'Find the enemy and shoot him down! All else is nonsense!'
- Baron Manfred von Richthofen, German flying ace.
Image: the funeral of Manfred von Richtofen at Bertangles cemetery, 22 April 1918. Officers lower his coffin into the ground (courtesy IWM Q10920).
From the summer of 1917, new and more effective aircraft were pouring from the factories to be committed in increasing numbers in the burgeoning air war. There was still room for a few of the older types; James McCudden, who took over Albert Ball VC's place in the elite 56 Squadron after Ball was killed in May 1917, sometimes flew his outdated Sopwith Pup in mid–1917. With its rotary engine and flimsy airframe it should have been mincemeat for the roving Albatrosses of the German air service. But the calculating, highly professional McCudden had worked out that with its light wing loading, at 17,000 feet his Pup could out–turn any aircraft in the German inventory; and he did, shooting down 57 enemy aircraft before his accidental death in July 1918, latterly flying the new SE5a.
McCudden was the first real British flying ace after Ball. But the whole culture of flying aces had really begun in Germany with the likes of Oswald Boelcke and Max Immelmann. Above the squalor of the trenches, the knights of the air achieved a fame granted to few soldiers on the ground. Fêted in their home countries, the aces and their exploits captured the public's imagination.
Fighter aces like Albert Ball VC or France's Georges Guynemer became household names, and their deaths were widely mourned. But chief among them, the most enduring name, was German ace Baron (Freiherr) Manfred von Richthofen, or the 'Red Baron'. By mid–April 1918 he had been credited with 80 'kills'. Richthofen had been promoted to command Jagdgeschwader 1 (literally 'Hunting Wing 1'), known as the 'Flying Circus' because of the varied colours disguising its aircrafts' outlines as well as its peripatetic nature. He was piloting a red Fokker Dr.1 Triplane when, on 21 April 1918, he pursued a novice British pilot in a Sopwith Camel. A more experienced Canadian pilot, Roy Brown, swooped down and fired a burst that raked Richthofen's machine. Close to the ground, Richthofen was also hit by Australian machine–gun fire. Whoever delivered the fatal bullet, he was mortally wounded and his plane then crashed. He was so famous that people clamoured for souvenirs. Pieces of canvas were cut from his aircraft, and his flying boots went to Australia. His Oberursel UR2 rotary engine from the crash–site, shown here, came to Britain as a trophy for the Royal Air Force (RAF), which passed it on to the new War Museum the following year. It remains a symbol of the man and machine that epitomised the era of the fighter ace.
After McCudden's death, his place within the RAF as the most highly respected combat pilot was taken by Major Edward 'Mick' Mannock, who entered service over the Western Front in 1917. From a shaky start – he was even suspected of cowardice – he screwed himself up for an extraordinary string of sorties, earning the Military Cross (and Bar), and then in May 1918 the DSO and two Bars (in other words, the DSO three times) for achieving 20 kills that month alone. He went on to become the highest scoring British ace of the war, claiming 73 kills – the exact number is hard to verify.
But for the aces, as for all pilots, previous success was no guarantee as to future survival. Life expectancy was shockingly short for serving airmen. They inhabited a (literally) 'live fast, die young' culture. Mannock lasted longer than most, but his end came on 26 July 1918, not from an enemy fighter but from ground fire as he crossed the lines at a low level. He was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, in 1919. The days of the individual duel and the roving knight of the air were being challenged in other ways. The last 18 months of the war saw new and more powerful 'in–line' engines, more professional operational techniques, better–trained pilots, new tactics and more experienced aircrew make their impact. If any one moment symbolises the beginning of this shift it was the shooting down of Baron von Richthofen on 6 July 1917 by slow, cumbersome two–seater FE2s, whose defensive formation of flying in a circle like a wagon train, to cover each other's tails, paid off. Richthofen charged at this 'merry go round' only to fall victim, as a British bullet grazed his skull. The unconscious ace's plane fell out of the sky, and he came round just in time to crash–land. It was a narrow escape.
The Richthofen who returned to the fray in October 1917 found a new and more challenging situation awaiting him. The Royal Flying Corps (RFC) was still taking casualties, but the combination of good fighting aircraft such as the new high–level Sopwith Dolphins, plus the increasingly numerous SE5s, Camels and Bristol fighters, as well as the fast, well–armed DH4 light bombers, were proving more than a match for the German air arm's increasingly outdated Albatrosses and Pfalzes.
In Britain, air power was now important enough to merit a completely new service, the RAF. The catalyst for the new service had been alarm about the seeming inability to prevent Gotha raids over Britain. Lloyd George ordered a wider inquiry into aerial warfare. A committee under Lieutenant General Jan Christian Smuts, in the War Cabinet from June 1917, recommended a single air service combining the RFC and the Royal Naval Air Service, under a new Air Ministry and Chief of the Air Staff, to undertake home defence, field operations and strategic bombing. The War Cabinet agreed, and there was a Parliamentary Bill in October 1917. But Lord Rothermere, the new Air Minister, and Sir Hugh Trenchard, the new Chief of the Air Staff, did not get on; Trenchard resigned, but remained in post until the foundation of the RAF on 1 April 1918; Rothermere fell soon after.
While these political battles were fought, on the real battlefront the German spring offensives of 1918 never achieved anything like air superiority. The large numbers of ground–attack planes assembled to bolster the offensive made little difference as the RAF fought back hard. British, French and growing numbers of American squadrons made life difficult for the advancing Germans by artillery spotting, reconnaissance and, increasingly, their own ground attack. The RFC/RAF's only real problem in spring 1918 was being forced to retreat from its frontline airfields before the advancing Germans. But in the air, large numbers of capable aircraft were fighting the Germans to a standstill.
As the German offensive pushed up the valley of the Somme, in April it claimed the life of the Red Baron himself. His Fokker half spun, stalled and crash–landed in a field, ending up on its nose near Corbie. A bullet had entered his right side and exited via his heart. No–one knows who fired the fatal shot. Germany's idol was gone, to be given a very public hero's funeral by the British – a good propaganda coup. Many British pilots noted Richthofen's death with respect and some sadness. But Mannock had a different view: 'I hope he roasted the whole way down.'
Richthofen's death symbolised the waning of German air power. The RFC took delivery of no less than 2,500 new aircraft in March 1918 alone, while Germany was suffering shortages of everything from oil to new pilots. Air supremacy was moving irrevocably to the Allies. Even the arrival of the superlative, dangerous Fokker D–VII fighter in June could not turn the tide. New aces like the Canadians' Billy Bishop and the Royal Navy's Raymond Collishaw began to rack up impressive scores of kills.
As the summer of 1918 wore on, the whole pattern of aerial warfare changed. Over the front lines older fighters such as the Sopwith Camel were now used extensively for ground attack, shooting up and bombing the retreating Germans' positions. Above them, the artillery-observation two-seaters, now equipped with reliable and longer range radios, controlled artillery bombardments. Higher still were the massed fighters, including the new Sopwith Snipe: although, as the last of the rotary engine fighters, not a fast aircraft by the standards of its time, it was more than a good match for contemporary German fighters. Deep behind German lines, light bombers such as the excellent DH4 roamed day after day to attack railheads, headquarters and airfields, secure in the knowledge that the speedy (140mph) aircraft could outrun all its opponents, even the Fokker D–VII.
In June 1918, Trenchard became commander of the new Independent Air Force in France, and it began bombing military targets deep inside Germany. Bigger aircraft, carrying bigger bombloads, were rolling off the production lines.
Even as news of the Armistice came through, the first of the four–engined Handley Page V/1500 aircraft were preparing to undertake bombing raids on Berlin. They didn't need to complete their flights. But if the First World War proved anything, it was that air power had come of age and that no future war could be successfully fought without it.
This article is the featured article from Stand To! 100, the journal of The Western Front Association.
This article, along with those on pages 80, 115 and 128 of Stand To! 100, are extracted from A History of the First World War in 100 Objects by John Hughes-Wilson (IWM Consultant Nigel Steel) Cassell Illustrated, 2014.