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Attacks on parachutists refers to the killing or wounding of pilots, aircrews, and/or passengers while descending by parachutes to earth from their disabled aircraft during times of war. This practice is considered by most militaries around the world to be inhumane, barbaric, and unchivalrous, that it is unnecessary killing (e.g., they would eventually become prisoners of war if parachuted over enemy territory), that it is contrary to fair play, and that military pilots have to be held to a higher standard.

This custom began during the First World War when fighter pilots were targeting enemy observation balloons. However, after shooting down their balloons, many pilots refrained themselves from firing at downed persons who were parachuting to earth, because they felt it was inhumane and unchivalrous which only a few people could stomach. The chivalrous response to this practice, which only began towards the very end of the First World War when parachutes were finally deployed to pilots in fixed-wing aircraft, was seen as one whereby the pilots without defense should not be shot at. While this may have been true in some instances, it should be remembered that the tactical characteristics of the single seat fighter in the First World War made it advisable to shoot an opponent from behind, or if possible, to dive on him without warning. Although there were certainly instances of long and skilfully conducted duels between equal opponents, the majority of kills achieved by the major aces were at the expense of fledgling pilots, barely able to control their planes. Thus, the average life expectancy of a new aviator on the western front was somewhere between three to six weeks.

After the First World War, a series of meetings were held at The Hague in 1922–23. Based on experiences and stories from fighter pilots who participated in the First World War, a commission of jurists attempted to codify this practice with the Hague Rules of Air Warfare, Article 20 proscribed that:

In the event of an aircraft being disabled, the persons trying to escape by means of parachutes must not be attacked during their descent.

However, the Hague Rules of Air Warfare never came into force, and despite the strong feelings of chivalry around this issue, there was no legal prohibition on targeting defenseless airmen before or during the Second World War.[1][2]

In 1977, Protocol I in addition to the 1949 Geneva Conventions came into force. Article 42 of the Protocol protect persons "parachuting from an aircraft in distress" from attack. Once they reach the ground in territory controlled by the enemy, they shall be given an opportunity to surrender before being attacked unless it is apparent that they are engaging in a hostile act or attempting to escape. Airborne troops are not protected by this Article and, therefore, may be attacked, even if their aircraft is disabled and/or they are descending by parachutes.[3]

Not many states have ratified Protocol I but it is an accepted principle of international humanitarian law that targeting persons, other than airborne troops, parachuting from an aircraft in distress is a violation of the customary laws of war and is binding on all belligerents, whether or not they have ratified them.[4]

In their website, the International Committee of the Red Cross states the issue regarding the drafting of Protocol I:

Article 42 [of the 1977 Additional Protocol I] codifies a custom which began among some fighter pilots during World War I who considered it to be unchivalrous and inhumane to attack an adversary while he is parachuting to earth from a disabled observation balloon. The custom was further developed during World War II when the use of parachutes by aviators in fixed wing aircraft became routine. The principle of this custom extended to aircraft, was expressed in Art. 20 of the Hague Air Warfare Rules of 1922/1923, which never went into force. It was also expressed in several military law of war manuals and by important publicists.[5]

First World WarEdit

Second World WarEdit

War in EuropeEdit

In the beginning of World War II, there was a strong sense of chivalry between the British RAF and German Luftwaffe pilots; they like to regard themselves as 'knights of the air' when not shooting defenseless enemy pilots in their parachutes, as this same belief was held during World War I. The question of shooting an enemy pilot parachuting over his own territory arose bitter debate between the both sides. On August 31, 1940, during the Battle of Britain, RAF Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding dined with Prime Minister Winston Churchill at Chequers. After dinner, they discussed the topic about the morality of shooting parachuting Luftwaffe pilots. Dowding suggested that German pilots were perfectly entitled to shoot RAF pilots parachuting over Britain as they remained to be potential combatants (i.e., going back to a new aircraft to conduct another military mission) while RAF pilots should be refrained from firing at Luftwaffe pilots as they were out of the fight and become prisoners of war once they reached British soil. Churchill was appalled by suggestion, arguing that shooting a parachuting pilot "was like drowning a sailor".[6][7] On the German side, Luftwaffe commander-in-chief Hermann Göring asked Luftwaffe fighter ace Adolf Galland about what he thought about shooting enemy pilots while in their parachutes. Galland replied that, "I should regard it as murder, Herr Reichsmarschall. I should do everything in my power to disobey such an order". Goering—who had been a fighter ace himself during World War I—said, "That is just the reply I had expected from you, Galland".[8]

This does, of course, not mean that it never happened. In fact, there were numbers of incidents where the shooting of parachuting enemy aviators was well-documented. On 1 September 1939, in the Modlin area, during Germany's invasion of Poland, pilots of the Polish Pursuit Brigade encountered a group of forty German bombers escorted by twenty Bf 109 and Bf 110 fighter planes. During combat, Lt. Aleksander Gabszewicz was forced to bail out of his aircraft. While hanging in his parachute, Gabszewicz was strafed by a Bf 110. Second Lt. Tadeusz Sawicz, who was flying nearby, attacked the German plane and another Polish pilot, Wladyslaw Kiedrzynski, spiraled around the defenseless Gabszewicz until he reached the ground. On September 2, Sec. Lt. Jan Dzwonek, along with eight other Polish pilots, attacked a couple of German fighters approaching their way. In the battle, Dzwonek's plane was shot down and was forced to bail out. Hanging at his parachute, he was attacked twice by a Bf 110. Apparently, the Luftwaffe pilot was so busy attacking the defenseless Dzwonek, that Corporal Jan Malinowski, flying an obsolete P.7 fighter, downed the German plane without any problem. Dzwonek said the story regarding being shot down by a German pilot and and being attacked while hanging in his parachute:

I was hanging in the chute at about 2000 meters altitude when I noticed tracers passing near to me. They missed, but this pirate of the Third Reich not give up and attacked me again. This second time the wave of bullets also spared me. Shells passed to the left and right of my body. The German didn't get a third chance to kill me because my friend Jan Malinowski from 162nd Escadrille (flew on P.7a !) successfully attacked the German. On the first attack he set the right engine of the Bf 110 on fire, and on the second pass killed the pilot. The aircraft fell, crashing in pieces.

During my landing I damaged my backbone. I was transported to the hospital in Pabianice, where I heard someone say I had no chance to see next sunrise. I did go into a coma for 20 hours. When I awakened, the doctor told me, that in the same hospital was a Bf 110 pilot - - the one I downed.[9]

The next day, six Polish fighters battled against the German Bf 110s. In hard combat over Wyszkow city, Cpt. Zdzislaw Krasnodebski was forced to bail out. The German pilot who shot him down, aimed to finish his victim, shooting at Krasnodebski while he slowly glided down in his parachute. But Lt. Arsen Cebrzynski saw this deadly pass and Lieutenant Barents, a veteran of "Legion Condor", bailed out safely, and became a POW. Three days later, a lone PZL.23 Karaś aircraft took off on patrol, in the area of Warta-Sieradz-Zdunska Wola. The crewman were: Lt. Edmund Gorecki (observer), Corporal Marian Pingot (pilot), and Corporal Jan Wilkowski (gunner). During their way back from the mission, over the village of Borecznia near Kolo city, they flew at 1500 meters altitude. Suddenly they were attacked by four Bf 109's. The "Karas" caught fire. Corporal Pingot was killed in the plane, but Lt. Gorecki continued to fly until he was down to 1000 meters. When he bailed out, German pilots shot and killed him in the air. Corporal Wilkowski witnessed this act, and because he bailed at the last moment, at only 300 meters, he injured his legs.[10]


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