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Successor to the Ace of Aces: Udet and Goering

ernst udet hermann goering red baron

Ear Health Is Essential

"The captain," Manfred von Richthofen, had sent ace Ernst Udet home to recover from an ear infection. If an inflammation of the ear doesn't sound like a serious disease, imagine the feel of the infected ear during altitude changes in a dogfight, and what that would do to one's focus. As Richthofen had told Udet, "Out here you have to be healthy."

On the Home Front

So Udet left, in spite of the fear of bad luck brought on by breaking a string of victories. His mother didn't know he was coming, so his father told her he was bringing a guest, and went in ahead of Ernst, asking if his mother had read in the news that "our Ernie has shot down his twenty-fourth." With this introduction that every boy dreaming of future accomplishments would envy, Ernst himself then came in, and "we are in each other's arms."

Udet enjoyed the luxuries of relaxing at home, but had a hard time reconciling being there while knowing what his fellows at the front were enduring. He went out with an old girlfriend named Eleanor Zink (they would later marry, and divorce, but her nickname "Lo" would be remembered a hundred years later because he painted it on the Fokker D-VII with the tail art for which he is most famous.) He visited the family of a dead comrade. He received news of being awarded the aviator's highest award - Pour le Merite, a.k.a. "Blue Max", and got to witness his parents' pride in the award. He learned, with Lo, how the wearer of a Pour le Merite is honored by soldiers whom he passes by.

Tribute to "The Captain"

One day Udet saw a crowd in front of a poster and went up to read it. "Rittmeister Freiherr von Richthofen missing! Did not return from a mission. Investigations without result at this time."

Then I know for certain, the captain is dead.
What a man he was. Certainly, the others fought too. But they had wives or children, a mother or a profession. This they could forget only on rare occasions. But he constantly lived beyond those boundaries that we only cross during great moments. His personal life was blotted out when he fought at the front. And he always fought when he was at the front. Food, drink, and sleep was all he was willing to concede to life. Only that which was necessary to keep that machine of flesh and blood going. He was the least complicated man I ever knew. Entirely Prussian and the greatest of soldiers.

Return to the Front

Udet's description of his return to the squadron ("many new faces", "many reunions", "things have changed out here") sounds as if he had been away years or decades instead of weeks. "Sometimes the eyes seek in vain, but those missing are not discussed."

Udet started racking up victories again on 20 May 1918, and after twenty more victories, he discovered "on one of the dead men my picture, cut from a newspaper, is found with the caption: 'As des As.' [French for 'Ace of Aces'] The captain is dead, and I now have the largest score."

Rise of Goering

Perhaps the Red Baron had been grooming Udet as his successor in position as well as in victories, but it didn't turn out that way. On Udet's return, the new commander of the Flying Circus was Wilhelm Reinhard, who lasted into summer. After Reinhard's death in July, Hermann Goering became commander. As Udet observed,

The losses have been great. Three hundred percent have fallen. Three times, in the course of the war, the complement of officers has turned over. There is hardly anyone left who made the first flights with the captain.
Goering is just flying a standing patrol with his staffel when I arrive. He lands, and we greet each other. His face is dark. He was put into Richthofen's spot because he is regarded the foremost air strategist of the Army. On this dead sector, his talent is aground, and he must fight his battles on paper.

Sadly, Goering's ascension associated the Flying Circus with the events of the next war, when Goering commanded the Luftwaffe, acted as cabinet minister to create the Gestapo, mobilized the economy for war, and built a personal fortune out of the government offices he controlled as well as the estates of dead Jews. Seeking to succeed Hitler as well as the Red Baron, Goering neglected to wait until Hitler was actually dead, and Hitler ordered him arrested shortly before the end of the war. Sentenced to death by the Allies at the Nuremburg trials, Goering committed suicide first.

Beyond a Hollywood Tribute

After the war, Udet visited America, meeting and becoming friends with aviators he had fought, and becoming a celebrity himself. On visiting Hollywood, a "movie man" tells him, "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.

News Item From Madrid

On 22 May 1918, news of a mild but very infectious flu made headlines in Madrid. "In some instances, influenza was even confused with a foodborne illness, because nearly all of the persons attending these events became ill a few days later."

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