French Fighters in British Service During WW1

by Rick Kent

Nieuports and SPADs under British Management

When the excellent Fokker monoplane fighters appeared on the front they greatly outclassed their British and French opponents of whom many were shot down in what the British called the Fokker Scourge. Hence there was a desparately urgent need to design and produce fighter aircraft superior to the Fokker. This came in the form of the Nieuport BB=11 (the official French designation), which was even admitted in the German press to surpass the Fokker in climb, speed and manoeuvrability.

The British had already purchased other French types, so it was natural that they were anxious to obtain the new French fighter, and eventually build some of the later versions in the UK as well. The British bought and built these French types as they were the best available at the time and the British aircraft industry had not yet built up sufficient production capacity for the war. It was a kind of two-way process, in that the French also used some British types, most notably the Sopwith 1 1/2-Strutter which was built in far greater numbers in France than Britain.

By the time that the SPAD S.XIII was in production the British had developed superior fighters of their own (mainly the Camel and S.E.5A) and in sufficient production quantities that there was no longer any need for additional French aircraft. This, in a way, was fortuitous as it enabled the SPADs and also Nieuport 28’s to be supplied instead to the US Air Service.

In case it needs reminding, Britain had two air forces at the beginning of World War I: the Royal Flying Corps of the Army (RFC) and the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS). These were amalgamated to form the Royal Air Force on 1st April 1918 to form the Royal Air Force, which was thus the first fully independent air force in the world. By the end of WW I in November 1918 the RAF was also the largest air force in the world by a wide margin.




Nieuport 11. A Flight, 2 Wing, Royal Naval Air Service. Imbros, Turkey, 1916
Pilot : Flight Commander K.S. Savory

Twenty-one Nieuport 11’s were delivered to the RNAS and these were operated by No 1 Wing at St-Pol in France and No 2 Wing in the Aegean during the ill-fated Dardanelles Campaign. Their British serial numbers were 3974 – 3994. The aircraft shown in this profile was delivered to the RNAS Depot at Dunkerque in late 1915 in complete French colours including the national markings, thus the overall finish was a clear dope or pale yellow. It was soon transferred to No 2 Wing and for a time it was flown by Flight Commander K S Savory and was known by the nickname of Bluebird. It was modified by having the refinement of metal fairings fitted behind the engine cowling.

Both wings were painted blue on the upper surfaces as well as the nose and undercarriage. The aileron on the top right wing has been replaced and this is not blue but still clear-doped. Of special note is that the upper wing roundels remain the original French ones – ie with red outer circles and blue centres. The interplane struts and tailskid remain in their natural wood and metal colours. This aeroplane failed to return from a mission on January 14 1917 whilst being flown by Flight Lieutenant W H Peberdy.


Nieuport 16. 11 Squadron, Royal Flying Corps. Savy, France, July 1916

The Nieuport 16 was the result of a need to improve the performance of the Type 11, and this was done by replacing the original 80-hp engine with a 110-hp Le Rhone. The easiest way to tell the Type 16 from the Type 11 was the addition of the headrest for the pilot and fairing behind the cockpit. British Type 16’s also had their Lewis machine guns mounted on a British designed Foster mounting on the top wing.

Although the Type 16’s were originally intended for use by the RNAS they were all transferred to the RFC, which received fourteen from the RNAS and at least another nine directly from Nieuport; serial numbers were 5171 – 5173, and the rest variously numbered between A116 to A225.

The camouflage is of French origin, introduced in 1916, and is known to have been in shades of dull green and brown, though the precise shades are not known. The undersides were painted with pale yellow dope. The engine cowling panels were left natural metal, as were the centre-section and undercarriage struts. The tyres seem to have been a pale grey coloured rubber, rather than black. The interplane struts are varnished natural wood with dull red tape bindings.

The national markings are of the standard British type; at the time the rudder stripes on British aircraft were the same as French ones – something that was not reversed until 1930. The roundels on the top wing cover the full chord, including the ailerons, and, as was normal on the Nieuports because of the narrow chord of the lower wing, they are repeated on the lower surfaces of the top wing.

This particular Nieuport 16 was flown by the famous Ace, Albert Ball, who shot down a Roland C.II and an Aviatik in it on July 2nd 1916. A134 served with 11 Sqn from April to August 1916.


Nieuport 17. 29 Squadron, Royal Flying Corps. Le Hameau, France, May 1917

The Nieuport 17 first began to appear in April 1916 and was a completely new design from the Types 11 and 16, with the wing area increased to 14.75 square metres from the 13 sq. m of the earlier types. The Type 17 was probably the most famous of the Nieuports used by the British, and they all went to the RFC, though like the Type 16’s the first ones were originally intended for the RNAS. The first one (A200) was accepted by the RFC on July 19th 1916.

Most of the Nieuport 17’s in British service were painted with silver dope overall like this one, and had roundels painted in the usual positions, including the undersurface of the top wing. The interplane struts and tailskid mounting were left in their natural wood colour. The broad red bar behind the fuselage roundel is 29 Sqn’s marking. The code 3C indicates the third aircraft of ’C’ Flight of the Squadron (as another example, A6788 was coded 5C). The yellow wheel discs may also indicate ’C’ Flight, but might just be decoration.

On May 11th 1917 this aircraft shot down an Albatros D.III when being flown by Lieutenant A.S. Shephard. A6787 served with 29 Sqn from April to June 1917.


Nieuport 23. 40 Squadron, Royal Flying Corps. Treizennes, France, March 1917

Included in the batch of sixty Nieuports received by the RFC in March 1917 some were of Type 23. These were the same as the Type 17 except that they were fitted with a different type of interrupter gear for the Vickers gun; since the RFC never fitted the Vickers guns to its aircraft, preferring to use only the Lewis gun on the Foster mounting on top of the wings, this interrupter gear was removed anyway. Hence it was impossible to distinguish the British Type 23’s from the Type 17’s externally. The fitting of the upper wings to the centre section was slightly different also and this meant a very small adjustment had to be made to the drilling of the holes for the Foster Mounting, but this was so slight that it was not even noticed on the real aircraft on the squadrons.

This aircraft is in the usual silver-doped finish, with natural metal cowling, and the natural wooden struts and tail skid mounting. The Roman numeral ”VI” in white, thinly edged in black, on the fuselage is the individual aircraft ident; this was repeated on the top wing withe the ”V” to the left of the centre section and the ”I” to the right (both characters completely covered the full wing chord). The roundels are in the usual six RFC positions and sizes.

After its service with 40 Squadron in March 1917, A6786 also served with 29 Sqn in May.


Nieuport 17B. 3 Squadron, Royal Naval Air Service. St-Pol, France, January 1917

The Nieuport 17B designation was only used by the British RNAS for the ten of these aircraft that it obtained. These aircraft were basically the same as the Type 17, but fitted with a Le Rhone 80-hp engine to make them lighter and thereby increase their range. The RNAS received all ten of its aircraft (Serial Nos 3956 – 3958 and 8745 – 8751) by August 1916 before the French official designation of Type 21 for them was introduced, so they remained known as Type 17B to the British throughout their service.

The aircraft is in the standard French camouflage scheme of dull green and brown, with the engine cowling, struts, and tail skid mounting in their natural metal or wood colours. The roundels are of the normal British type on the wings, and the serial number is painted in white on the rear fuselage. Note that the wheel covers are painted white.

No. 3956 served with the RNAS from August 1916 until May 1917, during which time it operated with four different squadrons. The name BINKY was painted on it in white whilst it was with 3 Squadron.


Nieuport 17bis. 6 Squadron, Royal Naval Air Service. La Bellevue, France, April 1917

The Nieuport 17bis was improved from the Type 17 by having the whole fuselage sides covered in a rounded fairing instead of being flat, and also the fitting of the 130-hp Clerget 9Z engine. The Type 17bis was not used in great numbers by the Aviation Militaire Francaise but the British RNAS used them in some numbers, the majority of these being built by the British Nieuport Company (N5860 – N5909) and the remainder by Nieuport in Paris (N3184 – N3209). Most of these aircraft were painted with silver dope overall, though some were finished in the standard British PC10 Khaki-Green camouflage.

This profile is of one of the French-built aircraft, N3204, which was delivered to the RNAS at Dunkerque in March 1917 and was sent to 6 Squadron by March 15th. As can be seen, a wide red band was painted around the fuselage behind the cockpit and the engine cowling and wheel discs were painted to match. The serial number is in black on the fuselage and the roundels are as standard; also as usual are the narurally coloured struts and tail skid. Note that this aircraft has a Vickers gun on top of the fuselage ahead of the cockpit as well as the Lewis on the top wing.

This aircraft was lost on June 6 1917 when its wings came off in combat with Vzfw. Riesinger of Jasta 12, the pilot, Flight Lieutenant F.P. Reeves, being killed.


Nieuport 24bis. 111 Squadron, Royal Flying Corps. Julis, Palestine, January 1918

The Nieuport 24 was the same as the Type 17bis only fitted with new wings with a new, more cambered, aerofoil section and a whole new rounded, more elegant tail. Due to production problems with the new all wooden tail structure, the Type 24bis was introduced into production first with the original Type 17 tail with its simple steel tube structure. Thus the Type 24bis preceded the Type 24.

The British RFC received approximately seventeen of these two types, though the Type 24 was not used by operational units as it proved to be difficult to handle in combat due to some problem with its aileron control, the precise nature of which is still unknown. The reason for the small numbers used was because the Type 27 soon replaced the Type 24 in production.

This Type 24bis has the normal silver/natural metal and wood finish, and also the usual national markings. The four narrow red bands around the fuselage and the name DEMOISELLE are individual markings of the pilot, Lieutenant R.J.P. Grebby, as is the blue area behind the cockpit.


Nieuport 27. 1 Squadron, Royal Flying Corps. Bailleul, France, December 1917

The Nieuport 27 was the last of the Nieuports to be used by the British in World War I. It differed from the Type 24 in having two separate half-axles, pivoted in the centre, for the wheels and also it had a sprung tail skid. The Type 27 of course had the new rounded tail designed for the Type 24. The RFC received seventy of the Type 27’s.

This aircraft is in the silver doped finish with natural metal and wooden parts (in contrast, quite a number of the RFC Type 27’s were repainted with British PC10 camouflage dope). The red vertical bar behind the roundel is the Squadron marking of 1 Squadron; note that it is only painted on the sides and does not go over the top or underneath.

The red individual aircraft ident letter ”H” on the fuselage side is repeated on top as well, just ahead of the vertical bar up to a point over the centre of the roundel. The roundels are painted in the usual six positions and sizes on the wings. Note that this aircraft still has its Vickers gun fitted on top of the fuselage as well as having the Lewis gun on the top wing.




SPAD VII. 30 Squadron, Royal Flying Corps. Baqubah, Mesopotamia, March 1918

In British service the SPAD VII’s were operated by the RFC and, later, the RAF. Some were French-built machines whilst others were built in the UK. This example is one of those built by the Bleriot and Spad Aircraft Works in England.

The aircraft is in the standard British finish of PC10 Khaki-Green on the upper surfaces with clear-doped fabric underneath. The engine cowling panels are in Battleship Grey. The roundels on the wings cover the full chord, including the ailerons, those on the top wing being thinly outlined with white as on the fuselage. The white band around the rear fuselage is the marking of 30 Squadron.

The propeller is fitted with a small rounded, streamlined spinner which is also painted white. The wing and centre-section struts are left in their natural wood colour. Of particular note is the Lewis gun mounted on the top wing to supplement the usual Vickers gun ahead of the cockpit. This Lewis was on a locally made fixed mounting so it could not be swivelled to fire upwards or to change the ammunition drum. Several of 30 Sqn’s aircraft were fitted with them.

30 Sqn flew the SPADs in Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq) from September 1917 to May 1918; it was a mixed squadron, flying also R.E.8’s and D.H.4’s at the same time.


SPAD 13. 23 Squadron, Royal Flying Corps. Matigny, France, February 1918

Although the SPAD 13 was clearly a relative of the S.7 it was a completely new design. It was larger and more bulky, had a more powerful engine and two Vickers guns on the nose. The British RFC placed orders for 130 of the new SPAD with the French company Avionneries Kellner but approximately only 59 of these were received, the remainder being diverted to the US Air Service. These aircraft only served with two front-line squadrons (19 and 23) in France.

Being French-built the British S.13’s were painted in the standard French camouflage pattern in Dark Green, Light Green, Dark Brown, Beige and Black upper surfaces, with Light Yellow or Light Grey under surfaces (in the case of this aircraft, the Light Yellow is used). None of the roundels has any white outline, and the rudder has the usual French style of stencil markings (the small XIII and large S in black). The application of the British serial number, B6732, is unusual in white outlined thinly with red on the fin. The white triangle is the marking of 23 Sqn and this as well as the individual ident letter ”A” are sloping in the flying position (ie they were painted to be horizontal when on the ground). The letter ”A” is repeated on the fuselage top decking between the triangle and the roundel. The wing struts are polished natural wood.

By May of 1918, 23 Sqn was completely re-equipped with Sopwith Dolphins.

Rick Kent is a modeller, IPMS:er and a productive aviation artist. His speciality are computer-generated aircraft profiles.



This article was originally published in IPMS Stockholm Magazine in June 2000.