He was Oswald Boelcke, the German World War I ace, whose tactical rules are still observed. With good reason he is still remembered as “the father of air combat.”
At the outbreak of World War I, military men regarded the airplane as an unreliable toy that might or might not have a certain value for reconnaissance or for artillery observation–provided it didn’t frighten the horses. In fact, the new flying machines soon proved they could do a respectable job in both roles. The next step was obvious: To prevent the enemy from carrying out those same functions, airplanes would have to be capable of fighting one another. High above the ruined landscape, away from the mass murder, the mud, and the reek of the battlefield, a new form of warfare had begun.
Arguably the most outstanding fighter pilot and leader of all time was one of the first, the young German Oswald Boelcke. (He was 25 when he died.) A reconnaissance pilot at the outbreak of war, he began to fly the new single-seater fighters in 1915; with his compatriot Max Immelmann, he spearheaded what the British called the Fokker Menace, after the plane they flew.
Three basic factors set Boelcke above his fellows. He was a great leader, with the power to inspire his men. He was a successful fighter pilot, the ranking ace of the first half of the war. Most important, he was an original tactical analyst and thinker at a time when there was no experience on which to draw. Nearly three-quarters of a century later, despite all the technical advances, his rules for air fighting are still relevant.
If the case seems overstated, consider that when Boelcke’s fighting career started, combat between aircraft was a haphazard affair, with the contestants knowing only what they wanted to do, but having little or no idea how to achieve it. By the time his career ended, less than 18 months later, he had raised air combat to a science that relied on formations rather than on individuals. He put his own theories into practice, and in the process laid the foundation on which fighter pilots of all other nations built their tactics.
The gulf between the ace and the average fighter pilot is very wide. In fact, there may be almost no average fighter pilots, just victors and victims. A recent analyst, who based many of his findings on First World War aviators, has concluded that only one pilot in every 15 has a better than even chance of surviving his first decisive combat–but after five such encounters, his probability of surviving increases by a factor of 20. Only about 5 percent of fighter pilots become aces, and this tiny minority tends to run up large scores at the expense of their less gifted opponents.
We know that it happens, but why? What separates people like Oswald Boelcke from the vast majority of fighter pilots? That quality has been identified as situational awareness (SA) and is now established as the Ace Factor. SA is the mysterious sixth sense that enables a pilot to keep track of everything happening around him in the middle of a confused dogfight. As Major John R. Boyd , USAF, put it in a 1976 briefing, “He who can handle the quickest rate of change survives.” To a degree, SA can be learned, as witness the modern Aggressor and Top Gun training programs, but with some pilots it seems innate. It certainly was for Oswald Boelcke, the father of air fighting.
Boelcke made his reputation in the Fokker Eindecker. Equipped with one and later two machine guns firing through the synchronized propeller disk, which was introduced in the summer of 1915, the plane was destined to have a far-reaching effect on air combat and would enable the Luftstreitkrafte the German air service–to attain a measure of superiority for several months. The most used type, the E.111, could manage a top speed of only 87 mph, had a ceiling of 11,500 feet, and took a half hour to reach 10,000 feet. But it was as good as or better than the aircraft that first opposed it. It could dive at a steep angle without shedding its wings, which was not always the case with aircraft in those days. Typical of its opponents was the Vickers FB.5, a two-seater pusher biplane with a maximum speed of only 70 mph and a ceiling of 9,000 feet; it required 19 minutes to struggle up to 6,500 feet.
So far as is known , the first operational flight by a Fokker Eindecker was made on June 24, 1915, with Boelcke at the controls. At this point in the war, there were no fighting squadrons as such, just small units of two or three aircraft whose main task was to protect the artillery spotters. At first, few Fokkers were available, and they tended to stay on their own side of the lines. But as Boelcke said in a letter home in July, “The consequence is that they do nothing but go for joyrides round our lines and never get a shot at the enemy, whereas I have the pleasure of getting a good smack at the fellows over yonder. One must not wait till they come across, but seek them out and hunt them down.”
Despite this aggressive attitude, chances were few. Not until August 23 did Boelcke manage a decisive combat in his new single-seater, firing a few shots at a Bristol Scout that later landed behind its own lines. Max Immelmann had opened his score some three weeks earlier by wounding the pilot of a British BE.2c, which was forced to land behind the German lines. After this, the pace increased, and by January 1916 Boelcke and Immelmann had raised their scores to eight each, at which point they were awarded Germany’s highest decoration, the Pour le Merite, or Blue Max.
By the standards of later times, this progress seems painfully slow, but it should be remembered that the young Germans were pioneers in their field and had to find the best methods by trial and error. They had often flown together, and it has been suggested that this was the origin of a fighting pair, working as a team. There seems little evidence that this was the case; it is far more probable that they flew together for mutual support against the Allied formations that were coming into use at this time, rather than trying to operate as a team. Later on, Fokkers usually hunted in pairs, but a pair generally consisted of an experienced pilot showing a novice the ropes, rather than an organized team.
Immelmann, who had started as an NCO in the Railway Corps, initially gained a reputation for piling up aircraft on landing–actually, in those early days of combat flying, almost everyone did. But his main claim to fame lies in the famous maneuver that bears his name. In essence , the Immelmann turn consists of a fast, diving attack followed by a zoom climb, ruddering over the top, then aileron turning on the way down to line up for another pass. He seems to have been the first pilot to consistently use the vertical plane for maneuver, rather than the horizontal. This discovery appears to have been instinctive rather than reasoned and required excellent timing and judgment of distance to achieve results. In any case, the Immelmann turn seems to have made a greater impression on the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) on the receiving end than on German Air Service aviators who experimented with it. In time the RFC thought every Fokker they encountered was Immelmann.
Since Boelcke flew more often against the French during this period, he was not as well known to the British. It is interesting that he makes no reference to the Immelmann turn, though he doubtless took note of any innovations likely to bring success.
His own learning process proceeded apace. On October 16, 1915, he was attacked by a French Voisin that approached from the front quarter. “I calmly let him fire away, for the combined speed of two opponents meeting one another reduces the chance of a hit to practically nil-as I have already found by frequent experience….” Closing to between 25 and 50 yards, he pumped 200 shots into the French machine, which fell away vertically and crashed into a woods. (It must have been about this time that a French pilot tried to blast him out of the sky with a blunderbuss.)
On December 29 he joined in a scrap between Immelmann and two British aircraft. As is often the case, the encounter turned into two one-on-one combats, and a whirling, turning dog fight developed, during which over 3,000 feet of altitude was lost. Though Boelcke damaged his opponent, he ran out of ammunition. While he continued to make dummy attacks to confuse the English flier, Immelmann entered the fray, having disposed of his own opponent–but he suffered a jammed gun straightaway. The British plane, though almost forced to the ground, managed to escape across the lines.
Boelcke took the lesson of this combat to heart, and during a similar combat with a two-seater on January 14, 1916, he deliberately conserved his ammunition, firing only when his sights were definitely “on.” For several minutes of maneuvering, he did not fire a single shot. At last an opportunity presented itself, and a well-aimed burst put the British machine’s engine out of action. With no power, it force-landed between the trench lines. But it had managed to riddle Boelcke’s fuel tank (and had even put a bullet hole through his sleeve), so that he also had to force-land.
Boelcke was already emerging as an analytical thinker and theoretician as well as a fighting pilot, and from November 1915 he had begun to send reports on tactics, organization, and equipment directly to headquarters, by passing the usual channels. This is what set him apart from Max Immelmann, with whom he shared a friendly rivalry. Both men had a technical and mechanical bent, but Boelcke appears to have been much more aware of what was going on in the sky around him and, more important, why.
One of Boelcke’s technical reports has been recorded. It concerns the performance of a new Eindecker. The Eindecker had been continually upgraded until it reached the E.IV variant, which had double the engine power of the original E.I and E.11 types and carried two machine guns, angled up 15° from the aircraft axis. Max Immelmann had used the E.IV successfully, but Boelcke was not impressed by it. In his report, he comments that the E.IV was too slow and lost too much speed in the climb, and that the rate of climb fell off rapidly at heights above 10,000 feet. Maneuverability, too, was poor, due to the adverse effects of the torque caused by the large rotary engine, and in his opinion the upward angle of the guns was unsuitable for combat. While Immelmann went on to use the E.IV with no less than three machine guns fitted, trading performance and maneuverability for firepower, Boelcke was pleased to revert to his E.III model, which he considered a more suitable fighting vehicle. It was this total absorption with all aspects of air combat that molded him not only into an ace but into a great combat leader.
A kind of reverse situational awareness among the British fliers stems from this period. The Eindecker–credited with being able to outpace, out climb, and outmaneuver any RFC aircraft by a good margin-earned a reputation as a superfighter. Allied losses in air combat, negligible until this point, rose dramatically. The future ace James McCudden, flying as an observer in a Morane Parasol, described the Eindecker as “a long dark brown form fairly streaking across the sky,” and “when it got above and behind our middle machine it dived onto it for all the world like a huge hawk on a hapless sparrow.” Such descriptions did nothing for Allied morale, which reached a low ebb. Even those who repelled an attack–and there were many of them–tended to recount their adventures as epic escapes from mortal danger. Crews lost the will to fight back and were often hacked down as they attempted to escape.
It was not until the beginning of 1916 that the Allies were able to counter the Fokker menace. They formed their first fighting scout squad rons, which arrived at the front from February 1916 onward and consisted of three main types of aircraft. One was the British Airco DH.2, a single-seat pusher biplane armed with a single Lewis gun . It could reach 93 miles per hour at sea level, had a ceiling of 14,000 feet, and could climb to 6,500 feet in just 12 minutes. In absolute performance terms it had only a marginal edge over the E.III, but was far more maneuverable. The second type, the FE.2b, was a two-seater pusher whose performance was roughly comparable to that of the DH.2. The third type, the Nieuport Scout, was a single seat tractor biplane (meaning its propeller was in front) armed with a single Lewis gun mounted on a top wing and firing over the propeller disk. It had a maximum speed of 107 miles per hour, a ceiling of 17,400 feet, and could reach an altitude of 10 ,000 feet in 9 minutes. The two British pushers held an edge over the Fokker, and the French-built Nieuport completely outclassed it. Encouraged by their new machines, the British in particular started to carry the fight to the enemy.
Since Boelcke was still engaged mainly with the French in this period, the Nieuport became a principal concern. His 17th victory came on May 21, 1916, and was at the expense of the new fighters. He described it in a letter home:
Two Nieuports were flying at a great height on the far side of their lines, but I did not attack them….Then I saw two Caudrons that had hitherto escaped my notice wandering about below. When I went for one of them and began to shoot I saw one of the Nieuports diving down on me…I broke away from the Caudrons and bore northward, with the Nieuport behind me in the belief that I had failed to notice him until he was within two hundred meters of me–then I suddenly went into a turn and flew at him….[H]e wrenched his machine round and bolted southward.
But the French pilot made a mistake: He flew straight, giving Boelcke an easy shot from 100 meters astern. The German infantry saw him crash. This account contains several interesting points. First is Boelcke’s disinclination to attack the Nieuports from a position of disadvantage. Second is Boelcke’s admission that he initially overlooked the Caudrons, possibly because he was more concerned with danger from above. Third is that even while shooting at a Caudron–an activity that takes every ounce of concentration–Boelcke was still able to remain aware of the potential threat posed by the two Nieuports and to react as soon as one made a move against him. Fourth, Boelcke was able to present to the French pilot a picture of the situation as it was not. The Frenchman thought he had the advantage of surprise, and appears to have been so disconcerted that he made an elementary error–and paid the supreme price for it. Boelcke was master of the situation at all times, whereas the French pilot only thought he was.
The increasing use of French aircraft in large formations led to the need to counter them in strength. In June, Boelcke formed the first fighting squadron, called a Jagdstaffel (literally, “hunting swarm”), at Sivry on the Verdun front. Although it was not an official formation, it can be regarded as the forerunner of the units that were formed the following August and September. But Boelcke was then overtaken by events, the first of which was the death of Immelmann on June 18.
As is often the case, accounts are conflicting. Immelmann went down in a fight between four Fokkers of the Douai unit and seven FE.2bs of the RFC’s Twenty-fifth. German accounts say Immelmann’s synchronizing gear failed and he shot his own propeller off. RFC records credit Corporal Waller, the gunner in an FE.2b flown by Lieutenant McCubbin, with shooting him down. Either way, Immelmann was out of the battle, with a final score of 15, three behind Boelcke.
The loss was a great blow to the Luftstreitkrafte, coming as it did at a time when command of the air was rapidly passing to the Allies. As a direct result, Boelcke was grounded–the German High Command did not want to lose another hero. A few days later he was sent to the East to observe the scene there. Before he left he composed, at the behest of Flugfeldchef Colonel Thomsen, his famous rules for air fighting, the so-called Dicta Boelcke. More than one version of these rules have appeared, and they may later have been embellished a little. The following is the version given by Colonel Thomsen to Professor Johannes Werner for the preparation of the book Knight of Germany
- Try to secure advantages before attacking. If possible, keep the sun behind.
- Always carry through an attack when you have started.
- Fire only at close range, and only when your opponent is properly in your sights.
- Always keep your eye on your opponent, and never let yourself be deceived by ruses.
- In any form of attack it is essential to assail your opponent from behind.
- If your opponent dives on you, do not try to evade his onslaught, but fly to meet it.
- When over enemy lines, never forget your own line of retreat.
- 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 together for one opponent.
Reading between the lines, we can see a determined but cautious pilot, prepared to do everything in his power to load the dice in his favor. The rules themselves are elementary, obviously intended for the novice. The “advantages before attacking,” for example, could have been expanded into a mini-chapter had Boelcke been so inclined, but only the sun is mentioned. In our own time it could have been written “Reduce the enemy’s SA!” Rules two and six stress determination, saying in effect, “Do not show that your resolve is weakening,” and “The best defense is a good offense.” Rules three and five are concerned with getting results: shooting accurately at close range and with no deflection. The rest are pure situational awareness: Do not be deceived; remember your exit route; and do not leave an opponent unengaged, because he may well use the time to look around and pick his target. The essence of the whole document can be summed up in two words: win and survive.
The First World War was a time of learning, first how to use the new weapon, and then how best to apply it. Tactics played an ever more important role, and the formation leader now counted for more than the individual, leading his flight of Staffel in the careful jockeying and sparring for position before launching an attack. As the numbers of aircraft and the size of the formations increased, so did the confusion factor. Boelcke, for one, recognized that only by learning to minimize confusion could he keep the combat situation under control. The privileged few demonstrated an instinctive understanding of this, while the better leaders tried to instill the basic principles into their followers. But Boelcke alone seems to have formalized those principles into a code for air fighting, which in essence has stood the test of time.
In mid-August, having toured the Balkans and Turkey, Boelcke had reached Kovel, on the Russian front, when he received a telegram recalling him to the West to form one of the new Jagdstaffeln (Jastas for short). By September 2 he was back in action, this time against the British over the Somme battlefield. He immediately brought down a DH.2 flown by Captain Robert Wilson–his 19th victory. It was now Germany’s turn to introduce new equipment that would reverse the Allied, and particularly the British, air superiority. This was done with new biplanes , the Fokker and Halberstadt, and most of all with the Albatros D.II Scout. Armed with two Spandau machine guns firing through the propeller disk, the Albatros could top 109 mph and could get up to around 17,000 feet. Its initial climb rate was 3,280 feet in five minutes. Against the Nieuport 17 it was very closely matched, but had the advantage of greater weight of fire power. Boelcke’s Jasta 2 was equipped mainly with Albatroses and he would score almost all his final victories in that type of aircraft.
As pilots and aircraft trickled in, Boelcke launched into a thorough training program, aimed primarily at teamwork. As he stressed over and over, it did not matter who scored the victory as long as the Staffel won it. Instilling team spirit into a handpicked bunch of medal-hungry fighter pilots was not easy, and was at times downright exasperating. He was also the first leader to give what today would be called “dissimilar combat training,” stressing the weak points of the opponent’s machines. This he backed up with practical demonstrations, using captured aircraft and laying down the best methods of dealing with them. For example: Although it was very agile, the Vickers single-seater (really the DH.2) was noted for losing altitude during steep turns. It was best attacked from behind, where the pilot’s view was obstructed by the engine, and was also vulnerable to a zoom climb attack from behind and below. The Vickers two seater (the FE.2b) had a limited rear ward firing capability and thus was to be attacked from the rear, preferably from slightly below, but pilots were cautioned to get on its outside in a turning contest. The Nieuport, though fast and agile, generally lost altitude during prolonged turning. But in those days, what aircraft didn’t?
Jasta 2 commenced operations on September 16, and Boelcke worked his staff so hard that by the end of the month they had flown a total of 186 sorties, with 69 engagements and 25 victories, 10 of them scored by the maestro. Now the battlefield had become the classroom, with pre-takeoff instruction and an inquest after each engagement. The instruction took, but even so, four pilots (one-third of the complement) were lost during this period. After the first major engagement, on September 17, Manfred von Richthofen, not yet an ace but still an experienced flier, described sighting the enemy: “Of course, Boelcke was the first to see them, for he saw more than most men.” To see first, to be aware of all circumstances whether targets, hazards, or potentialities this was the key to the ace pilot.
Previously, Boelcke had scored 19 victories in roughly 10 months, most of them against French aircraft. From here on, all his victories were against British opponents, whose aggressive style gave him plenty of opportunity to score, as well as some worrisome moments. “On September 27,” he wrote,
I met seven English machines, near B. I had started on a patrol flight with four of my men, and we saw a squadron I first thought was German. When we met southwest of B., I saw they were enemy planes. We were lower and I changed my course. The English men passed us, flew over to us . . .then set out for their own front. However . . . we had reached their height and cut off their retreat. I gave the signal to attack, and a general battle started. I attacked one; got too close; ducked under him and, turning, saw an English man fall like a plummet.
That same day, Boelcke had an experience that can only be described as weird:
As there were enough others left I picked out a new one. He tried to escape, but I followed him. I fired round after round into him. His stamina surprised me. I felt he should have fallen long ago, but he kept going in the same circle. Finally, it got too much for me. I knew he was dead long ago, and by some freak, or due to elastic controls, he did not change his course. I flew quite close to him and saw the pilot lying dead, half out of his seat.
Over the final eight weeks of his life, he added another 21 hits to his tally, the 40th and last coming on October 26, just two days before his death. He wrote describing these victories in his always matter-of-fact-style.
About 4:45 seven of our machines, of which I had charge, attacked some English biplanes west of P[eronne]. I attacked one and wounded the observer, so he was unable to fire at me. At the second attack, the machine started to smoke. Both pilot and observer seemed dead. It fell into the second-line English trenches and burned up.
If it seems that his situational awareness deserted him at the last, this was probably due to fatigue. He had flown intensively over the previous eight weeks, and his final sortie was his sixth that day. Then came the midair collision with one of his own men, Erwin Bohme (who would himself account for 24 planes before his own death). Bohme later described what happened that day:
[We] had just begun a game of chess…then, about 4:30 p.m., we were called to the front because there was an infantry attack going on. We soon attacked some English machines we found flying over Fiers; they were fast single-seaters that defended themselves well.
In the ensuing wild battle of turns, that only let us get a few shots in for brief intervals, we tried to force the English down, by one after another of us barring their way, a maneuver we had often practiced successfully. Boelcke and I had just got one Englishman between us when another opponent, chased by friend Richthofen, cut across us. Quick as lightning, Boelcke and I both dodged him, but for a moment our wings prevented us from seeing anything of one another–and that was the cause of it. How am I to describe my sensations from the moment when Boelcke suddenly loomed up a few meters away on my right! He put his machine down and I pulled mine up, but we touched as we passed, and we both fell earthward. It was only just the faintest touch, but the terrific speed at which we were going made it into a violent impact. Destiny is generally cruelly stupid in her choices; I only had a bit of my undercarriage ripped, but the extreme tip of his left wing was torn away.
After falling a couple of hundred meters I regained control…and was able to observe Boelcke…heading for our lines in a gentle glide, but dipping a bit on one side. But when he came into a layer of clouds in the lower regions, his machine dipped more and more, owing to the violent gusts there, and I had to look on while he failed to flatten out to land and crashed near a battery position….He must have been killed outright.
Oswald Boelcke, the man who did so much to make fighter combat a professional activity rather than a sporting pursuit, died at the zenith of his powers. He is the example against whom all fighter pilots, both aces and leaders, must be judged. What sort of man was he that he could achieve so much?
The surviving records depict him as calm and balanced, with few idiosyncrasies except for going early to bed. He was a disciplinarian (both with himself and with others), of a technical turn of mind, and he drank and smoked little. His letters home show that he enjoyed the eminence to which he had risen and the opportunity it afforded of meeting the highest in the land (although he was openly scornful of blatant publicity). A portrait emerges of a man without weakness, with a wry sense of humor as a saving grace. His face was dominated by his eyes, which were very large and pale blue.
Perhaps the closest insights we get are not from Boelcke’s own letters home, which were carefully composed so as not to alarm his parents, but from his star pupil, Manfred von Richthofen, who was recruited for Jasta 2 in Kovel. Richthofen, who had encountered Boelcke briefly in October 1915, described that first meeting: “I heard a knock on my door early in the morning, and there he stood, a big man wearing the Pour le Merite. ”
Boelcke was in fact not a big man. Photographs show him as being on the short side, as was Richthofen. How could Richthofen describe him as big? The answer is that Boelcke’s personality made him seem larger. Richthofen also commented:
It is strange that everyone who came to know Boelcke imagined that he was his one true friend. I have met about forty of these “one true” friends of Boelcke, and each imagined that he indeed was the one true friend. . . . It was a strange phenomenon that I have observed only in Boelcke. He never had a personal enemy. He was equally friendly to everyone, no more to one, no less to another.
As Bohme wrote to a friend less than a month before the fatal collision:
You admire our Boelcke. Who would not? But you admire in him only the successful hero; you can know nothing of his remarkable personality. That is known to only the few who are privileged to share his life….It is most remarkable how [he] inspires every one of his students and carries them along….They will go wherever he leads….He is a born leader.
Boelcke remains an inscrutable character, just slightly too good to be true. MHQ
MICHAEL SPICK is a well-known British aviation authority. This article is adapted from his new book, The Ace Factor, published by the Naval Institute Press.
This article originally appeared in the Winter 1989 issue (Vol. 1, No. 2) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: The Fokker Menace
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