In To The Hands Of The Enemy

In 1915, the entente powers opened up a new front against Germany and her allies of Austro-Hungary and Bulgaria intended to relieve the pressure on Serbia. The Allies used Greece as their base to strike north through the Balkans but it would prove too little, too late for Serbia which fell in December 1915. The new front was now aimed at liberating Serbia and also to relieve some of the pressure on the Western and Eastern Fronts. The British contingent, known as the British Salonika Army being named after the second largest city in Greek Macedonia, comprised of two full Army Corps (XII and XVI) as well as a contingent of staff officers and support from the Royal Flying Corps’ 16th Wing.

armstrong whitworth F.K.3.jpg

Armstrong-Whitworth F.K.3 (Aviastar.org)

Within the ranks of the RFC in Greek Macedonia was No.47 Squadron equipped with, among others, the Armstrong-Whitworth FK.3 general-purpose biplane. The FK.3 was designed in response to the perceived obsolescence of the Royal Aircraft Factory’s BE.2 biplane which operated in the artillery spotting role. Early FK.3s offered little improvement however and plans for it to replace the already established BE.2 were shelved with it instead becoming little more than a training tool based in Britain. Perhaps by some oversight, No.47 Squadron took its FK.3s to Greek Macedonia in 1916 to support the British Salonika Army and in doing so become the only squadron to field the aircraft abroad.

Among the new pilots to join the squadron’s ranks at this time was 20-year old 2nd Lieutenant Arthur Cecil Stopher. Born in Woolwich, London he joined the Army in 1915 gaining a commission in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers before requesting a transfer to the Royal Flying Corps. Completing his training in November 1916 he arrived in Salonika shortly after and was assigned to fly the squadron’s FK.3s on spotter and reconnaissance duties.

armstrong whitworth F.K.3 6219

Stopher’s aircraft (theauxiliaries.com)

A little over three months after joining No.47 Squadron, on February 12th 1917 the now 21-year old 2nd Lieutenant Stopher took off in FK.3 Nr.6219 from a neighbouring French aerodrome to rejoin his squadron at their forward base. There was heavy air activity that day with No.47 Squadron reporting sporadic encounters with German aircraft and so when Stopher was reported overdue it was assumed he had been shot down enroute. However, a few days later the British intercepted a German wireless communication stating that Stopher had in fact gotten lost and mistook the Bulgarian airfield at Demi Hissar in southern Macedonia for his own. Having landed safely he was taken prisoner and his intact aircraft was seized.

Stopher would join over 5,000 British, Serbian and French PoWs at the Bulgarian prison camp at Philippopolis (despite the Greek name the city is actually located in Bulgaria and is known today as Plovdiv). The camp was built on the grounds of a former cholera hospital and prisoners were forced in to labour details helping build canals, bridges and roads in the Bulgarian countryside. Stopher would not be repatriated to Britain until January 1919.

armstrong whitworth F.K.3 6219 Bulgarian markings

6219 in Bulgarian markings (Theauxillaries.com)

As for his aircraft, Nr.6219 was pressed in to Bulgarian service serving with the 1st Aeroplanno Otdelenie Division. Perhaps reflecting on their own machines, Bulgarian pilots were impressed with the aircraft even if the RFC pilots were less so. Having become accustomed to the aircraft the Bulgarians repainted the aircraft with black crosses but retained the 6219 serial number and turned the aircraft on its former owners. In the period between Autumn 1917 and Spring 1918 the aircraft flew a number of offensive operations against the Allies. Official records show 42 missions credited to the aircraft in total that ranged from reconnaissance to strafing and night-bombing.

Then on the night of May 23rd-24th 1918, the aircraft took off with Lieutenant Usunoff at the controls and with Lieutenant P. Atasanoff as observer for a night attack mission. Using small 12.5kg (27lb) bombs and their machine gun they harassed British forces between Gümüsdere and Lake Takhino. During an attack on a British position at Gorasanli the aircraft was hit by anti-aircraft fire forcing the Bulgarians to turn for home however a short while later one of the engine’s cylinders began misfiring before stopping completely. Usunoff managed to glide the aircraft down near Struma, landing it in a boggy field where it began to sink. The two Bulgarians left the aircraft semi-submerged in the bog and began walking back to their lines. The FK.3 was beyond salvageable and never flew again.

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7 responses to “In To The Hands Of The Enemy

  1. Pingback: Defence of the Realm – Army | Defence of the Realm

  2. Pingback: Defence of the Realm – Royal Air Force | Defence of the Realm

  3. Pingback: Anatomy of a World War I Artillery Barrage | Marcus Ampe's Space

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