LUFTWAFFE FIGHTER ACE:
From the Eastern Front to the Defense of the Homeland
Edited and Translated by John Weal
Published by Grub Street, 2004, 17.95 pounds or roughly $34.00,
It is tempting fate to make predictions, but I believe that this book,
LUFTWAFFE FIGHTER ACE: From the Eastern Front to the Defense of the Homeland will soon rank with Adolph Galland’s The First and the Last as among the two best books about the Luftwaffe.
Galland’s book provides an overview from the top, even though it was somewhat cautiously written. Over the years, Galland modified some of his views, but the book is none-the-less vital reading. LUFTWAFFE FIGHTER ACE provides a wonderful insider view of the life of an accomplished pilot and patriot.
Norbert Hannig was not one of the great aces of the Luftwaffe, having “only” forty-two victories in two-hundred missions. Fortunately, however, he is one of the best writers. Most books by German pilots, however interesting, are characterized by an almost schoolboy enthusiasm, and are almost always devoid of detail about the ordinary daily life of a German fighter pilot.
It is in this respect that Hannig excels. Mr. Weal’s excellent editing and translating allows Hannig to make the Luftwaffe as an organization come to life in a way that no other book on the subject has, to my knowledge, done. He tells every stage of his career in great detail, and it is refreshing to note that Hannig does not apologize for his service. He entered the Luftwaffe as a patriotic German, not a Nazi, he fought for his Fatherland, and that is it. All too often, German pilot memoirs rationalize why they served the Nazis when in fact they served because they were young men in a country that sent all its young men to war.
Hannig was always an apolitical individualist, not easy to be in Germany in the late 1930s, and almost by chance was introduced to flying through the Flieger-Hitlerjugend. He gives an interesting account of the Spartan but healthy life, explainign the mechanics of transporting, assembling and flying the primitive SG-38 gliders. Entering basic Luftwaffe training late in 1941, he relates vividly how the young recruits lived, marched, ate, studied and did everything but fly. Somewhat in the style of a German Sergeant Bilko, Hannig volunteered for orderly duties that gave him a little more to eat, and a little privacy. This ability to charm would stand him in good stead all through his career.
Early in 1942, Hannig began flying training in earnest, being introduced to the A 2-class primary trainers that included the Heinkel He 72, Bücker Bü 131 and 181, and the Klemm Kl 25 and 35. He had his first crash in a beautiful little Bücker 181 “Bestmann”, stalling it in an approach to landing. It was the first of many he would survive over the next three years. Hannig’s accounts of flying school ring true. The joys and sorrows of flight schools are common to every country.
Hannig won his pilot’s badge in December, 1942, and began training on Messerschmitt Bf 109s. He volunteered for duty on the Russian front, and was assigned to JG 54, the Green Hearts, commanded then by the famous Major Hannes Trautloft.
There follows the most interesting account of life in a German squadron that I’ve ever read. Hannig’s accounts of his combat are exciting, and are filled with a satisfying level of technical detail, especially concerning his mount, a Focke Wulf Fw-190.
By April of 1944, Hannig was a veteran fighter pilot, not only successful, but caring about his wing men. He was posted as an instructor. His explanation of the German system of training—necessarily both accelerated and abbreviated by the spring of 1944—is fascinating. Young cadets were coming in with a minimum of flying time, while bomber pilots were being retrained as fighter pilots—not an easy task. In between training sessions, the instructors were called upon to intercept the endless stream of American bombers laying waste to Germany.
Hannig went on to fly the Messerschmitt Me 262 briefly. When the war ended he became a prisoner of the Americans, then the Russians and finally the British before he is finally released in 1948. In 1955, he joined the new German Luftwaffe, flying the F-86 and Fiat G. 91.
The author was an excellent photographer, and there are twenty pages of candid photos of squadron life. This is an important book, not only for the abundant tales of combat flying, but for the careful recounting of what life was really like in the Luftwaffe.