Sopwith Camel vs Fokker Dr I
The summer and autumn of 1917 had seen a series of Allied offensives in the Flanders, Champagne and Verdun regions peter out with little strategic gain for the exorbitant casualties they produced. The end of the year, on the other hand, had given the Central Powers reason for hope. The rout of the Italian army at Caporetto in October 1917 and the Russian Revolution, soon to be followed by Bolshevik capitulation in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk on 3 March 1918, freed up multitudes of German soldiers for service on the Western Front.
More ominous news for Germany came from the Middle East, where the British were advancing steadily in Palestine and Mesopotamia, and from the United States, which had declared war on Germany on 6 April 1917 and was mobilising its vast resources to ship an American Expeditionary Force (AEF) to France. To German strategic planners Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff, the odds of mounting a victorious offensive, followed by a favourable peace with the Western Allies, were the highest they could ever hope for, but time was of the essence before the Americans arrived in full force.
For the breakthrough offensive, dubbed Kaiserschlacht, the Germans massed their aerial as well as ground assets, with three Jagdgeschwader, each permanently formed around four Jastas by mid-February 1918, to augment more flexible Jagdgruppen in establishing local air superiority over three different army groupings. JG I, assigned to II Armee, moved from its winter quarters at Avenses-le-Sec and Lieu-St-Armand on 20 March to re-establish itself at Awoingt, five kilometres south of Cambrai. Thinking ahead, von Richthofen had already chosen Léchelle, ten kilometres southeast of Bapaume, as his next base.
JG II, formed on 2 February 1918 with Jastas 12, 13, 15 and 19, initially had its headquarters at Toulis, but after the death of the Geschwaderführer, Hptm Adolf Ritter von Tutschek on 15 March, the unit came under the command of Hptm Rudolf Berthold and, four days later, the wing moved to Guise to support the XVIII Armee.
Also formed on 2 February, JG III, commanded by Oblt Bruno Loerzer and consisting of Jastas Boelcke, 26, 27 and 36, took up its initial jumping-off point at Erchin, ten kilometres southeast of Douai, to support the XVII Armee.
Although they regarded the Fokker Dr I as the best overall fighter they had at the time, von Richthofen and Berthold were already aware of limitations that even the modified triplanes could not overcome. They were slower than most of their contemporaries, and their rotary engines – never a German strong suit – were chronically unreliable. The Gechwaderführer were also aware of at least two newer, extremely promising fighters in the offing. These were the Siemens-Schuckert Werke’s SSW D III, with a 160hp Siemens und Halske Sh.III 11-cylinder rotary-radial engine, and the Fokker D VII, a biplane variation on the Dr I theme, which had performed well with a 160hp Mercedes inline engine and even better with a 185hp BMW.