By the last few months of the war, more and more the Germans were being outfitted with Fokker D.VII fighters. The highly maneuverable and legendary Fokker Dr.1 triplane had become outclassed by competing Allied aircraft not too long after it entered service. Furthermore, it was built in small numbers (320) and was hobbled by a 110 horsepower rotary engine whose power limited the plane to low speeds and lower altitudes. As a result, the German IdFlieg (Inspectorate of Flying Troops) held a competition for a new aircraft based around the 160 horsepower Mercedes DIII engine.
31 different prototypes were submitted including nine by Fokker, of which the D.VII was one. The Fokker lineage was evident in the design of the squared off cross section of the fuselage and the circular tail – both similar to the Dr.1. The VII was structurally strong, handled well and was nimble and maneuverable. The competition had been held at the end of 1917. The D.VII entered service with Jagdstaffeln 1 in April, 1918, slowly replacing Dr.1s in its wake.
The 160 horsepower gave it performance inferior to the latest French and British types, but switching to a 185 horsepower BMW IIIa engine made it faster climbing, slightly faster flat out and able to climb to a higher maximum ceiling. It was now able get up to 20,000 feet in less than 20 minutes, though its 120 mile per hour top speed still left it, according to Eddie Rickenbacker and others, unable to overtake the Spad XIII in level flight.
However, in a dogfight, the D.VII had the great advantage of being able to sustain tight turns without losing altitude. Maintaining altitude was important since the plane that was able to remain higher up usually kept the initiative since it could then either dive onto its prey or even dive away out of harm's way all else being equal.
Of the D.VII, RFC pilot Donald Hardman said:
"This machine prevalent on the front at the end of the war had all the good points of its predecessors and several more, in fact it was as near perfect as any machine during the war.
It could climb up to 20,000 feet at a terrific speed, had a very good speed on the level, could dive almost at any rate, having an extremely high factor of safety. It turned at a lightning speed and would perform any other stunt better than any other machine."
Thus of these advanced German types, the VII was produced in the greatest numbers and was perhaps the most reliable, not being plagued by problems that felled previous Fokkers. And so it was probably the all-around best German aircraft of the war. It would also be the nemesis of many of the American fighter squadrons.
The plane was considered dangerous enough to be the only aircraft specifically mentioned as part of the Conditions of an Armistice with Germany in which the Germans were to "surrender in good condition… all D7s". If the D.VII was not the best German plane of the war, then it was pretty close.
The D.VII was not the last word in German aircraft design. The Dornier D.I could climb to 26,500 feet and zip along at 125 miles per hour versus 19,600 feet and 117 miles per hour for the D.VII. But the D.I never went into production because it had too many innovative ideas not yet fully sorted out which rendered it unsafe. Perhaps most interesting late-war German design was single seat Junkers D.I .
The Junkers D.I was slower than the others and was only capable of 105 miles per hour, but it had a tough corrugated metal skin similar to the far larger Junkers Ju-52 which would gain fame during World War II. This skin made gave the plane great structural rigidity and also the ability to sustain a great amount of damage. Yet only 41 of these advanced Junkers fighters were built – the last of which is now suspended dramatically from the ceiling at Le Bourget's Museum of Aviation.
Related Links: Nieuport 28 | Spad VII | Spad XIII | Fokker D.VII and other German aircraft | Fokker Dr.1 | Albatros D.Va | What was the first American fighter plane?