Eclipse of the Luftwaffe I


Savage Skies
by Robert Taylor
B-24 Liberators from the USAAF 2nd Air Division come under attack from Fw190D-9s of III./JG54 Green Hearts over Koblenz,
31 December, 1944.
As the Fw190s broke cloud above the area of Koblenz they sighted a formation of nine 2nd Air Division B-24 Liberators and formed up for an attack. Some 6000 feet above, top-cover P-51 Mustangs had watched the Fw190s climbing through the banks of clouds, and turned 180 degrees to position behind the Luftwaffe fighters. Diving in from their height advantage, the Mustang pilots entered the fray and within seconds the sky was filled with swirling dogfights.
In the forefront, a menacing yet beautiful long-nose Fw190D-9 rips through the B-24 formation with massive closing speed, yet the 453rd and 735th Liberators plough stoically onwards, unwavering in the face of such peril.

The twelve months preceding the Allied landings in Normandy on D Day, June 6, 1944, saw Germany’s empire contract on every front. Mussolini, who had been urging Hitler in vain to make peace with Russia, fell from power in July 1943; by September the Allies were in southern Italy, an Italian armistice had been signed with the Allies, and Hitler had stolen the captive Mussolini from Badoglio—an operation carried out from the air by Himmler’s and not Goering’s men. In Russia the German forces, after an unsuccessful July offensive, were in retreat during the remainder of the summer, while in Germany itself the great Anglo-American air offensive from Britain grew to devastating proportions, depressing deeply though it did not break the morale of the German people. The network of conspiracy within Germany against Hitler failed time and again to achieve effective action, culminating in the brave but unsuccessful attempt on the Führer’s life made by the hostile generals on July 20, 1944. Meanwhile the Allied foothold in Normandy had become an established invasion, and the great Russian offensive had pushed the eastern front back into Poland.

The failure of the Luftwaffe, in spite of great individual courage, was a failure of dilution beyond its strength—a failure in the supply of machines and equipment, of fully trained men, of opportunity to oppose the overwhelming increase in the air offensive of the Allies. In the Mediterranean the Anglo-American air forces were four or five times as strong as those of the Luftwaffe; in fighting power and in reconnaissance preceding the Allied landings in Italy, the Germans markedly failed despite Goering’s foolish and misleading optimism in the face of Rommel’s warnings. Only the shock of Mussolini’s fall from power revived the Luftwaffe briefly in the area of the Ionian Sea and the Adriatic. On the Russian front the situation was the same—neither planes nor air crews were sufficient in numbers or quality. By 1944 the Soviet Air Force could oppose between ten and fifteen thousand modern planes to the declining force of some twenty-five hundred German aircraft, many of which were obsolete. Their duties became entirely defensive. In the west the Luftwaffe’s strength, while it waited for the inevitable D Day, barely exceeded that on the eastern front, and most of these planes were occupied opposing as best they could the bomber incursions into Germany. The Allied air force by D Day amounted to some eleven thousand aircraft. Even the Luftwaffe’s attempts at reconnaissance before D Day were wholly inadequate. The long-range bomber force ready to oppose the landings barely amounted to 350 planes manned by relatively inexperienced crews. Goering put up every man and every aircraft he could to help protect Rommel’s ground forces, but they melted to nothing before the sheer weight of the recurrent waves of Allied bombers and fighter-bombers, while the Luftwaffe’s ground organization was smashed and disorganized.

Under Milch and finally under Speer, German aircraft production was greatly expanded. Production plants and repair depots were spread over the whole of German-occupied Europe, and the range of types of aircraft was reduced to facilitate mass production of such machines as the Junkers-88 bombers, the Messerschmitt-109 and Focke-Wulf-190 single engine fighters, and the Messerschmitt-110 and -410 and Junkers-88 twin engine fighters. During 1943—44 an output of some two thousand aircraft a month was achieved, one thousand less than Goering and Milch had planned in 1942. It was only Speer’s brilliant organization that brought production to a level of some three thousand aircraft a month by the spring of 1944.

Hitler’s determination not to mince words with Goering, and to make him push the Luftwaffe into attempts at retaliation against the British people for what the Allies were now able to make the German civilians suffer, did not encourage the Reich Marshal to attend Hitler’s war conferences. But Hitler still had a certain affection for Goering. On July 25 he said to his generals during a staff conference, “The Reich Marshal has been through many crises with me. He is ice-cold in time of crisis. At such a time one can’t have a better adviser . . . brutal and ice-cold.” After his habit he rambled on, repeating the phrases he liked. “You can’t have a better one; a better one can’t be found. He has been through all crises with me, through the worst crises. That’s when he’s ice-cold. Every time it got really bad he became ice-cold.” When Goebbels, feeling that the Reich Marshal was no longer capable of directing the Luftwaffe, had suggested a few days before that Goering be replaced, Hitler emphatically refused and told Goebbels he resented such comments and would not tolerate “this kind of conspiracy.” Galland, called to Hitler’s headquarters, told him that what was needed to drive back the Allied bombers was three or four times as many fighters as the enemy had bombers. But both Hitler and Goering were unshakable in their dream of bombers; fighters that could not bomb the enemy into submission were for them a symbol of defeat. At the same time the twin-engine de Havilland Mosquito, with a speed performance which outstripped the best German fighters of 1943, so irritated Goering that he set up special fighter groups over Galland’s head to deal with them, but they too failed. Goering harried and bullied his staff, exasperating them by ineffectual interference until Jeschonnek appealed to Hitler to take over command of the Luftwaffe himself. Goering, hearing of this, told his Chief of Staff he could indict him for insubordination—but hinted he might prefer suicide. Jeschonnek killed himself.

As Schellenberg put it, “By the end of 1943, Goering had lost every vestige of authority or respect.” In his diary entry for August 10, Semmler, Goebbels’ highly observant aide, records: “Politically, Goering might as well be dead. Rumors have already made him out to be dead. Hitler, with whom Goering surprisingly enough still stands high, has therefore advised that the Reich Marshal should be seen again among his people, to win back his popularity.” Goebbels commented contemptuously that Goering, with a staff of bemedaled officers, had visited the Berlin markets and mingled with the people. According to Semmler, voices had shouted out, “Herr Meier!” and men had whistled at the sight of him. Goebbels told Semmler that Goering had been ill-advised to keep for so long out of the public eye, for nothing leads to rumors so readily as this, and he instituted a special press campaign on behalf of Goering. At the annual Nazi rally in Munich, Hitler made fun in public of the rumors that he had “deposed” his “friend Goering,” and even in September the following year he reaffirmed a certain continuing faith in him when he renewed his position at the head of the Four-Year Plan.

After the heavy raids on Hamburg in the summer, the Luftwaffe’s commanders, assembled in full conference, convinced Goering finally that the Luftwaffe must be fully equipped for defense. The conference had taken place at the Führer’s headquarters in Rastenburg, and Goering summoned his courage to tell Hitler what had been decided. Perhaps he felt now as he had once told Schmidt he always felt in the past when he had to tell Hitler something unpleasant: “I often make up my mind to say something to him, but then when I come face to face with him my heart sinks into my boots.” Now he had to convince Hitler that the traditional strategy was wrong; the Luftwaffe’s sole remaining task was to defend the Reich. All that mattered now was the fighter plane. They waited, Galland, Milch and Korten, Jeschonnek’s successor as Chief of Staff. Then Goering emerged. He did not look at them, but walked past them into an adjoining room. Then he called in Galland and Peltz, the general of bombers. What Galland saw came as a terrible shock to him. Goering, his head buried in his arms as he leaned over the table, was weeping. He moaned, scarcely able to speak clearly. Eventually he managed to tell them this was a moment of terrible despair. Hitler had lost faith in him, had rejected everything he had proposed, and had commanded the Luftwaffe to bomb England on a large scale, smashing Allied terror with German counterterror. Goering had been forced to agree that Hitler, as always, was right, and he rose now to his feet and told Peltz he was to be the assault leader against England. This, the Führer had said, was the Luftwaffe’s last chance to redeem its honor.

The result was a series of raids the losses from which soon became intolerable. When Galland expressed his dissatisfaction, at a conference with Goering held in the autumn at Veldenstein to discuss a wholly impracticable long-distance cannon which was to be fitted to the Messerschmitt-410, Goering merely shouted at him. Galland, equally angry, asked to be relieved of his command. Goering agreed to this, but later refused to release him. The pattern of the Luftwaffe staff in any case changed overnight like that of a kaleidoscope. On one occasion Goering had even tried himself from the confines of Carinhall to direct an attack on an invading American bomber force, only to send his fighters in a totally wrong direction. During the first ten months of 1943 the American Air Force claimed that it had destroyed over three thousand German fighter planes, a figure Galland accepts. Goering was forever complaining, and at one staff conference Galland tore off his Knight’s Cross and banged it on the table, silencing him and staring him out.

According to Goebbels, Goering was at Hitler’s headquarters on September 9, “furious about the treachery of Italy” and pressing Hitler to make some form of public statement. The collapse on the eastern front called for this, but, strangely enough, according to Goebbels, “Goering is now somewhat more optimistic about air warfare than he was; in fact, in my opinion somewhat too optimistic.” Such sustained optimism, however, could be achieved only by his turning his face from the truth. Speer recollected at Nuremberg a fantastic incident at Hitler’s headquarters when Goering forbade Galland to make any further reports on the matter after he claimed that enemy long-range fighters were penetrating as far as Liege. Goering refused to accept the solid evidence that some of these fighters had in fact been shot down as deep in European territory as this.

On November 2 Goering visited the Messerschmitt works to discuss the possible adaptation of the new jet fighter into a fighter-bomber. As early as May, Galland had flown the prototype ME 262 at 520 m.p.h.—the Germans now had the fastest plane in the world. He had flown it straight to Veldenstein and roused Goering with his own enthusiasm. But Hitler had refused to sanction production and had in fact insulted both Goering and the Luftwaffe chiefs by holding a conference of the aircraft designers and engineers without inviting any of them to be present. The result of this was that Hitler, without even consulting Goering, had ordered Messerschmitt to produce some more prototypes. It was not until six months later that he permitted Goering to authorize the mass production of the jet fighter, and then only in the form of a fighter-bomber. Goering was therefore able at a special demonstration of the jet plane at Rastenburg in December to assure Hitler that the aircraft could carry at least one bomb of a thousand pounds. He gave this assurance to Hitler without any final technical confirmation that it would indeed be possible to adapt the plane as a bomber; he was solely concerned, as Galland realized while he stood by listening, to tell Hitler what he wanted to hear, that at last he had a blitzbomber that would strike fear and terror into the hearts of the armies assembled for his destruction both in the west and the east.

By the winter, Goering was evidently to some extent recovered from his decline, and Goebbels remarks in his diary on November 14 that he is showing himself more in public and has “recovered from his recent period of stagnation,” with the result that “his authority is gradually being strengthened.” On November 8 he had in fact given a lengthy address of two and a half hours on aerial warfare to an assembly of Reichleiters and gauleiters—not as effectively as he should have done, thought Goebbels, because Goering had tried to make the point that he had already launched his reprisal raids against Britain in 1940! Afterward he had had dinner with Goebbels and even managed to charm that icy heart. “Personally he is an exceptionally lovable character,” wrote Goebbels.

On November 30 Goering made what was to be his final broadcast. In it he reminded the German people of how the gallant band of Spartans defended the pass of Thermopylae against the Persian hordes; this, he said, was the spirit in which Germans should defend their Fatherland. He did not attempt to minimize the Allied air raids. “Even if every German city is razed to the ground,” he cried, “the German people would still survive. . . . The German people existed before there were any cities, and we may even have to live in holes in the ground. . . . If Berlin vanished from the face of the earth it would be dreadful but not fatal. The German people has existed in the past without Berlin. But if the Russians reach Berlin the German people will have ceased to exist.”

After the large-scale raids on Berlin had begun, at Hitler’s command Goering went to the western front personally to supervise a retaliatory blow against London from the air, but he found the Luftwaffe no longer capable of developing such raids on any scale. Galland claims that only 275 tons of bombs were dropped on London during January and February. The Luftwaffe was forced to concentrate on defense, and its losses were very heavy.

According to evidence given by Bodenschatz at Nuremberg, Goering was now trying in every way he could to regain his position with Hitler, who was gradually excluding him from his conferences and private discussions concerning the war. He proved, as in the case of the dispute over the use of the jet fighter, quite unable to stand up to Hitler, and the brunt of the Führer’s anger with the Luftwaffe seems to have been left to fall on Bodenschatz, who remained his principal representative at Hitler’s headquarters, and on Milch and Galland. Milch recollects a further scene in February 1944 between Goering and Hitler on the Obersalzberg, after both Milch and Galland had urged yet again that the new jet fighter be kept free from the wholly unsuitable adaptation for bombing on which Hitler continued to insist. Hitler raged, “I want bombers, bombers, bombers. Your fighters are no damned good, anyway,” and Goering once again gave way before the Führer’s anger.

Speer’s revised and centralized program for the mass production of a few selected types of aircraft, and those mainly fighters, was presented to Goering at an important conference on the Obersalzberg in April 1944.9 Goering spoke with the voice of Hitler. His “final shattering decision,” as Galland put it, was that “the heavy bomber remains the kernel of the armament in the air.” Accordingly, Speer’s plan had to be modified. In the end, as Galland puts it, the bombers never left the assembly line; they were destroyed in the course of construction. Had they been completed they would have lacked the fuel to fly. With a fighter strength which Galland assessed as only one to seven against the Allies, he formed the close-combat storm-fighter wings with men prepared to approach the bomber formations and attack at point-blank range, even ramming the aircraft in a desperate attempt to destroy them, the pilot bailing out just before impact.

At the end of March and the beginning of April 1944, there occurred the case of the shooting of fifty of the eighty British and Commonwealth Air Force officers who, as prisoners of war at Stalag Luft III, had attempted a mass escape on the night of March 24—25 but had been recaptured. Stalag Luft III, which was situated at Sagan, was technically a Luftwaffe camp and therefore under Goering’s supervision. The circumstances that led to the murder of the men (for that is what it was, since their death on recapture violated international agreements concerning the treatment of prisoners of war) were subject to constant examination during the Nuremberg trial, and it was during the course of giving his particular evidence that Milch, who appeared as a witness on behalf of Goering, admitted the disintegration of the high command’s administration in 1944. He spoke of “the great confusion existing in the highest orders at that time.” All through, he said, “there was terrible confusion. . . . Hitler interfered in all matters and himself gave orders . . . [and] during that time I hardly ever saw Goering.” As for the shooting itself, it appeared to result from an order by Hitler issued in March that all prisoners of war (other than British and American) who were recaptured after attempting escapes should be secretly shot by the police. How far Goering could personally be held responsible for the error in his own camp remained in some doubt at Nuremberg. He claimed to have been on leave throughout March and only to have heard of the shootings on his return to Berchtesgaden, where Hitler had his headquarters at that time. Goering claimed that he made the strongest protest he could, first to Himmler and then to Hitler, saying how harmful the repercussions of this would be on Luftwaffe air crews who had to bail out over enemy territory. In Goering’s own words: “The Führer—our relations were already extremely bad and strained—answered rather violently that the airmen who were flying against Russia would also have to reckon with the possibility of being immediately beaten to death in case of an emergency landing, and that the airmen going to the west should not want to claim any special privilege in this regard. I told him thereupon that these two things had no connection with each other.”

Statements made under interrogation by officers both inside and outside the Luftwaffe implied that it would have been virtually impossible for Goering, who on his own admission had returned from leave by March 29 at the latest, to know nothing of the shootings, which were taking place from March 25 to April 13 on Hitler’s orders. He could, therefore, have countermanded these instructions and stopped them. Goering insisted that he was ignorant of what was happening, and it is true that there was no one to testify that he had been given the exact information; Milch also denied having the knowledge until it was too late. As Goering put it, “I was not present at the time when the command was given by the Führer. When I heard about it, I vehemently opposed it. But at the time when I did hear of it, it was already too late. . . . I myself considered it the most serious incident of the whole war.”

During the night of June 5—6 Goering received the phone call that all the Nazi high command dreaded: Bernd von Brauchitsch telephoned him at Veldenstein to say that the invasion of France had started. Early in the morning Goering left his retreat to attend a conference on the situation created by the Allied landings. This was held at Klessheim, a castle near Salzburg, during the afternoon of June 6, and both Ribbentrop and Himmler were present. The Luftwaffe’s situation at the time of the Allied landings in Normandy made it impossible, as we have seen, for effective opposition to be made to the vast flying fleets of Allied fighters and bombers. The Luftwaffe’s air crews were hopelessly outnumbered from the start, concentrating as they were on the defense of the Reich itself from the ceaseless raids on armament works and synthetic-fuel plants that were accessible from the air.

According to Galland, the Luftwaffe on D Day had less than a hundred fighters ready to oppose the Allied landings. “On the day of the invasion, not more than 319 aircraft could meet the enemy,” he wrote later. The key order for the transfer of the fighter strength in Germany to the new front in France was not given till the second day of the invasion, and communications were so disrupted that news of the invasion itself did not reach Flying Corps II at Compiègne until eight o’clock in the morning. The whole transfer plan had, in any case, to be changed owing to damage and disruption on the airfields and to opposition in the air itself. Morale was at the lowest among the pilots and air crews. “The Allies have total air supremacy. . . . The feeling of being powerless against the enemy’s aircraft . . . has a paralyzing effect,” reported the commander of one of the panzer divisions.

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