Part two of The JG 26 War Diary details the unit’s long and bloody fall from glory.
By Walter J. Boyne
In The JG 26 War Diary, Volume Two, 1943-1945 (Grubb Street, London, 1999, approximately $50), Donald Caldwell concludes his amazingly detailed saga of Jagdgeschwader 26 (JG.26), one of the world’s most famous fighter units, with a brilliant account of its operations during the last two years of World War II. In that period, the unit went from nearly peak strength to an overwhelmed force, hounded by Allied fighters and bombers. The book is dedicated to the memory of Adolf Galland, the legendary general of the fighters who had led JG.26 and whose brother Major Wilhelm-Frederick “Wutz” Galland was killed commanding the unit.
Despite their long and bloody fall from glory, the men of JG.26 always gave a good account of themselves and never asked for quarter, not even in the last days, when they were outnumbered by hundreds-to-one odds, and when fuel and training were equally scarce.
Caldwell is to be congratulated on the manner in which he has combined the fruits of his long research in archives with detailed interviews with veterans of JG.26. Furthermore, and this is an important point, his writing is unique in that he is able to insert in short, succinct sentences and phrases additional material explaining events that might otherwise escape the reader. His knowledge of the subject is great, and he is able to weave into that fabric of knowledge highlights on technology, personalities and political events that put everything in context.
Caldwell takes you through the day-to-day life of JG.26. For example, he covers a period when the unit, having served as the bulwark of western defenses, is sent for a “rest” to the Eastern Front, where the opposition was not so damnably able. Almost every mission is covered, including details of victories and losses. The book is awash with photos of the fliers and their planes as well as crash scenes.
When JG.26 returned to the west, the situation in the air went from bad to worse. The German unit’s strength declined at the same time that new and better Allied planes were being introduced in ever greater numbers. JG.26 leaders had to improvise in order to solve a variety of operational problems at primitive airfields, depending upon their faithful black-clad mechanics to keep the dwindling force as ready as possible.
Caldwell’s intimate story of JG.26 necessarily includes an incredible amount of detail on Allied activity, for each raid required a countermove whenever possible. Thus you see the wide variety of aircraft with which the men of JG.26 had to contend–from Supermarine Spitfires to Consolidated B-24 Liberators.
Although Caldwell is a very good writer, some of the best reading in JG 26 War Diary is the German accounts he includes. For example, an attack on Douglas Boston light bombers by Captain Johannes Naumann reveals the ferocity of the British bombing attack and the difficulties encountered in shooting the Bostons down. Nevertheless, after Naumann and his comrades recover the crew of a Boston he has shot down, the German officers entertain the RAF fliers in World War I fashion, with conversation and cognac.
The steady increase in Allied air strength wore the members of JG.26 down. After the June 6, 1944, invasion of Normandy, they were forced to fly to ill-prepared fields and undertake ground-attack work for which many of the pilots had never been trained. This is a top-notch book, one of the best of the war-diary type, and that says a lot, for it is a field in which only the experts compete.