TV Week


Channel 4

In 1914, when World War I began, the aeroplane was so new the British had never used it in battle before. Eager recruits, some as young as 17, rushed to join the British army's new aircraft service - the Royal Flying Corps - and quickly came up against the Red Baron and the German hunting squadrons. By the end of the war in 1918, a new and terrifying form of warfare had been devised, the skies had been turned into battlefields and the cost to aviation pioneers had been enormous.

Fighting the Red Baron follows two modern-day pilots as they face the same challenges the aviators of WWI faced, in order to find out how aerial warfare changed so quickly in just four years. Andy Offer and Mark Cutmore are both Red Arrows pilots, the elite of the elite, hugely skilled pilots who served in RAF operations in Afghanistan and the former Yugoslavia respectively. In this film they fly original WWI aircraft, and carry out the key challenges the plane took on in the course of WWI: photo reconnaissance, artillery ranging and bombing missions, all leading to a final classic dogfight in replica period aircraft kitted out with camera guns.

At the start of the war, British High Command hadn't realised how the plane would revolutionise warfare. But pilots quickly proved their worth spotting enemy movements from the air, and photo reconnaissance was born. At first on these early reconnaissance missions, British and German pilots flew past each other and waved, but they were soon duelling with pistols. The race to develop fighter planes to bring the enemy was on. By 1916 the British aircrews on the Western Front were suffering severe losses and struggling to match Germany's more powerful planes, and their best RFC pilot, Lanoe Hawker, was killed in a fierce duel with Germany's most notorious fighter pilot, Manfred von Richthofen, nicknamed "The Red Baron". This German aristocrat loved hunting; his bedroom was covered with the serial numbers of British aircraft he'd shot down and the chandelier was made from the rotary engine of British plane. The Red Baron was recognisable by his red-painted plane: the colour of his former cavalry regiment.

In 1917, with pressure mounting on the Royal Flying Corps, a special team of talented new recruits, was formed. 56 Squadron had a flying ace, 20-year-old Albert Ball, as its own "Red Baron", with 48 victories to his name. This reckless and creative pilot lived and fought alone, but earned the 56 Squadron a reputation early on. The British fighter pilots, who were often very young, were highly skilled and lived in relative luxury on base, but lived in constant fear of what awaited them in the air. In April 1917 the life expectancy dropped to just 11 days and the Royal Flying Corps was nicknamed "The Suicide Club". 56 Squadron worked tirelessly to improve their planes and flying skills, and by the end of the war they had gone from strength to strength: achieving a record 22 aces and over 400 victories, more than any other German or British squadron. In 1918 The Red Baron was finally shot down, and it became clear that the young pilots of WWI had changed warfare forever.

Today in their extreme WWI flying challenges, Andy and Mark test their flying skills to the limit and it is an exhilarating and surprising experience. They find that all the aspects of modern aerial warfare, from surveillance to artillery ranging, were already being refined by their pioneering counterparts almost 100 years ago. Their journey charts the historical "big-bang" moments of the race for aerial supremacy and reveals how, in just four years of war, aircraft were transformed from flimsy flying machines to the warplanes recognisable today.


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