Luftwaffe Fighter Force

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.

Well organised

Essential reference... Luftwaffe leaders tell how the Nazi Air Force organised, operated and, ultimately, failed.
Essential reference… Luftwaffe leaders tell how the Nazi Air Force organised, operated and, ultimately, failed.

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.

Luftwaffe Generals

The raw data comes from a number of high ranking Luftwaffe officers, debriefed in England in the month’s after Germany’s capitulation.

240-victory ace Heinrich Bär inspecting his 184th victim, Douglas-built B-17F 'Miss Ouachita' (42-3040) of the 91st BG, 323 BS, on February 22nd, 1944. (Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-666-6875-05 / Rothkopf / CC-BY-SA 3.0, via wikipedia)
240-victory ace Heinrich Bär inspecting his 184th victim, Douglas-built B-17F ‘Miss Ouachita’ (42-3040) of the 91st BG, 323 BS, on February 22nd, 1944. (Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-666-6875-05 / Rothkopf / CC-BY-SA 3.0, via wikipedia)

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.

Fighter forces

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.

A wartime propaganda picture of a Bf 110B. Goering saw the twin engine Zerstörer force as an elite group, committed solely to offensive combat – unlike the Bf 109s. (US National Archives RG 242)
A wartime propaganda picture of a Bf 110B. Goering saw the twin engine Zerstörer force as an elite group, committed solely to offensive combat – unlike the Bf 109s. (US National Archives RG 242)

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.

Blitzkreig

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.

Wartime propaganda picture of Hubertus Hitschhold, later General der Schlachtfleiger. A noted Stuka pilot, his score included no fewer than three Royal Navy destroyers! (wikipedia)
Wartime propaganda picture of Hubertus Hitschhold, later General der Schlachtfleiger. A noted Stuka pilot, his score included no fewer than three Royal Navy destroyers! (wikipedia)

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.

A FW.190-D9 is run up for a test flight. This version started to re-equip FW 190A units in October 1944. While intended mainly to engage escort fighters at altitude, many were committed to the 'Operation Bodenplatte' ground attacks of January 1st, 1945. (US National Archives RG 18)
A FW.190-D9 is run up for a test flight. This version started to re-equip FW 190A units in October 1944. While intended mainly to engage escort fighters at altitude, many were committed to the ‘Operation Bodenplatte’ ground attacks of January 1st, 1945. (US National Archives RG 18)

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.

Bomber attack

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.

The business end of a FW 190... This is what the crew of a US bomber would have seen at the closest point of a head-on attack, before the fighter rolled away (and down) to avoid collision. (US National Archives RG 18)
The business end of a FW 190… This is what the crew of a US bomber would have seen at the closest point of a head-on attack, before the fighter rolled away (and down) to avoid collision. (US National Archives RG 18)

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.

The venerable Arado Ar.68 was a forerunner of the nachtjagder force, operating as a night fighter into December 1939. (US National Archives RG 242)
The venerable Arado Ar.68 was a forerunner of the nachtjagder force, operating as a night fighter into December 1939. (US National Archives RG 242)

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.

Future force... The advanced, Tank Ta.152 high-altitude interceptor, introduced in very limited numbers from January 1945. (SDASM #38235560 via wikipedia)
Future force… The advanced, Tank Ta.152 high-altitude interceptor, introduced in very limited numbers from January 1945. (SDASM #38235560 via wikipedia)

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?

Ever the fighter pilot, (then Oberstleutnant) 'Dolfo' Galland (hands raised), talks with Werner Molders and Theo Osterkamp (to his left, respectively) at the latter's birthday in April 1941. (Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-B12018 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, via wikipedia)
Ever the fighter pilot, (then Oberstleutnant) ‘Dolfo’ Galland (hands raised), talks with Werner Molders and Theo Osterkamp (to his left, respectively) at the latter’s birthday in April 1941. (Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-B12018 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, via wikipedia)

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!

 Vital reference

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.

The future – not just of the Luftwaffe fighter force, but of all air combat: The revolutionary Messerschmitt Me.262 jet interceptor. (USAAF Photo)
The real future – not just of the Luftwaffe fighter force, but of all air combat: The revolutionary Messerschmitt Me.262 jet interceptor. (USAAF Photo)

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.

Advertisements

13 thoughts on “Luftwaffe Fighter Force

  1. It’s always amazed me how Erich Hartmann got 350+ kills when all our American ace of aces, Dick Bong, could muster was 40+ kills. Not that Dick Bong it’s awesome but how could your luck even hold out for 350+ kills? (The major German aces must have been superstars back in the day!)

      1. That’s it in a nutshell, Timothy, but of course the full truth is more complex and nuanced than the simple explanation.
        It’s true, the Lufwaffe had it all over the Russian Air Force in the first two to three years in the east. (And a year is a long time in air combat!) Not just in tactics and equipment (as you mentioned), but also in experience and, just as critically, morale.
        But even aces can get unlucky. Erich Hartmann attributed his survival to a single manoeuvre – if he ever found an enemy on his tail he shoved the stick hard forward and (unnaturally) right. No adversary ever managed to follow him through the resulting bunt.
        Another factor – especially for Luftwaffe pilots flying in defence of the Reich – was that they would meet the enemy every time they went aloft. In his book ‘To Fly And Fight’, two-tour triple ace Col CE ‘Bud’ Anderson reports the entire 357th FG had no contact on 64 of his 116 missions.
        And then there is the rotation thing which is easily answered by Anderson, who did the math: Hartmann flew 1,425 missions, for 352 victories. (1 every 4.38 flights). Anderson flew 116 missions, and achieved 16 1/4 aerial victories (1 every 7.14). Francis Gabreski, the Eighth’s top ace, scored 28 from 166, or 1 every 5.93. So if they’d all flown the same number of missions, Anderson’s score could have been 199 and Gabreski’s 240.
        While aerial victories are all but impossible to ‘confirm’ in the chaos of combat, and erroneous claims were made in good faith by both sides, the Luftwaffe’s leading totals aren’t that far-fetched.
        In the end, there’s no doubting that the top aces all combined the two golden rules of air combat – they were crack shots, and they were in the right place at the right time.

  2. The book sounds fascinating, if for no other reason than the fact that history is written by the winner. Most of the people who flew for the Germans in the war were either dead or reviled by Axis and Allied nations alike, so who would have even thought to post-game their tactics and strategies? The rapid pace of aircraft development meant that most of the stuff they flew was outclassed by the time they would have put pen to paper after the war anyway.

    I’m always amazed by the astronomical numbers racked up by Luftwaffe pilots. Hundreds of aerial victories, thousands of missions flown. We will (hopefully) never see the like again. But it does inspire some awe to realize how much combat experience those pilots had. And still they were ignored and rebuffed when they suggested ways to improve the air force’s lot.

    1. Yes indeed. Big props to the people who thought to debrief those defeated leaders and preserve their answers for posterity. Imagine if they’d had the same foresight after defeating Napoleon. THAT would have been an interesting study!
      But your truest words are ‘we will (hopefully) never see the like again.’ My children’s history teacher (who must be a very smart lady) described a World War to them as one which reaches into every home. That’s an incredibly powerful definition: War has a whole range of connotations for a young man, but those change absolutely when you become a parent. Never again.

Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s