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Ernst Udet
Ernst Udet
Born (1896-04-26)April 26, 1896
Died 17 November 1941(1941-11-17) (aged 45)
Place of birth Frankfurt am Main
Place of death Berlin
Buried at Invalidenfriedhof in Berlin
  •  German Empire (to 1918)
  •  Nazi Germany
Years of service 1914–1919, 1934–1941
Unit World War I: FA 68, FA(A) 206, KEK Habsheim, Jastas 4, 11, 15, 37
Commands held World War I: Jasta 37, Jasta 4
Battles/wars World War I

Colonel General Ernst Udet (26 April 1896 – 17 November 1941) was the second-highest scoring German flying ace of World War I. He was one of the youngest aces and was the highest scoring German ace to survive the war (at the age of 22).[1] His 62 victories were second only to Manfred von Richthofen, his commander in the Flying Circus. Udet rose to become a squadron commander under Richthofen, and later, under Hermann Göring.

Following Germany's defeat, Udet spent the 1920s and early 1930s as a stunt pilot, international barnstormer, light aircraft manufacturer, and playboy. In 1933, he joined the Nazi Party and became involved in the early development of the Luftwaffe. He used his networking skills to get himself appointed director of research and development for the burgeoning air force. He was especially influential in the adoption of dive bombing techniques as well as the Stuka dive bomber. By 1939, Udet had risen to the post of Director-General of Equipment for the Luftwaffe. However, the stress of the position and his distaste for administrative duties led to an increasing dependence on alcohol.

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

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

Early life

From motorcycling to flying

Born in Frankfurt am Main, Udet was known from early childhood for his sunny happy-go-lucky temperament. He grew up in the Bavarian city of Munich. He was fascinated with aviation from early childhood and hung out at a nearby airplane factory and an army airship detachment. In 1909, he helped found the Munich Aero-Club.[2] After crashing a glider he and a friend constructed, he finally flew with a test pilot in the nearby Otto Works, which he often visited, in 1913.[2]

He tried to join the army on 2 August 1914, but was only 160 cm (5 ft 3.0 in) tall and did not qualify.[2] In August, when the Allgemeiner Deutscher Automobil-Club appealed for volunteers with motorcycles, Udet applied and was accepted. Udet's father had given him his motorcycle when Ernst passed his first year examination. Along with four friends, Udet was posted to the 26. Württembergischen Reserve Division as a "messenger rider." After injuring his shoulder when his motorcycle hit a shell hole, Udet went to a military hospital, and his bike went for repair. When he tried to track down the 26th Division, he was unable to locate it and decided to serve in the vehicle depot in Namur. During this time, Udet met officers from the Chauny flying sector who advised him to be transferred as an aerial observer. However, before he received his orders for Chauny, the army dispensed with the volunteer motorcyclists, and he was sent back to recruiting officials.[2]

Udet tried in vain to return to the fighting, but was unable to get into the pilot or aircraft mechanic training offered by the army. He soon learned that if he were a trained pilot, he would be immediately accepted into the air force. Through a family friend, Gustav Otto, owner of the aircraft factory he had haunted in his youth, Udet received private flight training. The training cost 2,000 marks[2] and new bathroom equipment from his father's firm. Udet obtained his civilian pilot's license at the end of April 1915 and joined the German Army Air Service.[2]

Military life

Artillery ranging

Originally, Udet flew in Feld Flieger-Abteilung 206 (FFA 206)—an observation unit—as an Unteroffizier (Staff Sergeant) pilot with observer Leutnant Justinius.[2] He and his observer won the Iron Cross 2nd and 1st class respectively[1] for nursing their Aviatik B.I two-seater back to German lines after a shackle on a wing-cable snapped. Justinius had climbed out to hold the wing and balance it rather than land and accept capture. As a result of the structural failure of the Aviatik that caused Udet and Justinius to go down, and a similar incident that cost Leutnant Winter and Vizefeldwebel Preiss their lives, the Aviatik B was retired from service.

Later, Udet was court-martialed for losing his aircraft in an incident the flying corps considered a result of bad judgment. The aircraft—overloaded with fuel and bombs—stalled after a sharp bank and plunged to the ground. Miraculously, both Udet and Justinius survived. Udet was placed under arrest in the guardhouse for seven days.[3]

On his way out of the guardhouse, he was asked to fly Leutnant Hartmann to observe a bombing raid on Belfort. A bomb thrown by hand by the leutnant became stuck in the landing gear. Udet performed some aerobatics to shake it loose.[1] As soon as the Air Staff Officer heard about it, he was transferred to fighter command. That was in early 1916.

Fighter pilot

Udet was given a new Fokker to fly to his new unit—FFA 68—at Habsheim. Mechanically defective, it crashed into a hangar on takeoff. An older Fokker was then sent to Udet. At Habsheim, his first aerial combat was a near disaster. Lining up on a French Caudron, he found he could not bring himself to pull the trigger and was subsequently strafed by the Frenchman. A bullet grazed his cheek and smashed his goggles.[1][2]

From then on, he learned to attack aggressively and made a number of kills, downing his first French opponent on 18 March 1916. On that occasion, he scrambled to attack two French aircraft; instead, he found a formation of 23. He dove in from above and behind, giving his Fokker E.III[4] full throttle, and opened fire on a Farman F.40 from close range. He pulled away, leaving the flaming bomber trailing smoke, only to see the observer fall from the rear seat of the stricken craft. As Udet described it, "The fuselage of the Farman dives down past me like a giant torch...A man, his arms and legs spread out like a frog's, falls past--the observer. At the moment, I don't think of them as human beings. I feel only one thing--victory, triumph, victory."[5] The fiery kill won Udet the Iron Cross First Class.

That year, FA 68 morphed into Kampfeinsitzer Kommando Habsheim before finally becoming Jagdstaffel 15 on 28 September 1916. It was in the latter unit that Udet would claim five more victims, before transferring to Jasta 37 in June 1917. The first of these—on 12 October 1916—had its comic opera aspects. Udet forced a French Breguet to land safely in German territory, then landed nearby to prevent its destruction by its crew. The bullet-punctured flat tires on Udet's Fokker tipped the German plane forward over onto its top wings and fuselage. Victor and vanquished eventually shook hands next to the latter's functional plane.[6]

In January 1917, Udet was commissioned as Leutnant der Reserve (lieutenant of reserves). That same month, Jasta 15 re-equipped with Albatros D.IIIs, new fighters with twin synchronized Spandau machine guns.[2]

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

Udet saw him coming and the two circled each other looking for an opening. They were close enough for Udet to read the "Vieux" of "Vieux Charles" on Guynemer's Spad S.VII. The two opponents tried every tricky aerobatic they knew; the Frenchman ripped a burst of fire through the upper wing of Udet's plane. Udet evaded him and maneuvered for advantage. For an instant, Udet had him in his sights, but his guns jammed. While pretending to dogfight, he worked to unjam them. Guynemer saw his opponent's predicament, waved, and flew away.[2] Udet wrote of the fight, "For seconds, I forgot that the man across from me was Guynemer, my enemy. It seems as though I were sparring with an older comrade over our own airfield." Some experts say that Guynemer spared Udet because he wanted a fair fight. He was also likely impressed with Udet's skills in their battle and hoped that they would fight again someday.

Eventually, all the pilots of Jasta 15 were killed except Udet and his commander, Gontermann. Gontermann became somewhat gloomy, and remarked to Udet, "the bullets fall from the hand of God ... Sooner or later they will hit us."

Udet applied for a transfer to Jasta 37. Gontermann fell three months later, by accident, when the wing of his new Fokker Dr1 Triplane came off. He lingered for 24 hours without awakening, and Udet later remarked, "It was a good death."

On 19 June, Udet transferred to Prussian Jasta 37.[2]

By late November, Udet was a triple ace and Jastaführer. He modeled his attacks after those of Guynemer, coming in high out of the sun to pick off the rear aircraft in a squadron before the others knew what was happening. His commander in Jasta 37—Kurt Grasshoff, witnessing one of these attacks—selected him for command over more senior men when Grasshoff was transferred.[2] Udet's ascension to command on 7 November 1917, was followed six days later by award of the Royal House Order of Hohenzollern.[7]

Despite his seemingly frivolous nature, drinking late into the night and womanizing, he proved an excellent squadron commander. He spent many hours coaching neophyte fighter pilots, with an emphasis on marksmanship as being essential for success.[2]

In the Flying Circus

Udet's success attracted attention for his skill, earning him an invitation to join the Flying Circus, Jagdgeschwader 1 (JG 1), an elite unit of German fighter aces under the command of the famed Red Baron Manfred von Richthofen. Richthofen drove up one day as Udet was trying to pitch a tent in Flanders in the rain. Pointing out that Udet had 20 kills, Richthofen said, "Then you would actually seem ripe for us. Would you like to?"

Of course, Udet would. After watching him down an artillery spotter by frontal attack, Richthofen gave Udet command of Jasta 11,[1] von Richthofen's own former squadron command.[8] The group commanded by Richthofen also contained Jastas 4, 6 and 10.[1] Udet's enthusiasm for Richthofen was unbounded. Richthofen demanded total loyalty and total dedication from his pilots, cashiering immediately anyone who did not give it. At the same time, he treated them with every consideration. When it came time to requisition supplies, he traded favors for autographed photos of himself that read: "Dedicated to my esteemed fighting companion." Udet remarked that because of the signed photographs, " ... sausage and ham never ran out."

One night, they invited a captured English flyer for dinner, treating him as a guest. When he excused himself for the 'ToiletW.C.', the Germans fell over themselves trying to hide from him that they were watching to see if he would try to escape. On his return the Englishman said, "I would never forgive myself for disappointing such hosts." However, the English flyer did escape later from another unit.

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

Richthofen fell in April 1918, and Udet was not at the front. He had been sent on leave due to a painful ear infection, which he avoided having treated as long as he could. While at home, he reacquainted himself with his childhood sweetheart, Eleanor "Lo" Zink. Notified that he had received the Pour le Mérite, he had one made up in advance so that he could impress her. He painted her name on the side of his Albatros fighters and Fokker D VII. Also on the tail of his Fokker D VII was the message "Du doch nicht" - "Definitely not you."[9]

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

Udet was one of the early fliers to be saved by parachuting from a disabled aircraft. On 29 June 1918, he jumped after a clash with a French Breguet. His harness caught on the rudder and he had to break off the rudder tip to escape.[2] His parachute did not open until he was 250 ft (76 m) from the ground, causing him to sprain his ankle.

On 28 September 1918, Udet was wounded in the thigh. He was still recovering from this wound on Armistice Day, November 11, 1918, when the war ended.[2]

Between the wars

Ernst Udet, a recoloured portrait

Ernst Udet 1928

The adventure of Udet's life continued without pause after the war. On his way home, he had to defend himself against a Communist who wished to rip the medals off his chest. Udet and Ritter von Greim performed mock dogfights at weekends for the POW Relief Organization, using surplus aircraft in Bavaria. He was invited to start the first International Air Service between Germany and Austria, but after the first flight the Entente Commission confiscated his aircraft.

He married "Lo" on February 25, 1920; however, the marriage lasted less than three years and they were divorced on February 16, 1923. (It has been said that Udet had many lovers on the side.) His talents were numerous - juggling, drawing cartoons, party entertainment, etc.

During the inter-war period, Udet was known primarily for his work as a stunt pilot and for playboy-like behavior. He flew for movies and for airshows (e.g. picking a cloth from the ground with his wingtip). He appeared with Leni Riefenstahl in three films: Die weiße Hölle vom Piz Palü (1929), Stürme über dem Montblanc (1930), and S.O.S. Eisberg (1933). Udet's stunt pilot work in films took him to California. In the October 1933 issue of New Movie Magazine, there is a photo of Carl Laemmle, Jr.'s party for Udet in Hollywood. Laemmle was head of Universal Studios which made SOS Eisberg, a US-German co-production. Udet was invited to attend the National Air Races at Cleveland, Ohio. In 1935 he appeared in Wunder des Fliegens: Der Film eines deutschen Fliegers (1935; 79 mins.) directed by Heinz Paul. His co-star Jürgen Ohlsen, who had previously starred (uncredited) in the extremely popular Nazi propaganda film Hitlerjunge Quex: Ein Film vom Opfergeist der deutschen Jugend, played a youth who lost his pilot father in World War I and was befriended and encouraged by Udet, his idol.[10][11]

These efforts were good publicity for Udet. An American, William Pohl of Milwaukee, telephoned him with an offer to back an aircraft manufacturing company. Udet Flugzeug was born in a shed in Milbertshofen. Its intent was to build small aircraft that the general public could fly. It soon ran into trouble with the Entente Commission and transferred its operations to a beehive and chicken coop factory.

The first aeroplane that Udet's company produced was the U2. Udet took the second model, the U4, to the Wilbur Cup race in Buenos Aires at the expense of Aero Club Aleman. It was outclassed, and the club wanted him to do cigarette commercials to reimburse them for the expense, but he refused. He was rescued by the Chief of the Argentinian Railways, a man of Swedish descent named Tornquist, who picked up the tab.

In 1924, Udet left Udet Flugzeug when they decided to build a four-engine aircraft, which was larger and not for the general population. He and another friend from the war, Angermund, started an exhibition flying enterprise in Germany, which was also successful, but Udet remarked, "In time this too begins to get tiresome. ... We stand in the present, fighting for a living. It isn't always easy. ... But the thoughts wander back to the times when it was worthwhile to fight for your life."

Udet's war time friends were in seemingly inexhaustible supply. He and another—Suchocky—became pilots to an African filming expedition. The cameraman was another veteran, Schneeberger, whom Udet called "Flea," and the guide was Siedentopf, a former East African estate owner.

Udet described one incident in Africa in which lions jumped up to claw at the low-flying aircraft, one of them removing a strip of Suchocky's wing surface. Udet and his crew also ventured across the Figtree Hotel, built by Lord Lovelace, and went hunting with an American named Sullivan.

Building the Luftwaffe

Udet's Curtiss Hawk Export (D-IRIK) as on display in the Polish Aviation Museum.

Though not interested in politics, Udet joined the Nazi party in 1933 when Göring promised to buy him two new U.S.-built Curtiss Hawk II biplanes (export designation of the F11C-2 Goshawk Helldiver). The planes were used for evaluation purposes and thus indirectly influenced the German idea of dive bombing aeroplanes, such as the Junkers Ju 87 (Stuka) dive bombers. They were also used for aerobatic shows held during the 1936 Summer Olympics. Udet piloted one of them, which survived the war and is now on display in the Polish Aviation Museum (pictured).

Udets's board bar from his Siebel Fh 104 A-0 on display in the Deutsches Technikmuseum Berlin.

After Ju 87 trials (although the Ju 87 had been awarded top marks and was about to be accepted) a confidential directive issued on 9 June 1936 by Generalfeldmarschall Wolfram von Richthofen called for the cessation of all further Ju 87 development. However, Udet immediately rejected von Richthofen's instructions and Ju 87 development continued.

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

In January 1939, Udet visited Italian North Africa (Africa Settentrionale Italiana, or ASI). He accompanied Maresciallo dell'Aria (Marshal of the Air Force) Italo Balbo on a flight. In early 1939 there were distinct signs of German military and diplomatic co-operation with the Italians.[12] In February 1939 Udet became Generalluftzeugmeister (Luftwaffe Director-General of Equipment).

In April and May 1941, Udet was in charge of German delegation inspecting Soviet aviation industry in line with Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact. Udet informed Goering that Soviet air force and aviation industry are very strong and technically advanced. Goering decided not to report the facts to Hitler hoping that a surprise attack will quickly destroy Russia.[13] Udet realized that the upcoming war on Russia may destroy Germany, and torn between truth and loyalty, suffered a psychological breakdown and even tried to tell all the truth to Hitler, but Goering had Udet under control by giving him drugs at drinking parties and hunting trips. Udet's drinking and psychological condition became a problem, but Goering used Udet's dependency to manipulate him.[13]

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


Ernst Udet's grave in Invalidenfriedhof Cemetery, Berlin

On 17 November 1941 Udet committed suicide,[14] shooting himself in the head while on the phone with his girlfriend. Evidence indicates that his unhappy relationship with Göring, Erhard Milch, and the Nazi Party in general was the cause of his mental breakdown.[14]

According to Udet's biography, The Fall of an Eagle, he wrote a suicide note in red pencil which included: "Ingelein, why have you left me?" and "Iron One, you are responsible for my death." "Ingelein" referred to his girlfriend, Inge Bleyle, and "Iron One" to Hermann Göring. The book The Luftwaffe War Diaries states something similar, that Udet wrote "Reichsmarschall, why have you deserted me?" in red on the headboard of his bed.

It is possible that an affair Udet had with Martha Dodd,[15] daughter of the U.S. ambassador to Germany and Soviet sympathizer, during the 1930s might have had some importance in these events. Records made public in the 1990s confirm Soviet security involvement with Dodd's activities.

Udet's suicide was concealed from the public, and at his funeral he was lauded as a hero who had died in flight while testing a new weapon. On his way to attend Udet's funeral, the World War II fighter ace Werner Mölders died in a plane crash in Breslau. Udet was buried next to Manfred von Richthofen in the Invalidenfriedhof Cemetery in Berlin. Mölders was buried next to Udet.


  • Carl Zuckmayer's play Des Teufels General ("The Devil's General"), whose main character is based upon Ernst Udet.
  • In the film Von Richthofen and Brown (1971), Udet was portrayed by Robert La Tourneaux
  • The character of "Ernst Kessler" in the 1975 film The Great Waldo Pepper is clearly based upon Ernst Udet. Kessler was portrayed by actor Bo Brundin. It also contains dogfighting scenes between a Fokker Dr.I and a Sopwith Camel.
  • In the movie The Red Baron, Udet is portrayed by Jiří Laštovka.

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 Sherman, Stephen. "Ernst Udet - Second Highest German Ace of WWI". Retrieved 24 February 2012. 
  2. 2.00 2.01 2.02 2.03 2.04 2.05 2.06 2.07 2.08 2.09 2.10 2.11 2.12 2.13 2.14 Browne, O'Brien (June 2006). "Ernst Udet: The Rise and Fall of a German World War I Ace". Retrieved 27 February 2012. 
  3. Udet, Ernst (1970). Ace of the Iron Cross. Ace Books. ISBN 9780668051613. 
  4. Franks, Norman (2002). Sharks Among Minnows. Grub Street. ISBN 9781902304922. 
  5. Early German Aces of World War I. p. 49. 
  6. Early German Aces of World War I. pp. 86–87. 
  7. "World War I Military Medals and Decorations - Royal House Order of Hohenzollern (Prussia)". Retrieved 27 February 2012. 
  8. "Jasta 11". Retrieved 27 February 2012. 
  9. This account and translation from Stanley M. Ulanoff, the editor of Ace of the Iron Cross, An Ace Book, 1970 - the English translation of Mein Fliegerleben by Udet. Udet does not mention the dare.
  10. Rentschler, p. 233, 288.
  11. "Wunder des Fleigens -" (in German). Retrieved 17 September 2012. 
  12. Kelly, Saul, The Lost Oasis, p. 130
  13. 13.0 13.1 «Боевые операции люфтваффе», Москва 2008 г., изд. Яуза-пресс, по «Raise and fall of the German Air Force», Лондон 1948 г., пер. П.Смирнов, ISBN 978-5-9955-0028-5 Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "RF" defined multiple times with different content
  14. 14.0 14.1 "Ernst Udet". The Aerodrome. Retrieved 19 April 2009. 
  15. Martha Dodd


  • Barker, Ralph (2002). The Royal Flying Corps in World War I. Robinson. ISBN 1-84119-470-0. 
  • Bekker, Cajus (1994). The Luftwaffe War Diaries. Da Capo Press. ISBN 0-306-80604-5. 
  • Herlin, Hans (1960). UDET - A Man's Life. MacDonald. 
  • Kelly, Saul (2002). The Lost Oasis: The Desert War and the Hunt for Zerzura. Westview Press. ISBN 0-7195-6162-0. 
  • Knopp, Guido (2000). Hitlers Krieger. Goldmann Verlag. ISBN 3-442-15045-0. 
  • Udet, Ernst (1981). Stanley M. Ulanoff. ed. Ace of the Iron Cross. Arco. ISBN 0-668-05163-9. 
  • van Ishoven, Armand (1979). The Fall of an Eagle: The Life of Fighter Ace Ernst Udet. Kimber & Co. ISBN 0-7183-0067-X. 
  • VanWyngarden, Greg, et al. (2006) Early German Aces of World War I. Osprey Publishing. ISBN 1-84176-997-5, ISBN 978-1-84176-997-4.

External links

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