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Helmut Wilberg was a Prussian officer and a gentleman. He radiated confidence, was built like a linebacker and had clear blue eyes that gazed out from his square face. Typical of his class, he was apolitical, a consummate professional and a devoted patriot. He was also half Jewish.

Wilberg was born on June 1, 1880, in Berlin to a Jewish mother and a gentile father renowned for his paintings of landscapes and buildings. As a child, Helmut excelled at sports but not at school. He became one of the most distinguished airmen of World War I, earning the Knight’s Cross with Swords of the Royal House of Hohenzollern, the Iron Crosses first and second class, and the German Flyer’s Badge.

When Wilberg was a year old, his father died, making it difficult for the family to earn a living. Fortunately for them, Crown Princess Auguste Viktoria had taken painting lessons from Helmut’s father before his death and had gotten to know the family. After her teacher’s death, the princess looked after the Wilbergs, and it was through that connection that Wilberg was able to find a place in the 80th Infantry Regiment after his graduation from school in 1898.

Despite his humble background and flat feet, the young soldier’s innate abilities earned him a spot at an officers’ training academy, where he continued to perform well. After being commissioned, he received a special assignment as military tutor to relatives of Kaiser Wilhelm II, a position usually given only to officers of high academic standing. Through a combination of good fortune and hard work, by 1910 Wilberg had earned a coveted spot at the General Staff Academy and entree to the highest levels of command in the German army.

Taken with the possibilities of aviation, Wilberg then became one of the first pilots in Germany, carrying Imperial pilot’s license No. 26 until his death. On completing the General Staff course in 1913, he became the adjutant of the aviation branch. This important position brought him in touch with figures like Wilhelm Siegert, who built up German aviation.

During World War I, Wilberg gained valuable experience in aerial strategy and became one of the most successful German air commanders of the war. He specialized in ground-attack tactics and direct support of the soldier in the trenches, also pioneering the use of radios in airplanes to coordinate their strikes with infantry units below. Those ground-support innovations would become the foundation for what came to be known as blitzkrieg.

Wilberg also commanded air units that supported the First and Fourth armies, and in the last year of the war he sometimes commanded more than 70 separate squadrons. After the war, General Hans von Seeckt, the commander of the tiny Reichsheer, picked Wilberg to lead a covert air force, keeping the dream of a Luftwaffe alive despite the strictures placed on Germany by the Treaty of Versailles.

From 1923 onward, Wilberg carefully organized and monitored German civil airfields, flight schools, aircraft factories and repair shops, and gathered the resources necessary to quickly build an air force in the event of an invasion by either France or Poland. Dreaming of bigger and better things, he also became the Reichswehr’s leading air theorist, developing some of the ideas born of his experiences during World War I. Aware that experience was the best teacher, Wilberg defied observers from the Inter-Allied Military Control Commission and regularly sent German pilots on covert trips to attend the Soviet fighter school at Lipetsk. Much of that training revolved around maneuver warfare. German officers at the school were thoroughly instructed in the ground-attack operations that would become key to the Wehrmacht’s later success.

Another method of preparing the Luftwaffe’s future pilots was to nurture the gliding community in Germany. Wilberg encouraged army officers to join the nominally civilian gliding clubs whenever possible. During that time, he also worked closely with Erhard Milch, another half-Jewish aviation authority who would become one of Adolf Hitler’s closest advisers on air power matters (see World War II Magazine, January 2004).

The Nazi seizure of power in 1933 and renunciation of the Treaty of Versailles did not prevent Wilberg from taking up a post in the new Luftwaffe ministry as a major general. Ever the pragmatist, when Hitler passed the Nuremberg Laws in 1935, which banned Jews from holding public office and denied many other basic civil rights, he made sure to grant Wilberg status as 100 percent “Aryan.”

Wilberg was apparently unconcerned with his ancestry. His son later claimed that all his father wanted was to forget his Jewish past. In 1934, however, Wilberg had written in his diary that he had little hope for mankind and, without specifically referring to his own situation, repeatedly mentioned the Jewish problem in Germany. Luftwaffe historian James Corum writes that it was Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring who made sure that he did not lose the services of a talented officer no matter how ardent the Luftwaffe’s official commitment was to the ideology of National Socialism.

With the Luftwaffe now officially out in the open, Wilberg prepared the Conduct of Air Operations manual, which, according to Corum, served as the new service’s “primary expression of battle doctrine.” The manual laid out the primary missions of the Luftwaffe: maintain air superiority, support ground troops, support the navy, disrupt enemy communication and supply, attack sources of enemy power and destroy the enemy’s governmental centers.

After a stint at the head of the War College, Wilberg was picked as the chief of staff for the Condor Legion, a group of German “volunteers” sent to Spain to support Falangist General Francisco Franco in his bid to seize power. Given only vague instructions from his government, Wilberg and the Luftwaffe general staff were able to create “Special Staff W” in two days and begin shipment of supplies and men to Spain. Within a week, Luftwaffe pilots were airlifting Spanish troops from Morocco to Spain to support Franco’s forces.

Between the end of July and mid-October 1936, the Luftwaffe airlifted 13,000 Spanish Nationalist soldiers, along with a total of 271 tons of equipment including artillery, machine guns and ammunition. Without Wilberg, Franco’s power grab might have failed before it got off the ground. Wanting to be where events were unfolding, Wilberg made four clandestine trips to Spain from 1936 to 1938, and throughout the entire period was given almost a free hand by his masters to conduct operations as he saw fit.

Untested when it went to Spain, by the time the Condor Legion departed the Luftwaffe had a pool of experienced officers. German officers spent from nine to 12 months with the legion, and following their tours of duty, were assigned to various operational units of the Luftwaffe to disseminate the lessons learned.

General Erwin Jaenecke later wrote that at that time Wilberg was one of the oldest and most famous officers of World War I and was highly respected. Many years after the conflict, the Spanish government posthumously awarded Wilberg a distinguished medal for valor for his service in the Condor Legion and for its support of the Spanish army in “its war against international communism.”

Despite his proven record of success— and his 100 percent Aryan status—Wilberg was dismissed from the service in March 1938. But he was recalled by Hitler just before the invasion of Poland and made the chief of Luftwaffe training. Three months before World War II started, Wilberg had breakfast with the Führer and other high-ranking Nazi dignitaries and military personalities. Although Wilberg had been critical of the Nazis, he did not display those views in a letter he wrote to a close friend after this meeting. He described how freely the Führer discussed and developed his ideas in this small group. In September 1940, Wilberg was promoted to General der Flieger (general of the aviators).

Without Wilberg, the Wehrmacht might not have been as successful as it was from 1939 to 1941, invading Poland, France and Russia. Many in the air force considered him the “natural commander of the Luftwaffe.” General Jaenecke noted: “Wilberg, owing to his abilities and career, was the obvious choice to command the Luftwaffe, a position given…to Göring because of party politics. He was tall, good-looking, gifted and an officer who was a pleasure to work for, but, unfortunately, he was a 50 percent Jew.” Jaenecke said that no one would see that Wilberg was “Jewish” in any way, stressing his German “looks” and “behavior.” The exemption he received from Hitler also allowed Wilberg’s two children to officially describe themselves as Aryans. But according to Jaenecke, Hitler refused to allow Wilberg in his presence to seek advice on military matters even after the Luftwaffe chief had been Aryanized. As a result, Jaenecke, the chief of Wilberg’s staff, often had to attend meetings with Hitler in place of his boss.

Throughout the Nazis’ early years, Wilberg performed his professional duties with ability and skill as he had always done, seemingly untroubled by pangs of guilt or conscience. Any moral dilemma he may have felt as other Jews began to experience the awful truth of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich were resolved on November 20, 1941, when Wilberg’s plane ran into bad weather and crashed outside Dresden—killing him.


Originally published in the June 2006 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.