The Red Fighter Pilot - Webpage 19, pages 173-182


In tight battle formation.

Cockburn-Lange collection


I had to consult the sun and the compass to reestablish the route to Berlin. Cities, villages, rivers, forests passed beneath me. I didn't recognize anything. In vain I compared the terrain with my map. Everything was different. I was off the map. It wasn't possible to identify the location. As I found out later it wasn't out of the question that I had flown about one hundred kilometers off the map.

After an approximate two-hour flight my pilot and I decided on an emergency landing. This is always an unwelcome situation being without an airfield. One never knows what the terrain is like. If a tire goes into a hole the fusilage will be trashed. First we attempted to find the sign for a railway station but the lettering was so small that we couldn't discern the name. We had to land. Our hearts were heavy but there was no other choice. We looked for a meadow that appeared to be flat and sought our salvation. Unfortunately on closer inspection the meadow wasn't so great. This was determined by the somewhat bent landing gear. We had thoroughly screwed up. First losing our way, then damaging the fusilage! We had to continue our journey home in a very ordinary way, with the D-Train.


Slowly but surely we made our way to Berlin. We had landed in the vicinity of Leipzig. Had it not been for our stupidity we would have made it to Berlin, but then sometimes things just are what they are.

A few days later I arrived in my hometown Schweidnitz. Even though it was seven in the morning there was a huge crowd of people at the train station. Their greetings were warm. At midday I partook of various ceremonies in my honor, among them one held by the Youth Guard.

It was completely clear to me that one's homeland people are greatly interested in their warriors in the field.

*

                                                      May 6, 1917

I read in the Vossische Zeitung [a Berlin newspaper]:

The English have assembled an airplane squadron made up of volunteer pilots whose exclusive mission will be to shoot down the most successful German fighter pilot, Cavalry Captain, Baron von Richthofen, who has already brought down 52 enemy planes. The pilot who succeeds in shooting down or capturing von Richhofen will receive the Victoria Cross, a promotion, and his own airplane as well as 5000 Pounds Sterling plus a special prize from the manufacturer


of the aircraft used by the pilot. A camera operator will fly along with the English squadron, and all the film will later be used to produce a British Army film."

To me this was high praise but I honestly have to admit that I was thoroughly embarrassed. Let's for a minute assume that the scene plays itself out as follows: We set the stage. It is Sunday. I'm lying in bed and napping. My orderly bursts in and announces, "Captain, the English Anti-Richthofen squad sends it compliments!" The only thing I can do is spring from my bed, run to my crate and climb into the air. I gain altitude and things go wrong ... I don't want to overstate the case but I have a bad feeling that the English gentlemen aren't going to stick to the plan as they have laid it out. For example, what if I give chase and shoot and have the misfortune of shooting the camera operator? What then? The plan for a British Army film would be disrupted, the English gentlemen would be thoroughly embarassed, and they'd blame it all on me.

How would a gentleman conduct himself, that is the question? What if several other gentlemen took flight in order to shoot him down and the cameraman filmed the incident?


I believe the first thing he would do is shoot the camera operator.

Now what would happen if things were reversed? What would happen if I shot down the English squadron. Would I get the Victoria Cross, the promotion, my own plane as an award, 5000 Pounds Sterling and a special prize from the manufacturer of the plane I was flying?

I will be humble and only take the camera operator who's supposed to film me when I am shot down. In any event I'll let him live!

My Brother

It wasn't even eight days into my leave when I received a telegram: "Lothar wounded, not life-threatening." Nothing else. Further reports revealed that he had been foolhardy again. He flew again with Allmenröder against the enemy. Far below and far away on the other side of the front he saw a lone Englishman scrambling along. It was the hostile infantry pilot who had been especially annoying to our troops. In each case they had been thoroughly upset. Whether or not anything truly destructive occurred during those raids is dubious. My brother was two thousand meters


high. The Englishman was at one thousand meters. He stalked the Englishman, took a nose dive and got to him in a few seconds. The Englishman moved to avoid a battle and disappeared into the depths. My brother, never lazy, pursued him. It makes no difference if we're over the front or next to it. Only one thought comes to mind: He must go down. That's the natural and proper choice. I've done that myself. But if my brother doesn't do it was least once per flight the mission is no fun for him. He chased the Englishman down quite close to the ground so he could unload his magazine. The Englishman was perpendicular to the ground. There wasn't much time left.

After such a battle, especially at high altitude where one twists and turns frequently right and left, the average mortal has little idea where he is located. This day wasn't just steamy. The weather was especially unfavorable. He reoriented himself quickly and noticed now that he was quite a ways behind the enemy line. He was behind Vimy Ridge. The Vimy Ridge is about a hundred meters higher that the rest of the region. My brother disappeared behind it — so reported the ground observers.

Until one recovers his bearings flying home is not the most pleasant of feeling.


One can't shoot back at an enemy who's shooting at him. Seldom do both sides engage. My brother approached the line. At high altitude one can hear every shot. It sounds like chestnuts placed in the fire whenever a infantryman shoots. Then all at once one felt a hit. It was clear to him. He is among those who cannot stand to see his own blood. For others is makes a lesser impression but it really bothers him. He felt warmth on his right leg and pain in his hip at the same time. Below the shooting continued. He was still above. Eventually the firing ceased and he was over our front. Now he had to hurry because his stamina was flagging. He saw a forest and a meadow next to it. He turned off the ignition switch, feathered the engine and lost consciousness. He sat quite alone in his plane. There was no one to help him. How he made it back to the ground is a miracle for no airplane starts and lands on its own. They say there's an old Taube in Cologne that can start up the minute it's boarded by the pilot. It will take off on its own,


make a turn and land by itself five minutes later. Many men have seen it. I have not — but I'm convinced it's true. My brother certainly didn't have a Taube which lands itself but despite this the contact with the ground did not harm him. He first regained consciousness in the field hospital. Then he was transported to Douai.

It's a strange feeling seeing one's brother in battle with an Englishman. For example, one time I saw Lothar lagging behind the squadron and being attacked by an Englishman. It would have been easy for him to avoid the fight. All he needed to do was disappear into the depths. But no, he didn't do that! He didn't even seem to consider it. He didn't think of running away. Luckily I observed and paid attention. I saw how the Englishman kept turning on him and shooting. My brother tried to gain altitude unphased by whether or not he was being shot at. Suddenly the plane rolled over and the red-painted machine went spinning down. Not an intended manoever but a true nose dive. For the brother observing, this isn't a wonderful sight, but I've gotten used to the tricks my brother employs.


Once he knew that the Englishman was above him, he pretended to be shot. The Englishman stayed back and my brother pulled up and rose above him. The enemy aircraft couldn't react as quickly and my brother was behind him. A moment after the shots flames burst out of the enemy aircraft. Nothing could save him. He crashed in flames.

I have been on the ground next to a gas tank filled with a hundred liters when it suddenly exploded and burned. I couldn't get ten paces close to it because it was so hot. Now image a tank ten centimeters away from you filled with fifty liters of gas exploding and the propellers drives the searing flames towards your face. I'm sure one loses consciousness in the first moments and the end comes very quickly.

But now and again there are omens and miracles. For example one time I saw an English plane crash in flames. The flames shot five hunded meters in the air. The machine glowed. As we flew home we found out that one of the passengers on that plane jumped out at an altitude of fifty meters. He was the observer. Fifty meters! Consider that height. The average Berlin church tower isn't much higher.


If someone jumped from the top of the tower what would happen as he landed! Most people would break their neck if they jumped from half a story. Anyway, this brave "Franz" jumped out of his burning aircraft that had already been in flames for at least a minute from an altitude of fifty meters and suffered nothing more than a broken lower leg. After all this happened he said that his mental state had not suffered.

Another time I shot down an Englishman. The pilot suffered from a mortal head shot, the plane spun down to the ground from three thousand meters without ever righting itself. Some time later I glided by and saw nothing but twisted wreckage. To my astonishment I discovered that the observer only suffered a skull fracture and his considtion was not life threatening. Some men must just have luck.

On another occasion Boelcke shot down a Nieuport. I saw it myself. The plane dropped like a stone. We passed by it and saw that the plane was half buried in loam. The inhabitant, a battle pilot, was unconscious because of a stomach shot and had dislocated his arm on impact but he wasn't dead.

Then again I've also seen


a good friend lodge a wheel in a rabbit hole while landing. The plane had no real speed, slowly tipped over and teetered as though deciding on which side to settle, then fell on its back — and the poor bastard broken his neck.

*

My brother Lothar is a lieutenant with the Fourth Dragoons. Before the war he attended war college and immediately became an officer and had, like me, begun the war as a cavalry officer. What heroic deeds he accomplished there I do not know because he never talks about himself. But someone once told me the following story:

It was winter 1914. His regiment was on the Warthe. The Russians were on the other side. No one knew if they should go back or stay. The shore was partially frozen so riding through the river was difficult. There were no bridges. The Russians had destroyed them all. My brother swam across, established where the Russians were and swam back. This was during a harsh Russian winter where the temperature was many degrees below freezing. Within a few minutes his clothes were frozen solid but he insisted that underneath he was quite warm. He rode the entire day until he arrived at his quarters at nightfall. He didn't catch a cold.


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Imaging and translation by Susan Kriegbaum-Hanks