Thursday 23 April 2015

Aces of the Luftwaffe - Peter Jacobs (Frontline books, 2014) - Luftwaffe book review

..Interest in the subject of Luftwaffe "aces" appears never-ending. Presumably any decent military publisher needs at least one such title in his catalogue. Pen and Sword imprint Frontline has recently added this volume from ex-RAF Phantom and Tornado F3 air defence navigator Peter Jacobs,  the latest to chronicle the life and times of the Luftwaffe's fighter pilots in action. A 2014 Frontline Books release, Jacobs' 'Aces of the Luftwaffe' is a comprehensive and reasonably informative summary of all those be-medalled Jagdflieger on all fronts. With his background you would expect Jacobs to have a keen understanding of air warfare and his descriptions of air combat are well done. However neither the cover nor the title quite convey what this book actually deals with. Mostly it is a pretty dry history of the Luftwaffe in combat from its furtive foundation in March 1935 to its demise with the German collapse in 1945. It focuses only intermittently on the careers and individual experiences of the top German fighter aces - there are no biographies-  preferring to concentrate almost entirely on the broad historical context. Here's a good idea of the type of treatment here; the following paragraph excerpt covers the 7 July 1944 Oschersleben mission, the raid that saw IV (Sturm)./ JG 3 "blitz" the 445th BG..

Given that we know everything there is to know about Hartmann and all the other leading aces there are a number of things I always look for in a book like this - personal accounts, re-evaluation of some of the over-claimers scores etc etc. Firstly, I failed to find any discussion in Jacob's book of how the German Experten amassed their incredible individual tallies of aerial victories. He records - as if we didn't already know -  that 15 Luftwaffe fighter pilots achieved over 200 kills, with the 22 year old Erich Hartmann shooting down 352 enemy aircraft and surviving the war! Amazing - and he remains the most successful fighter pilot of all time. A further 91 Experten scored over 100 kills. By comparison the top British ace scored 47 and the top US ace 40. . Jacobs does not directly answer why this was so. Some indirect answers do emerge; the Luftwaffe operated for most of the war in a target rich environment with good (or better) equipment and more experienced pilots. Although the author doesn't say this, what drove many Jagdflieger - especially early on in the war - appears to have been an almost over-riding concern for the Abschussliste - the system of points and then decorations awarded for a certain number of 'victories'-  which was ultimately no more than personal ambition and the need for recognition. Combat may have been relentless in some theatres, but at least it was regularly punctuated by trips to Berlin to collect the latest medal upgrade..

There is no discussion in Jacob's book of the veracity of the leading aces claims totals, no discussion of 'over-claiming' per se - in fact the word doesn't even appear anywhere in the text- just the usual platitudes regarding the inherent reliability of the Luftwaffe's claims verification system "...which generated a lot of paperwork". Of the high Luftwaffe scorers there were doubtless some who over inflated their tallies. Thus Michulec in 'Luftwaffe Fighter Aces in the West' (Greenhill) refers to Helmut Wick - JG 2 Kommodore for a brief period during the Battle of Britain- as the 'greatest liar in the Luftwaffe'. While JG 2 may have been one of the Luftwaffe's leading fighter units, over-claiming was endemic in this unit as detailed on this blog here for the summer of 1941. By the same token, many claims were probably made in good faith and yet were entirely without any real foundation. In the heat of combat the ability to attribute specific losses to specific claimants, and thus tally up a score, becomes increasingly problematic. Indeed, it has never been clear who shot down Wick himself and as Andy Saunder's research has demonstrated 'friendly fire' is a not insignificant factor in air combat. Trying to work out "who got who" and who really "got the most" is pretty much a futile task.

 Given the above, in my view any list of  Luftwaffe aces should be open to constant re-evaluation and interpretation.  Jacobs' lists of aces and their 'victory totals' appeared to have been compiled directly from a host of previously published secondary sources. 'New' writers are presumably not aware that researchers like Ring occasionally added false names and victories into their lists to detect those using their material - for example the Foreman 'Nightfighter claims..' book contains a number of such entries. I always check Walther Dahl's 'score' in books like this - just to see if the author has read any recent 'research' ie the Lorant/Goyat JG 300 history. Here he has not - Dahl is still credited with 128 victories, a fanciful total which fails to stand up to any sort of examination. Recent Russian 'research' baldly states that Hartmann's actual score was probably no more than 80 enemy aircraft downed. Read more about this on this blog here. Even if authors like Jacobs give Khazanov's findings no credence whatsoever my feeling is that they should be at least discussed in a title like this.

Some of the author's statements I find slightly worrying. Writing about the end of the campaign in the West, Jacobs asserts; " for two months the Luftwaffe apparently stood idly by, while the RAF continued their rearmament apace.."  No mention of the huge losses in men and material - some 600-800 aircraft and over 2,000 flying personnel - sustained by the Luftwaffe in subjugating France and the Low Countries. No indication that facilities and infrastructure along the Channel coast were in ruins. The Luftwaffe was in dire need of the two-month pause prior to the assault on Britain.

 There are no personal accounts in Jacob's book. A discussion of the impact of the succession of honours and a comparison with the British system of duplicate awards (bars) would have been interesting and Jacobs is well placed to conduct it. But he does not. . .

To conclude, this book is a reasonably competent albeit dull history of the fighter arm of the Luftwaffe.. Of course I'm probably being a little unfair here - after all I've been reading about the Luftwaffe for a few years, so would always be struggling to find anything much new here. Jacob's bibliography doesn't extend beyond Osprey, Price, Spick, Goss and Caldwell (who seems only to have lent him a few JG 26 portrait photos) although he does name-check Prien. But then fails to list any of his works in the bibliography. He struggles with German terminology; I contacted the publisher with a spelling correction when I saw a mock-up of the original cover.  Ultimately Jacobs' book could have been so much more, so much better and so much more interesting. Recommended only if new to the subject I think.