This book completes the trilogy on Luftwaffe fighter pilot experiences from World War Two, based on personal reminiscences of 69 eyewitnesses. While examining the last year of the war in the West, and the painful imprisonment that awaited most Luftwaffe survivors, it focuses on fighter combat in the greater Mediterranean theatre. Here, missions over the sea exposed pilots to the perils of ditching; Dr. Felix Sauer, JG 53, survived eight days drifting in the sea after being shot down over Malta. Campaigns around the Mediterranean Sea included the invasions of Yugoslavia, Greece, and Crete. On the opening day of the fighting over Belgrade on 6 April 1941, German Me 109s were pitted against Me 109s flown by Yugoslav pilots; Oberleutnant Gűnther Scholz, Staffelkapitän 7/JG 54 remembered with some pathos training an aspirant Yugoslavian Me 109 pilot before the war. This campaign was also marked by the divided loyalties of its constituent nations, Croats notably being pro-German and hostile to their Serbian compatriots. Major Hannes Trautloft, Kommodore JG 54 obtained intelligence on Croatian air bases from a deserter who flew over just before the invasion.

Luftwaffe
Unteroffizier Dr Felix Sauer, then with 6/JG 53, taken in Bergen, northern Holland in September 1941 three months before he moved to Sicily to fly over Malta. (Dr Felix Sauer, Alarmstart South and Final Defeat, Amberley Publishing)

Much longer campaigns over the Western Desert and island of Malta, overlapped in time, the beleaguered island serving as a base for British naval and air forces interdicting supply lines from Italy to North Africa. Each time a concentrated Luftwaffe blitz beat down RAF fighter opposition over Malta, supplies improved but the island-phoenix always rose again as other theatres drained away the forces bombarding Malta. It was over the desert that the top scoring German fighter pilot of the war in the West, Hans-Joachim Marseille, I/JG 27, enjoyed his eminence. Marseille was a unique talent but needed special mentoring and support, provided by his C/O, Oberst Edu Neumann: “It is very difficult to shoot down an enemy aircraft from a defensive circle. Only Hauptmann Marseille managed this, all those who tried to copy him, were themselves shot up or shot down.” Professor Paul Skawran, eminent Luftwaffe psychologist, found that Marseille entered a state almost of ecstasy in combat, applying enormous concentration to flying and fighting, landing again totally exhausted. As his successes (n=158) increased, so did his exhaustion and Neumann wisely rested him regularly. Eventually, inevitably, Marseille burned out and died in an accident.

The much maligned Me 110 twin-engined fighters of III/ZG 26 enjoyed a resurgence as fighter bombers, over Malta and the desert. Gruppenkommandeur Hauptmann Georg Christl: “I took part in almost all the operations over Malta, mostly bombing  La Valetta harbour, at great heights, from the south out of the sun, then diving away at full speed to the north, to combat the strong flak defences.”

Take-off from Derna in the Western Desert, Me 110 of III/ZG 26. (Werner Ludwig, Alarmstart South and Final Defeat, Amberley Publishing)

Defeat in the desert late in 1942 concided with the Allied invasion of French North Africa,  fighting in North Africa concluding by May 1943. Rapid retreats became common, recalled Oberfeldwebel Johann Pichler of 7/JG 77:“Eight days ago we lay almost 300 km east of Tripoli, while since the day before yesterday we are about the same distance to the west thereof.” In Tunisia, and later over Sicily and Southern Italy, Allied bombing of German air bases exacerbated a shrinking fighter defence. A bleak future beckoned with the first Allied landings in southern Europe, in Sicily, Leutnant Alfred Hammer, 6/JG 53 recalling:“On 10 July 1943 when I saw the invasion fleet approaching from Africa, the entire sea was covered by ships, large and small. Anyone who had seen this could not imagine any favourable result for the war anymore.” Incursions of large escorted US four-engined bomber raids on Southeastern Europe (notably the Ploiesti oilfields, Romania) and battle over the Balkans gave Luftwaffe pilots no rest; Oberleutnant Emil Clade, Staffelkapitän 7/JG 27: “In North Africa and again over the Straits of Sicily I had bailed out into the sea, then in Greece I parachuted into a partisan area, and again later over Germany I was shot down two more times.” Unteroffizier Heinz Hommes, 2/JG 53 witnessed a new savagery over Romania: “While the English had been fair enemies, the Americans were brutal. If they had got one of us, and the pilot saved himself by bailing out, these pigs did not hesitate to shoot the helpless pilot on his chute. I saw this with my own eyes!”

With the Invasion of Normandy in June 1944, Luftwaffe casualties grew even more; Oberleutnant Fritz Engau, Staffelkapitän 2/JG 11: “On the Invasion Front the superior Allied numbers included Mustangs over almost every cross-roads, junction and railway station, some pairs low, others high above. We suffered appalling losses…”. The Normandy campaign absorbed the core of the German home defence fighters, leaving that task largely to the Zerstörergruppen, now largely re-equipped with the Me 410 and soon to transition onto single seat fighters, and the new Sturmgruppen from July 1944. Using simple tactics, tight formations of heavily armed, armoured fighters attacking from close range, accommodated the now poorly trained and inexperienced fighter pilots available. American fighters continued the slaughter of bailed out and force-landed pilots; Gefreiter Karl-Heinz Hirsch, III/JG 27, remembered each German fighter pilot at breakfast being provided with a bottle of cognac beneath his chair. The final flourish of the Jagdwaffe was provided by the Me 262 jet fighter; while Major Horst Geyer, who led the first experimental unit found the Me 262 a pleasure to fly, but the throttle was basically too open and uncontrolled and if opened too fast the engines tended to burst into flames. Pilots also had to avoid reaching the speed of sound. In action, dogfights with enemy fighters were avoided, as at low speeds the Me 262 had poor flying and turning characteristics. Poor acceleration made it vulnerable when attacked on take-off or landing.

Patrick G. Eriksson's book Alarmstart South and Final Defeat is available for purchase now.