Monday 6 April 2020

review 'Luftwaffe in Africa " - Jean-Louis Roba, Casemate Illustrated series, 'Black Tulip' by Erik Schmidt

a new review  of the 'Luftwaffe in Africa " title by Jean-Louis Roba (Casemate Illustrated series). This review is published in the latest issue of the bi-monthly Iron Cross magazine. Flypast Magazine have also reviewed this title, describing it as a 'superb read'.

Do please indulge me here, I don't often get asked to work for a 'mainstream' publisher and when I do it doesn't usually get reviewed ...

The Casemate Illustrated series are 'Osprey-like' monographs of 128 glossy pages with neat glossy card covers, 150-200 photos and profile artworks by Vincent Dhorne. This particular volume features newly translated first-person accounts by this blog author and covers aspects of the campaign in North Africa that are generally little known; KG 26 raids on the Suez Canal, KG 40 Fw 200 transport missions, Go 242 glider units and the end in Tunisia with JG 77 to cite just a few examples from the text..

Also published by Casemate this month is Erik Schmidt's life of Erich Hartmann entitled 'Black Tulip'. This is a book that will quite probably divide the air-warfare enthusiast fraternity but possibly interest a more general readership. According to the blurb 'Black Tulip' is the dramatic story of history's top fighter ace..
" over 1,404 wartime missions, Hartmann claimed a staggering 352 airborne kills, and his career contains all the dramas you would expect. There were the frostbitten fighter sweeps over the Eastern Front, drunken forays to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest, a decade of imprisonment in the wretched Soviet POW camps, and further military service during the Cold War that ended with conflict and angst.."

 Schmidt's book is subtitled 'the Myth...' The 'myth' is the story of how Hartmann's service on the Eastern Front with JG 52 (and briefly with JG 53, although not even mentioned by the author)  was simplified and elevated to a particular sort of Western mythology during the Cold War, driven by a network of writers and commentators personally invested in his welfare and reputation. " These men, mostly Americans, published elaborate, celebratory stories about Hartmann and his elite fraternity of Luftwaffe pilots. With each dogfight tale put into print, Hartmann’s legacy became loftier and more secure, and his complicated service in support of Nazism faded away. A simplified, one-dimensional account of his life - devoid of the harder questions about allegiance and service under Hitler - has gone unchallenged for almost a generation..."

So the author's discussion of how Hartmann's wartime career has been portrayed is regularly punctuated with 'reminders' that Hitler fought a terrible war of conquest and that the guys flying the planes with the red stars were NOT the 'enemy'. (..which is a little tricky since post-war for a very long period and to the average American they most certainly were..)  " Here was a tough-as-nails freedom-seeker who had been swallowed into the Soviet camps and then soared out of them, a man whose fighting values would have put him at home in the U.S. Army Air Corps or the Royal Air Force at any time...". Schmidt's point here is that the " Luftwaffe aces are basically caricatures of themselves" and that this serves no-one, not history nor the 'aces' themselves.

The author's portrayal of Hartmann's wartime career ends on page 117 of 'Black Tulip'. The second half of the book is probably the most interesting part of the book (IMHO) as Schmidt discusses the ace's return from captivity and his 'reinsertion' into 'professional' life. This of course coincided with the 'rebirth' of the German nation (or at least the Western half..). However as a 'Diamonds' winner Hartmann very quickly found himself being passed over for promotions ' by pilots who had never flown a combat sortie or fired a shot in anger..'

 In re-evaluating Hartmann's career, Schmidt uses all the secondary sources that are to hand.  Many airwar enthusiasts will be familiar with them. There is no in-depth discussion of Hartmann's 'claims list' and the author really misses the chance to explain here how the Cold War 'mythology' of Hartmann's career was 'boosted' by the continual focus on his record '352' victories - a record that does not really stand up to close scrutiny. Hartmann became a 'hero' for the West post-war and books about him became best-sellers. " Chronicles of the Luftwaffe pilots have become best-sellers ..but the most ardently pro-Wehrmacht ones often masquerade as deep research" As Schmidt puts it, if you want to know what polish a German officer put on his boots you can find that out but whether he was a Nazi or not, that is another matter. Schmidt's account is a counter to the narrative of 'chivalrous knight' of the sky that 'filtered' into the market-place post-war. Colin Heaton's 'The Aces speak' comes in for some sharp criticsm here for his 'default' attitude towards his interviewees. Schmidt argues that post-war writers  - Toliver, Constable, Heaton and their ilk - have created a 'comfortably clean view' of the Luftwaffe aces as happened with other branches of the Wehrmacht. Black Tulip' looks a little harder at Hartmann and so much of the German Wehrmacht in general. Ultimately thought there is little new here and Schmidt's conclusions are pretty modest too - while many of Hartmann's fellow aces were not full-blown Nazis they were hardly 'Blond Knights' either.