- The aeroplanes are wonderfully fascinating. One would like to watch them all day - theirs and ours, darting about the sky amid storms of shrapnel. They spot for the big guns, you know, and each side makes frantic efforts to drive hostile craft away when they come over. The sky is pitted with the little black and white shrapnel shells when any come in range of enemy guns. The shells are coming from all directions by the thousand, ours and theirs, but I'm resting in quite a comfy little machine gun emplacement. We hope to be out of it in a few days, thank goodness. Our losses have been heavy.
Pilot from the Australian Corps, John Raws, letter to a friend (20th July 1916)
The etymology of this word originated in the 1880s meaning a "riotous brawl." During World War I it came to be used as slang for an "aerial combat" among the air forces. Essential to aerobatic technique is the ability to fly an aircraft inverted or upside down. Frenchman Adolphe Pégoud a test pilot for aviator Louis Blériot was the first to demonstrate this ability on September 1, 1913. The war to end all wars broke out soon after the invention of the airplane. The first planes built had machine guns mounted on the wings of the plane.
Dogfights took some real maneuverings in the two-seater aircraft; the gunman in the rear would shout directions as to how he wanted to sight his line of fire to the pilot while the pilot dived and dodged the enemy aircraft. Lieutenant Norman Spratt, flying a Sopwith Tabloid is credited with the first dogfight of the war. A real feat since his aircraft was unarmed.
The British pilots were the first to come up with a system of safety straps so that the gunman could stand up; therefore increasing the range of fire to 360 º. By October 1915 all British aircraft were outfitted so. In addition to using machine guns many times grenades were dropped on aircraft below. That same year a French pilot by the name of Roland Garros mounted deflector plates to the propeller blades making it possible for the first time for a pilot to fire a machine gun since the steel wedges diverted any bullets, protecting the propellers. Later that fall a Dutchman Anthony Fokker who ran an aircraft factory developed a machine gun that could fire through the blades of a propeller and soon was putting in his interrupter gear, a synchronizing gear linked to the shaft of the trigger and propellers skipping the release of a bullet when they were lined up, manufacturing the first real fighter aircraft.
The following year Germany developed the same technology and began to shoot down large numbers of the British air force. Max Immelmann was shot down and killed in June 15th, but not before he had destroyed seventeen Allied aircraft in his Eindecker. Oswald Boelcke another infamous German pilot claimed forty victims before he too was killed later that fall. About this time any pilot who had more than eight 'kills', became known as a Flying Ace.
During the spring of 1916 France and Britain joined the Dutch and began adding synchronized machine-guns systems to their aircraft and pilots such as René Paul Fonck and William Bishop gained notoriety as flying aces. In addition they began mounting the aircraft engines behind the pilot and placed a forward-firing Lewis machine-gun. The absence of an engine in front gave the pilot an uninterrupted view of his target.
In July with the new innovation of tracer ammunition added to the arsenal, a pilot of Royal Flying Corps could now see his line of fire and make adjustments for more accuracy. Spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/ explains how the tactics of dogfighting evolved:
- Organisation and tactics changed with the introduction of the synchronized machine-gun. At first flying aces adopted "lone wolf" tactics. However, by 1917 British pilots tended to seek out enemy aircraft in groups of six. The flight commander would be in front, with an aircraft on either side forming a V shape. To the rear and above were two other planes and at the back was the sub-leader. However, when in combat, the pilots operated in pairs, one to attack, and the other to defend. German pilots preferred larger formations and these were later known as circuses.
One of the most important figures in the development of dogfight tactics was Major Mick Mannock. Between May 1917 and his death in July 1918, Mannock became Britain's leading flying ace with seventy-three victories. When attacking, the best tactic was to dive upon the target out of the sun. This strategy reduced the time that the pilot being attacked could bank or dive and avoid being hit. Later in the war some observers fixed mirrors in line with their gun, which could them be used to reflect the rays of the sun back into the eyes of the attacking pilot.
Fighter pilots also made good use of cloud-cover. This enabled a pilot to attack the enemy and quickly return to the safety of the cloud. Pilots did not have long to destroy their target. Fighter aircraft at that time only carried enough ammunition to fire at the enemy for about fifty seconds. Therefore pilots had to make sure they used their machine-guns wisely. René Paul Fonck, the French flying ace, usually took no more than five or six rounds to down an enemy aircraft.
"There are certain rules about a war and rule number one is young men die."
-Henry Blake, *M*A*SH*
The more experienced pilots would train and send young men into combat after only 30 hours of instruction. Unfortunately most of them were between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five. The death rate was very high because hands on training had to take place at the battlefronts.
- I can't write much these days. I'm too nervous. I can hardly hold a pen. I'm all right in the air, as calm as a cucumber, but on the ground I'm a wreck and I get panicky. Nobody in the squadron can get a glass to his mouth with one hand after one of these decoy patrols except Cal and he's got no nerve - he's made of cheese. But some nights we both have nightmares at the same time and Mac has to get up and find his teeth and quiet us. We don't sleep much at night. But we get tired and sleep all afternoon when there's nothing to do.
From the journal of a pilot based on the Western Front dated July 28th 1918.
Mick Mannock, probably the most talented, adept and famous flying ace in the Royal Air Crops began as a corporal in the Royal Scots. He was a quick study mastering the aircraft and its maneuverings in a matter of hours and went on to become a mentor and hero to many. Friend and student H. G. Clements wrote an account of Major Mick Mannock in 1981.
- The fact that I am still alive is due to Mick's high standard of leadership and the strict discipline on which he insisted. We were all expected to follow and cover him as far as possible during an engagement and then to rejoin the formation as soon as that engagement was over. None of Mick's pilots would have dreamed of chasing off alone after the retreating enemy or any other such foolhardy act. He moulded us into a team, and because of his skilled leadership we became a highly efficient team. Our squadron leader said that Mannock was the most skillful patrol leader in World War I, which would account for the relatively few casualties in his flight team compared with the high number of enemy aircraft destroyed.
A second testimony by Lieutenant Dolan in a letter that he wrote just before his death in May 1917, describes dogfight tactics used by Major Mannock:
- Mick goes down on his prey like a hawk. The Huns don't know what's hit them until it's too late to do anything but go down in bits. He goes down vertically at a frightening speed and pulls out at the last moment. He opens fire when only yards away and zooms up over the Huns and turns back for another crack at the target if necessary.
The Germans were not to be outdone by any tactics and had their own ideas and set of rules. A transcript of Germany's leading flying ace Oswald Boelcke wrote these instructions in 1916 on how to attack enemy aircraft.
- Always try to secure an advantageous position before attacking. Climb before and during approach in order to surprise the enemy from above, and dive on him swiftly from the rear when the moment to attack is at hand.
- Try to place yourself between the sun and the enemy. This puts the glare of the sun in the enemy's eyes and makes it difficult to see you and impossible for him to shoot with any accuracy.
- Do not fire the machine guns until the enemy is within range and you have him squarely within your sights.
- Attack when the enemy least expects it or when he is preoccupied with other duties such as observation, photography or bombing.
- Never turn your back and try to run away from an enemy fighter. If you are surprised by an attack on your tail, turn and face the enemy with your guns.
- Keep your eyes on the enemy and do not let him deceive you with tricks. If your opponent appears damaged, follow him down until he crashes to be sure he is not faking.
- In view of the character of our fight it was clear to me that I had been tackling a flying champion. One day I was blithely flying to give chase when I noticed three Englishmen who also had apparently gone a-hunting. I noticed that they were watching me and as I felt much inclination to have a fight I did not want to disappoint them.
I was flying at a lower altitude. Consequently I had to wait until one of my English friends tried to drop on me. After a short while one of the three came sailing along and attempted to tackle me in the rear. After firing five shots he had to stop for I had swerved in a sharp curve.
The Englishman tried to catch me up in the rear while I tried to get behind him. So we circled round and round like madmen after one another at an altitude of about 10,000 feet.
First we circled twenty times to the left, and then thirty times to the right. Each tried to get behind and above the other. Soon I discovered that I was not meeting a beginner. He had not the slightest intention of breaking off the fight. He was traveling in a machine which turned beautifully. However, my own was better at rising than his, and I succeeded at last in getting above and beyond my English waltzing partner.
When we had got down to about 6,000 feet without having achieved anything in particular, my opponent ought to have discovered that it was time for him to take his leave. The wind was favorable to me for it drove us more and more towards the German position. At last we were above Bapaume, about half a mile behind the German front. The impertinent fellow was full of cheek and when we had got down to about 3,000 feet he merrily waved to me as if he would say, "Well, how do you do?"
The circles which we made around one another were so narrow that their diameter was probably no more than 250 or 300 feet. I had time to take a good look at my opponent. I looked down into his carriage and could see every movement of his head. If he had not had his cap on I would have noticed what kind of a face he was making.
My Englishmen was a good sportsman, but by and by the thing became a little too hot for him. He had to decide whether he would land on German ground or whether he would fly back to the English lines. Of course he tried the latter, after having endeavored in vain to escape me by loopings and such like tricks. At that time his first bullets were flying around me, for hitherto neither of us had been able to do any shooting.
When he had come down to about three hundred feet he tried to escape by flying in a zig-zag course during which, as is well known, it is difficult for an observer to shoot. That was my most favorable moment. I followed him at an altitude of from two hundred and fifty feet to one hundred and fifty feet, firing all the time. The Englishman could not help falling. But the jamming of my gun nearly robbed me of my success.
My opponent fell, shot through the head, one hundred and fifty feet behind our line.
With over 80 kills one can understand how Manfred von Richthofen, The Red Baron gained his notariety. For modern wars, missiles account for practically all of the air- to- air kills and there is not much call for air-to-air combat especially in the form of dogfights. But many pilots and aircraft are still trained and manufactured today.