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

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)

16/1/1917 Richthofen becomes the Red Baron

The war above the trenches has a high attrition rate among the men flying the aeroplanes for each side. As a result, promotions come fast, with simple survival often being sufficient grounds for achieving a position of authority.

One flier who perhaps deserves his promotion more than others is the new commander of Jagdstaffel 11, the number 11 fighter squadron of the German air force. The new commander of Jasta 11 is Captain Manfred von Richthofen. This 25 year old aristocrat has already claimed 16 victories since his first kill in the autumn of 1916. Now having been awarded Germany’s highest honour, the Pour le Merite he takes command of this squadron.

Aeroplanes flying over the Western Front are normally painted in drab colours, to make it harder for the enemy to spot them. Richthofen however decides to throw caution to the wind. He has his aeroplane, an Albatross D.III painted red. Let his enemies know who they are facing, he thinks. Back in Germany, newspapers start referring to Richthofen as Der Rote Kampfflieger (the Red Fighter Pilot). The Allies give him a variety of names: Le Petit Rouge, the Red Devil and the Red Baron.

image sources:

Manfred von Richthofen (The Aerodrome: Aces and Aircraft of World War I)

Richthofen (in cockpit) and his Jasta 11 comrades (Wikipedia)

see also: Richthofen describes painting his aeroplane red, in his autobiography.

Note: Richthofen may not have had his aeroplane painted red on his first day as commander of Jasta 11. He may also not have acquired the Red Baron nickname until after the end of the war.