Ernst Udet – the Highest Scoring Surviving German Air Ace of WW I

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Ernst Udet was a German pilot during World War I and a Luftwaffe Colonel-General (Generaloberst) during World War II. Udet joined the Imperial German Air Service at the age of 19, and eventually became a flying ace of World War I, scoring 62 confirmed victories by the end of his life. The highest scoring German fighter pilot to survive that war, and the second-highest scoring after Manfred von Richthofen, his commander in the Flying Circus, Udet rose to become a squadron commander under Richthofen, and later under Hermann Göring. Udet spent the 1920s and early 1930s as a stunt pilot, international barnstormer, light aircraft manufacturer, and playboy.

Image Source: http://www.azquotes.com

In 1933, Udet joined the Nazi Party and became involved in the early development of the Luftwaffe, where he was appointed director of research and development. Influential in the adoption of dive bombing techniques as well as the Stuka dive bomber, by 1939 Udet had risen to the post of Director-General of Equipment for the Luftwaffe. The stress of the position and his distaste for administrative duties led to Udet developing alcoholism.

With 62 victories, Ernst Udet was the second-highest-scoring German ace of WW1. Image Source: http://lapauitgewers.net/

The launch of Operation Barbarossa, combined with issues with the Luftwaffe’s needs for equipment outstripping Germany’s production capacity and increasingly poor relations with the Nazi Party, caused Udet to commit suicide on 17 November 1941 by shooting himself in the head. “Our defeat was caused by Udet,” Hitler would claim. “That man concocted the most nonsensical state of affairs ever seen in the history of the Luftwaffe.”

Germany’s second-highest-scoring ace of World War I, the colourful and boisterous Ernst Udet, had one of the most remarkable flying careers of the first half of the 20th century.

Munich Aero-Club. Image Source: Pinterest

Early Years – Connect With Aviation

Ernst Udet was born on 26 April 1896 (Sunday), in Frankfurt am Main, German Empire. He was what the Germans call a Sonntagskind (‘Sunday’s Child’)–lucky, happy and carefree. Udet grew up in Munich, and was known from his early childhood for his sunny temperament and fascination with aviation. In his youth he hung out at a nearby airplane factory and an army airship detachment. In 1909, he helped found the Munich Aero-Club. After crashing a glider he and a friend constructed, he finally flew in 1913 with a test pilot in the nearby Otto Works owned by Gustav Otto, which he often visited.

By 1909 a fascination with flight led a 13 year old Udet to experiment with his own home-made glider, the results were less than stellar. (Ullstein Bild via Getty Images). Image Source: http://www.historynet.com

World War I – Struggles to Enlist

Shortly after the beginning of World War I, Udet attempted to enlist in the Imperial German Army on 2 August 1914, but at only 160 cm (5 ft 3.0 in) tall he did not then qualify for enlistment. Later that month, when the Allgemeiner Deutscher Automobil-Club appealed for volunteers with motorcycles, Udet applied and was accepted. Udet’s father had given him a motorcycle when he had passed his first year examination, and along with four friends, Udet was posted to the 26. Württembergischen Reserve Division as a “messenger rider.” After injuring his shoulder when his motorcycle hit a crater from an artillery shell explosion, he was sent to a military hospital, and his motorcycle was sent for repairs. When Udet tried to track down the 26th Division, he was unable to find it and decided to serve in the vehicle depot in Namur. During this time, he met officers from the Chauny flying sector, who advised him to transfer as an aerial observer. However, before he received his orders, the army dispensed with the volunteer motorcyclists, and Udet was sent back to the recruiting officials.

Private Flying Training – Joins Air Service

Udet tried to return to the fighting, but he was unable to get into either the pilot or aircraft mechanic training the army offered. However, he learned that if he were a trained pilot, he would be immediately accepted into army aviation. Through a family friend, Gustav Otto, owner of the aircraft factory he had hung out around in his youth, Udet received private flight training. This cost him 2,000 Deutsche Marks (about $400 in 1915 U.S. dollars) and new bathroom equipment from his father’s firm. Udet received his civilian pilot’s license at the end of April 1915 and was immediately accepted by the Imperial German Air Service.

Starts Flying for Artillery Ranging

Udet at first flew in Feld Flieger-Abteilung 206 (FFA 206) – a two-seater artillery observation unit, as an Unteroffizier (non-commissioned) pilot with observer Leutnant Justinius. He and his observer won the Iron Cross (2nd class for Udet and 1st class for his lieutenant) for nursing their damaged Aviatik B.I two-seater back to German lines after a shackle on a wing-cable snapped. Justinius had climbed out to hold the wing and balance it rather than landing behind the enemy lines and being captured. Later, after yet another similar incident, the Aviatik B aircraft was retired from active service.

Aviatik B Artillery Reconnaissance Aircraft. Image Source: Wikipedia

Court-Martialed for Losing an Aircraft

Later, Udet was court-martialed for losing an aircraft in an incident the flying corps considered a result of bad judgment. Overloaded with fuel and bombs, the aircraft stalled after a sharp bank and plunged to the ground. Miraculously, both Udet and Justinius survived with only minor injuries. Udet was placed under arrest in the guardhouse for seven days. 

After an Incident – Transferred for Fighter Flying

On his way out of the guardhouse, he was asked to fly Leutnant Hartmann to observe a bombing raid on Belfort. A bomb thrown by hand by the leutnant became stuck in the landing gear, but Udet performed aerobatics and managed to shake it loose. As soon as the Air Staff Officer heard about Udet’s performance during the incident, he ordered Udet transferred to the fighter command.

Fighter Pilot Udet – Initial Disasters

His aggressive style and eagerness for battle resulted in his quickly being promoted to Unteroffizier (staff sergeant). Udet was assigned a new Fokker to fly to his new fighter unit – FFA 68 – at Habsheim. Mechanically defective, the plane crashed into a hangar when he took off, and was then given an older Fokker to fly. In this aircraft he experienced his first aerial combat, which almost ended in disaster. While lining up on a French Caudron, Udet found he could not bring himself to fire on another person and was subsequently fired on by the Frenchman. A bullet grazed his cheek and smashed his flying goggles. Udet survived the encounter but from then on learned to attack aggressively and began scoring victories.

In December 1915, a young Udet experienced his first one-on-one combat while flying this Fokker Eindecker E.I monoplane—the results of which were humiliating. (O’Brien Browne). Image Source: http://www.historynet.com

O’Brien Browne, describes this most aptly in “Ernst Udet: The Rise and fall of a German World War I Ace” written for History Net. He writes, “On a pale December morning in 1915 a single Fokker Eindecker monoplane sailed high above the clouds, hunting for prey over the Vosges sector of the Western Front. Its young, inexperienced German pilot, his face greased for protection from the cold, felt snug in his thick flight suit and sheepskin-lined boots. Eyes alert, he carefully scanned the vast expanse of seemingly empty blue sky. Suddenly, a glint of silver caught the pilot’s eye, moving toward him from the west. It was the enemy. Instead of manoeuvring above and behind his opponent, the novice pilot forgot all his combat training and simply flew head-on at the oncoming aircraft. As the enemy neared, the German recognized it as a French Caudron G.IV, a queer-looking machine with a twin-boom lattice tail section and a truncated tub between the plane’s two engines carrying the pilot and observer. As the German pilot reached for the firing button on the joystick, his mouth became dry at the prospect of his first aerial battle. The Frenchmen flew directly at him, looming so close that the observer’s head was clearly visible. The German pilot poised his thumb over the firing button, muscles tense. The moment of truth: kill or be killed. But as the two planes came within point-blank range of each other, paralyzing fear gripped the young German and he froze. He stared at his opponent, helpless. A second later, he heard popping noises and felt his Fokker shudder. Something slapped hard against his cheek and his goggles flew off. His face was sprayed with broken glass, and blood trickled down his cheek. With the French observer still firing, the German dived into a nearby cloud and limped back to his airfield. Once his wounds had been dressed, he secluded himself in his room and spent a sleepless night berating himself for cowardice and stupidity. Such was the inauspicious beginning of one of the most remarkable flying careers of the first half of the 20th century. The young pilot’s name was Ernst Udet”.

French Caudron G.IV, a queer-looking machine with a twin-boom lattice tail section and a truncated tub between the plane’s two engines carrying the pilot and observer.. Image Source: ommons.wikimedia.org

First Aerial Victory

After a period of intense soul-searching, Udet determined that he would succeed as a fighter pilot. He had his squadron’s mechanics construct a model of a French plane against which Udet could fly practice attacks, honing both his shooting and combat flying skills. The additional training soon paid off. He downed his first French opponent on 18 March 1916. On that occasion, he had scrambled to attack two French aircraft, instead finding himself faced with a formation of 22 enemy aircraft of various types. He dived from above and behind, giving his Fokker D.III biplane full throttle, and opened fire on a Farman F.40 from very close range. Udet pulled away, leaving the flaming bomber trailing smoke, only to see, to his horror, the observer fall from the rear seat of the stricken craft. The victory won Udet the Iron Cross First Class, later describing it: “The fuselage of the Farman dives down past me like a giant torch… A man, his arms and legs spread out like a frog’s, falls past–the observer. At the moment, I don’t think of them as human beings. I feel only one thing–victory, triumph, victory.”

Udet with his Fokker D.III biplane. Image Source: in.pinterest.com/bcfarrant/ww1-aircraft/

Becomes an Air Ace

That year, FFA 68 was renamed Kampfeinsitzer Kommando Habsheim and later Jasta 15 on 28 September 1916. Udet’s second victory was a Bréguet-Michelin bomber, brought down during a massive bombing raid on Oberndorf by French and British units, escorted by four Nieuports of the American volunteer Escadrille N.124, on October 12. Udet forced a French Breguet to land safely in German territory, then landed nearby to prevent its destruction by its crew. The bullet-punctured tires on Udet’s Fokker flipped the plane forward onto its top wings and fuselage. Udet and the French pilot eventually shook hands next to the Frenchman’s aircraft. He finished his score for 1916 with a Caudron G.IV on December 24. In January 1917, Udet was commissioned as a Leutnant der Reserve (lieutenant of reserves). The same month, Jasta 15 re-equipped with the Albatros D.III, a new fighter with twin synchronized Maschinengewehr 08 machine guns. On February 20, he forced down a Nieuport 17 into the French lines. Its pilot, Sergeant Pierre Cazenove de Pradines of N.81, survived to eventually become a seven-victory ace. On April 24, Udet shot down a Nieuport fighter, which burst into flames after a short dogfight, and he destroyed one of the new Spad VII fighters on May 5. Udet claimed five more victories, before transferring to Jasta 37 in June 1917.

French Nieuport 17 C.1 Fighter. Image Source: Wikipedia

Encounter with French Hero and Ace Georges Guynemar

During his service with Jasta 15, Udet later wrote he had encountered Georges Guynemer, a notable French ace, in single combat at 5,000 m (16,000 ft). Guynemer, who preferred to hunt enemy planes alone, by this time was the leading French ace with more than 30 victories. Udet saw Guynemer and they circled each other, looking for an opening and testing each other’s turning abilities. They were close enough for Udet to read the “Vieux” of “Vieux Charles” written on Guynemer’s Spad S.VII. The opponents tried every aerobatic trick they knew and Guynemer fired a burst through Udet’s upper wing. However Udet maneuvered for advantage. Once Udet had Guynemer in his sights, his machine guns jammed and while pretending to dogfight he pounded on them with his fists, desperate to unjam them. Guynemer realized his predicament and instead of taking advantage of it, simply waved a farewell and flew away. Udet wrote of the fight, “For seconds, I forgot that the man across from me was Guynemer, my enemy. It seems as though I were sparring with an older comrade over our own airfield.” Udet felt that Guynemer had spared him because he wanted a fair fight, while others have suggested that the French ace was impressed with Udet’s skills and hoped they might meet again on equal terms. To the end of his life, Udet never forgot that act of chivalry.

Ace vs Ace: Guynemer against Udet. Image Source: Real photos Photoshop composition http://www.flickr.com/photos/nicolas_grignon/39690270275/

Transferred to Jasta 37 – Elevated to Squadron Commander

Eventually, every pilot in Jasta 15 was killed except Udet and his commander, Heinrich Gontermann, who said to Udet: “The bullets fall from the hand of God … Sooner or later they will hit us.” Udet applied for a transfer to Jasta 37, and Gontermann was killed three months later when the upper wing of his new Fokker Dr. 1 tore off as he was flying it for the first time. Gontermann lingered for twenty four hours without awakening and Udet later remarked, “It was a good death.” The new location did him good, and he brought his score up to nine by the end of August. By late November, Udet was a triple ace. He was already modelling his attacks after those of Guynemer, coming in high out of the sun to pick off the rear aircraft in a squadron before the others knew what was happening. Having witnessed one of these attacks, his commander in Jasta 37 Kurt Grasshoff, on being transferred, selected Udet for command over more senior men. Udet’s ascension to command on 7 November 1917, was followed six days later by award of the Knight’s Cross of the Order of Hohenzollern. Despite his seemingly frivolous nature, drinking late into the night, and womanizing lifestyle, Udet proved an excellent squadron commander. He spent many hours coaching new fighter pilots, and like many successful aces, emphasized good marksmanship over flashy stunt flying. He enjoyed the star status that came with being a pilot and often dressed in a dapper style, a cigarette usually poised carefully in one hand. He still displayed the disdain for authority and routine that had characterized him as a child. And he enjoyed being curt and cheeky to pompous officers, his ranking position and success as a fighter pilot usually saving him from reprimand. By year’s end, he was a 16-victory ace and a highly decorated pilot.

House Order of Hohenzollern. Image Source: military.wikia.org

Selected For the Flying Circus

Udet’s success attracted attention for his skill, earning him an invitation to join the “Flying Circus”, Jagdgeschwader 1 (JG 1), an elite unit of German fighter aces under the command of Manfred von Richthofen, popularly known as the Red Baron. Richthofen drove up to Udet one day as he was trying to pitch a tent in Flanders in the rain. Pointing out that Udet had 20 kills, Richthofen said, “Then you would actually seem ripe for us. Would you like to?” Udet accepted. After watching him shoot down an artillery spotter by frontal attack, Richthofen gave Udet command of Jasta 11, von Richthofen’s former squadron command. The group commanded by Richthofen also contained Jastas 4, 6 and 10. Udet’s enthusiasm for Richthofen was unbounded, who demanded total loyalty and dedication from his pilots, immediately cashiering anyone who fell out of line. At the same time, Richthofen treated them with every consideration and when it came time to requisition supplies he traded favors for autographed photos of himself that read: “Dedicated to my esteemed fighting companion.” Udet remarked that because of the signed photographs, “…. sausage and ham never ran out.” One night, the squadron invited a captured English flyer for dinner, treating him as a guest. When he excused himself for the bathroom, the Germans secretly watched to see if he would try to escape. On his return the Englishman said, “I would never forgive myself for disappointing such hosts”; the English flyer did escape later from another unit.

Manfred von Richthofen’s “Flying Circus”. Image Source: Wikipedia

Richthofen Killed in Action

After joining Jasta 11, Udet began flying multiple patrols daily, although he was increasingly troubled by an intense pain in his ears. Nevertheless, he pushed his victory score up to 23 before the pain became so intolerable that Richthofen ordered him to take sick leave. This time off was vital for Udet’s war-shattered nerves. Despite a doctor’s warning that he would never fly again, Udet’s ears began to improve. In addition, he received news that he had been awarded one of Germany’s highest military awards, the Ordre Pour le Mérite, generally referred to by its nickname, the ‘Blue Max.’ Richthofen was killed on April 21, 1918 in France. Shaken by the death of the man whom he later described as ‘the greatest of soldiers’–a man many had believed was indestructible, Udet said about Richthofen: “He was the least complicated man I ever knew. Entirely Prussian and the greatest of soldiers.”

Image Source: http://www.azquotes.com

He returned to JG 1 against the doctor’s advice and remained there to the end of the war, commanding Jasta 4. The conflict was entering its last, dreadful months, which would see some of the most intense fighting of the entire war. His unit was now equipped with the formidable Fokker D.VII, the plane generally considered the finest fighter of WWI.

Ernst Udet with his childhood sweetheart, Eleanor “Lo” Zink. Image Source: combatace.com

Meets Childhood Sweetheart

While at home, Udet had reacquainted himself with his childhood sweetheart, Eleanor “Lo” Zink. Notified that he had received the Pour le Mérite, he had one made up in advance so that he could impress her, and painted her name on the side of his Albatros fighters and Fokker D VII. Also on the tail of his Fokker D VII was the message “Du doch nicht” – “Definitely not you” – a taunt and challenge to Allied pilots.

Oberleutnant Ernst Udet in his Siemens Schuckert D.III. The LO! inscription on the sides of his aircraft was dedicated to his then fiancee and later wife, Eleanore Zink. Image Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/drakegoodman

Early Flier to Parachute to Safety

During the spring and early summer, Udet’s score rose to 35. On 29 June 1918, Udet was one of the early fliers to be saved by parachuting from a disabled aircraft, when he jumped after a clash with a French Breguet. His harness caught on the rudder and he had to break off the rudder tip to escape. His parachute did not open until he was 250 ft (76 m) from the ground, causing him to sprain his ankle on landing.

On Udet’s aircraft tail of his Fokker D VII was the message “Du doch nicht” – “Definitely not you” – a taunt and challenge to Allied pilots. Image Source: http://www.albiondesigncentre.com/

First Encounter with U.S. Army Air Service

On July 2, JG.I had its first encounter with the U.S. Army Air Service and shot down two Nieuport 28s of the 27th Aero Squadron. One of the pilots, 2nd Lt. Walter B. Wanamaker, was brought down injured by Udet, who gave him a cigarette and chatted with him until the medics arrived. On a whim, Udet cut the serial number, N6347, from the rudder of Wanamaker’s plane. When the two met again at the Cleveland Air Races on September 6, 1931, Udet returned the trophy to his former opponent. It can still be seen at the U.S. Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio.

On July 2, 1917 Udet brought down a Nieuport 28 flown by 2nd Lt. Walter B. Wanamaker. Fourteen years later at the 1931 Cleveland Air Races they met again, Udet returning the fabric trophy he had taken from Wanamaker’s fighter. (National Museum of the U.S. Air Force)

Becomes National Hero

War was now going badly for the Germans. The German air force was hampered by a lack of fuel, equipment and new recruits. ‘The war gets tougher by the day,’ Udet wrote. ‘When one of our aircraft rises, five go up on the other side.’ Udet meanwhile was reaching new heights of achievement. Udet scored 20 victories in August 1918 alone, mainly against British aircraft. Between July 1 and September 26, he downed 26 Allied aircraft, bringing his total to 62 and became a national hero. During his last air battle on 28 September 1918, in which he brought down two Airco DH.9 bombers, Udet was wounded in the thigh, for which he was still recovering on Armistice Day, 11 November 1918, when the war ended in Germany’s defeat.

National Hero. Image Source: welkinlions.tumblr.com/post/65913727947

Inter-War Years – Lots of Action

The adventures of Udet’s life continued without pause after the war. On his way home from the military hospital, he had to defend himself against a Communist who wished to rip the medals off his chest. Udet and Robert Ritter von Greim performed mock dogfights at weekends for the POW Relief Organization, using surplus aircraft in Bavaria. After the war he was initially active in the Richthofen Veterans’ Association. He was invited to start the first International Air Service between Germany and Austria, but after the first flight the Entente Commission confiscated his aircraft.

Marries and Divorces Eleanor “Lo” Zink

Udet married Eleanor “Lo” Zink on 25 February 1920, however the marriage lasted less than three years and they were divorced on 16 February 1923. His independent nature, his many affairs, and disdain for routine led to the breakup of his marriage.

Original autograph Real Photo postcard (RPPC) of German WWI fighter pilot and later Luftwaffe General Ernst Udet. Image Source: germanpostalhistory.com

Multi-Talented & Multi-Faceted

His talents were numerous – among these were juggling, drawing cartoons, and party entertainment. Udet was known primarily for his work as a stunt pilot and for playboy-like behavior. Udet flew in air shows and races, performing throughout Latin America and Europe. Udet’s flamboyant lifestyle flourished. He became a well-known womanizer and a hard drinker, a party boy who loved to dine and share a laugh with an international group of friends. He spent money as quickly as it came in. He enjoyed the company of movie stars, film producers and other public figures. Flying always remained his greatest passion. He flew for movies and for airshows (e.g. picking a cloth from the ground with his wingtip, flying under low bridges and completing loops only several meters from the ground). One stunt only Udet performed was successive loops with the last complete after turning off the engine midair and landing the aircraft in a sideways glide. He appeared with Leni Riefenstahl in three films: The White Hell of Pitz Palu (1929), Stürme über dem Mont Blanc (1930), and S.O.S. Eisberg (1933).

Biplane Dead Stick Landing Ernst Udet – Chicago International Air Races 1933 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hz4J8f6pkIk

Udet’s stunt pilot work in films took him to California. In the October 1933 issue of New Movie Magazine, there is a photo of Carl Laemmle, Jr.’s party for Udet in Hollywood. Laemmle was head of Universal Studios which made SOS Eisberg, a US-German co-production. Udet was invited to attend the National Air Races at Cleveland, Ohio. In 1935 he appeared in Wunder des Fliegens: Der Film eines deutschen Fliegers (1935) directed by Heinz Paul. His co-star Jürgen Ohlsen, who had previously starred (uncredited) in the extremely popular Nazi propaganda film Hitlerjunge Quex: Ein Film vom Opfergeist der deutschen Jugend, played a youth who lost his pilot father in World War I and was befriended and encouraged by Udet, his idol.

Ernest Udet in the cockpit of his aptly named Udet U 12 “Flamingo,” an airplane designed specifically for his spectacular airshow performances. Image Source: commons.wikimedia.org

This was probably the happiest time of Udet’s life. He was reeling in money. His autobiography, Mein Fliegerleben (English title: Ace of the Iron Cross), was a hit, selling more than 600,000 copies by the end of 1935. He was arguably the most famous stunt pilot of his day.

Attempts at Aircraft Manufacturing

American films were good publicity for Udet. An American, William Pohl of Milwaukee, telephoned him with an offer to back an aircraft manufacturing company. Udet Flugzeugbau was born in a shed in Milbertshofen. Its intent was to build small aircraft that the general public could fly. It soon ran into trouble with the Entente Commission and transferred its operations to a beehive and chicken coop factory. The first airplane that Udet’s company produced was the U2. Udet took the second model, the U4, to the Wilbur Cup race in Buenos Aires at the expense of Aero Club Aleman. Finally upto U12 model were made. The club wanted him to do cigarette commercials to reimburse them for the expense, but he refused. He was rescued by the Chief of the Argentinian Railways, a man of Swedish descent named Tornquist, who settled the debt. In 1924, Udet left Udet Flugzeugbau when they decided to build a four-engine aircraft, which was larger and not for the general population.

More Aviation-Linked Activities

He and another friend from the war, Angermund, started an exhibition flying enterprise in Germany, which was also successful, but Udet remarked, “In time this too begins to get tiresome. We stand in the present, fighting for a living. It isn’t always easy. But the thoughts wander back to the times when it was worthwhile to fight for your life.” Udet and another wartime comrade—Suchocky—became pilots to an African filming expedition. The cameraman was another veteran, Schneeberger, whom Udet called “Flea,” and the guide was Siedentopf, a former East African estate owner. Udet described one incident in Africa in which lions jumped up to claw at the low-flying aircraft, one of them removing a strip of Suchocky’s wing surface. Udet engaged in hunting while in Africa.

Schneeberger and Suchocky inspect the damage done to the plane by the lioness. Image Source: http://www.archivaria.com/Udet/Udet9.html

Building the Luftwaffe

Udet joined the Nazi party in 1933 when Hermann Göring promised to buy him two new U.S.-built Curtiss Hawk II biplanes (export designation of the F11C-2 Goshawk Helldiver). Though not interested in politics, in 1934 Udet made the difficult decision to join the new Luftwaffe. Whatever his misgivings about the Nazis, he realized that they had an iron grip on power in his country. The planes were used for evaluation purposes and thus indirectly influenced the German idea of dive bombing aeroplanes, such as the Junkers Ju 87 (Stuka) dive bombers. They were also used for aerobatic shows held during the 1936 Summer Olympics. Udet piloted one of them, which survived the war and is now on display in the Polish Aviation Museum. Earlier in 1934, Udet taught Aviation Minister Erhard Milch to fly. And as the top pilot in the country, Udet’s opinion was considered quite significant when matters of aviation policy were discussed. It was flattering to be listened to by those in positions of authority. Patriotism, the challenge of rebuilding the air force he had so loved, plus a sense of stability and security offered by the prospect of a normal job, all played a part in helping him make up his mind.

Reichsmarschall Herman Göring (left) and Udet, head of the technical office of the air ministry, observe aerial maneuvers by the new Luftwaffe on June 16, 1938. (Ullstein Bild via Getty Images). Image Source: http://www.historynet.com

Aircraft Development Tasks

He was promoted rapidly from Oberstleutnant (lieutenant colonel) to Oberst (colonel) and then inspector of fighter and dive-bomber pilots. In the summer of 1936 Udet was pressured by Göring into becoming the head of the technical office of the Reich’s air ministry, a position of weighty organizational responsibilities. Despite his new duties, Udet, who had always shunned paper pushing, seemed able to find the time to test-fly the industry’s newest designs, such as the Messerschmit Bf-109, as well as the latest from Focke Wulf and Heinkel.

Udet in Developmental Aircraft Cockpit . Image Source: Pinterest

After the trials of the Ju 87, a confidential directive issued on 9 June 1936 by Generalfeldmarschall Wolfram von Richthofen called for the cessation of all further Ju 87 development, although the Ju 87 had been awarded top marks and was about to be accepted. However, Udet immediately rejected von Richthofen’s instructions and Ju 87 development continued. In this post Udet was finally responsible for the introduction of the Junkers Stuka and the Messerschmitt Bf 109. Udet became a major proponent of the dive bomber, taking credit for having introduced it to the Luftwaffe. Udet also shunned the bureaucracy in his new job, and the pressure led to him developing an addiction to alcohol, drinking large amounts of brandy and cognac.

Udets’s board bar from his Siebel Fh 104 A-0 on display in the Deutsches Technikmuseum Berlin.. Image Source: Wikipedia

Director-General of Equipment

In January 1939, Udet visited Italian North Africa, accompanying Marshal of the Italian Air Force, Italo Balbo on a flight, because at the time there were distinct signs of German military and diplomatic co-operation with the Italians. In February 1939 Udet became Generalluftzeugmeister, Director-General of Equipment of the Luftwaffe. Udet was not adept at the political intrigue that characterizes all bureaucracies. Increasingly, he was outmanoeuvred by his onetime friend Erhard Milch. Ambitious and scheming, Milch resented Udet’s special relationship with Göring and craved the power and prestige attendant on Udet’s job. Nevertheless, Udet continued to reap honours from Hitler, who was most likely unaware of the interdepartmental in-fighting. On June 21, 1940, Udet was one of the few people who witnessed the French surrender to the Germans. A month later, he was awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross and promoted to Generaloberst (colonel general).

Ernst Udet with Bomber Pilots Galland and Mölders / Photo 1940. Image Source: http://www.akg-images.com

WW II – High Aircraft Requirements – Despair

When World War II began, his internal conflicts grew more intense as aircraft production requirements were much more than the German industry could supply, given limited access to raw materials such as aluminum. Hermann Göring responded to this problem by simply lying about it to Adolf Hitler, and after the Luftwaffe‘s defeat in the Battle of Britain, Göring tried to deflect Hitler’s ire by blaming Udet. On 22 June 1941, the launch of Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union, drove Udet further into despair. In April and May 1941, Udet had led a German delegation inspecting Soviet aviation industry in accordance with the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact. Udet informed Göring that the Soviet air force and aviation industry were very strong and technically advanced. Göring decided not to report this to Hitler, hoping that a surprise attack would quickly destroy Russia. Udet realized that the upcoming war on Russia might destroy Germany. He tried to explain this to Hitler but, torn between truth and loyalty, suffered a psychological breakdown. At the end of August, Udet had a long, private talk with Goering in which he tried to resign. Goering refused, knowing that such a resignation from a top Luftwaffe official would create bad publicity. Göring kept Udet under control by giving him drugs at drinking parties and hunting trips. Udet’s drinking and psychological condition became a problem, and Göring used Udet’s dependency to manipulate him.

Goering and Udet in 1938, before the cracks started to show. Some of Udet’s poor decisions had already been made at this time, but would not begin to become evident until two years later. Even so, he became the scapegoat for appalling leadership lapses by Goering and arch-rival Erhard Milch. Bundesarchive photo. Image Source: http://www.defensemedianetwork.com

In his article titled “The Nazi Blame Game”, Dwight Jon Zimmerman wrote in July 2017, “The problem with the Luftwaffe was that it was a tactical air force increasingly tasked with a strategic mission. And blamed for that failing was its director of aviation armaments, Generaloberst Ernst Udet, who turned out to be the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time for the Luftwaffe”. As historian Leonard Mosely wrote, “Udet was bold, brave, and a first-class flier, he was unfortunately no planner.” Udet filled his staff with wartime friends unqualified for their design and production roles. Accounts of Udet’s managerial incompetence began reaching Goering. As the man who hired Udet and who was himself a poor (and corrupt) administrator, Goering was in an awkward position and at first chose to ignore the problem. Albert Speer, who would later take over all war production, noted that, “Goering was not actually blind to reality. I would occasionally hear him make perceptive comments on the situation. Rather, he acted like a bankrupt who up to the last moment wants to deceive himself along with his creditors.”

Memoirs of Ernst Udet, the German ‘ace of aces’.

Commits Suicide

On 17 November 1941, at age 45, Ernst Udet committed suicide in Berlin, by shooting himself in the head while on the phone with his girlfriend, Inge Bleyle. Udet’s suicide was concealed from the public, and at his funeral he was lauded as a hero who had died in flight while testing a new weapon. The circumstances of Udet’s death were kept secret, and he was given a state funeral attended by Adolf Hitler, Goering and other top officials. On their way to attend Udet’s funeral, the World War II fighter ace Werner Mölders died in a plane crash in Breslau, and high Luftwaffe executive General der Flieger (General of Aviators) Helmuth Wilberg died in another plane crash near Dresden. Udet was buried next to Manfred von Richthofen in the Invalidenfriedhof Cemetery in Berlin. Mölders was buried next to Udet.

Following Udet’s suicide on November 17, 1941, A Luftwaffe honor guard—including ace Major Adolf Galland at left—escorted his remains to their final resting place. (Ullstein Bild via Getty Images). Image Source: Pinterest

Suicide Note

According to Udet’s biography, The Fall of an Eagle, he wrote a suicide note in red pencil which among other things said, “Ingelein, why have you left me?” and “Iron One, you are responsible for my death.” “Ingelein” referred to his girlfriend, Inge Bleyle, and “Iron One” to Hermann Göring. The book The Luftwaffe War Diaries similarly states that Udet wrote “Reichsmarschall, why have you deserted me?” in red on the headboard of his bed. It is possible that an affair Udet had with Martha Dodd, daughter of the U.S. ambassador to Germany and Soviet sympathizer during the 1930s might have had some importance in these events. Records made public in the 1990s confirm Soviet security involvement with Dodd’s activities. Evidence indicates that Udet’s unhappy relationship with Göring, Erhard Milch, and the Nazi Party in general was the cause of a mental breakdown.

Adolf Hitler and Hermann Göring at the funeral of general Ernst Udet. Image Source: http://www.hitler-archive.com

Portrayals

Handsome, dashing, and a skilled raconteur, Udet was Germany’s greatest living fighter ace from World War I. Carl Zuckmayer’s 1946 play Des Teufels General (“The Devil’s General”) was a fictional treatment of Udet’s final days. Des Teufels General was a 1955 film version of the Zuckmeyer play, with Curd Jürgens in the title role. In the film Von Richthofen and Brown (1971), Udet was portrayed by Robert La Tourneaux. The character of “Ernst Kessler” in the 1975 film The Great Waldo Pepper is clearly based upon Ernst Udet. Kessler was portrayed by actor Bo Brundin. It also contains dogfighting scenes between a Fokker Dr.I and a Sopwith Camel. In the movie The Red Baron, Udet is portrayed by Jiří Laštovka. Udet is also featured in the Knights of the Sky video game as an enemy German pilot.

Ernst Udet’s grave in Invalidenfriedhof Cemetery, Berlin. Image Source: Wikipedia

References:

  1. Ernst Udet, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ernst_Udet
  2. O’Brien Browne, Ernst Udet: The Rise and Fall of a German World War I Ace. History Net, This feature was originally published in the November 1999 issue of Aviation History magazine. https://www.historynet.com/ernst-udet-the-rise-and-fall-of-a-german-world-war-i-ace.htm
  3. Spartacus Educational https://spartacus-educational.com/FWWudet.htm
  4. Who’s Who – Ernst Udet, Firstworldwar.com https://www.firstworldwar.com/bio/udet.htm
  5. Dwight Jon Zimmerman, The Fall of Ernst Udet and Gerd von Rundstedt – The Nazi Blame Game, July 06, 2017 https://www.defensemedianetwork.com/stories/the-nazi-blame-game/
  6. Eddie Elbert, Udet, Ernst,  WW2 Grave Stone https://ww2gravestone.com/people/udet-ernst/
  7. Willie Bodenstein, Ernst Udet-WWI Pilot-Film Actor and Luftwaffe Officer. http://lapauitgewers.net/arn0001181
  8. My Life as a Pilot – Four Men in Africa http://www.archivaria.com/Udet/Udet9.html

Published by Anil Chopra

I am the founder of Air Power Asia and a retired Air Marshal from the Indian Air Force.

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