The Pfalz D.III was the most successful Pfalz fighter of the First World War, and saw the Bavarian company move from being a minor manufacturer to producing aircraft that were normally only second to Fokker’s best designs.
The Pfalz company had been formed just before the First World War, and had gained a licence to build the Morane-Saulnier Type H monoplane and Type L Parasol. After the outbreak of war the company had produced armed fighters based on those designs – the Pfalz E.I to Pfalz E.V – but these aircraft had entered service after the Fokker E.I, and were never as successful. Structural problems with the aircraft eventually meant they were withdrawn from service.
Pfalz next moved onto the D 4, which used a similar fuselage to the E.V but made taller, with biplanes wings attached to the top and bottom of the fuselage. It flew in the summer of 1916 but was inferiopr to the Halberstadt and Albatros biplanes in service, so never entered production.
In order to keep the Bavarian company active in September 1916 they were given a contract to produce twenty Roland D.I fighters, initially as the Pfalz D.I and later as the Roland D.I (Pfal). This was followed by an order for 100 Roland D.IIs, originally as the Pfalz D.II and later as the Roland D.II (Pfal). These aircraft used Roland’s Wickelrumpf construction technique, in which thin narrow strips of plywood were glued around a mold to produce a strong but light monocoque shell. This required fewer frames than normal construction methods, and produced a fuselage that was more resistant to battle damage. This method of construction was used in the Pfalz D.III and all of their later designs.
The Pfalz D.III was built in response to an order from the Inspektion der Fliegertruppen to built fighters using the same configuration as the succesful French Nieuport fighters. It was designed by the firm’s chief engineer Rudolph Gehringer and designers Paulus and Goldmacher.
The D.III was built around a wooden semi-moncocque fuselage. The fuselage was built in two halves, and was made up of two layers of three ply veneer strips, each just under one mm thick and 90mm wide. The strips were laid diagonally over a master pattern to get the right shape. An underlying structure with a small number of frames and stringers was built, and the two halves of the fuselage were then attached to this framework. The plywood was then covered with fabric and doped. The resulting fuselage was elegantly curved (although the shape was a little spoilt by the engine jutting up from the nose).
The D.III was powered by a 160hp Mercedes D.III engine. The engine jutted up above the nose, but was partly contained within its own curved fairing.
The D.III had a larger upper wing and smaller, narrow chord lower wing, similar to the Nieuports. However the D.III had two spars in the lower wing, which made it stronger than the single spar wing of the Nieuport. The upper wing contained a flush fitting Teves and Braun radiator on the right and a gravity fuel tank on the left. The main fuel tank was attached to the spar roots of the lower wing. The wings were half staggered – the leading edge of the lower wing was behind the leading edge of the upper wing, but the trailing edges were almost level with each other. Both wings were straight edged, with longer trailing edges.
On the D.III the two machine guns were mounted inside the fuselage, with the muzzles coming out of metal fairings. This wasn’t popular with pilots, as it made it harder to clear jams, and also removed the ability to aim along the barrel. On the D.IIIa the machine guns were moved to the top of the fuselage.
The prototype of the D.III was completed in April 1917. In the same month it carried out a series of factory tests, and the performance was impressive enough for Idfleig to cancel production of the Roland D.IIIs and order Pfalz to complete the last 70 aircraft on the order as the Pfalz D.III.
Two orders were placed for the D.III. The first, for either 70 or 100 machines (sources differ), replaced an order for 200 Roland D.III (Pfal) aircraft. The second, originally for 300 aircraft, was placed in June 1917. Of these the first 190 were probably completed as the D.III before production moved to the D.IIIa. Total production of the D.III was probably around 260 aircraft, with another of the 750 D.IIIa.
The D.III underwent its type test in May 1917 at Adlershof. It was found to have similar performance to the Albatros D V. Some small changes to the rudder and strengthening of the wing spars was ordered, and it was then accepted for production.
Production of the D.III began in mid 1917. The first three aircraft had reached the front line by the end of August 1917, and there were 145 in service by the end of October and 276 D.IIIs and 114 D.IIIas by the end of 1917. However progress was swift during the First World War, and by the spring of 1918 most D.IIIs had been withdrawn from front line service and moved to training units. In April 1918 446 D.IIIs and D.IIIa were serving in combat or training units. The aircraft was also given to the Ottoman Empire.
The first unit to get the D.III was Jasta 10, part of JG 1, Richtofen’s unit. At the time Jasta 10 was commanded by Werner Voss. Voss flew the D.III when it first arrived, and probably scored four victories in it before getting a Fokker Triplane. The D.III was used alongside a mix of Albatros and Fokker aircraft by the unit. The unit’s commander over the winter of 1917-18, Hans Klein, was flying a D.IIIa on 19 February 1918 when he suffered wounds that ended his flying career. The Jasta was still flying the Pfalz aircraft at the start of the ‘Kaiser’s Battle’ in March 1918. However in May the first Fokker D VIIs reached the unit, and the Pfalz fighters were phased out.
Jasta 4, also part of JG 1, also used the D.III, getting its first aircraft in September 1917 (using them alongside the Albatros).
The D.III was used by Jasta 15 of JG II. The unit received its first D.IIIs in October 1917, while it was based at Le Close Ferme. Once again the unit used a mix of aircraft, and it isn’t always possible to untangle which were being flown when. In March 1918 Hptm Rudolf Berthold took over the unit, and arranged to transfer all of the pilots from his old unit, Jasta 18, to Jasta 15. This new version of the unit took part in the Kaiser’s Battle in March 1918.
Pfalz was a Bavarian firm, and amongst the first units to get the D.III were Jastas 16, 23, 32, 34 and 35, which were transferred to the Bavarian Army. Over the winter of 1917-18 Jastas 76, 77, 78, 79 and 80 were formed in the Bavarian Army, also using the Pfalz fighter. The D.III was also used by Prussian units, although normally alongside other fighters.
In combat the D.III was good in the dive, and a stable gun platform. It was also rugged and could survive a significant amount of battle damage. However they weren’t very manoeuvrable, and had a slow rate of climb compared to their contemporaries.
One of the best documented D.IIIs was forced down intact behind British lines on 27 December 1918, while being flown by Vzfw Hecht. It was given the British serial number G110 and subjected to a series of tests as well as being photographed on numerous occasions.
The D.IIIa saw the guns moved from the lower fuselage to the top of the fuselage, as requested by pilots. It also had a rounded tailplane with a larger area and rounded lower wing tips. Around 750 were built, making it the most important version of the aircraft. However it isn’t always possible to be sure which model a unit was equipped with, as many reports continue to refer to the D.III.
The official reports on numbers of fighters at the front show the D.IIIa replacing the D.III early in 1918. On 31 December 1917, the first month in which the D.IIIa appears, there were 276 D.IIIs and 114 D.IIIas. By 28 February that had chanced o 182 D.IIIs and 261 D.IIIa. On 30 April there were only 13 D.IIIs while the D.IIIa had reached its peak of 433 aircraft. There were still 166 reported at the front on 31 August.
Engine: Mercedes D.III six cylinder air cooled in-line engine
Span: 30ft 10 1/8in (upper wing)
Length: 27ft 9 3/4in
Height: 9ft 9 1/8in
Empty weight: 1520.06lb
Max speed: 102mph at 10,000ft, 91.5mph at 15,000ft
Endurance: two hours
Armament: Two fixed 7.92mm LMG 08/15 machine guns