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The German Aces Speak: World War II Through the Eyes of Four of the Luftwaffe’s Most Important Commanders

by Colin D. Heaton and Anne Marie Lewis, Zenith Press, Minneapolis, Minn., 2011, $29

“I tried to bail out, but the canopy was jammed shut from enemy bullets. So I tried to stand in the cockpit, forcing the canopy open with my back as the plane screamed toward earth….I finally opened it…and I almost cleared the 109 when my parachute harness on my back became entangled on the radio aerial just behind the cockpit.” Adolf Galland’s account of his near-fatal bailout shows why the best way to grasp the terrible urgency of fighter combat is through the words of those who experienced it. Colin Heaton interviewed Galland as well as Walter Krupinski, Eduard Neumann and Wolfgang Falck, all of whom have since died. Collectively, the four Luftwaffe aces were credited with destroying 322 Allied warplanes. Each also had a key leadership role.

In The German Aces Speak, each of these accomplished pilots uses his distinctive voice to put the reader at the controls of Messerschmitts and Focke-Wulfs. They talk candidly of the adrenaline rush of dogfights, shoot-downs, crashes and frantic efforts to improvise night-fighter and early-jet tactics. They offer insight into how their planes stacked up against Allied aircraft.

To our lasting benefit, these German veterans also take us outside the cockpit. Their tidbits about family pressures make them more sympathetic. Their terror in the presence of hotheaded Luftwaffe leader Hermann Göring and their disdain for an oddly pandering Adolf Hitler make them unmistakably human.

Material in The German Aces Speak originally appeared in Aviation History and other Weider History Group magazines, but here you’ll find unedited versions of Heaton’s lengthy interviews. There is also a useful appendix listing Luftwaffe aces that takes up fully one-third of this volume.

You’ll have to decide for yourself whether the Luftwaffe’s fighter aces “were no different than pilots of other nations” and “men of honor who fought by and believed in a code of chivalry,” as the authors repeatedly assert. What you won’t find in The German Aces Speak is any notion that these men must share some accountability for the noxious, horror-house Nazi regime they defended.

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