The Fokker D.VII was the best German fighter aircraft in service at the end of the First World War. It marked a dramatic return to form for Fokker, the company that had produced the first true fighter aircraft with the E.I Eindecker. The successful monoplanes had been followed by a series of mediocre biplanes, which were plagued by poor build quality, and then by the Fokker Dr.I triplane. This had restored Fokker’s reputation somewhat, but had still suffered from the build quality problems.
The D.VII entered production after the first German fighter contest of 21 January-12 February 1918. Part of Fokker’s success was due to his good relationships with many of the main German fighter pilots, including Manfred von Richthofen. The V.11 prototype performed reasonably well, but lacked manoeuvrability. Fokker was able to rebuild the aircraft mid-contest to produce the winning prototype in the inline engine category and with it a production order for 300 aircraft.
The D.VII combined a conventional steel-tube fuselage with advanced internally braced cantilevered wings, constructed with plywood ribs, covered in fabric and with plywood leading edges. The ease with which the simple fuselage could be maintained was one of the reasons the type was adopted.
The German army realised that Fokker did not have the capacity to build enough aircraft for their needs, even after an order for AEG C.IV trainers being built under license was cancelled. To solve this problem, Albatros and OAW were given contracts to build the D.VII under license, paying Fokker a 5% fee. Of the more than 3,000 aircraft ordered, only 1,000 were produced by Fokker.
The prototype D.VII was submitted for type tests on 4 February 1918, passing easily. An early production aircraft was tested in March, and passed with only one modification. The D.VII (and D.VI) did not suffer from the problems of build quality common to most other Fokker aircraft of the period, possibly because Fokker was aware that his own products would be directly compared with the license built aircraft – if the Fokker produced aircraft had been flawed in the same ways as the earlier biplanes, it is perfectly possible that Fokker might have lost the contract to produce his own aircraft! The only serious problem that developed with the type was caused by over-heating ammunition, which exploded causing several fatal fires. This problem was solved by adding extra engine cooling louvers, some at the factory and some at the front line.
During its production run the D.VII was powered by a variety of engines. Very few used the original Mercedes D.III 160hp engine, replacing it with the D.IIIaü, capable of producing 180-195hp. The best version of the aircraft was the D.VIIF, powered by the over-compressed B.M.W. D.IIIa engine, capable of 185hp. These aircraft were preferred by the pilots, but were never available in sufficient numbers. All types of D.VII were popular with the German fighter pilots. The aircraft handled well and had light controls that made it less tiring to fly than many of its contemporaries. At medium altitude it was faster and more manoeuvrable than its opponents. It accelerated quickly in the dive while remaining steady, making it a good gun platform.
The D.VII began to appear at the Jastas (front line fighter squadrons) in late March and early April 1918. The first unit to be equipped with it was Jagdgeschwader I, under Manfred von Richthofen, although he appears not to have flown the type in combat. The number of aircraft at the front increased rapidly, from 19 on 1 May, to 407 on 1 July and 838 on 1 September. Rather than equip entire units with the new aircraft, Jastas received piecemeal deliveries of the D.VII as aircraft became available. The best pilots in the best units were thus the first to receive the aircraft. As a result many German aces achieved great success in the D.VII, but at the same time less capable or new pilots were given discarded older aircraft, and suffered high casualties.
By the end of the war the D.VII had been the main aircraft for forty seven Jastas (fighter squadrons). The type equipped Jastas 4, 6, 10 and II in Geschwader I, Jastas 12, 13, 15 and 19 in Geschwader II, Jastas 2, 26, 27 and 36 in Geschwader III and independent Jastas 5, 7, 8, 14, 16, 17, 20, 22, 23, 24, 28, 29, 30, 32, 35, 37, 40, 44, 46, 47, 48, 49, 51, 52, 53, 54, 56, 57, 58, 59, 66, 69, 71, 79 and 80.
The Fokker D.VII had an edge over all of the main Allied fighters of 1918. However, it appeared too late in the war to have any real impact on the fighting. German’s best chance of a victory in 1918 came during the Second battle of the Somme of 21 March-5 April. The D.VII was beginning to enter service in tiny numbers as this attack ground to a halt. As the end of the second German offensive, the battle of Lys (9-29 April), there were only 19 D.VIIs in service. By 1 July, when the type was finally available in reasonably large numbers, two more German attacks had failed (third battle of the Aisne, 27 May-3 June 1918) and the Noyon-Montdidier Offensive (9-13 June 1918). The Fokker D.VII was an aircraft of the period of German defeat.
In its relatively brief front line career, the D.VII won itself a very impressive reputation. Famously it is the only aircraft mentioned by name in the clause of the armistice agreement that called for the surrender of 2,000 German aircraft. Of the aircraft surrendered, 324 went to Belgium as war reparations and 142 to the United States.
Span: 22ft 3.5in
Length: 22ft 11.5in
Armament: Two fixed forward firing 7.92mm Spandau machine guns
Mercedes D.III powered aircraft
Max Speed: 118mph
BMW IIIa powered aircraft
Max Speed: 124mph