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The First and the Last: The Rise and Fall of the German Fighter Forces, 1938- 1945  by Adolf Galland

It is difficult to overstate the tremendous impression that Adolf Galland’s The First and the Last made on aviation history buffs when copies of it became available in the United States in 1954. Here was the first insight into the Luftwaffe from a renowned German ace who had personally known Adolf Hitler, famously stood up to Hermann Göring and was highly respected both by his colleagues and his former foes. The big question of course was how he would handle his having flown for the hated Nazi regime, scoring 94 official (and more unofficial) victories against the Allies.

The answer was that he handled it well, giving a reasoned explanation of both the success and the ultimate failure of the Luftwaffe. While never apologetic, Galland distanced himself from Nazi evils by providing his personal insight into the motivation and actions of the major figures who influenced the Luftwaffe. These included some remarkable portraits of Hitler and Göring, sympathetic views of Ernst Udet and Hans Jeschonneck, and professional assessments of Erhard Milch, Werner Mölders and others.

Galland is at his best when describing some of the early Luftwaffe triumphs, such as Operation Thunderbolt. He directed the Luftwaffe operation, which allowed the successful escape of the battleships Gneisenau and Scharnhorst from Brest. He is naturally less compelling when he assesses the hopeless situation in which the Luftwaffe found itself after 1943, unable to cope with the rising tide of Allied strength. He places the blame for this quite accurately, never failing to note how well the Luftwaffe air and ground crews did in an increasingly desperate situation. His book set the standard for future German aviation memoirs.

He frequently visited the United States in later years, making friends everywhere and becoming increasingly frank in his opinions. I saw evidence of his martial nature one night when he was to deliver a talk at the National Air and Space Museum. During dinner beforehand, it became clear that he was terribly ill, and in such great pain from an eye problem that he sat slumped in his chair, unable to eat. But when I asked him if he wanted to cancel his talk and rest, he insisted on going on. He got up, marched out to the podium and, standing ramrod straight, delivered a great talk, without any sign of his difficulties. At the end he graciously answered many questions before leaving—to a standing ovation. He then walked to an area behind the stage and slumped in a chair again. It was an impressive display of pride and self-discipline that gave insight into Galland’s character and strong will. So does his book.

Originally published in the March 2012 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.