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Form of <a href="/content/Cross_Patt%C3%A9e" style="color:blue">Cross Pattée</a> used onGerman military aircraft in 1915
Form of Cross Pattée used onGerman military aircraft in 1915

The Deutsche Luftstreitkräfte (German: [ˈdɔʏtʃə ˈlʊftˌʃtʁaɪtkʁɛftə], German Air Force)—known before October 1916 as Die Fliegertruppen des deutschen Kaiserreiches (Imperial German Flying Corps) abbreviated to Die Fliegertruppe—was the air arm of the Imperial German Army.[2] In English-language sources it is usually referred to as the Imperial German Air Service, although that is not a literal translation of either name. German naval aviators of the Marine-Fliegerabteilung was an integral part of the Imperial German Navy (Kaiserliche Marine). Both military branches operated aeroplanes, observation balloons and airships.


The Imperial German Army created an experimental Balloon Company with varying forms of organisation from 1884 to 1901 when a Balloon Battalion was formed. The rapid development of aeronautics led to trials of airships and the choice of rigid types built by Zeppelin and Schutte-Lanz. The first military aircraft to be acquired by the German Army entered service in 1910 and the first five aviation battalions were established on 1 October 1913.[3] The Imperial German Air Service (Die Fliegertruppen des deutschen Kaiserreiches) and other branches concerned with air matters such as anti-aircraft, home defence and air intelligence were unified in the Luftstreitkräfte on 8 October 1916.[4][5]

The duties of such aircraft were initially intended to be reconnaissance and artillery spotting in support of the armies, just as balloons had been used during the Franco-Prussian War (1870–1871) and as far back as the Battle of Fleurus (1794) during the French Revolutionary Wars.[6] The French Aviation Militaire (army air service) was created in 1910 and became the Aéronautique Militaire in 1912.[7] The Air Battalion of the Royal Engineers, with two companies, was established in November 1911. The Royal Flying Corps, RFC with a Military Wing and a Naval Wing was formed in February 1912.[8]


The initial units of the Luftstreitkräfte, dedicated to observation, were known as Feldflieger Abteilungen (Field Flier Detachments) and had an official establishment of six unarmed, two-seat "A" and/or "B"-class aircraft apiece. Each "FFA" unit assigned to an army unit in their local area, and usually numbered with the same number as the army they were assigned to serve.[9] The Luftstreitkräfte organization changed substantially as the war progressed, to accommodate new types of aircraft, doctrine, tactics and the needs of the ground troops, in particularly the artillery. During this time the system of organisation and unit designations evolved that would form the basis of those used in the Luftwaffe of Nazi Germany, when it was revealed in 1935. During 1916, the German High Command (Oberste Heeresleitung, OHL) reorganised Die Fliegertruppen by creating specialist fighter, bomber and reconnaissance units such as single-seat fighter squadrons (Jagdstaffeln, Jastas, hunting squadrons) to counter the Royal Flying Corps and the French Aviation Militaire.[10][11]

Fighter unit organization

The initial deployment of fighter aircraft in the summer of 1915 occurred within the Feldflieger Abteilung, which were being equipped with one or two of the new Fokker Eindecker fighter aircraft for each unit, starting with the five Fokker M.5K/MG production prototypes of the Eindecker, bearing serial numbers E.1/15 through E.5/15. The buildup of the Eindecker fighter force rapidly progressed with regular lMG 08 "Spandau"-armed production examples of the Fokker E.I following the deliveries of the M.5K/MG airframes late in the summer of 1915, with early E.Is going to aces like Max Immelmann, who received IdFlieg serial number E.13/15 in August 1915.[12]

The first step towards specialist fighter-only aviation units within the German military was the establishment of Kampfeinsitzer Kommando (single-seat battle unit, abbreviated as KEK) formations by Inspektor-Major Friedrich Stempel in February 1916. These were based around Eindeckers and other new fighter designs emerging, like the Pfalz E-series monoplanes, that were being detached from their former FFA units during the winter of 1915–1916 and brought together in pairs and quartets at particularly strategic locations, as KEK units were formed at Vaux, Avillers, Jametz, Cunel and other strategic locations along the Western Front, to act as Luftwachtdienst (aerial guard force) units, consisting only of fighters.[13][14]

Following the era of the KEK units through the summer of 1916, Jagdstaffeln (hunting squadrons), established by the reorganization that started by the late summer of 1916 were fielded by four kingdoms of the German Empire. Individually - each of these units was often known by the abbreviation "Jasta". The Kingdom of Prussia was predominant, with a fighter force eventually comprising 67 squadrons. The Kingdom of Bavaria formed ten of these units, the Kingdom of Saxony formed seven and the Kingdom of Württemberg four.[15]

On 24 June 1917, the Luftstreitkräfte brought a quartet of Jasta squadrons together to form its first fighter wing, Royal Prussian Jagdgeschwader I, incorporating Jastas 4, 6, 10 and 11, and set the pattern for using Roman numerals in the Luftstreitkräfte in the titles of such larger units. Manfred von Richthofen was moved up from command of Jasta 11 to command JG I. Much as Jasta 2 had been renamed as Jasta Boelcke in December 1916 after Oswald Boelcke, Germany's top fighter tactician had been lost in a mid-air collision in October 1916, following the "Red Baron's" death in action in late April 1918, JG I was renamed to honor von Richthofen by order of the Kaiser.[16]

The Prussians established three more Jagdgeschwader. On 2 February 1918, JG II formed from Jastas 12, 13, 15 and 19, with Adolf Ritter von Tutschek in command.[17] On the same day, JG III consolidated Jasta 2 Boelcke and Jastas 26, 27 and 36 under Bruno Loerzer.[18] Finally, on 2 September 1918, the Royal Prussian Marine Jagdgeschwader was formed from the Kaiserliche Marine's Marine Feld Jastas I through V and placed in charge of Gotthard Sachsenberg. Bavaria established the Royal Bavarian Jagdgeschwader IV on 3 October 1918, from Jastas 23, 32, 34 and 35 under Eduard Ritter von Schleich.[19]

Unit designations


During the war, the Imperial Army Air Service used many types of aircraft, ranging from fighters (such as those manufactured by Albatros-Flugzeugwerke, Fokker, Pfalz Flugzeugwerke and Siemens-Schuckert), reconnaissance aircraft (Aviatik, DFW and Rumpler), two-seat fighters from Halberstädter Flugzeugwerke and Hannoversche Waggonfabrik and heavy bombers, largely the twin-engined designs from the Gothaer Waggonfabrik (Gotha) and the enormous, multi-engined heavy bombers produced by Zeppelin-Staaken and rigid airships from Luftschiffbau Zeppelin (the Zeppelin Company) and Schütte-Lanz as well as various types of airship from other firms.

Aircraft designation system

During the First World War German aircraft officially adopted for military service were allocated a designation that included (1) the name of the manufacturer, (2) a function or "class" letter, and (3) a Roman numeral. The three-part designation was needed for a unique designation to simplify logistics support of the many types of aircraft in operation – especially as Luftstreitkräfte squadrons more often than not were equipped with several different types.

The designation system evolved during the war. Initially all military aircraft were classed as "A" (monoplane) or "B" (biplane). The new "C" class of armed (two seat) biplane began to replace the "B" class aircraft as reconnaissance machines in 1915, the B's continuing to be built, but as trainers. The "E" class of armed monoplane were also introduced in 1915 – the other classes being added later as new aircraft types were introduced. For most of the war 'D' was only used for biplane fighters, 'E' for monoplane fighters and 'Dr' for triplane fighters. By the end of the war however, the 'D' designation was used for all single-seat fighters, including monoplanes (and, in theory at least, triplanes).

Most manufacturers also had their own numbering systems quite separate from the official military designations for their products. These sometimes cause confusion – for instance the military "J" series of armored aircraft designs was quite distinct from the Junkers aviation firm's own "J" factory type designations – the factory designation of the (military) Junkers J.I armored, all-metal sesquiplane, for example, was the Junkers J.4.[21] The "M" (for "Militär" or military) and "V" (for "Versuchs" or experimental, according to some source initially Verspannungslos or "unbraced") designations of the Fokker firm were also internal. The latter has no direct connection with the official Third Reich-era German "V" designation, also signifying "versuchs", for prototype aircraft, promulgated by the RLM from 1935.

The Kaiserliche Marine's Marine-Fliegerabteilung maritime aviation service used manufacturers' designations rather than the systematic Luftstreitkräfte system described above. For example, the landplane Gotha bombers were numbered in an "LD" (for "land biplane") series by their manufacturer, but in the "G" series in the Luftstreitkräfte – while the Gotha seaplanes used by the navy were (and continue to be) known by their manufacturer's "WD" (for Wasserflugzeug-Doppeldecker, or "seaplane biplane") designation. Similarly, the sizable number of German seaplane designs from the Flugzeugbau Friedrichshafen, were all known in naval service by their "FF" factory designations.

Army and Navy airships were individually numbered, in the same way as contemporary German destroyers and submarines, and were outside any system of "type" designation.


Fighter pilots received the most attention in the annals of military aviation, since it produced high-scoring "aces" such as Manfred von Richthofen, known in German as der Rote Kampfflieger (the Red Air Fighter) and in English as The Red Baron. With 80 confirmed kills he is considered the most successful fighter pilot of the war. Other notable German pilots included Ernst Udet, Erich Löwenhardt, Werner Voss, Josef Jacobs, Lothar von Richthofen, Wilhelm Frankl, Hermann Göring, Max Immelmann and the master aerial tactician Oswald Boelcke (the latter pair were the first to be awarded the Pour le Mérite, The highest decoration for gallantry for officers in the German Empire: simultaneously, on January 12, 1916 after shooting down eight Allied aeroplanes each).[22] The award to Immelmann may caused the decoration to acquire its popular nickname, the "Blue Max". With more and more pilots reaching this mark the required air victories were steadily increased to about 30 in 1918.[23] In total 76 airmen were awarded the Pour le Mérite.[24] 69 airmen received the "Goldenes Militär-Verdienst-Kreuz" (Military Merit Cross), the highest Prussian bravery award for non-commissioned officers and enlisted men.[25] Among them were Gottfried Ehmann, the highest scoring air gunner of the war (12 victories).[26] About 391 German pilots are credited with shooting down at least five Allied aircraft.[27]


German and Austro-Hungarian military aircraft at first used the Cross Pattée insignia, most often known in German as the Eisernes Kreuz, for the Prussian military medal. The Balkenkreuz, a black Greek cross on white, replaced the earlier marking from late March 1918 (especially in early April — Richthofen's last Dr.I, 425/17, was changed over just before he was killed), although the last order on the subject, standardising the new national marking, was dated June 25, 1918.

Final Year

Between January and September 1918 German pilots shot down 3,732 Allied planes while losing 1,099 aircraft.[28] By the end of the war, the German Army Air Service possessed a total of 2,709 frontline aircraft, 56 airships, 186 balloon detachments and about 4,500 flying personnel. After the war ended in German defeat, the service was dissolved completely on 8 May 1920 under the conditions of the Treaty of Versailles, which demanded that its aeroplanes be completely destroyed.


German casualties totalled 4,579 aircrew and 299 ground personnel killed, 1,372 missing/prisoner and 5,123 wounded, along with 1,962 men killed in flying accidents in Germany. Material losses by enemy action were 3,126 aircraft, 546 balloons and 26 airships. Some 7,425 Allied aircraft and 614 kite balloons were claimed as destroyed.[29]

See also

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