This blog contains material I wrote and posted on between the years 2005 and 2011 only. It does not contain any new material. For newer writing, please check my main blog (Bill the Butcher).

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Knights Of The Air?

It's one of those images anyone remotely interested in aviation or military history will have somewhere in the back of his or her mind: those days of the Great War, foggy mornings in France or Belgium, and the dawn patrol, brightly coloured little cloth-wire-and-stick aircraft roaring into the skies.

And what aircraft they were! Sopwith Camels and S E 5a's, Fokker DVIIs and Albatros IIIs, SPADs and Nieuports, aircraft that were never meant to end their days in museums; planes made only for one purpose, to fight in the air, and, if beaten, to die in flames, taking their crewmen with them. Lovely little aircraft, with their rotary engines throwing off the castor oil used as lubricant, their Spandau and Lewis machine guns firing through the propeller arc, their brilliant colours (especially for the German side) and their wonderful, chivalrous riders, the pilots, the knights of the air.

And when we talk about those chivalrous knights, we have their names rolling off our tongues, a list of honour if ever there was one: Rittmeister Manfred von Richthofen, the "Red Baron"; Captain Rene Fonck; Major Eddie Rickenbacker; Mick Mannock; Billy Bishop; Ernst Udet; Georges Guynemer; those names go on and on. The men who proved that chivalry wasn't dead. The men who fought with impeccable honour and glory. The new Knights of the Air.

It was all, of course, a bagful of lies.

If anything, the Great War in the air was even worse than the slaughter in the trenches. Those chivalrous pilots would do just about anything to achieve kills, since the number of enemy planes you were confirmed to have destroyed would get you medals and recognition, fame and fortune, and pretty women hanging on your arm. Knights of the air, indeed.

So these are some of the things those chivalrous warriors would routinely do: they would riddle planes already plummeting earthwards in flames with machine gun fire. They would quite happily destroy enemy planes which had signalled surrender and were looking for a place to land. They would strafe enemy planes which had already landed and surrendered, turning them into blazing funeral pyres for their defenceless crew.

Here's what Manfred von Richthofen, considered a gentleman's gentleman (and incidentally someone who liked to commemorate his victims by getting silver cups made as trophies to mark their destruction), used to tell his pilots, over and over:

"Never shoot holes in a machine. Aim for the man and don't miss him. If you're fighting a two-seater, get the observer first. Until you've silenced the machine-gun, don't bother about the pilot." (Source: PJ Carisella and James W Ryan, Who Killed The Red Baron?)

In other words, cut off the arms and then, when the enemy was helpless, the head. Sounds like modern war, not chivalry.

To be fair, the pilots weren't really responsible for their portrayal as gallant knight-errants. That role was thrust on them by the popular press, desperate for heroes in a war that had none. Some of the flyers had their own remedy for these people. Major Edward "Mick" Mannock, the Irish pilot who was possibly the leading British pilot of the war, usually sent inquisitive journalists packing with a description of a grisly kill where the pilot and observer of a German reconnaissance plane fell blazing out of their cockpits to the ground. "I sent one of them to Hell in flames today ... I wish Kaiser Bill could have seen him sizzle," this same chivalrous pilot stated on another occasion.

Once, he forced a German two-seater to crash. Most pilots would have been satisfied with that, but not Mick. He repeatedly machine-gunned the helpless crew. When his squadron mate questioned this behaviour, Mannock explained "The swines are better dead - no prisoners." [source]

Others deliberately courted the limelight. (Mannock himself was far from innocent of inflating his own total of aircraft destroyed, as it happens; that's why I italicised the "possibly".)

Maybe, living under conditions where they could be incinerated alive each time they took to the air, when even a structural failure meant almost certain death since they weren't issued parachutes, and in the midst of one of the most brutal wars of history, they couldn't be blamed for what they did.

But war is what it was, and knight-errantry it was not.

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