Ernst Udet was a World War I flying ace, barnstormer pilot, womanizer, drug abuser, adventurer, Hollywood stuntman, and borderline alcoholic. Had he been born two centuries earlier, he might have been a successful pirate. Born when he was, he was destined for tragedy, and he took the Luftwaffe with him.
The fun-loving Udet was born in Frankfurt-am-Main on April 26, 1896. After an unremarkable education in Munich, he entered Imperial service as a motorcycle dispatch rider for the 26th Infantry Division on the Western Front when World War I broke out. A war volunteer rather than a regular soldier, he managed to secure a discharge in the fall of 1914 and immediately volunteered for pilot training. He was turned down because he was too young, but this did not deter Ernst Udet. He returned to Munich and took private flying lessons, paid for by his father. He rejoined he service on June 15, 1915, as an enlisted man in the 9th Reserve Flying Detachment and was soon sent back to the Western Front.
Private Udet was initially assigned to the 206th Artillery Flying Detachment as an aerial observer in the Vosges sector. He quickly won a promotion to corporal (1915) and was awarded the Iron Cross, Second Class, for bravery. He also spent seven days in the stockade for needlessly destroying an airplane due to his own carelessness. Shortly after his release, he was promoted to sergeant and, in late 1915, was transferred to the 68th Field Flying Detachment in Flanders as a fighter pilot.
During his first aerial combat, Udet froze for the first time in his life and was almost shot down as a result. He soon mastered his fear and managed to shoot down his first enemy airplane (a French Farman) on March 18, 1916. He still had not fully developed his skills, however, and did not score another victory until October. He did not become an ace (i.e., did not score his fifth kill) until April 24, 1917. He was nevertheless promoted to second lieutenant of reserves in January 1917.
After he was named commander of the 37th Fighter Squadron on August 5, 1917, Udet came into his own. Just after he shot down his 20th victim (a Sopwith Camel) on February 18, 1918, Captain Manfred von Richthofen offered him command of the 11th Fighter Squadron, part of his celebrated 1st Fighter Wing. Udet took the Red Baron up on his offer and led the 11th for the rest of the war. Richthofen (a close friend of Udet’s) was killed in action on April 21, 1918, and was succeeded by Captain Wilhelm Reinhardt, who died in an air accident a few weeks later. Almost everyone expected Udet to succeed him, and they were surprised when the choice fell to an outsider: Captain Hermann Goering.
Udet was initially suspicious of the future Reichsmarschall, but the two soon became good friends. Udet went on to shoot down a great many more enemy airplanes and was awarded the Pour le Merite. When the armistice was signed, Udet had 62 victories to his credit and was the leading surviving German ace.
When the war ended, Udet smashed his airplane and joined the anonymous ranks of job-seekers in the Weimar Republic. Initially employed as an automobile mechanic in Munich, he flew on Sundays as a stunt pilot for a POW relief organization, putting on exhibition dogfights against Ritter Robert von Greim, another former ace. Then Greim flew into a high-power line and destroyed his airplane. Since no replacement could be found, Udet was grounded for a time, until he went to work for the Rumpler Works. He flew a regular route from Vienna to Munich for this firm until the Allied Control Commission confiscated his airplane, allegedly because it violated the Treaty of Versailles. After this, Udet went to work constructing sports airplanes.
Unhappy in the democratic Weimar Republic, former lieutenant Udet left for Buenos Aires in 1925 and began a prolonged period as an international wanderer. Finding employment as a charter pilot and barnstormer, he hopped all over the globe, from South America to East Africa, from the Arctic Ocean to Hollywood, California, where he was a stunt pilot in some American movies. He did not return to Germany until the advent of Adolf Hitler.
Udet’s old friend Goering greeted him warmly when he returned to the Fatherland. The aging stunt pilot did not care for the idea of joining the new air force, but Goering insisted, so Udet relented and was commissioned colonel (on special assignment) on June 1, 1935. He became inspector of fighters and dive-bombers on February 10, 1936, and on June 9 of that same year became head of the Technical Office, which was expanded and renamed the Office of Supply and Procurement in 1938. In addition, Udet was named Generalluftzeugmeister (roughly translated as chief of air armaments) of the Luftwaffe on February 1, 1939. His promotions came rapidly: major general (April 20, 1937), lieutenant general (November 1, 1938), general of flyers (April 1, 1940), and colonel general (July 19, 1940).
It is hard to imagine a man less qualified for a high-level technical/managerial position than Ernst Udet. He had no advanced education and no industrial management experience, no military experience above the rank of lieutenant, no technological or General Staff training, and he did not have the shrewd ability to judge character that Sepp Dietrich used to partially overcome the deficiencies in his background in a somewhat related situation. Indeed, in Udet’s case, quite the opposite was true. The new chief of air armaments had a talent for creating large, unworkable bureaucracies and picking the wrong man for the wrong job. Also, he was no match for the tricks of the German industrial and aviation magnates, who hoodwinked him almost daily. Even if he had possessed the mental qualities necessary to succeed in this exceedingly complex and demanding post, Udet probably would not have had time to do so. Mentally undisciplined, he hated desk work but proved to be psychologically unable to delegate authority. As a result, no fewer than 26 department heads were responsible directly to him. Udet, however, was seldom in his office. Usually he was too busy chasing women, smoking, throwing or attending wild parties that often lasted until dawn, and drinking until he could barely stand up. He also took drugs with depressing side effects and periodically went on diets in which he ate only meat. (And, judging from his photos, the diets did not work.) As a result of this regimen, department heads were unable to see him for weeks at a time, and critical decisions were often made by default or by Udet’s chief of staff, Major General August Ploch, or his chief engineer, 34-year-old Generalstabsingenieur (lieutenant general of engineers) Rulof Lucht. Both these men had been promoted above their abilities.
A good example of the effect of the disastrous impact that Udet’s office had on the Luftwaffe’s war effort is the Ju-88 bomber. The standard bomber in 1937 was the He-111 medium bomber, which had a maximum speed of about 250 miles per hour, a range of only 740 miles, and a payload of only 2.2 tons. The prototypes of the twin-engine Ju-88, which was designed to replace it, were ready for test flying in March 1938. Unfortunately, Udet and the Air General Staff had been overly impressed with the concept of dive-bombing and with the success the Ju-87 “Stuka” dive-bomber had enjoyed during the Spanish Civil War against limited aerial opposition. With the concurrence of the General Staff, Udet added the design requirement that the Ju-88 be able to dive. As a result the airplane had to be greatly modified. Air brakes had to be added and the airframe strengthened, which reduced speed, range, climbing ability, and payload. Eventually the weight of the Ju-88 was increased from 6 tons to more than 12. The first model (Ju-88-A-1) was even slower than the He-111, which it was designed to replace. Although it was used in a variety of roles throughout the war, the Ju-88 never did perform well enough to replace the obsolete He-111 as the standard German bomber.
If the Ju-88 was a disappointment, the He-177s and Me-210s were disasters. In early 1938, Udet apparently decided that the Luftwaffe might need a long-range bomber after all. He initially wanted a four-engine bomber (as had Wever before him), but aircraft designer Ernst Heinkel convinced him to allow the development of the He-177, which featured four engines joined to two propellers by a coupling arrangement. A few months later, Udet issued the requirement that it be able to dive at a 60-degree angle. Heinkel was horrified and protested to Udet that an airplane of this weight (30,000 pounds) could not be made to dive, but the chief of air armaments brushed aside his objections. Heinkel had no choice but to try. By late 1938, when the He-177 prototype first flew at Rechlin, it weighed 32 tons.
In the Battle of Britain, the weaknesses of the He-111 and Ju-88 were exposed for all the world to see. Largely because of Udet’s ineptitude, the German Air Force had clearly lost its previous superiority in military aviation technology, and the Luftwaffe lost its first battle. Udet’s star, of course, began to fade. To restore his position with Goering and Hitler, and to quickly regain the technological edge, Udet gambled. In October 1940, he ordered the He-177 put into mass production despite unfavorable test results. This disastrous directive started a time-consuming reorganization of the German air industry. The He-111 was taken out of production, numerous factories had to be closed and almost completely retooled, and mass production of the new bomber began. All of this took several months. When the new bombers rolled off the assembly lines they were found to have a number of critical problems—the most serious of which was the tendency to explode in straight and level flight for no apparent reason. (Apparently the fuel line dripped highly explosive aviation fuel on the hot manifolds.) They also broke apart during dives and had severe engine defects. Because so many of the new heavy bombers destroyed themselves during test flights (killing at least 60 veteran bomber crews), only 33 of the 1,446 He-177s that were manufactured during the war ever reached the front-line squadrons. Only two of these were still operational a few weeks later. As a result of the He-177 project, tens of thousands of industrial man-hours and huge amounts of raw materials were wasted.
The Me-210 was another one of Udet’s disasters. Designed by Professor Willi Messerschmitt as a multipurpose reconnaissance/dive-bomber/twin-engine fighter, it was ordered into mass production by Udet solely on the basis of the reputation and skilled sales pitch of its designer. The result was a death trap: the Me-210 was an unstable and dangerously unpredictable airplane that whipped into spins at high angles of attack, killing a number of crews. Like the He-177, it was a total failure.
In February 1940, as the Luftwaffe’s technological problems mounted and aircraft production lagged far behind schedules, Adolf Hitler sharply criticized Hermann Goering for the first time; Goering, in turn, lashed out at Ernst Udet for the first time. His criticisms became more and more pointed and vicious after the Battle of Britain, when the Luftwaffe’s aerial supremacy ebbed. The happy-go-lucky Udet could not stand this kind of pressure and began to deteriorate both mentally and physically. In October 1940, Heinkel ran into him unexpectedly and almost did not recognize him. The aircraft designer recalled that Udet looked “bloated and sallow . . . as if he were heading for a nervous breakdown. He was suffering from irremedial buzzing in his ears and bleeding from his lungs and gums.”
Udet’s condition worsened as Goering continued to berate him and Milch plotted to replace him. Formerly close friends (Udet had even taught Milch how to fly), the two were now bitter enemies. The state secretary did not let it escape anyone’s attention that the best of the German airplanes (including the Me-109 single-engine fighter) were developed when the Technical Office was part of his domain, and Milch was not slow in taking advantage of the chaotic situation in the air armaments realm to regain some of the power he had lost in 1937. Goering, after all, really had no one else to whom he could turn in this area. Continuing his policy of divide and rule, however, the Reichsmarschall refused to replace Udet or subordinate him to Milch, but he did give the state secretary full powers to requisition or shut down aircraft factories, to requisition or reallocate workers and raw materials, and to sack or transfer key personnel within the air armaments industry. The result of this arrangement was more friction, for the ruthless Milch was not satisfied with half a loaf. He continued to lobby for full control of the air armaments industry and waged a war of nerves against the well-meaning but incompetent ex-ace. Before long, all of Udet’s principal assistants had been replaced by Milch’s yes-men, and the state secretary (with Goering’s permission) had reorganized the Technical Office and the Office of Supply and Procurement in accordance with his more rational ideas. Meanwhile, as the war dragged on and air force casualties mounted, Udet’s depression continued to deepen. On November 15, 1941, Major General Ploch (whom Milch had sent to the Russian Front) visited his former chief while home on leave. He told Udet about the mass murders of Jews and others taking place in the East. Udet was horrified and very upset; he may have been incompetent, but Ernst Udet was not a monster. Two days later he drank two bottles of cognac and telephoned his mistress. “I can’t stand it any longer!” he cried. “I’m going to shoot myself. I wanted to say goodbye to you. They’re after me!” A few moments later, as she tried to talk him out of it, Ernst Udet pulled the trigger. He left behind a suicide note, asking Goering why he had surrendered to “those Jews” Milch and Major General Baron Karl-August von Gablenz, a principal Milch assistant.
For propaganda reasons Udet was reported as having been killed in a crash while testing a new airplane. Goering wept at his funeral but later said of Udet, “He made a complete chaos out of our entire Luftwaffe program. If he were alive today, I would have no choice but to say to him: ‘You are responsible for the destruction of the German Luftwaffe!’”7 Goering’s own responsibility in this destruction, of course, was not insignificant.
As the tide of the air war turned against Germany, Hermann Goering devoted more and more of his time to pleasure-loving pursuits. He lived “the life of Riley” with his second wife (a former actress) in a huge palace (which he tastelessly dubbed Karinhall after his first wife) on his massive estate in the Schoenheide, north of Berlin. On this 10,000-acre fiefdom (which he seized from the public domain at little or no cost to himself), he set up a private game reserve stocked with elk, deer, bison, and other animals, which he frequently hunted. He also acquired a castle in Austria and other properties and spent much of his time ransacking Europe for art treasures. In fact, he was probably the greatest art thief in history, for he considered himself the last Renaissance man, and his gigantic greed matched his corpulence. The bloated Reichsmarschall ballooned to around 320 pounds and went back on drugs again in the late 1930s; he was soon taking pills by the handful. Busy acting as Reichs Hunting Master and playing dress-up with an incredible number of uniforms and decorations, he pretended to be the hard-working master of the Luftwaffe, but in fact he had long ago given in to laziness, indifference, and indolence. In reality he had very little interest in the air force, as long as no one challenged his position as its undisputed leader.
With Goering preoccupied with luxurious living and Udet out of the way, Milch succeeded the late air armaments chieftain in all his offices. Reasoning that obsolete airplanes were better than no airplanes at all, he cancelled the Me-210, He-177, and Ju-288 (B-Bomber) projects and ordered that the obsolete Me-110s and He-111s be returned to mass production. Under his ruthless but capable direction, German aircraft production figures began to rise again in 1942. However, he could not make good five years lost to incompetence and neglect. He also continued to feud with the chiefs of the General Staff (Colonel General Hans Jeschonnek and others),8 did his best to throttle the development of the jet airplane, and continued to plot to replace Hermann Goering—even to the point of suggesting to Adolf Hitler (shortly after Stalingrad) that the Reichsmarschall be relieved of his air force duties. Goering, his power and influence at a low ebb, could do nothing toward ridding himself of his deputy at this point, but neither did he forget the incident.
Erhard Milch was very slow in recognizing the potential of the jet airplane. He first saw a jet prototype fly in August 1939 (before the war began), but, like Udet, was not impressed. In 1941, however, when Professor Messerschmitt enthusiastically reported on the fine performance of his Me-262 jet prototype, Udet came out in favor of its speedy development. Milch refused to allow it, and Udet (now in decline) could do nothing about this decision. (Perhaps Milch had had enough of revolutionary aircraft types after the He-177.) A disappointed Messerschmitt continued to develop the turbojet clandestinely via a secret arrangement with BMW and Junkers. Milch did not even become marginally interested in the jet until 1943, when Lieutenant General Adolf Galland, the chief of the fighter arm, flew one and was deeply impressed. Milch respected Galland and allowed the Me-262 to be put into production, albeit at a very low priority. In August 1943, Milch announced a production goal of 4,000 fighters per month and recoiled in shock and horror when Galland recommended that 25 percent of these be jets. This reaction, Trevor Constable and Raymond Toliver wrote, “exemplified, even as it reinforced, the Technical Office climate of hesitancy and irresolution.”9
Unfortunately for Milch, he was unable to meet his ambitious production goals, and his prestige began to decline at Fuehrer Headquarters. Sensing this, Milch—like Udet before him—gambled. He ordered Volkswagen to begin mass production of the Fi-103 flying bomb even though severe technological problems had been reported in the prototypes. Two hundred defective Fi-103s were manufactured before it was discovered that their structures were too weak. More precious man-hours and resources had been wasted at a time when Germany was struggling against the combined industrial might of the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union. Also, Milch now faced a new threat to his position: Minister of Armaments and War Production Albert Speer, a favorite of Adolf Hitler and a good political infighter in his own right. Taking advantage of the weakness of the Luftwaffe, Speer was making inroads into Milch’s territory—the air armaments industry—by 1943. Goering, of course, refused to try to intervene on Milch’s behalf, and Speer continued to raid the aircraft factories for skilled laborers; Milch continued to undershoot his production goals; and his stock continued to fall at Fuehrer Headquarters.
When Hitler became interested in developing the jet as a fighter-bomber, Willi Messerschmitt told him (on November 26, 1943) that the Me-262 could be modified to carry two 550-pound bombs or a single 1,100-pound bomb. Milch, fearing that his standing with the Fuehrer would be further diminished and ever mindful that Goering was only waiting for an opportunity to sack his would-be usurper, was afraid to tell the dictator that it was not possible to make these modifications; instead, he continued to develop the Me-262 as a fighter. Hitler, who had been led to believe that he was going to get a sizable number of jet fighter-bombers by D-Day, did not learn of Milch’s duplicity until May 23, 1944—only two weeks before the Allies landed in France. Justifiably furious, Hitler withdrew his protection from Milch. Goering wasted little time in stripping his deputy of his power. On May 27, the entire air armaments industry was transferred to Speer’s jurisdiction. Milch should have taken the hint and resigned at once, but he did not; therefore, on June 20, with Hitler present, Goering ordered him to submit his resignation as chief of air armaments and state secretary for aviation. This he did the following day.
Milch was allowed to retain the figurehead post of inspector general of the Luftwaffe. No doubt to the surprise and annoyance of Goering and others, Milch actually made a number of inspection trips; then, on October 1, his car skidded off the road near Arnhem and struck a tree. Milch, who woke up in the hospital, suffered three broken ribs and lung damage. He lay immobilized at his luxurious hunting lodge until early 1945.
With typical brashness, Milch showed up at Goering’s palatial home, Karinhall, uninvited, on Goering’s birthday in January 1945. He found the Reichsmarschall’s attitude toward him was most unpleasant. Three days later he found out why: a week-old letter arrived from Goering, dismissing Milch as inspector general—his last remaining post. He was transferred to the Fuehrer Reserve and not reemployed.
Hitler’s attitude toward Milch softened toward the end, and the Fuehrer even decided to put him in charge of a special staff to repair the German transportation system, but then changed his mind three days later. At the end of March 1945, Hitler sent Milch his usual birthday greetings, and the two met for the last time in the Fuehrer Bunker on April 21, nine days before the dictator committed suicide. Once again, even this late in the war, Milch was impressed with the Fuehrer’s behavior.
In the early morning hours of April 26, Milch left his hunting lodge for the last time and headed north. He had really waited too long, for he passed Soviet tanks on the road, but the field marshal drove with his lights off and was lucky enough not to be halted. He drove to Sierhagen Castle (at Neustadt, on the Baltic coast), where the British arrested him at noon on May 4. Before the day was over, a British commando ripped his marshal’s baton out of his hand and beat him to the floor with it. Like so many others on both sides, Milch was abused and tortured while in prison. Such acts were counterproductive in this case, however, because they turned Milch from a potentially friendly witness for the prosecution into a fervent defender of Hermann Goering—to spite his captors, if for no other reason.
Goering put up an excellent defense in his own behalf at Nuremberg and is praised even by his worst detractors for the mental skill he exhibited while making a certain U.S. Supreme Court Justice look foolish. This made little difference, as the end was a foregone conclusion and Goering was sentenced to death by hanging. The former World War I flying ace had one more trick up his sleeve, however; outwitting his opponents one last time, he committed suicide by taking poison at 10:40 p.m. on October 15, 1946—two hours before he would have been hanged.
Milch, meanwhile, was confined to a cell at Dachau called “the bunker.” Designed for one person, its occupants included Milch, his old enemy Kesselring, Field Marshal Walter von Brauchitsch (who was seriously ill and who died shortly thereafter of heart failure), Colonel General Nikolaus von Falkenhorst, and General of Infantry Alexander von Falkenhausen, the former military governor of Northern France and Belgium. Eventually tried at Nuremberg as a minor war criminal, Milch was convicted of deporting foreign labor to Germany, which resulted in enslavement, torture, and murder. The fact that he called the conspirators of July 20 “vermin” on the witness stand did not help his case. He was sentenced to life imprisonment and was incarcerated in the penal facility at Rehdorf. His sentence was commuted to 15 years’ imprisonment in 1951, and he was released in 1955. The former state secretary settled in Duesseldorf, where he lived with relatives and worked as an industrial consultant for the aviation division of Fiat and for the Thyssen steel combine. His taste for power politics had apparently been cured, and he never attempted to return to the limelight or hold public office again. The last surviving Luftwaffe field marshal, Erhard Milch was much more genial in his later years than he had been in the days of his power. Hospitalized in late 1971, he died at Wuppertal-Barmen on January 25, 1972.
Due to Udet’s incompetence, Goering’s laziness, and Milch’s combination of ruthless ambition, lack of foresight, and timidity in developing the new jet technology, German pilots spent most of the war flying obsolete airplanes. This makes their achievements even more remarkable.