Friday 18 September 2020

My heroes: Leutnant Werner Voss (German Air Service) 1897-1917

For this post I thought I would do something a bit different and publish a little essay I first wrote nearly 17 years ago, on the 23rd November 2003.  Done purely for my own personal enjoyment (long before I became aware of such a thing as blogging) and to keep my writing - and handwriting, it originally having been handwritten - skills from college honed, it was one of two pieces I composed for a planned series based on people I considered my heroes and which features as its subject one of my abiding interests - aerial warfare in the First World War.  I'm on a particular kick in that direction at the moment and as it happens to be close to the 103rd anniversary of this chap's death on the 23rd September 1917 I thought it would be quite apposite to give it the light of day here (and possibly continue the series in future).  So without further ado I give you:

Leutnant Werner Voss (German Air Service),
13th April 1897 - 23rd September 1917

source - Wikipædia

To some people, my choosing as a hero a man responsible for shooting down so many aircraft and sending many gallant Allied pilots to their deaths during the First World War may be seen as odd and unpatriotic.  However I hold many Allied fighter pilots in equally high regard; [Lanoe] Hawker, [Louis] Strange, [James] McCudden, [Arthur] Rhys-Davids and [Albert] Ball to name but a few.  In fact, I have the greatest respect and admiration for all the pilots of both air services, British and German, who took part in those early aerial combats.  Voss’s story in particular, though, is the stuff of legend.

I do not intend to go into great detail regarding Voss's military career, but merely give a brief résumé of his war service up until the awe-inspiring dogfight in which he died.

Voss was only sixteen when the war began in 1914, but he managed to join the German cavalry (Uhlans) and saw action against the Russians on the Eastern Front (later earning him the nickname "The Krefeld Hussar").  The Eastern Front was a notoriously tough battlefield (though not nearly as hellish as the Western Front) being a snow-covered frozen wasteland, with no trench system to speak of; attack and counter-attack alike being constantly made by either side's cavalry.  For a 16-year-old to be mixed up in this kind of warfare is quite impressive.

In 1915 Voss transferred to the German air service, no doubt attracted by the newness and excitement surrounding this emerging type of warfare.  Like many of his peers he began by flying in two-seat reconnaissance aircraft, before becoming a scout pilot and joining [Oswald] Boelcke's Jasta 2 in November 1916.  This squadron was a breeding ground for hero aces; aside from Boelcke, Manfred von Richthofen was also present, and soon befriended the young Voss.

By April 1917 Voss had shot down 28 Allied aircraft, a feat that earned him the coveted Pour le Merité (also known as the Blue Max), an award also gained by Richthofen.  At the latter's personal request, Voss was given command of his own squadron, Jasta 10, in July; Jasta 10 being part of Richthofen's much larger Jagdgeschwader, or "Flying Circus".   All of this while he was still only 19.

source - Tumblr
His rate of scoring slowed at this point as the pressures of command were felt by him, but he soon received a boost in the form of the latest type of fighter aircraft, the Fokker D.R.1 triplane, which began to replace the ageing Albatros and Pfalz machines.  Voss's, in fact, was one of only two pre-production models, delivered to him in August.  Richthofen, who now also flew the new Fokker, found it slow and difficult to fly, but Voss revelled in its amazing manoeuvrability and fantastic rate of climb.

This differing opinion regarding the Triplane helps to show the different personalities and temperaments of von Richthofen and Voss, despite their friendship.  Von Richthofen's dislike of the new aircraft probably stems from his tactics, that of the hunter – cunning and analytical; hit and run, don't take on what you can't handle and make the enemy fight on your terms, not theirs.  Voss's methods were markedly different.  Like the British aces Albert Ball and Arthur Rhys-Davids, Voss would attack regardless of the odds.  He was a great believer in breaking up formations of enemy aircraft; fighting at close quarters so that the pilots would be more concerned about the risk of colliding with, or shooting down, one of their own rather than the silver-grey Triplane of Voss.  His style of fighting played to the strengths of his aircraft, that of manoeuvrability and climb rate.  Voss's attitude was gung-ho, atypical and the opposite of von Richthofen's.  Who is the better fighter pilot is a matter of opinion; each had their strengths and weaknesses.  Voss's tactics, however, stir the imagination more.

It was these tactics that enabled him to pile on another 20 kills by the end of September 1917, bringing his total score to forty-eight, a mere 13 less than von Richthofen.  Indeed, von Richthofen called him "my most redoubtable competitor" – high praise from Germany’s top-scoring ace of World War One.

source - Twitter / Ron Eisele
Voss was due to go on leave on the 23rd of September, but was desperate to reach the half-century before he did so.  He flew a patrol in the morning, when he shot down his 48th victim.  Some pilots were fearful of flying when they had leave imminent, believing it to be tempting Fate and therefore bad luck.  Voss evidently did not believe this, for he took off again that evening, a little after 6 o'clock, in his Fokker Triplane with two Pfalz DIII scouts for company.  There was a great deal of aerial activity that evening, with several British squadrons flying.  It was the rearmost flight of one of these, 60 Squadron flying the fearsome SE5a, which first spotted Voss's formation.  This flight included two up-and-coming aces, Captain Robert Chidlaw-Roberts and Lieutenant Harold Hamersley.  Avoiding the two Pfalz they dived in to attack Voss, whose amazing aerobatic skills now became apparent.  Manoeuvring free of the attack, Voss turned the tables, firing on the two SEs and scoring hits.  As he drove the enemy back towards the lines, Voss's antics attracted two flights of the well-documented 56 Squadron, also flying SE5as.  With Captain James McCudden leading and Lieutenant Arthur Rhys-Davids also in attendance they tore down after Voss at close to 200mph.

Voss was not unaware of the danger, so he turned to face it.  Flying at McCudden, firing as he came, he scored several hits before he flashed past.  The British pilots, unable to understand what had just happened, swung round to get after him, only to find that Voss had also turned and was coming back at them.  Firing once more, he scored several good hits on Keith Muspratt’s machine, irreparably damaging the engine and forcing him to land.

By this time Voss was by himself, the Pfalz pilots having departed.  He too could have left at any time, the climb rate of his Fokker being superior to that of the SEs'.  He elected to stay and fight on, confident in his ability to out-manoeuvre his antagonists.  Whilst some people may put this down to typical German arrogance, I rather think it was an act of the greatest bravery and selflessness to take on such overwhelming odds.  Said Bowman after the fight, "that left him in the middle of six of us, which did not appear to deter him in the slightest."

source - Tumblr
Time and again the British pilots were forced onto the defensive by Voss's tactics; another SE5a was forced to retire, a write-off, thereby giving Voss a claim of 50 aircraft destroyed.  Slowly but surely, however, the fight was drifting westwards, towards the Allied lines.  At this point, a red-nosed Albatros joined the fight, and eleven more enemy scouts were seen at high altitude, but six Spads and four Sopwith Camels were keeping them otherwise engaged.  McCudden was afforded a brief chance for another attack, but as he did so Voss had already lined up and was firing in return.  Another SE attacked at the same moment as McCudden, yet Voss was able to manoeuvre free from both attacks.  Arthur Rhys-Davids persistently tried to dive into attack Voss, yet each time the Triplane dodged his bullets.  After one such occurrence Voss appeared at a broadside position to another SE pilot, Flight Commander G. H. Bowman.  Bowman tried to press home his attack, but in an outstanding move Voss applied full rudder, slewing sideways and firing on Bowman, much to his amazement.  This manoeuvre, however, took up much of Voss's concentration.  Enough, in fact, for him not to notice that Rhys-Davids had managed to get on to his tail.  For a distance of thirty yards Rhys-Davids emptied an entire drum of ammunition into the Triplane, fatally wounding its pilot.  "Oh", said Rhys-Davids after the event, "if only I could have brought him down alive!"

source - eBay
Every pilot who faced Voss that day held him in the highest esteem.  Bowman wrote, "It was not until later that we actually heard that it was Voss in the Triplane.  Our elation was not nearly so great as you would imagine."  McCudden's diary entry says it all, and is in many ways a fitting epitaph:

"As long as I live I shall never forget my admiration for that German pilot, who single-handed fought seven of us for 10 minutes.  His flying was wonderful, his courage magnificent, and in my opinion he was the bravest German airman whom it has been my privilege to see fight."


  1. I wonder if you've heard of the Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre in NZ? Perhaps somewhere you may like to visit in the murky Future? While WWI aces are, unsurprisingly, not my forte, I spent hours there utterly engrossed on a visit some years ago. There's a striking set piece of a British pilot standing with his German captors beside his crashed aeroplane, all parties showing the admiration and respect for the unbelievable bravery and skill required of these young pioneer pilots.

    1. Hi Pipestrello. Thanks for the comment - yes I had heard of the Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre, I know they do a lot of displays there with original and replica aircraft from Peter Jackson's company the Vintage Aviator Ltd. Definitely somewhere to visit if I ever get to that side of the world, I agree. I'm very lucky in that there's a similar museum not half an hour's drive away from me here with similar moving displays and fascinating dioramas. It's fast become my favourite place to visit and I intend to do a blog post about it at some point.

  2. I read about Werner Voss and the great WW1 aces when I was a kid, back in the late 60's. Werner Voss was probably the greatest of all. You only have to look at photos of these pilots to see the stresses they endured. Voss looked more than 20 that's for sure. I fly combat flight sims and my favourite plane is the Fokker Dr1, so agile. Greetings from Australia.

  3. I've never, ever heard of MvR disliking the Fokker triplane before this article. Indeed, his initial comment on the aircraft was "It climbs like a monkey and manoeuvres like the devil".
    Also, as a highly respected squadron leader, he would have had his pick of planes - yet he chose several triplanes.

    1. Thanks for your comment. I grant you that MvR made that remark about the Dr.1 and don’t doubt that he found many positive traits in it, however it doesn’t necessarily follow that he liked it unconditionally. I don’t think he would have appreciated early models’ propensity to lose their top wing in a dive (a manoeuvre that, as a self-professed hunter, he would undoubtedly use in dive-and-zoom, hit-and-run attacks), something that resulted in the death of two pilots and also very nearly killed his brother Lothar. Even after this was fixed the Dr.1 was not without its other flaws; although its three-wing layout did make it a manoeuvrable, fast climber it also made it slower than most comparable Allied fighters of the period – all of which would not have suited MvR’s preferred tactics (although I do accept he would have probably adapted them to meet the type’s strengths). Also, as a result of its early failings it was only at the Front for a relatively short space of time, from November 1917 to May 1918, and MvR only scored 19 of his eighty victories on the type. He may well have had his “pick” of planes but even he would have had to make do with what he had and there’s nothing I’ve read to indicate that he “chose” the Dr.1 over any other machine.

      You must remember that, as mentioned at the start of it, this “article” was a personal project about a subject that interested me (and still does) but which, as a mere 20-year-old as I was then, I was continuing to learn about. I would not have been confident enough to make such a statement as a matter of opinion – everything I wrote then, as now, would have been informed through a variety of reliable sources. My remark about MvR disliking the Triplane was drawn from several comments from different books in my collection. I’ll cite them below in case you would like to read them more closely:

      Richthofen: A True History of The Red Baron, William E. Burrows, Rupert Hart-Davis Ltd., 1970, p158:
      ‘Richthofen came to prefer the Dr.1 for its handling qualities but never liked it as much as many writers have said. He still leaned towards the Albatros D.V for its speed and diving characteristics.’

      Richthofen: Beyond the Legend of The Red Baron, Peter Kilduff, Arms & Armour Press, 1994, p181-2:
      ‘Richthofen noted his concerns in his letter of 27 February to Fritz von Falkenhayn:
      “I am of the opinion that… rotary engines are no longer suitable for this war. Therefore I set no high value on having rotary engines in my Geschwader, even when they produce 200 horsepower. As the situation is now, I would prefer to have the Fokker [D.VII] with the BMW engine.”

      A Brief History of The Royal Flying Corps in World War I, Ralph Barker, Constable & Robinson Ltd., 2002, p366:
      “Richthofen was not greatly enthused by it [the Dr.1]”

      Marked For Death: The First War in the Air, James Hamilton-Paterson, Head of Zeus Ltd., 2015, p196:
      “Richthofen flew several different kinds of aircraft, only piloting his Triplane for a limited period when it accounted for a mere 19 of his 80 victories. The type he most favoured was the Albatros D.V, although he would almost certainly have switched to the formidable new Fokker D.VII when it came into squadron service in May 1918.”


Don't just sit there, type something! I enjoy reading all comments.


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