Oswald Boelcke: Germany’s First Fighter Ace and Father of Air Combat
by R.G. Head
London: Grub Street, 2016
Hardcover, 192 pages, $39.95 (CAN)
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Reviewed by Ryan Kastrukoff
Brigadier General (ret.) R.G. Head of the USAF was one of the first fighter pilots in Vietnam flying over 325 combat missions, earning him the Silver Star, the Distinguished Flying Cross, and thirteen Air Medals. He is a graduate of Advanced Fighter Training (Top Gun) and later filled staff positions in the US Joint Staff. From this position of intimate familiarity with modern air combat, the author presents a biography of one of the world’s first fighter pilots and the first German fighter ace of the First World War, Oswald Boelcke. Brigadier General Head ambitiously proposes that Boelcke be considered as one of the most important fighter pilots of any era, due to his skill, leadership, development of doctrine, tactics, and particularly, due to his character. The author also offers a secondary thesis that the rise of the fighter ace during the First World War was an example of the resurgence of the individual in an increasingly mechanized society, and it stood in stark contrast to the impersonal slaughter of the ground war. The work is divided into 16 chapters and seven appendices that, at times, follow Boelcke’s career, but also provide context by discussing the development of the aircraft industry, the ground battles, and the development of various national air doctrines and snippets of air combat wisdom. Through the narrative it is made clear that Oswald Boelcke was a key figure in the development of early air combat, and is, in part, responsible for many concepts, procedures, and training styles that are still present in today’s fighter aviation. It is also made clear that Boelcke was an exceptionally skilled pilot for his era, and that he deserves consideration as one of the greatest fighter aces of all time. While the author does prove his case that Boelcke was an important fighter pilot, he does not succeed in proving it beyond all doubt.
In an attempt to give context to Boelcke’s achievements, the author shows that being in the right place at the right time was a significant contributor to his success on many occasions. For example, not once but twice in his career, Boelcke was flying aircraft that were considerably more capable than his foes, leading him to easily rack up his victory count. The author goes on many tangents about different aircraft flown by all sides, and the various doctrines in vogue that again could have made it significantly easier for Boelcke to stand out among his contemporaries.
For his secondary thesis, the author was less able to prove that the rise of the fighter ace showed the resurgence of the individual. In fact, the author concludes that Boelcke’s greatness is in part due to his development of a training system and a teamwork mentality for fighter squadrons that holds true today. This is almost completely opposite to the author’s original thesis. Boelcke’s early career was, indeed, highly individualistic, but once given his own squadron, he stressed teamwork and the victory of the group. He maintained that squadron was more important than the ace. Regardless, the fact that Boelcke also maintained his character in the midst of fame and adulation, espoused teamwork, and built a training system that led to one of the most effective squadrons in operating during the First World War, is, to this reviewer, the author’s argument that most proves that Boelcke should be considered one of the founding fathers of air combat.
This is a recommended read for all interested in First World War and early aviation. For those in the air combat profession, this work gives valuable insight and context to our current understanding of air warfare, and it is highly recommended as such.
Major Ryan Kastrukoff is a fighter pilot instructor at 419 Tactical Fighter (Training) Squadron responsible for introducing new pilots to air combat in the CT-155 Hawk. He has also flown the CF-188 Hornet, and has deployed on Operation Athena, Operation Podium, Operation Noble Eagle, and a number of sovereignty operations.