My last conversation with Albert Ball
Inspiration for “My last conversation with Albert Ball”
Nairobi – January 2017
“Flying north from Nairobi I spotted an enormous mountain in the distance off to the west, its presence being only the gleaming of the sunlight off its snowy peak. I imagined the steep, volcanic slopes covered in broken lava and struggling vegetation; eagles and hawks wheeling on the thermals.
How many millions of years ago did it vomit up its molten belly?
My mind kept wandering and my imagination was working overtime. I tapped the pilot on his arm and gestured over the roaring engine to the faint shimmer in the distance. The pilot spoke just one word before returning his gaze to the dials and charts; he said simply, -Cloud-.”
“Yesterday we flew along the eastern edge of Lake Victoria; below us, the dhows on the lake could be identified by their classic triangular sails. Ahead of us stood the later afternoon thunder heads. To avoid having to climb over them, the pilot flew into the clouds…”
Acrylic on canvas
72 x 48
Captain Albert Ball was one of England's first great "aces"; when he was killed (May 7, 1917) his 44 victories ranked him Number One; when the War ended he ranked 10th for British aviators. He was known as a loner, both in his personal life and in how he hunted enemy planes. While with 56 Squadron he built himself a small shack where he lived by himself away from his fellow squadron mates. Yet he both highly regarded as a friend by his chums as well as a marvelous fighter pilot. However, this personality quirk made him be seen as a "lone wolf" hunter. As the German pilots began to fight systematically (rather than as a flock of "lone wolves") the "lone wolf" pilot became obsolete; Ball was one of the last of this type of fighter pilot. A small man with a shock of black hair, he was immensely popular with the English public. He also received many awards including the DSO and the MC (Military Cross). His death remains cloaked in mystery. During a mid-air melee, Ball was seen to fly into a cloud. His squadron mates never saw him again being, as they were, consumed with their own problems fighting Germans! Yet an advance group of Germans on the ground saw Ball's S.E.5a emerge "inverted" (upside down) from a low cloud. Without enough space to correct his plane, he slammed into the ground. A local French maiden pulled him from the wreck. By the time the Germans got to the site, Ball was dead. When the Germans realized who the dead flyer was, they sent his body back to a hospital where the doctor found no wounds on his body; death was caused by a broken back. This "death" was unacceptable to the Germans as an enemy of Ball's status would be a great propaganda coup for the military's image. So it was that Lothar von Richthofen was given credit for bringing the British airman down, a claim that Richthofen never claimed for himself. Ball was buried nearby and his grave remains intact today.
acrylic on canvas
72 x 48
Werner Voss was arguably the best "flier" the Germans ever produced. Described as one of these "lone wolf" hunters, Voss was fearless and the Allies quickly began to pay attention to him out of both respect AND fear. A close friend to Manfred von Richthofen, Voss was the one man who von Richthofen felt had the best chance to either catch or pass him in "kills". Voss flew the Albatross with great success but then, like von Richthofen, switched over to the Fokker Dr.1 "triplane". Where von Richthofen painted his almost all red, Voss painted his black. On the cowling of his triplane Voss painted a face that was inspired by the stern faces Voss had seen on Japanese fighting kites. But it was Voss' "last stand" that secured for him a place in not only World War I lore, but in all aviation history. One September 23, 1917, Voss went out on a morning patrol and shot down an enemy plane. Returning to base he found two of is brothers waiting for him and they sat down and had lunch together. After lunch, Voss put on his fancy flying gear and took off with the rest of his "jasta" (the German name for their air squadrons). As was his way, Voss quickly outdistanced his two wing men and was soon flying, and hunting, all by himself. Soon he saw a formation of British S.E.5's from number 56 Squadron; without flinching, Voss went right at them. This bold move unnerved several of the British pilots who swerved wildly to miss this one all-black triplane. Voss began to fire his twin Spandau machine guns and sent 3 of the 9 S.E.5's out of the fight. It was now 6 on 1. It is remarkable to read the detailed reports that the British fliers wrote afterwards. One can feel their surprise at the audacity of this one lone German taking on 6 British flyers. Voss was seen to be everywhere and, when he climbed up and above the melee (the Fokker triplane was an excellent climbing machine) he had his chance to exit the fight, but he didn't; he would turn over and dive right back into the dogfight, and this chance to escape, according to James McCudden, was available to him several times, yet he never once even made an attempt to leave. According to McCudden, Voss seemed to be firing at all the British planes at once and McCudden even saw him at one time at the apex of hundreds of tracers bullets fired at him by the British, but they had no effect. Having put bullets in all 6 S.E.5's, Voss' plane was seen to shudder and begin a slow glide away from the fight. Voss no longer was using evasive tactics and that was always fatal. The British pilots watched him for as long as they could (there were now other German planes zooming around like mosquitoes). Finally Voss' plane was seen to roll over and nose-dive into the ground where it shattered into fragments. Upon returning from this ordeal, several of the British pilots had to be helped from their planes and administered a shot (or two) of "medicinal" brandy; obviously whoever that damn German pilot WAS had really given these men something to remember. That night at their mess the British pilots could only talk of the courage, daring, and flying ability of this one lone German pilot. The next day an advance British unit ran up to the day-old wreck and pulled the dead pilot free. Inside his silk shirt they found a silk handkerchief with Voss' name on it; now they knew the identity of the brave pilot. When informed it was Voss that they had killed, there was no celebration. Arthur Rhys-David, one of the two pilots given credit for shooting Voss down, was noticeably moved. He kept muttering his wish that he could have brought him down alive. At the time of his death Voss was 20 years old and had been credited with 48 "kills". The two medals you see pinned to this painting are the "Pour le Merite" (the "Blue Max") seen dangling around his neck, and the "Iron Cross" pinned to his tunic. While many of his fellow pilots on both sides have faded from memory, Voss' bold "last stand" has ensured him a place in the hearts of all aviator buffs.......there is no question that Werner Voss had "the right stuff".
Richthofen and the 80
acrylic on canvas
48 x 72
Manfred von Richthofen emerged from the Great War as it's most celebrated fighter pilot. Today he is a household name if only because of his on-going duel with Snoopy, the over-imaginative beagle from the famous comic strip, "Peanuts", and from seeing his nick-name, the Red Baron, emblazoned on boxes of frozen pizza. So what do you want? Immortality is immortality! As a student of Oswald Boelcke, Richthofen was trained under Boelcke's concept of unified fighter planes fighting as a unit; when this concept caught on the days of the romantic "lone wolf" hunter were over. Having learned this system, Richthofen was not of the "lone wolf" breed, rather, he was a calculating and calmly intelligent killer; this explains what might be called his longevity. He taught his pupils Boelcke's concept and the Allied pilots soon realized just how good a teacher Richthofen was. He had his own style of fighting, to be sure, but it was of the calculating nature in which when he made his decision to attack, he had figured out that the odds were with him (as best that they could be). He often picked on the slow-moving observation planes, but it must be noted that those slow moving planes were doing a job that was crucial to the war effort and downing them was the fighter scouts main priority! Richthofen was also known to wait until a dogfight was in motion before picking out a lone straggler and attacking it.
48 x 60
acrylic and wood on canvas
A gallery of images of young Allied fliers who went down under the guns of von Richthofen. Because Richthofen was not only the "ace of aces" for WWI, he is arguably the most famous fighter pilot EVER and thus the records of his kills have been more intensely and widely studied, hence, we know more about his victims than any others who were shot down by lesser known pilots. One can see a few of them here, posing in their wartime regalia, dreaming that he would survive and come home crowned in glory, bedecked with medals, and maybe even receive a knighthood from the King. For these young men, these "forever young" men, it was not to be. But the key person in this painting is the woman posing with her beau. I included her in this piece to pay homage to ALL the women who lost someone in that war (and in all wars). She is the girlfriend, the betrothed, the bride, the wife, the widow, as well as the mother of them all.
When the name becomes a number....
acrylic on canvas
60 x 48
Victims of Manfred von Richthofen. Men whose small claim to fame comes not from their own achievements but rather from the notoriety of the man who shot them down. However, we do know who these ill-fated young men were.
No. 22 - 2/Lt J. B. E. Crosbee
No. 27 - Lt A. E. Boultbee
No. 57 - Sgt, H. E. Whatley
No. 76 - Captain S. P. Smith
(historical note: Though he does count as a "victim" of von Richthofen's, Crosbee, No. 22, survived his encounter with the Red Baron, as did his observer, Sgt. J. E. Prance. However, Prance would later die from the great influenza epidemic which killed tens of millions of lives around the world; far more that were lost in the Great War itself.)
Die Jungen Mutigen Manner (The Brave Young Men)
acrylic on canvas
48 x 48
Showing a group of German fighter pilots (Manfred von Richthofen stands third from left) one can see the pride and confidence in the faces of these "brave young men". Sadly, the average life expectancy for men flying an observation plane was 16 months; men, like these seen here, who flew the "scout" or "fighter" planes had a life expectancy of 10 months. As for a rookie just starting out? he was given less than 10 days. And death came to these men (they were hardly more than boys) in a variety of venues. Besides being shot down, a pilot could die from engine failure, shooting his own propellor off if the synchronization gear failed, structural failure (a wing just coming off during flight or, more often, during a dive), and even a rare mid-air collision. British ace, James McCudden, died when his engine failed on a take-off; the great German ace, Oswald Boelcke, was killed when his own wing-man collided with him. Other aces like Manfred von Richthofen and Mick Mannock were killed by gunners shooting at them from the ground. A heavy varnish ("dope") was used to coat the canvas of these planes; this dope tightened the canvas and sealed it against the weather. Unfortunately, this dope was highly flammable so if you were not hit by enemy bullets, these same bullets might strike your engine setting it ablaze. The flames would then ignite this dope and you would hurtle towards your death like a flaming meteor. When Mick Mannock was informed of von Richthofen's death he said, "GOOD! I hope the bastard roasted the whole way down!"
I have a rendezvous with Death....
acrylic on canvas
40 x 40
The Great War produced some of the very best soldier-poets ever. One of them was Alan Seeger who had lived the bohemian life of New York CIty before running off and joining the War to fight. He had either desired, or predicted, a heroic, youthful, and romantic death for himself. He was granted his wish, being machine gunned to death at the battle of the Somme. Before he had his own rendezvous with Death, he wrote this most famous poem. Having read it so many times over the years I just felt that it says so much that no illustration is necessary; the poem itself is the art. It captures the all-too grim reality of these men's acute awareness of the proximity of Death itself. Though Seeger died at age 24, his name lives on from the musical career of his more famous nephew, Pete.
acrylic on canvas
48 x 30
The French ace, Charles Nungesser, was as famous for his 45 "kills" as he was as a playboy around Paris. After the war, Nungesser became a rival to Charles Lindbergh to see who would be the first to fly across the Atlantic Ocean. Nungesser, flying "L'Oisean Blanc" ("The White Bird") took off from Paris on May 8, 1927, accompanied by his one-eyed navigator, Francois Coli. They were last seen flying over the Atlantic by witnesses in Ireland (today there is a commemorative statue sited on the spot where these witnesses last saw the intrepid duo). They were never seen nor heard from again. Rumors soon arose of a wrecked plane in the woods of northern Maine or nearby Newfoundland but nothing has ever been found. Two weeks later Lindbergh made his epic, solo flight. But that wasn't quite the end for our Parisian playboy. In an episode of "The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles" by George Lucas, Nungesser appears as a flashy playboy and helps a young Indiana Jones to accomplish a spy mission. In 1999 a Canadian "made-for-tv" movie called "Dead Aviators" has the ghosts of Coli and Nungesser appear to a young girl whose father, a pilot, has been killed in a plane crash. She helps the ghosts rebuild the "White Bird" so that they can finish their flight and enter the next world; they teach her forgiveness and compassion. And of course the mystery of the men's disappearance continues to haunt today's flight buffs. What if proof was found that the two French fliers did make it to North America? (After take-off the pair had dropped the landing wheels to lighten the plane's load......the intended landing was to be on the water of New York harbor alongside the Statue of Liberty!) Rumors persist even to this day and expeditions still trudge into the woods looking for wreckage. There is an island off the coast of Newfoundland and the residents still recall their ancestors talking about hearing a plane's engine.....a crash....and calls for help. There have even been several television documentaries which have investigated the mystery, all having failed, so far, to prove the men's success....and so Nungesser and Coli live on in the imagination not only of World War I aviation buffs, but in that realm of mystery that we all find so eternally fascinating.
DH2 with Lewis Gun
acrylic on canvas
30 x 48
The Airco DH.2 was a single-seat biplane "pusher" aircraft which operated as a fighter during the First World War. It was the second pusher design by Geoffrey de Havilland for Airco, based on his earlier DH.1 two-seater. The DH.2 was the first effectively armed British single-seat fighter and enabled Royal Flying Corps (RFC) pilots to counter the "Fokker Scourge" that had given the Germans the advantage in the air in late 1915. Until the British developed a synchronisation gear to match the German system, pushers such as the DH.2 and the F.E.2b carried the burden of fighting and escort duties. Because the engine was mounted behind the pilot, there was a large super-structure to hold the engine in place and this created "drag" and thus these "pusher" planes were considered slow, having a top speed of maybe 73 - 80 miles an hour. When the "synchronization gear" was developed, the "pusher" style became obsolete. In this painting, the observer can be seen seated behind his .303 Lewis gun fitted with a 47 round ammunition "drum". On the other side, not seen here, they would often mount a camera which the observer could use to take recon photos of enemy positions. The famous British pilot, and winner of a Victoria Cross, Lanoe Hawker (7 "kills") was killed by Manfred von Richthofen while flying a DH2.
acrylic on canvas
27 x 44
An early war plane, the "eindecker" ("one wing" or "monoplane") was a crude machine. Before the invention of the aileron system, the "eindecker" was outfitted with cables with which the pilot could tweak the plane's entire wing thus causing it to make changes in flight patterns. Two of Germany's great "aces", Oswald Boelcke and Max Immelmann, began their climb towards the "Blue Max" while flying these "eindeckers". Only one original "eindecker" survives today and it can be seen at the London Science Museum (it's canvas covering has been removed to show the construction of the plane).
Blue Couch (with Boelcke)
acrylic on canvas
48 x 60
Oswald Boelcke (pronounced "buul-kah") was one of Germany's first aces. He is known as the Father of the German Fighting Air Force, as well as being regarded as the godfather of aerial combat; he even wrote down several rules for aerial warfare that became known as "Dicta Boelcke" and this became the standard for aerial combat on both sides of the war. When he was developing his concept of the "jasta" as a fighting unit, he hand picked Manfred von Richthofen and Erwin Bohme to be among his first pilots. Having won the "Blue Max" Boelcke was an ace with 40 victories when he was involved in a minor mid-air "crash" with Bohme. It seems that Boelcke and Bohme were pursuing the same enemy plane; when they realized this error they swerved away from each other......it was then that Bohme's wheels lightly tapped Boelcke's upper wing. It was just enough to tear the canvas fabric and the canvas began to delaminate and Boelcke's plane began to fall. During the plunge, the upper wing ripped off, but Boelcke kept his cool and was able to make a rough, but survivable, landing. Unfortunately for him he had not fastened his harness belts nor put on his helmet and when the plane landed he was thrown forward and suffered fatal injuries. Boelcke was 25 years old.