Air Aces of World War One

Leutnant Heinrich Gontermann – German Ace – 1896 / 1917

Born in Siegen, Southern Westphalia on the 25th of February 1896. Gontermann grew into a tall, slender man, full of vitality. He abstained from smoking and was only a social drinker. He was a patriotic religious introvert. His Father, a cavalry officer, steered him towards a career in the military. After leaving school, Heinrich enlisted into the 6th Uhlan Cavalry Regiment in Hanau on the 14th of August 1914. Only days after arriving at his regiment, Gontermann was sent in to action. Gontermann had a reputation for being aloof, but during his time with the Uhlan’s he displayed fine leadership qualities. He was slightly wounded in September 1914, and was promoted to Feldwebel. Early in the spring of 1915, he was given a field commission to Leutnant and also awarded the Iron Cross Second Class. While he continued to lead his men through 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.

Gontermann was finally accepted for pilot /observer training, and upon his graduation in early 1916 was posted to Kampfstaffel Tergnier as a reconnaissance pilot flying the Roland C.II. Later that spring, he was posted to Field – Abtielung 25, where he flew both as pilot and observer on Ago C.I’s. Gontermann applied for aviation training at Jastaschule and a transfer to a fighter unit. He was accepted and on the 11th of November 1916 joined Jasta 5. Three days later, whilst on his first combat sortie, he shot down his first aircraft an F.E.2b on patrol over Morval. There was a lull in his scoring until the 7th of March 1917, when Gontermann shot down an F.E2d of No.57 Squadron R.F.C. the day after being awarded the Iron Cross First Class. he then scored regularly until March becoming an ace on the 24th by downing a Sopwith 11/2 Strutter, he added a second one the following day. It was after this victory, that he wrote home, ‘Today I shot down a two – seater…….He broke up into dust in the air…… is a horrible job, but one must do one’s duty.’

During Bloody April, 1917, Gontermann scored 12 victories. On the 8th he achieved his first successes as a balloon buster, with all of its extraordinary hazards, by downing an observation balloon. He shot down 4 others within the month, including a double -victory on the 16th. On the 26th of April 1917, he bought his victory total to 17, Gontermann was also promoted to Staffelfuhrer of the Prussian Jagdstaffel 15, four days later. He replaced Max Reinhold who was killed in action.

Gontermann’s personal reputation was of an aloof man with few friends. Professionally. he was a student of enemy aircraft types, with a special knack of picking off his foes from point-blank range within their blind spots. He was considered to be the premier marksman of his unit, as well as being a skilled aerobaticist. Udet 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.’ Gontermann was noted as nervous, stressed and sleeping badly. Such was the strain of combat that he was sent on a month’s leave during May to recuperate.

On the 6th of May 1917, Gontermann was awarded the Knights Cross with Swords of the Royal House Order of Hohenzollern. He scored his 19th triumph, over five- victory ace, Didier Lecour Grandmaison on the 10th of May 1917. Heinrich Gontermann received Bavaria’s Military Order of Max Joseph on the 11th of May, The Pour le Merite, followed on the 17th. Gontermann was granted four weeks leave in May / June 1917 upon receipt of the Blue Max. Upon Gontermann’s return to the Jasta on the 19th of June, he found that acting Staffelfuhrer Ernst Udet had requested a transfer. Under Udet’s leadership the Jasta had suffered three demoralizing losses. For the remainder of June, Gontermann again targeted observation balloons, downing one on both the 24th and 27th. He also scored two victories in July, one of which was a balloon.

August was a productive month for Gontermann. After shooting down a Nieuport on the 5th, he shot down two balloons both on the 9th and the 17th. On the 19th of August, was the peak of Gontermann’s career. He shot down a SPAD in the morning, later at 19.23 hrs, he took out an observation balloon south of Aisne Tal; three others were destroyed in as many minutes. The downing of the balloons bought his score to 35. In September Gontermann shot down three more enemy aircraft, by October 1917 Gontermann had become a celebrated ace with 39 victories, he was credited with defeating 21 enemy aircraft and 18 balloons, plus one unconfirmed balloon shot down. He would rank eighth amongst the balloon busting aces of the war, only Friedrich Ritter von Roth outscored him amongst German fliers.

On the 29th of October 1917, Gontermann took off in a Fokker DR1, he had not fully recovered from a bout of dysentery. Nevertheless he was anxious to try his new aircraft, despite others misgivings about it. After a few minutes, he tried aerobatics at 700 metres altitude. He pulled out of his second loop and dived into a left turn. The upper wing collapsed and broke completely off. His aircraft plunged into the ground. Gontermann was pulled from the wreckage alive, though with severe head injuries after slamming in to the machine guns breeches. He was taken to the Jasta’s medical bay, where he died several hours later. Gontermann was only one of several German pilots to be killed testing the new DR1. As a result Fokker was accused of shabby construction and directed to change production methods for the manufacture of the aircraft.

(C) Damian Grange 2021

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