The squadron stays in Monthussart-Ferme. Around midday I arrive and immediately go to the officers club. There are many new faces. Back slapping, murmered names. I see some familiar faces at the table. Gluczewski, Maushacke, Rauter von Prestin's mop of blonde hair, Drekmann. People say hello, people nod, people drink to each other.
Eyes seek certain people out for no reason. No one speaks of those who are no longer there.
After dinner I take Reinhard off to the side. He carries the squadron staff, the staff of the dead cavalry captain which will be inherited by each new commander.
"You already know, Udet?" Reinhard asks.
"If you want, we'll drive there."
High summer day. Afternoon lull. The poplar trees along the road shiver in the heat like liquid glass. The car drives quietly and smoothly down the street.
On a slight incline to the right a church cemetery. We get out. Reinhard goes first through the cast iron gate, through the narrow walkway between the graves.
Four freshly formed mounds, four-cornered boards, above a cross made out of shattered propellers. "Air Force Non-Commissioned Officer Robert Eisenbeck," "Lieutenant Hans Weiss," "Lieutenant Edgar Scholtz," "Lieutenant Joachim Wolff" were written on the boards.
Reinhard salutes, I salute.
"They had a good death," he says.
We stand there a while. Then we drive back to the squadron.
Things have changed out there.
The French only fly in large formations, fifty and sometimes a hundred planes. Like swarms of locust darkening the sky. It's hard to shoot one down.
Even the artillery units over there work mostly with air reconnaissance. The chained balloon float in long rows at the horizon, and reconnaissance planes fly relentlessly over the dead crater and furrow-filled landscape. The troops suffer terribly...
I'm still in bed when the telephone blares. Half-asleep I pick up the receiver. An artillery captain from the front. North of the forest of Villers-Cotterets there's a Bréguet sending enemy fire. The results are dreadful.
"Where is that?"
He gives the map coordinates from the general staff map.
"We're coming!" I hang up.
The others are all underway. I have no assignment this morning, however there are no longer standard hours of duty. We must start whenever an assignment comes.
In five minutes I'm ready and flying away. The front is being bombed on this day. The grenades hit so densly to the ground that smoke, dust and fragmenting shells create a curtain that hangs like a veil over the sun.
The landscape beneath me blurs in the pale brown haze.
North of the forest of Villers-Cotterets I see the Bréguet, about six hundred meters high. I immediately approach it from behind at the same altitude.
In the Bréguet the observer sits behind the pilot. I clearly see his head looming above the machine gun mount. But he can't shoot as long as I am directly behind him. His rudder controls and tail assembly limit his aim.
My machine gun belches out a short volley. The head above the machine gun mount disappears. "Hit," I think.
The pilot of the Bréguet seems to be a damned brave fellow. Even though I continually fire on him he makes an elegant turn in his cumbersome bird and tries to deflect me from the direction of his home.
I must attack him from the side in order to hit him or his engine. If the observer's still alive it would be a big mistake since I'd be flying directly towards his machine gun.
I get up to twenty meters from him when the observer pops up behind his machine gun, ready to shoot. In the next moment he pummels bullets around me like pebbles falling off a garden table. "Gontermann!" I think. My Fokker rears up like a rebelling stallion and seesaws back. The elevator assembly's smashed, there's twisting at the base of the stick control and a cable is flapping loose from the wake of the propeller.
Injured, lamed! The plane veers to the left, steering impossible. It flies in a circle, a constant circle. Beneath me the furrowed ground continually being ripped apart by new impacts.
There's only one way to get back. Each time I fly a Fokker to the east I'm conservative with the gas. That way I can swing in a wider arc and hope I'll touch back down behind our lines.
Things go agonizingly slow.
Suddenly the plane tips its nose and drops perpendicularly to the horizon like a stone to the ground.
Parachute—tense up the legs—put them on the seat! In the next moment the force of the air pushes me from behind. A hit to the back. I'm stuck on the rudder. In my haste to take off I didn't tighten the parachute strap tightly enough and it attached to the antiservo tabs. [See http://aeromanual.com/PHAK-Chapter5#Antiservo_Tabs for definition.] The diving plane pulls me from behind with furious force.
"Lo will cry..." I think. "Mother...no one will recognize me...I have no papers on me...down below they're shooting like crazy..."
At the same time I'm trying with all my might to bend the anti-balance tabs. It's hard, dreadfully hard, The ground is rushing up to meet me. There—a snap—I'm free! The plane dashes down beneath me. Another snap. A sharp crack echoes through my body as I float like a swimmer while hanging onto the parachute strap. Shortly after I hit—I have landed. In the last moment the parachute opened.
The chute billows over me. Around me a cracking noise. I fight like a drunkard under water against the white lead lines. Eventually I get free.
Barren wasteland. The sun shimmers dully in the east as if it's burning out. Down here the smoke from the explosions is thicker. I unhook the parachute and run. A hit comes closer as if the grenade wanted to turn me into a race runner. A huge clump of earth hits me in the back of the head like a fist. I drop to the ground then pick myself up and run some more. My right leg hurts. I must have sprained it during my landing.
A furrow, a pair of flat steel French helmets. Am I still behind enemy lines? The soldiers have their backs to me and look to the east. They lie there motionless. Perhaps they're dead.
It's better if I go around them. I disappear into a grain field. The stems are practically as tall as a man. I run through it hunched over. The slope rises as it goes east.
The field is very long but it eventually ends. In the green cover of the stems I stop to look around.
An officer stands there erectly.
"First one...fire!" he commands. The report of gunfire follows. I straighten up and gesture to him. He waves back. I run over to him.
"Cigarette," I say through dry lips. He salutes. "Bayer," he says in introduction as he brings out his pack, "Udet." For a moment the cannon fire stops. It's the power of upbringing which even the war can't erase.
"Second ready?" he screams. "Ready!" booms back from the gun platform. "Second...Fire!" The earth shakes amid the detonation.
He gives me a match. With long, thirst drags I take in the smoke.
"I watched you jump out, comrade," he says. "That was crazy. Third ready?"
I ask him the route back to the backline installations. He points with his thumb over his shoulder to the hills of Cutry.
I thank him and hobble along. A new firing zone. Again hits in close proximity. One time the force of the air throws me to the ground.
A dugout, in front of it a roaring fire, protection against gas.
Inside the dugout, a jumble of officers and enlisted men. I go to the telephone operator who scan connect me with the squadron.
"Udet," someone yells behind me. "It's Erni!" I turn around, an unknown soldier. From his pale hard face with reddened eyelids bespeaks the tension of battle-filled days and sleepless nights.
"Moser, Carl?" I ask hesitantly.
Yes, it's him. Under his guidance I welded together my first pipes in my father's factory.
"Do you still see...do you still see...?" The world around us disappears. We stand again in the field of the upper meadow. Three boys, Willi Götz, Otto Bergen and I. And Carl lies behind us on the ground in his Sunday clothes, chewing on a blade of grass and watching us. We're flying kites.
A small girl applauds every takeoff. Willi Götz grabs her, five shade rolls will be linked together, he'll tie her to them and launch her into the air. She cries as if she's been stuck by one of the skewers. Her mother comes running, we high tail it. Only Otto's left behind. He stands there and carefully brings the kite back down. The fat woman yells at him and cuffs his ear from time to time but he doesn't let go of the strings.
"Where is Otto now?" Carl asks.
"Dead," I reply.
"Hm, dead too." he mumbles.
My telephone call comes through. The squadron car awaits me on Soissons-Chatuea Thierry Street. To get there I take a horse from the Regimental stables.
Late in the afternoon I go back up with a new plane. Below me in the furrowed wasteland I see the Fokker I crashed at midday. The naked burned out framework rises up into the sky. It looks like a bird's skeleton.
The war becomes more difficult with each day. Whenever a plane flies over us, five of ours take off. And whenever one of theirs descends on us we dive down and assail him.
Caption under photograph reads: After the jump with the parachute back with the squadron, June 28, 1918. To the right my comrade Drekmann
Baron von Richthofen Squadron No. 21, Fighter Unit 4
The Airport on September 29, 1918.
Air Battle Report
Transcript of Eye Witness Reports on Shooting Down
September 26, 1919
Around 5:15 I watched the red plane flown by First Lieutenant Udet first disable a D.H.9 and then bring down in flames a second D.H.2 in the southeast region of Metz.
signed Göring, Commander
On September 26, 1918 around 5:10 in the afternoon I observed the bright red plane of First Lieutenant Udet first shoot a D.H.9 west of Metz; He descended due to damage. First Lieutenant Udet then again attacked the enemy squadron whereby a D.H.9 crashed in flames southeast of Metz.
signed von Wedel, First Lieutenant
On September 18, 1918 at 5:15 in the evening from Tidémont airport I saw with a scissors telescope how a red Fokker set 1 D.H.9 on flames and shot own another D.H.9 within a few minutes.
signed Baron von Boenigk, First Lieutenant
Looking up from the ground I saw how First Lieutenant Udet attacked a bomber squadron and shot down 2 D.H.9s. It was easy to recognize the red plane from the ground and the shots First Lieutenant Udet fired were in rapid succession. The first plane disintegrated in midair, the second burned up during the return flight. At approximately 5 PM, September 26, 1918.
signed Koepsch, Lieutenant in the Reserves
On September 26, 1918 at 5 in ther afternoon the red plane attacked a D.H.9, which was at the rear of the squadron. The D.H.9 pitched forward, began spiralling down 200 meters and crashed in the Montening region. The red plane attacked the squadron again and shot another plane, which went down in flames.
signed von Radzack, Lieutenant.
On September 26, 1918 at 5:10 in the afternoon I observed how in the vicinity First Lieutenant Udet attacked and shot at a D.H.9 from an English bomber squadron whereupon the enemy aircraft nosedived then crashed. The debris fell near a mill.
signed Bender, Lieutenant in the Reserves
Yesterday evening at 5:10 we attacked an enemy bomber squadron on its flight to Metz. I saw how First Lieutenant Udet, as foremost flyer, attacked a D.H.9. The enemy pitched sideways after a few shots and dove obliquely. The observer fell out. After a few moments the D.H.9 crashed.
signed Kraut, Lieutenant in the Reserves,
Caption under photograph reads: Göring, the last commander of the Richthofen Squadron
We no longer have measuring devices flashed with nickel and shimmering like yellow brass. We're not really opposed to these luxury items. It's more our sense of duty and experience gained through four years of war. Now each takeoff means a battle and we takeoff often. In the interval from the third to the twenty-fifth of August I shot down twenty opponents.
I found my picture on one of the dead men. It had been cut out of the newspaper the same day. Underneath the picture it stated "Ace of aces." The cavalry captain is dead and I now have shot down the most planes.
At midday on the eighth the order reaches our squadron: Immediately take all available planes to the Somme.
Up there the English have been on the offensive for days. It's critical for us.
We fly four big, disaster-bringing swarms of birds through the air to the north. The farther north we go the greater the signs of battle upon the earth. Near Fontaine le Cappy I see an enemy infantry pilot flying low over our graves. For a moment I detach from the squadron, dive down towards him and fire. With the twentieth shot he bursts in midair and crashes near the graves. It is five thirty in the afternoon.
Around six our fuel is exhausted. Our supplies were low when we took off. Supplies were scarce in those last days and none of us had considered a flight of such distance. We have to land and refuel.
There's a small airfield below us. Like starlings dropping into a field of grain we descend.
Plane next to plane the entire area filled up.
The squadron leaders report to the commandant. He's a good-natured man, who likes being helpful but he needs fuel for his own pilots. We suggest that he share his supply. He hesitates.
While we're negotiating the air fills with the roar of English engines. Already on the flight here the resinous fumes of their fuel had wafted over us. Back and forth one swarm after another dives down then disappears again behind cloud cover. It's a cool summer evening. The dense clouds are moving off to the east leaving a thick trail over the sky. Only singular blue islands shine through. "Good weather for a balloon attack," I think.
Then out of the gray haze an English flyer strafes over us, shooting at both rows of our tightly packed aircraft. It's a merciless sight. The Richthofen squadron like sitting ducks brought down, weaponless without fuel and above a bird of prey, the Englishman.
Angry scorn fills me. I run to my plane and take off without buckling up.
Again he strafes over us. I rise up behind him. He's so surprised that he forgets to defend himself. Ten shots later, he lurches over, dives, and crashes deep into the ground near the airfield. Dead. It was an English SE5 with insignia. I land without a drop of fuel, with a motionless propeller. Time: six thirty in the evening.
We finish negotiations for the schnaps our planes need from the airfield commandant. It's enough for 10 minutes at most, just enough to get us to our new destination.
We land there in an open field. Infantry men run up to us. They're very happy that we've arrived. In the past week every day the English infantrymen have swarmed the area. In the evening, between eight and nine two Sopwith Camels come over and drops handbills.
One of the men shows me the leaflet. It has a black, red, and yellow border. Alleged deserters are soliciting our solders in the trenches to follow their example.
"Between eight and nine you say?"
I take all the fuel my comrades have and take off. The sun lies low in the west, silhouetting the edges of the clouds in pale gold.
South of Foucaucourt I encounter the two planes. One immediately veers west, the other remains on course. He jettisons a deluge of leaflets into my face. A banked turn battle. With his small, lightweight craft he can move in tighter circles than I can in my heavy Fokker D VII. But I stay behind him. He wants to shake me off, looping at barely a hundred meters high. Without hesitation, I follow. At the apex of the loop I zip under him. The radius of my turn is greater. I detect a light hit and as I look beneath me I see he's having trouble climbing out of the debris that was his plane.
German soldiers take him into custody. I don't know what happened. I can only think that I must have rammed him while flying over him. It is my third battle of the day. The clock indicates eight forty.
Three days later I visit him in the field hospital at Foucaucourt. As payback for his leaflets I take a pack of Buchenlaub cigarettes. My hunch was right. At the high point of the loop my landing gear hit his top wing and cracked the support rods. "I wasn't prepared for such 'clinch fighting'," he said with a smile. He's a nice guy, a former student from Ontario.
Fifteen years later I hear from him again at a flight meet in Los Angeles. On his non-stop flight across the continent Rascoe Turner brings me a card. It has a black, red, and yellow border and it is written by supposed deserters and directed towards our soldiers in the trenches. The student from Ontario gave it to me. It is the last of his supply and in 1918 he had forgotten to throw it at me.
As nighttime arrives I again set down with my squadron. This night we sleep on the bare ground under our planes.
A hasty awakening in the gray of dawn the next day.
The tanks are coming! Overnight fuel and new munitions have been delivered. We take our shares and take off.
Between Bapaume and Arras I see them. Manmade fog exudes from them, trailing behind over the flattened meadows.
Fifteen of them like powerful steel turtles. They crawl, crawl, crawl.
They've already gone past the first German outpost...past the second...and rolling on into the back country.
Diving and full salvos on both rows; climb; again dive and shoot. No effect. Like a woodpecker pecking at an iron gate.
The German infantry retreated behind the railway embankment at Bapaume-Arras. It's like a defensive wall, four meters high and covered with gravel projecting out of the swampy meadowland. From there the machine guns rattle and produce their own fog like the washroom in a kitchen. Ceaseless, but ineffective.
The turtles crawl up farther.
Now one has reached the embankment. Heavily it clatters its way up, rolling up on grooved tracks.
I see how our troops flee the position dragging their machine guns along, disappearing in ditches and watery trenches.
Slowly the tank schlepps up to the top of the railroad embankment, belching out its salvos from behind. A new possibility comes to me. Can I get it from the side. Scarcely three meters above the ground I hunt it down, densely shooting, springing over it, turning around and attacking it anew. I get so close to its armored body that I can discern every rivet in its steel plating, every gun barrel. Even the faded trefoil on the side, the talisman or coat of arms. Another leap over it,
the landing gear almost hitting the arch of the tank turret. Turn around, shoot at it again.
With this kind of ground attack I neutralize the other tanks. If they fire at me they'll hit their own man.
On the fifth attack I notice the first result. Cumbersomely the tank reaches the edge of the railroad embankment. It wants to return to the meadow and the others under the protection of the manmade fog. I never take my eyes off it. I follow its movements. Carefully it climbs up on the gravel. Half of its fat steel body is suspended in the air. In the next minute it tumbles, teeters head first over the gravel and remains on its back, defenseless, helpless like a overturned beetle.
I dive down towards him, hammer his thinly armored underbelly with bullets. The treads are still spinning, the right side racing off like an octopus flailing in the open air. Then the tank lies still as though dead. However I keep hammering it with my bullets.
The side door near the turret opens. A man jumps out, his hands covering his bloody face. I'm so close that I can see everything. But I can't shoot anymore, I used my ammunition right down to the last cartridge.
I fly to the battle zone landing strip, get more ammunition and return. Barely twenty minutes have passed.
But the tank is dead, lying there dark and motionless. Beside it on the grass three soldiers. The English medics
must have gotten there in the interim. They've dragged out the corpses and laid them down. Perhaps a grenade will bury them.
Night comes. The fog from the meadows rises up into the dark sky. The tank attack has been repelled. They're at a standstill on the Bapaume-Arras line across the entire front.
An excited voice on the telephone. "Two of our balloons have just been shot down. The enemy squadron is still circling over our position."
We immediately take off. All of Squadron 4, all available planes, go off in the direction of Braie. We fly at three thousand meters, below us the German balloon chains, above us the English squadron, five SE5s. We stay below them and wait for their attack. But they dally as if they want to avoid fighting.
Suddenly, like an arrow a plane dives past me and descends upon a balloon. I drop down and behind him. It's one of the English squadron leaders. The small insignia flaps before me.
I drop down lower, lower. The air batters the windshield. I must reach him, overtake him, cut off his path to the balloon.
Too late! The shadow of his plane is flapping like a fish in shallow water over the tight membrane of the balloon. Little blue flames flicker, climb slowly over the gray
surface and in the next moment a column of fire sweeps up to the heavens like a great big yellow cocoon.
A German Fokker races towards the English, then a second, smaller blaze sparks near the larger one. Covered in smoke and flames the German plane plunges to the ground.
An extremely tight turn, almost vertical, the English plane sweeps down. The men posted at the balloon winch scatter. Already the SE 5 has righted itself and darts close to the ground going west. So close to the ground that shadow and machine merge into one image.
Now I'm beneath him. A grand hunt begins scarcely three meters above the earth. We sprint over telegraph wires and over trees along the roadside. A mighty edifice: the church tower of Marécourt. But I remain beneath him. He can't shake me off.
The army road to Arras, flanked from above by trees like a green wall, moves through the landscape.
He flies to the right of the row of trees; I fly to the left. Then when there's a clearing in the treeline, I shoot.
The German infantry is camped next to the road, in the meadow. Although I'm in the clearing, he fires. That's his downfall.
In that moment I spring over the treetops, scarcely ten meters from him, and I fire.
A shudder courses through his plane. It sways, spirals, dives into the field, springs back up like a stone skipping water, and disappears with a mighty jerk behind a grove of birches. A cloud of dust rises.
Caption to the left of the top photograph reads: René Fonck, France's most successful battle pilot to survive.
Caption above lower photograph reads: as my flight guest in the Flamingo over Berlin
Caption under photograph reads: In Los Angeles Rascoe Turner brings me the last of the pamphlets of the student from Ontario.
Sweat pours down in streams over my face, fogs up my goggles and gums up my vision. I wipe my brow on the sleeve of my jacket. It's high summer, the twenty-second of August, twelve-thirty in the afternoon, the hottest day of the year with an outdoor temperature of almost forty degrees [close to 104 degrees Fahrenheit], and with my pursuit my engine is running at sixty-four hundred rpm.
I look around. Right behind me three SE 5s. They've eluded my squadron and are diving down towards me to wreak revenge for their dead leader. Close to the ground I circle the birch trees. I cast short, quick looks over my shoulder. They separate. Two turn to the west and leave the booty for the one left behind.
I know now that I'm dealing with tactically trained fighters. Novices would have come at me all three at once. Old fighter pilots know that by joining in the pursuit of an enemy they're only putting themselves in the way.
Things are going badly for me. The other pilot constantly gets closer. I estimate scarcely a distance of thirty meters and yet he doesn't shoot. "With three or four shots he'd finish me off," I think.
The landscape slopes gently in waves with small patches of woodland. I turn into it.
Beneath the trees there's a machine gun division. They look up at us. "If they decide to shoot I'll be saved!" But they don't shoot. Perhaps the distance between
the two planes is too short. Perhaps they're afraid they'll hit me with this swallow-quick movement up and down.
My range of sight encompasses the woods, the hill, the meadow. I look back. The sweet smell of phosporous. There's a small round hole in the munitions box. The heat—the phosphorous ammunition has ignited. The cartridges are exploding—a few seconds later my plane is in flames.
One thinks at such a moment, either you act or you die. A push of the trigger guard on the machine gun. The bullets rattle out in both directions into the blue, trailing long white threads behind them.
I look back. Breathless surprise and then a pair of mighty movements from full lungs.
The enemy veers off to avoid the white threads. He thinks I'm shooting backwards.
I fly home.
After landing I stay seated in the plane for quite a while.
Behrend helps me out of the plane.
I go to the office.
"First Lieutenant Göring is coming tomorrow evening," the field sergeant says.
I look at him with empty eyes.
"Göring, our new squadron commander," he repeats.
"Yes, yes." My voice sounds strange and toneless to me. I will go on leave. At the same time. Immediately. That way he won't see me.
When I return from leave the squadron is stationed in Metz. The casualties were too great. Three hundred percent have fallen. Three times in the course of the war the ranks of officers have been replenished. There's scarcely anyone left of the first group of pilots with the Cavalry Captain. Thus we have removed army command from the hot spot of battle and placed it for a short time in a calmer section of the front.
Göring is just flying formations with his squadron as I arrive at the airfield. He lands. We greet each other. His face is somber. He was put in Richthofen's place because he's the most gifted aerial strategist in the Army. At this dead front he's useless, fighting all his battles on paper only.
"Good day, Udet," he mutters.
Then I go up with my squadron.
Sharp dots on the horizon, little black clouds of German flack, enemy pilots in sight.
They come closer, seven planes, de Havilland 9 two-seaters. There's six of us. But this group here is new to the front. It's an American formation. The youngest of us has the experience of any two of them.
We get close to the airfield. It takes less than five minutes. Gluczewski shoots one down and so does Kraut. Mine goes down in flames near Monteningen.
The others turn off and fly home. One individual strafes closely above me. I set my Fokker on his tail. I fire just above into the air. He can't veer off; he has to fly through my fireburst.
Scarcely fifty meters above me he disintegrates. I have to dive quickly to avoid contact with his burning wreckage.
A third plane soars past me moving west. The ensignia for squadron leader flaps from his tail. I get behind him. When he notices he's being chased he turns and flies towards me. A salvo springs forth and I sense a burning pain in my left thigh. Fuel spritzes out at me like a shower from the holes shot in the tank.
I shut off the ignition and land.
My comrades surround me. They've witnessed each phase of the battle from the airfield.
Excitedly they talk to each other. "Man, Udet, You have the luck...the first enemy in four weeks...come back today from leave and already you're at it again..."
I climb out of the plane and notice my wound. The bullet went right through the thick flesh and it's still exuding a little blood.
The others step to the side and Göring comes up to me. I report: "Sixty-first and sixty-second enemy downed. Minor injury. Shot through the left cheek, face undamaged.
Göring laughs and shakes my hand.
"Nice of me to stay here and reserve all the shooting for you," he says. A good comrade.
And then comes the end, so incomprehensible to us that we fought on to the bitter end. A peace that none of us understands. One day I hold this paper in my hand.
Service rank: First Lieutenant in the Reserves
Surname and First name: Udet, Ernst
Service Division, etc.: Pilot, Replacement Division III, Gotha
Under command of:
Birth place and date: April 26, 1896, Frankfurt an Mainz
Discharged to: Munich on November 18, 1918
Go to pages 118 - 134
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Imaging and translation by Susan Kriegbaum-Hanks