If the last few weeks have seemed pretty grim for 60 Squadron RFC then today was even worse. After the mauling of A flight on 7 April and B Flight on 14 April today it was C flight’s turn.
Better weather returned today and reconnaissance aircraft were sent out from 11 Squadron RFC to photograph the Drocourt-Queant line to assist preparations for British actions to support he French offensive which opened today.
Strong precautions were taken to deal with enemy opposition to the mission. In addition to a close_ escort of four Nieuport single-seaters, offensive formations from 48 Squadron RFC, 60 Squadron RFC, and 1 (Naval) Squadron were ordered to patrol the area while the photographs were being procured.
The Bristol Fighters of 48 Squadron and the Sopwith Triplanes of 1 (Naval) Squadron flew for twenty-five minutes over the German aerodrome at Douai, but they were not challenged and their patrol as well as the photographic reconnaissance passed off without incident.
C Flight from 60 Squadron were not so lucky. Regular Flight Commander Lieutenant Billy Bishop was absent and so the six strong offensive formation from 60 Squadron was led by A Flight’s commander Captain Geoffrey Arthur Henzell Pidcock. The other pilots were 2nd Lieutenant Richard Eveson Kimbell (Nieuport 23 A6769), 2nd Lieutenant David Norman Robertson (Nieuport 23 B1501), 2nd Lieutenant Trevor Langwill (Nieuport 23 B1507), Lieutenant John Maccreary Elliott (Nieuport 23 B1509) and 2nd Lieutenant Lawrence Hastings Leckie.
They were attacked by a flight from Jasta 11 when they went to the assistance of a BE2. Kimbell, Robertson, Langwill and Elliot were all shot down and killed. The first three were claimed by Leutnant Kurt Wolff, Oberleutnant Lothar von Richthofen and Vitzfeldwebel Sebastian Festner. Pidcock and Leckie escaped and Pidcock claimed to have shot down two enemy aircraft – though no losses were noted by the Germans.
The fate of Elliot is unknown though it is likely that his aircraft shed its wings while diving. 60 Squadron were at a distinct technological disadvantage despite being equipped with single seat Nieuport fighters. The Nieuports suffer from inherent weaknesses in the lower wing, reducing manoeuvrability and risking break up. There was also a bad batch of Nieuport 23s doing the rounds at this time.Not only that but they do not even have synchronising gear, most being equipped with overwing Lewis guns which are harder to aim and have to be reloaded frequently. All the new German fighters have twin synchronised guns.
The other factor is the fact that the patrol was very inexperienced. All four pilots lost were new to the Squadron and therefore new to the Nieuports as there were none at the training schools in England. Pidcock had also only been appointed a flight commander on 14 April (though he had been with the Squadrons since August 1916).