Unique Death Trap

The British high command was enraged and the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service squadrons in Macedonia were embarrassed by Rudolf von Eschwege’s success on the Macedonian Front in 1916 and 1917. It seemed for a time as though neither overwhelming numbers of aircraft nor anti-aircraft fire could end the German pilot’s run of good luck.

Pressed by their superiors to eliminate this German at all costs, the British command in Macedonia resorted to a diabolical weapon. When the British realized that Eschwege was interested in the Orljak balloons, the 17th Balloon Section was ordered to create a unique death trap. They were instructed to inflate a repaired but unservicable balloon and stuff an old uniform with straw to resemble an observer from a distance. Five hundred pounds of high explosives was placed in the basket, with a detonating cable that ran to the ground alongside the tether.

The rigged balloon was sent aloft in the morning of November 21, 1917. When Eschwege flew close to the balloon, troops on the ground detonated the explosives, seriously damaging the plane and causing it to bank sharply and plunge to the ground.

Although Eschwege’s death removed a thorn in the British side, the men who set the trap felt guilty about the way he died. The official history states: “He came to his end as a result of a legitimate ruse of war, but there was no rejoicing among the pilots of the squadrons which had suffered from his activities. They would have preferred that he had gone down in fair combat.”

Although the November 21 attack is credited as Eschwege’s 20th victory, it also resulted in the German ace’s death. This is not a novel conception, having been repeated again and again in history, drama and in mythology. For example, did not the sons of Oedipus Rex kill each other in battle and did not King Arthur and his son also kill each other in combat? The idea of dual victors in hand-to-hand combat is not new, nor should it shock our sensibilities.

Eschwege’s death drastically changed the balance of air power in Macedonia. As Neumann wrote, “With the death of this man, the mastery of the air passed over to the English.”