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)

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.

28/10/1916 German ace Boelcke’s luck runs out

Oswald Boelcke is one of Germany’s star fighter pilots on the Western Front, having brought down some 40 enemy aircraft. The young pilot is an inspirational figure to the other pilots who serve under him. He has codified his observations on how fighter planes should operating, emphasising that aerial warfare is a group effort. Boelcke also has a reputation for chivalrous behaviour towards his enemies, often visiting wounded British and French fliers that he has brought down.

Boelcke had a friendly rivalry with Max Immelmann, another German fighter pilot. When Immelmann was killed, Boelcke was grounded by the Kaiser, who feared the morale effect of his loss so soon after Immelmann. Boelcke went on a tour of the Balkans and Turkish Empire but he declined a permanent desk job, returning to the skies of the Western Front.

Today Boelcke has made a series of sorties, on the hunt for enemy aircraft. On his sixth flight of the day he is joined by some of his most gifted subordinates, including Manfred von Richthofen and Erwin Böhme. They clash with British fighters. Boelcke and Böhme both pursue the same enemy aircraft, in violation of Boelcke’s own rules of engagement, but then disaster strikes. The two German planes get too close to each other. Boelcke swerves to avoid crashing into Böhme, but Böhme’s wheels clip the upper wing of Boelcke’s plane. Boelcke manages to crash-land but the impact kills him.

Böhme is distraught as having inadvertently killed his mentor. He intends to kill himself, but is dissuaded from doing so. Germany does not have so many fighter pilots that they can be allowed to take their own lives. In any case, the grim statistics governing aerial warfare on the Western Front suggest that it will not be long before he joins Boelcke.

image sources:

Oswald Boelcke (Diesel Punks)

Hall of Fame of the Air

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)