Richthofen’s Last Stand

It is 100 years today since the most famous airman of them all, Rittmeister Freiherr Manfred von Richthofen – or the Red Baron, if you will – was shot down. The debate rolls on over who fired the single bullet which felled him, but it is a measure of the intensity of Richthofen’s war that he should have allowed himself to get caught up in such an improbable melée as that seen over the River Somme on 21 April 1918.

The fear that the Red Baron instilled in his enemies led to his being vilified for building up the single greatest score of the conflict primarily over slow 2-seater reconnaissance and artillery observation machines.

In Britain it was felt that this was somehow unsporting and any sort of a man with decency and fair play in his bones should have stuck to duelling with fighters. Indeed, many pilots in the Royal Flying Corps believed that Richthofen’s insistence on tactical advantage made him a coward.

But it was the 2-seaters which acted as the eyes and ears of the Western Front – photographing enemy emplacements, dropping bombs and directing the fire of artillery – which meant that they were the obvious target to a professional huntsman. In Richthofen’s mind, enemy fighters were simply there to defend the machines that were worth shooting down, rather than being worth shooting at on their own account.

Another myth which gained traction about the Red Baron was that he was not a great airman; not a dogfighter. That really doesn’t hold much water when reading the testimony of his final victim – one of the few men to survive such an encounter.

Second Lieutenant David Lewis was flying his Sopwith Camel in a formation of six when they ran into six Fokker Dr.I triplanes led by an all-scarlet machine. The German leader singled out his English opposite number, Major Richard Raymond-Barker, and dived upon him, setting his Sopwith alight.

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Richthofen’s last mount: Fokker Dr.I serial 425/17

As the Fokkers regrouped from their initial attack, Lewis dived on one, fired without doing any obvious damage and then found that his own aircraft was coming under withering fire. “Then started a merry waltz; round and round, up and down to the staccato of the machine guns of the other fighters,” he recounted. “Only once did I get my sights on his machine, but in a trice the positions were reversed.”

Against a Sopwith Camel, the ‘king of air fighters’ this was no mean feat of airmanship on Richthofen’s part. There can also be no doubt that the onslaught must have been terrifying to the inexperienced 2/Lt Lewis, who recounted:

“His first burst shattered the compass in front of my face, the liquid therefrom fogging my goggles, of which, however, I was relieved when a bullet severed the elastic from the frame, and they went over the side…

“I do not think Richthofen was more than 50 feet away from me all this time, for I could plainly see his begoggled and helmeted face, and his machine guns. Next I heard the sound of flames and the stream of bullets ceased. I turned round to see that my machine was on fire.”

Lewis put his Camel into a vertical dive to try and stop the flames from consuming him. The plan worked but instead blew the fire back towards the Camel’s tail so that when the time came to pull out of his dive its elevators were practically useless.

The stricken Camel was beyond saving but its pilot was thrown clear of the wreckage and survived with only minor injuries. It was one of those miraculous escapes that come every so often when it is simply not one’s day to go.

Sending two Camels down in flames was a good day’s work but the battle only served to show how far from the cool-headed huntsman Richthofen had become. He was brawling on the edge of the abyss; his finely-honed tactics thrown to the wind.

There is no doubt that he should not have been anywhere near the cockpit in the spring of 1918. He had never fully recuperated from being shot in the head the previous summer, was suffering from what we would call combat fatigue in this day and age and he was, by any stretch, physically and mentally exhausted.

It is noticeable that from his return to active duty in early March until his death six weeks later, Richthofen was no longer fixated upon shooting down the valuable reconnaissance and artillery spotting machines. Instead he attacked enemy fighters like the Camels of Lewis and Raymond-Barker, which were of little strategic value.

Perhaps he felt that if he shot down enough of them, he would evade the bullet with his name on. “I am in wretched spirits after every battle,” he wrote. “When I set foot on the ground again at my airfield after a flight, I go to my quarters and do not want to see anyone or hear anything.”

All of the great air aces who were killed during World War 1 died as a result of going to the well once too often. Almost to a man, those who excelled at war in the air died from doing something that they would, in their prime, have reprimanded, grounded or posted a junior officer for attempting.

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Richthofen (right) was just 25 when he died

‘Mick’ Mannock was flying at barely 100 feet when he presented his S.E.5a as the perfect target to enemy machine gun emplacements. Werner Voss was tackling an absurd number of airmen single-handed and refusing to break off from the fight. Jimmy McCudden was showing off. Georges Guynemer dived in to the stream of bullets from a 2-seater.

When one looks at the photos of these men in the days before they died it is noticeable that, although most were only in their mid-twenties, their faces are lined, their eyes pouched and their hands are usually bunched even as they try to look carefree for the camera. They look a good two decades older than their years – and Richthofen was no exception.

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Richthofen (right) with his men

British pilots were generally spared the same level of public acclaim that the French and German propagandists accorded their own ‘aces’. It was felt that the negative effect on public morale when famous pilots were killed in combat was far more profound than the benefits of cheering them on in life.

The propagandists had made a public hero of Albert Ball only to discover that he was in fact mortal – and in the wave of mourning that followed they decided to keep their high-scoring pilots anonymous wherever possible.

Not so the French or Germans, who lionised their most successful ‘aces’. This added a layer of expectation and reciprocal sense of duty that pushed them all onward into the furthest reaches of their endurance.

“One of my superiors advised me to give up flying, saying it will catch up with me one day,” Richthofen wrote.

“But I would become miserable if now, honoured with glory and decorations, I became a pensioner of my dignity in order to preserve my ‘precious’ life for the nation while every poor fellow in the trenches endures his duty as I did mine.”

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Richthofen and his protégé, Kurt Wolff

The day after Second Lieutenant Lewis and Major Raymond-Barker had fallen to Richthofen’s guns, he again led six Fokker triplanes in to battle with a squadron of Sopwith Camels. One was singled out for the same sort of furious attack that Lewis had received but Wilfred ‘Wop’ May proved elusive.

Richthofen’s pursuit took them down to almost ground level with the experienced Arthur Roy Brown’s Camel diving in to May’s rescue and an entire Australian division firing up at the scarlet triplane. One .303 bullet among the thousands aimed at him finally found its mark and the rest is pure conjecture.

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The S.E.5 and the Camel

With the S.E.5 book on the shelves, a few requests have come in for stories about the machine and the men who flew it. Here’s one that went out on History of War, in case of interest.

It could be said that posterity has been cruel to the airmen of World War I. As a society, we have an apparently bottomless well of sympathy and interest when it comes to the men in the trenches. Yet the men who fought and died in the bitter campaign three miles above them are often portrayed as comical figures in fluttering silk scarves like Blackadder’s Lord Flashheart.

Perhaps that is why, if ever we have cause to think of their war, the recurring images are those of the anthropomorphic Sopwith Camel and the Red Baron’s scarlet Fokker Triplane. Yet it is the prosaically-named S.E.5, which entered service almost exactly 100 years ago today, which was arguably the greatest fighting aircraft of 1914-18.

Designed around the remarkable Hispano-Suiza V8 engine, a product of pre-war motor racing genius Louis Béchereau, the S.E.5 was a conventional biplane intended to combine manoeuvrability with greater structural strength than earlier aircraft. The V8 engine carried it faster and higher than most other front-line machines while its solid construction made for a stable gun platform.

The Royal Aircraft Factory’s designers Henry Folland and John Kenworthy, together with chief test pilot Frank Goodden, worked to the premise that the war would not be won by flying rings around the enemy but instead by shooting him down. The days of gallant lone hunters jousting in the sky – and the romantic vision of the ‘cavalry of the clouds’ – were coming to an end by the time that the S.E.5 debuted above the Battle of Arras in late April 1917.

Formations of aeroplanes, as many as 50 on each side, would instead jockey for position before unleashing a blitz attack, regrouping and then attacking again. This was not a method of fighting that the swashbuckling pilots who started the war easily adapted to: most notably Britain’s celebrated hero Albert Ball, who was initially an outspoken critic of the S.E.5.

Ball helped modify the original design to its definitive S.E.5a specification, with a raft of improvements that gave the pilots better visibility, greater firepower and even a degree of warmth in the icy world of an open cockpit at 15-20,000 feet. Despite his early misgivings, Ball eventually came to rely upon the S.E.5’s rugged construction but he remained a lone hunter at heart, which ultimately led to his death in combat on 7 May 1917.

Yet despite Ball’s loss the S.E.5 went on to see more of its pilots reach the status of ‘ace’ – namely shooting down more than five enemy machines – than any other Allied aircraft in the war. The most successful S.E.5 pilot was diminutive South African pilot ‘Proccy’ Beauchamp Proctor, credited with 54 victories made exclusively on the type.

In total, 215 pilots ‘made ace’ on the S.E.5 on the Western Front and in the Middle East, while the type also served with distinction in defending Londoners from the terror of large scale bombing raids. Among these men were the classically-educated Arthur Rhys Davids, the working class heroes Jimmy McCudden and ‘Mick’ Mannock, as well as India’s only ‘ace’ of the war, Indra Lal Roy.

“The S.E.5 is a very modern aeroplane in many respects,” says Rob Millinship, who has flown the last original airworthy example of the breed for 25 years as part of The Shuttleworth Collection at Old Warden in Bedfordshire. “It’s 100 years old but nothing about it would surprise or disconcert a pilot used to modern high-performance designs.”

Pilots flying the Sopwith Camel accounted for more enemy aircraft destroyed than their counterparts in the S.E.5 but their successes came at an almost insatiable cost to their own lives. Unlike the S.E.5 with its long, stable V8 engine, the rotary-engined Camel was designed to be unstable in flight – perfect for dogfighting at close quarters but dreadful for inexperienced or wounded pilots trying to land safely.

Losses among Camel pilots stood at 831 dead (with 424 being killed in action and 407 killed in flying accidents), with 324 more pilots wounded or made prisoners of war. Among the S.E.5 squadrons, 286 pilots were killed of whom 207 were lost in action and 79 in accidents, with 170 more wounded or POW.

This means that while the Camels scored 3,318 victories in air combat to the S.E.5’s 2,704 the cost was infinitely greater. In statistical terms, one Camel pilot was lost for every four victories scored compared to one S.E.5 pilot for every six victories scored.

“Young guys with very little experience were getting thrown into these machines and it was sink or swim,” says Gene De Marco, head of The Vintage Aviator Limited in New Zealand, which has built three Hispano-Suiza powered reproduction S.E.5s under the watchful eye of proprietor and Lord of the Rings movie mogul, Sir Peter Jackson.

“If you’re a pilot with maybe ten hours of experience in total before reaching the front line, it would be very easy to kill yourself in the Camel… in the S.E.5 there were so many luxuries and so many potential problems had been engineered out of it that it was a very modern, very pleasant aeroplane to fly.”

The original story can be found here: History of War

Celluloid dogfights: a brief history

With a title that sounds like a b-side from the late David Bowie, the S&G reflects upon the too-few attempts to portray World War 1 in the air on the silver screen.

In many ways it is a tragedy that stories of the young pilots in peril during World War 1 have not received as much of the high quality of storytelling as their counterparts in the trenches. Perhaps it is the lack of poetry. Perhaps it the combined legacy of Biggles, Snoopy and Captain Flashheart that serious depictions of the airmen of the great war are so few and far between.

Whatever it is that has caused this massive gap in popular culture is utterly and fundamentally wrong-headed. Here endeth the lesson, now let’s watch some aeroplanes and dream of the day that Peter Jackson actually gets on with making the ultimate cinematic tribute.

Grand-daddy of them all is Howard Hughes’s movie Wings (1927), featuring a whole lot of veteran pilots flying war surplus aircraft. Even then, genuine machinery was becoming hard to come by and one could never mistake California for Passchendaele in a million years but enough about this epic film was authentic in a way that nobody since would ever attempt to match.

The advent of World War 2 somewhat stifled demand for movies about World War 1. Not until the 1960s was there another blockbuster about flying over the Western Front and it came in the form of The Blue Max (1966), starring George Peppard. As with Wings, the aerial sequences were filmed for real, with just enough authentic-looking replicas of Fokker Dr.Is, Fokker D.VIIs, Pfalz D.IIIs and S.E.5as to conceal the makeweight Tiger Moth contingent in the rear. The back screen projection for the actors’ close-ups look rather quaint in this day and age but it was a stronger film than it receives credit for.

Fast forward to 1975 and you have the hottest star of the era, Robert Redford, lighting up that million megawatt smile as The Great Waldo Pepper; a tale of barnstormers in the midwest in the days after World War 1. In the final section of the film, director and writer George Roy Hill goes all-out to recreate the filming of Howard Hughes’s Wings – including putting his actors into biplanes for their close-up shots. It is a riot that quickly gets out of hand when Waldo, the ace in his own mind, goes head-to-head with Ernst Kessler, the German ace of aces…

George Roy Hill went out of his way to celebrate the World War 1 airman in war, in peace and most importantly in popular culture while, at the same time, the British took a very different approach. The movie Dawn Patrol (1975) and the BBC TV series Wings (1976-77) attempted to tell the story of the air war as sneering social commentary. Both appear to have been written by North London socialists in penance for Britain’s imperial past. Jeremy Corbyn probably has the DVD box set of Wings in pride of place on his Soviet-era wall units. Ghastly.

After decades of silence about biplanes (and triplanes) over the Western Front, in came Hollywood with a bright young star, James Franco. Predictably, this is a tale of how Americans tried to win the war before Woodrow Wilson had got under starter’s orders. Flyboys (2006) was loosely based on the story of the Escadrille Lafayette in 1916-17 and is actually a good deal less infuriating than it might have been – although the speed of the CGI Nieuports and Fokkers seems to owe more to Star Wars than to The Blue Max.

And finally we have the slightly poetic violence portrayed in The Red Baron (2008) – a German movie filmed in English to try and maximise the international audience.

There is an awful lot to commend this one, but despite being a veritable feast for the eyes it’s all a bit flat with no edges whatsoever, turning the real-life Red Baron into something of a gauzy nonentity. There are moments of beauty that the PlayStation graphics of Hollywood would have overlooked but, oddly, if I were trying to conjure up some enthusiasm for World War 1 flying in someone without much exposure to it, I’d play something else. This film just isn’t quite as good as it could have been, in the same way that Flyboys isn’t as bad as it should have been.

It is quite interesting to see how techniques – and the speed of the aircraft – have changed over the years. So too are the perspectives of the film makers themselves. As the centenaries continue to roll round over the next couple of years, these films may well be dragged out of the hangar on occasion. As the remaining links between our lives and those that the films attempted to portray slip deeper beneath the waves, that is something of a worry. There really was so much more than any of what the movies have given us. Future generations may as well study Snoopy…

 

Numan flying high in 2014

The S&G’s ears are still ringing after catching Gary Numan on his ‘intimate’ tour of the UK – playing a succession of small venues to stay fresh ahead of his appearances at some of the major rock festivals of the summer.

Gary Numan with the S&G's model of his WW2 Harvard

Gary Numan with the S&G‘s model of his WW2 Harvard

Quite apart from the evening entertainment was the opportunity for the S&G to sit down for a natter with the man himself. After chatting with the dedicated Numan fans (Numanoids no longer!) he very graciously signed the latest addition to the office aircraft collection – a model of the AT-6 Harvard that Gary flew so spectacularly at airshows in the 1980s-1990s.

“It’s really lovely – but you’ve got something wrong,” beamed the synthesiser pioneer. “You need to put a dummy gun barrel on the port wing to match the real one on the starboard wing… I wanted my Harvard to look as much like a Japanese Zero as it could!”

Numan and the real Harvard

Numan and the real Harvard

It might perhaps seem a trifle odd to sit down with a rock star with a model aeroplane and proceed to talk about little else but flying – but not Numan. It’s a subject he loves. He was particularly tickled to hear that Iron Maiden frontman Bruce Dickinson had bought a replica Fokker Dr.I triplane and intended to fly it over the Sonisphere festival at Knebworth – where Numan and his band were also due to play.

“I was the first person that Bruce flew aerobatics with – in the back seat of the Harvard,” Gary remembered. “He’s always been very businesslike about flying, he’s a respected charter pilot and even flew the band and their equipment around the world. But I flew him upside down for the first time!”

Iron Maiden frontman Bruce Dickinson enjoying his new toy

Iron Maiden frontman Bruce Dickinson enjoying his new purchase: a Fokker Dr.1 replica

The artist formerly known as Gary Webb has given many interviews in almost 40 years since he entered the music business. Looking back few some of them one clipping stood out in particular. Dating back to 1979, just after his career went stratospheric with the synth-anthem Are ‘Friends’ Electric, the journalist Paul Morley revealed that flying and vintage aircraft were at the forefront of Numan’s mind, even as a 21-year-old pop sensation:

“I want to start my own airplane business. I’m going to buy two Dakotas, paint them up in war colours and do, er, nostalgia trips to Arnhem – you know, where the old paratroopers used to go – and charge them about 20 quid a time. I’d go on the same route as they used during the war. I’m more interested in this than keeping the music going. I don’t want to stay in music for too many years.”

Many pop stars have found the first flush of fame to be troublesome – and the shy, retiring Numan was one such. Back in 1979, Paul Morley asked him if he was worried about falling out of fashion and not being a pop star any longer – and after 35 years his insouciant answer can still raise a smile:

“No, I’d find it easy to stop because I’m so interested in flying, I’d have another complete love to go into. It’s like giving up Raquel Welch and going into Brigitte Bardot, innit?”

It’s now almost two decades now since Gary Numan flew at air shows. “I still really miss it,” he conceded to the S&G, holding the little plastic version of his Harvard. He talked proudly (and not a little jealously), about his brother, John – a former band member who went on to become a commercial pilot and now instructs EasyJet captains. Apparently they both still fantasise about living a free-wheeling life flying cargo around the world. Possibly in a pair of Dakotas.

Meanwhile back in the world of rock and pop, Numan is still the consumate showman and delivered a two hour set with relish – leaving the S&G among the rest of the deaf, dazed and happy punters. On July 7 he released a new single, I Am Dust, available for 99p on Amazon, iTunes and wherever else singles are sold these days – and his loyal fanbase is doing its utmost to celebrate 35 years since his debut Number 1 with a return to the top of the charts – so feel free to join in.

Buy your copy before July 13 and let’s see where it gets to. After all, Gary Numan is one of the world’s good guys.

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Dogfight, Peter Jackson Style

Peter Jackson copped some flak from Richard Todd yesterday, but although remaking The Dam-Busters is never going to be easy, there’s still plenty of grounds for optimism.

After all, The Lord of the Rings trilogy is fantastic. As is The Hobbit. OK, a bit too much James Nesbitt for some tastes, but I think in time many people will end up preferring it to LOTR.

Not only that but this is a man who seriously loves aircraft and history. He’s invested millions in building a museum full of World War 1 artefacts and restoring or building 100% authentic ‘continuation’ examples of World War 1 aircraft that are flown for the public.

And as a little extra side dish, he funded the creation of Wingnut Wings – making the highest quality model kits on the market. Truly, this is a god amongst men.

So for your entertainment, here’s Jackson’s little experimental short film made using some of his World War 1 aircraft. Perhaps we can look forward to him doing his own Waldo Pepper-like movie before too long?

American idol – The Great Waldo Pepper (new link to film clip)

If you want movies about aircraft done properly, better get a pilot to make them. That’s why The Great Waldo Pepper is such a joy – because it was the work of George Roy Hill.

A feisty presence in the Hollywood firmament, Hill was something of an outsider among the great and the good of La-La-Land. As a child inthe 1920s and 1930s he idolised the great fighter pilots of World War 1, and when war broke out once again he enlisted as a pilot – flying a cargo aircraft around the Pacific in WW2, but becoming a nightfighter ‘ace’ in the Korean war.

Upon leaving the military, Hill worked as a journalist and then took an interest in theatre. He moved quickly to television and then on to making movies, with his debut coming in a 1962 adaptation of A Period of Adjustment by Tennessee Willams. An up-and-down career then hit paydirt with A Thoroughly Modern Millie starring Julie Andrews, which was followed by his best-loved hit: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

The leading men on Butch and Sundance, Paul Newman and Robert Redford, soon learned not to fall foul of their tempestuous director’s strong work ethic. Late arrival on set would see guilty parties strapped in to Hill’s 1930 Waco biplane and subjected to a bracing aerobatic flight.

“If you weren’t on time, he’d take you up in his airplane,” Newman later recalled. “Scared the bejesus out of us.”

It was Newman’s co-star, Robert Redford, with whom Hill’s other enduring successes were achieved. First came The Great Gatsby and then probably the most personal film of Hill’s career in the form of The Great Waldo Pepper, a paean to the barnstorming days of the 1920s aviation boom in which Redford plays a charming, roguish pilot who saw too little of World War 1 but tells a good tale and trades on his matinee idol looks to good effect.

Together with talents such as Bo Svensson, Bo Brundin and the glamour of both Susan Sarandon and Margot Kidder, this is an oft-overlooked gem of a movie and one that is perfect for S&G readers. So enjoy this little clip as Hill takes Waldo to Hollywood…