Air Aces of World War One

Major Willy Coppens – The Belgian Balloon Buster 1892/1986 Pt.2

Finally on the 25th of April 1918, he scored his 1st victory, by shooting down a Rumpler 2 seater. On the 8th of May, he finally realised his metier by shooting down in flames 2 more balloons.

A week later using his same tactics of close range fire, Coppens cut a balloon loose from its ties. It bounced up beneath him carrying his Aircraft with it, after his Aircraft fell off the balloon Coppens re-started his engine and flew clear. The balloon sagged and exploded in flames.

Later when on another attack run, he got shot at from the balloons defenders. He parked his plane on the top of the damaged balloon, turned off his engine so that his propeller wouldn’t get damaged and waited until the balloon descended, then re-started his engine and flew safely away.

From then on, Coppen’s record was spectacular, Between April and October 1918 he was credited with destroying 34 German observation balloons and 3 Aircraft, that was almost as many as the other Belgian Aces combined. Unlike most fighter pilots of the time, who used .303 calibre or 7.92mm machine guns, Coppens used a larger bore Vickers Machine gun.

In June 1918 he was promoted to Sous – Lieutenant, thus becoming an officer. His royal blue Aircraft became so well known, That the Germans took special pains to dispose of him. On the 3rd of August he shot attacked a balloon that was booby-trapped with high explosives that when detonated from the ground came close to killing him. The flaming wreckage of the balloon fell on the German Officers who were awaiting his demise, killing the majority of them.

On his final fight on 14th October 1918, Coppens downed a balloon over Praatbos and was attacking another over Torhout when he was severely injured by an incendiary bullet, smashing the tibia of his left leg and severing the artery.Coppens managed to crash land near Diksmuide, where he was taken to Hospital and his leg amputated.

For his wartime service to his country, he was Knighted becoming Willy Omer Francois Jean Coppens de Houthulst. Houthulst named for a forest in his squadrons operating area.

Coppens was awarded medals, by six of the allied nations and virtually every award that a grateful Belgium could bestow upon him. A fitting tribute to an outstanding Aviator.

Observation balloons were a thorn in the side of any opposing army. In that they could observe troop movements and forecast advances before they happened. They were guarded by anti- aircraft batteries and were not that easy a target, therefore downing them was important.

(C) Damian Grange 2018

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