German Recovery from the Battle of the Somme

Germany’s loss at the Battle of the Somme proved to German military planners the necessity to gain air superiority. Germany franticly scrambled to reorganize their forces. National resources were directed toward the production of Albatros fighters. Germany’s premier ace – Oswald Boelke was called back from a war bond propaganda tour. During the preceding year, he had been rallying for a reorganization of the fighter force with specially trained pilots and now he was being given the chance to make it happen.

Oswald Boelke
Oswald Boelke
Born: May 19, 1891
Died: October 28, 1916

Boelke and the Creation of the Jastas

Oswald Boelke‘s bold plan for the rebirth of the Luftstreitkräfte (Imperial German Air Service) required total reorganization of existing German aerial combat resources into new combat units called Jagdstaffeln (hunting squadrons) which were commonly refered to as Jastas.

The Jastas were not attached to any particular ground units but traveled freely as needed. They did not patrol but were mobilized in response to sightings of enemy aircraft, which they then hunted down. The Jastas defined their mission as "aggressive aerial warfare."

The pilots of the Jastas were trained to follow the Dicta Boelke, a series of aerial combat techniques Boelke had developed that covered both attack procedures and tactics. The Dicta included rules such as securing the advantage before attacking, firing only at short range, keeping the sun behind you, flying to meet an opponent in a dive, and always keeping a line of retreat. The Dicta also covered the basics of formation flying between four and six airplanes was the desired number for an attack, and a plane was never to be stranded alone during a fight.

Dicta Boelcke

  1. Always try to secure an advantageous position before attacking. Climb before and during the approach in order to surprise the enemy from above, and dive on him swiftly from the rear when the moment to attack is at hand.
  2. Try to place yourself between the sun and the enemy. This puts the glare of the sun in the enemy’s eyes and makes it difficult to see you and impossible for him to shoot with any accuracy.
  3. Do not fire the machine guns until the enemy is within range and you have him squarely within your sights.
  4. Attack when the enemy least expects it or when he is preoccupied with other duties such as observation, photography or bombing.
  5. Never turn your back and try to run away from an enemy fighter. If you are surprised by an attack on your tail, turn and face the enemy with your guns.
  6. Keep your eye on the enemy and do not let him deceive you with tricks. If your opponent appears damaged, follow him down until he crashes to be sure he is not faking.
  7. Foolish acts of bravery only bring death. The Jasta must fight as a unit with close teamwork between all pilots. The signal of its leaders must be obeyed.

Boelke handpicked the pilots for the first Jasta, which was named Jasta 2. Among these men was a former aerial observer named Manfred von Richthofen who’s fighting skills would bring him much fame and respect. He would become known in the popular press of the day as the "Red Baron". The men were trained on the new Albatros airplanes. This emphasis on training and tactics made the Jastas such deadly fighting units.

Manfred von Richthofen
Manfred von Richthofen
Date Of Birth: May 2, 1892
Date Of Death: April 21, 1918

The Death of Oswald Boelke

Jasta 2 entered combat in the fall of 1916. In the first five weeks, Boelke doubled his kill count to 40. While flying an infantry support mission, Boelcke’s Albatros D.II collided with that of Erwin Böhme. Böhme survived but Boelcke was killed.. But the Allies had no time to rejoice while Germany mourned the loss of their fallen hero. The system Boelke built continued, and command of the squadron passed on to Manfred von Richthofen. A new legend was about to be born in the deadly skies over France.

The Beginning of "Bloody April"

The height of the Jasta’s power came during April 1917 at the Battle of Arras, better known as "Bloody April." The French air squadrons had withdrawn to recover from the previous months of battle, but England had decided to fight on despite delays in delivery of the next generation of fighters to the Front. The English believed that their sheer numerical superiority–385 fighters over the 114 German fighters–was enough to ensure victory. During that month, England lost a third of its fighter force, and the flying life expectancy of an English pilot was 17½ hours. The RFC suffered particularly severe losses – about three times as many as the Imperial German Army Air Service (Luftstreitkräfte) over the same period – but continued its primary role in support of the ground offensive.

The Battle of Arras

In April, the Allies launched a joint ground offensive, with the British attacking near Arras in Artois, northern France, while the French Nivelle Offensive was launched on the Aisne. Their air forces were called on to provide support, predominantly in reconnaissance and artillery spotting.

The Battle of Arras began on April 9, 1917. In support, the Royal Flying Corps deployed 25 squadrons, totalling 385 aircraft, about a third of which were fighters (or “scouts” as they were called at the time). There were initially only five German Jastas in the region, but this rose to eight as the battle progressed (some 114 or so operational fighter aircraft in total).

Since September 1916, the Germans had held the upper hand in the contest for air supremacy on the Western Front, with the Albatros D.II and D.III outclassing the British and French fighters charged with protecting the vulnerable Royal Aircraft Factory B.E.2c, Royal Aircraft Factory F.E.2b and Sopwith 1½ Strutter 2-seater reconnaissance and bomber machines. The allied fighter squadrons were equipped with obsolete "pusher" planes such as the Airco DH.2 and Royal Aircraft Factory F.E.8, and other outclassed types such as the Nieuport 17. Only the SPAD S.VII, Sopwith Pup and Triplane could compete on equal terms with the Albatros, but these were few in number and spread along the front. The new generation of Allied fighters were not yet ready for service, although No. 56 Squadron RFC with the Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5 was working up to operational status in France. The Bristol F2a also made its debut with No. 48 Squadron during April, but lost heavily on its very first patrol, with four out of six shot down in an encounter with five Albatros D.IIIs of Jasta 11, led by Manfred von Richthofen.

The Aftermath of "Bloody April"

During April 1917, the British lost 245 aircraft, 211 aircrew killed or missing and 108 as prisoners of war. The German Air Services lost 66 aircraft from all causes. As a comparison, in the five months of 1916’s Battle of the Somme the RFC had suffered 576 casualties. Under Richthofen’s leadership, Jasta 11 scored 89 victories during April, over a third of the British losses.

The month of April marked the low point for the Royal Flying Corps. However, despite the losses inflicted on the British, the German Air Service failed to stop the Royal Flying Corps from carrying out its prime objectives. The RFC continued to support the army throughout the Arras offensive with up-to-date aerial photographs, reconnaissance information and harassing bombing raids. In spite of their ascendency, the German Air Service did not act agressively. Acting on oreder from high command the German squadrons continued to be used defensively. Most of their missions were flying interception patrols behind their own lines. Thus the Jastas established “air superiority”, but certainly did not achieve real air supremacy.

Summer 1917: The Tide of Furtune Turns

James McCudden
James McCudden
Born: March 28, 1895
Died: July 9, 1918

"Bloody April" forced the British to quickly revise its approach to aerial combat, as the Germans had done the year before. It had now been proven that well-trained pilots flying the best planes were much more important than mere numerical superiority. Britain rushed to organize pilot training schools with experienced veterans as instructors. The students were taught using James McCudden’s Notes on Aeroplane Fighting in Single-Seated Scouts and Fighting in the Air. The Sopwith Camel had arrived earlier that year, but it was very difficult to fly and there had been a high number of fatal accidents. The new training schools allowed enough training time for pilots to become familiar with the planes before being thrust into the chaos of combat.

Sopwith Camel - 1917
Sopwith Camel

Within a couple of months the new technologically advanced generation of fighter (the SE.5, Sopwith Camel, and SPAD S.XIII) entered service in numbers and quickly gained ascendency over the over-worked Jastas. As the fighter squadrons became able to once more adequately protect the slower reconnaissance and artillery observation machines, RFC losses fell and German losses rose.


This was essentially the last time that the Germans possessed real air superiority for the rest of the war – although the degree of allied dominance in the air certainly varied.

"Bloody April" was last shining moment of German air superiority. The newly developed British Sopwith Camel finally arrived in large numbers, and this small, light airplane with twin forward-firing machine guns flown by experienced pilots soon made a difference in the battle for control of the air. The French returned in strength to the Western Front with the Spad XIII – a plane that became so popular that all the Allied forces flew them. America stepped up production of the legendary Liberty engine, and of several French and British designs including the DH-4 and SPAD XIII. In 1918 the Americans officially entered the war as combatants. Trained at home on their beloved Curtiss Jenny, the United States Air Service was ready to fly the popular Spad XIII as well as the plentiful Nieuport 28.

Airco D.H.4 - 1917
Airco D.H.4
Nieuport 28 - 1917
Nieuport 28 – 1917

Autumn 1917: Germany’s Fortune Fades

By the fall of 1917, the Germans had begun feeling the effects of the prolonged war. Losses of men and machines weighed heavily on the German Empire and the Central Powers. Shortages of critical materials such as metal and rubber were slowing down production. Lack of vital material such as castor oil forced a overburdened engine manufacturing industry to increase production of in-line and v-configured engines over rotary and radial powerplants. Despite the shortages Germany pushed forward with plans for developing several advanced fighter aircraft designs with varying degree of success. Fokker designed what was considered the best fighter plane of the war; the Fokker D.VII, but it was never manufactured in large enough numbers to make a difference. When the peace treaty was signed in November of 1918, the Fokker D.VII was the only armament specified by name for destruction.

Fokker D.VII - 1918
Fokker D.VII

British Aircraft

RAF BE.2 - 1914

The RAF B.E.2 was a British single-engine two-seat biplane in service with the RFC during World War One. The B.E.2 always had bad press, and become an unpopular aircraft by 1916.

Airco D.H.2
Airco De Havilland D.H.2

The D.H.2 biplane was a highly successful pusher with good maneuverability with an excellent rate of climb when first deployed. it was past its prime in 1917.

RAF FE-2d - 1915

This early British two seater saw much action in the early years of the war. It had a reputation for being ungainly, and dangerous to fly.

RAF FE.8 - 1916
Royal Aircraft Factory F.E.8

The Royal Aircraft Factory F.E.8 was one of the final pusher type aircraft developed for the war. It was considered a slow and not a particularly nimble aircraft design.

Sopwith one and a Half Strutter - 1916
Sopwith 1 and a half Strutter

The Sopwith 1.5 Strutter was first British fighter equipped with It was armed with single 0.303 in (7.7 mm) fixed forward-firing synchronised Vickers machine gun. The two seat variant added a trainable 0.303 in (7.7 mm) drum-fed Lewis guns in rear cockpit

Sopwith Pup
Sopwith Pup

The Sopwith Pup was superior to the Fokker D.III and more than a match for any of the new Halberstadt and Albatros scouts. It was armed with single 0.303 in (7.7 mm) fixed forward-firing synchronised Vickers machine gun

Sopwith Triplane- 1916
Sopwith Triplane

The Sopwith Triplane was used in combat by the RNA. The reduced wingspan and increased wing area made it handle and climb better than biplanes. It was armed with single 0.303 in (7.7 mm) fixed forward-firing synchronised Vickers machine gun

Bristol Fighter  F.2b - 1917
Bristol Fighter F.2a

The Bristol F.2a was a two-seater fighter which got off to a poor start;. Pilots were told to avoid violent maneuvers. Six F.2as encountered Manfred von Richthofen and his flight of five Albatros D.IIIs. In 30 minutes, four of the F.2as were shot down, nearly convincing the British to withdraw it from service.

RAF S.E.5a

When the S.E.5a entered the war in 1917, it was superior to all its German opponents. Many pilots preferred it to the Sopwith Camel.

Nieuport 17 - 1916
Nieuport 17

The highly maneuverable Nieuport 17 was a larger, improved version of the Nieuport 11. Like its predecessor, it was initially equipped with a Lewis gun but was upgraded to a synchronized Vickers machine gun.

SPAD VII - 1917

The SPAD S.VII was fast, durable and difficult to shoot down. It was armed with single 0.303 in (7.7 mm) fixed forward-firing synchronised Vickers machine gun.

German Aircraft

Albatros D.II - 1916
Albatros D.II – 1916

The Albatros D.II was based the Albatros D.I. The D.IIs mounted twin, forward firing synchronised Spandau 7.92mm machine guns. The D.II set the standard for fighter aircraft.

Albatros D.III - 1916
Albatros D.III

The Albatros D.III was considered pleasant and easy to fly, The D.IIIs mounted twin, forward firing synchronised Spandau 7.92mm machine guns. It was the preeminent fighter during the period known as "Bloody April" 1917.

Fokker D.III - 1916
Fokker D.III

The first seven production aircraft were delivered on 1 September 1916. On that date, two D.III aircraft were ferried from Armee Flug Park 1 to Jagdstaffel 2 at Bertincourt. Oswald Boelcke received serial 352/16 and obtained seven victories in it between September 2 and September 15 of 1916.

Halberstadt CL.II - 1916
Halberstadt CL.II

The Halberstadt CL.II was the first German purpose designed aircraft for the ground attack role. The Halberstädter Flugzeug Werke began supplying the German Halberstadt D-II during the summer of 1916.