World War 1 History: Fokker Tells Germans to Do Their Own Dirty Work

Updated on August 28, 2018
UnnamedHarald profile image

I try to make history readable and interesting, warts and all. We must look to the past to understand the present and confront the future.

Anthony Fokker

Anton Herman Gerard "Anthony" Fokker (6 April 1890 to 23 December 1939) in 1912. Age 22.
Anton Herman Gerard "Anthony" Fokker (6 April 1890 to 23 December 1939) in 1912. Age 22. | Source

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.

Fokker's Background

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.

Fokker's First Airplane

Anthony Fokker (aproximate age 21) in his first aircraft "de spin" AKA "the Spin" or "the Spider". Circa 1911.
Anthony Fokker (aproximate age 21) in his first aircraft "de spin" AKA "the Spin" or "the Spider". Circa 1911. | Source

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 Worked

Diagram of Anthony Fokker's machine gun synchronization gear.
Diagram of Anthony Fokker's machine gun synchronization gear. | Source

To Fire the gun, the pilot...

  1. Pulled the crank on the breech block to load it.

  2. Pulled the crank again to cock it.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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

World War 1: The standard German MG 08 machine gun modified for use on fighter planes. Note the air-cooled slotted jacket, the synchronization gear and triggering assembly included below the gun.
World War 1: The standard German MG 08 machine gun modified for use on fighter planes. Note the air-cooled slotted jacket, the synchronization gear and triggering assembly included below the gun. | Source

French "Pusher" Aircraft

WWI: A Maurice Farman MF 11, similar to the aircraft Anthony Fokker refused to shoot down. Note the engine in the rear ("pusher") and lack of armament.
WWI: A Maurice Farman MF 11, similar to the aircraft Anthony Fokker refused to shoot down. Note the engine in the rear ("pusher") and lack of armament. | Source

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.

First Operational German Airplane Fitted With Fokker's Mechanism

WW1: One of the first German Fokker Eindecker airplanes to have a forward-firing synchronised machine gun. Circa July 1915.
WW1: One of the first German Fokker Eindecker airplanes to have a forward-firing synchronised machine gun. Circa July 1915. | Source

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.

Fokker's Dreaded Triplane

Fokker Dr.I (Triplane) replica
Fokker Dr.I (Triplane) replica | Source

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.

Questions & Answers

    © 2012 David Hunt

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      • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

        David Hunt 

        6 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

        joan, thanks again for reading and commenting. I look forward to reading more of yours, too. I've noticed that I sometimes don't seem to get email notices for all those I follow-- but I did get your latest on the last chapter of the Exeter, an excellent hub.

      • joanveronica profile image

        Joan Veronica Robertson 

        6 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

        Hi UH, catching up on my reading! Very good article, I knew about the firing through the blades, and of course the name of Fokker, but not much else. Voted up, awesome and interesting! I loved the fokker joke! I did LOL too! I hope to continue enjoying your stories and writing mine! Have a good day!

      • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

        David Hunt 

        6 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

        Thanks very much, aethelthryth. The more exposure, the better, as we all know. I had mixed thoughts on whether to add my opinion to the article that, although I admire Fokker's humanity on the one hand, on the other he simply washed his hands of doing the dirty work himself. In the end, I decided to let the facts speak for themselves. I appreciate your thoughts and comments.

      • aethelthryth profile image

        aethelthryth 

        6 years ago from American Southwest

        Wow! You got to Fokker before I did (seriously, that wasn't going to happen anytime soon). I am not sure about his level of conscience overall because I am told he subcontracted to cheap builders who did some shoddy workmanship, which was implicated in the crash that killed Knute Rockne and the failure of the E-V wing. The design was great, but the business maybe was not.

        Anyway, I managed to get the director of the Vintage Aero Flying Museum to take a look at your article here, so maybe he will have a chance to comment.

      • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

        David Hunt 

        6 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

        Thanks, Old Albion. He accomplished a lot in 30 years. During the interwar period Fokker was the biggest manufacturer of civilian airliners in the world.

      • old albion profile image

        Graham Lee 

        6 years ago from Lancashire. England.

        Hi UH. A very interesting hub. An unfortunate early end for a very clever man. A man who developed machine guns, yet carried a concience. He would probably have had a life of much greater contribution.

        Graham.

      • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

        David Hunt 

        6 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

        Thanks for commenting, NateB11. Yes, war and technology seem to go hand in hand. WW1 went from fabric-covered planes to armored tanks; WW2 went from screaming stukas to ballistic missiles and the atom bomb; the war in Afghanistan has gone from stealth bombers to drones piloted from thousands of miles away.

      • NateB11 profile image

        Nathan Bernardo 

        6 years ago from California, United States of America

        Very interesting in terms of technological history, the politics involved and the war, and also that Fokker refused to do something he knew was wrong. It immediately reminds me of the involvement of technology in war, and it is also interesting in terms of the beginnings of airplanes.

      • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

        David Hunt 

        6 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

        Larry, I literally laughed out loud at that one (LOL is rarely true, is it?). It got me wondering about the "legality" of the whole situation, though: there's a Dutchman civilian flying a German plane in order to shoot down Frenchmen (or whoevever he encountered). Fokker could have found himself in a pretty sticky situation if he'd been captured by the Allies. Thanks for the comment and the joke.

      • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

        David Hunt 

        6 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

        Hey The60Life, great comment! Yes, when the war started, the German government did take over the plant, but were wise enough to leave its brilliant founder in charge. I would imagine that, at least until the war was lost, Fokker did all right for himself.

      • Larry Fields profile image

        Larry Fields 

        6 years ago from Northern California

        Voted up and interesting.

        I'm reminded of an old joke about a Swedish air ace. Yes, Sweden was officially neutral. But a skilled Swedish pilot volunteered to fly a French fighter. And he shot down five German aircraft.

        After the war, this Swede had a radio interview in the USA. The announcer asked:

        What was your scariest moment during the war?

        Swede: I flew into a cloud over France. And when I came out the other side, there was a Fokker in front of me, a Fokker to the right of me, and a Fokker to the left of me.

        The announcer interrupted to add:

        Ladies and gentlemen, Fokker was a manufacturer of fighter aircraft for the Germans during the World War I.

        Swede: No, these fokkers were Messerschmidts!

      • The60life profile image

        The60life 

        6 years ago from England

        Hi Another great hub!Although familiar with the association of Fokker with aircraft manufacture, both civil and military, I did not know the story of the company's origins. How often we can be familiar with a global 'brand' name but know little more. I had no knowledge of the synchronisation device developed by Fokker for the forward mounted machine gun.

        Obviously,Fokker was a widely talented engineer, and it seems a decent man, who achieved so much in a relatively short adult life. The way the Germans muscled in on Fokker's work during WW1, one can almost be forgiven for thinking the Germans founded the airplane company.

        Thanks again. A big vote-up from me. Regards from the the60life

      • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

        David Hunt 

        6 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

        Greensleeves, I've also marveled at the technology at the beginning of both wars compared with their ends. It is quite remarkable. Leaps and bounds in the capability to deliver death to the enemy. It's no wonder people are also brutalized during the progression of a war. I used to shake my head at the way the public was "informed" during World War I, but, having seen the near-absolute non-coverage of the Afghan war, I understand how the press has been hobbled.

      • Greensleeves Hubs profile image

        Greensleeves Hubs 

        6 years ago from Essex, UK

        I once visited the RAF museum at Hendon in England and saw some World War One aircraft there - the contrast between the flimsy unarmed machines at the start and the really quite massively solid, heavily armed bombers at the end of the war, was huge.

        Same with the Second World War - biplanes still had a credible role at the start, but six years later the world had jet fighters and rockets.

        The point is this - necessity (in this case the need for superior weaponry) is the mother of invention, and I guess in times of war people like Fokker will suddenly receive the ear of politicians and leaders who may have ignored their genius in the past, and they will then have the resources as well as the drive and encouragement to push through the advances they've previously been working on away from the public eye.

      • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

        David Hunt 

        6 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

        Thank you for your comment, Greensleeves. I knew Fokker was a big name in aviation and about his synchronization device, but beyond that, not much. It used to be said he came up with the whole concept and a working device in the 48 hours the German generals gave him to solve the problem, but in reality he and his firm had been working on such a device for months.

      • Greensleeves Hubs profile image

        Greensleeves Hubs 

        6 years ago from Essex, UK

        That's an interesting story UnnamedHarald. The only part I was aware of was the invention of the through-the-propeller machine gun - a major advance really (beats shooting your own propeller off!). Interesting to hear the story of Fokker's full involvement, and intriguing to hear of his refusal to shoot down a sitting duck French plane. Sounds like he was quite a character. Voted up. Alun.

      • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

        David Hunt 

        6 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

        Thanks for commenting, GClark. I, too, was amazed at how young Anthony Fokker was. To think that the producer of the Red Baron's famous triplane was 27 at the time! And that he designed/made/sold his first airplane at age 20. I had always thought Fokker was a middle-aged factory baron.

      • GClark profile image

        GClark 

        6 years ago from United States

        Voted Up on this well-written interesting hub! What an incredible list of accomplishments for someone so young. Thanks for sharing.

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