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Jagdgeschwader Tactics

By O'Brien Browne
Summer 2004 • MHQ Magazine

Before his days as head of the Luftwaffe, Hermann Goring, a World War I fighter ace, wrote a revealing essay on tactics used by the German air force in the Great War.

Although Hermann Göring is now famous–or infamous–as the leader of Adolf Hitler’s Luftwaffe and at one time one time as the second in command of the Third Reich in World War II, in the previous war he was a 22-victo­ry ace who earned the coveted Orden Pour le Merite. An intelligent officer and a fine organizer, he commanded the prestigious Jagdgeschwader (Fighter Wing) I, which had been led by Red BaronManfred von Richthofen until his death in combat on April 21, 1918. Göring’s time as a wing commander provided him with the opportunity to develop air combat strategy and tactics. After World War I, Göring wrote a fascinating and revealing treatise de­scribing Jagdgeschwader tactics that had been used with great success by the German air force during the Great War. His article appeared in the 1923 anthol­ogy In der Luftunbesiegt: Erlebnisse im Weltkrieg (Unconquered in the Air: Ex­periences in the World War), published only in German. This is the first time it has appeared in English.

At the time of writing, the Treaty of Versailles forbade the creation of a Ger­man air service. Göring bemoans this in the text and wistfully dreams of a day when a new generation of German lead­ers will recapture the lost glory of their nations airmen. Ominously, Göring foresees a coming showdown with the Allies. This gives the text a special sinis­ter foreboding, even while it remains historically significant regarding the de­velopment of aerial combat tactics.

 In the World War, “battle” or combat flying came about after we had rapidly come to the realization that the fight against a powerfully destructive enemy air force could not be carried out from the ground, but rather that we had to fight them airplane against airplane. Everybody set about building, with in­creasing rapidity, small aircraft (single­ seat fighters), which offered–with great maneuverability and speed along with good weaponry (machine guns)–the possibility of destroying the opponent in aerial combat. Now, after this tool had been developed, it was possible to use it in a tactically correct manner. Nobody, however, had any experience with this. And thus there were at first only a few especially distinguished fliers who could be trusted with these combat aircraft, and who, following their own judgment, now flew about the airspace in these craft in order to seek out and destroy the opponent, and in this way carried out the fight themselves by hunting on their own. From this the name “pursuit fly­ing”   [Jadgfliegerei] originated. Be­cause the opponent, however, utilized the same means, and as a consequence of his greater numbers very quickly wrested aerial superiority for himself, we also had to start building up combat air­craft in great numbers. At this point, the experiences of our bold heroes [Lieu­tenant Max] Immelmann, [Captain Os­wald] Bülcke and others offered the tac­tical basis.

This transformed itself into the creation of the combat flight (3 air­planes), the combat wing (6 airplanes), and finally the combat squadron (12 air­planes). In July 1917, the first Jagdgesch­wader was created on a trial basis, and consisted of 4 fighter squadrons [Jagdstaffeln]. Two reasons were deci­sive here. First, it was apparent that the Englishmen often simultaneously ap­peared during their aerial battles in Flanders with over 50 airplanes, and we could not oppose this mass with any combat group led in a unified manner at the appropriate strength. Second, there originated in the person of Rittmeister Freiherr von Richthofen a fighter pilot whose excellent, wide-ranging leader­ ship skills had to be put to better use than that which was  possible at a Jagdstaffel. After this, several other Jagdgeschwader were later created. The purpose of these Jagdgeschwader was to deploy them at the hot points of the major embattled areas of the front in order to break enemy aerial superiority there and to secure command of the air for our own observation aircraft. The tactics of these Jagdgeschwader were ex­tremely complicated. Yet it was possible to bring around 50-60 airplanes into bat­tle according to a unified system and clear rules. It remained, however, the ex­ception that the entire squadron was de­ ployed in close formation. Usually, flight formation deployment by the com­mander was successful. In general, Jagdgeschwader tactics also included the following:

Based on continual dispatches, the commander had to be certain which forces he had to deploy in order to com­mand airspace. It mostly happened that one Staffel was deployed after the other, and in this way there was always some kind of a force or another patrolling over the front. Obviously, this should not appear as if this were merely concerned with barrage flights [defensive patrolling up and down one’s front lines to prevent enemy aircraft from crossing over]. Bar­rage flights very quickly exhausted and deadened the fighting spirit of the Staffeln. For these reasons, deployment was only limited to times of increased enemy aerial activity, and to the ad­vances of our own observation aircraft and our accompanying ground attacks. Only in especially important cases was the Jagdgeschwader led in close forma­tion into battle. In general the tactics were that each Staffel came together on its own and remained together in close formation. Then these Staffeln, in close formation, grouped together around the commander–flying at the lowest level and in the most forward position–in such a way that one Staffel would follow him tightly at the center while a second one was above and to the right, the third above and to the left and formed up somewhat toward the rear, while the fourth Staffel could be seen above the other three, acting as a main reserve and cover. An attack by such a Geschwader had to be carried out with incredible force and fighting vigor. The com­mander sought out the object to be at­tacked and then gave the signal to en­gage. While up to this point the Geschwader itself formed a tightly formed mass in flight, it was possible, in order to develop the attack in good time, to increase distance to be more maneuverable for a man-to-man fight. Then it usually happened that the middle Staffel swooped down into the center of the op­ posing squadron and attempted to scat­ter them while simultaneously both of the outer flights attempted to surround and cut off the opponent, while the reserve Staffel covered them from further enemy attacks from above or dived on those cut off, or on single machines separated from the general field of battle, in order to destroy them. When the battle was over, the flight leaders came together by flying around a specified area in order to collect the Staffeln, which had been scattered during the fight, into a tight formation once again. They then led them to the Geschwader commander in the same formation as be­ fore, so that the Geschwader was united for a new battle.

Besides these aerial battles, the Geschwader had still another task to ful­fill. If it were possible for them to gain aerial superiority and to sweep the oppo­nent himself out of the airspace, then it was the commander’s commendable duty to involve his Geschwader in the battles on the ground. This occurred in such a way that upon his signal the four Staffeln formed up in a broad formation and, in a dive, went after ground targets: marching columns, artillery being moved up, battery positions in the rear, and above all the tanks which were so dangerous to our infantry.

In this short outline concerning Jagdgeschwader tactics, I want to limit myself to only mentioning what was ac­tually done in the World War, and I do not want to get into how, based upon the experiences which have been made, the tactics of the Jagdgeschwader would have been further elaborated. But we all know that, as concerns the activities of the air force, still undreamed of possibil­ities would have lain before us, and that formation, grouped together around the commander–flying at the lowest level and in the most forward position–in such a way that one Staffel would follow him tightly at the center while a second one was above and to the right, the third above and to the left and formed up somewhat toward the rear, while the fourth Staffel could be seen above the other three, acting as a main reserve and cover. An attack by such a Geschwader had to be carried out with incredible force and fighting vigor. The commander sought out the object to be at­ tacked and then gave the signal to en­gage. While up to this point the Geschwader itself formed a tightly formed mass in flight, it was possible, in order to develop the attack in good time, to increase distance to be more maneuverable for a man-to-man fight. Then it usually happened that the middle Staffel swooped down into the center of the op­posing squadron and attempted to scat­ter them while simultaneously both of the outer flights attempted to surround and cut off the opponent, while the re­serve Staffel covered them from further enemy attacks from above or dived on those cut off, or on single machines separated from the general field of bat­tle, in order to destroy them. When the battle was over, the flight leaders came together by flying around a specified area in order to collect the Staffeln, which had been scattered during the fight, into a tight formation once again. They then led them to the Geschwader commander in the same formation as be­fore, so that the Geschwader was united which was said above merely forms the first application as well as the founda­tion of the tactics and composition of the Jagdgeschwader. Now, because of the disgraceful Treaty of Versailles, we temporarily do not have an air force at our disposal; thus it appears futile to deal with the further tactical problems of this weapon. This shall be the grand task of the leaders who have been sum­moned to the future gigantic struggle, the showdown over Germany’s freedom, to lead our fighting squadrons to the same victories and the same successes, such as Richthofen understood when he made the first German Jagdgeschwader a terror to its enemies.

O’BRIEN BROWNE is a freelance writer based in Heidelberg, Germany.

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2004 issue (Vol. 16, No. 4) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: Jagdgeschwader Tactics

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