The Airco D.H.2 was the first purpose built fighter aircraft to enter British service, and played a major part in the defeat of the Fokker monoplanes and the end of the Fokker scourge. The D.H.2 was the second production aircraft designed by Geoffrey de Havilland for the Aircraft Manufacturing Company (Airco), and was a cut down version of his two-seater D.H.1, itself designed as reconnaissance fighter. De Havilland had been working on a design for a single seat tractor biplane, but a lack of any synchronisation gear meant that the War Ministry insisted on pushers.
The D.H.2 was a two bay biplane with unstaggered wings. The upper and lower wings were interchangeable. The engine, fuel tanks and pilot were carried in a nacelle attached to the lower wing. This nacelle was constructed from the standard wooden frame with fabric covering. The two tail booms were constructed from tubular steel. The aircraft was powered by a single Gnome Monosoupape nine cylinder air cooled rotary engine.
To modern eyes the D.H.2 looks incredibly fragile, with a framework of metal tubes where one would expect the rear fuselage. Only when seen from above does this design make sense – the metal tubes formed two sides of a triangle, with enough space for the 8ft 2.5in diameter propeller at the aircraft end and the tail attached to the tip.
The development of the D.H.2 overlapped with the appearance of the Fokker E.I monoplane. Work began on the British aircraft in March 1915, and it made its maiden flight on 1 June 1915, exactly one month before the first reported victory for the E.I, over a Morane-Saulnier Type L on 1 July 1915.
That first flight, with Geoffrey de Havilland at the controls, revealed that the aircraft was tail heavy and needed a larger fin and rudder. To fix these problems lead weights were installed in the nose, the nacelle was moved forward and the rudder was modified. These changes significantly improved the aircraft's handling, so much so that less that two months after its maiden flight the prototype was sent to France for operation tests (see below).
Early production aircraft were very similar to the prototype. The most obvious change was the use of a central mounting for the Lewis gun, which gave the gun a wide range of movement, and which required a modified nose.
The D.H.2 made a brief debut in France in the summer of 1915 when the prototype was sent to No.5 Squadron for operational evaluation. The aircraft was dispatched on 26 July, was recorded on the squadron's strength on 31 July, and was lost over the German lines on 9 August. The Germans later dropped a message on the British side of the lines to announce that the pilot, Captain R. Maxwell-Pike, had died of his wounds after a crash landing.
Despite this short-lived debut the D.H.2 was put into full scale production, and a limited number of aircraft began to appear in France before the end of 1915. Eventually 401 D.H.2s were accepted by the R.F.C.
During this early period the D.H.2 began to gain a reputation as a dangerous aircraft. It had a limited speed range (between the stall speed and its maximum speed), and a tendency to spin in inexperienced hands. Some early aircraft were built with re-bored Monosoupape rotary engines, which were prone to shedding their cylinders. The engine's location between the tail struts meant that this was very likely to result in damage to the tail and lead to a number of fatalities in training.
The D.H.2 became fully operational when Major Lanoe G. Hawker led No.24 Squadron from Hounslow to St. Omer on 7 February 1916. The squadron would eventually claim 44 enemy aircraft destroyed in 774 combats.
The moveable gun proved to be ineffective in combat – its location made it difficult to fire upwards and it was difficult for a pilot to fly the aircraft with one hand and aim his gun with the other. Hawker attempted to fix his gun in place, turning it into a standard fixed forward firing gun, but this met with official disapproval. Eventually Hawker came up with a compromise that allowed him to pin the gun roughly in place but release it if required. Eventually the vast majority of D.H.2s were equipped with similar mechanisms, often despite official disapproval.
The arrival of the D.H.2 effectively ended the 'Fokker Scourge' – the period of German dominance that had followed the introduction of the Fokker E.I and its successor the E.III. The D.H.2 was slightly faster than the Fokkers, but its key advantage was its more modern controls.
No.24 Squadron was soon joined by Nos.29 and 32. Together these three squadrons helped to give the Allies a measure of control of the air during the battle of the Somme. It was during this period that Major L.W.B. Rees won a V.C. after singlehandedly attacking ten German two-seaters, destroying two despite being wounded himself.
The D.H.2 was indirectly responsible for the death of Oswald Boelcke, the leading German ace of the first half of the war. On 28 October Boelcke was killed after colliding with another German aircraft whilst diving to attack a pair of D.H.2s.
The accelerating pace of change in the skies over the Western Front meant that the D.H.2 had a short lifespan as a front line fighter. In September 1916 the Germans began to receive the much superior Albatros fighters. These aircraft could out-climb the D.H.2 and had a higher service ceiling, although the D.H.2 remained the more manoeuvrable aircraft.
The new German superiority was graphically illustrated on 23 November 1916 when Lanoe Hawker, flying his D.H.2, was killed by the then unknown Manfred von Richtofen in an Albatros D.II after one of the longest dog fights of the war.
The D.H.2 began to be replaced as a front line fighter by the Sopwith Pup, Nieuport 17 and Spad VII. No.29 Squadron received the Nieuport 17 in March 1917, while No.24 Squadron converted to the D.H.5 in April. No.32 Squadron retained its D.H.2s a little longer, using them as ground attack aircraft during the fighting around Arras in the spring of 1917, but in June 1917 it to converted to the D.H.5.
The D.H.2 played a limited role in Home Defence. Small groups of one or two aircraft were allocated to various units from time to time, but the types only major contribution came on the night of 16/17 June 1917 when a D.H.2 flown by Captain R.H.M.S. Saundby, conducting tests at Orfordness, was one of three aircraft that took part in a successful attack on Zeppelin L48, shooting it down over the Suffolk coast. All three aircraft claimed to have fired on the Zeppelin and credit was eventually given to the pilot of a B.E.12 that was the only one of the three that was officially on Home Defence duty at the time.
Near and Middle East
A small number of D.H.2s were sent to Macedonia and the Near East during 1917, but they were only slightly less obsolete on those fronts than they have become in France. No. 47 Squadron R.F.C. received its first D.H.2s in February 1917, and operated them alongside a number of other outdated aircraft until the end of the year, but without much success.
No.14 Squadron, fighting over the Sinai, received its first four D.H.2s in April 1917, but once again they were unable to cope with the more modern aircraft they were facing, and spent most of their time on escort or patrol duties. The same was true for No.111 Squadron, which arrived in the area in August.
All surviving D.H.2s had been struck off RAF charge by the autumn of 1918.
Engine: Gnone Monosoupape
Power: 100 hp
Wing span: 28ft 3in
Length: 25ft 2.5in
Height: 9ft 6.5in
Tare Weight: 943lb
All-up Weight: 1,441lb
Max Speed: 93mph
Service Ceiling: 14,000ft
Endurance: 2hr 45min
Armament: One forward firing Lewis gun on flexible mounting