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Duel of Aces Over the Somme

By Thomas G. Bradbeer
4/2/2018 • Aviation History Magazine

One of Britain’s best pilots was undone by a newcomer to the Western Front, the man who became a legend as the Red Baron.

On November 23, 1916, a pivotal struggle unfolded above the Somme between one of the most accomplished fighter pilots in Britain’s Royal Flying Corps and a relatively unknown German aviator. When it was over, a youthful Manfred von Richthofen had triumphed over Victoria Cross recipient Lanoe Hawker in a hard-fought contest that confirmed the technological superiority of German fighters over their British opponents.

Six months earlier, the RFC’s de Havilland D.H.2s had been instrumental in wresting aerial supremacy from Germany’s Fokker E.III Eindeckers in the skies over northern France. As the bloodiest battle of World War I ground on in the fall of 1916, however, the British airmen found themselves hard-pressed to maintain their advantage. From June 1 through November 18, 1916, the RFC lost 499 airmen killed, wounded or missing in action, and more than 972 aircraft were destroyed in combat or accidents. Many of those aircraft, such as the infamous Blériot Experimental series (most notably the B.E.2c), were outdated, but Maj. Gen. Hugh Trenchard was determined to put every available plane into the fight. RFC leaders soon came to realize that unless British airplanes as technically advanced as the newest German Albatros D.I and D.II fighters were made available quickly, they would likely lose control of the skies above the Somme and Flanders fronts.

Major Lanoe George Hawker, commander of the RFC’s first single-seat fighter squadron, was one of Trenchard’s champions. Hawker had begun his RFC flying career with No. 6 Squadron on October 3, 1914. He hardly had a chance to meet his new squadron mates before they flew their eight B.E.s and four Farmans to Belgium on October 7. Hawker started carrying a revolver with him on reconnaissance missions, and reported on October 31, “I met a German biplane yesterday afternoon and fired six shots at him with my revolver—no good, of course, but he took fright and made for home.”

That winter of 1914-15 offered few opportunities for aerial combat. Hawker and No. 6 Squadron spent the winter months honing their skills while conducting reconnaissance and photographic missions, as well as directing artillery fire. When No. 6 Squadron was tasked with bombing Zeppelin sheds at Gontrode on April 18, Hawker was picked for the assignment. Although he did not succeed in destroying the sheds, he dropped three bombs (one at less than 200 feet) and attacked an observation balloon with hand grenades, then managed to make it back to base at Poperinghe in a damaged airplane. Awarded the Distinguished Service Order, Hawker was subsequently promoted to command of A Flight.

A week later, during the Second Battle of Ypres, Hawker was wounded in the foot by groundfire during a recon sortie. For the remainder of that battle he had to be carried to and from his plane, but he refused to be grounded until the fight was over.

Following medical leave to England, in late May Hawker returned to No. 6 Squadron, where he was overjoyed to receive one of the RFC’s newest aircraft, the Bristol Scout Type C. A tractor biplane with a top speed of 92 mph and a 15,500-foot ceiling, it was compact and more maneuverable than any other British aircraft then in service.

Working with his mechanic, Hawker devised a mounting for the Lewis machine gun on his new plane. Since the British had not yet developed a means of firing a machine gun through the propeller without damaging it, Hawker attached his weapon to the side of the fuselage so it would fire at an angle, avoiding the prop arc.

After several inconclusive engagements, on the evening of July 25, 1915, Captain Hawker spotted two German airplanes over Passchendaele. He attacked the nearest of the two. Flying with his right hand while firing the Lewis gun with his left, Hawker emptied an entire drum of 47 rounds at the enemy plane, then pursued the second aircraft. Both planes retreated into German airspace. One of them, damaged by Hawker’s fire, was seen by a British anti-aircraft battery making a hasty landing just inside the German lines.

Thirty minutes later Hawker spotted another enemy 10,000 feet above Hooge and stalked his quarry until he was less than 100 yards away before firing. This time the German airplane caught fire and crashed. As historian Alex Revell noted, that combat was “the most successful yet fought by a single-seater scout of the RFC.” Hawker was subsequently awarded the Victoria Cross, the first for single-seat air-to-air combat. Alternately flying his Bristol Scout and a Farman Experimental F.E.2b two-seat pusher, he would officially be credited with downing seven German planes in a little less than three months, becoming the RFC’s first ace.

After more than a year in combat, Hawker was showing signs of severe strain. Sent back to Britain in September 1915, he was chosen to lead the RFC’s newly formed single-seat fighter unit. Promoted to major, Hawker took command of No. 24 Squadron at Hounslow on September 28. The squadron received its first aircraft, the D.H.2, in January 1916.

A single-seat pusher biplane powered by a 100-hp Le Rhône or Gnome Monosoupape rotary engine, the D.H.2 had a maximum speed of 93 mph and a ceiling of 14,000 feet. Besides its relatively slow speed, it had a slower rate of climb than Germany’s primary fighter, the E.III Eindecker. Its single-valve (monosoupape) engine was equipped with a hand-controlled fuel induction system that only allowed the engine to run at full speed or not at all. In a dive, the pilot often had to turn off the engine to avoid flooding it.

The D.H.2 pilot sat in a bathtub-shaped nacelle with the engine and propeller at his back. A single .303-inch Lewis machine gun rested on the cockpit’s forward rim. The pilot had to fly with one hand on the control stick or use his knees, changing the ammunition drum and firing with the other hand—a difficult manuever during aerial combat, to say the least.

Hawker and No. 24 Squadron flew to St. Omer, France, on February 8, 1916. Trenchard issued a direct order to his experienced squadron commanders: Rather than participate in missions, their job at this point was to train their aircrews how to fight and survive over the Western Front. Many commanders violated that order, however, Hawker among them. He often argued that he needed to fly to test new theories or improvements he had made to aircraft or equipment.

For example, Hawker developed a ring gunsight and also created a clamp and spring clip device to hold the Lewis gun in place on the D.H.2. Given the aircraft’s open cockpit and rear-mounted engine, D.H.2 pilots risked frostbite every time they flew at high altitudes. Hawker addressed that problem by designing fur-lined boots that reached to the upper thigh, known as “fug-boots,” which became standard issue. Envious German pilots often confiscated them from captured British fliers who’d been shot down.

As commander of the RFC’s first fighter squadron, Hawker’s greatest challenge was to develop tactics and implement a training program for his own pilots as well as the other five fighter squadrons then forming in England. During the first week, two of his pilots put their D.H.2s into spins, with fatal results. One of the planes caught fire on the way down, reinforcing the view that the D.H.2 was a “spinning incinerator.” Realizing his men’s morale was shaken, Hawker climbed into his own plane and took off. Over a period of 30 minutes he put the D.H.2 into spins from a variety of angles and turns with the engine on as well as off, ably demonstrating how to regain control. After landing, he gathered his men together and told them: “It’s alright, you fellows. You can get the D.H.2 out of any spin. I have just tried it out.” He then went on to explain his techniques, rebuilding the men’s confidence in their mounts. There were no more fatalities from spins in No. 24 Squadron after that demonstration.

Following weeks of intense training, No. 24 conducted its first operational combat sortie on March 24, 1916. The squadron celebrated its first official victory on April 2, when 2nd Lt. David M. Tidmarsh shot down an Albatros two-seater.

During the spring and summer of 1916, Hawker’s D.H.2s played a major role in ending the “Fokker Scourge.” On June 22, days before the start of the Somme campaign, Hawker issued a simple order to his pilots: “Attack everything.” That brief directive summarized the commander’s vision, tenacity and aggression against the enemy—qualities he tried to instill in all his men. During the five-month Battle of the Somme, No. 24 Squadron provided outstanding support to General Sir Edmund Allenby’s Third Army. Heeding Trenchard’s call for incessant offensive operations to deny the Germans control of the air, No. 24 ac – counted for an impressive total of 70 enemy aircraft, at a cost of 12 of its own planes and 21 pilots killed, wounded or missing.

But by September 1916, when the Albatros D.I and D.II were introduced to the front, the pendulum began to swing back in the Germans’ favor. In addition to throwing faster and better-armed aircraft into the fight, the Germans were determined to end Britain’s air supremacy over the front lines via four major initiatives.

The first major change occurred in late August, when the German air service established a flying group leader within each corps headquarters. Having one man rather than a group of individuals at various levels coordinate the tactical use of aircraft units supporting army corps helped synchronize the air arm with ground forces.

The second initiative involved the establishment of the first Jagdstaffeln (hunting squadrons), or Jastas, to seek out and destroy Allied aircraft, so other German planes could accomplish their assigned missions. Renowned fighter tactician Oswald Boelcke was named commander of Jasta 2 and given free rein to handpick his pilots from throughout the air service.

The plan’s third component entailed arming these newly created hunting squadrons with the latest generation of German fighter planes, specifically the Albatros D.I and Fokker D.I. Both of those aircraft had distinct advantages over the D.H.2.

The fourth change came on October 8, when Kaiser Wilhelm II created the position of commanding general of the air forces, and renamed the German air service the Luftstreitskräfte (air force). General Ernst von Hoeppner, the first commanding general, and his staff would do much to advance the concept of air power, not only for Germany, but for the Central Powers as a whole.

Boelcke selected the best and brightest pilots for his new Jasta. Among them was a young Silesian aristocrat, 2nd Lt. Manfred Freiherr von Richthofen, who had transferred from the cavalry to the air service in May 1915. Of his first flight, Richthofen said, “I didn’t care a bit where I was and I felt extremely sad when my pilot thought it was time to go down again.” In September he experienced his first air combat, exchanging rifle shots with the crew of an RFC Farman. Later that month he claimed to have shot down a French Farman behind Allied lines, but it could not be confirmed.

During a train ride Richthofen encountered the famous ace Boelcke and asked about his technique. “It’s quite simple,” Boelcke told him. “I fly close to my man, take good aim, shoot and then, of course, he falls down.” When Richthofen said he tried to do the same thing but with little or no success to show for it, Boelcke explained that the big difference was that he flew a Fokker fighter. From that time on, Richthofen vowed to become a fighter pilot.

After some rudimentary instruction he soloed, but crashed on landing. He was sent to Döberitz for additional training, and on Christmas Day received notification that he had passed his examinations and was a certified pilot. In March 1916, Richthofen was assigned to a two-seater squadron near Verdun, and on April 26 he shot down a Nieuport. Once again he didn’t receive official credit, but French records indicate he wounded future ace Jean Casale. When Boelcke contacted Richthofen a few months later, the 23-year-old Prussian eagerly accepted his invitation to join Jasta 2 on the Somme front.

Boelcke spent the first three weeks of September teaching formation flying, gunnery and tactics. His unit had just received the new Albatros D.I fighter, which had a maximum speed of 109 mph and a 17,000-foot ceiling. Faster than the D.H.2, it wasn’t as maneuverable, but it was armed with two 7.92mm Maxim machine guns fed by 500-round belts of ammunition.

September 17 would prove to be a turning point in the air war over the Western Front. Spotting British aircraft crossing into German-held territory that day, Jasta 2 began stalking them until the time was right to attack. Eight lumbering B.E.2cs of No. 12 Squadron, weighed down by 112-pound bombs and escorted by six F.E.2bs of No. 11 Squadron, were attacking Marcoing railway station when Boelcke’s men descended out of the sun. In quick succession they shot down four F.E.2bs and two B.E.2cs, with no losses to Jasta 2. The victories included Boelcke’s 27th and Richthofen’s first.

On October 28, Jasta 2 fliers encountered two D.H.2s from Hawker’s No. 24 Squadron—one of many engagements between the rival squadrons. While attempting to close on a D.H.2 flown by Captain Gerald A. Knight, Boelcke collided with one of his own men and was killed when his Albatros broke up in the air. The commander’s death was a blow to his unit as well as the German air force. But Boelcke had trained an entire squadron of expert fighter pilots, and almost all his men would rise to command Jagdstaffeln of their own. In his honor, Jasta 2 was renamed Jasta Boelcke.

In the course of the next four weeks, equipped with the improved Albatros D.II and commanded by 1st Lt. Stefan Kirmaier, the squadron downed a total of 25 British aircraft. On November 22, Kirmaier himself was shot down and killed by Captain John “Jock” Andrews, one of Hawker’s most capable veterans in No. 24 Squadron.

The next day four D.H.2s of Andrews’ A Flight took off at 1300 from No. 24 Squadron’s airfield at Bertangles, near Amiens, to link up with two photoreconnaissance aircraft. A midday rain had just stopped falling and C Flight had recently returned from its morning patrol after escorting two recon aircraft to German-held Bapaume, north east of Bertangles. The pilots reported having seen a large formation of enemy fighters that seemed to be waiting for something.

Major Hawker surmised that the Germans were lying in wait for the next flight of RFC recon aircraft. Despite the order forbidding commanding officers from flying over enemy lines, he decided to accompany A Flight as its fourth member. Led by Andrews, the flight also included Lieutenants John H. Crutch and Robert H.M.S. Saundby (who would become an air marshal during World War II).

At 1310 Crutch’s airplane developed engine trouble, and he signaled to Andrews that he was returning to base. A Flight crossed the lines at 11,000 feet at 1330. All three pilots noticed a battle in progress over Grandcourt between several British Nieuport fighters and a German flight. When Andrews turned to assist the Nieuports, the Germans spotted the D.H.2s and broke away, heading east. Andrews put his flight back on course for Bapaume.

Twenty minutes later Andrews spotted two German observation planes northeast of Bapaume and gave the signal to attack. The D.H.2s began a shallow dive to cut off the enemy planes’ anticipated retreat, but the Germans quickly turned to avoid combat. At that point Andrews made a cursory sweep of the sky and noticed a large number of black dots far above them. He then realized the recon aircraft had been bait for a trap. What looked like an entire enemy squadron was descending on the three D.H.2s. Andrews quickly decided his only course of action was to lead his flight home as fast as possible.

Andrews and Saundby made a wide right turn, but Hawker— either because he thought Andrews was turning back due to engine trouble or because he was intent on pursuing the retreating enemy— continued to fly east. Realizing that the German flight was bearing down on his squadron commander, Andrews continued the circle, with Saundby still off his right wing, then went after Hawker, hoping to head off the Germans. Andrews fired 25 rounds at one of the German planes when it was less than 100 feet above and behind Hawker. The enemy fighter fell into a steep dive—but more important, Hawker know knew he was the target for 10 Germans.

Andrews came under attack within seconds, several bullets tearing into the engine and gas tank of his D.H.2. His engine stopped, but he managed to turn west, putting his plane into a steep dive in an attempt to glide back to British lines. Taking one last look behind him, he saw Hawker flying in circles with a lone German fighter at about 3,000 feet.

One of the Germans pursued Andrews, but Saundby got behind the unsuspecting enemy and emptied most of a 47-round drum into his plane, which went down in a spin. Then Saundby waved to his flight leader and headed back in search of the other enemy fighters.

Two miles inside the German lines, Hawker was engaged in a deadly ballet with a lone D.II piloted by Richthofen, who had been victorious in 10 aerial battles in the preceding eight weeks. As the two antagonists circled, each striving to get on the other’s tail, the German ace quickly realized that he was up against a very experienced pilot. Nevertheless, he thought if he was patient the Englishman would run low on fuel and have to make a break for his lines.

Popular myths have the two combatants circling for half an hour, but that impossibly grueling time frame is the product of misinterpreted combat reports and distorted memories. Five minutes is a more plausible amount of time for the tight-turning dogfight. As it was, the circling fighters gradually descended from 5,000 feet to less than 300 feet. At that point Hawker was running out of both fuel and sky, so he made a dash for the British lines.

Richthofen snapped his Albatros into a tight bank and went straight for the Englishman’s tail. Both men were flying less than 150 feet over the pockmarked battlefield just west of Bapaume. Hawker zigzagged, hoping to present a more difficult target but also losing precious speed. A stream of machine gun fire tore past his left wing, then past his right.

Less than a quarter mile from the British lines, after using up nearly 900 of his 1,000 rounds of ammunition—and also having to clear two jammed guns in the process— Richthofen drew to within 60 feet of the D.H.2, squeezed the trigger and watched as his rounds struck the British aircraft’s tail, engine and cockpit. The D.H.2 straightened for a moment before nosing downward, crashing into a water-filled shell hole less than 200 feet from the British lines. Lanoe Hawker was dead, with a single bullet in the back of his head. Richthofen wrote after the battle:

My Englishman was a good sportsman, but by and by the thing became a little too hot for him. He had to decide whether he would land on German ground or whether he would fly back to the English lines. Of course, he tried the latter, after endeavoring in vain to escape me by loopings and such tricks. At that time my first bullets were flying around him, for so far neither of us had been able to do any shooting. When he had come down to about 300 feet he tried to escape by flying in a zigzag course, which makes it difficult for an observer on the ground to shoot. That was my most favorable moment. I followed him at an altitude of from 250 to 150 feet firing all the time. The Englishman could not help falling. But the jamming of my guns nearly robbed me of my success.

The Germans buried Major Hawker next to the remains of his aircraft. His grave was lost during the following two years of warfare. Hawker’s name is commemorated at Arras on the Air Services Memorial to the Missing.

It was Richthofen’s 11th victory. After five more he would receive his nation’s highest award for valor, the Ordre Pour le Mérite, nicknamed the “Blue Max” by the British in tribute to Max Immelmann, an early German ace and rival of Boelcke’s. Richthofen took great pride in shooting down one of the RFC’s best pilots, writing: “My eleventh Englishman was a Major Hawker, twenty-six years old and commander of an English squadron. According to prisoners’ ac – counts, he was the English Boelcke. He gave me the hardest fight I have experienced so far, until I finally succeeded in getting him down.”

Within 24 hours both the RFC and the Luftstreitskräfte knew that Hawker had been killed by an airman with less than eight weeks’ experience as a fighter pilot. For the Germans, it seemed like the hand of fate was involved. On June 18, two weeks before the start of the Somme offensive, they had lost their premier fighter pilot, Immelmann, seemingly signifying that the RFC had gained air supremacy. Then on October 28 Boelcke had been killed, and his successor, Kirmaier, less than a month later. Now Hawker’s death was taken as proof the pendulum had swung back in their favor. Probably of greater significance, however, was that the D.H.2, which had eclipsed the Fokker Eindecker, had been surpassed by the Albatros.

The worst was yet to come for the RFC. Six months after Hawker’s death, during “Bloody April,” 151 British aircraft were shot down, with 316 airmen killed or missing—the highest RFC casualty rate for any single month of World War I. Richthofen, who achieved aviation immortality as the “Red Baron,” fought on for another 17 months before being shot down on April 21, 1918. Exactly who was responsible for his death has long been debated, but today most of the evidence points to an Australian machine-gunner rather than RAF Captain Roy Brown, who was pursuing Richthofen to save one of his own fledgling pi – lots from the baron’s guns. Richthofen’s 80 aerial victories made him the highest-scoring fighter pilot of the war.

Countless books, articles and movies have been based on the Red Baron’s impressive career, but most of them overlook his duel with Hawker. Their combat was just one of many struggles in the hotly contested skies over the Western Front in 1916. But in the annals of World War I aviation, their brief encounter remains the stuff of legend.

 

Retired U.S. Army Lt. Col. Thomas G. Bradbeer has been researching the air war of 1914-18 for 35 years. He recommends for further reading: The Royal Flying Corps in World War I, by Ralph Barker; and The Red Baron: Beyond the Legend, by Peter Kilduff.

Originally published in the January 2009 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here

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