Richthofen’s Eleven Jasta 11

The beginning of the Allied offensive was expected any day. Escorted by fighters, German reconnaissance planes were busy chasing, over the front, from dawn to dusk.

The situation on the 1st of August 1918 wasn’t any different. In the opinions of meteorologists, the new month was going to be a scorcher. As well as the morning ones, the afternoon patrols of Albatroses and Fokkers were unable to find anything not worthy in their sectors. Skirmishes between Jasta 11 machines and American SPADs from 27th Aero Squadron seemed all to be undecided. At about 1pm the silence over the hot air vibrating over the Puisieux airfield, was broken by the roar of BMW engines. Sitting in the cockpits, the German pilots were revving them up and tightening seat belts at the same time. Immediately after finishing the pre-start drill, a whole trifecta of Fokker D.VII taxied for takeoff – running diagonally through the bright line of the strip, and then climbing steeply in a southwesterly direction.

There wasn’t any time to circle for Lothar von Richthofen and two of his companions, climbing straight on the combat course. Cutting through higher and higher airflows was cooling them down nicely. It quickly became quite frosty, but the pilots didn’t feel a thing. Approaching, marked with explosions, the front line was as hypnotizing as ever. Among the senses the sight now took the priority. Its alertness decided whether the pilot would become the hunter or the hunted in an inevitable meeting with the enemy. The leader wasn’t let down by his sight; the black puffs of flak quickly caught Lothar’s attention. From the direction of Chalons he could see approaching, with the counter course, four tiny specks.
Half an hour earlier, from the airfield of the French Groupe de Combat 19, east of Morains, took off a four plane patrol of the SPAD VII fighters. Leading it was Adjutant Chef (Warrant Officer) Jean Raszewski from the Escadrille Spa 96. He was entrusted with an identical task as were his German adversaries: sweeping north-easterly behind the front line, combating enemy reconnaissance and making it impossible for enemy to do the same. For maintaining good visibility of the ground, climbing after takeoff was continued for a few minutes. An altitude of one thousand meters placed French fighters immediately under a layer of cloud. Reassured by having the sun behind them, four Frenchmen began to enjoy the rustic scenery of the Champagne’s countryside. So far there were no reasons to be alarmed.

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From a distance in the east, they could soon see the towers of magnificent churches – an inevitable sign of approaching the traditional navigational point, marked by Chalons-sur-Marne. Raszewski checked the time; the hands on his watch were showing 13:15, when two pairs of fairytale coloured machines of Spa 96 and Spa 73, thundered over the massive twin cathedrals: St Etienne and Notre Dame-en-Vaux, as well as the surrounding medieval houses. On the green slope of the highland, they could soon see the huge turrets of Chateau du Marche. This castle of Henry IV served as the easternmost border of today’s patrol for the Germans, as well as the French. The appearance of four unidentified biplanes, recognized soon as SPADs, changed it all however. The care-free attitude of the French soon allowed the Germans to maneuver behind their opponents. The red and yellow Fokker of the leader, flanked by two wingmen quickly approached the tail of the last Frenchman. Lothar von Richthofen reminisced:
“He surely must have been a novice. As the last in the enemy quartet, he should have been much more alert. Despite that, my approach remained ­undetected. Loose enemy formation was hampered by big distances between each aircraft. Diving from a great height allowed me to do my favourite precision shooting from minimal distance. One salvo fired with perfectly measured deflection made most of the fifty bullets to reach where intended. Enemy ­pilot’s body slumped in the cockpit and the machine went straight down. Soon, it collided with the ground; what a beautiful death – worthy of a fighter.

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Some of the bullets missed the target, but finally alarmed the rest of the Frenchmen who, using well executed aerobatics, immediately broke up the formation. That way they managed to confuse my wingmen – convinced that from now on, we have to chase them “everyone after his own man”. The middle SPAD decided to climb and it was he I chose to be my next victim. Instead of chasing the other two enemies, my wingman preceded right behind me. They started shooting much too early and their long salvo’s where off the mark. So the lone Frenchman, chased by three of us had finally fallen to my guns. Some of the bullets of my green­horns had, however, stitched up my tail. Despite that, after returning to the base, I was pleased to see everybody keen to celebrate my 31st and 32nd aerial victory”.