“Shoot ’em in the Back,” or the Myth of Aerial Chivalry

David Niven and Erroll Flynn in "The Dawn Patrol" (1938).

David Niven and Erroll Flynn in The Dawn Patrol.

Once the First World War began, it did not take long for the horrendous fighting in the trenches to crush the prevailing notion of heroism. An individual’s survival amidst the great machinery of war seemed to rely more on chance than individual bravery. One exception, however, was the image of the intrepid aviator.


In the skies individual pilots could face their opponents on an open battlefield. They would rely on their courage and skills to survive, and aerial duels evoked images of jousts between knights on horseback. The press widely shared anecdotes of gallantry and chivalry as they lionized successful flyers and lauded them as national heroes.

Furthermore, in the years between the world wars, Hollywood films continued to perpetuate the notion. Leading men of the silver screen wrapped silk scarves around their necks, delivered witty lines, and flashed smiles before taking off for glory. If they did die, they often fell heroically, sometimes after giving a salute to their vanquisher.

This concept of Knights of the Sky, however, does not square with a statement by Captain Ferdinand “Freddie” West, a RFC aviator and Victoria Cross recipient, who said: “I have never seen an act of chivalry between German pilots and ourselves. Neither of my brother officers ever witnessed such acts of chivalry.”

Now wait just a moment— is West’s quote an outlier? As it happens, no.

So then the idea of chivalry among flyers is totally made up? Yes, pretty much so.

Now rest assured, the answer is just not black-and-white. Humans are, of course, complicated. We can be warmly sympathetic in one moment and utterly callous in the next. And arguably the most extreme environment in which we can find ourselves is the theater of total war. It is a concept that can be quite difficult to fully grasp without having experienced it first-hand.

The early aircraft of the First World War were unarmed and few in number. It was rare to encounter another machine in the sky, and if two did happen to cross paths, the crews often waved at each other. As both sides began to appreciate the critical value of being able to maneuver over a battlefield, they realized they would have to fight to control that air space. Flyers began carrying pistols or rifles and took potshots at one another. Violence had spread to the skies.

Detail from “Above Clouds” by roen911.

By late-1915, aircraft with machine guns synchronized to fire through the propeller were proving to be effective hunters, and both sides took significant strides to improve their machines’ flying—and killing—abilities. Scout aircraft (later called fighters) began combing the sky as individuals or packs, hunting for prey.

There were pilots who reported instances of being spared after their guns jammed or their ammunition was exhausted. However, there is no way to tell if the opponent himself was out of ammunition or low on fuel. If a pilot claimed such behavior, it was conjecture on his part. Claims of chivalry just do not hold up to closer inspection.They can often be traced back to politicians at the time or else to books written well after the war. When I was a youngster I read many such titles at my local library— fun tales of daring exploits in the clouds. Books presented as history but, in fact, all fiction… and all at the expense of the true, brutal reality.

When reading primary-source materials, including journals, letters, and memoirs written during or shortly after the war, one finds that noble gestures were largely absent. On the contrary, it is quite easy to read between the lines and realize that the fighting in the skies was just as vicious as it was on the ground. The sheer wastage of human lives was appalling and commonplace. It all was, quite simply, a matter of killing to survive. And, in order to outlast the war, it was necessary to become a very good killer.

It is also crucial to remind oneself of the manner in which the air war was fought. Aircraft usually tangled at speeds of around 100mph. (We regularly drive our cars at 70mph+ on the highway.) An aircraft itself was constantly affected by vibrations and/or torque from its engine and buffeted by the wind. Therefore, to be able to score critical hits on an enemy machine and destroy it, it was advisable for an attacker to get within 100 yards of his prey before firing.

Several aces later claimed that they aimed for the “machine, not the man.” However, when pouncing on an aircraft from above and behind, an attacker’s guns were properly sighted on his target only for a couple of seconds, and its crew was directly in the line of fire. One can do the math. Striking the enemy aircraft’s engine often meant the bullets had to pass through the pilot sitting just behind it. Pilots may have initially thought to aim at the mechanics of enemy aircraft, but grim reality quickly set in. And at those short distances, flyers could see the effects of their machine gun bullets.

Pilots reaching frontline squadrons as replacements or new recruits found this reality in contrast with their English Public School upbringing, with its emphasis on “sportsmanship” and “fair play.” To many, it felt more like murder. Being thrown into combat in their first week did much to shatter their preconceived notions of air fighting—if they survived.

“As long as you are in this shoddy squadron, there are certain words you will not use. Here they are. Fair, sporting, honourable, decent, gentlemanly.” Woolley felt in his pocket, took out a flimsy telegram, read it, blew his nose on it, and threw it away. “Those are bad words,” he said. “Bad, murdering words. Don’t even think them.”

     —Derek Robinson, Goshawk Squadron

In the book’s afterword, novelist and historian Derek Robinson included a quote from former aviator Oliver Stewart, who said that the objective of a fighter pilot was to “sneak in unobserved close behind his opponent and then shoot him in the back,” and that “bar-room brawling, bicycle chains, and broken bottles have a closer affinity to the early fighting in the air than the chivalrous, formalized, knightly encounters with lance and épée to which it has been likened.”

Although aerial dogfighting is visually-appealing and undeniably thrilling, its effects became plainly evident as the conflict dragged on. It was a vastly different life from the ground-pounders in the mud and filth of the trenches, but the stark and sudden contrast of each day took its unique toll. Pilots lived in conditions that felt somewhat homey, with warm food, clean sheets, drinks, and sporadic trips into nearby towns. When they were “on,” they flew at high altitudes, oxygen-starved and exposed to frigid conditions, constantly searching for enemy aircraft.

If wounded, they were likely to go into shock out long before they could find a stretch of open ground and safely set down their aircraft. The unceasing roar of the engine, coupled with the loud slipstream, often meant that death seemed to come suddenly, without warning. A pilot could be crouched in his cockpit, huddling from the cold, and abruptly be ripped apart by a unseen attacker’s bullets. Many lost their lives without even realizing they were in danger, while others, untouched by bullets but trapped in a disintegrating aircraft, fell thousands of feet to their deaths.

To survive, a pilot had a cling to life with the same cold-blooded tenacity with which he would extinguish that of his opponent. It was a strikingly unglamorous affair. As Robinson quoted Stewart, “to those who studied it close enough, the limitless open sky became as good a place to lie in wait for an unsuspecting passer-by as a darkened alley off a sleazy street, and the sudden act of violence, when it came, could be as deadly.”

Popular culture following the First World War perpetuated the myth of the flying ace and in subsequent decades the general perception of the war continued to stray further from reality. The fact that stories of chivalry have remained alive in our memories is likely due to our collective tendency to highlight brief moments of humanity amidst the ultimate tragedy of war.


FOOTER shooting star 2
Author’s Note. An upcoming post will discuss some of Derek Robinson’s historical-fiction novels, including a trilogy that takes place during the First World War.

P.S. In the meantime, I welcome your questions, comments, and thoughts!


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One response to ““Shoot ’em in the Back,” or the Myth of Aerial Chivalry

  1. Pingback: Hell of a Time: The Aviation Novels of Derek Robinson | Shooting Stars

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