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How I Shot Down 62 Planes
How I Shot Down 62 Planes
Ernst Udet
Published by Alan
9 April 2004
Page 7

We often used to argue about the relative merits of getting through a scrap with a plane unscathed by bullets, or coming back with our wings full of holes. Gonterman, for instance, considered it very bad form to get hit at all. His idea was that getting shot showed a definite weakness in strategy. His procedure was to always fly toward the dead side of a machine gun and to attack from that quarter.

Richthofen didn't worry about getting hit so long as he made the other fellow burn.

My own idea was that it didn't matter what happened to your own machine as long as you won. I had it figured out that in attacking a two-seater the odds are about even. It has two movable machine guns. I have two fixed machine guns. Say we both get each other in the sights. Well, if I keep cool, the advantage is mine because the other gunner has to take the recoil from the gun on his shoulder, which upsets his aim; while with me, the recoil is distributed evenly on the body of my plane allowing a greater measure of accuracy.

Perhaps I lived under, or was born under, a lucky star. At any rate, I was never seriously wounded. I've had bullets through the fleshy part of my arm twice and once a slug grazed my foot. In Flanders I had two planes shot out from under me, one of them being the Fokker from which I took the high dive with the parachute. The other machine is in the war museum at Berlin with more than 70 distinct bullet and shrapnel marks.

Some things really hurt as much as wounds though. One of these was the loss of my pet Albatros. The machine had served me faithfully and its loss was a distinct blow although it did prove its loyalty by getting me to earth in the end.

My own and another machine were loafing one day at an altitude of 4500 meters when three Sopwiths hove into view above us. We attacked. At that time we had not had much experience with Sopwiths. They turned out to be mighty powerful adversaries.

My inclination was to make a run for it because three to one constituted pretty heavy odds. But foolishly I remained. We circled about several times, maneuvering for position, and I had just had the good luck to get in a direct hit when one of the Englishmen flew in unexpectedly on my rear and let go with his guns at very close range. I felt bullets whizzing all around me and heard several tearing their way through my wings and fuselage.

Immediately I turned over on one wing, kept on turning until I was flying upside down and then dove. At 3000 meters I straightened out to take stock of the damage. Things looked bad, very bad. In fact my brave Albatros seemed to have completely gone to the devil. Both guns were out of commission. The windshield was shattered. The radiator was pierced. And, worst of all, shots had torn into both gas tanks.

If you think I wasn't worried, guess again. Richthofen used to say “Keep cool whatever happens. There's always a way out if you can think straight.”

Well, I knew that the first thing for me to do was to shut off the ignition. If I didn't, with gas pouring into my lap from two streams, I would soon burn. Most likely I was already smoking. I guess the Englanders figured I was done. At any rate they didn't try to follow me down.

Emergency landing places were very scarce on the Flanders front. I knew that in some way I would have to get back to our base. Gliding was the only way by which I could do it.

I started to glide. The old ship stood by me nobly. She seemed to begrudge every inch of lost altitude and pretty soon I saw that I might make it. But I hadn't reckoned on the wind. When I got near the drome I realized that there wasn't a hope of getting a head wind to land in. I'd have to go down with the wind behind me. Sometimes you can do that and sometimes you can't. This was one case where I did and I didn't.

I cleared the first bunch of huts but skimmed the roofs of the second lot and the next thing I knew I was on the ground with my brave Albatros turned over on top of me, a complete wreck.

Luckily, I was uninjured. Later on when I examined the machine, I found that in addition to the places mentioned. it had been struck by bullets in the rudder, tail, both wings and motor. How she ever held together until we got down, I don't know.

One of the narrowest shaves I ever had was when attacked by a Caudron while flying in the Alsace area.

I countered and, after getting in a few shots from the front, drove my machine into a steep bank in order to come back at my opponent from the rear. Instead I got a burst of fire in my own rear. One stray bullet took a glancing course and knocked the goggles clean off my head. All I got was a blue spot on my cheek and some glass splinters in my eyes. In the end, I forced the other fellow down. He was badly wounded. I took him prisoner and had him sent back to a hospital where he died several days later.

The English were a queer lot. Dead game sports but fearfully erratic. You could never tell what they were going to do next. They would break all the ordinary rules of flying; and oftener than not, get away with it.

At the outset, we didn't think so much of them. But it didn't take them long to prove their mettle. .

The first fellow I bucked up against was a cinch. I ran him into a forced descent behind our lines almost immediately. When I followed him down to take him prisoner, he greeted me with outstretched hand. “Jolly decent of you to let me off so easy,” he said. “Topping sort of day. Have a cigarette. They are Cravans, good for the digestion and all that sort of thing. Funny damn war, isn't it? One minute you're up and the next minute you're down.” He was so absolutely cheerful about it all that I couldn't figure him out at all. We Germans are not built that way.

This reminds me of another brush with a Tommy.

It was during the Aisne show. Two of us went up after a couple of Spad single*seaters over Chemin de Dame. We each took one. The fellow I engaged had blue stripes across his tail and the wings and sides of his machine were painted so gaudily you could see the colors for hundreds of yards. It didn't take me long to find out that despite his crazy looking ship, he was a flier of wide experience. Furthermore, our styles of attack were almost identical.

We circled about nine or ten times and by that time we were close enough together so that I could see my adversary more closely. He was just as weird looking as his plane. He had on a black helmet and around his neck was twisted a bright red shawl, the ends of. which streamed out in the wind. He was clean shaven and seemed to be just as curious to get a look at me as I was to examine him.

Then, quite unexpectedly, he smiled and waved his hand toward me. I wasn't going to answer at first but all at once I too, began to feel friendly. I waved back. We kept on flying around and around and every once in a while we would wave at each other again. It was silly but pretty soon I began to have the feeling that instead of being an enemy, he was a comrade and that we were merely engaged in a practice flight.

Yet all the time, each of us was trying in every conceivable way for an opening. I know that as for myself, I would have shot at him in an instant had the occasion been offered; and I suppose he would have done the same with me.

But still there seemed to be that inexplicable bond of sympathy between us as long as neither of us was able to gain an advantage.

I don't know how long that absurd but rather pleasant situation would have lasted, had it not suddenly been cut short by three more of our planes arriving on the scene and pushing their way unceremoniously into the midst of our harmonious little duel.

What eventually happened to my gay English friend, I don't know. When the other planes came up, he gave me a final wave and then beat a hasty retreat for his own lines. The last I saw of him he seemed to be pretty hard pressed with all three of our planes in close pursuit.

I ran into other instances also, of this peculiar English attitude. I used to get the impression that they weren't serious at all; that war was a sort of a joke with them; or maybe “adventure” is the better word. The German attitude was cool, calculating, and relentless. The English seemed to prefer dash and color to shrewdness. I suppose that is characteristic of the inherent difference in our natures.

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