Captain Albert Ball VC DSO MC
British Air Ace of World War One
Captain Albert Ball was one of the greatest air-fighters who has ever lived. Inspired by Albert, the antics of the celebrated Squadron no. 60 were manoeuvres of genius. One of the first "fighter" squadrons to go to France, it boasts three awards of the Victoria Cross.
Twice during the war the German air force caught its opponents napping, by the introduction of new models; and on both occasions it obtained a temporary supremacy as a result.
The first of these occasions was towards the end of the Battle of Loos, in October, 1915.
Aircraft fighting was at the time still relatively undeveloped: aeroplanes were only armed with light Lewis guns, some even carried no greater armament than a rifle, and the new Fokker monoplane, armed with a built-in machine-gun, which fired through the propeller, was in the nature of a revolution. When Immelmann invented his famous turn, whereby a pilot could attack again and again without losing his commanding position above his foe, the supremacy of the Fokker was assured.
The success of the enemy's move led to a complete reorganisation of the Royal Flying Corps; new squadrons were hurriedly formed, and among these No. 60 flew over to France in May, 1916. It was soon to prove its worth, for although it possessed only a negligible number of planes fitted with guns firing through the propeller, the Royal Flying Corps obtained during the Battle of the Somme a superiority that was no small factor in winning the battle.
Squadron 60 had started in France with Moranes, but these proved a failure and were replaced with Nieuport Scouts. The return of the squadron to the front with its new machines coincided with the arrival of its most famous pilot. Captain Albert Ball had already made something of a reputation for himself, but he was to attain his greatest fame with No. 60, and to inspire the squadron with his own dare-devil courage.
Drawing of the historical manoeuvre from a 1918 flight manual
The Nieuports exactly suited Albert's method of fighting. They were speedy machines and rapid climbers, armed with a single Lewis gun, mounted upon the upper wing on a ratchet, and operated by a Bowden cable. Albert liked above all to attack two-seaters. Flying from the half-rear, he would allow the observer to train his gun upon him, and then suddenly swerve across to the other side, firing from below at close range, before the observer could swing his gun round.
No consideration of numbers even deterred him, he would fly into a formation just as eagerly as he would attack a single machine. In this he was helped by the fact that formation fighting was not practised at that time, and thus, coming up unseen behind a flight, he would suddenly attack one plane, break up the formation, and then join in a dogfight, in which the very numbers of the enemy hindered them. He usually returned from these flights with his machine riddled with bullets.
On one occasion he attacked a formation of 12 Rolands over their own aerodrome. One went down in flames; another followed, to make a forced landing; and then Albert realised that he had exhausted his ammunition. With the German planes swarming around him, he made for home; and then his engine was hit. As it coughed into silence he drew his automatic, and with this and the mercy of Providence he was able to escape the guns of the planes around him until a British patrol came to his rescue.
Another battle tactic of his was to fly at the enemy head-on, relying on the fact that sooner or later the other man would try to avoid the collision by diving or zooming. During that brief second, when the German pilot was not protected by his engine, Albert would fire.
This nearly cost him his life on one occasion. Seeing two Albatros Scouts above him, he climbed to attack them; but by the time he had gained enough altitude he found one of the enemy planes upon his tail. Before it could fire, however, he had turned quickly and obtained his favourite position underneath his opponent.
As soon as he had disposed of it, he turned and made for its companion. Straight at each other the two planes roared, guns pouring lead. Albert could see tracers from his gun going clean into the engine of the Albatros, but still it came on. Just as he thought a collision inevitable, a burst of bullets smashed his oil pipe and he was sprayed with hot oil; when next he could see he descended, and observed the wrecks of the two machines only a few hundred yards apart. At the last moment one of his bullets must have taken effect and the German pilot had lost control.
Albert was purely an individual fighter and loved to set out alone to look for hostile craft. Unless he had actually seen an opponent crash, he did not claim a victory. His total bag was probably considerably more than what was finally credited to him. He left No. 60 at the beginning of 1917 to join No. 56, then being formed at home, and shortly after reaching the front he was shot down and killed.
The Royal Flying Corps lost more than merely a good pilot, for he had infected the whole Air Force with his own enthusiasm. But he had not fought in vain, for he left behind him a tradition of attack which was to win the war in the air.
At no time was Albert's spirit more noticeable or more needed than during the first half of 1917. With their new Albatros and Halbergadts, the Germans had sprung their second big surprise -- that of two machine-guns firing through the propeller, and they were wreaking havoc among the British planes. Two courses were open to the Royal Flying Corps; to fight defensively over their own lines until new machines arrived, or to continue the offensive. The former course would curtail the losses, but it would also be bad for moral, and would moreover, render the Royal Flying Corps useless to the ground troops. To continue on the offensive, on the other hand, would mean heavy losses, but at least some photographs would be obtained and some reconnaissances successful.
Footnote: No. 60 Squadron claimed 320 aerial victories. Twenty-six flying aces served in the squadron during the war; notable among them were:
Albert Ball, Alexander Beck, James Belgrave, Alan Duncan Bell-Irving, Keith Caldwell, Robert L. Chidlaw-Roberts, John Doyle, Art Duncan,Gordon Duncan, William M. Fry, John Griffith, Harold A. Hamersley, H. George Hegarty, Spencer B. Horn, William Molesworth, Sydney Pope, John William Rayner, Alfred William Saunders, Alan Scott, Frank O. Soden, Robert Kenneth WhitneyS
March, 1917 : 56 Squadron pilots at London Colney. Back row left to right, Gerald C. Maxwell,
W.B. Melville, H.M.T. Lehmann, C.R.W. Wright, L. Barlow, K.J. Knagges.
Front row left to right, C.A. Lewis, J.O. Leach, R.G. Blomfield, Albert Ball, R.C. Hodge
In front of a 60 Squadron Nieuport Scout, September 1916 at Savy airfield, France