Carl Menckhoff (14 April 1883 – 11 January 1949) was a German First World War fighter ace, credited with 39 confirmed victories. Already in his 30s when he learned to fly, he was one of the oldest pilots in the Imperial German Air Service. He transferred from infantry service to aviation as a non-commissioned officer, but afterwards succeeded in being commissioned as an officer. He won the Pour le Merite ("Blue Max"), and was given a squadron command.
Having been taken prisoner on 25 June 1918, he remained incarcerated until August 1919 when he escaped into Switzerland. He returned to Germany where he succeeded in business, but where he was arrested in 1938 for currency infringements. Following his release from custody he moved to Switzerland, where he remained until his death in 1949.
Carl Menckhoff was born in Herford, Westphalia, in the Kingdom of Prussia, the son of Friedrich Wilhelm Menckhoff (1853–1929) and his wife Luise nee Siekmann (1856–1922). He was one of a family of at least eight and possibly ten siblings. His father ran a successful linen weaving mill, the Herforder Leinen-Verein Wilhelm Menckhoff, in which Carl was apprenticed and later (after a failed business enterprise of his own) employed.
As a young man, Menckhoff was keenly interested in motor cars, and probably participated in balloon flights with his brother Willi (who held a balloon pilot's licence): he believed that this background helped his later application to join the Air Corps.
Menckhoff reported for military service (as a "one-year volunteer") at age 20 in 1903, but was invalided out after six weeks observation in a military hospital with suspected appendicitis.
In August 1914, when he was 31, Menckoff enlisted in Infantry Regiment Nr. 106. He served on the Western Front, seeing action against the French in the vicinity of Chalons-en-Champagne and on the River Suippe, and later against the British in the vicinity of Armentieres. He was wounded several times and received the Iron Cross First Class and Second Class for gallantry, both by the end of 1914.
Left unfit for infantry service by his injuries, Menckhoff applied for transfer to the Luftstreitkrafte, and was accepted for pilot training in February 1915. Having qualified, he was posted in October 1915 back to the Western Front, to an airfield at Pergnies-Quessey, near Saint-Quentin, where he was again wounded during an aerial engagement in January 1916. In April 1916 he was transferred to the Eastern Front, where he was stationed at an airfield near Ashmyany. Here he gained useful flying experience but limited experience of combat. It was in the east that he trained as a single-seat combat pilot at Warsaw. At the end of 1916 he became a flight instructor in Cologne, and in January 1917 was promoted to Vizefeldwebel (staff sergeant). He then returned to the Western Front, assigned as a fighter pilot to Jagdstaffel 3, at that time stationed at Fontaine-Uterte near Saint-Quentin, and equipped with the Albatros D.III.
Menckhoff scored his first victory on 5 April 1917, downing a Nieuport 17 of No. 29 Squadron, Royal Flying Corps, flown by Lieutenant Norman Birks. The victories began to mount rapidly after that, though Menckhoff often returned from victorious flights shaken by his triumphs. He was shot down several times, but always returned to duty.
On 23 September 1917, he is said to have come to the aid of Werner Voss during the latter's battle against an overwhelming force from the Royal Flying Corps. Lieutenant Arthur Rhys Davids reportedly turned from engaging Voss and damaged Menckhoff's Albatros so badly that he had to crash land it. Rhys Davids then shot down Voss. However, Menckhoff made no mention of this engagement in his later memoirs, and his involvement has been questioned.
Menckhoff fought planes of No. 56 Squadron again on 28 September. In October 1917 he was promoted to Leutnant der Reserve. In December he was awarded the Hohenzollern House Order, Knight's Cross 2nd Class with Swords. By 4 February 1918 his victories totalled 20. One week later, he was assigned command of Saxon Jagdstaffel 72 as its initial Staffelfuhrer. His leadership style conserved his men's lives and the squadron's subsequent 60 victories were claimed with the loss of only one of its own pilots. The number of aircraft lost by his unit during this time is unknown.
On 23 April 1918, he was awarded Germany's highest decoration for valor, the Pour le Merite, his victory total having reached 25.
On 25 July, however, three days after his thirty-ninth victory, Menckhoff was shot down by Lieutenant Walter Avery of the 95th Aero Squadron, United States Air Service while the German ace was piloting one of his two Fokker D.VIIs. Captured by French troops at the crash site, Menckhoff was chagrined to learn that he was a rookie pilot's first victory. Avery cut the letter "M" from the crashed Fokker, but sportingly refused to deprive him of his Pour le Merite.
Following interrogation, Menckhoff was held as a prisoner of war, along with many other German pilots, at Camp Montoire, near Orleans.
Menckhoff remained a prisoner long after the war ended in November 1918. Despairing of his release, he finally escaped on 23 August 1919. Travelling on foot, by rail, and at one point in a stolen car, he managed to reach Switzerland eight days later, crossing the border near Mont Saleve and making his way to Geneva. He returned to Herford, but in 1920 moved to Berlin. Here he became manager of an airline, the Deutsche Luft Lloyd GmbH, which, however, failed in 1922–3. In the late 1920s he founded a heating company, the Caliqua Warmegesellschaft MBH: this was more successful, and he was able to establish daughter companies in France and Switzerland.
He established a place of residence in Switzerland, but in October 1938, when crossing the German-Swiss border at Basel, he was found to be carrying an illegal quantity of Swiss francs. He was arrested by the German authorities and held in custody for more than eight months. It was during this incarceration that he wrote a memoir of his First World War experiences.
Having been forced to surrender many of his shares and business patents, he was released in May 1939. He was warned that further punishment might follow, and so he moved to Switzerland permanently in the autumn of 1939. He settled in a villa in the grounds of Angenstein Castle, which was owned by his wife's family. He remained there after World War II.
Carl Menckhoff died of complications following an operation on 11 January 1949. He was buried in Basel.
Menckhoff married five times:In June 1905 to Elisabeth Alice Seyer. The marriage produced three daughters: Edelgarde, Elisabeth and Margot. Marriage dissolved.
In 1920 to Elisabeth ("Eli") Altmann. Divorced after three months.
In 1922 to Irmgard Dittrich. The marriage produced a daughter, Doris. Divorced 1925.
In April 1926 to Anne-Marie Braun. The marriage produced a son, Carl Wilhelm. Separated 1928; marriage dissolved 1936.
In 1936 to Leonore Quincke (1904–1980). The marriage produced a son, Karl Gerhard Georg Friedrich.
In May 2007, Walter Avery's daughter learned that Menckhoff's son, Gerhard Menckhoff, lived in the District of Columbia. She decided to return the fabric "M" from Menckhoff's crashed Fokker D.VII to the family. Gerhard Menckhoff explained he had not known his father was a war hero until after his death, and promised to pass the relic on to his son Carl, the German ace's namesake.