Text: Jan Bobek
Illustration by Adam Tooby
Cat. No. 8452
The distant sound of an aerial battle echoes through the slowly dissolving fog above the trenches. The machine guns bark, the engines howl at high revs as they come closer and closer. Out of nowhere, just a few meters above the ground, an aircraft heaves into view, desperately zigzagging in a shower of pursuers' bullets. It looks like it's about to land for a while, but suddenly its engine hits full revs and the pilot continues his flight for his life. With a roaring engine, he overflies the German trenches and disappears in a haze of mist towards friendly fields.
According to official statistics, Canadian Andrew Edward McKeever became the most successful fighter pilot on the Bristol F.2B. He is credited with 31 kills, all of which he achieved exclusively on this type of aircraft. His reports state 13 of these as OOC (Out Of Control), which in most cases meant the escape of the pursued pilot. Another 12 aircraft were credited to McKeever as destroyed (witnessed impact on the ground), and six are listed as destroyed in flames, which were aircraft that were already burning in the air. In the case of the “Brisfits” as the F.2B was nicknamed (but after the war only), many of the kills were achieved not by the pilots but by their gunners. The pilots were usually given the total number of kills by the crew, while the gunners were credited only with those they had achieved themselves. The gunners usually had a twin Lewis at their disposal and the effectiveness of their fire was uncomfortably high for German fighters. A well cooperating pilot and gunner pair was thus a mortal danger to even the best German aces.
McKeever started the war as an infantryman. He remained in the trenches until November 1916, when he was recruited into the ranks of the RFC and moved from France to the UK for pilot training. From May 28, 1917, he flew with No. 11 Squadron, first the obsolete F.E.2s, then the F.2Bs. His first success came on June 26, 1917, when he scored two Albatrosses D.V. One was stated OOC, the other DES (i.e., destroyed). Successively, McKeever flew with seven different gunners and, together with the last of them, Leslie Powell, they shot down a total of 18 enemies. All of these victories were achieved on “Biff” number A7288, which is depicted on Adam Tooby’s boxart for kit No. 8452. The art depicts the last phase of their final and epic battle, which occurred on November 30, 1917. The two airmen were patrolling behind enemy lines that day and spotted a pair of German two-seaters accompanied by seven fighters. McKeever attacked and reportedly shot down one of the two-seater aircraft. He then turned to his lines, but four of the Albatrosses swooped down on him like angry wasps. The experienced Powell hit two of them and shot them down, McKeever then engaged the other two in dogfight and shot one down. Moments later Powell’s machine guns jammed and McKeever fled at minimum altitude towards his own positions, pursued by the last enemy, who gave up further pursuit before reaching the British lines. So much for the British report and the British point of view.
The fight occurred south of Cambrai in the section of 17th German army. Three fighter Jagdstaffeln were operating in the area with Albatrosses sporting black markings (as they were described by McKeewer and Powell). Jasta 37 was based at Wynghene in the sector of adjacent 4th Army, about 100 km north of Cambrai, a long way from the scene of the battle. Then there was Jasta 7, also in the 4th Army sector, stationed at Aertrycke and therefore at a similar distance to the combat in question as Jasta 7. And then there was Jasta 12 at Roucourt, in a section of also adjacent 6th Army, which was only 20 km from Cambrai. So, presumably, McKeever and Powell fought fighters from Jasta 12. But this German fighter unit lost just a single pilot that day. He was Johann von Senger und Etterlin, and according to German records he collided east of Cambrai with Lt. G. E. Thomson of No. 46 Sqn RFC. Jasta 37 and Jasta 7 even reported no losses ...
So what happened? McKeever’s first kill was a two-seater of unknown type from an unknown unit, its impact was confirmed. The next victims, three Albatrosses, are already very questionable, although they were marked as DES, for destroyed, which required testimony from other crew or ground units. But it was foggy and who knows what the others saw ...
There were no more victories for the pair as they were withdrawn from operational service in January 1918. McKeever subsequently started to work on the birth of the Canadian air force along with W. Bishop and R. Collishaw. He became CO of No. 1 Sqn CAF, which was training for fighting with their Sopwith Dolphins. But the war ended before that could happen. After the war, McKeever became the director of the airfield at Mineola, New York, but before he could start work, he had a car accident in which he suffered a broken leg and died of a cerebral thrombosis on December 24, 1919.