While the Red Baron is undoubtedly the most famous German pilot of the First World War, that does not mean that he was the only, or even the most important, fighter ace of that war. While Oswald may not have had as many victories as Manfred von Richthofen, he did become an ace first. Further, he helped to form the German air force and wrote manuals on air to air combat that are still influential today.
Oswald Boelcke was born on May 19th, 1891, the son of a school teacher. His family was conservative and knew that a military career was one of the few paths to social advancement. At the age of 13, Oswald wrote a letter to the Kaiser requesting appointment to a military school. He was accepted, but his parents rejected it and so he attended civilian school. However, Oswald studied military theory and aviation and at the age of 17 received his degree. In 1911 he joined a telegraph battalion but remained interested in airplanes. On a side note, he also qualified for the 1916 Olympics but would not be able to compete due to the war. Oswald transferred to the Air Corps in 1914 and after completing training was assigned to instruct a group of new cadets. On the 31st of August, Oswald joined his brother Wilhelm in the 13th flying detachment. The two of them flew many sorties in 1914 and by the end of the year Wilhelm and Oswald had flown the first and second most sorties of all German pilots respectively. 1915 saw Oswald compete with other German aces for victories as machine guns were put on airplanes and the air became a battlefield. The Germans initially had superior guns and planes, but the Allies caught up and neither side would enjoy supremacy in equipment for a long period of time. Boelcke became a captain and was given a detachment, and spent early 1916 flying missions and writing the Dicta Boelcke. This work contained 8 principles of air to air combat that were published as the first training manual on fighter tactics. Boelcke would spend time in the Balkans before being given command of the newly formed squadrons. To this new squadron Boelcke would recruit two cavalry soldiers, one of whom was Manfred von Richthofen. Oswald helped to end Britain’s mastery of the air. From September to October of 1916 the German air service had lost 39 men and shot down 211. On October 28th, Boelcke and five others from his squadron attacked two British planes. Oswald and his friend Bohme nearly collided with each other, and in avoiding collision Boelcke’s plane was damaged. As a result his plane crashed and as he was not wearing a safety helmet he suffered a skull fracture and died.
Although Oswald Boelcke was not the most successful ace of World War I, he was probably the most important one. While Boelcke was successful in his own right, perhaps more importantly, seven other pilots became aces in his squadron, including the Red Baron. His squadron shot down far more planes than it lost. Further, his Dikta Boelcke was the first fighter manual and was very influential both during the war and after. Descendants of it are still used to train NATO pilots and tactics from it still feature in aerial warfare today. What’s more, Boelcke is still remembered in the German airforce, as his name appears on the emblem of one of their wings and on many memorials and buildings.