How I shot down the Red Baron: Robert Hardman takes to the skies

The Daily Mail's Robert Hardman takes to the skies in a WWI biplane....

How I shot down the Red Baron - Robert Hardman takes to the skies

11th August 2007
Daily Mail

Red Baron? Green Baron, more like.

How on earth did Manfred von Richthofen, the greatest fighter "ace" of World War I, manage to hold down his breakfast, let alone eat any lunch, when he was doing this all day?

Duel in the sky: Robert Hardman dons the white scarf ...

We are 800ft above pretty fields and hedgerows when we suddenly spot a Fokker triplane just like the one Baron von Richthofen used to fly.

Our biplane, a howling contraption of canvas, wood and wires, suddenly lurches into the sort of dive that dwarfs any rollercoaster I have known and plummets down on top of the enemy as he charges off to the West.

My stomach is still up in the clouds while the rest of me plunges like an anvil in freefall.

The Fokker surges up towards the sun, pinging left and right, trying to shake us off.

With his three wings, this "Baron" certainly has agility on his side.

It's like chasing a greased piglet.

Once upon a time, triplanes like these were the masters of the Western Front.

Our plucky two-winged plane cannot match his pirouettes.

But we have one crucial advantage over the Baron" - speed. Two wings go faster than three.

In the end, the Fokker can run no more. With another nauseating up/down/flying around burst of speed, our magnificent flying machine ends up in a checkmate situation.

The "Baron" acknowledges defeat as he drops away in a death spiral, trailing a thick stream of smoke.

We are victorious. Suddenly, the smoke stops. And then the "Baron" starts chasing us. . .

This is the most exhilarating history lesson imaginable. And it is a unique one.

Aside from watching a film, it is very hard to gain any sensation of the extraordinary demands of that 20th-century version of the duel - the aerial dogfight.

Modern planes fight remote, "invisible" battles with guided missiles. Of the handful of World War II aeroplanes still in operation, none gives regular battle displays.

But there is one small band of expert amateurs who are determined to preserve the spirit and skills of the first warriors of the skies.

They have even built, in painstaking detail, their own replicas of the earliest warplanes.

And as they prepare to put on one of their biggest shows to date, I have turned up for a rehearsal.

... and takes to the skies

"Someone has to lose and, unsurprisingly, it will be me - as usual," laughs the "Baron", otherwise known as former Royal Navy engineer, John Day, 62, from West Sussex.

With the German imperial cross emblazoned on his plane, he is one of the ten pilots who make up The Great War Display Team, the only one of its kind in Europe.

On the Western Front, the average pilot was 20 years old and was not expected to turn 21.

This lot are rather more experienced. Indeed, the youngest member of the team is getting on for 50.

One founder member, Doug Gregory, is surely the oldest active fighter pilot in the world, still looping the loop at the grand old age of 84 (hence his nickname: The Flying Zimmer).

He knows the real demands of mortal combat at high altitude having been a fighter pilot in World War II (his gallantry earned him the Distinguished Flying Cross).

After the war, he spent the rest of his working life teaching art in a Hampshire comprehensive but, on retirement, he wanted something more than golf and gardening.

So, he used his savings to build himself a World War I SE5A biplane and now tears through the air like a young blade a quarter of his age.

Today and tomorrow, this remarkable team will be at Kelmarsh Hall in Northamptonshire for some of the most ambitious battles they have ever staged.

Thousands are expected at English Heritage's Festival of History, a lively weekend of reenactments of everything from the Roman invasion to the Civil War and 18th-century highwaymen.

In the middle of it all, the Great War "boys" will stage four battles set around a Western Front airfield at the latter stages of the war.

It will be noisy, spectacular fun in the Biggles mould but there is a more serious story behind the whizz-bang aerobatics and cries of "Hun in the sun!".

It is exactly 90 years since one of the more positive outcomes of the Great War.

In the summer of 1917, General Jan Smuts produced a War Office report calling for the creation of an entirely new addition to the Armed Forces.

Both the Royal Navy and the Army had developed their own airborne units - the Royal Naval Air Squadron and the Royal Flying Corps - but the war had made the argument for a separate entity to govern the sky.

The Government agreed. Within a year, the Royal Air Force was born and the 1st Viscount Rothermere was appointed the first Secretary of State for Air.

Spitfire, Messerschmitt and Flying Fortress would go on to become the iconic names of military aviation, but it was a handful of bold young pioneers who started it all decades earlier in rickety flying boxes over the trenches.

For all its sepia-tinted glamour, it must have been a miserable, terrifying existence.

"We had it easy in World War II with our enclosed cockpits and all our kit," says Doug Gregory with the typical modesty of his generation. "Those lads in the Great War were in open planes at 18,000 feet with no oxygen. They were real pilots. Compared to them, we were just playing."

They were certainly very exposed. "You've got a nice, solid seat there, but in 1917 you'd have been squatting on a wooden observer's stool and dropping bombs with your own bare hands," says Robb Metcalfe, the manager of the Great War team.

He has agreed to take me up today to give me a flavour of the bedlam of a dogfight.

Because his own plane is a single-seater, he has borrowed a replica of a slightly later Belgian biplane called a Stampe which has a spare slot for a passenger.

Today's enemy is John Day in the Fokker DR1 triplane which he built himself. Von Richthofen was flying one of these when he was shot and killed in 1918. And the "Western Front is actually Popham Airfield next to the A303 in Hampshire.

Before any propellers start turning, the two pilots rehearse the entire routine in intricate detail.

Robb, a retired RAF pilot, is now a senior figure at the Civil Aviation Authority which governs all displays. Like choreographers, he and John walk their way through the whole sequence on the ground several times until they have the pattern etched in their minds.

I haven't a clue what they are on about but I am handed a flying suit, a pair of goggles, a canvas helmet and that crucial piece of kit - a white scarf.

In this plane, the observer sits at the front so, once I am strapped in, I cannot see Robb at all.

The propeller starts spinning and I fulfil a lifelong ambition by shouting: "Chocks away!"

It's a bit sad, frankly, as there are no chocks and, even if there were, there is no one to take them away.

But who cares?

As we head off down the grass runway, our biplane is being overtaken by some of the traffic on the A303 but it lifts off in an instant.

Hampshire looks glorious beneath us but I have no idea where the enemy has got to. In a flash, Robb has suddenly spotted the Fokker heading towards Basingstoke and off we go.

Robb tries to give me some sort of commentary through my headphones but I can't understand a word and have my eyes shut much of the time.

This is a textbook piece of dogfighting - in other words, you must manoeuvre to get above and behind your opponent and then let rip with your guns.

There are no real guns on these planes - at air shows, the team use sound effects and loudspeakers - but it seems incredible that anyone ever managed to hit anything bouncing around like this.

The really successful fighter "aces" such as von Richthofen tried to avoid dogfights altogether and notched up most of their victories by creeping up on unsuspecting lone aircraft from below and shooting at them before they knew what was going on.

But that would not make much of a spectacle for today's crowds.

Once John has been defeated and released his smoke, it is our turn to be the prey.

It is extremely hard to shake John's triplane off our tail. I can turn round far enough to see him buzzing no more than 20ft behind us.

It's a creepy and uncomfortable sensation, like being pursued by a huge killer bee.

I try to imagine what it must have felt like for a young novice in the Royal Flying Corps, with just a few hours' training, suddenly finding von Richthofen on his tail.

No doubt, within a few seconds, the poor chap would not have felt anything at all.

Robb ducks and dives while I take deep breaths, shut my eyes and wish that John would just get on with it and win so that we can return to base.

These men do not just love the flying. They are passionate about the history, too. John has painstakingly built three World War I replicas himself and flew one of them in the 2006 Great War film, Flyboys.

Robb says that his inspiration, as an RAF pilot , was the World War I "ace" Mick Mannock whose tally of 73 "kills" was not far short of von Richthofen's 80. Doug Gregory says that his childhood hero was another "ace", James McCudden, who was credited with 57 victories.

I am ashamed to say that I know little about these men until I look them up and they are both quite extraordinary.

Contrary to the conventional depiction of early fliers as reckless, gung-ho toffs, these pilots were quiet, working-class heroes (Mannock was a busy activist in the early Labour Party).

They both rose through the ranks to become officers, they both won the Victoria Cross and many other decorations and they both died in separate incidents in July 1918 just as the war was approaching its end (McCudden's brothers, both pilots, had already been killed).

"McCudden was a marvellous man. I just hope that we can remind people what his generation went though," explains Doug.

As a veteran of D-Day, the Battle of Berlin and night sorties all over Europe, Doug went through more than most of us will ever know.

But even he is still in awe of those original "Knights of the Sky".

"I am afraid that the public's grasp of history today is pathetic. Most people have heard of Nelson and 1066, and that's about it.

"If we can help people understand a bit more about what happened in the Great War, then it has to be worthwhile."

Those bold pioneers have won my eternal admiration in an instant. Whether I can ever regain my appetite is another matter.
Dreadful Nonsense
Everyone knows snoopy shot the red baron down....

I had the 45 to prove of me f1rst records

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