L’Escadrille Lafayette : 

Unité Volontaire de Combat Oubliée de l’Amérique

 

Chapter Four

An Average Combat Record

There is no precise way to measure the ultimate impact of the Lafayette Escadrille on the outcome of the Great World.  In terms of intangible benefits, the arrival of the American Lafayette pilots was a great contribution, not only in that it justified the Allied cause, but also because it represented the vanguard of what was hoped to be a much larger American intervention.  Though small in number, the 38 American pilots had an impact of a much greater magnitude.  

However, if one looks solely at the tangible results of the Lafayette Escadrille, that is, its combat record, then its contributions were negligible, and represented an infinitesimally small part of the total war effort.  The squadron achieved less than spectacular results; in fact, they could be considered average to below average in comparison with other contemporary combat aviation units.  No one questions the sacrifices and the efforts of the men of Lafayette Escadrille; however, the effectiveness of the squadron needs to be put into a contextual reference in order to evaluate its value.  This assessment will surely invite opprobrium from those who admire the Escadrille, but it is important to realistically assess its contribution to see if its record is tied to the unit’s failure to leave an indelible impression on the American psyche. 

The Lafayette Escadrille Combat Record

At the end of nearly 23 months of flying and fighting the 38 American pilots of the Lafayette Escadrille and their four French officers claimed 40 confirmed kills. 1 By any measure of comparison, the number of official victories was not a lot.  In fact, the Lafayette Escadrille achieved average to below average results when compared to other contemporary French squadrons and successor American pursuit squadrons.  This is especially surprising since the unit was always stationed at the Front in support of all of the major offensives that occurred during its existence.  These comparisons will be made shortly, but first it is perhaps useful to explore some of the reasons why the unit was not more successful.  

* * *

The reputation of the squadron was actually judged as fine by contemporaries in other units.  According to one historian, they did not achieve miracles “but they had a reputation as an elite unit” and for being a “reliable escort.” 2 So then what are the reasons for the Lafayette Escadrille’s apparent lack of success?

The Lafayette Escadrille did not get off to a rapid start.  As a newly formed unit it experienced the usual growing pains that all new units go through.  They lacked sufficient aircraft at the start.  Designated and stood up on April 16, 1916, it received its first six aircraft – Nieuport-11’s or “Baby Nieuports” – on May 1.  Captain Georges Thenault was forced to take the members of the plane-less squadron on long country drives in his car to scout out suitable emergency landing strips and to familiarize the men with the countryside.  “Enfin, nous les recunes, le premier mai.  Il y en avaient six,” Thenault recounts in his memoirs; they could finally get to business. 3 The squadron only had seven American pilots and two French pilots at the outset, which was rather small for a frontline pursuit unit.  In comparison, the British worked with three platoons of six men, for a total of 18 pilots.  The French never had less than twelve per unit.  So the Lafayette Escadrille started off short of men and short of planes.  Such shortages made it difficult to construct a flight schedule, making sure the two-pilot daylight alerts were manned, making sure the squadron could meet its escort duties, and making sure that neither men nor aircraft flew beyond their limits. 4

In any case, they must have been eager to fly.  The first patrol was conducted on May 13, 1916, but it took a while for the unit to establish a rhythm.  Although it shot down three planes in May, on the 18th, 22nd, and 24th, it only shot down one in June, while three men were wounded, one invalided due to his wounds, and one killed in action.  It must be remembered that the pilots manning the Escadrille were of different experience levels.  Captain Thenault and Lieutenant deLaage, the French officers in charge, had flown in frontline units before.  Americans like William Thaw and Norman Prince had flown before the war and had briefly flown with other escadrilles before joining the Lafayette.  The other original American members of the Lafayette Escadrille were fresh out of training and new to combat.  Some of the men proved hesitant like all novices.  But in Victor Chapman’s case, he was too reckless and it cost him his life.  He was shot down single handedly attacking a superior number of German aircraft over enemy lines less than one month after the unit was formed. 5

Initially the unit was engaged primarily on escort missions for bombing raids at the outset.  Though these missions at times presented chances for kills, the escort fighters were attached to the bombers’ mission and were somewhat restricted.  Air-to-air conflicts would be more characteristic of later patrols in battle. 6           

By the time that July and August 1916 rolled around, the unit had received more pilots and aircraft and it appeared to establish more of a rhythm, for it started to produce better results.  This was surely aided by two factors; one, the unit was moved to Bar-le-Duc, Verdun Sector, where it was sure to find more than its share of combat, and two, Raoul Lufbery had joined the unit.  The former influence would change as the unit moved around the Front; however, the latter influence, Lufbery, would remain a constant positive impetus to the unit’s results throughout the Lafayette Escadrille’s existence.  He will be discussed in more detail later.                  

Once the unit had been established a solid foothold on the combat scene, shaking off its neophyte nervousness and inexperience, it still failed to produce many victories. One item that is brought up in defense of the Lafayette Espadrille by historians is that it might have had a total of one hundred unconfirmed “probable” kills.  This may be true, but, it is irrelevant, albeit unfortunate.  All units, especially the French Air Service, had to abide by the exact same confirmation policy.  Early experience in the war with the new air service had proved that the reporting system for kills was inaccurate and that a rigid system would have to be put into place to claim victories. 

     Captain Thenault, the squadron commander, commented on the rigid policy that had been adopted:

“Les autorites francaises se sont toujours montrees tres strictes pour la confirmation des victoires.  Elles exigeaient que, dans chaque cas, la chute de l’avion ennemi eut ete signalee par l’observateur terrestre.  Le nombre reel des avions abattus fut, j’en suis sur, tres superieur a celui qui donnait notre liste officielle.  Guynemer [a famous French ace], afin de fournir la preuve de ses success, lorsqu’il livrait un combat trop loin dans les lignes allemands pour etre vu par les postes d’observation francais, avait finalement installe un appareil photographique sur son Spad et, souvent, il rapporta des clichés de ses victims, tombant en flammes ou en morceaux. 7

Edwin Parsons, a Lafayette Escadrille pilot, complained that the “rules for downing aircraft was quite limiting – you needed to have three sources as a witness, your own squadron mates were not enough.” 8                  

Sometimes the lack of confirmation proved to be a great source of irritation.  During the last three weeks of July 1916, an important part of the early evolutionary stage of the Lafayette Escadrille, and which proved to be an exceptionally dangerous period having taken part over the Verdun Sector, the pilots from the squadron would often return sure of a new kill, only to have it listed as unconfirmed.  The majority of these combats were taking place deep behind Germans lines, and it was difficult for the kills to be confirmed by observers tethered in balloons far behind friendly lines.

Sometimes, conversely, bogus confirmations were awarded to squadron members by well-meaning observers from the aerial battles.  On one occasion, Kiffin Rockwell and Lieutenant deLaage attacked a pair of German planes.  One plummeted to the ground, seemingly out of control, only to redress his aircraft just in time to save it and escape, a not uncommon occurrence.  Rockwell explained what subsequently happened,

“The (observation) post sent in a report that a German machine had been brought down in German lines; they wanted to give us credit but we both knew we had not brought down the machine and told him so, explaining the circumstance.  Yet two well-known French pilots claimed it the following day and were given credit.” 9 

In the quest for fame and glory liberties were sometimes taken with supposed victories.  In fact, one reason the confirmation policy was supposedly started was because the new aviation service was composed of many enlisted men, and during this era their conduct and ethics were not considered to be that of ‘gentlemen’; thus their word alone would not be sufficient. 10

Members of the Lafayette Escadrille understood the loopholes in the system.  Some discounted the importance of kills and numbers, such as Lufbury who sometimes reputedly did not bother to claim kills or pursue their verification.  Others took advantage of the system; one pilot said of Bert Hall that he often “raced back as soon as he saw a huge fire on the ground to place his confirmation.” 11

Additional probable kills are irrelevant.  All French units suffered from the same exacting regulations and so it cannot be used in defense of the Lafayette’s combat record.  Men were sometimes unjustly robbed by the system, but just as often, men tried to beat the system or at times made mistakes.  The British and the American claims were much more lenient, and their air victory claims are excessive compared to the French, but for the Lafayette Escadrille, the researcher must remain within the French system.  It must also be noted that pilot claims, even from the most upstanding, honest men, are often subject to the fog of action.  Unless an aircraft was actually seen crashing into the ground, no one could be exactly sure what the end result was.  Even members of the Lafayette described instances in which they had been trapped in a death spin or spiral, certain that they were going to crash, only to be able to pull their aircraft out meters from the ground.                     

The numbers of official kills is the most direct, comprehensible, comparable way to measure success, even if it tends to obscure some other contributions and intangible impacts.  The numbers are one of the only things that will stand the test of time in popular historical reflection. 

Lafayette Escadrille in Comparison with the Overall World War I Aviation Effort

It is important to put the Lafayette Escadrille into a correct historical perspective in comparison with the overall World War I effort and the overall World War I aviation effort.  For when a unit is isolated for inspection it is easy to forget that there were thousands of other units and millions of other men.  Under this criterion, it is easier to see how the efforts of 38 men, no matter how Herculean or Lilliputian, can quickly become overshadowed over time.               

One thing that is often overlooked is that the flying services of the Great War were extremely small in comparison with forces as a whole.  This misperception can be attributed to the great imbalance in publicity given to the aviators, their exploits were the subject of great acclaim and advertisement in the media of the day.  But they were still considered more of a novelty and a sideshow than as a powerful new combat arm by the general staffs.  A lot of this had to do with aviation’s emphasis on one-on-one combat, whereas millions of men were fighting it out in the trenches below.  The small gains in bombing at the time were not impressive and more of a terror tool than they were actually effective.  Observation, reconnaissance, and artillery spotting missions were deemed quite important, but they were still considered only supporting functions to the king and queen of battle -- the artillery and the infantry.

One has but to look at the numbers involved to see how small a part aviation played.  For instance, the 500 airmen that Germany mobilized in 1914 were just a fraction of the 4 million called to arms.  Through 1917, the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) made up no more than 3% of the total British Expeditionary Force (BEF).  Two thousand men ended up in Russian air force versus the 3.5 million-ground force.  The French considered the aviation forces as officially 0% of its force at the start of 1914; and it was only increased to 3.5% by the end of the armistice.  Similar disparate numbers existed to reflect casualties in the air as compared with those on the ground; on the first day of the Somme, the RFC lost five aviators, compared to the 57,000 British soldiers that were killed or wounded on the battlefield.12

The air services did increase in number as the war went on but overall they remained comparatively miniscule.  In 1918, Germany had 5,000 pilots; ten times that it had started the war with, while the number of Germans in uniform did not change overall.  Another example that demonstrates the increases in aviation concerns the logistical and support of the aviation forces.  In 1914 the Germans were using 600,000 kilograms of gasoline a month for aviation.  By 1915 the fuel consumption was 3 million kilograms a month; by 1916, 4.5 million; in 1917; 5.5 million kilograms; and by 1918, 7 million kilograms a month for aviation. 13

Casualties increased as the services continued flying and fighting.  According to aviation figures, France suffered 75% of its casualties (killed, wounded, and missing) in the last two years of the war, and they suffered almost 48% of those casualties in the last remaining few months of the war. 14

In order to meet the increasing demands of aviation the number of pilots trained had to be augmented as well.  In the French Service, 134 were turned out in 1914; 1,484 in 1915; 2,698 in 1916; 5,608 in1917; and 8,000 in 1918.  In all the French had about 18,000 pilots, the British 21,957, and the Germans 5,000.  These numbers still represented only a tiny fraction of the war’s millions involved.  Indeed, airpower was considered by many to have a secondary role, and that it did not contribute much in the way of the war effort.  In fact, aircraft were banned from the victory parade on July 14, 1919, although a pilot allegedly showed up and flew his plane through the Arc de Triomphe a few days later.  And the British Army’s official history described the aviation bombing campaign of 1918 to have been “without important results.” 15

So even though the air service was increasing in size by the end of the war, it was still relegated to an inferior position by the commanders running it.  Though they understood that aviation had some benefits, they looked at it as a necessary evil that drained manpower and assets.  And although the numbers of aviators were increasing, they still represented a very small part of the overall war effort.  History, despite the flamboyant press coverage and fascination given to the aviators, could only treat aviation in the same fashion.  So it is not surprising that the Lafayette Escadrille, like all other squadrons, represents just a tiny fraction of the war’s overall effort.          

* * *

How then did the Lafayette Escadrille compare with the whole World War I aviation effort?

The Germans claim that according to their records only 3,000 of their aircraft were shot down.  This reflects a wide disparity with the numbers claimed by the Allies -- 11,785 (perhaps there was justification for the French in having such stringent confirmation regulations).  However, since it is impossible to break down by country the 3,000-plane German number, it only remains feasible to use the Allied claims.  Of the 11,785 claimed Allied kills, the British claimed 7,054 victories; the French claimed 3,950 * (numbers differ); and the Americans claimed 781.  In comparison with the number 11,785, the Lafayette Escadrille’s 40 confirmed kills in almost 23 months of flying represents only .00034% of the overall kills.  Looked at another way, if one divides the number of French claims (3,950) by the number of French escadrilles de chasse during the war, 92, one obtains 42.9 as a rough average per unit.  The Lafayette’s numbers therefore are just below average.  Take the number of victories claimed by the Americans, 781, and divide by the number of pursuit squadrons, 16, and one obtains 48.8 as a rough average per unit, again the numbers of the Escadrille fall below average.16

These statistical comparisons should only be considered as rough averages, and do not reflect an exact science.  Airplane victory totals came from a variety of sources and not all kills came solely from escadrilles de chasse.     

Compare the Lafayette Escadrille’s victories with the overall FAS’s victories on a month-by-month basis for the 23 months that the Escadrille existed, and one can see in another way how the unit fared against the whole.  There are many months where the unit did not get kill at all.  Below is a month-by-month comparison of the Escadrille’s kills compared to the overall French aviation combat record.  These tallies were taken from the Journal des marche et operations, Escadrille 124, located at the Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum Archives (NASMA), and the “French Air Service War Chronology, 1914-1918”.  The different total of 66 rather than 40 official claims made by the Lafayette Escadrille reflect extra claims accepted by Georges Thenault who signed off on the Operations log as opposed to victories that were actually confirmed by authorities.  They also represent “probables,” airplanes forced to land behind enemy lines (but still intact), and joint claims, where two or more pilots claimed the same victory.  Similarly, there are the same discrepancies accorded to the overall French totals.  

Month        Overall Total    Lafayette Escadrille Total

1916

April                 49                            0 (No combat missions performed)

May                  80                            4  (First flight May 13, 1916)

June                  51                            1

July                  130                          6  (One kill by Nungesser)

August             172                           5

September        172                          5

October            218                          5

November        139                          2

December         182                          3

1917

January            83                             3

February          64                             0

March              102                           0

April                129                           8

May                 47                             0

June                 175                           1

July                 156                           0

August            211                           1

September       279                           10

October           172                           11

November       47                             0

December       115                            3

1918

January          145                             1

February        131                           0

Total              3349                        66 

There are eleven months where the squadron achieved one or no kills, almost half of its existence; this figure can be lowered to nine months of no kills if the first and last months of the squadron’s existence are counted.  There are fifteen months that the unit reported three or fewer kills.  Overall the official total number of 40 kills represents 1.7 kills per month.  It is interesting to note that if Lufbury’s 17 kills are subtracted, then the squadron is left with just 23 kills, or just one kill per month.  These statistics alone can be misleading, for it is not the purpose of the author to break down every unit’s totals per month.  However, it is interesting to see how the unit fit into the overall picture contextually.  It is of course unfair not to consider Lufbery’s kills as well; however, take away his victories and the unit’s efforts pale even further. 

The Lafayette Escadrille in Comparison with other French Escadrilles

In comparison with the other 92 French escadrilles de chasse, the Lafayette Escadrille has already been shown to have a slightly lower than average number of victories – 42.9 to 40.  The reader may wonder if the lower numbers were really the Escadrille’s fault considering the unit stood up later than others and perhaps it did not have a chance to evolve as quickly as others on the Front.  The reader may also wonder if since the unit was disbanded in early 1918, was it unable to take full advantage of the time later in the war when kills were progressing more rapidly as the Germans became overwhelmed and the end was near for them? Although the author cannot completely verify the first, he can return to the French Air Service War Chronology and verify what others were doing and accomplishing at the same time.  Unfortunately, a comparison with later results and circumstances is beyond measure since it would entail too much speculation.     

     At the time of the formation of the Lafayette Escadrille, aviation was still in its infancy and was yet to experience the gains in speed and lethality that would characterize the aircraft near the end of the war.  However, in the month of April 1916, when the Lafayette Escadrille came into exsitence, Sous-Lieutenant Navarre of N-67 already had nine kills; Adjutant Nungesser of N-65 had seven; and Sous-Lieutenant Guynemer had eight kills, and they all were accumulating them at a rate of one or two per month.  At this point in 1916, victories were not the occasional occurrence they had been at the start of the war, when airplanes and weapons were crude and ineffective, and when kills happened more by chance than they did by skill and effort.  Men were already flying and fighting their machines with a certain degree of lethality. 17 

How did the pilots of the Lafayette Escadrille view their own contributions? After the initial excitement and novelty died down, the reality of the long, brutal conflict set in.  The men experienced frustration at their lack of kills and their ability to influence events.  The rare kill was certainly feted; a special “Bottle of Death” had been incorporated into the squadron mess on behalf of the Rockwell’s to be shared only after a confirmed victory.  The Bottle must have sat rather unmolested until Lufbery’s arrival.  The men would bicker over victories and suspect each other of false claims, but this was only a result of the dry spells that the men experienced.  Some of the men were in a plain funk over their lack of success.  Kiffin Rockwell remarked to his brother in a letter, “The Escadrille isn’t doing any more than any other French squadron.” 18 This was apparently true.

The Lafayette Escadrille in Comparison with all USAS Aero Pursuit Squadrons

 In comparison with the American Aero Pursuit Squadrons (APS) that formed the fighter element of the USAS, the record of the Lafayette Escadrille is again average.  The Lafayette Escadrille existed for a total of 674 days and of course totaled 40 victories (as compared to a rough estimate of 47.25 victories per USAS pursuit squadron).  To compare the Lafayette Escadrille with the later American pursuit squadrons, even though some of them flew the same type of planes, is not a completely fair proposition since tactics changed or got better, the strategic situation was different, the war effort was escalating, etc.  These units were products of different times and different circumstances. 

The numbers and tabulations in Figure One were gathered from Over the Front: A Complete Record of the Fighter Aces and Units of the United States and the French Air Services, 1914-1918 by Frank Bailey, a comprehensive and exhaustively researched companion to the French Air Service War Chronology by the same author. 

 

Unit       Day activated or    Victories/Planes      No. of             No. of  days of flying

               1st Patrol                                                   Aces   (Until Armistice, Nov.11, 1918)

N-124     16/4/16-18/2/18                 40                     1                            674 days

13th APS   29 July 18                        29                     5                            106 days

17th APS   15 July 18                        53                     6                            119 days

22nd APS   16 Aug.18                       46                     4                              88 days

27th APS   2 June 18                         56                     6                             163 days

28th APS   2 Sept.18                         15                     2                               71 days

49th APS   14 Sept.18                       24                     0                               59 days

93rd APS    11 Aug.18                      31                     3                                93 days

94th APS    14 Apr.18                       67                     6                             212 days

95th APS    18 Feb.18                       47                     5                             268 days

103rd APS   26 Feb.18                      49                     7                             260 days

139th APS   30 June 18                     37                     7                             135 days

141st APS   23 Oct.18                       2                       0                               19 days

147th APS   15 July 18                      31                     6                             117 days

148th APS   15 July 18                      47                     7                             147 days

213th APS   14 Aug.18                      16                     1                               90 days

185th APS   (Last days of war)           0                      0                                 ~  days          

Total/                                                   553                   67 aces                 

Average (¸15)                                    36.86                 4.46                         121 days 

Note: Lufbery was with the 94th but had no kills.  Thaw was with the 103rd and claimed two kills.  Peterson was with 94th and became an ace.           

The fifteen American pursuit squadrons (the 185th is not counted since it came into being in the last days of the war) averaged almost 37 victories in an average 121 days of existence; this of course still includes the squadrons that were only around for a few weeks at the end of the war, which brings down the aggregate average.  A significantly higher “time-in-service-to-kill ratio” exists for these squadrons in comparison to the Lafayette Escadrille.  The pursuit squadrons also averaged 4.2 aces per unit.  Of these sixteen pursuit squadrons, five had better kill records than the Lafayette Escadrille, and these five managed to do this in an average of 165 days, or 24% of 674 days.

Again these numbers can be misleading, but the overall effect of the comparison is to show that the Lafayette Escadrille accomplished nothing extraordinary during its time of service.

The Lafayette Escadrille in Comparison with the 103rd Aero Pursuit Squadron

The most direct comparison that can be made between the Lafayette Escadrille and an American unit is to compare it with the 103rd Aero Pursuit Squadron (APS), the Lafayette Escadrille’s immediate and direct American successor.  The Lafayette Escadrille was officially disbanded on February 18, 1918, and the 103rd, which assumed its colors and lineage, was stood up officially on the same day.  Although the 103rd’s official squadron flight operations log is not complete - the log does not start until April 1, 1918 - it is continuous from that date to November 11, 1918, Armistice Day, when flight operations ceased.  During these 260 days, the unit experienced 55 days of bad weather in which they could not fly; another eight days were consumed by unit transfers to different bases.  This means there were 197 actual flight days available, or 75% of the days.  If the 69 days were added in which the unit, for whatever reason, completed combat patrols but did to have anything to report (signified by “Rien a Signaler” or RAS), then the total number of days available for fighting the Germans in actual combat drops to 128 days, or 49% of the time.  Yet in these 128 days the unit flew 470 missions, engaged in 327 combats, shot down 47 aircraft and two balloons (with another 82 planes and 2 balloons listed as “probables”), flew over 3,075 combat hours, and dropped 1,620 pounds of bombs in the last three months of the war.  This averages out to one enemy aircraft shot down every 4.2 days of flying, or one enemy aircraft shot down every 2.7 days of available combat time.  Twenty-eight different pilots racked up kills individually or in tandem with another squadron mate.  The unit also had a total of seven aces, four of which gained all of their victories in the 103rd.  Three of the aces had kills carry over from other units, to include William Thaw who had two with the Lafayette Escadrille.  Four pilots in total had transferred from the Lafayette Escadrille – Thaw, James Norman Hall, Christopher W. Ford, and Charles H. Dolan – but excluding Thaw who was the squadron commander and had three kills while with the 103rd, the others were not squadron leaders, and at least ten others of the 28-man roster had more kills than they.  This is especially surprising since the majority of the men in the 103rd were new, inexperienced pilots that had been trained in America. 19                        

This compares with the Lafayette Escadrille that had 40 kills in 674 days.  Or, subtracting the approximate 189 days of bad weather (152), unit transfers (30), and unit special days off (7) that the Lafayette Escadrille had, the number becomes 40 kills in 485 days of possible flying, roughly one kill every twelve days.  If the RAS days are added, which totaled 102 complete days, the unit had 353 days where it encountered the enemy.  Forty kills in 353 days averages out to one kill every nine days.  The Lafayette Escadrille also logged over 3,000 combat hours but the unit failed to match the achievements of the 103rd.  And it only had one ace, Lufbery, who did the majority of the killing; and only sixteen out of 42 pilots achieved kills. 20

In this example, the numbers from the direct comparison speak for themselves.

The Lafayette Escadrille in Context with the Total War Effort

When the war ended on November 11, 1918, there were 45 American squadrons of all types, 740 airplanes owned by the USAS, 767 USAS pilots, 481 observers, 23 aerial gunners, and the thousands of men to support them all in Europe.  The Americans claimed 781 enemy airplanes and 73 enemy balloons, while America’s losses totaled 289 airplanes and 48 balloons.  Americans had flown 150 bombing raids, dropped over 27,500 pounds of explosives, and had flown over 350,000 hours. 21

Lufbery: The Lafayette Escadrille’s Only Ace

The Lafayette Escadrille contribution to the number of aces in the war was lacking, in fact only Lufbery would become an ace during the Lafayette Escadrille’s existence.  Below is the number of confirmed kills by the pilots of N124: 22

Name                              Victories

Lufbery, G. Raoul                 17

DeLaage deMeux                   3

Prince, Norman                      3

Hall, Bert                               3

Rockwell, Kiffin                     2

Thaw, William                       2

Hall, James                           1

Haviland, Willis                     1

Johnson, Charles                   1

Jones, Henry                         1

Lovell, Walter                       1

Masson, Didier                     1

Marr, Kenneth                      1

Nungesser, Charles               1

Parsons, Edwin                     1

Peterson, David                    1

Cowdin, Elliot                       1

Total                                  40   

Of the 42 pilots, only sixteen had kills at all (Nungesser is not included; he was attached to the unit for only one flight, in which he achieved a victory).  The one bright spot of the Lafayette Escadrille was the man named Raoul Lufbery.  His 17 official victories, and possibly as many as 40 more, made up the majority of the kills for the Lafayette Escadrille; he is truly its most famous member. 

But why did the Lafayette Escadrille not produce more aces? There were a total of 118 American aces and 186 French aces during the war.  If one takes the number of American aces and divides by the total number of American squadrons, 45, it averages out to 2.6 aces for every unit.  Or if one takes the number of American pilots at the end of the war in Europe, 767, and divides by the number of aces, 118, it averages out to one ace for every 6.5 pilots.  If one takes the 186 aces that the French produced and divides by the number of escadrilles de chasse (92), then one arrives at least two aces per unit.  Although these computations are meaningless, it does still raise the question, “Where were the other aces in the Lafayette Escadrille?”

Some of the Lafayette pilots would become aces later on during the war, but why were there not more produced during the 674 days that the squadron existed? This author has gone back to the original Journales des marches et operations, Escadrille 124 that were kept by the squadron and verified by Captain Thenault in order to find a possible reason or reasons.  The author decided to go through the record and tally up the number of flights each pilot flew in the Escadrille.  Because the records are not complete, they abruptly start on August 24, 1916, (but do end on February 25, 1918) the author chose to take a one-year “snapshot” of the unit’s flying record in order to better manage and compare the information.  By choosing to examine the dates of August 24, 1916, to August 24, 1917, the author managed to capture the flight habits and patterns of the majority of the Escadrille pilots during the heart of the unit’s operations.  The start date, which coincides with the start date of the flying records, also allowed him to capture the bulk of the original members and track their performance over a year’s time. 

First one must examine the how flying opportunities in the unit presented themselves. As mentioned before, a record of the available days for scrutiny shows that the squadron had a total of 674 days from the calendar period April 16, 1916, to February 25, 1918.  Out of that number, 152 days were canceled due to bad weather and the unit did not fly at all.  Another 37 days were taken up by squadron mass transfers as the unit moved from one airfield to another, a procedure that could encompass anywhere from one to seven days.  This seven days also included four or five days where the unit was granted special permissions as a whole, namely for the 4th of July, American Independence Day.  In total there were approximately 189 no-fly days due to weather, transfer, or permission, a sum that represents 24% of the 674 days that the squadron had available for combat.  Obviously these were days that the unit did not fly and fight in combat.  The author proceeded to count the days that the squadron flew full patrols but managed to encounter nothing during the whole day, signified by RAS.  Whether these RAS days were due to bad but flyable weather, no enemy activity, or simply no luck in finding anything to report, the result was the same, it was another day of not fighting.  These RAS days total 102 complete days.  Add the two together and one ends up with 291 days or 43% of the time that a squadron pilot would not have been able to achieve a kill or fight in combat.  That left 383 days to go out and fly to kill.  If the squadron was up to full numbers of aircraft and a full complement of pilots, say twelve and twelve, and if the average squadron pilot planned to fly at least three times a week, then the average squadron pilot had roughly 127 opportunities to fly during the available days.  Take away individual leave, rest and relaxation, alerts, sickness, administrative duties such as ferrying planes to and from Paris or where ever, and any of the other things that could affect a pilot’s status, and one can see that a Lafayette pilot really did not have that many opportunities to fly.  Ergo, if he wanted to capitalize on the chance to become an ace, then he better fly as much as he could. 

Men like Lufbery did.  Some others in the Escadrille fell far short.  For the men who flew passionately, almost obsessively, like Lufbery, the kills were sure to come as long as luck and some skill played on that man’s part.  But there are a variety of reasons for the other men who did not fly quite as much; some of them were legitimate, some of them were not.  The air war was very stressful; no one questions that the flying, especially during this era, was still a novelty.  Man was still not quite sure how flying affected him physically, psychologically, etc.  Many of the men had sought the glory and the fame that the skies promised, but the harsh reality was that flying was hard and strenuous work, especially when someone was trying to kill you.  The average life expectancy for new pilots was something around two to three weeks. 23 And some men realized that it wasn’t a matter of if they would be shot down, but really just when.  The men of the Lafayette Escadrille had also buried a lot of their squadron mates; a few funerals dampened even the hardiest of the men’s spirits.  Losses to the Escadrille of great, young men like Kiffin Rockwell and Norman Prince were unsettling and painfully real.  Nonetheless, there were a few men of the Lafayette Escadrille who did not fly much at all.  Some of the men’s names are surprising; some of them were expected.  But altogether these men who did not fly often detracted from the Escadrille’s success and made a few bear the brunt of the workload for all.  There was only so much Lufbery and a few others could do.

The author now turns to the examination of the men’s flight records.  During the snapshot in time from August 24, 1916, to August 24, 1917, there were 205 of 365 available flying days due to weather, transfers, etc.  The wide disparity in flight time recorded by the author between the pilots of the Escadrille during this period is startling and in some cases, vastly different.  For example, of the pilots who were present the full 205 days – that is, the majority of the some of the original squadron members like Lufbery, Thaw, Johnson, Hill, and Thenault; Lufbery lead the group with 155 flights in 205 days, or a record of flying 76% of the available flying time.  Thaw had 109 flights or 53%.  Johnson, one of the less courageous members of the Escadrille had only 50 flights in 205 days, or just 24%.  Hill had 62 flights in 205 days, for a low 30%; and Captain Thenault, the squadron commander, only 32 flights in 205 days, a very low 16%.  Some of the men flew several flights in one day, so the exact number of flights do not equal days flown, but nevertheless this method gives a rough idea of how men maximized the time available to fly.  Some might have had excuses; a man like Thenault might have been tied to his administrative duties in running the squadron, and he was also sick for a month during the year and therefore could not fly as often.  But these numbers demonstrate one thing for sure: If a pilot is not flying, he is not fighting, and therefore, he is not downing enemy aircraft.  Lufbery had more than half of his kills during this period. Thaw one of his two while with the Escadrille, Johnson one, Hill one and Thenault, zero. 

A breakdown of all of the pilots of the Escadrille using this method is presented below; the pilots who were killed in action, transferred from the unit, or who joined the unit too late in 1917 to be effectively counted, are excluded.

Dates: August 24, 1916, to August 24, 1917 (205 flying days during this year period)

Name   Number of flights/days available to fly  Percentage   Kills  

Lufbery          155/205                                               76%              10

Thaw, W.       109/205                                               53%                1 

Johnson, C.      50/205                                               24%                1

Hill, D.             62/205                                               30%                 0

Thenault, G.     32/205                                               16%                 0     

Soubiran, R.     63/173                                               36%                 0

Haviland, W.    61/173                                               35%                1

Parsons, E .      92/151                                               61%                1

Bigelow, S.      62/146                                               42%                 0

Willis, H.       103/135                                               76%                 0

Lovell, W.        58/133                                               44%                1

Dugan, J.          50/114                                               44%                0 

Marr, K.           62/113                                               55%               1

Campbell, A.   65/104                                               63%                 0

Rockwell, R.    80/174                                               46%                0     

Hewitt, T.        60/113                                               55%                 0

Jones, C.            49/81                                               60%                 1                                    

Bridgman, R.     54/91                                               54%                 0

 

* * *

Lufbery’s success would seem to assure the unit’s glory? But he was killed in action on May 19, 1918, while he was flying for the 94th APS.  In addition, he was a very private man and did not seek the limelight.  He was a man dedicated to flying and killing to revenge the only true friend and family he had ever known, Marc Poupre, a famous French aviator.  Lufbery did not glamorize his kills nor did he seek publicity.  When he did give interviews, he recounted his exploits without embellishment and without fanfare.  Many in the Lafayette Escadrille did not understand him and could not figure him out.  It was rare when he opened up and it was probably not bizarre that his best friend in the unit was the lion mascot, Whiskey, who had a special relationship with Lufbery and favored him above all other pilots.

Lufbery did not take naturally to flying, despite evidence to the contrary.  He had flown as an observer for a while before becoming a pilot.  He was deemed average in flight training. It was only his tenacity and drive that earned him a slot in the escadrilles de chasse.  When he arrived he kept quiet and avoided squadron politics and fanfare, preferring to keep about his own business.  He meticulously inspected his aircraft, going so far as to individually load every single round in the belt of the machine gun, so that it would not jam in flight – a notorious problem with the “Lewis” guns.  He also knew his plane inside out and would work with the mechanics on the planes learning more.  This approach paid off, as he soon started to kill enemy aircraft faster and more often than any other pilot in the Escadrille.  He demonstrated the ability to stalk his prey patiently and ruthlessly, taking advantage of his experience and technique.  During World War I, four percent of the pilots would account for 50% of the kills for the French. 24 Lufbery accounted for 42.5% of the kills of the Lafayette Escadrille. 

Had Lufbery lived, the Lafayette Escadrille might have had the perfect emissary to shoulder the unit history.  The truth will never be known. 

Lufbery’s record in death, however, was not enough to carry his legend far since there would be many who would eclipse his record, racking up more kills then he could have even imagined.  But even though his record practically doubled the number of kills that the squadron had, so too would others’ records dwarf his own.  For instance, Billy Bishop shot down 25 airplanes in one twelve-day stretch! Renee Fonck, France’s all-time leading ace, had 75 victories.  Seventeen French aces and two American aces killed more aircraft than Lufbery. 25

The Lafayette Flying Corps 

The 209 men of the Lafayette Flying Corps, including the men of the Lafayette Escadrille, some of whom went on to fight for the French afterwards, ended up achieving a total of 199 victories for the duration of the war.  These kills were of course added to the French totals since the men flew with French Escadrilles.  Of this 209, only 180 men actually made it to the Front.  Thirteen would become aces.  Comparisons with these 180 are problematic since they were spread out over many French escadrilles.  Suffice it to say that these American men’s efforts were measured in far greater terms of intangibility than in actual palpable results. 26 

A Forgotten Combat Record

The Lafayette Escadrille earned wide publicity when the squadron was organized, and it garnered worldwide attention as long as it existed as the sole American flying unit in the war.  But as has been shown, the efforts of these 38 American men were but a very small part of a horrible and long war. And the results of the Lafayette Escadrille, although appreciated, did not make them anymore special than any other of the units on the front lines or the ones flying over them.  Other units would achieve more kills, more fame, and more glory.

The author understands that the Escadrille’s results were not the only impact the unit had on the war, but he believes that it is one reason why the unit, though once very popular, has faded over time.  Had the unit truly been elite, and had it contained a cast of characters that were as colorful as Eddie Rickenbacker or Billy Mitchell, then perhaps it would have stood the test of time in a better fashion.

* * *

An example of this type of unit exists in the 20th century, and it is a unit that Americans associate with and know very well.  The unit is the American Volunteer Group (AVG), or the “Flying Tigers” of China/Burma fame, and the one, incidentally, that was the most universally recognized in the survey. 

Comparisons between the two units is problematic since the comparisons concern different times, circumstances, conditions, foes, equipment, and support, of which the AVG had the tacit approval of the American government.   

Nonetheless, the results were spectacular and would bring the unit everlasting fame.  In seven months it destroyed a confirmed 297 Japanese planes, and probably destroyed another 153.  Although 22 pilots lost their lives, they executed a much higher kill-ratio in a shorter period of time than did the Lafayette Escadrille.  Their leaders included the colorful “Pappy” Boyington, a Marine fighter pilot who would go on to command a famous squadron, “the Black Sheep” in World War II, and the AVG Commander General Claire Chennault.  Their skill, daring, and notoriety assured the unit of everlasting fame.  The unit’s name was also preserved through history; becoming part of the 4th Air Force in World War II, and through a private transport company that used its name.  Also, the squadron insignia, the Tiger’s Teeth painted on the unit’s plane cowlings, instilled an immediate recognition factor, one that the Screaming Sioux warrior of the Lafayette Escadrille has failed to engender in the United States. 27 

* * *

It is unfortunate, but the Lafayette Escadrille’s average record has done nothing to enhance any everlasting fame.   

 

  1. Flammer, Philip M., Primus Inter Pares (Mémoire, Yale, 1963), p. iv.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Thenault, Georges, L’Escadrille Lafayette (Paris, Librarie Hachette), p. 32.
  4.  Whitehouse, Arch, Legion of the Lafayette (NY, Doubleday, 1962), p. 88.
  5.  Parsons, Edwin C., I Flew with the Lafayette Escadrille (NY, Doubleday and Doran, 1937), p. 112. 
  6. Gordon, Pilot Biographies, p. 27. 
  7. Thenault, L’Escadrille Lafayette, p. 93.
  8. Parsons, I flew with the Lafayette Escadrille, p. 145.
  9. Mason, Herbert M., The Lafayette Escadrille (NY, Random House, 1964), p. 88.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Genet, Edmond C., An American for Lafayette (The University of Virginia Press, 1981), p. 170.
  12. Kennett, Lee, The First Air War (NY, The Free Press, 1981), p. 83.
  13. Ibid., p. 84.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ibid., p. 85 et 217.
  16. Kennett, The First Air War, p. 164.
  17. Bailey, The French Air Service War Chronology.  Les chiffres cité viennent de ce livre.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Mason, The Lafayette Escadrille, p. 88.
  20. 103rd Aero Pursuit Squadron Logbook, AFHRA, Maxwell AFB, Alabama.
  21. Journal: Escadrille N° 124.
  22. The U.S. Air Service in World War I, Vol. I (Washington, D. C.: Office of Air Force History, 1978), p. 17.
  23. Mason, The Lafayette Escadrille, p. 295.
  24. Parsons, I Flew with the Lafayette Escadrille, p. 216. 
  25. Ibid., p. 220.
  26. Kennett, The First Air War, p. 169.
  27. Ibid.
  28. Gordon, Dennis, The Lafayette Flying Corps (Penn., Schiffer Military Historical Press, 2000).
  29. Ford, Daniel, Flying Tigers (Washington, D. C., Smithsonian Institute Press, 1991).

 

 Copyright www.stratisc.org - 2005 - Conception - Bertrand Degoy, Alain De Neve, Joseph Henrotin