Of all the weapons of the Second World War, the dive bomber is among the most iconic and significant of them. The Japanese used them to great effect in the attack on Pearl Harbor and their subsequent more-or-less simultaneous offensives elsewhere in Asia, and the U.S. Navy used them to even greater effect during the Battle of Midway, where dive bombers sunk four Japanese aircraft carriers and essentially turned the tide of the war in the Pacific. However, it was a trio of a certain type of dive bomber, which took off in the early morning hours of September 1, 1939 with the mission of severing the wires of explosive charges attached to the Dirschau bridge over the Vistula River, that the dive bomber would be forever placed in the annals of history.
Manfred Freiherr von Richtofen, who was an actual aristocrat (Freiherr roughly translates into Baron), was the leading air ace of World War 1, with 80 confirmed victories before his death in combat in 1918. Known as the Red Baron because of his habit of painting the aircraft he flew red, in addition to his nobility, his place in military aviation history and readers of "Peanuts" cartoon strips is secure. Beginning around 1915, when aircraft became armed with forward-firing machine guns and began to shoot down other aircraft, all of the warring powers, especially Germany, made efforts to popularize the concept of an "ace," a pilot who shot down at least five enemy aircraft, a practice which continues to the present day. By the standards of the time, Baron von Richtofen was the rock star of all rock stars.
Of course, like practically every other major human achievement, everybody remembers Number One, but Number Two goes largely forgotten. In this case, Number Two was a remarkable little man named Ernst Udet. Born in 1896 and originally rejected for military service at the start of WW1 because he was too short (about 5'3"), Udet eventually made his way into the fighting by the fact that he possessed a motorcycle. After performing service as a dispatch rider, Udet, who always had an interest in aviation, eventually became a combat pilot, where his short stature and light weight were advantages at a time when aircraft were primitive, engine power was limited, and every ounce of weight counted. After an inauspicious start, Udet quickly became a skilled and deadly aviator.
By the time the war ended, Udet had racked up 62 confirmed kills, and was holder of the Pour le Merite, the famous Blue Max, Imperial Germany's highest military award. Weathering the tumultuous immediate post-war period when Germany was wracked by Communist revolution, Udet, like many pilots who survived the war, made his living as a barnstormer and stunt pilot. A failed venture at being an aircraft manufacturer was followed by much work in film, where he collaborated with the infamous Leni Riefenstahl on several movies. In addition to his amazing and astounding flying skills, Udet was a genuine "bon vivant," who enjoyed the finer things in life, and made friends wherever he went. He was the life of the party, and was known for hilarious and entertaining antics, such as juggling, cartoon caricatures, joke-telling, and general wittiness. Although Udet was a drinker, he wasn’t known for being a drunk. He was also a hit with women, and was a "player" throughout his life.
Although never even remotely interested in politics, by the early 1930's, Udet began to be increasingly drawn into the Nazi’s web. The Nazis, many of whom were decorated WW1 veterans, were always looking for other WW1 heroes to add to their ranks, and Udet, as the top-scoring German ace who survived the war, was a star candidate. Udet, however, resisted efforts to recruit him, and was content to drink and tell war stories with his old comrades, the most significant of whom was Hermann Goering. Not only was Goering an air ace and Blue Max winner himself with 22 victories, he was the last commander of the famed "Flying Circus," the squadron that the Red Baron commanded until he was killed in action. Goering's final act of the war was to order his squadron to deliberately smash their aircraft, the deadly Fokker D.VII's, in violation of Armistice terms which specifically ordered those aircraft to be turned over to the victorious Allies intact.
A visit to the United States in 1933 proved fateful, in more ways than one. Udet, who spoke fluent English, flew a Curtiss Hawk dive bomber developed for the U.S. Navy, and after taking the plane through a series of brutal maneuvers, decided that Germany could learn much from this aircraft. The Americans, eager to make the sale, had no objections, and Goering slapped one condition on Udet: Join the Nazi party, and we'll buy you the planes. Udet unwittingly accepted the deal. Although the Nazis continued to pressure Udet into doing more work for them, he was finally made an offer he couldn't refuse. He was told by Goering that as a civilian, he could never have any influence on Germany's aviation policies, but if he were to become a Luftwaffe officer, he would be in charge of research and development for the Luftwaffe's aircraft. Udet finally accepted, and in 1935 was sworn in, the same year that the Luftwaffe (literally "Air Weapon," figuratively "Air Force") was revealed to the world, despite the Versailles Treaty specifically forbidding Germany to have such an organization.
It was in his new capacity that Udet was behind the development of one of the icons of Nazi Germany and World War 2; the Junkers Ju 87 dive bomber, widely-known as the Stuka. Although the term was applied to all dive bombers as that type of aircraft (Stuka is a contraction for Sturzkampfflugzeug, literally "plunge battle aircraft," but figuratively, "dive bombing aircraft"), the Ju 87 was the ultimate expression. Beating out several competing designs, including the Heinkel He 118, a sleek monoplane that almost killed Udet when it disintegrated while he was flying it into a power dive, the Ju 87 went on to be used in the Spanish Civil War, where it proved devastatingly effective against pinpoint targets like bridges. As if that wasn't enough, Udet devised a potent form of psychological warfare in the form of air-driven sirens, which were activated when the Stuka was diving over its targets prior to releasing its bombs. The combination proved to be both lethal and effective, and the Stuka made its name during the campaigns of 1939 and 1940.
The Battle of Britain, the Desert War, and the invasion of Russia proved to be the demise of both the Stuka and Udet himself. While the Stuka was terrifyingly effective as a dive bomber, it was slow, and proved to be highly vulnerable to fighter planes; great numbers of them were shot down over Britain and the Western Desert. Although it served throughout the war, the Stuka had to be escorted by fighters in most of the areas it operated in, and was eventually replaced in most squadrons by ground-attack versions of the Focke-Wulf Fw 190 fighter and other types of aircraft. Udet, who was an inept administrator and preferred flying airplanes to theorizing about them, was increasingly under pressure and criticized by Goering and his Number Two man, Erhard Milch (who, ironically for a high-ranking Nazi, had a Jewish father), for rendering the Luftwaffe unprepared for the long war on multiple fronts that Germany now faced. Although Udet had no effective control over the German aircraft industry, he was nevertheless blamed for its failures. On November 17, 1941, after calling up his mistress, Udet shot himself in the head while still on the phone with her. He was the first victim of Goering's list of scapegoats for his own failures.
Udet's legacy will live on forever; in addition to his flying and contributions to aviation, motion picture foley artists, especially those working on James Bond films, invariably use the sound of Udet's Stuka sirens when airplanes, and even helicopters, are in the act of diving:
The LA punk band The Dickies had an album and a song named “Stukas over Disneyland”:
Another LA punk band named itself Stukas over Bedrock: