He was a true 'knight of the air' and even received the homage of his enemies

Oswald Boelcke: the story of a pilot who fell in 1916 and whose tips still applies today

In the history of aviation, without a doubt the most famous pilot is the Red Baron, but one of the most important was his mentor: Oswald Boelcke.

The history of the Red Baron, the most famous fighter pilot of all time
Honors to fallen enemies: when war is not at odds with chivalry

Born on May 19, 1891 in Giebichenstein, in the then Kingdom of Prussia (the dominant part of the German Empire since 1871), Boelcke grew up in a conservative Protestant family. He was a boy of average height and suffered from asthma, but that did not stop him from becoming a good athlete. In addition, he was very studious and he had a military vocation very early: at the age of 13 he already tried to be admitted to a military school, but his family opposed it. Finally, in 1911, when he was 19 years old, he enlisted in the German Army and joined a telegraph unit. There he stood out for his leadership skills and became interested in the then fledgling military aviation.

Photo of Oswald Boelcke made in 1916 (Photo: Ullstein Bild).

In May 1914, two months before the start of the First World War, Boelcke requested his transfer to the Air Corps, as did his brother Wilhelm. Oswald passed his pilot's exam on August 15, 1914, after the war began. The two brothers were assigned to the Feldflieger Abteilung 13, a reconnaissance unit created that same year and whose first commander was Captain Alfred Streccius. During that year, both brothers flew together on dozens of missions. As early as 1915, Oswald was assigned to the Feldflieger Abteilung 62, based in La Brayelle, France, and was later assigned to the Kampfeinsitzerkommando Douai, where he met another famous German flying ace: Max Immelmann. This unit flew with the first combat aircraft of the Luftstreitkräfte (German Air Force): the Fokker E.I.

Boelcke achieved his first shoot-down of an enemy aircraft on July 4, 1915. Boelcke and Immelmann quickly gained fame as two experienced pilots, becoming the first aces of German aviation. Interestingly, one of his first decorations had nothing to do with aerial combat: in December 1915 he was awarded the Prussian Salvation Medal for saving a French boy who was about to drown in a canal near the base French where his unit operated. His heroic gesture received applause from the French countrymen who watched him.

Artistic representation of the Fokker E.IV fighter piloted by Oswald Boelcke (Source: Pinturas aviación 1914-1918).

In January 1916, Boelcke received the Pour le Mérite medal, also known as the Blue Max: the highest German military decoration. His merits in service caused the German Emperor to make him an exception to the rules of the German Army that prevented promotion to the rank of captain to those under 30 years of age. Boelcke was promoted to that rank a few days after his 25th birthday, becoming the youngest Captain in his army. In mid-1916 he summed up what he had learned in the so-called "Dicta Boelcke," a code eight tips for fighter pilots:

  1. Try to secure your advantage before attacking. If possible, keep the sun behind you.
  2. Always complete an attack once you've started it.
  3. Shoot only at close range, and only when your opponent is correctly in your crosshairs.
  4. Always keep an eye on your opponent and never be fooled by their tricks.
  5. In any form of attack it is essential to attack your enemy from behind.
  6. If your opponent lunges at you, don't try to evade his charge: fly to meet him.
  7. When you're over enemy lines never forget your own line of retreat.
  8. For the squad: attack in principle in groups of four or six. When the match is divided into a series of individual matches, be careful that several do not go for the same opponent.

Boelcke was also one of the German pilots who began to build the fame of the "knights of the air" of the First World War. He was a man of honor and behaved chivalrously with his enemies. On one occasion, after shooting down a British observation plane, he landed near the downed plane and discovered that the enemy pilot could speak German and knew him. Boelcke requested medical assistance for him and later visited him in hospital. The news soon circulated, as he was a famous pilot, and his chivalry became known on both sides of the front line.

One of Boelcke's most famous assignments was to the Jagdstaffel 2 (Fighter Squadron 2), a unit he commanded and for which he recruited a cavalry officer who would end up surpassing him in fame: Manfred von Richthofen, also known as the Red Baron. In this unit, Boelcke tested a new combat aircraft: the Albatros D.II biplane. On October 26, 1916 he won his 40th victory, becoming the greatest ace of the war at that time (Richthofen eventually overtook him in April 1917). German aviation was at its best and had command of the air.

1/32 scale model of the Albatros D.II fighter in which Boelcke was flying when it was shot down on October 28, 1916 (Photo: FineScale.com).

On October 28, 1916, Boelcke and his squad went on a mission. They ran into a pair of British Airco DH.2 biplanes. Boelcke and one of his pilots, Erwin Böhme (who was also his best friend), broke the eighth rule of the "Dicta Boelcke" and headed for the same plane. The landing gear of Böhme's fighter ended up touching the top wing of Boelcke's Albatross. The wing tore off and Boelcke's plane spiraled down, crashing into the German lines.

Boelcke died of a skull fracture. His funeral was held at Cambrai Cathedral in northern France. Among the wreaths placed next to his coffin were two British ones: one of them sent by pilots captured by the Germans (including Captain Wilson, whom Boelcke had treated with the utmost respect after shooting him down, even welcoming him into his squad) that read: "The opponent we admire and esteem so much." The other wreath was dropped over German lines by a British plane, bearing this inscription: "To the memory of Captain Boelcke, our brave and chivalrous opponent".

The portrait of Oswald Boelcke and his highest decoration, the Blue Max, on the drift of a Eurofighter Typhoon fighter of the Taktische Luftwaffengeschwader 31 "Boelcke" of the Luftwaffe (Photo: Interessengemeinschaft Deutsche Luftwaffe e.V.).

Today, Boelcke is still recognized as one of the greatest pilots in the history of aviation. Despite the fact that more than 100 years have passed since his death and the abysmal technological differences between the planes of that time and the current ones, some of his rules still apply in aerial combat. Likewise, the German Luftwaffe continues to honor this great pilot and has even named a combat squadron after him: the Taktische Luftwaffengeschwader 31 "Boelcke", equipped with Eurofighters.

Coinciding with the anniversary of his death, the channel Yarnhub has just publish an excellent report telling the story of this great "knight of the air", pointing to him as the father of air combat:

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