One hundred years ago today, an American fighter pilot was credited with his fifth aerial victory, to become the first American to earn the title of "ace." But Gervais Raoul Lufbery was not flying for the U.S. military, which had yet to become involved in World War I. He scored this milestone flying with French and British airmen during a bombing raid in Germany that became one of the epic air battles of the year—and one in which a number of heroes, French, British, German and American, would make their mark.
On Oct. 12, 1916, French Capt. Maurice Happe, a pioneer of strategic bombing, launched a joint Allied attack on the Mauser arms factory at Oberndorf-am-Neckar. He was leading Groupe de Bombardment 4, comprised of three squadrons, or escadrilles: F.29, F.123 and BM.120.
The Farman 40 and 42 bombers of F.123 were escorted by British-built Sopwith 1½-Strutter two-seaters. Also participating were two flights each of single-seat Sopwith bombers from 3 Wing, Royal Naval Air Service, escorted by seven Sopwith two-seaters. Leading the British contingent was Wing Cmdr. Richard Bell-Davies, who had received the Victoria Cross for rescuing a downed comrade in Bulgaria on Nov. 19, 1915.
Escort for the Breguet-Michelin IV pushers of BM.120 was provided by four Nieuport 17s from N.124. Formed in April 1916, N.124 was already famous for its volunteers from a still-neutral United States. It was known as l’Escadrille Américaine. For the raid its French deputy commander, Lt. Alfred de Laage de Meux, led Adjutants Norman Prince, Didier Masson and Lufbery.
Prince, a founding father of the escadrille, had already been credited with three victories.
Lufbery, born in France to a French mother and an American father he never met, lived a peripatetic, adventurous life that included a hitch in the U.S. Army in the Philippines and a job as mechanic to French aviator Marc Pourpe. Masson, French-born but later an American citizen, was a prewar aviator who in 1913 flew a Martin pusher for Mexican Colonel Alvaro Obregón before doing his second stint as a mercenary flyboy with N.124.
Oberndorf was 108 miles from N.124’s aerodrome at Luxeuil-les-Bains and the bombers would be aloft for five hours, more than double the Nieuports’ range, so the four fighters had to fly ahead and land at an advance airfield at Corcieux to refuel before proceeding to the target.
After a delay due to dense cloud cover over the Black Forest, the first six Farmans of F.29 took off, followed by the bombers of F.123 and BM.120. Four Farmans soon turned back with mechanical problems and a fifth, struck by anti-aircraft fire, was forced to land in Allied territory in the Vosges Mountains. The British suffered similar losses at the onset, with four Sopwiths turning back with engine trouble and a fifth crashing at Faucogney 25 minutes after takeoff.
Ahead lay the German aerodrome at Colmar-Nord, from which Royal Bavarian Feldfliegerabteilung (Flying Detachment) 9 – or Fl.Abt. 9b – operated six Ago C. I two-seat, twin-boom pusher biplanes, with a small fighter component based to the south. Farther south, at Habsheim, was another flying detachment and a unit equipped with Fokker E.III and D.II fighters, of Jasta 15. At 3:04 p.m., the operations room at Colmar received a telephone call that five enemy planes were flying east. Suspecting its own aerodrome to be the target, Fl.Abt. 9b scrambled all of its planes, including three Fokker D.IIs flown by Lt. Otto Kissenberth and senior NCOs Ludwig Hanstein and Ludwig Hilz.
The four Farmans of F.29, at the head of the aerial procession, surprised the German defenses, dropped their bombs on Oberndorf unopposed, and returned to Luxeuil safely, with one of its crews claiming a Fokker over the target area. But as F.123’s three Farmans approached Colmar, they were stalked by German Fokkers.
Kissenberth was first to score, sending the lead Farman down in the woods, where its exploding bombs created a funeral pyre for its crew. Kissenberth then shot down a second Farman before landing to phone in his first report.
Just after bombing Oberndorf, nine Sopwiths of 3 Wing came under attack by German fighters, including Kissenberth and Hilz, who had just replenished their fuel and ammunition. Kissenberth damaged a Sopwith’s engine, but its Canadian pilot, Flight Sub-Lt. Raymond Collishaw, managed to limp back to Luxeuil. Kissenberth then landed at Freiburg, where he was joined by two other aircraft—Hanstein’s Fokker and an enemy bomber. Hanstein had wounded the Sopwith’s Canadian pilot, Flight Sub-Lt. Charles H.S. Butterworth, and forced him to land at a nearby parade field.
For the Allies, the worst aerial carnage still lay ahead.
While waiting to rendezvous with BM.120’s eight Breguets, N.124’s pilots spotted and engaged four Fokker E.IIIs north of Colmar, with Prince downing one of them. With N.124 guarding their flanks, the bombers flew on, but as they emerged from the Vosges to the southwest, Jasta 15 scrambled up several fighters to intercept.
Among them was Lt. Ernst Udet, who disabled a Breguet IV whose crew made a dead-stick landing with all their bombs still on the racks. Udet landed nearby. "Because my tires were punctured by shots," he wrote, "I turned over, but without serious consequences. It was a comical picture; the vanquished landed upright and the victor landed upside-down. Both Frenchmen clambered down and we shook hands all around."
Having failed to intercept F.29 and F.123, three of Fl.Abt.9b’s Ago C.Is turned west and were making a wide turn near Rosskopf when they ran right into BM.120. The German commander, Lt. Walter Kiliani, and his pilot, Lt. Hans Hartl, joined a Jasta 15 pilot, Lt. Otto Pfälzer, in forcing down a Breguet near Bremgarten. Upon landing nearby, Kiliani was warned off by the French crewmen, who had already set their plane on fire. Shortly afterward, the Breguet’s bombs went off.
Hilz, who joined the melee, sent a Breguet down in flames over Umkirch. An Ago C.I engaged another Breguet in a running fight along the length of the Elzacher valley until it ran out of ammunition.
N.124 had hardly been idle during the fight. Didier Masson fired 50 rounds at an Aviatik and then turned on a Fokker, only to see his engine sputter to a halt, his fuel tank punctured. As Masson tried to glide home, the Fokker got on his tail, shooting up his upper wing, fuselage, windscreen and instrument panel. Becoming careless, however, the German came on too fast and zoomed under the Nieuport. Finding the enemy just below his nose, Masson banked, fired and saw the Fokker spin earthward near Neuf Briesach. Resuming his glide, Masson barely cleared the Rhine under enemy infantry fire and his wheels almost snagged the French barbed wire before he landed in a shell hole. Masson scrambled clear of his plane just before German artillery demolished it.
Reaching the target area, the four remaining Breguets released their bombs. During the return flight Lufbery was credited with shooting down a Roland C.II over Schlettstadt. De Laage fired at a Fokker that was attacking a Breguet, but was not sure enough of the outcome to request confirmation. Another Breguet, its engine disabled, crashed at the Haslach-Offenburg railway, probably the fifth accredited victory of Lt. Kurt Haber of Jasta 15.
Elsewhere, Davies led 3 Wing’s Breguets through heavy anti-aircraft fire and drove off some desultory German attacks on his tight formation. "We cleared the Black Forest and presently a small town appeared ahead," Davies reported. "It did not look like Oberndorf, but the bombers seemed quite sure it was. They got into a single line and went down to bomb."
As the returning British crossed the Rhine Valley at about sunset, Davies saw a Breguet V go down. It had been attacked by an Ago and Kissenberth’s Fokker D.II, who, despite having an interplane strut shot away, got some telling shots into its engine. The Breguet came down near Oberenzen, where the crew was taken prisoner. Kissenberth then landed at Colmar-Nord, to be credited with his third victory for the day. Flak brought another British Breguet down over Buggingen, where its crew was captured.
Even after getting clear of their German attackers the Allies were plagued by mishaps. The only F.123 Farman that actually bombed Oberndorf crash-landed in the Vosges, injuring its pilot. The three remaining Breguets of BM.120, unable to find their way in the darkness, landed in some flat country to the northwest. One of 3 Wing’s Breguets crashed at Buc and a Sopwith was wrecked at Corbenay, though their crews emerged unhurt.
By the time N.124 returned to Corcieux, it was so dark that oil fires had to be lit on the field to guide its Nieuports down. Lufbery’s plane bounced to a safe landing, but as Prince followed at a slightly lower altitude, his landing gear caught on a utility cable and crashed, throwing him from the cockpit. Both of his legs were broken and he had suffered internal injuries.
What had been accomplished for the loss of 15 aircraft and 21 airmen? The Allies initially claimed to have dropped four tons of bombs on the Mauser plant and shot down six German aircraft. The Germans reported that 60 bombs fell on or around Oberndorf, killing three people and injuring seven, but that no significant damage was done and work at the Mauser plant was not interrupted. "No German machine was lost," their report concluded, "and no aeronaut was killed or wounded in the action." Later intelligence reports confirmed Davies’ suspicions—his six Breguets had bombed Donaueschingen, rather than Oberndorf.
After analyzing those results, the French resorted to flying bombing raids at night until better planes became available, while the British bombed by day. That strategy—which would be revived by the British and Americans in World War II—enjoyed more success, but not for long. The British put more value on front-line operations than long-distance bombing, so 3 Wing was reorganized, re-equipped with Sopwith Pup scouts and redesignated No. 3 Squadron, RNAS.
Although a failure, the Oberndorf raid was a sprawling air battle by 1916 standards and is all the more remarkable for the noteworthy participants on all sides. Ray Collishaw, the Canadian, would eventually account for 60 enemy planes in the course of the war.
On the German side, Ludwig Hanstein would serve in Jasta 16 and command Jasta 35b until he was killed in action, shortly after scoring his 16th victory, on March 21, 1918. Kurt Haber’s fifth victory was also his last before transferring to Jasta 3 and being killed over Péronne on Dec. 20, 1916, by S/Lt. Charles Nungesser of N.65. Ernst Udet’s victory was the second of an eventual 62, making him Germany’s second-ranking ace. He went on to further fame as a stunt and test pilot and rose to the rank of Generaloberst in Nazi Germany’s Luftwaffe during World War II, but the pressure and politics of his position ultimately drove him to suicide on Nov. 17, 1941.
The day’s star performer, Otto Kissenberth, added two Spads and a balloon to his score with Jasta 16. He then commanded Jasta 23b, where he would meet escadrille 124 again, killing Sgt. Douglas MacMonagle on Sept. 24, 1917. He survived the war with 20 victories, only to die in an accident in the Bavarian Alps on Aug. 2, 1919.
As for N.124, Oberndorf added more triumph and tragedy to that squadron’s growing legend. Lufbery had "made ace," the first American pilot to do so. Masson was awarded a Croix de Guerre with palm that acknowledged the outstanding circumstances under which he scored his only confirmed victory.
Norman Prince had scored his fourth victory, only to end the mission in a landing accident. He was driven 10 miles to the hospital at Gerardmer, but a blood clot developed in his brain. He died on Oct. 15 at age 29.
In December 1916, l’Escadrille Américaine would get a more emotive moniker, as the Escadrille Lafayette. Raoul Lufbery would be its leading ace with 16 victories before being killed in action on May 19, 1918.