Duel of Aces Over the Somme


On November 23, 1916, a pivotal battle unfolded above the Somme between one of the vital completed fighter pilots in Britain’s Royal Flying Corps and a comparatively unknown German aviator. When it was over, a youthful Manfred von Richthofen had triumphed over Victoria Cross recipient Lanoe Hawker in a hard-fought contest that confirmed the technological superiority of German fighters over their British opponents.

Six months earlier, the RFC’s de Havilland D.H.2s had been instrumental in wresting aerial supremacy from Germany’s Fokker E.III Eindeckers within the skies over northern France. Because the bloodiest battle of World Conflict I floor on within the fall of 1916, nevertheless, the British airmen discovered themselves hard-pressed to take care of their benefit. From June 1 by means of November 18, 1916, the RFC misplaced 499 airmen killed, wounded or lacking in motion, and greater than 972 plane have been destroyed in fight or accidents. A lot of these plane, such because the notorious Blériot Experimental collection (most notably the B.E.2c), have been outdated, however Maj. Gen. Hugh Trenchard was decided to place each out there airplane into the struggle. RFC leaders quickly got here to appreciate that until British airplanes as technically superior as the latest German Albatros D.I and D.II fighters have been made out there shortly, they’d possible lose management of the skies above the Somme and Flanders fronts.

Main Lanoe George Hawker, commander of the RFC’s first single-seat fighter squadron, was one among Trenchard’s champions. Hawker had begun his RFC flying profession with No. 6 Squadron on October 3, 1914. He hardly had an opportunity to satisfy his new squadron mates earlier than they flew their eight B.E.s and 4 Farmans to Belgium on October 7. Hawker began carrying a revolver with him on reconnaissance missions, and reported on October 31, “I met a German biplane yesterday afternoon and fired six photographs at him with my revolver—no good, in fact, however he took fright and made for house.”

Hawker (left) turned the primary Briton to win the Victoria Cross for single-seat air-to-air fight. Richthofen (proper) scored his tenth victory three days earlier than his lethal duel with Hawker over the Somme battlefront. (Hawker: IWM Q 67598 Richthofen; Weider Historical past Group archive)

That winter of 1914-15 provided few alternatives for aerial fight. Hawker and No. 6 Squadron spent the winter months honing their abilities whereas conducting reconnaissance and photographic missions, in addition to directing artillery fireplace. When No. 6 Squadron was tasked with bombing Zeppelin sheds at Gontrode on April 18, Hawker was picked for the task. Though he didn’t achieve destroying the sheds, he dropped three bombs (one at lower than 200 toes) and attacked an remark balloon with hand grenades, then managed to make it again to base at Poperinghe in a broken airplane. Awarded the Distinguished Service Order, Hawker was subsequently promoted to command of A Flight.

Per week later, throughout the Second Battle of Ypres, Hawker was wounded within the foot by groundfire throughout a recon sortie. For the rest of that battle he needed to be carried to and from his airplane, however he refused to be grounded till the struggle was over.

Following medical go away to England, in late Could Hawker returned to No. 6 Squadron, the place he was overjoyed to obtain one of many RFC’s latest plane, the Bristol Scout Sort C. A tractor biplane with a prime velocity of 92 mph and a 15,500-foot ceiling, it was compact and extra maneuverable than every other British plane then in service.

Working together with his mechanic, Hawker devised a mounting for the Lewis machine gun on his new airplane. Because the British had not but developed a way of firing a machine gun by means of the propeller with out damaging it, Hawker connected his weapon to the facet of the fuselage so it will fireplace at an angle, avoiding the prop arc.

After a number of inconclusive engagements, on the night of July 25, 1915, Captain Hawker noticed two German airplanes over Passchendaele. He attacked the closest of the 2. Flying together with his proper hand whereas firing the Lewis gun together with his left, Hawker emptied a complete drum of 47 rounds on the enemy airplane, then pursued the second plane. Each planes retreated into German airspace. One in all them, broken by Hawker’s fireplace, was seen by a British anti-aircraft battery making a hasty touchdown simply contained in the German strains.

The Bristol Scout C flown by Hawker in his Victoria Cross-earning engagement on July 25, 1915. (Weider History Group archives)
The Bristol Scout C flown by Hawker in his Victoria Cross-earning engagement on July 25, 1915. (Weider Historical past Group archives)

Thirty minutes later Hawker noticed one other enemy 10,000 toes above Hooge and stalked his quarry till he was lower than 100 yards away earlier than firing. This time the German airplane caught fireplace and crashed. As historian Alex Revell famous, that fight was “probably the most profitable but fought by a single-seater scout of the RFC.” Hawker was subsequently awarded the Victoria Cross, the primary for single-seat air-to-air fight. Alternately flying his Bristol Scout and a Farman Experimental F.E.2b two-seat pusher, he would formally be credited with downing seven German planes in rather less than three months, changing into the RFC’s first ace.

After greater than a 12 months in fight, Hawker was exhibiting indicators of extreme pressure. Despatched again to Britain in September 1915, he was chosen to guide the RFC’s newly fashioned single-seat fighter unit. Promoted to main, Hawker took command of No. 24 Squadron at Hounslow on September 28. The squadron acquired its first plane, the D.H.2, in January 1916.

A single-seat pusher biplane powered by a 100-hp Le Rhône or Gnome Monosoupape rotary engine, the D.H.2 had a most velocity of 93 mph and a ceiling of 14,000 toes. In addition to its comparatively gradual velocity, it had a slower price of climb than Germany’s major fighter, the E.III Eindecker. Its single-valve (monosoupape) engine was outfitted with a hand-controlled gasoline induction system that solely allowed the engine to run at full velocity or in no way. In a dive, the pilot usually needed to flip off the engine to keep away from flooding it.

The D.H.2 pilot sat in a bathtub-shaped nacelle with the engine and propeller at his again. A single .303-inch Lewis machine gun rested on the cockpit’s ahead rim. The pilot needed to fly with one hand on the management stick or use his knees, altering the ammunition drum and firing with the opposite hand—a troublesome manuever throughout aerial fight, to say the least.

Hawker and No. 24 Squadron flew to St. Omer, France, on February 8, 1916. Trenchard issued a direct order to his skilled squadron commanders: Slightly than take part in missions, their job at this level was to coach their aircrews how one can struggle and survive over the Western Entrance. Many commanders violated that order, nevertheless, Hawker amongst them. He usually argued that he wanted to fly to check new theories or enhancements he had made to plane or tools.

For instance, Hawker developed a hoop gunsight and likewise created a clamp and spring clip system to carry the Lewis gun in place on the D.H.2. Given the plane’s open cockpit and rear-mounted engine, D.H.2 pilots risked frostbite each time they flew at excessive altitudes. Hawker addressed that downside by designing fur-lined boots that reached to the higher thigh, generally known as “fug-boots,” which turned commonplace situation. Envious German pilots usually confiscated them from captured British fliers who’d been shot down.

As commander of the RFC’s first fighter squadron, Hawker’s biggest problem was to develop techniques and implement a coaching program for his personal pilots in addition to the opposite 5 fighter squadrons then forming in England. In the course of the first week, two of his pilots put their D.H.2s into spins, with deadly outcomes. One of many planes caught fireplace on the best way down, reinforcing the view that the D.H.2 was a “spinning incinerator.” Realizing his males’s morale was shaken, Hawker climbed into his personal airplane and took off. Over a interval of half-hour he put the D.H.2 into spins from quite a lot of angles and turns with the engine on in addition to off, ably demonstrating how one can regain management. After touchdown, he gathered his males collectively and instructed them: “It’s alright, you fellows. You may get the D.H.2 out of any spin. I’ve simply tried it out.” He then went on to elucidate his strategies, rebuilding the lads’s confidence of their mounts. There have been no extra fatalities from spins in No. 24 Squadron after that demonstration.

Lieutenant Otto Höhne sits in the cockpit of a D.H.2 of No. 24 Squadron brought down by Captain Oswald Boelcke on September 14, 1916, while Boelcke and Richthofen look on. (Photos courtesy of Greg van Wyngarden)
Lieutenant Otto Höhne sits within the cockpit of a D.H.2 of No. 24 Squadron introduced down by Captain Oswald Boelcke on September 14, 1916, whereas Boelcke and Richthofen look on. (Pictures courtesy of Greg van Wyngarden)

Following weeks of intense coaching, No. 24 carried out its first operational fight sortie on March 24, 1916. The squadron celebrated its first official victory on April 2, when 2nd Lt. David M. Tidmarsh shot down an Albatros two-seater.

In the course of the spring and summer season of 1916, Hawker’s D.H.2s performed a serious position in ending the “Fokker Scourge.” On June 22, days earlier than the beginning of the Somme marketing campaign, Hawker issued a easy order to his pilots: “Assault every little thing.” That transient directive summarized the commander’s imaginative and prescient, tenacity and aggression towards the enemy—qualities he tried to instill in all his males. In the course of the five-month Battle of the Somme, No. 24 Squadron offered excellent assist to Normal Sir Edmund Allenby’s Third Military. Heeding Trenchard’s name for incessant offensive operations to disclaim the Germans management of the air, No. 24 accounted for a powerful whole of 70 enemy plane, at a value of 12 of its personal planes and 21 pilots killed, wounded or lacking.

However by September 1916, when the Albatros D.I and D.II have been launched to the entrance, the pendulum started to swing again within the Germans’ favor. Along with throwing sooner and better-armed plane into the struggle, the Germans have been decided to finish Britain’s air supremacy over the entrance strains through 4 main initiatives.

The primary main change occurred in late August, when the German air service established a flying group chief inside every corps headquarters. Having one man moderately than a bunch of people at varied ranges coordinate the tactical use of plane models supporting military corps helped synchronize the air arm with floor forces.

The second initiative concerned the institution of the primary Jagdstaffeln (looking squadrons), or Jastas, to hunt out and destroy Allied plane, so different German planes might accomplish their assigned missions. Famend fighter tactician Oswald Boelcke was named commander of Jasta 2 and given free rein to handpick his pilots from all through the air service.

The plan’s third element entailed arming these newly created looking squadrons with the newest technology of German fighter planes, particularly the Albatros D.I and Fokker D.I. Each of these plane had distinct benefits over the D.H.2.

The fourth change got here on October 8, when Kaiser Wilhelm II created the place of commanding basic of the air forces, and renamed the German air service the Luftstreitskräfte (air pressure). Normal Ernst von Hoeppner, the primary commanding basic, and his workers would do a lot to advance the idea of air energy, not just for Germany, however for the Central Powers as an entire.

Boelcke chosen the very best and brightest pilots for his new Jasta. Amongst them was a younger Silesian aristocrat, 2nd Lt. Manfred Freiherr von Richthofen, who had transferred from the cavalry to the air service in Could 1915. Of his first flight, Richthofen mentioned, “I didn’t care a bit the place I used to be and I felt extraordinarily unhappy when my pilot thought it was time to go down once more.” In September he skilled his first air fight, exchanging rifle photographs with the crew of an RFC Farman. Later that month he claimed to have shot down a French Farman behind Allied strains, however it couldn’t be confirmed.

Throughout a practice experience Richthofen encountered the well-known ace Boelcke and requested about his approach. “It’s fairly easy,” Boelcke instructed him. “I fly near my man, take good purpose, shoot after which, in fact, he falls down.” When Richthofen mentioned he tried to do the identical factor however with little or no success to indicate for it, Boelcke defined that the massive distinction was that he flew a Fokker fighter. From that point on, Richthofen vowed to change into a fighter pilot.

After some rudimentary instruction he soloed, however crashed on touchdown. He was despatched to Döberitz for added coaching, and on Christmas Day acquired notification that he had handed his examinations and was a licensed pilot. In March 1916, Richthofen was assigned to a two-seater squadron close to Verdun, and on April 26 he shot down a Nieuport. As soon as once more he didn’t obtain official credit score, however French data point out he wounded future ace Jean Casale. When Boelcke contacted Richthofen a number of months later, the 23-year-old Prussian eagerly accepted his invitation to affix Jasta 2 on the Somme entrance.

Boelcke spent the primary three weeks of September educating formation flying, gunnery and techniques. His unit had simply acquired the brand new Albatros D.I fighter, which had a most velocity of 109 mph and a 17,000-foot ceiling. Sooner than the D.H.2, it wasn’t as maneuverable, however it was armed with two 7.92mm Maxim machine weapons fed by 500-round belts of ammunition.

September 17 would show to be a turning level within the air conflict over the Western Entrance. Recognizing British plane crossing into German-held territory that day, Jasta 2 started stalking them till the time was proper to assault. Eight lumbering B.E.2cs of No. 12 Squadron, weighed down by 112-pound bombs and escorted by six F.E.2bs of No. 11 Squadron, have been attacking Marcoing railway station when Boelcke’s males descended out of the solar. In fast succession they shot down 4 F.E.2bs and two B.E.2cs, with no losses to Jasta 2. The victories included Boelcke’s twenty seventh and Richthofen’s first.

On October 28, Jasta 2 fliers encountered two D.H.2s from Hawker’s No. 24 Squadron—one among many engagements between the rival squadrons. Whereas trying to shut on a D.H.2 flown by Captain Gerald A. Knight, Boelcke collided with one among his personal males and was killed when his Albatros broke up within the air. The commander’s dying was a blow to his unit in addition to the German air pressure. However Boelcke had educated a complete squadron of skilled fighter pilots, and nearly all his males would rise to command Jagdstaffeln of their very own. In his honor, Jasta 2 was renamed Jasta Boelcke.

From left, Stefan Kirmaier, Hans Imelmann, Richthofen and Hans Wortmann pose with Richthofen’s Alba­tros. Boelcke’s successor in command of Jasta 2, Kirmaier fell victim to D.H.2s of No. 24 Squadron on November 22, but Richthofen avenged him the following day. (Courtesy of Greg van Wyngarden)
From left, Stefan Kirmaier, Hans Imelmann, Richthofen and Hans Wortmann pose with Richthofen’s Alba­tros. Boelcke’s successor in charge of Jasta 2, Kirmaier fell sufferer to D.H.2s of No. 24 Squadron on November 22, however Richthofen avenged him the next day. (Courtesy of Greg van Wyngarden)

In the middle of the subsequent 4 weeks, outfitted with the improved Albatros D.II and commanded by 1st Lt. Stefan Kirmaier, the squadron downed a complete of 25 British plane. On November 22, Kirmaier himself was shot down and killed by Captain John “Jock” Andrews, one among Hawker’s most succesful veterans in No. 24 Squadron.

The following day 4 D.H.2s of Andrews’ A Flight took off at 1300 from No. 24 Squadron’s airfield at Bertangles, close to Amiens, to hyperlink up with two photoreconnaissance plane. A noon rain had simply stopped falling and C Flight had just lately returned from its morning patrol after escorting two recon plane to German-held Bapaume, north east of Bertangles. The pilots reported having seen a big formation of enemy fighters that appeared to be ready for one thing.

Main Hawker surmised that the Germans have been mendacity in look ahead to the subsequent flight of RFC recon plane. Regardless of the order forbidding commanding officers from flying over enemy strains, he determined to accompany A Flight as its fourth member. Led by Andrews, the flight additionally included Lieutenants John H. Crutch and Robert H.M.S. Saundby (who would change into an air marshal throughout World Conflict II).

At 1310 Crutch’s airplane developed engine hassle, and he signaled to Andrews that he was returning to base. A Flight crossed the strains at 11,000 toes at 1330. All three pilots observed a battle in progress over Grandcourt between a number of British Nieuport fighters and a German flight. When Andrews turned to help the Nieuports, the Germans noticed the D.H.2s and broke away, heading east. Andrews put his flight again on track for Bapaume.

Twenty minutes later Andrews noticed two German remark planes northeast of Bapaume and gave the sign to assault. The D.H.2s started a shallow dive to chop off the enemy planes’ anticipated retreat, however the Germans shortly turned to keep away from fight. At that time Andrews made a cursory sweep of the sky and observed a lot of black dots far above them. He then realized the recon plane had been bait for a lure. What appeared like a complete enemy squadron was descending on the three D.H.2s. Andrews shortly determined his solely plan of action was to guide his flight house as quick as doable.

Andrews and Saundby made a large proper flip, however Hawker— both as a result of he thought Andrews was turning again on account of engine hassle or as a result of he was intent on pursuing the retreating enemy— continued to fly east. Realizing that the German flight was bearing down on his squadron commander, Andrews continued the circle, with Saundby nonetheless off his proper wing, then went after Hawker, hoping to go off the Germans. Andrews fired 25 rounds at one of many German planes when it was lower than 100 toes above and behind Hawker. The enemy fighter fell right into a steep dive—however extra essential, Hawker know knew he was the goal for 10 Germans.

Andrews got here below assault inside seconds, a number of bullets tearing into the engine and fuel tank of his D.H.2. His engine stopped, however he managed to show west, placing his airplane right into a steep dive in an try to glide again to British strains. Taking one final look behind him, he noticed Hawker flying in circles with a lone German fighter at about 3,000 toes.

One of many Germans pursued Andrews, however Saundby bought behind the unsuspecting enemy and emptied most of a 47-round drum into his airplane, which went down in a spin. Then Saundby waved to his flight chief and headed again in quest of the opposite enemy fighters.

Two miles contained in the German strains, Hawker was engaged in a lethal ballet with a lone D.II piloted by Richthofen, who had been victorious in 10 aerial battles within the previous eight weeks. As the 2 antagonists circled, every striving to get on the opposite’s tail, the German ace shortly realized that he was up towards a really skilled pilot. However, he thought if he was affected person the Englishman would run low on gasoline and should make a break for his strains.

Common myths have the 2 combatants circling for half an hour, however that impossibly grueling timeframe is the product of misinterpreted fight studies and distorted reminiscences. 5 minutes is a extra believable period of time for the tight-turning dogfight. Because it was, the circling fighters step by step descended from 5,000 toes to lower than 300 toes. At that time Hawker was working out of each gasoline and sky, so he made a touch for the British strains.

Richthofen snapped his Albatros into a decent financial institution and went straight for the Englishman’s tail. Each males have been flying lower than 150 toes over the pockmarked battlefield simply west of Bapaume. Hawker zigzagged, hoping to current a harder goal but additionally shedding treasured velocity. A stream of machine gun fireplace tore previous his left wing, then previous his proper.

Lower than 1 / 4 mile from the British strains, after utilizing up practically 900 of his 1,000 rounds of ammunition—and likewise having to clear two jammed weapons within the course of— Richthofen drew to inside 60 toes of the D.H.2, squeezed the set off and watched as his rounds struck the British plane’s tail, engine and cockpit. The D.H.2 straightened for a second earlier than nosing downward, crashing right into a water-filled shell gap lower than 200 toes from the British strains. Lanoe Hawker was useless, with a single bullet behind his head. Richthofen wrote after the battle:

My Englishman was a superb sportsman, however by and by the factor turned a bit too scorching for him. He needed to resolve whether or not he would land on German floor or whether or not he would fly again to the English strains. After all, he tried the latter, after endeavoring in useless to flee me by loopings and such tips. At the moment my first bullets have been flying round him, for therefore far neither of us had been in a position to do any capturing. When he had come all the way down to about 300 toes he tried to flee by flying in a zigzag course, which makes it troublesome for an observer on the bottom to shoot. That was my most favorable second. I adopted him at an altitude of from 250 to 150 toes firing on a regular basis. The Englishman couldn’t assist falling. However the jamming of my weapons practically robbed me of my success.

The Germans buried Main Hawker subsequent to the stays of his plane. His grave was misplaced throughout the next two years of warfare. Hawker’s title is commemorated at Arras on the Air Companies Memorial to the Lacking.

It was Richthofen’s eleventh victory. After 5 extra he would obtain his nation’s highest award for valor, the Ordre Pour le Mérite, nicknamed the “Blue Max” by the British in tribute to Max Immelmann, an early German ace and rival of Boelcke’s. Richthofen took nice satisfaction in capturing down one of many RFC’s greatest pilots, writing: “My eleventh Englishman was a Main Hawker, twenty-six years outdated and commander of an English squadron. Based on prisoners’ accounts, he was the English Boelcke. He gave me the toughest struggle I’ve skilled to this point, till I lastly succeeded in getting him down.”

Inside 24 hours each the RFC and the Luftstreitskräfte knew that Hawker had been killed by an airman with lower than eight weeks’ expertise as a fighter pilot. For the Germans, it appeared just like the hand of destiny was concerned. On June 18, two weeks earlier than the beginning of the Somme offensive, that they had misplaced their premier fighter pilot, Immelmann, seemingly signifying that the RFC had gained air supremacy. Then on October 28 Boelcke had been killed, and his successor, Kirmaier, lower than a month later. Now Hawker’s dying was taken as proof the pendulum had swung again of their favor. Most likely of larger significance, nevertheless, was that the D.H.2, which had eclipsed the Fokker Eindecker, had been surpassed by the Albatros.

The worst was but to come back for the RFC. Six months after Hawker’s dying, throughout “Bloody April,” 151 British plane have been shot down, with 316 airmen killed or lacking—the very best RFC casualty price for any single month of World Conflict I. Richthofen, who achieved aviation immortality because the “Pink Baron,” fought on for an additional 17 months earlier than being shot down on April 21, 1918. Precisely who was chargeable for his dying has lengthy been debated, however right this moment a lot of the proof factors to an Australian machine-gunner moderately than RAF Captain Roy Brown, who was pursuing Richthofen to save lots of one among his personal fledgling pilots from the baron’s weapons. Richthofen’s 80 aerial victories made him the highest-scoring fighter pilot of the conflict.

Numerous books, articles and flicks have been primarily based on the Pink Baron’s spectacular profession, however most of them overlook his duel with Hawker. Their fight was simply one among many struggles within the hotly contested skies over the Western Entrance in 1916. However within the annals of World Conflict I aviation, their transient encounter stays the stuff of legend.

Retired U.S. Military Lt. Col. Thomas G. Bradbeer has been researching the air conflict of 1914-18 for 35 years. He recommends for additional studying: The Royal Flying Corps in World Conflict I, by Ralph Barker; and The Pink Baron: Past the Legend, by Peter Kilduff.

Initially revealed within the January 2009 situation of Aviation Historical past. Subscribe right this moment!

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