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Archive Report: Axis Forces
1914-1918   1935-1945

Compiled from official National Archive and Service sources, contemporary press reports, personal logbooks, diaries and correspondence, reference books, other sources, and interviews.

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Ernst Udet
Colonel General Ernst Udet (26 April 1896 – 17 November 1941)

Colonel General Ernst Udet (26 April 1896 – 17 November 1941) was the second-highest scoring German flying ace of World War I. He was one of the youngest aces and was the highest scoring German ace to survive the war (at the age of 22). His 62 victories were second only to Manfred von Richthofen, his commander in the Flying Circus. Udet rose to become a squadron commander under Richthofen, and later, under Hermann Göring.

Following Germany's defeat, Udet spent the 1920s and early 1930s as a stunt pilot, international barnstormer, light aircraft manufacturer, and playboy. In 1933, he joined the Nazi Party and became involved in the early development of the Luftwaffe. He used his networking skills to get himself appointed director of research and development for the burgeoning air force. He was especially 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. However, the stress of the position and his distaste for administrative duties led to an increasing dependence on alcohol.

When World War II began, the Luftwaffe's needs for equipment outstripped Germany's production capacity. Udet's old comrade in arms, Hermann Göring, first lied to Adolf Hitler about these material shortcomings when the Germans lost the Battle of Britain, then deflected the Führer's wrath onto Udet.

Artillery ranging

Originally, Udet flew in Feld Flieger-Abteilung 206 (FFA 206)—an observation unit—as an Unteroffizier (Staff Sergeant) pilot with observer Leutnant Justinius. He and his observer won the Iron Cross 2nd and 1st class respectively for nursing their 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 land and accept capture. As a result of the structural failure of the Aviatik that caused Udet and Justinius to go down, and a similar incident that cost Leutnant Winter and Vizefeldwebel Preiss their lives, the Aviatik B was retired from service.

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

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. Udet performed some aerobatics to shake it loose. As soon as the Air Staff Officer heard about it, he was transferred to fighter command. That was in early 1916.

Fighter pilot

Udet was given a new Fokker to fly to his new unit—FFA 68—at Habsheim. Mechanically defective, it crashed into a hangar on takeoff. An older Fokker was then sent to Udet. At Habsheim, his first aerial combat was a near disaster. Lining up on a French Caudron, he found he could not bring himself to pull the trigger and was subsequently strafed by the Frenchman. A bullet grazed his cheek and smashed his goggles.

From then on, he learned to attack aggressively and made a number of kills, downing his first French opponent on 18 March 1916. On that occasion, he scrambled to attack two French aircraft; instead, he found a formation of 23. He dived in from above and behind, giving his Fokker E.III[4] full throttle, and opened fire on a Farman F.40 from close range. He pulled away, leaving the flaming bomber trailing smoke, only to see the observer fall from the rear seat of the stricken craft. As Udet described 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." The fiery kill won Udet the Iron Cross First Class.

Ernst Udet in cockpit 1915

That year, FA 68 morphed into Kampfeinsitzer Kommando Habsheim before finally becoming Jagdstaffel 15 on 28 September 1916. It was in the latter unit that Udet would claim five more victims, before transferring to Jasta 37 in June 1917. The first of these—on 12 October 1916—had its comic opera aspects. Udet forced a French Breguet to land safely in German territory, then landed nearby to prevent its destruction by its crew. The bullet-punctured flat tires on Udet's Fokker tipped the German plane forward over onto its top wings and fuselage. Victor and vanquished eventually shook hands next to the latter's functional plane.

In January 1917, Udet was commissioned as Leutnant der Reserve (lieutenant of reserves). That same month, Jasta 15 re-equipped with Albatros D.IIIs, new fighters with twin synchronized Spandau machine guns.

It was during his service with Jasta 15 that Udet wrote he had encountered Georges Guynemer, the French ace, in single combat at 5,000 m (16,000 ft). Guynemer preferred to hunt alone; by this time, he was the leading French ace, and one of the war's leading aces, with more than 30 victories.

Udet saw him coming and the two circled each other looking for an opening. They were close enough for Udet to read the "Vieux" of "Vieux Charles" on Guynemer's Spad S.VII. The two opponents tried every tricky aerobatic they knew; the Frenchman ripped a burst of fire through the upper wing of Udet's plane. Udet evaded him and maneuvered for advantage. For an instant, Udet had him in his sights, but his guns jammed. While pretending to dogfight, he worked to unjam them. Guynemer saw his opponent's predicament, waved, 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." Some experts say that Guynemer spared Udet because he wanted a fair fight. He was also likely impressed with Udet's skills in their battle and hoped that they would fight again someday.

Eventually, all the pilots of Jasta 15 were killed except Udet and his commander, Gontermann. Gontermann became somewhat gloomy, and remarked 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. Gontermann fell three months later, by accident, when the wing of his new Fokker Dr1 Triplane came off. He lingered for 24 hours without awakening, and Udet later remarked, "It was a good death."

On 19 June, Udet transferred to Prussian Jasta 37.

By late November, Udet was a triple ace and Jastaführer. He modeled 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. His commander in Jasta 37—Kurt Grasshoff, witnessing one of these attacks—selected him for command over more senior men when Grasshoff was transferred. Udet's ascension to command on 7 November 1917, was followed six days later by award of the Royal House Order of Hohenzollern.

Despite his seemingly frivolous nature, drinking late into the night and womanizing, he proved an excellent squadron commander. He spent many hours coaching neophyte fighter pilots, with an emphasis on marksmanship as being essential for success.

In 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 the famed Red Baron Manfred von Richthofen. Richthofen drove up one day as Udet 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?"

Of course, Udet would. After watching him down an artillery spotter by frontal attack, Richthofen gave Udet command of Jasta 11,[1] von Richthofen's own former squadron command. The group commanded by Richthofen also contained Jastas 4, 6 and 10. Udet's enthusiasm for Richthofen was unbounded. Richthofen demanded total loyalty and total dedication from his pilots, cashiering immediately anyone who did not give it. At the same time, he treated them with every consideration. 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, they invited a captured English flyer for dinner, treating him as a guest. When he excused himself for the 'W.C.', the Germans fell over themselves trying to hide from him that they were watching to see if he would try to escape. On his return the Englishman said, "I would never forgive myself for disappointing such hosts." However, the English flyer did escape later from another unit.

Udet considered Richthofen as scientific in battle and cold in his combats, describing his blue eyes and the sun shining off his blonde hair. Richthofen liked to strafe enemy columns in squadron formation, both guns firing, killing large numbers. He was the first to implement the concept of the forward base. While the enemy could mount three missions a day, Richthofen could mount five. In dogfights the head-on attack found favor.

Richthofen fell in April 1918, and Udet was not at the front. He had been sent on leave due to a painful ear infection, which he avoided having treated as long as he could. While at home, he 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. He 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."

Of Richthofen, Udet said, "He was the least complicated man I ever knew. Entirely Prussian and the greatest of soldiers." Udet returned to JG 1 against the doctor's advice and remained there to the end of the war, commanding Jasta 4. He scored 20 victories in August alone, mainly against the British. Udet would become a national hero with 62 confirmed kills to his credit. But he did not enjoy Richthofen's successor, Hermann Göring, and, later, privately, he would question Göring's own achievements during the war.

Udet was one of the early fliers to be saved by parachuting from a disabled aircraft. On 29 June 1918, 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 28 September 1918, Udet was wounded in the thigh. He was still recovering from this wound on Armistice Day, November 11, 1918, when the war ended.

Udet the Pilot

Udet could display quite extraordinary control over his aircraft, one of the characteristics required of an excellent fighter pilot. This is perfectly demonstrated in this rare footage of Udet performing a precision dead-stick landing at an airshow in Chicago.


Building the Luftwaffe

Though not interested in politics, Udet joined the Nazi party in 1933 when Göring promised to buy him two new U.S.-built Curtiss Hawk II biplanes (export designation of the F11C-2 Goshawk Helldiver). 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 (pictured).

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.

Udet became a major proponent of the dive bomber, taking credit for having introduced it to the Luftwaffe (although the Ju 87 had been awarded top marks and was about to be accepted). By 1936 he had (due to his political connections) been placed in command of the T-Amt (the development wing of the Reichsluftfahrtministerium) (Reich Air Ministry). He had no real interest in this job, especially the bureaucracy of it, and the pressure led to his addiction to alcohol (brandy and cognac).

In January 1939 Udet visited Italian North Africa (Africa Settentrionale Italiana, or ASI). He accompanied Maresciallo dell'Aria (Marshal of the Air Force) Italo Balbo on a flight. In early 1939 there were distinct signs of German military and diplomatic co-operation with the Italians. In February 1939 Udet became Generalluftzeugmeister (Luftwaffe Director-General of Equipment).

When World War II began, his internal conflicts grew more intense. Aircraft production requirements were much more than the German industry could supply (given limited access to raw materials such as aluminium). Göring responded to this problem by simply lying about it, which further upset Udet. After the Luftwaffe's defeat in the Battle of Britain, Göring tried to deflect Hitler's ire by blaming Udet. Hitler's attack on the Soviet Union drove Udet further into despair.

In April and May 1941 Udet 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, and, torn between truth and loyalty, suffered a psychological breakdown and even tried to tell all the truth to Hitler, but Göring had Udet under control by giving him drugs at drinking parties and hunting trips. Udet's drinking and psychological condition became a problem, but Göring used Udet's dependency to manipulate him.

Operation Barbarossa, when Germany attacked the Soviet Union to begin war on a second front, may have been the final straw for Udet. On 17 November 1941, he committed suicide by shooting himself in the head.  

Ernst Udet's suicide was concealed from the public, and at his funeral he was spoken of as a hero who died while testing a new weapon. Quite apart from the effects on Udet himself, his suicide was the indirect cause of another loss, for on his way to Udet's funeral, the World War II fighter ace Werner Mölders died in a plane crash in Breslau. 

Ernst Udet was buried in the Invalidenfriedhof Cemetery in Berlin (shown left). Mölders was buried next to Ernst Udet and Manfred von Richthofen.

This is part of an ongoing research project. Sources include Wikipedia, the Kracker Archive (on this site), documentary makers, Kate Tame, Kelvin Youngs, Bundesarchiv official sources and Stefan Pietrzak Youngs

Acknowledgements: Sources used by us in compiling Archive Reports include: Bill Chorley - 'Bomber Command Losses Vols. 1-9, plus ongoing revisions', Dr. Theo E.W. Boiten and Mr. Roderick J. Mackenzie - 'Nightfighter War Diaries Vols. 1 and 2', Martin Middlebrook and Chris Everitt - 'Bomber Command War Diaries', Commonwealth War Graves Commission, Tom Kracker - Kracker Luftwaffe Archives, Michel Beckers, Major Fred Paradie (RCAF) and MWO François Dutil (RCAF) - Paradie Archive (on this site), Jean Schadskaje, Major Jack O'Connor USAF (Retd.), Robert Gretzyngier, Wojtek Matusiak, Waldemar Wójcik and Józef Zieliński - 'Ku Czci Połeglyçh Lotnikow 1939-1945', Archiwum - Polish Air Force Archive (on this site), Anna Krzystek, Tadeusz Krzystek - 'Polskie Siły Powietrzne w Wielkiej Brytanii', Franek Grabowski, Norman L.R. Franks 'Fighter Command Losses', Stan D. Bishop, John A. Hey MBE, Gerrie Franken and Maco Cillessen - Losses of the US 8th and 9th Air Forces, Vols 1-6, Dr. Theo E.W. Boiton - Nachtjagd Combat Archives, Vols 1-13. Aircrew Remembered Databases and our own archives. We are grateful for the support and encouragement of CWGC, UK Imperial War Museum, Australian War Memorial, Australian National Archives, New Zealand National Archives, UK National Archives and Fold3 and countless dedicated friends and researchers across the world.
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