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This World War II German ace led the Luftwaffe Fighter Force against the massive Allied air armadas.


German Luftwaffe 26th Fighter Wing commander Adolf Galland, in aerial combat with a large British fighter formation over the English Channel, watched as his 70th “kill” of World War II spiraled to a flaming crash. Suddenly, Royal Air Force (RAF) Spitfires rolled in on the tail of Galland’s Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighter and began blazing away. Within moments, the right side of the Messerschmitt’s fuselage was ripped open, the plane’s  fuel tank and radiator were leaking heavily, and Galland’s arm and head were bleeding. The gas tank then exploded, engulfing the fuselage in flames and flooding the cockpit with burning petrol.

Attempting to escape the doomed aircraft, Galland tried to activate the canopy release but found it jammed. He then shoved against the roof of the plane with his whole body, but air pressure held it down. With flames licking all around him, he desperately made a last effort, finally pushing up the canopy until it was torn away by the airstream. But Galland was not yet out of danger. As he exited the burning deathtrap, his parachute pack snagged on a fixed component of the cockpit. He struggled until he broke loose, and soon he was freefalling.

Amid the excitement and relief at being freed, Galland nearly made a fatal mistake – he tried to pull his parachute harness quick release instead of the ripcord. Finally, he jerked the ripcord and was soon swinging beneath an open parachute floating to earth. After landing on solid ground, battered but safe on the German-occupied side of the Channel in France, Galland was able to hitch a ride back to his airfield. In the wake of his near-death ordeal, he recalled: “After I had drunk an extra large cognac and smoked a cigarette I felt much better.”

From September 1939 through April 1945, Adolf Galland flew 705 missions and claimed 104 victories in aerial combat against Western Allied aircraft. His June 21, 1941, brush with death was likely the closest he came to being killed in the four times he was shot down during World War II. Yet Galland did not die in the flaming wreckage of his shattered aircraft that day. Five months later, Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring appointed him “general der Jagdflieger,” commander of the Luftwaffe Fighter Force. But even Galland’s exceptional leadership abilities proved insufficient to defeat the massive Allied air armadas that were pummeling Germany’s cities and war industries.


Adolf Joseph Ferdinand Galland was born March 19, 1912, to Adolf and Anna Galland near Essen, Germany. From an early age, Adolf showed an interest in mechanical sets and wooden airplane models. He later recalled that he experienced his first desire to fly when he was a teenager in the spring of 1927 and saw glider enthusiasts in a nearby town. He read about aerodynamics and meteorology and then obtained his glider pilot certification after graduating from high school.

Galland informed his father that he wanted to become a professional pilot. In 1932, he qualified for a competitive student position in the German Commercial Flying School. The following summer, Galland became certified to fly a single-engine aircraft with three passengers. Sent to aerobatic school, he learned the techniques of inverted flight, rolls, loops, steep dives and complex maneuvers for which his glider background proved invaluable.

While visiting the Central Airline Pilot School in Berlin, Galland was told by officials dressed in civilian clothes about Germany’s secret training program for military pilots – in contravention of the Versailles Treaty. The treaty, which ended World War I, had forbidden Germany to build, own or operate military aircraft, but its protocols allowed the country to develop civil aviation. Invited to volunteer, Galland joined the clandestine military training effort.


After the Nazi Party gained increasing strength in Germany’s government, Adolf Hitler was appointed chancellor in January 1933. Although Galland was little interested in politics, he supported Hitler’s plans to create a strong military air force. In April, Hermann Göring became Reich commissioner for aviation. Galland traveled to Italy for training with the Italian Air force to practice inverted flight, air-to-ground strafing and military drills. After the two-month course, he returned to Germany as a Lufthansa airline pilot. But in December 1933, he joined the emerging German air force as a commissioned officer. His military training began at an infantry basic training course, followed by Infantry School for officers and study of air combat theory at the War Academy. In 1934, Galland, along with all members of the German military, swore an oath of unconditional obedience to the führer, Adolf Hitler.

In February 1935, Hitler established the Reichsluftwaffe, the German military air arm separate from the army and navy. The fledgling Luftwaffe began equipping itself with modern combat aircraft and cultivating new aircrews, but there was little time to grow experienced aviators for middle and senior leadership positions. The Luftwaffe’s senior commanders trained for “the last war” (World War I), promoted officers based on their army experience, and shaped the Luftwaffe to support army tactical operations rather than developing concepts for strategic bombers and independent fighter operations.

Assigned to the Luftwaffe’s first fighter unit, Galland thrived on high-speed maneuvers and low-altitude aerobatics. In October 1935, he crashed a biplane, resulting in a three-day coma and a damaged eye and fractured skull. A year later, a second training crash aggravated his injured eye. But despite having glass fragments in his eye, Galland convinced the doctors who wanted to ground him that he was fit to fly.

In July 1936, as civil war broke out between Spain’s Republican loyalist government and General Francisco Franco’s Nationalist rebels, the Nationalists appealed to Germany for military support. Luftwaffe “volunteers” were sent to Spain to fight on Franco’s side. In April 1937, Galland joined Fighter Group 88 in the Luftwaffe Condor Legion. Arriving after the Condor Legion’s shocking bombing of Guernica, he became part of a fighter unit escorting bombers and conducting ground-strafing missions against Republican heavy anti-aircraft guns. The new air warfare brought evolving tactics, providing Galland valuable experience to observe and evaluate new methods. He learned to improvise during combat: Encountering difficulty when attacking tenacious defenders in trenches, he substituted his bombs with a tankful of petrol fitted with a detonator.

Early on, Galland proved an extremely competent and courageous pilot. He emphasized detail and routinely checked the condition of his aircraft and its armament, heeding the warning of legendary German World War I ace Manfred von Richthofen, who said that “no gun jams itself.” Galland remained in Spain for a year, flying 280 sorties over enemy territory and receiving the Spanish Gold Cross with Swords and Diamonds.

In the summer of 1938, Galland was a staff officer in the Ministry of Aviation working contingency plans for war against Czechoslovakia. Relying on his Spanish experience, he prepared recommendations for close air support of ground troops that left the enemy no respite for recovery. In late 1938, he escaped staff duty with reassignment to a fighter unit before Germany’s occupation of Czechoslovakia became a peaceful exercise of the invasion plan.


Despite British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s public announcement of Britain’s military support for Poland’s independence, Hitler launched the invasion of Poland, precipitating the outbreak of World War II in Europe. On September 1, 1939, Galland flew in support of 10th Army with the mission to cut off Polish armies in the north. His echelon of Henschels bombed troop concentrations and supply dumps and strafed traffic on roads, supporting General Heinz Guderian’s XVI Panzer Corps race for the Vistula River.

Galland flew 87 combat missions, leading close support for fastmoving armored battles. He was a demanding commander who led from the front, and his reputation for maneuvering an airplane beyond its performance standard grew. In recognition of his bravery and outstanding leadership, he was awarded the Iron Cross 2d Class. After the Polish campaign, Galland requested transfer from ground support – which he disliked – to a fighter pilot role. On February 10, 1940, he was assigned to 27th Fighter Wing (JG-27).

While Hitler schemed to close British access to the Baltic Sea and secure Scandinavia, Galland assumed position as the fighter wing’s operations officer, working pilot and ground crew rosters, logistical support, intelligence reports, communications and operational briefings. On April 9, 1940, German airborne troops flew into airfields in Denmark and Norway, securing them for Luftwaffe use. JG-27 actions became hectic as operational aircraft took off, landed, turned around and launched again. Since Galland had not yet shot down an aircraft, he found a way to join a fighter patrol. Engaging eight British Hurricane fighters with the patrol, he personally shot down two of the enemy planes. In a second patrol, he scored his third victory. With the sector cleared of enemy fighters, the unit switched back to escorting Stuka dive-bombers.

Germany next invaded France through the Ardennes in May 1940. The operational demands to move men, materiel and aircraft behind advancing armies while keeping fueled and armed planes in the air prevented Galland from routinely patrolling. Nevertheless, he soon scored his eighth kill and was awarded the Iron Cross 1st Class.

The most formidable foes encountered by German fighter pilots were the RAF Spitfires covering the British evacuation of Dunkirk in late May and early June 1940. Galland joined the sorties flying over Dunkirk, where he fought Spitfires for the first time. He was impressed with the planes and greatly respected the skill and bravery of their British pilots. Yet as his number of personal victories rose, he came to believe that Bf 109 fighters had an edge over Spitfires. His hallmark in a Bf 109 was a high-speed dive to escape a dangerous situation or to gain a close combat advantage. Few pilots could stay with him in a dive since the Bf 109 was notorious for stripping off its wings in highspeed dives and maneuvers. Other pilots recalled Galland’s unique sequence of several separate maneuvers (based on his glider and aerobatic experience) that gave him the advantage over opponents.

After Dunkirk, on June 6, 1940, Galland became commander of III Group, JG-26. He quickly raised the standard of his new command, which had a poor reputation. He led by example, demanding bold, aggressive flying, and his pilots had to be good enough to follow him. They learned to trust him to enter battle at the right time and the right place.

Galland’s fighters escorted bombers and dive-bombers in the offensive to conquer the remainder of France. Yet Galland was frustrated when the bombers’ late arrival for rendezvous forced his Bf 109s to burn too much fuel and leave before the end of the missions. His main concern was keeping a high percentage of his group in the air. Pilot losses kept his unit understrength, and the combat tempo drained supplies and spare aircraft, playing havoc with routine servicing, which quickly grounded aircraft. Galland always sought ways to improve operational efficiency, and he proved adept at the task: After the campaign, he brought his group to full strength of 39 aircraft and 39 pilots in two weeks.


During July 1940, the Luftwaffe escalated cross-Channel bomber attacks on shipping, ports and ground installations in preparation for a projected invasion of Britain. The effort sparked the July-December 1940 Battle of Britain – the first campaign fought entirely by opposing air forces. Galland, newly promoted to major, moved his units to the Pas de Calais area. On August 1, he received the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross for his 17th confirmed victory.

On August 12, Galland was ordered to escort the second of two waves of fighter-bombers sent to hit separate convoys off the Kent coast in southeastern England. The first bomber wave successfully struck its target but also alerted RAF fighter defenses. As the second wave headed for its assigned target, British fighters pounced. Galland had taught his pilots to attack fast and act decisively – and they did. His group tore into the enemy fighters, and in the swirling aerial combat that followed he saw a marked improvement in his men’s performance.

Galland believed that to be most effective in an escort mission, fighters should fly “detached escort” – ahead of bombers and slightly higher than enemy fighters – and his tactics worked well. However, heavy Luftwaffe losses in the first phase of the Battle of Britain (350 German aircraft lost in six days compared to the RAF’s 250 planes) led Göring to dictate tactics in which he fettered fighters closely to bomber formations. While fighters were now directly allocated to bombers, Galland launched additional escorts to cover returning bombers so that fighters gained more combat freedom.

Although the Bf 109 flew faster and higher than the British Spitfire and could dive and fly inverted without its engine cutting out, the Spitfire had a better turning radius at the lower speeds and altitudes flown by bombers. During a front-line briefing on Luftwaffe tactics, Göring asked what his pilots needed to win the Battle of Britain. Galland’s sharp-tongued reply: “I should like an outfit of Spitfires for my squadron.”

Despite the two men’s tactical differences, Göring awarded Galland the prestigious Pilot’s Badge in Gold with Diamonds in recognition of his distinguished service. In a private meeting, however, Göring insisted that a lack of fighter aggression accounted for the high number of lost bombers. Nevertheless, he promoted the 28-year-old Galland to command 26th Fighter Wing (JG-26), consisting of nine squadrons and 100 pilots. Galland protested that he would be more useful in his current position, in which he had direct control and led his pilots, but Göring dismissed his objections.

Galland rose to the challenge of his new position, reorganizing JG- 26 and promoting talented pilots to command positions. He also visited every airfield and met not only pilots and operations staff but also mechanics, cooks, clerks and truck drivers.

An RAF bomber raid on Berlin on the night of August 28-29, 1940, infuriated Hitler and Göring (who had proclaimed German air space secure). Hitler ordered German attacks extended to British cities and increased the production of 2,220-pound high-explosive bombs specifically designed to destroy buildings. On September 7, the Luftwaffe launched its biggest raid, almost 1,000 aircraft, targeting London. Galland never forgot the sight of the sprawling capital burning beneath the evening sky, and he thought of the consequences for German cities.

Galland continued to challenge the “close escort” missions that sapped the capability of his Bf 109s. Göring, however, insisted the duty of fighters was to support bombers closely. He considered the young wing commander impertinent and told Galland that while he admired his flair for combat, his personal victory log was of secondary importance to the overall offensive against Britain.

By December 1940, the Battle of Britain had ended and the RAF had defeated the Luftwaffe decisively. Germany’s air effort settled into night raids and attacks against shipping. Galland nevertheless sought tactical air combat lessons from the experience, particularly those he would apply to his greatest challenge of the war – opposing the Allied strategic bombing of Germany.

For bravery during the Battle of Britain and for a 70th victory, Galland received the swords to his oak leaves of the Knight’s Cross. He was the first of only 159 individuals to receive the honor.


In November 1941, Göring appointed Galland “general der Jagdflieger,” overall commander of the Luftwaffe Fighter Force. Although Galland was now forbidden to fly combat missions, he violated this restriction in order to familiarize himself with all German fighters and to engage U.S. bombers. He also fought “battles” with Luftwaffe leadership, struggling against counterproductive “group think” among the general staff and sparring with arrogant staff officers who stayed out of touch with reality in the safety of rear-area headquarters.

Galland quickly realized that aircraft availability was the key issue impacting the Luftwaffe’s effectiveness. He closely studied reports and data on loss levels and found them appalling: In 1941, the number of aircraft written off by the Luftwaffe was equal to its entire authorized strength for that period. Worse, Galland discovered that 53 percent of the written-off fighters were not lost to enemy action.

Supplying the front lines became a logistical nightmare as the Luftwaffe endeavored to provide air support to German forces fighting on multiple fronts. On the Eastern Front, for example, Galland discovered several hundred aircraft in Russia sitting idle while awaiting spare and replacement parts. With a shortfall in fighter production and an ineffective supply chain to maintain existing aircraft, Galland constantly grappled with the Nazi war machine’s fantasies that were portrayed as reality by out-of-touch higher staffs.

Galland grasped that shortages in resources and forces undermined front-line troops and crippled operations. After a trip to North Africa, he wrote a candid assessment of the situation, concluding that without the necessary resources the North African campaign was already lost. Galland’s report gained him no friends in the higher command; in fact, Göring ordered him to sanitize the report and rewrite it. In May 1943, the Germans lost North Africa, as Galland had predicted.

In 1943, Allied air forces greatly increased their full-scale strategic bombardment of Germany in an offensive that melded RAF night bombing with U.S. Army Air Forces daylight raids. Galland sought to increase the production of German fighter planes and to ensure that the types of aircraft produced matched the threat. He worked out a production pattern with Field Marshal Erhard Milch, Luftwaffe inspector general, for raising fighter production to 1,000 a month by mid-1943. To justify this requirement, Galland cited the growing Allied strategic bombing threat. Milch used the more politically acceptable (but hardly forthright) justification of building more planes to support German “offensive” operations. In the mean time, Galland continued to improve the organization, logistics and control of the Luftwaffe Fighter Force, which put more aircraft into battle.

During August 1944, the Luftwaffe on the Western Front reached its lowest level of operational effectiveness. Finally convinced that only fighters could save the situation, Göring curtailed the production of bombers in favor of fighters. Galland closely watched the Me 262 program for Germany’s jet aircraft. He wanted the Me 262 exclusively as a fighter aircraft, but Hitler demanded it become a fighter-bomber. The Me 262 had become operational in June 1944, and over the next 10 months German jet pilots shot down 357 aircraft. Galland, however, recognized that the jets were extremely vulnerable during take-offs and landings – and once the Allies inevitably discovered the jet units’ locations by observing the scorch marks on the concrete runways, they certainly would exploit this vulnerability.

On November 1, Galland was promoted to lieutenant general; at the age of 32, he was the youngest general in the German armed forces. Galland believed if Fighter Force could inflict shocking casualties on Allied bombers, Germany’s chance for a separate peace with the Western Allies would be enhanced. He therefore argued for a “big punch” to temporarily halt enemy bomber raids on Germany’s oil and steel works. To gather such a force, he reorganized Fighter Force, withdrawing units from the southern front and Austria, and recruited volunteer pilots.

On November 12, Galland reported to the Luftwaffe staff that Fighter Force was ready for the “big punch.” But the following week, he was summoned to a meeting where it was explained to him that his fighters were needed elsewhere. Unknown to Galland, Hitler planned a counterstroke in the Ardennes (the Battle of the Bulge) and dismissed the idea of sending fighters against Allied bomber formations as useless. Galland sensed an increasing loss of influence.

Three weeks later, Galland met with the chief of the Luftwaffe general staff, General Karl Koller, who bluntly told him that Göring and Hitler wanted Galland removed. SS head Heinrich Himmler, who also wanted to get rid of the popular fighter general, created trumped-up accusations (including misuse of funds, excessive gambling, disloyalty, defeatism and incompetence) to support formal charges of treason. Galland’s phones were tapped and transcripts of his conversations were collected to look for incriminating evidence.

Galland, unaware of the full extent of his dangerous position, continued to prepare Fighter Force until he was finally told that there would be no “big punch.” In January 1945, Göring summoned Galland, lectured him on his failures and insisted that he take leave. Galland was then relieved from his post.

News of Galland’s dismissal spread among Fighter Force unit leaders, who refused to accept the situation. They made mutinous demands for improvements, which sent Göring into a violent rage. Through February 1945, Galland remained under house arrest in Berlin. However, when Hitler heard of the actions against Galland, he called the SS and Gestapo and ordered them to “stop this nonsense at once.” Galland’s ordeal had all been a power play by Göring.


Instead of restoring Galland to Fighter Force command, Göring informed him that Hitler wished for him to organize an elite Me 262 fighter unit composed of expert pilots. “Fighter Band Galland” was formed February 22, 1945, with a strength of 16 Me 262s and 15 pilots. Galland resolved to fight to the end and told his pilots if they were not prepared to do the same they should leave.

On March 18 over Berlin, an American bomber force of 1,200 bombers with an escort of 14 fighter squadrons suffered heavy losses delivered by the Luftwaffe Fighter Force. While German flak guns forced 16 bombers to make emergency landings, the Americans suffered greater losses from Galland’s elite jet fighters. The Me 262s repeatedly sped through the American fighter screen, reportedly shooting down 25 bombers and five fighters.

Four weeks before Germany’s final defeat, the Luftwaffe Fighter Force was still able to send up small units, but landings and take-offs became increasingly difficult as Allied fighters targeted airfields. On April 25, 1945, American Soldiers and Red Army troops met at the Elbe River. The following day, Galland, while flying his Me 262 in his last mission, gained two more kills, earning his 103d and 104th victories. Attacked by a P-47 during the encounter, Galland suffered a splintered kneecap. With his war now over, Galland offered the Americans the use of his elite jet fighters against the Russians, whom he believed would soon be the enemy of both Germany and America.

The American commander replied that he had no authority to do anything but accept total surrender. Galland, with his offer rejected, ordered the complete destruction of over 50 Me 262s at Salzburg and Innsbruck. The Americans later found Galland May 5, 1945, in the Tegernsee hospital with a plaster cast on his right leg. He went through a series of interrogations in Germany and Britain for possible indictment at the Nuremberg trials but was not linked to any war crimes. The Allies also held him for technical debriefings, during which he cooperated as a complete professional, impressing his captors.

On April 28, 1947, Galland returned to Germany as a private citizen. Within months, however, he slipped out of the country to become a consultant to the Argentine air force in pilot training and fielding jet fighters. A few years later, he returned to Germany and opened a business. In 1954, Galland published his memoir, The First and the Last, which was well received, even by his former enemies (the book was translated into 14 languages and sold millions of copies).

Adolf Galland died February 9, 1996, a little more than a month before his 84th birthday.


 Colonel (Ret.) Richard N. Armstrong, author of “Soviet Operational Deception: The Red Cloak,” is an adjunct history professor at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor.

Originally published in the May 2013 issue of Armchair General.