I guess it’s always going to be a dilemma. What kind of book do you take with you to the Hospital to read while your other half is having a camera put somewhere unpleasant? Topiary? Chess? micro nutrients in the reef aquarium? All very tempting, but in the end I went with Luftwaffe Fighter Aces.
And very interesting it was too. What startled me most is the high number of kills that the Luftwaffe’s top aces had – over 200 in many cases. Whereas in the western allies – RAF, USAAF for example – any pilot who shot down 5 or more enemy aircraft was considered an ace. The RAF’s leading ace, Pat Pattle, accounted for 51 enemy aircraft. The difference is partly that German Jagdwaffe pilots spent a lot more of the war in combat, from Poland in 1939 onwards, but also that many of them were in action in Russia during Barbarossa, when the hordes of poorly trained, poorly equipped Russian fighters provided rich pickings. Erich Hartmann might have shot down an incredible 352 enemy aircraft, but all but seven were Russian. Men such as Adolf Galland and Werner Molders, renowned as among the greatest, actually scored very low compared to some of their compatriots.
The book is structured chronologically, looking at the development of the Luftwaffe, the Spanish Civil War as a proving ground, the early campaigns, the Battle of Britain, Barbarossa, North Africa, and then the Allied Bomber Offensive later in the war. Spick has looked admirably at the technical issues, the tactics involved (including some nice diagrams of dogfighting maneouvres), and woven into the narrative details of the careers of some of the Luftwaffe’s greatest pilots. Also of note are the considerable political problems that the Luftwaffe had to overcome, not the least the interference of the Fuhrer, and the refusal of Goring to accept that air combat had changed since he was in action over the Western Front in 1918.
Two Luftwaffe aces I have a particular interest in are Helmut Wick and Hans Wolfgang Schnauffer. Helmut Wick is believed to have shot down Flight Sergeant Hubert Adair in his Hurricane over Portsmouth on 5 November 1940. Wick is also believed to have shot down Flying Officer James Tillett near Fareham on the same day. Wick himself was killed on 28 November 1940, when he was shot down over the English Channel. He had claimed 56 victories – low in the context of the war, but very succesful considering most were gained within a year of flying, and were against the RAF rather then the Red Army Air Force.
Hans Wonfgang Schnauffer is renowned as the Luftwaffe’s greatest night fighter pilot, with 121 victories. This is even more incredible, when we consider that he only began flying in June 1942, straight from flight training school. Schnauffer shot down the Halifax Bomber of 35 Squadron, in which Sergeant Francis Compton was a tail gunner. On the night of 29 June 1943, Schnauffer intercepted Halifax HR812 over Belgium.