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Jagdgeschwader 52, The Experten

by John Weal, Osprey Publishing, Oxford, England, 2004, $21.95.

‘Richthofen’s Circus,’ Jagdgeschwader Nr. 1

by Greg Van Wyngarden, Osprey Publishing, 2004, $21.95.

Jagdgeschwader Nr. II, Geschwader Berthold,’

by Greg Van Wyngarden, Osprey Publishing, 2005, $21.95.

References to the “best fighter pilots in the world” are liberally bandied about among the military aviation fraternity, although just what criteria can be used to back up such claims remains an open question. If, however, one bases the honor on hard statistics, Germany may boast the top outfits for World Wars I and II—both for having the leading aces in a single unit and for that unit’s overall score. Two new additions to Osprey Publishing’s profusely illustrated paperbacks on “Aviation Elite Units” cover those German champions in consecutive order.

Number 15 in the series, Jagdgeschwader 52, The Experten, describes the wing whose overall tally of 10,600 accounted for more than one-seventh of all German fighter claims—and whose ranks included the top three aces of all time, Erich Hartmann with 352 victories, Gerhard Barkhorn with 301 and Günther Rall with 275. In the course of summarizing JG.52’s remarkable history, Luftwaffe scholar John Weal reveals a few surprises, such as the fact that JG.52’s achievements were meager from 1939 to 1940, and its participation in the Battle of Britain was largely disastrous. It was not until later in the war, while flying multiple missions daily over the Russian Front, that JG.52’s pilots came fully into their stride, making the Soviet air force pay an exorbitant price for its eventual victory—and occasionally inflicting heavy punishment on the U.S. Fifteenth Air Force as well, over Romania and Hungary.

In spite of its prodigious accomplishments, Weal argues that serving primarily over the Eastern Front deprived JG.52 of the fame it deserved, as did its failure to acquire a nickname or a widely publicized insignia. Seen in perspective within a narrative that would probably require several volumes to do it full justice, JG.52 must be content with merely being the highest-scoring fighter formation in aviation history.

Following hard on JG.52’s coattails is No. 16 in Osprey’s series and an appropriate choice for the first Aviation Elite Units book devoted to a World War I subject: ‘Richthofen’s Circus,’ Jagdgeschwader Nr. 1. Organized in June 1917 by Manfred Freiherr von Richthofen around his red-nosed Jagdstaffel 11 as well as Jastas 4, 6 and 10, JG.I was the first German formation to permanently group squadrons for the purpose of gaining local air superiority. By the end of the war, it was the most successful, accounting for 644 Allied airplanes and balloons. As with its World War II successor, JG.52, JG.I’s ranks included Germany’s four leading fighter pilots: Manfred von Richthofen, whose 80 victories also made him World War I’s ace of aces, Ernst Udet with 62, Erich Löwenhardt with 53 and Werner Voss with 48. Its many other notables included the Circus’ third and last “ringmaster,” Hermann Göring.

Greg Van Wyngarden and I both started out as modelers, interested in documenting the colorful markings of World War I aircraft, and we both learned as we researched and drew. This solo effort, however, marks a culmination of some 30 years of work, and after all that time, many of the photographs Greg has found and some of the 39 color profiles that British artist Harry Dempsey has interpreted from his research still manage to surprise me.

Although JG.I’s nickname primarily referred to its tendency to travel from one hot sector of the front to another, as well as to the stars who flew in it, a look at the red or yellow noses, black and white tail bands and striking array of personal markings in ‘Richthofen’s Circus’ visually reinforces the enduring image of the “Red Baron’s Flying Circus.”

The success enjoyed by Richthofen and JG.I in establishing local air superiority in the summer and fall of 1917 prompted the German flying service to organize more such units—Jagdgeschwader II (comprising Jastas 12, 13, 15 and 19) and III (Jastas Boelcke, 26, 27 and 36)—on February 2, 1918. Those units were intended to support the great spring offensive scheduled for March 21, but prior to that, JG.II lost its first commander when 27-victory ace and Orden Pour le Mérite recipient Captain Adolf Ritter von Tutschek was killed in action on March 15.

Tutschek’s replacement, Captain Rudolf Berthold, had an all-but-useless right arm due to his refusal to interrupt flying and fighting to have a combat wound tended to. Nevertheless, Berthold’s fanatical nationalism and iron will guided JG.II through a succession of losses and administrative problems to take an extraordinary toll on Allied aircraft (including 17 of his own, raising his score to 44), until August 10, 1918, when he was shot down again. He was once again injured and subsequently relieved of command at Kaiser Wilhelm II’s direct order. Berthold also left his stamp on the unit by standardizing a Geschwader marking based on the cuffs of regimental dress uniforms: blue fuselages, with white noses for Jasta 12’s aircraft, Saxon green for Jasta 13’s, red for Jasta 15’s and yellow for Jasta 19’s.

Under its final commander, 1st Lt. Oskar von Boenigk, JG.II played out the final months of Germany’s losing war, wreaking havoc on the U.S. Army Air Service over St. Mihiel and the Argonne Forest. Its victims included American aces David E. Putnam and Joseph F. Wehner, as well as bomber pilot Merian C. Cooper, who survived captivity to later gain fame as the director of King Kong and other notable films.

Van Wyngarden has written a superb summary of the challenges, successes and heartbreaking losses that attended JG.II’s career in Jagdgeschwader Nr. II, Geschwader Berthold.’ Between his coverage of combat missions, he reminds the reader of more prosaic problems that German units needed to address, such as fuel shortages, getting by with war-weary aircraft, and the tendency of the rotary engines of Fokker Dr.I triplanes and their promising intended replacements, Siemen-Schuckert D.IIIs, to seize up because of shortages of castor oil and the inadequacies of Voltol, its synthetic substitute. In addition to explaining their maintenance nightmares, he also describes the administrative difficulties of running the fighter wing while dealing with the death or injuries of two commanders.

Accompanying Van Wyngarden’s fascinating narrative—which is brought to life by numerous firsthand accounts from JG.II’s pilots—is a wealth of photographs, many not published before, and a truly colorful collection of 40 aircraft profiles by Dempsey, again including some surprises even for markings experts. Once again, Van Wyngarden has exceeded Osprey’s primary goal— to present a thumbnail unit history with color schemes for the modeler or artist— placing his subject in wartime context, giving the reader a feel for frontline flying in 1918, and more.


Originally published in the July 2006 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here