During World War 1, the two principal air forces were Britain and Germany. Both sides had hundres of planes, but the British had an advantage in that they had a better strategy for air combat than the Germans. The British had a strategic air force, which they used to attack the enemy’s cities and disrupt their ability to wage war on the ground. The Germans had an air force, which they used to support the army on the ground. Both sides used their air forces to try and gain the upper hand over the other, but in the end only one army emerged victorious.

The “Battle of the Somme” was one of the biggest and bloodiest battles of World War I. It was the first time a British “going over the top” attack was launched in the same fashion as the famed German “stormtroopers”. The battle lasted from 1 July to 18 November 1916. A total of 1.2 million soldiers took part in the assault and nearly 600,000 casualties were incurred.

The Battle of the Somme was one of the deadliest and most destructive battles in World War I with over 50,000 deaths. It took place from July 1st to November 19th, 1916, when the British and French armies attempted to break through the German lines and outflank their defenses at the River Somme in Picardy, France.

A newcomer to the Western Front, the man who became known as the Red Baron, undid one of Britain’s best pilots.

On November 23, 1916, a critical battle took place above the Somme between one of the Royal Flying Corps’ most proficient fighter pilots and a virtually unknown German aviator. When it was all said and done, a young Manfred von Richthofen had defeated Victoria Cross recipient Lanoe Hawker in a hard-fought battle that proved German fighters’ technological superiority over their British opponents.

Six months before, the Royal Flying Corps’ de Havilland D.H.2s had helped the RFC wrest aerial superiority from Germany’s Fokker E.III Eindeckers over northern France. However, as the fiercest fight of World War I continued in the fall of 1916, the British airmen found it difficult to maintain their lead. The RFC lost 499 airmen killed, wounded, or missing in action between June 1 and November 18, 1916, and over 972 aircraft were destroyed in battle or accidents. Many of the planes were obsolete, including the infamous Blériot Experimental series (most notably the B.E.2c), but Maj. Gen. Hugh Trenchard was determined to use every available jet in the conflict. RFC authorities immediately realized that unless British planes as advanced as the newest German Albatros D.I and D.II fighters were made available as soon as possible, they would lose control of the skies over the Somme and Flanders fronts.

Lanoe, Major One of Trenchard’s champions was George Hawker, commander of the RFC’s first single-seat fighter unit. On October 3, 1914, Hawker joined No. 6 Squadron of the Royal Flying Corps. Before they flew their eight B.E.s and four Farmans to Belgium on October 7, he hardly had a time to meet his new squadron mates. Hawker began carrying a handgun on reconnaissance trips, and on October 31, he reported, “I met a German biplane yesterday afternoon and fired six bullets at him with my revolver—of course, no good, but he took fear and headed for home.”

Duel of Aces Over the Somme Hawker (left) was the first British air-to-air combat pilot to receive the Victoria Cross. Three days before his deadly duel with Hawker over the Somme battlefront, Richthofen (right) won his tenth victory. (Weider History Group archive; Hawker: IWM Q 67598 Richthofen)

There were scant prospects for aerial combat during the winter of 1914-15. Hawker and No. 6 Squadron spent the winter perfecting their skills on reconnaissance and photographic missions, as well as directing artillery fire. On April 18, No. 6 Squadron was entrusted with bombing Zeppelin sheds at Gontrode, and Hawker was assigned to the mission. Despite failing to demolish the sheds, he managed to drop three bombs (one at less than 200 feet) and strike an observation balloon with hand grenades before returning to Poperinghe in a damaged plane. Hawker was promoted to command of A Flight after receiving the Distinguished Service Order.

Hawker was injured in the foot by groundfire during a recon sortie a week later, during the Second Battle of Ypres. He had to be carried to and from his jet for the rest of the conflict, but he refused to be grounded until the combat was done.

Hawker returned to No. 6 Squadron in late May after a medical leave to England, where he was ecstatic to receive one of the RFC’s newest aircraft, the Bristol Scout Type C. It was a tractor biplane with a top speed of 92 mph and a ceiling of 15,500 feet that was more compact and maneuverable than any other British aircraft at the time.

Hawker built a mounting for the Lewis machine gun on his new plane with the help of his mechanic. Because the British had not yet devised a method of firing a machine gun into the propeller without damaging it, Hawker affixed his weapon to the side of the fuselage, firing at an angle and avoiding the propeller arc.

Captain Hawker sighted two German planes above Passchendaele on the evening of July 25, 1915, after numerous inconclusive encounters. He went after the one who was closest to him. Hawker emptied his complete drum of 47 rounds at the adversary plane while flying with his right hand and firing the Lewis gun with his left, then chased the second aircraft. Both planes took off and flew back into German airspace. A British anti-aircraft battery saw one of them, damaged by Hawker’s fire, make a hurried landing well within the German lines.

Duel of Aces Over the Somme Hawker flies the Bristol Scout C during his Victoria Cross-winning engagement on July 25, 1915. (From the archives of the Weider History Group)

Hawker saw another opponent 10,000 feet over Hooge thirty minutes later and tracked him until he was less than 100 yards away before firing. The German plane caught fire and crashed this time. That battle was “the most successful yet fought by a single-seater scout of the RFC,” according to historian Alex Revell. Hawker received the Victoria Cross later that year, the first for single-seat air-to-air combat. He was officially credited with downing seven German planes in less than three months while flying his Bristol Scout and a Farman Experimental F.E.2b two-seat pusher, making him the RFC’s first ace.

Hawker was showing indications of severe strain after more than a year in combat. He was appointed to lead the RFC’s newly formed single-seat fighter unit when he was sent back to Britain in September 1915. On September 28, Hawker was promoted to major and assumed command of No. 24 Squadron at Hounslow. In January 1916, the squadron got its first aircraft, the D.H.2.

The D.H.2 was a single-seat pusher biplane with a ceiling of 14,000 feet and a maximum speed of 93 mph. It was powered by a 100-hp Le Rhône or Gnome Monosoupape rotary engine. It had a slower rate of climb than Germany’s premier fighter, the E.III Eindecker, in addition to its poor speed. It had a hand-controlled fuel induction mechanism on its single-valve (monosoupape) engine that only permitted it to function at full speed or not at all. To avoid flooding the engine during a dive, the pilot had to often turn it off.

With the engine and propeller at his back, the D.H.2 pilot sat in a bathtub-shaped nacelle. On the forward rim of the cockpit, a single.303-inch Lewis machine gun rested. The pilot had to fly with one hand on the control stick or use his knees to change the ammunition drum and fire with the other hand, which was a challenging maneuver in aerial battle.

On February 8, 1916, Hawker and the No. 24 Squadron flew to St. Omer, France. Trenchard gave his experienced squadron commanders a direct order: instead of participating in flights, they were to instruct their aircrews on how to fight and survive over the Western Front. Many commanders, including Hawker, disobeyed the order. He frequently claimed that he needed to fly in order to test new theories or make changes to aircraft or equipment.

Hawker, for example, devised a ring gunsight as well as a clamp and spring clip system to secure the Lewis gun to the D.H.2. Because of the open cockpit and rear-mounted engine, D.H.2 pilots were at risk of frostbite when flying at high altitudes. Hawker solved the problem by inventing fur-lined, upper-thigh-length boots known as “fug-boots,” which became standard equipment. Envious German pilots frequently took them from captured British airmen after they were shot down.

Hawker’s greatest difficulty as commander of the RFC’s first fighter squadron was to design tactics and implement a training program for his own pilots as well as the other five fighter squadrons that were forming in England at the time. During the first week, two of his pilots lost control of their D.H.2s, resulting in fatalities. On the way down, one of the planes caught fire, confirming the D.H.2’s reputation as a “spinning incinerator.” Hawker stepped into his own plane and flew away, realizing his men’s morale had been shattered. He put the D.H.2 through a series of twists and turns with the engine on and off over the course of 30 minutes, expertly demonstrating how to restore control. He collected his men after landing and informed them, “It’s all right, you fellows.” The D.H.2 can be extracted from any spin. I just gave it a shot.” He then proceeded to describe his methods, restoring the men’s faith in their mounts. After that demonstration, there were no more fatalities from spins in No. 24 Squadron.

Duel of Aces Over the Somme Lieutenant Otto Höhne sits in the cockpit of a No. 24 Squadron D.H.2 brought down by Captain Oswald Boelcke on September 14, 1916, while Boelcke and Richthofen watch. (All photos by Greg van Wyngarden)

On March 24, 1916, No. 24 flew its first operational combat sortie after weeks of hard training. On April 2, 2nd Lt. David M. Tidmarsh shot down an Albatros two-seater, giving the squadron its first recognized victory.

Hawker’s D.H.2s were instrumental in putting a halt to the “Fokker Scourge” in the spring and summer of 1916. Hawker gave his pilots a simple instruction on June 22, just days before the start of the Somme campaign: “Attack everything.” The commander’s vision, determination, and aggression towards the enemy were summed up in that concise directive, attributes he strove to teach in all of his men. No. 24 Squadron provided superb support to General Sir Edmund Allenby’s Third Army throughout the five-month Battle of the Somme. No. 24 heeded Trenchard’s demand for continuous offensive missions to deny the Germans control of the air, destroying 70 enemy planes at a cost of 12 own planes and 21 pilots killed, injured, or missing.

When the Albatros D.I and D.II were introduced to the front in September 1916, the pendulum began to swing back in the Germans’ favor. The Germans were determined to undermine Britain’s air supremacy above the front lines with four major initiatives, in addition to sending in faster and better-armed aircraft.

The German air service established a flying group leader within each corps headquarters in late August, which was the first major reform. The air arm and ground forces were better synchronized when one man, rather than a number of individuals at various levels, coordinated the tactical use of aircraft units supporting army corps.

The second initiative was the formation of the first Jagdstaffeln (hunting squadrons), or Jastas, to hunt down and destroy Allied planes so that other German fighters could complete their missions. Oswald Boelcke, a renowned fighter tactician, was designated commander of Jasta 2 and given wide reign to handpick his pilots from across the air force.

The final element of the strategy was to equip these newly formed hunting squadrons with the latest generation of German fighter planes, notably the Albatros D.I and Fokker D.I. Compared to the D.H.2, both of these aircraft had different advantages.

On October 8, Kaiser Wilhelm II established the office of commanding general of the air forces and renamed the German air force the Luftstreitskräfte (air force). The first commanding general, General Ernst von Hoeppner, and his staff would make significant contributions to the development of air power, not only for Germany but for the Central Powers as a whole.

For his new Jasta, Boelcke chose the best and brightest pilots. 2nd Lt. Manfred Freiherr von Richthofen, a young Silesian aristocrat who had switched from the cavalry to the air service in May 1915, was one of them. “I didn’t care a bit where I was and I felt incredibly unhappy when my pilot believed it was time to fly down again,” Richthofen remarked of his maiden trip. He had his first air combat in September, exchanging rifle shots with the crew of an RFC Farman. He claimed to have shot down a French Farman beyond Allied lines later that month, but this could not be verified.

Richthofen met the famed ace Boelcke on a train excursion and inquired about his method. Boelcke told him, “It’s fairly straightforward.” “I fly near to my buddy, take fine aim, shoot, and suddenly he goes down,” says the narrator. When Richthofen replied he tried to do the same thing but had little or no luck, Boelcke pointed out that the main difference was that he flew a Fokker fighter. Richthofen vowed to become a fighter pilot after that.

He soloed after some basic training, but he crashed on landing. He was sent to Döberitz for more instruction and received word on Christmas Day that he had passed his exams and was now a certified pilot. Richthofen joined a two-seater unit near Verdun in March 1916, and on April 26 he shot down a Nieuport. He didn’t get official credit for it this time, but French records show he hurt future ace Jean Casale. Richthofen, a 23-year-old Prussian, excitedly accepted Boelcke’s invitation to join Jasta 2 on the Somme front a few months later.

Boelcke taught formation flying, gunnery, and tactics for the first three weeks of September. His squadron had recently received the new Albatros D.I fighter, which had a top speed of 109 mph and a ceiling of 17,000 feet. It wasn’t as nimble as the D.H.2, but it was mounted with two 7.92mm Maxim machine guns that were fed by 500-round belts of ammo.

September 17 would prove to be a watershed moment in the Western Front air campaign. That day, Jasta 2 spotted British planes moving into German-controlled territory and continued tracking them until the opportunity was right to attack. When Boelcke’s men descended out of the sun, eight lumbering B.E.2cs of No. 12 Squadron, laden with 112-pound bombs and escorted by six F.E.2bs of No. 11 Squadron, were striking Marcoing railway station. They shot down four F.E.2bs and two B.E.2cs in fast succession, with no casualties to Jasta 2. Boelcke’s victory was his 27th, and Richthofen’s was his first.

On October 28, Jasta 2 pilots came face to face with two D.H.2s from Hawker’s No. 24 Squadron, in the first of several battles between the two squadrons. Boelcke crashed with one of his own troops and was killed when his Albatros broke up in the air while attempting to close on a D.H.2 flown by Captain Gerald A. Knight. The death of the leader was a shock to both his unit and the German air force. Boelcke, on the other hand, had trained an entire squadron of outstanding fighter pilots, and practically all of his men would go on to command their own Jagdstaffeln. Jasta 2 was renamed Jasta Boelcke in his honor.

Duel of Aces Over the Somme Stefan Kirmaier, Hans Imelmann, Richthofen, and Hans Wortmann pose with Richthofen’s Albatros (from left to right). On November 22, Boelcke’s successor in command of Jasta 2, Kirmaier, was killed by D.H.2s of No. 24 Squadron, but Richthofen avenged him the next day. (Photo by Greg van Wyngarden) )

Over the next four weeks, the squadron, which was equipped with the improved Albatros D.II and commanded by 1st Lt. Stefan Kirmaier, shot down a total of 25 British planes. Captain John “Jock” Andrews, one of Hawker’s most accomplished veterans in No. 24 Squadron, shot down and killed Kirmaier on November 22.

The following day, at 1300, four D.H.2s from Andrews’ A Flight took out from No. 24 Squadron’s airfield in Bertangles, near Amiens, to join two photoreconnaissance planes. C Flight had just returned from its morning mission after escorting two recon aircraft to German-held Bapaume, north east of Bertangles, when the rain ceased. The pilots reported seeing a massive formation of adversary fighters waiting for something to happen.

Major Hawker concluded that the Germans were waiting for the RFC recon planes to arrive. Despite the fact that commanding officers were not allowed to fly across enemy lines, he decided to join A Flight as its fourth member. The flight was led by Lieutenants John H. Crutch and Robert H.M.S. Saundby, and included Lieutenants John H. Crutch and Robert H.M.S. Saundby (who would become an air marshal during World War II).

Crutch’s plane had engine failure around 1310, so he informed Andrews that he was returning to base. At 1330, a flight passed the lines at 11,000 feet. A combat between several British Nieuport fighters and a German flight was taking place over Grandcourt, which all three pilots noticed. The Germans noticed the D.H.2s and broke away, going east, while Andrews turned to aid the Nieuports. Andrews redirected his plane back to Bapaume.

Andrews issued the order to attack after spotting two German observation planes northeast of Bapaume 20 minutes later. The Germans rapidly turned to avoid conflict as the D.H.2s began a shallow descent to cut off the enemy planes’ anticipated withdrawal. Andrews took a quick scan of the sky at that point and observed a big number of black dots far above them. The recon aircraft had been used as bait for a trap, he understood. The three D.H.2s were being attacked by what appeared to be an entire opposing squadron. Andrews instantly realized that the only thing he could do was lead his flight home as swiftly as possible.

Andrews and Saundby made a wide right turn, but Hawker continued east, possibly because he assumed Andrews was going back due to engine issues or because he was determined to pursue the retreating enemy. When Andrews realized the Germans were closing in on his squadron commander, he continued the circle with Saundby still off his right wing, then pursued Hawker in the hopes of fending off the Germans. When one of the German planes was less than 100 feet above and behind Hawker, Andrews fired 25 bullets at it. Hawker was aware that the opposing fighter had entered a steep drop, but more importantly, he was aware that he was the target of ten Germans.

Within seconds, Andrews was hit by six bullets, which ripped through the motor and petrol tank of his D.H.2. His engine failed, but he managed to turn west and dive into a steep dip in an attempt to return to British lines. Hawker was flying in loops with a lone German fighter at roughly 3,000 feet when he took one last look behind him.

Andrews was pursued by a German, but Saundby got behind him and discharged the majority of a 47-round drum into his plane, which went down in a spin. After that, Saundby waved to his flight leader and returned to find the remaining enemy fighters.

Hawker was engaged in a lethal waltz two miles inside the German lines with a lone D.II piloted by Richthofen, who had won ten aerial encounters in the previous eight weeks. The German ace quickly knew he was up against a very skilled pilot as the two opponents circled, each trying to get on the other’s tail. Nonetheless, he reasoned that if he waited long enough, the Englishman would run out of gasoline and be forced to abandon his lines.

The two combatants are said to have circled for half an hour in popular mythology, although that absurdly long time frame is the result of misread combat reports and twisted memories. For the tight-turning combat, five minutes is a more reasonable amount of time. The circling fighters plummeted from 5,000 feet to less than 300 feet as it was. Hawker was out of both fuel and sky at that moment, so he dashed for the British lines.

Richthofen slammed his Albatros into a tight bank and sped up to the tail of the Englishman. Both guys were flying at a low altitude of less than 150 feet above the pockmarked battlefield west of Bapaume. Hawker zigzagged in an attempt to provide a more complex target but also sacrificing valuable speed. A barrage of machine gun fire ripped into his left and right wings.

Richthofen drew to within 60 feet of the D.H.2, squeezed the trigger, and watched as his rounds struck the British aircraft’s tail, engine, and cockpit. Richthofen drew to within 60 feet of the D.H.2, squeezed the trigger, and watched as his rounds struck the British aircraft’s tail, engine, and cockpit. The D.H.2 straightened for a brief while before plunging into a water-filled shell hole within 200 feet from the British trenches. Lanoe Hawker had been shot in the back of the head and was dead. After the battle, Richthofen wrote:

My Englishman was a good athlete, but the situation eventually became too heated for him. He had to decide whether he would land on German soil or return to the English lines by flying. Of course, he tried the latter after failing to elude me with loopings and other such techniques. My first bullets were flying about him at the time, as neither of us had been able to shoot before. When he was down to around 300 feet, he attempted to flee by flying in a zigzag pattern, making it impossible for a ground observer to shoot. That was the happiest time of my life. I followed him at a range of altitudes between 250 and 150 feet, firing continuously. The Englishman couldn’t stop himself from collapsing. However, the jamming of my firearms almost cost me the victory.

Major Hawker was buried alongside the wreckage of his plane by the Germans. During the two years of fighting that followed, his grave was lost. Hawker’s name is inscribed on the Air Services Memorial to the Missing in Arras.

Richthofen won for the 11th time. After five more, he would be awarded his country’s highest valor medal, the Ordre Pour le Mérite, which the British dubbed the “Blue Max” in honor of Max Immelmann, an early German ace and adversary of Boelcke’s. “My eleventh Englishman was a Major Hawker, twenty-six years old and leader of an English squadron,” Richthofen wrote after shooting down one of the RFC’s top pilots. According to the stories of the inmates, he was the English Boelcke. He put up the toughest struggle I’d ever seen until I finally got him down.”

Hawker had been killed by an airman with less than eight weeks’ experience as a fighter pilot within 24 hours, according to both the RFC and the Luftstreitkräfte. For the Germans, it appeared like fate was on their side. They had lost their best fighter pilot, Immelmann, two weeks before the start of the Somme offensive, implying that the RFC had acquired air superiority. Then, on October 28, Boelcke was assassinated, followed by Kirmaier less than a month later. The killing of Hawker was now seen as confirmation that the pendulum had swung back in their favor. The fact that the D.H.2, which had surpassed the Fokker Eindecker, had been surpassed by the Albatros was probably of greater consequence.

For the RFC, the worst was yet to come. 151 British aircraft were shot down during “Bloody April,” six months after Hawker’s death, with 316 personnel killed or missing—the highest RFC mortality rate for any single month during World War I. Richthofen, known as the “Red Baron,” continued to fight for another 17 months before being shot down on April 21, 1918. Long controversy has raged over who killed Richthofen, but most evidence now points to an Australian machine-gunner rather than RAF Captain Roy Brown, who was following Richthofen to save one of his own inexperienced pilots from the baron’s guns. Richthofen’s 80 aerial victories made him the war’s most successful fighter pilot.

Countless books, articles, and films have been written on the Red Baron’s illustrious career, yet the majority of them ignore his duel with Hawker. Their battle was just one of several in the tumultuous air over the Western Front in 1916. Their brief meeting, however, is legendary in the annals of World War I flying.

 

For the past 35 years, retired US Army Lt. Col. Thomas G. Bradbeer has been researching the air war of 1914-18. For further reading, he suggests Ralph Barker’s The Royal Flying Corps in World War I and Peter Kilduff’s The Red Baron: Beyond the Legend.

The article first appeared in the January 2009 issue of Aviation History. Today is the last day to subscribe!

No, the Red Baron was shot down by a German pilot named Ernst Udet."}},{"@type":"Question","name":"Who actually shot down the Red Baron?","acceptedAnswer":{"@type":"Answer","text":" The Red Baron was shot down by an American pilot in 1918."}},{"@type":"Question","name":"Who was the most famous American fighter ace in the Great war?","acceptedAnswer":{"@type":"Answer","text":" The most famous American fighter ace in the Great War was Eddie Rickenbacker."}}]}

Frequently Asked Questions

Did Roy Brown shoot down the Red Baron?

No, the Red Baron was shot down by a German pilot named Ernst Udet.

Who actually shot down the Red Baron?

The Red Baron was shot down by an American pilot in 1918.

Who was the most famous American fighter ace in the Great war?

The most famous American fighter ace in the Great War was Eddie Rickenbacker.

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