Luftwaffe ace Bully Lang had several claims to fame in the course of his short, violent career.
For an air arm that joined its nation in ultimate defeat in World War II, the Luftwaffe left a remarkable legacy of military aviation records, starting with the highest-scoring ace of all time, Erich Hartmann with 352 victories, and the most combat missions flown, 2,650 by Hans Ulrich Rudel. Among the less remembered but equally remarkable records were those set by Emil Lang, including the most enemy planes downed in a single day.
Born in Talheim, Württemberg, Lang was a track and field athlete whose bulldog-like facial features earned him the nickname “Bully.” He became a commercial pilot with Lufthansa and was serving as a transport pilot in the Luftwaffe when Germany invaded Poland in September 1939. In 1942 he transferred into fighters and was assigned to the 1st Staffel (squadron) of Jagdgeschwader (fighter wing) 54, or 1/JG.54, on the Russian Front early in 1943. Then 34, he was among the Luftwaffe’s oldest fighter pilots.
JG.54 had recently replaced its Messerschmitt Me-109s with the new Focke-Wulf Fw-190A-4, a pugnacious fighter that seemed custom-made for Lang, who used it to score his first two victories in early March 1943. After transferring to 5/JG.54, he downed a MiG-3 on March 23, and in May began steadily adding to his score, culminating in four P-39 Airacobras on August 1. On the 20th he was promoted to command of the squadron.
At that point JG.54 was involved in what amounted to a fighting retreat across the eastern Ukraine. Its pilots were conceding nothing, however, and in October Lang displayed typical bulldog tenacity, downing 10 opponents on the 13th and 12 on the 21st, with a total of 68 for the month.
November promised more of the same, with eight victories on the 2nd, but the next day Lang outdid himself—and every other fighter pilot in the world. During a morning patrol near Kiev he attacked a formation of Il-2 Shturmoviks and their Yak-7 fighter escorts at 9:31 a.m., and by 9:42 he had accounted for four of the armored Il-2s and three Yaks. Around 1 p.m. he downed an La-5, followed by an unidentified Soviet plane in a third sortie. During his fourth mission he had a series of encounters starting at 2:16 p.m. that by 2:49 had doubled the day’s bag, with two La-5s, two Yak-9s and five Il-2s. As he returned to his airfield, his face blackened with gunpowder and grime, a grinning Bully Lang thrust his fist in the air in triumph. He had brought the day’s total to 18, edging out the 17-victory record set over North Africa by JG.27’s famous Me-109 virtuoso, Hans Joachim Marseille.
By the end of November, Lang had been credited with 101 victories in two months. On the 22nd he was awarded the Knight’s Cross to the Iron Cross, and three days later received the German Cross in Gold. Meanwhile the Soviets continued their relentless westward push, with the desperate Germans disputing every advance.
On April 6, 1944, Lang downed an La-5FN for his 144th victory, his last in the East. Three days later he was reassigned to command of 9/JG.54 in France. He stood before Adolf Hitler on May 5 to receive the Oak Leaves to his Knight’s Cross. Lang’s claim for a P-38 (likely an F-5 photorecon version) on the 28th officially opened his account in the West.
The Allied landings in Normandy on June 6 created a new sector that the Germans would label the Invasion Front—and into which 9/JG.54 was thrust to bolster the two beleaguered wings stationed in France since the Battle of Britain had ended, JG.2 “Richthofen” and JG.26 “Schlageter.” Here Lang proved just as deadly against the Western Allies as he had been against the Soviets in the East, starting with a P-51 Mustang near Bernay two days after D-Day and a Westland Lysander northeast of Caen on June 11. At 7:29 a.m. on June 14, he bounced P-47 Thunderbolts and by 7:32 had shot down three of them, in the process passing the 150 mark. He downed four more Mus tangs on the 20th.
On June 28, JG.26’s commander, Lt. Col. Josef “Pips” Priller, requested Captain Lang to replace his transferred II Gruppe commander. His wider responsibilities notwithstanding, Bully showed no inclination of leading from behind a desk, and his ebullience re-energized morale among the group’s pilots.
The air war over Normandy often involved low-altitude duels with elements of the RAF’s Second Tactical Air Force and the U.S. Ninth Air Force. These dogfights could be confusing, leading to mutual overclaiming, as on July 9, when Lang claimed three Spitfires in five minutes while his opponents, members of No. 453 Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force, claimed two Fw-190s—though in fact neither side suffered a loss.
On August 25, JG.26 and the newly formed III/JG.76 intercepted two dozen P-38Js of the 474th Fighter Group that were attacking airfields near Laon, resulting in a low-level battle royal. The Americans claimed 18 Me-109s and three Fw-190s, but lost 11 P-38s on what they would call “Black Friday.” Of the 11 Lightnings claimed by JG.26, three were credited to Lang within a five-minute span.
By August 26, Lang had brought his total to 173 victories in the course of 408 missions, in addition to which he had strafed and sunk a Soviet torpedo boat. The 28 victories he claimed in less than three months was also the Luftwaffe record for the Invasion Front. By then, however, the Allies had broken out of Normandy and taken Paris. Bully Lang’s good luck streak was about to run out.
On September 3, Lang reported that he was having difficulty raising the landing gear on his Fw-190A-8.After mechanics worked on his plane, he led a flight up from Melsbroek airfield, Belgium, at 1:20 p.m. Ten minutes later one of his wingmen, Sergeant HansJoachim Borreck, called out Thunderbolts at their backs. Lang climbed to the left and Lieutenant Alfred Gross also turned left. Borreck dived with two fighters on his tail, evading them with hits to his wing and engine, and force-landed at another nearby airfield, where he reported last seeing Lang’s plane in a vertical dive with its undercarriage extended. Gross later claimed to have turned on an attacking Spitfire and shot it down in flames before another unseen assailant shot him down. He bailed out, but his injuries sidelined him for the rest of the war.
There have since been two claimants to Lang’s demise, both of whom had encounters in that area at the right time, but neither flew Thunderbolts. Three Mustangs of the 338th Squadron, 55th Fighter Group, claimed Fw-190s over Brussels, of which 1st Lt. Darrell S. Cramer was the only one to positively report seeing his victim hit the ground and explode. Farther east, Spitfire Mark XIIs of No. 41 Squadron tangled with Fw-190s over Tirlemont, during which Warrant Officer Peter W. Chattin was shot down and killed, but Flight Lt. Terence Spencer, after taking hits in his tail, sent an Fw-190 down. Pilot Officer Patrick T. Coleman claimed a second Fw-190. The Germans reported that Lang’s plane exploded on impact at Overhespen, closer to Tirlemont than to Brussels. Regardless of where he went down, the effect of Lang’s death on morale was profound.
On September 28, Priller submitted a request for Lang’s posthumous promotion to major, summing up the late ace: “Captain Lang is a fully motivated character, serious and calm in his demeanor, yet definitive and energetic when strength was needed. Very good attitude as an officer. Demands of himself first. He understands how to reach the men under his command correctly. Captain Lang possesses an exemplary concept of service, has initiative and talent for improvisation to a large degree, well rooted in National Socialist ideas.” The promotion never came through before the Third Reich itself died.
Originally published in the July 2013 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.