15 July 1915 – Fokker Scourge

Above: Leutnant Kurt Wintgens surveys the wreckage of an aerial victory.

Today, an early model E.I built by Anthony Fokker takes off from an airstrip near Mulhouse in Alsace. Assigned to Feld Flieger Abteilung (Flying Squadron) 48, it is flown by Leutnant Kurt Wintgens, a radio officer who only learned how to fly in March. A rare pilot chosen despite his dependence on eyeglasses, Wintgens is armed with a Parabellum MG14 machine gun positioned directly before him and equipped with a synchronization gear that allows him to fire safely through the propeller. Although the French started working on this design first, Fokker has been hard at work himself, and has even seen a captured example of their progress.

Flying these new aircraft outside of his normal duties as a reconnaissance pilot, Wintgens has already fired on two French aircraft on July 1st and 4th, causing the first to make an emergency landing and wounding the pilot but without receiving credit for the victory. As Wintgens patrols the skies over the eastern end of the Western Front, however, he spots another two-seater Morane Saulnier Parasol and dives out of the sun to attack. Riddling his victims with fire, he watches them go down, crash, and burn. Wintgens will be awarded the Iron Cross First Class for his feat.

asdf

Photographed at an airshow a half-century later, the E.I seems tiny and fragile. It was based on a prewar French racing plane

By the end of the month, fifteen Eindecker (one-decker) monoplanes are operational across the Western Front. Although their arrival is slowed by production bottlenecks, by the end of the year Germany enjoys air superiority throughout the theater, badly retarding allied photo reconnaissance. Seeking safety in numbers, the allies soon begin flying in formations of four and five planes, or not at all, learning to operate as air combat teams.

The Eindecker is nimble where most allied aircraft are ‘stable,’ i.e. difficult to maneuver, and the French soon give up their daylight bombing operations and take up night bombing, while the attrition of British pilots ticks upwards. But whereas most allied aircraft are practically defenseless against this new threat, there are already fighters being produced that will eventually negate the Fokker Scourge. The Airco F.E.2b and the D.H.2, both ‘push-propeller‘ aircraft that need no arresting gear to fire machine guns forward, arrive in January and February respectively, with a land version of the Sopwith Gunbus floatplane to follow. France produces the Nieuport 11, a biplane with the machine gun mounted over the arc of the propeller, by January as well.

The Eindeckers are deployed only one or two at a time to existing reconnaissance squadrons, limiting their potential for operating in force to sweep the skies. In fact, Germany will lag the British by a year in forming distinct fighter squadrons, with the result that the allies reclaim command of the skies in time for their big 1916 offensives. Within a year of their debut, the Eindeckers are already obsolete.

asdf

A Moraine-Saulnier two-seater aircraft like the one shot down by Kurt Wintgens a century ago today

The terms ‘Fokker Scourge’ and ‘Fokker fodder’ do not appear until after the threat has subsided. Charles Grey Grey, founder of The Aeroplane magazine, and a Member of Parliament named Noel Pemberton Billing who has a track record of failed aircraft design and fabrication, are ostensibly interested in replacing the obsolete B.E.2c. But their real impetus is opposition to the Royal Aircraft Factory and the government competition with private manufacturers that it represents. Grey and Billing suggest no alternatives and offer no solutions, yet their attacks have a permanent effect on our historical understanding of the relatively short period in which Fokker monoplanes ruled the skies because their terminology comes to define it.

asdf

A French 75 mm gun (Mademoiselle Soixante-Quinze) mounted on a motorcar chassis and elevated for antiaircraft work. The profusion of aircraft in the skies during 1915 and 1916 is accompanied by a revolution in antiaircraft weapons