History Behind The Card: Capt. Oswald Boelcke
Card #46, 1934 series, National Chicle Co., Sky Bird series
- Captain Oswald Boelcke (originally Bölcke), May 19, 1891, Giebichenstein; near Halle (Saale), Germany – October 28, 1916, near Douai, France.
Oswald Boelcke was a German flying ace of the Great War (aka WWI), with 40 confirmed victories (you don’t have to kill the enemy pilot to get a “victory”).
While he is also considered to be the father of the German fighter air force, as well as the “Father of Air Fighting Tactics” by formalizing rules of air combat, he was also the combat teacher of the famous Red Baron, Manfred von Richthofen (who I will be writing a feature piece on here shortly. No, really.)
The Cards Know Everything
A brief introduction to the National Chicle Co. first.
While tobacco cards were amongst the first product to utilize “trading” cards beginning in the 1880s, it ran out of steam in the 1920s. Just before that, chocolate candy companies had begun to insert collector cards.
The gum card collectable was only something that first came into being in 1933 when the American gum company Goudey Gum Company issued a set of baseball cards, with one card inserted into each package of gum. That company was begun by a Nova Scotia, Canadian businessman Enos Gordon Goudey who had worked for Beemans before starting up his company in 1919.
The 1933 Big League Chewing Gum bubble gum packs from Goudey were the first chewing gum company to issue baseball cards (a 240-card set) – something most of us grew up collecting, I’d bet… with Topps (in the U.S.), or, if you were in Canada, O-Pee-Chee. Us canuckleheads knew it was best to collect Topps baseball cards and O-Pee-Chee hockey cards… though my earliest baseball cards are all O-Pee-Chee… which I bet are a much rarer variant card (it comes with a bilingual English/French reverse) than the Topps version.
In 1933, the National Chicle Company began to issue baseball cards in its packs of gum, and also that year, began to offer a small set of 24 Sky Birds cards of famous aviators of the past and present (1933).
They re-issued the 24 cards in 1934, and then continued the series calling it a 108-card set.
According to www.skytamer.com, here’s what the series looks like:
- Number of Cards: 108 images;
- Series 1a – 24 cards marked “1933” cards;
- Series 1b – 24 cards marked “1934” cards;
- Series 2a – 108 cards with green ink text;
- Series 2b – 108 (unconfirmed) cards with ”black or dark green” ink text;
- Card Dimensions: 2-5/16 × 2-7/8 inches
Who Da Man?
Enough about that (for now), let’s take a look at the relatively short life of Germany’s WWI flying ace Oswald Boelcke.
Speaking of short, despite him being remembered as being somewhat larger-than-life, Boelcke stood only 5’7″. I know… who the heck cares.
The first thing we should know is that Boelcke appears to have been, by all accounts, a brave and honorable man… taking no pleasure in killing the enemy, but realized that in war, it was just part of the job.
It seems like quite the odd thing to say, when many people today still harbor a grudge against Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan of WWII, but during WWI, but the men flying the skies for both sides of WWI had a bit more gallantry about them.
The Early Years
Born the son of a schoolmaster whose first teaching job was in Argentina, Oswald’s three eldest siblings were all born in Buenos Aires. Oswald was the first to be born in Germany… in Giebichenstein.
Why they did this, I couldn’t tell you… but the family name IS spelled “Bölcke” but Oswald and brother Wilhelm decided to spell their name with the Latin spelling rather than the German way, without the umlaut…
Still a young boy, Oswald caught pertussis, better known as whopping cough, which really devastated him, destroying his stamina.
To build it up he played lots of sports, but asthma would hit him from time to time. Still, he loved swimming, tennis, rowing, and gymnastics. While he was good at athletics, he was even better at math and physics.
When he was 13, Oswald wrote a letter to the Kaiser Wilhelm II (Germany’s Emperor), asking to grant him entrance to a military school.
The Kaiser said sure – but when informed, Oswald’s parents thought otherwise. Instead of Cadet School, Boelcke went to Herzog Friedrichs-Gymnasium, graduating in spring of 1911.
After leaving school Boelcke joined Telegraphen-Bataillon Nr. 3 in Koblenz as a Fahnenjunker (cadet officer) on March 15, 1911.
In January 1912, he began attending Kriegsschule (Military School) in Metz, and as soon as school was over for the day, he would race out to watch the aeroplanes fly at a nearby field.
Graduating, his grades were generally pretty average… probably because he didn’t study owing to his constant observation of aeroplanes after school. Still, his leadership skills were considered “excellent”.
In July 1912, he graduated and was commissioned as an ensign. But, while at that school he had also taken his lieutenant’s exam, and received an officer commission in the Prussian Army a year later.
Since Boelcke had abitur (a qualification granted by a university-preparatory school), his commission was back-dated to August 23, 1910, making him senior to the other new lieutenants in his battalion.
He settled into a daily routine of training recruit telegraphers.
During 1913, he took advantage of a temporary posting to Metz to catch some flights with the 3rd Air Battalion.
In February 1914, he competed in the officer’s pentathlon, taking third place and qualifying for the 1916 Olympics that were scheduled to be held in Berlin, Germany, but the Olympics were canceled after The Great War (aka WWI broke out).
This War Was Great
I’m unsure why some men (sexist, but in this case, true) used to be anxious to go to war to prove their manliness… always ready to volunteer, even lying about their age just for the opportunity to get away from the humdrum of normal human life, but Boelcke appears to have been one of those people.
Perhaps because he was adept at taking the world’s temperature—to be fair, most of the globe was aware that a large, European war was brewing—Boelcke applied for a transfer to the Fliegertruppen des deutschen Kaiserreiches (aka the Flying Troops of the German Empire).
On May 29, 1914, Boelcke was accepted for pilot’s training, and starting his actual training a few days later on June 2 at the Halberstädter Fliegerschule (Halberstadt Flying School) for a six-week course.
He passed with flying colors (ha-ha) on August 15, 1914, and was then assigned to train 50 new pilots on an Aviatik B.I, a German two-seat reconnaissance biplane designed and built by the Automobil und Aviatik AG company.
Teaching others to fly must have been killing Boelcke, what with the war having started two weeks earlier, but by August 31, he sweet-talked his way onto the Feldflieger Abteilung 13 (Field Flyer Detachment 13), joining his older brother, Wilhelm, who was already stationed there.
As such, the next day on—September 1, 1914, Boelcke and Boelcke flew the first of many missions together… an uneventful one, this time.
By the end of 1914, Oswald Boelcke—the last to join the Field Flyer Detachment 13—had flown 42 missions, brother Wilhelm had flown 61, and the next man had 27… quite the drop off, which did cause some resentment toward the brothers.
If you were a flier in the early parts of 1915, it was a boring time, as the troops on both sides hunkered down… not too much actual ground combat, little recon needed, and no air support, as things became mired.
Oswald Boelcke even spent some time in the hospital with asthma, and after that, he and his brother were even allowed to go home for a short spell.
During this time, because the Boelcke brothers were considered to be so good, a new commanding officer wanted to split them up in order to share the wealth of their experience, but both refused to fly separately, and complained to the officer’s superior officer.
It doesn’t pay to buck command, as April of 1915 saw the brothers separated: Wilhelm went to Germany, while Oswald was posted to Feldflieger Abteilung 62 (Field Flyer Detachment 62, or FA 62) in Douai, France.
He was then sent to Kampfeinsitzerkommando Douai (Combat Single-Seater Command Douai, or KEK Douai) for May 19, 1915, immediately becoming the most experienced pilot in the unit.
It is also where he met and befriended Max Immelmann, the ace with 15 victories and the one they named the flying tactic, the Immelmann turn, after.
Immelmann is cool enough that I will write an article on him later. And Manfred von Richthofen. Really… but considering THIS article took 30 hours, it’ll be a while.
Push It Real Good
While the U.S. military had banned the use of pusher aeroplanes (motor mounted behind the pilot, with the propeller behind the motor) in 1912 after six American pilots died in separate flights, France continued to embrace the concept, figuring the pilot skills also played into things. The Wright Brothers first and subsequent aeroplanes were all pusher aircraft.
French firms Voisin, Nieuport, Farman and Weymann continued to build pusher aircraft… even conceiving of the single-seat fighter… a curious thing that made the German pilots… wary.
French pilot Roland Georges Garros placed deflector wedges on his propeller in an attempt to successfully fire a machine gun as a pilot, and when he and fellow pilots Eugène Gilbert, and Adolphe Pégoud scored their first aerial victories,a new type of aerial combat was initiated. Prior to this, pilots could have shot the crap out of their own propellers.
The French public ate up the romance of the lone pilot on flights taking down the enemy, with Germany following suit with its propaganda machine supplying press releases to newspapers and magazines, and even encourage printing of postcards and filming of popular aviators.
He’s Got One, I’ve Got One, Shouldn’t You Have One?
Now that the French had figured out how (crudely) to create a machine gun that fired between the aircraft’s propellers, Germany countered with the Fokker E.I Eindecker, a monoplane that had a forward-firing, air-cooled Parabellum machine gun slaved to a synchronizer that prevented bullets from accidentally hitting the Fokker’s propeller.
It was much better than what the enemy had—a British Lewis machine gun that needed to be reloaded after a total of 47 shots.
On May 20, 1915, German pilot Otto Parschau received the original Eindecker from Fokker, demonstrating it, and then training the best pilots in its use, such as: Boelcke, Immelmann, and Kurt Wintgens.
Apparently the wing warping technique for turning made it a difficult plane to fly.
Every Germany flying unit was assigned two Fokker E.I aircraft… but their use was restricted meaning they could only be flown when pilots were not flying reconnaissance missions in their two-seaters.
Basically, these aircraft were ahead of the game, and the Germans wanted to make sure the enemy didn’t get their hands on the technology to copy them. As such, they were only used in defensive flights over their own lines. If they went down, they would go down over German territory.
And then there was Boelcke.
On June 15 and 16, 1915, Boelcke (and his observer) flew a LVG C.I two-seater (trainer pictured above) that only had the rear gun (for the observer) to battle against British and French fliers.
It wasn’t until one month later in July of 1915 that Boelcke, Immelmann, Parschau and Wintgens actually began to fly the Fokker Eindecker in combat.
Because actual combat with a machine gun on the front was all new, the attack strategy was lacking, meaning they would all just fly headlong into the enemy and begin shooting.
Wintgens apparently shot down an enemy aircraft on July 1 with his Fokker, but since it fell behind French lines, it wasn’t verified (until after the war). The same thing happened on July 4. But he did claim two victories by month’s end.
But, in his LVG C.I, Boelcke and his observer shot down a similar reconnaissance aircraft… a prolonged shootout on July 4.
It was his only victory in a two-seater, as he flew the Eindecker from then on.
Immelmann had his first victory on August 1. He and Boelcke would often fly together.
On August 9, as Immelmann flew behind a French plane going for the kill, another French plane swooped in behind him, unaware that Boelcke was sweeping down behind him. Boelcke took care of that plane allowing Immelmann to battle his opponent mano-a-mano…. or is that planeo-a-pleano? I should learn Spanish.
After six victories, Pegoud was shot down and killed. Brit Lanoe Hawker also had six victories, but the press wasn’t playing it up. But Germany’s propaganda machine proudly noted that Wintgens = 5; Boelcke = 2; and Immelmann = 1.
Wer Ist Dein Papa? (Who’s Your Daddy?)
As the year progressed, the Fokker Eindecker was improved by its manufacturer, with an increase in horsepower, and even additional (second) machine gun mounted to the aircraft’s nose. Boelcke and Immelmann had two more victories each.
On September 22, 1915, Boelcke was transferred to Metz in northeast France where he joined the secretive Brieftauben-Abteilung-Metz (Pigeons department Metz) where it battled the French in an offensive strategy.
By November 1, after rolling up his sixth victory, Boelcke was the first German pilot to be awarded the Royal House Order of Hohenzollern (a dynastic order of knighthood of the House of Hohenzollern awarded to military commissioned officers and civilians of comparable status. Immelmann followed in his steps days later.
By mid-December, Boelcke was transferred back to FA 62 unit on December 12, where he was awarded the Prussian Lifesaving Medal for an act of heroism: in August he was watching some French locals fish from a high pier over a canal when he saw a teen boy fall into the water and sink Boelcke dove in and saved him.
When 1915 ended, Immelmann = 7 victories; Boelcke = 6; Wintgens = five, but this includes the two that would not be considered confirmed until after the war.
Hans-Joachim Buddecke = four (one unconfirmed).
On January 5, Boelcke shot down a British Royal Aircraft Factory BE.2 aeroplane… and after landing his own plane nearby, Boelcke went to check on the enemy pilot.
To his surprise, the pilot spoke some German, and both the pilot and his observer had heard of Boelcke.
After both were taken to a nearby hospital, Boelcke visited the observer bringing him some reading material… a simple thing that became a huge news item in Germany. Boelcke… to him, war didn’t mean having to hate your enemy.
After Boelcke and Immelman achieved their eight victories on January 12, 1916, they were awarded the Pour le Merit (aka the Blue Max), one of the highest honors in the Prussian state, now part of the German empire. See image below.
Winning this award got mention by American and British press, along with the German… they were famous nationally and internationally.
On March 11, Boelcke was given command of the newly formed Fliegerabteilung Sivry (Flying Detachment at Sivry, France), a squadron consisting of six fighters.
After placing a front line observation post to the Sivry airfield, Boelcke created the first-ever tactical air direction center.
On March 12, Boelcke became the first pilot to achieve 10 victories, and had another the next day… but Immelmann scored what might have been the first double-victory of the war, and tied up the count at 11.
When Boelcke shot down two enemy planes on May 21, 1918, the emperor disregarded army regulations prohibiting promotion to Hauptmann (Captain) until age 30, allowing Boelcke to be promoted as such a few days past his 26th birthday.
End Of The Battle
On June 18, 1916, after scoring his 17th victory, Immelmann was killed in battle by a British pilot… but because the German propaganda machine liked to believe that no enemy could kill their hero, they claimed Immelmann had been accidentally shot down by friendly fire.
After Immelmann’s funeral, and now at 18 victories, Kaiser Wilhelm II (the leader of the German Empire), grounded Boelcke to prevent anything bad from happening to him so soon after the country had just lost another icon.
Just before reporting the HQ on June 27, he shot down another enemy plane. 19.
While at HQ, Boelcke had nothing to do but talk… so he did… to the head of German military aviation, Hermann von der Lieth-Thomsen, who was planning a reorganization of the German air service from the Fliegertruppe into the Luftstreitkräfte (Air Forces).
He, like Boelcke believed in having set military aviation tactics, and as such Boelcke wrote down his own tactics turning it into eight simple rules for aviation warfare… his Dicta Boelcke.
While the rules appear to be self-evident, Boelcke was the first to have compiled it and written it down.
The Dicta Boelcke was published as a pamphlet and given to all German pilots as a training manual on fighting tactics… the first of its kind.
- Secure the benefits of aerial combat (speed, altitude, numerical superiority, position) before attacking. Always attack from the sun;
- If you start the attack, bring it to an end;
- Fire the machine gun up close and only if you are sure to target your opponent;
- Do not lose sight of the enemy;
- In any form of attack, an approach to the opponent from behind is required;
- If the enemy attacks you in a dive, do not try to dodge the attack, but turn to the attacker;
- If you are above the enemy lines, always keep your own retreat in mind;
- For squadrons: In principle attack only in groups of four to six. If the fight breaks up in noisy single battles, make sure that not many comrades pounce on an opponent.
The rules stressed a team effort rather than how to win in single contact… rules that would allow the pilot to achieve single combat.
I can think of a 9th rule that should be added: Do not lose sight of your own squadron’s aircraft. But we’ll come to that later.
If You Want Something Done Right…
Still on the Kaiser’s protection list, Boelcke was asked to tour the states friendly to Germany/Prussia, visiting the Balkans, Austria-Hungary, and Turkey… but in the 20 days since he began, by July 30 he discovered that Germany no longer had air superiority… it had been taken away by the French and British.
During his trip back to HQ, Hermann von der Lieth-Thomsen sent him a telegram: “Return to west front as quickly as possible to organize and lead Jagdstaffel 2 on the Somme front.”
Creation of Jasta Boelcke
At this time, there were six squadrons of six pilots… but the planned seventh one was created by orders on August 10, 1916, to be built from the ground up.
This squadron, Jagdstaffel 2 (Fighter Squadron 2, or Jasta 2), was Oswald Boelcke’s to command and he was allowed to handpick any pilots he wanted for his new squadron, eventually having eight (including himself)
Among his new squad, he brought in Erwin Böhme and Otto Höhne, and Manfred von Richthofen, a young cavalry officer he had previously met.
There in Vélu Woods of France, they used four empty buildings vacated by a French group.
By August 27 had three officers and 64 other ranks on strength, but no aircraft.
Although the Jasta 2 had four aircraft by September 8, 1916, Böhme wanted to use his old castoff 1912 Halberstadt… just to get in the air.
While his squadron struggled into existence, Boelcke flew solo combat missions.
On September 2, 1916 when flying a Fokker D.III, Boelcke shot down British Captain R. E. Wilson for his 20th victory.
Wilson was unhurt, but was now a POW (prisoner of War), and yet on September 3, Boelcke had Wilson join him in the mess hall for a coffee… oh, and perhaps a photo-op:
As new personnel continued to check in, facilities were built, and the squadron’s pilots trained, Boelcke drilled them in his tactics as they flew.
He taught the Jasta 2:
- to pair as leader and wingman, spaced 60 meters (~197 feet) side-by-side to allow enough room for a safe U-turn;
- how to fly in formation to gain more power for attacks;
- how to then split into pairs when attacking, even while his Dicta 8 differed;
On September 16, 1916 six new planes arrived for the Jasta 2: five Albatros D.I (Roman numeral I), and a prototype Albatros D.II (as in D.2), manufactured by German firm Albatros Flugzeugwerke.
Boelcke took the D.II, his squad shared the D.I.’s.
D.I or D.II, these Albatros aeroplanes were considered to be better fighter planes than anything anyone had ever flown, regardless of the side. Both were faster and climbed quicker to a higher ceiling.
- Crew: one pilot;
- Length: 24 feet 3 inches (7.4 meters);
- Wingspan: 27 feet 11 inches (8.5 meters);
- Height: 9 feet 8 inches (2.95 meters);
- Wing area: 246 square feet feet (22.9 square meters);
- Empty weight: 1,426 pounds (647 kilograms);
- Gross weight: 1,980 pounds (898 kilograms);
- Powerplant: 1 × Benz Bz.III six-cylinder water-cooled in-line piston engine, creating 150 horsepower;
- Propellers: two-bladed wooden, fixed pitch;
- Maximum speed: 109 miles per hour (175 kilometers per hour);
- Endurance: 1.5 hours;
- Service ceiling: 16,000 feet (5,000 meters;);
- Rate of climb: 550 feet/minute (2.8 meters/second);
- Guns: 1 × forward-firing synchronized 7.92 mm (0.312 in) lMG 08 machine gun.
- Crew: one pilot;
- Length: 23 feet 3.5 inches (7.40 meters);
- Wingspan: 27 feet 11 inches (8.50 meters);
- Height: 8 feet s inches (2.59 meters);
- Wing area: 264 square feet (24.5 square meters);
- Empty weight: 1,404 pounds (37 kilograms);
- Loaded weight: 1,958 pounds (888 kilograms);
- Powerplant: 1 × Mercedes D.III six-cylinder inline engine, pushing out 160 horsepower;
- Maximum speed: 110 miles per hour (175 kilometers per hour);
- Endurance: 1.5 hours;
- Service ceiling: 16,990 feet (5,180 meters);
- Rate of climb: 596 feet/minute (3 meters/second);
- Guns: 2 × forward-firing synchronized 7.92 mm (0.312 in) lMG 08 (early) or LMG 08/15 (later) machine guns.
These aircraft flew their first mission with the Jasta 2 on September 17, shooting down a total of five enemy aircraft, including Boelcke gaining his 27th victory.
Boelcke continued to train his squadron, now talking about how they would fly upcoming missions, and like a great leader, listened to his team’s input. He would then issue the mission orders before the flight and debrief each post flight. It’s how they all learned to be better pilots.
Boelcke had asthma… and the weather seemed to affect him when it was rainy… he had asthma since he was a child… but on September 22, it hit him hard enough where he couldn’t fly, wouldn’t go to the hospital, and handed temporary command to Oberleutnant ( highest lieutenant officer rank) Gunther Viehweger. He remained earth-bound until September 27.
How good was the Jasta 2?
For the month of September alone, it flew 186 sorties; 69 saw combat. The squadron had 25 total victories, with Boelcke himself achieving 10… even sitting out six days with asthma. The Jasta 2 only suffered four casualties that month.
Boelcke got his 30th victory on October 1, but rainy weather prevented flying until October 7.
On October 8, 1916,Lieutenant General Ernst von Hoeppner as new Chief of Field Aviation, distributed the Dicta Boelcke to the Germany Air Force.
For the month of October, Boelcke scored 11 victories, achieving number 40 on October 26. The Jasta 2‘s total for the month, including Boelcke’s was 26, with six casualties.
But Boelcke’s hot streak did not last.
All Good Things…
October 28, 1916, it was misty with a cloud layer.
Jasta 2 flew four missions in the morning, and two more later that afternoon.
It was on the sixth mission that a squadron of six Jasta 2, including Boelcke, spotted and attacked two British aeroplanes from as well as another later in the day. On the sixth mission of the day, Boelcke and five of his pilots attacked a pair of British airplanes from No. XXIV Squadron of the British Royal Air Force.
Both Boelcke and Erwin Böhme chased the Airco DH.2 aeroplane flown by Captain Arthur Gerald Knight, while von Richthofen chased the other DH.2, piloted by Captain Alfred Edwin McKay.
With Richthofen firing at him from behind, McKay tried to get out of the way by crossing behind Knight, which cut off Boelcke and Böhme.
To avoid colliding with McKay, Boelcke and Böhme had to quickly pull their aircraft up, and because neither was aware where their fellow pilot was, Boelcke’s upper left wing hit the underframe of Böhme’s Albatross, causing the fabric on Boelcke’s wing to tear.
This caused the wing to lost lift and to spiral downward to crash into a German artillery battery near Bapaume, Northern France.
No one wore parachutes back then, and Boelcke for whatever reason was not wearing a crash helmet or his seatbelt… with the resulting crash fracturing his skull, killing him.
Böhme, upon flying home crashed his plane, and could not recall what had happened… but an inquiry into the fatality says he was not at fault.
At his funeral on October 31, 1916, many of his fellow pilots and German citizens sent wreathes–including one from British Captain Wilson and three POWs.
The ribbon on the wreathe stated: “The opponent we admired and esteemed so highly”.
Another wreath of British origin had been air dropped at the authorization of the Royal Flying Corps–it said: “To the memory of Captain Boelcke, our brave and chivalrous opponent.”
Oswald Boelcke is buried in the Ehrenfriedhof (Cemetery of Honor) in Dessau, Germany.
By order of the Kaiser Wilhelm II, Jagdstaffel 2 (Jasta 2) was renamed as Jagdstaffel Boelcke (Jasta Boelcke) on December 17, 1916.
At the time of his death, he had 40 victories, a total eventual surpassed by others, including his protege, von Richthofen, who led the way with 80 victories but still considered Boelcke to be the best pilot.