Authors: Jean-Yves Lorant and Richard Goyat (translated by Neil Page)
Hardbound - 400 pages
1000? B&W photos
3 x Colour photos
26 x Colour profiles by Thomas A. Tullis and Richard Goyat.
Available in 2 versions: Standard hardbound (reviewed here) and a Deluxe Leather Bound Limited edition of only 300 copies signed by Hajo Herrmann (ISBN 0-9761034-1-9 Price:$165.00).
Some readers may feel uneasy at the publication of a book devoted to a Luftwaffe unit of the Third Reich era, but it in no way glorifies Nazism. The authors, Jean-Yves Lorant and Richard Goyat, are both sons of French resistance members and have set out to write this detailed account of a Nazi unit as objective history which is dedicated to"all the survivors of that enormous waste of human life and to the memory of all those, in England, Germany and Italy, who one day clambered up into their aircraft not knowing that they had less than two hours to live... Let us not forget them."
The roots of the book stem from the chance to meet Paul Lixfeld, a former pilot of 6. Staffel 11(Sturm)/ JG300 in 1977. From there things snowballed, with more interviews with veterans leading to an astonishing 20 years of research into the men and machines of JG300. The scope is vast, ranging from night- to day-fighting and the first part of this mammoth undertaking actually covers far more than the specifics of JG300. For instance, the Introduction deals briefly with the organization of Luftwaffe fighter units, before examining in some detail the discrepancies between German and Allied claims for losses and victories, and explaining how the authors correlated the different documents for the purposes of the book.
A little background"... I fail to see how your machines can shoot down British bombers. Do you have any idea of the sheer weight of metal flying about up there every night at the heights you intend to operate? It can be quantified in tons, hundreds of tons. That's millions of pieces of shrapnel. You want to fly straight into that hell? That's not night fighting, that's... a wild boar's charge!"
Generaloberst Weise, objecting to Hajo Herrmann about the concept of freelance single-seat nightfighters in 1943.
RAF night bombing of Germany began relatively humbly in 1940, with pin-prick attacks that achieved very little for the effort expended. A British report of the period revealed that only one bomb in four was even dropped within five miles of its intended target. Faced with such failings, Bomber Command totally revised its strategy; if pin-point attacks were impractical, raids would be aimed at German industry in the broadest sense - particularly the homes of the workers in order, hopefully, to disrupt production and break the morale of the population - attacks would be launched against "built up areas, not, for instance, on dockyards or aircraft factories"
. Along with the change of targets came the arrival of the RAF's first true heavy bombers and a massive increase in production, culminating in the first "1000 bomber raids" aimed at overwhelming German defences and establishing Bomber Command as a vital offensive weapon.
Against this onslaught, the Luftwaffe rapidly developed highly effective countermeasures under the leadership of General Josef Kammhuber, who organised an uninterrupted chain of Freya and Würzburg ground radar stations controlling twin-engined night fighters, backed up with searchlights and flak in a belt 30km deep extending from Denmark to Switzerland. Impressive as it was, the "Kammhuber Line" depended critically on good weather for the flak and searchlights and was itself vulnerable to disruption and jamming with its fixed ground installations. Kammhuber himself recognised that the future lay in the development of effective airborne radar, but German industry proved incapable of developing such a system quickly enough. And the pressure was on; German commanders were dismayed by the findings of a 1942 report which estimated that British industry had delivered 15,200 twin and four-engined bombers, against which Germany had produced only 1,700 night fighters. Even more alarming, looming on the horizon was the American juggernaut which, while still far from at full production, had built an incredible 30,000 aircraft in the same period.
Thus, with the war situation steadily worsening, Luftwaffe pilots were faced with defending their homeland at odds of 5:1 or worse against them. In this light, Hajo Herrmann suggested a radical plan to counter the growing number of RAF night raiders while, at the same time, avoiding the problems associated with ground-controlled nightfighters; transfer day fighters to form special freelance units operating directly over German cities, relying on the intense glow of the fires started to illuminate their prey. In March 1943 Hermann succeeded in obtaining an Fw 190A-4 for night testing and, in April, seized his chance to intercept an RAF Mosquito raiding Berlin. This combat, though unsuccessful, established the principal in Hermann's mind and from it was born first Gruppe Herrmann and eventually JG 300 - the first of the Wilde Sau units.
Volume One follows the unit from June 1943 to Sept 1944, tracing its inception, through the subsequent switch from night- to day-fighting to combat the growing threat from American raids and culminating in some of the greatest aerial battles ever seen in the summer of 1944.
The book is printed on very high quality heavyweight paper. Most pages contain B&W photos - often 2 or more, so at a rough estimate, there must be well over 1000 photos here. The reproduction is faultless and, while the quality of the originals obviously varies, they have been printed with care to optimise the tonal range and reveal the details so prized by modellers. Some of the photos are well-known, but the vast majority are drawn from the private collections of former JG 300 members and their families. As such, they appear here in print for the first time and represent a truly unique record of the operational lives of the pilots.
The range of subjects is remarkable - there's everything here, from the Wilde Sau Bf 109s and Fw 190s, through standard dayfighters and assault fighters. Among them are some absolute gems for anyone looking for unusual colour schemes - such as Oblt. Kurt Gabler's natural-metal Bf109 G-6, extraordinary "mirror-wave" variations and some really individual night-fighter schemes. One of the important aspects of the photo coverage is that the authors have often managed to find multiple photos of the same machine to reveal more of the camouflage and markings. In all cases, the photos are backed up with detailed and informative captions.
Many of the more striking schemes are also carefully reconstructed in a series of beautiful colour profiles by T.Tullis and Richard Goyat. Unfortunately, there aren't any plan-views included, but careful comparison with the photos usually helps fill in the blanks. In cases where there are no photos, a little "educated guesswork" is really the order of the day, which would be equally true whether you do it yourself or rely on the artists.
While modellers will relish the absolute goldmine of unusual colour schemes and close-up details of the JG 300 aircraft, this book, above all, is about the pilots. Each chapter takes the form of a detailed unit combat diary. The detail is quite extraordinary - each day's combat is described in exacting detail through comparison of German and Allied records. A combat diary sounds potentially rather "dry", but that certainly isn't the case here, because the well-written text is really brought to life by powerful first-hand accounts of the fighting from the Luftwaffe pilots - either drawn from private memoirs or interviews with the veterans. These stories make for some of the most gripping descriptions of WW2 dogfighting I've ever read - they are as vivid as if the events took place yesterday and the contrast between the sheer scale of some the actions, the tiny details of personal drama, the terror and, ultimately, the tragic waste of young lives is noteworthy. None of the passages are written in a boasting or exaggerated way - these are the recollections of the men who were there, told in the matter-of-fact manner common to veterans the world over. Death and terrible injuries haunt the accounts as a daily fact of life, coupled with the need to overcome grief and tiredness and do it all again the following day or night:
"In my earphones, someone called out that the towns under attack were Remscheid and Solingen. My attention was caught for a few moments by a Lancaster trapped in a beam attempting some desperate maneuvers to escape the attentions of a nightfighter. Finally, the English pilot pulled up the nose of his aircraft but miscalculated his stall-turn. At that moment he was hit by a burst of fire from the fighter and the bomber literally disintegrated."
Uffz. Hubert Engst.
The details of the characters are particularly useful, and careful study of the text will add much to models and dioramas depicting the men and machines of the Gruppe. There's Walter Dahl - Kommodore of JG 300, known among his young pilots as "the old man", despite the fact that he wasn't yet 30 years old himself. Photos of Dahl show him often sporting a captured American A2 flying jacket. Meanwhile, Ernst Schröder gives a vivid account of flying his famous Fw 190A-8 "Red 19" "Kölle Alaaf" (one of the decal options in Tamiya's new 1/48 scale Fw 190A-8) in combat with P-51s:
"...Suddenly I saw several aircraft with their characteristic silhouettes, glinting: P-51B Mustangs! Events unfolded at a prodigious speed. Having reassured myself that there were no enemy aircraft on my tail, I dove after the Americans which were in pursuit of other 109s and 190s at lower altitude. A brutal maneuver and a black veil started to come down across my eyes. Too bad! I pulled the stick back a little more. The P-51 which I was following disappeared beneath my 190's bulky engine cowl. I opened up at that moment with everything I had and let the American fly through a deadly cone of 20mm shells. There was a single explosion in the Mustang which rolled several times and broke up in front of my eyes. All this in much less time than it takes to say it!"
This was just the first of two successful combats for Schröder that day and there's confirmation of how the aircraft was fitted with an EZ40 gyro gunsight which promptly malfunctioned, forcing Schröder to use it in fixed mode.
Perhaps the most unusual among a colourful group of pilots was Fw. Ernst Schäfer. One of the pilots who first flew with Gruppe Herrmann in the early days, Schäfer acquired a reputation for aerobatic take-offs, but stands out for something far more significant - he was a committed anti-Nazi following the internment of his father, and he is clearly distinguishable in photos wearing his cap minus the usual Luftwaffe eagle clutching a Swastika. It must have been at some considerable personal risk that he removed the Nazi insignia from his uniform, and it says much for the unique fighting spirit and camaraderie among JG 300 that his colleagues either turned a blind eye or quietly supported him - his new commander merely noting his protest as an "interesting character trait"...
Training and losses etc.
The last chapter is a concise description of the Wilde Sau training programme by Jaques Calcine (former Lt. Col. in the L'Armee de l'Air), accompanied by yet more unusual photos, this time of the various training aircraft used by future JG 300 pilots. Finally, there's a comprehensive list of claims and losses from 22 April 1943 to 16 Sept 1944, and descriptions of the various day and night fighting Staffel colours and Gruppe symbols, plus a glossary of Luftwaffe ranks and terms with their Allied equivalents.
This is a marvellous book and I've only begun to scratch the surface of the true depth of detail here. The value to modellers actually goes way beyond being restricted to JG 300 - the variety of colour schemes and the details in the photos will be a source of inspiration for models of Luftwaffe fighters for years to come. The cover price may seem high, but this all is set into perspective by the extraordinary amount of material contained within. When you realise that the standard version only costs the equivalent of about 10 monthly magazines, which would contain only a fraction of the material gathered here, the book actually turns out to be remarkably good value.
Jagdgeschwader 300 - A Chronicle of a Fighter Geschwader in the Battle for Germany - Volume 1 is a moving testimony to the members of the unit and their former foes. In an account like this, the last words should belong to one of the former pilots:
"I recall one afternoon, when we were sitting out on the terrace of the small country house where we were quartered. Around the table were seated the pilots of the best Schwarm that I ever had the privilege of leading: Hajo Riedel, "Lumpi" Hundsdörfer, "Hänschen" Dahmen and myself were absorbed in a game of cards. It was a pleasantly mild afternoon and as usual when not at readiness, the Kasino orderly was serving tea on the terrace. Out of the blue, our youngster "Hänschen" Dahmen, who was not yet 20 years old, suddenly asked - without interrupting the game -, "What do you think, how old do you imagine we'll live to be?"
This question caused some scratching of heads. We discussed the possibilities for a while before deciding, all things considered, that we would probably reach the age of seventy. We would perhaps even live a few years longer if we were still in good health... The game continued, but after ten minutes, "Lumpi" Hundsdörfer pushed back his chair, stood up, threw his hand of cards onto the table, declared "You're all completely crazy!" and turning his back on us, left the terrace.
You know the rest of the story. A few days later, Hajo Riedel died a tragic death. In early 1945, Uffz. "Hänschen" Dahmen was shot down by a Russian anti-aircraft gun and "Lumpi" Hundsdörfer also failed to survive the war. On the day I reached seventy years of age, I sat late in the evening drinking a glass of champagne, remembering that day in Bad Frankenhausen and the men of my best ever Schwarm..."
Ofhr. Friedrich-Wilhelm Schenk, 2./JG 300.
Eagle Editions Ltd.
P.O. Box 580
Thank you to Eagle Editions for kindly supplying the review sample.