Imperial German Air Power 1914-1918: First German Aces of the War, 1914-1916

Imperial German Air Power: Part II

Imperial German air power can be described as nonexistent in the period before 1914. Though Prussia and Saxony developed air wings prior to 1914 almost the whole of German military finances and strategy went into the infantry and the navy budgets. Though the production and use of dirigibles and zeppelins for observation purposes was seen as generally more useful in the event of a large conflict with France or Russia.[1]

Anthony Fokker in his plane

When the Great War began infantry, cavalry, and artillery were called upon to wage war and thus received the most attention from military strategists, as they always had before even though Germany and the Entente powers had already met in bloody stalemate on both fronts in 1915. The first units to see service in support of the German Army Corps were the Fliegertruppe, two seat reconnaissance planes that were tasked with monitoring troop deployments and enemy positions.

Many of early trainees were from the ground services, injured infantrymen or frustrated cavalrymen who knew that their chances for glory were slim in a land war that was turning into bloody stalemate.[2] The first missions saw little enemy contact in a time which both sides could not and did not arm their aircraft. Some pilots had luck in forcing enemy pilots down by ramming their wings or engine blocks in almost melee-like combat in the skies over the trenches. Famed German Ace Oswald Boelcke scored some of his earliest victories in this manner though ramming was generally ineffective and dangerous.

Though slow to develop an effective air wing the Germans formed the Feldjager Abteilungen, which were flight formations attached to artillery commands in order to coordinate shelling on the front lines in France, Belgium, and throughout the scattered salient’s of the Eastern Front.[3] These fighter units came to be known after 1916 as the Luftstreitkr√§fte, the first German Air force. Later the Imperial Navy would utilize the air technology used on land for naval operations and joint army operations. In this early period when two planes did come in contact the combat was indecisive, though eventually pilots armed themselves with pistols, carbines, and even shotguns there were little casualties in the air that were not due to mechanical or pilot error.

Bulgarian Eindecker from the Macedonian Front c.1915

When the British and French armed their planes, so called ‘pushers’[4] with the Lewis machinegun, Central Powers air losses rapidly increased by mid 1915. The monoplanes of this early period, much slower than their 1917-1918 counterparts were not used properly by the Germans or the French, British, and certainly the Russians during the later years of the war. In a conflict still dominated by infantry their was hesitation from both sides to deploy resources to create large air wings-especially from the German High command, over the general usefulness of aerial warfare in the aid of massive land campaigns in 1914-1915.[5]

The emergence of the war planes designed by Fokker is one of the most critical periods in the emergence of greater German Imperial air power. The planes of Dutch engineer and aircraft design pioneer Anthony Fokker were mostly two seat planes in the first days of production and testing in early June 1915.

Max Immelman (b.1890-1916), "The Eagle of Lille"

After being armed with an interrupter gear equipped propeller and one Parabellum LMG14 or Spandau built MG08 machine gun, the Fokker E Series monoplanes became the first German planes designed to hold weaponry. However they were far from becoming potent weapons of war for the German military machine just yet. The first pilots to gain a number of victories and decorations were Max Immelman and Oswald Boelcke.

Regardless the Germans added greatly to the quickly emerging tactics and technology of the warplane, alongside their English and French counterparts. Besides dueling each other over the trenches and fields of Western Europe wherever a ground campaign was being fought, the Aces of World of World War I found the novelty of attacking and scattering hundreds terrified ground troops a potentially decisive tactic.[6]

Armed German Fokker early 1915

During the early observation period of Fokker’s earliest designs, the two young pilots-in-training Oswald Boelcke and Max Immelman, stationed at the aerodrome near Doaui, observed Fokker’s tests  and certainly witnessed the power and grace of the machines that would lead them to fame. It was in 1915 that Max Immelmann, not long after being shot down himself, scored his first victory in a Fokker E Series ‘Eindecker’, ushering in the first period of dominance of the German Ace. [7]

Oswald Boelcke in his Fokker 1916

The fight for the skies over the Western and Eastern Fronts had just begun and Fokker was critical in the reversal of fortunes for the Germans. Boelcke had victories in the air stretching back to July of 1915 and by the time of his death on the 28 October 1916 he had effectively written the manual on the ethos, tactics, and strategy of the Imperial German Air Corps.

Max Immelman and his Fokker Eindecker

The deaths of both Boelcke and Immelman though devastating for the men who served with them and the Imperial German war effort in general did give way to the exploits of many other notable German aces, the pinnacle being Manfred von Richthofen, the king of all World War One aces. The Baron’s first kill came on 17 September 1916 when flying for Jasta 2 in an Albatross D.II[8] he made contact with a British plane and quickly shot it down, scoring the first of his 80 victories. The Albatross he made famous was slick and maneuverable, at that time the ultimate stream-lined aerial combat machine. Even the earliest examples of the Albatross wielded two MG08’s giving it more than sufficient firepower with great top speeds and reasonable maneuverability.[9]

One important strategic addition in the creation of the Imperial German Air service was the formation of the Jagdstafflen (hunter squadrons) or Jastas. The Jasta were semi-autonomous fighter wings which operated close to the fields of battle during any given campaign. Dominated by Prussian officers they were born out of the necessity to codify and create air service battalions that were self sufficient and nominally independent in the field. The aerodrome of the Jasta was the citadel, barracks, and nerve center of the engineers, anti aircraft personnel, and pilots of the Luftstreitkräfte. Formed in part at the insistence of Boelcke and the other leading pilots of 1915-1916, the Jasta formations revolutionized unit and battalion sized tactics in aerial warfare. These hunters of the sky quickly developed a reputation amongst their enemies and within the rigid code defined hierarchy of Prusso-German military as dashing, bordering on reckless, adventurers and duelists of the skies.

Meanwhile the German public quickly became enamored with these young pilots whose exploits were reported in the news as proof of Germany's military might. Later the high command and even the Kaiser himself would take full advantage of the propaganda spawned by the many victories scored by German pilots. Following the publishing of the Dicta Boelcke the “golden age” of Imperial German flying officially began. For two years after the summer of 1916 the German air services and its pilots would rack up continuous victories against numerically superior foes, mostly French and British/Commonwealth fliers who were vexed by the aggressive and rather clever practice of aerial warfare in the Germanic style.

Boelcke and von Richthofen inspecting a captured Entente plane

Eventually this style though arguably less effective, found its way into the repertoires of Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman pilots through military advisers and the spread of Imperial air service doctrine abroad. For the German pilots on the Eastern and Western Front many would adher to the Dicta of Boelcke as if gospel; a dogma that the von Richthofen school worshiped.

 For the "Red Battle Flyer", Boelcke’s way was the only way to fight and win honorably as a warrior of the skies. Technology was obviously critical to this stage even though the Germans lagged behind considerably before 1916, especially against their French counterparts and their fast Nieuport 11 or model 17's. [1] At the end of the Great War it was the development of these tactics and strategy in relation to the application of technology in aerial combat that made the German pilot such a formidable opponent.

The Dicta of Boelcke

Hauptman Oswald Boelcke, Jasta 2, 40 Victories, Killed October 1916

1. Try to secure advantages before attacking. If possible, keep the sun
behind you.

2. Always carry through an attack when you have started it.
3. Fire only at close range, and only when your opponent is properly in your
4. Always keep your eye on your opponent, and never let yourself be
deceived by ruses.
5. In any form of attack, it is essential to assail your opponent from behind.
6. If your opponent dives on you, do not try to evade his onslaught, but fly to
meet it.
7. When over the enemy's lines, never forget your own line of retreat.
8. For the Staffel: Attack on principle in groups of four or six. When the fight
breaks up into a series of single combats, take care that several do not go
for one opponent.

[1] French escadrilles dominated their German opponents during Verdun 1916

Related Posts:

Suggested Web Sites:

Aerodrome, Aces and Aircraft and history of aerial warfare during World War I

WWI Aviation.com, Thousands of illustrations, timelines, development histories, photos, reproductions, and stat sheets on fighter-bomber European aircraft of WWI.

[1] Sumner, Ian German Air Forces 1914-1918 (Osprey Publishing) pgs. 1-4
[2] Baron von Richthofen served in an Uhlans cavalry regiment at the start of the conflict, becoming one of the first German soldiers to meet the Russian enemy in combat operations in August-September 1914
[3]  Imrie Alex German Fighter Units 1914-May 1917 (Osprey Publishing) pgs. 2-7
[4] Imrie pgs 3-5
[5]Reynolds, Quentin They Fought for the Sky (1957 Holt, Rinehart, Winston, Canada)
[6] American Ace Billy Mitchell noted this particular effect in 1920-1921
[7] Imrie pgs. 6-10
[8] The Aerodrome Aces and Aircraft of World War I Online Index
[9] Reynolds pgs. 29-36


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