The Sun Sets on Werner Voss. 48 x 48
Werner Voss was killed in combat with "B" Flight of Number 56
Squadron, RAF (RFC) at about 6:30 p.m., September 23, 1917. At the
time of the engagement he had achieved 48 victories. Strangely, no
one has thought to consider as victories during that last flight his
sending Hammersly of B Flight, No. 60 Squadron down, nor the damaging
of Cronyn's airplane so that it was "written off." While engaging B
Flight of No. 56 and B Flight of No. 60, he also tangled with elements
of C Flight of No. 56 Squadron, so the odds were about 15 to 1. An
understanding of the action can best be reached through an analysis of
the airplanes involved. On the British side was the SE5a, a
third-generation fighter, far advanced from the 1916 pushers, with a
powerful water-cooled engine that drove it at times 140 mph. It was
to remain the fastest WW I fighter. To achieve its speed, the
airfoils were very flat and narrow. The narrow spars of the top wing
had collapsed during testing, so the wings were trussed with double
wires not only at the interplane struts but at a half-way point inside
the bay. This produced a very strong airplane, but it gave it an
unusual amount of aerodynamic drag. Another feature, almost an
anachronism from the earlier fighters, was the Lewis gun mounted over
the top wing designed to fire in parallel with the fixed Vickers gun
in the fuselage, or individually at the pilot's discretion on a
flexible mount. If you have ever tried to pull a lead on your
opponent in a tight turn, you can appreciate having this option.The
Germans were just introducing the Fokker triplane. It was
revolutionary. Its wings were built with internal plywood box spars
faired by a thick, high-lift airfoil. They were designed to fly with
no external support. Conservative German commanders required a single
flat interplane strut on each side. These slats served no real
structural functional, but had unforeseen aerodynamic effects. The
Fokker's engine, an air-cooled rotary, drove the light craft between
10 and 15 mph slower than the SE5a, but it had a better rate of climb.
Compared to her adversary, the Fokker was clean, had a better "zoom,"
and, curiously, carried no fixed fin for stability in yaw. She
sported the "comma" rudder of much earlier models. With no dihedral
in the wings, the slat struts, the flat dish-like wheels and thick
fuselage, all near her center of gravity, and the free-standing rudder
after, the little triplane could do something no other airplane could.
She could fly sideways! I don't mean she could just slip sideways
through the air if you pushed her rudder; all airplanes do that. The
Fokker would yaw and her struts and wheels acted as winglets pulling
her sideways around in a flat turn while the finless tail swung freely
on the same track as her rudder. How could a fighter behind her follow
as she darted laterally out of its sights? The SE5a had a big fin and
5-degree dihedral on each of her big wings. A corresponding push on
her rudder would throw her sideways to the wind, producing a great
deal of drag and very little change in direction. So she would plow
straight ahead as the Fokker continued to turn and fly away from her.
If her pilot were quick, he could roll the SE5a in the direction the
Fokker was going and keep his sights on his quarry. When he did that
the wings of the SE5a would be turned almost vertically to the level
of the Fokker's wings, and all the German had to do was pull up and
lose the SE5a completely. Both Voss and Richthoven used this unique
quirk of the Fokker and engaged many faster fighters with it because
it renders an aware and competent pilot immune from all but a high
deflection shot, which by its very nature is random and inaccurate.
Though random it might be, high deflection shooting statistically
takes its toll. With the flexible Lewis gun on their top wings, all
the British fired on Voss. Captain J.T.B. McCudden in his debriefing
stated that on one occasion he had pulled up to change the ammunition
drum of his Lewis. Voss was then "…at the apex of a cone of tracer
bullets from at least five machines simultaneously." When Voss
achieved an altitude advantage over his six remaining antagonists and
could have flown away, why did he return? Was it incredible bravery?
Was it "foolhardiness" as a British writer suggested? Perhaps, but
the probable explanation is that he had received a mortal hurt, and
escape meant only a few more days of agony. The wound came from a
high deflection tracer, a random shot, and Voss returned to accept
death quickly, facing impossible odds. Lt. A.P.F. Rys-Davids gave him
the coup de grace, and Werner Voss lies lost somewhere in Flanders.
After Richthoven died, a British doctor performed a post-mortem. He
found that a bullet had entered the muscles along Richthoven's spine
midway up the baron's back. It travelled upward to where it entered
his medulla. He was some 200 feet over the Canadian trenches, so he
too died from a random, high deflection shot. In the painting, we see
Voss minutes before his death. Lt. Arthur Percival Foley Rhys-Davids
in the background died about forty days later, and Captain (later
Major) James Thomas Byford McCudden, in the foreground, followed them
six months later. McCudden was the eldest; he died at 23.
books of interest:
Knights of the Air, Ezra Bowen. The Epic of
Flight, Vol. 1, Time-Life Books, Alexandria, Virginia. 1980. Werner
Voss, Dennis Hylands. Aces & Aeroplanes I, Albatross Productions,
Ltd. Herfordshire, Great Britain. 1986. James McCudden V.C. Alex
Revell. Aces & Aeroplanes III, Albatross Productions, Ltd.
Hertfordshire, Great Britain. 1987. British Fighter Units, Western
Front 1917-18. Alex Revell. Airwar Series, 18. Osprey Publishing,
London. 1978. The Fighters. Funderburk. Grossett & Dunlap. 1965.
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