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.

image sources:

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)

29/4/1917 The Red Baron kills

The British have deployed large numbers of aircraft to support their offensive at Arras. Knowing the importance of aerial observation to the Allies, the Germans have responded by sending many of their own fighter planes to attack the British airmen. One of these is Manfred von Richthofen, the Red Baron. Flying his red Albatross D. III aeroplane, Richthofen leads his squadron as they hunt their British foes.

Richthofen is not just a leader of men. He is also a killer. Today the red hunter has a good day, downing four British aeroplanes, sending 5 British airmen to their graves (and one Canadian).

This has been a good month for the Red Baron. Including today’s bag, he has brought down 22 Allied aeroplanes since the start of April.

image sources:

Manfred von Richthofen (Wikipedia)

Aircraft of Richthofen’s squadron (Wikipedia)

9/4/1917 Arras: Canadians storm Vimy Ridge as the Allies smash the Germans

The French are preparing for their offensive in the Chemin des Dames, one Nivelle thinks will win the war for them. Today the British launch their spring offensive near Arras. Their goals are more limited, with the assault intended to draw German forces away from the Chemin des Dames. Unlike at the Somme last year there is no expectation of a breakthrough. Instead the British and Canadians are to advance in stages, taking successive bites out of the German defences.

The attack goes well. Carefully targeted artillery has battered the Germans and when the infantry go forward they make rapid gains. The Canadians storm Vimy Ridge and the advance generally is the furthest achieved in one day on the Western Front since late 1914. Only an onset of bad weather slows down the advance late in the day, with sleet reducing visibility and making the ground muddy and sticky. Nevertheless the British and Canadians prepare to exploit their gains tomorrow.

To support the effort on the ground the British have deployed a large number of aircraft in the Arras sector. However the Germans are rising to the challenge. Richthofen‘s Jasta 11 is one of five fighter squadrons already in the sector, with more now being sent to join the fray. The German fliers are outnumbered but they hope that their better training and experience will give them the edge over the Allies. And the German planes are there solely to kill, while the British are flying mainly to observe German positions on the ground.

image source:

The Battle of Vimy Ridge (Wikipedia)

6/3/1917 The Red Baron is lucky

As a show of bravado, German fighter ace Manfred von Richthofen had his aeroplane painted red. As a result he is now famous or infamous to friends and foes alike, known variously as The Red Flier, Der Rote Flieger, the Red Devil or the Red Baron.

By now Richthofen has claimed some 23 victories. Today he claims a 24th, shooting down a British BE2e and killing its pilot and gunner. But in a subsequent battle with some British FE8s a bullet pierce his fuel tank. Richthofen is lucky. His fuel does not ignite and he is able to glide his aeroplane down, making a forced landing without injury to himself. The Red Baron lives to fight and kill again.

image sources:

Another victim for the Red Baron (Taringa: El alma negra del Baron Rojo)

Manfred von Richthofen (Wikipedia)

17/9/1916 The first victims of the Red Baron

Fighting continues at the Somme. The most recent push by the British is now petering out into the usual series of uncoordinated minor assaults that serve no purpose other than to get men killed. Haig is over any disappointment he might feel at this latest failure and is already looking forward to the next big push, which will surely see the Germans collapse and the British cavalry romping across open country to exploit the great victory.

While the infantry struggle away in the mud on the ground, a new kind of war continues above them. The British are using aircraft to observe the German positions and to guide artillery bombardments onto the enemy. But the Germans are not letting the British fly over them with impunity. Increasing numbers of German fighter planes have been brought to the Somme to contest Allied control of the skies.

Today British aeroplanes are returning from a bombing mission behind German lines when they are attacked by German fighters. Captain Tom Rees and Lieutenant Lionel Morris are in a two seater FE 2. They find themselves caught in a struggle to the death with a German pilot flying an Albatross D.II. Rees tries to shoot down the German with his Lewis gun but the Albatross manoeuvres underneath the British plane. The German peppers the FE 2 with bullets, killing Rees, wounding Morris and knocking out the aircraft’s engine. Morris manages to crash-land behind the German lines but dies later in the day of his injuries.

Rees and Morris are the first victims of Manfred von Richthofen, a newly minted German fighter pilot who has learned his trade from German ace Oswald Boelcke. Rees was 21 years old when he died, Morris just 19. Richthofen orders a silver cup from a Berlin jeweller to celebrate his victory.

image sources:

Alex Hamilton’s painting of Richthofen’s battle with Rees & Morris (BBC)

Tom Rees (Wikipedia)

Lionel Morris (Wikipedia)

Manfred von Richthofen (The World at War)

3/9/1916 Germany’s largest Zeppelin raid yet ends in disaster

Germany continues to send its Zeppelins to bomb targets in Britain. Quite why they bother is another matter entirely. The Zeppelins are not bringing the British to their knees. Their bombs have caused some disquiet but they are not creating widespread devastation or much disruption.

Yesterday in the largest Zeppelin raid of the war so far, sixteen of the giant airships set off to attack London. Unfortunately they were unable to find their target and dropped their bombs more or less at random, killing four people and injuring another twelve. Property damage was minimal.

The Zeppelins are not able to make their escape scot-free. British anti-aircraft defences have become increasingly sophisticated. The Zeppelins attack by night, but the British have deployed searchlights to illuminate the gas giants, which are then targeted by anti-aircraft fire or British aeroplanes. In the small hours of the morning, the SL 11 airship is trying to make its way home when it is caught by searchlights. A British fighter plane attacks, setting fire to the airship. It turns into a giant ball of flame and crashes into the ground, killing its entire crew.

This is the first Zeppelin to be brought down over Britain. Leefe Robinson, the British fighter pilot is fĂȘted for his feat. Now the British increasingly lose their fear of the German airships, while the Zeppelin crews fear that flying over Britain is a journey to their death.

image source (Jonathan Ware, Military Historian)