Text: Jan Bobek
Illustration: Adam Tooby
Cat. No. 8486
Canadian William Melville “Mel” Alexander was one of the most famous aces in the Royal Naval Air Service and the RAF. Of his 22 victories (23 are also given) he achieved a total of 10 during 1917 in the Sopwith Triplane N5487 “Black Prince” as a member of the Black Flight of No. 10 Naval Squadron. He also took part in the air battle of July 6, 1917, in which the commander of Jasta 11, Manfred Freiherr von Richthofen, was severely wounded.
When Alexander went on leave in mid-October, he had 12 victories to his credit, two of them already on Camels. On his return in late December, his unit was fully rearmed with Camels. Later Alexander would remember this type as an excellent aircraft, but tricky one. Anyway, if a pilot passed the first 10 to 15 flying hours unscathed, he usually had the plane firmly in his hands.
It was in Camel B6289 that Alexander achieved his first victory after returning from leave. It was marked with a white letter A, which placed it in the unit’s A Flight, and an individual color motif was painted on the wheel discs. The aircraft itself already had two victories to its credit, achieved in 1917 by Flt. Sub-Lieut. H. L. Nelson. It was later turned over to No. 9 Naval Squadron and crashed in June 1918.
When Alexander took off with B6289 from Teteghem, near Dunkirk, on January 23, 1918, at 14.05 he was part of the High Offensive Patrol of ten machines of No. 10 Naval Squadron. The formation headed over the front at 7,000 feet. Five minutes ahead of them, a formation of Camels from No. 3 Naval Squadron had taken off as well. Over the Houthulst forest, they came into combat with four DFWs escorted by three fighters of a new type. They managed to shoot down one of the two-seaters, but after the fight the English Flt. Sub-Lieut. Herbert S. J. E. Youens was missing. The German planes were apparently Pfalz scouts from Jasta 7, and Youens, who was captured, was then a guest at that unit's airfield at Aertryke. The commander of Jasta 7, who was Lt. d. R. Carl Degelow, claimed in his memoirs, after the war, that he had shot down Youens, but was not credited with the victory. However, this is probably a fabrication.
Victory over Youens was awarded to Lt. d. R. Gustav Wandelt from Jasta 36, at 15.45 near Staden. Then just five minutes later, also near Staden, Jasta 36 clashed with the Camels of Naval 10. The Naval pilots with their biplanes were just in the clouds chasing three two-seaters escorted by one fighter. These were soon joined by five Albatross from Jasta 36. Flt. Lieut. W. A. Curtis first hit a green-painted two-seater which broke up in mid-air, and then dove to pursue another two-seater with silver paint. Flt. Sub-Lieut. Nelson fired a burst at two Albatross in succession during the chase in the clouds, but to no avail. “Mel” Alexander chased one Albatros above the cloud layer and managed to hit it from below in the fuselage during a turn, the German went into a spin. Alexander followed his adversary through the clouds and lost contact when he had to focus on another enemy machine. He was credited with an “out of control” victory.
A painting by Adam Tooby shows just the moment in the opening stages of the battle, with Alexander flying close to an Albatros with blue paint on the nose, the identifying feature of the Jasta 36 machines.
This German fighter unit recorded in its diary that it was attacked by six Sopwiths. Wandelt was pursuing one Camel when suddenly his machine was hit in the engine and collided with another Camel. He did not survive the crash. The unfortunate pilot who collided with Wandelt’s Albatros was Canadian Flt. Sub-Lieut. Ross A. Blyth, who was also killed. Blyth’s colleagues did not see the collision, but both Alexander and Flt. Sub-Lieut. Manuel saw falling planes. The latter stated in his report that the machines fell together in a spin then hit the ground together. On the German side, both Wandelt’s victories and the circumstances of his death were witnessed by Lt. d. R. Heinrich Bongartz and Max Naujock. The wreckage of Blyth’s Camel was photographed by the Germans with a large group of soldiers, a common custom at the time. The picture is characteristic in that none of the onlookers look triumphant or cheerful. The 25-year-old Canadian aviator is buried today in Perth cemetery, near Leper (Ypres), Belgium. Wandelt’s final resting place is unknown.