SURPLUS ORDNANCE Episode 18: The Blue Max

Dennis Meyers

Relevant experience: U.S. Army, 1974-1980, BA & MA Economics, Economist for over 30 years for State of California, Community College Adjunct Faculty

The Blue Max recounts a story of aerial warfare during WW1 from the German perspective.


During WW1 the development and military application of aviation technology progressed dramatically. It had its roots in the use of lighter-than-air observation craft (balloons) first used at the Battle of Fleurus (1794) and more recently in American Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War (1870–1871) and with the first sustained flight of a heavier-than-aircraft in 1903 by the Wright brothers.

Combat in WW1 and the preceding land wars was dominated by infantry and artillery. Airborne observation, provided valuable information about enemy troop movement behind the lines and provided artillery spotting not possible from the ground.

The value of aircraft for reconnaissance and surveillance was recognized years before the war began. Of course, this implied the need to deny or destroy the enemy's reconnaissance machines in order to deny the enemy this same ability. As shown in the movie, tethered balloons were also used in WW1 for observation and were considered a valuable target for fighter aircraft.

At the start of the war, aircraft were primarily devoted to observation and air combat was extremely rare. Soon, pilots and observers began throwing grenade, and objects like grappling hooks to bring down enemy planes. This progressed to using pistols and rifles which were very inaccurate. The first air-to-air kill by machine gun occurred on October 5, 1914 when a French Voisin III biplane bomber outfitted with a Hotchkiss machine gun brought down a German Aviatik B.1 (a two-seat reconnaissance biplane).

In the movie, Lieutenant Bruno Stachel operates machine guns in front of the cockpit firing through the propellers. This reflects the use of fixed forward-firing guns, aimed by pointing the aircraft at its target (as opposed to flexible forward or rear-facing MGs). Initially fixed forward-firing guns presented the danger of bullets hitting and ruining the propeller blades. Some aircraft affixed the guns to fire around the arc of the blades. Guns firing through the blades were more effective, but a way was needed to protect the propeller blades. One early solution was to use a steel deflector wedges that deflected the bullets but also caused dangerous ricochets. The solution ultimately adopted was a synchronization gear that timed the firing of MG to avoid hitting the blades. The first reliable synchronization gear was developed by the German aircraft company Fokker in 1915. It was first used on its Eindecker fighter and led to a period of German air superiority known as the Fokker Scourge from July 1915 to early 1916 during which the British Royal Flying Corps. lost 120 aircraft.

The movie accurately depicts two non-flying aspects of German aviation practices. In one instance, Stachel consults with an aircraft manufacturer about a new aircraft. It was a common practice for notable aces to visit aircraft factories to give advice and recommendations about new aircraft in development and production. A second aspect was the use of aerial aces for propaganda purposes to support the war effort.


Early German military air force developments focused on lighter-than-air machines—balloons and dirigibles. By 1910, French tests demonstrated the superiority of the aeroplane for military purposes. The Imperial German Army Air Service, was founded in 1910 and was the fore-runner of the Deutsche Luftstreitkräfte ("Air dispute power" or "Air Fight Forces") formed in 1916. By the start of the war Germany had surpassed French capabilities and started the war with over 600 two-seater aeroplanes all fitted with cameras and bombdropping gear and a few fast single-seater scout planes.

The movie is centered on a fighter squadron, or Jagdstaffeln (Jasta for short) meaning 'hunting squadrons'. In 1917, the first German fighter wing or Jagdgeschwader was created consisting of four Jastas under the command of Manfred von Richthofen—The Red Baron. This wing, JG I, was better known as "The Flying Circus" or "Richthofen's Circus" because of the bright colors of its aircraft, and because of the way the unit was transferred from one area of Allied air activity to another – moving like a travelling circus, and frequently setting up in tents on improvised airfields.


The central story arc of the movie is Lieutenant Stachel’s pursuit of a Blue Max—"Germany's highest medal for valour”—by shooting down 20 enemy aircraft. The official name of the medal is Pour le Mérite, (For Merit).

Its origins date back to 1667 when the German state of Brandenburg created the introduced the Ordre de la Génerosite (Order of Generosity). [At that time French was the common language of many German courts.] The name was changed to Pour Le Mérite by Prussian King Friedrich the Great in 1740.

It was Prussia’s highest military award but was given for repeated acts of gallantry, rather than for individual acts. Thus, it was often awarded to pilots during World War I after downing a specific number of enemy aircraft. Initially the number was 8 victories, but it was raised to 16-20 by early 1917 and had reached 30 by war's end.

The popular term ‘Blue Max’ was derived from the medal’s blue color and the name of the first pilot to receive a Pour le Mérite, Max Immelmann. He received it on the day of his eighth victory 12 January 1916. His victories came while flying the Fokker Eindecker, the first aircraft to be armed with a synchronized machine gun.

Germany awarded 1,687 Blue Maxs during WW1 were awarded during World War I. The most famous recipients besides Immelmann include Manfred von Richthofen (The Red Baron), Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck, Field Marshals Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff, Admirals Reinhard Scheer and Alfred von Tirpitz, future Nazi Reichsmarchall and Luftwaffe head Hermann Göring, and Erwin Rommel (The Desert Fox).

Awarding the Pour le Mérite ended with the abdication of Kaiser William II as king of Prussia and German Emperor on 9 November 1918.

A separate civil class of the award was created in 1842 by King Frederick William IV of Prussia as the Order Pour le Mérite for Sciences and Arts (Orden Pour le Mérite für Wissenschaften und Künste). It included three sections for the humanities, natural science and the fine arts. This is still awarded today.


At least 28 Blue Maxs were awarded to German aviators in WW1. Besides Immelmann, the most famous recipient was Manfred von Richthofen—The Red Baron—who is credited with 80 victories. He is still likely the most widely known fighter pilot of all time. The nick name "The Red Baron" is derived from his noble title—Freiherr or "Free Lord" often translated as "baron"—combined with the fact that he painted his aircraft red.

Richthofen began the war serving as a cavalry reconnaissance officer on both the Eastern and Western Fronts. When the war bogged down into trench warfare his regiment began serving as dispatch runners and field telephone operators. Boredom and his transfer to the army supply branch drove him to apply for a transfer to Luftstreitkräfte (German air service); stating on his application that "I have not gone to war in order to collect cheese and eggs, but for another purpose." He joined the flying service at the end of May 1915.
Richthofen scored his first confirmed victory on 17 September 1916. Was awarded the Blue Max in January 1917 after his 16th confirmed kill. During "Bloody April" 1917 he shot down 22 British aircraft, raising his victory total to 52.

Richthofen flew the celebrated Fokker Dr.I triplane from late July 1917, the distinctive three-winged aircraft with which he is most commonly associated—although he did not use the type exclusively until after it was reissued with strengthened wings in November. Only 19 of his 80 kills were made in this type of aircraft, despite the popular link between Richthofen and the Fokker Dr. I

For comparison, the highest-scoring Allied ace, the Frenchman René Fonck, achieved 75 confirmed victories and a further 52 unconfirmed behind enemy lines. The highest-scoring British fighter pilots were Canadian Billy Bishop (72 victories), British Mick Mannock, (61 victories), Canadian Raymond Collishaw, (60) and British James McCudden (57). The American Eddie Rickenbacker, who flew only in 1918, scored 26 victories.


The movie takes place in the last years of WW1. At one point in the movie Stachel’s Jasta is directed to carry out operations in support of new major offensive aimed at Paris. This is referring to Operation Michael that kicked off the German Spring Offensive in March 1918 whose actual goal was to separate the French and British Armies, then seize the Channel Ports and, push the British forces into the sea. This last ditch offensive was enabled by the Russian surrender and the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk that allowed Germany to achieve a numerical superiority on Western Front by moving nearly 50 divisions from the east. The Germans were stopped to the east of Amiens and did not achieve any of their strategic objectives. The offensive was called off on April 5. The Allies lost 328,000 men at a cost of 348,300 German losses. More importantly the German losses were irreplaceable while the Allies continued to gain strength, chiefly through the introduction of American troops.

Later in the movie, the Battle of Amiens is referenced. This battle was the opening phase of the final Allied campaign known as the Hundred Days Offensive which pushed the Germans back, reversing their gains from the German spring offensive. The Battle of Amiens began with spectacular gains by the Allies that opened a 15-mile gap in the German line. Germany suffered tremendous losses and the will of the German forces had been broken. This battle was followed by a series of successful attacks that reached and then breached Hindenburg Line. These losses together with a revolution breaking out in Germany and increasing numbers of American troops, led to the Armistice of November 11, 1918.


Global German Air Service / Deutsche Luftstreitkräfte
Peter Suciu, Pour Le Mérite—The History of Germany’s Famous ‘Blue Max’. The National

Wikipedia articles: Immelmann turn, Aviatik B.I, Fokker Scourge, Aviation in World War I, Operation Michael, Hundred Days Offensive, Battle of Amiens (1918), Pour le Mérite, Manfred von Richthofen, Aviation in World War I, Eddie Rickenbacker,