28 October 1916 – Boelcke is dead

Today, two DH2s from 24 Squadron RFC piloted by Lieutenant Arthur Gerald Knight and Second Lieutenant Alfred Edwin McKay, were on patrol in the afternoon near Pozieres when Oswald Boelcke and six other aircraft from Jasta 2 attacked them. Soon after the fight began six other German aircraft joined in.

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Boelcke and his DII this morning

During the fight Boelcke was pursuing McKay. Unknown to him, another pilot Edwin Böhme was also in pursuit. Suddenly another aircraft flown by Manfred Von Richthofen in pursuit of Knight flew in front of Boelcke. Boelcke swerved to avoid a collision with Von Richthofen. Unfortunately, Böhme’s landing gear brushed Boelcke’s upper wing. This caused the fabric to peel off the upper wing. The aircraft fell out of sight into a cloud and when it emerged the top wing was all but gone. Boelcke eventually made a relatively soft crash-landing which could have been survivable but it appears that he had not done up his seat belt properly before taking off and he was thrown out of the aircraft and killed.

Boelcke has scored 40 victories at this point, more than any other pilot. He has fallen victim at least partly due to a failure of him and his squadron to obey one of his own dictas:

“In principle, it is better to attack in groups of four or six. If fights break up into a series of single combats, pay attention that several comrades would not go after one opponent.”

Von Richthofen wrote of the incident:

“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.”

Edwin Böhme wrote to his fiancée

“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.”

In the confusion, both McKay and Knight were able to escape.

Totally forgotten in the news of Boelcke’s death is that fact that two RFC pilots were killed on Western Front today. 2nd Lieutenant William Adam Mackie Niven from 29 Squadron RFC was on patrol when his DH2 (5984) went into a spinning nosedive near Haut Avesnes. He was killed in the crash. 2nd Lieutenant Maurice Sharpe from 21 Squadron RFC was also killed. He was last seen in his BE12 (6483) diving steeply over Courcelette to try and escape from pursuing with several enemy machines.

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