Regular Osprey contributor Greg Van Wyngarden and ace illustrator Harry Dempsey bring us this fascinating story of the pioneering progenitors of Germany’s fighter legends. These are the men whom wrote the first chapter of the book of fighter combat, Dicta Boelcke still being a basis of air combat today.
Early aviation in the military was considered more of a sport than a war fighting tool. But friendly and bellicose waves gave way to pistols and carbines, then to flexible machine guns which in turn were replaced with fixed weapons. Special aircraft were created to fight other aircraft, the first being Anthony Fokker’s E.1 ‘Eindecker‘ (the E denoted Eindecker mit MG, i.e., ‘monoplane with machine gun‘.) Derived from the Fokker M 5 ‘cavalry aeroplane‘ it was fitted with Fokker’s synchronizing gear to allow the machine gun to fire through the propeller arc. This was an improvement over the Frenchman Garros’ solution, who began his experiments in December 1914, fitting metal plates to his prop to deflect any bullets that hit the blades. So was born the fighter pilot. Garros’ first kill was 1 April 1915--after three kills his prop could take no more, failed, and deposited him to the ground. The losses Fokker’s airplane wreaked upon the British and French became known as the infamous Fokker Scourge. The two most proficient scourgers were Oswald Boelcke and Max Immelmann, both of whom became national heroes in the utilitarian looking machine. Maneuvers and air combat doctrines are named for them. Both were the first airmen to be awarded (together) the Kingdom of Prussia’s highest award for bravery, the Orden Pour le Merite. This ‘Blue Max‘ has become synonymous with German Aces of the Great War. Though coveted, the Blue Max was perceived by some as an omen of death by some. Almost all who earned the honor were dead by the end of 1916. This included the great Oswald Boelcke, who rode his broken Albatross fighter down on 28 October, 1916. This was not from enemy fire but rather after a mid-air collision with a wingman. Ironically, Manfred von Richthofen, soon to personify the fighter ace, blamed himself for the loss of his idolized leader, thinking he might have caused the other pilot to swerve into Boelcke. "I am after all only a combat pilot, but Boelcke, he was a hero." (Manfred von Richthofen, September 1917) Another irony for Boelcke, the German High Command fearing his loss after the death of Immelmann, forced him away from the charnel house over the Somme and Verdun and on an inspection tour of the Eastern Front. Not to be denied his craft during this increasingly worsening time for his comrades, Boelcke took flight in the evening before he left; he attacked five French aeroplanes and downed a Nieuport for his 19th kill. Months later he was recalled to form Jasta 2 and wrestled the advantage back to the Germans.
While Immelmann has long been held as the first to blood Fokker’s monoplane, it turns out the first kill was actually made a month before Immelmann’s first kill by Ltn Kurt Wintgens at 1800 hours on 2 July 1915. His gunfire forced the Morane Parasol of Capitaine Paul du Peuty and Sous Lt de Boutiny to crash-land in French territory.
Wintgens was one of many Eindecker pilots who gained the Blue Max and other laurels. Berthold, Frankl, Jacobs, Mulzer, Parschau, men well known and obscure. All were pioneers of organized aerial combat. Frankl was the only Jewish pilot to receive the Blue Max, a fact suppressed by the Nazis. One who just would not quit was Ltn Fritz Otto Bernent. Four months after the beginning of the war this infantry officer was crippled by his fourth wound, a bayonet piercing his left arm. The disabled infantry officer sought to serve his country in the only way left, his Kaiser’s Air Service. Curiously, at the time the air services of both sides were considered a dumping ground for soldiers deemed too invalid to fight on the ground! Yet Ltn Bernent still rose to the occasion, even scoring a triple in November, 1916!
Two aces not only survived receiving the Blue Max, but gained acclaim in a bigger war after The War To End All Wars, Vfw Ernst Udet and Oblt Kurt Student. Second only to Richthofen in kills, Udet became a playboy and adventurer after the war and in the Third Reich rose to General heading the Luftwaffe's Technical Office. Goering made him a scapegoat after the Battle of Britain, and the great pilot died by his own pistol. Student went on to command the German parachute forces in WW2.
Many of these men started their careers attached to formal units, flying the romantic ‘lone wolf’ missions, solo flights in their uncommon aeroplane. They belonged to a KEK, the Kampfeinsitzer-Kommando, a semi-permanent formation assigned to regular units as the tactical situation demanded. The Eindecker was improved, eventually the E.IV was fielded powered by a 160 hp twin-row engine with up to three machine guns (though three were found unreliable)! The Allies were not standing still and began fielding swift killers that out-performed the single wing design. Nimble and quick, the Nieuport took to the sky with British DH-2s and Fe-2s, and the KEK pilots began to fall. The lone wolves began flying together in pairs, then trios, then in as great a number as pilots and machines could be assembled. By early 1916 the biplanes were inspiring Boelcke and others to report the faults of the Eindecker and plead for biplanes of their own. Oblt Student forced down a Nieuport and used it himself, repainted and sporting a personal emblem. Other pilots also made use of captured French fighters. In March, 1916 the Germans placed an order for their first biplane fighter, the Halberstadt. It would be three long months before the first began trickling in to the fighter units.
The Somme and Verdun skies were grinding the KEKs down. The Eindecker engines were frail. They were ordered held on the ground until an interception was certain. What success the fighter pilots attained was attributed to the men rather than to their obsolete machines.
Eventually, the arrival of D-class (Doppeldecker, or biplane) fighters like the lithe Halberstadt and bucktooth Fokker helped restore technical parity in the sky. With improved aircraft the German doctrinal superiority began to reclaim command of the sky. The Kaiser’s fighter pilots stopped dying as frequently and more Pour le Merites followed the increasing kills against the Allies. The impotent KEK and other organizations were melded into the effective Jagdstaffel (Jasta). When Max Immelmann died in a heavy, unwieldy E IV, his death was considered the end of the Fokker Scourge. In a strange turn of fate, as nimble Doppeldeckers replaced the Eindecker, Boelcke’s death in a Jasta--the concept he cultivated--could coincide with the resurgence of German air supremacy, culminating with the 1917 Albatross’ scourge, ‘Bloody April’.
Typical of Osprey books, this one is enriched with 31 color profiles of the early airplanes. This was not a time of mere drab and doped linen machines. Albatross fighters are beyond the scope of this story, but we find that their predecessors could be just as colorful, with personal markings already in use. There is some discussion of the colors used on these aircraft. Mr. Van Wyngarden succinctly brings to one’s attention the perils of trying to interpret colors from black and white photos. Especially photos of airplanes skinned with translucent linen photographed in various lighting conditions. An Eindecker E.III and a Halberstadt D.V are provided as 1/72 line drawings. Also provided is a page of bibliographies. I am disappointed that there are no plates showing the pilots.
Also disappointing is no appendix showing the kills of the pilots, unit histories, nor information about aircraft performance. Perhaps Mr. Van Wyngarden chose not to provide these as he touches upon individual achievements, noting when there is conflicting information from differing sources. However, not all pilots have ‘final score’ information in their stories. The organization of KEKs, Kagols, FFAs (Feldflieger Abteiling) and other units are discussed but murky in their description. Personally, I appreciate books containing maps with which one can associate the locations mentioned in the text.
The contents of my book are different from the website:
Introduction Chapter 1:Birth of the Flying Gun Chapter 2:‘Fokker Scourge’ Chapter 3: The Tide Turns Chapter 4: Jagdstaffeln Take Flight Appendices Color Plates Commentary
The website shows the content as:
Introduction Chapter 1:The Development of the Flying Gun Chapter 2:The ‘Fokker Scourge’ Chapter 3: Turning Point over the Somme Chapter 4: The Birth of the Jagdstaffeln Chapter 5: Forgotten Fronts
Perhaps Forgotten Fronts was edited out due to relative lack of action, although Oblt Hans-Joachim Buddecke did receive the Orden Pour le Merite for his successes flying with the Turkish.
Despite these drawbacks, this title is very absorbing. Part of the fascination of this topic stems from the personal aspect of the text. This stage of aerial warfare was a time that the paucity of pilots and aircraft made even skirmishes fairly easy to document. Victors and victims, names, units and aircraft serial numbers are frequently provided.
We know the names of the stars Billy Bishop, Manfred von Richthofen, Werner Voss, Albert Ball, Rene Fonck, Charles Nungesser and Eddie Rickenbacker. Now we know the names of those shooting stars who blazed the trail, set the stage, and began the legends.
Fans of World War I German aces will be pleased with this history.
I thank the wonderful people at Osprey Publishing for assisting me with this book to review.
This is a story of an era of legend and myth, when pilots might show chivalry on one flight, yet fire extra rounds to flame a vanquished victim on the next. Here are stories of men who would land next to their victims to render aid to the wounded, or to ensure the survivors could not destroy the aircraft to prevent its capture. Cold predators in the air, warm victors on the earth--several accounts by captured aviators about the kindness shown by their vanquisher are in the story. When “Father of German Fighter Aviation” Oswald Boelcke rescued a French child from drowning it was suggested he be recommended for France’s Legion of Honor!
About Frederick Boucher (JPTRR) FROM: TENNESSEE, UNITED STATES
I'm a professional pilot with a degree in art.
My first model was an AMT semi dump truck. Then Monogram's Lunar Lander right after the lunar landing. Next, Revell's 1/32 Bf-109G...cried havoc and released the dogs of modeling!
My interests--if built before 1900, or after 1955, then I proba...