Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Guest Book Review: Andrew Reid reviews The First and the Last, by Adolf Galland

Andrew Reid, who runs the blog My God It's Raining and is an active presence on Twitter (also, a founder member of Duckcon!) was kind enough to offer me a rather interesting book review as his guest slot during my absence in Florida. He is here today to review The First and the Last, by Adolf Galland.

The First and the Last is the war memoir of Adolf Galland, a German flying ace who served with the Luftwaffe prior to and during World War II. During his service in the War, he was promoted to General of the Fighter Arm (subordinate only to Göring and Hitler in the operation of the fighter wing of the Luftwaffe) and subsequently demoted back to the level of lieutenant and flight captain at the very end of the conflict. His memoir, translated from the German in 1954, covers exactly the period of his service from the invasion of Poland to the final, frantic actions in the Defence of the Reich.

The very first point to note in reading Galland’s memoir is that it is not a full accounting of the War. Most notably, there is absolutely no mention of the Holocaust, and its absence rings throughout the entire text, especially when Galland praises the tenacity and spirit of the German people in the face of adversity. There is a hint of contrition, perhaps, when he delivers second hand Göring’s sentiment regarding the 500,000 tons of bombs dropped on German cities in the second half of 1944, “The German people are bearing these raids like a chastisement by God”, but generally there is little room in Galland’s writing for apologies.

Whether due to the translation or the natural writing tone of a man more used to drafting military reports, Galland’s memoir makes for an unusual but absorbing read. His youngest brother’s death is given two simple sentences – the first describing him shot down in action, the second recording the number of confirmed kills he had achieved as a pilot – and after that simple aside, we find ourselves back in an in-depth discussion of Luftwaffe tactics and the slow degeneration of the German war machine.

Only the author’s growing frustration with his inability to achieve tactical command of the fighter arm throughout the conflict brings the writing to life, and as the situation worsens for the Luftwaffe, Galland’s anger on behalf of the pilots under his command becomes palpable.

Galland affords enormous respect for the RAF, and it is evident that he spent some time after the War ended researching the battles from the other side. The technical achievements of the RAF engineers and the skill and tenacity of their pilots come up again and again, a neat foil to the difficulties that he continuously faces in his attempts to direct Luftwaffe policy. How much of the memoir is hindsight is debatable, but nevertheless it makes for an excellent counterpoint to a purely Allied perspective.

By far the most interesting thing about the book, the part that makes it (for me, at least) an essential read, is Galland’s attitude to the life of a fighter pilot. Despite the matter-of-fact tone and the dry delivery, Galland comes across as a brave, spirited man whose insane recklessness is only matched by his incredible skill in the air.

April 15 was Osterkamp’s birthday...As a present I packed a huge basket of lobsters with the necessary bottles of champagne into my ME109-F and took off...Again it was too tempting not to make a little detour on the way and pay a visit to England. Soon I spotted a single Spitfire. After a wild chase fate decided in my favour. My tough opponent crashed in flames in a little village west of Dover.

Galland’s beliefs are a carry-over from the days of chivalry. In the theatre of a modern war, the fighter remains to him the sole feat-of-arms. He repeatedly stresses the importance of technical development and overall support from the perspective of a General seeking to maintain air superiority, but when it comes to the fighter pilot, he has only one opinion.

“The soldier of today is impelled more and more to become a mechanic, an engineer, subordinated to the technics and mechanisation of modern warfare. One day the fighter pilot guided from the ground will chase, at supersonic speed, the atom-bomb carrier for scores of miles high up in the stratosphere. But science must not become an aim in itself. Only the spirit of attack borne in a brave heart will bring a success to any fighter aircraft, no matter how highly developed it may be.”

In The First and the Last, Galland’s words evoke an odd feeling of sympathy for the pilots of the Luftwaffe. Overextended and misappropriated, the litany of failures that High Command forced onto them with a series of increasingly delayed and contradictory orders should be celebrated, as it gave the Allies enough breathing space to set about their own offensive and establish air superiority over the German forces. It’s a strange feeling of sadness, then, when the beleaguered Galland, seeing the planes circling overhead ready to commandeer the jets of Jagdverband 44, sets fire to his own ME-262 in the closing moments of the War.

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