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Nations at war
Williamson, Gordon. Luftwaffe Handbook, 1935-1945. Stroud, UK: Sutton Publishing Ltd, 2006
x + 270 pages
Introduction and Acknowledgements; Chronology; photos; line drawings; Glossary; Bibliography; Index
Appendix: Top Aces
The author clears up an important point in his Introduction when he writes "Given the vast size and complexity of the Luftwaffe, a single volume cannot hope to cover every aspect of the organisation." That is indeed the case, and his Luftwaffe Handbook needs to examined (and used) with that limitation in mind. Unfortunately, Williamson doesn't include any suggestions for further reading and research, and he takes a minimalist approach with his bibliography. Consequently, while our review will address the book within the context of what the author has attempted to accomplish, we'll sometimes include comparisons with other works on specific topics and point to additional resources readers might find of value.
In scope, Luftwaffe Handbook includes sixteen chapters encompassing a very broad view of the German air force:
1. The interwar years and the creation of the new Luftwaffe
2. Organisation and command structure
3. Strategy and tactics
4. The Night-fighting war
5. The Aircraft
6. Aircraft markings
7. Technical developments
8. The Paratroop units
9. Ground units
10. Specialist units
13. Luftwaffe career structure
14. Ranks and insignia
15. Uniforms, specialist clothing, and equipment
16. Awards and decorations
The first chapter devotes six pages to explaining how the Luftwaffe was created surreptitiouslypartly by training "civilian" pilots for tasks such as towing advertising banners over German citiesand touches upon expansion of the air force and its ultimate downfall.
As the war progressed and combat attrition saw many of the great aces lost in battle, the percentage of new and inexperienced fliers increased, as did the quality of the opposition they faced. Luftwaffe losses
grew apace and as their machines (with a
few notable exceptions) began to compare
less favourably with new Allied developments, the Germans found themselves
changing from hunters to hunted. Ground
troops, accustomed to first-class close support from their Air Force colleagues, began
wondering where the Luftwaffe had disappeared to. As German ground forces in
Normandy in the summer of 1944 were
being torn apart by overwhelmingly
superior Allied air power, they could be
forgiven for feeling that the Luftwaffe had
deserted them. German fliers, however,
fought with great tenacity and courage to
the very last days of the war, suffering increasingly crippling losses against a numerically vastly superior enemy that was far more
capable than they were of making good
In conclusion, Germany was not failed by
the Luftwaffe, but by those who refused to
grasp the need for a strategic bomber arm
capable of delivering sustained damage to
the enemy's industrial capabilities, or the
need for a strategic fighter force capable of
doing more than simply escorting bombers,
until it was too late. Political interference
ensured that, although technically superior
aircraft such as the Me 262 jet did see
combat, opportunities were wasted by
insisting on their use in a totally inappropriate role.
For more information about creation and early development of the Luftwaffe, see also Corum and Hooton, both of whom have the luxury of devoting entire books to an area where Williamson can only afford to expend a few pages.
At about forty pages, "Organisation and Command Structure" provides a much meatier chapter. After a couple of introductory paragraphs, the author begins surveying all the command levels of the Luftwaffe, beginning with Hermann Goering (and, very briefly at the tail end of the war, Robert Ritter von Greim) at the top of the pyramid. For each Luftgau, Williamson lists the date it was formed, the geographic area encompassed, and the names of all known commanding officers with dates served. That's followed by similar data for each Luftflotte. Those entries comprise names of commanding officers with dates served, areas of operation, and constituent units at various dates during the war.
For example, here's how Luftflotte 2 appears:
Known Commanding Officers
General der Flieger Hellmuth Felmy: Sep 1939-Jan 1940
Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring: Jan 1940-Jun 1943
Generalfeldmarschall Wolfram Freiherr von Richthofen: Jun 1943-Sep 1944
Areas of Operation
1939 - Germany
1942 - North Africa, Greece, Italy
1944 - Italy
Disbanded Sep 1944
Constituent Units 1939
Constituent Units 1943
Ju 90 Staffel
Korps Transport Staffel
Next come thumbnail descriptions of each Luftwaffe geschwader. These very briefly deal with formation and service.
This is a typical entry:
Jagdgeschwader 51 "Molders"
Formed before the outbreak of war and saw action in the Battle of Britain before moving to the Eastern Front, where it supported the drive on Moscow. Elements saw action in North Africa, Sicily, Italy and the Balkans, as well as the defence of the Reich. Part of the Geschwader moved to Schleswig-Holstein in the closing days of the war, but much of it went into Soviet captivity. Aircraft flown included the Me 109, Fw 190, and Hs 129 ground-attack fighter.
This kind of OB/TOE/unit history data is, as far as it goes, very useful given the relative dearth of such material for the Luftwaffe in English. While the US Air Force has two excellent volumes from Maurer and the RAF has a wealth of books detailing squadron formation, commanders, movements, equipment, etc (see, among many others, Jefford), the literature continues to suffer a paucity of equivalent books for the Luftwaffe. One of the few with relatively detailed information for each geschwader and its individual gruppen is Rosch, although he really focuses mostly on aircraft codes and markings. Even with one of the longest chapters of his book, Williamson can't fill the order of battle gap here.
The title of the 25-page third chapter, "Strategy and Tactics," is a bit of a misnomer. For the most part Williamson simply provides an outline of Luftwaffe operations on all fronts during the war. Although he makes mention of a few salient points, such as how Me 110 fighters proved so vulnerable to RAF Spitfires and Hurricanes in the daylight during the Battle of Britain that they required Me 109s to serve as escorts, the author doesn't really explain air-to-air combat tactics or how different kinds of formations were utilized for different kinds of missions. Plenty of books provide expanded histories of Luftwaffe operations from the invasion of Poland through the end of the war, and there are a few that focus on aerial tactics. In the latter category, Mike Spick's Luftwaffe Fighter Aces and Luftwaffe Bomber Aces are readily available titles that delve into combat techniques, complete with diagrams of formations and tactics.
Given only seven pages to work with, Williamson's fourth chapter on night fighters is largely an extension of the previous chapter but with more details about the creation and evolution of the important Luftwaffe nachtjaeger effort. The text traces the development of electronic measures and counter-measures and innovative weapons such as the upward-firing Schrage Musik cannon.
The most effective tactic to be introduced
was the use of the so-called 'Schrage Musik'
(jazz music or, in German, quite literally
'slanting' music). The name came from the
fact that aircraft thus equipped had a
number of upward-firing cannon mounted
at a slanted angle in the main fuselage.
Fighters so equipped could approach the
enemy bomber, once again from below,
usually undetected, and once in position
simply fire the cannon in the fuselage up
into the enemy bomber.
The concept had been first tried in 1942
with a radar-equipped Do 17 but the tests
were not considered successful and the
project was shelved. However, the main
proponent of the tactic, Oberleutnant
Schonert, fitted his Me 110 night-fighter
with two 2cm MG 151/20 cannon, which he
had attached to the rear of his cockpit. With
this arrangement, he succeeded in shooting down a bomber in May 1943. Shortly afterwards, given command of II./NJG5, he was
given authority to have three Do 217
aircraft fitted with upwards-firing armament
in the fuselage.
The Schrage Musik system was first used
on operations on 17 August 1943, when
German night-fighters intercepted RAF
bombers on their way to attack the research
establishment at Peenemunde in the Baltic.
The last of three waves of bombers were hit
by night-fighters using Schrage Musik and
lost 29 bombers out of a total of 166 aircraft, a 17 per cent rate of loss. The rate at
which losses were considered by the RAF to
be unsustainable was 10 per cent, so it can
be clearly seen that the successful use of
Schrage Musik tactics could have the
potential to cause havoc to the Allied night
bombing offensive. Bombers rarely had any
advance warning of the attack and only
British advances in anti-radar detection
equipment prevented even more serious
damage to Bomber Command's efforts.
With the concept now proven to be effective, more and more aircraft began to be fitted with upward-firing fuselage armament and by 1944 it is estimated that fully one-third of night-fighters carried Schrage Musik, using ever more powerful cannon.
For more information on the German night fighter campaign, one of the best resources is Hinchliffe.
The longest chapter in the book, chapter five describes "a representative selection" of Luftwaffe aircraft, including the Ar 196, Do 17, Do 24, Fi 156, Fw 189, Fw 190, Fw 200, He 111, He 162, He 177, He 219, Hs 129, Ju 52, Ju 87, Ju 88, Ju 188, Me 109, Me 110, Me 262, Me 163, and Me 323, along with five pages about aircraft weaponry. Interesting, all the coverage of aircraft is limited to narrative description without any tables of specs or statistics. These entries run from a couple of paragraphs to, more often, a couple of pages.
Here's one of the shortest entries:
Focke Wulf FW 189
Designed by Kurt Tank as a replacement for
the ageing Henschel Hs 126, this reconnaissance aircraft entered service in 1941. It
featured a distinctive twin-boomed tail, a
central fuselage and a substantial level of
glazing to the roomy cockpit, giving the
excellent degree of visibility essential to a
reconnaissance aircraft. The Fw 189 was
twin-engined, and carried a crew of three or
The aircraft had excellent handling and
its good manoeuvrability and armament
made its destruction a difficult proposition
for enemy aircraft. It was also capable of
absorbing a huge amount of damage while
still remaining airborne. Around 845
examples were manufactured.
Of course, in regard to more descriptions and specs for German airplanes, many, many books are available about that subject.
Chapter six covers aircraft markings in the span of about six pages, including some black and white sketches of typical fighter markings. Although Williamson does a good job of providing the fundamental schemes used for tactical markings (for example, "Gruppe Kommandeur, 1 Gruppe: Double chevron ahead of fuselage cross"), this is an area which excites many Luftwaffe fans and it has spawned a plethora of books devoted to colors, codes, and markings. Among them, readers might also want to refer to Rosch (see above), the very detailed, multi-volume Luftwaffe Colours series from Classic Publications, and the new Luftwaffe Squadrons by Chris Bishop.
Chapter seven, weighing in at four pages and titled "Technical Developments," is really an extension of chapter five. Williamson describes late-war plans and prototypesincluding the Ta 183, Ho 229, Li P13A, and P1101with a couple of paragraphs each and two sketches for the chapter as a whole. Again, this is strictly text with no specifications. These kinds of futuristic planes have also been the subject of a variety of "wonder weapons" books of varying quality, such as Herwig's Luftwaffe Secret Projects series.
With chapters eight and nine, the author switches from aircraft to other Luftwaffe forces, covering "Paratroop Units" and "Ground Units." The former reviews each para/fallschirm unit, including date of formation, brief history, and a list of commanders with dates served. Here's a short example:
1 Fallschirm Division
Formed in France in May 1943, this division
was sent into action in the battle for Sicily
from July to September of that year, before pulling back to the Italian mainland, where
it fought out the remainder of the war.
General der Fallschirmtruppe Richard Heidrich: May 1943 - Dec 1944
Generalmajor Hans Korte: Jan 1944 - Feb 1944
General der Fallschirmtruppe Richard Heidrich: Feb 1944 - Nov 1944
Generalmajor Karl-Lothar Schulz: Nov 1944 - May 1945
For other ground units, Williamson lists German flak corps and flak divisions in the same format as para units, then he does the same for Luftwaffe field divisions. Out of approximately thirty-eight pages in the two chapters, roughly six are devoted to the various incarnations of the air force panzer and panzer grenadier formations named after Goering. Chapters ten and eleven continue in the same vein with "Specialist Units" (including thumbnail histories of Luftwaffe propaganda companies, courier units, and recon units) and "Auxiliaries" with two pages about "helper" personnelincluding womenin listening posts, radar stations, signals units, flak batteries, etc.
Chapter twelve looks at a gallery of Luftwaffe officers including well-known personalities such as Goering, Milch, Udet, Richthofen, Galland, Molders, and Rudel as well as lesser-known pilots such as Hermann Graf, Hans-Joachim Marseille, Hans Sandrock, and Alexander Uhlig. These entries average a page or two and do a good job of conveying the important biographical facts about a range of notable and representative Luftwaffe men. Of course, readers might also want to take a look at a wider spectrum of more in-depth books about some of these airmen, as well as others not covered here.
"Luftwaffe Career Structure," weighing in at only a page and a half, codifies information about conscription, terms of service, and various levels of reserve status. The information in this short chapter seems to stand out as something not readily available in any other English-language titles that come to mind.
Next, "Ranks and Insignia" covers all the familiar steps from flieger to generalfeldmarschall plus what might be roughly described as military occupation specialties such as flying personnel, technical personnel, searchlight operators, and so on. Williamson ties all this to the waffenfarbe (branch of service color), shoulder strap codes, cuffbands, etc. The twenty pages of chapter fifteen look at a wide range of uniforms, flying clothes, headgear, belt buckles, sidearms, and swords. The final chapter covers qualification badges (such as the pilot badge and observer badge), combat awards (such as the ground combat badge and flak war badge), and special awards (such as the Goblet of Honor, Salver of Honor, and Honor Roll Clasp). There exists a very active cult of militaria/reenactor geeks who live and die for this kind of stuff, andwhile Williamson offers a worthwhile introductionpublishers like Schiffer and Bender offer plenty of fat tomes packed with color photos of uniforms, gear, insignia, and awards.
Here the author includes black and white photos to illustrate the contents of each chapter, an appendix listing the "top aces" of the Luftwaffe, a glossary, a short bibliography, a brief chronology, and an index. Basically, he does everything that would be expected in a handbook of this nature, covering all the bases in competent if condensed style. As Williamson notes in his Introduction, there's simply no way a book of 270 pages can accommodate everything there is to know about a subject as broad as the Luftwaffe in the Second World War. While it might be possible to be disappointed because the author doesn't pay quite as much attention to one topic as a particular reader might prefer, Luftwaffe Handbook is simply a classic example of how diligently writers sometimes need to work in order to prune their material to a suitable size.
Perhaps the book might be better termed a primer than a handbook, but it certainly provides a taste of every part of the subject. Die-hard Luftwaffe historians can probably pass up Williamson's volume without missing anything of consequence, but by the same token this book makes an excellent starting point for many other students of the air war.
Available from online booksellers, local bookshops, or directly from Sutton Publishing.
Thanks to Sutton for providing this review copy.
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Reviewed 4 June 2006
Copyright © 2006 by Bill Stone
May not be reproduced in any form without written permission of Stone & Stone