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.
The riches of Lionel Morris’s service record file were hard to beat until I discovered what the RAF Museum had on him. A friend had sent me a PDF of the letter from Captain Gray to Morris’s parents describing the events of September 17th that was kept at Hendon. Being a bit over-preoccupied on the how of doing, rather than just the doing, it took me a while before I just emailed the Reading Room at Hendon to ask what else they had on Morris and No.11 Squadron. There is no online catalogue for the museum, but It was a luxury to have someone else doing the searching. I waited a few weeks, but they sent me back a meticulous list of items, including his diary from the summer of 1916.
My first visit to Hendon was a family affair. Archives can be intimidating places, so I was glad to have my aunt and uncle there to negotiate the paperwork, as well as find the loos and lockers. My aunt was researching the history of the RFC aerodrome at London Colney, (home to Albert Ball in 1917) and her work was included in the book ‘St Albans: Life on the Home Front, 1914-1918’ This subsequently hit the shelves at the National Archives, so she’s ahead of me there. My uncle was there to provide extra transcription help and to distract us with gobbets of interesting information/occasional snorts of laughter.
I was the edge of contemplating a little hyperventilation when Morris’s diary was finally in front of me. Who knew a little brown book could cause such an adrenaline rush? My hopes were high – I’d invented a childhood sweetheart, and a literary style to match Cecil Lewis, probably the most skilled writer to publish an RFC memoir. And oh, the jeopardy. I had just a few short hours to transcribe nearly four months’ worth of entries – at this time I hadn’t seriously started thinking about writing, so this felt like a one-off visit that I had to make the most of. Transcribing was just the start – as with the service file, it took me many months to get the most out of the diary and to really pinpoint what the most valuable historical information was. It was my great good fortune (and poor Morris’s bad luck) that the period of the diary covered the lead up to the Battle of the Somme and its first two and a half months.
What was of interest to me, as much as anything, was the day to day life of the squadron, and I certainly got a sense of the boredom and frustration of waiting around for machines to be fixed and the weather to improve. But there were also flashes of humour and irreverence, and some of the other items at Hendon illustrated this too. There were two programmes for concerts knocked up by No.11 in August 1916; they sent me scurrying off to Google to try and listen to the tunes that Morris would have heard, and to research how the ‘performers’ might have mangled them in the name of entertainment.
A resource I would have loved to make more of, if I’d had the budget, would be the photograph album of Captain Ernest Foot, one of the No. 11’s scout pilots and a good friend of Albert Ball. I was mindful of copyright and did quite a lot of gnashing of teeth because there are some wonderful snaps in the album of the squadron relaxing, some aerial shots of their own aerodrome (and some German ones too) and some ghostly shots of distant FE2bs coming in to land. A photograph of the bodies of dead horses in war-ravaged Souchez, (a town on the southern end of the offensive patrols which Morris often flew over) was jarring amongst the jolly images of the magnificent men in their flying machines. If only Morris had kept a photograph album as well as a diary – and if only it had stayed in the family.
But even though I couldn’t afford to use some of these gems in the book; they all helped me build up a visual picture of No.11 in the summer of 1916 and helped me to at least imagine the atmosphere at Savy and Le Hameau. There’s something so visceral about handling these personal items that you don’t get from reading memoirs.
There was less material from other squadrons Morris had served with, as I was careful not to use material from any other times of the war. The RFC was expanding so quickly that the experiences of airman just six months apart in training could be radically different, and I wanted to be as sure as I could that I was accurately describing what Morris went through.
Not so much a journey of discovery, more of a commute of compulsion
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