On the other side of the lines, the aeroplane pilots and observers of the German Military Aviation Service were diligently filling the gaps in their professional knowledge that were a result of their country’s obsession with airships.
Among the names on which fortune has conferred fame in air fighting, Max Immelmann’s was one of the first. His brother describes him as a studious boy who was calm and thoughtful, affable and modest, self-assured and self-reliant; and comes dangerously near to making him sound a prig. He was certainly ascetic. As a cadet he was chaffed by his comrades for his dislike of meat and abstention from alcohol.
In 1905, aged fifteen, he entered the Cadet School at Dresden, where he found it difficult to adapt to the discipline and stiff etiquette. On 4th April 1911, the youngest ensign in the German Army, he joined the Second Railway Regiment. This hardly sounds like a lively environment, and his resignation the following year, to study at Dresden’s Technical High School, causes no surprise.
On l0th August 1914 he saw a notice asking for volunteers for the Aviation Corps, and applied. Two days later he was mobilised and it was not until 12th November that he was posted to the Aviation Replacements Section at Adlershof, from where pilots and observers were sent on courses at various aircraft factories. He learned to fly at LVG, where he was also taught about engines, aeroplane construction and meteorology and how to use a compass. On his eighth day he began flying with several ascents at heights of fifty to eighty metres, and landings, under an instructor. After fifty-four flights he went solo on 31st January 1915. On 9th February he passed the pilots’ test, which demanded five figures of eight and a landing after each at a place marked by a red flag. Then came the preliminary test for a “war pilot”: 20 smooth landings and two flights of 30 minutes at 500 metres. After that he had to pass the actual “war pilot’s” test of one hour at 2000 metres and a glide down from 800 metres. Next, on 11th February, came the “field pilot’s” test. On this, he had to climb to 2600 metres, which took him 65 minutes, then descend to 2400 metres for 20 minutes’ straight and level flying, followed by another short drop to 2200, from where he glided down to land in three minutes. His instructor was very pleased.
He was naïf, it seems. He wrote to tell his mother that he was very popular with his superiors, his fellow pupils and his subordinates. Was he clairvoyant, that he could divine what underlings thought of him? They would hardly have fawned on him with expressions of praise.
On 12th February he returned to the Aviation Replacements Section for further instruction. By the end of the month he had made forty-five flights, but none across country, and was assessed the best pilot on the course. Two pilots were wanted for the Front and Immelmann was told he could be one of them if he demonstrated a landing from 800 metres and another landing on rough ground. Attempting the latter, he hit a manure heap and turned over, was unhurt but failed to qualify for the front line. Finally he had to make fifteen landings outside the aerodrome and do three cross-country flights.
On 12th April he joined No. 10 Field Section for artillery co-operation. His aeroplane was prepared for operations by the fitting of metal sheets under the fuel tank and seats, a bomb rack and map board.
There were ten officers on the section, five pilots and five observers. “The gentlemen are all very nice,” he wrote to his mother, “but that is a matter of course with airmen.”
He spent only two weeks there before being transferred to Flying Section 62, which was being formed under the command of Hauptmann Kastner to fly LVGs. Three of the six pilots were lance corporals but all six observers were officers; four of them ex-cavalrymen. One of the pilots was Oswald Boelcke, with whom Immelmann formed a close friendship. They had in common a serious disposition, the constant search for innovations that would make them and their Abteilung more efficient, and reserved, highly self-disciplined natures. Boelcke, a devout Catholic and in every sense a good man, evolved into the first great fighter leader and remains one of the most admired figures in the development of air fighting.
In May 1915, Flying Section 62 was among those which were re-equipped with the new Fokker E1, a single-seater monoplane that revolutionised the situation in the air over the Western Front by devastating the French and British air forces. At the year’s end, Immelmann had shot down five aircraft and Boelcke three: with many more in prospect for them both.
More typical of the average pilot, who did not attain fame but shared all the dangers of those who did, was Hauptmann A. D. Haupt-Heydemarck. He at once gives the impression of having been an easy-going, good-natured man, a pleasant companion. Initially, he was not fired with any particular zeal for flying; he went in for it because the chance came his way and he took it more out of curiosity and boredom than with dedication. Patience he certainly had: his flying apprenticeship began in the summer of 1912 and, after a two-year interim, was resumed in 1915. He was an infantry lieutenant when his regimental Adjutant announced that volunteers were needed for training as pilots and observers. Every officer stepped forward, but the Army was in no hurry and they were left waiting months for a summons to flying school.
One late autumn day an offer came from the Chemnitz Flying Club for two of them, as a consolation, to have a preliminary taste of aviation, on a balloon flight. Lots were drawn. “In compensation for my recent bad luck in love,” Haupt-Heydemarck writes, “I was lucky in gambling and won.” The ascent was set for All Saints’ Day, with Professor Beuermann, of the Chemnitz Technical Institute, as pilot; but when the two passengers reported to him, he had to disappoint them. “Unfortunately we can’t take off today, gentlemen: we have an eighty kilometres an hour wind.”
“So we’ll fly all the faster,” suggested Haupt-Heydemarck.
“And the landing?” the Professor said.
“I kept pressing him,” and eventually, from a sheltered place, up they went. The lift-off was pleasant. The wind was strong. “I felt myself the Lord of the Air and was content to have had my way. Landing? Oh, Beuermann was an experienced pilot and would bring us down safely!” The strong wind bore them eastwards. “After two hours of hedonistic enjoyment to the full, we met snow clouds.” The Professor released some gas and down they went until the ground was in sight again. “The view was indeed not gratifying: we were being wafted towards a chain of three long lakes.
“‘We must land at once,’ Beuermann said, ‘or we’ll have a horrifying end in this bitter cold.” He does not sound the optimistic sort who would be one’s first choice as companion on a risky venture, but H-H seems not to have been much perturbed. Most people would probably have had reservations in the first place about a pilot who allowed his passenger to talk him into going up against his better judgment of weather conditions; but this passenger, as will be seen, was preternaturally cool in temperament.
They descended rapidly. “From a height of 1000 metres, the ground had seemed to slide past beneath us slowly, but now that we were so low over them, the trees were rushing by. The storm had not abated. At a speed of 80 k.p.h., ought Beuermann to put the basket down on the frozen ground? That could result in matchwood and splintered bones. Last instruction: ‘On landing, bend your knees deeply!’
“What came now happened so quickly that it was almost too swift to comprehend. One more piece of luck, that the ground was fairly level. The first lake was looming critically closer. Beuermann energetically pulled the ripcord. It tore a great panel out of the balloon, so that the gas could escape fast. With no buoyancy, the balloon should touch down in a moment. Unfortunately, things did not work out according to plan. The high wind caught the empty envelope and drove it upwards house-high. Then we were dragged down in its damp folds.
“Alarmingly, we rushed earthwards — now the aforementioned knees bend — ‘Rumps!’ cracked the basket. Its broken pieces were scattered over the frozen soil. It turned over and by good fortune stopped.
“We were catapulted out and lay bruised and battered. Beuermann had hit his head on the basket’s hard rim and was wiping blood from his ankle. I tried painfully to stand up but my left leg hung limp and I couldn’t. An unpleasant certainty grew on me: a broken thigh! With a resigned laugh I lay down again. Swinish luck!
“My comrades put a splint on my leg and bedded me down on a straw-packed farm cart. In a mild snowfall the wagonload jolted off on its unpleasant way to Gitschin. There I was given medical attention and on the next morning went back to Chemnitz by train. At the railway station I was treated with curiosity and respect; rumours buzzed: ‘Officer wounded in a duel!’
“In the garrison hospital a medical officer put on a grave face: my right leg had shrunk a full ten centimetres! Uniform, farewell!
“But his skill stretched the broken bones apart so that finally a shortening of only three centimetres remained. So, by slouching a bit on the other hip, I was able to remain a soldier.
“Three months later I made my second balloon flight: this time with a smooth landing.”
In August 1914 he was sent as Adjutant to a brigade at the Front. He says that his prospects of flying hung by a thread, but he did not give up hope. In the summer of 1915 he was called to a short course at the Aviation Replacements Section. There were several fatal accidents and he would be happy to return to the Front. When 1915 came to an end he was still wondering to what type of Flying Section he would be sent: artillery co-operation; a Battle Section that dropped bombs; a Corps Section; or one that did long-range reconnaissance?
When making a roll call of great airmen, the names Heinrich (Heini) Gontermann, Ritter Fritz von Röth and Leo Leonhardn do not spring at once to mind. Yet all were eminent enough to win their country’s highest decoration, the “Blue Max”, the Pour le Mérite. Why a designation in the language of Germany’s most hated enemy? Because Frederick the Great, King of Prussia in 1740-86, who instituted the decoration, could speak only French.
Von Röth and Gontermann were famous for destroying balloons: balloon-busters, as the RFC called the specialists in this dangerous expertise. Von Röth was known as “die Fesselballoon-Kanone”, “the Captive Balloon Cannon”, and “Cannon” was the name the Germans gave to their “aces”. Gontermann was dubbed “der Ballonkiller”. But at the beginning of 1915 observation balloons were still scarce and the British had not begun to use them at all. Gontermann began the war as an eighteen-year-old officer of lancers and went to the Front on 13th September. The year 1915 saw two changes of direction in his military career. In June he was sent to a machinegun school and thence to the machinegun company of the Both Fusilier Regiment. In November, he began the pilot’s course for which he had applied. Von Roth was an artillery officer, twenty-one when war was declared. His regiment went to the Front immediately and on 10th September he was gravely wounded in the head and a lung. During his long spell in hospital he heard that he would be released from the Service. The anxiety that his part in the war was over haunted him, and as soon as he was discharged from hospital he volunteered for flying duties. Towards the end of 1915 he began his pilot training.
Leonhardn is particularly interesting because of his age. Born on 13th November 1880 in East Prussia, he was on the threshold of his middle years when the war began. Photographed four years later, he looks the Briton’s mental image of a typical Prussian: square-skulled, balding, close-cropped, barrel-chested. But there is no cruelty about the set of his lips; his expression is quite cordial: perhaps from pride at the newly awarded Blue Max at his throat and the medals on his chest. He was a hard man, known as “der eisener Kommandeur”, “the Iron Commanding Officer”.
At nineteen he was an ensign in the Pomeranian Fusiliers. From 1908 to 1912 he was Adjutant of the Queen Victoria of Sweden Regiment, then spent a year with the 138th Infantry before going on a pilot’s course on 1st February 1914. He must have received a rude shock nine days later, for it is on his records that on 10th February he executed an involuntary loop and “his year-long desire to join the Air Service almost came to a premature end”.
The record goes on: “A collision with an aeroplane from another flying school nearly caused Leonhardn to quit this life. Coming in to land from the opposite direction, it caught the propeller of his Taube, which somersaulted several times and hurled him to the ground.”
Leonhardn himself wrote: “With this I established an unusual world record: I broke my spine in two places, breastbone, nose, the base of my skull again, suffered concussion, lung and liver ruptures, and crushed my left knee so that the bones splintered badly. Generally, nobody survived such injuries!” No wonder he wears a hint of a smirk in his photograph.
The will to live and fly soon put him back on his feet. He was in hospital in Berlin until 7th June and then in Wiesbaden, where his promotion to Hauptmann came through. On 5th December he left his wheelchair in Wiesbaden to become Adjutant at the Flying Units Inspectorate in Berlin.
“By careful avoidance of doctors,” he says, with a dry humour that prompts one’s liking as well as admiration for his fortitude, “I contrived to get away from there and back into the war.” He was posted as Adjutant to the Southern Army’s Aircraft Park. Thence, on 1st May 1915, he went to Flying Section 59 as an observer. On 13th August he took command of Section 25.