Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
20 February 2013
Review by Ralph M. Hitchens, Poolesville, MD
The German Aces Speak: World War II through the Eyes of Four of the Luftwaffe's Most Important Commanders
By Colin D. Heaton and Anne-Marie Lewis
Minneapolis: Zenith Press, 2011. Pp. xiii, 354. ISBN 978–0–7603–4115–5.
Descriptors: Volume 2013, 20th Century, World War II, Biography Print Version

"That damned fat bastard [Hermann Göring]. I wonder how long he will last sitting on his fat ass as we lose a war he and Hitler started" (169). —Günther Lützow, during the famous but belated "Fighter Pilots' Revolt" in January 1945.

This book may not add much to the ever-expanding body of knowledge about World War II, but it will certainly interest most students of that war, of the German side, at least. It is "beach reading" for a military historian, not a weighty tome thick with endnotes. What can be learned from these postwar interviews, some fifty years after the fact, with prominent surviving German fighter pilots? Journalists and historians have long since told their stories; indeed, one of them, Adolf Galland, has become the "poster boy" for the Luftwaffe. Yet he and three of his colleagues are interviewed once again in this collection. Walter Krupinski was the youngest of the four, only twenty-five when the war ended and never rising above the rank of captain; despite his youth, he served as a group commander (equivalent to a US squadron commander). Like Galland, Eduard Neumann had served in Spain with the Condor Legion before the war. The fourth ace is Wolfgang Falck, a major figure in organizing the Luftwaffe's night fighter force. Colin Heaton has spent more than a quarter century talking with veterans of World War II and other conflicts; the interviews in this book seem to have occurred sometime in the 1990s.

The Luftwaffe of the Third Reich was famously dysfunctional, chiefly owing to the indolence and mismanagement of the Reich's second-ranking Nazi. Hermann Göring had been a highly competent fighter pilot in World War I. He scored twenty-two victories and, despite his lowly rank of 1st Lieutenant, commanded the famous Richthofen fighter wing. In middle age, having parlayed his war record and undeniable charisma into a high position in the Nazi party, he was little more than a drug addict and sybaritic political opportunist. This was in marked contrast to such men as, for example, his best senior staff general, Erhard Milch, who spent most of the interwar years building one of the world's great airlines. Or the Luftwaffe's best tactical air commander, Wolfram von Richthofen, who earned a PhD in aeronautical engineering before World War II and would have done even more damage to the Reich's enemies had he been in charge of aircraft development and procurement, instead of becoming one of the war's great tactical air support commanders.[1]

Many key figures in the Luftwaffe high command were Great War colleagues of Göring, promoted far beyond their abilities. It is a wonder the fighter pilots' revolt took place so late in the war, though it is also remarkable that it occurred at all.[2] Two of the men featured here put their careers and lives on the line in challenging the Reichsminister of Aviation and demanding his resignation. They achieved nothing by their risky demonstration, and, to Göring's credit, his retaliation was relatively mild. It is hard to put ourselves in the shoes of such men. Although scholars may nurture doubts, in their own context they were heroes, Göring indisputably the villain.

Having survived the war and the slightly less harrowing ordeal of Luftwaffe bureaucratic infighting, Adolf Galland became every American's favorite "good German," his accomplishments well known to students of World War II. It is entirely characteristic of the Luftwaffe that its shining star—one of the youngest German generals of the war—ended his career commanding a squadron of Me-262 jet fighters. Too few in number and much too late in deployment, these most lethal interceptors of the war were flown by an extraordinary collection of veteran aces, who tried to the very end to defend their homeland against the vast Allied air fleets. Galland himself scored a plethora of victories before his promotion to "General of Fighters," a job that kept him on the ground until Göring in a rage thrust him back into combat. But for that early promotion, Galland's total of 102 victories would have been much higher.

Turning from the well known Galland, Heaton and Lewis are able to shed light on the careers of their three other, less familiar aces. Eduard Neumann, like Galland, served in the Spanish Civil War and the opening campaigns of World War II. But, as the war dragged on, he was pushed into higher commands and staff and training assignments that kept him from flying more combat missions. Though he achieved only a modest total of thirteen victories and never won the Knight's Cross, he was highly respected as a leader and teacher of fighter pilots.

Most of Neumann's personal reminiscences deal with his experience as a group leader and ultimately commander of the JG-27 Luftwaffe wing in North Africa. He rhapsodizes about a difficult subordinate who was also one of the war's greatest fighter pilots—Hans Joachim Marseille. This young "rock star" of the Luftwaffe during 1941 and 1942 was credited with 158 victories, all but seven during the Western Desert campaign. The son of a general, Marseille was viewed by others and indeed regarded himself as something of a privileged character, not constrained by the rigid behavioral expectations of the German officer corps. His notorious romantic episodes and indiscipline were forgiven in light of his amazing combat skills. He was an exceptional long-range marksman with the 20mm cannon and master of the deflection shot, which many pilots hesitated to attempt. Neumann clearly loved and admired this young subordinate, repeatedly forgave his indiscretions, and grieved at his untimely death in September 1942: "I was used to losing men; that was war. But Marseille was special, like a small boy playing at war. He never took it too seriously, and his smile, which was less evident as time progressed, was infectious when present…. Marseille had this mythic quality about him. He could not be killed, despite crash-landing fighters or returning with dozens of holes in his fighter. It was as if a plug had been pulled and the lights went out" (163–64).

Neumann's account of his own subsequent wartime career is rather perfunctory, but includes his eyewitness testimony about the fighter pilots' revolt (Gallant was not present for the actual confrontation).

It must be understood that we were not simply a collection of disgruntled fighter unit leaders who wanted miraculous changes. We were a group of men who had been fighting, seeing the bad decisions made by Göring and Hitler, and the growing problems regarding all abandonment of logic and a failure to see the reality of the war…. The very first thing that we agreed must happen was that Göring be replaced as commander in chief of the Luftwaffe. This was not negotiable. He had to go. (165)

The men were lucky not to have been summarily shot for their defiance.

Wolfgang Falck was responsible in a major way for one of the Luftwaffe's greatest wartime achievements. As the "father of the night fighters," he and a handful of other innovators, starting in early 1940, developed an extremely effective night interceptor capability that took a terrible toll on British bomber crews right up to the war's final months. Falck himself flew only about ninety combat missions with eight victories, and the night fighter force he built and trained waged a heroic campaign against the RAF Bomber Command, exacting a high price for its destruction of major German cities. Early in the war, Falck, as Inspector of the night fighter force, read every mission report he could get his hands on, distilling lessons that he swiftly translated into technical and operational innovations in the field, with remarkably little bureaucratic interference. In this regard, he even has a good word for Göring, who broke many logjams with personal telephone calls to air defense officers senior to Falck: "Göring may not have been good for very much, but he did have a way of removing obstacles from my path" (218). He also collaborated effectively with the Luftwaffe's greatest air defense expert, the brilliant if prickly Gen. Josef Kammhuber. Together they developed an integrated night air defense system that inflicted horrific casualties on the RAF: from 1942 until late 1944, British Bomber Command airmen who flew the expected two combat tours (sixty missions) stood nearly a 50 percent chance of becoming casualties.

The last of the book's aces, Walter Krupinski, recalls in a calm, straightforward manner his long, truly astonishing combat career. Younger that the other three aces, he was only nineteen when the war started and never rose above squadron commander. Apart from some training assignments, he spent the war at the front; his record of 1,100 missions and 197 victories placed him sixteenth on the Luftwaffe's list of aces. He gained a dozen victories against US Army Air Forces in Romania and Normandy; as an Me-262 pilot in Galland's elite unit, he scored two other victories against Allied bombers in the war's final days. The remaining 185 victories came against the Soviet Air Force on the Eastern Front. This almost sepia-toned, nostalgic account by an old man who had survived many wartime trials conveys little of the immense personal stress he endured in those turbulent years.

The extraordinary number of victories claimed and, by and large, uncritically credited to top-rank Luftwaffe aces like Krupinski, Marseille, and Erich Hartmann have been questioned by recent scholarly research into the issue of "overclaiming" on the part of various air forces during the Second World War. But the Luftwaffe was at least as stringent as its enemies in allowing victory claims, requiring corroborating eyewitness testimony in cases where the wreckage could not be located (mostly in enemy territory). Nevertheless, closely focused investigations suggest that the Germans likely overclaimed victories by at least 25 percent. However, this compares favorably with, for instance, the estimated 100 percent for the Soviet Air Force.

The victory record of Hans Joachim Marseille, in particular, has been subjected to close scrutiny, especially his seventeen aerial victories during four sorties on a single day in 1942. But RAF records for that day confirm the loss of at least eighteen or nineteen fighters. Precise numbers of victories claimed by Luftwaffe aces are, however, not very relevant; even if we arbitrarily reduce Walter Krupinski's score by fifty or so, in line with new statistical probabilities, his combat career still represents a stupendous accomplishment.

In assessing the German aces achievements, we must recall that, from 1941 to mid-1943, their aircraft were markedly superior to their opponents' planes, particularly on the Eastern Front and in the Western Desert. Specifically, the Messerschmitt 109F introduced in early 1941 and the Focke-Wulf 190 a year later had significant performance advantages over opposing fighters. Krupinski expressed his great affection for the Me-109, as did his younger colleague Erich Hartmann, Germany's leading ace.[3] Hans-Joachim Marseille's extraordinary victory total is marginally less surprising in view of the superiority of his Me-109F and G fighters over the Hurricane and P-40 Warhawk fighters of RAF and Commonwealth squadrons in the Western Desert. Moreover, all these famous German aces went through an excellent training regimen before its standards (and flying hours) began to slip later in the war.

Heaton and Lewis's four German aces were fortunate to survive their war, and we are fortunate to have their recollections of easily forgotten corners of that terrible conflict. Yes, they fought for the Nazis, but in their place, having experienced what Germany experienced between the wars, many of us might have done the same, but few as effectively.

[1] See James S. Corum, Wolfram von Richthofen: Master of the German Air War (Lawrence: U Pr of Kansas, 2008).

[2] See Colin Heaton, "Interview with World War II Luftwaffe General and Ace Pilot Adolf Galland," World War II (Jan 1997), rpt. Historynet.com (12 Jun 2006), and "Interview with World War II Luftwaffe Eagle Johannes Steinhoff," World War II (Feb 2000), rpt. Historynet.com (12 Jun 2006). See also Steinhoff, The Final Hours: The Luftwaffe Plot against Göring (1974; rpt. Washington: Potomac, 2005), and Trevor J. Constable and Raymond F. Toliver, Horrido! Fighter Aces of the Luftwaffe (NY: Macmillan, 1968).

[3] On Hartmann, see Raymond F. Toliver and Trevor J. Constable, The Blond Knight of Germany (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1970).

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