The aphorism not to judge a book by its cover has never been more true than with The German Aces Speak II: World War II Seen Through the Eyes of Four More of the Luftwaffe’s Most Important Commanders. Why cover designs are only rarely reviewed by the writers or knowledgeable editors remains a mystery of the publishing world. In this case it’s not so much the bright red accent added to the armored glass windscreen of the Bf 109 on the front cover, but the photo of Finnish – not German – 109s on the back cover that call the book’s credibility into question. Such an error might make a prospective reader turn away from purchasing the book. And that would be a shame, because The German Aces Speak II: World War II Seen Through the Eyes of Four More of the Luftwaffe’s Most Important Commanders is yet another important volume of oral history from the team of Colin D. Heaton and Anne-Marie Lewis, whose books we have reviewed previously.
It is difficult to envision a set of interviews conducted over the years that has been more fruitful than the ones conducted by the authors, which so far have generated the Zenith Press books The German Aces Speak, The Me 262 Stormbird, and The Star of Africa, as well as many individual articles. As with The German Aces Speak, the book is separated into different accounts from the individuals interviewed. “The oral history method provides a deeper understanding of the nature and evolution of aviation history as well as the agonies and victories these warriors endured,” reads a sentence in the introduction, and the contents of the book undoubtedly prove the point.
Four Luftwaffe fighter pilots tell their stories in the book: Erich Hartmann, Johannes Steinhoff, Dietrich Anton Hrabak, and Gunther Rall. All four went on to upper leadership posts in the post-war Luftwaffe that was recreated as West Germany became part of NATO in response to the Soviet threat. It is interesting to see how the emphasis of interviews has changed over the decades. Those performed in the first two decades after the war seemed to concentrate more on the business of air combat and on technical and tactical aspects of the air war. It seems only in the last 20 years that the more philosophical aspects of the war have been addressed.
While there are many interesting insights on the relative merits of Allied and German fighter aircraft and tactics, and recollections and impressions of comrades, there are also candid descriptions (virtually all disparaging) of the Nazi leadership, and sometimes even the more fanatical Nazis who flew during the war. Much is also devoted to war on the Eastern Front, and the consequences after, such as the horrific experiences of Hartmann.
Hartmann, as the highest-scoring fighter pilot of all time, with 352 victories, has been written about extensively, and Steinhoff has written books of his own about his experiences, but these two comprise the majority of the book. I was hoping for more lengthy accounts from Hrabak and Rall, which seemed thin by comparison. The story of Rall’s physician wife, who smuggled Jews out of Germany, could probably have filled a book, but we are given only a tantalizing glimpse of her heroism in fighting her own war.
There is always hope that more books, filled with the words of those who were there, will be forthcoming from Heaton and Lewis. In the meantime, those interested in World War II in the air will find this one engaging and filled with more insights into what it meant to be one of the Luftwaffe’s Experten. Just ignore the cover and go straight into reading the words.