As a leader of Germany’s deadly “Fokker Scourge,” Max Immelmann almost single-handedly took on Britain’s Royal Flying Corps.
It didn’t take long for Ensign Max Immelmann of the Imperial German Flying Corps, piloting unarmed two- seater reconnaissance planes over the Western Front, to learn that the enemy was shooting more than photographs. The Farman MF.11 diving at him during a June 1915 mission was already obsolete. Immelmann’s LVG B.I was a generation ahead— sleeker, faster, more powerful, higher flying. But the Farman had one thing the LVG didn’t: a machine gun.
“Suddenly I heard the familiar tack tack tack tack…and saw little holes appear in our right wing,” recalled Immelmann, who held course for his observer to finish his photography until the enemy’s bullets began striking metal.“If the brute shoots up my engine, there is nothing more to be done!”
Diving away, the German pilot nursed the LVG home to Douai. Squadron mates found one round had gone completely through its engine bed and another had nicked the main fuselage spar; had it broken, the whole plane would have folded up in midair. For saving his aircraft, Immelmann received the Iron Cross 2nd Class. He had also learned an important lesson: “It is a horrible feeling to have to wait until one is perhaps hit, without being able to fire a shot oneself!”
Max Immelmann was used to learning the hard way. His father, a Dresden manufacturer, died when he was just 7. His mother raised him to be a vegetarian, nonsmoking teetotaler. A squadron mate later recalled that “in the field he did eat meat, although his real love was ‘mountains of excellent cake’ which he bit into each afternoon.” Such habits did not necessarily endear Immelmann to fellow fliers. His best friend may have been his gray German mastiff Tyras, who slept in his master’s bed.“Of course the brave doggie must go to war with me, and he’s already delighted with the idea!” he wrote home in the first weeks of the war. “He has got a label on his collar, inscribed: ‘War Dog.’”
His letters also show an early affinity for a fellow Saxon in Feldflieger Abteilung (Flying Section) 62. Eight months younger than Immelmann, 24-year-old Lieutenant Oswald Boelcke was by that time a veteran of more than 50 missions who had already received the Iron Cross 2nd Class.“We suit one another very well,” Immelmann wrote.“[Neither] of us smoke, and we practically never touch alcohol….He has been flying since the beginning of the war and spent a long time at the front.”
In July 1915, when FFA 62 got its first armed two-seater, an LVG C.I with a Parabellum MG14 for the observer, it was assigned to Boelcke. Immelmann and his backseater mounted a captured French machine gun on their LVG. “Although my ‘auxiliary fighter’ is only a makeshift, at least my observer can rattle away with his gun, and that makes a permanent impression on the French,” he wrote. “In the machines I flew previously a speedy retreat was the best means of defense against enemy airmen. Things are going to be different now.”
On July 4, Boelcke and his observer scored the section’s first kill, a Morane-Saulnier L two-seat Parasol monoplane. Later that month the squadron took delivery of a pair of new Fokker E.I Eindecker single-seat scouts. No mere weapon-hauler, the Fokker had a machine gun fixed to the cowling and synchronized to fire between the prop blades. “These little craft absorb my entire interest,” Immelmann enthused. “They are pretty machines, and they are light, speedy and nimble. The pilot flies alone. The machine is designed solely for fighting enemy airmen, and not reconnaissance work.”
He practiced his gunnery using ground targets until August 1, when British B.E.2c bombers hit Douai at dawn. Boelcke was first to take off in pursuit, with Immelmann hot on his tail. “There were at least ten enemy machines in the air,” Immelmann recalled. “Suddenly I saw Boelcke go down in a steep dive. As I learnt later, he had a bad gun stoppage, so that he couldn’t fire a shot.” Boelcke could only return to Douai at that point, where he warned everyone, “They will shoot our Immelmann dead!”
Meanwhile Immelmann had caught up with a B.E.2c halfway back to Arras. “I dived on him and fired my machine gun,” he recounted. “For a moment I thought I was going to fly right into him.” Canadian pilot Lieutenant William Reid, having used his observer’s seat to store bombs, had only a handgun to defend himself. Immelmann’s machine gun repeatedly jammed, and he had to use both hands to clear it, even as he maneuvered to cut off Reid’s escape and dodge enemy fire. The men at Douai watched the whole thing. Immelmann said they later told him that “my turns and glides and my flying in general looked as if I had been in a Fokker for weeks instead of three days.”
After some 10 minutes and 500 rounds, Immelmann’s gun either failed completely or simply ran dry. Reid, wounded, coasted down behind German lines, and Immelmann landed to take him prisoner. Awarded the Iron Cross 1st Class for his victory, he took advantage of his newly won prestige to write Tony Fokker, claiming precedence over Boelcke in receiving the first new E.II Eindecker. The two friends had become rivals.
It took Boelcke more than two weeks to get his second kill, but Immelmann needed only a week after that to catch up. While the two were flying an evening patrol over the lines on August 26, “Suddenly I saw an Allied biplane attack Boelcke from behind,” Immelmann wrote. “Boelcke did not seem to have seen him.”
Immelmann broke up the enemy’s pass, and Boelcke came around. “First he came into Boelcke’s sights, and then into mine, and finally we both went for him….Boelcke’s gun appeared to have jammed, but I fired 300 rounds.”The enemy pilot threw up both arms and Immelmann saw his helmet come off, just before the plane plummeted 7,200 feet to the ground.
Boelcke returned the favor on September 9, shooting a Morane-Saulnier off Immelmann’s tail for his third victory. In those early days of aerial combat, these were likely the first recorded instances of leader/wingman tactics. But who was the leader, and who was the wingman?
By the end of October, Immelmann had scored his fifth victory, a Vickers F.B.5 “Gun Bus,” and had been mentioned in military communiqués. “Now I shall no longer object to being written up in the papers, since I have seen how everyone at home follows my successes,” he wrote. His enjoyment of his newfound fame was spoiled only by the fact that Boelcke still ran neck and neck with him.“He claims to have shot down five enemy machines, but one of them landed on its own territory,” groused Immelmann. “If I counted all those, I should have at least seven.”
By January 1916, Immelmann had seven victories confirmed. On the morning of the 12th he dived head-on at a Gun Bus about 9,000 feet above Bapaume. The initial pass devolved into a turning fight in which the Eindecker had the upper hand. Immelmann put more than 100 rounds into the Vickers when “All of a sudden a reddish yellow flame shot out from his engine, leaving a long trail of smoke behind him.”
Though he was wounded and his observer dead, British pilot 2nd Lt. Herbert Thomas Kemp managed to land his ship and jump clear. Immelmann set down nearby, and the two of them watched the Vickers burn. “You are Immelmann?” Kemp asked him. “You are well known to us. Your victory today is another fine sporting success for you.”
If Immelmann then fancied himself the top German ace, it was only until his return to Douai, where he learned Boelcke had also scored his eighth shootdown at almost the same hour. Nonetheless, he commented, “I was never so pleased at one of Boelcke’s victories as I was that day.”
At mess the section commander announced, “His Majesty the Emperor has been graciously pleased to confer the highest war order, the ‘Pour le Mérite,’ on the two victors in aerial warfare.” Immelmann and Boelcke were the first aviators and junior officers so honored, and on the same day. (The story goes that Immelmann was decorated first, which is why the Orden Pour le Mérite isn’t nicknamed the “Blue Oswald.”) To top it off, a few days later Immelmann received a new E.IV Eindecker—bigger and heavier, with a twin-row 160-hp Oberursel radial engine. He was now one of the world’s top-scoring fighter pilots, flying the world’s top combat aircraft.
Boelcke, whose fame would eventually rest on his Dicta, the rules of air combat and unit tactics that he authored, would subsequently do much of his fighting against the French over Metz and Verdun. The air war against the British, over Lille, fell almost solely to Immelmann and his Eindecker. More of a loner, Immelmann gained notoriety because he was feared, though he seems to have been an indifferent shot and, in a dogfight, not so much skilled as persistent. He once wrote, “I do not employ any tricks when I attack,” and never claimed to have performed the “Immelmann turn,” much less ever took credit for it. A climbing half loop with a roll-out at the top (but in the low-powered planes of the day, probably more of a wingover), the maneuver may have been named after Immelmann by British pilots. He and Boelcke led the “Fokker Scourge,” making “Fokker Fodder” of Allied airmen, but since he scored no confirmed kills from early January through early March 1916, it could be said that Immelmann, the “Eagle of Lille,” owned his piece of the sky thanks largely to reputation.
“[Enemy airplanes] never come to Douai now, except sometimes in formations of ten,” he wrote in early February. “It has been said in the House of Commons and in a French meeting that the supremacy of the air is no longer in the hands of the French or English.”
“Until the Royal Flying Corps is in possession of a machine as good or better as the Fokker,” proclaimed British headquarters, “it seems a change in the tactics employed becomes necessary.” Meanwhile, however, Immelmann and Boelcke were discovering that the Fokker E.IV was, if more robust, inferior overall to the E.III. Twice the cylinders meant twice the weight, twice the unreliability and twice the torque effect on maneuverability, but not twice the performance.
Flying above the lines on March 2, Immelmann had to dive away from an attacking Morane-Saulnier L two-seater, which was escorted by a Morane-Saulnier N monoplane with its own forward-firing gun, flown by Sergeant Toné Bayetto. Unable to overtake them as they flew uncontested right over Douai, the Eagle of Lille “considered whether it would not be better for me to land, for I could simply do nothing with my engine.” He settled on cutting off the enemy’s retreat. As he put it, “Then the fun began.” Bayetto plunged to the attack. Dodging, Immelmann forced the two-seater down, but reported: “I could not make up the lost 500 meters of height with my bad engine and secondly I had a gun jam. So I let the monoplane buzz off in the direction of Lille and went home.”
Nevertheless, that March was the Eagle’s best month. He scored five victories, including a Bristol Scout around noon on the 13th and a B.E.2c that evening, his first double.
A fellow pilot recalled: “At first, he was not pretentious. Later, after receiving many orders, he became a bit vain….He loved to have himself photographed each time he got a new medal.” Immelmann’s squadron mates began addressing him as “your exalted Majesty.” Still Boelcke kept pace. By month’s end their scores stood even, at 13.
Immelmann’s E.IV boasted twin machine guns, which was fortunate for him, as he needed every advantage against new British planes and tactics. Two days after Easter he took on a pair of the new Airco D.H.2 pusher biplanes of No. 24 Squadron, the Royal Flying Corps’ first all-fighter unit. He started out with a height advantage, but quickly found himself hard-pressed: “The two worked splendidly together in the course of the fight and put eleven shots into my machine. The petrol tank, the struts on the fuselage, the undercarriage and the propeller were hit. I could only save myself by a nose-dive of 1,000 meters. Then at last the two left me alone. It was not a nice business.”
Fellow pilots noted their ace had by this time lost some of the spring in his step, one writing he’d become “a bundle of nerves lately.” Immelmann also fell behind in his letter writing, and only secondhand accounts survive of his final weeks.
On the last day of May, leading three Eindeckers against seven Vickers between Bapaume and Cambrai, Immelmann had let off a long burst of fire when his E.IV began vibrating, almost out of control. He cut the fuel and ignition and, as the 14-cylinder rotary spun down, saw that his interrupter gear had malfunctioned. Half a prop blade was gone, sawed off by his own guns, and the lopsided prop had shaken the Oberursel almost out of its nacelle. He barely managed to crash-land. It was no isolated incident; while testing a three-gun E.IV, Tony Fokker himself almost shot off his own prop.
With the Allies deploying dedicated fighter units, Immelmann and Boelcke undertook— against opposition from their superiors—to have Germany follow suit. Immelmann, now a triple ace, was tapped to lead one of the first Jagdstaffeln (fighter squadrons), but it was not to be.
Late on the afternoon of Sunday, June 18, Immelmann led four Eindeckers in pursuit of four British F.E.2b two-seat pushers of No. 25 Squadron. With one machine gun firing forward and another mounted high to fire backward over the upper wing and prop, the “Fee” was no easy prey. Immelmann succeeded in forcing one down near Arras, but only after his E.IV took serious hits to its struts and wings. It was still undergoing repairs at dusk when 25 Squadron sent another flight over the lines. In a fateful decision, Immelmann followed his men up in a reserve E.III.
A major dogfight had developed high above Loos. Four of Immelmann’s squadron mates were mixing it up with four Fees. To the northeast, two Fokkers were tangling with four British planes, with two more Eindeckers hurrying toward them to even things up. Adding to the confusion, German flak batteries were pumping shells into the melee.
Shooting off a white flare to signal the antiaircraft guns to hold their fire, the Eagle of Lille plunged to attack an F.E.2b, rattling off a long stream of shots. His 17th victory fell away in a steep dive, to land behind German lines with its pilot mortally wounded.
Another Fee came down behind Immelmann. Pilot 2nd Lt. G.R. McCubbin reported: “By this time I was very close to the Fokker and he apparently realized we were on his tail, and he immediately started to do what I expect was the beginning of an ‘Immelmann’ turn. As he started to turn we opened fire.” Observer Corporal J.H. Waller let go a burst from his forward Lewis gun as Immelmann’s Eindecker crossed their nose. “The Fokker immediately got out of control,” recounted McCubbin, “and went down to earth.”
One of Immelmann’s squadron mates testified his leader attempted to climb as if to rejoin the fight, but something clearly wasn’t right. The Fokker pitched up and stalled over its left wing, bucking and flapping. Witnesses saw the E.III’s fuselage break off behind the cockpit, and both wings tore away as it began its death dive. The engine and cockpit fell more than a mile. Immelmann’s remains were recognized only by his monogrammed kerchief and the Blue Max at his throat.
He was one of the first great aces to die in combat, and Germany struggled to come to grips with his loss. Experts claimed his Eindecker had been hit by friendly anti-aircraft fire, or that his interrupter gear had malfunctioned again (one of the prop blades appeared to be sawed off), that the less-sturdy E.III had been unable to withstand the resultant shaking—anything but admit their hero had fallen to the enemy.
For their part, the British simply credited the kill to McCubbin and Waller. “It is quite on the cards that our bullets not only got him, but his prop as well,” commented Waller.
“Immelmann lost his life by a silly chance,” declared Boelcke, who was transferred to the Eastern Front to spare his country another such loss. Within the year he would raise his score to 40, only to die in a midair collision with one of his own men.
Even more than Boelcke, Immelmann has come to be identified with the Fokker Eindecker, in which he rose and fell. Perhaps he had just been lucky to fly it during its brief supremacy, but then so did many men, without achieving as much.
“He had it much more difficult than later fighter pilots,” a squadron mate recalled of Max Immelmann after the war,“…because in 1915-16 there was much less aerial activity. His number of victories was not as large…but they were harder earned.”
Among Don Hollway’s many previous contributions is a story about French WWI ace Jean Navarre (November 2012). Further reading: Immelmann: The Eagle of Lille, by Frantz Immelmann; and Early German Aces of World War 1, by Greg VanWyngarden. See more photos at donhollway. com/immelmann.
Originally published in the November 2013 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.