30 April 1917 – “Richthofen’s Circus”

Today saw a change in tactics by the German High Command. The fighter units attached to the Arras Corps at Douai were combined to form one group which could operate as a massed fighting formation. This group was immediately dubbed ‘Richthofen’s Circus’ by RFC pilots. This was a loose arrangement and the formal combination into a single unit did not in fact take place until June 1917.

The new group set off for the first time this morning. Their first encounter was with seven FE2d’s of a line patrol of 57 Squadron and three Sopwith triplanes of 8 Naval Squadron. Two of the FEs were shot down in the German lines and the crews taken prisoner.

  • Lieutenant Percy Thomas Bowers and 2nd Lieutenant Samuel Torton Wills in FE2d A6402 – shot down by Lothar von Richthofen from Jasta 11
  • 2nd Lieutenant Edward Dudley Jennings and 2nd Lieutenant John Robinson Lingard – shot down by Adolf Ritter von Tutschek from Jasta 12

John Henry Ryan

A third FE2d (A6380) with Lieutenant John Henry Ryan and 2nd Lieutenant Benjamin Graham Soutten was shot up and crashed behind the British lines. Both were wounded but Ryan later died of his wounds. A fourth, with Lieutenant Charles Stewart Morice and Lieutenant Forde Leathey in FE2d A1966  was also shot up and crashed near Roclincourt. The crew were ok though. The triplanes succeeded after a bitter fight, during which several German fighters were driven down, in extricating the there remaining FEs.

The German group then turned away, joined a number of two seaters, and came across a formation of six Bristol Fighters on their way, escorted by five Sopwith triplanes, to reconnoitre a reported trench system east of Douai. There followed a continuous fight for twenty minutes in which three SE5s of 56 Squadron joined (Captain Cyril Marconi Crowe, Lieutenant John Owen Leach, and 2nd Lieutenant Maurice Alfred Kay). Two of the enemy aeroplanes were shot down and seen to crash and one SE5 – Kay in A4866 – was brought down in flames – killing Kay – by Edmund Nathanael from Jasta 5. This was the first SE5 lost in combat. In the end, the Bristol Fighters had to abandon their reconnaissance attempt and, with their Sopwith escort, fight their way home.

The enemy group, now numbering fifteen, turned south, followed by two of the Sopwith triplanes, and found a photographic formation of eight FE2b’s from 18 Squadron. The enemy fighters attacked and the two Sopwiths joined in the fighting which lasted half an hour. Two of the FEs were shot down:

  • Sergeant Thomas Whiteman and 2nd Class Air Mechanic James H Wynn in FE2b 6998 – by Leutnant Hans Klein from  Jasta 4
  • 2nd Lieutenant Stanley Harold Bell and Lieutenant David William McLeod in FE2b A5481

Both managed to make it back over the lines. Whiteman crashed in a forced landing wounding Wynn who later died. Bell also force landed but both crew were unharmed. The remainder, with the help of the Sopwiths, fought their way back home.


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