Although the story of Germany's "Red Baron" - Baron Manfred von Richthofen - in the First World War is well known, the history of Germany's first fighter group that he formed is often obscured by his legendary aura. In Osprey's Aviation Elite Units #16, aviation enthusiast Greg VanWyngarden provides a detailed look into the pilots and aircraft that formed Jagdgeschwader Nr. 1 (or JG 1), the elite of the German fighter arm in the First World War. Readers who are interested in early aviation history or aerial combat in the First World War will find a wealth of material in these 126 pages. On the other hand, military readers expecting more analysis on the significance of JG 1's contribution to Germany's war effort or a look at the nuts and bolts of an early fighter wing will be disappointed. Nevertheless, Richthofen's Circus: Jagdgeschwader Nr. 1 provides an excellent unit history of arguably one of the most famous fighter units of all times.
In the first chapter, the author provides background on the origin and formation of JG -1 in June 1917. The wing was formed of four component squadrons: Jastas 4, 6, 10 and 11, giving JG-1 a total strength of about 50 fighters. Germany was forced to form larger fighter units in 1917 because of the growing Allied numerical superiority in the air, which was approaching 3-1 or better. There are a couple of things here that the author should have mentioned to clarify the air picture. First, the British and Germans had radically different doctrines for employing fighters: while the British stressed offensive air patrols deep behind German lines (and thus losing more aircraft to flak), the Germans usually mounted only defensive patrols on their sides of the line. Thus, the Germans were usually content to knock down Allied reconnaissance aircraft (which degraded the effectiveness of Allied artillery), while the British were intent upon gaining air superiority. The second point that the author neglects to mention is that despite the formation of JG-1, the Germans rarely held air superiority over even small portions of the front.
The next five chapters are essentially an operational history of the 16 months of JG-1 combat, focusing primarily upon the high-scoring pilots like the Richthofens (all three) and Udet. The author also details the introduction of new aircraft, such as the Fokker Dr 1 triplane and the Fokker Dr VII; it is apparent from the comments of the German pilots that they felt increasingly outclassed by newer Allied fighters. It is also apparent that the standard of German workmanship did not always live up to its reputation; the author notes numerous instances where faulty construction led to aircraft crashes, particularly in the Dr 1 (which only had an operational career of about 6 months). Readers will particularly enjoy the numerous first-person accounts by German pilots about life in the squadron and aerial combat, as well as the excellent photographs that support the text. The color plates, which detail the various aircraft models and personal schemes of many JG 1 aircraft, are also excellent.
Unfortunately, the author makes virtually no effort to analyze JG-1's contribution to the German war effort, other than noting that the unit was credited with 644 victories and suffered 121 casualties (thus implying a 5-1 or better kill ratio). Overall in 1914-1918, the Germans shot down 3 Allied aircraft for each of their own lost, so it seems likely that JG-1 was indeed an elite unit, which seems obvious given that it received the best pilots and aircraft available. However, even if all of the 644 victories were accurate (and the author notes several claims that were later invalidated), the unit shot down less than 1% of all Allied aircraft lost in the war. This German tendency to create elite units occurred in both world wars and it tended to strip other line units of personnel and equipment in order to create prestige units. While JG-1 had several very high-scoring pilots, it does not seem that the formation of the unit had any great material impact upon the war. It is also noticeable that by late 1918, most of the veteran pilots were gone and the unit had been whittled down to an average of only 10-12 aircraft.
The other area that the author avoids is the innards of JG-1. While the author lavishes much space upon the glamorous fighter pilots (several of whom get their own full-page sidebar), the humble mechanics and ground crews that kept the planes flying are all but ignored. It would have been nice to know how the Germans maintained their operations tempo, but this is impossible without looking at the ground component. Some type of line and block chart or equipment table would have been handy. How did JG-1 move to new airfields? Surely the ground crews had to move fuel, ammunition and spares, but how? Nor is there any mention of the pilot to aircraft ratio, which would also improve our understanding of German optempo. It would also have been useful if the author had provided a map with the bases and operational area for JG-1. However, despite this myopia, Richthofen's Circus: Jagdgeschwader Nr. 1 is a worthwhile part of any library on the First World War.