Karen gets fascinating WWI and WWII aviation stories from the Vintage Aero Flying Museum as writer for the Great War Stories Gift Shop.
WWI ace pilots
Manfred von Richthofen, the Red Baron, was also known as the "Ace of Aces", but first among those other aces on the German side in World War I (WWI) was Ernst Udet, the highest-scoring German ace to survive the war. Like most names from a century ago, his name is not well-known today, but during the wars he was a celebrity as well as a stuntman, barnstormer, and owner of an aircraft manufacturing company. There is a lot of famous aircraft nose art out there, but Ernst Udet was famous for his tail art - "Du Doch Nicht!!" in big white letters.
While the Red Baron had an enigmatic reserve that has made him to this day (with the help of Charles Schulz and Snoopy) perhaps the best-known symbol of World War I, Udet's style was flamboyant and outrageous. They were both at least as famous as rock stars in their day - their day being the first generation of aviation, the last days of many European monarchies, and the first war that was fought in enough parts of the globe to get the name "world war". (For the northern Europe part of it, see the BBC's very nice animated map of WWI.) As we approach 100 years since WWI, the story of Ernst Udet and his "Du Doch Nicht!!" airplane needs retelling...and what does "du doch nicht" mean anyway?
Lo! Udet's Aircraft!
Ace Pilot Snoopy
WWI Fighter Pilot and Archetype
Ernst Udet's road to becoming an ace was not a smooth one. At first he was rejected from the army for being too short, but later got in as a motorcyclist because he had his own motorcycle. He tried to get into the pilot corps but kept being rejected until he heard that if he could get private pilot training, it would greatly increase his chances. Through family networks he got the substantial amount of money for the training, got trained, and was in.
On both sides of the war, this was the first generation of fighter pilots, the one that established the image for years to come of "those magnificent men in their flying machines" - daring, skilled, and wild. Udet was probably a major contribution to that image as a hard-drinking playboy always on the edge of court-martial but indispensable because of his ability with an airplane - and that didn't necessarily mean flying ability. Aerobatics was usually just for entertaining crowds back home. In a fight it was usually more important to be good at tactics than fancy flying; one more illustration of the military saying "if you find yourself in a fair fight, you didn't plan it well enough".
The Red Baron's Hand-Picked Man
Real war heroes' stories aren't usually quite what movies make them out to be; consistency, teamwork and reliability are important in real life but don't make for exciting movies. Udet, however, seemed made for Hollywood, and in fact spent time there after the war. There were many stories that collected around him as he rose through the ranks of acehood. He got into the fighter pilot corps after the officer he was flying for threw (by hand!) a bomb and it got tangled in the landing gear. Udet was able to dislodge it with his aerobatics, saving for Germany two men and (probably considered much more important) an airplane. In 1916, as a fighter pilot, he scored one victory by forcing down the enemy plane without even damaging it, but on landing his own aircraft turned over. So the victorious Udet got out of his crashed airplane and shook hands with his unhurt victim. Another time, while still fairly new, he had French ace Guynemer in his sights, but his guns jammed, and Guynemer eventually broke off the attack and flew away with a wave, apparently approving of this brash new pilot and wishing him to live to fight another day. So Udet did live, and bettered Guynemer's score by 9.
Stories like this, with brave heroes, doing exciting things in style and fighting as gentlemen, made the air war seem to the public like a welcome relief from the carnage of the trench warfare. Aces became celebrities - but it was not all glamour. The pilots really had to be brave; even without being shot at, early aviation was an extremely dangerous profession, and Udet had a whole squadron of men killed from around him over a few months.
Udet's achievements in battle resulted in an invitation from his hero, the Red Baron himself, to join the Baron's elite Flying Circus, Jagdgeschwader 1. Udet was selected by von Richthofen to command Jagdstaffel (Jasta) 11, the squadron von Richthofen had commanded, and he flew very successfully for several months. But he was at home with an ear infection when the Red Baron was shot down in April 1918, and when he returned to the front, von Richthofen's successor Hermann Goering (of WWII infamy) was in charge, and to put it mildly, it was not an improvement. But Udet lived to see the end of the war on November 11, 1918, and ended as the fourth-highest scoring ace of the war.
Ernst Udet and His Fokker D-7
Du Doch Nicht!!
Ernst Udet had his picture taken beside his Fokker D-7 (also written as Fokker D-VII) aircraft after he had "Du Doch Nicht!!" painted on the tail. It seems more than a bit arrogant to write something in German for French and English speakers to read, but then it's probably in the same spirit of writing "Greetings from America", "A present for the Kaiser", and such on bombs and ammunition. The enemy doesn't have to read it to guess that what is expressed is about what they would say in the same position.
Besides, "Du Doch Nicht!!" is an idiom which isn't even necessarily clear to Germans of today. To translate it literally would come out to something like "You Certainly Not!!", but it is better expressed as "No You Don't!!" or "Definitely Not You!!". Or, as a very broad paraphrase, "You and What Army!!"
The side of the aircraft was painted with the word "Lo!" which was short for Eleanor, the name of his childhood sweetheart, girlfriend, and later wife (though the marriage only lasted three years. Perhaps, knowing the typical lifespan of a WWI pilot, she hadn't expected to have to put up with him very long.)
The Flying Circus aircraft were very colorful, which helped identify friend and foe in a dogfight, and also identified them from a distance to an enemy who would hopefully flee rather than fight the dreaded Red Baron. Only von Richthofen's plane was blood-red all over, but much of Udet's was red, with a colorful scale-type design on the lower wing.
So what was the effect of these fearsome statements and decorations? Shortly after painting these messages on his aircraft, Udet was shot down. But he lived.
Udet's victories and how they were counted
It is a bit difficult to compare aces' scores between WWI and WWII, and between German, French, English, and American pilots. They were called "victories", sort of like in a tournament where it may be possible to win without necessarily killing the opponent. There were many factors in a victory, and it could mean anything from the pilot killed and the airplane crashed, to the pilot forced down behind enemy lines so both pilot and airplane survived unhurt. There were many questions for the pilot, and mostly up to the pilot's own honesty to answer, as the others who were in the area at the time may have been too busy themselves to be much of a witness:
- How do you know you killed him - did you follow his plane down to the ground to see? (The Red Baron did.)
- Can you prove it; perhaps a souvenir taken from the pilot or aircraft? (The Red Baron did, and some of his souvenirs are in a museum now.)
- Was someone else also shooting at the same plane at the same time; should they get credit?
- Did someone else assist, for instance by chasing the plane to where it was in front of you?
- Did the enemy airplane disappear in a cloud, and though you're sure it went down you didn't actually see it do so?
- Do you kind of think maybe you felt like you probably made the kill?
As you can imagine, there is great potential for inflated scores, and different countries counted victories in different ways, depending on such things as how important truth, honor, and a man's word were in the society, and on how valuable it was for propaganda to report that everybody's favorite ace bagged another one today.
The Red Baron's score of 80 victories was the most impressive of its day, and also well attested to. He himself pointed out that he had had great opportunities, and if some of the early pilots (meaning, they had been flying for a couple years before him) had survived, they would have been far beyond his score. Ernst Udet's score was a distant second among Germans to the Red Baron, but Udet also accomplished a more unusual feat for an ace: surviving the war.
By the time of World War II (WWII), airplanes were very different and pilots had had a generation to think about tactics, so the scores of that war really don't compare to the First World War, as you can see in the lists below. Different national policies on pilot use also made a difference; all the top scorers of WWII were German since skilled German pilots usually returned to the cockpit while those of other nations got rotated out to teach cadets. Partial lists of scores from WWI and WWII are shown below (see the complete list for WWI and WWII on Wikipedia) to give some idea of Udet's standing.
Top Aces of WWI
Manfred von Richthofen
Highest German scorer to survive the war
As a new pilot, Udet had him in his sights but guns jammed.
Perhaps Boelcke was to von Richthofen what von Richthofen was to Udet: predecessor, inspiration, and mentor. But Boelcke died, and von Richthofen went on to surpass him in victories
Lothar von Richthofen
Great ace unfortunately destined mainly to be known as the Red Baron's younger brother
Another interesting pilot whose aircraft is replicated at the Vintage Aero Flying Museum
Top American ace; hard to score high when your nation enters the war years after the others
Top Aces of WWII
Erich "Bubi" Hartmann
A whole bunch more
Udet and Rickenbacker, Lindbergh, Doolittle, and Hollywood
Between the wars, Udet became friends with top American WWI ace Eddie Rickenbacker, transatlantic solo pilot Charles Lindbergh, and a very good pilot named Jimmy Doolittle who was not particularly famous before WWII. All three were invited to tour Germany's military buildup in the 1930s; all three were concerned about it and tried to warn the American government, and all three were ignored.
But why would Germany show off its secret preparations anyway? In his biography, Rickenbacker explained that the Germans didn't really consider America an enemy in the same sense as England and France, and besides Udet enjoyed the opportunity to show off the Teutonic forces of the air to a pilot who could properly appreciate it.
Between the wars, Udet was a barnstormer, stunt pilot, aircraft manufacturer, and an international celebrity. He clearly enjoyed the lifestyle. Living a flashy life, he naturally fit in well with Hollywood, and flew in movies such as the US-German co-production of S.O.S. Eisberg. However, it seems he at least was clear about the difference between actors and those who actually accomplish things. One day he was presented with the idea of a movie about the Red Baron.
I am in Hollywood for three weeks when I finally get “the word” from the movie man. The general manager has requested that I have a talk with him. He jumps into the matter with both feet. “We want to do a Richthofen film and need a flying consultant.”
He names a sum. It’s fantastic. I think for a moment. Richthofen? No! He’s too big for Hollywood. “It’s out of the question,” I say.
--Ernst Udet, The Ace of the Iron Cross , ed. Stanley M. Ulanoff, trans. Richard K. Riehn (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1970), 127
And maybe it should have stayed that way - in a recent movie about the Red Baron, apparently the movie's version of the Red Baron questions the war. The real Red Baron was very loyal to the Kaiser and did not fit today's standards of political correctness, writing for instance about his bombing runs before he became a fighter pilot:
We reached the target and dropped the first bombs. It is, naturally, very interesting to watch the results of such a mission. At least one always likes to see the explosion. ... When the bomb bursts below and one sees the lovely gray-white cloud of the explosion near the target, it is very pleasing.
--Manfred von Richthofen, The Red Baron: The Fabled Ace’s Story in His Own Words , ed. Stanley M. Ulanoff, trans. Peter Kilduff (New York: Ace Books, 1969), 38
How Udet Died - Maybe
The buildup of the Luftwaffe was led by Hermann Goering, and Udet did not get along any better with Goering as WWII started than in the previous war. It is tempting to think that von Richthofen had intended Udet rather than Goering to be his successor, and imagine the alternative history of a Luftwaffe led by Udet. Unfortunately, there's no particular reason to think Udet had any anti-Nazi leanings or that he would necessarily have done the job better than Goering. As things really were, it appears the discord between Goering and Udet was mainly because Goering's leadership was less than impressive to a man who had so admired Manfred von Richthofen.
Udet appears to have committed suicide with a gun to the head on November 17, 1941 as a result of his frustration with how the Luftwaffe was being handled. However, some have suggested that, as flamboyant as Udet was, if he had committed suicide he would have done it more spectacularly. Suicide forced by blackmail or murder made to look like a suicide was not unknown in the Third Reich (remember what happened to Rommel.)
In any case, suicide was not an honorable way for the Luftwaffe's hero pilot to die, so the story put out at the time was that he was killed in flight testing a new weapon.
Famous WWI Battlefields - Somme, Ypres, Verdun, Mons, Arras
Safety Devices on WWI Aircraft - NOT!
Aviation in WWI was less than 15 years old, and other than having a recognizable fuselage, airplanes still had a lot in common with the Wright Flyer. Parachutes weren't used until late in the war, and then only on the German side; Udet was actually one of the first to survive because of a parachute, in June 1918. Allied pilots never had parachutes during the war for fear that they would abandon ship before they had to. The airplanes were valuable, especially ones with new capabilities the enemy hadn't developed yet. Trained pilots, on the other hand, were fairly expendable in the days when flying time was measured in minutes instead of hours.
There were no brakes on the airplanes. No pressurized canopy. No canopy, in fact. Oh, and no rear wheel - a skid worked better on the grass fields that were the airstrips. Some airplanes were built for the air at the expense of ground travel; they were tilted so far back that while taxiing the pilot had to keep turning from side to side to see what was in front of him. No radio or radar. No guns at first: the first airplanes were intended just for battlefield observation, and the story goes that aerial combat started when one of these observers threw a brick at another.
Roland Garros first mounted a gun on a plane, shooting straight forward so that aiming the plane aimed the gun. This was successful while nobody else had guns, but there was a bit of a problem in that the propeller was also straight forward. Garros put metal plates on the propellers to protect them from bullets, but there was still a tendency to shoot off your own propeller until Anthony Fokker (as in, Udet's Fokker D-7) invented a way to synchronize the shooting so that bullets passed between propeller blades...at least while the synchronization worked. In what seems from a century's perspective like an obvious improvement, the Nieuport had a gun mounted over the top wing, shooting above the propeller.
Meanwhile, pilots were learning from painful and often fatal experience about things like air currents near mountains and thunderstorms, what happens in a stall, the effect of g forces, and human tendencies to get disoriented or distracted in certain conditions and fly right into the ground. If the motto of these early air forces had been "safety first" there would have been no air forces.
Replica of Fokker D-7
History of Replica of Udet's aircraft
You can learn more about Ernst Udet at the Vintage Aero Flying Museum north of Denver (or read the museum stories at Great War Stories Gift Shop), where there is a flying replica of his Fokker D-7 built by museum director Andy Parks and his father Dr. James Parks in their garage.
Dr. James Parks' father and another relative fought in WWI, and he grew up fascinated with WWI stories, particularly the pilots of the Lafayette Escadrille, and visited many veterans on family vacations. He was entrusted with war memorabilia from many of these veterans and their families, which turned into a big enough collection that it has become a museum with many living, flying history exhibits of WWI replica aircraft. (All the German WWI aircraft today are only replicas since one of the conditions of the armistice was that the Germans destroy those terrible flying war machines so they couldn't be used for future wars.) Andy grew up personally knowing many WWI pilots and other veterans, and may be the only one who today can talk with personal knowledge of the participants in that war. (For instance, based on knowledge of the difficulties of flying the Red Baron's airplane, knowledge of the testimony at the time, and the medical background of Dr. Parks, Andy maintains that the Red Baron could not have been shot in the air but was shot at landing by ground fire.)
The Parks' Fokker D-7, like other flying replicas, is not exact in deference to current aviation laws about using things like radios, materials that don't exist today as they were then because the factories that produced them no longer exist, and new customs such as landing on airstrips now instead of grass fields. But you'd have to be an expert to know the differences.
The museum has taken the Fokker D-7 and other replicas such as a replica of von Richthofen's triplane and a Fokker D-8 (or D-VIII) in Gotthard Sachsenberg's colors to airshows around the country. This is an impressive feat considering that one cross-country trip is many times more flying hours than the original airplane was designed to fly in its entire life. Most WWI air battles were over in minutes. A video of the museum's trip to the Dawn Patrol airshow includes an accident, very typical of WWI, where the Fokker D-7 turned over on landing and had to be rebuilt (and was repainted to more authentic colors that museum research on Udet had discovered in the meantime.)
The Real Ernst Udet Doing Aerobatics
Udet's View of the World - Flying a Replica D-7
Ace of the Iron Cross - Udet's autobiography
Red Baron's Autobiography
An older edition of the Red Baron's autobiography is out of print but still available in some places: Red Baron - The Fabled Ace's Own Story in His Own Words by Manfred von Richthofen. I read this one and enjoyed Manfred von Richthofen's war stories; he was quite an entertaining writer. Interesting to see the change in tone at the end as he is suffering from his head wound and German defeat is becoming more and more obvious.
Eddie Rickenbacker's autobiography
Safoora Bajwa from Islamabad on August 21, 2018:
Interesting and informative story.
A great research work
Robert Sacchi on August 24, 2016:
That is a great idea. A Dawn Patrol airshow sounds fantastic.
aethelthryth (author) from American Southwest on August 23, 2016:
Thanks, Robert! Definitely visit if you're in Colorado! If you are in the Dayton area Oct 2016, the museum will be having a traveling exhibit at the Dawn Patrol airshow. We are also trying to capture some of the museum's stories by recording and transcribing talks about each of the exhibits, and putting them up on the Great War Stories Gift Shop online.
Robert Sacchi on August 22, 2016:
I enjoyed reading your Hub. That museum seems an interesting place to visit.
aethelthryth (author) from American Southwest on February 15, 2013:
I am told there was somebody named Peppard who sailed into Denver on a "wind wagon" but had problems with the gusts coming down Boulder Canyon....
Dale Anderson from The High Seas on February 15, 2013:
I'd need a LOT of wind to sail my boat there. I mean a LOT! =)
aethelthryth (author) from American Southwest on February 13, 2013:
Video is definitely not what I'm good at, but my family has been wanting to get the stories of Andy Parks, the Vintage Aero Flying Museum director, who actually knew many of these men, on paper, film or ANYTHING. Since the museum is in Colorado, that sounds a bit inland for you, but if it works out that you are able to do something before we do, go for it, and let us know how we can help!
Dale Anderson from The High Seas on February 13, 2013:
Ever considered making a documentary? I've thought about it many times in the past because I do 3d animation and could recreate the planes, etc. If you're interested in exploring that, let me know.
aethelthryth (author) from American Southwest on February 11, 2013:
Not yet, GetitScene; there is indeed so much interesting to write about them, but it's probably not happening this decade! Iwo Jima took priority because I know someone who lived through that who's still living. The chance to talk to living WWI veterans passed long before I learned WWI was any more than the prequel to WWII.
Dale Anderson from The High Seas on February 11, 2013:
Amazing article! Have you written any books about these Aces?
aethelthryth (author) from American Southwest on February 11, 2013:
Thank you, billd01603! Can't say I've gotten much written about WWI aces lately as I'm working on a book about Iwo Jima, but I need to get back to these. There are still Doug Campbell, Eugene Bullard, Kiffin Rockwell, and many more to write about.
billd01603 from Worcester on February 10, 2013:
aethelthyrth, another good, informative Hub. Looking at your profile I can tell I'm going to enjoy reading them. Voted up and interesting
aethelthryth (author) from American Southwest on August 30, 2012:
joegreeen, you are quite right, and I have now corrected it everywhere - I think. What he was, was the highest-scoring German ace to survive the war. I guess I got myself confused between WW1 and WW2, because I was thinking all the highest scoring aces were German. Perhaps I should pay more attention to my own articles.
joegreeen on August 30, 2012:
First, good article, but there is an error.
To quote your article "...was Ernst Udet, the highest-scoring ace to survive the war." and " But unlike the other highest aces of WWI, Udet lived to see the end of the war on November 11, 1918,"
Both Rene Fonck and Billy Bishop not only trumped Udet in victories but they also outlived Udet. Bishop and Fonck lived to see the 1950s
Still thanks for posting the article
aethelthryth (author) from American Southwest on May 24, 2012:
Mars, sorry, I was busy with another project and forgot to get back to this.
But now I have it from Andy Parks that yes that is Ernst Udet. His face does look a bit gaunt - that's because this was at the end of the war, probably right after he had been out sick for a while (which was where he was when Richthofen was shot down). He painted "Du Doch Nicht" on his plane in the summer of 1918 and only flew that plane for two weeks before being brought down by the 96th Aero Squadron.
aethelthryth (author) from American Southwest on March 16, 2012:
You could be right. I forgot that picture didn't come from the same place as some others, so I was making an assumption as to who it was. Will try to remember to check with Andy Parks, who has this picture in his WWI memorabilia collection (the largest in the world at this time), next time I'm at the Vintage Aero Flying Museum. Thanks for helping me be accurate.
Mars on March 16, 2012:
Great page but I think the photo of the man in front of the Du Doch Nicht aircraft is not Udet. I've seen this shot before and it doesn't look like him. Somewhere (I wish I remembered which book) I've seen it with his mechanic's name listed instead.
aethelthryth (author) from American Southwest on February 21, 2012:
UnnamedHarald, as I see some of your Hubs on WWI, I take your comment as a great compliment. I am thinking of writing about Rickenbacker and von Richthofen, as I get time. With your interest in WWI, next time you are near Denver, you must visit the VAFM! (Note: I am not affiliated with this museum, I just really like what they've got there. We discovered it a couple years ago and it led to my learning a lot about WWI fast.)
David Hunt from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on February 21, 2012:
This is very well-researched and well-written about a pilot whose name was the only thing I knew about him. It was a pleasure to read. I hope you write more about the First World War-- you have a flair for it. Voted up and interesting.
aethelthryth (author) from American Southwest on February 21, 2012:
Thank you, Kieran. I'm honored to have the input from someone who knows the aviation industry.
Kieran Gracie on February 21, 2012:
Good story and a very interesting Hub. Voted Up and Interesting accordingly. I think that one of the reasons that Allied pilots did not get such high scores is that there was not (at least initially) a policy of encouraging 'aces'. It was felt a bit 'undignified', but of course, later in the war, the PR value was eventually recognised and then exploited.