the forward firing machine gun Spring 1915 to summer 1916

By Raul Colon
December 15th 2008

Before the forward firing machine gun was introduced in the Western Front, all air to air encounters featured small guns, mostly pistols and single round rifles; engagements which seldom ended in a kill. A new method was needed if any of the combatants were to achieve air superiority over the other. The idea for the a nose mounted, forward firing, through the engines propeller, was conceived before the outbreak of hostilities in August 1915 but only France had ordered an aircraft that was fitted with such a radical system: the Morane Type I.

Morane Type I

Unfortunately for France, the Type I proved to be an unreliable flying platform and it was quickly replaced by the most modern Type L.

Morane-Saulnier Type L with inset of Roland Garros

It was in a Type L that the famous French aviator Roland Garros (assigned to the Escadrille MS 23) shot down three German airplanes in early April 1915. His “victories” usher in a new age in air operations: the air-to-air combat. Garros’ Type L was fitted with the ingenious component designed by Saulnier. The propeller’s blades were fitted with steel plate deflectors to prevent bullets shooting off them. On the morning of April 19th, Garros’ Morane was shot down behind the German lines. The Germans took the plane and closely examined the propeller steel plates. At the same time, a German engineer named Schneider developed the Interrupter Gear which mechanically prevented the machine gun from firing at the instant a propeller blade passed the gun barrel. This new invention came in just as Anthony Fokker’s new scout, monoplanes were being assembled. Fokker’s team immediately began to fit each new model with the interrupter gear.

Fokker’s latest development was the Eindecker or E type which was a basic conceived scout platform design for reconnaissance patrols but not original intended for air to air encounters. The E type was initially deployed in small numbers in the Fliegerabteilungen. But it was not long before aces such as Oswald Boelcke and Max Immelmann figured it out how to engage and shot down Allied planes with their new, more maneuverable and, now armed with a workable machine gun system.

These men, among others, were the ones who introduced the first series of rudimentary air combat tactics in the history of aviation. As more German pilots learned the art of combat tactics, casualties among the British and French air reconnaissance squadrons increased in an alarming rate. History records that on June 1915, four German E types downed the first French piloted aircraft utilizing the new interrupter as their main attack weapon. The following month, two British’s B.E.2Cs were forced to land by a formation of three E types. Those two encounters marked the first time a scout plane have managed to force out of the air an enemy plane. The stage was set for aerial combat to become more effective and less romantic.

By early November 1915, the German air to air attacks had gathered them the name of “The Fokker Scourge”. But as with any conflict, the other side began to catch up, although slowly at first. In July 19th, the legendary ace pilot George Guinevere shot down a Fokker E type while flying a Morane/Saulnier Type N.

On Christmas Eve, 1915, on his 19th birthday, the young flyer was awarded the distinguished Cross of the Legion d’Honeur. He would go one to shot down six more enemy aircraft before the spring of 1916 was over. But for all of his attributes, Guynemer did not generate the kind of excitement that the German ace Immelmann did. Known as the Eagle of Lille by the French, Immelmann was the first of many pilots (a list that included the most famous combat ace of all times, Manfred von Richthofen, the Red Baron) Oswald Boelcke instructed in the new arts of combat tactics. Boelcke’s legacy to flying can still be felt today. This bright and disciplined German aviator was the first to put into writing the first series of combat manoeuvres and counter actions. His actions on and off the battlefield earned him the prestigious Pour le Merite. Boelcke went on to record forty confirm victories before his death on October 28th 1916. Although Boelcke is now one of the most recognized figures of the early days of combat aviation, at the time of the beginning of the Great War, it was Immelmann, who commanded more respect and admiration, even from Germany’s enemies. Immelmann's cold and calculated method of manoeuvring coupled with the precision and effectiveness of his firing sequence, made him the most feared ace of his time. In a furious, albeit, short career; Immelmann managed tso shoot down fifteen Allied aircraft. But as in the case of many of his peers, he could not elude death in the sky. He was downed on June 18th 1916 near the town of Lens. 

At first, the British were slow to adjust to the new air reality. Unlike the Germans, and to a lesser extend the French; the British were hesitant to, not only use the synchronized system, but to place greater emphasis on the monoplane design. During the late 1915 through the summer of 1916, British aircraft design and development was concentrated around the biplane platform, and to a lesser extent, the pusher airplane. The British thought, correctly at the time, that a biplane platform offered a much higher operational range than a monoplane. The biplane design, so went the British thinking, maximized its much larger lifting area in order to produce faster speeds and greater climb rate while preserving an overall high level of agility and structural integrity. The biplane, pusher platform was conceived in order to, not only achieve that profile but to gain an element missing from much of the British aircraft inventory: firepower. With the propeller blade sitting at the back of the airframe, the aircraft’s nose could now be fitted with a heavy, forward firing machine gun. This is how the venerable Airco D.H.2 was born.

The D.H.2 design was destined to become the Royal Flying Corps’ (RFC) mainstay aircraft during the last months of 1915 and well into 1916. In fact, it was a squadron of D.H.2s, Number 24; that would become the RFC’s first true dedicated fighter formation. Commanded by Major Lanoe G. Hawker VC, the No. 24 reached French territory on February 1916. Until that time, the RFC was mostly utilizing outdated B.E.2Cs which have suffered tremendous losses in head to head encounters with E types during most of the autumn and winter of 1915. The B.E.2C and its companion platform, the F.E.2B suffered from, among other things, lack of fixed defensive armament and manoeuvrability speed. The new D.H.2s were not better platforms. Although it possessed a forward firing, heavy machine gun, the D.H.2 had a slow rate of turn and thus became an easy pray for the flock of E types now patrolling the skies above northern France. It is a testament to Hawker and the pilots he lead that they could, almost single handling, acquired air parity with Germany over the Western Front.

The First World War, Hew Strachan, Penguin Books 2004

The German Army on the Somme 1914-1916, Jack Sheldon, Pen &Sword Books 2005

The World’s Great Fighters, Roberk Jackson, Chartwell Books 2001