Heinrich Gontermann

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Heinrich Gontermann
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Allegiance Germany
Service/branch Cavalry, Air Service
Years of service 1914–1917
Rank Leutnant
Unit 6th Uhlans, 80th Fusiliers, Kampfstaffel Tergnier, FA 25, Jasta 5, 15
Commands held Jasta 15
Awards Pour le Mérite, Royal House Order of Hohenzollern, Military Order of Max Joseph, Iron Cross (First and Second Class)

Heinrich Gontermann (25 February 1896 – 30 or 31 October 1917) was a German First World War fighter ace credited with 39 victories during the war.[1]

Early life

Born in Siegen, Southern Westphalia, Heinrich Gontermann grew into a tall slender man, full of vitality. He abstained from smoking, and was only a social drinker.[2] He was a patriotic, religious introvert.[3]

Gontermann's father, a cavalry officer, pushed him towards a career in the military. After leaving school, Heinrich enlisted into the 6th Uhlan Cavalry Regiment in Hanau on 14 August 1914.[4] Only days after arriving in his regiment, he was sent into action.[1]

Gontermann had a reputation for being aloof, but during his time with the Uhlans, he displayed leadership abilities. He was wounded in September of that same year, although it wasn't serious, and he was promoted to Feldwebel. Early in the spring of 1915, he was given a field commission as Leutnant and he was also awarded the Iron Cross Second Class.[1] He continued to lead his men throughout 1915. Gontermann applied for a transfer to the newly formed German Army Air Service, but in October 1915 he was transferred to the 80th Fusilier Regiment.[1]

Aerial service

Finally, he was accepted and sent for pilot/observer training. Upon his graduation in early 1916, he was posted to Kampfstaffel Tergnier as a recon pilot flying a Roland C.II. Later that spring, he was posted to Jasta FA 25 where he flew both as a pilot and as an observer on AGO C.Is.[1]

Gontermann applied for Jastaschule and the transfer to a fighter unit. He was accepted and graduated on 11 November 1916, being attached to Jasta 5. Three days later, he'd shot down his first aircraft: an FE.2b on patrol over Morval.[1]

There was a lull in his scoring until 6 March 1917, when he shot down another FE.2b the day after being awarded the Iron Cross First Class. He scored regularly in March, becoming an ace on the 24th by downing a Sopwith 1½ Strutter. He added a second one the following day.[1] It was after this victory that he wrote home, "Today I shot down a two-seater.... He broke up into dust in the air.... It is a horrible job but one must do one's duty."[3]

During Bloody April, 1917, Gontermann had eleven victories. On the 8th, he achieved his first success as a balloon buster, with all its extraordinary hazards, by downing an observation balloon. He shot down four others within the month, including a double victory on the 16th. Becoming a balloon ace was an auspicious start for Germany's first great balloon buster.[5]

On 26 April 1917, he'd brought his kill tally to 17 victories;[1] he was also made Staffelfuhrer of Prussian Jasta 15 the same day.[6] He replaced Max Reinhold, who was killed in action.[7]

Gontermann as commander

Gontermann's personal reputation was that of an aloof man with few friends. Professionally, he was a student of enemy aircraft types, with a special knack for picking off his foes from pointblank range from within their blind spots. He was accounted the premier marksman of his squadron, as well as a skilled aerobaticist. He was also noted to be nervous, stressed, and sleeping poorly. The strain of combat was working on him. He would be sent on a month's leave during May to recoup himself.[2]

In May, he was awarded the Knight's Cross with Swords of the Royal House Order of Hohenzollern on the 6th.[8] He scored his 21st triumph,[1] over five victory ace Didier Lecour-Grandmaison,[9] and received his native Bavaria's Military Order of Max Joseph, all on the 11th; the Max Joseph made him a lifetime knight with a pension.[10] The Pour le Merite followed on the 17th.[11] He was granted four weeks leave upon receipt of the Blue Max.

Gontermann left Ernst Udet in charge during his absence. It was Udet who wrote of Gontermann, "Before he opens fire, he defeats his enemy by outflying him. When he finally fires, he requires, at most, a dozen rounds to tear apart the other's machine."[7]

Upon Gontermann's return to the Jasta on 19 June, he found that Udet was requesting a transfer. Under his leadership, the squadron had suffered three demoralizing losses. All in all, it was an unpropitous start to Gontermann's reign.[12]

For the remainder of June, Gontermann again turned toward targeting observation balloons, shooting one down on both the 24th and the 27th. He also scored two triumphs in July, one of which was a balloon.[1]

August was as productive a month for Gontermann as April had been. After shooting down a Nieuport on the 5th, he shot down two balloons each on both the 9th and the 17th. Then came the 19th of August, which was the peak of Gontermann's career. He shot down a Spad in the morning. At 1923 hours, he took out an observation balloon south of Aisne-Tal; a minute later, a second one fell; a minute later, a third; a minute after that, a fourth.[1] A single-handed victory over four balloons in three minutes was unprecedented. It was an obvious illustration of his gunnery tactics of pointblank fire; he was known to down a foe with as few as five shots. The downing of the balloons brought his score to 35.[1]

In September, he shot down three more enemy aircraft.[1]

By October 1917, Gontermann had become a celebrated ace with 39 victories. He was credited with defeating 21 enemy aircraft and 18 balloons, plus an unconfirmed balloon shot down.[1]

His last mission

File:Hgontermann.jpg
Heinrich Gontermann's crashed triplane (serial 115/17)

On 30 October Gontermann took off in a Fokker Dr.I. He hadn't yet quite recovered from a siege of dysentery. Nevertheless, he was anxious to try his new airplane, despite misgivings about it. After a few minutes of flying, he tried aerobatics at 700 meters altitude. He pulled out of the second loop he flew, and dove into a left turn. The upper wing caved in and broke completely off. His airplane plunged into the ground.[2]

Gontermann was pulled from the wreck, alive, though severely injured by his head slamming into the machine gun breeches. He was taken to the squadron's medical bay. He died there from his injuries several hours later. Some sources say his death occurred the day after his accident.[2]

Gontermann was only one of several German pilots killed testing the new Dr.I. As a result, Fokker was accused of shoddy construction and directed to change his production methods for the plane.[2]

Notes

  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n "Heinrich Gontermann". www.theaerodrome.com. Retrieved 2008-06-09. 
  2. ^ a b c d e Graf, Gaston. "Broken Wings: The Tragical Death of Heinrich Gontermann". www.jastaboelcke.de. Retrieved 2009-08-07. 
  3. ^ a b Fokker Dr.1 Aces of World War I. p. 20. 
  4. ^ "Heinrich Gontermann". www.pourlemerite.org. Retrieved 2009-08-07. 
  5. ^ Balloon Busting Aces of World War I. p. 47. 
  6. ^ "Jasta 15". www.theaerodrome.com. Retrieved 2009-08-06. 
  7. ^ a b Albatros Aces of World War I, part 2. p. 38. 
  8. ^ "Royal House Order of Hohenzollern". www.theraerodrome.com. Retrieved 2009-08-07. 
  9. ^ Balloon Busting Aces of World War I. p. 47–48. 
  10. ^ "Military Order of Maximillian-Joseph". www.theaerodrome.com. Retrieved 2009-08-07. 
  11. ^ "Orden Pour le Merite". www.theaerodrome.com. Retrieved 2009-08-07. 
  12. ^ Albatros Aces of World War I, part 2. p. 47. 

References

  • Guttman, Jon (2005). Balloon-Busting Aces of World War 1. Osprey Publishing. ISBN 9781841768779. 
  • Franks, Norman (2001). Fokker Dr I Aces of World War 1. Ospey Publishing. ISBN 9781841762234.  Unknown parameter |coauthor= ignored (|author= suggested) (help)
  • Van Wyngarden, Grey (2007). Albatross Aces of World War 1. Osprey Publishing. ISBN 9781846031793.