He began his career as a pilot in 1914 when he joined the Luftstreitkraft aeronautical corps (then called Luftwaffe) in the north of France as a mail and supplies transport pilot between German airfields. On June 3, 1915, he was shot down for the first time by a French pilot, but he managed to land behind German lines. Surprisingly, he was awarded the Second Class Iron Cross for the incident. After that, he moved to Douai, where he began to perform reconnaissance missions.
|Max Immelmann and his Fokker|
Later, young Dutch engineer Anthony Fokker created two planes with a potentially groundbreaking system, a machine-gun with a synchronization gear that allowed for firing through the propeller. Immelmann and his squadron partner Oswald Boelcke rapidly became acquainted with the Fokker E.I, or "Eindekker," and its revolutionary firing system.
On August 1, 1915, 10 British B.E.2c bombers bombed the Douai airfield. Boelcke and Immelmann took off to attack one of the bombers, but Boelcke's machine-gun jammed, and he had to land immediately to have it fixed, meanwhile watching his partner Immelmann attack a B.E.2. Immelmann shot one and then another. One of them began a steep descent towards the airfield, and he pursued it until it landed. The machine-gun had injured his elbow, and he was forced to land. On the ground, Max approached the English pilot, and with a handshake, told him, "You are our prisoner." This feat earned Max the First Class Bronze Cross.
He took down two more planes in September, and survived a demolition by a French farmer. At the beginning of December, Max had shot down more than 6 planes, which earned him the nickname Der Adler von Lille (The Eagle of Lille).
Max and Boelcke became friendly rivals, recording their take-downs on their planes, one after another, and victory after victory. In January of 1916, after they both had 8 take-downs, they were awarded the Pour le Merite - the highest German military honor - thereafter known as the "Blue Max."
|The Immelmann Turn|
The Immelmann Turn
The name Max Immelmann has been associated with an aerobatic maneuver called the Immelmann Turn (or simply, the Immelmann). It consists of an ascending half-loop followed by a half-roll at the apex, flying in the opposite direction than in the beginning, and at a higher altitude.
What is now known as the Immelmann Turn would have triggered a fatal accident if it had been attempted with the planes Max flew in his day.
The Fokker single-seater of 1915 utilized wing torsion to gain control when warping, and those who flew it and survived described it as a highly unstable plane. At the top part of the half-loop, trying to do a half-roll could have had unpredictable results, surely resulting in a spin. This maneuver was unknown to any pilot in 1915, and the chance of survival would have been slim.
|Max Immelmann and his dog Tyras|
The controversy over who really invented this maneuver continued after Max wrote, "I don't know employ any gimmicks when I attack." Nothing in his memories or letters makes reference to the maneuver which now carries his name.
Other sources suggest that Allied airmen later utilized a modernized version of this maneuver to escape Max. An equipped plane with aileron control and sufficient energy for the half-loop and half-roll would have left no option for the "steep descent/climb/stall turn" style of attack that Max repeated when fighting.
Immelmann’s style of attack was the first where vertical attack maneuvers were applied; for this reason, he deserves this place in history. Although his style was initially shocking to the Allies, it quickly came into use in the two camps during WWI.
Max died in air combat when he was taken down by a Royal Air Factory F.E.2B two-seater from the 25 RFC squadron on June 18, 1916. According to English sources, shots from an F.E.2 piloted by Sgt. G.R. Cubin and "gunner" J.H. Waller hit Immelmann's Fokker causing him to be flung towards the ground. Perhaps in order to not compromise their reputation by suggesting their "hero" had been taken down by a slow F.E.2 two-seater, the Germans argued that he had been hit by anti-aircraft fire.
|Max's aircraft Wreckage|
Other sources, including Max's brother, indicate that the cause of death was an error in the propeller synchronization system, after which they would find his propeller with shots from his own machine-gun. Should this be the case, ironically, the technology that made him a hero, probably killed him. Most authorities endorse this explanation, but like many other air occurrences during WWI, the true circumstances of Max Immelmann’s death continue to be a mystery.