"A Little Latin and . . . . "
In 1762, during the Seven Years’ War, Vice-Adm. Sir Samuel Cornish was put in command of a squadron secretly fitted out in India for the purpose of capturing Manila from the Spanish. On September 24th Cornish’s squadron (which comprised eight ships-of-the-line, three frigates, and three East Indiamen) landed a small British army under Brig. Gen. Sir William Draper near the city.
Although Sir William only commanded about 3,000 troops, he promptly invested the city, which was held by less than a thousand regulars and militiamen. Under the guidance of Archbishop Manuel Rojo, acting governor-general of the Philippines, the small garrison, supported by a large number of Filipino volunteers, put up a spirited defense. But the British prevailed, beaching the city walls on October 4th. Manila surrendered on terms two days later.
Now two men as different as Sir Samuel and Sir William would be hard to find. Sir Samuel was something of an anomaly in the eighteenth century. Born into a poor family, he had little formal education, but had risen in the Royal Navy solely on his outstanding merits as a sailor and a scrapper. Sir William, in contrast, came from a prosperous family, and by one account was "one of the most accomplished scholars of his age." Considered a master of Latin usage, Sir William prided himself on his literary attainments. His skills in Latin proved helpful during the Manila expedition, for it transpired that none of the Britons were particularly fluent in Spanish, nor any of the Spaniards in English. Thus, negotiations between the British and the Spanish, before, during, and after the surrender of the city, were conducted by Sir William and Archbishop Rojo in Latin, the one language that they had in common. Under the terms of the surrender, the Spanish were supposed to pay an indemnity to the British, who agreed in turn not to plunder the capital.
Now Rojo was a rather clever fellow. All during the occupation he covertly promoted widespread resistance to the occupiers. The two British commanders, who quarreled among themselves shamelessly, failed to realize that Rojo was double-crossing them. In fact, they held the good prelate in such high regard that when he died quite suddenly in early 1764, they gave him a splendid military funeral. By then, the war had actually ended, though it took some six months for the news to reach Manila. At the end of May, 1764, the British finally evacuated Manila. Nor did they ever get the agreed upon ransom for the city. Archbishop Rojo’s skills at Latin had been far superior to Sir William’s. The permitted the good churchman to word the terms of the surrender in such a way that the Spanish were easily able to evade payment.
As a result, Sir Samuel later remarked that he would never again accept a command in conjunction with an officer who understood Latin.
Leutnant von Eschwege’s Last Mission
Like most young Germans of noble family, Rudolph von Eschwege (b. 1895) was destined for a military career. And thus it was that the young man joined the cavalry, shortly before Europe erupted into what would become World War I. The young officer took part in the opening campaigns of the war, seeing action on several occasions. But it soon dawned on all but the very slow learners that cavalry wasn’t likely to garner much glory in this new kind of war. So late in 1915 von Eschwege joined the air service.
The young man was soon serving with the 36th Squadron, conducting reconaissance missions over the Western Front. In 1916 he was transferred to the Macedonian Front. It was over Macedonia that he began to acquire a reputation as a fighter pilot, scoring two kills while serving with the 66th Squadron. In Janaury of 1917, he was transferred to the 30th Squadron, and began raking up an impressive score, and soon became known as " The Eagle of the Aegean."
By October of 1917, von Eschwege had achieved 16 kills. Now all of these had been of Allied aircraft, often observation planes but sometimes fighters. The Allies had also deployed a number of observation balloons over the front, and these were proving troublesome to the German and Bulgarian troops holding the lines.
An observation balloon was essentially a large gas bag tethered to the ground by a cable. From under the balloon, a small gondola was suspended, from which one or two men could observe the front, direct artillery fire, and even spot troops movements in the enemy’s rear, communicating with the ground by telephone. Surprisingly, given they were held aloft by highly flammable hydrogen, observation balloons were rather hard to shoot down. In fact, by October of 1917 the Allies had not yet lost a single observation balloon to enemy aircraft over Macedonia.
So although observation balloons seemed pretty inoccuous targets, they began to interest von Eschwege. Now the British were in the habit of lofting an observation balloon pretty much every morning on the western side of the River Struma, which gave them an excellent view of the Bulgarian lines. The young German ace decided to make it his personal business to down the balloon. And he did so on the morning of October 28, 1917, flying a Halberstadt Scout. He dived down on the balloon from out of the sun, guns blazing, and had the satisfaction of seeing the British observer take to his parachute. But the balloon failed to explode! Apparently von Eschwege had either missed the gas bag entirely, or the rounds " he had thoughtfully loaded his machine guns with incendiary rounds " failed to ignite the hydrogen; there probably was not enough oxygen mixed with the hydrogen for it to explode. Finally, on his fourth pass, by which time the balloon was proably well perforated, and thus well aerated, von Eschwege was rewarded with a spectacular explosion, and watched as the burning balloon plunged earthwards; by his reckoning it was his 21st kill, though officially only 17 had been confirmed. At that moment, however, he spotted several Allied fighters that were rapdily approaching. On any other occasion, von Eschwege might have tried tangling with the enemy fighters, but with his ammo low, he eluded them and headed for home.
Over the next few weeks, von Eschwege accounted for one " possibly two " more observation balloons and a British Sopwith 1½-Strutter, a relatively hot fighter. On the morning of November 21st, he downed another balloon, near Orljak. And then he spotted yet another. He bore in, and suddenly the balloon’s observation gondola exploded in a tremendous blast that tore von Eschwege’s airplane to pieces, apparently killing him instantly.
What had happened?
Having become tired of losing their aircraft, the men of No. 17 Balloon Section of the Royal Flying Corps had prepared a decoy target. They packed 500 pounds of explosives in the balloon's gondola, and then connected the detonator to the ground by a wire. When von Eschwege bore in for the kill, they had detonated the explosives.
Rudolph von Eschwege was officially credited with 20 kills, and claimed six more. Only 22 at the time of his death, von Eschwege never knew that he had been awarded the coveted "Pour le Merit - the Blue Max," the highest decoration of the House of Hohenzollern.