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.

image sources:

Richthofen’s aeroplane after his forced landing (Wikipedia)

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

24/6/1917 The Red Baron’s Flying Circus

Over the Western Front fliers contend in the skies in support of their comrades on the ground. A problem for the Germans is that they have less considerably aircraft than the Allies: in the skies they will always be outnumbered. Now they try a new tactic to ensure that they are able to achieve aerial dominance in key sectors. Manfred von Richthofen, the Red Baron, is given the command of four fighter squadrons, with the new super-unit given the name Jagdgeschwader 1 (JG 1). The idea is that this unit will be quickly deployable anywhere along the front to achieve local air superiority. Richthofen is authorised to recruit the best fighter pilots on the Western Front and to expel any who underperform.

JG 1 soon acquires a new nickname: the Flying Circus. Many of the aeroplanes are brightly coloured, with fliers emulating the red of Richthofen’s own aeroplane. The unit also travels from place to place by train, quickly setting up to take on the Allies before moving on to their next engagement, like a troupe of wandering entertainers. The cheerful connotations of the nickname are of course at odds with the murderous intent of the Flying Circus.

image source:

Manfred von Richthofen (Wikipedia)

13/6/1917 Panic on the streets of London

Germany has for some time been sending Zeppelins to attack England by night but these inaccurate and ineffective attacks have failed to bring the British to their knees. Now though the advance of technology brings a new menace to the English skies. Germany’s gigantic Gotha bomber planes have a range far surpassing that of previous aeroplanes. Now the Germans commence a campaign of daylight bombing raids on London itself.

Previous attempts by the Gothas to bomb London failed but today they hit the city in earnest. Londoners have not previously had any reason to fear German aeroplanes. Many crowd into the streets to gaze curiously at the new presence in the sky. This may contribute to the loss of life inflicted by the bombers, with some 160 people killed and several hundred wounded. In one terrible incident a bomb falls on a school in Poplar, killing a large number of children.

This is the most destructive bombing attack on England yet. The raid shocks the British, who now begin planning some kind of air defence system for their capital.

image source (Military History Now: Operation Türkenkreuz – Remembering the Kaiser’s 1917 ‘Blitz’ on Great Britain)

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)

16/4/1917 The disappointing first day of Nivelle’s offensive

Today is the day of Nivelle‘s great offensive in the Chemin des Dames sector. Hopes are high that the French troops will be able to smash through the German lines. The enemy has been battered by artillery and British attacks at Arras should have drawn away much of their reserves. The French infantry are now to advance behind a creeping barrage. And they will be supported by tanks, deployed by the French for the first time.

Nivelle is so confident of great success today that his men’s first day targets are some 8 or 9 kilometres behind the German front line. His men are expected to advance at a rate of 2 kilometres an hour and are carrying three days worth of rations. The tanks are loaded with vast quantities of petrol so that they can keep moving forwards.

However, the battle does not go as well as hoped. The Germans have heavily defended the sector in anticipation of the French attack. A strong deployment of German fighter planes makes it difficult for French aircraft to successfully spot artillery targets. And the weather is appalling, cold and wet. The tanks underperform, initially outpacing their infantry supports but then showing a worrying tendency to catch fire; by the end of the day almost all of them have been destroyed or stuck in mud.

By the standards of Western Front battles, the assault is still remarkably successful in terms of ground gained. In some areas the French advance as much as 5 kilometres. But they fail to completely break through the German lines and suffer ruinous casualties. Given Nivelle’s claims that this would be the assault that wins the war, the results are gravely disappointing. Nevertheless, he orders that the attacks continue in the hope that over the next few days his men will achieve their breakthrough.

image sources:

French St Chamond tank (Wikipedia)

German troops under attack (Dinge and Goete, Things and Stuff) this may be a staged photograph