February 25, 2013
Following on from the 1914-1916 thread, I thought I would start on the year 1917 of the Great War. Once again, these works by various aviation painters are arranged in chronological order of the dates of the events they are depicting. Like the previous thread, only those works that depict an incident that has a specific historical date are included so therefore works that depict a ‘general’ or ‘typical’ scene are not included.
Comments and corrections and additions are welcome from forum members.
February 25, 2013
‘The Sergeant and the Cow’ by Mervyn Corning
Thomas Mottershead was born in Lancashire in 1892 into a large working class family, one of ten children. He studied engineering prior to the war and was employed as a garage mechanic when the war began in 1914. He enlisted in the Royal Flying Corps as a mechanic, a role he performed for the next eighteen months. Promoted to Sergeant in April 1916, Mottershead commenced pilots training the following month and qualified in June.
In July 1916, Mottershead was posted to an operational unit, No 25 Squadron, based in St Omer, France and equipped with the Royal Aircraft Factory FE2b two-seater ‘Pusher’ fighters. The unit was heavily involved in the Somme Campaign which had only just begun and Mottershead soon found himself in action, engaged in low-level strafing and bombing sorties, including an attack on the town of Samain on September 22nd where he and his observer destroyed a German ammunition train and then shot down a Fokker fighter en route home. Awarded a DSM, Mottershead was transferred to No 20 Squadron, also equipped with the FE2b.
On January 7th, 1917, Sgt Mottershead and his observer, Lieutenant William Gower (nicknamed ‘Cow’ to his friends), flew a patrol in a new FE2d over Ploegsteert in Belgium. They were attacked by two Albatros fighters of Jasta 8. Gower, manning the Lewis MG in the front observer’s seat, managed to cripple one of the German fighters, forcing it to retreat but the second Albatros , piloted by Leutnant Walter Gottsch, pressed home its attack, scoring hits on the FE2b’s fuel tank, puncturing it and setting the leaking fuel alight.
The FE2d was soon trailing a thick banner of smoke as flames licked from the engine, threatening to engulf the entire aircraft. Gower pulled out the aircraft’s hand-held fire extinguisher and attempted to subdue the flames whilst Mottershead turned the burning aircraft westwards to head back to Allied lines. Seated nearest the flames, Mottershead was soon badly burned but he continued to concentrate on flying the aircraft, determined to reach safety and save the life of Gower. The aircraft crossed the Allied lines but Mottershead, despite the agony of his injuries, waited until he sighted a flat field upon which to make a safer crash landing. Turning into the wind, Mottershead attempted to land his crippled machine but the FE2 collapsed into pieces as soon as the undercarriage touched the ground. Gower was thrown clear, suffering only a few bruises but Mottershead was trapped in the still-burning wreckage. Assisted by several British infantrymen, Gower dragged his pilot clear. Although still conscious and lucid, Mottershead’s burns were too severe and despite the best efforts of the surgeons at the hospital, he died five days later on January 12th.
Mottershead was posthumously awarded a Victoria Cross, becoming the only non-commissioned pilot of the Great War to receive one. King George V presented the medal to his widow. Mottershead’s home town of Widnes launched a charity appeal to raise funds for his wife and little son and nearly 1,000 pounds was raised, an enormous sum in 1917. Sadly, the fund never reached its intended recipients, frozen by red tape. It was not until the 1970s that the money was belatedly recovered and used to establish a scholarship fund in Mottershead’s name at Widnes Technical College.
Lieutenant Gower never recovered from the eventful sortie, suffering a nervous collapse or ‘shell shock’ as it was termed at the time. He was soon posted from No 20 Squadron and never flew again, instead being employed in ground duties in reconnaissance units for the rest of the war. Leutnant Walter Gottsch became a fighter ace, credited with 20 aerial victories before he was killed in April 1918 when his Fokker Dr.1 Triplane was shot down by an observer in an RE8.
February 25, 2013
February 25, 2013
February 25, 2013
‘The Boy Legend’ by Mervyn Corning.
On 26th January 1917, the French ace George Guynemer, flying a borrowed SPAD, spotted a German Albatros C.VII two-seater over Monchy. He dived at the enemy plane and fired a burst of ten rounds which appeared to strike the target. Then Guynemer’s weapons jammed.
Deciding to use psychological warfare instead, Guynemer made a number of ‘dummy’ runs at the Albatros, jinxing to avoid the return fire from the observer. Thinking that the SPAD was about to open fire each time, the German pilot kept diving, progressively losing height.
When both planes were only 400 metres above the ground, Guynemer made one final pass at his quarry and the latter’s crew finally gave up. According to the French ace’s after-action report, the German observer stood up in his cockpit, arms outstretched in a gesture of surrender. The Albatros pilot landed on a French aerodrome below. The Germans quickly set fire to their aircraft before they were taken prisoner. Guynemer landed nearby and strolled over to meet the enemy crew, informing them of his jammed weapon. The German pilot was amazed. He told Guynemer that the French pilot’s brief burst of a mere ten rounds had struck the Albatros’ instrument panel, smashing the altimeter.
The enemy Albatros was credited to Guynemer for his 30th aerial victory.
February 25, 2013
February 25, 2013
‘Captain Georges Guynemer’ by Ivan Berryman
On 8th February 1917, Georges Guynemer achieved what would be the largest of his 53 confirmed victories when, flying his SPAD VII, he shot down a Gotha G heavy bomber over Bouconville.
‘FE8‘ by Paul Monteagle
At 1020hrs on 9th March 1917, Leutnant Kurt Wolff of Jasta 11 achieved his second confirmed victory when he destroyed a British Royal Aircraft Factory FE8 Pusher Scout.
February 25, 2013
The situation in the spring of 1917.
As the winter of 1916/1917 drew to a close, the armies on the Western Front were shivering in their frozen, mud-chocked trenches. In most sectors, the trench-lines had not changed position since 1915 and men on both sides wondered what the new year would bring.
In the British sector, the eager, enthusiastic volunteers of Haig’s new army were recovering from the mammoth Somme campaign which had fizzled out in early December, costing the British & Empire forces over half-a-million casualties. Contrary to popular belief, the morale of the British army was, for the most part, still intact and the majority of the rank & file remained determined to do their duty and continue the fight although many were quietly questioning the tactics of their commanders. The old pre-war professional army was now all but gone, much if it destroyed in the battles of 1914/1915 and the survivors were scattered throughout the wider army, many of them instructing new recruits. The reservists (territorials) had shouldered the brunt of the British army’s battles of 1915 such as Second Ypres and Loos and what remained of them now stood among the civilian volunteers of the New Army. The harsh lessons of the Somme had erased the naive cheerfulness of the khaki formations but a grim resolve endured for the present. Their commanders were on a steep learning curve and their men could only hope that the blunders committed on the Somme would not be repeated.
The French army was also enduring but, unlike their British allies, cracks were beginning to show in their discipline and morale. The French had been forced to take on the far greater burden of the war on the Western Front since 1914 and they had fought more large-scale battles and had taken much heavier casualties. The campaigns on the Somme and at Verdun the previous year had sucked much of the strength and many of the best troops from the army. Many French formations remained highly skilled and well led and, unlike their British allies, they had a healthier respect for their German opponents. Indeed, the French divisions on the Somme had performed noticeably better than the British units and had taken more ground with considerably fewer casualties. But the enormous losses the battered army had suffered in 1914-1915 and at Verdun in 1916 had taken a heavy toll. In some formations, discipline was becoming frayed, as was the morale and enthusiasm of the rank & file and respect for the high command was wearing thin.
The Germans remained determined and highly efficient, despite the great losses they, too, had suffered in 1916. The strong soldierly ethic and conscientious professionalism was still maintaining the German forces. Even in the most adverse conditions, German trenches remained better-maintained and tidier than their Allied opponent’s. Discipline remained tight and transgressions were harshly dealt with. Their commanders were changing tactics after the bloody battles of 1916. At the Somme and Verdun, German generals, forbidden to concede ground to the enemy, had packed front-line trenches with infantry, exposing them to the devastating artillery barrages of the Allies, especially those of the French, the most skilled gunners of the war. This tactic had inflated the casualty figures. As one German officer famously remarked ‘The Somme was the bloody grave of the German army’.
Now, in their third year of fighting multiple enemies on two fronts (or four if one includes German forces sent to the Austrian/Italian front and East Africa), Germany was running short on manpower. Newly trained soldiers as young as 16 were now being sent into the trenches. Aware of this problem, in 1917, the Germans changed tact. Rather than fill front-line trenches with troops, the first lines would be a series of outposts manned by machine-gunners with secondary lines further back fortified with bunkers and dugouts, protected by elaborately laid wire and mines. The bulk of the infantry would be kept in reserve to the rear, ready to mount rapid counter-attacks at a moment’s notice if/when the Allies broke through with junior officers and NCOs given the authority to make decisions at their own initiative, saving precious time. It was a defensive posture, relying on firepower and obstacles instead of just manpower.
On the Eastern Front, things were going from bad to worse for Imperial Russia. The army was crumbling, shattered by huge losses, incompetent leadership and severe shortages of everything from boots to artillery shells. A fragile defense line was holding the Germans at bay but at great cost, not only from enemy fire but from cold and disease. For many Russian troops, the winter of 1917 had been the final straw and thousands were deserting en masse or refusing to move up to the front-lines. Bolshevik and other political agitators had managed to infiltrate the army at every level, encouraging revolt and sedition. Meanwhile, Czar Nicholas had totally lost touch with reality, utterly inept at commanding the armed forces and unable or unwilling to stop the corruption and incompetence among his politicians and officials that ensured that many of his troops had no ammunition, no food, no rifles, not even proper uniforms. Food shortages were rife among the civilian population and law & order was breaking down in many places.
Finally in March 1917, a new Provincial Government was formed, forcing Nicholas to abdicate. However, despite the war-weariness and urging for peace of much of the population, the new government pledged to continue the war, much to the disappointment of Germany who wanted the eastern front resolved.
February 25, 2013
The Air War in 1917
By the Spring of 1917, the air campaign over the Western Front was beginning to swing back in favour of the Imperial German air-force once again. After the so-called ‘Fokker Scourge’ of the last half of 1915, the Allies had regained some of the initiative with the introduction of new aircraft in early 1916 such as the DH2 and FE2b ‘Pushers’ and the French Nieuport 11 ‘Bebe’ fighter. By the summer of 1916, the once-all-conquering Fokker Eindecker monoplane fighters were no longer dominating the skies.
However by late 1916, the Germans were changing tactics and introducing new aircraft, especially the Albatros D-II fighter. The German pilots were developing new tactics, using teamwork and new aggressive methods which used advantages of speed and altitude in the air. Fighter units (Jastas) were organised into what was soon nicknamed ‘flying circuses’, mobile units willing and able to move to new sectors at short notice, sometimes operating from improvised aerodromes and their pilots living in tents if necessary. These units would achieve local air supremacy in one sector and then move onto another. German pilots in 1917 were given free rein to decorate their machines as they chose and their fighters were soon displaying gaudy colours and patterns.
The French were learning, developing new machines and new tactics in the air. New fighters such as the Nieuport 17 were proving themselves able opponents of the German scouts and the new SPAD VII which began arriving in February 1917 was showing promise. Although heavier and less agile than the smaller, slimmer Nieuports, the SPAD was faster, more heavily armed and was a more stable gun platform.
The British found themselves increasingly outclassed. The ageing Pushers were becoming outmoded, as was the highly unpopular BE2 two-seater which still equipped RFC units in large numbers. Standards of pilot training had lagged behind those of the Germans in 1915-1916. British aircrew in early 1917 were being sent to operational units with less than 25 hours flight training, not even the minimum required to acquire a basic light plane license today. Many cadets at British training fields received only basic, inadequate training, many of their instructors either combat-fatigued survivors from the front or rear-line pilots unable to get to France who took out their resentment on their recruits. Not surprisingly, of the 14,000 aircrew deaths in the RFC during the Great War, 9,000 were a result of accidents during training! By contrast, accidental deaths in training accounted for only a quarter of aircrew losses in the German air-force.
As the relative ‘quiet’ of the winter gave way to spring, the British high command remained determined to maintain a war of offensive tactics. The RFC would continue to send aircraft over enemy territory, to both achieve air supremacy and to support ground forces. Even those squadrons still operating obsolete machines would be committed to this plan. The cost would be heavy.
‘Bloody April’ by Wilf Hardy
On 5th April 1917, a flight of six Bristol F2A two-seater fighters of No 48 Squadron RFC departed their aerodrome and flew on a patrol over Douai. The Bristol was making its operational debut, a lengthy, streamlined two-seater which had the speed of a fighter. The flight commander was William Leefe Robinson, recipient of the Victoria Cross for single-handedly destroying the airship SL-11 over Britain the previous year.
Robinson was a brave and capable pilot. But his tactics were flawed. Thinking the F2A was too large and ungainly to be suitable as a fighter, Robinson insisted on flying it in a close formation, combining the firepower with each crew mutually protecting his comrades. He also unwisely forbade his aircrews from coating their machine-guns in lubricant.
The six Bristols crossed the enemy lines and patrolled over Douai. Shortly after 1100hrs, they were set upon by five Albatros scouts of Jasta 11, led by Manfred von Richthofen. The result was a disaster. Restricted by their tight formation, the Bristol pilots could not take advantage of the speed and agility of the aircraft and the free-ranging enemy scouts could nibble and strike at the formation at their leisure. The un-lubricated guns on the F2As soon seized up and jammed in the cold conditions.
One by one, four of the Bristols were brought down, all over enemy lines. Two of those were credited to von Richthofen himself. By good fortune, seven out of the eight air-crew survived to become POWs, the sole fatality was observer 2nd-Lieutenant Herbert George who was badly wounded and died in a German hospital. One of those captured was Robinson who later made several un-successful escape attempts from a POW camp and was placed in solitary confinement as punishment. He survived the war but the ordeal had physically drained him, leaving him unable to survive a bout of influenza which claimed his life only seven weeks after the end of the war.
Despite the disastrous start, the Bristol F2 would later have a highly successful combat career, making it one of the best two-seaters of the Great War. The upgraded successor, the F2B, arrived in May 1917 and it proved the equal of many single-seat scouts.
As one character remarked in Derek Robinson’s novel Hornet’s Sting, ‘we’re going to stop flying the Bristol like a line of chorus girls and start flying it like a fighter!’
February 25, 2013
‘Albatros and Sopwith Dogfight‘- by Don Breckon
At 1140hrs on 8th April 1917, Manfred von Richthofen of Jasta 11, flying his distinctive all-red Albatros D-III, engaged and shot down a British Sopwith 1&1/2 ‘Strutter’ of No 43 Squadron RFC near Farbus. The Strutter’s pilot, Lieutenant John Heagerty, survived the crash-landing to become a POW but his observer, Lieutenant Leonard Heath-Cantle, was killed.
It was von Richthofen’s 38th credited victory and it was the first of two he would achieve on 8th April as he would shoot down a BE2 of No 16 Squadron that afternoon. ‘Bloody April’ 1917 would prove to be Richthofen’s most fruitful month of his career as he would be credited with 22 Allied aircraft before that dreaded month drew to a close.
‘Into the Hands of Fate’ by Graham Turner
On the morning of April 13th 1917, five Royal Aircraft Factory RE8 two-seaters of No 59 Squadron RFC took off from their aerodrome at La Bellevue, tasked with flying a photographic reconnaissance mission over enemy territory. Only one RE8 carried a camera, the other four planes flew as escorts. The flight had been allocated SPADs and FE2bs as fighter cover but they had missed the rendezvous point, leaving the RE8s to cross the lines on their own. A navigational error saw the flight veer off course, flying too far north, right into a sector near Vitry patrolled by Jasta 11.
A flight of Albatros D-III scouts came at them from above. Leading the pilots of Jasta 11 was none-other than Manfred von Richthofen himself, flying his bright-red painted fighter. Beside him was his younger brother Lothar. At this stage, Manfred had accumulated 40 confirmed victories whilst relative newcomer Lothar had three.
In a short, savage execution, all five RE8s were shot down. Manfred destroyed one of them for his 41st victory. The pilot, Captain James Stuart and his observer, Lt Maurice Wood were both killed. Two more RE8s fell to the guns of Lothar von Richthofen, making him officially an ace with five victories. Another ‘Harry Tate’ was destroyed by ace Sebastian Festner during that action. Festner would achieve a total of 12 victories before his death two weeks later on April 25th.
‘Brothers in Arms’ by Ivan Berryman
The RE8 was built as an intended replacement for the unpopular and outmoded BE2. However, whilst it was faster and more agile, with the observer/gunner in the rear seat instead of the front as the BE2 had been designed, the RE8 was difficult and tiring to fly. Its ungainly appearance, especially the high-angled upper wingspan, led many pilots to dis-trust the machine, refusing to perform high-speed dives or steep turns, giving the aircraft a reputation as being ‘unsafe’ although in reality, its loss-rate from accidents was no worse than contemporary two-seaters such as the F2B or DH4.
‘Bloody April’ 1917 was one of the worst months of the war for the Allies, as it saw the German fighter units reach their peak in terms of tactical and technical supremacy and confidence. Of Festner’s 12 victories, 10 were scored during April. Manfred von Richtofen achieved 22 of his eventual 80 victories during that month and Jasta 11 was credited with a total of 89 Allied planes downed.
February 25, 2013
‘Attack on the C.17‘ by Ivan Berryman
The ‘C-Class’ Airships were developed in 1916 by the British Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS). It was designed primarily for anti-submarine patrols, carrying a crew of five with a bomb-load of up to 200kg plus two .303 Lewis MGs for air-defense. Additional machine-guns could be, in theory, fitted to the underside of the airship but only if the crews were prepared to place themselves at risk of exposure or falling whilst using them.
The C-Class airships were poorly designed, being sluggish, slow-turning and unstable in the air, often causing severe air-sickness for their crews. They could manage a top speed of only 40 knots but pilots soon learnt that it was risky to fly even at that modest speed as the nose of the airship was prone to denting. The open unheated cockpits also put the crews at risk of hypothermia and frostbite in cold weather.
Only 35 C-Class airships were constructed. As weapons of attack, they were rarely effective and throughout the war, only six U-Boats were confirmed sunk by C-Class airships. However as a deterrent, they were much more successful. U-Boats tended to be much more cautious and reluctant to press home attacks on Allied convoys when C-Class airships were operating in the vicinity. Throughout 1918, convoys sailing with C-Class airships as escort did not lose a single ship to U-Boat attack.
However their slow speed, limited defensive armament and sluggish handling rendered the C-Class airships vulnerable to anti-aircraft fire or enemy air attack. One example of the latter occurred on the morning of April 21st 1917 over the Channel when the C-Class airship C-17 came under attack by a Hansa-Brandenburg W.12, a seaplane fighter of the German Naval air-service. The W-12 pressed home its attack and shot down the airship in flames. The latter’s commander Lieutenant S Jackson and all four of the crew were killed.
The W-12’s pilot, Oberflugmeister Karl Meyer, was the German Naval Air Service’s first ace and the C.17 was his seventh confirmed victory. He was later transferred to another naval fighter unit and achieved one more victory in June for a total wartime tally of eight. He died from injuries sustained in an accidental crash on 31st December 1917.
February 25, 2013
‘Roderic Dallas’ by Mark Postlethwaite
On April 22nd 1917, Australian fighter pilot of the 1st Fighter Wing of the RNAS, Captain Roderic Dallas, flying a Sopwith Triplane accompanied by his wingman and fellow Australian Thomas Culling, attacked a formation of 14 enemy planes over Arras where a bloody battle had been raging since April 9th.
Using the Sopwith Triplane’s superior altitude capabilities and its faster rate of climb, Dallas and Culling made no less than 20 firing passes at the German formation which progressively became more ragged and then scattered, being forced lower and lower. Dallas destroyed two of the Albatros fighters and Culling downed a third and both pilots scored hits on a number of other enemy machines, all of whom eventually retreated to the east. The entire action had lasted over 45 minutes, a very long time for an aerial engagement. These two latest victories raised Dallas’ personal tally to sixteen.
Dallas was born on a farm near the small town of Esk in rural Queensland, Australia in 1891. His father was a farm labourer but a change of job to shift manager at a mine raised the family’s income enough to ensure young Roderic could be enrolled at Mount Morgan Boy’s School in 1899. He worked in the assay office of the local gold mine and studied technical drawing and chemistry. Dallas was also highly talented at athletics and kept fit & healthy, avoiding alcohol and rarely smoking.
Upon the outbreak of war, Dallas soon realised the fledgling Australian Flying Corps was too tiny to accommodate the hundreds of new recruits clamouring to join it so he paid his own sea passage to Britain. Turned down by the RFC, he joined the RNAS and joined No 1 Naval Wing in December 1915. Flying a French-built Nieuport 11, the cockpit of which could barely accommodate his tall frame, he achieved his first victory on 23rd April 1916, shooting down a German Aviatik C two-seater.
In June 1916, Dallas was given one of the brand-new Sopwith Triplanes, an aircraft which had been turned down by the RFC but which, flown by the RNAS, would become one of the best and most under-rated British fighters of the Great War. The aircraft was an immediate success and Dallas’ ability as a pilot and as a leader quickly drew notice. By the end of 1916, he had eight confirmed victories to his credit and was a Flight Commander. Unlike some of the more self-centred aces, Dallas cared deeply for his men and did his utmost to train and prepare them for combat, constantly studying new tactics and new techniques. In January 1917, Dallas set a new altitude record when he reached a height of 26,000 feet, almost passing out from oxygen deprivation.
By June 1917, Dallas’ score had exceeded 20 and he was now commander of No 1 Naval Wing. Dallas proved a superb commander, shepherding his rookie pilots, often damaging an enemy plane and then letting one of the younger pilots finish it off so as to build up the latter’s confidence. On the ground, he proved a skilled organised and efficient administrator. By now, the ageing Triplanes were becoming outmoded and these were replaced with Sopwith Camels in November.
By the time the RFC and RNAS merged to become the Royal Air-Force in April 1918, Dallas was a Major and he was given command of No 40 Squadron, equipped with Royal Aircraft Factory SE5as. The unit included a number of former RFC pilots who regarded their new naval commander with some suspicion but Dallas soon proved himself, earning the affectionate nickname ‘The Admiral’. Dallas’ score reached 37 enemy machines downed on 26th April 1918. On 2nd May, impatient at a quiet spell over the Front, Dallas flew behind enemy lines and dropped a small parcel over a German aerodrome. It contained a pair of boots with a note that read ‘If you won’t come up to fight, you might as well work on the ground, enclosed is a pair of boots for the use of’. Dallas lingered above in the clouds until a group of Germans had gathered around the parcel, whereupon he dived back down, dropped two bombs and then flew low over the airfield, machine-guns blazing. Even the dour Field-Marshal Haig is said to have burst into laughter when informed of the incident.
Around this time, Dallas wrote home, begging his ageing father to quit his dangerous job at the mines and he promised he would financially support his parents after the war. By the end of May, his official score was 39 plus a number of un-confirmed kills.
On June 1st, a letter arrived on his desk informing him that he had been promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel and with his new rank, he was to cease flying missions immediately. Dallas was never to see the letter as it arrived after he had taken off on a solo patrol from which he never returned. It was eventually discovered Dallas had been surprised by a trio of Fokker Dr.1 Triplanes and his SE5a had been shot down, most likely by ace Leutnant Johannes Werner. British troops ventured out into No-Man’s Land and retrieved his body along with personal effects from his crashed aircraft. He was buried at Pernes British War Cemetery in France.
Dallas’ exact score remains a topic of debate amongst historians. If the figure of 39 is accurate, Dallas was the second-highest scoring Australian ace of the Great War, after Robert Little’s 47 victories. However some experts insist his true score was only 32 whilst others believe it was at least 45, perhaps over 50.
February 25, 2013
‘Duel with Kurt Wolff‘ by Colin J Ashford
On the evening of April 27th 1917, German ace Kurt Wolff shot down a Royal Aircraft Factory FE2b belonging to No 11 Squadron RFC. The painting above is in-correct as it depicts Wolff flying a Fokker D.VII which did not enter frontline service until May 1918 whereas the FE2 had been withdrawn from operational use by the autumn of 1917. In reality, Wolff was flying an Albatros D.III fighter.
Kurt Wolff was born in Greifswald, Germany in 1895. When the Great War began, he had already been serving in the German army for two years. Transferring to the air-force in July 1915, he nearly lost his life in his very first training flight when the aircraft crashed, killing his instructor although Wolff himself survived with a dislocated shoulder. He managed to complete his course before the end of the year and he spent the first nine months of 1916 flying two-seaters with several reconnaissance units before being re-assigned to fighter unit Jasta 11 in October 1916.
The first few months proved fruitless for Wolff as the unit had a poor success rate at the Front with few of its members achieving any victories. However things changed when Manfred von Richthofen assumed command in January 1917. Under his stern but inspiring leadership, Jasta 11 quickly became one of the elite fighter units on the Western Front. On March 6th, he achieved his first success when he shot down a British BE2d. By the end of the month, Wolff was an ‘ace’ with five confirmed victories.
In ‘Bloody April’ his tally grew rapidly and over the course of that month, he downed 22 Allied planes, equaling Richthofen’s tally for the same month. Among his victims was Englishman H D Harvey-Kelly (famous for being the first RFC pilot to land in France back in August 1914 and for being the first British pilot to down a German plane several weeks later) and Irish ace David Tidmarsh. The latter pilot survived but spent the rest of the war as a POW.
Wolff, flying an Albatros with a red fuselage and bright green tail-plane, became a formidable figure in the air. On May 2nd, he downed two more Allied planes in a single sortie, raising his score to 29. On May 4th, he was awarded the Pour le Merite (The ‘Blue Max’) and two days later he was given command of Jasta 29. Wolff flew with this unit for two months. The administrative demands of command restricted the number of sorties he could fly but he was able to add another two Allied aircraft to his tally.
A fellow pilot described him thus ‘at first glance, you could only say ‘delicate little flower’. A slender, thin little figure, a very young face, whose entire manner is one of extreme shyness. He looks as if you could tip him backwards with one harsh word.’ But his physical appearance did not match his achievements in the sky. The writer went on to say ….’so far, these modest looking eyes have taken 30 enemy airplanes from the sky over the sights of his machine guns, set them afire, and made them smash to pieces on the ground. This slender youth is already one of the best men of the old Richthofen Staffel 11.”
In July 1917, he was transferred back to his old unit- Jasta 11- only this time as its new commander. He achieved two more kills shortly after his arrival but on 11th July, he was wounded in action and was hospitalized. After rest and recovery, Wolff returned to his unit in September 1917.
On 15th September, only four days after his return, Wolff was given one of the brand-new Fokker Dr.1s. Eager to try out the new machine, he took off on a patrol accompanied by an Albatros DV piloted by Carl von Schoenebeck. Over Moorslede, Belgium, they spotted a formation of eight of the new Sopwith Camels of the RNAS escorting a formation of DH4 light bombers. Wolf & Schoenebeck were above the Allied planes and had not been spotted.
Four of the Camels abruptly dived away, having spotted some other German fighters below them. Seeing an opportunity, the two Jasta 11 pilots dived down to attack the weakened escort flight, initially catching the other Camel pilots off-guard. In the furious dogfight that followed, Wolff got on the tail of one of the Camels only to have another attack him in turn from behind. Schoenebeck, seeing Wolff was in danger, was unable to help as he had another Camel chasing his own aircraft. The pilot, Englishman Lieutenant Norman MacGregor of No 10 Squadron, fired a quick burst at 25 yards range before climbing to avoid a collision with the enemy triplane. The burst was a fatal one. Wolf’s triplane span down vertically and crashed behind German lines.
Wolff did not survive. Schoeneback managed to escape from the melee and he later carried the wreath at Wolff’s funeral. MacGregor survived the war with a tally of seven victories and he lived until 1981.
Richthofen’s 52nd– by Steve Anderson
On April 29th 1917, Manfred von Richthofen of Jasta 11 was credited with two victories- his 51st and 52nd. At 1930hrs in the early evening over Roeux, he shot down a two-seater BE2 of No 12 Squadron, killing both the crew- English pilot Lt. David Davies and his Canadian observer Lt George Rathbone. Less than 15 minutes later, he encountered a Sopwith Triplane of No 8 Squadron RNAS over Sallaumines. The pilot, Flight Sub-Lieutenant Albert Cuznor, became Richthofen’s 52nd success and, like the BE2 crew, the naval pilot also perished.
These were the final two victories of what was Richthofen’s most fruitful month of his combat career. He downed a total of 21 Allied planes during ‘Bloody April’. An exhausted Richthofen was sent home for a few weeks leave at the end of the month.
February 25, 2013
‘The Last Fight of Albert Ball’ by Norman G Arnold.
Albert Ball was perhaps the most famous and admired British ace of the Great War. Born in Nottingham in 1896, one of three children to comfortably middle-class parents, Ball was a precocious youth, excelling in sports, rifle-shooting, music and carpentry. He proved a crack shot with a rifle as an adolescent, displaying superb marksmanship and a keen vision.
Upon the outbreak of the Great War, Ball enlisted in the infantry and quickly rose to the rank of Second-Lieutenant but he was assigned to training duties in Britain. Frustrated at not being sent to France, Ball undertook pilots training in his own time and at his own expense which was considerable (the equivalent to over 7,000 pounds in today’s rates). During his youth, Ball had displayed contradictory aspects to his character, capable of being highly sensitive and emotional yet at other times being cold, aloof and remarkably flippant when confronted with death or suffering. His training instructor reported his disquiet at cadet Ball’s apparent indifference to fellow trainees who were killed or injured in accidents.
Transferring to the RFC in October 1915, Ball undertook military aerial training. His pilot skills were only average at best and he survived three crash-landings during this period. He was awarded his wings in January 1916 and assigned to his first operational unit- No 13 squadron- based in France and equipped with Royal Aircraft Factory BE2s. He survived being shot down by anti-aircraft fire in March and had several in-conclusive engagements with enemy two-seaters. During this period, he wrote to his parents, asking them to stop his younger brother from enlisting.
Ball was transferred to No 11 Squadron in May 1916. This unit was a fighter squadron, equipped with a variety of machines including Nieuport 11s, Bristol Scouts and Royal Aircraft Factory FE2b ‘Pushers’. Ball scored his first confirmed victory on May 16th, only a week after arriving at his new unit.
Ball’s victory tally grew rapidly, as did his fame and celebrity back home. As the campaign on the Somme erupted in July and the long casualty lists were posted in the British Press, a hero was desperately needed to raise morale at home and the handsome, boyish-looking features of Ball proved ideal. In reality, Ball’s personality did not match the charming, gallant knight of the skies that the press portrayed him as. He rarely, if ever, socialised with the other pilots of his squadron and only occasionally drank or smoked. Ball built a small wooden hut situated away from the quarters of his comrades and located near his parked aircraft where he slept by himself and where he relaxed in between sorties. Ball liked to play violin and tended a small vegetable garden he dug beside his hut. He also frequently wrote letters to his mother to whom he was very close. Ball could be insubordinate, occasionally prone to childish temper tantrums and could be verbally rude, even cruel, to some of the other pilots. He often lounged in dirty overalls, wore his hair longer than normally permitted and liked to fly without a helmet or goggles, claiming they interfered with his vision. His superiors indulged the whims of the young ace, knowing his propaganda value. As one officer later remarked, ‘Every squadron needed some-one like Ball. He was bad for discipline but good for morale.’
In the air, Ball flew ruthlessly. His favourite tactic was to climb beneath an enemy plane and empty the magazine of his Lewis MG, mounted atop the upper wing, into its belly. By the end of August 1916, his score stood at 17. Transferring to No 60 Squadron and flying a Nieuport 17, Ball increased his tally to 31 by the end of September. After a spell of home leave, Ball undertook instructional duties in Britain for the next several months. He became engaged during this period but he soon yearned to return to combat flying. Transferring to No 56 Squadron, equipped with the new Royal Aircraft Factory SE5a fighter, he went back to France in early April 1917. Despite his apparent eagerness to get back to the front, Ball was privately suffering combat-fatigue and was inwardly sickened by the slaughter, something he confided only to his parents.
Between April 23rd and May 6th, Ball’s score of enemy machines rose to 44. He had several narrow escapes himself. On 2nd May, a bullet holed his oil tank, spraying the hot liquid into his eyes. Barely able to see, he had to fly home with zero oil pressure, nursing an engine liable to seize up at any moment. Upon landing, he was so distraught, Ball was unable to move or speak for some time. He continued to fly solo patrols rather than in company with his comrades but this practice was becoming increasingly dangerous as the German fighters normally flew in organised formations.
On the evening of 7th May 1917, Ball led a flight of 11 SE5s of No 56 Squadron on a patrol over Douai. They encountered Albatros D-III fighters of Jasta-11. It was nearing dusk and there was thick cloud. The dogfight soon became scattered and confused. One of the other SE5 pilots was Cecil Lewis who would later become famous for his book Sagittarius Rising.
Another SE5 pilot, Cyril Crowe, reported seeing Ball’s fighter flying into a patch of dense cloud, in pursuit of a red-painted Albatros. Ball was never seen alive again.
The German fighter in question may have been the aircraft of Lothar von Richthofen. He force-landed with a punctured fuel-tank after he reported engaging a British fighter head-on. He was later credited with shooting down Ball but Richthofen claimed that the enemy fighter he engaged was a Sopwith Triplane. Whether Richthofen encountered Ball or not, it is now almost certain that the British ace suffered an attack of vertigo whilst flying through the thick cloud and he became inverted. This caused the aircraft’s engine to stall and Ball would have lost control. A German officer on the ground reported seeing the SE5 appear from the underside from the cloud flying upside-down with its propeller stopped, emerging into the open only 200 feet above the deck. With no time to recover, Ball’s aircraft crashed, killing the young ace who died four months short of his 21st birthday.
A posthumous Victoria Cross was awarded to Ball. His mother could not attend the ceremony to receive it from King George V as she was too distraught.
February 25, 2013
Albert Ball’s Final Flight-I by Russell Smith
Albert Ball’s Final Flight-II by Russell Smith
A pair of depictions of Ball’s final action on May 7th. Unlike Arnold’s painting (above) which was painted in 1919, Smith’s much more recent works are more accurate in terms of depicting the weather conditions and time of day in which the action took place.
February 25, 2013
February 25, 2013
Oberleutnant Lothar von Richthofen by Ivan Berryman
This work depicts the red Albatros D-III of Oberleutnant Lothar von Richthofen during the melee on May 7th 1917. Having become separated from his comrades in the dense cloud and fading light, Albert Ball’s SE5 was seen by one of the other British pilots, Cyril Crowe, heading into dense cloud in pursuit of a red Albatros. Lothar von Richthofen was flying an all-red Albatros but he claimed that he engaged a Sopwith Triplane during the action. Richthofen’s Albatros sustained several hits in the engine cowling, one round puncturing the fuel tank. Whether it was the Sopwith Triplane (which returned to base unharmed) or Ball’s SE5 which caused the damage cannot be known for certain.
Ball’s SE5 was found later, having crashed behind German lines. However no bullet wounds were found on Ball, neither were there any bullet holes in his aircraft. It was most likely that Ball suffered an attack of vertigo and became completely disorientated in the thick cloud, inverting his aircraft and causing his engine to stall. Nonetheless, German authorities, eager to make the most of the incident’s propaganda value, credited Richthofen with shooting down Ball and the SE5 became the German ace’s 20th victory.
Born in Breslau in 1894, Lothar von Richthofen enlisted in a cavalry regiment upon the outbreak of war in 1914 like his older, and soon to be more famous, brother Manfred. He served as a junior officer in the 4th Dragoons and was decorated for valour in France in October 1914. The regiment was transferred to the Eastern Front shortly afterwards and Richthofen spent most of 1915 stationed in Russia. He managed to secure a transfer to the air-force before the end of that year.
Richthofen trained as an observer and he flew with Jasta 23 from January 1916, seeing action during the Battle of Verdun in the spring of that year. Shortly before Christmas, he commenced training as a pilot and qualified by February 1917. In March, he was assigned to Jasta 11, joining his older brother Manfred who commanded the unit. On 28th March, Richthofen achieved his first victory when he shot down an FE2b, the same type that his brother Manfred had destroyed for his first success the previous September.
More victories rapidly followed as Richthofen, eager to emulate his older brother’s success, flew aggressively. In ‘Bloody April’ he achieved an impressive 15 victories with an additional two during the first week of May. Two hours before he is said to have encountered Albert Ball on 7th May, he shot down a British-flown Nieuport 17 for his 19th victory. He was officially credited with bringing down Ball’s SE5 later that evening although Richthofen very much doubted he had been responsible as he only remembered briefly engaging an RNAS Sopwith Triplane (which returned to its base unharmed). Nonetheless, the victory was officially added to his tally. Three more victories followed over the next five days.
On 13th May, Richthofen descended to low-level, shooting down an obsolete BE2 but immediately afterwards his aircraft was hit by anti-aircraft fire. Wounded in the hip, Richthofen managed to crash-land safely but his injuries required prolonged hospitalisation and it was five months before he could return to his duties. Richthofen rejoined Jasta 11 in late September and was appointed as its new CO, replacing his brother Manfred who was commanding the new JG-1. He achieved two more victories in November but was later hospitalised again over the winter with a severe ear infection. It was February before he was fit for operational flying again.
Rejoining Jasta 11, Richthofen, now flying a Fokker Dr.1 triplane, destroyed three British F2Bs in two days on March 11-12. On 13th March, he engaged a Sopwith Camel of No 73 Squadron, piloted by Captain Augustus Orlebar. Richthofen’s triplane was badly hit and he was forced to break off in order to crash-land. It was Orlebar’s third victory and the British pilot would survive the Great War with seven enemy machines to his credit and would later go on to lead the British teams at the Schneider Trophy airspeed contests in 1927-1931.
Richthofen managed to reach his aerodrome but as he made his approach, his wings clipped some high-tension telegraph wires, causing the Fokker to violently crash. Richthofen sustained severe head-injuries and he was confined yet again to hospital, enduring the pain and discomfort of steel braces to mend his fractured skull. Whilst in hospital, he received the news on April 21st that his older brother Manfred had been shot down behind Allied lines and had been confirmed as dead. In July 1918, Richthofen returned to Jasta 11, pronounced fit for duty. His head injuries and the loss of his brother had changed him and he was more reserved, short-tempered and melancholy but the grim determination remained. On 25th July, Richthofen, now piloting a Fokker D.VII, shot down a Sopwith Camel for his 30th victory. Over the next 12 days, ten more victories followed, bringing his total tally to 40.
On 13th August, Richthofen was wounded during an engagement with a Sopwith Camel flown by an American pilot. He managed to force-land safely but required yet more hospital treatment. During his recovery, he was promoted to Oberleutnant but the Great War ended on 11th November before he was able to return to operational flying.
Although his total tally of 40 victories was only half that achieved by his more famous older brother, Lothar’s successes had been gained at a much faster rate as the time the latter had spent at the front had been considerably less due to his numerous spells in hospital. Of Lothar’s 40 victories, 33 of those had been achieved in just three months- April & May 1917 and August 1918.
Richthofen returned to Germany and worked for a short period on a farm before accepting an administrative position at a factory. He married Countess Doris von Keyserlingk in the summer of 1919 and the couple had two children before the marriage collapsed in 1921. That year, Richthofen became a commercial pilot, flying passenger and mail routes between Berlin and Hamburg. On 4th July 1922, Richthofen was landing an LVG C-II at an airfield at Fuhlsbuttel when the aircraft suffered an engine failure and crashed. Richthofen was killed in the accident.
He was buried alongside his father at the cemetery in Schweidnitz. After the end of the Second World War in 1945, the area became Polish territory and the cemetery was levelled by the Poles and Lothar von Richthofen’s remains now rest some-where beneath a football field.
February 25, 2013
Lt Morgan’s Balloon Strafe by Colin J Ashford
On 7th May 1917, Lieutenant Lewis Morgan of No 40 Squadron RFC achieved his third confirmed victory when, flying a French-built Nieuport 17, he destroyed a German observation balloon.
Morgan, a Welshman, had served in an infantry regiment earlier in the war before transferring to the RFC. Joining No 40 Squadron in the spring of 1917, Morgan had soon earned the nickname ‘The Air Hog’ because of his frequent patrols and relentless work ethic, flying more sorties than his fellow pilots. Morgan had destroyed an enemy balloon on 2nd May, followed by an Alabtros D-III fighter four days later. The kite balloon he destroyed on 7th May was his third success. Morgan was awarded an MC.
It was also to be his final victory as two weeks later, on 24th May, Morgan was shot down and badly wounded by German ace Max Mueller. Morgan’s mangled leg was amputated and he was fitted with an artifical limb. He was determined to return to flying duties and he managed to secure permission, learning to operate the controls with his artifical limb.
On 26th April 1918, Morgan was killed when the SE5 he was flying over an aerodrome in Kent accidently crashed.
February 25, 2013
Werner Voss by Iain Wyllie
On 9th May 1917 at 1650hrs, German ace Werner Voss of Jasta 2, flying an Albatros D-III, destroyed a Sopwith Pup over Lesdain. It was his third confirmed victory for that day, Voss having destroyed an FE2b and a BE2 earlier that afternoon. His triple success on 9th May brought his overall score of victories to 28.
Werner Voss was born into a Lutheran Family in Krefield, Germany in 1897 (a popular myth arose in the 1960s that Voss was Jewish but this was not the case). His father owned a dye factory and he had two younger brothers along with two nieces that his parents adopted and raised as their own daughters. When the Great War began in August 1914, Voss was only 17 but he was allowed to serve as a volunteer civilian as a motorcyclist and motor mechanic.
In November 1914, Voss was accepted into the 11th Hussars as a despatch rider despite his age and the regiment was sent to the Eastern Front the following month. Voss was promoted to NCO rank in 1915 and he was recommended for officer’s training which he completed in July but due to his flat feet and weak ankles, he was classified as a reservist. In September 1915, he transferred to the air service and commenced training as a pilot. Voss proved to be a natural aviator and he impressed his superiors so much, he was retained at the flying school to work as an instructor, despite being only 18 years-of-age!
Voss wanted to serve with a frontline unit and in March 1916, he managed to secure a transfer to a bomber unit- K20. After flying as an observer for several weeks, Voss was allowed to fly his first combat sortie as a pilot in late May. He flew with K20 until he was transferred to Jasta 2, a fighter unit, in November.
Voss met Manfred von Richthofen, a fellow pilot of Jasta 2 and the two, despite being from different social classes, became firm friends. Voss loved engines and mechanics and he was often seen dressed in scruffy, oil-stained overalls, tinkering with his aircraft’s engines or his own motorcycle which he loved to ride in his off-duty hours. He often rolled up his sleeves and worked on his aircraft alongside his two ground-crewmen, Karl & Christian, both of whom became good friends of Voss. Some of the other, more class-conscious pilots frowned upon Voss’ frasternization with ‘workers’. Despite his lack of interest in smart uniforms, Voss soon developed the habit of wearing a silk shirt whilst flying. He explained that it was not due to any fashion sense but because the soft collar would not chafe his neck while he constantly turned his head back and forth to check the sky above and behind him for any enemy aircraft. Voss painted a large green heart and the ancient swastika symbol for good luck on the fuselage of his Albatros scout.
On November 27th 1916, Voss shot down a Nieuport 17 fighter over Miramount for his first confirmed victory. Later that afternoon, he destroyed a British FE2b. A third victory, a BE2, followed on 21st December.
On 1st February 1917, Voss shot down an Airco DH2 Pusher Scout. The pilot, Captain Frank Daly, survived to become a POW. Voss visited him in hospital twice and the two spoke cordially to each other. Voss became renowned as a crack shot, able to perform tricky deflection shots and his score began to rapidly increase. Seven more victories followed in February and Voss brought down 11 more enemy machines in March, raising his overall tally to 22.
Although his friend and comrade Manfred von Richthofen scored an impressive 21 victories during ‘Bloody April’ 1917, Voss added only two notches to his score, due to the fact he spent three weeks of that month on leave. But four more Allied planes fell before his guns in the first week of May. At that time, Jasta 2 had a new CO, Franz Walz, who was a former bomber pilot and had limited knowledge of fighter tactics. He was an uninspiring, cautious commander and Voss went over his head and petitioned headquarters to have Walz removed from his role.
Air-Force headquarters were outraged at Voss’ insubordination and the young ace was forcibly transferred to another unit- Jasta 5. Voss was lucky to get off relatively lightly as another pilot who had co-signed the petition was transferred to a bomber unit. Ironically, Walz, outraged at the attempt to have him removed, demanded to be re-assigned to another unit anyway.
Voss flew with Jasta 5 for four weeks, his two ground-crew Karl & Christian, transferring to that unit with him such was their fierce loyalty and devotion to him. Voss achieved six victories whilst flying with Jasta 5, raising his total to 34. On 6th June, Voss was wounded when his Albatros was badly damaged by an RNAS Sopwith Triplane flown by Flight Sub-Lieutenant Charles Draper who was credited with an ‘out-of-control’ victory. Draper would survive the war as an ace and would achieve fame as a stunt pilot, actor and espionage agent in the 1920s-1930s.
After recovering in hospital, Voss was given several weeks leave, much of which he spent visiting the von Richthofen estate in Germany. Returning to duty, he was given temporary command of Jasta 14 in July 1917 and then became CO of Jasta 10 in von Richthofen’s ‘Flying Circus’- JG-1 at the end of the month.
Voss disliked the administrative responsibilities that came with his new command and he was sloppy and slipshod with his paperwork to the extent that another pilot agreed to perform those duties and thus allow Voss more time to fly. In the first three weeks of August, Voss downed four Allied aircraft, raising his score to 38. In late August, Voss was given one of the first two prototypes of the new Fokker Triplane- designated ‘F.1’ (the other triplane went to von Richthofen).
Voss began flying the F.1 as his personal aircraft. He painted the undersides sky-blue with olive-green on the upper surfaces. The engine cowling was painted either bright yellow or dark olive-green (historians can’t agree) with a pair of eyes painted on the cowling above the spinner.
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