A pilots' war




No 62 Squadron RFC, France February-March 1918

History note: The strategic position in France at the beginning of 1918

The war on the Russian front was over and the Germans therefore had additional forces available to commit on the Western Front. The prospect of American troops deploying to France added some urgency to German plans to bring the war to a conclusion before they lost the advantage.

General Sir Douglas Haig commanding British forces had been refused reinforcements by the British Government who feared that this could lead to further unacceptable losses of men on the Western Front. The British forces were accordingly reorganised reducing Divisional strengths to nine battalions from 12. General Haig faced the further difficulty of having to accept an extension of the British front, taking over a further 28 miles from the French Army (to the detriment of his defensive plans) - this being completed by the end of January 1918. On the British side it became obvious that a further German offensive was imminent and, by the beginning of March, the General Staff were convinced that it would take place on the St Quentin front.  The British line was held on the Somme by General Gough’s V Army and part of  the III Army.

For the Royal Flying Corps the expected offensive led to a redistribution of units principally IX Brigade (the HQ Brigade) Day Wing and strengthening of some units of V Brigade supporting V Army. IX Brigade was being used as a strategic reinforcement under RFC HQ control. The Brigade comprised 54th (Night) Wing and the Ninth (Day) Wing.  Ninth Wing was deployed to the St Quentin front in early March and included Nos 25 & 27 Sqns with DH4's, 62 Sqn Bristol fighters, 73 & 80 Sqns Camels,  79 Sqn Dolphins. See IX Brigade Orbat  and V Brigade Orbat for detail.

The Squadron left St. Omer for Serny Aerodrome on the 1st February 1918. At Serny work commenced, initially with the Squadron conducting practice patrols typically in flights of six aircraft. The first balloon patrol took place on the 17th February 1918, the first line patrol on the 25th February, and the first offensive patrol (in exceptionally heavy wind) on the 1st March 1918.

It became clear at the beginning of March that the Germans were going to attack on the St.Quentin front, the whole of the 9th Wing, to which 62 Squadron belonged, proceeded to Villers Bretonneux, Cachy, and Champien aerodromes. No. 62 Squadron was stationed at Cachy [SE of Amiens - see map], and carried out Offensive patrols. It was here that the exceptionally heavy work carried out by the Squadron during the enemy's offensive, commenced.   The Germans started to react to the British patrols on 10 March and 62 Squadron patrols (usually six aircraft) recorded their first main claims for destruction of EA - six on that day including those driven down out of control (OOC). This continued on 11 March with two further claims.

No 62 Sqn Bristol fighters setting off

62 Sqn Bristol Fighters setting off, Capt. Staton MC's aircraft in foreground.

The first casualties for the Squadron were reported on 12th March, when the Patrol Commander Capt. D S Kennedy MC, and three other  pilots and crews of a nine aircraft patrol were brought down. Capt. Kennedy, flying with Lt. H S Gill as observer (B1247) was attacked by a large formation of EA and his machine was brought down in flames. The whole of his flight became engaged, in a "dog fight"  and three other aircraft failed to return.  These were Lt.s Fenton and Boyce (B1250), Lt. Clutterbuck and 2/Lt. Sparks (B1251), and Lt. Ferguson and Sgt Long all of whom were taken prisoner. Two enemy aircraft were claimed on that date as having been destroyed or brought down out of control. Though they didn't know it at the time, this engagement was against Jagdstaffel 11, Richthofen's Squadron and part of his JG 1 Flying Circus.

Editors note: 
Capt. Kennedy & Lt. Gill and Lt.s Fenton & Boyce fell victim to Lothar Von Richthofen who was in turn shot down the following day. Lt. Clutterbuck & 2/Lt. Sparks were shot down by Manfred von Richthofen (his 64th victims). Leutnant Werner Steinhauser brought down Lt. Ferguson & Sgt Long. Manfred Von Richthofen can be seen here in an archive video clip taking off in a Fokker Triplane. Filmed by Anthony Fokker when he delivered the first FI triplane prototypes, FI.102/17 and FI.103/17 to JG.I.

[Capt. D S Kennedy MC and Lt. H S Gill are buried at CWG cemetery Honnechy]

The Squadron met the Circus again the next day (13th March) as recorded below in RFC Communiqué 131. Near the end of a patrol Capt. Geoffrey Hughes the Patrol Commander, having sighted a German formation, sought to draw them away from the bombing mission his patrol were covering (25 and 27 Sqns). However one of his formation dived on part of the enemy formation. Capt. Hughes was forced to commit the 11 aircraft patrol to action, against his better judgement. Numbers favoured their opponents and 2/Lt. Allen and Lt. Watson (B1207) were shot down in the engagement, the former being KIA, the latter taken prisoner; 2/Lt. N B Wells and Lt. G R Crammond, were also shot down and taken prisoner. Hughes and his observer Capt. Claye were credited with one EA destroyed; this aircraft as it turned out, was piloted by Lothar Von Richthofen, brother of Manfred. Five other EA were claimed though this seems to have been exaggerated in the confusion of the action. (A patrol of No 73 Squadron (Camels) was also in action with the Circus and Capt. Orlebar was jointly credited with LvR's demise.)

Extract from ROYAL FLYING CORPS Communiqué No 131

13 March 1918

Capt. G F Hughes & Capt. H Claye of 62 Squadron in a general engagement between his patrol and and a very large formation of EA scouts, shot down one Fokker Triplane which was confirmed by other patrol members to have crashed. He then attacked one of three Triplanes diving on his tail, and this aircraft went down vertically, its top plane seen falling away in pieces. Capt. Hughes was then attacked by at least six other Albatros Scouts and Fokker Triplanes. His Observers gun was out of action but he finally out-distanced all the EA, and recrossed the line at 3,000 feet.

A post war illustration of this event

Editors Note: The Triplane mentioned here losing its top plane was flown by Lt. Lothar Von Richthofen, brother of Manfred, who was injured and hospitalised for several weeks (the second of three occasions on which he was shot down and wounded during the war). Lothar Von Richthofen recorded a detailed account of this engagement which appeared in the 1933 edition of the "The Red Baron" first published in 1918 before the death of Manfred on 21 April 1918. He describes the Squadron (Jagdstaffel 11, part of Richthofen's Flying Circus, Jagdgeschwader 1) flying to the front under the leadership of his brother and meeting a swarm of Englishmen. Capt. Hughes (an Australian) was awarded the MC on 21 March - for this and two other actions.  JG1 lost only one aircraft according to German records.

Capt. Hugh Claye and his new pilot Lt. Hubert Clarke were later forced down and captured on 19 May 1918. See link.


Capts Claye and Hughes, No 62 Sqn, in front of their Bristol fighter

Capt. Claye & Capt. Hughes

Lothar von Richthofen's Fokker DR1 aircraft 13 April (photo public domain)

After March 21st, when the Germans broke through the Fifth Army Front, the squadron was required to carry out ground strafes, with as many as four different "strafes" taking place on the same day at vital points, and along vital roads.  Although many thousands of rounds were fired during these patrols, only one machine (B1267) of the Squadron failed to return, that of Lt. A R James and Lt. J M Hay,  who were KIA on the 24th March 1918.

Maj. Gen. Salmond, Commanding the RFC in France, issued an operational order at 11.05 am on 25 March to OC Ninth Wing:

" I wish you as soon as you can after receipt of this to send out your scout squadrons and those of No 27, No 25 and No 62  Squadrons that are available on the line Grévillers-Martinpuich-Maricourt. These squadrons will bomb and shoot up everything they can see on the enemy side of this line. Very low flying is essential. All risks to be taken. Urgent."

Quoted from The War in the Air,  by H A Jones

On the 25th March, owing to the German advance toward Villers Bretonneux, Cachy aerodrome was abandoned, and the squadron moved to Remaisnil, near Doullens, where a further 4 days' trench strafing was carried out  by the Squadron in the very worst of weather - generally incessant rain and heavy mist. Lt. Cleary and 2/Lt. Stanton (B1211) were brought down on 28 March the former KIA, the latter DOW the following day. AMI Boxall DOW the same day. Pilots 2/Lt. H N Arthur and 2/Lt. S W Symons were seriously injured but managed to fly home - the latter assisted by his Observer Sgt. W N Holmes. Observers Lt. H Merritt and Cpl. J Borwein were also injured. IX Brigade records show that 62 Sqn fired 19,500, 19,700, 16,450, 3,600 and 9,000 rounds at ground targets on 26, 27, 28, 29 and 30 March respectively. The Squadron moved to Planques on 29 March reducing operational activity.

In these two weeks in March, the Squadron had lost 24 aircrew killed, wounded or taken prisoner - an inexperienced squadron confronting some of the German Air Service's best units.

 (62 Sqn Photos from  Major F W Smith's collection © www.airwar1.org.uk.)


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