I HAD not yet passed eight days of my leave when I received the telegram: "Lothar is wounded but not mortally." That was all. Inquiries showed that he had been very rash. He flew against the enemy, together with Allmenröder. Beneath him and a good distance on the other side of the front, he saw in the air a lonely Englishman crawling about. He was one of those hostile infantry fliers who make themselves particularly disagreeable to our troops. We molest them a great deal. Whether they really achieve anything in crawling along the ground is very problematical.
My brother was at an altitude of about six thousand feet, while the Englishman was at about three thousand feet. He quietly approached the Englishman, prepared to plunge and in a few seconds was upon him. The Englishman thought he would avoid a duel and he disappeared likewise by a plunge. My brother, without hesitation, plunged after. He didn't care at all whether he was on one side of the front or the other. He was animated by a single thought: I must down that fellow. That is, of course, the correct way of managing things. Now and then I myself have acted that way. However, if my brother does not have at least one success on every flight he gets tired of the whole thing.
Only a little above the ground my brother obtained a favorable position towards the English flier and could shoot into his shop windows. The Englishman fell. There was nothing more to be done.
After such a struggle, especially at a low altitude, in the course of which one has so often been twisting and turning, and circling to the right and to the left, the average mortal has no longer the slightest notion of his position. On that day it happened that the air was somewhat misty. The weather was particularly unfavorable. My brother quickly took his bearings and discovered only then that he was a long distance behind the front. He was behind the ridge of Vimy. The top of that hill is about three hundred feet higher than the country around. My brother, so the observers on the ground reported, had disappeared behind the Vimy height.
It is not a particularly pleasant feeling to fly home over enemy country. One is shot at and cannot shoot back. It is true, however, that a hit is rare.
My brother approached the line. At a low altitude one can hear every shot that is fired, and firing sounds then very much like the noise made by chestnuts which are being roasted. Suddenly, he felt that he had been hit. That was queer to him. My brother is one of those men who cannot see their own blood. If somebody else was bleeding it would not impress him very greatly, but the sight of his own blood upsets him. He felt his blood running down his right leg in a warm stream. At the same time, he noticed a pain in his hip. Below the shooting continued. It followed that he was still over hostile ground. At last the firing gradually ceased. He had crossed the front. Now he must be nimble for his strength was rapidly ebbing away. He saw a wood and next to the wood a meadow. Straight for the meadow he flew and mechanically, almost unconsciously, he switched off the engine. At the same moment he lost consciousness.
My brother was in a single-seater. No one could help him. It is a miracle that he came to the ground, for no flying machine lands or starts automatically. There is a rumor that they have at Cologne an old Taube which will start by itself as soon as the pilot takes his seat, which makes the regulation curve and which lands again after exactly five minutes. Many men pretend to have seen that miraculous machine. I have not seen it. But still I am convinced that the tale is true. Now, my brother was not in such a miraculous automatic machine. Nevertheless he had not hurt himself in landing. He recovered consciousness only in hospital, and was sent to Douai.
It is a curious feeling to see one's brother fighting with an Englishman. Once I saw that Lothar, who was lagging behind the squadron, was being attacked by an English aviator. It would have been easy for him to avoid battle. He need only plunge. But he would not do that. That would not even occur to him. He does not know how to run away. Happily I had observed what was going on and was looking for my chance.
I noticed that the Englishman went for my brother and shot at him. My brother tried to reach the Englishman's altitude disregarding the shots. Suddenly his machine turned a somersault and plunged perpendicularly, turning round and round. It was not an intended plunge, but a regular fall. That is not a nice thing to look at, especially if the falling airman is one's own brother. Gradually I had to accustom myself to that sight for it was one of my brother's tricks. As soon as he felt sure that the Englishman was his superior he acted as if he had been shot.
The Englishman rushed after him. My brother recovered his balance and in a moment had got above his enemy. The hostile aeroplane could not equally quickly get ready for what was to come. My brother caught it at a favorable angle and a few seconds after it went down in flames. When a machine is burning all is lost for it falls to the ground burning.
Once I was on the ground next to a benzine tank. It contained one hundred litres of benzine which exploded and burnt. The heat was so great that I could not bear to be within ten yards of it. One can therefore imagine what it means if a tank containing a large quantity of this devilish liquid explodes a few inches in front of one while the blast from the propeller blows the flame into one's face. I believe a man must lose consciousness at the very first moment. Sometimes miracles do happen. For in stance, I once saw an English aeroplane falling down in flames. The flames burst out only at an altitude of fifteen hundred feet. The whole machine was burning. When we had flown home we were told that one of the occupants of the machine had jumped from an altitude of one hundred and fifty feet. It was the observer. One hundred and fifty feet is the height of a good sized steeple. Supposing somebody should jump from its top to the ground, what would be his condition? Most men would break their bones in jumping from a first floor window. At any rate, this good fellow jumped from a burning machine at an altitude of one hundred and fifty feet, from a machine which had been burning for over a minute, and nothing happened to him except a simple fracture of the leg. Soon after his adventure he made a statement from which it appears that his nerve had not suffered.
Another time, I shot down an Englishman. The pilot had been fatally wounded in the head. The machine fell perpendicularly to earth from an altitude of nine thousand feet. Some time later I came gliding down and saw on the ground nothing but a heap of twisted debris. To my surprise I was told that the observer had only damaged his skull and that his condition was not dangerous. Some people have luck indeed.
Once upon a time, Boelcke shot down a Nieuport machine. I was present. The aeroplane fell like a stone. When we inspected it we found that it had been driven up to the middle into the loamy soil. The occupant had been shot in the abdomen and had lost consciousness and had wrenched his arm out of its socket on striking the ground. He did not die of his fall.
On the other hand, it has happened that a good friend of mine in landing had a slight accident. One of the wheels of his machine got into a rabbit hole. The aeroplane was traveling at no speed and quite slowly went on its head. It seemed to reflect whether it should fall to the one side or to the other, turned over and the poor fellow's back was broken.
My brother Lothar is Lieutenant in the 4th Dragoons. Before the war he was at the War Academy. He was made an officer at the outbreak and began the war as a cavalry man exactly as I did. I know nothing about his actions for he never speaks of himself. However, I have been told the following story:
In the winter of 1914 Lothar's regiment was on the Warthe. The Russians were on the other side of the river. Nobody knew whether they intended to stay there or to go back. The water was frozen partly along the shore. So it was difficult to ride through the river. There were, of course, no bridges, for the Russians had destroyed them. So my brother swam across, ascertained the position of the Russians and swam back again. He did that during a severe Russian winter when the thermometer was very low. After a few minutes his clothes were frozen solid. Yet he asserted that he had felt quite warm notwithstanding. He kept on his horse all day long until he got to his quarters in the evening, yet he did not catch a chill.
In winter, 1915, he followed my urgent advice and went into the flying service. He also became an observer and became a pilot only a year later. Acting as an observer is certainly not a bad training, particularly for a chasing airman. In March, 1917, he passed his third examination and came at once to my squadron.
When he arrived he was a very young and innocent pilot who never thought of looping and such like tricks. He was quite satisfied if he succeeded in starting his machine and in landing successfully. A fortnight later I took him with me against the enemy for the first time. I asked him to fly close behind me in order that he might see exactly how the fighting was done.
After the third flight with him I suddenly noticed he parted company with me. He rushed at an Englishman and killed him. My heart leapt with joy when I saw it. The event proved once more that there is no art in shooting down an aeroplane. The thing is done by the personality or by the fighting determination of the airman. I am not a Pegoud and I do not wish to be a Pegoud. I am only a soldier who does his duty. [Editor's Note: the previous several sentences may not be by Richthofen]
Four weeks later my brother had shot down a total of twenty Englishmen. His record as a flier is probably unique. It has probably not happened in any other case that a pilot, a fortnight after his third examination, has shot down his first enemy and that he has shot down twenty during the first four weeks of his fighting life.
My brother's twenty-second opponent was the celebrated Captain Ball. He was by far the best English flier. Major Hawker, who in his time was as renowned as Captain Ball, I had pressed to my bosom some months previously. It was a particular pleasure to me that it fell to my brother to settle England's second flying champion.
Captain Ball flew a triplane and encountered my brother flying by himself at the Front. Each tried to catch the other. Neither gave his opponent a chance. Every encounter was a short one. They were constantly dashing at one another. Neither succeeded in getting behind the other. Suddenly both resolved to fire a few well aimed shots during the few moments of the encounter. Both rushed at one another, and fired. Both had before them their engine. The probability of a hit was very small for their speed was twice as great as normally. It was improbable that either should succeed. My brother, who was a little lower, had pulled his machine around too hard and the result was that it overturned. For a moment his aeroplane became unsteerable. But presently he recovered control and found out that his opponent had smashed both his benzine tanks. Therefore, he had to stop the engine and land quickly. Otherwise, his machine might burst into flames.
His next idea was: What has become of my opponent ? At the moment when his machine turned its somersault he had seen that the enemy's machine was rearing up in the air and had also turned a somersault. He therefore could not be very far. His whole thought was: Is he above me or beneath me ? He was not above but he saw the triplane falling down in a series of somersaults. It fell, fell, fell until it came to the ground where it was smashed to pieces. This happened on German territory. Both opponents had hit one another with their machine grins. My brother's machine had had both benzine tanks smashed and at the same moment Captain Ball had been shot through the head. He carried with him some photographs and cuttings from the newspapers of his town where he had been greatly feted. In Boelcke's time Captain Ball destroyed thirty-six German machines. He, too, had found his master. Was it by chance that a prominent man such as he also should die an ordinary soldier's death?* Captain Ball was certainly the commander of the Anti-Richthofen Squadron. I believe that the Englishmen will now give up their attempt to catch me. I should regret it, for in that case, I should miss many opportunities to make myself beloved by them. Had my brother not been wounded on the fifth of May he would probably on my return from furlough, also have been given a leave of absence with fifty-two hostile machines to his credit.