At the beginning of the twentieth century the class system of many European countries prevented a great number of talented people from developing their full potential in life. In the vastly changed circumstances of a world war, the Austro-Hungarian Empire – the Dual Monachy – still sought to perpetuate its strict peacetime social system, particularly prevalent in the rigid ‘closed shop’ of the professional military caste, which prevented the entry of any ‘outsider’ into its enclave.
Hungarian Josef Kiss was a victim of this repressive regime. Born in January 1896 in Pozsony, now Bratislava, Kiss was the son of a gardener working in the grounds of the military cadet school in Pozsony, and at the outbreak of war he immediately left school and enlisted in the military. Under the strict regulations of the Austro-Hungarian Army, his lack of matriculation in formal education automatically precluded any question of him becoming an officer, and in October 1916, his military training completed, he was serving in the infantry on the Carpathian sector of the Eastern front with Infanterieregiment Nr72 when he was seriously wounded. While recovering, Kiss applied to the Kaiserliche und Königliche Luftfahrtruppen (Imperial and Royal Aviation Troops, usually abbreviated to k.u.k. LFT) to train as a pilot. At this stage of the war, the LFT considered a pilot as merely a chaffeur, a role unfit for an officer, and as a non-commissioned officer, Kiss’ application was granted.
At the end of April 1916, having completed his training, Kiss was posted to Flik 24, newly-formed and under the command of Hauptmann Gustav Studeny. Equipped with two-seater Hansa-Brandenburg C.I aircraft, the Flik was based at Pergine, on the southern part of the Tyrol front, to provide reconnaissance, fighting and bombing support for the 11th Army. Kiss soon proved to be a capable and aggressive pilot. On 20 June 1916, flying with Oberleutnant Georg Kenzian as his observer, Kiss attacked an Italian Farman on reconnaissance behind the Italian lines on Monte Cimone, forcing it to land. It was his first aerial victory.
Just over two months went by before Kiss scored again. On 25 August, flying a Hansa-Brandenburg C.I, with Leutnant Kurt Fiedler in the rear seat, he attacked a Caproni threeengined bomber. The Italian gunners put up a spirited defence, hitting the Hansa-Brandenburg more than 70 times, but Kiss pressed home his attacks, finally forcing the bomber to crash land near Pergine aerodrome. On 17 September, Kiss repeated this success. Flying with Oberleutnant Karl Keizar as his observer, he attacked another Caproni and forced it to land.
His skill and potential qualities as a fighter pilot having now been recognised, Kiss was allocated a Hansa-Brandenburg D.I single-seater fighter, but it was nine months before he gained his fourth victory. On 10 June he shot down a Nieuport scout over Asiago, but he quickly followed this four days later, attacking and forcing down a SAML reconnaissance aeroplane of the 113a Squadriglia close by Roana. On 13 July, again flying his D.I, Kiss forced down a Savoia-Pomilio two-seater, and on 11 September he scored his seventh victory, his last while serving with Flik 24, shooting down a SAML over Asiago.
During November 1917, Kiss moved across the aerodrome at Pergine to join Flik 55J, commanded by Hauptmann Josef von Maier. Maier, who was to end the war with seven victories, took Kiss into his own flight, along with another noncommissioned officer, Julius Arigi, who had scored his thirteenth victory on 15 September by shooting down an Italian Spad. Over the next few months this formidable triumvirate would earn Flik 55J the sobriquet of the Kaiser Staffel – Emperor’s Squadron. On 15 November, just after Kiss’ posting, the trio attacked and shot down three Caproni bombers near Asiago, following this triple victory with a double two days later, shooting down a Savoia-Pomilio and a SAML south of Asiago.
In this new fighter environment, and flying an Oeffag-built Albatros D.III fighter, Kiss found ample opportunities to add to his score. The day following his victory on 17 November, Kiss shot down two Italian aircraft over Monte Summano, and, again flying his Albatros, another pair over near Asiago on 7 December. Still flying his Albatros D.III, Kiss shot down another SAML on 16 December.
Kiss started the new year of 1918 on 12 January. Flying with Oberleutnant Georg Kenzian and Zugsführer Alexander Kasza, he forced an RE8 of 42 Squadron RAF to land on Pergine aerodrome. The crew, Lieutenants G Goldie and J Barnes, were both taken prisoner. On 26 January, Kiss scored his nineteenth and final victory, shooting down a SAML two-seater of 115a Squadriglia to crash behind the Italian lines. This victory made Kiss the highest scoring Austro-Hungarian pilot.
On 27 January, a single hostile aeroplane was sighted over the airfield at Pergine. Kiss took off to intercept the intruder, but was attacked by three Sopwith Camels of 45 Squadron, led by Captain Matthew ‘Bunty’ Frew, an ace with 20 victories. Kiss fought the RFC pilots for nearly ten minutes, flying magnificently, but was finally wounded in the abdomen by Frew’s fire. Kiss broke off the action and force landed on Pergine aerodrome.
After recovery from his wound, Kiss returned to combat flying. Some sources suggest that he returned too soon, that he was still in a weakened state, but there appears to be no documentary evidence to support this. Kiss was now one of the Dual Monarchy’s most successful and highly decorated pilots – he had been awarded three gold and four silver medals for bravery – but he was still only an Offizierstellvetreter, a non-commissioned officer.
On the morning of 24 May, Flik 55J received orders to intercept a strong force of Italian Caproni bombers reported to have crossed the front lines and heading towards Feltre and Belluno. At 10.00 am, Kiss, took off from Pergine with his two wingmen, Feldwebel Stephan Kirjak and Stabsfeldwebel Kasza, all flying Albatros D.IIIs. Climbing over the airfield to gain their height, the trio then flew to join up with a flight commanded by Linke-Crawford of Flik 60J, based at Feltre aerodrome, possibly the target of the Italian bombers.
On the other side of the lines, three Sopwith Camels of 66 Squadron had taken off from their aerodrome at San Pietro-in- Gu on a No.14 Offensive Patrol. Led by Captain William Barker, Lieutenants Gerald Birks and Gordon Apps climbed to their operational height of 17,000 feet and made for the eastern sector of their patrol area. These were a formidable trio of fighter pilots: at this time, Barker had twenty-nine victories, the Canadian Birks had nine and Apps, four.
At 10.40 am the Camel pilots sighted a formation of two Albatros D.IIIs and one Hansa-Brandenburg D type over Grigno. The enemy aircraft, almost certainly the flight from Flik 60J, were at the same height as the Camels, and the allied pilots chased them, catching them and attacking just over the valley at the southern foot of Mount Coppolo.
The known facts of the subsequent fighting during the morning are confused and often contradictory, exacerbated by the faulty aircraft recognition of both the Austro-Hungarian and British pilots involved, but it seems that during this first combat between Link-Crawford’s flight and the Camel pilots, Barker attacked the rearmost hostile aircraft in the formation, which spun down away from his fire. Gerald Birks attacked the lone Hansa-Brandenburg and after a short fight shot its wings off. Birks and Apps then dived into the valley after the remaining enemy aircraft. At this point in the fight, Barker, who had kept his height, saw three Albatros D.IIIs diving after Birks and Apps: Josef Kiss, Kirjak and Kasza.
Kiss and his wingmen had previously agreed upon a tactic to fight the British Camel squadrons in Italy. Kiss and Kirjak would dive away, as if refusing to fight, while Kasza would follow them, but in a shallow dive, offering himself as a target for the pursuing enemy pilots. While the enemy pilots were attempting to shoot down Kasza, their attentions fully occupied, Kiss and Kirjak, taking advantage of the more powerful 200hp inline engines of their Oeffag-built Albatros D.IIIs, which gave them a superior zoom to that of the Camels, would zoom up, stall turn and attack the Camels from the rear. There was little risk in this tactic: Kasza was an exceptional acrobatic pilot, fully capable of outmanoeuvring his opponents while his Flik comrades got into a favourable attacking position.
The Austro-Hungarian pilots followed their planned tactic, Kasza staying to fight Birks and Apps, but giving them no opportunity of getting into an effective firing position. After losing 1,600 feet in height, Kasza saw that Kiss and Kirjak had zoomed and had taken up their positions, and he climbed back into the fighting. Kiss was behind a Camel marked ‘Y’, flown by Birks, and firing into it, but behind Kiss was another Camel, marked with a large letter ‘Z’. This was flown by Barker, who had brought his favourite Camel with him when he had transferred to 66 Squadron, and he was now shooting into Kiss’ Albatros at close range. Birks in ‘Y’ went down, with Kiss following but flying with uneven movements as if wounded by Barker’s fire. Kasza was now within range of Barker’s Camel and fired into it, but Barker spun away and Kasza came under attack from the rear by Gordon Apps. Kasza zoomed away in a climbing turn, but Apps’ fire hit the Albatros behind the cockpit and Kasza threw his machine into an evasive spin. Recovering lower down, Kasza was again attacked by Apps, who fired a long burst before breaking off the combat. This parting burst seriously damaged the rudder and ailerons of Kasza’s Albatros, but his elevators were intact, and by skilful flying he managed to land on Feltre airfield.
Kiss and Kasha having both gone down, left only Kirjak. He was attacked by Birks, but Kirjak was also an exceptionally skilled pilot and he more than held his own, fighting Birks for a considerable amount of time. Apps then joined in the fight, but Kirjak still frustrated their efforts to bring him down. Finally, Captain Barker joined the fight, fired a short burst at the elusive Albatros, and Kirjak went down out of control.
The British pilots later claimed that Kirjak was seen to crash, but he had regained control at low height and returned to Pergine aerodrome. Anxiously questioned by von Maier, Kirjak could give no news as to the fate of either Kiss or Kasza, but a report was later received by an army unit that one of their aircraft had crashed into tree on a hillside near Fonzaso, six miles west of Feltre. The dead pilot’s head had been so badly mutilated by the engine in the crash that he could not be identified, but a list of the decorations on his tunic confirmed that it was Josef Kiss.
Within 24 hours of his death, Kiss was posthumously promoted to Leutnant der Reserve, the officer rank he had so coveted in his short life. He was buried as an officer on 26 May 1918.
A Canadian from Montreal, Lieutenant Gerald Alfred Birks joined the RFC in 1917 and was posted to Italy and 66 Squadron in March 1918. He survived the war with twelve victories, one of which was the five-victory Austro-Hungarian ace, Oberleutnant Patzelt. Birks was awarded an MC and Bar.
Englishman Lieutenant Gordon Frank Mason Apps was a native of Lenham in Kent. He was commissioned in the RFC in August in 1917 and served in Italy with 66 squadron. Apps also survived the war, scoring ten victories, and was awarded a DFC, gazetted in September 1918.