Rotary Ramblings News Room:
28 September 2012
World War I Weekend at Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome
Robert G. Waldvogel
“My aircraft, an Albatros D.III, was just shot down and is behind those trees,” the stocky figure, clad in a thick, green German Uhlan uniform said, as he stood next to the series of white tents and pointed across the field. “I’m an officer in the Prussian Army, fighting for the Austro-Hungarian Powers.”
“I’ve been fed,” he continued, waving toward the sideless tent that must have served as a combined kitchen and mess, “and they’re taking care of me. I’m waiting for a truck to take me back to my squadron.”
A triple of World War I biplanes, including the Sopwith Camel, the Albatros D Va, and the Fokker D.VII, were clustered at the south end of this compound and surrounded by hangars bearing early aircraft manufacturer names such as “Royal Aircraft Factory Farnborough,” “Louis Bleriot,” and “A. V. Roe and Company, Ltd.,” gleaming beneath the deep blue in which a few swollen cloud islands floated on this mid-September, seasonally-pivoting day. Its warm temperatures, tenuously clinging to summer, periodically relinquished their grip to the fall, with the occasional bite of crisp air that had already torched a few scattered trees with its first flame—a calm, idyllic day, perhaps, but one on which World War I’s conflict would rage in its skies before it was over.
Had the Austro-Hungarians succeeded in capturing two enemy aircraft, one could only wonder? If they had, they had done so with little resistance, because they appeared in pristine condition.
However, a second glance revealed that this was not an allied encampment somewhere in Europe, but Cole Palen’s Old Rhinbeck Aerodrome in New York’s Hudson Valley instead. The year was 2012 and the “Army officer” was Scott Greb, a member of the World War I Austro-Hungarian Reenacting Group, which represented the real K.u.K. Infantry Regiment Number 63 Freiherr von Pitreich.
Formed in Innsbruck, Austria, in 1860 after the transfer of battalions from two existing infantry regiments, it recruited troops from the Siebenburgen area of then-Southern Hungary, and its regimental “Inhaber,” appointed in 1903, was the Freiher von Pitrech after whom it had been named, who himself had held this position for the duration of the regiment’s existence. During the outbreak of World War I, regimental commander Oberst Johann Hefner was in charge of three of its four battalions.
“The aerodrome is essentially a byproduct of World War I,” said Neill Herman, Old Rhinebeck’s Air Show President, “the war to end all wars, and we think it’s befitting to remember that conflict and honor those who served in it—coming up, as it is, on the hundredth anniversary. We’ve used reenactors and exhibits as educational tools for young people and as a commemoration to the families of its veterans. The impact tends to diminish over time and it’s important to acknowledge the role they played in our peace.”
“This was a back line camp,” said Greb, waving his hand toward the various tents rising from the otherwise barren grass courtyard between Old Rhinebeck’s covered bridge entrance and its Snack Stand. “It was far behind the front—more sedentary—and solders enjoyed a more comfortable existence here. Trucks were able to get to it and deliver fresh rations.”
“Artillery was a major source of casualties,” explained Tom Sommer, another uniformed reenactor.
Accommodation varied according to location.
“This is a Zeltbahn,” he continued, pointing to a small, dark green tent, “and was used on the Russian steppe. Two solders would carry the tent and all their provisions. A rifle and bayonet served as its center pole and a German helmet was put on top to seal it. It avoided seepage and kept the weapon dry. It slept two, on the ground.”
The four larger, white canvas, A-framed tents represented those pitched in more permanent camps.
“These were the lap of luxury,” said Greb.
“They probably slept eight guys,” added Sommer. “They generally slept on the ground. Unless you were an officer, you didn’t have a cot.”
“Most of the camp’s social life would take place around here,” he said, as he walked a few yards to the large, sideless tent identified by the “Osterreichische Gesellschaft von Roten Kreuze”--or “Austrian Red Cross”--sign and emblem in front of it and featuring utensils, cooking tools, and various tables.
“There was more luxury in these back camps,” he continued, echoing Greb. “They had some manufactured implements, such as shot glasses and sausage grinders. There were porcelain over steel cooking tools.”
Diets hardly suffered.
“The Austro-Hungarians were better fed than the Germans,” said Greb. “Fresh provisions could reach them in back camps like these. They had silverware.”
When asked what had constituted their typical three meals, Sommer responded, “Breakfast would usually include eggs, potatoes, sausages. For lunch there’d be cabbage soup and bread—dark bread. Dinner would be something like goulash or chicken paprikash. Alcohol was a staple at most meals. They were very big on infused drinks. They drank both red and white wine, if they could, although it tended to be more on the white end of the spectrum, and beer was at most meals,” as indicated by the several decorative steins on display.
“This, (of course), was a common gathering area,” said Diane Kuebler, another reenactor, who stood next to the tent’s “Austro-Hungarian Army Infanterie Regiment Nr. 63 Freiherr von Pitreich” sign adorned in a Red Cross nurse’s uniform. “I’m a member of the Austro-Hungarian Red Cross. The Red Cross was instrumental in providing care and comfort of the wounded in hospitals, but wasn’t on the front line. There were certainly challenges, such as contagious diseases, during the Great War. I’m here to remember the women who served,” she added, offering Old Rhinebeck visitors a taste of freshly baked Austrian linzer torte as they ducked under the canvas canopy.
Firearm evolution, from the 1850s to the pre-World War II era, could be traced by the display outside the common area.
“This is an 1842 Pre-Russian musket that’s been rifled,” Sommer said, raising the weapon from the table. “Rifles progressively introduced magazines; they fired at five shots per second. Then came smokeless powder, which allowed them to use smaller bullets. And this,” he said, lifting another, “is an 1895-style Mannlichen, the standard rifle of the Austrian Army during World War I.”
Bipod-propped on the ground was an MG 34—or Maschinengewehr 34—a lightweight, air-cooled, recoil-operated German machine gun license-built by the Austrian and Swiss military, and it was based upon the Rheinmetall MG 30 produced in 1930. Accepting 7.92- x 57-mm Mauser cartridges, it and its boxed ammunition belts could be carried by a single soldier, yet could fire up to 900 rounds per minute with provision for either automatic or semi-automatic operation, and it had a greater than 4,000-meter range.
“The earlier, and heavier, Schwarzlose had 500 rounds-per-minute, half of the later machine guns,” said Sommer, “and soldiers could carry it and its ammunition to wherever they were needed.”
Amidst the percussion of the Celtic Cross Pipes and Drums band from Danbury, Connecticut, the weekend’s air shows began.
“We have a full show schedule,” said Herman: “the Jenny, the SPAD, the Dr.1, dogfights. We have a tremendous turnout—six different groups of Connecticut Civil Air Patrol cadets alone.”
World War I, the first conflict to be partially fought in the air, served as a catalyst to aviation development.
“Airplanes at the start of World War I were quite fragile and unsophisticated,” said Bill King, long time aerodrome pilot, as the first aircraft of the day took to the sky before him. “Early ones were relatively big, but not good performers, like the Rumplers the Germans had, a two-seat observation airplane. Early engines were rather heavy and (of) low horsepower. The BE2 was actually not a combat aircraft: it was an observation type. It flew over enemy lines and so on. The Fokker E.III was not much more than a training plane and they put some armament on it. The Moraine-Saulnier has the plates on its propellers to reduce damage from bullets.”
“During the early part of World War I,” said Jim Hare, Old Rhinebeck’s air show announcer, “aircraft were set up for scouting, but guns were later added.”
“The early war birds were temperamental and unforgiving,” said Herman. “A very high percentage of the men who wanted to be pilots perished in training accidents before getting their wings and many others died within the first few weeks of going to war. These were young men, often well-educated and from wealthy families; as knights of the sky, they shared a chivalrous spirit.”
“The early Nieuports were relatively fragile airplanes,” continued King about aircraft development, “and then they got the SPAD, like we have out here. That was a pretty sturdy airplane, with bracing wires. The Sopwith Pup—it wasn’t fragile, but it wasn’t really heavy-duty. Then the Camel came along. Now, that was a fighting machine! The SE5 was also a pretty rugged machine with the Hispano-Suiza engine, like the SPAD.”
Of the early aerial encounters, Herman reflected, “It is said that more than once when an enemy’s machine gun jammed, the foe would fly off and re-engage only when it was apparent that it would be a fair fight with dominance determined by combat skill and the pilot’s ability to get the best out of his airplane.”
Aerial combat was, in many ways, the secondary battle, with the first having occurred in the allied and enemy factories, as each had attempted to infuse their respective fighters with the maximum possible performance.
Comparing aircraft designs, King said, “The early Nieuports compared to the British SE5s—that was a huge jump in terms of performance. When you consider the Fokker E.III in relation to the D.VII—what an advancement that was in only a couple of years. And if you (put) the Moraine-Saulnier next to the SPAD, that was also a tremendous development.”
“After the E.III Fokker, (for example),” said King, as the reflection of the accelerating Dr.1 before him appeared in his eyes, “the Germans went to triple. (It was) very maneuverable, but it was difficult to fly and land, really.”
The SPAD VII now arced skyward.
“And there’s the Fokker Dr.1 triplane,” announced Hare. “Three wings stacked up—a great rate-of-climb, great speed, one of the most famous airplanes of World War I. Kind of an experiment, though. There were a few other aircraft with this configuration. They gave a tight turning radius, but also had a great deal of drag.”
“And, folks, here comes the SPAD,” he announced a moment later, “close on the triplane’s tail. It was durable and difficult to shoot down. It was a great flying machine equipped with an interrupter gear machine gun timed with the propeller. Whenever its blades were in front of it, it interrupted the machine gun.”
Buzzing overhead, the Dr.1 now pursued the SPAD VII before disengaging.
“The Fokker triplane was more maneuverable,” announced Hare, “but the SPAD was actually faster, so the winner ultimately came down to the pilot’s ability.”
Pausing as he watched the dog fighting pair separate and move toward either end of the field, he blared, “Oh, no! Here it comes! The dreaded head-on maneuver!”
Appearing in the distance, the enemy in the triplane approached from the north while the ally in the SPAD aimed for him from the south, their closing rates seeming the square of their speeds. The collective crescendo of their engines became deafening until the distance between them was no longer visible with the eye and their propellers seemed to interlock into a singularly rotating arc. Banking sharply to the right at the last nanosecond, they separated, but not before emitting a nerve-shattering explosion and leaving thick, white smoke trails behind them—in effect capturing the essence of the Great War in the air for the more than one thousand who had visited the aerodrome to immerse themselves in it during the mid-September weekend.
Robert G. Waldvogel