The Red Fighter Pilot - Webpage 12, pages 103-112


As I already mentioned, I knew him but I never considered he had sought me out to become his student. I almost fell all over him as he asked me whether I would like to accompany him to the Somme.

Three days later I sat in the train making my way clear across Germany directly to the region of my new operations. Finally my greatest wish had been fulfilled and for me this became the best time of my life.

I scarcely dared to think just how successful it would become. As I departed a good friend yelled back to me,"Do not come back without a Medal of Merit!"

My First Englishman

(September 17, 1916)

We all stood at the firing range. One after the other of us fired his machine gun as best he could. On the day before we had received our new aircraft and Boelcke wanted to fly with us the next morning. We were all beginners. None of us had previously achieved a victory. What Boelck said was gospel to us. We had already known that in the past days


he had shot down at least one if not two Englishmen each morning.

The next day, September 17th, was a remarkable day. One could count on regular flight operations from the English. Before we went up Boelcke gave us a few more instructions and for the first time we flew as a squadron under the leadership of this famous man, whom we followed blindly.

We had reached the front when we recognized just beyond the range of our anti-aircraft canons an enemy squadron flying in the direction of Cambrai. Of course, Boelcke was the first to spot them. He always saw more than other men. Soon we all noticed the situation and strove to stay close behind Boelcke. It was clear to us all that this would be our first test under the eyes of our revered leader. We slowly approached the squadron. It could not avoid us. We were between the front and the enemy. If it wished to return to its side it would have to fly past us. We counted and established there were seven enemy aircraft. There were only five of us. All Englishmen flew large, two-seat bombers. It would only take seconds for battle to begin. Boelcke was the first to get pretty damned close but he didn't shoot. I was the second with my comrades close behind.


The English plane closest to me was a large, dark-painted crate. I didn't think for long and I put him in my sights. He shot, I shot, and I shot past him and he did the same. The battle began in which I needed to get behind the chap since I could only shoot in the direction I was flying. This was not necessary for the enemy because his machine guns moved in both directions. He didn't appear to be a beginner since he knew enough to understand he had reached his last moments because I had gotten behind him. I was not yet convinced as I am now that he would crash. At the time I wondered if he would crash and that is a significantly different feeling. Sometime after the first, second, or third it dawns upon one, "You have to make it happen."

My Englishman wandered off, turned around, and crossed my path several times. I didn't think there would be any other Englishmen in the squadron who could come to the aid of their imperiled comrade. I had only one thought: "He must fall." The favorable moment finally arrived. The enemy thought he'd illuded me and he straightened his course. In the span of a few second my trusty machine was behind him. I shot a short burst from my machine guns. I was so close I was afraid


I'd ram into him. Then suddenly the propeller of his plane stopped rotating. A hit! The engine froze and he was forced to land on our side since the path to his line was closed off. I also noticed from the jerking movements of his aircraft that something was not right with him. His observer was also nowhere to be seen. His machine gun careened about in the air. I had shot him too and he must have been on the floor of the fusilage.

The Englishman landed somewhere near the airfield of a squadron known to me. I was so excited I couldn't help but land at the strange airfield. In my excitement I almost went in nose first. The two planes, the Englishman's and mine, were not far apart from each other. I ran out and saw a lot of soldiers rushing towards the enemy. Upon arrival I found that my assumptions were correct. The engine had been shot up and both airmen were severely wounded. The observer died immediately and the pilot died while being transported to the nearby field hospital. To honor my fallen enemy I placed a stone on his grave.

When I returned home Boelcke sat with our other comrades at breakfast and wondered where I had been for so long. I proudly reported


for the first time, "I shot down an Englishman." Everyone immediately rejoiced because I was not the only one. Besides Boelcke, who as usual had his breakfast time victory celebration, another of our beginners celebrated victory in an air battle for the first time.

I wish to note that no English squadron went as far as Cambrai as long as Boelcke had a fighter squadron there.

Battle at the Somme

In my whole life I have never known a more beautiful combat arena than the Somme. In the morning when one first went up the first Englishman arrived and the last disappeared long after the sun set. "An El Dorado for battle pilots," Boelcke once commented. This was the time when Boelcke's combat victories rose from twenty to forty. We beginners did not yet possess the experience of our teacher but we were totally happy when we did not take a beating. But it was great! No takeoff without air combat. Unfortunately there were often great air battles with forty to sixty Englishmen against fewer Germans. On their side quantity counted; on ours, quality.


But the Englishman is a spirited fellow, you have to give him that. He came back and forth at very low altitudes and visited Boelcke at his home base with bombs. He formally called Boelcke out for battle and never refused a fight. I seldom met an Englishman who hesitated to do battle whereas a Frenchman always tries to avoid confrontations in the air with each move.

It was a great time for our fighter squadron. The leader's spirit infused itself upon his students. We would blindly follow his commands. There was no possibility of one of us being left in a lurch. The thought never would have crossed our minds. And thus we quickly and happily cleared up the enemies.

On the day in which Boelcke fell the squadron already had forty hits. Today it has over one hundred. Boelcke's spirit lives on through his capable successors.

*

                     The Somme, October 5, 1916

On September 30th I shot down my third Englishman. He spiraled down to the ground in flames. The heart beats a little faster when the enemy, whose face you've never seen, plummets down in flames four thousand meters. Once he's down, there's naturally nothing left of the man or the machine. As a momento I took off a small identification plate.


From my second hit I have the machine gun. One of my bullets is in the casing, making the gun unusable. Unfortunately I have nothing to show for my Frenchman. He had to be given up at the time. Previously one received the Medal of Merit after eight hits. This is no longer the case because it becomes ever more difficult to shoot someone down. In the last four weeks since the establishment of the Boelcke's fighter squadron we have lost five out of ten airplanes.

Boelcke †

(October 28, 1916)

The other day we again flew against the enemy under the leadership of this great man. You always had a secure feeling when he was with you. There was only one Boelcke. There was very unsettled weather with many clouds. Other pilots did not fly on such a day, only fighter pilots.

From afar we saw two bold English pilots at the front seemingly playing in the stormy weather. There were six of us against those two up there. It could have been twenty of them but we wouldn't have been surprised if even then Boelcke had given the signal to attack.


The usual battle commenced. Boelcke was on one of them and I was on the other. I had to break off because one of our own planes got in the way. I looked around and noticed about two hundred meters away Boelcke was working on his prey.

It was the usual picture. Boelcke shot one down and I observed it. One of Boelcke's good friends flew closely behind him. It was an interesting battle. Each shot; a moment later the Englishman plummeted. Suddenly I noticed an unusual manoeuver from both German planes. The idea struck me: they're going to collide. I have never seen a collision in mid-air before and I had imagined something completely different. It wasn't an actual collision but the planes made contact. And at great speed any contact, no matter how gentle, has significant impact.

Boelcke immediately left off his prey and began to spiral down towards the ground. I still hadn't thought there had been impact but as he passed by I saw that a portion of his wing had broken off. I didn't see what followed but he lost an entire wing in the clouds. The plane couldn't be flown and he crashed, accompanied along the way by his loyal friend. When we arrive home the announcement had already been made. "Our Boelcke is dead!" People simply couldn't comprehend it.


The most pain of all was felt by the man who had caused the misfortune.

It's very strange how each man who knew Boelcke felt he was his only true friend. I've met at least forty of these only true friends and each imagined he was the only one. People whose names Boelcke never knew, believed they had been particularly close to him. It is a phenomenon I have only witnessed with him. He never had a personal enemy. He was equally friendly to all. Not more to some and less to others.

The only one who perhaps did stand a little closer to him was the one with whom he shared the above described misfortune.

The Eighth One

In Boelcke's time eight hits was a totally respectable number. Anyone who today hears of the colossal number of hits inflicted, must be of the conviction that it has become easier to shoot someone down. I can assure that individual that from month to month and week to week it was become more difficult. Naturally there are now more opportunities to score a hit but it's unfortunately also become more probable that oneself will get shot down. The enemy's weapons


are constantly improving and increasing in number. When Immelmann made his first hit he had the good fortune to find an enemy who had no machine guns. One seldom sees such easy marks even over the Johannisthal. On November 9, 1916 I flew against the enemy with my novice fellow fighter, the eighteen-year-old Imelmann [sic.] We were together in Boelcke's squadron, had known each other before and had always gotten along quite well. Comradeship is the most important thing. We let loose. I already had seven hits, Imelmann five. At the time it was quite the tally.

A short time later we are at the front. We see a bomb squadron. There's a lot of risky flying. They come back in incredible numbers like in most battles of the Somme. I believe there must be forty to fifty of them but I can't give an accurate count. The target for their bombs is a point somewhat beyond our air field. In short proximity to that target I reach the last enemy. My first shot renders the enemy's machine gun useless. I might also have grazed the pilot, who decides to land with his bombs. I fire a few more rounds to accelerate his descent.


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Imaging and translation by Susan Kriegbaum-Hanks