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Luftwaffe Aces: an incredible record: regardless of their cause, Germany had some astounding pilots.

FIFTEEN GERMAN FIGHTER pilots were credited with 3,574 Allied aircraft during the Second World War, and top man Eric Hartmann scored an amazing 352 victories in 1,456 operations. Hartmann's total was more than nine rimes that of top RAF ace Wing Commander Johnny Johnson. Hartmann and his associates were products of history, training, equipment, experience and the politics of war. In trying to understand what gave those guys in enemy cockpits their clout, one must go back to Germany of 1933.


This was the year Franklin Delano Roosevelt introduced the National Recovery Act to drag the United States out of a depression. Much of the Western World would follow suite. But the new German chancellor, Adotf Hitler, had other plans. He signed on Hermann Goering as minister of aviation. Although Goering's program immediately caught the attention of Nazi Germany, somehow the flagrant controversy of a treaty signed to surrender Germany after WWI never reached the people who mattered in Geneva.

Goering, a WWI ace, provided subsidies to firms producing aircraft. Glider clubs sprang up and soon thousands of youngsters were wearing uniforms, marching to a Nazi beat and becoming experienced at airmanship. Aircraft production jumped from 77 machines to 2,700 in the two years. The Spanish Civil war then became a proving ground for the Luftwaffe's men, machines and tactics. By 1936 the Luftwaffe's Condor Legion became a major force of 200 aircraft; half were Ju-52 bombers and the other half the He-151s, which were replaced the following year by the Me-109 fighter. In spite of current arguments at the Canadian War Museum regarding terror bombing, the Luftwaffe laid historic claim when it bombed Guernica, Spain and left nearly half the population of 5,000 dead or wounded. And the fighter experience gained by pilots like Werner Molders, who scored 19 victories in a short period, would soon be put to the test in Poland.

The Nazi mask came off about five o'clock in the morning on September 1, 1939, as German tanks rolled into Poland. Fog delayed early Luftwaffe attacks, but soon some 1,900 machines were in the air, attacking ten Polish airfields. The bombers were escorted by Me-109s and 110s which had little trouble with the outdated Polish PZL fighters. Two days later, the Luftwaffe shifted to various forms of army support. This included tactical support in the bombing and strafing of enemy positions, communications, supply dumps and barracks. The Luftwaffe's excellent co-ordination with German troops became known as the blitzkrieg.

The lightening war was soon at the gates of Warsaw. Goering then resorted to fire-bombing the capital and after 28 days of hostilities, the gallant but lonely Poles surrendered. A few days after the invasion when Britain and France declared war, assistance to Poland was a major theme. But Britain was totally unprepared while the large French army hunkered down behind the Maginot Line.

On April 9th, Denmark and Norway became targets for a predominately Luftwaffe operation. The first paratroop drops by the Luftwaffe at key airports enabled it to secure key areas. Soon transports, loaded with German troops, were using the runways and the King of Denmark surrendered within hours. The invasion of Norway was another airlift in which 500 aircraft poured troops into key areas. Norway also was soon in German hands. RAF Gladiators landed on a frozen lake south of Trondheim. Carburetors froze and wheels were locked into the ice. Relays of Ju-88s and He-111s struck repeatedly and only two RAF aircraft got off. Ten of 18 RAF machines were destroyed, but the two that were airborne fought throughout the day and destroyed several aircraft. On the second day, only one Gladiator remained operational. Surviving pilots caught a ship to Scotland where the squadron regrouped. It returned to the Narvik area about a month later where they fought off heavy Luftwaffe attacks. Along with a Hurricane squadron, #263 flew 80 sorties in one day. Then because of the crisis in France, the squadron was evacuated. The pilots were aboard the HMS Glorious when it was sunk and all were lost. Although early in the war, Canadians Fl/Lt Alvin Williams of Toronto and F/O Phil Purdy of St. Stephen New Brunswick were among the missing.


The RAF brought the war to Germany with a daylight raid on German warships at Wilhelmshaven in mid-December. Twelve of 22 Wellington bombers were lost and Bomber Command soon abandoned day-bombing although ill-prepared for night bombing. The official history of Bomber Command concludes that at the outbreak of war: "Bomber Command was not trained either to penetrate into enemy territory by day or find its target areas, let alone its targets at night." Bomber Command soon gave historians cause to lament.

On May 10th, the Luftwaffe attacked airfields in Holland, Belgium, and France as a prelude to invasion. Soon 500 German transports were flying troops to key positions in Holland while nine gliders swept down on the roof of Fort Eben Emael in Belgium. Some 80 invaders soon were in command of the fortress supposedly guarded by 1,500 men. While this was going on, Canadians Hilly Brown and Alan Angus were among the eager pilots, sitting in Hurricanes, awaiting the orders to scramble. But no orders came until after 11 a.m. because the French did not want to unnecessarily antagonize Hitler.

A gallant RAF group lost half its bombers in three days. Within a week, it lost 75 Hurricane fighters and when 71 Fairey Battles went against German positions in the Sedan, 40 failed to return. The lack of a co-ordinated Allied plan and outstanding liaison between Luftwaffe and army forces enabled Hitler to overrun Europe in six weeks.

Britain became the next target. When Goering launched his Stukas against Britain, he had three times the strength of RAF Fighter Command with almost 2,800 aircraft. He lost 629 aircraft in 17 days raiding RAF bases. Key elements of RAF Fighter Command were on the verge of collapse when Hitler switched from bombing airdromes in southern England to attacks on London. The decision gave the RAF more machines over the target area while Luftwaffe fighters had much less time over London because of fuel limitations. Basic losses for the Luftwaffe ran to some 1,600 aircraft. But individual victories were impressive. Adolph Galland (pictured at left) was credited with 50 victories while Helmut Wick scored 42 victories, but was shot down by F/O John Dundas who died in the same battle. It was a battle Britain won, but the top ten Luftwaffe aces had 269 kills while the RAF team scored 156 aircraft.


When the Italians invaded North Africa in 1940, Wing Commander Raymond Collishaw's defensive wing virtually destroyed the Italian air force in a matter of days. But when the Luftwaffe moved south, air action intensified at Malta and North Africa. By the summer of '42 about a quarter of the pilots defending Malta were Canadian. Buzz Buerling brought down 29 aircraft in four months and Hilly Brown had 20 victories when brought down by flak over Sicily. But enemy pilots were running up impressive scores.

Hans-Joachim Marseille specialized in low-level attacks and ran up 158 victories by the end of September 1942. In June, he attacked a flight of Tomahawk fighters and destroyed six in 11 minutes. Three months later, he scored 17 victories in one day, including eight destroyed in ten minutes. Late in September 1942, the cooling system of Marseille's Me-109 failed while over British lines. The aircraft caught fire and Marseille jumped, but was hit in the chest by the tail section. He failed to open his parachute and died on impact.

The day the Germans invaded Russia, the Luftwaffe's first mission involved attacks on 31 Soviet air force bases. It claimed over 2,000 Russian aircraft, mostly by bombing. But Russia soon became a theatre of opportunity for Luftwaffe fighter pilots. Within a month, Werner Moelders ran his tally up to more than 100 machines. But the quality of Russian machines improved and they introduced 13 air armies that could strike on any front. Such support, wherever needed, became a key factor in slowing the German ground attack, but added pressure on the fighter pilots who were then flying two or three missions a day.

Allied airmen had tours of operations. If you survived 30 trips in RAF Bomber Command, you were screened and went on to non-operational duties. While some returned for a second tour of operational flying, their German counterparts were operational for the duration or until death. There was no tour of duty for guys like Eric Hartmann who flew 1,456 missions and brought down 352 allied aircraft. Gerhard Barkhorn flew 1,104 operations and accounted for 301 aircraft. Further down on the list, Eric Rudorffer, flew over 1,000 operations, managed 222 victories, but was shot down 16 times and had nine bail-outs. Rudorffer served in all major theatres and downed 11 machines in a single engagement.

When RAF Bomber Command launched its night bombing operations against Germany, night-fighter pilot Hans Schnanfor scored 121 victories. He shot down nine Lanes in one night. On New Year's morning, 1945, the author was a member of a B-25 crew flying out of a base in Belgium during the Battle of the Bulge. Early morning take-off on icy snow-blown runway was ominous. Approaching the target area, flying control informed us that our little friends would not be joining us. Much muttering on the intercom about fighter boys who get drunk on New Year's Eve and can't fly next day. As we grumbled, the fighter boys were trying to get off the ground to meet an invasion of some 800 enemy aircraft over Allied bases. It was not a 'Happy New Year' as some 220 Allied aircraft were lost at 16 bases. The enemy lost 220 machines and, effectively, the Luftwaffe of old was dead.

Months earlier, Gen. Adolph Galland formed two groups of jet fighters, which called on the best of Luftwaffe airmen. In the last four months of the war, they accounted for more than 500 Allied aircraft. Hitler had long delayed production of the magnificent Me-262 as a fighter and insisted it be a bomber. Finally, he relented. Thousands of jets, under construction as bombers, were re-designed as fighters, but the number of fighters available to Gen. Galland was small. He formed two groups carefully picked from Germany's best.

One group was led by Johannes Steinhoff, a 170-victory ace who was shot down 12 times, but had only bailed out once. His pilots included Gerhard Barkhorn, 301 victories, Heinz Barr a 220 victory pilot who had been shot down 18 times, but would add 16 more victories in the Me-262. Steinhoff continued to operate until April 18, 1945. Returning from a mission in which he scored six victories, the tire of his jet blew on landing. Severely burned, Steinhoff spent two years in hospital and retained peacetime links with the Luftwaffe. As Germany became part of NATO, Gen. Steinhoff was Luftwaffe chief of staff and chairman of a NATO committee.


The author's late friend Col. Strome Galloway was Canadian military attache at Bonn in 1967. He got a letter from Steinhoff requesting Canadian assistance for the Luftwaffe. Too many members of his crew who came down in the water had any concept of survival. In response, the RCAF invited the Luftwaffe to its base at Decimomannu, Sardinia where it trained hundreds of German pilots in sea survival. Its Canadian allies helped give new life to the Luftwaffe.

Author Norm Shannon flew 52 operations against the characters in this story; some 67 years after the last operation, he still finds their performance mind-boggling. Nothing in what follows is intended to justify what they fought for, but it is a tribute to their individual skill and endurance.
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Title Annotation:SECOND WORLD WAR
Author:Shannon, Norm
Publication:Esprit de Corps
Date:Feb 1, 2008
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