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Germany's Aerial Mainstay: The Albatros Fighters

Building the D.II/D.III and D.V in 1/48 scale

By Tom Cleaver


Whatever the success of the Fokker monoplane, by the spring of 1916, several German aircraft companies had prototype biplane fighters in the air. The first contract for a biplane fighter went to Halberstadt for their D.I, basically a souped-up version of their B.II trainer. The next contract went to Fokker for his D.I. Both were powered by the 120 h.p. Mercedes six-cylinder in-line engine. These arrived on the Western Front in June and July, 1916, and gave good account of themselves. It was said of the Halberstadt that it "could be flown with one finger curled around the stick." Halberstadt attempted to keep pace with its new D.IV, but the airplane was rejected for structural weaknesses; it would re-merge in 1917 as the excellent Halberstadt Cl.II two-seat fighter. Meanwhile, the production quality of the Fokker biplanes declined to the point where it would take Fokker over a year to live down his reputation for shoddy workmanship. The competing Roland D.I and D.II fighters were saddled with the 150 h.p. Argus engine, which suffered a severe power drop at combat altitudes.

In June 1916, Albatros Gesellschaft fur Flugzeugunternehmungen mbH was given a contract by Idflieg for 12 prototype fighters to be powered by the reliable 160 h.p. Mercedes engine. It was the first time the Mercedes had been installed in a production fighter and there is no doubt that the additional horsepower it afforded the design was instrumental in the success of the Albatros fighter. The order for 12 prototypes was a blanket order that ran for about four months and eventually covered the prototypes of the D.I, D.II and D.III fighters.

The result was an airplane which, in various modified forms, would carry the lion's share of air combat for the German Air Service until the advent of the Fokker D.VII in the spring of 1918, and would never entirely disappear from the front-line squadrons until the end of the war. The fighter was designed by Dipl-Ing Robert Thelen, a pioneer pilot and later director of the Deutsche Wright Gesellschaft, who joined Albatros on April 1, 1912 as chief designer and became technical director in July 1914. His place as chief designer was taken by Dipl-Ing Schubert, who collaborated with Thelen in the design of the fighters.

The prototype D.I was seen by Oberleutnant Rudolf Berthold in May 1916; he immediately asked permission to take it to the front, which was refused, and he later complained that had the proper decisions been taken "we could have had the Albatros fighter on the front in time for the start of the Somme battle." Production of the fighter was probably delayed due to Albatros' strong commitment to the production of two-seaters, and the company could not accept orders until it had increased its production facilities. The first production-standard D.I was delivered on July 11, 1916. It was a startling change from what had gone before, with its streamlined, shark-like fuselage and its armament of two 7.62mm Spandau machine guns, double the armament of its potential opponents. This was the first "modern" fighter of the war, and it set a standard that would be followed by all designers of both sides from then on.

In combat, the D.I, with its high-mounted upper wing, was found to deny pilots the visibility they needed. Additionally, the elephant-ear radiators on each side of the forward fuselage blocked the pilot's view of this essential quarter of the sky. The D.I was quickly followed into production by the D.II, which had the wing lowered to eye level, where the pilot could see over it easily. Additionally, the horizontal wing-mounted radiator had been developed, and the Albatros D.II fighter was the first to use it.

Immediately upon its introduction to the front, the Albatros fighter established a clear dominance over the best Allied aircraft, which were simply no match for the new German biplane. Although not as maneuverable as its opponents, the Albatros' dual advantage of superior speed and firepower allowed its pilots to dictate the terms of air combat. The lethal combination of speed and firepower proved irresistible. With its sturdy biplane construction, the D.II could be thrown about the sky by its pilots with abandon as they followed the "Dicta Boelcke" for their tactics and drove the Allied air forces back from their hard-won position of dominance within a matter of weeks following its introduction into combat. Indeed, the only Allied fighters who stood a chance against the agile Albatros were the lightly-loaded French Nieuport and the British Sopwith Pup, both of which were armed with only one gun. It would be a very bloody year before the Allies could introduce in any numbers the Spad S.XIII, the SE5a, the Sopwith Triplane and - best of all - the Sopwith Camel, all fighters able to take on the Albatros fighters with superiority.

The classic combat of RFC Major Lanoe Hawker, VC, Officer Commanding 24 Squadron, flying a de Havilland DH2 against a then-obscure Leutnant Manfred von Richthofen in his Albatros D.II was a forceful example of the merits of speed and firepower over maneuverability. The two met on November 23, 1916, and engaged at once in a grueling turning contest in which neither pilot could gain the upper hand long enough to insure victory. Low on fuel and blown behind the front lines by the prevailing winds, Hawker was finally forced to break off and run for home. Von Richthofen gave chase and in a wild pursuit at treetop height finally loosed the fatal burst. If is often suggested that, had the two met under more equal terms, the outcome might well have been reversed. The advantages bestowed by the Albatros allowed no second chances.

Unfortunately for the Germans, the excellent D.II with its reliable biplane construction was dropped from production in favor of the D.III with its built-in fatal flaw - sesquiplane construction - and with that single decision, the Albatros fighters, good as they were, were hobbled from becoming as great as they might have been.

That said, the Albatros D.III was more than a handful for most Allied pilots; those poor souls still flying the dreadful FE2 or BE2 series of two-seaters looked on the D.III the way a chick looks at a circling hawk. Von Richthofen and most other German aces won the majority of their victories on the D.III, and it even turned out to be more successful than its alleged successor and continued in production for several months after the introduction of the D.V. As late as March 1918, there were still nearly 200 D.IIIs in service on the Western Front, eight months after the introduction of its successor.

The Albatros D.V and later D.Va were the end of the series, and were severely hobbled from the outset by the sesquiplane design. The D.V was supposed to be lighter than the D.III, which theoretically would only increase the good qualities of the earlier machine. Unfortunately, the D.V had a much lighter construction in the one place it counted: the attachment points of the lower wing to the fuselage. The wing was able to twist aerodynamically in a way only hinted at by the early problems with the D.III. Even with the strengthened design of the D.Va, which lost all the advantages it was supposed to hold over the D.III with the increase in design weight, the airplane was still subject to losing its lower wing, and pilots approached combat maneuvering in the D.V and D.Va gingerly, to say the least. This is not the way one wins air battles, especially when the pilot in the Albatros was up against the superlative Camel in a high-g close-in dogfight, or forced to try and stay in a dive with the SE5a or the SPAD. Qualitative air superiority was quickly lost in the fall of 1917 as the Albatros D.V series became the major German fighter on the Western Front, and it would not be regained until the late Spring of 1918 when the marvelous Fokker D.VII appeared, but by then it was all too late.


BOELCKE'S ALBATROS: Building an Albatros D.II with the Paaschendaele Conversion Set

In 1916, Oswald Boelcke created air combat as it is still known today. As a result of his experiences as one of the first two German "aces" (Max Immelmann being the other), he sat down and "wrote the book" on air combat. 83 years later, pilots flying F-15s over the Iraqi "no-fly" zones follow the same basic rules. For the pilots of the German Air Service of the First World War, these were known as the "Dicta Boelcke". They are:

1. Always try to secure an advantageous position before attacking. Climb before and during the approach in order to surprise the enemy from above, and dive on him swiftly from the rear when the moment to attack is at hand.

2. Try to place yourself between the sun and the enemy. This puts the glare of the sun in the enemy's eyes and makes it difficult to see you and impossible for him to shoot with any accuracy.

3. Do not fire the machine guns until the enemy is within range and you have him squarely within your sights.

4. Attack when the enemy least expects it or when he is preoccupied with other duties such as observation, photography or bombing.

5. Never turn your back and try to run away from an enemy fighter. If you are surprised by an attack on your tail, turn and face the enemy with your guns.

6. Keep your eye on the enemy and do not let him deceive you with tricks. If your opponent appears damaged, follow him down until he crashes to be sure he is not faking.

7. Foolish acts of bravery only bring death. The Jasta must fight as a unit with close teamwork between all pilots. The signal of its leaders must be obeyed.

Since Boelcke's day, every time there has been an advance in aviation technology, "the day of the fighter" has been declared over. In the 1930s the RAF was convinced that airplanes flew too fast to use Boelcke's tactics, and came up with the "Fighting Area" attacks, which had closely-packed groups of fighters doing airshow formation changes as they sought the bombers preparatory to doing one-at-a-time attacks on the formation. These rules died over France in May 1940, their death heralded by last communications from squadron leaders like "Assume Formation One..." while the Messerschmitts fell on the Hurricanes from out of the sun and scattered their formation like leaves on the wind. Pilots like Douglas Bader, Sailor Malan and Al Deere were soon listened to by their young pilots as they reminded them to "beware the Hun in the sun," the famous RFC rule of World War 1. In 1966, Americans in F-4s and F-105s were relearning that lesson as North Vietnamese MiGs swept through their formations, sending more than a few to extended vacations in "The Hanoi Hilton." And every time, those fighter pilots who refuse to go along with the "latest thinking" and become successful, do so when they follow Manfred von Richthofen's advice: "Whatever Boelcke told us was taken as gospel!"


Oswald Boelcke was born May 19, 1891, in Giebichstein, near Halle in Saxony, the son of a schoolteacher. He became one of the first pilots of the new German Air Service, and, in 1915, Oberleutnant Boelcke was chosen to test fly Anthony Fokker's Eindecker with its new machine gun synchronizing device, and proved it effective.

At the time Boelcke and Max Immelmann took the Fokker fighters to the Western Front, no one knew what a fighter was supposed to do. Oh, they knew well enough that it was supposed to shoot down the enemy's aircraft, but how it was to go about it was a mystery. What few Fokkers there were on the Western Front were distributed in ones and twos and sometimes threes to German squadrons whose duty was to provide aerial reconnaissance for the Army. It was truly the day of the "lone wolf," and Boelcke, Immelmann, and the other Eindecker pilots flew solo missions over the lines, looking for unsuspecting Allied aircraft.

While Immelmann was perhaps the better pilot, and the one who invented not only the combat maneuver which bears his name but a few others as well, the cerebral Boelcke took an intellectual approach to air fighting, and paid attention to the tactics he discovered led to success in combat. Boelcke was the first German to become an ace. On January 12, 1916 he and Immelmann became the first two pilots to be awarded Prussia's highest award for bravery, the Pour le Merite - "The Blue Max."

On March 16, 1916, Boelcke submitted his report to General Hoeppner, Chief of the German Air Service, in which he criticized the Fokker Eindecker as being virtually worthless as a fighter under the present conditions at the front. He had tested the twin-gun E.IV in combat and found it sadly lacking in ability to climb, allowing Nieuport Bebes with half its 160 horsepower to literally fly rings around it. He stated that "a dog fight with the enemy at equal altitude, or even when attacking from above, is very dangerous." He recommended that "this difficulty could certainly be overcome by the development of a light biplane."

By the summer of 1916, the British DH2 and the French Nieuport - both light biplanes - had brought an end to the "Fokker Scourge." Immelman was killed. and Boelcke was Germany's leading ace. Withdrawn from the front, he sat down and wrote "Dicta Boelcke," then persuaded General Hoeppner to allow him to recruit a squadron of pilots and put his "dicta" to use. Promoted to Hauptmann, Boelcke traveled both the Western and Eastern fronts, visiting staffels of pilots wherever he found them, and recruiting those who seemed to "show promise." Among these was a noble young Prussian ex-cavalryman who had volunteered to fly to find the excitement the ground war denied him, who did not show very much promise as a pilot of observation aircraft on the Eastern Front. Boelcke took to young Baron Manfred von Richthofen's fighting spirit, and the man who would put his teacher's words into action more than any other left the next morning to become part of what was being called Jasta 2.

Jasta 2 was the first unit to take the new Albatros fighter into combat on the Somme Front that fall of 1916. By then more than a million men had died or been horribly wounded in the mud below, and the Royal Flying Corps had by dint of hard fighting and aggressiveness established a nearly overwhelming air superiority. Within a matter of weeks, Boelcke - with his trained, disciplined pilots using his new tactics with a superior aircraft - had turned the tide. Within six weeks, Boelcke's score had ballooned to 40, far above any other fighter pilot on either side at the time.

While diving to attack DH2s of No.24 Sqn RFC, on October 28, 1916, Oswald Boelcke's Albatros D.II collided with that of Erwin Boehme, damaging its upper wing. Boehme survived, but Boelcke was killed in the subsequent crash. The man who had invented air combat was dead at 25.


No major manufacturer has to date produced a kit of the early Albatros fighters, the D.I and the D.II. The closest anyone came was a very good vacuform kit from Tom's Modelworks in the early 1990s, which allowed a modeler to not only make the German versions of the D.I and the D.II, but provided the cowling changes to create the Austrian version of this fighter. I have had this kit sitting in the middle of the kit pile for several years, but for various reasons never got around to doing it.

John Cyganowski, a World War I enthusiast in New York who is "Passchendaele," originally created his resin conversion to be used with the godawful Glencoe Albatros D.III kit, one of the poorest excuses for a plastic model ever created, whose only saving virtue was that it was not the Aurora/Smer Albatros D.III, a kit which bears only a passing resemblance to an airplane, let alone an Albatros D.III.

Sadly for John, few World War I modelers were willing to tackle the work to make any part of the Glencoe kit useful as an Albatros, and the conversions did not sell. With the advent of the truly wonderful Eduard Albatros D.III (see review below), which in my view is the best World War I kit made to date, John's conversion should become a screaming success. With the Eduard kit and the Paaschendaele resin set, any modeler who can successfully build a World War I airplane model can add this very important airplane to their collection.

The conversion set includes beautifully cast resin upper wing, resin lower wings, a very good instruction sheet, a painting guide by Dan-San Abbott to do either Oswald Boelcke's Albatros D.II (which was actually a modified Albatros D.I and the first Albatros fighter to use the wing radiator) or that flown by Manfred von Richthofen during his epic dogfight with Captain Lanoe Hawker, V.C. - which is accurate enough to present the newly-discovered German 1916 camouflage patterns of light/dark green/reddish-brown - and a very nice sheet of decals for both airplanes (created by our own very modest Bob Pearson, who - once he throws those godawful shorts aside and emerges from his phone booth - turns out to be one of the Great Gnus of World War I modeling). The national insignia have the white panel, done thick enough to be fully opaque when applied over the camouflage, while thin enough to adhere with no problems.


I built the fuselage per the instructions in the Eduard kit, other than using "wood" decal on the interior surfaces before any construction, and "varnishing" that as explained below. Once the fuselage was assembled, I then applied the wood decal to the outer surfaces of the fuselage, the vertical fin and the tailskid fin, let it dry, and "varnished" it.

At this point, before proceeding further with assembly, I painted the wings, horizontal tail surfaces and rudder as described below. Once these items were dried, I applied the markings. At that point I was ready to continue the assembly.

Attaching the lower wings created the only problem, since there were no attachment points on the resin wings, and merely gluing them in position would make for one very fragile model (and World War I models are fragile enough to begin with!). I noticed that the attachment points were molded in the wing, so I drilled out holes at each position about 1/16" deep, set in plastic rod pieces, then drilled out the fuselage at the appropriate positions. This gave me what I needed and the wings were attached. I also attached the horizontal stabilizer and elevators, and the rudder. I used the cabane struts from the Eduard kit, and made interplane struts from my store of plastic strut stock.

The upper wing was attached to the cabane struts with cyanoacrylate, and then the interplane struts were positioned and glued with C-A. Fortunately, the rigging of the D.II is not appreciably more difficult than the D.III and D.V Albatroses; I did that using stainless steel wire cut from an "E" guitar string which had been suitably straightened.



The most distinctive part of the Albatros fighter is the beautiful plywood fuselage, which was varnished a deep yellow. I achieved this by using Aeromaster "light wood" decal, then lightly "varnishing" the result with six coats of Future floor polish with a dollop of Tamiya flat yellow for color. I did this to the interior before assembly, and to the fuselage before final assembly. All markings (decals) were applied after the "varnish" was thoroughly dry.

The wings, horizontal tail and rudder were painted in accordance with 1916 German camouflage. This is light blue under surfaces, and light green, dark green and reddish-brown upper surfaces. Following the colors in Mr. Abbotts painting diagram, which I was told were thoroughly trustworthy, I used Gunze Sanyo Light Green (H-?), Gunze Sanyo RLM Dark Green 71 (H-64), and Tamiya Brownish-Red for the camouflage colors; they look right under a coat of Future (most World War I airplanes have a glossy finish).


The Passchendaele conversion set provides decals for D.386/16, the first Albatros to arrive at the front in D.II configuration. It was actually a D.I with the wing radiator and the lowered upper wing, sent to the front as an operational-testing aircraft. Boelcke took charge and gave it all the operational testing it needed; D.IIs came forward as fast as the factory could produce them. The large white square backdrops of 1916 German insignia are, as stated above, sufficiently opaque to go over the camouflage scheme successfully, and thin enough to look right.


Any modeler who has successfully built a World War I model will have no difficulty producing a superb model from this kit and conversion set. If you haven't done a resin conversion yet, this is the one to start with. The quality of the resin casting is excellent, and the resulting model is one you'll be looking at for quite awhile after it arrives on your shelves.


Those who want to get their Passchendaele conversion set for this model now can e-mail John Cyganowski

THE ALBATROS D.III - Building the Eduard kit OOB

Eduard keeps getting better and better in terms of production quality, and their Albatros D.III is to my mind the best yet in their series of First World War fighters. The parts are clean, the wings are acceptably thin, in short the whole thing looks like it could as easily have come from Japan as the Czech Republic.


I assembled the fuselage as described above for the D.II conversion - in fact, I built both models simultaneously.

My only complaint about this kit is that Eduard has molded the wing radiator integral with the upper wing, instead of going for the separate assembly made from photoetch brass they did for their earlier Albatros D.V. The kit as provided is an early-version D.III with the radiator on the centerline. After the first 200 were produced, the radiator was moved to the right, to protect the pilot from being scalded when the radiator took a bullet hit, and to improve forward visibility. To do any later version of the airplane, the modeler will have to sand off this radiator, and find one from the spares box - even putting the dreadful Glencoe kit to use by taking the radiator will end up producing a model that does not look as good as the D.V kit, with its superior radiator assembly.

I do however, like the injection-molded cabane struts, which are a vast improvement over the photo-etch struts of the earlier Albatros kit.


During 1916 and 1917 as the Germans experimented with camouflage, they alternated between the three-color camouflage of the D.II described above, and a two-color camouflage of dark green and mauve; it may surprise many to realize that the sky is not always blue, when your vantage point is also airborne - mauve is a very effective color, and any study of German Second World War camouflage will give one pause to consider that RLM 74 and 75 are merely developments from this dark green and mauve from 25 years earlier.

Since I was doing a Jasta 5 "Green Tail", I painted the dark green tail before applying the wood decal to the fuselage. Once dry, I masked the green to give a 1/16' border, which I then shot white, and finished with the distinctive red border of Jasta 5. This was time-consuming but the result was worthwhile. I also painted the metal cowling parts dark green, as opposed to the factory grey of the D.II.


Once I finished the wood decal in exactly the same way I did for the D.II as described above, I applied the markings I had chosen from the Aeroclub sheet, "Albatros Fighters Part II." This marking is also included in the Eduard Profipack offering, and they seem to know as little about who flew this airplane as does Aeromaster or any of the World War One experten I consulted. The diamond-checkerboard rudder is a distinctive marking and certainly representative of the "circus" markings with which the Albatros fighters will be forever identified.


With everything finished and covered with protective coats of Future, I assembled the kit per instructions, and rigged it with the high-E guitar string I have found is the perfect size for 1/48 WW1 airplane rigging.


To me, the Albatros D.III is aesthetically the best-looking of this good-looking series of fighters, and the Eduard kit certainly captures its lines. This is a First World War model a modeler contemplating entering the genre should think of as a first kit.


Paul Baumer - The Iron Eagle:

Those of you who know me know that I am a sucker for an airplane flown by an artist, especially if that artist was a writer. In this case, what drew me to doing the Albatros D.Va flown by Leutnant Paul Baumer of Jasta 5 was the fact that he was later immortalized by a writer in a way he would never have forseen - or at least that is the story that was told to me by my Twentieth Century Lit professor, who was a good friend because we both shared a passion for airplanes, particularly the two-winged variety

Known as "The Iron Eagle," Paul Baumer was the 9th ranking German ace of the war with 43 victories. Born in 1896, he was a dental assistant before the war. When he joined the German Army, he already had his pilot's license, but served in an infantry regiment at the front before transferring to the Air Service in 1916. He transferred to single-seaters in 1917, and was an ace in Jasta 5 by that Fall. He flew in combat until the end of the war, moving from the Albatros D.III to the D.V to the Fokker Dr.I and finally the Fokker D.VII.

After the war, Baumer returned to school and became a dentist in 1922. He remained an active pilot, flying in aerobatic displays throughout Europe. He died in a crash at Copenhagen airport 15 July 1927, while doing a display. Known by all who met him as "incredibly decent," Baumer numbered among his friends the novelist Erich Maria Remarque, who was so affected by his friend's death that he named the protagonist of his famous novel, "All Quiet On The Western Front" Paul Baumer, thereby conferring immortality of a sort on Leutnant Paul Baumer.

For those of you who can find no record of this story anywhere else, my professor friend told me that, when he was an undergraduate, Erich Maria Remarque spoke at his college. An aspiring writer, he attended the reception after Remarque's speech, where he asked the famed writer how he had named his character, and was told this story. Unfortunately, neither of them are here today to confirm it, but as a writer myself it strikes me that Remarque could well have done this, since it is a very "writerly" thing to do - we writers love to remember those we respect (and some of those we particularly don't) this way.

The Model:

The Albatros D.V, which was released in the fall of 1995, was the second of the "new" Eduard kits - (the Sopwith Triplane being the first - with injection-molded parts that were a far cry from what one normally expected when dealing with a "limited run" kit. As the first accurate Albatros ever made in 1/48 scale it was a revelation: the Albatros was sleek and shark-like, just like the photos showed!

With the usual Eduard photo-etch fret for detail parts, and well-done plastic, this was one of the easiest World War One models I had ever made to that time. Following the instructions, the kit was soon at the stage of sub-assemblies where one paints and decals a WW1 model.


This was the first Albatros model where I tried to replicate the natural wood finish of the real airplane. I used some "light wood" decal from SuperScale, which is more naturally yellow than the "light wood" from Aeromaster, so I did not discover the trick of the "varnish" this time. I did, however, cut the decals to fit the various panels, so that it would appear to be made up of separate pieces of wood like the original.

I also painted the airplane the right colors, thanks to Robert Karr. The only sheet of decals that includes Baumer's "Edelweiss" is a highly-inaccurate sheet originally from MicroScale in the 70s, which was later released by SuperScale. Made for the Aurora/Smer kit, the markings information was about as accurate as the kit was, which shows how far we have come in the past 20 years in our knowledge of the airplanes of the First World War. This sheet instructs the modeler to paint the rear half of the fuselage red (Hey! All German fighters have red on them, right?). Robert Karr had discovered some later photographic research which showed the fuselage rear half black; I think it was right, inasmuch as this sheet also had "blitz" with the famous lightning bolt in red, when it is now known to have been done in black.

I painted the green tail for Jasta 5 the same way I did for the D.III above, then painted the rear fuselage black, then applied the decals. I hand-painted the detail in the "Edelweiss," since it was lacking in the decal. I also used aluminum decal sheet to cover the engine cowling, which I now know is incorrect; a modeler doing this should paint that in the factory grey scheme. (Which shows how much more we know about Albatros markings now than we did 4 years ago!) The wings were done in the green/mauve scheme.


With everything varnished, I assembled the kit per instructions, and rigged it using .008" brass wire painted silver (now you know why I am so glad to have discovered stainless steel guitar string).


I have heard that the Albatros D.V kit has been phased out of production by Eduard. If this is so, grab one whenever you find it! This is an excellent kit of an important First World War airplane, and is not so difficult that a beginning World War One modeler could put it high on his (or her) list to do. The Albatros D.V may not have been the best fighter it could have been, but it was certainly among the best-looking airplanes used by anyone during the war, and is a must-have for any respectable World War I collection.


As I hope I convinced you in the historic overview of the Albatros, this is one of the most important series of fighters ever developed. Its twin-gun armament and good performance certainly set the standard for every fighter produced thereafter for the next 20 years, until the concept was replaced by the monoplane fighters that would spearhead the next air war. These two kits, and the Passchendaele conversion, will let you put examples of every major version of the airplane in your collection. I understand Eduard may release the Austrian Albatros D.III(OEF)), which would completey cover every version.

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