(This review originally appeared on http://www.arrse.co.uk and is reposted here with their kind consent)
I’m not convinced that the title accurately conveys what this book is about; it’s actually a history of the air to air combat elements of the Luftwaffe from its furtive foundation in March 1935 to its demise with the German collapse in 1945. It focuses primarily on the careers and experiences of the top German aces, or Experten, within a broad historical context but is not a series of biographies.
Peter Jacobs writes well and as he is an ex-RAF Phantom and Tornado F3 air defence navigator he has a deep understanding of air to air warfare. Unfortunately this only shows through occasionally – when it does it is invigorating, informative and helpful. The remainder of the book is a fairly dry account of how the German Experten amassed their incredible individual tallies of air to air kills, interspersed with irritatingly frequent references to the various accoutrements that they earned to their Knight’s Crosses.
It’s a shame, as one of the fascinating questions about the air combat of the Second World War is how and why individual German pilots were so successful. As Jacobs records, 15 of their pilots achieved over 200 kills, with the 22 year old Erich Hartmann shooting down 352 enemy aircraft and surviving. He remains the most successful fighter pilot of all time. A further 91 Experten scored over 100 kills. By comparison the top British ace scored 47 and the top US ace 40. The book does not directly answer this. The indirect answers, which do emerge, were that the Luftwaffe operated for most of the war in a target rich environment with good (or better) equipment and more experienced pilots.
There is little description of actual engagements and no consideration of the psychological effects of remorseless, unending combat punctuated with trips to Berlin to collect the latest medal upgrade. A discussion of the impact of the succession of honours and a comparison with the British system of duplicate awards (bars) would have been interesting and Jacobs is well placed to conduct it. But he didn’t.
The pictures show the usual smiling young men, aged beyond their years and don’t add to the narrative. There is little description of aircraft, so those who didn’t spend their youth making Airfix models of Sturmoviks, Pe-2s and Yak 9s are going to struggle.
The book is a competent history of the pilots of Luftwaffe fighter branch. But it could have been so much more, so much better and so more interesting. 3 out of 5