In the aftermath of WWII, Germany turned to former Luftwaffe officers to rebuild its air force under NATO and help counter the Soviet threat.

When the Wehrmacht surrendered unconditionally to the Western Allies on May 7, 1945, World War II was over for Germany, but the situation was vastly different than it had been 27 years earlier at the end of World War I. The Versailles Treaty ending that war was draconian enough, but it allowed Germany to retain a rump 100,000-man military. The Germans kept the best and brightest in the new Reichswehr, and turned it into a cadre army from which the Wehrmacht, and as part of it, the Luftwaffe, was later built. This time around the victorious Allies were determined not to make the same mistake. Germany was completely disarmed and the Wehrmacht was formally dissolved by the Allied Control Council on August 20, 1946. 

Just nine years later, the world looked considerably different. At war’s end the Soviet Union occupied the Eastern European countries it had “liberated” from the Germans, imposing Com­munist governments on them. In defense, the Western Allies in 1949 formed the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), with a unified military command structure. The Soviets countered in 1955 by signing the Warsaw Pact defense treaty with seven of its satellite states. By then, NATO forces were vastly outnumbered in the heart of Europe. The United States, France and Britain were forced to conclude that the only way they could maintain a semblance of a military balance was to rearm their former German enemy, albeit under firm NATO operational control. The May 1955 Paris Accords authorized the establishment of the Bundeswehr, the new armed forces of the Federal Republic of Germany. 

Making it so on paper was one thing, but operational armies and air forces cannot be created overnight. The rank-and-file soldiers and airmen can be enlisted from the general population and trained to a minimum level of effectiveness in about six months. But what about the leadership? Where do you find officers with the background and experience to train, organize and lead a new military force built from scratch? How long does it take to train a modern fighter pilot? And more importantly, who is going to train him?

In West Germany’s case, the answer was obvious but far from simple. Little more than a decade earlier Germany had possessed one of history’s best armies and air forces. Yet the Wehrmacht had been corrupted into the service of the odious and criminal Third Reich. Germany produced many great generals and even more great combat pilots between 1933 and 1945, but by 1955 most of them were dead, too old or compromised by their complicity in the Third Reich’s war crimes. The challenge, then, was finding enough former Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe senior officers who had relatively unblemished records and who were willing to go back into uniform late in their lives. In the case of the airmen, there was the special problem of the taint of the corrupt narcissist Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, who had regarded the Luft­waffe as his personal fiefdom. 

World War II aces who got a second chance in Bundesluftwaffe service included (from left) Gerhard Barkhorn, Erich Hartmann, Johannes Steinhoff and Günther Rall. (Courtesy of Wolfgang Meuhlbauer)
World War II aces who got a second chance in Bundesluftwaffe service included (from left) Gerhard Barkhorn, Erich Hartmann, Johannes Steinhoff and Günther Rall. (Courtesy of Wolfgang Meuhlbauer)

All former Wehrmacht soldiers who volunteered for the new Bundeswehr were subjected to the West German government’s rigorous Per­sonnel Screening Board. Ultimately only 42 former general officers were cleared to join the Bundeswehr by the autumn of 1957. Adolf Galland, the Luftwaffe’s former general of fighters, was not among them. Although the West German government initially extended tentative feelers to him about coming back as chief of the new Bundesluftwaffe, General Nathan Twining, the U.S. Air Force chief of staff, strongly opposed the idea. What probably worked against Galland more than anything else was the fact that he had spent several years after the war as an adviser to the Argentine air force, and relations between the U.S. and Juan Perón’s government were hostile at best.

Among the surviving combat pilots, Stuka ace Hans-Ulrich Rudel was not even considered. He was the Werhmacht’s most highly decorated officer but also was an unrepentant Nazi and a leading figure in German right-wing extremist politics. Among the former pilots who were cleared and willing to go back into uniform were the first, second, third and 23rd highest-scoring aces of all time. The Bundeswehr also managed to find one acceptable former senior Luftwaffe general to lead the new Bundesluftwaffe.

Germany’s former General of Aviation Josef Kammhuber was sworn in as the first Bundes­luftwaffe chief on June 1, 1957. In an effort to shed some of the political baggage associated with the German chief of the general staff title, the title “inspector” was given to the new heads of the three services. The senior military officer in the entire Bundeswehr was titled “general inspector.” The inspector of the Bundesluftwaffe was essentially the chief of staff of the German air force, and the general inspector of the Bundeswehr was equivalent to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the United States. 

Kammhuber fought as an infantry officer during World War I. Retained in the post-war Reichswehr, he qualified as a pilot in 1919. He became a general staff officer in 1929, and the following year assumed command of the clandestine Luftwaffe training facility at Lipetsk, in the Soviet Union. During the 1940 Battle for France, he commanded Kampfgeschwader (Bomber Wing) 51, but was shot down and taken prisoner. Following his release after France’s surrender, Kammhuber organized and took command of Germany’s aerial night defenses. His highly efficient system—an interlocking chain of radar, night fighters and ground controllers covering from southern France to the North Sea—came to be known as the “Kam­mhuber Line.” British and American electronic warfare technology eventually gained the upper hand, however, and following several devastating Allied air raids in the autumn of 1943, Kammhuber was relieved as general of night fighters and sent to Norway to command the Fifth Air Fleet. 

After Germany’s surrender, the U.S. held Kammhuber as a POW, but he was released in April 1948 with no charges against him. He wrote a series of monographs for the U.S. Army Historical Division on the conduct of the German aerial defenses against the Royal Air Force and U.S. Army Air Forces. Upon becoming the first inspector of the new Bundesluftwaffe, Lt. Gen. Kammhuber built the force up from scratch, modeling it after the U.S. Air Force. In May 1961 he became the only single-service chief in the Bundeswehr’s history to be promoted to full general while still holding that office. Kammhuber retired from the Bundeswehr in September 1962.

Of NATO’s “nuclear shield” and the reasons for establishing the Bundesluftwaffe, Kammhu­ber wrote: “I am not very sure that the two great atomic powers of the West, the United States and Great Britain, would be ready to employ their strategic forces—with the possible consequence of the destruction of mankind—solely to defend the German Federal Republic in the case of a small or limited war. In such a case, the smaller European powers, such as the Federal Republic, ought to be capable of dealing with such a potential event themselves.” 

Werner Panitzki was sworn in as the second inspector of the Bundesluftwaffe in October 1962. During WWII Panitzki served as a fighter pilot in the Polish and French campaigns and in the Battle of Britain. When a mechanical failure caused him to crash-land in the Balkans in 1940, he suffered a spinal injury that grounded him for the remainder of the war. From 1945 to 1947 he was a prisoner of the British and Americans. In 1955 he joined the Bundesluftwaffe as a colonel, serving in a series of increasingly senior staff positions.

Panitzki’s tenure as Bundesluftwaffe inspector was controversial at best, overshadowed by what came to be known as the “Starfighter Affair.” In 1960 Germany purchased the American-built Lockheed F-104G Starfighter. Although it was designed as an interceptor, the Bundesluftwaffe deployed it as a multirole combat aircraft. Of the 916 Starfighters purchased, 292 crashed, resulting in the loss of 116 pilots and earning the F-104 the nickname “Witwenmacher”—Widowmaker. As public criticism increased and morale in the Bundesluftwaffe plummeted, Panitzki in August 1966 criticized the procurement of the fighter as a “purely political decision.” Shortly thereafter, German Defense Minister Kai-Uwe von Hassel dismissed him, although he was allowed to retire in-grade as a lieutenant general.

Johannes “Macky” Steinhoff, recipient of the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves and Swords, was one of greatest combat pilots of all time. With 176 victories, he was history’s 23rd highest-scoring ace and one of the first jet aces. In early 1945 he was among the leaders of the “Fighter Pilots’ Revolt” against the incompetence of Luftwaffe high command and Reichs­marschall Göring in particular. Steinhoff was assigned during the final desperate weeks of the war to fly the Messerschmitt Me-262 jet with Jagdverband 44 (JV.44), Adolf Galland’s “Squad­ron of Experts.” On April 18, 1945, Steinhoff’s Me-262 crashed on takeoff, and the resulting fire left his face horribly disfigured. He spent two years after the war recovering in hospitals and undergoing reconstructive surgery. 

Johannes “Macky” Steinhoff (left) and American General William W. Momyer attend a joint NATO maneuver in 1969. (Photo by Karl Schnörrer/picture alliance via Getty Images)
Johannes “Macky” Steinhoff (left) and American General William W. Momyer attend a joint NATO maneuver in 1969. (Photo by Karl Schnörrer/picture alliance via Getty Images)

In 1955 Steinhoff joined the Bundesluftwaffe as a colonel. A skillful leader as well as an expert pilot, he rapidly rose in rank, commanding NATO’s Allied Air Forces Central Europe in 1965-66. Later in 1966, as a lieutenant general, he became the third inspector of the Bundesluft­waffe. His major challenge in his new assignment was dealing with the Starfighter crisis. Upon analyzing the problem, Steinhoff concluded that it was mainly due to inadequately focused pilot training on the F-104. He initiated an intensive training regime that dramatically reduced the accident rate. In 1971 Steinhoff was promoted to full general and appointed chairman of the NATO Military Committee, the organization’s senior military position. He was the second former Wehrmacht officer (after army general Adolf Heusinger) to hold that position.

Major Günther Rall was the third highest-scoring ace of all time. Rall served primarily with the famous Jagdgeschwader (Fighter Wing) 52 (JG.52) on the Eastern Front, achieving all but three of his 275 victories against the Red Air Force. Rall himself was shot down eight times during 621 combat missions. In the autumn of 1944, he was assigned as an instructor at the Luftwaffe training school for unit leaders. The program included flying captured Allied aircraft to learn their capabilities and deficiencies. In mock combat with Messerschmitt Me-109s, Rall flew the Supermarine Spitfire, Lockheed P-38 Lightning, Republic P-47 Thunderbolt and North American P-51 Mustang.

“I could really detect the tactical differences between the German, British and American planes,” he noted in Günther Rall: A Memoir. “This gave me the greatest respect for the P-51 Mustang and its extremely comfortable cockpit, good rear visibility, long range, maneuverability and electrical starting system. 

“The P-38 was a little strange because the control column was yoke-shaped instead of a stick. One very fascinating characteristic was the power ailerons that controlled the rolling movement of the aircraft. If you flicked a switch you could bank the plane with just one finger. 

“The Spitfire, too, was a very maneuverable aircraft, very good in the cockpit.”

Rall joined the Bundesluftwaffe in 1956 and was sent to the U.S. for advanced training on the most current high-performance aircraft. Promoted to brigadier general in the early 1960s, he worked with his close friend Steinhoff to develop the training program that resolved the difficulties with the F-104. Assigned command of Jagdbombergeschwader (Fighter-Bomber Wing) 34, he said, “Those were difficult first days because I had to motivate the pilots, try to figure out what was technically wrong with the planes, and keep peace among NATO members who were involved in the project.”

In 1971 Rall succeeded Steinhoff as inspector of the Bundesluftwaffe. In 1974 he became the German representative on the NATO Military Committee. The following year, however, he was forced to retire as a lieutenant general after he made a controversial visit to apartheid-governed South Africa.

Luftwaffe fighter pilot Captain Friedrich-Erich Obleser ended WWII with 117 confirmed victories, all scored in a 20-month period on the Eastern Front with JG.52. In November 1944 he was wounded when a Panzerfaust anti-tank rocket exploded in his hand, putting him out of combat for the rest of the war. After his release from American captivity he worked for a recycl­ing company scrapping German bombers.

Obleser joined the Bundesluftwaffe in 1956, and during the 1960s commanded both Jagd­bomber­geschwader 43 and 31. He later served on the air staff as systems officer for multirole combat aircraft. In 1978 he was appointed the sixth inspector of the Bundesluftwaffe, retiring in 1983 as a lieutenant general. Two years earlier, Obleser’s testimony before the German Bundestag’s Defense Committee had caused a stir and nearly resulted in his early retirement when he reported that projected defense budget cuts would leave the Bundesluftwaffe incapable of completely performing its assigned missions. 

Major Gerhard Barkhorn was history’s second highest-scoring ace, with 301 victories in 1,104 combat missions. He spent most of the war on the Eastern Front, flying alongside Rall and Erich Hartmann in JG.52. Barkhorn was well on his way to becoming the Luftwaffe’s leading ace when he was severely wounded in a May 1944 dogfight. During the four months he spent in the hospital, Hartmann surpassed his score. Barkhorn spent the final weeks of the war on the Western Front, flying an Me-262 in Galland’s JV.44. He crash-landed on April 21 while returning from his final mission. Taken prisoner by the Americans while still in the hospital, he was released in September 1945.

Barkhorn joined the Bundesluftwaffe in 1956, and initially commanded Jagdbombergeschwader 31. In 1963 he was posted to the Air Force Test Command. His final assignment was as chief of staff of NATO’s Second Allied Tactical Air Force. He retired in 1975 as a major general. Eight years later, one of history’s greatest fighter pilots was killed along with his wife in an automobile accident near Cologne.

Given today’s faster, more complex and far more lethal air-to-air combat environment, Major Erich Hartmann’s record of 352 victories during WWII will never be surpassed. In October 1942 the 20-year-old Hartmann was assigned to JG.52 on the Eastern Front, where he quickly started to run up his score. Flying an Me-109 with a distinctive “black tulip” paint scheme on its nose, he earned a reputation among the Soviets as the “Black Devil of the Ukraine.” On 15 different occasions he downed five or more opponents in a single day. On August 25, 1944, after his 300th and 301st victories, be became the 18th recipient (of only 27 total) of the Knight’s Cross with Diamonds. As commander of I Gruppe of JG.52, Hartmann surrendered his unit to the U.S. 90th Infantry Division, but the Americans later turned him over to the Soviets.

Hartmann was not a model prisoner. Refusing to cooperate with the Soviets, he was repeatedly placed in solitary confinement. At various times he went on hunger strikes and had to be force-fed. Charged as a war criminal, he was convicted in a classic Soviet show trial and sentenced to 25 years’ hard labor. In late 1955, still defiant, he was among the last of the surviving POWs released by the Soviet Union and allowed to return to Germany.

A German Tornado sees coalition action over Iraq in 2017. (U.S. Air Force)
A German Tornado sees coalition action over Iraq in 2017. (U.S. Air Force)

Hartmann joined the Bundesluftwaffe in 1956 and was appointed commander of the newly formed JG.71. Initially he flew the North American F-86 Sabre, its nose painted with his distinctive black tulip scheme. But Hartmann quickly acquired a reputation as a hothead among his peers. The 10 harsh years he spent in Soviet captivity could not have helped his general outlook. During that time Hartmann’s only son, whom he had never seen, died in early childhood. He was one of the very few Bundesluftwaffe senior leaders who had been handed over to the Soviets. Commenting on Hartmann’s attitude toward the Bundeswehr’s political generals, a former Luftwaffe officer who had been a POW with him in Russia said, “He doesn’t understand tact. He talks to them as if they were NKVD [Soviet interior ministry] officers, whose thinking processes have been addled by politics.”

During the Starfighter Affair, Hartmann broke ranks with many of his old comrades. While Stein­hoff, Rall, Barkhorn and others were arguing that better pilot training was the solution to the problem, Hartmann sided with Panitzki and condemned the aircraft as a poor design. As early as 1957 he had advised Kammhuber against acquiring the F-104 in the first place, urging, “We should not buy an aircraft we cannot handle.” After getting a chance to fly it in the U.S., however, he evidently had a change of heart. “I did not believe that the F-104 was a bad weapons system,” he said, “but rather that a human problem on our side would cause us grave troubles.” He thought “that our young pilots did not have the experience to change to such a complex weapons system.”

Eventually, Hartmann was branded as “a good pilot, but not a good officer.” He never reached the general officer ranks. The world’s leading fighter ace was forced into early retirement in 1970 as a colonel. In January 1997, more than three years after his death, the Russian Federation overturned his war crimes convictions and acquitted him of all charges.  

 

Maj. Gen. David T. Zabecki (U.S. Army, ret.) is HistoryNet’s chief military historian. For additional reading, see: Rearming Germany, edited by James S. Corum, and Wehrmacht Generals, West German Society, and the Debate on Rearmament, 1949-1959, by Alaric Searle.

This feature originally appeared in the March 2020 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe click here!