Hermann Göring Fighter Ace: The World War I Career of Germany’s Most Infamous Airman
by Peter Kilduff, Grub Street, London, 2010, $39.95.
Hindsight, as they say, is 20-20, and it gets plenty of play when exploring the backgrounds of the Third Reich’s most notorious kingpins. On the face of it, Adolf Hitler’s second-in-command and Luftwaffe chief, Hermann Göring, is popularly seen as a classic case of yesterday’s hero—a 22-victory air ace, Blue Max recipient and last leader of the Red Baron’s Flying Circus—turning into today’s corrupt, venal villain, viewed with contempt by the airmen he commanded.
World War I German air expert Peter Kilduff focuses exclusively on Göring’s life from childhood to the 1918 armistice. He reveals some genuine acts of heroism and displays of professional leadership. More intriguing, however, are hints of the antiSemitism, the narcissistic self-delusion, the penchant for self-serving exaggeration and the talent for making influential contacts that emerge in the course of Göring’s rise.
“I want to tower over the human herd, not that I will follow them; rather, that everyone will follow me,” Göring wrote a girlfriend in 1915. In spite of rheumatism that cut short his career as an infantry officer and often sidelined him from aerial combat, Göring distinguished himself as an observer and later a recon and fighter pilot. Even then, however, his accounts displayed a desire to adjust the event to his fantasies. After bringing down a Nieuport for his eighth victory on June 8, 1917, Göring described his opponent as “an experienced fighter pilot, who had already shot down five German aeroplanes.” It was in fact the first mission for Australian 2nd Lt. Frank D. Slee of No. 1 Squadron, Royal Flying Corps, before he became a “guest of the Kaiser.”
Given command of Jasta 27, Göring generally proved to be a good squadron leader, save for an anti-Semitic remark that led to one of his best pilots, Willy Rosenstein, demanding a transfer. Göring was too stubborn to admit he owed Rosenstein an apology, but astute enough to gloss over the ugly incident by giving the future ace a favorable letter of recommendation. It is more indicative of Göring’s ability to make the right impression on the right people than of his martial skills that he was awarded the Orden Pour le Mérite after 17 victories, at a time when the standard was set at 20. Within two weeks of receiving it, he raised his score to 20.
In a scene that inspired the climax of the novel The Blue Max, on July 3, 1918, Göring flew an experimental fighter, the Zeppelin-Lindau D.I, after which Wilhelm Reinhard, Manfred von Richthofen’s chosen successor to lead Jagdgeschwader I, also took it up— only to plunge to his death when the upper wing broke off. On July 8, Göring was appointed to command Germany’s most famous fighter wing. He would lead it to the bitter end, and in December 1918 make a bitter speech about the “criminals” who had “stabbed our glorious army in the back.” This ends Kilduff’s book—and sets the stage for another chapter of Göring’s life, with which posterity is more familiar.
Originally published in the November 2010 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.