…Werner Voss ‘The Last Dance’…
Werner Voss, the “Flying Hussar,” had come back from Germany with a vengeance. Probably the best German fighter pilot of the war, he was an excellent marksman and a superb flyer. A naturally skilled mechanic, Voss worked on his own engines and machine guns, tuning and adjusting both for maximum effectiveness. Born to wealth, he had a casual indolence common to his social class, yet he always went into combat in full uniform in case he was forced down. Barely twenty years old, he had over a year of frontline experience, and had begun shooting down Englishmen at the age of eighteen. By the end of May 1917, Voss had 31 kills, the Blue Max, and command of Jasta 5.
By this time, flyers on both sides understood the practical and theoretical aspects of dogfighting. They understood deflection shooting, though not many could do it well before the advent of lead-computing sights. They understood the turn circle. (See Appendix A, “Anatomy of a Dogfight.”) In a time of short-range, forward-firing machine guns, the turn circle was vital. Not that you had to get behind an aircraft to kill him—you did not—but if you could get behind his wing line, then the single-seat type of fighter couldn’t shoot back as his guns were pointed forward.
Pilots like Voss also grasped the use of the “vertical.” This involves maneuvering up, down, and diagonally, not only sideways in the “horizontal.” There are many advantages to this. First, a vertical fight requires more flying finesse, which many inexperienced flyers didn’t have. Second, the tendency is for most pilots to look about horizontally and directly behind their own tail (the latter is called “checking six”).* It takes conscious effort and training to cross-check the vertical, both up and down. Many men didn’t do it and so would never see the enemy that killed them. Third, using the vertical drastically changes the maneuvering potential of an aircraft. For example, if you’re descending or diving, your airspeed is much greater. Combine that with being unobserved because no one is looking up, and you’re set up for a slashing kill. If you’re coming up from below, then you’re also likely undetected and aiming for the vulnerable belly. This was Albert Ball’s favored method of attack, and few could emulate him.
The turn circle of an ascending aircraft will be much smaller, as you’ve got gravity working for you at the top of your turn. Think of an egg viewed from the side, with the vertical aircraft on the much smaller, rounded tip and the horizontal aircraft flying along the wider middle section. Your smaller circle fits inside his bigger one, allowing you to turn, point, and shoot. This gets you inside the enemy circle while keeping your aircraft “out of plane” and, you hope, beyond his guns. Environmental factors, such as the sun, are extremely lethal when used with this type of out-of-plane maneuvering. Most combat pilots who survive use combinations of these techniques to slash through a fight, shooting what they can, then extending away from the mess of swirling aircraft. Alternately called a “fur ball,” or “knife fight,” getting caught up in one was a fast way home in a box. Processing that much information and keeping accurate situational awareness on multiple fast-moving aircraft is extremely difficult. No matter how good you are, someone is likely to get you before you kill all of them or get away.
Voss took off early one Sunday morning from his aerodrome at Markebeke, near the Belgian-French border. Just back from Berlin, he’d been traveling all night and was still hungover. Tony Fokker loved throwing parties and had hosted a big one at the Bristol Hotel on Berlin’s famous Unter den Linden.
At about half past eight, a 57 Squadron DH-4 piloted by Lt. S. L. J. Bramley was over Roulers in western Belgium heading back for the British lines. Quick, strong, and well armed as it was, the single-engine British bomber was no match for the Fokker Triplane. Bramley and his observer, Lt. J. M. de Lacey, likely never saw Voss’s black skull-and-crossbones insignia before a burst from his guns sent them crashing down in flames.
Coming back with engine trouble, Voss landed, ate breakfast, and took a long nap. Later that afternoon he took off again in a spare Triplane, this one sporting a silver-blue finish and red nose spinner. Heading west for the front lines, he spotted a lone SE-5 and immediately attacked, not seeing a British flight of fighters a little farther west and a bit higher.
These were six SE-5s from 56 Squadron, led by Capt. James McCudden, and they’d crossed the front at Bikschote at 6,000 feet, heading northeast. McCudden spotted the SE-5 jinking and half spinning with a blue triplane stuck to its tail. Rolling inverted over Poelcappelle, the six Brits attacked, McCudden and Lt. Arthur Rhys-Davies bracketing right and left, respectively.
But Voss was too experienced to be caught that way. Even while lining up on his target he was still checking six and immediately picked up the threats swooping down from above. With himself now the target and with no way to run, Voss flipped the wonderfully maneuverable triplane around and attacked. Watching the vulnerable tail turn into twin Spandau machine guns broke up the British formation. McCudden later recalled, “The German pilot saw us and turned in a most disconcertingly quick manner, not a climbing nor Immelmann turn, but a sort of half spin. . . . As soon as I fired up came his nose at me, and I heard clack-clack-clack-clack as his bullets passed close to me.”
Having survived the initial pass, Voss now had the advantage. His opponents were either level or descending, building up speed away from him. His triplane could easily outturn any SE-5 and he was now on top of the fight, slower but with altitude and more maneuverability. Maybe he could’ve disengaged by heading back into the clouds, then sprinting for home. For a half second there was probably that option, but Voss was a fighter pilot and his blood was up. He certainly showed no signs of hesitation and stayed where he was, turning and shooting at any target of opportunity.
By now the German triplane was in the middle of our formation, and its handling was wonderful to behold. The pilot seemed to be firing at all of us simultaneously, and although I got behind him a second time, I could hardly stay there for a second. His movements were so quick and uncertain that none of us could hold him in sight at all for any decisive time. . . . I noted the triplane in the apex of a cone of tracer bullets from at least five machines simultaneously, and each machine had two guns.
—CAPT. JAMES MCCUDDEN, 56 SQUADRON RFC
Voss was fighting for his life and, at those odds, was flying instinctively—there would be no other way to fight at that point. Everything was a target. A lucky bullet hitting a British pilot or engine, one of the British planes running out of fuel or ammunition—it was all still possible, as was the chance that a comrade would come to help. In fact, Lt. Karl Menckhoff, flying a red-nosed Albatros from Jasta 3, did just that. Ignoring the odds and his poor position, he dove straight into the fight and tried to protect the triplane’s tail. Voss instantly switched from purely defensive flying and began attacking again. Menckhoff was also a superb pilot, but in covering Voss he got himself shot down by Rhys-Davies.
By now, however, the fight had drifted southeast and fallen much lower against the darkening ground. Arthur Rhys-Davies was still knife-fighting with the triplane. Slow from all the turning, Voss had no more altitude to trade and was forced into a purely horizontal fight. Rhys-Davies was firing both guns when the triplane passed off his right wing, began flying erratically, then dove straight down into the ground. Whether he was already dead by the time his plane went into a dive or had just been wounded, the German and his plane disappeared into a thousand pieces just north of Frezenburg behind the British lines.
The 56 Squadron pilots knew they’d battled one of the best and no one else could’ve survived against all of them. The British pilots in that dogfight had accounted for more than eighty German planes, yet Werner Voss had fought them for ten minutes, so badly damaging five aircraft that three made forced landings and two were written off completely.
His body was identified by papers in his pockets and the Blue Max around his neck. Upon hearing the news, Arthur Rhys-Davies said, “Oh, if I could only have brought him down alive.”
McCudden agreed and later wrote:
As long as I live I shall never forget my admiration for that German pilot, who single-handed fought seven of us for ten minutes, and also put some bullets through all of our machines. His flying was wonderful, his courage magnificent.
There is no finer epitaph for a fighter pilot.