MHM selects five of the most decorated and daring pilots of the Great War.
5: Grahame Donald
Awards: Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath, Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Force Cross
Putting his promising international rugby career on hold, Donald entered the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve in 1914 as a surgeon probationer. He is perhaps best known for his death-defying escape from a Sopwith Camel while attempting an up and over.
As he reached the apex of the loop at 6,000 feet, upside down, his seatbelt snapped and Donald toppled out. He began to plummet to earth, but landed unexpectedly on the top wing of his Camel, which had, miraculously, continued its loop. He regained control of the plane, and performed a standard landing.
4: Billy Bishop
Awards: Victoria Cross, Military Cross, Order of the Bath, Distinguished Service Order and Bar
A naturally gifted marksman, Bishop spent some time in the trenches before setting his sights on becoming a fighter pilot. He was injured when the engine of his plane failed during a take-off in April 1916, and admitted to the hospital at Bryanston Square. Fully recovered, he soon made his first solo flight in a Maurice Farman Shorthorn. After an aerial battle that saw him claim his first victory and a crash-landing in no-man’s-land 300 yards from the German line, Bishop quickly claimed his fifth victory to become an ace. His lone-wolf flying style helped him claim 12 aircraft in April 1917, and in June he was awarded the Victoria Cross.
3: Charles Nungesser
Awards: Légion d’Honneur, Croix de Guerre with 28 Palmes, Médaille Militaire, Croix de Guerre, Distinguished Service Cross
After bravery displayed on patrol with the 2e Régiment de Hussards, Nungesser was transferred to the Service Aéronautique. By the end of 1916, he had claimed 21 air kills. Nungesser was often placed under house arrest for flyng without permission. His lack of respect for authority, rugged good looks, and appetite for fast cars and beautiful women made him the archetypal fighter-ace pin-up.
After the war he worked in the film industry, which led to a growing interest in transatlantic flight. Along with Francois Coli, a well-known navigator, Nungesser made an attempt to fly to the United States on 8 May 1927. His plane was spotted heading past Ireland, but was never seen again.
2: William George Barker
Awards: Victoria Cross, Distinguished Service Order and Bar, Military Cross and Two Bars, the French Croix de Guerre
A probationary observer to 9 Squadron of the Royal Flying Corps, Barker was quickly awarded the Military Cross after alerting all available artillery to a large force of Germans he had spotted regrouping for a counter-attack at Beaumont Hamel.
Between 1917 and 1918, Barker’s Sopwith Camel was to become the most successful fighter aircraft in the history of the RAF, after he used it to shoot down 46 aircraft and balloons.
1: Manfred von Richthofen
Awards: Prussian Order pour le Mérite, Prussian Order of the Red Eagle 3rd Class with Crown and Swords (and many more)
Widely regarded as the top ace of WWI, the Red Baron – as Richthofen was known – was officially credited with 80 air-combat victories. The commander of a squadron of elite pilots, Richthofen was not an aggressive or acrobatic pilot. He was, instead, a brilliant tactician, often diving from above to attack with the sun behind him.
The Red Baron was finally shot down in his red Albatros on 21 April 1918. He was buried on the following day in a cemetery near Amiens, where a guard of honour red a salute and wreaths were laid.
This article featured in issue 47 of Military History Monthly.