At noon the order comes: Entire squadron disembark! Already by evening we wait ready to march at the railway station in Mülhausen. The platform is crowded with people. In the weak light of the lamps, dimmed to prevent view from the air, they seem ghostly pale. We've been posted before the gates of Mülhausen for two years. We spent every free minute there. We belong there, as if we were sons born to this city.
I'm with Esser in this compartment. His bride came over from Freiburg to say goodbye. She's a pretty girl with a proud, self-contained expression. She doesn't cry. They converse at the traincar window. "Keep an eye on your gloves and your laundry," she says. The corners of her mouth flutter at this. One can tell she wanted to say something else.
The train rolls away into the night. The destination is unknown. We merely suspect that the quiet life is over and we will be inserted into some hot spot of combat. This fills us with eager excitement mixed with a gentle amount of concern. Will we be involved in the great air battles?
Three days and three nights we're pushed back and forth behind the front, like on a dreadful freight rail. Munitions cars roll on past us along with hospital cars filled with hidden miseries behind white painted screens.
On the evening of the third day we're unloaded. We look around us and inspect ourselves. "Lause-Champagne!" grumbles our conductor.
A misty, cold rain falls and covers the wide plateau in gray desolation. A pair of scant poplar trees lining the country road freeze in the March wind.
We are housed in a small village called La Selve. Esser and I stay together. Our room is of dreadful sparseness. But Esser has a solution. Together with his orderly he brings over red silk curtains from an abandonned estate. They will be mounted on the walls. A raw silk nightgown becomes a lampshade. Thus our room has a somewhat chic cosiness.
Opposite us reside the elite of the French flight service. Nungesser should be among them, and Guynemer, the "ace of aces", the enemy's Richthofen. They fly one-seater Spads with the 180 horsepower Hispano-Suiza engines. They're fast, responsive machines superior to our Haifisch and Albatross especially in steep diving maneuvers. If we attempt this the wings start to shake and we fear they'll come off in midair. On the other hand the Spad is more stable and effortlessly withstands the stress. The earth defenses are also built differently than those below the Vosges. I noticed that the first time I flew up to the front. The flak shattered my front tie rod and I had a hard time getting the plane home.
Almost all air battles produce no results and our mood becomes more depressed day by day. In the evening Esser and I sit in
our room. His resourceful orderly acquired an old grammophone and we place a wad of fabric in the neck to muffle the sound. It now sounds melancholy like a song from a farmgirl on a Sunday afternoon in the back room of a townhouse.
Esser sits there and writes to his bride. He writes every day and makes plans for the future.
On April 16th our squadron had its first victory. Glinkermann brought down a Caudron, Esser a Nieuport. The others observed how Esser pursued an enemy plane and disappeared into the west. We heard nothing more from him the rest of the day and I stayed alone that night in the room with the red silk curtains.
On the next afternoon we receive a phonecall from the foremost trenches.
Our unit leader drives over there. He returns in the evening. In the center of the wagon bed is a sack, so small it's like a dead child lies in it. It's all that's left of Esser.
The unit leader writes to his parents. I shall write to his bride in Freiburg. It's a difficult letter, the most difficult I've ever written — however I often must write such letters.
The morning after Esser's transport Puz comes to me. His round, snub-nosed child's face is full of sympathy.
"You know, shortie," he says to me, "it must be terrible to be so alone in that room with that empty bed. If you'd like, I'll move in with you."
We shake hands and in the evening the orderly
takes the small white visitation card from the door, "Lieutenant Hänisch" now stands there where previously "Lieutenant Esser" stood.
On April 24th I saw my first victory on the front. Above Chavignon I encountered a Nieuport, shot at him until he caught fire after a brief spiraling battle and saw his mangled debris in Trichterfeld. It was my fifth acknowledged air victory. After the first fight over Mülhausen I brought down three more above Habsheim.
Two days later, April 26th, is my birthday. I invited all my comrades to the red salon. With Behrends help three marble cakes have been baked. There's cocoa and a large table with a white table cloth like at a children's party.
We sit around chatting and wait for our squadron leader, First Lieutenant Reinhold. Around two o'clock he went up on a patrol flight along with two others. Around three the two pilots return. During an air battle they lost sight of Reinhold. He pursued an opponent into the clouds.
The pair is embarassed. Of course, their account could be true but the shadow of doubt remains. An air formation remains together like hand to arm or head to body. Each is responsible for the life of the man in front of him as if that life were his own. That's done so the leader at the head of the group has his back covered so he only has to think of the attack. Around three thirty I say, "Okay, children, go on. We've waited long enough! If he arrives later, he'll just have to eat leftovers."
They grab some cake and dig in. However, even though they're hungry and the cake tastes good, they leave two pieces untouched.
Reinhold is among us. No one speaks of him, but our thoughts always go back to him. One notices that conversations begin and then trail off without sense or reason.
Around five o'clock the field telephone squawks. Glinkermann, who sits next to it, takes the receiver and gives me a look. But the others see this and there's dead stillness in the room.
On the other end of the wire a bored voice. "Do you have a missing pilot?"
"Yes, we do," I say hastily.
On the other end a long silence. Then a whispering of dialog... I catch a word here and there..."What did he look like, you ox?" The borded voice comesback. "Did the pilot not wert a flyer's hat on his head?"
I remember, Reinhold always wore a simple soldier's cap with the earflaps folded over.
"That's right!" I scream. "Is First Lieutenant Reinhold there?"
We haven't found any paperwork," then softly, "What was the regiment number, Otto?" Then louder to me, "One hundred and thirty five stands on the epaulettes."
Where are you. We'll come right away!"
"Near Lierval. You can still see the plane from far away."
I hang up and look at the others. All are pale and serious. "Gone!" I say. We run to the car and race over the bullet-riddled road to Lierval.
Reinhold's plane lies in the middle of an open field. It's practically undamaged. It looks as though it could start back up any second.
We run over green seedlings to the airplane. The infantrymen report: Reinhold sat at the control stick, his right hand on the machine gun button. His face was frozen with an expression of last battle tenseness, the left eye closed, the right eye wide open as if he was aiming at his invisible opponent.
Thus Death surprised him. A bullet bored through the back of his head and came back out between his eyebrows. Entry and exit holes are quite small.
We lifted the dead man up and took him with us. "May I die the same way!" Glinkermann said to me.
A few days later a new squadron leader joined us, Lieutenant Gontermann. A huge reputation preceded him. He had shot down twelve planes and six chained balloons. He is considered the premier specialist for "chained pigs," which we have in the Army.
His tactics were new to us and completely surprising. Before he gets ready to shoot, he forces the enemy to descend. When he's ready to shoot it takes a dozen bullets at most to blast the opponent from the sky.
Caption below photograph reads: Fighter Squadron 15: Reinhold, Hänish (Puz), Esser.
Caption below photograph reads: With a French crash helmut. It wasn't comfortable, or practical...but I plundered it myself!
Thus he is always with twenty meters and he flies in the enemy's propeller wind.
He exudes a feeling of great calm. His broad and flat farmer's face never shows the slightest agitation. There's only one thing about him that amazes me. Upon landing each bullet hole he notices in his plane angers him. In them he sees proof of his faults as an aviator. According to his system during a properly executed air battle the opponent should never get to fire a shot at him. In this respect he's completely different from Richthofen. The Red Baron acknowledges the mechanics' reports concerning enemy bullets in his crate with a smile and a shrug of the shoulders.
Almost simultaneously to Gontermann's arrival the squadron from La Selve moved back to Boncourt. There is an old French estate in the middle of a park with a large and open space.
The owner, an elder country nobleman, still lives there with his wife and two daughters. They have moved to the back rooms and left us the plush chambers. Perhaps they hate us. But they conduct themselves in a thoroughly proper manner. If we meet one of them in the hallway or in the park they greet us with icy courtesy.
On one day it was different. At lunchtime Gontermann told us he had met the lord of the manor in the hallway. The old man cried. Every day his daughter had to go into the village to work in the fields. The district commandant, a private, torments and harasses her whenever he can. The father was going to follow the youth, a skinny
fifteen year old. Gontermann promised to investigate.
His face was red with scorn as he related this.
In the afternon the private trotted in, high in the saddle on a fat farmer's mare. We had ordered a coffee table set up under the trees in the park. The windows of Gontermann's room were open so we could hear every word,
An accusation has been made against you," Gontermann begins the conversation. He speaks very calmly, just a little louder than normal. "You have the women work too long and too hard."
"That is my right, Lieutenant!" The private's tone is thoroughly overconfident.
"When the women are rude and rebellious they must be punished."
Gontermann's voice gets louder. "You've behaved rudely towards many women."
A long pause, then Gontermann continues, "For example, towards the little countess of this manor."
"I am guilty of no offense, Lieutenant. I am the district commandant here..."
In the next moment we both winced because Gontermann screams so loudly.
"What are you?" A dirty pig! A bully! A bugger one should immediately put in front of the wall. We're fighting with honest weapons against an honorable enemy. Should a lump like you spread filth over our good deeds!"
It was like a middle ages execution. For five minutes Gontermann raged on continually against the man. He browbeat with words but the punishment was no more gentle.
"I'm going to have you placed before the military court!" he screams at the end and then says, "Get out!"
The private runs past us. His face is pale and covered with sweat. In the excitement he forgot to salute and he also left his horse.
Then Gontermann comes down. Once again he's completely calm. We begin our evening patrol flight. Gontermann shoots down a Nieuport. I get a Spad. It's my sixth victory.
The next afternoon Behrend, who lives with the other mechanics beyond the village, tells me that the district commandant was taken away in the morning by military police. Gontermann's influence is great, much greater than his military rank. They know in the upper ranks what a man they have in him. In the fourteen days he's been in our fighter squadron he's shot down eight opponents.
Then the Pour le mérite comes for him and four weeks leave. The evening before he leaves he turns the leadership of the squadron over to me until his return.
We fly each day that the weather allows. Mostly three times a day — morning, afternoon and evening. These are mostly patrol flights which rarely turn into air battles. The Frenchman works carefully in the air but tactically he's quite skillful. We all have the feeling that our enemy is superior to us.
Not just because of the quality of their machines. Twenty months experience on a large battle front and hardened by hundreds of air battles creates an advantage which isn't easily overcome.
On May 25th we fly patrol, as always in wedge formation. I lead. Behind me fly the Wendel brothers, then Puz and Glinkermann.
We fly at an altitude of about two thousand meters. The sky is clear, as though swept clean. Above there's a pair of thin, white, feathery clouds. The sun shines down upon us. It's after noon. High and wide no enemy is in sight.
From time to time I turn around and nod to the others. They fly behind me, the Wendel brothers, Puz and Glinkermann — Everything is in order!
I don't know if there's such a thing as a sixth sense. However suddenly I'm overcome by the feeling that we're in danger. I make a half turn, and in that moment I see:
Almost next to me, scarcely 20 meters away, Puz's plane is smoking and in flames. But Puz, Puz sits frozen, rigid amid the flames, his head turned towards me. Now he slowly raises his right arm to his crash helmet. It might be the last spasm but it looks as though he's greeting me for the last time.
"Puz," I cry. "Puz!"
His plane breaks apart. The fuselage dives like a glowing meteor into the depths with the detached wings trailing behind.
I'm stunned as though hit with a billyclub. I stare out over the fuselage at the wreckage.
A plane comes into my field of vision, in hot pursuit from the west, five hundred meters beneath me. The cockades blink like treacherous eyes. In that moment I feel it. That can only be Guynemer.
I dive down. I must have him! But the main wings of the Albatross will not sustain diving flight. They begin to waver, thrashing ever more violently. I fear that the plane will fall apart in midair.
I give up the pursuit and return home. The others have already landed.
They stand in a group at the airfield and speak softly and sadly. Glinkermann keeps himself apart from the rest. He stands there deep in thought, scratching figures in the sand with the tip of his stick. His dog is next to him rubbing his muzzle against Glinkermann's knee. But he doesn't notice the dog because he's so engulfed in his musings.
As I get closer he lifts his head and looks at me. "You mustn't be angry with me, Shortie," he says. "I couldn't prevent it. He swooped down on us from out of the sunlight and when I noticed what was wrong it was too late."
His face looks tortured. I know him and I know that he would torment himself all week long because he flew behind Puz and he couldn't prevent it.
I also know what a good comrad Little Glinker is. Whenever I fly with him I feel unreservedly secure. He'd let himself be shot to smithereens rather than takes his eyes off my back for even a moment.
"Let it go, Glinkerle," I say and lay my hand on his shoulder. "No one could do anything about it. Otherwise we'd all share the same guilt."
Then I go to my room and first write the report "for the upper eschelon", then the letter to Hänisch's parents.
Death flies faster...
An orderly comes, wakes me up out of a midday nap. Call from Mortiers: Aircraft from our squadron crashed. The pilot, staff sergeant Müller, dead.
I drive over. A couple of old infantrymen, gray and weathered like the dirt of Champagne, greet me. They have him on a stretcher in the barn and take me to him. His face is still and peaceful. He had an easy death. I let them tell me the course of events and drive back to Boncourt.
It's very quiet at the airfield. In the afternoon all have flown out. Near evening they return home in twos and threes.
Glinkermann is not with them.
The two pilots who flew with him lost sight of him.
He disappeared in the clouds to the west.
The old song, the bitter song...
At the airfield a walking stick stands bored into the billowy grass. Glinkermann's talisman. When he goes off he leaves it there. When he lands to takes it back with him. His large, wolf-gray sheepdog stretches uncomfortably around the stick. As I go over to the airfield, he trots after me. He never does that. He only hangs on Glinkermann and snaps at anyone else who comes near him. He shoves his wet, cold snout lovingly into my hand.
It's very had to maintain composure. But Gontermann handed over the squadron to me and no one shall see me when I'm weak.
I telephone the staff office to have them contact all available flight services on whether any German pilot has landed.
"To all of them?" the clerk asks.
"To all, of course to all of them!" I scream at the man.
"If you find any trace of him report to me immediately! I will be in my room." I regain control and say it as calmly and coldly as possible.
The night passes slowly. I sit at the open window and look out at the pervasive darkness. The small, glittering slice of the moon hangs slightly higher over the trees in the park. The crickets chirp unbearably shrill and loud. It's humid. There will be rain tonight.
Glinkermann's dog is with me in the room. Restlessly he paces to the door then back again. Sometimes he howls softly.
Glinkermann, Little Glinker! Eight days ago he shot down a Spad that was running down my neck and a day later I
pushed off an opponent who was chasing him. He must come back. He can't leave me alone!
Around ten the orderly bursts into the room. "Lieutenant hurry. On the telephone, an infantry sentry in Orguevalles!"
A deep, dark voice. Yes, a German plane came down near you. The pilot had black hair parted in the middle. No other identifying marks. Everything burned up.
The dog howls so loudly that I must remove him from the room. I light my desk lamp and have the orderly bring Glinkermann's effects to me. A worn wallet with some money in it. A picture of a girl and the beginnings of a letter. "My beloves!" he begins. It will never be finished.
The night remains completely black against the window. Near morning it starts to rain. The wind roughly blows in wet leaves from the park trees.
The next morning a hay wagon pulls into the courtyard. A wooden fuselage lies within. The crate is unloaded and brought to Little Glinker's tent. We put his old soldier's cap and oak walking stick on top of it and cover the bare wood in flowers and greenery.
Two days later Glinkermann is transported. On the morning of his last day his promotion to lieutenant came from staff headquarters. It would have been his greatest joy if he had lived to see it!
I send the promotion papers to his parents via someone on leave from Mülhausen. He also takes the dog. The animal sticks his paws into the ground and he has to be pushed forcibly from Glinkermann's tent.
Caption under photograph reads: Glinkermann shortly before his last flight
Caption under photograph reads: Gontermann, specialist in shooting down chained balloons
Caption under photograph reads: Gontermann's End
Caption under photograph reads: This is what a fighter pilot looks like when 15 minutes ago he encountered something bad.
Even as the wagon rattles away the dog protests like a human.
On June 4th Staff Sergeant Eichenhauer falls. On this day I write to Grashoff, an old comrade from the Habsheimer days: "I want to go to another front. I want to go to yours!" I am the last man of Fighter Squadron 15, the last of those who moved from Mülhausen to Champagne.
Fighter Squadron 15, which came from the old battle command at Habsheim, now has only 4 planes, three staff sergeants and me as leader. We almost always fly alone. It's the only way were can patrol our assigned territories.
A lot happens at the front. That means they're preparing for an offensive. The chained balloons hang each day in long rows in the summer sky like garlands of thick-bellied clouds. It would be good if at least one of them would burst and maintain the others in warning.
Early in the morning I take off with the sun at my back and I swoop past the shadows of the balloons. I fly higher than I've scarcely ever flown before. The altimeter reads five thousand meters. The air is thin and ice cold.
The world beneath me is like a strnage aquarium. Over Lierval, where Reinhold crashed, a foreign tail structure flaps. Like a tiny water flea it swoops through the air.
The dot approaches quickly from the west. At first small and dark, it enlarges rapidly as it gets closer. A Spad, an enemy fighter plane. A solo flyer like me, who comes out here on the chase. I sit up straight in my seat. There's going to be a battle.
At the same altitude we sweep towards each other then veer sharply away
We bank into left turns. The other plane glistens bright brown in the sun. We begin to circle each other. From below it might look like two large birds of prey turning in an amorous game however here above its a game with death. Whoever has his enemy behind him first is lost. One seater planes with their machine guns firmly mounted can only shoot forward. They're defenseless from behind.
Sometimes we roll so closely together that I can really detect a small, pale face beneath a leather cap. On the fuselage between the wings there's a word in black letters. As he strafes by me for the fifth time, so close that the wake of his propeller shoves me back and forth, I recognize it: "Vieux" it states there — vieux — The old one. That is Guynemer's designation.
Yes, only one of that name flies over this front. Guynemer, who shot down thirty Germans; Guynemer, who always hunts alone like a dangerous bird of prey, who dives down out of the sun onto the opponent. For only a few seconds he shoots at the enemy and then disappears. That's how he took Puz away from me. I know that this is a life and death battle.
I bank into a half loop in order to get above him. He immediately catches on and also goes into a loop. I attempt a turn, Guynemer follows me.
One time out of the turn he gets me in his sights for a second. Metallic hail pelts through the right wing and hits the struts with a clinging sound.
I attempt tighter curves, turning sideways. However quick as lightning he comprehends my movements and reacts to each. Gradually I notice he is better than me, and it's not just his machine. It's the man who sits in it as well. He can do more than me. However I fight on.
Again a turn. For one moment he's in my sights. I press the button on the control stick. The machine gun remains quiet...Jammed!
I cling to the control stick with my left hand. With the right I attempt to unjam. To no avail — it remains jammed.
I think for a moment about going into a dive. That would be useless with such an opponent. He would immediately go for my neck and shoot me to pieces.
We turn around each other some more. Wonderful flying if the risks weren't so high. I have never encountered such a tactically proficient opponent. For a few seconds I completely forget that it's Guynemer over there. I occurs to me that it's like practicing with my old comrades over our air field. But that's only for a second.
We turn around each other for eight minutes, the longest eight minutes of my life.
Then he swoops over on his back directly above me. For a moment I let go of the control stick and pound both my fists on the machine gun. A primitive way to convey a message but sometimes it helps.
Guynemer sees this movement from above; he must have seen it and now he knows what's wrong with me. He knows that I am his defenseless prey.
Once again he swoops over on his back closely above me. Then it happens:
He stetches out his hand and gestures to me, gestures quite gently and dives down into spiral flight towards the west in the direction of his front.
I fly home as through stupefied.
There are people who say Guynemer himself must have had a gun jam. There are others who maintain that he feared I would ram him in the air out of desperation. I believe that even today there still exists a bit of the knightly heroism from the olden times. And thus I lay this belated wreath on Guynemer's unknown grave.
On June 19th Gontermann returned from leave. His lips got smaller as I reported the fate of the squadron these past weeks. "Then we are the only two left, Udet," he says.
I have written to Grashoff but at that time I don't tell him what it was about. I delay that conversation until the evening.
Already by the afternoon Gontermann takes his first flight to the front. He shot down an enemy plane and had twelve hits to his own plane. I am on the air field as he lands and I go with him over to the castle.
For the first time I see him immediately after a battle. His face is very pale and covered in sweat. The trance-like quiet,which always exudes from him, has disappeared. I see a man before me whose nerves have reached their limits. He's no smaller in my eyes because of it, he just seems closer to me. I'm amazed by the self-discipline by which he keeps himself in control.
While we're going about together he softly rants to himself. The enemy holes in his plane set him off.
I reassure him. "Anyone who shoots must count on also being shot at," I state.
We go over the crunchy gravel of the park to the house. A table painted white sits there. He remains standing, raises a leaf off the ground and a handful of gravel. He lays the leaf on the table and slowly releases the tiny stone pebbles from above. From each hit issues a clear clanging sound, almost like bullet impact noises as each pebble hits the tin table.
"You see, Udet," he says. "So it is: the bullets fall from God's hand." He points to the leaf. "They get closer, ever closer. They hit us once and then they hit us soundly."
With a quick movement of the hand he pushes the game pieces off the table.
I look at him from the side. Inside he's deeply upset. I feel somewhat uneasy in his presence and my desire to leave becomes ever more vital. The atmosphere in Boncourt weighs me down, makes me heavy with sad memories.
"I want to report to Fighter Squadron 37," I say.
Gontermann turns around. "You want to leave me?" His tone is accusatory. However he immediately regains control, his face stiffens and he hastily declares: "Naturally I will not place any hinderances in your way, Lieutenant Udet."
I know full well what he's thinking. "There are old comrades over there in Habsheim," I say softly. "The last members of the one-seater battle command. Naturally I'll fly over my replacement first."
Gontermann was silent for a while. Then he extended his hand. "It's too bad that you won't stay with me, Udet, but I think I understand!"
Three months later Gontermann died. Like many of our best, it was not his fault that he died. His three-decker lost a wing directly over the air field and crashed. After twenty-four hours he died without regaining consciousness. It was a good death.
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Imaging and translation by Susan Kriegbaum-Hanks