The Red Fighter Pilot - Webpage 11, pages 93-102


Thus ended our first corporate undertaking, "The Fokker."

After a few weeks we had a second one. This time I felt duty bound to use the thing myself all the time. It was perhaps my third flight in the small and fast machine. From the start the motor malfunctioned. I had to go down in an oat field. This proud and beautiful airplane was turned into an unrecognizable heap. It's a wonder nothing happened to me.

*

                        Near Verdun, April 27, 1916

In all haste, some happy news. Take a look at the military report of April 26, 1916! One of the two planes mentioned has my machine gun on it.

*

                        Near Verdun, May 3, 1916

Thank you for your well wishes on my birthday, which I pleasantly spent here. In the morning I had three very nerve-wracking air battles and in the evening I sat with Zeumer, my first pilot, until one the next morning drinking May wine under a blossoming apple tree. I believe no other war posting could excite me as much as this one does.


I fly a Fokker, which is the same plane with which Boelcke and Immelmann have had such riotous success. Holck's death saddens me. Three days before he fell I had visited him and we had such a good time together. He told me about his capture in Montenegro. It's hard to imagine that this healthy and vibrant man is no more. I was a witness to his last air battle. He shot down a Frenchman from a squadron, after which his gun seemed to jam and he intended to fly back to our lines. Then an entire swarm of Frenchmen attacked him. Upon receiving a shot to the head he spiralled down three thousand meters — A beautiful death. — Seeing Holck with only one arm or one leg would be inconceivable. Today I am flying to his funeral.

*

                        Near Verdun, June 22, 1916

What can you say about Immelmann's death? Up until now no one could believe it. — Even Boelcke. — The Commander of Lothar's fighter squadron also didn't return from a bomb filming. The day before the commander of my old Cavalry Regiment 1, at the time a carrier pigeon unit, was shot. He was Baron von Gerstorff, perhaps the most capable commander to ever had a fighter squadron. I always admired him.


                        Near Verdun, July 6, 1916

A few days ago I crashed my Fokker nose first. Bystanders were astonished when after a while I got out unharmed from the smashed heap. Things are going slightly better now for my good friend Zeumer. He was shot down by the French and slightly grazed. However three days later he broke his femur in a totally stupid affair.

I'm toying with the idea of going to Boelcke and becoming his student. I could always use a diversion. It would bring novelty, not a bad thing for me.

Bombing Missions in Russia

In June we were suddenly reassigned. We didn't know what was behind it, but we had been tipped off so we weren't deeply shocked that we were going to Russia. We went all the way through Germany in our own train, outfitted with dining and sleeping cars. We eventually reached Kowel. There we resided in our own railroad car. Living in a train naturally has its advantages.


One is always ready to travel on and one always has the same quarters.

However in the Russian summer heat a sleeping car is as horrible as it gets. Thus I convinced my two good friends, Gerstenberg and Scheele, to move with me into the nearby forest, pitch a tent, and live like gypsies. That was great living.

*

In Russia our fighter squadron dropped many bombs. We busied ourselves with the task of vexing the Russians and laying our eggs on their beautiful railroad facilities. The nest was called Manjewicze, about thirty kilometers behind the front and by no means far away. The Russians planned an assault and to that end the railroad had been packed with trains. One train sat right next to the other and the line extended quite a distance. One could see that quite clearly from the air. A transport train stood at every turnabout. It would be a truly rewarding target for a bomb crew.

One can become excited about anything. For a while I was excited at the thought of this bombing mission. It gave me uncanny delight to picture the enemy plastered under the rubble.


On this particular day we thus had Manjewicze in our crosshairs. Each squadron set its sights on Russia.

The planes stood at the takeoff point. Each pilot once again tested his motor because it caused pain just thinking about having to make an emergency landing in the wrong area, especially in Russia. The Russians go beserk over aviators. If one happens to capture one he'll beat him to death. This is the only real danger in Russia. There are no Russian pilots or at least as good as none. If one showed up he'd most assuredly be doomed because he would be shot down. Anti-balloon defenses in Russian are quite good but few in number. Compared to the West flying in the East is recreational.

*

The aircraft taxi slowly to the takeoff point. They are weighed down to capacity by bombs. I haul some hundred and fifty kilograms of bombs with a completely average C-class airplane. Besides which, I have a heavy observer with me who obviously has not experienced famine and two machine guns for this run. I probably won't need them in Russia. It's a shame my collection does not contain a Russian hit.


Having his hat on the wall would certainly be a colorful addition. Flying a big, overweight airplane in the Russian midday heat is not a good idea. The fusilages shake quite badly and the planes don't descend naturally since the engines run at a hundred and fifty horses. However it's not an unpleasant feeling to have so much ammunition and fuel on board. Plus a peaceful flight lends itself to an enjoyable bomb drop. It's nice to just fly to a specified target on a specific mission. After the bomb drop one has the feeling of accomplishment whereas during a hunting mission where one doesn't fire a round one finds oneself saying, You could have done better. I enjoy dropping bombs. My observer learned quite well how to fly perpendicular to the target and with the help of a sighting scope lay his eggs at the right time. It was a beautiful flight to Manjewicze and I often repeated it.

We came upon a huge forest complex in which elk and lynxes frolicked. However the villages looked as though even the foxes say good night each evening. The only large village was Manjewicze. Around the village there were countless tents pitched and in the railroad yard there were many baracks.


We didn't notice any red crosses. There was a squadron ahead of us. You could tell by a few of the smoking houses and baracks still standing. The squadron hadn't done badly. The exit to the train station had been destroyed in a hit. The locomotive was still steaming. Certainly the engineers were in a trench or similar shelter. On the other side a locomotive was just starting out at great speed. Naturally I was tempted to go after the thing. We flew after the train and planted some bombs a few hundred meters ahead of it. The desired goal was achieved. The locomotive stopped. We turned back and dropped our bombs, finely directed by the sighting scope, on the railroad station. We had plenty of time and no one disturbed us. There was an enemy airbase in the vicinity but its pilots were nowhere to be seen. There was little anti-aircraft fire coming from the opposite direction from us. We kept one bomb to save for a particularly useful purpose on the return trip. Then we saw an enemy pilot taxiing at his airport. Did he really intend to engage us? I couldn't believe it. Much earlier he sought security in the air because it's certainly more comfortable and safer to be airborne during an airport bombing.


We made a few detours and searched for troop installations. It's great fun to harass the people below with machine gun fire. Half-wild races of men like the Asians exhibit more fear than educated Englishmen. It's particularly engaging to shoot at enemy cavalry. It creates a strange feeling of unrest among the population. You see them swerving off in all directions. I wouldn't want to be squadron leader of a group of Cossacks being shot at by a pilot with machine guns. In time we saw our lines again. It was time to drop our last bomb. We decided to grace our bomb on an anchored balloon, "the" only observation balloon of the Russians. It was easy for us to go down to a few hundred meters and bomb it. At first the balloon was hauled down quickly but as the bomb fell they stopped drawing it in. I figured I hadn't hit it but the Russians had run off and abandoned their observer stranded in the basket. We reached our front and our trenches. As we arrived home we were astonished to learn that someone had actually shot us from below, at least according to the signs of a bullet hole in the wing.

*


Another time we were in the same region in order to engage the Russians, who intended to cross over the Stokhod River. We came to the area at risk loaded with bombs and a great deal of ammunition for our machine gun. To our great surprise we saw that the enemy cavalry had already crossed the Stokhod. A single bridge brought reinforcements. It was clear we needed to attack this bridge to cripple the enemy. There was massive troop movement over the small bridge. We descended to our lowest possible altitude and could see that the enemy cavalry was marching over with great speed. The first bomb crashed near by in front of them. The second and third immediately followed. Chaos prevailed down below. The bridge hadn't been hit but nonetheless the march came to a complete halt and everyone with legs ran off in every direction. The success rate was good considering we only had three bombs. There was a full squadron behind me so we would achieve much this day. My observer aimed his machine gun shots well among our brethren and we had great fun. I cannot report just how successful we were. The Russians didn't tell me but I imagine I stopped the Russian invasion single-handedly.


Boelcke!

The August sun was almost unbearable on the sandy airfield in Kowel. We entertained ourselves by sharing stories with our comrades. One person related, "The great Boelcke arrived today and wishes to visit us all, or at least his brothers, in Kowel." That evening the famous man appeared. He was admired by all. He told interesting stories of his trip to Turkey, from which he had just returned in order to report to headquarters. He spoke about going to the Somme to continue his work there and also to set up an entire fighting squadron. To that end he was looking for suitable people from the various flight groups. I didn't dare ask him to enlist me, at least not on the grounds that I found life in our squadron too boring. It was just the opposite. We had great and interesting flights in which we harrassed the Russkies by dropping bombs on their railroad stations. But the thought of returning to fight on the Western Front excited me. There's nothing more attractive to a young cavalry officer than an air battle.

Boelcke would leave the next morning. Early that morning there was an abrupt knock at my door. The great man stood before me wearing his Medal of Merit. I wasn't sure what he wanted from me.


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Imaging and translation by Susan Kriegbaum-Hanks