The enemy as a guest

As I am short on time right now, today’s post is just a story from Ernst Udet, showing the attitude toward the enemy among WWI airmen.

I think of our prisoner in Bernes.  Lothar von Richthofen, the captain’s brother, has brought down another one.   He’s an English major, and he came down just alongside our encampment.  There is no infantry near, so we keep the prisoner with us.

At supper, he appears at the casino with Richthofen and is presented to everyone.  He’s a long drink of water, a bit fancy, but sporting in appearance.  He affects a courteous reserve; in short, a gentleman.  We talk about horses, dogs, and airplanes.  We don’t talk of the war.  The Englishman is our guest, and we don’t want to give him the impression that he is being pumped for information.

In the middle of the conversation he whispers to his neighbor, then he rises and walks out.

Lothar looks after him, a bit worried.

“Where is he going?”

“’I beg your pardon, where is the W.C.?’ he asked,” replies Mousetooth.

For a moment there is an embarrassed silence.  The little hut in question is almost three minutes distant at the end of the ravine, in which the camp is located.  Beyond it are the woods.  It will not be difficult for an athlete to reach freedom from there.

There are conflicting opinions.  Maushacke [Mousetooth], the well-fed Brunswicker, is the most enterprising.  He wants to go out and stand alongside the Englishman.  This could be done without too much ado.  But Lothar disagrees.  “We have treated the man as a guest thus far and he has done nothing to cast doubt on his good manners.” But the tension remains.  After all, we are to be responsible for the prisoner.  If he gets away, there’ll be hell to pay.

Someone steps to the window to look after the Englishman.  In seconds six or eight are grouped around him.  I’m there too.  The Englishman walks across the open ground in long strides.  He stops, lights a cigarette, and looks around.  All of us immediately sink into a deep knee bend.  Our hospitality is sacred, and our suspicion might offend him.

He disappears behind the pineboards of the outhouse.  The boards don’t reach to the ground, and we can see his brown boots.  This is reassuring.

But Maushacke’s suspicions are awakened.

“Boys,” he yaps almost breathlessly, “he no longer stands in his boots.  He has gone over the rear wall in his stocking feet and is off and gone.  The boots couldn’t stand like this all, if…”

He demonstrates to how the boots should be deployed during this kind of business.

The Englishman reappears from behind the wall.  Bent low, we creep back to our seats.  As he re-enters, we talk of horses, dogs, and airplanes.

“I would never forgive myself for disappointing such hosts,” says the English major with a small smile around the corners of his mouth.  We thank him seriously and ceremoniously.

Next morning, a short, bushy-bearded reservist calls for the prisoner, who turns around often to wave at us.

Five days later Meyer brings curious news from Ghent.  An Englishman has overpowered his guard and escaped in a German uniform.  From the toilet of a moving express train.  His guard was found there, locked in.

“Was it a major?” asks Mousetooth excitedly.

“Are you clairvoyant?” asks Meyer.  “It sure was, an Air Force major.”

“So, he used the W.C. after all,” shouts Mousetooth.

Meyer looks around in surprise.  We all laugh until our jaws ache.

–Ernst Udet, The Ace of the Iron Cross, ed. Stanley M. Ulanoff, trans. Richard K. Riehn (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1970), 54-56

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What makes a good officer – part 2

Manfred von Richthofen may or may not have been the ideal fighter pilot, but I can’t see “another Richthofen” being a bad thing on an officer evaluation.  Here’s a description of what he did right, from Ernst Udet, who both knew Richthofen and knew acedom from personal experience.

Other squadrons live in castles or small towns, twenty to thirty kilometers behind the front lines.  The Richthofen group dwells in corrugated shacks that can be erected and broken down in a matter of hours.  They are rarely more than twenty kilometers behind the foremost outposts.  Other squadrons go up two or three times a day.  Richthofen and his men fly five times a day.  Others close down operations in bad weather; here they fly under almost any condition.

–Ernst Udet, The Ace of the Iron Cross, ed. Stanley M. Ulanoff, trans. Richard K. Riehn (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1970), 49-50

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What makes a good officer – part 1

I am still getting “Christmas” letters from friends and relatives, which is fine with me since I consider ours on time if it gets in the mail no later than Valentine’s Day.  Reading the updates on people’s lives makes me think about something I’ve been wondering about for more than two decades now; what does the Air Force want in an officer?  And, does the selection process for cadets produce that?

I have lost touch with the people whose careers would, I think, best answer that question; i.e. the best and the most marginal cadets I knew.  Based on the ones I am in touch with (and the ones I hear of through them), I think the Air Force gets it right a lot.  I think the Air Force has missed out on one or two I’ve known who would have been better officers than others who were selected, and promoted some others for reasons other than merit.  But I haven’t experienced a government agency or a corporation with the overall quality of management the Air Force has.  After all, where other than the military do you get management that’s been trained and observed for four years (at least USAFA and ROTC) before they get anywhere near doing anything with real subordinates?  I remember a captain telling me that the Air Force officer corps was not nearly as good as the enlisted force deserves, and I think I agree.  But I don’t think there’s such a thing in the corporate world as management that’s been more trained in leadership and infused with ideas like “service above self”.

One thing that makes the issue less clear is the variation in what different career fields require; engineering officers don’t generally need the people skills some other career fields do.  Some very good engineers would be horrible supervisors.  Then somebody has to care about how Air Force bases are built, and how many top pilots have the patience for that?  But pilots, of course, are the standard for officership, if for no better reason than that the Air Force is airplanes, so anything that doesn’t produce a good pilot is not a good model for producing Air Force officers.

So what makes a top pilot?  Tune in next time to read what an authority much better than myself said about it.

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New aviation t-shirt idea

Okay, the move of Ewan’s shop is done, though there are lots of things still floating around in search of a home (anyone need a large-format laminator?)  But we had the time tonight to sit around talking about things like whether we could do a booth at Oshkosh this summer and an aircraft modeling company Ewan is working with to distribute his art.  In the middle of this discussion, Ewan had an idea for a new style of aviation t-shirts.  It was such an exciting idea he’s already done a mock-up of the design.

More details to come, as he gets his current art and design projects sorted out (the Enola Gay design is well underway.)

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Ace of aces, hero of heros

Ernst Udet, Germany’s second-highest scoring ace, and the highest-scoring ace to survive WWI, talks about Manfred von Richthofen in the same sort of worshipful tone that Udet must have himself heard often from others.  His observation of what kind of man Richthofen was:

He grins again and turns to go.  “By the way, you can take charge of Jasta 11 starting tomorrow,” he says over his shoulder.

I already knew that I was to receive command of a staffel, but the form of the announcement comes as somewhat of a surprise.  Scholtz slaps me on the back.  “Boy, are you in with the rittmeister.”

“You couldn’t prove it by me,” I reply a bit grumbly.

But this is the way it is.  One must get used to the fact that his approval will always come in an objective manner without the least trace of sentiment.  He serves the idea of the Fatherland with every fiber of his being and expects nothing less from all his fliers.  He judges a man by what he accomplishes to that end and also, perhaps, by his qualities as a comrade.  He who passes this judgment, he backs all the way.  Whoever fails, he drops without batting an eyelash.  Whoever shows lukewarm on a sortie has to leave the group – on the same day.

–Ernst Udet, The Ace of the Iron Cross, ed. Stanley M. Ulanoff, trans. Richard K. Riehn (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1970), 52-53

I especially like what Udet said about a movie about Richthofen:

I am in Hollywood for three weeks when I finally get “the word” from the movie man.  The general manager has requested that I have a talk with him.  He jumps into the matter with both feet.  “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.

- Ibid., 127

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A century of air combat

Did you know air combat is 100 years old?  Do you suppose it’s changed much in 100 years?

…by 1911 airplanes had been used in combat.  The occasion was a colonial war between Italy and Turkey, and although the impact of air power during the conflict was somewhere between negligible and nonexistent, aviation enthusiasts took it as momentous affirmation of everything they had been saying.  The aerial forces engaged in the war consisted of nine airplanes and two balloons that the Italians brought with them to Libya, the center of the fighting.  On November 1 an Italian pilot took off from the desert, flew over the Turkish lines, and dropped four small Cipelli bombs, grenades, really, weighing about five pounds apiece, with a pin that the pilot had to pull with his teeth before lobbing them out of the cockpit.

The next day Italian newspapers trumpeted this first for Italian aviation.  One carried the headline:





It was a ridiculous exaggeration; it was also an uncannily perfect anticipation of a century of exaggerated claims to come for the effectiveness of bombs dropped from the air.  The Turks’ response to this first-ever use of an air-delivered explosive in combat would become equally iconic:  They claimed the Italians had hit a hospital.  (The Italians denied it but quietly checked out the story; they found that the hospital had indeed been hit, though probably earlier, by ordinary shelling.  The Turks had not protested that; they knew there was no psychological advantage in claiming that something as prosaic as an artillery shell had struck their town.)

- Stephen Budiansky, Air Power: The Men, Machines, and Ideas That Revolutionized War, From Kitty Hawk to Gulf War II (New York, New York: Penguin Group [USA] Inc., 2004), 45

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Observing soccer

I apologize for my posts not having been very frequent or profound recently.  Ewan’s shop is changing physical location, and it’s been a lot of work.

Today is just a quote about the early days of military aviation.

Although the vital importance of aircraft for observation duty had been dramatically driven home, air operations remained ad hoc, hectic, and experimental throughout the autumn of 1914.  Observers had had little realistic training in how to identify and interpret what they saw on the ground, and while Sir John French commended his airmen for furnishing the “most complete and accurate” information, a lot of it was anything but.  In the opening days of the war one German observer excitedly reported that the British troops he had flown over were “thoroughly disorganized and running about their post in blind panic.”  In fact they were playing soccer.

- Stephen Budiansky, Air Power: The Men, Machines, and Ideas That Revolutionized War, From Kitty Hawk to Gulf War II (New York, New York: Penguin Group [USA] Inc., 2004), 58

Interesting book – I might rely on some more quotes from it for the next few days.

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Funny-looking airplanes

About time I wrote more about airplanes, as opposed to pilots.

Of course, the obvious winner of any “funny airplane” contest is the Vought V173.  I knew of the “Flying Flapjack”, but I hadn’t seen it land before.  There are actually several good videos of the aircraft at this link.

I also have always thought the F-117 Nighthawk is funny-looking, at least in that it so looks like a rough simulation of an airplane shape that somebody whipped up out of black cardboard.

I don’t think the E-3 AWACS looks funny; I think it is a great combination of “elegant” and “distinctive”.  Or at least it was before the redesign adding “cheeks” to the aircraft.  But I thought its predecessor, the radar platform on a Connie, made me think of a pregnant ferret.

Anyone else have a favorite strange-looking airplane?

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The proud history Cornell is ashamed of

As an illustration of how small WWI airplanes were, I have always liked this picture of airplanes being built in Barton Hall at Cornell University.  Okay, it’s a very big hall, but still, when I think of a hangar, I’m picturing a building this size holding just one or two aircraft.

It is a bit strange now to think of the place being used to support a national war effort, as now it is mainly used for big university events and as an indoor track.  I think this picture shows Barton Hall at its finest.

Actually, I think Cornell’s connection to military history up to the 1960s is impressive.  In WWI, two percent of American officers were from Cornell.  (Doesn’t sound like much until you think how many colleges there are.)   Four Cornell pilots became aces in WWI, and in both WWI and WWII, a Cornell graduate earned the Congressional Medal of Honor.  What happened since then you can read about in this Cornell Daily Sun article.

As long as I’m on the subject of Cornell and military heroes, I have to mention one I’ve known personally, Bill Hudson, whom I thought was a bit scary as a swimming teacher.  He is one of those who didn’t see much reason to talk about his experiences in WWII until he saw the efforts that many gave their lives for being misrepresented by people who weren’t there.  It wasn’t until I grew up I found out he was a private when he landed on Iwo Jima.  He made it through almost the whole month of fighting before being injured – only two men in his platoon did make it through.  He later went to Cornell, and eventually lived in Los Alamos, where he is now listed as one of the town’s “living treasures“.

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Just a crazy guy raising funds

Another illustration of how quickly everything happened from Kitty Hawk to the Apollo landing…

In Michael Neufeld’s book about Wernher von Braun, Von Braun: Dreamer of Space | Engineer of War, he mentions that von Braun, who was only a few years too young to really have known Manfred von Richthofen, was trying to raise funds for rocket research by telling people that the first human who would walk on the Moon was already alive.  This was true, but it was May, and Neil Armstrong didn’t actually get born until August.

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