The Defeat of the Luftwaffe by Jonathan Trigg
This is the story of how the Luftwaffe was utterly defeated on the Eastern Front.
What’s the best thing about writing history? For me that’s easy. Stepping back in time into the shoes of another generation and looking around at the world through their eyes, and as you look around you can read what they read, touch what they touched, and try to understand why they did what they did. A lot of the time you can only achieve this through what they left behind; artefacts, buildings (more likely ruins), papers, etc. These are all powerful tools in a historian’s armoury and can be utterly fascinating. Probably my favourite example of this is a crude carving in a balcony rail high in the magnificent Hagia Sophia cathedral in Istanbul (now the Aya Sofia mosque). It simply reads: ‘Halfdan made these runes’, or to put it another way, ‘Halfdan was here’. We don’t know for sure who Halfdan was, but the evidence suggests he was a Viking member of the Byzantine Emperor’s famous Varangian Guard. So, Halfdan was a soldier, he could read and write and like all soldiers he got bored on guard duty – some things never change.
How amazing would it be to speak to Halfdan? To hear him tell of his time, tell his story, in his own words - that for me is still the draw to writing about the Second World War, people who lived through it are still alive – although time marches on. Over the last decade of writing about the most terrible conflict our world has ever known I have seen so many voices go silent – except in Scandinavia where people seem to live forever! So, I take every chance I can get to write down peoples words. Those stories are all around us, often in the most unlikely places. I was once asked by an old friend to come up to Durham and be the after-lunch speaker at his local Rotary Club. I chose as my subject the exploits of the Waffen-SS during the War. I had written several times on the topic and hoped I could make it interesting for the audience. I mean no criticism of them at all, but they were mainly an ‘older’ crowd if I can put it like that, and I was worried that me droning on after a good lunch, and with the afternoon sun streaming in through the hotel windows, it would all be a bit much for some of them and a few might drift quietly off. How amazed was I then when the self-proclaimed oldest member of the Club asked to speak as soon as I had finished my little talk. He sat there and said, ‘The first member of the Waffen-SS I met was the chap that took me prisoner when I was on a night patrol in Italy….’ Brilliant! Just a few yards away, living history.
Then there are the stories that got away. One of my neighbours is a consultant anaesthetist in the NHS, his family is Anglo-Polish, the Polish side coming from a daring escape to the West through snow-covered pine forests before the Iron Curtain snapped shut. His grandmother was the family’s matriarch, their totem, and she was over 100 years old. Standing around his barbecue one summer evening he was telling me a bit about her when he dropped in that when she was a little girl in 1917 she lived with her family in a very smart house in St Petersburg. On one occasion, hearing a lot of commotion, she, her family and their servants, all rushed to the windows to watch a crowd of armed men storm the building across the way. Those were desperate, troubled times, and the event may have gone unremarked, except the building was the Tsar’s Winter Palace, and the armed men were Bolshevik Red Guards. She had just witnessed the storming of the Winter Palace and a giant step in the Russian Revolution. Unsurprisingly I was desperate to talk to her and get it all down on paper, but she was adamant – the past was the past and it should stay there. Sadly she passed away soon after and her story went with her.
Missed opportunities like that spur me on to seek out tales from those that were there, and so I was determined to include as many as I could in my history of the victory of the Soviet Red Air Force over the Nazi Luftwaffe on the Eastern Front – and there were some gems. Surprise was so total when the Luftwaffe first attacked on the morning of the 22nd of June 1941, that no-one on the Soviet side expected it. The fighter pilot, Vitaly Klimenko, was planning to take his pretty Lithuanian girlfriend to a local lake for some swimming and sunbathing, but instead he was rudely awakened by the sounds of an air-raid. He threw open the flap of his tent to hear a neighbour shout, ‘Guys the war has started!’, and Vitaly’s response was, ‘F**k you, what war?’ On that day alone the Soviets lost close to 2,000 aircraft. Two thousand! The numbers involved are hard to credit. The entire German Air Force today numbers around two hundred planes, and the British RAF only around 230. But, as ever, numbers are only part of the story. As I researched the book one of the most harrowing accounts I read was from a German soldier talking to one of his comrades about his experiences on the ‘Russian Front’;
Müller: “When I was at Kharkov the whole place had been destroyed, except the centre of town. It was a delightful town, a delightful memory! Everyone spoke a little German – they’d learnt it at school. Taganrog was the same. We did a lot of flying near the junction of the Don and Donets. Its’ beautiful country…everywhere we saw women doing compulsory labour service.”
Faust: “How frightful!”
Müller: “They were employed on road making – extraordinarily lovely girls; we drove past, simply pulled them into the armoured car, raped them and threw them out again, and did they curse!”
The Defeat of the Luftwaffe: The Eastern Front 1941-45, A Strategy for Disaster by Jonathan Trigg is available for purchase now.