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Superb work covering a forgotten victory
on 24 June 2012
The Battle of the Somme, 1st July 1916 - entrenched in the minds of many thanks to various television programs and films as many thousands of men pointlessly going 'over the top' and walking slowly towards the German trenches and getting slaughtered by German machine guns. Whatever your views on the Battle of the Somme and as to whether it was a victory or defeat for the British (and French - who were also there in very large numbers), it cannot be denied that it was a victory for the British in the air. The Royal Flying Corps enjoyed aerial superiority which meant it was possible to conduct bombing raids behind enemy lines, disrupting lines of communication, transport links and killing the enemy before they got to the front line. Observation Patrols were able to operate in relative safety, spying on the German positions from above and able to direct artillery fire onto machine gun posts, large concentrations of troops, and especially artillery positions. Photography from the extremely stable BE2 aircraft meant accurate trench maps were able to be produced, and the men on the ground were able to know exactly what lay over the parapet and beyond the horizon. All of this was possible thanks to the new breed of aircraft that were entering service in 1916 to combat the Fokker Eindecker with it's forward firing machine gun, firing through the propeller arc thanks to interrupter gear.
'Pusher' aircraft, featuring a rear-facing engine and propeller meaning machine guns could fire forward with their Lewis guns without needing any interrupter gear such as the DH2 and FE2b (an FE2b is shown on the front cover), as well as the Nieuport 16 featuring a Lewis gun mounted above the wing clear of the propeller arc or a synchronised Vickers gun, were used to clear the skies of not just the Fokker Eindeckers, but also German observation aircraft which attempted to do the same all-important observational and photography work which the Royal Flying Corps was using to such devastating effect for the Germans. Towards the end of the Battle of the Somme as winter set in, new Albatros single seat scouts were being brought into service which started to turn the side against the British, however the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service were starting to bring in a new range of single seat scouts like the Sopwith Pup, which would eventually culminate in another aerial battle for air superiority to be known as 'Bloody April' in 1917.
Peter Hart's book 'Somme Success', which is fortunately now available again in paperback format after being out of print in it's original hardcover format, fills an important gap between Ralph Barker's 'The Royal Flying Corps in France, from Mons to the Somme' and works covering 'Bloody April' in 1917. This is not just a dry history of facts and figures like more official histories - a large number of personal accounts are used to bring the action to life and helping to explain the constraints and reality of the war in the air, whilst also relating what was happening in the air to the situation on the ground, which, at the end of the day, is what the fight was about. Peter Hart also correctly emphasises the importance of the work of the two-seater observation aircraft, working in the aerial photography and artillery spotting roles. Although the single-seat Scout pilots, zipping around the skies in their streamlined, handsome machines, the fastest things on earth and the daring, thrilling, deadly dogfighting capture the imagination and are the first thing one tends to think about when considering the war in the air, the reality is that even the best of aces shooting down dozens of aircraft did not affect the situation on the ground - their role was to clear the way for the two seaters to operate in comparitive safety, able to direct artillery fire and take important photographs which would enable advances to be made and artillery and infantry to kill, injure and capture not dozens but hundreds if not thousands of enemy troops