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Thursday, January 17, 2013

“A History of the Luftwaffe”, by John Killen

336 pages, Bantam, ISBN-13: 978-0553262759

John Killen’s A History of the Luftwaffe is written in a florid, flashy, and very visually descriptive style. It makes the book a very easy and light read; no problem there because history books should not be dense and reserved for scholars only. It is a problem though when the style is the substance and the historical facts are of secondary importance. Then you have a story, not history. And that’s what we have here.

A couple of broad generalizations and sweeping statements that the author makes are mentioned here. In Chapter 6, Air Force in Embryo, the author makes reference to German pilots “working with Mussolini’s Regia Aeronautica in July 1933, developing the new theory of Blitzkrieg”. Widespread use of the term Blitzkrieg only came into effect following the German invasion of Poland in 1939. The word itself has been attributed to three different sources – Hitler, a British tank expert and Time Magazine. Whichever is correctly credited for coining the word makes no difference here; the point is this – the earliest possible use of the word is 1936, it can't be applied to the battlefield exercises that the Germans and Italians were practicing in 1933. Lightning war as a theory was also not new. The Prussian army had been practicing and developing upon the concept for a long time.

The author is no longer making generalizations when discussing the development of the Me 262 in Chapter 21, he’s now making errors. In describing the reasons for the delay in production of this fighter jet, Killen gets his facts wrong. He states that Milch and Goring were indifferent and that “in an effort to arouse official interest, Professor Messerschmitt invited Adolf Galland to flight test an Me 262.” The historical record shows that far from being indifferent Milch, from as early as January 1943 had requested an Air Ministry officer to put pressure on Messerschmitt to complete the Me 262. The Ministry subsequently accorded priority to the completion of a small number of prototypes. Further, it was Milch who requested that Galland do the flight test and it was Milch whom Galland excitedly telephoned with his now famous assessment, that it flew "as though an angel’s pushing. There was a meeting on June 27th, 1943, to which Hitler had summoned the top seven aircraft designers. Messerschmitt was there naturally and the record shows that far from promoting his jet, he actually warned Hitler against the folly of mass producing the Me 262. The reason: its fuel consumption was higher than piston engine aircraft. Messerschmitt was well aware, but chose not to mention, the fact that the jet used a lower grade fuel than aviation spirit and that it was readily available. What strange behavior from someone who would be credited with designing the world's first operational jet! One of the reasons behind it had to do with the personal animosity between Milch and Messerschmitt.

The bottom line with this book is that to do justice to the whole story of the Luftwaffe, more discussion on some of the background issues and the personalities, policies and politics involved is necessary. By trying to describe every event of significance in the life of the Luftwaffe – in 300 pages – we are left with a story very light on historical facts.

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