World War I

Aerial Innovator

One of the military innovations of World War I was air warfare. When the war started in 1914, the military establishment in every country dismissed aircraft as a weapon of war, but a few younger officers envisioned the possibilities. One of those young officers was Oswald Boelcke.

Boelcke was born in 1891, the third of six children born to a school headmaster. With his parents’ permission, he joined the Prussian Cadet Corps in 1911. While serving with a communications unit he noticed the nascent air corps, and by 1914 he was a licensed pilot.


In 1914, Oswald and his brother Wilhelm, also a pilot, were flying observation missions over enemy trenches. Oswald quickly realized that planes would be suitable for aerial combat and occasionally disobeyed orders by engaging in dogfights with enemy planes. His aggressive style earned him the Iron Cross (Second Class) in October 1914 and First Class in February 1915.

In April 1915, he was transferred to a unit where he met Max Immelmann. They created tactics for aerial combat which are still studied and used today. Immelmann is best known for the “Immelmann loop” which involves rolling to escape an enemy plane and then turning to counterattack the enemy from the rear.

Boelcke created a list of seven tactical maneuvers known as the “Dicta Boelcke.” The seventh dictum says that “foolish acts of bravery only bring death” and advocates working as a team. It’s one of the earliest examples of the principle of formation flying and massed attacks by aircraft—both now standard procedures.


In January 1916, Boelcke was awarded the Ordre Pour le Merite or Blue Max, the German equivalent of the Congressional Medal of Honor. He was 24 years old. In a letter to his parents, he described wearing the Blue Max as “worse than having a warrant out against you” because everyone stared when seeing such a young man wearing the ultimate military honor.

Boelcke quickly tired of the media attention. To avoid the press, he created a list of answers which he dubbed “Aircraft Defenses Against Troublesome Questioners” which he provided to inquisitive people. The first answer is “sometimes it is dangerous, sometimes it is not.”

In the summer of 1916, the German air corps was reorganized into Jadgstaffeln (called Jastas) and Boelcke was given command of Jasta 2. On October 28, 1916, in an aerial dogfight, Boelcke accidentally touched wings with another pilot from his Jasta. Both planes crashed and Boelcke was killed by the impact.

His Jasta was renamed in his honor and his protégé, Manfred von Richtofen (a/k/a the Red Baron) took command until 1918 when he was killed in a dogfight. When the war ended in 1918, Jasta Boelcke was led by a young flyboy named Herman Goering.

For more information about Oswald Boelcke, see Knight of Germany by Professor Johannes Werner (2009 translation by Claude W. Sykes for Casemate). Professor Werner’s original 1932 text was written at a time of severe social and political turmoil in Germany. His advocacy of patriotism and German nationalism may be a bit jarring for some readers.

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