Godwin von Brumowski, Ace of Aces, 1889-1936

Godwin von Brumowski standing beside one of his D.IIIs with his distinctive Skull motif

The history of war in the air is populated by great pilots and brave crews. Some, it seems, were born to fly, others to fight. And then there are those few that excel at both, but possess that extra quality - the ability to lead and to organize, to adapt and innovate. Oswald Boelcke, Manfred von Richthofen and Max Immelmann were among this number, all of them fighting for the German cause on the Western Front during the First World War. But there are others, equally brilliant and also fighting under the Black Cross, whose contribution was no less significant and who have gone largely uncelebrated, often due to political changes and shifts in public opinion that are formed with the hindsight afforded by peace, where the context and relevance of those opinions become confused.

One such great pilot and leader was Godwin von Brumowski, a product of the Imperial and Royal Army of Austria-Hungary, a gifted and bright professional artillery officer from Wadowice, Galicia. Born on 26th July, 1889, Brumowski became an officer of Feld-Artillerie Regt No6, fighting the war in Russia where he attained the rank of Oberleutnant and was awarded the Bronze and Silver Military Medals for his gallantry. In mid 1915, he transferred to the Luftfahrtruppen (LFT), whose resources had been stretched to breaking point when Italy entered the war on 15th May 1915. Like many before him, he began his flying career as an observer and was soon picked out as an outstanding officer who demonstrated bravery and dependability from the outset.

Piloted by Otto Jindra, Brumowski's Knoller-Albatros B.1 took part in a daring raid on 12th April 1916 when they, together with six other Austro-Hungarian aircraft, bombed a military review that was taking place in the city of Chotin, attended by none other than Tsar Nicholas II. Several Moraine-Saulnier fighters were dispatched to attack the Austro-Hungarian raiders, but it was Brumowski and Jindra who came off best, shooting down two of their opponents. Thus began a chain of victories that would see Brumowski rise to become the ace of aces in the Austro-Hungarian Air Service.

Despite receiving no formal flying training, he quickly demonstrated a natural ability at the controls and was soon flying a variety of types, both observation aircraft and single-seat fighters, quickly finding himself in command of a Fliegerkompanie (Flik) where he was able now to develop his leadership qualities. By 1917, he had become an ace for the first time and was rewarded with the command of Flik 41J, the first Austro-Hungarian fighter squadron but, before assuming this new responsibility, he sought permission to be posted temporarily to Germany's Jasta 24 so that he could observe and absorb the tactics and methods that had earned them a reputation as an efficient and fearsome fighting unit. Whilst there, he met and was impressed by the great Manfred von Richthofen, an encounter that was influence Brumowski's choice of aircraft colour later. Armed with the knowledge gained on the Western Front and with better organization and new aircraft becoming available to him, Brumowski was now in a position to implement the new ideas on the Italian Isonzo Front where, now equipped with the excellent Hansa-Brandenburg D.1 Starstrutter single-seat fighter, he could really begin to press the fight home. In charge of Flik 41J (Jagt, Hunter), his aircraft proved to be comparable in performance with most contemporary German fighters (in all but armament) and massively superior to most aircraft being operated by the Italians.

Brumowski was to demonstrate his ingenuity in many ways during this period, not least by adopting his own method of laying out the ammunition belts in the overwing gun pod of his D.1 to avoid jamming, a common complaint among Flik 41J pilots at this time. With the gun inaccessible during flight and prone to jamming due to condensation in the pod, Brumowski realized that by disengaging the ammunition belt from the drum and spreading it in layers, the problem was instantly solved, allowing him to do what he was to prove best at, namely taking down the enemy in considerable numbers. He also began to experiment with camouflage on his little Starstrutter, numbered 28.69, overpainting the bright white linen-covered wings with tiny green spirals that helped to disguise his machine against the dark, forested hills of the Isonzo river valleys.

Ace of the Isonzo. Brumowski downs a Caudron G.IV above the town of Plava in his favourite Hansa Brandenburg D.1 (KD) 28.69

Flik 41J was now considered "one of the finest fighter squadrons - if not the finest - in the entire LFT", Brumowski leading them with an iron hand, but inspiring his young pilots too with his self-imposed high standards and high expectations. And he knew his own worth to his country: When advised by the Inspector General of the Austro-Hungarian Army Air Service, Generaloberst Erzherzog Josef Ferdinand, to apply for his country's highest military award, the Knights Cross of the Military Order of Maria Theresa, he replied, "If I have earned this award by my service, then it should be cause enough for the Commander-in-Chief to present it to me. It is not my duty to ask or demand it." It was the only military award he was never to receive.

It was a frustrating time for him however, hampered by a shortage of aircraft and forced by those higher than him to use his valuable fighters as escorts for bombers and observers instead of organizing them into large patrolling and hunting groups, as had become the practice on the Western Front. It was a fight that he was eventually to win, a triumph of determination and forward-thinking over an out-dated official policy. Now, he was able to mount a serious campaign against the Italians by organizing other Jagdkompagnien into proper scout fighting units.

It was mid 1917 and his score was continuing to escalate but, in August, he initiated a period of extraordinary success, sending eighteen enemy aircraft to their doom in just nineteen days, most of these during the intense fighting of the Eleventh Battle of the Isonzo that raged on until the middle of September.

By the Autumn of that same year, his squadron was beginning to receive the new Oeffag built Albatros D.III, a machine that Brumowski took to with some reluctance but soon realized that, with this aircraft, he could aspire to even greater things. Again, he set about modifying and customizing his aircraft to tailor it to his specific needs and flying style. A number of Albatros D.IIIs were put at his disposal, all of them immediately recognizable by the fact that after October 1917 he had them all painted a vivid red, following the example of Manfred von Richthofen, the 'Red Baron', but added his own unique touch by painting a macabre skull motif on the fuselage sides and upper decking. He scored his first victory in an Albatros on 19th August 1917, sending down a Caudron two-seater in flames whilst flying D.III 153.06, becoming a 'triple ace' in the process.

Duel Above the Piave. Brumowski and Linke-Crawford share in forcing down a Nieuport scout near the mouth of the Piave river on 23rd November 1917

Yet more victories were to follow, but not without incident. On 1st February 1918, Brumowski found himself abandoned by his wingmen and left to fight off eight Sopwith Camels single handed. On this occasion, it was he that came off the worst, managing to nurse his badly damaged D.III 153.45 back to base, the aircraft becoming engulfed in flames at some point, probably due to a hit in the fuel tank which was situated between the pilot and engine.

Outnumbered. Shot to pieces, but still fighting, Brumowski finds himself swamped by Sopwith Camels of 45 Sqn RFC close to the Lagoon of Venice on 1st February 1918

The charred remains of Albatros D.III (Oef) 153.45 upon its return to base after being shot to pieces by eight Sopwith Camels, probably of 45 Sqn RFC

The aircraft was subsequently rebuilt, but not before Brumowski again found himself hugely outnumbered by the enemy, this time whilst flying 153.52 just three days later.This time his aircraft was written off when it flipped onto its back upon landing, its pilot escaping without serious injury despite near-catastrophic failure of both its wings. Brumowski described how he found the aircraft actually easier to fly when the second wing failed as it balanced the controls enough for him to make it safely home. Such was his character, his report of the events of that day ending with the words, "Apart from that, nothing happened."

Albatros D.III (Oef) 153.52 after a forced landing at Passarella, Brumowski's aircraft having been heavily outnumbered by Sopwith Camels of 28 Sqn. He flew it back with much of the fabric stripped from the wings and the main spar of the right lower wing shattered

And so, this is how it continued, Brumowski in constant competition with his friend and fellow Flik 41J ace Frank Linke-Crawford, the two of them conspiring to send down as many Aeronautica del Regio Esercito aircraft as they could, sometimes sharing the victories, in the course of which their machines were often damaged by enemy gunfire. Many observation balloons fell to his guns too, adding to his reputation as an adversary to be much feared.

Hauptmann Godwin von Brumowski with his great friend and wingman Frank Linke-Crawford

By this time, the fight against the Italians was no longer their only concern however, as the Royal Flying Corps had rushed three squadrons of Sopwith Camels to the front, as Brumowski had discovered to his cost. Not only this, but the Italians were re-organising and re-equipping and, in March 1918, the German jastas that had offered some support to the Austro-Hungarian campaign were all being recalled to the Western Front for the last great effort to repel the Allies over France and Belgium. Brumowski found his Luftfahrtruppe once again left to continue the fight alone with just thirteen Jagdkompagnien at his disposal, all of them extremely low on pilots, planes, spares, fuel and equipment, but still determined to see the great fight through to its inevitable conclusion.

He scored his final victory on 20th June 1918 when he shot down an Italian Ansaldo SVA-5 that was trying to bomb the last remaining bridge over the Piave River, which was desperately needed by the retreating Austro-Hungarian troops, after which, on the 25th, he was ordered to take an extended leave having flown 435 missions.

Just before the end of the Great War, he was put in charge of all the fighter squadrons of the Austro-Hungarian Army of the Isonzo and, when the end finally came in November of 1918, Hauptmann Godwin von Brumowski had raised his victory tally to 35 confirmed, with many more 'probables', making him the highest scoring pilot of the Imperial and Royal forces of Austro-Hungary. He had fought with great distinction and had survived everything that the Great War could throw at him. He was a national hero of the great and ancient empire that disintegrated after the November 3rd 1918 armistice.

With the war now over, Brumowski struggled to fit in to civilian life. He was demoralized by the defeat of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and became a restless individual who seemed completely unable to the new world around him. He lived for a short time in Vienna, before moving to Transylvania to manage his Mother-in-law's estate, but he hated the lifestyle and yearned to return to flying.

He eventually formed a successful flying school between the wars and it was in his role as an instructor that he was to tragically lose his life at Schiphol airport in an accident on 3rd June, 1936. A Miles Falcon being flown by banker Adrianus Van Hengel stalled and crashed when landing with Brumowski in the passenger seat, both occupants being killed instantly.

The sad remains of Miles Falcon OE-DVH at Schiphol in which Brumowski lost his life

So ended the life of a brilliant, gifted and brave man and, whilst the memories of Udet, Voss and the Red Baron live on in much-celebrated perpetuity, few will readily bring to mind any of the great aces of the Austro-Hungarian forces. As the Empire dissolved and new countries and fresh alliances were formed, these heroes faded into near obscurity. There is Godwin von Brumowski's grave in the Zentralfriedhof cemetery in Vienna, which is marked with a black granite slab upon which perches an eagle with its wings spread and, in 1967, the Tulln Air Base near Vienna was re-christened to bear his name, but it falls to researchers, writers, modelers and artists to uphold the memories of those who also served and fought so gallantly for their countries under the Black Cross.

Godwin v Brumowski. Some thought the monacle to be an affectation, as was common at the time, but he is known to have had a deficiency in the sight of his right eye, remarkable given his skills as a pilot and marksman