Imperial German Air Power, 1914-1918 Part II: The ‘Red Battle Flyer’ and the Aces of 1916-1918

The deployment of the Imperial German air services Jastas followed closely to what Hauptman Oswald Boelcke had envisaged before his death, the 'Red Baron', Manfred Freiherr von Richthofen in particular, always having took pride in having  stayed true to his late contemporary and friend’s pedagogy. However the Jastas rosters or lineups themselves changed rapidly with the death or disablement of pilots during missions. By 1917 many more of Jagdstaffeln, or Jastas, hunting groups, were created in Bavaria, Saxony and elsewhere, with their bases of operations spread between the various theaters of war, from France, to Russia, Macedonia, Palestine, and Turkey, the German air services rapidly expanded in the months from 1916 into the spring 1917.

Depiction of Royal Prussian Jagdstaffeln, 'Jasta 18' in action 1916-1917

Though all the major German Kingdoms fielded Jagdstaffeln, Bavaria, Prussia, Saxony, & Württemburg among them, it was the Prussians who were the undoubted paramount force in the aerial war over the Western Front from 1917-1918, larger, with more victories and missions flown than any other German state. [1]

With the expansion of forces even ace pilots often times to their own frustration were taken out of front line duty to recuperate and allow for trainees to see service in the field. When one became as famous as von Richthofen, Werner Voss, or Erich Löwenhardt considerations were made to have the pilot leave action to appear in public, and to meet with the Kaiser and the General Staff for morale and photo opportunities. [2]

Erich Löwenhardt (b.1896-1918), killed above France August 1918

Furthermore many of the Jagdstafflen saw frequent changes in personnel and leadership due mainly to the hazardous and dangerous nature of aerial combat. Later in 1917 a Jagdgeschwader were formed as the designation a battalion formed from four individual Jastas joined together under one command.                                                           

Throughout the slow collapse of German's Western Front the German air services still continued to defeat their opponents in the sky even as the Reich crumbled from within. A lack of material and logistical supplies made it increasingly hard to keep their planes flying though new designs by Fokker and Pfalz debuted in the last two years of the war which were of superior quality. [3]

German tail-gunner, Belgium 1918

It was not the pending economic and political of collapse of the Central Powers that worried many of these Ace pilots, nor the lack of basic military necessities, but the failure and eventual collapse of discipline and the structure of the proud German military across the service branches from the Navy, Army, and eventually the Air services. If they had planes to fly, ammunition, and the fuel to keep flying, and winning, Germany might of been still been able to claim victory, as many of the German Aces may have argued in 1918. However unrealistic the airmen of Prussia and the other German kingdoms were, they as well as many millions of other German military members were outraged by the Armistice of November 1918. The German Aces and as well many other Entente Aces feeling cheated of even more victories and awards in the skies.

Some of the German pilots most notably von Richthofen had became increasingly vocal and affected by the coming certain defeat of Germany to the French, British, and now the Americans.[4] When the Red Battle Flyer was finally killed by a lucky machine gun burst from an anti-aircraft position whilst flying over a trench in hot pursuit of a British aircraft in April 1918 [5], the scramble to replace the greatest Ace of World War I was on, despite perhaps the lowest morale point in the history of the German Imperial air services up to that point.

Manfred von Richthofen, the Red Baron, aka the Red Battle Flyer

Influence of Imperial German Aces on the history of aerial warfare

The ultimate low for Germany’s air service was its destruction at the end of the war following the treaty of Versailles which declawed the German-Prussian military tradition until the 30’s when it was subverted by the Nazi State and their military re-rearmament.

Löwenhart had been killed weeks before von Richthofen and by the wars end Ernst Udet with 62 victories would be highest ranking living German Ace of the Great War. Second to him was Josef Carl Jacobs with 48 victories primarily with Jasta 7, a fighter pilot with an equally impressive long record as a 'balloon buster' as well. Despite a continued campaign of harassing ground units and aerial combat, with both the air and naval services continuing to rack up kills until the Armistice, the German Aces alones were not enough to alone spark the fire needed for a German victory over the Anglo-Franco-American armies in France. The most decisive factor in the end were the starving masses of Germany’s cities hungering for an end to four years of conflict, and the eventual collapse of the monarchy and the militaries rule.

Even the highly aristocratic officer’s run aerodromes of the air and naval services were susceptible to the communist and Marxist inspired strikes and insurrections were common beginning at the end of 1918. Into the years of 1920-1925, when the treaties signed in 1919 were dangerously close to being broken in the turmoil of the post-war era, many pilots had no where else to turn but to the Freikorps veterans and military groups active in the streets of many German cities.

Ace Max Ritter von Müller of 'Royal Württemburg' Jasta 28 scores two victories, August 1917

For many former pilots in the post-war era life was tough as it was for all veterans from all branches in every country that fought, many former Aces escaped the harsh of post-war Germany realities by barnstorming, a hobby and profession which killed many of top Aces, including the younger von Richthofen in the 20’s and early 30’s. [6]

Some other Aces, who were lucky enough, like Hermann Göring, were able to fly commercially in the post war boom in aerial transport and mail delivery which had been spawned by the developments which took place during the Great War. Only a few had any desire to join the Weimar forces or the Luftwaffe once it became re-militarized and few did.

Future Luftwaffe commander and Nazi politician Hermann Göring (b.1893-1946) as a Imperial pilot in WWI

In 1918 Lieutenant Göring who by wars end a highly respected officer and leader of several different Jastas at one time or another, including having the honor of being the last commander of Richthofen’s ‘Flying Circus’, would deal with mutnious soldiers on the ground by demanding they surrender or he would order his pilots still out on patrol to destroy the aerodrome from above, endangering many including himself on the ground below. [7]

Displaying just one example of his arrogant and brash way of dealing with people, that would later become the trademark for a much older and oversized version of himself during the height of his power in the Nazi party and then as commander-in-chief of the Luftwaffe during World War II. Ernst Udet would parlay his World War I fame into a position as a General in the Luftwaffe until his death in 1941.

Top 15 German Aces with their confirmed victories during World War I
  ↑-Denotes Pilots death in combat during the Great War

1 Richthofen, Manfred Freiherr von↑ 80
2 Udet, Ernst 62
3 Löwenhardt, Erich↑ 54
4 Jacobs, Josef Carl Peter 48
5 Voss, Werner↑ 48
6 Rumey, Fritz↑ 45
7 Berthold, Rudolph 44
8 Loerzer, Bruno 44
9  Bäumer, Paul Wilhelm 43
10 Boelcke, Oswald↑ 40
11 Büchner, Franz 40
12 Richthofen, Lothar Freiherr von 40
13 Gontermann, Heinrich↑ 39
14 Menckhoff, Karl 39
15 Bolle, Karl 36

Other notable Imperial German Aces: Julius Buckner, 36 victories, Max Ritter von Müller↑, 36 victories Kurt Wolff↑, 33 victories, Carl Degelow, 30 victories, Hermann Göring, 22 victories, Max Immelmann↑, 16 victories

The Red Baron, top-center and members of Jasta 11, April 1917

The influence that the Aces of Imperial Germany exerted on the overall development of aerial warfare tactics is immense and cannot be overstated in post war period. Their heroic spirit and the ideals/dogmas of their pilots made the Imperial German air service the blueprint for modern aerial warfare at the tactical and squad based level then and now. Modern jets to some degree still retain many of the core values of the Dicta of Boelcke even into the late 20th and early 21st century.

German flyers during the Great War

Though by more modern standards still grossly technology and tactically limited the Aces of Imperial Germany evolved quickly into an elite air force arguably unequaled throughout World War I or the inter-war years. Von Richthofen and his alter-ego in a sense, the Red Baron, are now remembered for the deft handling of the sleek red Fokker warplane, and the many victories that von Richthofen and his Jastas scored have captured classic and popular imagination arguably like no other figure from World War I.

Both historically and culturally, the greater legacy of Imperial German air power and the Red Baron’s exploits during the Great War are significant. The Baron’s legendary status extends to the modern German air force and the Jagdgeschwader 71 Richthofen, a modern fighting squadron roots dating back to West Germany in the mid 1950’s, named in honor of the Ace of Aces who changed aerial combat forever, and the standards for victory within. JG 71 is an F4 Phantom defense squadron, the only one left in the German air force as of 2012 with its headquarters at Wittmund airbase.[8]

Ernst Udet (b.1896-1941)

The most observable lessons that the Luftwaffe in the Second World War took from the history of the Imperial air service was the constant desire to design and perfect three separate classes of warplanes and bombers during the period from 1935-1943. These three classes, fighter, ground attack, and bombers (heavy and light) which took heavy influence from the German models of 1914-1918, would define all nations designs of aircraft from 1930-1945.

Not surprisingly when analyzing aircraft technology of this period we see rapid advances from 1939-1945 and Germany is one of the major innovators again though the Japanese, Americans, and Soviets all eventually have similar comparable technologies, all owing their development and application to the Imperial Reich’s air service and naval Aces of World War I.

Suggested Further Reading
Boelcke, Oswald Boelcke’s Dicta
Boucher, W.I. WWI Aviation Plane reproduction illustrations
Burrows, William E. Richthofen: a true history of the Red Baron (Mayflower, 1969)
Imrie Alex German Fighter Units 1914-May 1917 (Osprey Publishing)
                  German Fight Units 1917-1918 (Osprey Publishing)

Lawson, Eric The First Air Campaign: August 1914- November 1918 

van der Mee, Michael Jagdgeschwader 71 Richthofen http://www.touchdown-aviation.com/reports/2009/jagdgeschwader-71-richthofen.php Febuary 25 2011

Reynolds, Quentin They Fought for the Sky (1957 Holt-Rinehart, Canada)

Stephenson Charles Zeppelins: German Airships 1900-1940 (Osprey Publishing 2003)

Sumner, Ian German Air Forces 1914-1918 (Osprey Publishing)

[1] Sumner pgs. 34-37
[2] Burrows, William Richthofen A true history of the Red Baron (Harcourt, Brace, & World) 1969
[3] Burrows
[5] Much debate over who actually killed von Richthofen still persists today RAF (Canada) Captain Roy Brown was officially credited with the kill at the time. This has been proven false most likely-though Captain Brown was an accomplishes pilot having 10 victories flying in a Sopwith Camel from 1917-1918
[8] van der Mee, Michael Jagdgeschwader 71 Richthofen 


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