Knights of the Sky

The Great War had made unlikely alliances since the first shots had been fired.  And in the spring of 1916, there were few stranger alliances circulating through the Entente’s halls of power than the triumvirate of William Thaw, Norman Prince and Edmund L. Gros.

The trio of Americans had all arrived in France at the start of the conflict with the motivation of aiding a beleaguered Entente, albeit with vastly different strategies.  Thaw and Prince were military dilettantes; the children of some of the most wealthy individuals in the world.  Thaw had served with the French Foreign Legion while Prince was flying with the French Air Corps.  Gros had been interested in saving lives, working as a field director for the American Field Service (AFS), a volunteer effort providing medical services to the French trenches.  Together, they had lobbied (thus far, unsuccessfully), to create an all-American volunteer air wing.

The group had much working against them.  While the Germans were pioneering airpower as a means of attack, the Entente still viewed the biplane’s principle role as observational.  And considering those lobbying for an expansion of France’s air force included one pilot, a soldier with terrible eyesight who wanted to fly, and a doctor with no military experience, the odds appeared long that the group’s proposed “Escadrille Américaine” would ever come to be.

But the French Air Department saw the propaganda value of American volunteers fighting against the Kaiser and renewing the spirit of the centuries’ old alliance between France and America.  On March 21st, 1916, what would become the Lafayette Escadrille was born.

The Lafayette Escadrille – yes, those are lions in the picture, the squadron’s mascots

The concept of aircraft influencing the outcome of wars was as revolutionary in 1914 as flight itself.  Orville and Wilbur Wright had only achieved heavier-than-air human flight nine years earlier.  The first commercial use of aircraft had only actually happened months before the Great War started – a brief 23 minute flight from St. Petersburg to Tampa, Florida.  And in terms of combat, the first bombs dropped by plane had no impact on the outcome of the Italo-Turkish War of 1911 – why would they now?   

Biplanes had been seen as useful by the commanding generals in the Great War’s opening weeks as both sides desperately attempted to outflank the other, searching for weak points in the enemy’s line.  The ability of German biplanes to spot Russian movement in East Prussia prior to the Battle of Tannenberg was credited in part with the German victory.  But as the war descended into the static bloodshed of the trenches, biplanes were largely reduced to a role of artillery observers, communicating with gunners through a series of byzantine processes involving everything from Morse code, signaling flags or even just dropped messages.  The biplanes marginally increased the effectiveness of both sides’ artillery, but in a conflict where millions of rounds of ammunition would be fired in a single battle, any need for accuracy seemed inflated.

A Nieuport Ni.11 (the Lafayette’s main fighter – although this one is from the British Royal Flying Corps). The Nieuport was used as a trainer plane for pilots well into the 1920s

The low prominence of biplanes within the war machines of both sides meant little innovation or production.  The Germans held a paper strength of 230 aircraft in August of 1914, but only 50 were in unusable condition.  The French Air Force (Armée de l’Air), with 132 planes, was the only branch of the Entente with any real planes ready for combat.  While the British eventually mustered a fleet of almost 180 aircraft, most of them had recently arrived off of French production lines.

None of the aircraft were armed.  The conflict’s early pilots had as much success shooting down opponents with dirty looks as they did pistols or, for the truly adventurous pilot, grenades, in the war’s opening months.  Only when French reconnaissance pilot Roland Garros mounted a Hotchkiss machine gun on his Morane-Saulnier L, and added deflector plates to the blades of the propeller so it wouldn’t be shot to pieces, did biplanes truly project airpower, able to directly attack the enemy in the air or on the ground.

That’s not a mistake – it’s a mock-up of the standard Lafayette Escadrille fighter with the Sioux insignia and a swastika.  Of course, the swastika took on a totally different interpretation a generation later

In the decades that would follow the creation of the Lafayette Escadrille, an estimated 4,000 Americans, including author William Faulkner, would claim to have flown with the unit.  In truth, only 38 Americans and 5 Frenchmen would fly with the squadron.

There had been many other Americans instrumental in getting the unit off the ground other than Thaw, Prince and Gros.  A Franco-American Committee had been formed in 1915 by some of the most prominent civic leaders in the United States, including men like William Vanderbilt and Theodore Roosevelt.  Together, the group offered to pay $20,000 to provide aircraft and equipment for such an American-staffed unit.  Having to neither recruit nor pay for the creation of the squadron helped tip the scales in its favor.

Yet the unit was almost disbanded before it began.  After approving the Escadrille Américaine, the Germans immediately objected to the United States that the name implied a violation of U.S. neutrality.  Under pressure from Washington, the French altered the unit’s name to the Lafayette Escadrille, honoring the Marquis de Lafayette who had fought in both the American and French revolutions.

Norman Prince – one of the founders of the squadron, Prince’s role was transformed by the media into the sole leader of the group – something the other founders of the group resented

Finding volunteers for the unit was easy; finding experienced pilots wasn’t.  The core group of lobbyists for the cause (Prince, Thaw, Victor Chapman, Kiffin Rockwell, James McConnell, Clyde Balsley, Chouteau Johnson, Lawrence Rumsey, and Paul Rockwell) were leisure airmen at best.  That didn’t stop the group from gathering in Parisian bars to trade notes on other Americans they could recruit into the unit, or bragging about their future exploits.  Despite the pre-existing comradery of the group, the Americans quickly welcomed their French commander, Georges Thenault, into their trust.  With a dashing personalty personifying the “flyboy” ethos, Thenault watched over his pilots with a fatherly eye, calling them “his colts.”

The earliest days of the Lafayette Escadrille resembled a fraternity gathering more than a military unit.  The unit partied frequently, buying on a whim their mascots – two lion cubs they affectionately nickname “Whiskey” and “Soda.”  The squadron recorded their first confirmed victory on May 13th, 1916 as Kiffin Rockwell, one of the unit’s founders, flew his Nieuport 11 within 75 fleet of a German recon plane.  With one pull on his mounted Lewis machine gun, Rockwell managed to kill the pilot, the observer and the plane’s engine.  It was the first time Rockwell had ever fired a gun – and the first of the unit’s 40 confirmed, and 100 probable, victories.

Georges Thenault – if the Lafayette Escadrille gave Americans any number of heroes, Thenault provided a war hero for France

For the first few months of the Lafayette Escadrille‘s existence, the war had seemed a merry little enterprise.  Flying against limited opposition by day, drinking at night and carousing around Paris on leave, the squadron’s pilots hadn’t experienced the harsher realities of the war.

That would quickly change.  Clyde Balsley, another founding member of the unit, would be shot down that June.  Balsley survived the crash, joking with his fellow pilots about his desire for some fresh orange juice.  Eager to surprise one of his friends with the beverage, Victor Chapman took off to deliver the package.  En route, Chapman was intercepted by five German planes, one of them piloted by the German ace Oswald Boelcke (fellow ace Kurt Wintgens sometimes gets the credit).  The relatively inexperienced Chapman never stood a chance and the Lafayette Escadrille had their first loss.  “We talked in lowered voices after that; we could read the pain in one another’s eyes,” wrote James McConnell, one of the original founders, in his biography Flying for France.

Grave marker for a pilot – over 60 American pilots would die fighting as volunteers during the war, nine of them with the Lafayette Escadrille

The losses among the group’s founders would mount over the coming months.  Kiffin Rockwell, who had survived taking shrapnel to his face during flights over Verdun, would meet his end in September when an explosive bullet tore open his chest.  Norman Prince, the unofficial “leader” among the founders, would meet his end just weeks later as his plane’s landing gear hit telegraph wires while trying to land at night, flipping the plane onto the ground.  Nine of the group’s original 38 American pilots would be killed by the end of the unit’s existence, prompting one pilot to request a transfer back into the infantry where “he could be safe.”

The Lafayette Escadrille won much more often than it lost.  The unit’s ace, Raoul Lufbery, would be credited for 16 victories on his own.  French-American, Lufbery was an odd fit for the unit.  Poor, with a thick French accent where his comrades were all American-born and usually very wealthy, Lufbery did not get along with his fellow pilots.  The only members of the unit who seemed to accept him were Whiskey and Soda, who followed him around like dogs, gladly curling up in his lap when they’d often attack anyone else who tried to pet them.

Eating Raoul – the squadron’s ace, Raoul Lufbery, was disliked by his fellow pilots and hasn’t been well-treated by history (even his own biographers frequently call him “ugly”), but Lufbery revolutionized American fighter tactics, training pilots such as Eddie Rickenbacker

Where Lufbery’s fellow flyers were mostly hobbyists, the French-American was most assuredly a pilot, having trained with the Armée de l’Air in 1914.  Lufbery would spend hours working with the mechanics to ensure his plane was in the best possible shape, employing their advice in engineering to understand how to position his fighter.  Lufbery’s attention to detail was supposedly so fastidious, he literally polished every bullet that went into his gun.  Whereas other pilots fought by instinct, Lufbery fought by physics – creating tactical equations to win his battles.  Lufbery would be credited with inventing dual fighter techniques like the “Lufbery Circle” (with one plane covering the field of view for another) and modern airfield take-off and landing patterns.

[As a small local note of history, Lufbery’s grand nephew, Raoul Lufbery III, lives in International Falls, Minnesota.  Lufbery’s attention to mechanical detail lived on past him as his grand nephew noted: “Anyone would take a used Lufbery plane before they’d take a brand-new plane.”]

Returning from combat – the pilots typically flew only 2-3 hours a day

Between the Lafayette Escadrille and the larger Lafayette Flying Corps (the overarching title the French gave American pilots who served in various French air squadrons), the American air presence in French was credited with 159 enemy kills.  Among the estimated 180 pilots who flew for the Escadrille and Flying Corps, 31 were awarded the Croix de guerre, seven with Médailles militaires and four Légions d’honneur.  Eleven members were deemed flying aces, meaning they could prove five air kills or more.

“Every flight is a romance, every record an epic. They are the knighthood of this war, without fear and without reproach; and they recall the legendary days of chivalry, not merely by the daring of their exploits, but by the nobility of their spirit.”
—Prime Minister David Lloyd George, October 1917

The value of the Lafayette Escadrille to the French was never measured in victories – only press column inches.

The Media War – the exploits of the squadron were carried around the world, but the France cared mostly about them getting coverage in America

When the unit flew it’s first mission, a French film crew awaited them on the ground and a United Press reporter cabled the news back to the United States.  Every day, the French sent press releases to New York that carried the news of the Lafayette Escadrille across the country.  Photographers meticulously documented every aspect of the group’s day-to-day existence, as the well-groomed, extremely confident pilots exuded the aura of the war’s first days.  The air war seemed both connected and excluded from the horrible reality of the fighting on the ground, and as such, while men were dying by the hundreds of thousands amid Verdun and the Somme, the image coming from France was of jaunty volunteers and their marvelous flying machines.  As author Edward Jablonski put it: “to the newspaper reader in 1916 it must have seemed that the aerial war was being fought only by the Germans, the French and the Lafayette Escadrille.”

The pilots had little appetite for the exposure.  “I was sorry to hear that some of my letters home had been published,” Kiffin Rockwell wrote back home.  “I do not want any publicity or fame, and do not care to write for the newspapers.”  Some had very practical reasons for resenting the coverage.  When one newspaper highlighted the small village some of the pilots were stationed in, the Germans immediately bombed the area.

Whether the media coverage was a danger to their pilots or not, it achieved what the French desired – sympathetic American press and more American support for the Entente.

In the decades that followed, the legend of the Lafayette Escadrille grew into a media empire – many of the squadron’s pilots published books (and many more claimed to have flown witih the group)

The Lafayette‘s end was sealed with the American entry into the war in 1917.  But with the lack of equipment and experienced pilots, the Lafayette Escadrille and Flying Corps maintained their independence until 1918 as the unit was transferred to American command as the 103rd Aero Squadron.  Among the saddest to see the transition was the squadron’s commander, Georges Thenault.  “I left it with deep regrets,” he wrote after the war, saluting the unit as “an eager, fearless, genial band…each so loyal, all so resolute.”

The tradition of the Lafayette Escadrille continues on in both the French and American air forces.  Escadrille N. 124 (the official title of the original unit), still exists with the original insignia of a Sioux warrior.  The 103rd Aero Squadron demobilized in 1919, but was reconstituted as the 94th Fighter Squadron in the 1920s and claims it’s linage to those first American volunteers who flew over France.

3 thoughts on “Knights of the Sky

  1. Eddie Rickenbacker’s autobio was one of the first “big” books I read as a kid. I remember he said he had some admiration for Lufbury – they both came up the hard way, and both were fundamentally engineers about their approach to air combat.

  2. I’ve read that new pilots would last an average 11 days before being killed. Non-combat death rates averaged 65 hours of flight time.
    Lufbery died in combat, either jumping or falling from his plane trying to clear a jammed gun.

  3. Great column, First. Love the photos.

    I visited Manassas Battleground a few years ago, dropped by the local airport, ran into the local Experimental Aircraft Association chapter, one of whom is building a Nieuport fighter one piece at a time. Still a classy looking airplane, I hope I get to see it fly someday.

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