Richthofen’s ‘Band of Brothers’
Those who served and flew with Manfred von Richthofen were very much part of the ‘Red Baron’ story. Dr. Lance Bronnenkant profiles some of the pilots who served - and very often died – in that unique band of courageous airmen.
When Manfred von Richthofen arrived at Jasta 11’s airfield at La Brayelle to take command on the evening of 22 January 1917, he was faced with a unit that had scored no victories since it had first become operational on 10 October 1916. But Richthofen had been trained by ‘der
Altmeister’, Oswald Boelcke. As a result, he had become Germany’s most successful living ace with 16 victories and the Pour le Mérite. He knew what needed to be done and gave his men a demonstration when he shot down his 17th and 18th victims over the next two days.
Like Boelcke, Richthofen led by example. He also set
about instructing his men on how to fight as a coordinated unit and indoctrinating them in the tactics known as ‘Boelcke’s Dicta.’ Not written down among these rules, however, was an important element that Richthofen also learned from Boelcke: take care of your men and teach them to take care of one another. His hard and fast rule was simple:
‘If you see a comrade in difficulty, cease whatever else you are doing to go to his aid. Your comrade must live to fight another day’.
It did not take long for Richthofen’s efforts to bear fruit. Vizefeldwebel Sebastian Festner was the first of his students to achieve success when, accompanied by Leutnant Kurt Wolff, he was credited with downing a B.E.2 on 5 February. Festner scored again on 16 February, followed by Leutnant Carl Allmenröder’s first victory less than an hour later.
By the end of April 1917, Jasta 11 had produced five aces apart from Richthofen, four of whom either earned or would soon be awarded the Pour le Mérite. They were Kurt Wolff (27 victories), Leutnant Emil Schaefer (23), Leutnant Lothar von Richthofen (16), Vizefeldwebel Sebastian Festner (12), and Leutnant Carl Allmenröder (9). Their
Their letters home, newspaper articles written about them, and even group photos of them tell us they all shared a close bond. They had become Richthofen’s brothers.” ‘band of
letters home, newspaper articles written about them, and even group photos of them tell us they all shared a close bond. They had become Richthofen’s ‘band of brothers.’
‘GOOD AND EAGER’
Sebastian Festner was born in Holzkirchen, Bavaria, on 30 June 1894, and was working as an automobile mechanic when the war broke out and was drafted into the Bavarian Fliegertruppe. In October 1914, he went to Flieger-ersatzabteilung (FEA, or Aviation Replacement Unit) 1b at Schleissheim to learn to be an aircraft technician. There, he became the personal mechanic of pre-war aviator Max Holtzem, who gave Festner flying lessons ‘because he was good and eager.’ Festner nevertheless went on to service aircraft with Feldflieger-abteilungs (FFA, or Field Aviation Unit) 7b and 19.
Still wanting to be a pilot, he returned to FEA 1b for flight training on 24 April 1916. His first assignment as an aviator was with FFA 2b on 5 July. The following September saw him convert to single-seat fighters, first with FFA 18 and then FFA 5b’s Kampfeinsitzerkommando (KEK, or Single-seat Fighter Command) III on 25 September. Then, when Jasta 11 became operational on 10 October, he was transferred to the unit as one of its founding members.
Festner earned his first victory when his 5 February claim over a B.E.2 in British territory was granted. Less than two weeks later, on 16 February, he achieved his second confirmed success. As mentioned earlier, these were the first successes for Jasta 11 by someone other than their CO, Manfred von Richthofen, who made his first flight with the unit on 23 January. Festner appeared to be off to a good start; however, for reasons unknown, he would not score again until 2 April – the beginning of the month in which the RFC suffered such grievous losses that they mournfully referred to it as ‘Bloody April.’ Then his victories began to mount.
He became an ace when he downed two aircraft on 5 April and was celebrated in the newspapers for the last of these because its pilot was none other than Captain William Leefe Robinson, awarded the Victoria Cross for being the first pilot to shoot down a German airship over Britain on the night of 2/3 September 1916.
Festner continued his streak with victories on 7, 8, 11,
13 (a double), 14, and 16 April, raising his tally to 12. His performance during the first half of April demonstrated he could keep pace with his comrades by garnering 10 victories compared to 7 for Lothar von Richthofen, 11 each for Kurt Wolff and Emil Schaefer, and 14 for Manfred von Richthofen. This was indeed recognised in newspapers and postcards that published a well-known photograph of these men together at their Roucourt airfield on 23 April 1917.
On that same date, his country also recognised Festner’s achievements by awarding him its Royal Hohenzollern House Order, Member’s Cross with Swords – a distinctive honor since only one other Member’s Cross had been awarded at that point in the war.
On the morning of 25 April, Festner was in a Kette of four aircraft that attacked a flight of 43 Squadron RFC Sopwith 1 ½ Strutters. Lt. C.R. O’brien, the pilot of A8232, submitted this report:
‘When east of OPPY I was attacked by four H.A. one getting on my tail. I stalled and spun. As I pulled my machine out of the spin, I saw in front of me a Sopwith (Lieut. Veitch) diving with H.A. on its tail. I at once dived on the H.A. firing with my front gun. I saw my tracer hitting the H.A. who went down in a spinning nosedive. I was unable to watch him down to the ground as the other 3 H.A. were preparing to attack. Annotation: This H.A. was confirmed as being brought down by our A.A. batteries.’
This final annotation has led historians to believe that Festner was brought down by anti-aircraft fire. This is mistaken, however, as RFC Communiqué 85 of 25 April 1917, clarified:
‘On the 25th Lt C R O’brien & Lt J L Dickson, 43 Squadron, engaged four Albatros scouts which were painted red. One HA was driven down out of control and was seen by AA observers to crash.’
We also have testimony from Festner’s comrades as reported by Rittmeister Georg von Ompteda, who visited Jasta 11 at the end of April 1917:
‘And now I was fortunate to listen as the Jagdstaffel CO himself reported on the details of the multiple engagements. It grew quiet as he did so: one had not returned – Vizefeldwebel Festner, who had shot down a dozen planes.
One should not let himself be carried away by one’s passion for hatred.” battle, joy of combat, or Rittmeister von Richthofen