The legendary duel.
On november 23,1916 the stage was set for an epic encounter. Despite having less flying experience than Lanoe Hawker,Manfred von Richthofen had arready achieved more kills than his opponent,though contemporary records appear to show that they had a completely different approach to flying. On the one hand Hawker seemed to enjoy flying for its own sake,doing aerobatics and practising stall recovery techniques as he pleased,while von Richthofen went on record as saying that flying was a means to and end - defeating the enemy - and that he had never performed aerobatics like 'looping-the-loop'. He was a thoroughly professional 'soldier' and even if he didn't have the same joy for flight that many others did,he will to be the best ensured that he learned to handle his aircraft skilfully and aggressively.
That november morning,Major Hawker,flying an Airco DH.2 'pusher' biplane,was one of three 24 Squadron pilots who attacked a formation of German two-seaters. It was a trap,and Richthofen's fighters fell upon the British trio as their intended two-seater victims ran for home. Captain Andrews was landing the RFC machine with Major Hawker and Lieutenant (latert Air Vice Marchal) Saundby as his wingman. After spotting the larger formation of up to eight German scouts about to attack him,Andrews had decided to try to break away and avoid a fight,but then he saw Hawker diving after their original two-seater targets and decided he must stay with the developing battle.
Both he and Saundby lost contact with their commanding officer's machine and soon both of their aircraft were hit,though they managed to escape. Hawker was now facing the elite pilots of Jasta 2 alone.
As if the odds against him weren't bad enough,the British VC holder faced other diffuculties. The performance of his aging DH.2 was certainly inferior to the Albatros D.II's he faced and he was also over enemy lines,so any forced landing,even if he survived it,meant that he would be taken prisoner.
The engagement between the great flyers began at around 6000ft with both twisting and turning as tightly as possible in order to get the other in their gun sight. This continued for several minutes,causing them to both lose altitude,descending to around 2000ft.
Neither pilot seemed to be gaining the upper hand,but after pulling into a loop and letting off a burst of fire,Hawker broke away and dashed towards the relative safety of the British lines. As he did so,Hawker appeared to aknowledge his opponent's skill by waving to him as he turned for home,but von Richthofen was determined to continue the fight and chased after him. The faster German Albatros began to catch the fleeing DH.2. In Von Richthofen's book,Der Rote Kampfflieger,published in 1917 and later translated as The Red Battle Flier,the rising German star described the encounter:
"One of the three (DH.2's) attempted to attack me from the rear. After firing five shots he had to stop as I made a sharp curve. We circled round and round like madmen after one another at a height of about 10000 feet. First we circled 20 times to the left,and then 30 times to the right. We each tried to get behind and above the other. Soom I realised that I was not fighting a beginner. He had no intention of breaking off the fight. He was flying a machine that turned beautifully,but mine climbed better than his and I eventually got above and behind my English 'dance' partner.
Having dropped down to about 6000 feet without really achieving anything,my opponent should have realised that it was time for him to make a run for it. The wind direction favoured me as it pushed us further and further towards German lines.
Eventually we came above Bapaume,about half a mile behind the German front. The impertinent fellow was very cheeky and when we had got down to about 3000 feet he merrily waved to me as if to say,'Well,how do you do?'
The turns we made around each another were probably no more than 250 or 300 feet in diameter. I had enough time to take a good look at my opponent. I looked down into his machine and could see every head movement. If he wasn't wearing a flying helmet I would have been able to see the expression on his face.
My Englishman was a good sport,but eventually things became a little 'too hot' for him. He had to decide whether to land on German-held ground or try to fly back to the English lines. Of course he tried the latter,having tried in vain to escape me by looping and similar tricks. At that time his first bullet were flying around me,as previously,neither of us had been able to get a shot in.
When he dropped down to about 300 feet (91m) he tried to escape by zigzagging. This was my chance. I followed him down from about 250ft to 150fr (76-45m),firing all the time. He had to fall,but I was nearly robbed of succes when my gun jammed. A single shot from my last burst hit him in the back of his head and he fell to earth just yards behind German lines as I swooped over him."
Hawker's machine gun was taken from the wreackage and Richthofen kept it as a trophy at his family's castle. He later recalled: "I was extremely proud when I was told that the man I had downed was the 'British Boelcke'.
The British VC winner was buried by German infantry soldiers,but as that land was fought over many times the location of his grave remains unknown to this day.
Manfred von Richthofen was in the early days of his flying career and would go on to become the top-scoring ace of the war. Dubbed de 'Red Baron' by the British press,he was eventually killed on april 21,1918.