Benno Fiala von Fernbrugg was born in Vienna to an aristocratic family with a tradition of Military service. Fiala attended primary and secondary school in Vienna, and went on to major in mechanical engineering at the local University of Technology, graduating as an engineer. He had developed an early fascination with Aviation, but was initially refused aviation service, instead being gazetted as an officer in the engineers and assigned to Fort Artillery Regiment 1 in 1910.
Being assigned to the artillery did not however diminish his interest in aviation; his brother was a naval aviator and Fiala visited airports at every opportunity. Whilst on one of these visits, he met Emil Uzelac , Commander of the fledging air force of the Austro – Hungarian Empire. Uzelac arranged Fiala’s transfer to Fliegercompagnie No.1 of the Luftfahrtruppen as a technical officer. Fiala completed his training as a flying observer on the 28th of July 1914, the very day that Austro – Hungary declared war on Serbia.
In November 1914, Fiala took charge of a locomotive of a supply train and drove it to safety even though it was under attack by Russian troops and he was wounded in the action. He was awarded the Silver Military Merit Medal fir his part in this action. On the 10th of November, he also received a most unusual promotion to Leutnant ( Second Lieutenant ) ahead of his sequence in seniority.
Although trained as an observer Fiala’s duties in this the beginning of the war consisted mainly of arming planes with machine guns and experimenting with aerial cameras. He also rigged a 30 kilogram ( 66 pounds ) radio transmitter in an unarmed plane. It was used in May 1915 on the Russian front at the battle of Gorlice-Tarnow by sending corrections to a receiver on the ground, it successfully adjusted mortar fire. Fiala was briefly attached to the testing section of the Air Arsenal before being re-assigned to a flying unit.
Fiala had had a couple of unconfirmed victories whilst flying on the Russian front. Now he was transferred to Fliegercompagnie No. 19 on the Italian front in January 1916. There he flew a Hansa- Brandenburg C1 two-seater reconnaissance plane, scoring his first confirmed victory on the 29th of April 1916. On the 4th of May 1916, he was flying as observer in a Hansa – Brandenburg C1 flown by Adolf Heyrowsky when they teamed up with a second C1 to shoot down the Italian airship M-4. This semi – rigid dirigible had just been returning from a bombing raid when Fiala shot it down over Gorizia, Italy killing the entire crew of six.
Fiala was wounded by anti – aircraft fire at the beginning of 1917. It was during his recuperation that he decided to apply or pilot’s training. After he recovered he moved to Fliegerkorps No.41J, then into a Hansa-Brandenburg D1 fighter in Fliegerkorps No.12D. Starting on the 12th of August, he ran off a string of 5 confirmed and 2 unconfirmed victories. He scored once more in October before changing squadrons once again in November to move into an Albatros D.III with Fliegerkorps No.56J.
He notched up victory number nine with 56J, but didn’t spend long with them. He was placed in Command of 51J in January 1918. His steady accretion of victories helped shape Flik 51J in to the premier fighter squadron of the Austro – Hungarian Air Force. Especially notable was his 14th victory, on the 30th of May 1918 he downed British Ace Alan Jerrard in an action that was so fierce that the loser was awarded the Victoria Cross.
Fiala racked up his 28th victory on the 20th of August 1918, he continued to fly until October but was then posted to non-flying staff duties until the war’s end. The engineer turned fighter pilot had flown on two fronts which had more hazardous flying conditions and less opportunity for air combat than the Western front in France. But Fiala’s victory roll included a dirigible, three observation balloons, and a predominance of enemy fighters he had felled. He had claimed at least five unconfirmed victories. His awards included, The Knights Cross of the Order of Leopold with war decorations and swords, the Order of the Iron Crown 3rd class with war decorations and swords, the Gold Medal for Bravery, Silver and Bronze Military Merit Medals, Military Merit Cross 3rd class and the Iron Cross of 1914, 2nd class.
(C) Damian Grange 2020