History / Michele Haapamaki

The Flying Aces of the First World War

Tracing how the mythology of the lone fighter developed during the inter-war years.
The Flying Aces of the First World War
‘They are the knighthood of this war, without fear and without reproach: they recall the legendary days of chivalry not merely by the daring of their exploits but by the nobility of their spirit’.
Prime Minister David Lloyd George on the pilots of the Royal Flying Corps (RFC)

At the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, historians are formulating revisions and counter-revisions about the larger aims of the conflict in an attempt to give it coherence and meaning. At the most basic level is the urge to make some sense of the War to End All Wars. Since the 1930s the ‘poet’s’ version of the stalemate of trench warfare and the slaughter of the Somme has predominated remembrance of the conflict. It is viewed as a chaotic mess of bumbling generals, poor Tommies, and Blackadder-style over-the-top charges into oblivion. There has, however, always been one class of fighter which managed (quite literally) to escape the inhumanity of the trenches. The intrepid fighter pilot alone embodied the individual agency and heroism of an imagined bygone era of gentlemanly warfare. They were viewed as a ‘breed apart,’ far removed from the indignities of ordinary warfare. The trenches of the Western Front dehumanized the individual man, but flying provided an alternative image of romance and bravery. Taking grave risks and facing enemies alone, the ‘Aces’ of the First World War were lauded with descriptions emphasizing the chivalry of their character. Their legend prompted intense interest in flying during the war itself, but there were also important carry-overs into the inter-war era. These developments had a powerful impact on how both air warfare and the solider himself would be viewed in preparation for the Second World War.

The most famous and successful of the War Aces was likely the German flyer Manfred von Richthofen, the famous ‘Red Baron’ who was killed in combat at the age of twenty-five. He was officially credited with shooting down over 80 enemy aircraft, the most of any flyer in the war, and his name joined others on both sides of the conflict who have become immortalized for their bravery. They include Edward ‘Mick’ Mannock, Albert Ball, the Frenchman Georges Guynemer, and the Canadian William ‘Billy’ Bishop. These men were part of an exclusive brotherhood. The term Aces was at first inspired by playing cards and designated the status of the fighter as a trump card against the enemy. It was later defined as a pilot who had achieved a number of confirmed kills of aircraft. The image of a hunter of prey led to these pilots being described as a type of lone wolf – a man who continually tested himself against the forces of nature and opposing flyers. Tales of their man-to-man dogfights proved irresistible fodder for newspapers and writers who viewed aerial fighting as a great adventure. Thrilling stories of near escapes, legendary heroism, fast living, and the occasional chivalric treatment of a vanquished foe, were dedicated to ‘our gallant men of the air’. These stories appealed both to adults and young boys who dreamed of growing up to perform similar deeds. Even tragic deaths were infused with timeless and soaring rhetoric.

The Royal Flying Corps (RFC) had been formed in 1912. Its motto was Per ardua ad astra (‘through adversity to the stars’), which provides a succinct summary of how aviators viewed themselves. The use of aeroplanes in wartime evolved haphazardly but quickly – they had initially been imagined simply as a means of conducting reconnaissance. The evolution of fighting tactics, weapons such as mounted guns on aircraft, and the invention of wireless radio occurred as reconnaissance led slowly to aerial duels. The desire to prevent scouting also led to strafing and bombardment of enemy supply lines, bases, and installations. The notion of dropping bombs on civilians had been pioneered in 1911, but it was not until Zeppelin attacks on London and other British cities began in May 1915 that the idea of bombing as a force of terror came into its own. Over 500 British people died from aerial attack during the course of the war, resulting in public demand for the government to institute civil defence. On the Western Front large-scale battles resulted as more aircraft were manufactured and pilots trained. The Allied forces initially held the upper hand, but conceded some air superiority to a German resurgence in 1917 – led by Richthofen. This effort was finally staved off by the summer of 1918 with the entry of the United States in the war and the preparation for final victory.

The legend and mythology that built up around war Aces had important ramifications for a post-war world and how the next conflict was popularly imagined. Firstly, the thrilling experience of aerial warfare had a powerful and lasting impact on American military planners. The entry of the United States into the war and the economic power it brought to the Allied war effort revealed a basic, if painful, fact for nations such as Great Britain and France: the New world was soon to overtake the Old. The physical and economic destruction of the Great War simply accelerated this process. As such, the story of world power, and aerial power, in the twentieth century would belong to the United States.

As argued by historian Linda R. Robertson in The Dream of Civilized Warfare, the First World War served as a model for a ‘war-as-imagined’ with American political and military leaders persuading themselves that they could build an aerial armada to conquer the Western Front.[1] The genesis of this idea was with the Lafayette Escadrille – a group of adventurous American airmen who joined the Allied cause prior to the entry of their own country into the war. The squadron was named after a French nobleman who fought with the American colonists during the Revolutionary War. Even though only 38 men served and the material damage they caused to the enemy was modest, they traded in optimism and the hope of much greater American support later in the war. They demonstrated a general faith in the invincibility of the use of aerial warfare – a notion still prevalent today. The values assigned to European flyers were later translated into American thought, becoming symbolic of the national character. The memorial to the American pilots, the Lafayette Escadrille near Versailles, is a tribute to these ideals. Dedicated in 1928, it reflects a romantic post-war vision of duels in the air, featuring 13 large stained-glass windows depicting abstract renditions of flight – scenes of devastation on the ground are powerfully contrasted with the grandeur of soaring aircraft above.

A secondary carry-over of the aerial mythology into the inter-war period was the continued pull of the ‘internationalism’ of the air and its imagined promise to ensure peace. The flip-side of air power lay in its destructive capacity, and the terror of Zeppelin and Gotha attacks foreshadowed deadlier payloads of weapons that could be unleashed in a future war. Some, however, continued to hope that pilots might still form an international cadre in the form of an International Air Force. Advocates of the League of Nations such as the Labour MP Philip Noel-Baker pushed heavily for such a force to be instituted. This ‘breed apart’ would not serve their own nations but a broader and nobler trans-national desire for peace and stability. In the spirit of acts of warfare gallantry such as Allied pilots burying Manfred von Richthofen in April 1918 and paying tribute to him with full honours, it was imagined that such superior men would place higher ideals above petty interests. Although these efforts were unfruitful, they constituted an influential element of the widespread pacifist movement that used both positive and negative rhetoric in the 1930s. The hopes that the youth of the European continent, serving as airmen, would help to preserve peace was among the most positive pacifistic ideas proposed.

A third, and ultimately unexpected, legacy of the flyers was a popular celebration of the ‘independent fighter.’ If the soldier pinned down in the trenches was the ultimate evil of mechanized and modern warfare, then the independent fighter might prove to be the salvation of brave and noble warfare. Some have argued that the flying Aces, along with the iconoclastic Lawrence of Arabia, were the only figures to emerge from WWI with this independent status. This ideal was echoed in the inter-war period through the congratulatory propaganda attached to the independent militias fighting against General Franco and the Nationalists during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). The ‘everyday’ heroism of those who fought with the militias was in sharp contrast to the larger-than-life personas of the war Aces, but many saw parallels in this individual heroism. The commonality between the fighters was an ability to turn the brutality of mechanized, modern warfare to their advantage. In a similar way the Second World War saw the birth of the ‘commando’ – championed by Churchill himself and tasked with incredible and dangerous acts of individual cunning and bravery.

The Second World War would prove to be very different from the First, allowing for a wider definition of valour – one which both civilians and fighters could partake in. Notable spinners of national myth such as George Orwell served in the Home Guard. Despite the ‘Dad’s Army’ image later superimposed on the group, the wartime organization proved to be the British analogue to the militias of Spain and was devised with similar ideals in mind. The pilots of the Battle of Britain – the ‘few’ – were the natural successors to the legacy of RFC flyers on the Western Front. The air force was rather less novel and rag-tag than it had been in the First World War, but the image of pilots was much the same. Martial heroism is an ever-changeable concept, and the narrative of the flyers proved remarkably resilient and open to new adaptations. As the star Ace Billy Bishop had decided the moment he first saw a plane ascend into the sky, aerial combat was ‘the only way to fight a war; up there above the mud and the mist in the everlasting sunshine’. ■

The Coming of the Aerial WarMichele Haapamäki holds a PhD in History from McMaster University, Hamilton, and is the author The Coming of the Aerial War: Culture and the Fear of Airborne Attack in Inter-war Britain.
Image shows British Scouts leaving their Aerodrome on Patrol, over the Asiago Plateau, Italy, 1918, by Sydney Carline via Imperial War Museum.

[1] Reference: Linda R. Robertson, The Dream of Civilized Warfare: World War I Flying Aces and the American Imagination. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003.


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