German officers and men stationed at the airfield in Drama, Greece, were shaken out of their beds by the thunder of heavy guns on the morning of May 20, 1917. Headquarters advised them that British warships in the Aegean Sea were bombarding the naval base at Kavalla, about 15 miles southeast of Drama.
The gunfire was being directed by a Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) Maurice Farman reconnaissance plane with a seven-fighter escort. Leutnant (second lieutenant) Rudolf von Eschwege (pronounced Esh-Vay-Ga), the only German fighter pilot on the Macedonian Front, ran to his Albatros and took off as soon as he heard the news, still wearing his pajamas. Eschwege knew that he must try to surprise the Farman pilot without interference from the seven-fighter escort. Instead of attacking the Farman directly, he circled to the east of the enemy, heading out over the Aegean and climbing all the way. Soon he was above and seaward of the intruders, who expected any interceptors to come from the shore. Suddenly he plunged down out of the morning sun, passing through the escort and firing at the Farman as he dived. His aim was true–the Farman fell into the Aegean Sea with the dead pilot slumped over the controls. His mission accomplished, Eschwege now depended on his Albatros’ diving speed to escape the fighter escort. But the Allied pilots were so surprised by his sudden attack that they failed to chase the speeding Albatros. The encounter is a perfect example of Eschwege’s daring and ingenious approach to combat aviation.
Rudolf von Eschwege was born in Homburg von der Hohe in northern Germany on February 25, 1895. After completing his secondary schooling, he entered the War Academy. When World War I began, the 19-year-old cadet–of medium height and a delicate build, with piercing blue eyes–was sent into battle with the 3rd Mounted Jäger Regiment on the Western Front. After three months on the battlefield, finding little opportunity for individual initiative, Eschwege applied for flying duty, and by February 1915 he was in flight training. Like the ‘Red Baron,’ Manfred von Richthofen, Eschwege was not a born pilot. Before he completed his training, the fledgling flier crashed several planes, but he eventually passed his tests and went back to the Western Front as the pilot of a large two-seater in the observation/reconnaissance unit Feldflieger Abteilung (FFA) 36 in July 1915. The winter of 1915-1916 proved largely uneventful, but by May 1916 Eschwege was flying Fokker Eindecker scouts, attempting to protect FFA 36’s observation planes.
During the fall of 1916 Eschwege was commissioned a lieutenant and transferred to Macedonia. That remote front received little attention in the press during the war, and few people even realized at the time that the conflict had extended into the Balkans. The war in Macedonia, a complicated and sometimes confusing struggle, pitted the German, Turkish and Bulgarian forces of the Central Powers, on the one hand, against Allied forces, which included British, French and Serbian troops. The British Royal Navy controlled the Aegean Sea, which meant that Allied war materiel was delivered to the war zone by ship to the Greek port of Salonika. The Germans, Turks and Bulgarians depended on the single-track BerlinConstantinople Railroad, which passed through Serbia, Greece, Bulgaria and European Turkey and was a prime target for British and French/Serbian aircraft. Otherwise, supplies–including fuel and oil for the aircraft–had to be transported via horse and wagon along the mud tracks that passed for roads in Serbia. Each German flying unit had 90 horses and 30 wagons to keep the supplies rolling in. Except for a few wheat fields, the terrain was mostly inhospitable, with mountainous crags, marshes and muddy bottoms so deep that at times whole wagons disappeared in the mire.
The Struma sector of the Macedonia Front presented problems that pilots never dreamed of on the flying fields of France. The marshes that formed a long sector of the front were infested with malaria-carrying mosquitoes, and illness took a heavy toll on both sides. Fliers found the intense summer heat unbearable–and it caused problems for their flying machines as well. During the summer, missions could be flown only during the early morning or late evening, and even then the heat was so intense that pilots found wearing a flight suit intolerable. Aerial photography proved nearly impossible because the heat melted the gelatin on the photographic glass plates. During the winter months, the thermometer plummeted, again resulting in numerous hardships for personnel and equipment. Moreover, the thin mountain air, with its strong gusts, eddies and unpredictable drafts, made flying hazardous year-round. Many aircraft smashed against the sharp crags and cliffs because pilots lost control and were unable to regain it in time to avoid disaster.
Lieutenant Eschwege was 21 when he arrived in Macedonia in the summer of 1916, assigned to the provisional FFA Xanthi in Bulgaria. Unlike on the Western Front, German aircraft in Macedonia were greatly outnumbered. Allied forces in the Struma sector boasted 160 French/Serbian aircraft, two RNAS wings, Nos. 2 and 3, and two Royal Flying Corps (RFC) squadrons, Nos. 17 and 24, against three FFA units, Nos. 1 and 30, and FFA Xanthi. At times the Germans were outnumbered 10-to-1. Young Eschwege, who was originally assigned a Fokker Eindecker as his mount, was told that he was responsible for protecting all German aircraft as well as intercepting any identified Allied aircraft along 37 miles of the Struma River and 62 miles of the Aegean coast. He was also supposed to protect the Bulgarian 10th Division from aerial attacks.
Eschwege–called ‘Rudi’ by his comrades and often in official FFA reports as well–started out in his new role with vigor. Shortly after he arrived, he intercepted a flight of Henri Farmans, based on the Greek island of Thasos, that had bombed the Xanthi railroad depot. He fired on one of the bombers, destroying its engine with the Fokker’s synchronized machine gun. The biplane glided into the Aegean Sea, flipped over and sank. Troops at a Bulgarian observation post witnessed the action and reported seeing the Farman crash into the sea. By the time Eschwege entered his victory claim, however, the Bulgarian unit had been transferred and could not be located to confirm the victory, and Eschwege’s claim was denied. Such are the fortunes of a fighter pilot.
By that time, it had become obvious to the Germans that Xanthi, located in Greece 50 miles from the Struma River, was too far from the action, and they needed an airfield close by. They chose Drama, only 20 miles from the Struma, and Eschwege was transferred to FFA 30 at Drama.
Eschwege’s first shot at combat with his new unit came on October 25, 1916, when an RNAS two-seater Nieuport 12 buzzed over the mountains, shooting up Bulgarian troops in the area around Drama. The crew was apparently unaware of the new German airfield and whipped around the region at rooftop level, with the observer firing at any target he passed. The Nieuport was flying so low that its crew failed to notice Eschwege had taken off until he fired a short burst at them. The British gunner returned the German pilot’s fire, but at that point Eschwege’s gun jammed. He managed to clear it, but the gun jammed again after three shots, so the German pilot veered away from the Nieuport and cleared it again. It jammed once more after five shots.
During that one encounter, Eschwege dived on the Nieuport 23 times, getting off a few shots between jams. Finally he hit the British plane’s engine, forcing the two-seater down to a crash landing behind Bulgarian lines for his first confirmed victory. There was no doubt about the validity of his claim, given the tangible evidence of his victim’s wreckage. After the gun-jamming incident, Eschwege always loaded his machine-gun belts himself. As he put it, ‘One learns wisdom through suffering.’
The troops of the Bulgarian 10th Aegean Division were thrilled–the Nieuport was the first enemy aircraft to be shot down behind their lines, and Eschwege became their hero. They called him the ‘Eagle of the Aegean Sea.’ Thereafter, when he flew his Fokker monoplane over the lines, the Bulgarians waved and cheered because they knew it had to be Eschwege. His was the only Fokker in the Struma sector.
Eschwege scored his easiest official victory on January 9, 1917, when a French Farman appeared over the Drama airfield and began to lose altitude. As the Farman crossed the airfield perimeter, anti-aircraft guns began firing, forcing the Farman to increase its speed and altitude. By that time Eschwege was in the air. He fired several rounds into the intruder, then waved to the crew to land, which they did. Two very embarrassed Serbian sergeant pilots emerged from the plane. They had lost their way on a flight from Flonna to Salonika and mistaken Drama for an Allied airfield. They had intended to land and ask for directions.
In the winter of 1917, British Captain Gilbert Ware Murlis-Green, who was destined to become the RFC’s top fighter ace in Macedonia, was in the process of running up his score with wingman Lieutenant J.C.F. Owen. On February 18, 1917, the duo decided to do something about Eschwege. They headed for Drama. As Eschwege climbed to intercept the two intruders, Green and Owen dived on him, firing. Green’s single gun jammed, so he turned away to clear it, leaving Owen and Eschwege to fight it out. Owen’s Royal Aircraft Factory B.E.12 engine took several rounds, which knocked it out. Lieutenant Owen landed near the Drama airfield, and Eschwege landed beside him and took him prisoner, but he was not in time to keep Owen from burning his plane. It was Eschwege’s fourth official victory.
The following day a British aircraft flew over the Drama airfield and dropped a note inquiring about Lieutenant Owen’s fate. The Germans obliged and replied.
In late February 1917 Hauptmann (Captain) Georg Heydemark relieved a Lieutenant Geisler as commanding officer of FFA 30. On his way to take up his command, Heydemark stopped by German aviation headquarters in Uskub, where he was shocked to learn that FFA 30 was flying three reconnaissance aircraft at one time but had only one escorting scout. In an effort to reassure Heydemark, the brass told him, ‘Yes–but the scout is Eschwege!’ Such was Eschwege’s reputation after only five months in Macedonia.
Many Royal Navy aircraft were based on the island of Thasos, as well as at Stavros on the Greek mainland and on two seaplane carriers, HMS Ark Royal and HMS Empress. Eschwege encountered an RNAS two-seater Nieuport 10 over the road between Drama and Kavalla on March 22, 1917, and wounded the pilot, Lieutenant Sydney Beare, and the observer, a Lieutenant Hyde, with short bursts from his machine gun. The plane crash-landed near the road, and the wounded officers were later treated at a field hospital, where Eschwege visited them.
By this time Eschwege had been issued a twin-gunned Albatros D.III fighter. In May Eschwege demonstrated aggressiveness in the face of superior numbers when he intercepted two English B.E. two-seaters over Lake Tachyno. As Eschwege attacked one of the aircraft, the other B.E. circled and fired a well-aimed burst that hit Eschwege’s right arm and the fuel tank. The German pilot managed to escape further damage by virtue of a sideslip followed by a quick climb. But as he regained control of his Albatros, the two English planes sped off toward their base at Monuhi, on the western shore of the lake.
The Albatros’ Mercedes engine began to cough and sputter due to loss of fuel from the punctured tank. Disregarding his painful wound, Eschwege switched to the auxiliary gravity tank in the upper wing and sped after his escaping quarry. He ended the battle by destroying one of the British planes.
When Eschwege returned to his airfield, the engine stopped the instant the wheels of the Albatros touched the ground. The wounded airman had used his last drop of fuel.
Although the German airman was flying on a front that received little attention in the war, Eschwege’s fame was spreading. In addition to his other nickname, the Eagle of the Aegean, some who knew of his exploits were beginning to call him the ‘Richthofen of the Balkans.’
By now it was early June 1917, and the wheat in the Bulgarian fields was ripe enough to burn. Starvation was a legitimate weapon in this brutal little war, and British planes were scheduled to spread incendiary bombs over the Bulgarian wheat fields of the Sary Schaban plain. The British determined that the ideal time to firebomb the wheat was between June 3 and June 7.
Such raids had been carried out earlier without interference, but that had been before Eschwege was on the job. Drama was too far from the Sary Schaban plain for him to intercept the enemy planes. Eschwege knew that if he waited at Drama, the fields would be ablaze and the bombers would have returned to Thasos unscathed. The clever German flew to an emergency airfield midway between Thasos and Sary Schaban early on the morning of June 5 and lay in the shade of his Albatros’ wings, waiting for the bombers. He knew that the British planes normally appeared around midday, when the evening dew had evaporated.
As soon as he heard the familiar drone of aircraft engines, Eschwege started his Albatros’ engine and gave chase to two Henri Farmans and a Sopwith seaplane, shooting down one of the Farmans for his 10th victory. After that, no further attempts were made to firebomb the wheat fields.
Eschwege was stricken with malaria early in September, but on September 12, three days after returning to duty, he shot down a Sopwith 1 1/2 Strutter–his 15th victory. After Eschwege’s 16th victory, on October 3, he became interested in observation balloons, enormous tethered hydrogen-filled sausages that spied on troop movements and directed artillery on the battlefield. So far the German ace had never shot down a balloon. He decided to try his hand at destroying the British gasbag that appeared every morning over Orljak, west of the Struma River.
Eschwege’s first balloon-busting attempt was early in the morning of October 28, 1917. He had loaded his machine-gun belts with incendiary bullets and began circling through the mountains north of Seres, approaching Orljak with the sun at his back. The German flier’s first attack forced the observer in the balloon’s gondola to take to his parachute. The balloon itself, however, failed to erupt in flames. It took four passes before Eschwege managed to ignite the hydrogen. Clearly, balloon-busting was not as easy as it might have seemed. Eschwege barely escaped pursuing Allied fighters on his way back home.
A second balloon-busting sortie on November 9 ended when Eschwege’s guns jammed. Six days later, however, he was more successful, sending a second Orljak-based balloon down in flames.
The Allies sent up another balloon at the same location on November 19. After shooting down a Sopwith 1 1/2 Strutter, his 19th victory, Eschwege attacked the new gasbag. But this time the Allied crew managed to haul the balloon to the ground before the German could fire. Disappointed, the Aegean Eagle turned on four accompanying planes, but they fled from the lone Albatros.
Eschwege was up at dawn on November 21, 1917, eager for his 20th victory. He loaded the guns of his aircraft with incendiaries and headed for Orljak, about 30 miles to the west. Some accounts and illustrations have Eschwege flying a Halberstadt D.II–an obsolete type that nevertheless served effectively in Flieger Abteilungen over Salonika and the Dardanelles as late as January 1918. A photograph purported to show Eschwege’s crashed plane, however, includes a section of elevator and an interplane strut that suggest he was flying an Albatros D.III at the time.
A Bulgarian officer commanding an observation post in the mountains north of Seres had a good view through his binoculars of the Orljak balloon that morning. He noted that it was higher than ever–2,500 feet instead of the usual 500 to 1,000 feet–and that no planes were in the air to protect it. When Eschwege’s scout appeared, the Bulgarians at the post gathered to watch their champion score another strike against the hated English. As Eschwege attacked, puffs of smoke from the customary anti-aircraft defenses were strangely absent.
Eschwege’s aim was perfect that morning, and the top of the gasbag erupted in flame. But as the German pilot passed near the balloon an enormous cloud of smoke enveloped his plane (see sidebar). Observers saw the scout bank sharply and dive to the ground. British medics found Eschwege’s body in the wreckage.
The Aegean Eagle’s body was identified, and he was given a funeral with full military honors. Six RFC flying officers carried his coffin to the grave. A few days later a British plane dropped a message over the Drama airfield that read: ‘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 British carried out their promise, enclosing a photograph of Eschwege’s funeral with his belongings.
The following day a German plane dropped a wreath, a flag and a letter on the RFC airfield at Monuhi. The message read: ‘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.’
The British complied, and the Bulgarians later erected a monument to Eschwege’s memory. The inscription reads:
Leutnant Rudolf von Eschwege
Born on February 25th, 1895
at Homburg von der Hohe
Fell here at Orljak
on November 21st, 1917
From the 10th Aegean Division
Unlike German Jagdstaffel pilots on the Western Front who fought in squadron strength or at least as a Kette (two or three aircraft), Rudolf von Eschwege fought virtually alone on the Macedonian Front. He scored all his 20 victories in little more than a year without assistance. He was brave and resourceful, fighting under harsh conditions. Yet despite his magnificent record, he was not awarded Germany’s highest honor, the Ordre Pour le Mérite, commonly known as the ‘Blue Max.’ Other German aces who scored 20, 19, 18, 15, 13, 10, 9 and as few as 8 official victories on the Western Front were accorded that honor. It appears that the men who fought in this forgotten little war in Macedonia were as neglected by the high command as was the war in which they fought.