I've been leader of Fighter Squadron 37 for six weeks. We reside in Wynghene, a small town in the middle of the Flanders marshlands. Landing is difficult, the field full of creases and watery trenches. Any emergency landing leads to breakage. When one rises higher one can look over to Ostend and the sea. North up to the horizon it's an endless stretch of gray-green.
Many in the squadron have wondered why Grashoff turned over command to me when he was transferred to Macedonia. Many here are older in age and in years of service.
However back in the fall when I brought down three English planes over Lens he had promised the command to me. It was a surprising success in the style of Guynemer. I came out of the sun and down onto them, attacked the last one on the left, finished him off in five shots, then took on the next one and finally the flight leader. The two others were so flabbergasted that they didn't get to shoot.
The entire event took no longer than twenty seconds just like with Guynemer...As a fighter pilot in wartime one must learn his craft or prepare to die. There's no third option.
As I landed Grashoff already had official notification. "When I leave here, Shorty," he said, "you shall inherit the squadron."
And so I have become leader of Fighter Squadron 37.
Beyond us lie Englishmen, young, skilled fellows. They take part in each battle and usually stay on to the final outcome. However we are a match for them. The depressing feeling of being inferior, which crippled everyone in Boncourt, has disappeared. The squadron has an entire series of victories behind it. I myself am accredited with nineteen planes shot down.
The deeper we get into winter the more flight operations hibernate. There's lots of rain and snow and even on dry days there are so many thick clouds that flight service is suspended.
We sit around our quarters. I am lodged in a country house of a lace manufacturer. Sometimes when I sit at the window I see the home workers, hunched, sad figures trudging through the snow to deliver their wares.
The son of the house is over with the British pilots in the Royal Flying Corps. However the people don't berate me over it. "He has his duty, you have your duty!" This is their opinion, reasonable and clear.
In the spring of 1918 there is a disturbance at the German front from Flanders all the way to the Vosges. It's not just the spring. All over officers and troops are talking about the large offensive about to occur. But no one knows much. On March 15th the squadron receives the order to immediately mobilize troops and aircraft. Destination unknown. All we know is that the offensive will begin.
Caption under photograph reads: Leader of Fighter Squadron 37, Flanders 1917.
|Caption under photograph reads: Ready for Takeoff in Anticipation of the Tommies|
We pitch the airplane tents on the country road near Le Cateau. The rain falls, a fine drizzle which slowly transforms everything into a gray mush; trees, houses, people. I put on my leather jacket and help the mechanics fasten the tent pegs.
A car rattles down the road. Many cars pass by here but they can't see in anymore. We continue to work silently and doggedly.
Someone taps me on the shoulder. I turn around. It's Richthofen.
Rain runs down his peaked cap and all over his face.
"Good day, Udet!" the cavalry captain says and he tips his hat. "Beautiful weather for pigs today."
I greet him mutely and look at him. A peaceful, fully controlled face; large, cold eyes half covered by heavy lids. Here is the man who has already downed sixty-seven planes. The best of us all.
His car is below on the country road. He climbed up the embankment to me in the rain. I wait. "As of now how many planes have you shot down, Udet?"
"Nineteen confirmed, one not confirmed."
He pokes his oak walking stick in the damp leaves.
"Hm, so twenty," he repeats. He looks up and examines me.
"Then maybe you're ready for us. Would you like that?"
Would I like to? Of course I'd like to. Really, really like to.
And if things went my way I'd immediately pack and drive off with him. There are many good fighter squadrons in the army and the 37th isn't the worst. But there's only one Richthofen Fighter Squadron.
"Yes sir, Cavalry Captain," I say. We shake hands.
I look at him as he climbs back up the steel embankment. He's small and lean, almost delicate. He gets into his car and at the next bend in the road he disappears in a veil of rain.
"Now perhaps we both have made it," Behrend says as I bend back down next to him in order to drive the tent pegs into the ground.
There are many good squadrons at the front but there's only one Richthofen Squadron. And now I see the secret of its success.
Other squadron live in castles or small places twenty to thirty kilometers behind the front. The Richthofen Squadron resides in corrugated sheet metal barracks which can be taken down in a few hours and rebuilt elsewhere. They're seldom more than twenty kilometers behind the foremost line. Other squadrons take off two to three times a day. Richthofen and his people go up five times a day. Others suspend flight operations in bad weather. Here we fly almost all the time.
However the most surprising thing for me is the battle landing pads. It's an invention of Bölcke's, the old master of German
aviation. Richthofen, his most gifted student, took it over.
A few kilometers behind the front, often still within enemy grenade range, we sit fully dressed in deck chairs in the middle of a vacant field. The planes are ready for takeoff. As soon as an enemy is seen on the horizon we climb aboard, one, three, or an entire squadron.
Right after the battle we land, stretch out again in our chairs, search the sky with our binoculars, and wait for the next opponent. There are no patrol flights. Richthofen put a stop to those. According to him patrol flights are only good deep in enemy terrotory. "Posting sentries in the sky weakens the fighter pilot's eagerness for battle," he says. Therefore we only go up to do battle.
At ten o'clock I arrive at the squadron. At twelve o'clock I'm already on my first flight with Fighter Squadron 11. Squadrons 4, 6 and 10 also belong to the flight command. Richthofen himself leads Squadron 11. He places great value in personally checking out each new member.
We fly a five-plane formation, the Cavalry Captain in the lead, behind him Just and Gussmann. Scholtz and I are in the rear. I fly a Fokker three-decker for the first time. We strafe around five hundred meters high over the shelled areas to the west.
Over destroyed Albert halfway up to the clouds there's an English artillery observer. He adjusts shoots for the batteries. We are somewhat lower than he is. Perhaps he hasn't noticed us since he quietly moves about his section.
I exchange a rapid glance with Scholtz. He nods. I leave the squadron and soar over to Tommy.
I attack him from the front. From below I push up like a shark zeroing in on him and fire at a very short distance. His engine is riddled with bullets. He immediately cants forward and ruptures apart in midair. Flaming debris crashes down close to Albert.
A minute later I'm back with the squadron and fly off with them towards the enemy. Scholtz nods again, rapidly and joyously. But the Cavalry Captain also noticed it. He seems to have eyes everywhere. His head swings around and he gestures a greeting to me.
Directly under us is the Roman Highway. The trees are still bare. Through the network one can see columns moving below. They move to the west. They are English on the return march from our offensive.
Slightly above the tree tops a row of Sopwith Camels soar by, English one-seaters. They are supposed to defend the Roman Highway, a main artery for the enemy's advance.
I scarcely have time to take the scene in since Richthofen's red Fokker dives down upon them. We all follow.
The Sopwith-Camels scatter like baby chicks when a hawk drops down. However one can no longer escape, the one the Cavalry Captain has zeroed in on.
It goes so quickly that one can scarcely call it air battle. For a moment we believe the Cavalry Captain rammed him because the distance is so short. I estimate ten meters at most.
The impact runs through the Camel. Its nose is torn off from below, white flames of ignited gas flare up and, enveloped in smoke and flames, the plane crashes into the field near the highway.
However Richthofen, the unifying force of the squadron, takes a steep dive down to the Roman Highway. At an altitude of ten meters he pulls up above the ground and shoots both his machine guns continually at the troop columns on the highway. We always remain behind him and we shoot, shoot just like him.
Panic and horror seem to paralyse the troops. Only a couple sprint into the ditches. The majority fall where they stand.
At the end of the highway the Cavalry Captain makes a sharp turn and sweeps over the tops if the trees lining the road. Now we can truly observe the results of our initial attack - stampeded horses and carts, demobilized weaponry which like a wall of flames blocks the flood of humanity trying to escape.
This time our shots are answered from below. Infantrymen stand up and rip their weapons off their backs. From the ditches cracks the sound of machine guns. But the Cavalry Captain doesn't fly even a meter higher even though his wings may be shot through. We all stay close behind him, flying and shooting. The entire squadron is one body with individual wills subservient to it. And so it should be.
He leaves the road and we follow him. At five hundred meters altitude we fly back home. As we land it's twelve thirty. It is Richthofen's third flight this morning.
As my plane touches down he's already on the field. He comes to me, a smile on his thin-lipped mouth.
"Do you always shoot up close like that, Udet? he asks. In his tone there's a certain appreciation.
"I've had success with it a few times," I say as calmly as possible.
He smiles again and turns to leave. "By the way, you can take over Squadron 11 tomorrow," he says over his shoulder.
I already knew I would get a squadron from him but the form of his communication somewhat surprised me.
Scholtz pats me on the shoulder: "Man, you rate high with the Cavalry Captain!"
"I don't see how," I grumpily reply.
But that's how it had to be. One must get used to the fact that his worth remains totally objective, without the least sentimentality. He serves with his entire life force the ideals of the fatherland and the fatherland demands the same from all its pilots. He evaluated the man based on what he can accomplish, and perhaps based on his qualities as a comrade. Whoever passes is put in a position suitable to his personality. Whoever fails he let go without even batting an eye. Whoever shows himself to be incompetant during a battle flight must leave the squadron. Even the same day.
Of course, Richthofen eats, drinks, and sleeps like everyone else. But he eats, drinks, and sleeps only to continue fighting. Sometimes when
food is scarce he sends out Bodenschatz, the most perfect model of all adjutants, with an old cart behind him to requisition supplies. Each time Bodenschatz takes an entire collection of identifying photographs with Richthofen's own handwritten note on them: "Requisitioned for the sake of the battle comrades." In the provisions offices in the rear eschelon these photos are very highly valued. Back home they bring an entire table of regulars to reverential silence. However in the squadron sausages and hams would never be everything.
A pair of government officials have announced they will visit us. In the evening they roll up in a large limosine. They pass themselves off as solemn, completely engrossed by the dignity of the moment. One of them wears a tailcoat. When he bows his jacket tails seesaw lie back end of a white wagtail.
At supper in the officer's club they talk so much that a pilot just grinds his teeth. 'Whenever you go up in your flying machine against the enemy, Baron," one of them begins his prattle. Richthofen sits there and listens with a stony expression.
After a bottle of wine they talk about heroic youth and the fatherland. We sit with lowered eyes around the table. Without listening to a word we get the impression that one shouldn't speak so lightly about such things.
Then the gentlemen go to bed. They sleep in the
small corrugated sheet metal barracks just like us. That way when they get home they can describe their impression of life in the warzone.
We stay together and converse until the light in the small window is extinguished. "Really," Maushacke, whom we call Mouse Tooth, says thoughtfully. "Someone should let them experience a lot more about war before they drive back home tomorrow."
Scholtz winks his right eye and laconically remarks, "Air raid!" Nothing more, but we immediately understand what he means.
We get a ladder, lean it up against the barracks in which the people's representatives sleep. Catlike, Wölffchen climbs up the ladder to the chimney, armed to the teeth with flare guns and blank cartridges, known as pilot props.
Inside the barracks a rattle and a bang and the thudding boom of detonation. Right then a cry.
It's a full moon night. We stand in the dark shadows of another barracks. Suddenly the door opens up and out pop three figures in flapping white shirts. The cavalry captain laughs so hard tears fall down his cheeks.
"Air raid! Get back to your barracks!" thunders a mighty voice above the field and at a fast pace the three white figures disappear back behind the door.
The next morning they're in a hurry to move on. Not one of them even takes breakfast with us.
We laugh about this for a long time. Mirth around here scarcely happens and anytime a good joke comes up the pike
Caption under photograph reads: Lothar and Manfred von Richthofen
Caption under photograph reads: After the duel with the British Lieutenant Maasdorp
one savors it gratefully and for a long time. Even later towards the end of the war as we fought like drowning swimmers it remained so.
I think about our prisoners in Bernes.
Lothar von Richthofen, the cavalry captain's brother, has again brought one down. It is an English major and he came down right next to our camp. Infantry isn't nearby so we hold him with us as a prisoner.
At supper he appears with Richthofen at the officers club and is introduced to all. He's a long beanpole, rather sloppy and sporty, likeable but reserved. In short, a gentlman.
We talk about horses, dogs and airplanes. Nothing is said about war. The Englishman is our guest and he should not get the feeling that we are interrogating him.
In the middle of the conversation he turns excitedly to his neighbor, stands up and walks out.
Lothar watches him somewhat concerned.
"Where's he going?"
"'I beg your pardon, where is the W.C.?' he asked," replies Mouse Tooth.
Silence reigns for a minute. The desired outhouse lies about three minutes away at the end of the ravine in which the camp is located. Behind it is forest. For a sportsman it wouldn't be difficult to attain freedom there.
Conflict of opinions. Maushacke, the well-fed Braunschweiger,
is most adament. He will also go out and place himself next to the Englishman. That will keep things informal. But Lothar disagrees. "Until now we've treated this man like a guest and he has given us no occasion to doubt his integrity."
Still the situation remains tense. Ultimately we have the responsiblity for the prisoner. If he escapes we'll have a dreadful problem.
Someone walks over to the window and sees the Englishman. A few seconds later six or eight of us group around it. I'm there too.
The Englishman takes long strides over the area. He remains standing, lights a cigarette and looks around. Immediately we all sink on bended knees. Hospitality is a holy thing and our mistrust could offend him.
He disappears behind the spruce paneled wall of the outhouse.
It doesn't quite reach the ground so we can see his brown boots. That's comforting.
Still Maushacke's detective sense is aroused.
"Children," he yaps breathlessly, "He's no longer in his boots. He's gone off in his socks over the back wall. The boots couldn't possibly stay that still if..."
He demonstrates how legs would be positioned during this activity.
The Englishman comes out from behind the wall.
Bent over, we creep back to our places. As he enters we gossip about horses, dogs and airplanes.
"I would never forgive myself if I disappointed such hosts," the English major says and he toasts us, a small upturning at the corners of his mouth. We earnestly and gaily offer thanks.
The next morning a small bushy-bearded reservist takes the prisoner, who turns around several times and waves to us.
Five days later Meyerchen from Gent delivers noteworthy news. An English prisoner attacked his transport escort and fled in a German uniform taken from the closet of a traveling D Train. They found the escort there locked up.
"Was it a major?" Mouse Tooth asked excitedly.
"Are you a clairvoyant, sir?" Meyerchen replies. "Indeed, it was an English Air Force major."
"Must have escaped via the water closet!" Mouse Tooth shouts.
Meyerchen looks perplexed. We laugh until our jaws ache.
Sometimes we fly alone, sometimes in formation, but we fly every day. And almost every flight brings a battle.
On March 28th I'm underway with Gussmann. A patrol flight to Albert. It's midday. The sun already shines in the west. Its harsh light hurts the eyes. From time to time one must screen the light with one's thumbs and seek out the enemies on the horizon.
Even so, one is surprised. Deceased Guynemer turned the entire front into a school.
Suddenly there's an Englishman above us. He dives towards Gussmann. Gussmann dodges him and descends. A hundred meters below I see them turn. I look for a spot where I can hit the Englishman without getting Gussmann.
I raise my head for a minute. I see a second Englishman aiming for me. He's barely a hundred and fifty meters away. At eighty meters he opens fire. It's impossible to dodge. I fly right at him. Tack-tack-tack bellows my machine gun. Tack-tack-tack belches his back.
Still twenty meters away. It looks as though our machines are going to collide in the next few seconds. Then, a small move and within a hair's breadth he jumps over me. The wake from his propellers shakes me. The smell of resinous oil wafts over me.
I make a short turn. "Now begins the battle of the turns," I think. But he also turns and we again soar towards each other and shoot. The pale white threads of tracer ammunition hang like net curtins in the air. Inches away he sweeps over me..."8224" is marked on the plane's fuselage in black letters.
A fourth time. I sense how my hands are getting damp. There above me is a man fighting the fight of his life.
Him or me...One of us will remain...there's no alternative.
A fifth time. My nerves are stretched to the point of tearing but the head stays cold and clear. This time we reach the final decision. I get him in my gun sights. I focus in on him, just him. I decide not to deviate by a inch.
A bolt of lightning jolts my memory: I saw it near Lens. An air duel. Both planes chased each other and banged together. The fuselages melted together into one metal clump and crashed. Only the wings kept flying eventually, floating down to earth.
Like two ragings boars we run at each other. If he keeps his nerve we're both lost!
Then — he cants, swerves past me. At that moment he enters my spray pattern. His plane tilts, turns over and disappears into a gigantic grenade hole. A fountain of dirt, smoke...I circle the spot where he crashed twice. Fieldgray uniforms stand below, wave to me and cheer.
I fly home. My whole body is covered in sweat and my nerves vibrate. At the same time there's a dull, piercing pain in my ears.
I've never been concerned about an enemy I shot down before. Whoever fights shouldn't look at the wounds he inflicts. But this time I want to know who the opponent war.
In the evening around sunset I find out. A field hospital lies close to the spot where he crashed. They took him there.
I ask for the doctor. He comes. His white coat gleems spectrally in the harsh light of the carbide lamps. He received a head wound. The other died immediately. The doctor hands over his briefcase to me.
Visitation Card: "Lieutenant C.R. Maasdorp, Ontario, R.F.C. 47." From the Royal Flying Corps. A picture of an old woman and a letter. "You must not make so many flights to the enemy. Think of your father and me."
A medic brings me the number off the airplane. He cut it out. It's spattered with a little blood.
I drive back to the squadron. One shouldn't think about a mother crying for someone whom one shot to death.
The next day the earache gets a lot worse. It's as if someone is inside my head using a drill and chisel. On April 6th I shoot down another one. It was a Sopwith-Camel from an enemy squadron. It is my twenty-fourth victory.
As I land I'm so overcome by the pain that can scarcely move. Richthofen stands at the air field. I stagger past him to the flight office without greeting him.
All we have is a medic. A doctor has not yet been appointed to the squadron. He's a pleasant, stout fellow however I believe he understands all too little about his job. He careens about with his instruments in my ears. I think he's going to saw off my head. "The inner ear is completely full of pus," he finally says.
The door opens. The Cavalry Captain stands at the threshold.
"Udet, what's wrong with you?" he asks. The medic explains.
The Cavalry Captain pats me on the shoulder. "There's nothing else can be done, Udet." I protest. "Perhaps it will pass." Then he cuts me down with the words, "You leave tomorrow. Here outside everyone must be healthy."
It's dreadfully hard for me to leave my new squadron and break the string of victories. He knows that we all more or less believe in the law of good luck streaks.
The next morning he brings me to the old two-seater himself so we can fly off to the backlands. He remains standing at the air field and waves to me with his cap. His blond hair glistens in the sun.
Go to pages 80 - 97
Return to Index
Imaging and translation by Susan Kriegbaum-Hanks