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Author, film researcher and member of the Swedish Military History Commission.

Friday, June 19, 2020

An Eagle´s Odyssey

Ju 52 and Bf 110 are highlighted but in the end the author commanded Bf 109s.

Luftwaffe pilot memoirs are not rare but An Eagle´s Odyssey by Johannes Kaufman deserves special attention. Kaufmann was an extremely experienced pilot when the war ended and tells his story with precision.

Johannes Kaufmann´s first training flights took place in 1935. Ten years later, in April 1945, he escorted colleagues on Kamikaze type missions. What you get from reading An Eagle´s Odyssey is a real insider´s account of what life in the Third Reich´s Luftwaffe was like, from the incredibly fast rise to the ferocious end.

Professor Richard Overy provides a fitting foreword to this piece of air power history and I find it hard to not agree with him both about the great value of the book and also what it is lacking. It is a book that is very, very focused on the Luftwaffe pilot´s training, tools and combat experience. It is almost as if the war beyond the view from the cockpit did not exist. But the author explains this somewhat in passage about when news reached him of Hitler´s order to unleash war upon the West in 1940:

“All hopes of an early end to the war appeared to be dashed. Every radio bulletin was followed with keen interest. There was a definite feeling of apprehension, not to say concern [but] nobody expressed their misgivings out loud. We had already reached the stage where most of us were beginning to think it prudent to keep our views on current events to ourselves.”

Well, if you are aware of the book´s focus on aircraft and flying and are trying to understand e.g. the German side of some event in the air war, then you will be rewarded. To begin with, Johannes Kaufmann will take you along to the Luftwaffe´s early version of basic flying training. Then he flies Ju 52s during the war against Poland, becomes a flight instructor and is put in charge of collecting captured aircraft from all over France. All the time Kaufmann vividly describes his flights.

Messerschmitt´s twin-engined long-range Zerstörer (destroyer), i.e. heavy fighter, the Bf 110, then comes alive. This is thanks to Kaufmann´s posting to the Zerstörerschule (destroyer school) Schleissheim. Then follows a pilot´s view of the Eastern Front and here is a quote from the book to illustrate the early missions over the Soviet Union: “First we dive-bombed the hangars and technical sites, and then went in low to strafe the few aircraft dispersed about the field.”

Of great interest to UK readers should be Kaufmann´s words about how the RAF performed, and how he viewed the Spitfire. The real gem, though, in my opinion, is his time in Jagdgeschwader 4 and especially what he writes about the German Kamikaze equivalents, in German called SO pilots, SO meaning Selbstopfer = self-sacrifice.

This book was first published in German in 1989 but only last year appeared also in English. I have a strong feeling that the translation has captured both the meaning and style of the original text. It has also been somewhat updated, I understand. There are only four photos, on the back cover, but the text is the richest I have so far come across about a Luftwaffe pilot´s flight experiences.

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