SOME time ago a Naval Officer who was engaged
on particularly hazardous duty was discussing calmly the chances that he and
his like had of surviving the war, assuming that it continued for several more
years and that his particular branch of it increased its intensity. He wound up
his remarks by saying, "The chief reason why I particularly want to survive the
finish is that I'm so keen on comparing notes with our opposite members in the
That is the answer to those who ask, as an important
official gentleman asked recently, why this English translation of Rittmeister
von Richthofen's book should be published. It gives our flying people an
opportunity of comparing notes with one of Germany's star-turn fighting pilots,
just as that excellent book by "Contact" gives the Germans the chance of
gathering the atmosphere of the Royal Flying Corps as it was in 1916 and 1917.
"The Red Battle-Flyer" ¹ has evidently
been carefully censored by the German authorities. Also it has possibly been
touched up here and there for propagandist purposes. Consequently, although the
narrative as it stands is extraordinarily interesting, the book as a whole is
still more interesting on account of what one reads between the lines, and of
what one can deduce from the general outlook of the writer. There is, perhaps,
little to learn of immediate topical interest, but there is much that explains
things which were rather difficult to understand in the past, and the
understanding of such points gives one a line of reasoning which should be
useful to our active-service aviators in the future.
When one makes due allowance for the propagandist nature of
the book, which gives one the general impression of the writing of a gentleman
prepared for publication by a hack journalist, one forms a distinctly favorable
mental picture of the young Rittmeister Baron von Richthofen. Our old friend
Froissart is credited with the statement that in his age of chivalry it was
always impossible to inculcate into the German knights the true spirit of
knightliness." Which seems to indicate that the practical German mind of those
days could not understand the whimsicalities of the Latin ideas of chivalry,
which - for example - bade a knight against whose shield an opponent "brake his
spear" haul off out of the fight till the lance-less enemy unsheathed his sword
and "drave into the combat" again. Probably the Hun of those days proceeded to
stick his opponent in the midriff-wherever it may be-and so finished the fight.
In the same true spirit of knightliness an Englishman knocks
a man down and then stands back so that he can get up and have another chance,
whereas a more practical person would take excellent care that his opponent
never got up till he had acknowledged himself beaten. It is all a matter of the
point of view, and largely no doubt a matter of education. However, making due
allowance for the point of view, one finds surprisingly little Hunnishness in
von Richthofen's manners or methods as set forth in print.
It is one of the accepted facts of the war that the German
aviators have displayed greater chivalry than any other branch of the German
services. It was a common occurrence for their pilots to fly over our lines in
the course of their business, and, by way of variety from that business, to
drop packets containing letters from captured British aviators, or the personal
belongings of the dead. One gathers that these acts of courtesy have become
less frequent of late, owing to the intensification of aerial warfare, but it
seems that captured and killed aviators still receive the full courtesies of
war from the German aviators, whatever may be the fate of prisoners in other
It is not surprising therefore to find that, taking him all
round, Rittmeister von Richthofen conveys to one the general impression that,
mutatis mutandis, he is very like an English public school boy of good family.
His egotism, as one finds it in the book, is the egotism of a young man who is
frankly pleased with himself, but is more elated by his good luck than by his
Taking him by and large, one rather likes von Richthofen and
one fancies that most of the R.F.C. people who have fought him would be quite
pleased after the war to sit at table with him and compare notes over the
cigarettes and liquors, as my Naval friend wants to do with his pre-war friends
of the German Navy. And there are unhappily not too many of our present enemies
of whom one would like to express such an opinion.
When one comes to read into the book one begins to find many
interesting things about the German Army, and the war in general, as well as
about the German Feldfliegartruppen or Flying Service. The German is not really
a skilful censor. Just as certain portraits painted by an artist at Ruhleben
conveyed by the expression of the faces a good deal that Germany would like
hidden, so von Richthofen's book, though carefully censored, lets out quite a
good deal of information.
The first thing that strikes one is that Germany's standing
army at the beginning of the war was nothing like so perfect a fighting machine
as we in this country believed. Although, like all the people with any sense in
this country, the German Army knew that a war was coming, the officers and men
seem to have set about their work in a singularly amateurish way, judging by
the short section of the book devoted to the opening of the war on the Russian
Front. And one is pleased to find that von Richthofen has the grace to laugh at
himself and his brother-officers for their mistakes.
In some ways the soldiers of all nations resemble one
another strongly. For instance, one finds in this book the same contempt for
what the Germans picturesquely call a "base-hog," as the French have for the
"embusque" and as the British frontline officer has for the young and
ablebodied officer who is "Something on the Staff." This obnoxious breed is the
same in all armies, and must be clearly distinguished from the carefully
trained and expensively educated General Staff Officer, who is very much of a
specialist and is the very brain of the Army.
When we come to the purely aviatic portion of the book one
finds more of the real von Richthofen and less of the cavalry officer. His
honesty about his utter mental confusion the first time he went into the air
recalls General Brancker's famous remark in his lecture to the Aeronautical
Society when he said that no one ever sees anything at all during his first
hour in the air owing to the hopeless confusion in his mind caused by the novel
aspect of everything. Von Richthofen's description of his experience is about
the best thing that has been written on the subject.
An interesting bit of information is disclosed in his
description of his flight in a "Grossflugzeug," on September 1st, 1915. At that
period little was known about twin-engined aeroplanes. The Germans were known
to have tried them, but they were not a success. The only example known to our
people - though probably there were actually several different machines - was
commonly known in the R.F.C. as ... Wong wong," on account of the curious noise
made by the engines or air-screws when they got ,"out of phase"- as an
electrician might call it. This noise is now quite familiar to the inhabitants
of Southeastern England as the characteristic note of the Gotha bombers.
Von Richthofen's good judgment of fighting values, though he
was then only an observer, and a novice at that, is shown by his disapproval of
the twin-engined aeroplane as a fighting machine. It is also of interest to
learn that at that period the Germans had tried an auto-lock device to hold the
rudder of a twin-engined machine over to one side so that it would fly straight
if one engine went out of action, an ingenious idea even if foredoomed to
It is encouraging to find that though these twin-engined
machines were in operation in September, 1915, the first bombing squadron so
composed only came into action against defenceless Bucharest a year later. This
shows that actually we in this country are not so very much slower in producing
our new ideas, for our big Handley Page twin-engined biplanes first flew
towards the end of 1915, and we began to use them regularly early in 1917- only
a little more than a year later.
The similarity of aviators in all countries is shown by von
Richthofen's frank confession of blue funk when he made his first flight alone.
That first solo is always the most anxious time in a pilot's career. Another
touch of that nature which makes all aviators akin is seen in his accounts of
how he and other pupils under instruction used to fly off on cross-country
training trips and suffer from opportune forced landings in the parks of their
friends or in likely-looking estates. One imagined that this manifestation of
"wongling" was an essentially English trick, and would not have been tolerated
for a moment under the iron discipline of the German Army. In the early days of
the R.F.C. this looking for opulent hosts used to be known sarcastically as
"hunting for Jew-palaces."
The state of affairs on the Russian front is well shown in
the brief reference in the book. "Flying in the East is absolutely a holiday,"
says the writer, who adds that there was no danger on the Russian front, except
the danger of being massacred by the Russians if brought down by engine
failure. From which one understands that the Russians did not approve of making
prisoners of enemy aviators. Their "Archies" were apparently good, but too few
to be useful, and their aviators practically did not exist. Which is rather
what one ventured to surmise in print at the time, despite the magniloquent
Russian communiques. When one thinks of all the good British and French
aeroplanes and engines which were sent to Russia one regrets the waste of
On the subject of air fighting, von Richthofen is always
worth studying carefully. None will dispute his wisdom 'in laying stress on the
importance of calmness in an air fight. We have lost many good fighting pilots
through their getting excited and dashing headlong into an unequal combat. He,
or his editor, has been sufficiently skilful not to give away his pet method of
attack. However, one gathers that he depended largely on his first rush for his
results, rather than on a prolonged series of manoeuvres.
His dictum that "in air fighting results depend on ability
and not on trickery," rather bears out this impression. Nevertheless he
occasionally tells of a lengthy tussle with a particularly skilful enemy.
Such a story relates how that very gallant gentleman, Major
Lanoe Hawker, one of the best loved and admired of the R.F.C.'s many gallant
fighting leaders, fell. It would seem that Major Hawker's machine was
outclassed rather than that he was beaten by superior skill. One is glad to
find that von Richthofen pays a tribute to the bravery and ability of his
enemy, and it is perhaps some slight consolation to those of us who knew Lanoe
Hawker to think that he fell a victim to the Germans' best man and not to a
chance shot from an unworthy foe.
It is rather curious that some time after emphasizing the
fact that trickery does not pay in air fighting, von Richtofen should show how
trickery does pay by describing his young brother Lothar's trick of pretending
to be shot and letting his machine fall apparently out of control, so as to
break off a fight with opponents who were above his weight. One is inclined to
wonder how many optimistic young air-fighters have reported enemy machines as
"driven down out of control," when in reality the wily Hun has only been
getting out of the way of harm. The older hands in these days are not easily
caught by such a trick, and the High Command refuses to count any victims so
claimed unless the performance is verified by independent witnesses either on
the ground or aloft.
Another point of interest in von Richthofen's fighting
methods is that he states, that as a rule, he opens fire at 50 yards. Distances
are hard to judge in the air. The pilot is more likely to underestimate them
than otherwise, just as one does in judging distances at sea. But von
Richthofen is probably as good a judge as any, and in this he seems to be
stating a plain fact. In these days 50 yards is fairly long range. Some of our
own crack fighters prefer 50 feet, if they can get into their favorite
positions. Anyhow he shows the unwisdom of opening fire at 1,000 yards, as some
inexperienced and excited machine-gunners are rather apt to do.
Von Richthofen's chaser squadron - or Jagdstaffel, as the
Germans call these formations - was the first to be known as a "circus." The
famous Boelcke squadron, although a fairly mobile body, the members of which
co-operated closely on occasion, never developed formation fighting to the
extent that von Richthofen did.
His men, although, as the book shows, they went out
periodically on lone-hand ventures, generally flew in a body, numbering
any-where from half a dozen to fifteen or so. Their leader chose to paint his
little Albatros a brilliant pillar-box red. The others painted their machines
according to their fancy. Some had yellow noses, blue bodies and green wings.
Some were pale blue underneath and black on top. Some were painted in streaks,
some with spots. In fact, they rang the changes on the whole of the paint-box.
They flew wonderfully, being all picked men, and in a fight
they performed in a manner which would have seemed impossible to the most
expert aerial acrobats.
Also, the squadron was moved from place to place as a
self-contained unit, so that it appeared wherever the fighting was thickest, or
wherever British or French reconnaissance machines were busiest. It would be
operating at Verdun one week. The next week it would be north of Arras. A few
days later it would be down on the Somme. But as a rule it specialized on the
British front. Wherever it pitched its tents it did its regular squadron
performance, and followed it later in the day with lone-hand raids, or
"strafing" flight by two or three machines at a time.
When one considers the harlequin coloring of the machines,
their acrobatic flying and their "two shows a day" performances from their
one-week pitches, it follows logically that the humorists of the R.F.C. simply
had to call the squadron "von Richthofen's Traveling Circus."
Since then the word has acquired a meaning of its own among
flying men. It cannotes practically any special formation organized for the
purpose of hunting enemy aviators, and consisting of picked men under a
specially skilful leader. It need not necessarily be more mobile than any other
squadron, and it need not indulge in freak colorings, though in the nature of
its work, its flying must be acrobatic. The British "circuses" are in these
days superior to the German circuses, because our machines are now at least as
good as those of the Germans, and so our men, who have always been of higher
average quality than the German aviators, have a fair chance of proving
Of those of von Richthofen's circus mentioned in the book,
Schafer was the first to be killed. Before the war he lived in London, to learn
English, working in an office in the city, when so inclined, but mostly
spending his time on the river, or in sport. Those who knew him say that he was
a pleasant lad and a good sportsman.
Voss was the next to go, after what has been described by
those who were in it as one of the most gallant fights of the war. On a Fokker
triplane with a French le Rhone engine - evidently an experimental machine
built for quick manoeuvring - he fought single-handed a patrol of six of our
people, when he could have broken off the fight and have got away by abandoning
an inferior companion. He was a brave man and a most brilliant pilot. His
flying and shooting in his last fight are said to have been marvelously clever.
None admire his brave cry more than those who fought him.
Others of the "circus" have fallen since then, and the
present "Richthofen Jagdstaffel" is probably constituted very differently from
that band of high-spirited desperadoes which was evolved from the original
Boelcke squadron, and helped to build up the fame of von Richthofen. There is
none of the old R.F.C. who would not cheerfully kill what is left of the
"circus," and there is probably none who would not gladly shake hands with the
survivors after peace is declared. They are worthy enemies and brave men.
This little book gives one a useful insight into the enemy's
methods, and more than little respect for at any rate some of those whom we are
at present endeavoring to kill.
C. G. GREY,
EDITOR, The Aeroplane.
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¹ - The title of this 1918 British translation, The
Red Battle Flyer, was coined before the advent of the term "fighter pilot,"
which is closer in intent to the German phrase Kampflieger used by
Richthofen. RETURN TO STORY