7 June 1917 – Messines

Today the British Lunched a limited offensive to capture Messines Ridge, a feature of strategic importance because it overlooked a large section of the British lines.

The RFC and RNAS had already played a large part in the preparation carrying out photography, reconnaissance, artillery suppression,bombing and for the most part succeeded in minimising German reconnaissance of the preparations.

On the day of the battle the British were able to muster a sizeable force to support the attack.So much so that the order of battle runs to four pages of the official history.. A total of 853 aircraft were on charge for the battle.


6 June 1917 – Big prep

British aircraft were active all over the front in preparation for tomorrow’s offensive, carrying out photography, bombing and reconnaissance. There were anumber of big fights, the largest of which took place between a 7 strong patrol from 54 Squadron RFC and six Nieuports of 6 Naval Squadron escorting 22 Squadron RFC and its FEs? They were set upon by  “a very large formation of Hostile aicraft” from Jasta 2, Jasta 5 and Jasta 12.

The British claimed eight aircraft downed, three of which were seen to crash. One of these was Werner Voss from Jasta 5 who suffered minor wounds after he was forced down by 6 Naval Squadron. Both Squadron Commander Christopher Draper and  Flight Sub-Lieutenant Ronald Francis Redpath.


Charles Elliot Sutcliffe

Around the same time, Flight Lieutenant Fabian Pember Reeves, also from 6 Naval Squadron , was shot down and killed in his Nieuport 17 (N3204). Voss claimed this but it is also possible that his aircraft broke up manoevring.


Edward Grevelnk

54 Squadron also suffered as Major Charles Elliott Sutcliffe in Sopwith Pup B1730 was shot down by Leutnant Hermann Becker from Jasta 12, and Lt Edward James Yzenhold Grevelink was shot down in Sopwith Pup A7306 by Vitzfeldwebel Robert Riessinger also from Jasta 12. Both were killed.

5 June 1917 – Schäfer Killed


Karl Emil Schäfer

Karl Emil Schäfer was killed today. He is not a household name like Richthofen but at the time he was considered a big deal.

Schäfer served first with Reserve Jäger Bataillon 7 in Bückeburg. He won the Iron Cross 2nd class and was promoted to Vizefeldwebel during September 1914, before being badly wounded and hospitalised for six months. After returning to the front line he was commissioned in May 1915.

He the trained as a pilot and served over the Eastern Front with Kampfgeschwader 2 from July 1916 onwards. He moved to the west and now flew with Kampfstaffel 11, where he gained his first victory.

On hearing that Manfred von Richthofen was assembling a “top gun” squadron at Jasta 11, he telegraphed him “Can you use me?” Richthofen replied, “You have already been requested.”

Schäfer was then posted to Jasta 11 on 21 February 1917 and over the next two months he shot down 23 aircraft.

Schäfer was then given command of Jasta 28 on 26 April, and shot down seven more, the last being a DH4 (A7420) Lieutenant Douglas James Honer and Private G Cluney from 55 Squadron.

Today he led a patrol which came across 7 FEs from 20 Squadron RFC. He went after one FE and drove it down. He was then attacked by Lieutenant Harold Satchell and Lieutenant Thomas Lewis. What happened next is unclear. The RFC communiqué reported:

“a fight lasting about 15 minutes ensued in which the German pilot showed great skill and persistence. Eventually, however, after a burst of fire at very close range, the HA burst into flames and its wings were seen to fall off before it crashed”

However, German ace witness Max Ritter von Müller reported seeing it break up, but noted no fire. Photos of the wreckage show no scorching and the wings still attached to the aircraft.[3] Nevertheless, his Jasta 28 comrades recovered Schäfer’s body, noting that it had no bullet wounds, but that every bone in his body had been broken.


Schäfer’s crashed Albatross

4 June 1917 – Ostende

Following the unsuccessful attack on Zeebrugge on 12 May, Vice-Admiral Bacon turned his attention to the dockyard at Ostende, a larger target, but one that was flanked by houses.

After the weather curtailed a number of early attempts on 26 and 27 May, the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, with destroyers and auxiliary craft, set out this evening.

To cover the operation in the direction of the Thornton Bank and the Schouwen Bank, Commodore Tyrwhitt went out with the Harwich Force, and, early next morning, he intercepted two German destroyers, one of which, the S.20, he sank. In the later stages of this destroyer action, German seaplanes from Zeebrugge took part and, coming down on the water, they picked up and carried home one officer and seven men of the crew of the S.20.

From 16,000 feet above Ostend, part of the destroyer action was watched from the aeroplanes which were in position ready to direct the fire of Vice-Admiral Bacon’s monitors.

D90B3FA7-74E0-47E9-B2B6-CF46F502DBE2-560-0000009203E2F8E8There were two DH4 aeroplanes for spotting, escorted by two others and by two Sopwith Pups. In addition, to prevent German aircraft spotting for the shore batteries against the ships, or from making direct bombing attacks on them, there were two fighter patrols in the neighbourhood.

The air observer’s signal that he was ready was made at 0322 and fire was opened within a few minutes. To avoid a possible initial shelling of the town, the monitors were ranged on a point about a 1,000 yards short of the eastern boom, and the guns were not lifted on their target until the line and direction had been given as correct. When the range was lengthened, fire was at once reported on the target, and a central hit was quickly signalled. Soon after fire was opened a German kite balloon ascended 5,000 feet behind Ostend presumably to direct the enemy coast batteries on the bombarding ships. One of the patrolling pilots in a Sopwith Pup, diving from 18,000 feet, shot the balloon down. Meanwhile numerous enemy smoke screens had been started and, by 0345, the docks and the surrounding country had become obscured. The smoke spread until it covered about ten to fifteen square miles, including the entire harbour, and, at 0400, Vice-Admiral Bacon judged it was useless to continue. Of the 115 rounds fired at that point, 36 had been spotted from the air, and photographs taken later in the day showed that at least twenty shells had fallen on the docks.

One object of the bombardment, the infliction of damage on the destroyer repair shops, had been attained. It was also revealed by U-boat prisoners, taken shortly afterwards, that the bombardment led to the sinking in the harbour of the submarine UC70 as well as an armed trawler, and that three destroyers which could not get out of harbour in time were damaged. The UC70 had been lying alongside a petrol lighter which was exploded by a direct hit; the U-boat was afterwards raised and repaired at Bruges.

3 June 1917 – Dress Rehearsal

The British forces have been preparing to attack Messines Ridge. Since 21 March the Corps aircraft have been carrying out spotting for the preliminary artillery bombardment.

At conference on the 30 May, captured German documents revealed that the enemy would rely, for defence, mainly on prearranged schemes of artillery fire. This raised the importance of counter-battery work.

To induce the Germans to disclose the positions of their barrage batteries, it was arranged that a full-dress rehearsal of the artillery bombardment, as it would be at zero hour, with a smoke demonstration along the front of attack, should take place today. The hour for this rehearsal was fixed on the advice of the Royal Flying Corps because it was essential to choose conditions favourable for the placing of the maximum strength in the air to discover the enemy guns.

The full-dress rehearsal of the artillery barrage on the Messines ridge was made this afternoon when thirty-one Corps aeroplanes kept watch to note the positions of the German batteries. They were ill-rewarded. The enemy retaliation was feeble, and not many new emplacements were discovered. However air photographs revealed much about the accuracy of the barrage. Artillery staff officers were also flown over the front while the bombardment was in progress enabled many minor errors of timing to be adjusted.

2 June 1917 – Billy Bishop VC?

Today saw the raid after which Billy Bishop from 60 Squadron RFC was awarded the Victoria Cross flying a Nieuport 23 (B1566). At the time the RFC communique reported it thus:

“Captain W A Bishop, 60 Squadron, when 17 miles over the lines, saw seven machines, some of which had their engines running, on an aerodrome. He waited and then engaged the first one that left the ground from a height of 60 feet and the HA crashed. Another left the ground and Capt Bishop, who was hovering around immediately dived at it and after 30 rounds had been fired the HA crashed into a tree. Just after that two more left the ground at the same time, so Capt Bishop climbed to 1,000 feet and then engaged one of them and it fell and crashed within 300 yards of the aerodrome. The fourth was driven down after a whole drum had been fired into it. After this exploit Capt Bishop returned safely, but with his aeroplane considerably shot about by machine gun fire from the ground.”


Billy Bishop with his Nieuport Scout B1566

Writing some years later the Official History reported the raid in a very similar way. :

“An example of what surprise and daring could achieve had been afforded by a low-flying feat of Captain W. A. Bishop of No. 60 Squadron, south of the main battle area, on the 2nd of June. This officer had been flying alone in a Nieuport Scout, in search of German aircraft, when he saw seven aeroplanes lined up on an aerodrome near Cambrai. He flew low over them and opened fire with his machineguns. One of the German aeroplanes left the ground, but was attacked by Captain Bishop from a height of sixty feet, and, after fifteen rounds had been fired, the enemy crashed. A second aeroplane took off and was in turn attacked until it fell into a tree. By this time two others had got into the air and Captain Bishop climbed to engage them. He caught up with them at about 1,000 feet and, after emptying part of a drum of ammunition into one, had the satisfaction of seeing it fall to the ground near the aerodrome. He fired his last drum into the fourth German aeroplane and then flew home: his aeroplane had been shot about by machine-gun fire from the ground.”

More recently there has been some scepticism about some of Billy Bishop’s claims, especially about some of these “stunts”. In 1982, the Canadian National Film Board released the pseudo-drama, “The Kid Who Couldn’t Miss,” a meld of fact and fiction that suggested portions of Bishop’s combat career were fabricated including this raid. It was suggested further that he landed behind Allied lines on the return trip and shot up his own aircraft to simulate battle damage.

Various authors have come forward over the years to support or refute the claim and since many of the German records have been destroyed it may not be possible to know for certain. One area which seems to cause much debate is the identification of the airfield which was attacked as Bishop did not state specifically which one. Lieutenant-Colonel David Bashow’s 2002 article in the Canadian Military Journal discusses some of these topics (though Bashow is a known Bishop supporter). Also see the recent Aerodrome thread on this. The Aerodrome forum in fact has many threads devoted to this and ity is probably one of their most discussed topics.

What is clear however, is that both the communique and the Official History make this seem like a random act of Bravery when this was clearly not the case. Bishop wrote to his fiancé on 31 May 1917:

“I have a great plan in mind, a real hair raising stunt which I am going to do one of these days. It should help to another decoration. It will be done long before you get this.”

Also as Bashow admits he sought and received permission from his commanding officer for the mission and requests for volunteers to accompany him went unheeded.

No doubt the debate will continue.

The tracking of Zeppelins has become quite sophisticated now. A central operations room has been established at the Admiralty to coordinate the messages coming in from the British wireless interception stations and those going out to the eight Warning Controls (the country was divided into areas for the purpose of warning of an attack).

When Zeppelins approached within 150 miles of the English Coast their position, course, and speed were communicated at once, by telephone from the Admiralty, direct to one or more of the East Coast flying-boat bases.

The commanding officers at each base then had the discretion to launch one or more flying-boats. The subsequent positions of the airship or airships were passed on, as they were plotted to the air stations, and then relayed by wireless to the flying-boats already in the air. The receipt of continuous information also enabled commanding officers to judge the need for sending up additional aircraft.

Today an additional innovation was added in a special squared chart of the southern part of the North Sea, known as Tracing Z. This enabled the positions of Zeppelins to be communicated by code signals based on the chart.