The First World War in 261 weeks

Meet all the characters of the Great War

043 Anthony Fokker and the nightmare of aeronautics

Anthony Fokker

Anthony Fokker

The airplane breaks through as air weapon 

It is Sunday 18 April 1915. It is the 43rd week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

The war produces a technological tour de force: two Brits hang above the Dardanelles in a hot air balloon. They are observing a Turkish camp, pass on its position by telephone to the ship they are attached to with a cable. The ship telegraphs the information to a cruiser that in its turn bombards the Turkish camp from behind the horizon with grenades.

Meanwhile on both sides of the Dardanelles the Turkish troops under the command of the German general Liman von Sanders prepare for an allied invasion.

On his way to Gallipoli the English poet Rubert Brooke dies of blood poisoning on a French hospital ship as a result of a mosquito bite.

At Zillebeke in Flanders the Germans make frantic attempts to recapture Hill 60.

The German government apologizes to the neutral Netherlands for sinking cargoship SS Katwijk.

In the Second Battle of Ypres the Germans fail to make optimal use of the chaos they caused with chlorine gas on the side of the allies.

And the French aviator Roland Garros reveals his secret to the Germans, after which there is a lot of work to be done for Dutch aviation pioneer Anthony Fokker.

Plagiarism is not the biggest crime of the First World War, but it was certainly widespread. Eagle-eyed they stared at each other’s war activities. What is the enemy capable of? Or rather, are we capable of that, too? Can we possibly do even better.

Take the story of the French pilot Roland Garros, after whom in later years a tennis tournament in Paris will be named. On 19 April 1915 he crashes near Ingelmunster, occupied territory in Flanders. Garros survives the crash, also sets fire to his plane, but cannot prevent that the Germans secure the wreck. Now they are going to figure out how that darn Frenchman succeeded in taking down five German planes in three weeks’ time.

Well, Roland Garros was the first fighter pilot who literally went straight for his target. Thanks to a technical gimmick he could fire a machine gun through his propellers. If a bullet struck the blade of a propeller, it would ricochet on a wedge-shaped metal plate. It was far from ideal, as the propeller could become unbalanced.

The Germans immediately started to copy the mechanism which they had got their hands on. However, it appeared that it was quite suitable for the French copper bullets but not for the German steel ones. Now it was time to contact a 25-year-old Dutchman, Anthony Fokker. In no time flat Fokker succeeded in reconciling a machine gun with a propeller. Via a cam, pushrods and rocker arms the machine gun stopped firing at the exact moment when one of the propeller blades passed. Fokker had done it: safe firing through the arc of the spinning propellers.

The synchronized machine gun with which Fokker started equipping his E.III planes, was the beginning of German superiority in the air. In the summer of 1915 the English newspapers started to write moody stories about the Fokker Scourge. Fokker Fodder, they sneered about their own planes.

Anthony Fokker can be called a controversial figure. Some consider him a war criminal, who shamelessly made money from the horrors of the war. For others he is a genius, who combined the entrepreneur, the inventor and the adventurer.

Soon it appeared that young Fokker was not born for teaching. Tinkering with model trains and fiddling with paper airplanes he got a grip on engineering. Tony was a do-it-yourselfer. When he was seventeen he produced a solid tyre as the solution for flat tyres that haunted motorists. Alas, apparently the patent for that had been granted earlier in France.

In 1911, on Queen’s Day, he made a name for himself by going around in circles a few times over the Dutch city of Haarlem in a plane which he had designed himself. It was called The Fokker Spin (Spin being Dutch for Spider). As a member of the local Orange committee, which organized all sorts of festivities for Queen’s Day, his father had inspired him. Fokker junior had every reason to please his dad. After all, he ivested huge sums of money in his son’s aeronautics, money he had earned as a coffee grower in the Dutch East Indies. For a long time there had been no immediate prospect of a return on the investments in the passion of his son, but for the time being dad Fokker could strut around the streets of Haarlem like a peacock.

Aeronautics in the first decade of the twentieth century is a phenomenon which only few people take seriously. That had also been the experience of bicycle mechanics Orville and Wilbur Wright, when they tried to get the American army interested in their flying machines. It is all very well, was the army’s answer to the two brothers, as long as it does not cost us any money.

In 1903 the Wright brothers had succeeded in keeping a plane in the air for the first time. Six years later the Frenchman Louis Blériot flew across the Channel. And another year later Anthony Fokker built his Spin in Germany. Its pilot seemed caught in a web of metal wires that held cockpit and wings together.

‘When I was a boy of sixteen and heard about flying machines for the first time, my only goal was to become an airman. They were the new heroes in those days. Perhaps that was what attracted me: to become a hero’, Fokker said in his autobiography, which he entitled ‘The Flying Dutchman’.

On the eve of the Great War Fokker leaves for Germany and starts building airplanes and giving flying lessons at the same time. In 1913 he is the first to imitate Frenchman Adolphe Pegoud’s looping. During the war he will also give demonstrations behind the front of new types of airplanes. ‘Fokker surprised us by his skill’, writes Max Immelmann, one of Germany’s flying aces, after Fokker showed in June 1915 how his new Eindecker should be flown. Immelmann will, incidentally, lose his life when his Fokker E.III breaks apart. It must have been a technical defect.

Fokker was on good working terms with the airmen. Not only Immelmann and Oswald Boelcke, but also Manfred von Richthofen, the Red Baron, and Hermann Goering belonged to his circle of close friends. Behind these friendly relations also lay an economic incentive, as was often the case with Fokker. As a born Dutchman he could not rely on contacts in the highest German circles. With special thanks to the pilots on the ‘shop floor’ he kept the order books of his Fokker Flugzeugwerke filled. Between 1914 and 1918 over 7,600 Fokker airplanes left the factory.

Initially in the Great War pilots take over the role which for centuries had been assigned to the cavalry: finding and exploring hostile troop concentrations. In 1911 the Italians were the first to do so over Tripoli during their war with the Ottomans. That took some getting used to. ‘The noise those damned things make frightens our horses’, grumbles a British cavalry officer in an official protest during the First World War.

It soon became apparent that planes could also shed bombs and attack ground targets. The sky then turns into the backdrop for spectacular aerial combats, which are observed by Private Snuffy from his trench with amazement. In 1917 Orville Wright writes: ‘We thought we gave the world an invention that made war imposssible. What a dream it was. What a nightmare it has become.’

It will not have troubled Fokker during the war. The Fokker D-VII is his latest masterpiece in 1918. The German pilots love it. Its reputation is so great that a special clause for the Fokker D-VII is laid down in the armistice agreement later that year: all planes of this type should be handed over to the allies. Fokker will, however, deceive his way out of this. He succeeds in transporting hundreds of engines and dismantled parts of his D-VII to Holland, where he begins the Nederlandse Vliegtuigenfabriek. This is followed in the United States by the Fokker Aircraft Corporation. It will be clear that Anthony Fokker is a man of the world.

His Dutch biographer Marc Dierikx has revealed how Fokker managed to change nationality three times. In 1914 he becomes a naturalized German for obvious reasons. After the war he succeeds in again acquiring Dutch citizenship with the help of his friend Prince Hendrik, husband of the Dutch Queen Wilhelmina. And in 1922 he reports to the Immigration Office in order to become an American.

Faithfulness is also in his love life not a key principle for Anthony Fokker. In 1919 he gets married for the first time, but this marriage already runs aground after four years. In 1927 Violet Austman is the bride. Her death, two years later, shows a grim side of the man behind the entrepreneur Anthony Fokker. When she is allowed to go home after a long hospitalisation because of a nervous breakdown, Fokker is nowhere to be found. He has sent a driver to pick up his wife. When he finally arrives home at night, he does not even give her a glance. Violet recognizes her sad fate and steps out of the window on the fifteenth floor of her New York apartment. She is stone dead.

Also as an employer Fokker repeatedly shows his relentless side. He gives employees the sack before Christmas and takes them on again after the end of the year in order to economize on their days off. In 1931 he even disposes of Reinhold Platz, the man who put Fokker’s revolutionary ideas in practice even before the war. Platz turned the rough sketch Fokker made into an airplane, after which Fokker himself corrected the flaws of the design during trial flights. They were a golden duo, but not for eternity.

Let us just say openly that Fokker was a moron. His biographer Dierikx has explained his ruthlessness as follows: ‘In his early childhood he was the little coffee-grower’s boy who was superior to the kampong children with whom he played. This is reflected in the way he treats his nearest staff, in the fact that he does not succeed in shaping his personal life, his relation to women. The little boy in the kampong becomes the creative kid in the attic in Haarlem, but with only a handful of friends.’

1929 is the year that Fokker sees his wife seeking escape in death. It is also the year when he suffered as a merchant. The crisis hits him hard. He no longer appears to be the innovative business man of old. He is not bold enough to change to completely metal planes. However, Fokker gets back on his feet when he can buy the licence rights of American planes for Europe for next to nothing.

His life story ends prematurely. In 1939 he needs an operation on his sinuses. This rather mild intervention has fatal consequences. Anthony Fokker dies at the age of 49, an age that most pilots in the First World War have not reached.

Next week: Mustafa Kemal.

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

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