Knights of the sky..?
We had a strict code of honour. You didn’t shoot down a cripple and you kept it a fair fight.
Captain Wilfred Reid May, Royal Flying Corps, 13 victories
Fighting in the air is not sport. It is scientific murder.
Captain Edward “Eddie” Rickenbacker, U.S. Air Service, 26 victories
Edward ‘Mick’ Mannock, René Fonck and Eddie Rickenbacker were once household names, legends in their own lifetimes.. Manfred von Richthofen, the “Red Baron,” is still the most famous ace of all time. Remembered today as the founding fathers of aerial combat, an entire generation watched these shooting stars blaze through the skies over the battlefields of the First World War. Their stars burned brightly (and often briefly). The ‘Cavalry of the clouds’ became almost instant legends, but subject nowadays to increasing debate.
Was there really chivalry between opposing fighter pilots? And did they really have the military value that folklore claims?
In short, no. Their bravery is beyond doubt. They all gambled their lives and frequently lost. At the time the risks, even of non-operational flying, were shockingly high by today’s standards. Over half the Royal Flying Corps aircrew killed during the First World War died in training accidents before even reaching a front-line squadron. Their work was necessary. Their having legitimate military value is undoubted. But the myths built round the early aces have seriously obscured the grim realities of early air warfare. Modern writers like Peter Hart and Joshua Levine have exposed the harsh realities behind the chivalric myth. To do these pilots justice an honest assessment is long overdue.
First, consider their purpose and value. Theoretically their duties were simple although the reality was infinitely harder and deadlier. Fighters destroyed enemy aircraft to protect ‘friendlies.’ Fighter pilots could frequently achieve more by successfully protecting bombers, reconnaissance flights, artillery-spotting aircraft and observation balloons than they were ever likely to by simply dogfighting. Near the war’s end RFC fighter pilots even found themselves flying ground-attack missions against the desperate ‘Kaiserschlacht’ offensives of Spring, 1918. During the ‘Kaiserschlacht’ fighter pilots successfully attacking advancing troops could achieve far more than merely increasing their personal score in dogfights. Granted, by actively seeking dogfights they might shoot down an important enemy ace, but the odds were long. Killing one or two enemy pilots, especially novices fresh from flight school, meant very little if ‘friendlies’ were still destroyed.
Germany’s Oswald Boelcke, the first leading fighter tactician.
If artillery-spotters were shot down, artillery effectively fired blind using map references. They might not know whether they were even hitting their targets. Without accurate reconnaissance photographs, major enemy attacks could go undetected until they actually started. When planning offensives, planners needed accurate pictures to plan effectively. For the British Army on the ground RFC ‘Contact Patrols’ became increasingly important. Contact Patrols provided almost-live coverage of the fighting as pilots flew low over the battlefields assessing the situation at close quarters and provide communication between the front-line troops and senior commanders. Protecting observation balloons (and destroying enemy balloons) meant the difference between observing enemy activity from a safe distance or possibly not observing at all.
For some aces ‘balloon busting’ was a swift (and near-suicidal) means to score victories. It denied the enemy important reconnaissance capability so was very useful. It was also immensely dangerous. Balloons were usually well-protected by anti-aircraft guns and machine gun nests with fighters often patrolling nearby. They were also deep behind enemy lines. The risks were enormous and many aces avoided balloon busting when they could. Richthofen never shot down a balloon. Mannock’s first kill was a balloon, the experience put him off ever attacking another. Aside from ground fire and fighters, balloons were sometimes booby-trapped. They might contain a mannequin and a basket packed with explosives detonated when a pilot flew too close. Despite the immense risks some pilots regularly went balloon busting. Many (such as Frank Luke) died doing so.
American ‘balloon buster’ Frank Luke.
None of this means that dogfighting was unnecessary or avoidable. As aircraft, weapons and tactics evolved dogfights increased in size and frequency. In 1914 a dogfight might consist of two aircraft firing bolt-action rifles or handguns at each other. By 1918 some pilots thought that less than fifty or sixty aircraft involved meant it wasn’t a proper dogfight. Fighters became indispensable. But fighter aces acquired far greater importance than perhaps they deserve. Their role was often inflated at the expense of other pilots doing equally important, equally dangerous duties like aerial reconnaissance, bombing or even dropping spies behind enemy lines. As former RFC pilot Stanley Walters put it:
“Nobody could say that Great Britain was winning the war when one German went down in flames. That meant nothing. We fighters were the glamour boys and that was all wrong. What we were doing was protecting the Royal Flying Corps while it did its job.”
Accordingly, aces on all sides were lauded as much on myth as hard fact. During the first half of the war they were often portrayed as heirs to a chivalric tradition and knightly honour. They were portrayed as “knights of the sky” rather than ruthless, hardened professionals. Stories abound of pilots waving to each other in mid-combat, returning to base with empty ammunition belts or jammed guns and claiming that an enemy pilot had realized they were defenceless and shown mercy.
Undoubtedly there were occasional incidents of that kind but, as the war continued, fighter pilots developed increasingly ruthless attitudes and tactics leaving chivalry as dead as their victims. By 1916, if dogfighting had ever really been regarded as a sport, it had become a business. Former RFC squadron commander Hugh Dowding (later chief of Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain) described leading Fighter Command with pungent bluntness. According to Dowding it was a matter of putting his pilots in a position to shoot as many enemy pilots as possible in the back, preferably while escaping unscathed.
In the latter half of the war successful aces seldom challenged enemies flying undamaged aircraft. They seldom flew into the middle of large dogfights. Instead they often circled the fringes of dogfights looking to pick off damaged aircraft and novice pilots who were obviously vulnerable. Setting traps for enemy fighters became commonplace. Leaving flights of aircraft at lower altitudes invited attack until the attackers dived on seemingly easy prey and were ‘bounced’ from above by more enemy fighters. RFC ace Edward ‘Mick’ Mannock even admitted strafing a German pilot and observer after forcing them down, stating “The swines are better dead – no prisoners for me!” Toward the end of his career Manfred von Richthofen made no secret of firing at enemy aircraft until certain the pilots were dead or their aircraft on fire. Ruthless reality replaced medieval myth. To survive aces increasingly combined skilled flying and predatory tactics with an executioner’s ruthlessness. The ‘Cavalry of the clouds’ evolved into airborne assassins.
The principle means of assessing their effectiveness is also questionable. Much was made of individual scores. Scores were the simplest means to assess their worth. Propagandists used them freely, building gifted aces into instant heroes. Propagandists had to build them quickly because they could become fallen heroes at any moment. Richthofen claimed 80 kills. Rene Fonck claimed 75. ‘Mick’ Mannock was officially awarded 73 although 61 is a more commonly-agreed figure. The score of any pilot (on either side) is debatable. In chaotic dogfights it was perfectly possible for any pilot to mistakenly claim a kill. Pilots might attack and see their target apparently spinning out of control without seeing them recover and escape. Faking loss of control was a common last-ditch tactic on both sides. A number of pilots might attack the same enemy at the same time and all claim a kill without the enemy having even been shot down. There were always some fraudulently claiming kills if they thought they might get away with it. Eyewitnesses needed to confirm a kill could easily make mistakes, hugely distracted as they were simply by trying to survive. Two aces commonly accused of fraudulent claims were ‘Billy’ Bishop and Frank Luke, both of whose scores attract scepticism and suspicion from some quarters. It’s also historical fact that claims by either side seldom match confirmed enemy losses.
Like their lives, their deaths are frequently obscured by myth. Max Immelmann died mysteriously. The British claimed a Lieutenant McCubbin shot him down. The Germans claimed he shot off his own propeller after his interrupter gear failed. Nobody knows who shot down Albert Ball although the Germans credited Lothar von Richthofen on doubtful evidence. French ace Georges Guynemer disappeared during a patrol. French schoolchildren were told that he had flown too high and been carried away by the angels. The single greatest mystery belongs to the war’s greatest ace, Manfred von Richthofen. Even today there is no conclusive proof of who killed him. The chance of finding any is extremely slim as several different individuals were all credited.
French ace Georges Guynemer.
Deaths of famous aces posed serious propaganda problems. Once an ace was declared unbeatable by the media plausible explanations had to be found (or invented) when they died. These had to reflect well on the aces and perhaps badly on the enemy. Albert Ball didn’t fly into a cloud never to return, he died because he was perpetually reckless. Edward Mannock died needlessly exposing himself to ground fire after his last kill, something he always ordered his own pilots to avoid doing. Manfred von Richthofen died breaking most of his own rules. He chased Wilfred May deep behind British lines well within range of ground fire and without any wingmen to cover him. Whatever the explanations (from prosaic to absurd) they seldom even implied an ace had been foolish, unlucky or met superior opponents. That aces could suffer physical and mental ‘burn out’ was also never admitted, not once they became ‘immortal’ and ‘infallible.’ As writer Alexander McKee wrote
‘It was not a time for generals, but for `aces’, and they did not disappoint their audience.’
To sum up, the successful aces had many positive qualities. They were physically brave to take such extraordinary risks. They were mentally strong, often flying even while physical and mental strains often became increasingly unbearable). They were usually skilled pilots and accurate marksmen. Some of them (Manfred von Richthofen, Oswald Boelcke, Edward Mannock and others) devised tactics giving a previously blunt instrument a lethal cutting edge. But, as a rule, they were pragmatic, ruthless and deadly when necessary. As the war dragged on they went from being ‘Knights of the sky’ to professionals killing to order.
History’s most famous ace, the ‘Red Baron’ Manfred von Richthofen.
The last word on the “ace myth” is probably best left with Manfred von Richthofen. The ‘Red Baron’ perfectly defined the difference between myth and reality in his famous memoir ‘Der Rote Kampfflieger’ (The Red Battle Pilot). He wrote:
“I believe that the war is not as the people at home imagine it, with a hurrah and a roar. It is very serious, very grim…”