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Victory 11 – Burrows’ version

Event ID: 508

23 November 1916

50.04398164288403, 2.8345021710831597
South of Bapaume

Source ID: 29

The dramatic true story of the Red Baron, Wiliam E Burrows, 1972, Mayflower Books

The pilot of the bullet-nosed Albatros that now followed Hawker around a tight circle at 3,000 feet near Bapaume, two miles inside German lines, did not know who his opponent was, but he knew the Lord’s airplane intimately. He had been one of several German pilots who test flew the first D.H.2 to arrive in France after it crashed almost intact behind German lines a year and a half later. He had tested its maneuverability and absolute speed limits at all altitudes in climbs, dives, and turns, the reliability, range, and accuracy of its machine gun, and the number of minutes its thirsty engine allowed it to stay in the air. Then, while another German pilot flew it and took defensive action, he made simulated attacks against it to find its most vulnerable side. The German therefore knew that his opponent could not defend himself from the rear. There was no chance of being shot at if he stayed behind and slightly above the Englishman. That was requisite number one, and, having achieved it, he could think about the kill. He knew that his Albatros was about twenty miles an hour faster than the D.H.2 at their present altitude, that it could climb more quickly, and that it carried two machine guns to the Englishman’s one. It could not, however, turn tighter circles than the D.H.2, which might staying on its tail difficult. But the German knew that if he could stay in the circle with his opponent, they would slowly lose altitude while the wind blew them farther and farther behind German lines, until the Englishman ran out of gas. If that happened, the Lord would have to either land and be taken prisoner or be shot out of the sky.  No pilot would get into such a predicament. He would therefore try to escape. So the German knew that all he had to do was wait for the Englishman to break the circle and run for home. Then he would have him. Then he would kill him. Hawker realized immediately that he was not up against what his pilots called a ‘nervous type’. The Hun was doing all the right things. He had not yet let his hunger for a victory force him into a mistake. Not yet. But there was still time. Ten minutes before, Hawker had turned off his engine to prevent it from choking, and started a long dive at 11,000 feet to catch the pair of two-seaters that had been speeding eastward. He had no sooner turned off the engine than he heard machinegun fire coming from above, and, at almost the same instant, bullets passed close by. To hell with those two-seaters. He put his scout into a roll and then into a leaflike spiral. At the same time, he pushed his fuel valve to ‘full speed’ to get the engine going and pulled out of the spiral with a little less than full power at 10,000 feet. That was when he had run into this smart Hun, who had been below all the time, probably waiting for him. Hawker got off a few ineffective shots at the German while each tried to get into firing position, but neither would allow such an advantage, so they settled on opposite sides of a 300-foot-wide circle. They went around about twenty times to the left. Then Hawker made a figure eight, leading the German into about thirty more circles to the right and, by that time, dropping to 6,000 feet. They continued that way, round and round, like two dogs snapping at one another’s tails, as the minutes passed and they neared 3,000 feet. The German was now slightly higher on his side of the circle, and had a clear view of the Englishman hunched in his cockpit. He looked down and closely observed the man he was waiting to kill. He noted every movement of the Englishman’s head and tried hard to penetrate through the goggles that masked the eyes looking up at his. But because of the goggles and the tan leather cap, he could not see the expression on Hawker’s face and he regretted it. An arm came out of the Englishman’s cockpit and coolly waved up at him. The German smiled, but did not wave back. ‘No beginner’, he thought. When Hawker’s altimeter showed 1,500 feet, he began to get desperate. Half an hour had passed, the gas was critically low, and he figured he had drifted well over two miles behind the lines. He would be in the arms of the German infantry in ten minutes if he stayed in this mad circle. Where was Saundby? Where, for that matter, were Long and Pashley? He could now see trees, houses, and roads spinning by where, an eternity before, there had been limitless, free sky. He continued to look up at the German, but the dark blur he caught in the corner of his eye – the earth – now seemed like a giant mouth that wanted to swallow him. The circle had  to be broken. With his eyes still on the German, Hawker jerked back on the stick, putting his D.H.2 into a couple of high, twisting loops. When he came out of the last of them, he rolled to one side, the to the other, and, with his altimeter showing 300 feet, began the dash for home. ‘Now’. The German snapped his Albatros into a tight bank and went straight for the Englishman’s tail. Both airplanes sped 150 feet above flat, pock-marked fields. They skimmed over groups of gray-uniformed German soldiers who held flattened hands over their eyes to block out the sun as they watched the terrier go after the rat. Most of them had seen it before, but it was always interesting, so they stopped piling sandbags and opening crates and watched the airplanes for as long as they could. It was a good excuse for a cigarette. Some of the soldiers wanted to fire their rifles or machine guns at the Englishman, but he was too close in front of their man, so they just watched. Hawker, trying to throw off the German’s aim, kicked his rudder bar back and forth, putting his scout into a series of zigzags. Two blue-gray eyes followed him, first to one side, then back across the black Spandaus to the other. Then back again. The eyes sent the picture to the brain for analysis. It was a trade-off, thought the German. The Englishman was zigzagging to present a more difficult target. But he lost speed every time he did it. Whether he succeeded in dodging bullets long enough depended on how close they were to the lines. The German was certain the Englishman would not make it. Every time the swerving airplane passed in front of his Spandaus, the German squeezed the triggers and watched a short line of bullets go out toward the growing target.He liked the sound of the guns, the sudden smell of gunpowder, and, most of all, the feeling that his bullets were ripping into canvas, smashing wooden braces, cutting control cables, and perhaps imbedding themselves into flesh. But the Englishman still would not fall, and the front lines were now 1,000 yards ahead. The German was now within sixty feet of the Englishman and firing almost continuously. If the D.H.2 made it to the British lines, its pilot would immediately drop to a safe landing, and the German would be robbed of his hard-earned prize. With 900 of his 1,000 rounds gone, and the first row of British trenches in sight, the German’s guns jammed. He cursed and frantically tried to clear them. They were clear again. He carefully lined up the small gunsight between his Spandaus with the Englishman’s engine. The gloved hand wrapped around the Albatros’s stick, and the boots resting delicately on its rudder pedals moved fractions of an inch in exact duplication of the hand and boots in the airplane ahead. The German again squeezed his trigger. More bullets came out of the twin Spandaus. Another quick taste of powder. Then the German saw the English scout suddenly straighten, hang limply in the air for a second, and fall. It smashed nose-first into the ground, burying its machine gun in the mud, splitting and crunching wood, and tearing fabric. It stayed in that position for a moment, tail pointed upward, and then came crashing down in a tangle of cables and a thin cloud of dust. The wreckage bounced once and came to rest in a waterlogged shell hole 500 yards inside the German forward lines. Its pilot lay somewhere in the debris with a bullet in his head. The young German put his Albatros into a tight, climbing turn until it pointed east. He looked around for other airplanes, and seeing none, let himself look down at his victim. He tried hard to be calm as he studied what he had done. But his heart pounded from excitement. There was no other feeling like it. He felt potency surging through his body and waiting in his fingers to be used again. Two of them had fought for the sky. One was the victor. He was the victor, and therefore he owned the sky for as far as he could see and as far as his guns could reach. He pulled gently back on the stick and aimed his Albatros toward a higher altitude, where it would catch the wonderful wind that always carried him home. He thought the wind could carry him to heaven. It was the eleventh time Baron Manfred von Richthofen had felt that way.

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