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The German Air Service

This is an overview of the German Air Service. For more detailed information I refer you to the Sources and Further reading at the end of this article.

Aeroplane Development & Air Organisation

The army had set up a unit to examine the use of balloons in 1884 and 1901 this had grown to two Companies. Much of the German efforts had gone into airships, particularly the rigid Zeppelin type, they also used the spherical balloons as well as both tied, free, and the sausage shaped kite balloons not that dissimilar to those used in the First World War.

German airship LZ4 1908. German Air Service.
German airship LZ4 1908.

In 1908 the General staff set up a technical section to investigate and observe the development of aviation and they pressured the War Ministry into funding the most promising design from the private aeroplane developers putting up a prize of 40,000 marks. This was won by Johannisthal who were located near Berlin. It was the Albatros Werke that put both an aeroplane and a pilot at the disposal of the German military and by March 1911 ten pilots had been trained. A military commission then investigating various aircraft types lead to seven types being purchased.

Inspektion der Fliegertruppen, or Idflieg, with Oberst (Colonel) Walter von Eberhardt
Inspektion der Fliegertruppen, or Idflieg, with Oberst (Colonel) Walter von Eberhardt

The 1911 manoeuvres saw both the aeroplanes and their pilots gained valuable experience however, the army were still fixated with balloons. It was the foresight of the Chief of the General Staff, General von Moltke who, in 1912, put forward plans on how the aviation service should be organised. It took until October 1913 for these plans to be implemented and the formation of the office of Inspektion der Fliegertruppen, or Idflieg, with Oberst (Colonel) Walter von Eberhardt appointed the first Inspekteur der Fliegertruppen. The Germans also invested in a great deal of training and money in the Fliegertruppen. By the time of mobilisation in August 1914 there were 33 Field Flying Companies (Feldflieger Abteilung or FFA) three of which were Bavarian. One was allocated to each of the eight Army HQs with one each to the regular Corps HQs. There were six fortress FFA and one further Bavarian whose role was to defend specific towns. By 1915 this had doubled and specialist units had been added.

Fokker Eindecker Prototype E.1/15
Fokker Eindecker Prototype E.1/15

It was not until the middle of 1916 that the units flying the two-seater aircraft have an aeroplane that included a forward firing machine gun and a ring mounted rear machine gun for the observer. As we know the Fokker Eindekker monoplane dominated air supremacy from mid-1915 to the Spring of 1916 the so-called ‘Fokker Scourge’. Each of the eight Armies received a Field Flying Company as well as each of the Corps. The German long-distance bomber force, formed in October 1914, was amalgamated into five units known as Kampfgeschwader der Obersten Heeresleitung or Kagohl (Battle Groups in English) and placed under the control of the Army High Command. In October 1916 the position of Kommandierenden General der Luftstreitkrafte (Kogenluft) was created and had responsibility for all German flying units, except the Navy and Bavarian units, including training units. They reported directly to the Chief of the General Staff of Armies in the field. This was effectively the formation of the German Air Service.

German observation balloon
German observation balloon

In addition, there were three balloon units, with one each allocated to the eight German Army HQs and twelve army airships, all of which were not suitable for military operations. The Army High Command retained control of the airships and these numbers were eventually halved and the airships were never used for reconnaissance on the Western Front.

All the flying units were re-organised with the Feldflieger Abteilung now renamed Flieger Abteilung, and the Flieger Abteilung (A) re-designated for artillery observation. The units were no longer responsible to an individual Corps but to each Army similar to the British Brigade structure and a head of each Army’s flying unit had the title of Kommandeur de Flieger (Kofl).

The Single Seater fighter

Like the RFC the German Air Service operated a mix of aircraft. The early aircraft did not have an interrupter gear to enable shooting through the propeller arc, the early machines were two-seater with the machine gun mounted behind the pilot, or they were pusher-type aircraft, the engines were mounted in the rear and an unobstructive front view allowed for a forward firing machine gun. This type was almost exclusively British types such as the Vickers FB5, FE2b, FE8 and DH2 with the German type an AGO C-Type reconnaissance aircraft. It was with the capture of the French pilot Roland Garros in April 1915, who seemed to have solved the issue of firing through the propeller by using metal deflector plates, ironically, he brought himself down with a damaged propeller and engine mounting, that the Germans introduced the Fokker Eindekker monoplane.

Ypres Salient. Flanders. IWM Q 71430 Crown Prince Rupert of Bavaria in conversation with Anthony Fokker (in a civilian suit) and a test pilot of the new Fokker single-seat fighter monoplane.
IWM Q 71430 Crown Prince Rupert of Bavaria in conversation with Anthony Fokker (in a civilian suit) and a test pilot of the new Fokker single-seat fighter monoplane.

It was the Dutch designer Anthony Fokker who brought the first machine to the front having seen the weakness in the Garros design. He invented a method that stopped the machine gun firing when either of the propeller blades was directly in front of the machine gun. Two pilots who took an interest in Fokker’s idea were Max Immelmann and Oswald Boelcke along with others such as Kurt Wintgens, who shot down French pilot Morane Pascal while flying a Fokker although this was not confirmed. It did appear in his score for his award of the Pour le Merite so, it must have been confirmed. The first confirmed was that of Max Immelmann on 1 August 1915.

As well as the single-seater fighter the Germans also developed a two-seater aircraft. This was done by simply equipping an ordinary two-seater (B-type) work aircraft with forward and rear firing machine-guns. This type was then known as the C-type and from this that the Germans began to designate their aircraft. The biplane fighters that arrived in 1916 were known as D-type with the monoplanes known as E-type.

Aircraft Markings

The main reason for the colourful array of aircraft markings was to overcome the difficulty of identification and air-to-air communication. Each Jasta unit adopted a colour scheme for example the famous, red-painted aircraft of von Richthofen’s Jasta 11, or the black and white bands on the fuselages of the aircraft of Jasta 26. Pilots also took their aircraft with them to a new unit and kept the old units colour scheme, just to add a bit of confusion! Some pilots painted letters on their aircraft these referred to their own initials or even a lady friend. The colours adopted may also have referred to the regiment a pilot or commander of a Jasta commander had served with before he joined the Air Service. In their book ‘The Jasta Pilots’, Franks, Bailey and Duiven explain that the various markings on the aircraft had been lost to time and memory. They gave an example of the colour scheme on the engine cowling of the Fokker Triplane of Werner Voss which had been thought to have been black or dark green but was in fact chrome yellow. This was due to the way colours were reproduced on certain types of photographic paper of the period. Whatever the colour it all added to the ‘Circus’ theme the Allies used. In common with the other air forces the Germans had various systems of streamers attached to the wings, struts, or tailplanes and these were to identify leaders of patrols or their deputies.

Method and Tactics

There were three main factors that dominated aerial warfare, spot the enemy first, attack by surprise, either from above and behind, use of the position of the sun to get in close. The chivalrous conduct often attributed to air warfare in the First World War simply did not exist. It was a myth created by the writers of the 1930s. The objective of the combat was to get in close to at least 50 to 100 meters and kill your opponent without them having a chance to respond.

IWM Q 66998 Pfalz E.III single seat fighter monoplane. Pilot pictured Otto Augst.
IWM Q 66998 Pfalz E.III single seat fighter monoplane. Pilot pictured Otto Augst.

The tactics of the German pilots was dictated by two problems. The first one was to restrict the operational limits of the Fokker pilots. The reason for this was that the Germans wanted to preserve their technical advantage of the interrupter gear and they did not want the Fokker aircraft captured by the Allies, as Garros had been by the Germans, and this important aspect discovered. This laid down the basic format of the air war. The Germans waited on the Allies to develop their plan and then tried to stop them and very rarely did they attempt to stop them by overflying the Allied lines. The second problem was simply the sheer lack of fighters. The ‘Fokker Scourge’ that afflicted the RFC from December 1915 to March 1916 was inflicted by no more than 30 aircraft out of a total of 40 the Germans had available. They patrolled a front of 50 kilometres with just two aircraft and the successful Fokker pilots such as Boelcke, Immelmann, Wintgens, Frankl and Althaus scored on average two victories a month.

Oswald Boelke
Oswald Boelke

At the time of the Battle of Somme the German resources were under strain and they quickly realised that they would always be outnumbered by Allied aircraft and had to avoid a war of attrition that they could never win. They also realised that constant patrolling for no reason was a costly business in terms of fuel, and wear and tear on the aircraft and pilots, something the British came to realise. To have air supremacy was dependent on technological supremacy of their fighter aircraft. With the death of Immelmann in June 1916 the so-called ‘Fokker Scourge’ came to an end and through the remainder of 1916 a whole new generation of fighter pilots came forward who were inspired by the example of those pioneers like Immelmann. The Germans developed a tactic in their training of how to convert these novice pilots into a combat pilot. They did this by ensuring that all pilots spent a considerable amount of time in two-seater aircraft before moving onto flying in single seater aircraft thereby gaining valuable flying and combat experience. Add to this the tactics developed by Oswald Boelcke; he was the most successful ace with 50 victories until overtaken by von Richtofen and was the ‘father’ of the German fighting force. The Boelcke Dicta, seven fighting rules, established the fighter tactics for air combat. Another idea of Boelcke was the establishment of the Jastaschule at Fomars, near Valenciennes where fighter pilots received final training in aerial combat and aerobatics before being posted to a Jasta.

The Jagdstaffeln

The Jagdstaffeln or Jastas (hunting squadrons) were formed in late summer 1916, the creation of Oswald Boelcke Germany’s leading fighter ace. Prior to this, single-seater fighter aircraft were attached in a piecemeal fashion to the various two-seater Abteilung or were formed into small Kampfeinsitzer Kommando detachments (Keks). They had two main roles, the first as dedicated hunters – Jagdstaffeln – which attacked British and French aircraft that came over the German front line trenches. The second, was to protect their own two-seater aircraft undertaking the same tasks as the Allied aircraft. They were equipped with the new D-Type single seat monoplane which replaced the dated C-Type and with a strength of twelve aircraft the Jastas were the first true German fighter units. From August 1916 the new Jasta units began to score increasing victories with the air war now moving on from one-to-one combat to patrol versus patrol.

Ypres Salient. Flanders. German Air Service. IWM Q 69327 Albatros D.Va single-seat fighter biplane.
German Air Service. IWM Q 69327 Albatros D.Va single-seat fighter biplane.

One of the reasons for the success of the Jasta units from September 1916 was new technological advantage given to them by the new Albatros DI and DII aircraft. They were faster, climbed higher than the Allied aircraft, and were equipped with two forward firing machine-guns that were synchronised to fire through the propeller. The RFC also contributed to this advantage in that they were expanding so fast that they had a dearth of experienced pilots with those pilots being put into front line service with between 20 to 50 hours flying experience or operational training. They also lacked any experience in the aircraft they would be flying in front line service making them easy pickings for the Jastas. As well as lacking in experienced pilots the RFC was also equipped with inferior aircraft flying with the few squadrons equipped with Nieuports or Pups able to match the Albatros with the FE2d and the DH2 able to hold their own. The allied story was in contrast to that of the Germans who now had enough trained and experienced two-seater pilots to fill the 24 Jasta units that were formed in the autumn of 1916. The Jasta pilot was now more proficient, had achieved their air vision, had experienced the fear of aerial combat, especially being attacked in a two-seater fighter, and was better prepared that the RFC pilots they met. By the end of the winter 1916/17 the Jastas were equipped with the new Albatros DIII and the worst month for the RFC in what became known as ‘Bloody April’.

Ypres Salient. Flanders. German Air Service. The Red Baron. Manfred von Richtofen
The Red Baron. Manfred von Richtofen

The Emergence of the Aces & National Heroes

It was the French who coined the phrase ‘ace’ to describe their successful pilots, and they settled on a score of five victories for a pilot to qualify as an ace. The Germans did not use the term ace or five victories as the benchmark. Their successful pilots were known as ‘Kanone’ and they set the benchmark at four victories. To achieve a decoration for example the Knight’s Cross of the Hohenzollern House Order required six victories with eight required for the Pour le Merite. To receive the coveted ‘Blue Max’ it first required 16 victories, then 20, and by late 1918 30 victories. The German public could purchase post-cards portraits of their favourite hero, the famous Sanke Cards, and this national hero status encouraged other recruits to join the ranks. The Germans more than the Allies recognised their fighter pilots as national heroes using their memory to eulogise their achievements. Examples are the renaming of Jasta 2, commanded by Boelcke, to Jasta Boelcke after his death, he died in 1916 in a fight with a DH2 of 24 Squadron and a collision with an aircraft from his flight piloted by Erwin Bohme. Jasta 11 commanded by von Richtofen was renamed to JG1 Richtofen following his death. The hero status afforded to von Richtofen resonates through the years and he is still a universally recognised figure the ‘Red Baron’.

Ypres Salient. German Air Service. Invalidenfriedhof Berlin. Manfred von Richtofen
Invalidenfriedhof Berlin. Manfred von Richtofen. Authors image

Manfred von Richtofen was buried in the cemetery at the village of Bertangles, near Amiens, on 22 April 1918. Six of No. 3 Squadron's officers served as pallbearers, and a guard of honour from the squadron's other ranks fired a salute. In the early 1920s, the French authorities created a military cemetery at Fricourt, in which a large number of German war dead, including Richthofen, were reinterred. In 1925 von Richthofen's youngest brother, Bolko, recovered the body from Fricourt and took it to Germany. The family's intention was for it to be buried in the Schweidnitz cemetery next to the graves of his father and his brother Lothar von Richthofen, who had been killed in a post-war air crash in 1922. The German Government requested that the body should instead be interred at the Invalidenfriedhof Cemetery in Berlin, where many German military heroes and past leaders were buried, and the family agreed. Richthofen's body received a state funeral. Later the Nazis held a further grandiose memorial ceremony at the site of the grave, erecting a massive new tombstone engraved with the single word: Richthofen.

In 1975, the body was moved to a Richthofen family grave plot at the Südfriedhof in Wiesbaden

Ypres Salient. Flanders. Manfred von Richtofen .Invalidenfriedhof Cemetery
The Nazi tombstone Invalidenfriedhof Cemetery, Berlin. Authors image

The new leaders of the 33 Jastas formed from early 1917 were men picked from those who had survived 1916 men such as Rudolf Berthold of Jasta 14, Paul Hennig von Osterroht of Jasta 12, and Bruno Loerzer of Jasta 26. Others included Hans von Keudell of Jasta 27, he was killed in February 1917 and is buried in the Salient at Ferme Olivier Cemetery, and Hans Bethge of Jasta 30.

The Jagdgeschwader - The Flying Circus

By April 1917 it was clear to the Germans that they would always be outnumbered by the Allies in the air. A Jasta had a strength of ten aircraft, sometimes they could not even muster ten aircraft, which was smaller than the British and French squadron size. Encouraged by the commander of each of the German Army aviation unit, Kommandeur der Flieger or Kolf, the Jastas began to fly in groups of two or more Jastas. In June 1917 Jastas 4,6,10 and 11 were combined into a large formation under the command of von Richtofen to form a Jagdgeschwader this unit had the role of achieving air superiority over a particular battlefield area, in this instance Flanders from June 1917 to October 1917. They then moved onto the Cambrai battlefield in November 1917. These units became known to the Allies as the ‘Flying Circus’ as they toured the battlefields like a circus would tour from town to town.

Ypres Salient, Flanders. Flying Circus. Manfred von Richtofen.
RAF Museum Hendon. Authors image

In the case of Ypres, The British were slow to adjust their forces in order to send the best equipped squadrons to cover tis area. It took them until September 1917 for two SE5a squadrons to be moved to Ypres with a third arriving in the area in October and they joined two BF2b squadrons already in the area. To counter this the Germans brought more Jagdstaffeln from the French front, so diluting their numbers. Throughout the summer and autumn of 1917, the Germans were fighting on the defensive and were shooting down large numbers of allied aircraft however, the capacity of the Allies to overwhelm the Germans with superior numbers gave them the edge.

The Marine-Feld Jasta and Seaplanes

The German Navy set up a flying service with the main fighting unit being a Seaplane flight based at Zeebrugge. By the autumn of 1916 they had a second Seaplane F and by 1917 a land-based fighter unit equipped with the same aircraft as the army Jastas. The fighters were used to protect the submarine bases on the Flanders coast with their opposition coming from the Belgian Air Force, units of the French Naval and Air force, and the Royal Naval Air Service. Marine-Feld Jasta (MFJ) 1 was formed in February 1917 with MFJ II in October, MFJ III in June 1918 and followed by MFJ IV and V.

The Amerika Program

With the entry of the United States of America into the war in April 1917 the Germans undertook a major expansion programme which they called the ‘Amerika Program’ the aim of which was to increase the number of Jastas from 40 to 80 however, few of the new formations had more than 8 aircraft. They also formed two new Jagdgeschwadern in February 1918 with JGII consisting of Jastas 12,13,15, and 19 and JGIII consisting of Jastas 2, 26,27 and 36 which operated in the Ypres Salient against the RFC.

The Conclusion of the War

The German Air Service never stopped fighting despite a shortage of supplies of fuel and equipment and the exhaustion of its aircrews. Air superiority was lost and by 1918 they were on the defensive and outnumbered by at least three to one. Yes, they continued to score victories with September 1918 one of the best months against the French, RAF, and the US Air Service. However, it was merely delaying the inevitable as the ground war was not going well. On November 11, 1918, at 11am the guns fell silent and the air war like the First World War passed into history.

Sources and Further Reading:

· Airmen Died in the Great War, 1914-1918, A Roll of Honour, Chris Hobson

· The Sky Their Battlefield, Trevor Henshaw

· Above The Lines, A Complete Record of the Fighter Aces of the German Air Service, Naval Air Service and Flanders Marine Corps, 1914-1918, Norman L.R. Franks, Frank W. Bailey & Russell Guest

· Above The Trenches, A complete Record of the Fighter Aces and Units of The British Empire Air Forces 1915-1920, Christopher Shores, Norman Franks & Russell Guest

· Britain’s Forgotten Fighters of the First World War, Paul R. Hare

· The Royal Aircraft Factory, Paul R. Hare

· The Jasta Pilots: Detailed Listings and Histories, August 1916 – November 1918, Norman Franks, Frank Bailey, & Rick Duiven

· Pioneers of Aerial Combat, Air Battles of the First World War, Michael Foley

· Airfields & Airmen, Ypres, Mike O’Connor

· Memoirs of an Old Balloonatic, Goderic Hodges

· The Royal Flying Corps and The Royal Air Force, Western Front Association

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