Monday, April 12, 2010

Gottfried von Banfield

The Austrian Military Academy at Wiener-Neustadt has a room, a monument to former Imperial glory. Oil paintings of the great generals of Imperial Austria adorn the walls, all of whom were recipients of Imperial Austria’s highest order The Maria Theresa Order. Introduced in 1757 by Empress Maria Theresa, the prestigious award honoured exceptional courage in wartime. Many recipients such as Browne, Macquire, O’Donell and Lacy were Irish. One painting, depicting a young man in naval uniform stands out from the rest, that of Gottfried von Banfield, the empire’s greatest air ace.
He was born in 1890 in Castelnuovo, then part of The Austro-Hungarian Empire, in present day Italy, as the youngest of five children, near the homeport of the now nonexistent Austrian Navy in Pola.
His father was Richard von Banfield of Clonmel and Castlelyons. The von Banfields were by no means the only Irish in Trieste. With the establishment of the Austrian Imperial navy in 1720, Georg Forbes of Granard (it is interesting that most of the Wild Geese, while retaining Irish surnames took on German Christian names) became the first grand admiral and set up the naval base at Trieste. Admiral Richard Barry who also served in the area organised the naval defence of Venice in 1859.
Richard von Banfield made his name in 1886 in the Austro-Italian war during the battle of Lissa in the Adriatic, when he sank the Italian flagship the “Re d’Italia”. Years later his son Gottfried would fight the same foe, and as the most highly decorated air ace of The Austro-Hungarian Empire on a par with Baron von Richthofen, become even more famous than his father.
The young Gottfried was sent to military school at the age of eleven. Before he would be accepted, however he had to take Austrian citizenship. He would later attend the naval academy at Fiume and graduated in 1909. After a brief spell as a frigate-lieutenant, he began pilot training. He perfected his training under the Frenchman Jean Louis Conneau, a famous pilot known throughout Europe at the time. He would later meet his teacher as an adversary over the skies over the Adriatic.
He was posted to Pola, where he began his training in seaplanes, and assumed command of the seaplane station there, which was named after him and where he would soon become something of a living legend. He flew a Lohner biplane seaplane and it was in this plane that he scored his first victories against the Italians and their French allies in June of 1915.
He later led a highly successful attack on the Italian flotilla at the central Italian port of Ancona on the Adriatic. His prowess soon earned him the title “The Eagle of Trieste”. In total, he would fly 400 sorties against the enemy and was the first imperial Austria pilot to score a victory at night.
Just how many victories he scored is a matter of dispute. Some sources say twenty, though some of these were unconfirmed. Naval pilots had the disadvantage over other aviators in that the planes they shot down were generally over water, making it more difficult to confirm a kill. His sorties were not without danger and he was lightly wounded three times and quite seriously in 1918.
In 1917, von Banfield was summoned to meet with Kaiser Karl, son of Franz-Josef who had died the previous year. He was to receive The Maria Theresa Order, the highest decoration the emperor could bestow. He was one of only 1,135 recipients of the award and the only Imperial Austrian pilot to receive such a distinction. As part of the award, von Banfield was raised to the status of Freiherr (Baron). It was the 180th time the order was bestowed, and it would be the last time in Imperial Austria. Imperial Austria collapsed in 1918 as did many other empires and when Austria became a republic titles such as ‘von’ and ‘baron’ were outlawed for Austrians citizens.
With the war over von Banfield like thousands of others now faced an uncertain future. Italy annexed Trieste and he was for a time imprisoned by the Italian authorities. After his release, he worked for Skoda in Prague before immigrating to England in 1920 where he married Countess Maria Tripcovich of Trieste. They lived in Newscastle and had one son, Raphael Douglas, who was born in 1922. He would grow up to become a composer under the name Raffaello de Banfield Tripcovich and die in 2008 leaving no heirs.
In 1926, von Banfield returned to Trieste and took over his late father-in-law’s salvage business. He also took on Italian citizenship and soon became a well-known and well-liked figure in the area with the locals referring to him as ‘il nostro Barone’ or ‘Our Baron’.
His salvage business turned out to be highly lucrative. Once the Second World War started, he had plenty of work in the Adriatic and Mediterranean. His maxim was ‘if it’s easy it doesn’t interest me’. He won international acclaim when he cleared the Suez Canal of mines and debris in record time following The Suez Crisis.
He visited Ireland on several occasions. The French honoured him with the Legion d’Honnnuer in 1977 and although now based on land he retained a passion for sailing, which he carried out until he was 90.
His died in 1986, aged 96. His passing brought about not only the death of the Austria’s most well known fighter ace, but also the last knight of the Maria Theresa Order, ending a 230 year old tradition. For the Irish it signalled the end of 300 years of Irish military service to Austria as von Banfield was also the last of the wild Geese. In honour of his achievements, the graduating class of 1990 at Austria’s Military academy bore his name.

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