Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Sunday, October 2, 2022

Richthofen vs. Hawker — The Greatest Air Duel of World War I

Excerpt from Gunning for the Red Baron by Leon Bennett, Texas A&M Press, 2006, 140, 155-159.

WINNING AN AIR BATTLE REQUIRED MUCH in the way of gunnery, performance, skill, bravery, and luck. Less clear is the requisite proportion of each. How much was performance? How much was luck?

Lanoe Hawker, RFC

In encounters between two enemy single-seater pilots sharing the same altitude, each automatically headed for his opponent's rear, hoping to find the enemy machine directly to his front. If a fighter pilot or machine was slow to respond, his speedier enemy could well earn an easy victory. However, if both opponents were equally alert and spry, neither found immediate success. Instead, the actual path traced out by the fighters became a spiral, narrowing down to a circle after many revolutions. Dogfighting was well named.

One classic battle, a fight between Richthofen and Maj. Lanoe Hawker (7 victories) in November 1916, illustrated the difficulties. Unlike so many battles between the skillful on one side and the inept on the other, each pilot was highly experienced and at the top of his form. The outcome reflected not only skill but also the influence of aircraft design...

....The Hawker / Red Baron battle started at about 8,000 feet on a typical cold and windy fall day (November 23, 1916).  With the prevailing wind blowing from the west, toward German-held territory, the weather favored Richthofen, flying an Albatross D.II. Should he lose all power, he would land within his own lines. Not so for Hawker. Any lengthy time spent circling about in wind would carry the dueling machines miles downstream, away from British lines. For Hawker, getting back would take much time and fuel.

Offering himself as bait, Richthofen dithered and waited for one or more visible DH2 machines to take up his challenge. Each of the DH2's had a considerable edge in altitudeRichthofen appeared to be a perfect pounce victim. A modest dive, well within the DH2's ability, would grant enough extra speed to keep pace with Richthofen's Albatros D.II. For the speeding DH2 to assume "50 yards and behind" position would then be easy. Although suspiciously generous, the offer of speed along with a free no-deflection shooting position proved most attractive. Certainly RFC attack instructions for the DH2 were clear: "When dealing with a slow scout like the DH2, it is necessary to get above the hostile machine and thus gain your speed by diving on him. 

Airco De Havilland DH-2, Omaka Aviation Museum

Hawker stared downward at a seemingly perfect textbook opportunity. Of course, it could also be a trap. If so, he might detect trickery through sudden liveliness on the part of the bait, bursting into action just after his DH2 was committed. The bait's best countermove was a turn to face his descending enemy, combined with a rush toward the enemy's rearthe start of a classic pursuit circle. Hawker ponderedand dove.

It was a trap. Richthofen started his countermove circle, though just a bit late. Hawker was able to get off five shotsa standard burstfrom his single gun, but sensed he was wasting his ammunition, with all the DH2 bullets going wide and outside. Diagnosis: Richthofen was out-turning him. Hawker stopped shooting to concentrate on the critical business of circling.

At 8,000 feet the DH2 couldn't circle tightlyit lacked the necessary engine power. Although much more powerful, the Albatros D.II was handicapped with higher wing loading. The two drawbacks were equally potent. Each pilot settled on roughly the same circular diameter and circled steadily, surrendering altitude at about the same rate. Neither was able to command a decent firing position. With breakaway always a dangerous move, clinging to a draw seemed a better bet. Especially so, when each reasoned that the draw would end in his own favor at some lower altitude.

Richthofen was so certain that thicker air would make him a winner that he questioned Hawker's judgment in refusing breakaway at 6,000 feet: "my opponent ought to have discovered that it was time for him to take his leave."  Acting against Hawker's departure was the gain in the DH2 power anticipated near the deck, yielding an improved ability to tighten pursuit circle diameter, without undue sinking.

Albatross D.II, National Air & Space Museum

They continued to turn and sink for thousands of feet of altitude, always opposite, on the same basic circle. Ultimately, with their remaining altitude amounting to only hundreds of feet, sinking became unacceptable. The circular diameter at this point was judged to be 250 to 300 feet by Richthofen.   these numbers, roughly equal to the theoretical minimum, implied an all out effort—everything had been thrown into the balance.

Yet the draw persisted. Hawker's optimism was mistaken, as was Richthofen's. Neither could gain a decent firing position. Facing an approaching forced landing well behind German lines, Hawker was pressed into a breakaway attempt. Flying the slower machine, he tried for a zigzag path requiring a high deflection allowance from Richthofen's bullets. It didn't work. Hawker was shot dead within 150 feet of the front lines.

From Hawker's point of view, something had gone terribly wrong. Able to match turning circles at altitude, the expectation that he would do even better near the ground was a reasonable one. The known climb rate characteristics of both machines backs this outcome. Yet his expected gain in turning circle radius didn't materialize. Most likely, the anticipated surge of power near the ground never happened, and with this failure, his battle was lost.

Hawker's brother, and biographer, pointed to an engine malfunction claimed as known to Lanoe Hawker just before the battle occurred. Perhaps, but this hardly accounted for the DH2's solid turning performance at those higher altitudes encountered at the battle's start. Nor does it explain why Lanoe Hawker chose to give battle at all, if aware of a deceptive engine.

A more probable solution is that the 35 minute fight, all at peak revolutions, came as too much of a burden for Hawker's Monosoupape rotary engine. Loss of revs was a well known aspect of rotary life, developing over time as carbonized castor oil droplets coated valve seats, preventing valve closure, or stuck to the cylinder walls, preventing piston rings from sealing. The net effect was to lose compression—and power—though the engine still ran. Hawker's loss was consistent with such a happening.

Had his engine held up, there is reason to believe that Hawker's circle would have narrowed to a winning extent at about the 1,000 foot level. Instead, once into the duel, his fading engine deprived Hawker of the thrust necessary to either out-circle Richthofen or to break away cleanly. 

In short, Hawker was doomed not by lack of skill or even by his generally inferior aircraft but by a lemon rotary engine. In the end, forced to rely on luck and the difficulties of deflection shooting for escape, he lost his bet.

Much as we all would do, Richthofen used his triumph over Hawker to confirm his own fixed views. Hawker was known to Richthofen as the English Immelmann, famous for his novel tactics and aerobatics. As it happened, Richthofen thought little of aerobatics and trick flying. The demise of Hawker served as neat self-justification. After all, what good had those skills done Hawker?

Richthofen and Friends

To Richthofen, what mattered was possession of the better machine, one allowing straightforward tactics. There was a good deal to be said for Richthofen's approach. Unfortunately, it offered no place for the dull reality of carbonized castor oil droplets. In the end, few of us are undone by the grand strategies or superior skills of our enemies. It's the carbonized castor oil droplets that get us.

Source:  Excerpt originally published at

1 comment:

  1. An interesting article but with a misleading title. The greatest air duel of WW I occurred on 23 September 1917 when German Leutnant Werner Voss fought 8 members of the Royal Flying Corps' Number 56 Squadron. Number 56 was the RFC "A Team", composed of a number of "top guns". Flying his Fokker Dr.I with a combination of dazzling skill & marksmanship, Voss battled them for several minutes, putting bullets into each of their S.E.5a's before being fatally wounded.

    A correction: The National Air & Space Museum Albatros is a D.Va.

    Steve Miller