Air University Review, November-December 1969
Harry R. Fletcher
Twenty-four years have passed since Anglo-American air power obliterated the Luftwaffe, Hitler’s youngest and most National-Socialist oriented service; and a comprehensive history of the German Air Force in World War II his still to be written. Immediately following the war, few persons in Germany or the United States were interested in writing about the conflict that had just been concluded. By 1950, however, the world situation had taken a dramatic turn: the cold war had transformed West Germany into a comrade-in-arms with the Western Allies, and the German currency reform of 1948 had opened the way for a remarkable economic recovery west of the Iron Curtain. With the easing of their more serious burdens, Germans began to reflect upon World War II and its aftermath and to seek clearer insights into the protracted and far-flung operations of the Wehrmacht, in which most of them had served. Meanwhile, a wartime generation of Americans had sufficiently recovered its composure to become interested in the events of the recent past, especially the war against Nazi Germany, a nation against which so many had fought but about which few really knew very much.
As was to be expected, historians, part-time time historians, students, journalists, and freelance writers soon discovered that the writing of books about the war (particularly those dealing with the Nazis) could be both a fascinating and a lucrative enterprise. Dozens of works on World War II began to appear on the bookshelves here and abroad, the bulk of them being racy now-it-can-be-told accounts by eyewitnesses who were in the know. Replete with swastika-emblazoned dust covers and half-tones of diving Stukas and menacing Tiger tanks, the "histories" found an eager public quick to buy all that came off the press.
Books about World War II have a tremendous current sales-appeal, but it is also true that many of them are highly romanticized, filled with breezy jargon, and often superficial and downright misleading. It is safe to say that some of these works have more in common with the TV series featuring the Desert Rats or Colonel Klink than with any real events in history. Quite obviously, most of these books were not written as history; they were written to sell, and they have succeeded admirably.
Amid this deluge a number of significant and substantial military histories have emerged, including Walter Hubatsch’s Die deutsche Besetzung von Dänemark und Norwegen (The German Occupation of Denmark and Norway), Erich von Manstein’s Verlorene Siege (Lost Victories), and Albert Kesselring’s Soldat bis zum letzten Tag (Soldier to the Last Day), as well as the fine official histories published by Great Britain, the United States, and the Federal Republic of Germany. But, until recently, there had been no real effort to produce for public consumption a comprehensive account of the German Air Force in World War II, unless one cares to include Asher Lee’s The German Air Force. The most useful single volume of this sort is the Air Ministry’s The Rise and Fall of the German Air Force (1933 to 1945), though this 1948 publication is still not accessible to the general reading public.
One of the more recent attempts to tell the story of the Luftwaffe to the layman is Cajus Bekker’s Angriffshöhe 4000 (Attack Altitude 4000), published in Germany in 1964 and since translated into English in 1966 under the rather unfortunate title, The Luftwaffe War Diaries,* which the book obviously is not. Bekker’s work is not derived from a critical examination of the surviving official war diaries of the former Luftwaffe but stems chiefly from a number of personal accounts, eyewitness reports, and several well-known German publications, such as Adolf Galland’s Die Ersten und die Letzten (The First and the Last, Josef Priller’s Geschichte eines Jagdgeschwaders (History of a Fighter Wing), and Werner Baumbach’s Zu Spät? Aufstieg und Untergang der deutschen Luftwaffe (Too Late? Rise and Fall of the German Air Force). Happily, Bekker does not rely solely on these works but falls back on the USAF’s The Army Air Forces in World War II, Denis Richards and Hilary St. George Saunders’ The Royal Air Force 1939-1945, Basil Collier’ Defence of the United Kingdom, and William Green’s very good little series of aircraft identification books.
*Cajus Bekker, The Luftwaffe War Diaries, translated and edited by Frank Ziegler (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1968, $7.95), 399 pp.
Bekker’s work is not a historian’s history; it lies midway between history and a compilation of eyewitness accounts. Yet it does have its place in the military literature of World War II and contributes a good deal to the general reader’s knowledge of German air operations. General der Flieger (Retired) Paul Deichmann1 is quite correct in noting that this is the first attempt in a single volume to tell the world about the Luftwaffe’s operations on all fronts. For those interested in German aviation between 1933 and 1945, this book serves a purpose similar to that of William L. Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. Both Bekker’s and Shirer’s volumes, despite their several defects, fulfill a need and render a service to the general public.
Bekker treats the theaters of operations separately, concluding each account with brief summaries and conclusions. The latter coincide well with the views expressed by German commanders who served in the particular areas mentioned and are historically sound as far as they go. What is lacking, however, is a proper emphasis upon root causes, upon the major fields of error and neglect prior to and during the war which affected the Luftwaffe, the incredible failure of Germany to mobilize its industrial power until the eleventh hour, and the all-too-seldom-mentioned fact that, in general, Germany’s air leadership never comprehended the proper role of air power within the framework of modern warfare. Their strategic operations were, at best, tactical-strategic in character. This charge cannot be laid entirely at the feet of Hitler or the German Army. A much more perceptive assessment of the cardinal reasons for the decline and fall of the German Air Force in World War II is provided by Professor Richard Suchenwirth in his Historical Turning Points in the German Air Force War Effort (USAF Historical Studies No. 189, USAF Historical Division, Research Studies Institute, 1959; Arno Press, New York, 1968); and a clearer perspective of the instability within the High Command of the German Air Force can be gained by reading Suchenwirth’s Command and Leadership in the German Air Force (USAF Historical Studies No. 174, USAF Historical Division, Aerospace Studies Institute, 1969) and Generalmajor Hans Detlef Herhudt von Rohden’s Das war die Füjhrung (That Was the Leadership). Upon perusing these, the reader may with some justification ask whether, in view of the unique collection of "inadequate personalities" at the top level of the Luftwaffe, the organization was not doomed from the beginning. Perhaps it is symptomatic of this state of affairs that Goering, von Greim, Udet, and Jeschonnek all committed suicide.
Bekker wisely steers a middle course between the former one-sided adulation of the military and the equally narrow present-day German contempt for everything even remotely linked with the military, and it is refreshing to find an account dealing with German military operations that is not shot full of moralisms and in which the author does not manifest any signs of having a personal axe to grind.
Another recent work, John Killen’s A History of the Luftwaffe,* attempts to tell the entire story of the rise and fall of the German Air Force from the days of Oswald Boelke, Max Immelmann, and Manfred von Richthofen to the collapse of the Third Reich. This is an ambitious undertaking, to say the least. Killen’s book is not likely to be exciting reading, since it lacks the moving, personal accounts so plentiful in Bekker’s volume. This would be agreeable enough except that Killen’s contribution is hardly a solid piece of historical research. He avoids most of the recriminations so characteristic of books published during or immediately following World War II, but he tells the public almost nothing that it had not already discovered from the popular accounts mentioned in his all-too-brief bibliography: Galland, Hanna Reitsch, Baumbach, Shirer, and even Cornelius Ryan’s The Longest Day.
More serious are Killen’s obvious mistakes in fact and his willingness to abide by the long-discounted interpretations of a quarter of a century ago. For example, his treatment of the events leading up to Hitler’s decision to intervene in Spain in behalf of General Francisco Franco in 1936 is clearly misleading. The air forces of the "two Spains" were not "about equal" at the outbreak of the civil war. The bulk of the Spanish Air Force threw in its lot with the Republic at the outset, and the Navy (largely because of the sympathies of its crews rather than any republican sentiments among the officer corps) did likewise. Moreover, with the exception of the impetuous Hermann Goering, none of the top Wehrmacht commanders were enthusiastic about suggestions to intervene in the Spanish War, and most of them saw grave dangers to an armed force--even to Germany itself--that had just been freed from the fetters of Versailles and had begun its buildup. The cardinal reason for German involvement in Spain was political, not military; Hitler saw an opportunity to keep the democracies (and even his troublesome ally, Italy) tied down in efforts to prevent an escalation of the conflict into a general European war while he pursued his political objectives elsewhere. Killen is satisfied to follow the stories, now largely discounted, that Hitler "and company" were instantly delighted to find a testing ground in Spain for their new arsenal. A number of solid and illuminating studies concerning the Spanish Civil War have been written since Hannes Trautloft’s Als Jagdflieger in Spanien (As a Fighter Pilot in Spain) and Herbert Feis’s The Spanish Story. Killen could have profited considerably from an examination of some of these recent publications.
A History of the Luftwaffehas a number of gross oversimplifications and inaccuracies, such as the comment: "But it should never be forgotten that he [Goering] became a powerful air leader only because Messerschmitt, Junkers, Heinkel, and the other German aircraft industrialists created the weapons for him to use." Goering’s prestige as number two man in the Reich, as the last commander of von Richthofen’s famous Fighter Wing No. 1, as former head of the Prussian State Police, and as President of the Reichstag was surely not attributable to weapon creators alone. Furthermore, his meteoric rise in military circles really preceded the mass production of combat aircraft. By 1937 Goering "had it made." It is regrettable, too, that Killen lumps Hugo Junkers and Willy Messerschmitt in the same category. Junkers, a man of strong moral conscience and basically a pacifist, was badly mistreated by Goering and the officialdom of the Third Reich, who wrested from him his airline, his firm, his patents, his fortune, and were even attempting to try him for high treason when death benevolently intervened. Messerschmitt, on the other hand, was a great opportunist, a specialist in political intrigue, and a great favorite of Hitler, who considered him to be a genius. He retained this association until the end.
There is little to say of Killen’s handling of the Imperial German Flying Forces of World War I, except to note that a reading of General Karl Bodenschatz’s Jagd in Flanderns Himmel (Pursuit in Flanders’ Heavens), General der Kavallerie Ernst von Hoeppner’s Deutschlands Krieg in der Luft (Germany’s War in the Air), the memoirs of Crown Prince Ruprecht of Bavaria, In Treue Fest (Steadfast in Faithfulness), and the official history published by the Reich’s Archives, Der Weltkrieg 1914 bis 1918 (The World War,1914 to 1918), would have been useful.
By far the most swashbuckling and sensational book being examined here is Horrido! Fighter Aces of the Luftwaffe.* This book, which required twelve years of research, is written in large part to tell the world that the pilots of the former Luftwaffe were as honorable as those who opposed them in combat. Indeed, the fact that there is a broader recognition of a need to examine both Allied and enemy air forces in a saner and more considerate manner is commendable; the time for gross oversimplifications in assessing blame and making bland accusations is past. Yet there is a very thin line between honest respect for an opponent and an immature, fawning, naïve admiration. In far too many instances Americans have found themselves almost unable to view the entities of "allies" and "enemies" in true perspective. Too often, in re-evaluating the enemy, the pendulum is allowed to swing all the way from a bitter, grudging respect to something closely akin to hero worship. This is definitely the tone of Constable and Toliver’s book on the Luftwaffe aces. It needs to be said again: the German Air Force was not made up of "supermen" or aerial "knights" who rode their "steeds of the air into the lists." The Germans themselves know better than this.
Until the closing years of World War II, the Luftwaffe was composed of men who had had a considerable amount of military and flying training and who were unquestionably very able. It was perhaps inevitable that in a war of attrition some of them would live long enough to become highly skilled in their craft and run up outstanding scores. In fact, all things considered, the Luftwaffe pilot--providing, of course, he could stay alive--had the best chance of all to amass a string of victories against an ever increasing Anglo-American force in the West or against the improving but often quite inept Soviet Air Force. Because of pilot shortages and crucial air defense problems, the German Air Force was obliged to keep its experienced pilots in combat. For example, Hans-Ulrich Rudel, the noted Stuka flyer, completed more than 2500 combat missions. How many Allied pilots remained in the thick of it this long? Yet one must still concede that the Luftwaffe had some outstanding units and that it had the highest-scoring aces to be found on either side.
Hermann Goering and other Nazi leaders overlooked no opportunities to compare their "boys in blue" with Boelke, Immelmann, Werner Voss, and the legendary Manfred von Richthofen of World War I fame. There were certain differences, however. Boelke and his contemporaries grew up in a period of relative stability, of great traditions, and of high respect, which extended from the family circle and the church to the Emperor himself. These men went off to war in 1914 for "God, Country, and Kaiser," holding fast at least to some part of the concept of knightly conduct--something which was even then passing from the scene (though many of them did not realize it). On the other hand, most of the Luftwaffe pilots grew up in a period of unrest, discontent, hunger and inflation, frustration and envy. Most of them found their self-esteem in the promises of National Socialism, a philosophy which not only condemned representative governments for their weaknesses but also wholeheartedly attacked the more worthwhile and civilizing aspects of old Imperial Germany. Moreover, the Nazis emphasized such precepts as "even the score," Gemeinnutz vor Eigennutz ("community good before the individual good"), and "the end justifies the means."
German flyers of World War II were pragmatists of the first order, and there is no solid evidence to support the contention that they were somehow more chivalrous than Allied pilots. On occasion both sides were apparently guilty of shooting down airmen in parachutes, even though Constable and Toliver make the fantastic claim; "It is doubtful indeed if a German pilot ever strafed a parachuting enemy, although in the heat of battle anything can happen." (p.33)
In their discussion of the bombing of Dresden, Constable and Toliver assert (doubtless on the strength of David Irving’s book, The Destruction of Dresden) that American "red-nosed Mustangs" carried out strafing operations against civilians at Dresden. (p.288)2 Yet no documentary evidence has come to light to substantiate any strafing there by an American air unit, let alone "red-nosed Mustangs." Unauthenticated statements of this sort may lend nice bits of color to a book, but they scarcely add anything to its historical validity.
Despite the authors’ description of hapless German flyers, who hated the Nazis and felt themselves "powerless to remove the political regime," (p. 300) it should be noted that most German pilots went through the Hitler Youth glider schools, the secret flying school at Sehleissheim, and were in one way or another associated with the National Socialist Flying Corps before entering the German Air Force. Though it could be said that most of these young flyers never were particularly interested in governmental or political matters; they were hardly "caught up" in the service involuntarily. Things were quite different for the Army and, by the close of the war, even for the Waffen SS (Military SS), which had to resort to conscription to fill its ranks. Finally, to the statement that German pilots "were caught up in World War II," one feels impelled to ask, "Wasn’t everyone?"
The outstanding figure in this book is the former German Inspector of Fighters, General-leutnant Adolf Galland, probably because few former Luftwaffe officers have been so delighted to be interviewed by Americans and because few of them have said so much. The authors’ description of Galland as a "visionary genius" with "exceptional equilibrium" who eschews the "limelight" and has great personal modesty would be quite sufficient to place him among the greatest air commanders of his day, but their further eulogy of him as a man who "will go down in history as the Billy Mitchell, the Douhet, and the aerial Clausewitz of the Second World War" (pp. 24-25) can only lead the reader to conclude that Galland must have been easily the outstanding air force leader of all time. It is difficult indeed to imagine just how Constable and Toliver happened to select Galland as the outstanding Luftwaffe commander, let alone as an officer who must have outstripped in ability and achievements all the Allied air commanders as well. Several former Luftwaffe commanders have written opinions concerning leadership in the German Air Force, and most agree that Galland was indeed a highly competent junior commander, but not the "outstanding mind" in the Luftwaffe. An article appearing in the November-December 1946 issue of Interavia is even less commendatory, describing Galland as "just a typical example of the flying generation created by Hitler."3 Like many of his contemporaries, Galland was never averse to ascribing all of the German Air Force’s woes to the corruption of German political leadership. Yet he remained one of the Fuehrer’s favorites almost to the end, and his jet organization, JV-44, was established only because Hitler agreed to its formation.
German fighter pilots may have developed a "contempt for the political leadership," but there is no evidence that they ever hesitated to carry out their assignments. Furthermore, it is interesting to note that, of the regular German branches of service, it was the Luftwaffe that manifested no interest in checking Hitler’s ambitions before the war. During the 20 July 1944 attempt to assassinate Hitler, the Luftwaffe was conspicuous only by its failure to participate. On the other hand, as early as 1935 Generalleutnant Walther Wever, the first chief of what was to become the German Air Force General Staff, declared, "Our Officer Corps will either be National Socialist or it won’t be at all!"4 In 1936 it was the German Air Force that wanted so eagerly to intervene in the Spanish Civil War, and in 1939 it was the Luftwaffe that provided the principal means of coercion to force that unhappy man, Dr. Emil Hacha, to surrender Czechoslovakia to Hitler. There was, in fact, a saying which contained more than a grain of truth: "Germany has an Imperial Navy, a Royal Prussian Army, and a National Socialist Air Force."
Constable and Toliver’s book has a number of errors of omission and commission, many of which might have been avoided by an examination of the existing archival materials pertaining to the German Air Force in the United States, Great Britain, and West Germany. The volume contains few footnotes and no bibliography at all. It does have a number of interesting charts bearing the scores of Germany’s day and night fighter aces and Knight’s Cross winners, as well as a useful glossary of terms. Unfortunately, the value of these charts is diminished by the fact that no sources are cited. Horrido! Fighter Aces of the Luftwaffe is not a history of the German Air Force; it is not even a history of German fighter forces. Rather , it is a compilation of biographical sketches of some of Germany’s top fighter pilots, including men such as Erich Hartmann, Gerhard Barkhorn, Heinz Schnaufer, and Johannes Steinhoff, together with a few of their more colorful and harrowing experiences. A great amount of space is devoted to victory credits and the compilation of credits, which is natural for those who are former fighter pilots or members of fighter pilots’ associations. In this area, Hans Ring of West Germany is probably as good an authority on German victory credits and comparative scores as anyone living. Of course, this is but a very small aspect of the overall picture of a great air force that went down to defeat in World War II.
German aviation buffs who are mainly interested in fighter activities and in the credits assigned to aces will find this work quite interesting, but for those who hope to understand the German Air Force in a broader context and to find the reasons for its failure, Cajus Bekker’s The Luftwaffe War Diaries will be much more satisfying. Better yet, if time permits, one would benefit from a reading of the historical studies prepared by former key officers of the Luftwaffe for the USAF Historical Division. These monographs cover every theater of operations in World War II and all the most significant aspects of the German Air Force as an entity. Ten of these studies have also been published commercially by Arno Press and are well worth the time it takes to read them. Meanwhile, perhaps some ambitious soul will tackle the task which still stretches before us, the writing of a solid, comprehensive history of the German Air Force.
Aerospace Studies Institute
*John Killen, A History of the Luftwaffe (London: Frederick A Muller, Ltd., 1967; and Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, 1968, $5.95), 324 pp.
1. General Deichmann was Project Control Officer (1953-58) for the USAF Historical Division’s German Historical Monograph Project and became the first foreigner to be honored with the Air University Award.
2. See also David Irving, The Destruction of Dresden (London: Kimber, 1963), pp. 151-52. Irving cites only a single, fragmentary account from an Eighth Air Force group report. The report, however, is inaccurate.
3. Major Evans, "Vom Gymnasiasten zum Fliegergeneral" ("From High School Student to Flying General"), Interavia, Vol. I, November-December 1946, p. 42.
4. Generalleutnant Heinz J. Rieckhoff, Trumpf oder Bluff? 12 Jabre Deutsche Luftwaffe (Trump or Bluff? Twelve Years of the German Air Force), (Geneva: Verlag Interavia, 1945), p. 83. See also Generalleutnant (Retired) Andreas, Nielsen, The German Air Force General Staff. USAF Historical Studies No.173, Maxwell AFB, Ala. USAF Historical Division, RSI, June 1959, p.185. (The latter is also published by Arno Press, New York, 1968.)
Harry R. Fletcher (M.A., University of Wisconsin) was a historian in the USAF Historical Division and the Historical Research Division, Aerospace Studies Institute, from 1963 until October 1969, He is presently teaching courses in British and European History at Troy State University. In World War II he served as an enlisted man in the USAAF and the Army Engineers, and in the occupation of Germany as an officer in the Corps of Engineers. Prior to becoming the editor in the USAF Historical Division's German Air Force Historical Monograph Project, Mr. Fletcher taught history at Wisconsin State University. He has edited a number of historical studies prepared for the USAF by officers of the former German Luftwaffe.
The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.
Home Page | Feedback? Email the Editor