1/4/1918 Britain forms the RAF, the world’s first independent air force #1918Live

At the start of the war, aeroplanes were still something of a novelty, their role in warfare unclear. Since then they have proved their mettle, both in an observation role and increasingly in the attacking of enemy troops and positions on the ground. Both sides are also making efforts to use aircraft in a strategic role, attacking enemy cities and centres of production. Germany is using both aeroplanes and Zeppelin airships in this role but the British too have had a crack at bombing German factories, to limited success.

In recognition of the increasingly important role air power is playing in the war, Britain now takes the novel step of creating a single unified air force, independent of the army and navy from which it is taking aeroplane squadrons. The British hope that his new organisation, the Royal Air Force, will allow them to more effectively use the power of the aeroplane to prosecute the war to victory.

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Join the Royal Air Force (History Things: On this Day, April 1st)

29/11/1917 Fate catches up with German fighter pilot Erwin Böhme #1917Live

Last year German fighter pilot Erwin Böhme accidentally caused the death of his commander, fighter ace Oswald Boelcke, when their aeroplanes collided during a dogfight. The distraught Böhme had to be dissuaded from killing himself.

Since then Böhme has made his reputation as a fighter pilot, notching up an impressive rate of kills. Three days ago he was awarded the Pour la Merité, Germany’s highest award for bravery. This morning he shoots down his 24th enemy aircraft, a British Sopwith Camel. Later in the day he sets off on another patrol over the Ypres salient. Spotting a British aeroplane on a reconnaissance mission, he swoops to attack. Unfortunately he overshoots and the British fliers manage to score enough hits on his Albatross to set its fuel ablaze. Böhme goes down in flames, crashing on the British side of the lines.

The British retrieve Böhme’s charred body and bury him with full military honours. He was 38 years old, almost twice the age of most other fighter pilots.

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Erwin Böhme (Wikipedia: Erwin Böhme)

Erwin Böhme shot down (Barry Weekley studio: Aviation Galleries) follow link for more pictures of warplanes from the First World War and beyond

27/10/1917 Fighter pilot Arthur Rhys-Davids fails to return #1917Live

Just over a month ago Arthur Rhys-Davids took part in the unequal struggle that saw German ace Werner Voss shot down after battling seven British fighter pilots. Since then Rhys-Davids has been sketched by William Orpen, who plans to paint a portrait of the flier.

Today Rhys-Davids is promoted to lieutenant. He heads off on a routine mission over enemy lines but he does not return. He appears to have fallen victim to German fighter pilot Karl Gallwitz. His body is not recovered.

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Portrait of Arthur Rhys-Davids, by William Orpen (Wikipedia)

23/9/1917 German fighter ace Werner Voss shot down over Ypres #1917Live

Against doctor’s orders, Manfred von Richthofen, the Red Baron, came back to active service in late July after being wounded earlier that month. Since then he has managed to shoot down several enemy aeroplanes but is still suffering the after effects of his head injury. He is currently once more on sick leave but hopes to be back in action soon.

Richthofen is not Germany’s only star pilot. Another flier who has made a name for himself is Werner Voss, a subordinate commander of the Red Baron’s Flying Circus. Voss is now flying the new Fokker Triplane, a highly manoeuvrable and fast climbing aircraft. He has shot down some 47 enemy aircraft since his first kill in November 1916.

Voss’s squadron has been deployed to Flanders, where it is contesting Allied control of the skies above Ypres. Voss returned from leave yesterday and this morning he returns to the skies and shoots down a British bomber. On returning to his base he celebrates by looping the loop. Nevertheless his colleagues note that he appears unusually tense, with one reporting “He had the nervous instability of a cat”.

In the evening Voss and his comrades set off again. This time they find themselves caught in a battle royale with a large number of enemy aircraft. In the confused dogfight that develops, Voss finds himself being targeted by six British aircraft, all flown by ace fighter pilots. Accounts vary but he appears not to try to evade his pursuers, instead taking every opportunity to turn the tables on his opponents. He scores hits on most of the British aeroplanes but does not bring any down.

The uneven battle can have only one end. British bullets strike Voss and his aeroplane smashes into the ground on the British side of the line. That evening the British pilots drink a toast to the brave flier they have killed. Voss was 20 years of age.

See also: “Lives of the Aces in Pictures – Part 14: Lieutenant Werner Voss” by Eugene Frandzen

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Werner Voss (Wikipedia)

Werner Voss’s Fokker Triplane (Aerodrome: Roden 1:72 model kit cover) The model kit is for sale, priced €7.99

6/7/1917 The Red Baron shot down #1917Live

Manfred von Richthofen, the Red Baron, has been leading his Flying Circus over the Western Front, striking terror into Allied airmen wherever he goes. By now he has personally shot down as many as 57 Allied aircraft, sending dozens of mostly British fliers to their graves. In Germany he is starting to become famous, portrayed in propaganda as a knight of the air.

Combat flying is a dangerous business. One mistake or an instance of bad luck can prove fatal. Richthofen had a brush with death in March, when an enemy bullet knocked out the engine of his aeroplane. Today the Grim Reaper’s scythe swings closer. In combat with two British F.E. 2d fighters Richthofen suffers a head wound, disorienting and temporarily blinding him. Fortunately for him, he recovers enough to be able to bring his plane down safely in a field on the German side of the line. Richthofen survives, but it will be some time before the wounded Red Baron can to return to the skies.

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Richthofen’s aeroplane after his forced landing (Wikipedia)

Richthofen recovering under the care of Nurse Kätie Otersdorf (Bliss from Bygone Days: The Red Baron)

7/5/1917 The last flight of Albert Ball

Fighting at Arras continues. The British have deployed a large number of aircraft to the sector, to observe enemy positions so that the artillery can better target them. The Germans in turn have deployed a considerable number of fighter planes, including Jasta 11, the Red Baron‘s squadron.

The British have sent their own fighter pilots to Arras, including Albert Ball, one of their star pilots. He only seems to have joined the battle late in April, but since then has managed to shoot down some 12 German aircraft. With the Canadian pilot Billy Bishop he hatches a daring plan to attack Jasta 11’s airfield at dawn, hopefully catching Richthofen’s squadron on the ground. The attack is to take place at the end of the month, when Bishop returns from leave.

Ball is not able to put his plan into effect. In the evening today his squadron encounters aeroplanes of Jasta 11 and a dogfight ensues. Ball is observed chasing the red aircraft of Lothar von Richthofen, younger brother of the Red Baron. Ball pursues the younger Richthofen into a cloud, perhaps thinking he is on the tail of the Red Baron himself. What happens next is unclear, but an observer on the ground sees Ball’s aeroplane fall from the skies. Ball is dead when Germans reach the crash site.

The night before his death Ball had written to his father, saying: “I do get tired of always living to kill, and am really beginning to feel like a murderer. Shall be so pleased when I have finished”. In his short career he has shot down some 44 German aircraft. The Germans bury him with full military honours, a few months short of his 21st birthday.

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Albert Ball (Wikipedia)

The Last Fight of Captain Ball, VC, DSO and 2 Bars, MC, 7 May 1917 by Norman Arnold (Wikipedia)

30/4/1917 Bloody April: the red skies above Arras

The failure of Nivelle’s offensive in the Chemin des Dames and the unrest emerging in the French army has put the spotlight back on the British. Haig‘s men are continuing their offensive at Arras, now the main Allied effort on the Western Front, for all that it was originally meant to be just a diversion for the French. British troops (and their allies from Canada, Australia and other Commonwealth countries) continue to struggle with the enemy, but there is no repeat of the spectacular successes of the first day.

The British have deployed a large number of aircraft to the Arras battle. Aerial observation is vital for ensuring accurate artillery targeting of German positions. To disrupt the British observers, the Germans have deployed a large number of their own fighters to the battle, including star pilots like Richthofen, the Red Baron. German aircraft still outclass the aeroplanes of their enemies, so the result is a one-sided battle.

Over the last month the British have lost 275 aircraft in the battle. 50% of their air crews have been casualties. Richthofen’s squadron shoots down some 89 of the Allied aircraft, with the Red Baron alone bringing down some 21 aircraft. The life expectancy of a newly deployed British airman drops to just 11 days.

German losses are not inconsiderable, with some 66 of their aircraft brought down. And despite German successes, the sheer number of British aeroplanes deployed to Arras means that they continue to be able to supply the artillery with accurate information on German ground deployments.

image source (rOEN911 on DeviantArt)