Ernst Udet (1896-1941)

Ernst Udet (1896-1941) was the Director of Air Armament for the Luftwaffe early in the Second World War, despite having little technical knowledge or enthusiasm for the task. His failings in this post played a part in the long-term decline of the Luftwaffe, and in November 1941 he committed suicide.

Udet served with the German Air Force during the First World War, ending the war as a leading ace with 26 victories. He became an outstanding stunt pilot after the war, and featured in Leni Riefsthal's film 'SOS Eisberg'.

Udet joined the Luftwaffe in 1935, and despite his lack of any technical knowledge of ability was appointed head of the technical department in 1936. He is unfairly remembered for his early view of the Bf 109, stating in 1935 'that will never make a fighter!', and he later became a great support of the aircraft. Some of his other interventions in aircraft design were less positive.

Events in Spain helped to convince Udet that all German bombers should be able to act as dive bombers, to maximise accuracy and reduce the number of bombs needed. As a result both the Ju 88 and He 177 were designed to act as dive bombers, forcing a massive increase in strength and thus weight - the Ju 88 nearly doubled in weight during its development, with a resulting loss in speed. On a more positive note Udet realised the importance of air defences, and in 1937 ordered the ratio of fighter-to-bombers improved from 1-to-3 to 1-to-2. By the end of the Battle of Britain this ratio had reversed, with many raids involving three or four times more fighters than bombers. 

Udet and Goering had been on bad terms ever since Udet had expelled his former commander from the Richthofen Veteran's Association for making false claims about the number of victories he had scored. In contrast Udet was a close friend of Air Minister Milch, but despite these personal relationships Udet benefited from the feud between Goering and the very able Milch. By the end of 1938 Milch had lost most of his power over production and development to Udet. This would prove to be disastrous for the Luftwaffe - Milch was technically very able while Udet lacked any technical background. He even admitted that he had no understanding of industrial processes or of the engineering of large aircraft. For the three years that Udet was in charge of Air Armaments the air ministry provided little or no direction to the aircraft industry. Partly because of these failings aircraft production in Germany failed to increase- indeed it dropped under 3,000 aircraft per month in December 1941, by which point the Luftwaffe had less than half of its authorised number of bombers.

Udet did have some strengths - his ability as a pilot meant that he was directly involved in the test programme, flying (amongst others) the Siebel Si 201, the Focke-Wulf Fw 56 (which he used to test out dive bombing), the Blohm und Voss Bv 141 asymmetric reconnaissance aircraft. He also flew one of five early Bf 109s to appear at the Zurich International Flying Meet in the summer of 1937, where he survived a crash that destroyed his aircraft.

By the middle of 1941 it had become very clear that Udet was not capable of performing his job, and Milch was restored to power. Udet became increasingly depressed, and on 17 November 1941, after making a phone call to a former mistress, Udet shot himself.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (16 February 2011), Ernst Udet (1896-1941) , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/people_udet_ernst.html

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