Fanfare for an Uncommon Common Man
Ernst Udet, one of the great aces of WWI, the highest-scoring German ace to survive the war (second only to Richthofen), was something of a new breed in the knighthood of the air - or rather, not a product of breeding at all. He was a common man rather than one of the nobility, and Germany's youngest ace, who would only be 121 years old if he were alive today. Yet he appreciated and honored the chivalry that would soon be swallowed up in by the practicalities of war. At this point 100 years ago, Udet was commander of Jasta 37, and a few months away from being picked up for the Richthofen squadron.
Udet is frequently mentioned at the Vintage Aero Flying Museum since he painted one of the few examples of offensive tail art - offensive mainly in the attitude of the (not in themselves offensive) words Du doch nicht!! meaning more or less "Certainly not you!!" Due to his notoriety and the unusual tail art, many replica WWI aircraft have been painted in his colors; but most notably the museum's flying D.VII replica built by museum founder Dr. James Parks and his son Andy Parks.
Master Ace Shows Mercy to Apprentice Ace
Udet's book Ace of the Iron Cross contains one of the best dogfight stories of the war, Udet's story of his encounter with French ace Guynemer:
Guynemer, who always hunts alone, like all dangerous predators, who swoops out of the sun, downs his opponents in seconds, and disappears. Thus he got Puz away from me. I know it will be a fight where life and death hang in the balance.
I do a half loop in order to come down on him from above. He understands at once and also starts a loop. I try a turn, and Guynemer follows me. Once out of the turn, he can get me into his sights for a moment. Metallic hail rattles through my right wing plane and rings out as it strikes the struts.
I try anything I can, tightest banks, turns, side slips, but with lightning speed he anticipates all my moves and reacts at once. Slowly I realize his superiority. His aircraft is better, he can do more than I, but I continue to fight. Another curve. For a moment he comes into my sights. I push the button on the stick...the machine gun remains silent...stoppage!
With my left hand clutched around the stick, my right attempts to pull a round through. No use - the stoppage can't be cleared. For a moment I think of diving away. But with such an opponent this would be useless. He would be on my neck at once and shoot me up.
We continue to twist and turn. Beautiful flying if the stakes weren't so high. I never had such a tactically agile opponent. For seconds, I forget that the man across from me is Guynemer, my enemy. It seems as though I were sparring with an older comrade over our own airfield. But this illusion lasts only for seconds.
For eight minutes we circle around each other. The longest eight minutes of my life. Now, lying on his back, he races over me. For a moment I have let go of the stick and hammer the receiver with both fists. A primitive expedient, but it helps sometimes.
Guynemer has observed this from above, he must have seen it, and now he knows what gives with me. He knows I'm helpless prey.
Again he skims over me, almost on his back. Then it happens: He sticks out his hand and waves to me, waves lightly, and dives to the west in the direction of his lines.
I fly home. I'm numb.
There are people who claim Guynemer had a stoppage himself then. Others claim he feared I might ram him in desperation. But I don't believe any of them. I still believe to this day that a bit of chivalry from the past has continued to survive. For this reason I lay this belated wreath on Guynemer's unknown grave.