Introduction--- During the first half of the Great War, pilots and commanders were still sorting out what role aircraft might have in modern war. No one had fought a major war with aircraft before. There was no shortage of theories, but there were no established rules nor veterans to guide eager young pilots. Brave men learned their craft by trial and error. Those who made mistakes seldom lived long enough to learn from them, let alone tell anyone else what they had learned.
By the summer of 1916, Oswald Boelcke had become Germany's top fighter pilot. Feldflugchef Colonel Thomsen of the German High Command urged Boelcke to draw up a summary of principles that should govern every air fight. His list of 'rules' for success is often referred to as the 'Dicta Boelcke.'
While the Dicta sound simplistic, they represented the rules for successful air combat. The Dicta were still valid for World War II fighter pilots and even into the Korean War. Only when modern high-powered jet combat became 'blind' and electronic, did Boelcke's visually-based rules begin to lose their relevance.
The Dicta Boelcke listed below are quoted from Johannes Werner's biography of Boelcke, Knight of Germany, (1990, Greenhill. Original German, 1933 Boelcke: der Mensch ) Text between asterisks (*) are this author's interpretative commentary.
1. Try to secure advantages before attacking. If possible keep the sun behind you.
*'Advantages' for WWI aircraft included: speed, height, surprise, performance and numbers.
Speed - the pilot with the faster of two machines has control over the combat. He has the choice to break off combat and retire. The slower machine can not catch him. The pilot of a slower machine must stay on the defense. He can not run to safety. A fast moving aircraft can perform elaborate manoeuvres, giving its pilot many options. A machine flying close to its stall speed can do little beyond wallowing in a more or less straight line. Aircraft engines available in 1914 and 1915 provided just enough thrust to keep machines airborne at 80 mph, and not much more. Level flight was fine, but climbing to a higher altitude took several minutes and cut air speed nearly in half. Diving, on the other hand, could add half again to a plane's top speed. By 1916, engine power and speed increased. By the end of the war, aircraft were operating regularly at speeds over 130 mph. Speed was critical.
Height - From the advantage of flying above his opponent, a pilot had more control over how and where the fight takes place. He could dive upon his opponent, gaining a sizable speed advantage for a hit and run attack. Or, if the enemy had too many advantages, numbers for instance, a pilot fly away with a good head start. On average, WWI aircraft climbed slowly. Altitude was a hard earned 'potential energy' store not to be given away capriciously.
Surprise - getting the first shot before one's opponent is prepared to return fire was the 'safest' and preferred method for attack. Most air victories were achieved in the first pass. Without all-seeing devices like radar, a pilot could approach his foe stealthily, using clouds, haze or even using the enemy aircraft's own wings or tail to conceal his approach. The glare of the sun, especially, provided an effective hiding spot.
Performance- Knowing the strengths, weakness and capabilities of your own aircraft, and that of your foe, was also critical. Who was faster, who could turn tighter, how many were there, etc.? He argued against foolish acts of 'heroism.' If he could not 'secure advantages,' he would not attack. One of Boelcke's pupils, Manfred von Richthofen, learned this rule very well and became the war's top scoring ace.
A documented example of Boelcke 'securing advantages' took place on 17 September 1916. Boelcke and his pilots intercepted a flight of bombers and fighters crossing the lines. He chose not to attack right away, but had his Jasta climb higher above the bombers, keeping themselves between the bombers and the sun. There they circled and waited. When the bomber pilots, observers and fighter escort pilots were preoccupied with the destruction they were causing on the ground, Boelcke signaled for his pilots to attack. Several enemy aircraft went down and Jasta 2 lost no one.*
2. Always carry through an attack when you have started it.
*Rookie pilots would start a fight, but instinct (fear) would convince them to break it off and run. This inevitably presented the rookie's tail to his opponent's guns, making the rookie an easy victory for his enemy. Boelcke learned that it was far better to stay and continue mixing it up -- waiting for his opponent to make mistakes or flee -- than to break and run. To turn tail and run was to surrender most, if not all, of the advantages a pilot might have had.
As an example, when Manfred von Richthofen met British ace Lanoe Hawker in November 1916, each persisted in trying to get on the other's tail. Both stuck to Boelcke's second dictum. When their endless circling had brought them down near the ground behind German lines, Hawker had to chose between landing and capture or fleeing. He chose to flee. Richthofen was then able to get behind him and shot him down.*
3. Fire only at close range and only when your opponent is properly in your sights.
*A common rookie's urge was to start blasting away upon sighting his first enemy machine. Shots taken at ranges of 1000 yards stood little chance of hitting their mark. The rattle of machine gun fire would alert the intended target and gave them time to react.
The machine guns available for aircraft during the Great War were not highly accurate at longer ranges. Add to that the difficulty of aiming from a moving, bouncing gun platform at a fast moving target and it is a marvel that anyone ever hit anything. Boelcke preferred to fly to within 100 yards or less before firing, to ensure hitting what he aimed at with his opening burst. Once the rattle of his guns was heard, the advantage of surprise was gone, so it was best to make that first shot most effective.
Another aspect of making each shot count was the limited supply of ammunition carried in WWI aircraft -- usually only several hundred rounds. This could amount to less than 60 seconds of sustained fire. Reloading in the air varied from dangerous to impossible. Spraying the sky with lead in hopes of hitting something, eventually, was not an option. Shots had to be chosen carefully. Early in the war, when a sense of chivalry still held sway, some men allowed their opponents to depart if they were out of ammunition or had jammed guns. Total war did not allow such courtesies to last for long.*
4. Always keep your eye on your opponent, and never let yourself be deceived by ruses.
*The first part, 'keeping your eye on your opponent,' sounds obvious enough, but it needed to be stated. In the hustle and bustle of an air fight it was easy to lose sight of your adversary. A restatement of this rule might be: never assume you know where your opponent is or will be. If a pilot 'lost' his foe, the advantage shifted to the foe. A successful pilot did not allow himself to be distracted from his opponent.
Ruses. It was not an uncommon practice for a pilot to feign being hit, going into a supposedly uncontrolled spin or dive, in order to exit a fight that was not going well. This practice traded on the chivalry of their opponents. To continue hammering a man who was already going down, was thought unsportsmanlike. Boelcke recognized that too many enemy were being allowed to escape and return to fight another day. War for national survival was not sport. He taught against the accepted notion that once a machine began to spin down, that one could move on. If it was a ruse, the enemy pilot would pull out at the last moment and either escape or return to attack, perhaps now having gained the advantage of surprise. Boelcke wanted his pupils to follow their opponent down. Make sure they were out of the fight or resume the fight if necessary.*
5. In any form of attack it is essential to assail your opponent from behind.
*Firing at a machine flying across one's path required 'leading' the shot -- aiming ahead of a moving target to compensate for its speed. While a few pilots were adept at the mental calculations necessary and good areal marksmen, most were much less adept. The velocity of a moving gun platform, the speed of bullets plus the speed and direction of a moving target could be a lot to consider in the heat of battle. Furthermore, in deflection firing, the target could cross the stream of fire whose bullets were 200 feet or more apart. Such crossing gave less exposure to the bullets.
Head-on attacks or head-to-tail attacks required little or no calculated deflection in aim. Head-on attack, however, exposed one directly to the enemy's guns. Far safer and more effective to have one's target and bullet stream all traveling in more or less the same direction. This required little or no 'leading,' and exposed the target to a greater concentration of fire.
Because of the prevalence of attack from the rear, aircraft design adapted to allow for rear firing guns in two-seaters and larger bombers.*
6. If your opponent dives on you, do not try to evade his onslaught, but fly to meet it.
*This rule is related to dictum #2 above. The instinctive reaction of many rookies was to turn and flee from an approaching attacker -- especially a diving one. This simply presented their tail to the attacker, usually with disastrous results. Boelcke taught that a pilot had to conquer that instinct. Turning to face the attack could force the attacker onto the defensive, or at least keep the situation unsettled, which was far better than presenting your tail. Even though climbing to meet an attack would reduce speed, it was better to try to bring one's own guns to bear than flee.*
7. When over the enemy's lines never forget your own line of retreat.
*If a pilot chose to flee a superior force, or was coming down with damaged machine, it was critical to spend what little time he might have going in the right direction. This rule sounds as though it is stating the obvious, but Boelcke found it necessary to include. More than a few pilots came down behind enemy lines because they got confused and lost their way. In WWI, areal navigation was done mostly by sight. Taking regular note of landmarks helped a pilot get his bearings quickly, perhaps making the difference between safety and captivity.*
8. For the Staffel: Attack on principle in groups of four or six. When the fight breaks up into a series of single combats, take care that several do not go for one opponent.
*In the first year or so of WWI, air combat was more of a one-on-one affair. The early aces, like Pegoud, Garros, Boelcke and Immelmann, hunted the skies alone. Later in the war the sheer number of machines in the sky increased. Several reconnaissance machines traveled together for mutual protection, further protected by escorting fighters. Boelcke recognized that the days of the lone hunter were over. Many young pilots, however, still came to the front expecting to dash valiantly into battle alone as an errant knight, only to be quickly overwhelmed by multiple enemies.
Boelcke tirelessly lectured his pupils on the need for teamwork -- sometimes scolding them for acting too independently. Attacking in a group allowed the leader to concentrate his attention exclusively on his target, while his 'wingmen' protected his tail.
Air battles later in the war could involve dozens of aircraft from each side at the same time. The sky could become a swirling tangle of machines. When 'your' side was at a numerical disadvantage, it was especially important not to double up on one opponent. The concentrated fire was of dubious value, since you were just as likely to get in each other's way as hit the enemy. Doubling up also left an enemy machine somewhere unbothered and free to tail one of your side's machines. Later in the war, teamwork became the primary key to success and survival.*