I think Michael Dörflinger, whose book ‘Death Was Their Co-Pilot’ has been sent to me by Pen and Sword for review, must be great at dinner parties.
The faces of Boelcke, Immelman, Richthofen, McCudden and Ball gaze out from the cover in a stellar line up of aerial Musketeers that will draw in the faithful. For anyone wanting an accessible and slightly gossipy guide to the great aces of the First World War, this volume is as good a place as any to start and Dörflinger’s way of illustrating the peccadillos of these extraordinary men certainly livened up some of the stories I had read before.
The prose, often as staccato as a Lewis machine gun, has an entertainingly flippant tone in places that is welcome to me. I’ve read too many earnest tomes that wear their learning like keys on a prison guard’s hip.
Here is an author who is not afraid to give an opinion and bravo to him for it; ‘Nothing but death!’ he exclaims, and who would disagree with that? It’s good for its focus on non-Allied airmen – without the benefit of a lifetime’s reading, I am forced to concede my knowledge of the aviators on the other side of the lines, as well as the lesser-known Allied pilots, is woeful. This book was an easily-digestible summary.
There are some well-chosen quotes that breathe life into the exhausted vocabulary of dogfight descriptions: what I wouldn’t have given to have made up this one from German airman Friedrich Schiller on watching Manfred von Richthofen claim his 26th and 27th victims: ‘The British machines seemed to scintillate, glittering and sparking like a layer of snow in the sunshine.’
The devil-may-care cliché of the First World War airman is irresistible, even if it was a façade as thin as the canvas walls of the aeroplanes, and the translation by Geoffrey Brooks gives a wonderful alliterative swing to some of the best quotes, such as Richthofen’s insoucient aside about having ‘finally wangled permission to wobble a Fokker’. Werner Voss’s silk shirts, worn to impress the ladies of Paris in the event of an unfortunate landing, get a second mention, in case we missed it the first time.
And the photographs! Rudolph Berthold, with the eyes of a scared teenager and the rigid hauteur of a Prussian (although he was a Bavarian) has a glare that could fell a BE2c at a hundred feet. Richthofen himself is reproduced in a famous photograph that Dörflinger captions as a ‘dreamy pose in an office. Is he thinking of his missions flown in his red triplane?’. The development of fighter aircraft is given a chapter headed by a striking image of an upside-down Fokker D.VII in mid loop, hanging like a puppet flung in the air. There’s a generous sixteen-page appendix of statistics – if that’s your bag, you’ll be well-served.
I do have reservations: it’s an old-fashioned kind of book, with a Boys Own flavour of chivalry reflected in a poem Dörflinger quotes: ‘I want to be a Boelcke, a Boelcke just like he’ and I suspect more discerning tastes than mine may be irritated by the odd factual error or myth repeated. The lack of references and an index are also a problem. But let he who is without sin cast the first stone should be a mantra for any author reviewing someone else’s work however, and I’ve no doubt similar errors will be found in my book, despite my best efforts.
Finally, I would like to stand up for Albert Ball: to say he had no relationship at all with his colleagues is not true, as I discovered from reading his letters and the memoirs of his contemporaries. Conversely, he may have also have been ‘the dream of any future mother-in-law’ according to Dörflinger; but as the unfortunate Ball never got to marry, we shall never know. And if his off-duty exploits were anything to go by, any future mothers-in-law would have had to have turned a blind eye to his roving one.
‘Death Was Their Co-Pilot’ by Michael Dörflinger, translated by Geoffrey Brooks, is published by Pen and Sword.
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