Ernst Udet. German Empire
Ernst Udet literally had to buy his way into the German service. He tried to enlist in August, 1914 but was rejected because he was only 5’3” tall. Learning that volunteers with motorcycles were being accepted in the reserves to be used as messengers (he had earlier received a motorcycle from his father) he volunteered, was injured, and before he could rejoin his unit the Germans canceled the program. After this he heard that trained pilots were immediately accepted. Having spent much of his youth hanging around the Otto Works airplane factory and being known there, he paid Gustav Otto the equivalent of $400 today to teach him to fly.
After receiving his civilian pilot’s license Udet joined the Imperial German Air Service and was assigned to pilot an observation plane. After several incidents with faulty aircraft Udet was court martialed for poor flying that caused the loss of an aircraft. Upon release from the guardhouse after a week there, Udet flew an observation plane when the observer tried to drop a bomb by hand, which became stuck in the airplanes undercarriage. Udet’s aerobatics shook it loose and he was then ordered to fighters.
Udet began his combat flying in the Fokker E-III, a monoplane, shooting down his first enemy airplane in March 1916. In January 1917 his unit re-equipped with the famed Albatross. Udet’s preferred tactic was to dive on his enemy out of the sun, and the Albatross was well suited to his method. By the end of 1917 Udet was in command of Jasta (hunting group) 37. He was highly regarded as a commanding officer for his concerns over his men’s welfare and his concentration on training. He also developed the reputation of being a hard drinking womanizer when not in the air.
Udet was personally invited to join the famed Flying Circus by the Red Baron himself, who put him in command of Jasta 11. By that point in the war, supply shortages were adversely affecting German morale and Richthofen traded autographed pictures of himself for luxuries from the black market for the benefit of his men. This earned him the complete devotion of his men, and Udet was no exception. In the summer of 1918 Udet survived the loss of his plane by the then novel means of parachuting, one of the earliest pilots to do so.
Udet’s 62 victories in the First World War was the second highest total for the German forces. Between the wars he worked as a stunt flyer and joined Herman Goering’s emerging Luftwaffe early on, leading in the development of the Stuka. He also developed an addiction to alcohol and drugs. Udet tried to inform Goering that the Soviet air capability was much stronger than believed, and that the Luftwaffe could not match them when the Germans invaded but his advice went unheeded. Udet committed suicide in 1941.