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From the time the Luftwaffe went to war on September 1, 1939, its fighter pilots immediately began to make their presence known. Slashing through the skies and inflicting enormous casualties, they amassed previously unimaginable scores of aerial victories. Very few of the great pilots survived the war, yet the fact that Germany’s three leading aces did is testimony to their skill, determination and luck.

Günther Rall served on the Eastern and Western fronts, rising to the rank of major and commanding fighter groups and entire squadrons. He finished World War II as the third-highest-scoring fighter ace of all time with 275 aerial victories. His final assignment was in the defense of the Reich itself, and his capture by the Americans was the beginning of a second career for him.

Continuing to rise in the Bundesluftwaffe (the new Luftwaffe), he trained in the United States and later commanded German jet fighter units in the 1960s. He is still good friends with many of his old Luftwaffe comrades, and he was reunited with many for the 80th birthday celebration for General Johannes Steinhoff on September 15, 1993, shortly before Steinhoff’s death.

After retiring from the new German Air Force, General Rall began working in an advisory capacity for several well-known companies. Today he enjoys retirement, his family and his many grandchildren, and enjoys corresponding with historians.

General, please tell us about your background.

I was born on March 10, 1918, in Gaggenau, which is a small village in the Black Forest. My father was a merchant, and when I was born he was on operations during World War I. He first saw me when he came back.

Do you have any brothers and sisters?

I have a sister who is still alive and lives in Stuttgart, which I consider my hometown. My family moved there when I was 3 years old, and I was brought up and educated in Stuttgart. I was in elementary school and high school, which we called Gymnasium, where I was educated for nine years in Latin and five years in the old Greek, with the education focused more on literature and such, not so much on science or mathematics. I took the final exam, which we call the Abitur. I graduated at the age of 18 and became a cadet in an infantry regiment.

Didn’t you originally join the infantry and then decide that running in the mud wasn’t for you?

Yes. And later I decided to become an air force officer.

When did you begin flying in the Luftwaffe?

I started flying as a senior cadet in the air force, and I went through to the final exam for promotion to Leutnant. In those days the air force did not have the capacity to train all of its own cadets. And we took cadets from the navy and the army. I went to the air force and started flying in 1938 in Neubiberg, which is a suburb of Munich.

When was your first taste of combat?

This was at the age of 21. In 1939 I finally graduated training as a fighter pilot on a base east of Berlin and was transferred to Jagdgeschwader (fighter wing) JG-52. At the beginning of the war I was with this wing, and my first contact with the enemy was in May 1940. This was over France.

After the French capitulated, you served on the Channel Front, did you not?

Rall: Yes, we modified our airplanes for flying over sea–you know, with our dinghies in our planes. I was located near Calais. There we opposed the Royal Air Force on the other side and flew missions over the English Channel to the southern part of the British island. We were attacking convoys and things like that. Flights were short because of fuel; we could not fly any farther.

Did the British pilots and officers fight well?

Outstanding. They were a well trained and highly motivated force, with good equipment and good morale.

A mirror image of your Luftwaffe at that time?

Oh, yes, and I was in a wing which at that time was not very experienced, as it was a newly formed wing. We learned our lessons over the British Channel, and we had tremendous losses against the Royal Air Force. I had the highest respect for them.

Were most of your losses during fighter missions or bomber escort missions?

We had unfortunately been assigned to escort Junkers Ju-87B Stukas (dive bombers), very slow-flying aircraft. We had to fly close escort (in Messerschmitt Bf-109Es), which was wrong. We had to stick with them, giving up all of our superiority and speed. So we escorted them over the Channel where the Spitfires and Hurricanes waited upstairs for us, and we had tremendous losses. I lost my group commander. The adjutant and all three squadron commanders were killed in a time span of about two weeks. I, as a young lieutenant, had to take over my 8th Staffel (squadron) as commander at the age of 22. I did this for three years.

I suppose that all of this combat experience trained you and prepared you for when you were later transferred to Russia?

Yes, that is correct.

In what other areas did you serve during the war?

Well, we were withdrawn to Germany, where we trained new pilots, and then went to Romania. We were to protect the oil fields and the bridges over the Danube River down to Bulgaria. We were stationed near Bucharest, the capital of Romania. This was for only a short time, from December 1940 to March 1941. When we moved into Bulgaria, Greece was beginning. I also had operations over Crete in May 1941. I came back with the group from Romania when Crete was finished, and we were given a new airplane, the Messerschmitt Bf-109F, which was a much better aircraft. It had round wingtips and a new Daimler Benz engine, the 603. At that point–June 1941–the war with Russia was just beginning. From then until 1944 I was in the southern part of Russia, moving down to the Caucasus and on to Dnepropetrovsk, Stalingrad, all of the important names. This was a very fast-moving war, contrary to the northern part of the Russian Front, which was more stationary. In the spring I came back to Germany to the Home Defense (Reichs Verteidigung), flying against the Eighth Air Force, as you know, against all the North American P-51 Mustang, Lockheed P-38 Lightning and Republic P-47 Thunderbolt fighters.

Describe the crash in which you injured your back.

This was November 28, 1941. I was flying between Taganrog and Rostov. In those days it was very cold. We had temperatures of minus 40 degrees Centigrade. I flew an afternoon mission, what we would today call a fighter sweep, when my wingman and I ran into Russians. It had just started getting dark, and I had a dogfight with a Russian, shooting him down in flames. In this very late light, I was blinded a little bit. I didn’t pay attention, and a Russian came in behind me. He shot my engine dead and it was over Russian territory, so certainly I moved and turned trying to reach the German lines– not a solid line, but I saw some German tanks. I was flying westward, and I tried to make a belly landing, but I saw where I was going to touch down, in what they call a baikal. This was a little canyon just across my flight direction, and I touched the ground at too high a speed. The aircraft hit and jumped up again. I bounced over a little canyon and pushed my stick forward. I bellied in and crashed on the other side. That was the last I knew, as I saw this wall coming against me, and in the big bang I was knocked out. The rest of the story I learned from my wingman, as he was circling over me and watching what happened. When the battle and crash were over, my wings came off, my engine came off, and thank God these things came off so I didn’t catch fire. I was hanging in the wreckage and nearby was a German tank. The crew jumped out and cut me out of the cockpit. I was unconscious and I didn’t know how I got out. Later that night I ended up in a burned-out school in Taganrog. This was a kind of aid station for the ambulance, and there was no medical treatment there.

You were very lucky.

Yes, I was lucky. In the crash I broke my back in three places–the eighth and ninth thoracic vertebrae and the fifth lumbar vertebra. I was paralyzed for a long time on the right side and my right leg.

How many times were you wounded during the war?

I was wounded three times, but I was shot down about eight times. I bellied in between the front lines, I jumped out and was picked up by Germans in tanks and so on. I was always lucky, except I was seriously wounded three times. The first time it was my back. I was then shot and hit right in the face and in my hand, and the third time I jumped out and a P-47 Thunderbolt shot my left thumb off.

You met your wife, Hertha, while in the hospital.

Yes. She was a medical doctor, and we met after the crash in Russia. I was evacuated in due time and was back in Romania. We were moving back in retreat, and there were no X-ray stations; it was just chaos. In Romania, I was X-rayed and the doctor told me, ‘Flying? You can forget it!’ because my back was broken in three places. I got a full body cast, an extension cast, and when this was fixed after one week, I was transferred on a train, which took eight days to go through Romania and the Carpathian Mountains. We ended up in Vienna, and at night we came to the train station. The doctors came and I had everything written on my chest as to what had happened to me. They took me to the hospital and the next morning Hertha was the doctor who saw me, and afterward she became my wife.

What types of aircraft did you fly?

I flew the Messerschmitt Bf-109 in all of the different marks (variants), the E, F, G and the K model, and of course the Focke-Wulf Fw-190, but I liked the 109 most because I was familiar with it. Certainly I flew the 190, but only the D model long-nosed version, toward the end of the war in some missions.

How would you compare your aircraft with Allied fighters?

When I was injured, I became the commander of the German Fighter Leader School for about four months or so. At that time we had formed a squadron with captured enemy aircraft, and we flew them–the P-38, P-47, P-51, as well as some Spitfires. My left hand was still in bandages, but I was flying all of these aircraft, as I was very eager to learn about and evaluate them. I had a very good impression of the P-51 Mustang, where the big difference was the engine. When we received these aircraft we flew about 300 hours in them. You see, we did not know anything about how they flew, their characteristics or anything before that. In the P-51 there was no oil leak, and that was just fantastic. This was one of the things that impressed me, but I was also very interested in the electrical starting switches, which we did not have. This made it very difficult in starting our engines in the Russian winter. We had the inertia starter. The cockpits of all of these enemy aircraft were much more comfortable. You could not fly the Bf-109 for seven hours; the cockpit was too tight, too narrow. The P-51 (cockpit) was for me a great room, just fantastic. The P-38 with two engines was great, but I think the best airplane was the P-51. Certainly the Spitfire was excellent, but it didn’t have the endurance of the P-51. I think this was the decisive factor. They flew for seven hours, and we flew for one hour and 20 minutes.

That makes quite a difference in aerial combat.

Yes, you would have to get down because you were short on fuel, then look for the nearest air base, and they still had fuel for three hours more.

With all of your experience, which of the commanders was the best fighter leader you served with, as far as taking care of the fliers and the missions?

I can tell you that all the characters you may name are and were good friends of mine, such as Johannes Steinhoff, Adolf Galland, Hannes Trautloft, Werner Mölders and Dieter Hrabak. As Hrabak was my wing leader at one time, and he is one of my closest friends now, I respect him as a fighter leader and as a person. In the war I served in the JG-52 exclusively on the Eastern Front.

Werner Mölders was also a respected man during the Spanish Civil War.

Absolutely, he was a great character and fighter leader, and he was a very strong Catholic. In those days he had his own rules and personality. He was a great man, creating new tactics, leading his men into combat, and being concerned for them and caring for them in the air as well as on the ground. This was, I think, the real Werner Mölders. Despite his young age, he was known as ‘Daddy Mölders.’ It was because of his experience and leadership that he was given the nickname.

What are your personal feelings about Luftwaffe chief Hermann Göring? Is it true that most of the pilots did not like him?

You could not like him. He was perhaps a capable man before the war. He was a great organizer, helping to build the air force after the First World War. Also, he was a great fighter pilot in World War I. As you also know, he was injured in 1923, and he had a very difficult injury. He had to take morphine for the pain and became addicted. It might have changed his character. At the time I became acquainted with him, I was cold to him. He was a big fat man, a very pompous man, and not only I but my comrades felt that he was out of touch with reality. He was certainly not respected as an air force leader. Actually he did not lead the air force at all; it was somebody else, but not Göring. Hermann Göring would make silly statements to Hitler. Hitler said, ‘You are the leader of the air force,’ and he (Göring) made a long statement about the Battle of Britain, you know, that he would triumph over the Royal Air Force, which was wrong, as we had tremendous losses in our fighter fleet that we never recovered from during the war. He said, ‘We can support Stalingrad, the air force can do it,’ which he was not able to do, which was a very wrong and costly statement.

It has been said that Hans-Ulrich Rudel, the great Stuka pilot, was something of a maniac. Did you know him?

Absolutely, he was a bit of a maniac. I flew with him as his fighter escort for his group several times. They were flying normal Ju-87 missions, and we escorted them. This was in Russia, of course. He was a great Stuka pilot, no doubt–after all, he shot up 519 tanks among other things, which is quite something. After the war I was a fellow prisoner with him in France, as guests of the Americans. Rudel and I were in the same camp, and later we were borrowed by the Royal Air Force. I was sent to the British Fighter Leaders School at Tangmere. This was for interrogation, which lasted three weeks. I was there with Rudel as well, and we slept in the same room. Living very close together you get acquainted, and you come to understand the thinking of such a man, but I had known him before that. Anyhow, I was really surprised at this egocentric man; he was the greatest in his own mind, that sort. It was a little disgusting to me.

What do you recall of your meetings with Adolf Hitler, such as the occasion when he awarded you the Oak Leaves and Swords to your Knight’s Cross?

The first time was in November 1942, when I was given the Oak Leaves. As you know, additional honors to the Knight’s Cross, from the Oak Leaves onward, were presented by Hitler personally. I was there with Steinhoff–at that time it was Hauptmann Steinhoff and Oberleutnant Rall–with some others, five of us in all. Certainly we were impressed with his headquarters in East Prussia, at the Wolfschanze (Wolf’s Lair) at Lotzen. We entered, he was standing there, and he handed over our decorations. We sat around the fireplace, and he asked each of us which units we came from, our battle experience and so on. All questions such as this, quite normal. Well, pretty soon he started his own monologue, knowing that we would go back to our unit and repeat what he had told us, and we would remark on what a great guy he was. Well, he started talking about the buildup of the anti-aircraft defense and new communications systems in Russia, the railway system and things like this. He talked about the width of the railroad tracks, how they needed to be made wider for standard German rail traffic and extended into the deeper regions. This was to be the expansion of the Third Reich in the Middle East–the building of villages and towns, all of these very essential things, which was a program he had in mind, no doubt. I asked him then, perhaps I was too courageous, but I interrupted him and asked, ‘Despite all of that, how long do you think this war will be? Because when we moved into Russia, the newspapers said that by the time the first snows came down we would be finished with the war in the East. Instead, we have suffered in the cold over there.’ So Hitler then said to me, ‘Well, I cannot tell you. This might be an open area. We have our settlements here, and when the enemy comes from the depths of the Asian steppe, then we will defend this area. Just like in the days of Genghis Khan.’

Wasn’t General Steinhoff under the impression that Hitler was a little crazy after meeting him near Stalingrad?

Yes, this is the next point. This was before the collapse of Stalingrad and before El Alamein. This was the apex of his war. From that point on we went backward. It was too optimistic. Well then, nine months later I had to come back again to receive my Swords from Hitler. By that time we had lost the Sixth Army and Stalingrad, as well as El Alamein and the front in North Africa. You know, we had a hell of a time with the submarine war, and this was now a very different Hitler. He was no longer talking about tangible facts. He was talking about, ‘I see the deep valley. I see the strip on the horizon,’ and it was all nonsense. He was speaking about magical figures of manpower and production, a fantasyland. We saw this man as no longer certain, and as infirm. The third time I saw Hitler was when I was summoned to receive my documentation for my Oak Leaves and Swords. It was engraved, gilded and beautifully made with a lovely skirt, frame and so on.

Do you still have these certificates?

No, they were stolen in Vienna, most likely by the Russians. There are some of them still available, but not mine. I gave them to my wife and told her to keep them safe and place them in the bunker in the city of Vienna. When we came back a couple of years later, they were gone and nothing was left. At that time there were only 16 or so (who had been so honored), with names such as Adolf Galland, Helmut Lent, Walter Nowotny, as they were all still alive at that time. Lent and Nowotny died before the war ended. Walter Oesau, Dietrich Pelz, Heinz Bar and I were present when Hitler handed these over. Then we had lunch with him, and as usual he started to talk. The main subject of his speech was the pending Allied invasion. This was January 1944. Everybody expected the invasion all along the Channel coast, wondering when it was coming and how they were coming and so on. At that time he developed his ideas, and you could see that Hitler was hopping around, very uncertain. Also, you know, one thing that was very typical of him was his stating how the British were always having problems with their opposition parties, the Labor Party, the labor unions and so on. It was clear to me that this man was a little out of his mind. Hitler did not have a really clear, serious concept of the situation. Whatever their problems, the British come together during war; they are one nation.

What was your impression of the Messerschmitt Me-262 jet fighter, which you flew?

Well, it was certainly a new dimension. The first time I sat in it, I was most surprised about the silence. If you are sitting in a standard piston-powered aircraft, you have a hell of a noise in the radio headset, background noise and static and such, which I did not experience in the Me-262. It was absolutely clear. With radio from the ground they controlled the flight. They gave me my orders, such as ‘Now accelerate your engines, build your rpm.’ It was very clear. Totally clear. One other thing was you had to advance the throttles very slowly. If you went forward too fast, you might overheat and set the engines on fire. Also, if you were up to 8,000 rpm, or whatever it was, you released the brakes and you were taxiing. Unlike the Bf-109, which had no front wheel and was a tail dragger, the Me-262 had a tricycle landing gear. It was a new sensation, beautiful visibility. You could go down the runway and see straight forward. This was, however, also a weak moment for the Me-262. The aircraft at this point was a little bit stiff and slow during landing and takeoff, but fine when coming up to speed gradually. It was absolutely superior to the old aircraft.

So how did you like the armament of the Me-262?

You know, I never did get to shoot the weapons because when I had about 15 or 20 hours I became commander of the JG-300, which was equipped with Bf-109s. I only made some training flights, but never flew the jet in combat.

What was it like commanding JG-300?

I came to the unit in late February or early March 1945. This was no longer a wing, just a ruin of the former wing because one group was in the north. As you know, a wing has three groups. In the meantime, the Americans got to the Elbe River, cutting this group off, and some managed to escape to the south. I had only two rudimentary groups, and I will tell you something that was typical: when I arrived at the wing to take over, I came by jeep because I had no aircraft. While I was commander of the Fighter Leaders School, they sent me a jeep and said, ‘You are going up to Plattling in Bavaria to take over as commander of JG-300,’ and when I approached the base I saw that some airplanes were standing out on the apron, and my driver said, ‘Oops, we are being attacked!’ We stopped and ran off the road. It was an attack by P-38 Lightnings, and when I finally arrived there were 15 of our aircraft in flames.

These were the Bf-109s?

Yes, and this marked my entrance into the wing. The next day we were transferred to the south, and from there on we had no solid operations. We had no radar, no air situation. We had only narrow contact to higher authority in the division, so we relocated to the area south of Munich. On the way to Salzburg I dissolved the wing, as the war was over, and told the group commanders, ‘This thing is over and you had better go home.’ We gave all that we had, including our food, to the airmen and ground personnel. Then we gave a final salute, and everyone went on his own. As you can imagine, at that time there was no solid warfare. Even the higher ranks came to my headquarters and asked if they could stay there because they wanted to get through it. You could only get out using your feet in a normal unit. So this was a very bad time, and there were no firmly planned or controlled missions. The main fight for me was to try and get fuel for the aircraft. Without it we could not fly, naturally. Even if you listened to the fact that wing so and so dissolved at the hands of the Americans, it was because of this situation, that you were alone and on your own.

What was the mission of JG-300? Were you still expected to intercept and attack bombers?

That was early on, and that time had passed. It did not usually work well. Now we had normal fighter missions. In February 1945, there were no normal fighter missions left, you know. What we were doing was looking for targets of opportunity. We had no idea where the enemy was at any time. We were totally in the dark.

What is your knowledge of Operation Bodenplatte, the fighter sweeps against Allied airfields that took place on January 1, 1945?

I was in the hospital because my left thumb had been shot off, and the wound was still open and I had an infection. I listened in on the higher staff, so this was how I learned about Bodenplatte. As you know, we lost many of our most experienced unit leaders, irreplaceable losses. A total of 58 unit leaders were lost in that operation, I believe.

Which Allied fighter was the most difficult to shoot down in combat?

At the beginning of the war we flew short-range missions and encountered Spitfires, which were superior. And do not forget the Hurricanes. I think that the Supermarine Spitfire was the most dangerous to us early on. I flew the Spitfire myself, and it was a very, very good aircraft. It was maneuverable and with good climbing potential. Then in Russia the first aircraft we encountered were obsolete. The Russians lost about 7,000 aircraft in the first three to four months of the war, but they learned their lessons well and began building better aircraft–the MiGs, Yaks, and the LaG-5. Developed by Semyon A. Lavochkin and Mikhail I. Gudkov from their earlier, unsuccessful LaGG-3 with an in-line, water-cooled engine, the LaG-5 came out in 1943 and had a big radial engine. It was a powerful, excellent aircraft and served as the basis for even better versions: the La-5FN and the La-7.

Soviet General Ivan Kozhedub, the highest scoring Allied ace of the war with 62 victories, recalled fighting against JG-52 many times. He also felt that the La-7 was the best Soviet fighter.

Yes, it was excellent. I remember once I chased a Lavochkin a great distance at full throttle and I still could not get him. He was damned fast. Then by way of foreign aid, particularly in the south around the Caucasus where I was fighting, they brought in Spitfires and the Bell P-39 Airacobra, which I liked and the Russians liked but which was inferior to the Bf-109. It had the engine behind the cockpit. Now the big thing in the Home Defense as far as problems was the P-51. The P-51 was a damned good airplane and it had tremendous endurance, which for us was a new dimension. The P-47, which as you know shot me down, we knew right away. It had tremendous diving speed and could run up to 1,400 kilometers per hour, where the Bf-109 was limited to 1,000 kph. I learned this quickly when they chased me, and I could do nothing else. The structural layout design of the P-47 was much stronger, yet I consider the P-51 the best battle horse you had of all the fighter escorts.

How did the war end for you?

I was at Ainring near Salzburg when we finished the war. I walked with my staff, retreating at night, and we went to the Americans, who did not care too much for us. So at daylight we decided to try and go home. At Lake Chiemsee we could not go any farther and were captured. The Americans took me back to Salzburg and put me in prison. From Salzburg to Neu Ulm, then to Heilbronn, and there the CIC (Counter Intelligence Corps) saw me. They knew my name and they said that all air force officers should report, and they took me very quickly to interrogation. Then seven of us were taken to England.

Is it possible that the Americans and British wanted to recruit Luftwaffe officers since it was the beginning of the Cold War?

Yes, and there was a situation that I will never forget. There was a Mr. Reed, at least that was the name he gave me, his CIC name anyway. When he came to pick me up he asked me, ‘Major, I understand that you flew the 262,’ and I answered, ‘Yes, I did.’ He knew more about me and what I had done than I knew myself. Then he asked, ‘Are you willing to assist us in building up a jet force?’ Well, the war was over, so I said, ‘Yes, sure.’ He also wanted to know if I was willing to go to England, and then to America. I went to England for interrogation. His last question was, ‘Would you be willing to fly with us against the Japanese?’ Well, here I said ‘No,’ and he asked me why not. I told him that they were former allies, and I could not do that.

Did you consider that a matter of honor?


How did you become involved in the new Luftwaffe?

General Steinhoff and Dieter Hrabak were already preparing this. I was in industry and Salem school, where my wife was a doctor, and I was in the organization. Well, they sent me letters saying, ‘You have to come’ and so on. The first of January 1956, I was called and I went to Bonn and there I joined the air force again at the rank of major. From there on I underwent the refresher training, at first in Germany, and later we went to train in the Republic F-84 (Thunderjet) in the United States. This was at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, and from then on I spent quite a lot of time in your country.

Luke Air Force Base must have been quite a change for you from the forests in Germany.

Oh, yes, it was a beautiful time. Just beautiful. I remember those early days were great. It looked different than it looks today. You know, Luke Air Force Base and the whole Arizona area was just beginning to build up. It was not as extensive as it is today. Phoenix was not as big a city as it is now, and it was beautiful. It was such a beautiful time and all we did was fly, and then I came back. I was appointed to a staff (position), and then I became the project officer for the F-104–you know, the Starfighter– which took me again to the States.

Was that when they were putting the F-104 in Germany?

Yes. I was in Palmdale, California, and Edwards Air Force Base. I later became general and division commander. Then I became chief of staff of the Fourth Allied Tactical Air Force, and then I became commander of German Air Force Command, and the chief of that later.

When did you retire from the Bundesluftwaffe?

At the end of 1975.

Can you tell us a little about your family?

My wife died eight years ago. I have a daughter who lives in Paris, France, and is married to a Frenchman. She is a great restorer at the Louvre. She has a good career, and she has two children. Clement is 14 and Anna Louise is 12. My (other) daughter is married and lives in Munich with her husband. My son-in-law is a designer with BMW, and my daughter is also a designer. They also have two children, girls. One is 7 years old and the other is 4 years old. My second daughter, Felicita, and my son-in-law studied for one year in Pasadena, California.

What has your life been like since your retirement?

When I retired, I went into industry, and I was on different boards in an advisory capacity. I am still involved with the industries. I do quite a bit of traveling in the States. There is a great interest in some galleries, as in signing all these paintings and in giving autographs. This is a good chance to get in close contact with some of my former opponents. I am very close friends now with Colonel Hub Zemke; and it was his wing that shot off my thumb (5th Fighter Group), and we know exactly who got me. It was Joseph Powers. I have a lot of friends over there.

This article was written by Colin Heaton and originally appeared in the September 1996 issue of World War II magazine.

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