Among the Knights of the Sky at Omaka

I’ve been posting the last couple of weeks about Sir Peter Jackson’s amazing Knights of the Sky exhibition at the Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre near Blenheim, New Zealand.

It’s one of the best collections of WW1 aircraft and memorabilia in the world. A status given depth by the fact that it features several life-size dioramas of action from the day, as we’ve seen in previous posts.

My friend! The HONOUR of meeting a fallen opponent! Mein Gott!

I thought I’d conclude the series with some pictures of the snow-clad diorama. A German aviator has landed his Siemens-Schukert D.IV after shooting down a British pilot whose Nieuport 27 is lodged in a tree. He meets his foe, offering him a cigarette while soldiers poke around the wreckage.

Snow-clad diorama in Sir Peter Jackson's First World War museum.
Snow-clad diorama in Sir Peter Jackson’s First World War museum.

This sort of thing did happen on occasion – once, Canadian pilot Billy Bishop wined and dined a downed German aviator in the squadron mess before handing him across to the authorities. But this didn’t happen all that often.

The reality of the air war was that it was usually lethal, and usually anonymous. Some of the main aces on both sides had distinctive aircraft – but even then they did not get the chance to meet each other in person, other than over the barrels of their guns. Sometimes, when a known pilot was killed, the other side might drop a wreath over the opposing lines in recognition of a fallen comrade. But meeting in person was rare.

For all the mythology of these ‘aerial knights’ somehow fighting with honour, I suspect Blackadder Goes Forth actually got it right – remember the scene in ‘Private Plane’ when Ricthofen finally meets The Lord Flashheart?

Still, it’s nice to think that, all things being equal, perhaps this diorama captures something of the sense of the mythology – upheld by both sides well into the conflict – that the air war was a kind of superior sporting contest. One in which the ‘opponent’ could, after it was all over, be offered a cigarette and exchange some brief shop talk before he was carted off to a prison camp.

Beyond the dioramas are all sorts of other aircraft, wonderfully displayed with artful and dramatic lighting – such as this DH9.

Airco DH-9 on display.
Airco DH-9 on display.

I have one more post to do on the exhibition – dedicated to one Gerrman pilot and his peculiar habit of collecting trophy cups every time he shot down an aircraft. Along with how the Aussies stole his boots.

But that will have to wait for another time.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2016


6 thoughts on “Among the Knights of the Sky at Omaka

  1. Duncan Grinnell-Milne was flying a recon aircraft in 1915, when he suffered engine failure behind German lines. He crash-landed, was captured, and taken to the nearest German aerodrome. In his book Wind In the Wires, G-M recounts the ensuing visit of himself and his captors to the crash site, where the German aviators commiserated over his bad luck.

    I think that the kameradschaft of flying sometimes transcended animosities in both wars. It’s something I’ve often wondered about.

    1. I wonder if it changed during the war as the viciousness increased? That was something Jackson’s exhibition didn’t address – and which I’ve never researched! I know there were occasional stories of similar actions in WW2, both in the air and on the ground – in December 1941, for instance, 2NZ Division captured Generalleutnant Johann von Ravenstein during the Crusader campaign. He tried to obfuscate his identity, but our officers knew who he was and entertained him to dinner before packing him off as a POW. That campaign, of course, had a lot of the old ‘honour’ character that other campaigns in WW2 lacked – something Rommel reminded a captured Kiwi officer about after the Minqar Qaim breakout (a long story with some files still restricted – I had to get official permission to research them even in 2001 – must blog about it, actually).

      1. It’s a good question. One wonders if it was a purely individual matter, in both wars. Maybe, too, it has something to do with the tendency of aviators (of whatever side) to respect their opponents — to the extent of becoming friends after the conclusion of hostilities. Robert Scott, in his autobiography, makes a point of recounting a visit to the crash site of a Japanese aviator he’d just shot down. Turns out the Japanese pilot was an army colonel, just like Scott, was married, just like Scott, and had two (?) daughters — just like Scott. There may have been other points of similarity, but it’s been awhile since I’ve read that book. I got the impression it shook Scott up a little, at least in retrospect, and left him feeling in some sense like he’d shot himself down. But that’s the merest speculation on my part.

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