During World War II, the Third Reich’s fighter pilots destroyed some 70,000 enemy aircraft during the war, with approximately 45,000 destroyed on the Eastern Front.
In his riveting new book The German Aces Speak, author and historian Colin D. Heaton sheds a fascinating, long-overdue light on four of Germany’s most honorable and skilled fighter pilots from World War II. It is a refreshingly in-depth look at the oft-misunderstood German legends who took to the skies, not for their Führer, but for their country.
Heaton recently took a moment to sit down with Zenith Press to discuss his new book, the larger-than-life German aces he was able to interview, and the wealth of first-hand stories that fill his new book's pages.
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ZENITH PRESS: Countless books have been written on the Allied fighter pilots of World War II, particularly from an American point-of-view. What inspired you to write a book detailing the other side of the coin—Germany’s top Luftwaffe aces?
COLIN HEATON: I was inspired by meeting a few German aces in the 1970s, and once learning of their exploits, became fascinated. This is actually my second book that details interviews with Luftwaffe aces. All of my books have interviews, or segments of interviews for emphasis from the participants. I think it brings a lot more credibility to a historical project.
ZP: It could be argued quite convincingly that the Germany’s Luftwaffe possessed the most highly skilled collection of fighter pilots of any nation during World War II. What about these four aces (Galland, Neumann, Falck, and Krupinski), in particular, made them such ideal choices for a more detailed study?
CH: I chose these four for the first book of complete interviews simply because of the diversity of their various careers, theaters of operation, unique experiences and their specific jobs. I also wanted to introduce Krupinski and Neumann, who are not household names in America, into a book that had Galland and Falck, who were better known.
ZP: The victory totals for Walter Krupinski (nearly 200) and Adolf Galland (over 100) are staggering. While their aerials victories paled in comparison, the contributions of Eduard Neumann and Wolfgang Falck extended far beyond the cockpit. Can you briefly explain?
CH: Falck and Neumann, like Galland, were organizational geniuses. Falck’s career as a combat pilot was cut short by his job commanding the entire night fighter air arm, which was very administrative, seconding him to Goering’s staff basically. Neumann, being a geschwader kommodore, had the same problem. Administration and organization with higher rank often took men out of the cockpit and threw them behind a desk. Galland was the one renegade among the higher ranking officers; he violated direct orders not to fly all the time whenever he could, but he could never get command of a combat outfit until February 1945, when the war was almost over, with the attitude of “what are they going to do about it?”
ZP: Often glossed over in popular histories of the war is the fact that many Germans serving in the armed forces leading up to and during the war were quite critical of the policies, strategies and philosophies of Adolf Hitler and the upper echelon of the Third Reich’s regime. Did you discover any such attitudes in the men you chose to detail in The German Aces Speak?
CH: Yes, this was one of the great reasons for the Fighters’ Revolt. These men interviewed in the book were the recipients and eyewitnesses of these bad decisions, such as Galland’s mentioning Field Marshal von Richthofen’s argument with Goering over transport supplies. This event, among others, is the clearest example of rear area commanders being too far removed from the reality at the front to make the proper decisions. The disaffection was also not limited to the Luftwaffe. Three SS generals, two I knew personally, openly disagreed to Hitler and Himmler directly.
ZP: Few American veterans of the World War II era have been romanticized to quite the same degree as fighter aces. In researching your book, did you gain insight into how German fighter pilots—particularly the aces featured in The German Aces Speak—were viewed/received by the German public during the war and since?
CH: The German aces, like the U-boat commanders, became tragic heroes in the classical Greek sense. They lost the war, despite a stellar personal and collective performance, and we in Great Britain and the United States have a great capacity to be able to respect our enemies, if they fought a clean, fair fight. The modern Germans actually learn nothing of their heroes, read nothing in their history books at public school. It is almost as if 1933-1945 was a blip on the historical radar screen. They just ignore it and move on. Same as it was with our nation following Vietnam, only much worse. Anyone who wore a uniform in the Third Reich, Party member or not, is called a Nazi by the general public under age 60. Tragic really.
ZP: Aviation enthusiasts enthralled by the ME 262 will be pleasantly surprised to know that you were able to interview several pilots who flew the ME-262 jet fighter? What role does that iconic aircraft play in the broader story told in The German Aces Speak?
CH: The Me-262 almost never made it as an operational jet, let alone as the first operational jet fighter bomber, and I am writing a book about that subject now. It was almost never even allowed to be deployed as a pure fighter at all. Galland, above all others, made that happen. His charisma, intellect, and credibility saw him get what he wanted. He made the jet a part of history as much as Willi Messerschmitt and company.
ZP: With several books on the subject to your credit, you are hardly a stranger to aviation and World War II history. Even so, while researching and writing The German Aces Speak, did you stumble upon any stories or facts or stories that took even you by surprise?
CH: Yes, many of which I can’t put into a book. I will take those stories with me to the grave out of respect for some of the people I have interviewed. However, I never read about, and never knew of much of the turmoil experienced by Galland and Falck with their superiors, and I never had as much insight into the life and character of Hans-Joachim Marseille, as when I interviewed a half dozen men who flew with him, two who wanted to court-martial him and three women who slept with him. The fact that he did all the things he did and was not court-martialed or killed stuns to this day. Neumann actually put me into contact with these people who knew him, and I will be writing a Marseille biography soon. I was also very surprised to learn of how critical a role Heinz Ewald played in Krupinski’s life. I knew Heinz, and despite having the Knight’s Cross, he never told me anything that was as remarkable as what Krupinski did. He was a very humble man in that respect. I also learned about how these men felt about their country, its leadership, and the dilemma they found themselves in, their personal demons. Perhaps the best stories and facts were the untold personal stories regarding Hitler, Goering and others. I am also going to write a book about them, based upon research and interviews with over 40 Germans who knew the upper echelon of the Third Reich quite well. It should be very enlightening.
ZP: At the end of the day, what is the one prevailing message you hope readers come away with after reading The German Aces Speak?
CH: I hope that people realize that one of the most stupid things we can do as human beings is stereotype persons based upon nationality, race, religion, etc. We need to learn that separating people from the collective is the only way to get the real history, and that is what I try to do. Once they read Brig. Gen. Robin Olds’s foreword, they will get it. I think the fact that I approached these men with an interest and open mind is why I was successful. I had no agenda, they knew it, and they trusted me. However, if not for the late Jimmy Doolittle, Jeff Ethell, and Ray Toliver, who all took a chance on me, this book, and most others, would have never been written. They should get as much credit as the Germans I interviewed. All were good, brave men, and I miss them all.