Luftwaffe Fighter Force
The View From The Cockpit
Edited by David C. Isby
We’re extremely lucky, these days, to live in an age when former enemies can be be widely reconciled, respected and remembered for the honour of their service. Among other things, it means we can read countless thrilling memoirs by the aerial warriors we want to study and admire.
But it wasn’t always so easy.
Immediately after World War Two, returning Luftwaffe veterans were often vilified by Germany’s savaged civilian population (and even Wehrmacht veterans) for failing to deliver the impossible, impregnable umbrella Goering had promised they would.
Not surprisingly, those pilots – defeated but still proud – learned to keep their memories hidden from public view. Sadly, it meant only a limited number of memoirs have come down to us ‘from the other side’.
My own collection of Allied pilot autobiographies is complemented by as many Luftwaffe stories as I’ve been able to get my hands on. I say ‘complemented’, but ‘completed’ would be just as accurate.
It’s important, if you want to really understand the history, to know what was going on in the cockpits, the minds, and the command structures of both sides.
And pilots will always have more in common than whatever sets them apart. So those few personal memoirs from the Luftwaffe are every bit as impossible to put down as the Allied ones.
For all that, though, this isn’t one of those books.
I’d recommend Luftwaffe Fighter Force: The View From The Cockpit as a reference rather than a read. It’s well organised and hugely informative. David C. Isby has done an amazing job of sorting through reams of debriefing reports and surviving documents to bring us a comprehensive view ‘inside the enemy camp’, as it were.
The raw data comes from a number of high ranking Luftwaffe officers, debriefed in England in the month’s after Germany’s capitulation.
These notables include the well-known General der Jagdflieger (fighter forces) Generalleutnant Adolf Galland; General der Schlachtflieger (air-ground forces) Generalmajor Hubertus Hitschhold; 240-victory ace Oberstleutnant Heinrich Bär and others.
Short biographies of the 12 major contributors are included at the start of the book, along with a glossary of the numerous Luftwaffe terms used throughout.
The five main sections that follow trace both the history of the Luftwaffe and the ensuing narrative of World War Two. They begin with a detailed background of the fighter force – including its origins and structure. This covers the force’s general organisation and operations from 1935, through the Spanish Civil War, and in unceasing combat from 1939 to 1945. Even the individual pilot’s standard equipment is explained in detail, along with training and even earning decorations.
But the main focus here is on the structure, function and tactics of the German air force, to furnish a rich understanding of how the different fighter, fighter-bomber and twin-engined Zerstörer divisions were organised and commanded.
The history of the Zerstörer force is a particularly enlightening account of the much-vaunted ‘heavy fighters’ – how their role was envisaged, enacted, and ultimately played out.
As the War moved into blitzkreig in the West, the Luftwaffe’s essential mobility is described, along with accounts of tactics for fighter sweep, bomber escort and ‘free hunt’ operations.
The famed Channel Dash of February 1942 provides a logical cue for including directives for escorting and protecting naval assets. These guidelines were drafted by Galland specifically for Operation Cerberus (the Channel Dash) and proved so successful that they were adopted for the rest of the war – from the Norwegian Coast to the Aegean Sea.
Just as the war moved east onto the Russian steppes, the next section moves onto Air-Ground operations.
These begin with the fighter-bomber (Jabo) attacks against the south coast of England, and then introduce the tactics that would be used against Russian airfields, armour and other assets; and later, against western forces in the Ardennes campaign.
Once again general organisation, typical field orders and specific tactics for different types of aircraft and targets are all provided – vastly interesting for students of tank, as well as air, warfare.
A fatal flaw
Moving into the climactic stage of the war, the penultimate section of Luftwaffe Fighter Force deals with the strategies and tactics used to try and stem the massive aerial bombardment of the Reich. I suspect this section will hold the most interest for many – given the legendary status of The Mighty Eighth and the hundreds of thrilling memoirs its pilots have committed to print.
As the Allies carried the war back to the Reich, the Luftwaffe Fighter Force had to develop and extend its own defensive tactics – initially against ever-expanding and increasingly vitriolic RAF night raids, then against the American air armadas.
Through hubris or glaring oversight, this was a kind of war the Luftwaffe had never been created to wage. In fact, the book reveals an ongoing theme of reactive rather than proactive development – a fatal flaw for any military force.
To its credit through, the Luftwaffe’s fighter force quickly developed robust strategies and innovative bomber defence tactics against day and night raids.
The development of these techniques, including the vital signals systems to command them, are covered in a brief history, before moving on to the specific tactics and weapons used against the four-engined heavies. These are followed by a typical briefing and mission against a daylight raid, and the tactical regulations under-pinning them.
There is an especially chilling description of how to conduct a company front attack by 10 to 16 Fw.190s, head-on against a USAAF bomber formation, penned by 129-victory ace (including 36 heavy bombers) Oberstleutnant Walther Dahl.
I’ve read too many accounts from the receiving end of these assaults to be anything other than morbidly fascinated by his report.
Lost in the night
It’s tempting to wish for more about the fighter-versus-fighter aspect of the air war here, but remember the Luftwaffe pilots were trying to avoid the escorts. So there was no special strategy for attacking the fighters and, once engaged, the dogfight tactics would have been the same as they’d been since the Dicta Boelcke.
What is missing is a really detailed look at Germany’s superb night fighter organisation. The Luftwaffe set up very successful detection and fighter control systems against the RAF’s night raids, arguably the best of any in the war, so I would have thought an insightful history of these Nachtjagder would have been essential. Presumably the debriefings of General der Nachtjagd Josef Kammhuber are unavailable.
The benefit of hindsight
Finally, the book closes with the reflections and conclusions of the Luftwaffe commanders. For me, this is easily the most fascinating section. It ranges from the intriguing – the Luftwaffe’s plans for 1946 and beyond; to the refreshingly candid – the commanders’ analysis of the Luftwaffe’s most critical mistakes in planning, equipment, training, strategy and tactics.
It’s intriguing to see that those plans included the end of production for the venerable Me.109 (with an extended and more powerful Me.109H) so that Messerschmitt could concentrate on producing Me.262 jets. Meanwhile, the conventional fighter force would concentrate on high altitude craft, centred around Kurt Tank’s Ta.152 which was already in service at war’s end.
Galland and Generalleutnant Schmid also list a telling array of shortcomings (with the benefit of hindsight, perhaps) that range from an overall lack of planning, to German High Command never appreciating the importance of air superiority to all branches of the military – either before or during the war.
A year-by-year list of failings begins with the very telling ‘1940 – no belly tanks for operations over England’. Indeed.
And that’s the kind of insight that this book brings to light so well.
‘An outfit of Spitfires’
In the Battle of Britain, for example, why did the Germans never clear the way for their bombers with the wide ranging, forward sweeping tactics that Jimmy Doolittle introduced for the US Eighth Air Force from early 1944?
Well, it turns out they did.
In Part 2, ‘The Offensive War’, Generalleutnant Galland describes in detail the Luftwaffe’s escort tactics during the Battle of Britain – including close escort, escort cover and ‘sweeps to clear the approach and target areas’. These are illustrated by a full set of typical battle orders sent to a Jagdgeschwader (fighter wing, comprising three squadrons) during the Battle.
So, rather than Goering’s oft-quoted order that fatally glued his fighters to the bombers (or, more accurately his beloved Bf.110s), single engine fighters did indeed range out in front, above and to the sides of the heavier formations just as USAAF pilots would do four years later.
What defeated the Luftwaffe wasn’t sticking to the bombers but Britain’s multi-layered early warning system, the RAF’s superb command and control structure, and Sir Keith Park’s brilliantly measured tactics. The Luftwaffe only let itself down through Goering’s strategic meddling and the Bf.109’s limited endurance over England.
A book like this teaches us what Galland needed to win wasn’t ‘an outfit of Spitfires’, but perhaps a Geschwader of Mustangs!
As I said at the beginning, Luftwaffe Fighter Force isn’t really a book you can pick up and read from cover to cover. There is just so much information to digest, and it comes thick and fast. You’ll tax your grey matter far less if you search out the relevant sections as a complement to your other reading.
But in short, if you’re a student of page-turning pilot memoirs from World War 2, this is a vital reference for understanding how the Luftwaffe’s pilots functioned – and why. Regardless of whose story you’re following, knowing how the opposing pilots came into each encounter will only enrich your appreciation of the outcome.
So, admittedly, ‘Worth Reading’ may be a bit of a stretch for this one.
But ‘Worth Having In Your Collection’? — Definitely.