About World War 1: Rudolf von Eschwege-- The "Red Baron" of the Balkans
The Eagle of the Aegean Sea
During World War One, German aircraft along the Balkan Front were at times outnumbered 10-to-1 by the Allies. The front stretched roughly 300 miles from the Adriatic Sea to the Aegean Sea, through Albania, Greece and Bulgaria. The German air mission was dedicated almost entirely to observation and reconnaissance. The only German fighter pilot, 22-year-old Lieutenant Rudolf von Eschwege, was personally responsible for patrolling 100 miles of the front, protecting the reconnaissance flights, intercepting enemy airplanes and defending Bulgarian ground troops from enemy air attacks. He was so successful that the British finally had to resort to setting a diabolical aerial trap for the Eagle of the Aegean Sea.
Rudolf von Eschwege (pronounced ESH-vay-guh) was a 19-year-old military cadet when the war started in 1914 and spent the first few months in the German cavalry on the Western Front. When the fighting stagnated into trench warfare, the role of cavalry was diminished significantly, so Eschwege transferred to aviation. Despite crashing several times during training, he finally qualified and, in July 1915, became a pilot flying two-seater observation planes. By May 1916, he was flying Fokker Eindecker fighters, protecting the other observation planes. In the fall of 1916, Eschwege was commissioned a Lieutenant and transferred to the Balkan Front. His time on the Western Front had been more or less uneventful.
To the Balkan Front
The remote Balkan Front, also called the Macedonian Front or the Salonika Front, received very little attention in the press even then. To the north were the Central Powers: German, Austro-Hungarian and Bulgarian troops; to the south were the Allies: Serbs, French and British. Lt Eschwege, based in Xanthi, Bulgaria, soon began vigorously protecting his 100 miles of front in his Eindecker fighter. It wasn't long before he came across a flight of Henri Farman planes returning from bombing the Xanthi railroad depot and managed to shoot one of them down into the sea. Unfortunately, Bulgarian soldiers who witnessed his first kill were later transferred and could not be found to confirm it.
First Confirmed Kill
After being transferred to Drama, Greece where he would be closer to the front, Eschwege got his first ever confirmed kill on October 25, 1916. A British two-seater Nieuport fighter was strafing Bulgarian troops and anything else the observer felt was a target around Drama, apparently not realizing that a German fighter was now in the region. Eschwege took off, closed on them and fired a short burst, getting their attention. As they returned fire, he fired again, but his gun jammed. He cleared it and tried again and once more the gun jammed. Eschwege dove on the British plane 23 times, getting a few shots off each time before it jammed, until the Nieuport crash-landed behind Bulgarian lines. He had his first confirmed kill. After that, he also always loaded his machine-gun belts personally. The Bulgarians, thrilled that the enemy planes were finally being shot down, started calling him the Eagle of the Aegean Sea. As his victories grew, they also called him the Richthofen of the Balkans after the famed Red Baron.
Richthofen of the Balkans
For whatever reason, after an unremarkable year-and-a-half on the Western Front, Lt Eschwege had found his niche. He didn't hesitate to attack single or multiple enemy fighters. In one case, he knocked out one flier's engine, forcing it down and landed next to it, taking the pilot prisoner. In another, he shot down a two-seater, which crash-landed behind the Bulgarian lines. Eschwege visited the pilot and observer in hospital, giving them cigarettes and chocolate.
Eschwege was given a more powerful twin-gunned Albatross, which allowed him to be even more aggressive. In May 1917, he took on two fighters, but a machine gun burst hit him in the arm and the fuel tank. He struggled to gain control of his plane, but by the time he did, the two planes had fled. The enemy feared the sight of their lone antagonist, enraging the Allied leaders.
How About Some Balloons?
After his sixteenth victory on October 3, 1917, he decided to try his hand at shooting down the enormous observation balloon at Orljak, which had been directing artillery against the Bulgarians. These hydrogen-filled gas-bags, anchored to the ground by long steel cables provided valuable observation platforms. At his first pass, the observer parachuted safely away, but, despite using incendiary bullets, it took him four passes before the gas ignited. Like many fighter pilots before him, he discovered that observation balloons were a lot harder to shoot down than first thought. He returned again a few days later and shot another one down.
It's a Trap
By November 21, 1917, with 19 victories under his belt, Eschwege returned to Orljak where another balloon was up. This time the balloon was much higher than usual, about 2,500 feet and there wasn't the customary puffs of anti-aircraft shells. Eschwege fired his incendiary bullets into the balloon and, as he approached, the gas bag erupted in flames. Then, as he got even closer, there was a massive explosion, which knocked his plane out of the sky. It crashed to the ground and British medics pulled Eschwege's body from the wreckage.
The British had set the whole thing up. Noting the Eagle of the Aegean Sea's sudden interest in the Orljak balloons, they'd fit one with a straw-filled dummy observer and a 60-gallon tank loaded with 500 lbs of high explosive. They then attached a 3,000 foot cable attached to a detonator switch on the ground. When Eschwege's plane was close enough, they had simply pressed the button.
There was no celebrating, no cheering. The British official history states:
He came to his end as a result of a legitimate ruse of war, but there was no rejoicing among the pilots of the squadrons which had suffered from his activities. They would have preferred that he had gone down in fair combat.
Eschwege was given a burial with full military honors; six British pilots carried his coffin to the grave. A message was dropped over Drama airfield:
To the Bulgarian-German Flying Corps in Drama. The officers of the Royal Flying Corps regret to announce that Lt. von Eschwege was killed while attacking the captive balloon. His personal belongings will be dropped over the lines some time during the next few days.
The next day a German plane dropped a wreath and a message:
To the Royal Flying Corps, Monuhi. We thank you sincerely for your information regarding our comrade Lt. von Eschwege and request you permit the accompanying wreath and flag to be placed on his last resting place, Deutches Fliegerkommando.
After his death, Eschwege was awarded his 20th confirmed victory (26th unconfirmed) and the Allies achieved mastery of the air over the Balkan Front.