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Robert von Greim: World War I Fighter Ace, Luftwaffe Head Command

Military History

Robert von Greim: World War I Fighter Ace, Luftwaffe Head Command

The following is part of a combat diary account of Robert von Greim, World War I fighter ace and former head of the German Luftwaffe during World War II.

The following is part of a combat diary account of Robert von Greim, World War I fighter ace and former head of the German Luftwaffe during World War II.

by Robert Ritter von Greim, Leader of Jasta 34b and Jagdgruppe 10.
Translated and with comments by O’Brien Browne.

This combat diary account by Robert Ritter von Greim describes the frantic attempts of the German Air Force to halt Allied attacks in the closing months of World War I. Von Greim, a 25- or 28-victory ace (depending on the source) and winner of the coveted Pour le Mérite award, flew a Fokker D.VII. Commander of Jagdstaffel 34b, and later Jagdgruppe 9 and 10. He survived the war, eventually rising through the ranks of the Luftwaffe until he was promoted to General Feldmarschall by Hitler in the last days of WWII. In that capacity he served as acting head of the Luftwaffe. Captured by U.S. troops, he committed suicide in May 1945.

August 8, 1918

Another takeoff after an hour had gone by. Visibility and flying conditions had not improved very much, and hectic, dangerous aerial activity was taking place at the lowest heights and in the thick layers of the tenacious, sluggish, rising fog. Here there were neither tactics nor cunning; crossing an Englishman’s path was left to chance. But I did not want to wait long for this chance to come; time was too costly. I therefore decided to get involved in the fight on the ground. Here, too, we could prove ourselves in some adventure.

The battle was raging horribly. Impenetrably thick smoke indicated the center of the furious [British] artillery. The waltz of fire had increased quite a bit in our area; there was hardly any doubt that the opponent had already penetrated to our artillery positions. In a rushing flight, we flew over the thousands of flashing fires from the exploding shells. The English offensive tactics offered a terrible picture to the eye: In the forward lines and at uneven distances were the giant bodies of tanks, as the pioneers and powerful transporters of offensive power for the infantry; behind them shapes jumping forward, lines of trenches, here and there groups falling back and accompanying attacking artillery batteries in open positions.

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Cut the Petrol, Drop Down With My Guns

Thudding hits on my machine suddenly ripped me out of my seconds-long contemplation and required quick maneuvering; I didn’t want to test Fate any further. Cut the petrol, drop down with my guns rattling at those shooting—occupants of craters and everything that the eye could take in in a second. At a very low height I pulled my airplane up in order to repeat the attacks in the opposite direction. Dazzling muzzle flashes reminded me of previously spotted [British] batteries. They were hammering horribly against our positions. An interruption could only help. My plane roared upward again in a sharp bank; I sighted the [British] gun, and its crew, [formerly] posted behind the protective shields, was forced out by my shooting.

My rushing speed did not enable me to get into an immediate, successive fight with a remaining gun; I had to leave this to my pilots following me who, understanding each other, shared the remaining one and shot it up extensively. We could determine with satisfaction that the battery had stopped firing. Tremendous antiaircraft fire forced us to turn back, but friendly waves from out of the shell holes gave satisfying certainty to lasting thoughts of acknowledgment from our infantrymen to our Fokker Staffel [flight].

At the hour of midday, a command came from the Armee-Oberkommando [Army Supreme Command] to defend our rapidly moving aerial formations and to enable our “infantry fliers” [ground-attack aircraft] and artillery spotters to carry out their tasks. Visibility had improved a lot; we hoped that with this third flight our actual tasks could be carried out. At around 500 meters we flew to the front in order to get an overview of aerial activities. [British] ground-attack aircraft and artillery spotters were mostly flying about, under the strong protection of fighter aircraft; now and then one would separate itself in order to dive down at earthly targets. For us, who were heavily disappointed by the morning flights, it was all that we could wish for!

Fighting over Villers-Bretonneur

Again, we turned away from the front to come unseen over the clouds and, using surprise, to clean up the whole bunch. At the same time, my sympathetic gaze scanned our old airfield at Foucaucourt, which was already very chopped up. Unseen, we successfully went between mountains of cloud over Villers-Bretonneur, where we once again entered into the open battlefield in the sky. Two observation airplanes flying back from the front were surprised by us and shot down after a short fight. Their protecting aircraft came too late but in their thirst for vengeance gave us a lot to deal with. It was a hot wrestling match for the shooting field, and trails of smoke showed the routes of those shot down in flames damn close by.

As more and more Sopwiths [British single-seat fighters] and Bristol Fighters [British two-seat fighter-bombers] mixed in, our situation—with the addition of being very far into the enemy’s rear areas—became very uncomfortable. By banking and expending great effort, we approached our lines again and two more Bristols fell to the earth in glowing red flames. The attacking spirit of the Englishmen was somewhat spoiled; we arrived safely over our lines.

It was necessary to catch our breaths for a few minutes and to gather the Staffel together. I had hardly finished with this when we were attacked again. This time, though, we were surprised but with the difference that we conquered our surprise, and once again two Englishmen had to pay for this little show with their lives.

But now the petrol gauge indicated it was high time. We turned around and flew home. Cheerfully greeted with well-wishes from the mechanics, the pilots wrote their reports while I, proud of the composure of my Staffel, reported to the Kommandeur der Flieger [CO of Army Aviation] by telephone: “The order to provide defense was carried out to the best of our abilities. Six shot down: two double victories and two single.”

Into the Realm of Shadows

The Staffel was put on barrage patrol at 4 o’clock. Until then, I granted takeoffs at will against the English bombers, which were still approaching at an impudent height. Along with full acknowledgment [in the Army Supreme Command dispatches] for me and the entire Staffel, I also received the comforting news that numerous Jagdstaffeln [combat squadrons] from neighboring armies, indeed even from Flanders, were approaching here, and that the organization of their deployment (with the exception of the Staffeln of the “Richthofen” Geschwader [squadron], which could take off at will) in the entire army sector would be taken over by me. [Still,] with my group, consisting of three Jagdstaffeln, and a neighboring Staffel whose fighting strength had significantly suffered because of losses during the recent flights, we alone could hardly stand our ground for much longer against the incredible enemy superiority along the entire army’s length.

The next hours went by in great haste. Reports came and went, the deployment of the Staffeln under my command had to be organized, petrol and munitions made ready for them—steps which were very difficult to organize because of the continual disruption of the telephone lines.

But the Staffel was immediately made ready for takeoff so that, even if we were still greatly inferior, we could at least continue to take on the opponent. The inferiority of our numbers was more or less balanced out by the reckless performance of each single individual. Thus fell the Pour le Mérite-winning pilot Leutnant Loewenhardt [a 54-victory ace and leader of Jasta 10] from the “Richthofen” Geschwader (which had arrived with two Staffeln), in a wild battle against superior numbers, and still more dear comrades followed him into the realm of shadows on this day [August 10, 1918].

Death Messengers of the Night

At 4 o’clock we took off for the fourth time. The English squadrons could hardly be outdone anymore. Everywhere Staffeln scraped; the tracers’ smoke trails lay like spider webs across the sky.

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In the evening hours we took off for a fifth time. White signal flares indicated the forward lines which we, to our chagrin, unfortunately discovered very much to the west of Foucaucourt. Like a meteor, a glowing red fireball—a Sopwith—crashed to the ground after a tough aerial engagement—it was the fourth victory of my master shooter of the morning and the eighth victory of my Staffel on the first day of this incredible defensive battle. We got out of our machines dead tired. We had been in the air for 10 hours; for 10 hours we had fought under the most difficult conditions. Thank God that He let night come.

And once again the death messengers of the night [i.e., British bombers] droned and hummed, directional signals hissed, cannon sparkled, and the antiaircraft guns barked.

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