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Lieutenant General Walter Krupinski was one of those men destined to tempt fate. Beginning his flight training on October 15, 1939, he flew fighters with distinction throughout World War II, serving in Germany's most prestigious units and training and flying with some of the world's greatest pilots, such as Adolf Galland, Otto Kittel, Dietrich Hrabak, Erich Rudorffer, Gerhard Barkhorn and Erich Hartmann. Krupinski's leadership style was similar to that of the great Werner Mölders, and both men were held in high esteem by all who knew them. Krupinski's fatherly approach and genuine concern for the welfare of his pilots, as well as his respect for captured enemy pilots, illustrated his humanity in a world where savagery was the order of the day.
By the time Krupinski was awarded the Ritterkrevz (Knight's Cross) on October 29, 1942, he had been credited with shooting down 53 Allied aircraft. His final score of 197 could have been much higher, but he never claimed a probable victory or argued about a kill, always giving the victory to the other man. His chivalrous attitude and Prussian birth earned him the nickname 'Graf (Count) Punski,' a name that still lingers in the reunion halls and among his friends. After the war, Krupinski worked closely with Organization Gehlen (the West German Secret Service), with the United States and Royal air forces in the emerging North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and later as a coordinator and leader in the new Bundesluftwaffe (West Germany's Federal Air Force).
Walter and his wife live in modest retirement at their home in Neuenkirchen, Germany. Krupinski has often assisted the Cowles History Group in contacting many of Germany's aces for interviews, and he himself agreed to be interviewed by Colin D. Heaton in 1993.
Military History: Where and when were you born, General?
Krupinski: I was born on November 11, 1920, in a little town called Donnau in East Prussia, which is now under the jurisdiction of the Russian government, but I lived in Braunsberg, which is currently under the Polish government. I recently visited Braunsberg, where the family had lived from 1933 to 1945, and found that it has changed little since I was last there.
MH: What was your family background?
Krupinski: When I was born, my father was in military service. He had been in the First World War and at that time was fighting against the Communist groups trying to take control after the war. He served in the army during World War I and after — until 1923 or 1924. He finally left the army and became a government employee. He soon joined the army again before the outbreak of World War II, but he was discharged after the 1939 Polish campaign ended, as a first lieutenant. He became a government employee again, but as the war progressed he was enlisted as a member of the Volksturm [civilians conscripted in defense of Germany in the closing days of the war] as the Soviets entered Germany proper, from January to May 1945. I had two younger brothers, Paul and Günther. Paul and I were born on the same date but two years apart. Paul joined the Kriegsmarine and entered the Unterseeboot [submarine] service, where he met his fate. He was killed when his boat, U-771, was sunk off the Norwegian coast, and only the bodies of Paul and a noncommissioned officer were found on the shore. They were buried at the military cemetery in Narvik, Norway. The youngest brother, Günther, was born in 1932, and he fled Prussia with my mother in January 1945 during the Soviet advance. He died in 1970 of cancer.
MH: What was your educational background?
Krupinski: Oh, the same as most of the others in the Luftwaffe and the military in general: primary school and then Gymnasium — similar to your high school but a little more advanced — studying the basic curriculum. I passed the Arbitur, which is the final exit examination, in 1938 and decided to join the military.
MH: When did you decide that you wanted to be a flier?
Krupinski: I never really had any interest in flying. In fact, I attempted to become a naval officer like my friends Johannes Steinhoff and Dietrich Hrabak, as I always liked the sea. However, when I finally was admitted, they transferred me to the Luftwaffe. I did not apply for it.
MH: What was your training like?
Krupinski: I started flight training in September 1939 at the Officers Cadet School at Berlin-Gatow, later transferring to Vienna-Schwechat, which was the Fighter Weapons School. It started with classroom instruction, aerodynamics — the basics really. Then after a couple of months we were introduced to the [Heinkel] He-51 biplane trainer, in which we learned the basics of takeoffs and landings, or touch-and-goes, as well as proper aerial maneuvers with an instructor. When we were considered competent we soloed, and I just took to it quickly. It was after six months or so that we actually trained on the Messerschmitt 109, which as you know was the primary fighter throughout the war. Then we trained on instrument flying, enemy aircraft identification, emergency procedures, formation flying, gunnery skills such as deflection shooting, and learned about our particular aircraft, including minor maintenance.
MH: What was your first assignment?
Krupinski: I was transferred to the Channel coast and assigned to JG.52 [Jagdgeschwader (fighter wing) 52], where Günther Rall, Hans-Joachim Marseille, Johannes Steinhoff, Gerhard Barkhorn [who transferred to JG.2 'Richthofen'] and others were starting their careers as Experten [aces with 10 or more victories]. By the time I got involved, the Battle of Britain was just about over, which was in November 1940. I served with JG.52 during most of my career in the east, but later served with JG.5, JG.11, JG.26 and Jagdverband 44, flying the [Messerschmitt] Me-262 jet in the west from April 1, 1945, onward — not much combat time in jets. The fighting against the American fighter escorts and bombers was the worst, since they were excellent fliers and had so much top-rated equipment.
MH: What was it like flying against the British pilots?
Krupinski: Well, I flew only 30 missions over the United Kingdom, and I was involved in a lot of dogfights with [Supermarine] Spitfires and [Hawker] Hurricanes but scored no victories. I was a slow starter, and I was suffering from bad shooting, and I was very anxious since I was afraid of being shot down over the English Channel and having to swim home!
MH: When did you transfer to the Russian Front?
Krupinski: I served at the Channel Front until the late spring of 1941, when JG.52 was transferred east. We flew from Ostende in Belgium to Suwalki in East Prussia, and had been staging there 10 days prior to Operation Barbarossa [the invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941]. The war started for us at Suwalki, where we took off to perform ground-attack missions against the Red Air Force airfields.
MH: Which group were you with at that time?
Krupinski: I was transferred to the replacement group of JG.52, then to 6th Staffel [squadron], attached to II Gruppe [II/JG.52] in southern Russia. Later, I became Staffelkapitän for 7th Staffel of III/JG.52 in Romania, guarding the Ploesti oil fields and refinery, bridges and that sort of thing from the American long-range bombers from North Africa and, later, Italy, until the spring of 1944.
MH: What was that first winter like for you and the unit?
Krupinski: The Russian winter! It's famous, you know, and all of the horror stories are true. We could not fly, and when we could it was hard to know how to get back unless you flew totally on instruments, and landings were more hazardous than combat. Many planes cracked up. I was there with Steinhoff [176 victories], Rall , Hrabak , Barkhorn  and many others who became well-known names. We all had the same experience, but not just during that winter. Every winter in Russia was miserable, but we were better prepared for them after 1941. We were quite a unit, scoring more than 10,000 victories during the war, and all of us were — and still are — good friends. We lose members every few years, so the circle of friends grows smaller.
MH: You also flew with Erich Hartmann, who would become the greatest ace of all time with 352 victories. You had a special association with him, didn't you?
Krupinski: I had just become commanding officer of 7th Staffel of III/JG.52 when in March 1943 I first met Erich Hartmann. He was a child! So young, and that was when I gave him the nickname of 'Bubi,' or boy, and it stuck with him for the rest of his life. He remembered me from about six months earlier when I had a memorable crash landing in a burning Me-109 at Maikop. I was shot all up after a sortie against the Soviets, and I was blinded by smoke and slightly wounded. Well, I came in to land and slammed into a pile of bombs that had been placed at the edge of this field, and I scraped right through all of it. [Raymond] Toliver and [Trevor] Constable wrote about it in Erich's biography, The Blond Knight of Germany.
MH: Didn't you help Hartmann score his first confirmed victory?
Krupinski: I assigned Hartmann to serve as my wingman many times, and along with Gerd Barkhorn, he was given his first opportunity for a victory when we met a single Soviet fighter. Erich had already been reprimanded earlier for breaking formation and chasing a fighter, getting shot up and crashing his plane with nothing to show for it. [Prior to Krupinski's assignment to command 7th Staffel, JG.52, Hartmann had, in fact, taken part in a team effort in downing an Ilyushin Il-2 Shturmovik on November 5, 1942, which was credited to him as his first victory as a means of encouraging the new man in the squadron. As he followed his already burning victim down, the Shturmovik exploded, damaging Hartmann's Me-109G and forcing him to make a belly landing. His first solo victory, scored while flying as Krupinski's wingman, was over a Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-1 on January 27, 1943.]
MH: How would you compare your fighting style with Hartmann's?
Krupinski: Erich was a great shot at long distances, unlike myself. I preferred to get in close and shoot, and many times I brought pieces of the enemy aircraft home with me. Erich later adopted the same tactic, and he was always successful and was never wounded or shot down by an enemy fighter pilot. He did get forced down once from debris after scoring a kill and was captured, but he managed to slip away, almost getting shot by a German sentry. He also got hit by flak a few times, but that was part of the day's work. He was a good student, and I taught him aerial gunnery after I had experience myself.
MH: How many times were you shot down during the war?
Krupinski: I bailed out four times, crashed a few times and was wounded five times in all. I don't recall the exact number of belly landings, since my flight log was taken by an American GI when I became a prisoner at the end of the war. I would guess the number of crashes to be between 10 and 12. I would like you or the readers as a favor to me, please let the world know about that logbook. If it ever turns up, I would like to give it to my grandsons one day. I would say the most spectacular crash I had was the one at Maikop, and another one where I crashed in the middle of a minefield during a battle. That is a good one to tell over a drink, you know, since it was the most fear I had during the war!
MH: Which of your combat victories stands out the most?
Krupinski: Oh, that is too much to remember, as I flew more than 1,100 missions, and once on July 5, 1943, I shot down 11 planes in four missions in a single day [bringing his total up to 90]. One of those was a dogfight with an expert Russian pilot, which lasted for about 15 minutes, which was rare for a Red Army pilot. They usually broke off after engaging and headed home after a couple of minutes if they could not bounce you or get an advantage. Another mission was when I came across 15 to 20 [Polikarpov I-16] Ratas, during which my aircraft was hit by a large air-to-ground rocket of some kind. The Ratas were attacking ground targets, and one Rata turned on me, shot the rocket at me and hit me. That was an unbelievable situation. I would also have to say that my victories in the narrow Caucasus passes were memorable, as was my victory over a [Lavochkin-Gudkov] LaG-5 at Stalingrad, where the Russian lost more than a third of his left wing and was burning like hell. About 10 Luftwaffe pilots saw that, including Johannes Steinhoff, who was my commanding officer at that time. That LaG was still flying at low level and I watched him go in. He crashed but did not explode — just burned.
MH: Did you ever meet Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring?
Krupinski: I never met him face to face, but I saw him once. That was when I became a lieutenant at the ceremony on January 31, 1941, in Berlin along with several hundred other cadets.
MH: How many times did you meet Adolf Hitler?
Krupinski: Only once, when I was awarded the Eichenlaub [Oak Leaves] to the Ritterkreuz [Krupinski's score at that time was 177].
MH: Could you describe that ceremony?
Krupinski: There's not much to tell really, except that Bubi Hartmann and I had partied heavily the night before and were drunk as hell, despite the fact that we were to receive our awards from der Führer. Hartmann knew him from before, because as you know he was decorated three times by Hitler with the Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds. I was getting the Oak Leaves along with Hartmann on March 4, 1944. Hartmann was making some funny comments about him, mimicking him, and he tried to stand still without falling over. I was in not much better shape. We only started to sober up as Hitler, after handing us the awards, began describing his plan for 'Panzerfest,' which was a way to immunize the army divisions against enemy tank attacks. He asked us about Lemberg, where we had come from and where our brave soldiers were fighting against those Russian tanks and were dying terribly. He told us about the war in Russia, and you had the feeling that you were listening to a complete madman. I thought he was a raving lunatic, and by the time the meeting was over, Hartmann and I needed another drink, and Hartmann kept saying, 'I told you so.'
MH: When did you transfer to the Western Front?
Krupinsk: That was the spring of 1944, when many Russian Front experts were sent to fight against the American four-engine bombers. I did that for a while with JG.11, then I commanded III/JG.26 between early October 1944 and March 25, 1945. Fighting against the American bombers and fighter escorts was much worse than fighting in Russia. The [Boeing] B-17s were difficult to engage due to their potent .50-caliber defensive fire, and the American fighters made it even harder to get close, since they outnumbered us somewhere around 10-to-1 on the average. I found this all very frustrating and had to change the way I thought about things. We were losing experienced experts all the time — we were just overwhelmed. Allied fighters and bombers attacked our air bases day and night, as well as bombing the cities. Exhaustion was also a factor, since we could never get enough replacement pilots, and the newer pilots just did not have the experience to survive long under such conditions.
MH: How did you get involved with Galland's Jagdverband 44?
Krupinsk: Well, I was trying to finish the war out at our fighter recreation center at Bad Wiesee in Tegernsee when Steinhoff and Galland stepped up to some of us on April 1, 1945. Steinhoff asked me, 'Graf…how would you like to fly the 262?' The very next morning, I jumped into the cockpit of a Messerschmitt 262 and flew my first mission in it after a short familiarization period. I described all of that in a long paper I wrote for our Jägerblatt, or 'The Fighter News,' of February–March 1987. My last sentence was this: 'Es war der Beginn eines neuen Zeitalters der Luftfahrtgeschichte,' or, 'It was the beginning of a new epoch in aviation.'
MH: What was your impression of the personnel of JV.44?
Krupinski: Galland was using Steinhoff as his recruiting officer, and they had collected some of the best in the business. They got Barkhorn and tried to get Hartmann, but Erich still had a soft spot for JG.52. His decision to remain with this unit would prove costly. As you know, he spent over 10 years in Soviet prison camps after the war, after the Americans handed them over to the Red Army.
MH: What were the last months of the war like for you?
Krupinsk: Well, I joined JV.44, Galland's 'Squadron of Experts' at Munich-Reim, then we moved to Salzburg in Austria, then Aibling-Heilbronn. We had some spectacular missions, especially when we received the R4M air-to-air rockets for our jets. The first time I saw them work was on April 5, when Galland, who was leading our flight, fired his salvo at a group of American [Martin] B-26 bombers. In moments, one disintegrated and another was falling — the tail had been blown away, and both parts were fluttering down through the light clouds. We flew off a few hundred yards so as not to hit any debris or get jumped by enemy fighters, then attacked again using our four 30mm cannons. I damaged a couple of bombers but scored no kills that day, though I am pretty sure everyone else did. We had many such missions, but we also ran into American fighters. [North American P-51D] Mustangs were a constant problem, and they would always follow us home, hoping for an easy kill. We had to be very careful when coming in for a landing, as they would be following a few miles and only a couple of minutes behind us. Taking off and landing were the most tense moments for a 262 pilot, as the plane built up speed slowly, and you could stall out easily if you pushed the throttles forward too quickly. This happened several times.
MH: Can you tell us what you saw on the day Steinhoff crashed?
Krupinsk: His flight was commanded by Galland. Gerd Barkhorn, then with 300 victories; 'the Rammer' Eduard Schallmoser [so named for his penchant for ramming his jet into enemy bombers once his ammunition ran out]; Ernst Fhrmann; Klaus Neumann, who scored five kills in the jet and 37 kills in the war; and myself were all either taking off for a bomber-intercept mission or preparing to go on the morning of April 18, 1945. Steinhoff was loaded up with fuel and rockets, and his left wheel dug into a crater that had not been properly repaired after the latest American raid on our base, and his jet bounced against the ground. When it landed, he was trapped inside the burning wreckage, with the burning fuel exploding the rockets and 30mm ammunition around him. I did not see it, but everyone heard it. There was Macky Steinhoff, trapped in this, but we got him to the hospital and he survived somehow. He was the best friend any of us had, and a true patriot and leader. All of us felt that we were only a thread away from a similar fate after that accident, as well as the loss of Günther Lützow [who went missing on April 24], and others too numerous to list.
MH: How did the war end for you?
Krupinsk: I was captured when the unit surrendered after blowing up our jets, when the Americans were practically rolling onto the airfield. An American Intelligence officer found us and took us via Heidelberg to the U.S. Army Air Forces/Royal Air Force interrogation camp in England. After four weeks of answering questions, I was being transported to Cherbourg, I believe, when I was attacked by a French soldier with a rifle. He struck me in the head, knocking me unconscious. I found myself in the hospital in Munich. After all of the interrogations, I ended up with the Americans, but while I was in custody I was robbed of my Ritterkreuz und Eichenlaub and my flight logbook, as mentioned earlier. It was a difficult time, but my contact with the American military and the U.S. Army Air Forces officers prepared me for a new career later in the 1950s, until I retired in the 1970s.
MH: What kind of work did you do after the war? I understand that unemployment rate was high for former officers of the military in Germany.
Krupinsk: Yes, this was true. Finding work after a career as a professional officer was not easy, especially since anyone who owned a business did so with the local Allied military commander's authorization. Professional officers were considered the elite of the National Socialist Party, and any connection to us could have been economically unwise. It was not until much later that this attitude changed, and people began to realize that if anything it was the professional officer corps who remained nonpolitical for the most part. We had no agenda except to defend our country from attack, right or wrong. There is no difference between us and any officer corps in any nation. All would defend their homeland and families, regardless of the political leadership in control of their country.
MH: Tell us about the work you did after the war in the Intelligence services.
Krupinski: I started working for U.S. Intelligence services under the umbrella of Organization Gehlen, the military and foreign intelligence service branch of the Abwehr formed by Captain Reinhard Gehlen during the war. I then worked for Amt Blank, which was the beginning of our Defense Ministry under Theodor Blank, West Germany's first postwar minister of defense during the Konrad Adenauer administration. I cannot discuss my work with these groups, as it is all still highly classified and I took an oath of silence.
MH: Could you tell us who Gehlen was?
Krupinsk: General Reinhard Gehlen was one of the Abwehr's chief intelligence officers, who later replaced Admiral Wilhelm Canaris as head of the organization [after Canaris was dismissed for his suspected role in the July 20 assassination attempt against Hitler and was subsequently put to death at the Flossenburg concentration camp in 1945]. Gehlen's work and the examples he set were responsible for the creation of many postwar intelligence networks, including the GSG-9 [German counterterrorist/intelligence service]. Gehlen died in 1979. His work in collecting intelligence on the Red Army and his ability to collate intelligence on every aspect of Soviet military operations proved invaluable to the NATO allies during the Cold War. Their understanding of the Soviet mind-set, order of battle, political aims, etc. — all of that probably prevented another European if not world conflict. Gehlen believed that knowledge was power, and in this case he was proven correct.
MH: How did you get back into the military, especially the air force, after the war?
Krupinski: I was approached by some officers who mentioned that we were forming the Bundesluftwaffe — which I already knew from my work with Intelligence, but they did not know that. I was easily recruited, as there were many of the former Luftwaffe experts already there. I went for refresher flight training in the United Kingdom as CO [commanding officer] of Jagdbombergeschwader [fighter bomber wing] 33. I was trained on the latest fighter types of the day, including the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter. I was then commanding officer of German training in the United States, and later I was appointed director of flying safety for the armed forces. After that, I was commanding general of the German 3rd Air Division, chief of staff for the Second Allied Tactical Air Force, and then commanding officer of the German Air Force Tactical Command. Those were a lot of different hats, as you would say. I worked closely with many of the important political personalities of the time, such as Robert McNamara, who was secretary of defense under President [John F.] Kennedy.
MH: How's your family today?
Krupinsk: We have only one daughter, who is 52 and married to an air force officer, a lieutenant colonel but not a pilot. I have two grandsons who are students at the University of Munich, aged 27 and 25.
MH: General Krupinski, with your long life experience, what advice do you have for the youth of today?
Krupinsk: Easy, only one sentence: Don't trust dictators or madmen!
This article was written by Colin D. Heaton and originally published in the June 1998 issue of Military History magazine.
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