MY EXPERIENCES IN AIR COMBAT
During the early part of 1918, Rittmeister Manfred Freiherr von Richthofen set out his thoughts on fighting in the air, his ‘dicta’ translated and examined here by Robin Schäfer.
In 1918, Manfred von Richthofen set out to write his thoughts on the conduct of air fighting. As the leading exponent of the ‘art’, it comprised a set of remarkably concise and uncomplicated rules to which he decreed a successful fighter pilot should abide as our Consultant Editor explains.
Taking a thick pile of paper from a shelf, Manfred von Richthofen told Zeppelin crewman and bomber pilot turned war correspondent, Oberleutnant Peter Lampel:
‘I have written something again. It was supposed to be another book. You know, like ‘Red Battle Flyer’. But I somehow ended up on another course.’
Lampel was visiting JG1 during the German Spring Offensive of March 1918, and when he interviewed the Rittmeister he became one of the first people made aware of ‘Meine Erfahrungen im Luftkampf’, or ‘My Experiences in Air Combat’.
What Richthofen was working on was published and distributed by the Inspektion der Fliegertruppen on 26 April 1918, just five days after his death. With a total of 481 typescript copies distributed among frontline, training and replacement formations, it was supposed to be read and discussed.
After the war, Richthofen’s ‘dicta’ lay forgotten but then, in 1938, on the 20th anniversary of Manfred‘s death, the Department of Military Science of the Luftwaffe published the text for the first time, furnished with a suitable propaganda introduction for officer training.
This rare publication was quickly forgotten, and another 52 years passed before the ‘Erfahrungen’ resurfaced
again for the German book market, titled ‘Reglement für Kampfflieger’, and published together with his ghostwritten autobiography. In the English speaking world, however, it remained largely unknown although a couple of translation attempts have been made.
In stark contrast to his autobiography, the ‘experiences’ were undoubtedly written by Richthofen himself. An indicator of this is the language used; the German text is rather unstructured, in places it is chaotic and is often hard to follow. However, after the Rittmeister’s death, nobody seems to have bothered to properly edit it. Quite possibly it was felt that changing the words would be sacreligious. They did, after all, set out the Rittmeister’s thinking on air combat. And those thoughts could not be altered, post mortem.
As he talked to Lampel, though, Richthofen went on:
‘It has turned into something like a tactical treatise, what I think about air fighting, so to speak. Something like that. And then I thought that I’d turn the tables and turn it into a regulation. For official use only. Let me read you something of it….’
operations will begin at 7 o’clock, there is a possibility that the entire Geschwader, fully suited-up, will have to wait one or several hours on the airfield.
Take-off is ordered by telephone call (when [units] are on different airfields), or by ringing a bell (when on the same airfield). Each Staffel takes off, the last person being the Staffel leader. The Staffel assembles at the lowest altitude (100 metres) over a point right or left of the flight direction designated previously by the Kommandeur. Then, the Kommandeur takes-off and sets out in the direction he ordered. He flies to where the assembled Staffel leaders have taken up the prescribed places, all on low throttle.
To be sure that the Staffeln do not become disordered, it is advisable to assign markings to each Staffel. The aeroplane of the Kommandeur must be very conspicuously painted.
During the assembly phase, the Kommandeur should make no turns. As such, he flies as slowly as possible towards the front. When the Kommandeur is satisfied that the Geschwader is closed up, and there are no straggling machines, he can gradually begin to make good use of his machine’s capability.
The altitude at which the Kommandeur flies is the altitude at which the Geschwader has to fly. It is absolutely wrong if a pilot flies 200 metres higher or 50 metres lower. In a formation as large as this (30 to 40 machines), the position of the Staffel leader must be maintained during the entire flight.
For beginners, it is recommended there should be an order of position within the Staffel. That order can be so diverse it is hard to give firm regulations for it. In a well-attuned flight, a prescribed flight order is superfluous.
I prefer to lead Jagdstaffel 11 as if hunting on horseback in the field. Then it is of no consequence if I turn, push ahead or fall back. If, however, the Staffel is not so well organised, an order of position is required. If the Geschwader flight is not successful, in 99% of cases it is the fault of the leading aircraft. He has to adjust his pace to the slowest of his Geschwader. The Staffel leader flying next to the Kommandeur should not fly so close to him that it is impossible for him to make a sudden turn about. This hinders him badly during an attack, and in some circumstances ruins the success of the entire Geschwader.
When an enemy formation is sighted, the leading aircraft must increase speed. This moment must be recognised by every individual in the Geschwader to make sure the formation doesn’t disintegrate. When the Kommandeur dives down, the entire Geschwader must do the same with him. In doing this, tight spirals are to be avoided and turning in long, wide lines downward is to be sought. Needless turns are to be avoided. In every 180 turn, the Ketten have to change position. Doing this causes great confusion, and under these circumstances it takes a long time to reform the formation as ordered.
If the Kommandeur is out of action due to unforeseen circumstances, a deputy has to be designated in advance. A flare pistol signal indicates the transfer of leadership to the deputy.
The purpose of such strong Geschwader flights is to destroy enemy formations – thus making attacks on individual aircraft by the Kommandeur inappropriate. Accordingly, strong Geschwader flights of this kind are warranted in good weather, but only when strong enemy flight operations can be expected. It is more favourable if one can get between an intruding enemy and the frontline. One cuts off his escape, gets above him and forces him into combat. An attack in close order ensures success.
When the Kommandeur has decided to attack, he flies toward the main body of the enemy formation. Shortly before the attack, he slows his pace so that the Geschwader, having become dispersed by fast flying or turning, is all assembled. Every individual counts the number of opponents at the moment he sights them.
When the attack begins, everyone must be able to ascertain where all of the enemy aircraft are. The Kommandeur should not focus his
attention on enemy aircraft pulling away or straggling, but should always follow the main body; those who do straggle will be destroyed by aircraft following behind. By then, none of the main body must overtake the Kommandeur. Speed is regulated by throttling back and not turning. But when the Kommandeur goes into a dive and swoops down on the enemy formation, it must be the aim of every pilot, and under every circumstance, to be the first to engage the opposing side.
Through the force of the first attack, and through the absolute will of each individual to engage in combat, the enemy formation will be torn apart. When this is successful, then shooting down an enemy is only a matter of individual combat. There is, however, a danger that individuals will get in one another’s way and thereby give many British the opportunity to escape from the turmoil of combat. Therefore, it should be rigorously noted that the one who is closest to an opponent is the one who alone shall fire at him. If two or more are within firing range (100 metres) of the same enemy, the other must wait either until the first attacker has a gun jam or similar reason to end combat - and forcing him to turn away or they must seek a new opponent. I have seen scenes in which 10 to 15 machines were involved in a fight and all followed a single Englishman down to the ground, while up above the enemy formation continued to fly undisturbed. One does not support the other pilot by firing with him, but by staying behind as a reserve.
If, during the course of such a Geschwader combat, individuals lose altitude, they should not wait until one of the opponents comes spinning down or is shot down in aerial combat and go after the already defeated opponent; rather, they should climb towards the direction of the lines and attack enemy machines trying to escape to their front.
If such a Geschwader combat was successful, and if it has broken up into individual combats, then the Geschwader will be scattered. Then it is not easy to assemble it again. In most cases, it will only be possible to gather a few scattered individuals as the Kommandeur circles over the main battleground, or above previously determined and well-marked points. Individuals can now attach themselves to him and if sufficient strength has been regained, the fighter mission can be continued.
If elements of the Staffel are no longer able to make contact, they must fly home and not continue to loiter at the front to avoid unnecessary casualties.
It is not absolutely necessary to get above an enemy formation. There could be a case where one cannot get above a very high flying enemy. Then, one holds his aeroplanes back near the frontline position where one assumes the enemy will cross on their return flight. If the enemy Geschwader approaches, one flies along below it and then, by diving at full speed and attempting to get there by pulling up vertically, draws the enemy into battle.
Very often, the enemy will take up the fight. Especially the Englishman. He will usually dive down on an individual, most often the last one, before pulling his machine up again. An aircraft attacked in that manner can evade by going into a full-speed turn, while at the same moment another tries to get above the attacker. Usually, some member of the Geschwader will be successful and reach the altitude of the enemy and can then pull above him in a turning combat, engage him and send him crashing down. Such battles often drag on for minutes. During this time, the Kommandeur must turn continuously and the Geschwader is thrown into confusion and the formation no longer has to be maintained; rather, everyone pushes towards the Kommandeur trying to turn with his machine to gain altitude.
Flying straight ahead at this moment is very dangerous as the enemy is just waiting for the right moment to attack, unnoticed, out of the sun.
Immediately after every Geschwader flight, a discussion is the most important instructive activity. At that time, everything that happened during the
flight from take-off to landing must be discussed. The questioning of individuals can be very useful for clarification.
Practice flights in Geschwader strength are not necessary when each individual Staffel flies well. Geschwader flights within the Staffeln for practice purposes over a rearward area offer no real practice. They are only instructional when conducted in the face of the enemy. What I can do with a Jagdgeschwader, can also be done with a Jagdgruppe.
From the leaders of Ketten, Staffel and Geschwader I require the following:
That he knows his aeroplanes thoroughly. The way the Staffel conducts itself on the ground, is the way it will function in the air. Therefore the prerequisites are:
2. Strict discipline Everyone must have absolute trust in the leader in the air. If trust is lacking, success can be ruled out from the outset. The Staffel gains trust by their leader’s exemplary daring and from the conviction that he sees everything and is able to cope with every situation.
The Staffel needs to be well attuned, i.e. not become accustomed to one position or the like; rather, each individual has to be attuned to the next man in such a way that he can recognise from the movements of an aircraft what the man at the control column is intending to do, especially when the leader proceeds to attack, or else by tight turning indicates an enemy attack from above to his fellow flyers. I consider it very dangerous to split up such well attuned pilots.
Within the Staffel, each man has a special distinguishing emblem on his machine, preferably on the rear part of the tail above and below.
The leader takes-off last, assembles his Kette at low altitude making allowances for the worst machine. While approaching the front, he orientates himself to the overall situation, the enemy’s and his own. While doing so, he must never let his own Staffel go unmonitored. There will always be one or other straggler. They must be allowed to catch up by turning and throttling back.
The flight along the front is no hunting flight. Rather, one flies to the front, preferably in the centre of one’s own sector, familiarising oneself as to enemy flight operations. Then, flying away from the frontline, one seeks to obtain the altitude of one’s opponents before trying again to fly over the front, with the sun in one’s back, and to attack the enemy.
A hunting flight consists of alternating thrusts across the lines and back again. When no enemy is to be seen on the other side, these thrusts have no purpose.
I distinguish between attacks on a formation and on a single aeroplane. The latter is the easiest.
I am on the lookout for artilleryspotting aircraft which mainly fly around on the other side of the lines, and not at any great altitude. I can keep my eye on five, six or ten such single aircraft, observing changes in altitude or if they have any high flying escorts above them. Then I fly away from the front for a while, before returning to the enemy lines at a higher altitude than the enemy aircraft I want to attack. While I distance myself, I need to constantly observe the enemy.
The ideal moment to attack an artillery flyer is when the enemy is flying towards the front from the other side of the line. Then, taking wind conditions into account (East-west), I dive down on him out of the sun. Those who reach the enemy first have the right to open fire. The Staffel goes down together. Leaving so-called ‘cover’ at higher altitude is just a cover for cowardice.
If the first one suffers a gun jam, it is the turn of the second one, then the third. And so on. At no time will two fire at the same time. If the artillery flyer has been watchful, and if the surprise attack failed, he will in most of cases descend to the lowest altitude while diving and turning. Diving after him will, in most cases, not result in success as I cannot hit an opponent who is turning. There is no practical value in driving him away, either, because five minutes later he will resume his activity. I consider it better, in this case, to let him go and to fly back to the front to repeat the whole manoeuvre. In many cases, I have only brought an English artillery flyer down in the third attack.
The Geschwader battle on this side of the line is often more successful as I can force an opponent to land. A Geschwader
battle on the other side is the most difficult, especially if there is an east wind. Then, a leader must not sink his teeth in too deeply - otherwise he can expect heavy casualties.
As long as I can be offensive, I can engage in a Geschwader combat on the other side, too. With an especially well attuned Staffel, I can attack a superior enemy from above and on the other side. If a single-seater is pushed onto the defensive, if its guns jam, if it is separated from the Staffel, if its engine is shot up, or the machine has a defect, or if it has come down very low, and so on, then it is defenceless against a superior opponent attacking energetically, even if far across the other side.
The leader must not pursue an intruding formation, rather he bores high up between the front and the foe until he has climbed above him and then cuts off that opponent‘s retreat. If the enemy formation intrudes deeply, there is a danger of losing sight of it. It is the Staffel leader’s responsibility to ensure this does not happen.
As I approach the enemy, I count the individual enemy flyers. That way, I avoid being surprised at the moment of attack. During the battle, the leader must not lose the overall view of his Kette and the enemy formation. This kind of perfection can only be achieved in frequent Geschwader battles.
Maintaining vision is a basic requirement and the main task of the leader of a Kette.
HOW DO I TRAIN BEGINNERS?
Under my leadership, six knights of the Pour le Merite have shot down their first to twentieth victims.
Before I allow a beginner to fly against the enemy, he has to set up the interior of his aeroplane in a way which suits him best. The main thing for a fighter pilot is the machine gun. He has to master it in a way that he recognises the cause of a gun jam. When I come back home with a jammed gun, I can usually tell my mechanic the precise reason for it.
The machine guns will be zeroed in on the ground until they score parallel hits on a target at 150 metres. When the pilot has personally adjusted his machine guns on the range, he can start practicing on targets from the air until he has achieved great proficiency.
The pilot, not the armourer or the mechanic, is responsible for having his machine gun fire faultlessly. There is no such thing as a gun jam! Where it occurs, it is the pilot I will blame.
A well-firing machine gun is more important than a smoothly running engine. When loading the ammunition belts, he has to make sure that every single round is measured in with a ruler. The time to do so must be found (In good and bad weather, or during the night!).
I place little significant value on the flying itself. I had already shot down my first twenty when I still had the greatest difficulty with flying itself. If one is an aerial acrobat, that does no harm. But, in general, I prefer the pilot who is only able to fly left-hand turns but who goes sharply after the enemy, rather than the diving and turning specialist from Johannisthal who attacks cautiously.
I forbid the following exercises over the airfield: looping, tail-spins and lowaltitude turning.
We need no aerial acrobats. We need daredevils.
I insist on firing practice in flight, and at high altitude in tight turns and at full throttle. If a pilot fulfills the said requirements, he next has to make use of illustrations to accustom himself of the aircraft types present at the front. He must know the terrain without a map, and also the course of the frontline by heart. Long orientation flights, also in bad weather, have to be practiced much more in the homeland.
If he meets these requirements, then he flies the first few times 50 metres behind and on the left of me, and pays
I place little significant value on the flying itself. I had already shot down my first twenty when I still had the greatest difficulty with flying itself. If one is an aerial acrobat, that does no harm. But, in general, I prefer the pilot who is only able to fly left-hand turns but who enemy.” goes sharply after the
attention to his leader. For a beginner, it is at least equally important to know what he has to do to keep from being shot down. The biggest threat for a single-seater is the surprise attack from behind. A very large number of our best and most experienced fighter pilots were surprised and shot down from behind. The opponent seeks the most favourable moment to attack the rearmost aircraft of a Kette. He dives on him from out of the sun and can bring him down with a few shots.
Without fail, everyone must make it a priority to observe the air space behind him. No one has ever been surprised from the front.
Also, during a battle, one must take specific care not to be attacked from behind. If a beginner is attacked from behind, however, under no circumstances should he try to get away by diving. The best, and in my opinion the only correct method, is a sudden and very tight turn - and then, as quickly as possible, initiate an attack.
Every Geschwader battle breaks up into individual combats. One could cover the subject ‘aerial combat tactics’ in one sentence:
‘I approach the enemy from behind until about 50 meters, take aim carefully, and then the opponent falls.’
These are the words which with Boelcke brushed me off when I asked about his trick. Now I know that this is the only secret of shooting one down. One doesn’t need to be an aerobatic artist or trickshooter. Only to have the courage to fly right up to the opponent. I only make a distinction between single-seaters and two-seaters. Whether the two-seater is an R.E.8 or a Bristol-fighter, or if the singleseater in an S.E.5 or a Nieuport, makes no difference at all.
One attacks the two-seater from behind at great speed in the same direction into which he is going. The MG burst of a dexterous observer can only be evaded by staying calm and putting him out of action with the first shots. If the opponent goes into a turn, I have to be careful not to fly above the enemy aircraft.
A longer turning battle with a completely combat ready, manoeuvrable two-seater is the most difficult thing. I only fire when the opponent flies straight ahead or, even better, when he starts into a turn. Never, however, from the side - or when the aircraft is tilted on one wing. It is then that I try to harass him by firing warning shots - streaks of phosphorus rounds.
I consider it very dangerous to attack a two-seater from the front. First, one rarely hits the opponent and hardly ever manages to totally disable it and is, first, within the field of fire of his fixed machine gun - and then that of the observer. Once I have squeezed past under the two-seater, and then want to turn to fly in his direction, I offer a wonderful target to the observer.
If one is attacked from the front by a two-seater, that is no reason to pull away - but one can try to make a sudden sharp turn in the moment in which the opponent flies over. If the observer has not been watchful, one can pull up and easily shoot the opponent down. But if he has been watchful and, while making the sharp turn, one lies well within his field of fire, it is advisable not to fly further into the observers’ salvoes, but to turn away to make a new attack.
Individual combat against a singleseater is by far the easiest. If I am alone with the opponent, and on this side of the line, only a jammed gun or engine defect can stop me shooting him down.
The simplest thing is to surprise a single-seater from behind, which very often succeeds. Had he been watchful, he will begin to turn immediately. Then, the main point is to make tighter turns and to stay above him. Whether the battle is on this side or the other, with a favourable wind, a turning fight of this kind will end with the opponent being forced towards the ground on this side. Then he needs to decide whether he wants to land or risk flying straight ahead in order to make it back to his own side. If he does the latter, I sit behind the enemy and can easily shoot him down.
If I am attacked by a single seater from above, I make it a point to never let up on the throttle and make all turns and dives at full speed. I turn towards the opponent and try pulling up in each turn in an effort to reach the enemy’s altitude
A longer turning battle with a completely combat ready, manoeuvrable two-seater is easiest.” the most difficult thing. Individual combat against a single-seater is by far the
and get above him. While doing this, I must not allow the opponent to get at my back.
When I am above him, the course of the battle is the same as in the first case. One can attack a single-seater from the front. Nevertheless, I think that shooting down from the front, even a singleseater, is a rarity. The moment at which one is at the right combat distance only lasts for fractions of seconds.
1. During an attack from behind at great speed, I must be careful to never jump over a slower opponent. If I do that, I make the greatest mistake. At the last moment, I must adjust the speed of my own machine to match that of the opponent.
2. One should never sink his teeth too deeply into a foe which one can’t bring down due to bad shooting or his skillful turning, when the combat plays out far over the other side and one is alone facing a superior number of opponents.
An operation can, in my view, only be planned by a participating fighter pilot. For that reason we also need older officers in fighter aviation.
During a defensive battle, I maintain it is best that each (Armee) Gruppe is assigned a Jagdgruppe. This Jagdgruppe is not strictly bound to the tight sector of the Gruppe, but its main purpose is to enable the Arbeitsflieger (lit. working flyers, artillery spotters, recon aircraft etc.) to perform their duties and, in exceptional cases, to provide immediate protection.
Moreover, the A.O.K (Army High Command) has at its disposal a large number of Jagdstaffeln (Geschwader), which by all means must be allowed to hunt freely and whose operations are defined by enemy aerial activity.
By using Luftschutz-offiziere (Air Defence Officers), and a large network of telephone and radio-telegraphy, they will be updated about enemy aerial activity. These A.O.K forces must not be frittered away by assigning them to escort, protection or blockade duties. Their operations are regulated by the Geschwader Kommandeur upon the directive of the Kofl (Kommandeur der Flieger, or Commander of Aviation).
DURING BREAKTHROUGH BATTLES AND MOBILE WARFARE
For the breakthrough itself, the combined fighter pilots of an Army must be placed under one command and be issued with strict orders in which places and times but not altitudes are defined. That way, the air force will be able to directly support the troops during preparation and during the time of the main assault.
If the breakthrough battle turns into mobile warfare, then such a scheduled operational plan needs to be discarded. The Englishmen will not be brought down by us being ready for take-off on the airfield, but by frequent flying.
When a change of airfields is undertaken, from the very first moment each Jagdgruppe or Geschwader must work independently as it will be virtually impossible to establish a telephone connection. From the Generalkommando (Corps HQ) in the area, they will receive hourly situational updates.
If a fighter pilot does not know the exact course of the front, he will find it impossible to engage low-flying infantry fliers (ground attack aircraft). He will get his orientation about the situation in the air from the air defence officer who follows the movements of troops and is connected with the Geschwaderkommandeur by radio.
The Jagdgeschwader and Jagdgruppen must be allowed to take independent action with regard to allowing operations.
The only operations that must be ordered a day in advance are:
1. One unit to make the first take-off at dawn. Reason: that way, the other Staffeln have the possibility to sleep-in.
2. The mid-day take-off [of a unit] is between one and two. Reason: I demand a continuous series of take-offs against the enemy from my Jagdstaffeln, and they need an hour’s break during the day to rest.
3. The third take-off ordered is the last start before the onset of darkness. This is necessary because late in the evening it is not practical to fly, so one has to get his machine ready for take-off on the coming day.
In the meantime, the free hunt is the only way to take pressure off the infantry. Hunting freely doesn’t mean a hunt in the areas of neighbouring armies, or above the rearward areas, but rather an annihilation of the enemy, down to the lowest height above the infantry on the battlefield, and to fly as frequently with one’s Staffeln as possible.