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When historians speak of pilots and the history of air combat, certain names invariably come up sooner or later–Manfred von Richthofen, Edward Mannock, René Fonck, Erich Hartmann, Alexander Pokryshkin, Johnny Johnson, Dick Bong… and Adolf Galland. Galland was the youngest general grade officer of either side in World War II, and at age 29 he was more competent in aerial combat, strategy and tactics than many of the experts nearly twice his age. Galland fought a hard battle against his superiors on the ground, which made the danger in the air inviting, almost welcome. Adolf Hitler and Luftwaffe Chief Hermann Göring, who were always trying to find fault and place the blame on others for their own failures, began pointing fingers at the fighter pilots. Was it not they who failed to stop the death and destruction delivered by Allied bombers? Was it not the fighter pilots who demanded more of the resources and new technology, yet produced the least results? Göring betrayed his pilots and publicly denounced them as cowards, provoking the Fighters’ Revolt in January 1945.

Galland, well known and admired by his enemies across the English Channel as an honorable and chivalrous foe, found an enemy he could not vanquish. The consummate warrior was engaged in heated battle with absolutist politicians and demagogues, who considered honor and chivalry a weakness. He eventually returned to where he had risen, the cockpit of a fighter plane, but as a lieutenant general leading a squadron. As a fighter pilot he was credited with 104 aerial victories.

Galland survived the political intrigues and combat of both the Spanish Civil War and World War II, only to find himself in South America working for Argentinian dictator Juan Perón, who at least appreciated his expert knowledge and relied on his honesty.

A holder of the Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds, Galland died in 1995 at the age of 83. He granted this interview in 1994.

WWII: General, please describe your childhood and family life.

Galland: I was born in Westerholt, a small village in Westphalia on March 19, 1912, so I am now 81 years old. I was the second son, Fritz being the oldest, then myself, Wilhelm and Paul. My father was an administrator of private lands and properties, and he was very fair, but harsh. We had the best mother in the world, and during the war she used to pray for fog to cover our bases so we could not fly.

WWII: Two of your brothers were combat pilots–which ones were they?

Galland: Yes, that would be Wilhelm and Paul, the youngest. Paul was the first to die in combat, shot down and killed in 1942, and Wilhelm was killed a year later. Paul had 17 victories, and Wilhelm had 54 and the Knight’s Cross. Fritz was an attorney.

WWII: What developed your interest in flying?

Galland: Right from the beginning, as a boy, my greatest interest had always been flying. I started building models of aircraft when I was 12 years old, and when I was 16 I flew in gliders. Over the course of the next three years I became a successful glider pilot, my entire purpose being to study and become a commercial airline pilot. However, my father was not very enthusiastic about this idea at all. This was my dream since 1925, and he had no understanding of my dream.

WWII: How did you become a founding member of the Condor Legion, the German pilots who flew for General Francisco Franco’s forces (Nationalists) during the Spanish Civil War?

Galland: After one year of training as a commercial pilot I was strongly ‘invited’ to join the ‘Black Air Force’ (the clandestine air force Germany was training prior to Adolf Hitler’s rise to power). This was in the remarkable year of 1933, and I already had my first pilot’s license. My coinciding training as a fighter pilot helped immensely with the commercial pilot’s courses, but by 1937 I had already become a ‘volunteer’ in the Condor Legion. This activity was liked very much by all of the young fighter pilots. I did have a small problem after a crash in a Focke-Wulf Fw-44 biplane in 1935 while in training, and a colleague, future Luftwaffe ace Dieter Hrabak, had one the following week due to bad weather. I had modified the plane beyond normal limits and slammed into the ground. Everyone thought I was dead, and I was in a coma for three days. My parents came and stayed with me until I came out of it. I had serious skull fractures, a broken nose, which never looked the same again, and I was partially blinded in my left eye from glass fragments, so I still had to pass the physical. My CO (commanding officer), Major Rheitel, a flier from the First World War, assisted me in my goal to return to flying. So, I continued to fly, but a year later I crashed an Arado Ar-68 and again went into the hospital, where they pulled my old file stating that I was grounded. Well, with many days in the hospital again I memorized every letter and number in every possible sequence on the eye chart for my next examination. You know, to this day I still have some of the glass from the first crash in my eye.

WWII: When did you get to Spain?

Galland: We left for Spain with the Union Travel Society, ostensibly bound for Genoa on a tramp steamer. After 12 days we arrived in El Ferrol on May 7, 1937. I had been to Spain before with Lufthansa and looked forward to returning. In our group of men there were many future aces and leaders fighting for Franco’s Nationalists, such as Hannes Trautloft, Wilhelm Balthasar, Günther Lützow, Eduard Neumann and Hajo Herrmann, who flew Junkers Ju-52s. I became a squadron leader in the Legion Fighter Group, and we were equipped with Heinkel He-51 biplanes. Lützow commanded a squadron of the new Messerschmitt Bf-109Bs.

WWII: What was the Condor Legion’s strength in Spain?

Galland: Only four squadrons each of fighters and bombers and a reconnaissance squadron. We had four heavy and two light AA batteries, and signals units, but we never exceeded around 5,600 men. Generalleutnant Hugo Sperrle was the first CO of the Legion in Spain, and he personally led a flight of bombers against ships at Cartagena.

WWII: What was your first engagement in Spain?

Galland: Brunete, where we sent every plane we had against the Republican forces in July 1937. The Madrid front was controlled by the Communists, equipped with modern fighters–Russian Polikarpov I-16 Ratas. We bombed and strafed and engaged Loyalist fighters while our artillery pounded their ground positions. Finally we won, and Franco’s forces were safe from a disastrous defeat. We also performed dive-bombing missions and created new tactics in ground support.

Galland: I was awarded the Spanish Cross in Gold with Diamonds, only awarded 12 times in Spanish history.

WWII: After Spain, you and Mölders began creating the fighter arm in Germany. How did that go?

Galland: Mölders and I were the first fighter leaders of the new age, appointed as wing Kommodores. Mölders very much liked having that distinction from the beginning. As for myself, I was unhappy because I wanted to be a fighter pilot. However, that was the order and we had to follow it.

WWII: Tell us about the beginning of World War II. What was your first combat assignment?

Galland: I flew in Poland in the Henschel Hs-123, performing ground-attack missions and proving the dive-bombing concept, until October 1, 1939. That was when I won the Iron Cross. Then I was assigned to Jagdgeschwader (fighter wing) 27 (JG.27) under Oberst Max Ibel, which I did not like, as it did not allow for much combat flying. I did get away every now and then, however, and this was during the French invasion. I finally got my first kill on May 12, 1940, when Gustav Roedel and I went on a mission. I shot down two Hawker Hurricanes on two missions. I had about a dozen victories by the end of the French campaign.

WWII: What was your next arena?

Galland: Oh, the Battle of Britain, of course! That was a tough fight, where I was assigned to JG.26 Schlageter. I became Gruppenkommandeur of III/JG.26 and shot down two fighters in my first mission with them. I was promoted to Major on July 18 and received the Ritterkreuz (Knights Cross) on August 22, 1940, for my 17th victory. I then succeeded Gotthard Handrick as Kommodore of JG.26 and received the Oak Leaves from Hitler on September 25 for my 40th victory. On November 1, I scored my 50th kill and was promoted to Oberstleutnant (lieutenant colonel). In December I became a full colonel.

WWII: What was the real story behind the Mickey Mouse insignia painted on the fuselage of your fighter plane?

Galland: We started this in Spain, and when I painted it on my Me-109E in JG.26 it was holding a hatchet and smoking a cigar, which I loved. But after the war I had to give cigars up.

WWII: Is it true that you had the only cigar lighter­equipped Messerschmitt in the entire Luftwaffe?

Galland: I think so, plus a holder for it if I was on oxygen. It created quite a controversy, I can tell you.

WWII: Describe the first time you were shot down, General.

Galland: This was on June 21, 1941, when JG.26 was stationed at Pas de Calais. We had attacked some Bristol Blenheim bombers and I shot down two, but some Supermarine Spitfires were on me and they shot my plane up. I had to belly-land in a field until picked up later, and I went on another mission after lunch. On this mission I shot down number 70, but I did something stupid. I was following the burning Spitfire down when I was bounced and shot up badly. My plane was on fire, and I was wounded. 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 had opened it and almost cleared the 109 when my parachute harness became entangled on the radio aerial. I fought it with everything I had until I finally broke free, my parachute opening just as I hit the ground. I was bleeding from my head and arm, plus I had damaged my ankle on landing. I was taken to safety by some Frenchmen.

WWII: You survived being shot down twice in one day. How did it affect you?

Galland: I was worried that my wounds might ground me for a long time–that was my greatest concern, not to mention I had lost two airplanes.

WWII: Tell us the story of your friendship with the legless British ace, Wing Commander Douglas Bader.

Galland: He was shot down during a dogfight on August 9. One of his artificial legs was left in the Spitfire when he bailed out, and the other was smashed after he landed. I made a request through the International Red Cross, and the British were offered safe passage for the plane to drop replacement artificial legs. Well, they dropped them after they bombed my air base. Bader was fitted and sent to a prison camp. We remained friends until his death a few years ago.

WWII: How did you become General der Jagdflieger (‘general of fighters’) in 1941?

Galland: Ernst Udet had committed suicide on November 17 of that year, and Werner Mölders was coming back from Russia for the funeral. His Heinkel He-111 struck some telephone wires, and he was killed in the crash. At the time of his death he was acting as general of fighters, holding the rank of Oberst (colonel). After the funeral of both men, Göring called me aside and made me Mölders’ successor, still as a colonel. This was possible in the German military, but not so in your country’s armed forces. Gerhard Schoepfel became Kommodore of my JG.26, and I went to Berlin. I had already been awarded the Swords to the Knight’s Cross, and upon my arrival in January 28, 1942, I saw Hitler for the third time when he awarded me the Brillanten (Diamonds).

WWII: You commanded the fighter cover for the famous Channel dash by the battle cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen in February 1942. How did that work?

Galland: I organized a rotation of various fighter wings to fly top cover for the ships, an air umbrella to protect them from British air attacks. There was some damage from mines, but the Luftwaffe fighters shot down many British planes, and not a single major hit was made on the warships. That was a great success story that made me proud.

WWII: So you were still placed in a desk job?

Galland: Yes, and later in 1942 I was promoted to General, then General Leutnant when I was 30 1/2 years old.

WWII: That is remarkable.

Galland: Yes, but I was still unhappy about it. I would have rather continued flying.

WWII: Well, most of the pilots believed that your appointment as general of fighters was the best thing that could have happened to the Luftwaffe, except perhaps if Göring could have been dismissed.

Galland: Well, it was a big responsibility, and you could never get what you needed. Our fighter force was small, and we received no understanding from Göring.

WWII: Speaking of Göring, you had the most contact with him of all the pilots, and you understood his problems. What did you think of him personally?

Galland: Yes, he had many problems, but he was basically an intelligent man and well educated, from the aristocracy. He had many weak points in his life, and he was always under pressure from Hitler, yet he never contradicted him or corrected him on any point. That was where he made his greatest mistakes. This weakness increased as the war dragged on, along with his drug addiction, until he was nothing. As far as our Luftwaffe was concerned, he was even less and should have been replaced.

WWII: Isn’t it true that regardless of Göring’s position the fighter pilots looked to you for leadership most of the time?

Galland: Yes, that was true.

WWII: What were your impressions of Hitler, since you spent months in his company and knew him very well.

Galland: Yes, I did spend months around him, speaking and having meetings, but I don’t think anyone ever really knew Adolf Hitler. I was not very impressed with him. The first time I met him was after Spain when we were summoned to the Reichschancellery. There was Hitler, short, gray-faced and not very strong, and he spoke with a crisp language. He did not allow us to smoke, nor did he offer us anything to drink, nothing like that. This impression was strengthened every year I knew him as his mistakes mounted and cost German lives, the mistakes that Göring should have brought to his attention. Other officers did, and they were relieved, but at least they did the right thing and voiced their objections. For Göring to willingly follow along was a terrible situation for me personally.

WWII: So you feel Hitler should have replaced Göring as head of the Luftwaffe long before things became terminal?

Galland: Sure, if Hitler cared, but who would take Göring’s place and stand up to Hitler, to do what was right? People were not lining up for the job, I can tell you. Hitler was unable to think in three dimensions, and he had a very poor understanding when it came to the Luftwaffe ,as with the U-boat service. He was strictly a landsman.

WWII: Well, of all the men you led and are friends with today, are there any who simply stood out as great leaders apart from their records as aces?

Galland: Oh, my, that would be a long list, and you also know most of them. Of all the names you could mention, I think perhaps the greatest leader was still Mölders. All the rest are still very good friends of mine, but we are old men now, and life is not as fast as it was in the cockpit. However, as their leader I also made many mistakes. I could have done better. I was young and inexperienced with life, I guess. It is very easy to look back retrospectively and criticize yourself; however, at that time it was very difficult. My situation was that I had to fight with Göring and Hitler in order to accomplish what they wished, but without their support, if that makes any sense. Göring was a thorn in my side, and Hitler simply destroyed our country and others without any regard for the welfare of others.

WWII: What led to the Fighters’ Revolt in January 1945?

Galland: Basically, it was the problems we were having with Göring, and the fact that he was blaming us, the fighter pilots, for the bombings and the losing of the war. All of the senior Kommodores brought their grievances to me, and we chose a spokesman to represent them. I sat on the panel and arranged for the meeting with Göring.

WWII: Your spokesman was Günther Lützow?

Galland: Yes, Lützow was a great leader and a true knight, a gentleman. When they all sat down with Göring, he told Göring that if he interrupted, which he always did so that he could show his importance, nothing would get accomplished. Lützow, Johannes Steinhoff and myself had voiced our grievances many times, but since I was not invited to this meeting, Hannes Trautloft along with Lützow kept me informed as to their recommending that Göring step down for the good of the service. Well, I was fired as general of fighters, Steinhoff was banished from Germany and sent to Italy, and Göring told Lützow that he was going to be shot for high treason.

WWII: What was the atmosphere like, and what were the Kommodores’ opinions of the meeting?

Galland: Well, Göring knew that he did not have their loyalty, and we knew that we could not count on Berlin doing anything to help us, so we were alone, as we always were. At least now it was in the open, no pretenses.

WWII: What do you recall about the death of ace Walter Nowotny, and do you feel that his death had any impact on Germany’s Messerschmitt Me-262 jet fighter program?

Galland: I had been telling Hitler for over a year, since my first flight in an Me-262, that only Focke Wulf Fw-190 fighter production should continue in conventional aircraft, to discontinue the Me-109, which was outdated, and to focus on building a massive jet-fighter force. I was in East Prussia for a preview of the jet, which was fantastic, a totally new development. This was 1943, and I was there with Professor Willy Messerschmitt and other engineers responsible for the development. The fighter was almost ready for mass production at that time, and Hitler wanted to see a demonstration. When the 262 was brought out for his viewing at Insterburg, and I was standing there next to him, Hitler was very impressed. He asked the professor, ‘Is this aircraft able to carry bombs?’ Well, Messerschmitt said, ‘Yes, my Führer, it can carry for sure a 250-kilogram bomb, perhaps two of them.’ In typical Hitler fashion, he said ‘Well, nobody thought of this! This is the Blitz (lightning) bomber I have been requesting for years. No one thought of this. I order that this 262 be used exclusively as a Blitz bomber, and you, Messerschmitt, have to make all the necessary preparations to make this feasible.’ This was really the beginning of the misuse of the 262, as five bomber wings were supposed to be equipped with the jet. These bomber pilots had no fighter experience, such as combat flying or shooting, which is why so many were shot down. They could only escape by outrunning the fighters in pursuit. This was the greatest mistake surrounding the 262, and I believe the 262 could have been made operational as a fighter at least a year and a half earlier and built in large enough numbers so that it could have changed the air war. It would most certainly not have changed the final outcome of the war, for we had already lost completely, but it would have probably delayed the end, since the Normandy invasion on June 6, 1944, would probably not have taken place, at least not successfully if the 262 had been operational. I certainly think that just 300 jets flown daily by the best fighter pilots would have had a major impact on the course of the air war. This would have, of course, prolonged the war, so perhaps Hitler’s misuse of this aircraft was not such a bad thing after all. But about Nowotny….

WWII: Yes, how did you come to choose him as commander of the first jet-fighter wing in history?

Galland: I was looking for the right type of pilot, someone daring and successful who could lead by example of his courage and determination, and Walter Nowotny had all of these qualities. The jet was being tested by some pilots at Achmer and other places, so after Walter finished as an instructor at the fighter pilots school in France, he was detailed to take over the jets and train pilots. We wanted to prove to Hitler that the jet was indeed a fighter, and to show what we believed would be the best results possible. This unit became known as Kommando Nowotny in July of 1944.

WWII: What were the initial results?

Galland: Fairly good. They had shot down a few bombers, and losses had been minimal, as long as top cover was flown by conventional aircraft to protect the jets on takeoffs and landings. American fighters would hang around to try and catch them at those weak moments.

WWII: What brought you to Achmer on November 8?

Galland: I arrived on that day to inspect the unit and write a report, plus I spoke with Nowotny that evening, and he was going to give me his pilots’ reports concerning their actions. The next day, a flight of B-17 bombers was reported heading our way, so the unit took off, about six jets, if I remember correctly, in the first wave, then another. The Fw-190Ds were waiting on the runway to take off and cover their return, engaging the Allied fighters that were sure to follow. I was in the operations shack, where we monitored the radio transmissions and could get an idea of what was happening. Several bombers were called out as shot down, and Nowotny radioed that he was approaching. The flight leader on the ground, Hans Dortenmann, requested permission to take off to assist, but Nowotny said no, to wait. The defensive anti-aircraft battery opened fire on a few (North American P-51) Mustangs that approached the field, but they were chased away, from what I could understand, and the jets were coming in. One Me-262 had been shot down, and Nowotny reported one of his engines was damaged. He was flying on the right engine alone, which made him vulnerable. I stepped outside to watch his approach to the field, when an enemy fighter pulled away not far from us. I heard the sound of a jet engine, and we saw this 262 coming down through the light clouds at low altitude, rolling slightly and then hitting the ground. The explosions rocked the air, and only a column of black smoke rose from behind the trees. We took off in a car and reached the wreckage, and it was Nowotny’s plane. After sifting through the wreckage, the only salvageable things found were his left hand and pieces of his Diamonds decoration.

WWII: What impact did that have on the progress report to Hitler concerning the jet fighters?

Galland: Hitler, from what I understand, was upset about his loss, but I don’t think he really said anything about it to me. Well, the remains of that unit went to form JG.7, commanded by our friend Johannes Steinhoff. Steinhoff recruited other great aces to command the various groups.

WWII: After you were fired as general of fighters, you were replaced by a man whom the fighter pilots did not respect, correct?

Galland: Yes, Gordon Gollob, and he was not well liked. Although he was a good pilot, with the Diamonds, he had no character. He was not Göring’s first choice. Hajo Herrmann was being considered, and he would have been a better selection. When I was released as general of fighters, Göring was preparing a coup against me, and when Hitler learned of this he ordered Göring to stop the actions against me. Hitler ordered my replacement but allowed me to form my own 262 unit, basically allowing me to keep my rank but reducing my responsibilities.

WWII: How did you feel about once again becoming a squadron leader, where you started?

Galland: I was happy. I then chose all the pilots I could find who would join me, and all had the Knight’s Cross or higher decorations. This was the beginning of March 1945, when I created Jagdverband 44. I made Steinhoff my recruiting officer, and he traveled to all of the major bases, picking up pilots who wanted to once again feel a sense of adventure. We had most of the greats, like Gerd Barkhorn, Walter Krupinski, Heinz Bär, Erich Hohagen, Günther Lützow, Wilhelm Herget and others. I tried to get Erich Hartmann. We flew several missions and were very successful using the R4M rockets, which we fired at bomber formations. During my first attack with rockets, Krupinski was on my wing, and we witnessed the power in these rockets. I shot down two Martin B-26 Marauders.

WWII: Tell us about April 26. That was your last combat flight wasn’t it?

Galland: Yes, I was shot down by a Republic P-47D flown by a man named James Finnegan, whom I met some years later, and we became friends. We were intercepting bombers near Neuberg. I was leading a flight, and I attacked from the rear, astern. My rockets did not fire, but I poured 30mm cannon shells into one bomber, which fell in flames, and flew right through the formation, hitting another. I could not tell if that bomber was finished off, so I banked around for another run, all the while my jet was receiving hits from the bombers’ defensive fire. Suddenly my instrument panel disintegrated, my canopy was shattered, and my right knee was struck. I was losing power and was in great pain. I thought about parachuting out but realized that might be dangerous, as some of our pilots had been strafed upon exiting their jets. I flew for the deck and headed for this field at the air base, which was under attack. I cut the power to my good engine and thumped across the field. My nose wheel had been flattened, and smoke was pouring from my plane. I climbed out to get away, in case it should explode, only to find aircraft dropping bombs and firing rockets at me. Well, our mission netted five victories total, and none of the pilots were killed. From that point forward, Bär took operational command, and every unit in Germany with jets began bringing them to us at Reim airfield, near Munich. For such a long time I had been begging for planes. Now that the war was almost over I had more planes than men to fly them.

WWII: You were there when Steinhoff crashed. What do you remember of that?

Galland: Five of us–myself, Barkhorn, Schallmoser, Faehrmann and Klaus Neumann–were taking off on a mission shortly after our base had been attacked, and Steinhoff’s 262 hit a crater made from a bomb. His jet lifted into the air but without sufficient takeoff speed, then he nosed in and exploded. We returned to base to find him carried to the hospital more dead than alive. The fact he survived is the most incredible thing, and I am glad he did, for he is one of my closest friends today.

WWII: After you were captured and released from prison, you went to Argentina with other aviation experts. How did that happen?

Galland: Juan Perón was wanting German experts to build his air force, and I was asked to come along with others. I went and established a training and operations school, developed their tactical training program, and was able to fly again in some of the new designs purchased by Argentina. I really loved that period. It was one of the happiest of my life. Kurt Tank (designer of the Focke Wulf 190 series of fighters) came, and he was the one who convinced President Perón to bring me over. I did that until 1955, when I returned to Germany and entered the business world, consulting and getting my life together.

WWII: As you probably know, the Argentine air forces were still using much of your strategy and doctrine as late as the Falklands War, with great effect.

Galland: Yes, they lost the war, but they had the best success in the air. They were bright young boys, willing to learn and quick to grasp the essentials of air combat.

WWII: Tell us about your children.

Galland: I have two–a son, Andreas-Hubertus, whom we call Andrus, combining the two names; and Alexandra, my daughter, two years younger than her brother and a very sweet girl. Both are from my first marriage. Andreas-Hubertus just recently married and is studying to become a lawyer, while Alexandra goes to school and studies languages. They are the sunshine of my life.

This article was written by Colin D. Heaton and originally appeared in the January 1997 issue of World War II. For more great articles be sure to pick up your copy of World War II.