The beginning of the Allied offensive was expected any day. Escorted by fighters, German reconnaissance planes were busy chasing, over the front, from dawn to dusk.
The situation on the 1st of August 1918 wasn’t any different. In the opinions of meteorologists, the new month was going to be a scorcher. As well as the morning ones, the afternoon patrols of Albatroses and Fokkers were unable to find anything not worthy in their sectors. Skirmishes between Jasta 11 machines and American SPADs from 27th Aero Squadron seemed all to be undecided. At about 1pm the silence over the hot air vibrating over the Puisieux airfield, was broken by the roar of BMW engines. Sitting in the cockpits, the German pilots were revving them up and tightening seat belts at the same time. Immediately after finishing the pre-start drill, a whole trifecta of Fokker D.VII taxied for takeoff – running diagonally through the bright line of the strip, and then climbing steeply in a southwesterly direction.
There wasn’t any time to circle for Lothar von Richthofen and two of his companions, climbing straight on the combat course. Cutting through higher and higher airflows was cooling them down nicely. It quickly became quite frosty, but the pilots didn’t feel a thing. Approaching, marked with explosions, the front line was as hypnotizing as ever. Among the senses the sight now took the priority. Its alertness decided whether the pilot would become the hunter or the hunted in an inevitable meeting with the enemy. The leader wasn’t let down by his sight; the black puffs of flak quickly caught Lothar’s attention. From the direction of Chalons he could see approaching, with the counter course, four tiny specks.
Half an hour earlier, from the airfield of the French Groupe de Combat 19, east of Morains, took off a four plane patrol of the SPAD VII fighters. Leading it was Adjutant Chef (Warrant Officer) Jean Raszewski from the Escadrille Spa 96. He was entrusted with an identical task as were his German adversaries: sweeping north-easterly behind the front line, combating enemy reconnaissance and making it impossible for enemy to do the same. For maintaining good visibility of the ground, climbing after takeoff was continued for a few minutes. An altitude of one thousand meters placed French fighters immediately under a layer of cloud. Reassured by having the sun behind them, four Frenchmen began to enjoy the rustic scenery of the Champagne’s countryside. So far there were no reasons to be alarmed.
From a distance in the east, they could soon see the towers of magnificent churches – an inevitable sign of approaching the traditional navigational point, marked by Chalons-sur-Marne. Raszewski checked the time; the hands on his watch were showing 13:15, when two pairs of fairytale coloured machines of Spa 96 and Spa 73, thundered over the massive twin cathedrals: St Etienne and Notre Dame-en-Vaux, as well as the surrounding medieval houses. On the green slope of the highland, they could soon see the huge turrets of Chateau du Marche. This castle of Henry IV served as the easternmost border of today’s patrol for the Germans, as well as the French. The appearance of four unidentified biplanes, recognized soon as SPADs, changed it all however. The care-free attitude of the French soon allowed the Germans to maneuver behind their opponents. The red and yellow Fokker of the leader, flanked by two wingmen quickly approached the tail of the last Frenchman. Lothar von Richthofen reminisced:
“He surely must have been a novice. As the last in the enemy quartet, he should have been much more alert. Despite that, my approach remained undetected. Loose enemy formation was hampered by big distances between each aircraft. Diving from a great height allowed me to do my favourite precision shooting from minimal distance. One salvo fired with perfectly measured deflection made most of the fifty bullets to reach where intended. Enemy pilot’s body slumped in the cockpit and the machine went straight down. Soon, it collided with the ground; what a beautiful death – worthy of a fighter.
Some of the bullets missed the target, but finally alarmed the rest of the Frenchmen who, using well executed aerobatics, immediately broke up the formation. That way they managed to confuse my wingmen – convinced that from now on, we have to chase them “everyone after his own man”. The middle SPAD decided to climb and it was he I chose to be my next victim. Instead of chasing the other two enemies, my wingman preceded right behind me. They started shooting much too early and their long salvo’s where off the mark. So the lone Frenchman, chased by three of us had finally fallen to my guns. Some of the bullets of my greenhorns had, however, stitched up my tail. Despite that, after returning to the base, I was pleased to see everybody keen to celebrate my 31st and 32nd aerial victory”.
Initially it was presumed that, as in the morning on that occasion, the adversaries of the Jasta’s 11 Fokkers were also the Americans, but it quickly became apparent that the SPADs belonged to the French Air Force. Analyzing available sources allows us now to establish that the 31st kill of Lothar von Richthofen was Corporal Georges Perrin, pilot of Escadrille Spa 73, conducting only his second combat mission. Victim number 32 who, according to the account of the victor managed to live a bit longer, was a French formation leader, Adjutant Chef Jean Raszewski.
The early arrival of typically autumn weather at the end of September 1916 was disconcerting enough. A maze of fortifications of the Somme frontline became obscured under a curtain of rain. Over the moonlike landscape of the mutilated Flanders soil, a strong westerly wind was carrying heavy, low-lying black clouds. The infantry, again, began to sink in the mud at the bottom of their trenches, which was rose as the day went by. The gunners were struggling with malfunctioning mechanisms, supply lines were frequently broken, but most of all the worsening conditions were affecting the flyers. The era of triumphs of the German fighters in the air was becoming history. In current atmospherical conditions, climbing new aerial victories was hard even for such virtuosos of the Luftstreitkräfte like Jagdstaffel II, led by famous Oswald Boelcke. Forced by the weather, interruptions in operations were used by the Germans for reorganisation. Created so far ad hoc, German aviation units (Fliegertruppen) from now on were reformed according to a new and clearer structure. Leading the reformed Luftstreitkräfte was now the energetic General Ernst von Hoepner, who was preoccupied with the operational introduction of twenty-two newly created Jagdstaffel. The number of those units grew between September and October 1916, from fifteen to thirty-seven. The new fighters were supposed to be ready for action at the time of the spring offensive.
One of the six units, called into existence on the 28th of September 1916, was Jasta 11. Drawing personnel from dissolved squadrons of the army air force, the unit wasn’t like any other – it formed a part of the Kingdom of Prussia air force. Despite being forty years since the reunification of Germany, the country was still far from homogenous. Independent kingdoms of Saxony, Bayern, and Wittemberg, had used at the front their own air services; differentiated from each other by the letters after the number. For example, Jasta 32b, meant Bavarian. The letter ‘p’ after Prussian air service Jagdstaffel numbers was usually omitted for the simple reason of the sheer number of air units of this particular nationality.
Under the command of the of the first Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Rudolf Lang, Jasta 11 reached operational readiness on the 11th of October 1916, at Douai airbase. The operations were initiated on the Flanders front of the German Sixth Army. Missions flown were usually reconnaissance, and escort operations, conducted by the book, but without going above and behind the call of duty – a fact proven by a lack of aerial victories, or even confrontations with the enemy in the air. Among three fighter units assigned to the German sixth army, Jasta 11 was then considered the least aggressive. In the unanimous opinion of German staff, they were definitely not ‘ace’ material. The atrocious autumn weather was also not ideal to improve fighting skills. Instead of typical combat flying, attention was momentarily switched to training around the base of Roucourt. The emphasis was placed on big formation flying. It was considered helpful to prepare German pilots for the enemies’ numerical superiority. In that manner it was supposed, rightly, how the combat conditions of the incoming spring would look. At the moment, not much less dangerous from confronting allied foes, were the training flights themselves. A victim of one of them was none other than the German fighter pilots mentor, Oswald Boelcke. That painful loss caused the renaming of Jasta 2, to Jasta Boelcke.
There also came a new urge to create new aces. In those circumstances, after Rudolf Lang, Jasta 11 was to be led by Manfred von Richthofen. For him this change was a sad, and even degrading experience.
In Jasta 2, in which he claimed sixteen aerial victories, his position was privileged and reassured. In new conditions, he supposed that reaching the same heights would be very difficult.
The distance covered in a truck, along muddy dirt roads, seemed like an eternity. After a two-hour drive, they passed a fork in the road between Roucourt and Bohain. Soon after, the driver was able to find the right place. On a wooden plank, secured to a tree, someone scrawled unceremoniously “Jagdstaffel Elf”. The truck entered, swept with rain and wind, a small airfield. Full of energy, Manfred von Richthofen opened the door and jumped onto the ground. Immediately he felt himself sinking into the swamp, but realising that he was been watched he knew that he must move straight away. Avoiding talking to anyone, he made his way closer to a group of tents. He glanced over the daily operations roster, then at the pilots who were warming themselves by the fireplace. His eyes rested on an inscription at the bottom of a blackboard. It read, “Number of aerial victories: still zero”. “Where is the Commanding Officer?” he asked the nearest flyer. “He’s not here”, came the reply, “As of yesterday, Oblt Lang switched to commanding Jasta 28”. “So from now on I’m your Commanding Officer, Leutnant von Richthofen. What’s the date today?” he approached the wall calendar, and tore off the previous days page. The new page read, January 15th, 1917.
Lords of the wings
After taking command of Jasta 11, Manfred von Richthofen needed just two days to familiarize with conditions and the beginning of combat flying. On the 23rd of January 1917, he defeated an FE.8 from 40 Sqn RAF. This was his seventeenth aerial victory, but his first for Jasta 11. Piloting a British machine, Australian Second-Lieutenant Hay died in the wreckage. Not long after that, Jasta 11’s victories started coming in droves, making it difficult to believe that for the first four months of its existence it had such trouble with defeating a single enemy.
The feeling of the approaching spring, combined with increasing enemy activity, were for the subordinates of Richthofen, the best guarantee of good hunting. At the beginning of February they found themselves at one of the most prominent sectors of the frontline; in the operational area of the German 6th Army. Apart from Jasta 11, it combined the forces of Jasta 3, 4, 6, 12, 27, 28, 30 and 33. In regard of the number of fighter units, that was an absolute record. Second, with eight Jastas, was the 7th German Army.
Jasta 11 was based now at a conveniently placed Douai airfield. Count of the hunting, propagated by Richthofen, proved to be contagious. Until the end of March, the unit collected twenty-eight victories. In all cases, the victims were machines of the RFC. However, what followed in April, surely exceeded the wildest dreams of Richthofen and his men. The period of the next thirty days would come to be known in the history of the Great War, as “Bloody April” – a month of huge aerial struggles, paid for by enormous loses, fully justifying its macabre nickname. The painful defeat of the British air force was inflicted on it by only a handful of most-active Jasta’s. RFC was visibly unable to use its numerical superiority to good advantage. All British attempts of operating offensively over the front were defeated fairly and squarely.
Deeply traumatic April air battles were graphically illustrated on the 9th of April 1917, at the beginning of the new British offensive, at the Arras St. Quentin sector. British artillery bombardment began immediately after midnight. Choked with smoke and explosions, Easter Monday of 1917 began cloudy, cold and foggy. Wind, rain, snow and with visibility limited to one hundred meters wasn’t helping the aerial activity over the front. The RFC lost on the 9th of April eleven of its machines (three destroyed, eight damaged, two crews) almost exclusively because of the German flak. “Almost” because one of the confirmed kills was on that day a success of Lt Karl Schäfer, the victor of 14 aerial duels, and one of the leading aces of Jasta 11. Shortly before dusk, he led west of Lens, a four-airplane patrol. It was nearly 19:00, when near Aix Noulette, four Albatross D.III’s turned in the direction of an unidentified two-seater, spotted on the western horizon. Conducting reconnaissance, the crew of BE.2d, led by Lieutenant Brink of the 4th Sqn RFC, was completely surprised by the attack. The British were unceremoniously shot down over the trenches of the Australian infantry.
Paid for with great losses in human life, daily land struggles of the subordinates of Field Marshall Haig, finally ended with depriving Germans of the small strip of terrain, approximately 12 by 5 kilometers. One real success came in the form of the high ground of Vimy, which had been left in German hands since the autumn of 1914. This was virtually the only high ground in the huge plain of Flanders. The result of that offensive would be, after 12 months, significant not only for the Jasta 11, but for Richthofen himself.
Heavy weather persisted also the next day, April 10th. Next morning the conditions were a bit better. Straight away, it influenced the aerial activity of both sides. Long aerial combats, south of Arras, helped the pilots of Jasta 11 to celebrate seven confirmed victories. Doubles were given to Schäfer, his fifteenth and sixteenth victories, and also to Lothar von Richthofen; his second and third. The only success of Manfred von Richthofen was, however, good enough for him, making it forty on his list. With it, the Rittmeister became the greatest living Luftstreitkräfte ace. Apart from Jasta 11’s victories, on that day the only two other kills over the 6th Army sector, where claimed by Jasta 4. The same proportions were maintained until two days later. Intensive patrolling between Vitry and Monchy gave the German’s on the 13th of April no less than 18 victories. Fourteen of them were successes of Jasta 11. This time triplets were given to the CO and Karl Schäfer. Two each claimed Lothar von Richthofen and Sebastian Festner – so far author of ten aerial victories over the last six weeks. The “great white hunter” of the 13th of April became, however, Lieutenant Kurt Wolff. During his four daily missions, his account grew by four: RE.8 (59 Sqn), FE.2b (11 Sqn), Nieuport 17 (29 Sqn), and Martinside G.100 (27 Sqn). Kurt Wolff, known as “The Inspiration of Jasta 11”, reached all of his aerial victories in a relative short time of four months. Flying an Albatros D.III between March and July 1917.
The most victims for the Richthofen’s pilots were delivered on that day by 59 Squadron. Six of its two-seater RE.8s were defeated by Jasta 11 over the railway line near Etaing. Certain death avoided only one of the shot down crews. Lieutenants Watson and Law landed behind the frontline and were taken prisoner.
The next day, April 14th, bought the Richthofen Circus another 8 kills. Among them were four Nieuport 17s from 60 Sqn RFC. Defeating such demanding enemies formed a crowning achievement for the La Brayelle based Jasta 11. Soon after, the unit had to move again. This time to Roucourt – Douai. The new base bordered the 6th and 7th German Army zones. An inaugural combat mission, conducted on the 16th of April, bought an intended result. Four victories. Without any of their own lost, a four airplane patrol led by the CO, ended with bringing him his 45th victory. One each was also given to Lts Fesnter and Wolff. Of interest might be the fact that the British lost five machines. Four Nieuports (again) from the 60 Sqn, as well as a BE.2e, a bomber from the 13 Sqn. All victims of the Rittmeister.
Lasting until the end of the week, a string of bad weather caused the end of the allied offensive near Arras. Relying heavily on aerial reconnaissance, Field Marshal Haig was really annoyed while waiting for the weather to improve. When the improvement finally came, on the sunny morning of the 21st of April, all serviceable Allied machines scrambled into the air. Jasta 11 had no option but to scramble against them. The first morning meeting was between old friends: BE.2g bombers from 16 Sqn, escorted by Nieuports from the 29 Sqn. As a result both squadrons lost six machines. Two each were claimed by Schäfer and Kurt Wolff. The hundredth (in 3 months) victory of Richthofen’s unit came not unexpectedly. It had been eagerly awaited during the last few days. When it finally happened, it was the last among the daily victories of Lieutenant Wolff, on the 22nd of April. That day was, however, dominated by competition from Jasta 5 and 28, fighting enemy observation balloons over the Havrincourt forest.