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Archive Report: Allied Forces
1914 - 1918

Compiled from official National Archive and Service sources, contemporary press reports, personal logbooks, diaries and correspondence, reference books, other sources, and interviews.
Willy Coppens de Houthulst

Willy Coppens de Holthulst: Belgian Balloon Killer Extraordinaire

The leading Belgian ace of WW I, Willy Coppens de Houthhulst, was born on July 6, 1882 at Watermael Belgium. The son of a successful artist, Willy was called up for military service in 1912. After several years in the infantry, Willy was able to join the air arm as a pupil pilot in 1915.

He went to Britain for his flight training where he met Albert Ball. He earned his wings and returned to Belgium for advanced flight training at Etampes. Finally, he was posted to No. 6 Squadron flying the B.E. 2C on reconnaissance missions. He experienced his first aerial combat in May of 1917 when he survived an attack by four German fighters. Still disappointed about being in a reconnaissance unit, Willy was delighted in 1917 when he was transferred to Fighter Escadrille No. 1 based at Les Moeres airfield.

Initially flying Neuport Scouts, the unit was re-equipped with a capable French-made single seat fighter, the Hanriot HD.1. Designed by M. Dupont in 1916, the HD.1 was a single-seat, staggered-wing, biplane powered by a 120-HP Le Rhone rotary engine. The HD.1 had an interesting open fronted cowling, and metal panels reached as far back as the cockpit. In standard configuration the HD.1 was armed with only a single Vickers machine gun, and was capable of 114-MPH.

This lack of fire power caused many of the Italian pilots who flew the HD.1, including the top Italian ace to survive the War, to add a second gun. Although generally ignored in France, more than 800 were built for the Italians and more than 100 for the Belgians during WW I. Throughout the winter of 1917-18 Coppens had no meaningful enemy engagements.

However, on March 18, 1918 he agreed to attack an enemy balloon. These attacks were not easy because observation balloons were almost always protected by anti-aircraft batteries. His first attack was unsuccessful, and the young pilot learned that he must get special incendiary bullets, if future attacks were to succeed. On April 11 he attained his first victory over a German fighter.

Willy Coppens de Holthulst Shooting Down balloon

This fine print of Coppens is available from Cranston Fine Arts

In May, Coppens received a very small allocation of incendiary bullets. He decided that he would fire only four bullets at a time, and would fire only from very close range. This formula proved unstoppable for the young pilot who went on to attain 36 more victories during the remainder of 1918, making Coppens clearly the Balloon Buster Extraordinaire. Working in the Houthulst Forest region, Coppens would pounce almost every time the Germans put up an observation balloon. In September of 1918 he was awarded the Legion of Honour from Georges Clemenceau.

The balloon busting ace decided to repaint his Hanriot from green to blue, because the original color reminded him of a toy snake. On October 14th, following a successful balloon attack, Coppens was hit with shrapnel. He managed to crash land his aircraft behind his own lines and he was rushed to a hospital where one of his legs was amputated. Coppens continued to fly after the War, and he also served as Belgian Air Attache in London.

Willy Coppens Congratulated on Becoming Ace

19 May 1918: five minutes after Adj Willy Coppens landed with his Hanriot HD.1 H-D 24 having scored his 5th victory. Congratulated by his fellow fighter pilots from left to right.: Adj P. Dubois, Cdt F. Jacquet, Adj G. Kervyn de Lettenhove, 1SM G. Kervyn de Meerendre, Lt M. de Crombrugghe de Looringhe, Adj A. De Meulemeester and Lt J. Olieslagers (Photo: Courtesy Daniel Brackx)

Victories:


Date

Time

Plane

Location

Enemy

Thursday, 25 April 1918

1220

Hanriot HD

St. Joris

Scout

Wednesday, 8 May 1918

0710

Hanriot HD

Zarren

Balloon

Wednesday, 8 May 1918

0955

Hanriot HD

Houthulst

Balloon

Wednesday, 15 May 1918

0807

Hanriot HD

Houthulst

Balloon

Sunday, 19 May 1918

0945

Hanriot HD

Houthulst

Balloon

Wednesday, 5 June 1918

0640

Hanriot HD

Houthulst

Balloon

Sunday, 9 June 1918

0922

Hanriot HD

Zonnebeke

Balloon

Monday, 10 June 1918

0747

Hanriot HD

Ploegsteert

Balloon

Monday, 24 June 1918

0645

Hanriot HD

Warneton

Balloon

Monday, 24 June 1918

0646

Hanriot HD

Ploegsteert

Hannover CL

Sunday, 30 June 1918

0630

Hanriot HD

Bovekerke

Balloon

Sunday, 30 June 1918

0830

Hanriot HD

Gheluvelt

Balloon

Sunday, 30 June 1918

0834

Hanriot HD

Passchendaele

Balloon

Sunday, 14 July 1918

0930

Hanriot HD

Passchendaele

Balloon

Tuesday, 16 July 1918

1855

Hanriot HD

Bovekerke

Balloon

Friday, 19 July 1918

1920

Hanriot HD

Ruyterhoek

Balloon

Saturday, 20 July 1918

0557

Hanriot HD

Houthulst

Balloon

Monday, 22 July 1918

0730

Hanriot HD

Gheluwe

Balloon

Monday, 22 July 1918

0731

Hanriot HD

Wervicq

Balloon

Monday, 22 July 1918

0734

Hanriot HD

Comines

Balloon

Wednesday, 24 July 1918

1920

Hanriot HD

Ruyterhoek

Balloon

Saturday, 3 August 1918

0750

Hanriot HD

Reutel

Balloon

Saturday, 10 August 1918

0605

Hanriot HD

Leffinge

Balloon

Saturday, 10 August 1918

0625

Hanriot HD

Ruyterhoek

Balloon

Saturday, 10 August 1918

0745

Hanriot HD

Leffinge

Balloon

Saturday, 24 August 1918

1455

Hanriot HD

Ploegsteert

Balloon

Saturday, 24 August 1918

1457

Hanriot HD

Warneton

Balloon

Tuesday, 3 September 1918

1102

Hanriot HD

Tenbrielen

Balloon

Wednesday, 4 September 1918

0923

Hanriot HD

Wercken

Balloon

Friday, 27 September 1918

1105

Hanriot HD

Leffinge

Balloon

Friday, 27 September 1918

1106

Hanriot HD

Leffinge

Balloon

Sunday, 29 September 1918

1005

Hanriot HD

Leffinge

2-seater

Wednesday, 2 October 1918

1520

Hanriot HD

Leffinge

Balloon

Thursday, 3 October 1918

0814

Hanriot HD

Lendeleede

Balloon

Saturday, 5 October 1918

0820

Hanriot HD

Cruypenaerde

Balloon

Saturday, 5 October 1918

0600

Hanriot HD

Praatbos

Balloon

Monday, 14 October 1918

0605

Hanriot HD

Torhout

Balloon

In 1914, following the German invasion of Belgium, Coppens transferred to The Motor Machine Gun Corps. On 6 September 1915, he signed up for flight training in the Compagnie des Aviateurs. Ultimately, due to insufficiencies in Belgian training, he took eight weeks of leave to train to fly. He and 39 other Belgians learned to fly on their own expense in Britain. He received his pilot's certificate on 9 December 1915. After this training in Britain he had further training at the Farman School in Étampes, France and joined the Sixieme Escradrille as a sergent 1ere class (Sergeant First Class) on 8 April 1917 flying BE-2c two seaters. Later that month, he was assigned to Quatrieme Escadrille to fly a Farman pusher. On 1 May, he received a Sopwith 1½ Strutter two seater and promptly flew it into his first aerial combat.

In mid July, he transferred to the single seater fighter unit 1ère Escadrille de Chasse (1st Pursuit Squadron). He received the last remaining Nieuport 16 in the squadron; everyone else had upgraded to Nieuport 17s. When Hanriot HD.1s were offered to the squadron, he was the only pilot to initially accept one. His enthusiasm for the aircraft type prompted other pilots to also move over to Hanriots.

On 19 August Coppens was promoted to Adjutant. He continued his nervy but unsuccessful combat career against enemy aircraft until 17 March 1918. On that day he carried out his first attack on German observation balloons, as an aid to a ground assault by the Belgian Army. Though handicapped by lack of incendiary ammunition he punctured two balloons, causing the observers to bail out and the balloons to collapse to the ground.

Finally, on 25 April Coppens scored his first victory by downing a Rumpler two seater. On 8 May he finally found his metier, when he shot two balloons down in flames.

A week later, using his usual tactics of close range fire, Coppens cut a balloon loose from its ties. It bounced up beneath him and momentarily carried his Hanriot skyward. After his aircraft fell off the balloon, he restarted its engine and flew back to base. The balloon sagged into an explosion.

Later when on another attack run, he got shot at from a balloon. He parked his plane on top of the damaged balloon, shut down his engine in order to protect its propeller, and waited until the balloon descended to slide off the balloon and fly away.

From then on, Coppens' record was spectacular. Between April and October 1918 he was credited with destroying 34 German observation balloons and three airplanes, nearly as many victories as Belgium's other five aces combined. Unlike most fighter pilots of World War I, who used .303 caliber or 7.92 mm guns, Coppens used a larger bore 11 mm Vickers machine gun, having upgraded his weaponry prior to June 1918.

Coppens decorated by King Albert

In June, he was promoted to sous lieutenant, thus becoming an officer. His royal blue plane with its insignia of a thistle sprig wearing a top hat became so well known that the Germans went to special pains to try to kill him. On 3 August he shot down a balloon booby-trapped with explosives that when detonated from the ground narrowly missed killing him. The flaming wreckage of the balloon 'fell swift as doom on the watching [German] staff officers, killing many and injuring the rest'.

(Left: Coppens being decorated by King Albert)

On his last mission, 14 October, Coppens downed a balloon over Praatbos and was attacking one over Torhout when he was severely wounded by an incendiary bullet, smashing the tibia of his left leg and severing the artery. Coppens crash landed near Diksmuide and was taken to hospital, where his leg was amputated.

Coppens achieved all his victories flying a Hanriot HD.1 fighter.





Additional Information:

Willy Omer François Jean Coppens de Houthulst joined the army in 1912 and served with the 2nd Grenadiers before he transferred to the Compagnie des Aviateurs in 1915. At his own expense, he and thirty nine other Belgians enrolled in a civilian flying school at Hendon, England.

After additional training in France, Coppens began flying two-seaters in combat during 1916. The following year, he was assigned to single-seat fighters and soon became an expert at shooting down enemy observation balloons. After downing a balloon, Coppens would often perform aerial acrobatic displays above the enemy. On one occasion, the balloon he was attacking shot upward and Coppens actually landed his cobalt blue Hanriot HD.1 on top of it.

Switching off his engine to protect the propeller, he waited until his aircraft slid off the top of the balloon, then restarted the engine and watched as the German balloon burst into flames and sank to the ground. On the morning of 14 October 1918, his days as a fighting pilot came to an end near Thourout in northwestern Belgium. Just as he began the attack that would culminate in his 37th victory, Coppens was hit in the left leg by an incendiary bullet. Despite a severed artery and intense pain, he shot down his target and managed to crash land within the safety of his own lines.

His badly shattered leg had to be amputated. Nevertheless, Coppens set a parachute jump record in 1928, which he held until 1932, jumping from an altitude of about 19,700 feet. Before he retired from the army in 1940, Coppens served as a military attaché in France, Great Britain, Italy and Switzerland.


Sources: Belgian Archives, Wikipedia, theaerodrome.com, private sources in Netherlands, belgian-wings.be

SY 4 Mar 2016

Acknowledgements: Sources used by us in compiling WW1 material include: Dunnigan, James F. (2003). How to Make War: A Comprehensive Guide to Modern Warfare in the Twenty-first Century. HarperCollins. ISBN 978-0-060090-12-8.Durkota, Allen; Darcey, Thomas; Kulikov, Victor (1995). The Imperial Russian Air Service: Famous Pilots and Aircraft of World War I. Mountain View: Flying Machines Press. ISBN 978-0-060090-12-8.Franks, Norman; Bailey, Frank W.; Guest, Russell (1993). Above the Lines: The Aces and Fighter Units of the German Air Service, Naval Air Service and Flanders Marine Corps, 1914–1918. Oxford: Grub Street. ISBN 978-0-948817-73-1.Franks, Norman (2005). Sopwith Pup Aces of World War I. Oxford: Osprey Publishing. ISBN 978-1-841768-86-1.Franks, Norman; Guest, Russell; Alegi, Gregory (1997). Above the War Fronts: The British Two-seater Bomber Pilot and Observer Aces, the British Two-seater Fighter Observer Aces, and the Belgian, Italian, Austro-Hungarian and Russian Fighter Aces, 1914–1918. Oxford: Grub Street. ISBN 978-1-898697-56-5.Franks, Norman; Bailey, Frank W. (1992). Over the Front: A Complete Record of the Fighter Aces and Units of the United States and French Air Services, 1914–1918. Oxford: Grub Street. ISBN 978-0-948817-54-0.Guttman, Jon (2009). Pusher Aces of World War 1. Oxford: Osprey Publishing. ISBN 978-1-846034-17-6.Guttman, Jon (2001). Spad VII Aces of World War I: Volume 39 of Aircraft of the Aces. Oxford: Osprey Publishing. ISBN 978-1-841762-22-7.Kulikov, Victor (2013). Russian Aces of World War 1: Aircraft of the Aces. Oxford: Osprey Publishing. ISBN 978-1-780960-61-6.Newton, Dennis (1996). Australian Air Aces: Australian Fighter Pilots in Combat. Motorbooks International. ISBN 978-1-875671-25-0.Pieters, Walter M. (1998). Above Flanders Fields: A Complete Record of the Belgian Fighter Pilots and Their Units During the Great War. Oxford: Grub Street. ISBN 978-1-898697-83-1.Shores, Christopher (2001). British and Empire Aces of World War I. Oxford: Osprey Publishing. ISBN 978-1-84176-377-4.Shores, Christopher; Franks, Norman; Guest, Russell (1990). Above the Trenches: A Complete Record of the Fighter Aces and Units of the British Empire Air Forces 1915–1920. Oxford: Grub Street. ISBN 978-0-948817-19-9.Shores, Christopher; Franks, Norman; Guest, Russell (1996). Above the Trenches Supplement: A Complete Record of the Fighter Aces and Units of the British Empire Air Forces. Oxford: Grub Street. ISBN 978-1-898697-39-8., Aircrew Remembered Databases and our own archives. We are grateful for the support and encouragement of UK Imperial War Museum, Australian War Memorial, Australian National Archives, UK National Archives and Fold3 and countless dedicated friends and researchers across the world.
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