WWII Luftwaffe Generals who won the WWI Pour le Mérite

Oberleutnant Hermann GÖRING ‘The Iron Man’ (22 victories)

The son of Dr Heinrich Göring, Governor of German South West Africa, Hermann Göring was born in Rosenheim, Upper Bavaria, on 12 January 1893. A rebellious and undisciplined child, he was sent to the military academy at Karlsruhe, and from there to Lichterfelde, an army cadet college for future officers. He graduated with the highest honours a cadet could achieve, and received praise from the Kaiser himself. Göring was commissioned into Prinz Wilhelm Regiment Nr 112. He had a passion for mountain climbing and did not shrink from the danger, believing nothing bad could happen to him.

At the outbreak of war his regiment went straight into action as it was stationed at Muhlhausen in Alsace-Lorraine, on the wrong side of the Rhine. When the regiment moved to the Vosges region, Göring contracted rheumatic fever. While in hospital he was visited by his friend Bruno Loerzer, who had served in the same regiment but was now a pilot with the German Army Air Service. His visit gave Göring much to think about, not least the dismal prospect of returning to the cold and the mud. He therefore wrote to his CO requesting a transfer to the Freiburg flying school. After having had no response for two weeks, he ‘obtained’ the papers and signed them himself. He spent the next two weeks flying with Loerzer and getting all the training he could. However, his transfer was refused and he was ordered to rejoin his unit; the situation was serious, as he had left himself open to charges of desertion and forging papers. He immediately telegraphed his godfather, Ritter von Epstein, who moved in high circles, and suddenly Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm intervened, asking that Göring be posted to the German Fifth Army field air detachment. The charges were reduced to one of ‘lateness’, and Göring was given a medical certificate saying he was unfit for front-line duty. It should be remembered here that he was not trying to get out of the fighting–he just wanted to fight in the air.

In the autumn of 1914 he completed his training and then joined Bruno Loerzer at FFA25. They flew together as often as possible, soon winning a reputation for carrying out the most dangerous missions, and in March 1915 were awarded the Iron Cross 2nd Class. In May they were sent to carry out a reconnaissance of the French fortresses of Verdun, a task that many others had tried–and failed. For three days they flew over the Verdun area and took pictures so detailed that General Erich von Falkenhayn asked to see them personally. The High Command were so impressed with the results that Crown Prince Wilhelm exercised his royal prerogative and awarded them both the Iron Cross 1st Class in the field. In June 1915 Göring was posted to Freiburg for pilot training, passing out in October and being sent to FA25. On 16 November, while flying an Albatros, he shot down his first enemy aircraft, a Maurice Farman, over Tahure.

In 1916 Göring was posted to Kek Stennay flying Fokker EIIIs, and then in March to Kek Metz, where he shot down a Caudron on the 14th; on 30 July he shot down another Caudron over Memang. On 9 July he went back to FA25, and again to Kek Metz on 7 September. He was posted to Jasta 7 in early October and then on 20 October to Jasta 5. While on patrol on 2 November he came across a Handley-Page bomber; as he closed in on it, he came under fire, which he returned, killing one of the gunners. Then he came under attack from an escorting Sopwith, being hit in the thigh; losing consciousness momentarily, he came to as his aircraft was plummeting to the ground. He was able to regain control and landed next to an emergency hospital just inside the German lines, and within a very short time he was in the operating theatre.

At the beginning of February 1917 Göring was posted to Jasta 26, now under the command of his friend Bruno Loerzer, and by the end of the month had brought his score to six. On 10 May he shot down a DH4 of 55 Squadron over Le Pave and one week later was given command of Jasta 27. Although it had been in existence for three months, this unit had yet to score its first kill. On 16 July Göring shot down an SE5a for his ninth victory but was himself brought down in the process, both pilots claiming a kill. On 21 September Göring shot down the Bristol Fighter flown by Lieutenant R.L. Curtis (fifteen victories) and Lieutenant D.P.F. Uniacke (thirteen victories). His scoring was much slower at this time due to the responsibility of command, and it took until the end of October to bring his tally to fifteen. On 27 October Göring was awarded the Military Karl Friedrich Merit Order, the Knight’s Cross with Swords of the Royal Hohenzollern House Order and the Knight’s Cross 2nd Class with Swords of the Baden Order of the Zahringer Lion. On 7 November he achieved his final score for that year, a DH4 north-west of Poelcapelle, although much confusion surrounds this claim as the only British aircraft reported lost on this date was an AWFK VIII two-seater.

It was not until 21 February 1918 that Göring scored again, bringing down an SE5a from 60 Squadron, followed by an RE8 from 48 Squadron on 7 April. On 2 June 1918 he was awarded the Pour le Mérite by the Kaiser, and by the end of that month he had brought down three more aircraft to bring his tally to twenty-one. On 9 July he was given command of JG1, the Richthofen Wing, with promotion to Oberleutnant. His only victory while leading this unit came on 18 July, bringing his total to twenty-two. From then on he did very little flying, having either decided or been ordered to take a more administrative role due to the lack of experienced officers.

On 9 August 1918 the order to cease all further air operations came and he was ordered to transfer his unit’s aircraft to an Allied airfield; Göring obeyed the order but, knowing full well the Allies wanted the latest Fokkers, he ordered his pilots to set fire to their planes on landing. After fighting in the post-war revolution with the rank of Hauptmann, he went to Denmark in a flight advisory capacity, but returned to Germany in the early 1920s.

Göring joined the Nazi Party in 1922 and was appointed commander of the SA in 1923. In November 1923 he was involved in the ‘Beer Hall Putsch’: Ludendorff, Hitler and Göring marched in front of a large column with Ulrich Graf carrying a swastika flag before them; shots were fired and Göring was hit in the hip and thighs. As a result of his wounds he was given two shots of morphine a day for a month.

In 1925 he went into a sanatorium three times to be cured of his morphine addiction, which he did by will-power alone. In 1928 he was elected to the Reichstag, and in 1932 became its President. When Hitler was appointed Chancellor in January 1933, Göring became Reich Minister, Reich Commissioner for Aviation and Acting Prussian Minister of the Interior; later the same year he was appointed Minister President of Prussia. He was promoted to General in May 1933, but from April his old wounds started to give him problems and he was back on painkillers. In March 1934 he was named as Hitler’s successor. March 1935 saw him appointed General of the Luftwaffe with the rank of Generalleutnant and he was soon promoted Oberstgeneral.

In April 1935 he was appointed Dictator of Raw Material, a post that allowed him to channel resources into the Luftwaffe. In October 1936 he was appointed the person responsible for the ‘Four Year Plan’ intended to make the Reich independent from imports. Göring also appointed himself Commander-in-Chief of the Luftwaffe in June 1937. Throughout that year he tried many weight cures, which only weakened him, and he was still being treated for his addiction to pills. Yet another promotion came in February 1938, this time to Airmarschall. On 30 September 1939 he was awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross.

Published in 1940, his authorised biography is called Hermann Göring; The Man and his Work. On 19 July 1940, after the fall of France, he was promoted to Reichsmarschall and, uniquely, was awarded the Grand Cross of the Iron Cross. He was now at the height of his power.

From the Battle of Britain onwards his influence started to decline, not least because the Luftwaffe proved unable to dominate the skies as he had promised the Fuhrer it would. In 1941 his paratroopers suffered heavy losses in the battle of Crete. He became known throughout Germany as ‘Meier’, due to his boast that no enemy plane would ever fly over the Reich–by now a common occurrence. The Fuhrer lost even more faith in him after the fall of Stalingrad in 1943, as Göring had promised he could re-supply the city from the air, though by now he was completely unable to prevent the bombing of German cities. Reproached by Hitler, he feared being relieved from command of the Luftwaffe, and mood swings now became part of his persona.

In April 1945 Göring sent Hitler his famous telegram stating that he would assume overall leadership of the Reich if he [Hitler] was unable to act freely. Two days later Göring was relieved of all offices and Hitler ordered his arrest. He was supposed to be shot after Hitler’s death but the SS guard was unsure of this and telephoned Feldmarschall Kesselring, who forbade it and told the guard to leave Göring to himself. On 8 May he fell into the hands of the Americans. He was sent to trial at Nuremberg in 1946 and found guilty of war crimes, and killed himself with poison on 15 October 1946. His ashes were scattered in an unknown German river.

Oberleutnant Robert Ritter von GREIM (28 victories)

The son of a police captain, Robert Greim was born in Bayreuth, Bavaria, on 22 June 1892. At 14 he became a cadet, joining the regular army on 14 July 1911 at the age of 19. He was immediately put forward for officer training and on 29 October 1912 joined Bavarian Field Artillery Regiment Nr 8 and was commissioned Leutnant on 25 October 1913. When the war broke out his regiment was one of the first into action; he commanded a battery at the Battle of Lorraine at Nancy-Epinal, and at the assaults on St Mihiel and Camp des Romains. For these actions he was awarded the Iron Cross 2nd Class, and on 15 March 1915 was appointed the 1st Battalion’s Adjutant. At the end of April Greim was awarded the Bavarian Military Merit Order 4th Class with Swords.

Like so many other young men, he began to look at the newly formed German Army Air Service and applied for a transfer. He started his training as an observer on 10 August 1915 and was posted to FFA3b. Greim opened his tally by shooting down a Maurice Farman on 10 October. He was then sent to FA(A)204 as an observer during the Battle of the Somme in 1916, but applied for pilot training towards the end of the year. After graduating he was sent to FA46b as a reconnaissance pilot on 22 February 1917 and then to Jastaschule in March for single-seater training. On completing this he was posted to Jasta 34b on 3 April 1917; he now had his aircraft painted with his own markings of a red nose, two red fuselage bands and a white/silvery tail. On 18 May 1917 he was awarded the Bavarian Military Merit Order 4th Class with Crown and Swords.

On 24 May he shot down a Spad over Mamey but this was unconfirmed. The next day he shot down a Caudron R4 over Ramaucourt, and was awarded the Iron Cross 1st Class. By the end of 1917 he had brought down seven enemy aircraft. On 29 April 1918, with his tally at nine, he was awarded the Knight’s Cross with Swords of the Royal Hohenzollern House Order and on 21 March he was given command of Jagdgruppe Nr 10 and later Jagdgruppe Nr 9. In April, May and June he brought down only four enemy aircraft, but in August he shot down six, including two on the 8th. On 8 October 1918 he was awarded the Pour le Mérite and by the end of the month had brought his score to twenty-eight, and subsequently was awarded the Bavarian Max Joseph Medal, entitling him to use the term ‘Ritter von’ (thus making him a knight); he was also promoted to Oberleutnant. After the war he served with the Bavarian Air Service and later became an adviser to the Chinese Nationalist Air Force.

In the early 1930s he became Director of the Bavarian Sport Flyers Association, then in 1934 he joined the newly formed Luftwaffe with the rank of Major, taking command of the Richthofen Geschwader. In 1938 he was promoted to General and during the Second World War commanded Fliegerkorps V, and was awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross on 24 June 1940. The Oak Leaves to this medal followed on 2 April 1943 and the Swords on 7 August 1944. By 1944 he was commanding the air fleets in Russia with the rank of Generaloberst. By the time he was captured by the Americans in 1945 he was head of the Luftwaffe, a post given to him by Hitler, who also promoted him to Generalfeldmarschall. He committed suicide on 24 May 1945, his last words being ‘I am head of the Luftwaffe with no Luftwaffe.’ He is buried in the Communal Cemetery, Salzburg, Austria.

Oberleutnant zur See Theodor OSTERKAMP ‘Uncle Theo’ (32 victories)

The son of a forestry worker, Theodor Osterkamp was born in Duren in the Rhineland on 15 April 1892. He was studying forestry himself when the war started, and he volunteered for the Naval Flying Corps in August 1914, requesting to be trained as a pilot. However, the need for observers was greater at that time. On completion of his training he was posted to the Marine Flying Detachment, where for the next two years he flew reconnaissance missions along the Belgian coast. Osterkamp’s success was rewarded with the Iron Cross 2nd Class and a commission to Leutnant zur See in June 1916.

The routine nature of these missions soon started to get to him and in February 1917 Osterkamp applied for pilot training and was accepted in March. On graduating on 14 April, he was posted to MFJ I and the same week shot down his first enemy aircraft, a Sopwith, while on patrol over Oostkerke. By the end of July his tally was five and on 29 August he was awarded the Iron Cross 1st Class and the Knight’s Cross of the Royal Hohenzollern House Order. His sixth victory came on 24 September when he shot down a Spad from Escadrille 31. Then on 15 October 1917 he was given command of MFJ I and promoted to Oberleutnant zur See.

While on a solo familiarisation flight in a new Fokker EV monoplane he was jumped by three Spads and had to bale out of his aircraft, landing behind his own lines. At the beginning of 1918 he spent some time reorganising his unit to make it more efficient and the results started to show. By the end of July his personal tally had risen to nineteen and by the end of August stood at twenty-three. On 2 September 1918 he was awarded the Pour le Mérite. His total stood at thirty-two by the war’s end. After the Armistice he, along with Peter Jacobs and Gotthard Sachsenberg, fought the communists in the Baltic.

Osterkamp took part in the FAI International Tourist Plane Contest Challenge three times, finishing eleventh in 1930, twelfth in 1932 and fifth in 1934. In 1935 he joined the Luftwaffe, and was given command of Jagdfliegerschule Nr I in 1939. He held this post until taking over command of JG51 the following year. During the invasion of France Osterkamp was almost immediately in action, shooting down four enemy aircraft in May and two more during the Battle of Britain, including three Hurricanes and a Spitfire (so perhaps his final score should be thirty-eight). For this he was awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross on 22 August 1940. He was appointed commander of fighters in northern France and later Sicily, with the rank of Generalleutnant. He was very critical of the High Command and the way they were directing the air war, and because of this he was retired in 1944. It was probably only the respect that Luftwaffe pilots and ground crew held for him that prevented a worse fate.

He died in Baden-Baden on 2 January 1975.

Oberleutnant Ernst UDET ‘The Flying Clown’ (62 victories)

The son of a wealthy landowner, Ernst Udet was born on 26 April 1896 in Frankfurt-am-Main. He had a flair for anything mechanical, and owned a motorcycle. He tried to join the army first at the age of 17 but was rejected several times before being accepted on 21 August 1914 as a motorcycle messenger for the 26th Wurttemberg Reserve Division. For the next few months he delivered messages up and down the lines. Then one night he swerved to miss a shell hole and crashed; after ten days in hospital, he was sent to find his division but could not. While in Liege he met a pilot, Leutnant von Waxheim, who convinced him to join the German Army Air Service.

Udet made several applications but all were refused and he was ordered back home. He trained as a pilot at his own expense while putting forward more requests to fly. In early 1915 he was ordered to Darmstadt for pilot training, on completion of which he was sent to FA(A)206 with the rank of Gefreiter. Leutnant Bruno Justinus was appointed as his observer. After three long weeks, during which time they never even saw an Allied aircraft, they spotted a French monoplane attacking a railway station. As they approached and got in behind it, it became obvious that the Frenchman was having difficulties. Noticing that the monoplane had a machine-gun mounted behind the propeller, Udet ‘encouraged’ the French pilot to make a forced-landing on the German side of the lines; before he could set fire to his machine, the Frenchman, Roland Garros, was captured by German soldiers. The capture of his aircraft with its machine-gun and crude inter-ruptor gear was to alter the course of the war in the air. For this action Udet was awarded the Iron Cross 2nd Class.

On 18 March 1916 Udet was posted to FA68 (which later became Kek Habsheim, and in September Jasta 15), and on the same day he shot down his first enemy aircraft, a French Farman F40, over Milhausen; it is said that he attacked twenty-two enemy aircraft single-handed. It was a good start but he would only score two more by the end of the year. At the beginning of January 1917 he was awarded the Iron Cross 1st Class and commissioned Leutnant on 22 January. After his sixth victory he requested a transfer to Jasta 37 and was posted there on 19 June. On 7 November he was appointed commander of Jasta 37 after the death of its commander, his friend Heinrich Gontermann. He was also awarded the Knight’s Cross with Swords of the Royal Hohenzollern House Order on 13 November. He continued to score steadily and by the end of 1917 had sixteen confirmed victories.

With his tally at twenty, Udet was made acting commander of Jasta 11 on 23 March 1918, a post he held until 8 April. On the 9th he was awarded the Pour le Mérite and given command of Jasta 4. Most of Udet’s aircraft had his fiancée’s initials ‘LO’ painted on the fuselage, and his Fokker DVII had a red fuselage, with the top surfaces of the wings ‘candy striped’ red and white. Written on the top of his rear tail surface was Du noch nicht! (‘Not you yet!’) On 29 July, with his score standing at forty, he was involved in a dog-fight with a French Breguet two-seater; forced to jump from his aircraft, he landed by parachute in a shell hole. In August 1918 Udet shot down twenty enemy aircraft, including three on the 1st and the 8th, and two on the 9th, 10th, 21st and 22nd. He was awarded the Lubeck Hanseatic Cross in August and the Hamburg Hanseatic Cross in September. Then, on 26 September, after shooting down his sixty-first and sixty-second enemy aircraft, Udet was badly wounded in the thigh, putting an end to his combat days. But he had become the second highest scoring German pilot of the war and the highest surviving ace of the war.

After the war Udet became something of an adventurer, flying all over the world. He was also involved in stunt flying for films and worked as a test pilot. At the start of the Second World War he was persuaded to join the Luftwaffe and attained the rank of Generaloberst. He was awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross on 4 July 1940. However, he could not deal with the political in-fighting within the Luftwaffe and on 17 November 1941 he committed suicide. The German propaganda machine announced that he was killed while testing a new aircraft and he was given a state funeral. He is buried in the Berlin Invaliden Friedhof.

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