Top 10 Craziest WW I Dogfights

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The first airplane flight was on Dec. 17, 1903, in North Carolina. By the middle of 1914, pilots on opposing sides of World War I were throwing bricks and shooting pistols at each other, and soon enough machine guns were mounted on planes and pilots began keeping score.

The dogfights of World War I were more about entertainment and sparking morale (on the front and at home) than military strategy (air forces did not become essential to militaries until World War II), but dogfights were still an important aspect of the militaries involved in WW I. Here are the 10 craziest dogfights of World War I:

10. Benno Fiala Ritter von Fernbrugg was Austria-Hungary’s third highest-scoring ace, with 28 victories to his name, and lived until the ripe old age of 74 (he died with his boots on in the city of his birth, Vienna). On May 30, 1918, Fernbrugg got into a vicious dogfight with a British pilot, Alan Jerrard (an ace), over the Italian front, and the Viennese aristocrat came out on top of the bloody heap to score his 14th victory (Jerrard survived and became a prisoner of war). The dogfight started when Jerrard and two other Allied pilots engaged five Austro-Hungarian fighters. The Allied squadron shot down one of the Austro-Hungarian planes and pursued the others to the latter’s aerodrome, which Jerrard began to spray with machine-gun fire. Fernbrugg and his squadron managed to meet the Allies in the sky and eventually shoot down Jerrard.

9. Ernst Udet was Germany’s highest-scoring ace to survive the war, and his early encounter with France’s best pilot, Georges Guynemer, is perhaps the most famous dogfight of the war to not result in a casualty. Both aces preferred to hunt alone, and when they encountered each other a long game of chess was played, with bullets spraying, machine guns jamming, and, ultimately a wave of farewell from Guynemer ruling the day. Udet ended up with 62 victories and was instrumental in the setup of Germany’s Luftwaffe. He was the only pilot in his squadron to survive the war.

8. Edward “Mick” Mannock. With 61 victories to his name, Mannock was one of the highest-tallying aces of the entire war. Mannock’s back story is interesting, too. He was imprisoned by the Ottomans in 1914 because he was working in Istanbul when the war broke out, and all known British subjects were thrown in prison camps. On May 21, 1918, Mannock shot down four enemy planes, three of which were fighters.

7. Georges Guynemer, the chivalrous Frenchman mentioned earlier, was one of the most well-loved pilots of the early war - on both sides. Guynemer came from an aristocratic French family and was dead by age 22. On Feb. 8, 1917, Guynemer became the first pilot in the Allied air fleet to down one of Germany’s new heavy bombers, the Gotha G.III. On Sept. 11, 1917, Guynemer was flying with a rookie from his squadron when he spotted a reconnaissance plane. He pounced, but he also didn’t notice the trap that had been set for him: five of the newest German fighter planes piloted by veterans. His rookie tried to head them off, but by the time he got his plane turned around Guynemer and the entire German squad had disappeared. Legends abound about his remains, including one involving an official Prussian funeral, but nobody knows for sure.

6. James McCudden was a British ace who, on Sept. 23, 1917, participated in a dogfight involving seven other British pilots and Werner Voss, one Germany’s best pilots. Voss was killed, but he had managed to hold off all eight of the British aircraft so that one of Germany’s reconnaissance planes could make a safe getaway (which it did). McCudden had 57 victories to his name, and he was England’s most successful pilot of the war. McCudden died in a plane crash on July 9, 1918, at the age of 23.

5. Billy Bishop, a native of Canada (which was at the time of World War I a part of the British Empire), earned 72 kills in WW I and lived to be 62 (he died in his sleep at West Palm Beach, Florida). Bishop was known for his braggadocio and for throwing caution to the wind in dogfights. On April 30, 1917, Bishop and his commander picked a dogfight with four German fighters. When the Canadians drew closer, they realized they were engaging Manfred von Richthofen’s notorious unit of red painted fighters (Richthofen was known as the Red Baron and was Germany’s deadliest ace). Bishop and his commander were torn to shreds in the encounter, but four more British planes showed up to join the fight and the perspicacious Germans, weary of being outnumbered at this point in the war, disengaged. Bishop’s plane was riddled with bullet holes.

4. Manfred von Richthofen, the Red Baron, gained notoriety on the Nov. 23, 1916, when he gunned down the first British ace of the war, Lanoe Hawker (it was the Red Baron’s 11th victory). The dogfight started when Hawker and two of his squad mates attacked two German planes ostensibly doing reconnaissance work. However, the Red Baron had set a trap for Hawker, and as the latter engaged the recon planes, the Red Baron and his squadron attacked the surprised British fighters. Hawker’s squad mates managed to get away, but this is largely because von Richthofen wasn’t interested in them; he wanted Hawker and Hawker alone. The Red Baron managed to shoot Hawker down in German territory, and it is rumored that he rummaged through Hawker’s remains and mounted the Brit’s machine gun above the door to his quarters.

3. René Fonck, the Allies’ highest scoring ace with 75 claimed victories, shot down six planes in a single day - Sept. 26, 1918 - downing three recon planes and three fighters, all by himself. This was the second time that year Fonck had achieved such a feat. On May 9, 1918, Fonck had bet two American pilots that he could shoot down more planes than they could. He downed six reconnaissance planes by nightfall. Fonck was known as a braggart and preferred to do his flying alone. He mostly hunted recon planes but was not afraid to down fighters, either. Unlike the other names on this list, Fonck was a careful pilot, and he shot and flew with precision. So while his dogfights were often boring compared to others listed here, they were certainly bloody.

2. Frank Luke was the United States of America’s second highest-scoring ace, with 18 victories, a scorching pace if you consider that the U.S. only entered the war in 1917. From Sept. 12-29 of 1918, Luke shot down his 14 balloons. Balloons, despite being floating targets, were hard to destroy because they were so heavily guarded by ground and air units. Pilots who targeted balloons were known as “balloon busters,” and Frank Luke was America’s best. Balloon busters were considered to be the most skilled pilots in a squadron because of the paths they had navigate to destroy balloons (which were used for observation purposes). Luke died on Sept. 29, 1918, from a gunshot wound fired from the ground. He was 21.

1. Werner Voss had a brush with death just two weeks’ prior to his gallant last stand. On Sept. 11, 1917, Voss engaged in a dogfight with a couple of British aces, shooting down one and narrowly avoiding death via the second, thanks to the bumbling idiocy of a recon plane. The plane accidentally flew between Voss and his British foe just as the latter had finally gained a tactically advantageous position over the former. Voss wasted no time in flying away to safety. Twelve days later, he was dead. Voss was 20 when he died for his country.
The pity of war, indeed.

One thought that continually stood out to me while writing this column was that pilots had come to replace cavalrymen as the chivalrous factor in military organizations. I’d have to dig a little deeper into this notion, but the thought sticks well enough.

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