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Fun on the Front Lines, and Ernst Udet in the Middle of It

ernst udet red baron

Pranking Politicians

Ernst Udet"Fun is thinly sown out here," said Ernst Udet, describing a prank against a couple of politicians who visited the Red Baron's squadron to see what life was like at the front. They went so far as to sleep in the corrugated shacks like the aviators. But, however complimentarily it was intended, the politicians' talk about heroic youth and Fatherland did not go over well with the pilots whose lives were actually at risk every day. "Richthofen sits there listening with a stony face." 

Deciding to give these Reichstag delegates a better taste of war, the aviators put blank detonating ammunition down the chimney of the hut. "Three shapes in flapping white nightshirts emerge." Someone yells, "Aerial attack! Back into the huts," and the three disappear back inside. "Next morning, they are in a hurry to go on. They aren't even having breakfast with us."

This prank cheered the aviators for a long time. 

A Prisoner's Gracious Hosts

Another day, Lothar von Richthofen, who, unfortunately, is best remembered for being the Red Baron's younger brother rather than a great ace in his own right, captured an English major. Being a prisoner of the German infantry was not always a pleasant experience (see the story of "Hard Luck Ace" Bob Todd), but chivalry was alive and well among fellow flyers - one could toast the host of "brother men who fly." 

Or was chivalry still alive? That was the question, when the English major asked for the bathroom. "The little hut in question is almost three minutes distant at the end of the ravine in which the camp is located. Beyond it are the woods. It will not be difficult for an athlete to reach freedom from there." 

Some said they should escort the prisoner, whom, after all, they have to answer for. "But Lothar disagrees. 'We have treated the man as a guest thus far and he has done nothing to cast doubts on his good manners.'"

Word of Honor

They sent the Englishman to the bathroom alone, but then they all watched out the window. When the Englishman turned around, they ducked out of sight. "Our hospitality is sacred, and our suspicion might offend him."

They were reassured to notice that the Englishman's boots were visible while he was in the stall. But - they started arguing - would the boots be in that position if the man were still standing in them? Perhaps he had escaped in his stocking feet?

But the Englishman returned, saying "I would never forgive myself for disappointing such hosts," and the Germans tried to pretend they had only been discussing horses, dogs, and airplanes. The next day, the Englishman waved at them as he left with a guard for a prison camp. 

So it turned out well, but still, had the Red Baron's squadron made the right decision in trusting an enemy? A few days later, they found out the answer. They heard that the Englishman escaped from the bathroom of a moving train after overpowering his guard. He'd had enough respect for his captors who treated him well, to be bound by his word of honor. But a mere guard couldn't keep him prisoner.

Chivalry still existed, and was honored, and returned, among the knights of the air, even as late as the spring of 1918.

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