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World War I: Lieutenant Ernst Udet

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World War I: Lieutenant Ernst Udet

Lieutenant Ernst Udet

Photograph Source: Public Domain

Ernst Udet - Early Life & Career:

Born in Frankfurt am Main on April 26, 1896, Ernst Udet was a good-natured, small child. Raised in Munich, he proved a decent student and became fascinated with aviation at an early age. This was encouraged by the close proximity of the Otto Flying Machine Works at which Udet became a fixture in his spare time. In 1909, he aided in launching the Munich Aero-Club. Four years later, he flew for the first time with one of Otto's test pilots. Though he dreamed of being a pilot, Udet's plans were disrupted by the outbreak of World War I in August 1914. Though he attempted to join the army that month, he was turned away due to his small stature (5'3").

Ernst Udet - Learning to Fly:

Unable to enlist, Udet found that since he owned a motorcycle he could serve as a volunteer messenger. Pursuing this, he was assigned to the 26th Reserve Division. Injured a short time later when his bike hit a shell hole, Udet was unable to find his division and began serving in at a depot in Namur. During this time, he befriended several pilots who encouraged him to volunteer to be an aerial observer. Though he attempted to obtain a transfer, the volunteer messenger program was ended and he was released from service. Returning to the recruiters, Udet tried in vain to gain acceptance into pilot or aircraft mechanic training. Finally learning that the Luftstreitkräfte (German Air Force) would accept trained pilots without question, he returned home and sought private lessons.

Seeking out Gustav Otto, Udet paid 2,000 marks for flying lessons. A natural pilot, he obtained his civilian pilot's license in April 1915. Returning to the recruiter, Udet was accepted for service the Luftstreitkräfte. Assigned to an observation squadron, Flieger-Abteilung 206 (FA 206), he began flying Aviatek B.I biplanes. Early in his career Udet earned the Iron Class, 2nd Class when he was able to return to friendly territory with a damaged aircraft. This success was followed by an incident in which he was ruled at fault for losing his plane. Briefly imprisoned, Udet returned to duty and flew as part of a bombing raid on Belfort. In course of the raid, a small bomb became entangled in his landing gear and he was forced to perform some aerobatics to shake it free.

Ernst Udet - Fighter Pilot:

This performance led to Udet's transfer from observation aircraft to fighters. Assigned to a field at Habsheim, he began flying Fokker D.IIIs for FA 68. Though he initially struggled with killing enemy pilots, he scored his first kill on March 18, 1916. Becoming an aggressive hunter in the sky, he began to increase his tally as the year progressed and soon became an ace. In September his unit was redesignated Jagdstaffel 15. Adding a few more kills during the fall, Udet was promoted to lieutenant in January 1917. The spring also saw him begin flying the new Albatros D.III. While with Jasta 15, Udet encountered noted French ace Captain Georges Guynemer who was flying a SPAD VII. Fighting to a draw, the Frenchman allowed Udet to escape when the German's guns jammed.

Transferred to Jasta 37 on June 19, 1917, Udet increased his total to 15 by November and became a favorite of his commander, Lieutenant Kurt Grasshoff. When Grasshoff was transferred, he selected Udet as his replacement. His efforts also earned him the House Order of Hohenzollern. Effectively commanding his squadron, Udet soon came to the attention of Manfred von Richthofen (The Red Baron), who led the elite Jagdgeschwader 1 (JG 1). Agreeing to join von Richthofen's "Flying Circus," Udet soon took command of the Red Baron's former unit, Jasta 11. Becoming a devotee of Richthofen, his kill total continued to rise despite his suffering from increasing pain from an ear infection. Forced to deal with the malady, Udet was away from the front when the Red Baron was killed in April 1918.

Ignoring his doctor, Udet soon returned to the front and began flying again. His actions in battle soon saw him receive the coveted Pour le Mérite (Blue Max). In June, he became one of the first combat aviators to use a parachute when his fighter was critically damaged in a collision with a French Breguet. Though it functioned, the parachute opened late and Udet injured his ankle. This injury did not deter him as August saw him down 20 enemy aircraft. While successful in the air, Udet was increasingly unhappy with JG 1's new commander, Hermann Göring. On September 28, 1918, with his total at 62, Udet was wounded in the thigh. Taken to the hospital, he was still there when the war ended on November 11. Udet finished the war as Germany's second-highest scoring ace behind Richthofen.

Ernst Udet - Interwar Years:

A national hero, Udet made a living flying in stunt shows and attempted to start an air service between Germany and Austria. While this operation was shut down by the Entente Commission, he later moved forward with an aircraft manufacturing firm which he dubbed Udet Flugzeug. Leaving the company in 1924, Udet resumed stunt flying and performed around the world. These exploits led him to find employment flying for the film industry. As a celebrity, Udet soon began appearing in front of the camera and starred opposite Leni Riefenstahl in Die weiße Hölle vom Piz Palü (1929), Stürme über dem Montblanc (1930), and S.O.S. Eisberg (1933). Traveling to the United States in the early 1930s, he attended the National Air Races in Cleveland, OH and was the subject of Hollywood parties.

Ernst Udet - Luftwaffe:

Largely apolitical, Udet was tempted into joining the Nazi Party in 1933 when his former commander, Göring, offered him two Curtiss Hawk IIs. A biplane, the Hawk II had been designed as a dive bomber and had a profound influence on Udet. Evaluating the aircraft, he quickly became a leading proponent of dive bombing within the newly re-formed Luftwaffe. By 1936, Udet possessed the rank of colonel general and oversaw the aircraft development branch of the German Air Ministry (Reichsluftfahrtministerium - RLM). In this role he championed the development of the Ju 87 Stuka which became an icon of German air power. During the aircraft's development, he clashed with his subordinate, Wolfram von Richthofen, who felt that the Ju 87 was underpowered and attempted to cancel the program.

After trip to Italian North Africa in January 1939, Udet was made the Luftwaffe's Director-General of Equipment (Generalluftzeugmeister). Effectively overseeing aircraft production for the Luftwaffe, Udet continued to clash with his colleagues and became increasingly unhappy with the bureaucratic nature of his job. In addition, he found that the German aircraft industry was unable to meet the Luftwaffe's production needs as the country lacked key resources such as aluminum. This situation worsened following the outbreak of World War II in September 1939. Udet repeatedly informed his superiors of the issue only to have his reports ignored and Göring lie to Adolf Hitler.

Following the Luftwaffe's defeat in the Battle of Britain in 1940, Udet was made a scapegoat by Göring. With aircraft production behind schedule, he was also blamed for the Luftwaffe's overall declining effectiveness. Sidelined from the development of new aircraft, such as the Focke-Wulf Fw 190, Udet became reliant in alcohol and amphetamines. Increasingly depressed, he committed suicide on November 17, 1941 while on the phone with his girlfriend. Among his possessions were found notes blaming Göring for his death. Rather than acknowledge Udet's suicide and the embarrassment it would bring to the Nazi regime, Hitler instead announced that the ace had died while testing a new aircraft. Given a state funeral, Udet was buried at Invalidefriedhof in Berlin. In a twist of fate, one of Germany's leading World War II aces, Colonel Werner Mölders, was killed in a crash en route to Udet's funeral.

Selected Sources

  • Ace Pilots: Ernst Udet
  • First World War: Ernst Udet
  • The Aerodrome: Ernst Udet

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