Erwin Böhme (29 July 1879 – 29 November 1917), Pour le Mérite, was a German pilot during World War I. He was born in Holzminden, grew into an athletic sportsman and became a flying ace during the war, credited with 24 victories. He was both a close friend and a military subordinate of Oswald Boelcke and was inadvertently responsible for Boelcke's death. Böhme was also both a contemporary of and eventually subordinate to the Red Baron.
Böhme was the second of five sons in his family; he also had a sister. He qualified as an engineer, attending technical college in Dortmund. He reported for national service with the Garde-Jäger Regiment in 1899.
He was an athletic youth, participating in many sports. He was a superb ice skater and a champion swimmer. On 30 July 1905, he outswam all other entrants in a race across Lake Zurich, covering a three-mile distance in 52 minutes, 40 seconds. He was also a great mountain climber, during the three years he lived in Switzerland, he was the only non-Swiss member of the Swiss alpinists' guild.
Tiring of Switzerland he decided to search for adventure in Africa. He was corresponding with a Swiss African explorer, Dr. David. Böhme hiked from Bern, Switzerland to catch a ship in Genoa, Italy. This foot journey included a solo traverse of the Matterhorn.
He reached German East Africa to discover Dr. David had died, and so began work there in 1910 for a German lumber and agricultural company. He helped construct the cable railroad from the Usambara railroad, in modern-day Tanzania, to New Hornow in the Pare Mountains. The cableway was used to ship cedar to the Hubertus lumber mills in Germany, who prepared it for use in producing pencils.
In July 1914, Böhme returned to Europe, intent on skiing and mountaineering in the Swiss Alps. On the outbreak of war, instead of continuing on to neutral Switzerland, he returned to Germany to enter military service.
See also Aerial victory standards of World War I and List of victories of Erwin Böhme
Böhme returned to service in his former military unit. He requested transfer into aviation; it may be that his prior service and athleticism helped expedite his entry into pilot's training despite his comparatively advanced age of 36. His adventurous and aggressive spirit may have also impressed the recruiters.
He was assigned initially to Doberitz, then to Lindenthal for flight training. He was first in his class to qualify as a pilot in December 1914. He was then assigned to as an instructor for the next year before being assigned to an active unit as an Offizierstellevertreter. He joined Kampstaffel 10 near Metz, commanded by Wilhelm Boelcke, in December 1915. Albatros C.III serial number 766/16, which Böhme flew in, had a fierce dragon painted on the right side of its fuselage and a crocodilian monster on the other. Böhme commented that they "...made a terrifying impression on the Russian peasants."
On 5 March 1916, Wilhelm Boelcke's more famous brother visited, and Böhme met him. Oswald Boelcke, one of the first air aces, had already won the Pour le Merite in January. Later that month, Böhme fought his first dogfights against a couple of French Farmans and a Nieuport scout.
By May 1916, Böhme was already a veteran of aerial warfare; he had flown numerous barrage, defensive patrols and bombing missions. He was promoted to Leutnant der Reserve (lieutenant of reserves) in this same month. On 20 May, he wangled an aircraft ride to drop in on the director of Hubertus Mills, to help celebrate his 25th wedding anniversary. On this trip, he met the director's eldest daughter and began a correspondence with her that led to their engagement in October 1917. Their letters became the basis for a posthumous book, Briefe eines deutschen Kampffliegers an ein junges Mädchen (Letters of a German Combat Pilot to a Young Girl), published in 1930.
Kasta 10 moved eastward to the Russian Front in June to Kovel; by now one of his comrades was a cavalry officer named Manfred von Richthofen. On 2 August 1916, while flying an Albatros C.III, Böhme scored his first aerial victory with Kasta 10, a Nieuport 12 flown by ace Podporuchik (2nd Lieutenant) Eduard Pulpe of the Imperial Russian Air Service. Pulpe fell near Rogistche on the Eastern Front.
After this victory, Böhme was transferred to Jasta 2 under the command of Oswald Boelcke. Boelcke, was not only a well-established ace but was pioneering the tactics and strategy of fighter aviation. He had carte blanche to recruit such pilots as he wished. He had asked for, among others, both Manfred von Richthofen and Böhme. Boelcke and Böhme became best friends.
Under Boelcke's tutelage and leadership, Böhme thrived as a fighter pilot. He scored his first victory with Jasta 2 on 17 September 1916, downing a Sopwith 2-seater of 70 Squadron, RFC and by 22 October had five confirmed wins and one probable.
Death of Boelcke
Then came the tragedy that forever linked Böhme's name with Boelcke. During their sixth mission on 28 October 1916, Böhme, Boelcke, von Richthofen, and three other pilots from Jasta 2 attacked two DH-2 scouts from No. 24 Squadron. In the scrambled attack in gusty weather, Richthofen was cut out of his firing approach on one British plane by an interposed German plane. Böhme and Boelcke were both closing on the other.
Boelcke had to swerve to avoid a mid-air collision in the dogfight and Böhme's Albatros briefly collided with that of Boelcke. The wheels of Böhme's plane barely brushed the fabric of the top wing of Boelcke's craft, enough to start the fabric unraveling. Boelcke struggled for control as his plane's control surface shredded in the turbulence. He skillfully crashlanded after the entire upper wing tore loose. However, in his haste to be airborne he had not fastened his seat belt. Boelcke was killed by his relatively mild impact. Böhme survived the accident, as he had suffered only a landing gear damage.
After landing, a despairing Böhme was discovered in his quarters with his pistol in his hand. Manfred von Richthofen had to talk him out of suicide.
That same evening, a British flier dropped a wreath stating "To the Memory of Captain Boelcke, our Brave and Chivalrous Opponent. From the English Royal Flying Corps."
Three days later, Böhme wrote the following letter to his fiance:
"My Dear Miss Annamarie!
Boelcke is no longer among us now. It could not have hit us pilots any harder....
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....
When Boelcke suddenly emerged a few metres on the right from me, his machine ducked, I pulled up hard, however nevertheless we still touched...me, only one side of the undercarriage had torn away, him, the outermost piece of the left wing....violent gusts caused his machine to gradually descend more steeply, and I...saw it impact beside a battery position....My attempts to land beside my friend were made impossible because of the shell craters and trenches. Thus I flew rapidly to our field....
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.
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.
Faithfully yours, Erwin Böhme"
Return to duty
Böhme returned to duty. He shot down two more British planes in November; an FE-8 "pusher" of 40 Squadron and a Morane Parasol of 3 Squadron flown by the highly decorated Lt. E.M. Roberts (MC, DFC, DCM), who crashed in Allied lines.
On 26 December, he shot down and severely wounded future Canadian 12-victory ace Lt. William Henry Hubbard flying a BE-2c of 5 Squadron, for his eighth victory.
Böhme next shot down a DH-2 of 32 Squadron, RFC on 7 January 1917, for his ninth. He was then ordered on leave, and spent it hiking in the Bavarian Alps. Upon hearing of casualties in the Jasta Böhme cut his leave short and returned to duty. For his tenth victory, he forced down the DH-2 of 6-victory ace Captain William Curphey of No. 32 Squadron on 4 February. Curphy was wounded but he survived (only to be shot down and killed by Hpt Franz Walz the following May). Böhme downed a two-seater 25 minutes later during the Feb 4 action for his eleventh victory.
On 10 February, he claimed his 12th victim, another DH-2 of 32 Squadron, which force-landed in Allied lines. During a dogfight on the 11th with Sopwith 'Strutters', he was wounded in the arm.
By the start of April 1917, Böhme wrote home that only he and Manfred von Richthofen were left alive from the original Jasta 2 founder members of 1916.
By 8 April, he had recovered enough to teach at Jastaschule I at Valenciennes Aerodrome until 2 July when he was given command of Jagdstaffel 29 based at Bersee, North West of Douai and covering the German 4th Army.
Böhme was wounded in his hand on 10 August while attacking an observation aircraft, and was attacked by a SPAD fighter of SPA 3, possibly flown by Adj.Rene Fonck. The tendon of his right index finger—his trigger finger—was severed.
While recovering, Böhme was posted as Commanding Officer to Jasta 2, effective from 18 August 1917.
On 19 September, Böhme began his final series of claims, scoring twice in September and six times in October, bringing his total to 21 victories.
On 28 October, he attended ceremonies in Dessau to honor the first anniversary of Oswald Boelcke's death. The next day he travelled to Hamburg to propose marriage to Anna-Marie Bruning. She accepted despite her father's belief that Böhme might not survive the war.
On 31 October, Böhme visited Manfred von Richthofen. His flight home was interrupted by an attack by an 84 Squadron Royal Aircraft Factory SE.5a, which he quickly downed for his 21st triumph.
He next scored victories on 6 and 20 November 1917. On the 24th, he was awarded the Pour le Mérite, his nation's highest decoration for bravery.
Death in action
On 29 November, Böhme took off on his last mission. Böhme had already claimed an unidentified Sopwith Camel earlier that day. His five-strong flight spotted a Royal Flying Corps Armstrong Whitworth F.K.8 of No. 10 Squadron on a photo-reconnaissance mission near Zonnebeke, Belgium. Veteran pilot Captain John Patten should have been preparing for home leave, but had decided to fly one more mission. Observer Lieutenant Philip Leycester manned the camera and the gun. Patten tells the story:
"Suddenly, I heard the clatter of Leycester's machine gun above the roar of the engine. I looked round to see what he was shooting at, and nearly had a heart attack. Slanting down from above, getting nicely into position thirty yards behind my tail, was an Albatros. "I immediately heaved the old A-W round in a split-arse turn, tighter I think than I had ever turned before. I felt a flash of panic as I lost sight of the Hun, but Leycester must have been able to see him all right as he kept on firing. My sudden turn had done the trick. The Albatros overshot and suddenly appeared right in front of me. Because of the relative motion of our two aircraft, he seemed to hang motionless, suspended in mid-air. I could see the pilot's face as he looked back at me. I sent a two-second burst of Vickers (machine gun) fire into him. His aircraft seemed to flutter, then slid out of sight below my starboard wing. I was pretty certain that I had hit his petrol tank. Behind me, Leycester was still blazing away. He was using tracer (incendiary bullets), and it may have been one of his bullets that ignited the petrol pouring from the Hun's ruptured tank. When I caught sight of the Albatros again, it was burning like a torch and side-slipping towards the ground, trailing a streamer of smoke. For an instant I saw the German pilot, looking down over the side of the cockpit. Then the smoke and flames enveloped him."
Oberleutnant Erwin Böhme's charred body was recovered from the wreckage and buried with full military honors by the British. Because he had fallen behind their lines, they took the responsibility of interring him in Keerselaarhock Cemetery. He was reinterred at Hinter den Linden after the war. The location of his grave has since been lost.
Decorations and awards
- Pour le Mérite (24 November 1917)
- Royal Order of the House of Hohenzollern with Swords (12 March 1917)
- Iron Cross of 1914, 1st and 2nd class