by numerous machines that shot down all the remainder of the patrol, and then chased him all the way home. Eventually when the patrol returns, and a very worried Flight Commander sees his lost machine peacefully resting outside the hangars, he opens out - and a keen, but highly imaginative, youth has his past life his future hopes, and his capabilities as a pilot, hurled at him by a direct but blasphemous, Captain. Next time the erring ones dont get lost.
Fighting in the air has dozens of differant phases, governed, of course, by existing circumstances - and these circumstances can be divided into a number of differant classes. The main ones only will I dwell on here. The principle factor which decides whether one should engage the enemy is position. The position to have before commencing a fight ( and this includes the sun in your favour ) is to be at a greater height than the enemy machine - that is; go into the fight from above, if possible. To illustrate my meaning clearly, take two men, each armed with a stout stick. One man is in a steep ditch, and the other on a bank above. The man in the ditch would be foolish to commence a fight with the other; whereas the man on the bank has the advantage of being able to commence a scrap if he so desires, or run away. The man below could not catch him, as he would lose time in scrambling out of the dith. This simple parrallel governs the entire tactics of aerial fighting.
However, before one can take advantage of this knowledge, he must conquer a far greater enemy, and that is personal fear. I do not mean funk - it is physical shrinking from meeting the Hun, a feeling which disappears directly after your first engagement. I do not care who the man is, or how stout of heart, his early days of flying over enemy country are characterised by fear, and it is the sort of fear that robs a man of his initiative and determination, the two greatest factors in the character of a successful fighter. Perhaps his early days of war flying have been all patrol work, probably very seldom meeting the enemy. Consequently he knows nothing about his foes, and they become to some pilots an ever-present menace - something that drops through space and shoots you down before you have a chance of defending yourself. Thus his abilities and prowess are magnified. The news of a good British stut pilots "going west" and the deeds of the Huns filter through and help to alarm him. Probably one or two pilots whom he knew were shot down by an enemy aircraft or anti-aircraft fire; and this all helps to make hime undesirous or scrapping. Of course this does not last long; probably in normal circumstances about two or three weeks, or, in the case of where a squadron is in the thick of much aerial fighting,, it may not last a day. Then the feeling gradually becomes predominant that the enemy is not so good a pilot as you thought; probably on one occasion he refused to come near you when circumstances were in his favour - and so on. Then you realise that he is but human after all, and that if you have been more os less chary of meeting him, he is evidently more so, You have always considered a Britisher better than a German in your own mind, and you have no reason to change that opinion.
Then one day you have a fight thrust upon you, and again your old apprehensions return. You probably have become seperated from the rest of your patrol, owing to clouds or some other cause, when suddenly an enemy machine lurches through the murk from behind a cloud or out of the sun, and before you quite realise it, you hear the "clack-clack-clack" of a machine gun. My first experience of this kind almost stopped my heart beating. I had been out having a look at the lines, when quite an inexperienced pilot, and had unintentionally wandered over Hun-land. Flying under pleasant conditions is very insidious, and very often one becomes quite drowsy and inattentive. On this occasion I had been studying the ground, and had been very interested in this whitish brown patch formed by the ruins of Ypres. I recollected how my friends had often bombed fish on Dickebush Lake; and following this line of rumincation, I had fallen to wondering what retribution would fall upon the Germans for destroying these towns.
Suddenly I was frightened almost out of the cockpit by the "Whoof! Whoof!" of the enemy Archie. Naturally, I lost my head and endeavoured to dive for the line, but was cut off by a barrage of anti-aircraft bursts right in front of me. This suddenly ceased, and, with the egoism of youth, I congratulated myself upon outmanouvering his fire; but I had taken a look at the ground below I would have seen that I was stillwell over Hun-land. Then came the "clack-clack-clack" of machine gun fire right on top of me, and, spitting lead for all he was worth, was a ellow and black German scout of the Pfalz type. Of course, I moved very quickly, and, without worrying about the strength of my machine, I pushed the stick hard forward, and I went into a vertical dive with the engine full on. So sudden was the bump that I was nearly throw out of the machine. I shut off the engine, I zoomed u as high as I could. There was a rush of wind, and the roar of the Hun's engine as he swopped over me. I kept climbing away from him under his wing, and he kept twisting and turning to try and find me, but he did not do so until I was almost his level and about three hundred yards away. Then we both turned, and came at each other, both machines doing over one hundred miles an hour. It does not take long to cover one hundred and fifty yards at that speed, and one does not have very much time for thought. We were firing at each other the whole distance, my two guns aggregating twelve hundred rounds per minute. I was dreading the possibility of crashing into the Hun, when he suddenly put his nose down and went under me. I zoomed up again, half rolled on the top of a loop, and came out about three hundred feet above and behind the Pfalz. He commenced to travel around in a circle, and I went after him trying all the time to maintain the advantage of my extra height. Now and then I would almost get a bead on him, and would fire a short burst. Sometimes I would hear the rat-tat-tat of the Hun's two guns behind me. ROund and round I went in a circle of abnout two hundred and fifty feet, sometimes on my back, and sometimes feeling very light in the seat as I did something wrong, and slipped round the turns.
A little explanation of the relative machines should be of value here. The Sopwith Camel I was flying was a wonderfully quick manouvering 'bus' whilst the German Pfalz was, if anything faster on the level, but oculd not turn so quickly. Then again, the guns on most scout machines are firmly fixed, so that the machine is but a gun-mounting, and it has to be pointed at your target in order to align your gun-sights. This all means that the more felxible machine has the advantage in a dog-fight.
Well, neither of us had been able to bring things to a decision, so I determined to put a stunt up on my opponent. I knew that with his heavy engine in front, the nose of his machine must go down when he got too far over on one side. So I manouvered to get infront of him almost, and tried to entice him to put on a little too much bank in order to get around after me. This he did, and exactly what I anticipated happened - the nose of his machine went down. I immediately flattened out, pulled my machine up vertical, and then kicked it over sideways with the rudder, fiishing up directly over the Pfalz. Then I commenced to be very deliberate. I examined my guns, opened up my telescopic sight, put my engine full on, and coming up to within a few feet of my opponent, I took a careful aim, and fired a burst with both guns. Then the end came. The right wing of the Pfalz came off, and the machine went hurtling earthwards, and finally burst into flames when about 2000 feet from the ground. I felt very sick when I saw this happen, and I just leaned out over the side of my cockpit and was just about as ill as I have ever been in my life. Then the enemy Archie batteries opened up, and commenced to throw grand pianos and iron foundries at me; but I was past trying to dodge them. So I put the nose of my machine down, and beetled off for the line just as hard as I could.
Of course, in this early kind of fighting, the man who wins is just the better of a couple of very dud fighters. You fly all possible ways except the right, jerking the machine about, yanking it here and there, and so on. Later when one has become accustomed to the enemy tactics, and has had perhaps a dozen combats, and been in a good many dog-fights, he deliberates, and never goes into a scrap unless he has the Hun where he wants him. When an experienced pilot is out waiting for single enemy machines, the hostile pilot he is stalking is as good as dead before even a shot is fired, and it just requires that final impetus to send him under - to suh a fine art has his aerial fighting been reduced.
In conclusion, I would like to mention that the most successful os the most agressive; but, at the same time, a cool head and a fine sense of judgement are essential. Angles are so fine, and speeds are so tremendous in the air, that a very accurate burst of fire must be put in to be of any use. I have seen pilots "sitting on the tail" of enemy machines, and only a few feet off, fire all their ammunition, and still the Hun tootles along unhurt. Then again, I have seen a careful pilot fire only about ten shots - and down goes his opponent.
To Capt. "Mick" Mannock ( of No.74 RAF and afterwards Major and CO of No.85 RAF ) , 4th Squadron AFC owes a large amount of its success. This Officers squadron was for some time stationed on the same aerodrome as 4th AFC Clairmarias, and he took upon himself the task of making all the pilots around him keen and aggressive . Several talks of his to the Australian pilots there were responsible for some fine aggressive shows against the enemy, and numerous combined affairs were successfully carried out. I regard Major Mannocks character and spirit as the finest I have met in the Air Force. He was practically blind in one eye, yet he could recognise various types of enemy aircraft when the average person could barely see machines. No matter how great the odds, Mannock always managed to extricate his patrol without losing machines. I was extremely pleased to see that the Air Board officially recognized him as the greatest of all British pilots, with the wonderful record of seventy-two enemy machines officially confirmed as destroyed. Unfortunately, this very gallant officer was shot down in flames and killed just a few months before the Armistice; but his wise teachings and splendid example bore abundant fruit after his death amongst those pilots who were privileged to be associated with him in his work.