Richthofen’s Eleven Jasta 11

The distance covered in a truck, along muddy dirt roads, seemed like an eternity. After a two-hour drive, they passed a fork in the road between Roucourt and Bohain. Soon after, the driver was able to find the right place. On a wooden plank, secured to a tree, someone scrawled unceremoniously “Jagdstaffel Elf”. The truck entered, swept with rain and wind, a small airfield. Full of energy, Manfred von Richthofen opened the door and jumped onto the ground. Immediately he felt himself sinking into the swamp, but realising that he was been watched he knew that he must move straight away. Avoiding talking to anyone, he made his way closer to a group of tents. He glanced over the daily operations roster, then at the pilots who were warming themselves by the fireplace. His eyes rested on an inscription at the bottom of a blackboard. It read, “Number of aerial victories: still zero”. “Where is the Commanding Officer?” he asked the nearest flyer. “He’s not here”, came the reply, “As of yesterday, Oblt Lang switched to commanding Jasta 28”. “So from now on I’m your Commanding Officer, Leutnant von Richthofen. What’s the date today?” he approached the wall calendar, and tore off the previous days page. The new page read, January 15th, 1917.
Lords of the wings

After taking command of Jasta 11, Manfred von Richthofen needed just two days to familiarize with conditions and the beginning of combat flying. On the 23rd of January 1917, he defeated an FE.8 from 40 Sqn RAF. This was his seventeenth aerial victory, but his first for Jasta 11. Piloting a British machine, ­Australian Second-Lieutenant Hay died in the wreckage. Not long after that, Jasta 11’s victories start­ed coming in droves, making it difficult to believe that for the first four months of its existence it had such trouble with defeating a single enemy.

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The feeling of the approaching spring, combined with increasing enemy activity, were for the subordinates of Richthofen, the best guarantee of good hunting. At the beginning of February they found themselves at one of the most prominent sectors of the frontline; in the operational area of the German 6th Army. Apart from Jasta 11, it combined the forces of Jasta 3, 4, 6, 12, 27, 28, 30 and 33. In regard of the number of fighter units, that was an absolute record. Second, with eight Jastas, was the 7th German Army.
Jasta 11 was based now at a conveniently placed Douai airfield. Count of the hunting, propagated by Richthofen, proved to be contagious. Until the end of March, the unit collected twenty-eight victories. In all cases, the victims were machines of the RFC. However, what followed in April, surely exceeded the wildest dreams of Richthofen and his men. The period of the next thirty days would come to be known in the history of the Great War, as “Bloody April” – a month of huge aerial struggles, paid for by enormous loses, fully justifying its macabre nickname. The painful defeat of the British air force was inflicted on it by only a handful of most-active Jasta’s. RFC was visibly unable to use its numerical superiority to good advantage. All British attempts of operating offensively over the front were defeated fairly and squarely.

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Deeply traumatic April air battles were graphically illustrated on the 9th of April 1917, at the beginning of the new British offensive, at the Arras St. Quentin sector. British artillery bombardment began immediately after midnight. Choked with smoke and explosions, Easter Monday of 1917 began cloudy, cold and foggy. Wind, rain, snow and with visibility limited to one hundred meters wasn’t helping the aerial activity over the front. The RFC lost on the 9th of April eleven of its machines (three destroyed, eight damaged, two crews) almost exclusively because of the German flak. “Almost” because one of the confirmed kills was on that day a success of Lt Karl Schäfer, the victor of 14 aerial duels, and one of the leading aces of Jasta 11. Shortly before dusk, he led west of Lens, a four-airplane patrol. It was nearly 19:00, when near Aix Noulette, four Albatross D.III’s turned in the direction of an unidentified two-seater, spotted on the western horizon. Conducting reconnaissance, the crew of BE.2d, led by Lieutenant Brink of the 4th Sqn RFC, was completely surprised by the attack. The British were unceremoniously shot down over the trenches of the Australian infantry.
Paid for with great losses in human life, daily land struggles of the subordinates of Field Marshall Haig, finally ended with depriving Germans of the small strip of terrain, approximately 12 by 5 kilometers. One real success came in the form of the high ground of Vimy, which had been left in German hands since the autumn of 1914. This was virtually the only high ground in the huge plain of Flanders. The result of that offensive would be, after 12 months, significant not only for the Jasta 11, but for Richthofen himself.

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Heavy weather persisted also the next day, April 10th. Next morning the conditions were a bit better. Straight away, it influenced the aerial activity of both sides. Long aerial combats, south of Arras, helped the pilots of Jasta 11 to celebrate seven confirmed victories. ­Doubles were given to Schäfer, his fifteenth and sixteenth victories, and also to Lothar von Richthofen; his second and third. The only ­success of Manfred von Richthofen was, however, good enough for him, making it forty on his list. With it, the Rittmeister became the greatest living Luftstreitkräfte ace. Apart from Jasta 11’s victories, on that day the only two other kills over the 6th Army sector, where claimed by Jasta 4. The same proportions were maintained until two days later. Intensive ­patrolling between Vitry and Monchy gave the German’s on the 13th of April no less than 18 victories. Fourteen of them were successes of Jasta 11. This time triplets were given to the CO and Karl Schäfer. Two each claimed Lothar von Richthofen and Sebastian Festner – so far author of ten aerial victories over the last six weeks. The “great white hunter” of the 13th of April became, however, Lieutenant Kurt Wolff. During his four daily missions, his account grew by four: RE.8 (59 Sqn), FE.2b (11 Sqn), Nieuport 17 (29 Sqn), and Martinside G.100 (27 Sqn). Kurt Wolff, known as “The Inspiration of Jasta 11”, reached all of his aerial victories in a relative short time of four months. Flying an Albatros D.III between March and July 1917.

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The most victims for the Richthofen’s pilots were delivered on that day by 59 Squadron. Six of its two-seater RE.8s were defeated by Jasta 11 over the railway line near Etaing. Certain death avoided only one of the shot down crews. Lieutenants Watson and Law landed behind the frontline and were taken prisoner.
The next day, April 14th, bought the Richthofen Circus another 8 kills. Among them were four Nieuport 17s from 60 Sqn RFC. Defeating such demanding enemies formed a crowning achievement for the La Brayelle based Jasta 11. Soon after, the unit had to move again. This time to Roucourt – Douai. The new base bordered the 6th and 7th German Army zones. An inaugural combat mission, conducted on the 16th of April, bought an intended result. Four victories. Without any of their own lost, a four airplane patrol led by the CO, ended with bringing him his 45th victory. One each was also given to Lts Fesnter and Wolff. Of interest might be the fact that the British lost five machines. Four Nieuports (again) from the 60 Sqn, as well as a BE.2e, a bomber from the 13 Sqn. All victims of the Rittmeister.
Lasting until the end of the week, a string of bad weather caused the end of the allied offensive near Arras. Relying heavily on aerial reconnaissance, Field Marshal Haig was really annoyed while waiting for the weather to improve. When the improvement finally came, on the sunny morning of the 21st of April, all serviceable Allied machines scrambled into the air. Jasta 11 had no option but to scramble against them. The first morning meeting was between old friends: BE.2g bombers from 16 Sqn, escorted by Nieuports from the 29 Sqn. As a result both squadrons lost six machines. Two each were claimed by Schäfer and Kurt Wolff. The hundredth (in 3 months) victory of Richthofen’s unit came not unexpectedly. It had been eagerly awaited during the last few days. When it finally happened, it was the last among the daily victories of Lieutenant Wolff, on the 22nd of April. That day was, however, dominated by competition from Jasta 5 and 28, fighting enemy observation balloons over the Havrincourt forest.



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