Knights of the sky 100 years past

Darragh Christie, 25 April 2017 · # ·

Taylors Sopwith Pup of 66 Squadron, by Mark Postlethwaite.

Can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?

—Shakespeare, Henry V

100 years ago a handful of Royal Flying Corps pilots — including the newly graduated 2nd Lieutenant P.G. Taylor — contested the skies with German hunting squadrons.

The life expectancy of an RFC pilot averaged only about 18 hours in April 1917. Many died because they flew, in the words of ‘Bill’ Taylor, a motley assortment of ‘..appallingly makeshift aeroplanes.’

This is their story…

Brave and chivalrous foes

The opening exchanges of the 1st air war amounted to little more than pilots taking sidearm pot-shots at each other.

Early exchanges: Taube vs. Be2c

The invention of synchronization gears resulted in aeroplanes becoming more efficient killing machines. The ground became littered with the shattered, burned remains of aircraft and their unfortunate pilots.

German Ace Oswald Boelke re-organised the German Imperial Air Service, the Luftstreitkräfte. His new rules of engagement made it an effective fighting force.

Jasta 2 was made up of Boelcke’s hand-picked pilots. It was the training ground for many a future ‘Ace’, including the infamous Red Falcon (or Red Baron as he was later known), Manfred Von Richthofen.

Oswald Boelke takes a picture of Formilli’s crashed aircraft in January 1916 after shooting it down.

Boelcke’s Dicta theorised tactics about killing the enemy. But he had a reputation as a ‘Gentleman of the skies’. After shooting down an RFC machine on January 15, 1916, Boelcke landed, and greeted the 2 crash-landed airmen.

..[I was] delighted to have brought them down alive…I had a long talk with the [British] pilot, who spoke German well. When he heard my name he said with a grin, “We all know about you!”

‘I then saw to it that they were both taken in a car to the hospital where I visited the observer today and brought him some English papers and photos of his wrecked machine’1

The British pilots had hospital visits, were hosted to a coffee at the German officer’s mess, and were given a personal tour of the German aerodrome. Boelcke also flew over the front lines – at great personal risk – dropping a letter written by the 2 captured airmen. It contained a message that they had been shot down and were recuperating.

Oswald Boelcke (right) with Robert Wilson of 32 Squadron RFC.

Following Boelcke’s death in a mid-air crash in 1916, the RFC sent their condolences, dropping a wreath which read,

‘To the memory of Captain Boelcke, a brave and chivalrous foe.’2

Boelcke and his Eindecker group.

Vickers gun for a lance

On the other side of the lines. 2nd Lieut P. G. Taylor of 66 Squadron described the British attitude to the deadly game in the skies as

… a mixture of high spirits, belief in their personal superiority and a cheerful, mocking resignation.

P.G Taylor recalled 66 squadron

..was like a nervous, high spirited horse. Our aircraft were invested, for us, with the glamour of their gallant purpose. We were known by the press as the ‘Knights of the air’. This embarrassing expression, although the source of many ribald jokes among us, was in fact unusually apt. We were just that, mounted for war on the little brown fighters with a Vickers gun for a lance.

A group outside the mess at Vert Galand.

Taylor acknowledged his opponent’s bravery, explaining that the description ‘Hun’

.. was used by the British propaganda machine to denote a barbaric type of enemy, there was no stigma attached to it in the RFC. It simply meant a German aircraft and the word joined the other jargon that sprang up in the Service

He, and the other RFC pilots felt let down by British authorities.3 Inadequately trained men flying inferior equipment had little chance against experienced enemy pilots. Luckily, 2nd Lieut. P.G. Taylor found himself under the tutelage of flight leader, Captain Andrews.

By his example he had inspired us all not only to make the best of our equipment, but almost to enjoy the challenge of becoming an effective fighting unit in spite of its limitations.. each of us retained his individuality - in fact circumstances encouraged us to develop this..

66 Squadron mess. Left to right: Lt ‘Bottom’ Topham, Capt Andrews and Lt Sharpe. Behind the bar is Catterall, the imperturbable steward.

Andrews sang-froid instilled confidence in his flyers. Bill Taylor recalled an incident when Andrew’s engine cut out on approach. He managed to land but pancaked the aeroplane onto a hangar.

Flight Sargeant Ramsay with Taylor’s Pup.

In due course Andrews emerged from his machine and climbed unhurried to the billowing ground… He stood for a moment, taking off his gloves as if to remove any soiling effects of the incident. Then he turned to the somewhat shaken onlookers and raised his eyebrows slightly, ‘Ah, Flight Sergeant Ramsay, there you are. You might have this mess cleared up, please.’

Capt. Andrews valued the lives of his pilots. Many new graduates averaged less than 10 hrs of flying time before being thrown into the fray.

In late March 1917, the inexperienced P.G. Taylor found himself as Capt. Andrew’s wingman. They flew the RFC’s best ‘Scout’ to date, the Sopwith ‘Pup’.

Pup A7309 of Capt P G Taylor, No 66 Sqn, Vert Galand, France, June 1917

The British Sopwith Pup and French Nieuport 17, had good manuverability. However, they had some difficulty matching the fast diving, heavily armed Jasta machines. In the words of P.G. Taylor

The Sopwith Scout was a delightful little aeroplane to fly, but …we found ourselves with equipment critically inferior to our German opponent, the Albatros. This machine had twice the horsepower of the Sopwith Scout, and twice the firepower. Its superior performance allowed the Germans to choose their own terms of the battle in the air

The German pilots hunted in packs. They only attacked when they had chance of success, following the Dicta Boelcke edict that: “Foolish acts of bravery only bring death. The Jasta must fight as a unit with close teamwork between all pilots.” As Taylor would soon experience at 1st hand…

Albatros scouts.

Bloody April, 1917:

Taylors Pup vs ‘The black Huns’

Taylor was out patrolling in ‘V’ formation with Captain Andrews in early April. They crossed enemy lines at 12,000 feet, and immediately drew fire from an Archie battery. They flew on, ‘followed by the distant woofs of the black shellbursts’

.. I saw Andrews turn about 45 degrees to port … In the distance ahead I could see some little moving specks quickly developing into aeroplanes as they headed towards us.

Huns. The enemy. The focal point of the great sport.

Fascinated, I followed Andrews round and straightened up to ..I felt a wild, if slightly apprehensive thrill.

The enemy had the height advantage and dived into their attack. Andrews flew straight at them and Taylor followed, closing the distance rapidly

They were four dark machines, the leader ahead of the others. I saw the tracer, thin, harmless-looking white streamers, streaking towards us from the noses of the Huns.

I pressed on, keeping plenty of speed, and chose the machine on the end of the line. Then I realized I had no choice, as he was already firing at me… I could hear the crackle of his guns as he flashed by overhead.

I pulled the Pup round in a climbing turn and saw the Hun again, a black machine with white outlined crosses.

We closed again and he tried to get into position to attack me from behind, but I found I could easily turn inside him as Andrews had said. He hadn’t a chance to pin me down that way. Realizing this he broke off the close maneuvering and sailed up in a long, sweeping climb.

Suddenly this wasn’t a football match. This could mean someone’s death

Taylor momentarily forgot about flying technique as instinct took over. The Black Hun above him turned back in for another attack.

My one thought was to get him firmly in my sights, in the stream of bullets from my gun.

The death must be his.

I pulled the Pup up on her tail, firing as I held full throttle and brought the Hun into my sights. The Vickers rattled out, the aircraft hung suspended. Then the Pup dropped from under me and I felt the seat belt tighten and pull back into the cockpit.

The machine was falling vertically after the stall, with the nose pointing at the earth. Instinctively I pulled off the throttle, let go the firing chord. Technique took over, easing the aircraft out of the dive.

Where was the Hun? I looked around as I drew the stick back. I saw him then, hanging above me, waiting. I turned in a kind of corkscrew pull-out..

The enemy aircraft was on him again in seconds..

A digital render of Albatros. Image: DeciBit , Rise of Flight forum

But before he could line up his sights I had whipped round in a turn and was trying to entice him closer. He knew his stuff however, and again tried to exploit the Albatros’s advantage on the climb ..maneuvering to set me up for another diving attack. I could see this coming and was able to avoid it by turning in under him and spoiling his dive.

He flashed on over again and I pulled around for a chance to get a burst into him. He wasn’t there. I kept in a close turn in case he was coming in from a blind spot, screwing round always to spot the black machine. But I could see him nowhere.

The sky was empty.

A digital render of Sopwith Pup A7309 flown by Taylor in June 1917. Image: Panthercules, Rise of Flight forum

Where had he gone? Taylor could see the other Sopwiths below him - but the enemy had disappeared, completely! He dived down and joined the formation sole possession of the hostile sky. I could not understand this sudden end to the fight. Why had the Huns gone? And where? My head kept turning, scanning every inch of the hostile sky.

I learned later that this method of fighting was the standard tactic of the Albatros – the diving attack and the disinclination to get involved in close maneuvering.

When I flew a captured Albatros later at once I saw the point. The machine had an excellent performance, but was heavy on the turns.

The captured German machine.

It was a good education, the beginning of the path to survival. Even though I hadn’t got the Hun, he hadn’t got me either. The score was even.

Taylor and Andrews continued on from Arras to Douai ( the Jasta’s ‘lair’ ). They flew through accurate anti-aircraft fire, again. Then Andrew’s machine plunged into a steep dive toward ‘Hunland’. Taylor pressed the nose of his Pup down, opening the throttle to keep up.

For a moment I couldn’t account for his sudden dive. Then I saw two Hun machines moving slowly against the dark earth, heading east, and now about six thousand feet below.

I eased back the throttle as I caught up with Andrews, and we went on down in a screaming dive, overtaking the Huns easily with all the height we had to use. As we approached I could see they were two-seaters from high in the sky above them.

Andrews made for the lead aircraft, Taylor slewed away for the other, adrenaline pumping

My excitement was terrific. It was all I could do to hold my fire to effective range instead of shooting away my ammunition at a range of a half mile or more.

Then I saw the tracer come up, and the rear gunner actually crouching in his seat and firing at me.

Strangely I had no fear that he would hit me, even though the pilot was holding the aircraft on a magnificently straight course.

I pulled the gun ring as the Hun came in, filling the view of the nose of my Pup.

He had to go down. I almost flew into his tail, pulled out, and swept over above his wing.

At the top of my climbing turn I looked down to see what had happened. The Hun was diving vertically into some scattered cloud that hung over the land below. I felt sure I had got him.

This would be Taylor’s first kill if he could confirm the crash. He dived for a gap in the low cloud where the German machine had disappeared…

In a few moments I was out below, and searching the misty air at two thousand feet. Not seeing the Hun, I turned quickly and swept round, scanning the haze and the ground below.

Suddenly there was a terrific explosion-

I thought my Pup had disintegrated, but she flew on calmly through the filthy smoke of a shell-burst, only to be rocked by an absolute frenzy of gunfire.

Taylor had to get out, quick

I opened out to full throttle and turned into the climb. Every inch of height to the cloud-base seemed to resist me as I hauled the Pup up and willed her into the blessed shelter above.

It must have been less than a minute till the clouds closed round us, but it seemed to me like an age. The archie followed me blindly up, still bursting in open air above , but I was clear now and had only to hold my course above the cloud to lose them.

I flew away to the south, leaving the air behind me aimlessly dotted with slowly dissolving shell bursts.

At about 3000ft Taylor saw another aeroplane.

I identified it as a solitary Pup.

It was Andrews, his two red streamers fluttering cheerfully from the wing struts. I slid in behind him taking up my position above his starboard wing. He held up his hand in greeting and we flew south down the line of the patrol.

I think Andrews got one of the two-seaters. Whether mine crashed or not I do not know. It certainly looked as if the pilot had been hit and had fallen forward onto the controls. But the barrage I met when I tried to confirm my first kill completely dampened my interest in the matter.

vs. ‘The Douai Circus’

A few days later (on April 5th) Taylor continued his steep learning curve. Out patrolling for 2-seater reconnaissance aircraft, he noticed a group of birdlike things swooping and attacking ground troops, thousands of feet below him. Diving down he could see they were

…coloured Albitri of the Hun Circus from Douai, putting on a fine show…

I decided to break up their party.

.. such confidence did I have in the maneuverability of my Pup. I hauled her over, and pressed her down in a dive for the Huns. The specks grew quickly into aeroplanes, and the aeroplanes into brilliant Albatri - unaware, so I believed, of my approach.

I selected one, a red machine with some chequered marks on the fuselage and started to turn in behind him as he was soaring around for another dive on the trenches.

I don’t think he saw me, for he made no attempt to evade the attack and I got a good burst into him, and saw him rear up in a terrific zoom, fall over the top and dive for near the earth. But if he had not seen me, one of the others had; as I pulled out there was the sound of machine-gun fire close behind my tail.

…I was suddenly conscious of a shark-like creature closing in on me. I held full throttle and tried to climb away, but it was futile..

They had me cold. I couldn’t reach them to attack, and couldn’t climb away to escape. The instant I flew straight they would nail me.

Luckily, Taylor had a trick up his sleeve.

There was only one remaining possibility; a move which I had always avoided and from which there was no turning back.

I decided to dive right down on the deck, and hare off home below the trees and the Church tower. … I shook off a Hun with a sideways loop…. and dived for the earth. The maneuver gave me a few seconds start.

I remember the broken earth, with the shell holes, my wheels only a few feet off the ground. A Hun began to overtake me, diving, turning to get me in his sights. I had to watch him, and avoid flying into the ground. I swerved away as his nose was coming on, and he was forced to pull out to avoid a crash.

A broken village came rushing up and I went skating around some ruined houses, past some splintered trees..Then there were fields, green and brown, behind the lines, and a fold in the ground. I poured the Pup down a low valley…A quick look behind. The Huns had gone, the air was clear.

Taylor’s split-second decision-making had saved his life. Having landed safely back at the aerodrome, Taylor had more of a chance to ruminate over his experience.

Taylor with his home-made anti-frostbite leather mask.

I pulled back my mask and wiped the sweat from my face.

In the relief of escape, and under the influence of the fresh, sunlit air, I managed to find reasons to be pleased with my foolhardiness. I might have got a Hun. I certainly spoiled their party. And I was still alive. But it wasn’t an exploit that I would repeat in a hurry…. the aerodrome I got out and gave my Pup a pat on the rump. I looked over the wings and tail – there wasn’t a single bullet hole to be seen. The Huns hadn’t shot very well, but I couldn’t rely on that for next time…

Taylor had been fortunate indeed.

I was luckier than I knew, for a sinister report had just come down from Wing to the squadron. The newly-arrived 48 Squadron had earlier in the day lost almost a complete flight of Bristol F2a fighters to the Jagdstaffel of highly coloured Huns from some of whom I had just escaped.

Led by Captain Leefe-Robinson, who had been awarded the Victoria Cross for bringing down a German airship over London, the first patrol of 48 Squadron to go out encountered five Albitri led by von Richthofen4 over Douai. Four of the six Britols were shot down, including that of Leefe-Robinson, who was wounded and taken prisoner. Of the two that escaped over the lines, one was practically a write off and the other was badly damaged

Bloody April, 1917:

Above Arras

From April 9th the Royal Flying Corps was tasked with supporting British and Commonwealth forces over the Battle of Arras) – from Vimy Ridge in the north, to Bullecourt in the south.

As Taylor explained, the RFC

… concentrated on seeking out the enemy and destroying him over his own country, the German fighters seldom came any distance over our side… By drawing the British aircraft over their territory the German fighters could engage them at an advantage… Any aircraft slower than a Hun had to fight his way out. There was no other escape, except to surrender and land in enemy territory.

An aerial view of the landscape after being bombarded with artillery. The remains of Bullecourt are identified at left rear. Source AWM

The RFC’s 2-seaters used for reconnaissance, artillery spotting, patrolling and bombing raids were vulnerable without fighter escort. Types such as the RE8 and FE2b suffered at the hands of the Luftstreitkräfte’s birds of prey

Black Friday 13th.

On Friday April 13th at 9am, Von Richthofen, leading Jasta 11 in his all red Albatros sighted 6 RE8’s of 59 Sqn. Like wolves amongst a sheepfold, they tore the ungainly RFC 2-seaters apart.

All 6 British machines were destroyed, their 12 pilots killed or captured.6

An R.E.8 lies wrecked.

Rittmeister_Von Richthofen met a survivor of the air battle, captured after crash-landing. The _Red Falcon’s legend was developing a life of its own, it seemed..

One of the Englishmen whom we had shot down, and whom we had made prisoner was talking to us.

Of course he enquired after the ‘red aeroplane’. It is not unknown even among the troops in the trenches, and is called by them Le diable rouge

In the squadron to which he belonged there was a rumour that the red machine was occupied by a girl - a kind of Joan of Arc. He was intensely surprised when I assured him that the supposed girl was standing in front of him. He did not intend to make a joke…7

Von Richthofen sits in the cockpit of his Albatros fighter for a photograph.

The death of Lancelot

On Friday, April 13th at 6.40pm, 25 Squadron RFC set out for a bombing raid in their FE2b. Leading his flight was Captain Lancelot L. Richardson

The FE2b according to P.G. Taylor was a ‘fantastic contraption.. optimistically called a “battleplane” by Authorities’…

The gunner was in front of the pilot in the aircraft’s nose, so that he had a good field of fire ahead, and none to the rear.

In spite of this handicap, the enterprising FE2b pilots devised means of fighting with this aeroplane which proved to be at least partially successful:
On sighting the German aircraft the flight would form a circle, virtually a rotating air fortress, and follow each other round, waiting to be attacked.In this way an approaching enemy came under the fire of several gunners in the noses of the FE’s.

A determined attack by a number of German fighters, however, could often break up the FE formation. They then could be picked off individually, since they were very slow to manoeuver and were completely defenseless from behind or below.

On the evening of April 13th, 25 Sqn. reached their target. They thought their fighter escort had finally arrived. Instead they were suprised by Jasta 11, led by Richthofen himself.

the air battle began while the FEs were still dropping their bombs. The clash came over Henin…. Klein of Jasta 4 also showed up again so the two units were obviously flying together

The FEs did not have time to form a defensive circle. They fought fiercely nevertheless ‘claiming no fewer than four Albatros DIIIs destroyed as the running fight ensued.’

Von Richthofen and Oberleutnant Hans Klein had both blooded themselves with an RE8 earlier that day. Now at 7:30pm they attacked the FEs at the front of the stream

The first FE to go down went under the guns of Klein, A6372 falling near Vimy, having almost made it home …10

A6372 was Capt. L.L. Richardson’s aircraft8. Klein’s 7th victim in 10 days.11 3 RFC machines fell in total, 1 of them to Richthofen12

Both Richardson and his observer were buried next to each other, with the Canadian troops who died taking Vimy Ridge below them. Richardson was 21.

Capt. Lancelot Lytton Richardson credited with 7 kills, was awarded the Military Cross, posthumously, on May 11th 1917

For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. He attacked a formation of five hostile scouts, and brought two of them down. On another occasion, although himself wounded, he destroyed two hostile machines, and drove down, damaged, at least two others.9.

The Flying Circus’ last acts

Taylor wrote offering ideas and solutions to problems faced by his pilots. However, he failed to make headway with the British Air Board’s ‘guarded little kingdoms of authority.’
The odds evened in favour of the Allies by war’s end, with the rollout of Sopwith Camel , SE5a, Bristol F2b and French designed Spad VIII fighters

Postcard ‘“Spad”, du Captaine Guynemer’ Source: Barry O’Keefe Library ‘Trace’ digital archive. This item belonged to Wilfred Joseph Allan Allsop.

Despite the tallies of Richthofen and his Flying Circus – flying Fokker Dr.1 and Fokker D.VII scouts – the war of attrition claimed the Jasta’s airmen one-by-one. Including the Diable Rouge himself.

le diable rouge: ‘Kaputt’

Edmond Clifford Banks was an observer and gunner with 3 Sqn. AFC. On the 21/04/18 his RE8 (B.6576) was 1 of 2 taking reconnaissance photos of German troop concentrations near Hamel. A few minutes into their run, the outlines of 8 aircraft were sighted, 2 breaking off for an attack. The RE8 pilot’s hearts must have sank when they realised they were facing Fokker Dr.1. Triplanes from Richthofen’s ‘Circus’. But they knew what they knew what to do

In the words of Banks13

The observers of both aircraft signaled to each other and manned their Lewis guns. As the Germans drew close two triplanes swept away from the formation and one attacked one of our planes. The leader was a red Triplane.

The AFC crews stuck together, for protection.

Both of our gunners were experienced at this type of fighting and their pilots knew their battle tactics. Each time a triplane tried to manoeuvre on to the tail of an RE8 our pilot turned his machine around and the procedures started all over again.

This fight lasted 6-8 minutes. In Banks’ words

von Richthofen and his mate were always under fire. The fight was at short range and the airmen could see one another clearly.
Suddenly the red triplane turned over and fell away rapidly. Barrow and Banks [the 2 RE8 gunners] then concentrated their remaining fire on the remaining triplane. He took a bad battering and after splinters were seen to fly from his wings pulled out of the fight and returned for home.

This fight occurred a few minutes before the recorded time when von Richthofen crashed and was precisely above the pin-point on the military map where his plane landed. The mosaic diagram of photographs prepared in the mapping section of the squadron clearly shows a gap in the sequence around the crash point. With the combat finished the 2 Re8 machines continued their photographic programme.

Aerial photo by member of 3 Squadron at about 10.40 a.m. April 21, 1918. This photo was taken by either Lieuts. Simpson and Banks or Garrett and Barrow just prior to being attacked by von Richthofen and Weiss. Source Franks, N., and Bennett Alan, The Red Baron’s Last Flight A Mystery Investigated, Pan Macmillan 1998.

3 Sqn. RE8. Source AWM

In brief, the events that transpired on that fateful day:

Richthofen’s Circus now faced an attack by 14 Canadian Sopwith Camels. The red triplane broke off from the RE8s, and headed back to its formation. An intense aerial dogfight ensued.

Manfred’s cousin, Wolfram von Richthofen had limited flying experience. He stayed out of the swarming melee, as instructed. Wolfram soon had Lieutenant May’s Sopwith heading for him. Manfred had no choice, he had to help his nephew.

Luckily for Wolfram, Lt. May’s guns jammed (or so he claimed.). May dived his Camel homeward, hoping to fight another day.
The Rittmeister pursued May’s fighter down. An easy kill, if he could get in close. Another Canadian, the experienced, war-weary Captain Roy Brown, saw the red triplane on his old schoolmate’s tail. He dived, following them both to ground level.

The aerial cat and mouse chase, and prevailing winds, took Richthofen off course. Fellow Jasta pilots watched as their leader disappeared over hostile territory. Surely he would break off his pursuit? Brother Lothar Richthofen may have been concerned. Was Manfred’s recent head injury affecting his judgement? He was certainly breaking his own rules fixating on his prey.

But the Rittmeister knew he would soon have the inexperienced enemy pilot in his cross-hairs. It was inevitable. One more manoeuver and it would be game over. The Red Falcoln closed for his 81st kill.

Suddenly, a loud noise from behind broke Richthofen’s concentration. Capt. Brown’s Vickers guns clattered away high above. Bullets ripped into the triplane’s wings. Richthofen broke off the engagement. The Red Falcoln had hunted his quarry for too long. Turning to meet the new threat, he passed over the Australian 53rd artillery battery and its anti-aircraft defenses. The engine roar of the Fokker drowning out the crack of rifles, and rat-a-tat of machine-guns from below.

Australian Vickers Gunner

The air around Richthofen was thick with cross-fire. Bullets holed fabric, splintered wood, and ricocheted off his metal framework.

A sudden sledgehammer blow through the chest and indescribable pain caused the Reittmeister’s hands to jerk back on the control stick. As he did so the red triplane stalled and banked upwards. Semi-conscious, Richthofen flicked the ignition switch and attempted a short landing. The red bird with black crosses then pancaked onto an open field. Australian infantry approached the broken but intact machine with caution.

It’s German pilot was found with his head slumped forward, blood flowing down onto his boots. He reportedly whispered ‘Kaputt’, and breathed his last. Paperwork confirmed his identity. Rittmeister Manfred von Richthofen. The famous Red Devil himself! Souvenir hunters got to work.

Seemingly immortal, with 80 kills to his name, the Red Falcon had been felled by a single bullet. A .303 round that had entered and exited via his heart.14

It was fired, in all probability, by Australian infantry. The credit should have gone to Sgt Cedric Popkin, or any one of the A.A. gunners or riflemen taking a shot. The honours however, would go to Capt. Roy Brown of the Royal Naval Air Service.

by A Henry Fullwood, Depicts the death of Baron von Richthofen, otherwise known as the Red Baron, his crashed aircraft, which was a Fokker Dr.I triplane, and Australian stretcher bearers from the 5th Australian Division carrying the body away. The death of Manfred von Richthofen, or the Red Baron, on 21 April 1918, has been the subject of much interest and controversy. Source AWM

After escaping into cloud cover, and unaware of events transpiring below them, Banks and Simpson completed their photographic mission. Banks recalled

This was a wild day for Lieut. Simpson and Banks. About half an hour later they were again confronted by a formation of some twelve Albatros planes flying at 7000 ft. As this ‘armada’ approached Simpson and Banks, now separated from the other plane, assumed the big formation of our own machines and flew over to take a photograph.
Their amazement was complete when suddenly they could see a mass of Maltese crosses and wildly gesticulating airmen in the cockpits.

Almost out of ammo, Simpson put the RE8 into a steep dive, and passed through the enemy formation

so closely that their faces were clearly visible. The long dive continued for about 6000 ft while the whole German formation broke and followed like hornets. The Australian machine was riddled and broken control wires streamed out behind but at 200ft. Simpson pulled out and hedge hopped home.

They had been lucky. After landing all 4 airmen submitted their reports and were congratulated on their efforts. After Richthofen’s death had been confirmed, Banks felt they had some claim to bringing him down.

3 Squadron airfield near Bertangles by A HenryFullwood, Source AWM

Manfred’s body was taken to 3 AFC aerodrome for examination, viewing and burial. Banks wrote

A party was sent from the Squadron to collect the body of the German airman and the remains of his plane. Both were placed under guard in one of our squadron hangers for a post mortem to determine the fatal wound. About 20 officers attended the final examination.

Capt. Brown was one of many to view the body. Of the opinion he had shot Richthofen down, he was not proud of the fact. He recalled

He looked so friendly, blond, silk-soft hair, like that of a child fell from the broad high forehead. His face, particularly peaceful, had an expression of gentleness, goodness, of refinement. Suddenly I felt miserable, desperately unhappy, as if I had committed an injustice..I went away. I didn’t feel like a victor.17

he later wrote to his parents

They had a medical examination of the body. It is a terrible thing when you think of it that they should examine the body to see who should have the credit of killing him. What I saw that day shook me up quite a lot as it was the first time I have seen a man whom I know I have killed.18

Lt. Banks later took part at the funeral

A full military funeral was accorded our late enemy. His coffin was placed on a gun carraige and drawn to the military cemetery at Bertangles. Four Australian Flying Officers including myself were pall-bearers into the graveyard. The ceremony was most imposing and a mark of respect for a tough fighter. The cross (on the grave) was cut from a four-bladed propeller of an RE8. After the burial a request was received by the German Flying Corps seeking permission to drop a wreath on the grave. I understand this was given and the wreath dropped, but I did not witness the event.

What remained of Richthofen’s highly prized personal effects were forwarded to his family. Parts and pieces of his stripped’ all-red Tri-plane found their way into museums or private homes around the world.15

Banks managed to score a few souvenirs himself.

Von Richthofen’s pockets contained miscellaneous items including 5000 francs, letters and articles which might serve him in case of capture. Many of the articles were commandeered by the officers present. While this court was in session the souvenir hunters were busy stripping the triplane. My share was a piece of red fabric, a length of driving chain and a wire strainer. Over the years the red fabric shrunk considerably

This square of fabric was recovered from von Richthofen’s crashed triplane a few minutes after the crash by Lieutenant George M Travers, MC, 49 Battalion. Source: AWM

The doomed Rumpler

South Vietnam. October 1970. In the northern Military Region 1, a sign of Snoopy saying, `Curse you Red Baron!’..Source: AWM

The legendary feats of barnstorming aviators still inhabit popular imagination and culture to this day.

The term ‘Ace’ however, only achieved widespread usage after the war.

Boelcke tried to uphold some of the traditions associated with chivalrous behaviour. But ideals of fighting for King and Country were shattered, sooner or later, by the war’s realities.

The moment of disillusionment for Taylor came when he was out on a regular patrol.
He sighted the dull camouflage coloured wing surfaces of 2 Rumplers. They hadn’t noticed the British scouts approach. Taylor and his flight closed in for the kill

I was shaking with excitement of the chase. Everything had concentrated on this moment. All the uncertainty as we stalked these Huns vanished as I came in for the first Rumpler. Tracers came smoking close by my machine and as I opened fire I could see the rear gunner crouching at me while the Rumpler held a steady course.

They had guts. The black crossed aeroplane rushed in towards me and swept through below…Other members of the flight came through to the attack and chased him into the east..

But the first aircraft was too fast, and managed to escape. The second, however

… was still coming … I put the nose down steeply, went on through his level, and with the speed of the dive pulled up almost vertically from below. As his blue-white belly came forward to the sights I followed him through with the Vickers pumping out its rounds ..

..against the clear blue sky.. a red glow like the end of a cigarette shone out of his fuselage. I watched, fascinated not yet believing he was on fire. Then the black smoke came, trailing like a funereal streamer from the stricken aircraft; staining the blue of the sky.

The burning Rumpler continued on, straight and level.

From my wild triumph at this successful end to a long chase, a dull sense of horror came over me. There was something awful about this doomed aeroplane.

Then a black object detached itself from the blazing Rumpler; a grotesque thing with loose and waving ends. The rear gunner had jumped from death by fire to which my action had condemned him. He appeared to fall quite slowly, passing my machine as though he were almost floating in space; and then he was gone, invisible against the dark earth.

The drama above me continued. The Rumpler now just a stream of stinking black smoke, slowly put its nose down as pieces came off in flame and smoke. Then the fire seemed to go out, but it burst again into flames and finally hit the ground with a great explosion, leaving a cloud of smoke drifting slowly over the land.

The consequences of Bill’s actions hit home hard.

..this was no triumph….The horrible wavy thing in the air had a home, parents, someone who loved him. Now he was dead lying crumpled on the earth, killed by me.

Dead German airman

For the first time I was horror stricken by the result of war in the air. . somehow before it had all remained impersonal. Not an aeroplane with a man in it, but a dangerous creature of the air to be destroyed. For some reason, this Rumpler was different, or perhaps I had been in France too long.

There was, however, some excitement back at 66 Sqn. The wreckage of the doomed Rumpler had been found..

As far as I can remember, this was the first Hun we had got on our side of the lines. So a Crossely tender was organised to go up into the crash.

I was still sick with the whole thing, but, somewhat inconsistently, I went with the others in the tender; mainly to avoid the embarrassment of explanations.

The wreckage of the Rumpler that Taylor shot down in August 1917.

The big Mercedes engine had dug a hole in the soft earth. The rest was unidentifiable wreckage. A few tin-hatted soldiers were standing around. One of them came over to me and said, ‘Want to see the bloke? He’s under the sack.’

The thing under the sack had been a German pilot. I turned away.

Distant events brought back to life…

Returning from these events, Bill had ‘no more taste for war.’

I began to think my way over the world, to my home in Australia; to Lion Island with my boat moored on the beach; the tent by the Banksia trees, the red gums sprawling over the sun-bleached sandstone rocks, the call of the little penguins coming in from the sea at night….

Lion Island, Pittwater

He had come full circle. Bill had been taken in by the romance of aerial combat whilst reading an article en route to Liverpol training camp. Witnessing the German pilot’s grizzly death confirmed his belief: that aeroplanes were ‘God given’ things. Their true purpose was to inspire mankind to greater endeavours. Not used as death-dealing machines.

Photograph taken by Taylor aboard ‘Frigate Bird II”, Pacific Ocean

Taylor survived the war and returned to Sydney and his weekend playground at Pittwater. He was destined to make pioneering flights across the world’s oceans with Charles Ulm and Charles Kingsford-Smith (both WW1 veterans).

Flying boat at Pittwater

Taking off with Kingsford Smith at Anderson Park, Neutral Bay, for 1934 Pan-Pacific flight

In the last years of his life Bill decided to pen his memoirs. He described the writing process, 50 years after the actual event.

Despite only having his logbook and old memories to draw on, he was

..surprised to find that in the writing they came back to me vividly, beyond my highest expectations.

To immerse myself completely in those distant events and to bring them to life again, I wrote in the very early mornings, before the life of the present day could impose itself on me; and there in those silent hours I found myself back at Vert Galand Farm aerodrome, with the sound of the guns at Arras rumbling in the night. I saw the chaps in the squadron; and in the high air over Carvin and Douai I stalked again the shark-like Albatros, flying my agile little fighter, Sopwith Scout 7309.

Bill Taylor died in 1966 and his book was published 2 years later,

He ended with the words.

Now that I have finished my story, it is with nostalgic regret that I let this splendid life slip away again into the past.

Though I deplored the killing and all the other evils of war, for me the actual hunt held in it some irresistible lure; the human qualities which it demanded for success were high, one good to live with amongst one’s companions. incentive for writing this book, [has been] to try to explain what it is to be like to be a fighter pilot in the day of the Sopwith Scout and the Albatros ; of Albert Ball, Georges Guynemer, and Werner Voss, and all the others.

Sir P.G.Taylor dedicated his writings

To all those who fought in the air over France in the Great War of 1914-18

This article is in Remembrance of those brave ‘Knights of the air’, 100 years past


All quotes (unless otherwise stated) are from:

Taylor, P. G. (Patrick Gordon), Sir Sopwith Scout 7309. Cassell, London, 1968.

Hart, Peter Bloody April : slaughter in the skies over Arras, 1917. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 2005.

Franks, Norman L. R. (Norman Leslie Robert) & Bailey, Frank W & Guest, Russell 1994, Bloody April – black September, Grub Street, London

Morris, Alan Bloody April. Arrow Books, London, 1968.


Morgan, G. and De Broglio, B. Fokker fodder and castor oil: life above the trenches

De Broglio, Bernard Pusher ace: Captain Lancelot Lytton Richardson

Miller, Dr M. Geoffrey _The Death of Manfred von Richthofen:
Who fired the fatal shot?_ retrieved online 14/06/17

The illustrated History of WW1: The Battle of Arras and "Bloody April" 1917

Gareth Morgan at Mosman Library

The Red Baron (2008) - "Ypres advance air combat battle" ; "The Red Baron attack"

Historical fighter unit: Albatros D.Va 1917 German WW1 Fighter ; Sopwith Pup 1916 WW1 Fighter

With the Australian Flying Corps in France, England and Palestine

Funeral of the Red Baron

Rise of Flight – Albatros D. V vs F.E.2b

Rise of Flight – Albatros D III vs R.E.8.


1 Seamark, Michael Gentleman of the skies:.. Daily Mail Online—risked-life-deliver-letter-telling-superiors-alright.html#ixzz4fANHMYWR retrieved 24/04/17

2 Ibid

3 Taylor expressed the frustrations of RFC pilots who felt that the authorities behind the “..abysmal ignorance separat[ing] them hopelessly from any real understanding of our need. Only from experience could anyone acquire that understanding. The real barrier was the system itself, one which did not encourage direct personal contact between the war pilot and the designers and manufacturers…What was needed was .. to wipe out the whole system and establish another overnight without toleration or delays.”

4 Richthofen added RE8 (A3190) to his tally.

5 In his autobiographical sketch Der Rote Kampfflieger (The Red Fighter Pilot) he said ‘For whatever reasons, one fine day I came upon the idea of having my crate painted glaring red. The result was that absolutely everyone could not help but notice my red bird. In fact, my opponents also seemed to be not entirely unaware [of it].’

6 Hart, Peter Bloody April : slaughter in the skies over Arras, 1917. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 2005.

7 Richthofen quoted in Hart, Peter Bloody April : slaughter in the skies over Arras, 1917. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 2005.

8 Like P.G Taylor, Capt L.L. Richardson and his older brother Captain Rupert Noel Richardson had been schooled in the Mosman area. The Richardson brothers enlisted with the 6th Light Horse, sailed together from Sydney to Egypt, and fought at Gallipoli where Lancelot was promoted to Sergeant. Both Brothers spent time in Mudros Hospital. After being discharged, Rupert died after being hit by a Turkish shell on 17/09/1915. Following his brother’s death and another stint of illness, L.L. Richardson applied for the RFC (his good service record and schooling - at SCEGS North Sydney - would have helped with his acceptance.) By June 1916 he was flying sorties with 25 Squadron in France over the Somme.He flew over Fromelles. but could do little to support the waves of Australians being mowed down in the pockmarked, smoke-obscured battlefield below. Source: Pusher ace: Captain Lancelot Lytton Richardson Mosman 1914-18 Blog retrieved online 24/04/17

9 The London Gazette Ay 11, 1917 The Gazette retrieved online 24/04/17

10 Quoted in: De Broglio, Bernard Pusher ace: Captain Lancelot Lytton Richardson Mosman 1914-18 Blog retrieved online 24/04/17.
Official reports have Richardson going down at 7.10 and the air battle at 7.30. If this is accurate Richardsons machine may have been shot down earlier than the other 2 FE’s

11 Klein was later awarded the Blue Max , adding it to his Iron and Knights Cross . He ended the war with 22 victories to his name.

12 Richthofen’s ‘kills’ on Friday 13th were 3 of 2O aircraft he shot down during Bloody April. They brought the Baron’s total to over 50 by the end of the month. Jasta 11 downed around 90 aircraft, over 1 in 3 of all British losses over Arras.

13 Isaacs, Keith and Australian War Memorial Military aircraft of Australia, 1909-1918. Australian War Memorial, Canberra, 1971. quoted on R.E.8 (“Harry Tate”) – 3 Squadron’s Aircraft on the Western Front retrieved online 24/04/17

14 Dr. Miller (now retired) is a patron of Barry O’Keefe library and has written an excellent and definitive analysis based medical records kept at the AWM

15 Manfred von Richthofen Wikipedia retrieved online 24/04/17

16 or in the case of grand-uncle Bill Christie, brother of James, disappeared in the clean up after his passing (half of his red triplane canvas souvenir however, was donated to a Canadian Museum in 1965.)

17 Mackersey, Ian No empty chairs : the short and heroic lives of the young aviators who fought and died in the First World War. London Phoenix, 2013. p. 256.
fn18. Ibid., p.258.