Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Kings of the Air: Aces High (2); In Combat

More on the aces, especially on the way they fought. While there was an air fighting school at Pau, and from 1918, a Combat and Bombing School at La Perthe, pilots were free to evolve their own fighting methods.

Fonck thought his technique a simple one: 'I knew how to put myself in my attacker's blind spots, without really engaging in a duel. Guynemer fought differently and was regularly shot at, but this tactic was very dangerous, leaving the pilot vulnerable if his gun jammed. I always used the blind spots. This forced me to fire whatever my SPAD's position, but I'd been doing it for a long time. I fired in bursts of eight to ten rounds maximum, and three bursts was often enough.' 

Navarre favoured the unexpected, sometimes making his approach while flying inverted: 'Seeing me arrive like this, the German pilot is momentarily disconcerted. Perhaps he's the one who is upside down? The key to the manoeuvre is to take advantage of this momentary pause for thought – aim, fire, and try to prevail.' Nungesser claimed, perhaps jokingly: 'It's quite simple … I was always afraid when I took on the enemy [and] I closed my eyes. I never knew if, when I opened them again, it would be to the sight of my opponent in flames or me in a hospital bed.' Yet, earlier in the war, Maxime Lenoir (N23) does seem to have behaved identically: 'Entering combat is like diving. You shut your eyes, off you go, you open them again, and either the Boche is on his way down, or you've been hit, or – and as often happens – nothing has occured.'

To Fonck, the successful pilot also needed a particular range of mental qualities: 'In the sky, facing one opponent or several, any fighter pilot incapable of ignoring the danger, displaying the same sang-froid he shows on the ground, spotting and countering enemy activity, however slight, might notch up a few lucky victories. But he'll never be a true fighter pilot and one day he'll meet his maker … I repeat that for real results, you must learn how to master your nerves, keep absolute self-control and calculate cold-bloodedly in tricky situations.'

The majority of the victims downed by the leading forty aces were two-seaters; of the fifty-three aircraft shot down by Guynemer, only twelve were single-seaters. Less manoeuvrable than fighters, two-seaters were a relatively easy mark. But they were also targeted on a strategic basis, as one of main objectives of the fighter squadrons was to stop the enemy from observing French lines. But Fonck did not care who he shot down: 'We had to down as many as possible. I made no distinction between fighters, spotters and photo-reconnaissance. All were ripe for elimination!'

And Fonck loved his work: 'I was still excited when I landed, telling myself I'd done a good day's work. If every day went the same way, the other [aces] would be hard pushed to stay ahead of me in the table.' Guynemer was equally enthusiastic: 'combat with two Fokkers. The first was surrounded, the passenger dead, and dived at me blind. Result: 35 rounds at point blank range, then pop! Four other aircraft saw the fall … might get the cross for this.' So too, Deullin: 'I had an argument with two Aviatiks. I finished one off. Then, as I turned towards the other, I saw the first nosedive, wheels in the air, and tip the observer out at 3,600m. Take that! Magnificent.'

These sentiments appear less the expression of a sadistic delight in death, than of satisfaction in succeeding despite the danger. 'Our real aim,' said Brocard, 'is to down the Boche and kill him.'
'Aerial combat,' concluded Jean Morvan (SPA163), 'is more ambush than duel. You seldom bring down an adversary who's turning. You murder the daydreamer: from the rear, before he suspects a thing, if possible from close in. You must be able to fire forty or fifty rounds in four or five seconds.' 
Fonck was, by all accounts, an outstanding pilot. Paul Waddington thought him 'an exceptional shot. His plane never took a hit. He attacked German patrols and aircraft and fired on them on exceptional terms, correcting his aim in a way that was probably inborn, and scoring victories beyond reach for anyone else.' In contrast, Guynemer 'returned after every sortie, with his plane riddled with bullets. He attacked at absolutely point blank range … whatever the circumstances, which meant one day he didn't return. For example, if he attacked a German two-seater whose rear gunner was firing accurately and had no need to correct his aim, Guynemer took lots of hits. He was the one who went down every time.'

Fonck himself was quite clear on the difference between him and Guynemer: 'Excellent shot, true. First-class pilot too. But a mad devil. He went straight at the enemy, sabre in hand, like Lasalle, Murat or Marshal Ney under the First Empire. He charged machine-guns firing at point blank range, he charged groups, he charged anything. His superior shooting and his iron will often brought him success, but remember that no other ace, by a long chalk, was downed as often as this hero. It had happened eight times, never mind all the broken struts, severed control wires and holes in his fuselage.'

However, Fonck's approach did not appeal to those who thought it too cool and calculating. 'Fonck … was an assassin,' thought Paul Tarascon (N/SPA62). 'Pure of heart, he found simple ways of diving, hitting them or bringing them down within three or four rounds, and then slipping away.' Louis Risacher agreed: 'Guynemer seldom unleashed a surprise attack; he gave his opponent a warning and gave him every chance. But once engaged in combat he never let go, unlike many pilots, including Fonck. He had a different technique. I wouldn't want to knock Fonck's method, which was admirable, but Fonck surprised, made a pass at full speed and disappeared. By contrast, once Guynemer had unleashed an attack, he pursued it to the end.' 

And for all that he was outscored by twenty-odd victories, it is Guynemer who remains the hero of today's Armée de l'Air, rather than Fonck.

Photographs: Guynemer, looking particularly waif-like and living up to his nickname of 'The Kid'; Albert Deullin; Paul Waddington (a Frenchman of Irish extraction); Louis Risacher (from albindenis.free.fr); Paul Tarascon (who flew with a wooden foot, following a pre-war accident)

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