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The first dog-fight is believed to have taken place on 28th August 1914, when Lieutenant Norman Spratt, flying a Sopwith Tabloid, forced down a German two-seater. This was an amazing achievement as his Sopwith was not armed.
The first Victoria Cross for air combat was won by Captain Lanoe Hawker on 25th June, 1915. Flying a single-seater Bristol Scout and armed with a single-shot cavalry carbine mounted on the starboard side of the fuselage, Hawker attacked an enemy two-seater over Ypres. After forcing it to land he brought down two more enemy planes. What made the achievement so remarkable was that all three German aircraft were armed with machine-guns.
In 1915 the French pilot, Roland Garros, added deflector plates to the blades of his propeller. These small wedges of toughened steel diverted the passage of those bullets which struck the blades. It was now possible for a pilot in a single-seater aircraft to successfully fire a machine-gun.
Anton Fokker, a Dutch designer who had set up an aircraft factory in Schwerin, German, was also trying to develop a machine-gun that could fire through revolving propeller blades. By the autumn of 1915 Fokker was fitting his Eindecker monoplanes with interrupter gear, therefore producing the first true fighter aircraft. Also called a synchronising gear, the propeller was linked by a shaft to the trigger to block fire whenever they were in line.
German pilots such as Max Immelmann and Oswald Boelcke began destroying large numbers of British aircraft using their synchronised machine-guns. Immelmann destroyed seventeen Allied aircraft in his Eindecker before being shot down and killed on 15 June 1916. Boelcke went on to claim forty victims before he was also killed in October 1916. Pilots such as Immelmann and Boelcke, who had more than eight ‘kills’, became known as Flying Aces. It was not long before Britain and France began fitting synchronised machine-guns to their aircraft and pilots such as Rene Fonck and William Bishop developed reputations as flying aces.
By the spring of 1916 the British had produced the Avro DH2 fighter plane. The DH2 was a single-seater biplane with the engine behind the pilot. It carried a forward-firing Lewis machine-gun and the absence of an engine in front gave the pilot and uninterupted view of his target.
Another important innovation was the development of tracer ammunition. The Royal Flying Corps began using it in July 1916 and its pilots found it very useful. With every seventh round a tracer was fired so the gunner-pilot could see his stream of fire and adjust his aim accordingly.
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 seventry-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. Rene Fonck, the French flying ace, usually took no more than five or six rounds to down an enemy aircraft.