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Starting out as a teenage noncommissioned officer, Ulrich Neckel rose to command two German fighter squadrons in World War I and earned the Blue Max.

At 9:30 a.m. on November 6, 1918, a flight of Spad 13s of the American 28th Aero Squadron, 3rd Pursuit Group, warmed up their engines at their aerodrome in Lisle-en-Barrois, France. The grueling six-week Argonne campaign had recently ended, the German Fifth Army was disintegrating, and it seemed to the Americans as if World War I might at last be nearing a victorious conclusion. In the air, however, there seemed to be no deterioration in enemy morale; despite the overwhelming numbers of Allied aircraft in the sky, German airmen were as full of fight as ever.

Of the eight Spads scheduled for the morning patrol, engine trouble put several on the sidelines in quick succession—until only three, flown by 1st Lts. Martinus Stenseth, Hugh C. McClung and Ben E. Brown, were able to reach the front lines. Brown later wrote of what occurred after they got there: “Soon after the patrol began, Lieut. Stenseth, who was leading, took some long-range shots at an enemy bi-place. The German machine was flying at about 800 meters altitude and was diving toward his side of the lines. Lieut. Stenseth pulled off as if quitting the attack. I followed him until I saw Lieut. McClung going on down, then I followed after the enemy airplane.”

McClung’s engine, like those of his squadron mates, had seized up at that point. He succeeded in gliding over the lines into Allied territory, but in the process of making a forced landing at Bethlainville, his Spad crashed and he was slightly injured. Brown wrote:

The E.A. seemed to be under control when Lieut. McClung ceased fire, but I could detect no return fire from the German observer. I was diving nearly straight down and began maneuvering for position behind the E.A. Just before I leveled my machine ready to begin shooting, the German machine hit the ground and turned over on its back. I was about 200 meters high and as I began to turn toward our side I was suddenly attacked from the rear. I turned square around quickly to get out of the enemy fire and I flew underneath a Fokker. Almost immediately another Fokker got on my tail and I began turning to get away from him. There were four Fokkers after me. One came down to about my level and I straightened up and opened fire on him but was forced to quit the attack by other Fokkers on my tail. I was now so close to the ground that maneuvering was difficult and I could no longer get away from the stream of tracers. Bullets were coming through the cockpit and I was hit in one finger. I fell into a flat spin, throttled the motor and straightened out as much as possible. The machine crashed and I was unconscious for awhile from the jar, but was quite all right a few minutes later. The German soldiers had pulled me out from the wreckage and bound up my finger. Nothing whatever was taken from me….All the German officers I met were very polite. The four Fokker pilots who chased me down came to Loupy le Château to shake hands with me. Lieut. Neckel was their flight commander. He told me who he was and then complimented me for getting the bi-place. They seemed to be a very sporty lot of pilots….”

Ben Brown’s postwar report sheds some light on the character of his German adversaries, especially the young squadron leader who re ceived the official credit for bringing him down. In some respects, Ulrich Neckel’s career typifies that of German fighter pilots in World War I’s last two years. In other respects, however, Neckel clearly stands out from the crowd. Not yet 21, he had risen from the enlisted ranks to command a Jagdstaffel, or Jasta (fighter squadron), in the most prestigious fighter wing in the Luftstreitskräfte (German air service). He also received Germany’s highest award, the Orden Pour le Mérite, also known as the Blue Max. Neckel attained those distinctions by cutting a consistent swath of destruction through the ranks of three Allied air arms, with an unusually large percentage of his claims borne out by documented enemy losses.

Neckel was born on January 23, 1898, in Karslrühe, Mecklenburg. Those who knew him as a youth described Neckel as a mostly serious young man, given to occasional cheerful moments. After war broke out, the 16-year-old Neckel volunteered for duty in August 1914 and was trained as an artilleryman. He entered combat on the Eastern Front with the Holstein Field Artillery Regiment No. 24 in January 1915. In November 1916, Neckel obtained a transfer into the air service, and after training at Gotha he returned to the Eastern Front in early 1917—this time with Feldflieger Abteiling 25, flying two-seater reconnaissance aircraft. In August Neckel went to Valenciennes to train on single-seat fighters, after which he was posted to Jasta 12 in September 1917.

Commanded by Captain Adolf Ritter von Tutschek, Jasta 12 was equipped with Albatros D.Vs, which would be gradually replaced by Fokker Dr.I triplanes early in 1918. In accordance with the colorful identification system devised by the German fighter squadrons at that time, Jasta 12’s planes were distinguished by black tails and engine cowlings, with white propeller spinners. In addition, each pilot had his own personal motif on the fuselage side. Neckel’s Albatros, and later his Fokker Dr.I, bore a white chevron outlined in black.

Neckel had reached the noncommissioned rank of corporal by September 21, 1917, when seven Albatros D.Vs of his Staffel engaged a flight of Sopwith Pups from No. 46 Squadron, Royal Flying Corps (RFC). In the course of the dogfight, one of the British pilots, Lieutenant R.S. Asher—an 18-year-old whose youthful face had earned him the nickname of “Warbabe” from his squadron mates (a sobriquet that he hated)—was seen going down under control, but with one Albatros circling around him. The British subsequently learned that Asher had been shot down and killed east of Monchy le Preux. He was credited as the first aerial victory for Ulrich Neckel, who was then only a year older than his first victim.

A week later, on September 28, Neckel downed a de Havilland D.H.5 near Biache Station, killing 2nd Lt. J.L. Haight of No. 41 Squadron. On October 18, he downed another of No. 41 Squadron’s D.H.5s northeast of Boursies, his victim this time 2nd Lt. G.H. Swann. Promoted to staff sergeant soon thereafter, Neckel did not score again until January 18, 1918, when he downed an Armstrong-Whitworth FK.8 of No. 2 Squadron over Loos, killing 2nd Lts. W.K. Fenn-Smith and H.L. Cornforth.

On February 2, 1918, Jasta 12 was incorporated within a new permanent fighter wing, or Jagdgeschwader, modeled after Rittmeister Manfred Freiherr von Richthofen’s famous Jagdgeschwader I (JG.I), better known to its Allied opponents as the “Flying Circus.” Jagdgeschwader II, which also comprised Jastas 13, 15 and 19, was placed under the overall command of Jasta 12’s Captain von Tutschek. Command of his former Staffel went to 1st Lt. Paul Blumenbach.

As the new wing commenced operations, Neckel claimed an S.E.5a over Pinon-Vauxaillon on February 21, but it was not confirmed. At 3 p.m. on February 26, a flight of four S.E.5as from No. 24 Squadron, led by Captain George E.H. McElroy, took off on an offensive patrol. At about 13,000 feet, the formation was jumped by about a dozen fighters of Jasta 12. McElroy and two of his wingmen claimed to have shot down enemy aircraft, but in fact Jasta 12 suffered no losses. On the other hand, 2nd Lt. Charles H. Crosbee, in S.E.5a B548 (Z), was turning to assist one of his comrades when another German shot up his main and reserve fuel tanks. Crosbee’s legs and lap were drenched in gasoline, and his engine stopped. Crosbee dived, praying that his plane would not catch fire, then regained control and tried to glide toward Allied lines. He had been followed down, however, and found himself still under fire from a Fokker Dr.I and three Albatros D.Vs. Crosbee man aged to glide as far as the German reserve trenches before crashing into a tree stump. When he came to his senses, he found himself surrounded by German troops, who took him to their headquarters. He had a dislocated jaw and severely bruised face, the result of hitting the windshield and instruments. His jaw was temporarily bound up with paper bandages. Later, after he received additional treatment, he was taken to a POW camp. Crosbee was credited to Neckel, who had claimed an S.E.5a east of Vauxaillon—his ace-making fifth victory.

Two days later, Jasta 12 had another engagement with S.E.5as over St. Gobain wood, this time with No. 84 Squadron. In the course of the fight, Becker killed 2nd Lt. Edmund O. Krohn, while Neckel and 2nd Lt. Emil Koch claimed another two S.E.5as, both of which fell in British lines. Neckel’s victim, who force-landed near St. Gobain wood, was 2nd Lt. John Anthony McCudden, brother of noted ace James T.B. McCudden and a minor ace in his own right with eight victories. John McCudden survived unhurt, only to be killed on March 16, 1918, by 2nd Lt. Hans Joachim Wolff of Jasta 11.

On March 15—five days after scoring his 27th and final victory— Captain von Tutschek was killed over Brancourt, probably by Lieutenant Herbert P. Redler of No. 24 Squadron. Three days later, command of JG.II passed to the leader of Jasta 18, 1st Lt. Rudolf Berthold. Sometimes referred to as the “Iron Knight,” Berthold was one of Germany’s earliest fighter pilots and had already received the Pour le Mérite for the 28 Allied aircraft he had shot down. He himself had suffered five wounds, and the last injury—on October 10, 1917—had left his right arm withered and all but useless. Berthold, however, soldiered on regardless.

Among the changes Berthold carried out in his new command was an unprecedented exchange of almost all of Jasta 18’s personnel with that of Jasta 15 on March 20, 1918. He also had Jasta 15’s aircraft marked in the old Jasta 18 colors—blue fuselages and tails with red noses, based on the sleeve and cuff of the dress tunic of his old ground unit, Infantry Regiment No. 20 “Graf Tauentzien von Wittenberg.” Eventually the blue fuselage became a common feature on all JG.II aircraft, with different colored noses being adopted by the other Staffeln—white for Jasta 12, green for Jasta 13 and yellow for Jasta 19.

Berthold soon made it clear that he had no intention of leading JG.II from behind a desk. Besides adding another 16 Allied aircraft to his personal score, he made a conscious effort to infuse his aggressive attitude throughout the Geschwader. Most of his pilots, however, needed no prompting to follow his example. Neckel certainly did not.

On March 21, the Germans launched their last great offensive in the West. On March 23, Neckel downed a Sopwith Camel near Ham. On March 31, Becker and Neckel were both credited with Spad 13s west of Montdidier—probably from Escadrille Spa.57, one of whose pilots made it back, while another, Warrant Officer Paul Alphonse Thuries, was taken prisoner that day. Neckel downed another Spad east of Arvillers on April 12, resulting in the capture of another French pilot, Maréchal-des-Logis Roger Busch of Spa.94. That night, the French struck back in an unexpected manner. About 200 high-explosive artillery shells fell on JG.II’s airfield at Balâtre, destroying about 25 of the wing’s planes in their hangars.

During the following week, Neckel was commissioned a reserve second lieutenant because of his mounting success. On April 21, he downed a Bréguet 14A2 reconnaissance plane over Bussy, resulting in the loss of Maréchal-des-Logis David de Conflans and Private Villardet of Br.220. On that same day, however, morale among all German fighter pilots would be shaken by news that their ace of aces, Manfred von Richthofen, had not returned from a patrol, followed by the announcement that he had been killed in action and buried with full honors by his British enemies.

Neckel was transferred to neighboring Jasta 13, commanded by Reserve 2nd Lt. Wilhelm Schwartz, on May 30. After a short hiatus, Neckel resumed his scoring during a June 14 engagement with Camels of No. 80 Squadron in which he killed 2nd Lt. A.R. Melbourne and drove Lieutenant P.R. Beare down in British lines, wounded. A third Camel was credited to Reserve 2nd Lt. Schwartz, but its pilot, Lieutenant C.E. Maitland, managed to force-land in Allied lines unhurt. On the following day, Schwartz attacked an Allied balloon but failed to burn it, and he was so badly wounded by groundfire that he had to be replaced as commander of Jasta 13 by 2nd Lt. Franz Büchner. In another fight with No. 80 Squadron on June 16, Neckel vanquished another Camel, this time bringing the pilot, 2nd Lt. G.H. Glasspoole, down alive to become a POW. Neckel was credited with a Spad 13 the next day.

On June 25, Jasta 13 pounced on a formation of Bristol F.2B two-seat fighters of No. 48 Squadron south of Albert, inflicting some painful losses on the British. Reserve 2nd Lt. Kurt Hetze downed F.2B C789, killing Lieutenant F. Cabburn and Sergeant W. Lawder. Neckel brought down Bristol F.2B C4719, whose crew, 2nd Lts. N.H. Muirden and T. Roberts, were taken prisoner, and drove a second, flown by Lieutenant Jack E. Drummond, down inside British lines, with his observer, 2nd Lt. J.W. Whitmarsh, wounded. Bristols were also claimed by Lieutenant Büchner, Staff Sgt. Albert Haussmann, Corporal Heinrich Piel and Corporal Walter Hertzsch, but none of those were subsequently confirmed. Three of the surviving Bristol crews claimed Fokker D.VIIs in the engagement, and Jasta 13 did suffer some losses of its own. Reserve 2nd Lt. Fritz Hilberger was killed over Chaulnes. Hertzsch was severely wounded, and although he landed at Jasta 28’s airfield at Ennemain and was rushed to hospital at Maréchalpot, he died of his wounds that afternoon.

On June 27, Neckel scored another double over Villers Brettoneux—killing Lieutenant John M. Goad, an American Bristol pilot serving in No. 48 Squadron, and his observer, Sergeant C. Norton, as well as bringing down an S.E.5a of No. 84 Squadron. Its wounded pilot, Lieutenant David B. Jones, was taken prisoner but died of his wounds six days later. A Camel fell to Neckel’s guns over Roye on July 3. Jasta 13 got into a scrap with Camels of No. 209 Squadron over Roye on July 7, during which Büchner killed Lieutenant Merrill Samuel Taylor, a seven-victory Canadian ace who had fought in the April 21 dogfight in which Richthofen had died. In the same fight, Neckel accounted for a second Camel northeast of Warfusée, killing another Canadian, Lieutenant Douglas Y. Hunter.

Over the next month, German fortunes underwent a radical change. A final offensive against the French along the Marne River on July 15 had ended in failure by July 20. Then Thursday, August 8, 1918, went down in history as the “Black Day of the German Army,” as the British launched a major counterattack at Amiens that set the Allies on the offensive for the rest of the war. Over the following week, JG.II, assigned to maintain air superiority over the reeling German Eighteenth Army, was heavily engaged over the Somme River with what seemed to be an unending onslaught of Allied aircraft. In the thick of it, at the head of his Geschwader, was Berthold, who downed a Spad two-seater and a Sopwith two-seater on August 9. Amid a swirling dogfight on August 10, Berthold added a de Havilland D.H.4 of No. 27 Squadron to his score, followed by an S.E.5a for his 44th victory. Glancing at his final victim as it crashed, Berthold pulled up—and his control stick, holed by enemy bullets, broke off in his hand. As his plane fell out of control, Berthold tried to climb out on the wing to bail out, but with only his left hand able to function, he could not release his parachute. The Fokker crashed into a house at Ablaincourt, throwing Berthold into the garden. Incredibly, the Iron Knight was still alive, but his right arm was broken. He was sent to Field Hospital 10 of the German Second Army. Administrative command of JG.II was temporarily given to Captain Hugo Weingarth, while Reserve 2nd Lt. Josef Veltjens of Jasta 15 led the wing in the air.

On August 11, a Spad 13 fell to Neckel’s guns north of Roye, but on the same day two German fighter units suffered losses that would alter the course of his career. At the end of the day, he learned that Jasta 19’s commander, the 22-victory ace Reserve 2nd Lt. Hans Pippart, had been killed—caught in a crossfire by a group of Bréguet 14B2 bombers and one of their Caudron R.11A3 escorts. Not far away, Jasta 6 also lost its commander when 2nd Lt. Paul Wenzel was seriously wounded in a fight with No. 84 Squadron’s S.E.5as.

The next day Rittmeister der Reserve Heinz Freiherr von Brederlow arrived to assume permanent command of JG.II, but that evening, to everyone’s astonishment, Berthold, who had sneaked out of the hospital, returned to reassume command of his Geschwader. Just as remarkably, after a brief discussion the amiable but none-too-belligerent Brederlow readily relinquished leadership to the Iron Knight and departed. Among the first orders of business Berthold undertook was to find a replacement for Pippart to lead Jasta 19, and his choice was Ulrich Neckel.

At 10:30 a.m. on August 13, the commander of No. 201 Squadron, Major Charles Dawson Booker, took up a new pilot, a 2nd Lt. Fowler, on a familiarization flight over the lines. Born in Kent but raised in Australia, Booker was an old hand despite his 21 years, having flown Sopwith Triplanes with the Royal Naval Air Service’s famed No. 8 Squadron before going on to Camels. Among the 26 Germans then credited to him was Neckel’s former commander, von Tutschek, who had been wounded in the shoulder in a fight with Booker on August 11, 1917.

Booker and Fowler were west of Rosières at 11 when they were attacked by seven Fokker D.VIIs. Fowler put his Camel into a spin and, although hit several times, managed to evade his pursuers. Booker, apparently hoping to cover his less experienced wingman’s escape, stayed to engage the Fokkers, and frontline observers later credited him with downing three of them before he was shot down by Neckel at Le Quesnel. Booker died of his injuries soon afterward and was buried at the Vignacourt British Cemetery. It is possible that at least one of Booker’s victims was genuine, since 2nd Lt. Hilmar Schickler of Jasta 13 was killed over nearby Roye that day.

August 13 also saw the final departure of Berthold—by order of Kaiser Wilhelm II himself. Upon learning of Berthold’s sixth crash and his subsequent refusal to remain in the hospital, the kaiser issued a specific order for the Iron Knight to “place himself at once under treatment in a hospital and to stay there until his correct dismissal.” Veltjens again assumed acting command of JG.II until August 31, when 1st Lt. Oskar Freiherr von Boenigk took permanent command of the unit.

Neckel downed an S.E.5a over Chaulnes on August 14, followed by a Spad 13 south of Quierzy on August 21. Then, on September 2, he was assigned to a new command—not with JG.II this time, but Jasta 6 of JG.I, the famed “Flying Circus,” now led by 1st Lt. Hermann Göring. When it became apparent that Wenzel would not soon recover from wounds suffered on August 11, he was shipped back to Germany for hospitalization on August 30, and Göring started giving serious consideration to a replacement. By that time, Neckel had 24 victories to his credit and had received the Knight’s Cross with Swords of the Hohenzollern House Order for the Iron Cross 1st Class. Evidently Göring thought, as the late Manfred von Richthofen no doubt would have done before him, that Neckel was ideal Circus material.

The aircraft of JG.I were not marked along a common theme like the blue fuselages that Berthold had established for JG.II. Jasta 4’s planes had black noses, Jasta 10’s noses were yellow and those of Richthofen’s old squadron, Jasta 11, were red. Jasta 6’s Fokker D.VIIs had black and white bands on the tailplanes and wheels, as well as diagonally over the nose. Individual pilots were identified by bands or other forms of personal heraldry, but in the case of the Staffelführer the nose bands were extended all the way down the fuselage. With such a striking color scheme on his plane, there would be no misidentifying Neckel in a dogfight.

Neckel got his baptism of fire with his new command when the Circus became embroiled in a running fight with Bristol F.2Bs of No. 20 Squadron on September 15, during which the British claimed no less than eight Fokkers, although JG.I lost no pilots. Two Bristols were lost, with both crews—2nd Lt. A.B.D. Campbell and Sergeant T.A. Stac, and 2nd Lts. F.E. Finch and C.G. Russell—coming down in German lines to become prisoners of war. One of the Bristols was credited to Neckel.

A British D.H.4 fell to Neckel’s guns on September 18. Then, on September 28, JG.I was transferred to Marville in the Meuse-Argonne sector, where its principal opposition would be American. Neckel did not score again until October 23, when he was credited with an Avion Renault AR.2, although no corresponding loss of such an aircraft turns up in either French or American records. Neckel’s next claim was a Spad 13 on October 30, his opponent probably being 1st Lt. Clinton Jones of the 22nd Aero Squadron, who made it back to Allied lines with 27 bullets in his plane—and was himself credited with a Fokker D.VII, despite the fact that Jasta 6 lost no pilots either. Another Spad credited to Neckel on the following day coincided with the death of 1st Lt. Richard Phelan of the 213th Aero Squadron.

On November 6, Neckel, aided by members of his Staffel, brought down 1st Lt. Ben Brown’s Spad 13, bringing his total score up to 30. That victory also represented, together with Spads claimed by 2nd Lts. Justus Grassmann and Alois Heldmann of Jasta 10, the last successes for the Flying Circus. On November 8, Neckel received the second-to-last Orden Pour Le Mérite awarded to a German airman. The last was awarded to Reserve 2nd Lt. Carl Degelow of Royal Saxon Jasta 40 just a day later.

Over the next several days, bad weather grounded JG.I. Meanwhile rumors surfaced about mutiny in the German navy, the kaiser’s decision to abdicate the throne and a possible armistice. On November 11, it finally became official—as of noon, the war would be over. By 10 a.m. that day, the weather had cleared and JG.I’s Fokker D.VIIs took off for Darmstadt, while about 250 nonflying personnel, led by the Geschwader adjutant, 1st Lt.Karl Bodenschatz, boarded 36 trucks and moved out for home.

At Darmstadt, JG.I’s pilots were ordered to fly to Strasbourg and turn all their fighters over to the French. Göring told the staff officer who directed him, “If this order must be carried out, then someone else can carry it out—as for me, definitely no!” Ultimately, the Circus did fly to Strasbourg, where one by one its crack pilots deliberately performed the clumsiest landings of their flying careers, leaving the French with nothing but a collection of wrecked or damaged Fokker D.VIIs.

At the restaurant cellar in Aschaffenburg on November 19, JG.I held a final gathering at which Göring gave a farewell address. Then the officers, many in tears, were discharged. Before closing the Geschwader log, its commander wrote a final statistic: “The Richthofen Geschwader, since its mobilization, has gained 644 aerial victories. Losses due to enemy action: Fatalities…56 officers and pilots, six enlisted men. Wounded…52 officers and pilots, seven enlisted men.— Hermann Göring, First Lieutanant and Geschwader Commander.

After the war, Germany was forbidden to have a military air arm, but Neckel found work as a flight instructor in a sport flying club. Later his health began to deteriorate, and it was discovered that he had contracted tuberculosis. He traveled to Italy, hoping that the sun and warmer climate would help him recover, but the move proved to be in vain. He died on May 11, 1928, at age 30. His body was returned to Germany and buried at the Invalidenfriedhof cemetery in Berlin.

Entering war as a teenager, Ulrich Neckel became old and wise before his time, rising to a prestigious position of leadership at an early age. He had seen many of his generation’s best and brightest young men killed. For that matter, he had killed many of them himself. Somehow he had survived, only to die of more prosaic causes.


For further reading, Aviation History senior editor Jon Guttman recommends: Who Downed the Aces in WWI? by Norman Franks; and Above the Lines and Above the Trenches, both by Norman Franks, Frank W. Bailey and Russell Guest.

Originally published in the March 2006 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here