September 23, 1917: Death of an Ace (Werner Voss Dies in Combat)

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A Brief History

On September 23, 1917, Imperial Germany lost one of its greatest flying aces when Leutnant Werner Voss was shot down and killed over West Flanders, outnumbered 8 to 1 and refusing to run!  With 48 confirmed aerial kills, Voss was the fifth highest scoring German ace of World War I despite having a flying career that lasted less than 2 years.

Digging Deeper

The British opponents flying against Voss called him “The Bravest of German Pilots,” a moniker justified by the famous last flight of Voss when incredulous British pilots were stunned to have Voss repeatedly attack instead of taking the more reasonable tactic of fleeing.  In that aerial melee (what future fighter pilots would call a “furball”) Voss damaged several enemy planes, forcing them out of the fight and to make hasty landings.

Born in Krefeld, Germany in 1897, Voss was a patriotic young man that joined the Militia at the age of 17 despite an age requirement of age 18.  Initially assigned as a motorcycle rider and mechanic for the militia, when World War I started a few weeks later Voss worked as  a civilian driver for the Army.  By November of 1914 Voss became a real soldier of the 11th Hussars, still only 17 years old.  Sent to the Eastern Front, Voss displayed courage and military acumen, earning his stripes as an NCO and awarded the Iron Cross.  Sent to officer training (only 18 years old!), Voss graduated and was sent to pilot training, Voss was so talented that upon graduation he was retained as an instructor, despite being only 18 years old, the youngest flight instructor in Germany.  Commissioned as an officer, Voss finally made it to a flying squadron (bombers) first as an aerial observer and then as a pilot.  In November of  1916 Voss finally was sent to fighter squadron, his real calling.

Voss became close friends with master Ace Manfred von Richthofen, and their families became close friends as well.  Voss learned his trade with deadly efficiency, earning another Iron Cross (1st Class) and Germany’s highest honor, the Pour le Merite (commonly called ‘The Blue Max’).  Voss was selected to test the prototype of the Fokker F1 Triplane, a design he enthusiastically raved about for its incredible maneuverability, though it was no the fastest fighter at that time.  Rolling up a score of 47 victories by September 11th of 1917, second only to Von Richthofen, was not without danger, as Voss had suffered a wound and bullet holes in his airplanes along the way.  Returning from a leave period (in which Kaiser Wilhelm presented Voss with a signed photo of the Kaiser) on September 23, 1917, Voss went right back into combat, shooting down his 48th victim on the morning of September 23rd.  Celebrating his morning victory and sprucing up into fresh clothes, Voss returned to the air that afternoon for what would become his last patrol.  British and German planes were sent from their respective sides to joust in the air, held to lower altitudes by cloud cover.  Voss flying his Fokker Triplane flew faster than his squadron mates equipped with Pfalz DIII fighters, losing contact with his countrymen and flying into combat against multiple British fighters, at least 8 at a time and with aces among them.

During the 8 minute combat, Voss managed to damage at least 5 British planes seriously enough to knock them out of the fight, but he could only last so long as 6 remaining British fighters finally put enough bullets into the Fokker, and possibly into Voss, that the Triplane ultimately dived straight down into the ground where it exploded into thousands of pieces, ending the short, brave life of Werner Voss.   At least 1 more of the victorious British fighters landed with so much damage as to be scrapped.  British response to the intense combat they had experienced was not jubilant, but somewhat somber, as they realized how close so many of their number had come to death, and respecting in awe the skill and bravery of their opponent.

Voss was paid tribute by prominent Germans as would be expected, but was also lauded by his British foes, even to the point of expressing sincere regret at his death.  Speculation about exactly why Voss would so willingly engage so many enemy planes, and not try to escape when obviously overwhelmed will never settle the question of why Voss fought as he did on September 23, 1917, but certainly the accounts of the survivors of the epic aerial battle describe the incredible way Voss had fought.

Werner Voss goes down in the annals of aerial combat as one of the greatest aces in history.  Question for students (and subscribers): Which pilots would you rank among those deserving mention with this Teutonic hero?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Diggens, Barry.  September Evening: The Life and Final Combat of the German World War One Ace: Werner Voss.  Grub Street Publishing, 2012.

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.