The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 8 No 3 - June 1990


by JOEO Mahncke

Aviation Background

Military aircraft were initially viewed as 'upgraded cavalry' and consequently used only on reconnaissance or scouting missions, and were therefore unarmed and underrated. This restricted, jaundiced outlook was shared by many senior and staff officers in all European Armies, and it needed some time before aircraft finally came into their own and were given the recognition they so rightfully deserved.

Early aircraft were two-seater biplanes, with the observer sitting in the front because he was considered more important. This arrangement was later changed, with the pilot in the front and the observer in the rear operating the swivel-mounted machine-gun.

Although the crew had no armament in the early years, they often carried rifles, carbines or pistols, even hand-grenades, and - more adventurous spirits - home-made bombs, but this handgun arsenal was only for the aircrew's protection in case they were forced to land in enemy territory.

Aircrews had to be made up of compatible individuals to function well as a team, and many firm friendships were formed, so much so that they also roomed together and went on leave at the same time because they felt that any replacement of one crew member would not be the right thing. Such friendships usually continued into civilian life after the war was over.

There were, of course, the usual debunking remarks made. Observers stated that they in fact flew the aircraft, as they had to do all the work, think for the pilot, direct him, and be exposed to enemy fire at the same time, while the pilot merely had to keep the plane aloft.

Pilots had a different opinion. They were reponsible for the safety of the aircraft and crew, had to do all the work, think for the observer, who was asleep most of the time anyway, and they were unable to see where they were flying as the observer blocked the pilot's view.

The common aircraft types used during 1913/14 were Albatross and Aviatik. They measured 12,5 x 7,5 m (wingspan by body length) with a speed of only 120 km/h, but by their design they were especially suited to the tight-circle dogfights of WW I which were not copied by pilots in later years.

When enemy aircraft met in the air they kept a safe distance, and each one continued with his business. Their mission was to observe and to scout, not to fight. Perhaps one or the other might try a lucky rifle shot but no aircraft were shot down. The real dangers to aircraft were anti-aircraft guns and ground fire, as they operated at the 'ideal altitude' of 800 m which put them well into the range of the infantry, and then there were the common engine and structural failures which plagued all early aircraft.

Experience proved that the operating altitude had to be changed, so it was increased to 1 100 m with a 'safe' altitude of 2 000 m. This increased the crew's chances of survival but decreased their observing effectiveness.

Aircraft markings were introduced at the beginning of WW I. Pilots and aviation experts were of course totally familiar with all types of aircraft and could distinguish between them, but the infantry rank and file had no such knowledge and, in order to be safe rather than sorry, they shot at anything that flew, never mind any pre-arranged signals for identification.

German aircraft were painted with a black Maltese cross on a white square, or edged with a white border, and this developed into the stylized black cross, edged with white in a variety of sizes.

Uniforms for the pilots and observers, who were only officers before the war, were not standardized. They continued to wear their home unit uniforms and their rank; for instance, Manfred von Richthofen continued to use his rank of Rittmeister (captain of horse), as he had been a cavalry man. On flying duty the officers wore leather uniforms without badges of rank, all in different cuts, and leather crash-helmets.

All this set the airmen apart from other army units and led to a very special esprit-de-corps.

The Air Force in East- and West-Prussia

The German air force, proper name: Koeniglich Preussische Fliegertruppe, Royal Prussian Flying Corps, was represented by a Flieger-Bataillon No.2, with stations in Koenigsberg (East Prussia), and Posen and Graudenz (West Prussia). The commander was Major Kuckein, his adjutant 2nd Lieutenant Alfred Mahncke. The battalion was formed on 1.10.1913 and had an authorized strength of 12 officers and 398 other ranks.

During the following months, until the outbreak of WW I, the unit increased in number and eventually consisted of sections Nos 14, 17 and 29, as well as a few fortress flight squadrons, altogether around twenty aircraft, too few to cover the vast terrain properly.

Nevertheless, the pilots and observers did excellent work and brought back valuable information, but their reports were not always believed and accepted, and this often led to delays in acting upon such information. Staff officers, when confronted with reports which were at variance with their own expectations and theories, tended to ignore aircraft observations or belittled them. It was understandable because the role of aircraft in a war had never been tested. However, gradually confidence grew and finally staff officers came to rely on aerial reports, so much so, that after the first battles had been won, the shouts for more reconnaissance aircraft grew louder and louder.

Operational Activities

The very first aircraft sortie of the war on the eastern front took place on the 2.8.1914, the first day of WW I. It was a leaflet drop over Warsaw which had been ordered by the foreign office, but afterwards nobody really knew if this were true, who was responsible, or who had given the order. Three aircraft, filled with parcels of propaganda leaflets, left at intervals of three hours. The first was piloted by 2nd Lieutenant Mahncke (observer's name unknown), and he was therefore the first German military aircraft crossing the Polish border in WW I.

The flight to the Polish capital was uneventful, the weather was clear, navigation no problem. At an altitude of 800 m they arrived above Warsaw, the observer pushed the packets overboard, where they opened and rained leaflets on an unsuspecting populace. All aircraft returned safely, one with bullet holes in the wings. But no further leaflet drops were ordered because the Generalkommando had subsequently discovered that the leaflets, printed in Polish and Russian, had incited the Poles to armed insurrection against their Russian officials. If any of the German aircraft had been shot down and the crew captured, the Russians would have executed them for sabotage.

Between 2 August 1914 and the battles of Gumbinnen, Tannenberg and at the Masovian lakes, German aircraft flew a fair number of scouting missions against the Russian Armies in the area. The battles at Stallupoenen and Gumbinnen, from 17 to 20 August, between Rennenkampf's Njemen Army and the German 8th Army, ended in a stalemate with neither side claiming victory, although the Russians had gained the upper hand, with the Germans withdrawing to the western side of East Prussia. This move left most of the province open to the advancing Russians and, when further communications from the staff of 8th Army were received by Supreme H.Q., advising Colonel-General von Moltke, the Chief of Staff, that they intended to retreat even further to the west behind the Vistula, Moltke (as some historians claim) exploded and raged, calling the commander of the 8th Army a coward.

In his memoirs, Field-Marshal von Hindenburg uses a different language. He writes: Colonel-General von Moltke did not condone this action, but rather supported the opinion that one should try one more operation against the (southern) Narew Army before one could even think of abandoning East-Prussia. The end result was that the 8th Army chief, Von Prittwitz, was relieved of his command and sent home. One could feel some sympathy for him. Only one year before, this battle scenario had been the subject of war games, and it had been then decided to withdraw the German troops behind the Vistula. But now it was war, the fate of East Prussia and its people, the vast, agriculturally rich province, hung in the balance. A commanding officer who could not or would not fight was a nuisance to his superiors.

General von Hindenburg was recalled from retirement and asked to take over, with Major-General Ludendorff becoming his chief of staff. The two men met on a draughty railway station, reached East Prussia on 23 August, adopted an already half-developed operations plan, and the rest is history.

Only one day prior to their meeting, Hindenburg had received a telegram from Supreme H.Q. asking him if he were ready for immediate command. His reply was typical for this man who was very much his Kaiser's general: 'Bin bereit.' - 'Am willing.'

The battle of Tannenberg was the culmination of solid planning, daring and, the most important ingredient, luck. The Germans were helped by the enemy's inability, and unwillingness, to communicate. The two generals, Rennenkampf of the Njemen-Army and Samsonow of the Narew-Army, were not on speaking terms, their staff officers almost so. Separated by hundreds of miles of almost roadless country, conversing by radio en clair, so the Germans were able to copy, they were lost before they began.

Many explanations have been sought to interpret Rennenkampf's inability to assist Samsonow, giving the Germans a resounding victory. Hindenburg, in his memoirs, comes perhaps closest to an answer when he writes: 'Why does he not use our weakness to his own advantage? Why does he grant us a chance to re-group our troops? The Russian leader is well known as a first-rate soldier and general. When Russia fought in East-Asia, the name Rennenkampf shone like a beacon among all the Russian officers. Has his fame been exaggerated? Or has the general lost his fighting spirit in the meantime?

The soldier's profession can exhaust even strong men at times, and where one year ago determination and resolution reigned supreme, all this has changed to a barren head and a weak heart. This often happens to change a soldier's past greatness into tragedy.'

Despite all this, Hindenburg and Ludendorff never underrate Rennenkampf or Samsonow, and neither do they underrate the Russian soldiers, about which one of the many apologists wrote: 'His (Samsonow) soldiers were exhausted and semi-starved troops who had barely managed to stumble to the frontier.'

Considering that these 'starved' troops had crossed a wide belt of rich farmland during harvest-time, ransacking the villages, burning hamlets, killing the herds, it seems odd that they should have forgotten to eat.

On the contrary, Hindenburg writes: 'Already during the fighting did we have a chance to evaluate the partially first-class soldier material, which was at the Tsar's disposition.'

Fortress Loetzen

Another interesting episode during the run-up to the battle of Tannenberg is described by 2nd Lieutenant Mahncke.
'Although I was quite busy at Dirschau (new temporary H.Q. of Flieger-Bataillon No.2) I always felt drawn to the front and used every opportunity to fly replacement aircraft to the field units. One morning I landed at section No.16 (Deutsch-Eylau) where tension was running high, and where all aircraft had been sent to search for the Narew Army.

Just then an urgent dispatch from the Oberkommando arrived, ordering an aircraft to be on stand-by for a secret mission. I had come at the right time. Hauptmann Schmoeger asked me, if I was willing to go, and I accepted, and with 2nd Lieutenant Koslik as observer, and a "most secret dispatch" in our hands, we took off for Fortress Loetzen. There we were to hand the letter to the commander, Oberst Busse, of whom nothing had been heard for quite a few days.

H.Q. was worried about him and the small but important fortress, now apparently surrounded by the Russians.

We had been told that we had to guard the despatch with our lives and decided that, in case we were shot down, Koslik should open the latter, read and memorize the contents, and then tear the letter into small pieces to drop from the aircraft. After landing we would have to try and reach Loetzen on foot. I knew the area well and the core of the fortress, as I had only last year selected the airfield close by. I set a straight course from Dirschau to lose no time, and in any case, the enemy could be anywhere. Hoping not to be shot down by our own soldiers, as I had already been shot at once before, despite our new cross-markings, the observer kept a steady lookout for Russian troops, but as long as we kept above 2 000 m we were relatively safe.

Closing in on Loetzen, I decided to approach from the lake area and lost altitude by spiralling down above the waters where I was safe from any enemy fire. Then I flitted across the water very low, jumped across a few houses and the fortress defences and landed.

A suspicious patrol arrived and conducted us to the Colonel.

Oberst Busse read our letter and told us that the Russians had already sent him a negotiator asking him to surrender as he had been surrounded by their troops and that in any case the whole of East Prussia was in Russian hands.

He had, of course, refused to deal with them, and I could now tell him of the progress of the fighting and the latest developments on the western front. The despatch and our reports helped the defender's morale considerably. Oberst Busse handed us his reply to H.Q. and we left by the same route by which we had arrived.'


On 30 August, German aircraft discovered the Russian 1st Corps, south of and at the rear of the German troops who had almost surrounded the Narew Army.

The famous message, dropped at Neidenburg (General-kommando 1.1 A.K.) read: 'Airforce unit 29,2nd Lieutenant Hesse, 1st Lieutenant Koerner, flight course: Deutsch Eylau - Soldau - Mlawa - Neidenburg. Dropped Neidenburg 9.15 a.m.
Columns of all ordinance from Mlawa towards Neidenburg. Tete 9.10 a.m. at Kandien, end 1 km north Mlawa. A second column from Stipsk towards Mlawa. Tete 8.15 a.m. at eastern exit Mlawa, end at Wola.'
But Hesse/Koerner were not the only crew to have spotted the Russians and dropped a message.
A second crew from section 14, 2nd Lieutenants Canter and Mertens had been scouting very early on the 30th, and discovered the enemy shortly after 06:00.

Prevented from landing at Neidenburg airfield by enemy artillery fire, they landed instead at Gregersdorf and made their way by bicycles and in a staff car to General von Francois's 1st Army Corps H.Q. and reported to him in person.

This report seemed so at variance with all other situation reports that they were not believed; only after the second report from Hesse and Koerner was dropped one hour later, was appropriate action taken, although only a mere ten minutes before the first Russian shells crashed into the overcrowded Neidenburg.

After trying unsuccessfully to inform Hindenburg's staff about the flyer's report, they evacuated Neidenburg. The telephone lines were all down.

Canter/Martens decided to act quickly, flew to Osterode and there reported in person to him and Ludendorff and the action plans were changed. The staff prepared new orders and Mertens was given the task to distribute these to the various units by air.

If, after the battle of Tannenberg, Hindenburg spoke of his pilots with pride and uttered the famous sentence: 'Without flyers, no Tannenburg!', then he only did justice to his officers' daring and initiative.


If the other pilots remained unscathed during their missions, 2nd Lieutenant Mahncke had the distinction of being shot down by the enemy.

'One day I had to ferry an aircraft to Gilgenburg to the advanced airfield of section 14. My observer was 2nd Lieutenant Korn. As we carefully approached Gilgenburg, trying to find the landing strip, Korn, in the forward cockpit, suddenly shouted: Achtung, Russen! and punched his fist into the air. I gave full throttle, pulled the aircraft up and turned north to escape.

The next few minutes were nailbiting. We saw soldiers below in great swarms, vast dust clouds, artillery fire and explosions.

We were not lucky. I heard the barking, sharp cracks of AA shells close by and their white cotton puffs. I knew we were for it. I tried sharp turns and slips, but then we were hit by shrapnel - hard knocks against the frame and metallic clicks against the engine. Hot water and oil smeared my goggles and blinded me.

I tore the goggles off. The engine shook, rattled and stopped dead. I had no time to look for a suitable landing spot because they were now directly shooting at us. The wind whistled in the wires. We were hit once more, my mapboard disintegrated and Korn slumped in his seat.

A stubblefield appeared below, not really good enough but definitely better than nothing. Korn's head reappeared, bloodied, and he waved a bloody hand. "I have been shot." He shouted.

The landing was smooth, and I jumped down, helped a cursing Korn out of his cockpit, grabbed our carbines and found cover in shrubs close by.

Fortunately, Korn's wounds were not serious, and he was able to limp along, as we searched the surprisingly empty battlefield for German units. Eventually we stumbled on an infantry company, who were preparing to attack the cemetery of Hohenstein.

I left my observer with a first-aid column, and in the fever of battle volunteered to take part in their bloody assault to prove to myself that I could face fire.'


The battles in the Masovian Lake District againt Rennenkampf's Army were a logical extension of Hindenburg's and Ludendorff's tactical plans, and they swept the Russians, still very dangerous but demoralized, from the province of East Prussia.

Aircraft again played their part, in fact more and more staff units requested their own reconnaissance sections, but they were not immediately available. The industry still had to gear itself to the increasing demands for aircraft, engines and spares.

But on the Eastern Front, for the first time in aviation history, the fog of war, which Napoleon had always complained against, had lifted with the assistance of the new weapon and ushered in a new era of warfare.


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