Boelcke set out on 28 October 1916 for his sixth sortie of the day with his two best pilots,Manfred von RichthofenandErwin Böhme, and three others. Before they had set out on their attack, Boelcke, rushing to get ready, failed to properly strap on his safety belt. The patrol eventually led them into a dogfight with single-seaterDH.2 fightersfromNo. 24 squadron RFC.
In the ensuing dogfight, Boelcke and Böhme, unaware of each other’s presence, closed in on the same aircraft, flown by Captain Arthur Knight. Von Richthofen dived in on the flight path of that very same aircraft; he was chasing the other DH.2, piloted by LieutenantAlfred Edwin McKay. Boelcke swerved to avoid a collision with the interceding aircraft. Böhme’s landing gear brushed Boelcke’s upper wing. As the fabric peeled off the upper wing of his aircraft, Boelcke struggled for control. He and his aircraft fell out of sight into a cloud. When it emerged, the top wing was gone. However, Boelcke made a relatively soft crash-landing. The impact seemed survivable. However, his lap belt did not restrain him, and he never wore a helmet when he flew.
Minutes later, the pilot’s lifeless body was pulled from his smashedAlbatros D.II. The great Oswald Boelcke, victor of 40 aerial engagements, was dead at age 25.
Both Böhme and Richthofen left descriptions of the catastrophe. Richthofen’s account, from his memoirs:
One day we were flying, once more guided by Boelcke against the enemy. We always had a wonderful feeling of security when he was with us. After all he was the one and only. The weather was very gusty and there were many clouds. There were no aeroplanes about except fighting ones.
From a long distance we saw two impertinent Englishmen in the air who actually seemed to enjoy the terrible weather. We were six and they were two. If they had been twenty and if Boelcke had given us the signal to attack we should not have been at all surprised.
The struggle began in the usual way. Boelcke tackled the one and I the other. I had to let go because one of the German machines got in my way. I looked around and noticed Boelcke settling his victim about two hundred yards away from me. It was the usual thing. Boelcke would shoot down his opponent and I had to look on. Close to Boelcke flew a good friend of his. It was an interesting struggle. Both men were shooting. It was probable that the Englishman would fall at any moment. Suddenly I noticed an unnatural movement of the two German flying machines. Immediately I thought: Collision. I had not yet seen a collision in the air. I had imagined that it would look quite different. In reality, what happened was not a collision. The two machines merely touched one another. However, if two machines go at the tremendous pace of flying machines, the slightest contact has the effect of a violent concussion.
Boelcke drew away from his victim and descended in large curves. He did not seem to be falling, but when I saw him descending below me I noticed that part of his planes had broken off. I could not see what happened afterward, but in the clouds he lost an entire plane. Now his machine was no longer steerable. It fell accompanied all the time by Boelcke’s faithful friend.
When we reached home we found the report “Boelcke is dead!” had already arrived. We could scarcely realize it.
The greatest pain was, of course, felt by the man who had the misfortune to be involved in the accident.
It is a strange thing that everybody who met Boelcke imagined that he alone was his true friend. I have made the acquaintance of about forty men, each of whom imagined that he alone was Boelcke’s intimate. Each imagined that he had the monopoly of Boelcke’s affections. Men whose names were unknown to Boelcke believed that he was particularly fond of them. This is a curious phenomenon which I have never noticed in anyone else. Boelcke had not a personal enemy. He was equally polite to everybody, making no differences.
The only one who was perhaps more intimate with him than the others was the very man who had the misfortune to be in the accident which caused his death.Manfred von Richthofen, The Red Battle Flyer
Boelcke is no longer among us now. It could not have hit us pilots any harder.
On Saturday afternoon we were sitting on stand-by alert in our aerodrome blockhouse. I had just begun a chess match with Boelcke—it was then, shortly after 4 o’clock during an infantry attack at the front, that we were called. As usual, Boelcke led us. It wasn’t long before we were flying over Flers and started an attack on several English aeroplanes, fast single-seaters, which resisted efficiently.
In the following wild turning-flight combat, which allowed us to take shots only in short bursts, we sought to force down our opponent by alternately cutting him off, as we had already done so often with success. Boelcke and I had the one Englishman evenly between us, when another opponent, hunted by our friend Richthofen, cut directly in our path. As fast as lightning, Boelcke and I took evasive action simultaneously, and for one instant our wings obstructed our view of each other—it was then it occurred.
How I am to describe my feelings to you from that instant on, when Boelcke suddenly emerged a few meters on the right from me, his machine ducked, I pulled up hard, however nevertheless we still touched and we both fell towards the earth! It was only a slight touching, but at the enormous speed this still also meant it was an impact. Fate is usually so senseless in its selection: me, only one side of the undercarriage had torn away, him, the outermost piece of the left wing.
After a few hundred meters I got my machine under control again and could now follow Boelcke’s, which I could see was only somewhat downwardly inclined in a gentle glide, heading towards our lines. It was only in a cloud layer at lower regions that violent gusts caused his machine to gradually descended more steeply, and I had to watch as he could no longer set it down evenly, and saw it impact beside a battery position. People immediately hurried to his assistance. My attempts to land beside my friend were made impossible because of the shell craters and trenches. Thus I flew rapidly to our field.
The fact that I had missed the landing, they told me of only the other day—I have no recollection of this at all. I was completely distressed, however I still had hope. But as we arrived in the car, they brought the body to us. He died in the blink of an eye at the moment of the crash. Boelcke never wore a crash helmet and did not strap himself in the Albatros either—otherwise he would have even survived the not at all too powerful of an impact.
Now everything is so empty to us. Only little by little does it come fully to our consciousness, that within the gap which our Boelcke leaves, the soul of the total is missing. He was nevertheless in each relationship our leader and master. He had an irresistible influence on all, even on superiors, which had to do purely with his personality, the all naturalness of his being. He could take us everywhere. We never had the feeling that anything could fail if he were there, and almost everything succeeded as well. In these one and a half months he has been with us we have put over 60 hostile aeroplanes out-of-action and made the dominance of the Englishmen shrink from day to day. Now we all must see that his triumphant spirit does not sink in the Staffel.
This afternoon the funeral service was in Cambrai, from where the parents and brothers escorted their hero for burying at the cemetery of honour in Dessau. His parents are magnificent people—courageously accepting the unalterable with all the pain they feel. This gives me some solace as well, but nothing can be taken away from the sorrow over the loss of this extraordinary human being.
—Erwin Böhme, letter to fiancée
Böhme also remarked, “Why did he, the irreplaceable, have to be the victim of this blind fate, and why not I?”
Böhme, blaming himself for Boelcke’s death, had to be talked out of committing suicide. As the Fatherland mourned, Boelcke was buried with full honors at his aerodrome inCambrai. TheRoyal Flying Corpsdropped a wreath a day later over Jasta 2 which read, “To the memory of Captain Boelcke, a brave and chivalrous foe.”
In honor of their great leader, Jasta 2 was officially named “Jasta Boelcke” on 17 December 1916, a name the squadron still bears to this very day. Erwin Böhme was killed exactly one year, one month, and one day after his collision with Boelcke.
In the end, Boelcke had died because of a violation of one of his own dicta, which stated to never close in on a single combatant when others are also pursuing it
Posted on Monday, 2 April
Tagged as: oswald boelcke WWI flying ace The Great War History
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