Virtual Battle of Britain: One out of 100 Nerds over the English Channel

I have to confess - I am a nerd. I am involved in one of these crude internet multiplayer hobbies: I'm reenacting the Battle of Britain with 3.000 other players worldwide.

Text: Henry Lübberstedt/Translation: Christoph Jungmann

Late summer 1940. At four meters per second my kite is tediously climbing into the evening sky above the English Channel. Behind me the airfield Theville near Cherbourg disappears in the haze. It’s where I took off. Right after liftoff I had put the two-engined Junkers Ju 88 in a left hand bank until the magnetic compass showed 0 degrees, routinely trimmed all rudders and engaged the course control lever with a satisfactory clacking noise. I take a look at the instruments: cooling water 85 degrees, oil 71 degrees, the fuel pressure is ok, too. Time for a cup of coffee. At 270 kilometers per hour it will take me a good 35 minutes to reach my target: a fuel depot south-west of the British town of Sailsbury. That is provided no British fighter aircraft shoots me down beforehand.

According to the map I would have to steer a course of 352 degrees but in 1940 the deviation of the earth's magnetic pole to the geographic north was eight degrees west: so the compass needle needs to be kept at 360 degrees, otherwise it will be a flight into nowhere. My machine passes 1.500 meters of altitude, time for the superchargers. Immediately the engine manifold pressure indicators jump forward as if they were happy about the additional breath of air. I account for the increase in engine rpm via the propeller pitch. The propeller blades get more grip onto the air and rotate more slowly as a result. Just like the operating manual demands. My headphones are cracking. "Hello Henry, do you need escort?" The yellow noses of two Messerschmitt Bf 109s already park themselves to the left and right of me. They are Lebano and DUI, who are called Elias Wagner and David Dienstbach in real life. Together with around 3.000 other people around the world we are involved in one of these crude hobbies in the digital multiplayer age: We are reenacting the "Battle of Britain" using the best simulation to ever cover the Battle of Britain: "IL-2: Cliffs of Dover ", or CloD for short.

You’ve got to have a little obsession 

Some fight as orcs and elves against fabulous beings in Warcraft or fight for their virtual life in Battlefield, we just do our thing. And to make it quite clear: It is not embarrassing to us at all. You have to have a little obsession to do this kind of leisure. In a time when multiplayer games are optimized for accessibility, speed, sophisticated statistics and immediate rewards, CloD acts like a party pooper: despite the fact that up to 100 players may be in the air at one time it’s not unusual to have nothing happening at all for as much as 15min. Getting started is a challenge and recognition in the form of ranks or medals are unknown. Who enjoys all this? Answer: Nerds. Guys like me. Boys and very few girls with a passion for historical aviation and military aviation. Enthusiasts who will lash out 300 euro for custom-made rudder pedals without flinching. Actually it is quite unnecessary to state how small the fan base is.

A Hawker Hurricane is shooting down a Junkers Ju 88 - a typical situation in the flight simulator "IL-2 Sturmovik: Cliffs of Dover" in which virtual pilots can engage in the Battle of Britain on both the German and/or British side.

A Hawker Hurricane is shooting down a Junkers Ju 88 - a typical situation in the flight simulator "IL-2 Sturmovik: Cliffs of Dover" in which virtual pilots can engage in the Battle of Britain on both the German and/or British side.

DUI opens his throttle and pulls up into the sky in front of me. To protect me his Messerschmitt needs speed and height. Air combat in CloD is like 3D chess. Always be two steps ahead of your opponent, know his weaknesses and the strengths of your own machine. DUI preaches this gospel to the newbies without intermission and with the greatest of patience. It’s probably because of this why he's responsible for the support of the German language sub-forum on the discussion forum of the Air Tactical Assault Group (ATAG). Whoever ends up there is kind of setting up a personal ad: Historically interested and aircraft enthusiastic he/she is looking to connect with like-minded people. Over the years this has grown into one of the friendliest international multiplayer communities.

Average age 35, across all professions, from craftsmen to judges, natural scientists, musicians and retirees. Many actually fly in real life as well, some were even fighter pilots or traffic pilots. Like Lebano for example, who together with DUI is now flying more than 2.000 virtual meters above me. He is currently training for his international pilot license. Besides his teacher training, he saves every cent he earns for his dream. We are three members of the largest German speaking CloD group. We train every Wednesday evening. All in all the flight community is very colorful and mixed. They come from Austria, Switzerland, the Netherlands, France, England, Norway, Sweden, Canada, Greece, the USA, Spain, Italy, Australia, Brazil, Russia, Poland, Czech Republic and Turkey. One may recognize a certain irony in the fact that the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the once war opponents are coming together as a community via a war simulation of all things.

Community in real life

The central communication hub is the ATAG forum. All around it there are a lot of squadrons and Facebook pages as well as YouTube channels. The language: English. The tone: always friendly & constructive. And when you meet in real life there usually is a party. Just like in the summer of 2016 in Duxford, the British village which annually is host to the Flying Legends. 30 to 40 "Warbirds" take off as part of one of the largest airshows for historical military aircraft in Europe. Tens of thousands of fans stretch their necks on the ground, including many CloD enthusiasts. One recognizes each other via the club shirts. And in many a pub in the nearby town of Cambridge spontaneous international "fraternal meetings" occurred including the subsequent group photo.

The international community of virtual pilots regularly meets at airshows like the one shown here in the town of Duxford in 2016. One recognizes one another by the "club shirts". This particular group is wearing yellow noses - like the Messerschmitt Bf 109 back then in the Battle of Britain.

The international community of virtual pilots regularly meets at airshows like the one shown here in the town of Duxford in 2016. One recognizes one another by the "club shirts". This particular group is wearing yellow noses - like the Messerschmitt Bf 109 back then in the Battle of Britain.


The Russian screw simulation

Lebano calls out: "Contrails, one o’ clock !". That’s not good. The enemy aircraft are flying so high that their engine exhaust gases freeze to ice crystals - the contrails. Suddenly the bright lines disappear. This is even worse. The British fighters have apparently seen us and are leaving their icy heights in a dive. They whoosh past my bodyguards towards me. I’m evading, but then there’s already a crashing noise. One, two rounds have damaged the cooling water line of the left engine as well as the exhaust system. I’m flying. For the moment. But without the coolant the engine will inevitably run hot. I pull the throttle right back, close the radiators a bit and re-trim the machine again. I’m sliding through the air a little sideways in my stricken aircraft. Four minutes to target.

One, two rounds were enough. Who came up with this sort of stuff? Oleg Maddox. In 2006 the Russian expert for flight simulations wanted to create the ultimate simulation of the Battle of Britain with his software company 1C Maddox Games. The aircraft should match their historical models as closely as possible. This is why the Messerschmitts and Spitfires resemble flying math equations: buoyancy, down force, drag, weight, inertia, temperature, air pressure - all that’s actually affecting an aircraft in real life shall also be modeled in the simulation. Rounds, too. The software calculates the flight trajectory of the projectile and which devices are located at the end of it inside the aircraft: carburetor, ignition, magnetic compass, control cables. Maddox thought of everything except for maybe the possibility of money running dry before the completion of the ambitious project. At the beginning of 2011 the investor pulled the zip line: "Cliffs of Dover" was pushed onto the market unfinished. Because of the many bugs and issues the specialist press warned customers of buying. That is rare.

Il2 Cliffs of Dover: Die Kunst des Fliegens

Happy ending for a software disaster 

My instruments are also warning. The left engine does not work properly anymore and rattles the entire machine. My target appears in front of me. Two warehouses, a large fuel depot. All around me dark puffs of exploding flak shells. I’ve got a single try. Bombs out. I do not hear the explosion, but see the detonation and the bright fire. The server announces to all players: "Sailsbury Fueldepot Destroyed". Congratulations in the chat window. A point for my own team. Maybe I'll even get home.

That this flight can take place at all I owe to a group of far bigger nerds than me. "Cliffs of Dover" was not only released in a completely broken state in September 2011, the software company 1C Maddox soon closed its doors. This put an end to subsequent bug fixes. Simulator fans around the world joined in anger. A small group did not want to accept this situation. They cracked the source code of the game and "repaired" it themselves - without manual, just trial and error. In software developer terms: Re-engineering. An incredible feat with well over 15.000 working hours put in. The group of programmers, 3D experts and graphic experts baptized themselves Team Fusion. Their members come from all over the world, they work anonymously, free of charge and in the deep gray area of legality. After all they are altering a copyrighted work. However with great success: their first major patch goes a long way to make "Cliffs of Dover" playable and visually more beautiful, the second adds new features and aircraft. The third will start off a completely new theatre: the Mediterranean in 1942. And just recently, the new rights owner has also made peace with the "Cliffs of Dover" group of troublemakers. A happy ending that was only made possible via the internet and the "power of the swarm".

I’ve completely soaked my t-shirt in sweat from all the tension. 

I switched off the left engine, put the propellers on feathering pitch and closed the radiators. Fortunately the 50 most important commands are deposited on my 300 euro, four kilo heavy joystick with throttle lever. I’ve long since dragged a trail of white coolant, fuel and black oil behind me. With the last drop of fuel I reach the French coast and perform a smooth belly landing on the beach. The server announces the successful end of my 70 minute flight with the words "Henry crash landed in friendly territory". I take off the headphones. I’ve completely soaked my t-shirt in sweat from all the tension. When does that ever happen: A computer game that necessitates a shower afterwards. 

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