World War 1 History: Fokker Tells Germans To Do Their Own Dirty Work
Fokker and His Synchronized Machine Gun
Anthony Fokker (1890 – 1939) designed and built some of the best fighters for the German Army Air Service during World War One. Although best known during the war for his Fokker Triplane, made famous by Manfred von Richthofen, also known as the Red Baron, Fokker's first major contribution was the development of a synchronizing mechanism, which allowed a forward-mounted machine gun to be fired through a plane's propeller. It was during the testing of his invention that Fokker told the German generals to do their own dirty work.
Anthony Fokker was born in the Dutch East Indies (present-day Indonesia) to Dutch parents. When he was four, the family moved back to the Netherlands. Although he never completed high school, Anthony enjoyed mechanical devices and became fascinated with airplanes when Wilbur Wright flew at exhibitions in France in 1908. In 1910, his father sent him to Germany to become an auto mechanic, but he soon started building his first airplane and also learned to fly. In 1912, at the age of 22, Fokker started his first airplane company near Berlin. By the outbreak of the Great War, he was supplying the German military with his first airplane, the Fokker Spin.
Planes as Observers
When war broke out, airplanes fulfilled the role of observer for the various armies. They almost immediately proved their worth when, during the Battle of Mons on August 23, 1914, a British observation team saw that the Germans were moving to surround the small British Army. Thus alerted, the British managed an orderly, if embarrassing, retreat, which saved them to fight another day. Several days later, French aerial observers discovered that the German Army's flank had become exposed, setting up the Allied attack known as the Battle of the Marne, which saved Paris and prevented a German victory.
The First (French) Forward-mounted Machine Gun
In order to prevent the enemy from observing their movements and to ensure their own advantage, pilots and observers on both sides started shooting at each other with rifles and pistols, but this was not very effective. It was months before French pilot Roland Garros took to the air in an airplane that had a machine gun capable of firing through its propeller. Within two weeks, he had shot down five German observation planes, becoming the first ace of the war. Unfortunately, on April 18, 1915, Garros was forced down and the Germans were able to discover his secret: the lower part of his propeller blades were clad in steel armor; any bullets that struck them would be deflected.
Fokker's Better Forward-mounted Machine Gun
Fokker was ordered to inspect the plane and then duplicate and demonstrate the French contraption on a German plane within 48 hours. Fokker examined the armor-plated propeller and determined that it wouldn't be long before the blades would be shot off, armor or not. Instead, he returned to his factory and finished a project his company had been working on for months: a synchronization device which allowed the machine gun to fire only when the propeller blades were not in line with the gun barrel; a machine gun attached to the system would then only fire in the spaces between the blades, never striking them.
How Fokker's Synchronization Mechanism Worked
To Fire the gun, the pilot...
Pulled the crank on the breech block to load it.
Pulled the crank again to cock it.
Pulled the green handle.
This lowered the red cam follower onto the cam wheel.
When the cam raised the follower, the blue rod pushed against the spring.
Pressed the purple firing button.
Inside the breech block, the cable lowered the blue bridge piece, so that when the blue rod was activated by the cam, the yellow trigger bar is pushed and the gun fires.
Released the purple firing button, the blue bridge piece is raised and the cam no longer presses against the yellow trigger bar.
Machine Gun Adapted for Fighter Aircraft
German Generals Are Skeptical Then Ecstatic
Fokker demonstrated his solution at his factory, but the generals weren't convinced. They demanded that the true test would be for him, personally, to actually shoot down an enemy plane with it. So, Fokker, an accomplished pilot in his own right, agreed and was soon in the air looking for enemy planes. Finally, he came across a French Farman two-seater with a pilot and an observer on board. The Farman was a “pusher” type biplane; that is, the propeller was in the rear and “pushed” the plane along. He swung into position behind the Farman and closed on it. From that position, the French could not fire without hitting their own propeller. The two Frenchmen watched him, curious about his intentions. Fokker had his finger on the trigger, prepared to fire a stream of bullets into the unsuspecting plane and send it crashing to the ground.
“Suddenly,” he recounted, “I decided that the whole job could go to hell. It was too much like 'cold meat' to suit me. I had no stomach for the whole business, nor any wish to kill Frenchmen for Germans. Let them do their own killing!”
Fokker returned to the airfield and, after some heated words with the field commander, it was agreed that a regular German pilot would be quickly trained and perform the test. After training the pilot, Fokker left for Berlin. By the time he arrived there, the news greeted him that, on only the pilot's third attempt, he had shot down an enemy plane. The entire German air corps' skepticism had changed to wild enthusiasm overnight.
Fokker's Fame Grows
Fokker's company and others began arming planes with the synchronized machine guns and, for a short while at least, the Germans enjoyed an overwhelming dominance in the air. This period was known as the “Fokker Scourge”.
Anthony Fokker went on to develop, among other things, the very successful Fokker Dr.I (Triplane) and the Fokker D.VII. The D.VII was so feared it was singled out in the Versailles Treaty: Article IV specifically stated that all existing D.VIIs had to be turned over to the Allies.
After the War
When the war ended, on November 11, 1918, Anthony Fokker was 28 years old. He returned to the Netherlands in 1919 and started a new aircraft factory where he soon shifted to civil aircraft. His most successful model was the Fokker F.VII trimotor, which enjoyed enormous world-wide success. In 1922, he moved to the US, established the North American branch of his company and, eventually, became an American citizen. In 1939, he went into hospital for minor surgery and died of a minor infection. He was 49 years old.