Flying Circus

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Richthofen’s Flying Circus, by Nicolas Trudgian

An elite German fighter unit in World War I.

World War I was the first time aircraft were used in combat against each other. Before then the United States had used aircraft in scouting roles, and when World War I broke out, it was scouting that was the primary job of airmen on both sides. The need to stop aircraft from flying over one’s own armies brought about the development of fighter aircraft. By early 1915, some six months after the war’s inception, Roland Garros mounted a machine gun on the nose of his Morane airplane and bolted steel plates to the propeller to deflect whatever bullets failed to pass through. He was shot down behind German lines, and his idea was improved upon by a Dutch aircraft engineer, Anthony Fokker, who developed the interrupter gear. This allowed bullets to pass through the empty spaces of the propeller while interrupting the flow of bullets when the propeller’s blades passed in front of the machine gun. The Fokker E-1 was the first widely used fighter aircraft, and for a while it devastated British and French aircraft.

The life of an airman proved tantalizing to many, especially those who had spent time in the mud of the trenches in northern France. One such soldier who transferred to the air service was a German aristocrat named Manfred von Richthofen, for the cavalry to which he originally was assigned was rapidly becoming obsolete. Richthofen learned to fly reconnaissance planes, with a cameraman in the rear seat to photograph enemy positions. This proved too tame for his temperament, and he learned to fly the Fokker E-1. His early experience in the aircraft was not positive, but he underwent fighter training and quickly improved. In the spring of 1916 he was assigned to a Jagdstaffel, a German fighter squadron, which at full strength numbered 16 aircraft.

Like all young fighter pilots in the German air service, he idolized the “aces,” men who had shot down at least five enemy aircraft. The leading aces, who rapidly became national heroes, were Oswald Boelcke and Max Immelman, both assigned to No. 62 Squadron. When Immelman was killed, the German government wanted to keep Boelcke alive for morale purposes and so assigned him to behind- the-lines tours. When in August 1916 he returned to command the newly formed Jasta 2 (“Jasta” being an abbreviation of Jagdstaffel), he chose Richthofen as one of his pilots. Boelcke was regarded as the first serious theorist of fighter tactics, and Richthofen learned from the master. The British had been pioneering aggressive fighter tactics, but with the development of newer and faster German aircraft, the Germans took control of the air in the latter part of 1916.

By 1916, the war on the ground had turned into such a stalemate that there was a desperate need for heroes to maintain public morale. It was the fighter pilots who came to fill that role. The French press first in-vented the concept of the “ace,” which the commanders of the Allied air services at first resisted. The British in particular stressed teamwork over individual accomplishments, but the ace concept took on a life of its own. The French were the first to develop an elite squadron, called Le Cignones (the Storks); each aircraft had a stork painted on its fuselage in a different pose. This gave each pilot his individual marking while also promoting unit esprit de corps. The Germans followed suit to an extent: Flight leaders began to paint parts of their aircraft bright colors in order to be better seen by the pilots flying with them.

Jasta 2 underwent a major change after Boelcke was killed in a flying accident October 1916. In December the unit was renamed Jasta Boelcke. Richthofen was improving his skills and by the end of 1916 had shot down 15 enemy aircraft. January 1917 he was given command Jasta 11, and took delivery of the newest the German fighter aircraft, the Albatross D. III. Jasta 11 had yet to score any victories in air-to-air combat, and Richthofen set about whipping his men into a first class squadron. As squadron commander, he had followed the general practice identifying his plane with bright red paint on the wheels and the tail section. Soon, painted his entire aircraft a bright red. This was to serve a number of purposes. First, he made himself easily identifiable to his own pilots. Second, although he had experimented earlier in his career with camouflage and the German air service was also looking into the idea, his own flamboyance would not allow him to purposely remain inconspicuous. Third, he hoped that his becoming famous as an expert fighter pilot would make the red plane strike fear in his enemies. Soon, his entire squadron painted a portion of their own planes red, and the brightly colored planes came to be called the Flying Circus. Later, all the aircraft the Jasta were painted solid red.

Richthofen’s Jasta 11 came into its own in April 1917, by which time the Albatross D. III had become the standard aircraft the German air service. Nothing the British or French had could match the Albatross, and the month came to be called by Allied airmen “Bloody April.” In this month, Richthofen became Germany’s highest-scoring ace, surpassing the mark of 41 kills set by his mentor Boelcke.

Both the Allies and the Germans developed increasingly faster and more maneuverable aircraft as the war progressed, and neither side was able to maintain superiority over the other for long. No matter what planes the Allies introduced, however, Richthofen continued to increase his score. Although wounded in combat and forced at another time by the high command to take leave, he rested only as long as he was required to do so. Combat seemed to have become an addiction with him. He and his squadron grew in notoriety-both inside Germany and out-and he was undoubtedly the best-known soldier in Germany. His younger brother, Lothar, flew with him and took command of the Jasta on Manfred’s infrequent departures, and the family tie was one more item for the press to play up.

By April 1918, Manfred von Richthofen was the highest-scoring ace of the war, with 80 Allied aircraft confirmed destroyed. He had been promoted to command Jagdgeschwader 1 (Fighter Group 1). On April 21, however, he was killed in combat in circumstances argued to this day. Credit for bringing down the Red Baron, as he had come to be called, went at the time to Captain Arthur Royal “Roy” Brown. Brown attacked the scarlet Fokker Dr. 1, the triplane Richthofen made famous, as it lined up on a British pilot on his first mission. Richthofen did not bring the enemy plane down quickly as he had become famous for doing, and he was shot down for flying too long in one direction. Richthofen’s plane landed behind British lines and the smoothness of the landing seemed to indicate a wounded pilot. Richthofen, however, was dead with a single bullet through his chest. It has since been argued that he was killed in flight by an Australian machine gun crew firing from the Allied lines on the ground. However he died, he was treated to a funeral with full honors by the British Royal Flying Corps.

Jasta 11 continued to operate under the command of Lothar von Richthofen, but he was never the public figure his brother had been. Manfred left behind the Air Combat Operations Manual, which de- scribed the necessary tactics for handling the larger Fighter Group he commanded at the end of his life. Ironically, it was the final dictum of that manual that he violated when he was shot down: “You should never stay with an opponent whom, through your bad shooting or his skillful turning, you have been unable to shoot down, the combat lasts for a long time and you are alone, outnumbered by adversaries.” Manfred von Richthofen also left a legacy of intensity, dedication, and professionalism that fighter pilots ever since have striven to emulate.

References: Bickers, Richard Townshend, Von Richthofen: The Legend Evaluated (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1996); Gibbons, Floyd, The Red Knight of Germany (London: Cassell, 1932); Richthofen, Baron Manfred von, Der Rote Kampfflieger (Berlin: Ullstein, 1933).