The Single Seater Fight Command Unit in Habsheim consists of four pilots. The leader is Lieutenant Pfälzer. Besides me Vice Field Sergeant Weingärtner and Corporal Glinkermann are the pilots. We are all young men and we live like princes in the vacant villa of a rich American, who fled at the beginning of the war.
There's a nice atmosphere of comradery in the command unit. Quickly I become good friends with Weingärtner. That's one of Weingärtner's personality traits. By the third day of acquaintanceship each of us is a good friend of his.
Glinkermann is more quiet and reserved. In the evenings he often sits with the mechanics, smokes his pipe, and stares onto the fog which rises in white balls from the meadows. I believe he is quite poor and it weighs heavily on him. Much, much later when someone brought me his briefcase I saw a picture of a girl who popped up in a cavalcade of smiling people on horses. He never spoke about it.
Many tease him about when he came here wearing his old fashioned puttees out of which one saw a part of his white underwear. However he's a good pilot, one of the best I've ever known.
Service is soft and cushy. Once or twice a day we rise up and fly rounds for an hour. However we seldom come face to face with an enemy. The December sky is cold and
Caption under photograph reads: The steering mechanism blocked by the Bowden control cable, the cause of the mishap with the Fokker.
Caption under photograph reads: The Single Seater Fight Command Unit in Habsheim. From left to right Pfälzer, Weingärtner, Udet, Glinkermann
Caption under photograph reads: The "Scheibe", the Nieuport modell for my final practice sessions in the air
Caption at bottom of page 33 for this photograph reads: Albatross D III. Mechanics Behrend and Gunkelmann
clear. The earth tingles with frost and when one is well insulated and properly butters his face flying is a pleasure like taking a sleigh ride on the clouds.
To the north in Flanders and Champagne where there's daily fighting and pilots fall this way and that men speak of the sleeping army in the Vosges. They speak with a bit of scorn and a little envy.
Early one morning I was put on alert. That was quite unusual. The B.A.K. (Ballonabwehrkanone = Defense system against air attacks) reported that a Caudron had passed our line and was one its way to our airfield.
I crawled into my crate and started the engine. Low ceiling with deep cloud cover, scarcely four hundred meters off the ground. I climbed into the gray mist and circled higher and higher.
At two thousand meters a deep steel blue sky appeared over me with pale rays of December sunshine shining up from below.
I looked around. Down in the west above the cloud cover a form like a sailing ship appears on the horizon. It's the Caudron. I set a course for him and he flies towards me. We quickly close in on each other. I can recognize the broad wingspan, the two motors and the gondela suspended between the wings, small like the body of a bird of prey. We are at the same altitude flying towards each other.
This is against all the rules of the game. The Caudron is an observation plane and I am a fighter pilot. A press of the button on the flight stick and my tightly mounted machine gun would fire off a series of shots which would rip him from the air.
He must know that as well as I do, but he continues flying right at me.
Now he's so close that I can see the observer's head. With his four-cornered goggles he looks like a giant, angry insect who's coming after me just to kill me.
The moment has come when I must shoot. But I can't shoot. It's as if the horror has turned the blood in my veins to ice, numbing my arms and and all thought ripped out like a cat clawing at my brain. I sit there, I fly on, I stare over to the left at the Caudron as if I'm tied up. Above me the machine gun belches. Metallic clacking against my Fokker, a shiver runs through the entire plane, a massive hit to the rear, my goggles ripped off of me. Splinters, glass shatters from the goggles and my hand becomes wet from the blood.
I press the control stick, set the nose down and dive into the clouds. My head is numb. How did that happen? Was it possible?
"That was lousy, you were a coward!" the motor hammers. And then my only thought, "Thank God no one saw that!"
The fluid green of the pine treetops, the airfield.
I land. The mechanics come running. I don't wait for their help. Alone I climb out of the plane and go past them to the infirmary.
The medic removes the glass splinters from the goggles with a pair of tweezers. They've bored themselves into the flesh around my eyes. It should hurt but I don't feel anything.
Then I go up to my room. I throw myself onto my bed. I want to sleep but the memories keep returning and give me no peace.
Is a man a coward if he falls apart at the first jolt of shock? I want to comfort myself. I say it was nerves — it could happen to anyone. The next time I'll do better!
But my conscience is not satisfied with such a simple explanation. It sets the harsh facts before me: You fell apart because you thought about yourself at the moment of battle and you feared for your life. In that instant I understood what it was to be a soldier.
Being a soldier means thinking about the enemy and thereby forgetting yourself! It's possible that the boundry between being a man and being a coward is as slim as the edge of a sword. However whosoever wants to remain a man among men must have the strength in the moment of decision to suppress his animalistic fear. The animal in us wishes to survive at any cost. Whoever gives in to it is lost before the society of mankind, where honor, duty and belief in the fatherland are esteemed.
I go to the window and look down. Below, in front of the house, Weingärtner goes back and forth with Glinkermann. Perhaps they have never felt this as much as I do right now. And I promise myself, from this hour on I will be nothing other than a soldier. I will shoot better and fly better than my comrades until I am able to redeem myself from this stigma.
Along with Behrend, who followed me to Habsheim,
I go to work. We affix a target with a silhouette of a Nieuport, seen from behind as one would see him during an attack.
In the evening when the flight operation is finished I position the target right on the field. From an altitude of three hundred meters I descend at a steep incline. At one hundred meters I open fire. Shortly before reaching the earth I intercept the target, climb back up and start the game anew. Behrend must count the hits and signal me. Shots to the engine are double the points and ten hits earn him a glass of beer. Guns jam often, all too often. Behrend and I work to eliminate the problem sometimes late into the night.
Results improve. In fact they improve surprisingly fast. I'm very happy until I discover that Behrend helps out with a pencil. He says it's out of comradery for me but I believe it's for his love of beer.
An order comes down stating ammunition must be used sparingly. I have to curtail my flight exercises. To make up for it we now attack French trenches from the air.
One evening I was delayed in attacking the trenches. It was in the north close to Thann and the machine gun nests, secreted in fields of pines, made for an attractive target.
It was night when I returned to the airfield. They had lit pitch torches to guide me in. Their red light flickered over the field with diffused and unsteady light.
I start to land. The ground is difficult to see. I hit, only a light hit to the undercarriage but
it will keep my plane out of battle for at least a day.
I order Behrend and the other mechanics to come to the airfield around 4:30 the next morning. Behrend pulls a face. The next day is Sunday and when he has to work Sundays he always became pious.
The morning light lays lead-gray over the airfield as we begin our work. The forest looks like a black, tight mass of darkness surrounding us in threat. The bare wooden walls of the flight hangar palely shimmer. A strange atmosphere, one gets the feeling that something unusual is in the air. I don't know if it portends good luck or disaster.
Around six the church bells begin to ring in the outlying villages. From above the treetops the bells swing and call to us. We work quietly. The sun rises. It is warm in the hangar and we sweat in our dull blue mechanic jackets. Midday at noon we are finished. Behrend and his comrades leave quickly. They still can make the train to Mülhausen.
Now it's quite still. All are on leave in the city.
I drive to our quarters and eat lunch. I am alone at the table. I take my coffee into the garden. There I sit in a lawn chair, smoke and stare at the sky.
Around three thirty the telephone operator comes running. A report from the flight observer in the farthest trench: two French airplanes have crossed the line and are closing in quickly on Altkirch.
I jump into the car and rush over to the airfield. It's not a rational thought but I sense with undeniable certainty: Battle is here!
The plane is ready, mechanics stand about. The telephone operator was smart enough to notify everyone who has legs at the airfield. I climb into the cockpit and start the engine.
In the direction of the front I spiral high. I must try to reach an advantageous altitude for battle. At two thousand, eight hundred meters I fly west towards Altkirch.
Just as I am over Altkirch I see them. I count, one...two...three...four. I grab at my goggles. This isn't possible. It can't be! Those black dots must be oil drops from the engine. I quickly wipe over the glass with my gloves, but no, the dots remain, growing ever larger.
I count seven, seven in a row, and underneath a new wave, another five, another... They come closer. In crisp detail they rise before the silk-yellow carpet of the midday sky. There are twenty-two of them, Caudron model bombers and Farmans buzzing like an angry swarm of hornets behind each other, next to each other, just approaching but without particular formation. High above the others is the queen of the hive, a powerful Voisin! I pull on the stick. We approach each other with amazing quickness. They've most certainly noticed me but they act as though they haven't. They don't climb a centimeter. They hold course east by northeast towards Mülhausen.
I look around. The blue sky behind me is empty. No comrade has flown up from Habsheim. I am alone.
I reach them at Burnhaupt. I bank into a curve three hundred meters above them, swerve in their direction, course east by northeast towards Mülhausen.
I peer over the side. The squadron is below me. Twenty-three planes with a giant Farman in their midst. In between their wings I see parts of the ground, blue slate roofs, red chimneys. The moment is now!
My heart pounds in my throat. My hands, grasping the control stick, are damp. One against twenty-three!
My Fokker flies above the squadron from behind like a hunting dog chasing a wild boar. He pursues but does not attack. In that moment I know: If this second passes without fighting then it's out for good from the fighter squadron. There will only be the petition for resignation from Command.
We are over Dornbach near Mülhausen. In the coffee garden at the village guest house people sit, colorful flecks in the green-brown landscape. Round, white targets who turn their faces upward. They run about, gesticulating, pointing up.
Then I jump over the hurdle!
From this second on I only see one thing: the large Farman in the middle of the enemy squadron. I pull down, take off and speed down at full throttle. The others amass towards me, growing larger, like something hastily put under a microscope. The observer sits up. I see his round leather crash helmet. He raises the machine gun high, directing it at me.
I want to shoot at eighty meters, but I must go steady. Closer, getting closer. Fifty meters, forty meters, thirty...now check his flightpath...tack, tack, tack.
There, he deviated! A blue flame jettisons from the exhaust pipe. He cants. A white trail of smoke plumes forth—Hit, struck in the gas tank!
Clack, clack, clack. Incoming shots hit with a metallic clang near me in the front wall. I turn my head. There are two Caudrons behind me showering me with bullets. I'm totally at peace. This is like it was at the airfield: stick forward and nosedive. I descend another three hundred meters.
Like a giant torch hurdling out of the sky the tail of the Farman spins down past me. He trails a black cloud of smoke as flames flare out. A man with sprawled arms and legs like a frog keels over. It's the observer.
At that moment I don't have the feeling that these are human beings. I only feel one thing: Victory, triumph, victory! The iron ring around my chest has burst free and my blood courses through my body in free, powerful strokes.
The air above me is filled with the thunderous organ song of motors. In between there's the hasty belching of the machine guns. All available planes have taken flight fom Habsheim and have engaged the enemy. With the force of their attack the French squadron has scattered and individual battles have ensued. Anywhere one looks he see planes
Caption under photograph reads: The Napoleon Island in the Rhine-Rhone Canal in Mülhausen
Caption under photograph reads : A French grave marker constructed by the Germans after the air battle of March 18, 1916
Caption under photograph reads: The enemy makes inquires by dropping notes.
The folded section reads: Habsheim Airfield
The note reads: Could you send reports concerning pilot Maurice Riviers, who has not returned since February 25th, to the Airfield at Fontaine? Thanks
Caption under photograph reads: "The Quiet Observer." In order to fool the enemy a tin head is mounted on my Fokker.
which spin around each other in a frantic vortex of spiral battles.
A single Caudron, which rapidly moves to the west, has nobody following it. I pull up with full throttle behind it. The rushed feeling of the first battle us over. I see clearly and soberly that the annihilation of the enemy is a tactical assignment, nothing more.
At a distance of one hundred and fifty meters I open fire, then stop immediately. Far too far away. At eighty meters I fire off the second series of bullets. This time I can observe the effect. A shutter runs through the Caudron, the right engine exudes a small puff of smoke. The rotation of the propeller slows down, he stands.
The pilot looks around and notices me. In the next moment he spirals down.
I stay behind him. He can only fly with one engine so he can't escape me. I'm so close to him I can feel the wake of his propeller.
New burst of fire — the pilot flinches in front of me and collapses on the control stick.
There — Gun jam! Because of the spiral dive the bullets have loosened in the belt. I hammer with both fists on the machine gun, but it's no good. It remains jammed.
I'm unable to fight. I must leave the enemy and return home. At five twenty-five I land at the Habsheim airfield. I had taken off at four sixteen. In one hour all these events have played out.
Captain Mackenthun, commander of Habsheim, stands in the middle of the runway.
I go up to him. "Staff Sergeant Udet returning from flight with the enemy. Two-seater Farman shot down!"
He sets his glass down and looks at me. His face shows no movement as if made of stone. "Our large airplane was just brought down over the Isle of Napoleon," he says.
I know: Lieutenant Kurth was the pilot and Lieutenant Kurth was Mackenhun's best friend. I salute and go inside.
In the evening we were able to review the events of the day. The French air attack, the first large air attack in world history, was repelled. Five enemy aircraft were shot down inside our lines. Of the nine officers of our division, who went up at midday, only three returned in the evening. "You too will be finished off at the Isle of Napoleon!" becomes a banner phrase in the flight service if one wishes to take a foolish risk.
Of our ranks three people do not return: Kurth, Hopffgarten and Wallat, the crew of the AEG large aircraft from Division 48. They attacked a Farman, were rammed by the enemy while turning in battle, and crashed in a pile of debris along with them. Right over the Isle of Napoleon. It was March 18, 1916.
In our Habsheim villa light shined from our windows deep into the night. Death had been delivered that day, certainly, but this time were were not present. Pfälzer, Weingärtner, Glinkermann and I had each shot down an opponent.
We are young and we celebrate our victory.
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Imaging and translation by Susan Kriegbaum-Hanks