Kaiser’s Aces

As WW1 began in August 1914, military aviation was still in its infancy. Headquarters in all the European countries that had commenced warfare were very skeptical as to possibility of military use for aircraft.

In the beginning, the chief and actually only application of aviation was to be short-range frontline reconnaissance as well as observation and guidance of artillery fire.

The Reich’s high command was rather quick to understand the significance of air reconnaissance. This was possible owing to the successes achieved before the war by air ships designed on Lake Boden at Graf Ferdinand von Zeppelin’s company. The air ships of his design had taken part in imperial military operations, where they proved useful for observation of army moves. Since then, the Germans had been paying greater attention to air reconnaissance pursued by devices heavier than air. The aircraft assigned to carious armies and corps contributed to a certain degree to initial German successes on the western front. The imperial air service was organized into units of six aircraft named Feldflieger-Abteilungen, contracted to FFA (field air units). Each was assigned to one army or corps, under which it served. However, despite the initial successes of the air service, the High Command was not interested in further development of the new kind of weapon. Basic technical personnel was lacking, fuel and spare parts deliveries were bad, aircraft crews were not assigned ground personnel teams. This resulted in the German air service having lost about 100 of the 232 aircraft it possessed and 52 airmen dead by October 1914. On October 5, 1914 there appeared one more, so far unnoticed, threat. A French Voisin LA flown by Sergent Joseph Frantz attacked a German reconnaissance Aviatik B biplane. The French craft was armed with an 8 mm Hotchkiss machine gun operated by the onboard mechanic, Sapeur Louis Quénnault. Although the gun jammed after several shots, it was not before one bullet killed the pilot, the German aircraft falling to the ground.

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This forced German pilots to take shooting weapons into the air for self-defense from French attacks. As German aircraft were driven by tractor propellers, in contrast with many British or French constructions, which were the pusher type, they could not have forward-shooting machine guns installed on them.
This problem was first approached by the French. In the spring of 1915 aircraft engineer Raymond Saulnier and pilot Roland Garros installed a machine gun which fired through the propeller area on top of the front fuselage of a Morane L. Where the propeller was exposed to machine gun bullet hits, its blades were narrowed down and additionally received armor in the form of steel wedges. On April 1, 1915 so equipped a Morane L piloted by Garros shot down a German reconnaissance Albatros, thus beginning the history of fighter aircraft.
On April 19, 1915 Garros’ Morane landed on German-occupied territory following an engine trouble, and then the secret was revealed. The Germans very quickly devised a better mechanism, called synchronizing gear and enabling machine guns to be fired through the propeller without danger of damage. Patented by Fokker, the synchronizer was the breakthrough invention which gave rise to the German fighter air force. It was installed on the Fokker E.I monoplane, and later in its subsequent versions: E.II, E.III and E.IV, armed with a Spandau 08/15 cal. 7.92mm machine gun. These machines gave the Germans unquestionable advantage in the air – it was the beginning of a period which the Allies called the “Fokker Scourge”.

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Fokker Scourge
The first Fokker pilot to shot down an Allied aircraft was Kurt Wintgens. He was born on August 1, 1894 in Neustadt, Bavaria. With the outbreak of war he entered the air service as an observer. In February 1915 he underwent pilot training. After the course, he was sent to the Fokker factory to become familiar with the new, light, single-seat reconnaissance aircraft, the E.I, which was then still not equipped with a machine gun. In the summer, these aircraft were armed, and the machine with a serial number E 2/15 was assigned, along with Wintgens, to the Bavarian Feldflieger-Abteilung 6b, stationed at Bühl. Patrolling east of Luneville on July 1, 1915 about 18.00, Wintgens noticed a reconnaissance Morane-Saulnier Parasol flying nearby at 2,000 m. The French pilot noticed the enemy and dived. After a few failed attempts to outmaneuver the Fokker, the Morane turned for the Allied lines, trying to escape. Wintgens managed to approach the enemy and fired a four-second burst at close range. The French machine plunged down to crash behind the Allied lines. It was the first ever aerial victory to be scored by a German fighter pilot. However, since the Allied machine had fallen behind the frontline, it was not credited by the German military authorities. On July 4 Wintgens scored his second aerial victory, shooting down another Morane. This kill was not credited, either. On July 15, 1915 he managed to defeat a third Morane in combat. This time the shot-down aircraft fell to the ground in the Schlucht area on the German side of the front. It was the first officially confirmed aerial victory to be scored by a German fighter pilot.