In 1916 and 1917, the German air effort in the west was dominated by biplanes manufactured by Albatros. The more familiar name of Fokker had made a clear mark in 1915 with a series of monoplanes armed with the interrupter gear, and would again draw the greatest attention at the end of the war with triplanes and the powerful D VII biplanes, but its earlier biplanes of 1916 were not particularly successful. It was the fighter craft of Albatros, characterized by a more aerodynamic fuselage and a high service ceiling that returned the advantage to the Germans at the end of 1916.
The Albatros Flugzeugwerke had not long preceded the First World War; its history began in 1909 in Johannisthal near Berlin, but it had already achieved prominence when the war began. It was natural for them to develop aircraft for the war effort, but expectations were fairly low in 1914. Airplanes offered significant advantages in reconnaissance, although no one had yet developed methods for them to participate directly in combat. In this context, Albatros made its early contributions with the B series, an unarmed two-seater biplane for reconnaissance purposes.
By the standards of 1914-1915, the B series planes were unusually aerodynamic in profile, although they fell short of the graceful lines of the Rumpler Taube. The clean sweep of the fuselage was marred only by the engine, which extended up from the narrow nose of the plane. The raised engine surface featured a high exhaust pipe that could suggest the horn of a rhinoceros. This pipe might seem like an obstruction to the pilot’s vision, but it served to direct the exhaust fumes over the heads of the observer and pilot, and some version of this pipe became a regular feature of Albatros scout aircraft until dedicated fighter craft were built in the summer of 1916.
The other peculiarity of the B series was the configuration of pilot and observer, with the pilot in the rear and the observer sitting just behind the engine and between the two wings. It was a configuration that gave the pilot a better view of the sky around him, but hindered the observer’s view of the ground below. Still, the B series can be considered successful in its intended role, and remained in use on a secondary basis at least until the beginning of 1917.
Efforts in 1915 to facilitate air combat demanded the construction of more robust aircraft. Albatros responded with the C series, which in many ways can be seen as a refinement of the B series. They shared the sweeping lines of the fuselage and the prominent engine with its high exhaust pipe; furthermore, they were both two-seaters, although the C series generally appeared with the pilot in front and the observer behind him. The reality of air combat required the ability to fire back at an attacker, and Fokker’s interrupter gear had not yet appeared when production began on the C series. Instead, the rear observer’s cockpit was equipped with a machine gun, and in 1915, this was still an adequate provision.
Internally, the C series represented a substantial improvement over the B series. The first version, the C.I, boasted an engine with 160 hp, in contrast to the mere 100 hp of the B.II. With subsequent variants, engine power continued to rise, culminating in the 260 hp of the C.XII. Service ceilings also rose, with the B.II being unable to reach 10,000 feet, while the C.I could reach 11,000 feet, and the C.XII could rise well above 16,000 feet. High service ceilings had a protective use, in that a more advanced model could climb to an elevation where many enemy craft could not pursue. Of course, the scale of World War I combat was such that meaningful observation could still be performed at these heights.
Another important feature of the C series was its sturdiness. Airplanes were still being constructed largely of wood throughout World War I, and in the case of the Albatros C series, the outer surface was so well-reinforced that interior supports were not necessary. This reduced the weight of the aircraft, and also helped it to hold together when damaged in combat.
With features such as these, the C series proved its usefulness, and soon new roles were found for it. Most significantly, a compartment was added for carrying small bombs, and aircraft of the C series were increasingly sent on bombing missions. Eventually, the spread of dedicated fighter planes equipped with interrupter gears for forward-firing machine guns meant that the rear machine gun was no longer adequate, and the C.III was modified to allow the placement of a single forward machine gun with an interrupter gear in addition to its rear gun.
Solid construction, excellent controls for the pilot and adequate armament for its role ensured that the C series would remain viable for most of the war. The dominance of the Fokker Eindeckers with their interrupter gears made it unnecessary for the C series to compete as a dedicated fighter, and the Albatros planes continued their development as reconnaissance craft and bombers. Variations continued through the war, and notably, the C.X carried oxygen tanks to permit a higher ceiling than human endurance would otherwise allow.
The Fokker Scourge did not long endure, however. Even though the Allies had not yet replicated the interrupter gear, alternative configurations in such planes as the Nieuport and the DH.2 eroded the German advantage in armament, while superior handling made the early monoplanes obsolete. German losses required a replacement for the Fokker Eindeckers, and all contenders conformed to the same general model, that of a biplane with a solid fuselage and a propeller mounted in the front. The Fokker biplanes of this period were not considered satisfactory, and the contributions from firms like Halberstadt and Aviatik were delivered to the Eastern Front, where they would not be as sorely tested as they would in the west.
In August, 1916, Albatros produced its contender, and it proved so effective that Albatros was obliged to accelerate its production, delivering the first combat-ready examples within a month. This model, the D.I, resembled the C series in general outline, but with certain key differences. It was a single-seater, and it mounted a pair of machine guns above the engine, to fire through the propeller. Gone was the prominently exposed engine with its high exhaust pipe. The nose of the D.I was thicker than that of the C series to accommodate most of the engine, and curved surfaces replaced edges all along the fuselage. It offered a good combination of speed, maneuverability and firepower, and the first two versions (the D.II differing from the D.I only in the height of its upper wing, which was reduced in accordance with suggestions made by the pilots) recovered the air advantage for the Germans at the end of 1916.
Development continued, significantly with comparison to enemy aircraft, and in January 1917 Albatros began delivery of its most effective variant, the D.III. The D.III could climb as high as 18,000 feet, and it could reach 13,000 feet in less than 18 minutes. It could operate for up to two hours at a time, a half hour longer than the D.II.
The most important difference between the D.II and D.III lay in their wing configurations. Borrowing an idea from the Nieuport planes flown by the Entente, Albatros reduced the width of the lower wing to only half the width of the upper wing. Known as the sesquiplane configuration, it reduced drag and offered the pilot a better field of vision below him. At the same time, this feature posed a structural danger. The narrow lower wing precluded the use of parallel struts to connect the upper and lower wings, which was typical in biplanes of the period. Instead, the two struts met at the lower wing in a V shape. This placed stress on the lower wing, and because the Albatros was faster and heavier than the Nieuport, the risk was greater in the German planes, especially when the D.III dove.
This was less of a problem at the beginning of 1917, while the D.III still outclassed its opponents. Entente losses in April were so high that it was known as Bloody April. The following month, the D.V entered service; it was much like the D.III, except for a further embellishment of the aerodynamics of its fuselage. Performance was almost unchanged, while the Entente began to fly newer and more effective fighters, such as the SPAD and the Sopwith Camel. By the summer, it was the German fighters that were outclassed, and at this point the inability of the D.III and D.V to make a reliable dive without risking wing damage became a serious flaw. German pilots became highly critical of the D.V, especially the Red Baron, Manfred von Richthofen.
A possible solution existed, but never resolved its own challenges. The D.IV had been under development for some months, and it would have solved the dive problem by returning to the full lower wing used in the D.I and D.II. At the same time, the body would have been the same as the D.V. This would have offered a more stable airframe, although it would have slowed the rate of climb. In any event, the engine never worked properly in this model, and so it never entered production.
When the 180 hp Mercedes D.IIIa engine became available, the newer D.V fighters were updated as the D.Va to accommodate it. This increased the speed of the plane to 116 mph, but this was still slow compared to Entente planes. The D.Va was delivered in substantial numbers starting in October, 1917, but this marked the end of effective fighter development for the Albatros company. That same month saw the return to prominence of Fokker aircraft with the famous triplanes, and while Albatros produced additional designs, they did not see production.
While Albatros made its impact principally through the C and D series planes, the firm also produced several other kinds of aircraft on a limited basis. It tested three models of heavy bomber, and the final version, the G.III, resulted in several examples. The W series constituted a group of seaplanes that began as naval reconnaissance based on the B series, and grew to include several types of torpedo bomber. Finally, at the end of 1917, it produced a metal-skinned biplane designated as J.1 to offer protection in ground-attack missions. The firm’s heyday was clearly in the middle of the war, however, when the first three models of the D series represented state-of-the-art fighter craft, while the two-seater C series performed reconnaissance and bombing missions.
Cowin, Hugh W. German and Austrian Aviation of World War I: A Pictorial Chronicle of the Airmen and Aircraft That Forged German Airpower. Osprey, 2000
Herris, Jack et al. Essential Aircraft Identification Guide: Aircraft of World War I 1914-1918. Amber, 2010
Livesey, Anthony. Great Battles of World War I. Smithmark Publishers, Inc. 1997
Winchester, Jim. Classic Military Aircraft: The World’s Fighting Aircraft 1914-1945. Amber, 2013
Ibid. Visual Encyclopedia Military Aircraft. Book Sales, 2013
© 2014. All rights reserved.