By Jon Guttman
Born in Montreal on October 30, 1894, Gerald Alfred Birks served as an infantry officer in Flanders and the Somme in 1916, and subsequently qualified as a pilot in the Royal Flying Corps (RFC). Posted to No. 66 Squadron in Italy, he flew a Sopwith Camel and was credited with bringing down two Austro-Hungarian aircraft by April 1, 1918, when the RFC and Royal Naval Air Service were amalgamated into an independent arm, the Royal Air Force. Then, on April 10, he got a new flight leader in the person of Captain William G. Barker from Dauphin, Manitoba. From that time on, Birks’ combat career took a decidedly more bellicose turn.
On May 2, Birks and two comrades attacked an Austrian Oeffag-built Albatros D.III over Levico and Birks was credited with shooting it down. His opponent, Leutnant der Reserve Kajetan Kosinski of the recently formed Fliegerkompagnie 68/J, was wounded and, in spite of a dead engine, managed to force-land in his own lines.
On May 4, Birks became embroiled in another engagement with Flik 68/J over Vidor, during which he brought his score up to five and acedom. Many decades later, he vividly recalled that dogfight:
Four of us were on patrol, led by Bill Hilborn from British Columbia. We were attacked by two flights of six planes. Most of them (if not all) were Albatros D.IIIs.
Both of the enemy machines that I shot down landed on our side of the front lines — the only two that did. Franz Fritsch was the only name that I knew of at the time. I was very sorry for him. I shot his machine out of control at about 14,000 feet. All the way down he knew that he had to crash. Italian soldiers on the scene of his crash told me that his plane burst into flames at about 1,000 feet, and that he climbed out on a wing. They told me that he had jumped from about 300 feet, missing a large haystack by about one yard. They said that he lived for two or three hours. I have never met such a fine-looking or handsome young man.
The other fellow, Karl Patzelt, was more fortunate. Ten seconds after I opened fire on him, he was burned to a crisp.
Of the six victories claimed by the British in that dogfight, Birks accounted for Oberleutnant Karl Patzelt and Flugzeugsführer Franz Fritsch. Patzelt, a Bohemian, had previously been credited with five victories before getting command of Flik 68/J. In addition, Lieutenant George Mason Apps sent Stabsfeldwebel Andreas Dombrowski down to crash-land, after which Dombrowski was strafed and seriously wounded by Lieutenant George D. McLeod of No. 28 Squadron.
Curiously, Dombrowski was credited with a Camel in flames before he was brought down, for his sixth and final victory. In fact, Birks attested, “the four of us from 66 Sqdn. all got back to our airfield. None of us was wounded, although Apps’ machine was badly shot-up. He and his adversary had gone at each other three times before Apps finished his opponent.”
On May 7, Birks was awarded the Military Cross. Four days later Barker, Birks and Hilborn each claimed an enemy fighter shot down over Torre di Mosto, Birks’ victim falling in flames. The Austrians’ only loss was Zugsführer (senior corporal) Slavko Gyurgyev of Flik 61/J, killed when his Albatros fell in flames south of Torre di Mosto.
On the morning of May 19, Phönix D.I fighters of Flik 14/J took off to intercept an Italian bomber squadron, only to tangle with their escorts, probably Hanriot HD.1s, over Cismon. Three victories were credited, including one to Austrian Stabsfeldwebel Karl Urban as his fifth. As the Flik 14/J pilots were returning to base, however, they were jumped at 0730 hours by Camels of 66 Squadron and in the next five minutes Birks destroyed two of them, killing the commander, Oberleutnant Karoly Benedek, andFeldwebel Ferdinand Czerny.
At noon the next day a flight of Camels from 66 Squadron encountered a photo-reconnaissance plane of Flik 57 being escorted by eight Albatros D.IIIs of Flik 42/J. Birks and Hilborn were each credited with a fighter, but the only casualty was Albatros 153.163, which force-landed with a dead engine near Piave di Soligo; its Hungarian pilot, Korporal Sándor Szijjartó, was unhurt.
On May 24, Birks became involved in a classic dogfight that would end the career of Offizierstellvertreter József Kiss de Ittebe és Elemer, the leading Hungarian ace with 19 victories.
“One or two days before the final fight with Kiss,” Birks commented, “Barker and I were on patrol when we were attacked by two enemy aircraft which completely dominated the situation. I was not able to fire a single bullet. When they had had enough, the two planes flew away. Neither Barker nor I were wounded, nor were our own planes hit. At the time, we felt certain that the attackers were Kiss and his partner. My memory does not serve me well, but I believe that in the first meeting Kiss and his partner attacked from above, and in the second meeting Barker and I had the advantage of being above. I remember our first meeting quite vividly!”
Unknown to Birks, it is unlikely that Kiss could have dominated him and Barker that day. Grievously wounded on January 27, 1918, Kiss, who was obsessed with earning a field commission from the Austro-Hungarian army (in spite of the fact that its conservative-minded high command had never bestowed one before), had not taken sufficient time to recuperate before rejoining his old unit, Flik 55/J. Comparing photographs before and after his wounding shows Kiss to be still in shaky health in May 1918.
More likely the enemy pilot who so impressed Birks with his skill was another Hungarian ace, Sandor Kasza, who had been an infantryman and later a flight instructor before joining Flik 55/J in August 1917. Displaying a natural talent as an aerobatic pilot, Zugsführer Kasza was credited with bringing down a Camel in enemy territory south of Cima Maroa for his fifth victory on May 22. Very likely he — and the Austro-Hungarian XIII Corps, which confirmed the victory — had misperceived an evasive spin or dive by Barker or Birks to be fatal, an error commonly made by both sides throughout the war.
On May 24, word of Italian Caproni heavy bombers crossing the lines reached Flik 55/J at Pergine, and Kiss was ordered to lead Feldwebel István Kirják and Zugsührer Kasza to intercept them. All three Hungarians were flying Phönix D.IIas, new fighters of Austrian design noted for ruggedness and a good climb rate, but not for manoeuvrability — intrinsically, no match for the Sopwith Camel in a dogfight.
On that same morning Barker, flying his usual Camel B6313, led Birks, in B6424, and Apps, in B5190, on patrol. At 1040 hours, according to Birks’ account, he and his squadron mates were flying at 17,000 feet, “in good weather and fair visibility,” when they saw “three EA [enemy aircraft] over Grigno.” After pursuing what Birks identified as “two [Albatros] D.Vs and one Berg,” Barker’s patrol engaged them and “three other EA, D.Vs, over the valley at the southern foot of Mount Coppolo.”
While the RAF pilots were unfamiliar with the Phönix D.IIa — as made evident by Birks’ combat report, among others — their opponents had previous experience fighting Camels, and had worked out tactics for dealing with them. As agreed in their pre-arranged plan, Kiss and Kirják dived away, seemingly to avoid combat, while Kasza stayed to attract the three Camels, using his outstanding skill to evade their fire. With their attention thus drawn to Kasza, Kiss and Kirják would zoom up and attack from behind.
Initially the Hungarians’ feint worked, with all three Camels concentrating on Kasza. As his two comrades came up behind the Camels, Kasza went into a 1,600-foot dive, then pulled up to rejoin the fight. As he did, however, he thought he saw three more Camels join the engagement. These could have been any of four three-plane flights sent up by Nos. 28, 45 and 66 Squadrons at that time, although none of them reported seeing, let alone engaging, any enemy aircraft.
At that point, reports from both sides become confused in the heat of combat, as noted in No. 66 Squadron’s report: “Barker got under the tail of one of these EA unobserved and after firing about 40 rounds, EA went down out of control and crashed on some hutments in the valley and burst into flames.” This would have been Kasza, who was still flying, but the stratagem devised by the Flik 55/J pilots was coming undone at the hands of equally combat-seasoned adversaries. At that time, Apps had four victories to his credit, Birks had nine and Barker had claimed his 29th the day before.
Re-entering the fray, Kasza saw Kiss’ Phönix spraying tracers into a Camel when another got on his tail. The first Camel dived with Kiss in pursuit, but Kasza thought Kiss’ movements to be uncertain, suggesting that he was wounded or his plane damaged. Getting on the tail of Kiss’ pursuer, Kasza fired and saw his target go down, but then “three” more Camels got behind him. Bullets penetrated the wooden fuselage just behind Kasza’s seat and his Phönix suddenly fell into a spiralling dive. Kasza managed to recover, then nursed his stricken plane to Feltre aerodrome.
According to Birks’ account, he “attacked the Berg and after a very short flight EA went down with wings off. This was observed by Captain Barker.” Barker claimed that his first victim fell in the Val Sugana, while Birks’ victim crashed nearby at Lamon.
The British combat report continues: “Lieutenant Apps engaged one of the remaining two EA of the first formation, who was on Lieutenant Birks’ tail. Lieutenant Apps fired a long burst when EA was doing a climbing turn and EA went down out of control and crashed in the valley … the remaining D.V of the first three EA was an exceptionally skilled pilot and Lieutenant Birks fought him for a long time. Then Lieutenant Apps joined in the attack. Neither pilot could get EA down so Captain Barker joined in the fight and got on tail of EA. Captain Barker fired a short burst at EA who went down out of control and dived vertically into the same hutments where Captain Barker’s first EA burst into flames.”
After all three Camels returned to No. 66 Squadron’s airfield, Birks summed up the claims: “Two EA shot down by Captain Barker, one EA shot down by Lieutenant Birks and one EA shot down by Lieutenant Apps. The pilot of one of the D.Vs shot down by Captain Barker was exceptionally skillful.”
Of the three Flik 55/J pilots who took off from Pergine that morning, only Kirják (with two victories, the only non-ace of the six combatants) returned to his airfield. He was unhurt, but few parts of his plane were not full of bullet holes, and he was probably the “D.V” that Apps claimed over Mount Coppola. Kasza returned in his repaired fighter that afternoon. Apparently his first intentional dive and his second out-of-control spiral had caused Barker to claim him twice!
Sometime afterward, Austro-Hungarian troops found Kiss dead amid the wreckage of his Phönix 422.10, on a hillside near Lamon, where Birks had claimed his “Berg” had fallen. Kiss’ wristwatch had stopped ticking at precisely 1100 hours.
Posthumously made a Leutnant (the only Austro-Hungarian, alive or dead, so commissioned), Kiss was buried at Pergine on May 26, during which an Allied plane flew over and dropped a wreath with a message in English: “The Royal Flying Corps sends a last greeting to the brave foe, Jos. Keash (sic), who, in an air combat over Campolongo, died the death of a hero.”
On June 3, Birks added a bar to his Military Cross. One day earlier he had received D8101, a replacement for his faithful but battle-weary Camel B6424. “It was also marked ‘P,’” Birks commented. “It had a more powerful engine. I requested that the machine guns which were on B6424 be transferred to my new machine. My commanding officer granted my request. I still have the bullseye (the blue, white and red cockade) from the right-hand side of B6424.”
At 1030 hours on June 9 Birks tested his new mount against a flight of Albatros D.IIIs of Flik 9/J east of Levico. Two were claimed by Barker and one by Birks. Flik 9/J’s only documented casualty was Feldwebel Lajos Telessy, a Hungarian with four victories before being wounded that day, dying in hospital the next.
On June 15, the Austro-Hungarians launched their last offensive, directing their main thrust against the Italians on a 25-mile front along the Piave River. At the same time, the Austro-Hungarians assaulted French forces at Mount Grappa, and threw four divisions against the British 23rd and 48th divisions on the Asiago plateau.
The Italian army, recovered from the Caporetto debacle and its soldiers thirsting for revenge, held its ground, as did the French and British. At the same time, the three Camel squadrons engaged enemy planes, strafed reinforcements and bombed Austro-Hungarian pontoon bridges across the Piave. At 0900 hours on June 21, Birks had his twelfth and final success in a dogfight in which Apps claimed one and Barker two enemy fighters destroyed over Motta di Livensa. The Austrians lost Albatros D.III 153.188 whose pilot, Oberleutnant Friedrich Dechant of Flik 51/J, died with two previous victories to his credit.
By June 22, the Austro-Hungarian commander, Feldmarschall Svetozar Boroevic Freiherr von Bojna, conceded defeat and began evacuating his surviving troops across the Piave. From that time on, the Allied armies would go on the offensive, until the final capitulation and demise of the Habsburg Empire on November 4, 1918.
On July 1, Birks was posted out of No. 66 Squadron. He recalled with some satisfaction his commander’s parting words: “As I was leaving, (No. 66 Squadron’s commander Major J. Tudor) Whittaker said to me: ‘When you arrived I thought that I had drawn a lemon, but I have been forced to change my mind.’”
Birks went on the RAF unemployed list on March 13, 1919. The once formidable fighter ace went on to be a philanthropist, an avid patron of the arts, and an artist in his own right. He lived by a professed philosophy of “Keep well, keep smiling, have fun,” right up to his death in Toronto on May 26, 1991, at age 96.