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Posted Tuesday, May 24, 2005

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"Books and Bookman + Argosy"
May 1974


by H Montgomery Hyde

1: DAVID IRVING: The Rise and Fail of the Luftwaffe. The Life of Luftwaffe Marshal Erhard Milch, 451pp WEIDENFELD & NICOLSON £5.95

2: BASIL COLLIER: A History of Air Power, 358PP WEIDENFELD & NICOLSON £5.95

THE STORY of the Nazi air force or the Luftwaffe, as it is generally known, forms an important and most significant chapter in contemporary European history. By the Treaty of Versailles after the First World War, Germany was forbidden to possess a military air force and the result was that she concentrated on the development of civil aviation. With the advent of Hitler to power, the country began the process of secret rearmament in the air and under the guise of expanding her civil air fleet was able to produce a substantial nucleus of military aircraft. The British Foreign Secretary Sir John Simon and his colleague Anthony Eden were first apprised of this disturbing news from the Fuehrer's own lips when they were received by him on their visit to Berlin in March 1935.

More than anyone else the man responsible for the emergence of the Luftwaffe and the machines which it embodied was Erhard Milch, right, a pilot observer of the First War who became director of the German civil airline Deutsche Lufthansa at the age of thirty-three. Introduced by Hermann Goering to Hitler in 1930, Milch joined the Nazi Party, and three years later, when Hitler became Chancellor, Milch accepted the post of state secretary of the embryo Air Ministry. Hitler promoted him Field Marshal on the fall of France and he was later put in charge of aircraft production until he incurred Hitler's disfavour in 1944 and he was relieved of his offices, that of Director of Air Armament being absorbed by Albert Speer, the Nazi war armaments chief.

Although captured by the British at the time of Germany's surrender, Milch was handed over -- quite illegally -- to the Americans who tried him at Nuremberg as a war criminal, and he was sentenced to life imprisonment. After serving ten years he was released and lived under a cloak of anonymity in Dusseldorf, working for a foreign aviation company until his death in 1972, a few weeks short of his eightieth birthday.

Meanwhile Mr David Irving had succeeded in tracking him down, conversing with him at length and being allowed to see and microfilm his personal diaries and notebooks. In addition Mr Irving was able to use Milch's official papers, which had been captured by the British; after being held for a time in the Air Historical Branch of the Air Ministry and later by the Imperial War Museum in London, these were eventually restored to the Bundesarchiv in West Germany. From this mass of original material Mr Irving has written a masterly and extremely well documented account of the rise and fall of the Nazi air force in the context of Milch's life[1].

Milch's appointment as a Director of Germany's newly formed national airline through the amalgamation of the two existing airlines in 1925 turned out to be 'a far more momentous step' than Milch ever guessed. 'Without it,' he wrote after his capture, 'I would have forfeited the most rewarding period of my life, the years from 1925 to 1933 with Deutsche Lufthansa; I would not have become a soldier again in 1933, and a Field Marshal in 1940; nor would I now be sitting in a confined and gloomy cell. How inscrutable are the paths of man!'

Like another airman, though of more lowly rank -- Aircraft-man T E Shaw, otherwise Colonel Lawrence ('Lawrence of Arabia') -- Milch was born illegitimate. The accident of his birth was to prove an embarrassment to him, but for a different reason than with Lawrence. In Milch's case, his nominal father, Anton Milch, who had married his mother, was of Jewish antecedents, though his mother was not; neither was his real father. Nevertheless it was alleged that Erhard Milch was Jewish, not only by his enemies under the Hitler regime, but even more unjustly by the American prosecutor at Nuremburg. The reason why Frau Milch never married Erhard's father was that their relationship was one which the Church forbade as between man and wife. Out of respect for Milch's wishes, Mr Irving goes no further than this -- in fact the father was the mother Clara Milch's maternal uncle.

In October 1937, Milch led an impressive Luftwaffe delegation to London. They were shown round the 'shadow factories' in the Midlands-producing cars and engines ready for immediate conversion to aircraft production in the event of war. They also visited a number of RAF fighter and bomber squadrons. Irving does not mention that the Milch party were only shown obsolescent types of aircraft, but it is doubtful if they were taken in by this camouflage. Nor does Milch's biographer mention how his hosts told him apologetically that it was not possible to take him to the RAF experimental station at Martlesham, to which news Milch reacted with a smile, remarking that he had already visited the aerodrome there, 'as he was passing that way'.

However, Irving does relate two stories of this visit which are new to me. At a rather formal luncheon given in his honour at Fighter Command Headquarters, Milch enlivened the proceedings by asking his hosts, 'How are you getting on with your experiments in the radio detection of aircraft approaching your shores?' The effect of this blunt question was dramatic. Glasses clattered to the floor and a very red-faced air vice-marshal tried to laugh it off. But Milch persisted that there was no need to be so coy. 'We have known for some time that you are developing a radar system,; he said.. 'So are we, and we think we are a jump ahead of you.' Word of this appears to have reached Hitler, since years later he was to complain that Milch had betrayed the secret of radar to the British.

The other story concerns a party given for Milch by the Air Minister Lord Swinton, to which a number of English parliamentarians interested in defence matters were also invited. They included Winston Churchill, Duff Cooper, Leo Amery, and Lord Trenchard, the former chief of the Air Staff. Churchill decided somewhat roguishly to have a bit of fun at the distinguished guest's expense on the subject of gliders, which it was open secret were being used by the Germans to train potential military pilots.

'What do you think of gliding as a sport?' Churchill asked Milch. 'Do you think I could pick it up, if I tried to, at my age?' Milch courteously offered him the opportunity in Germany where the Luftwaffe maintained extensive gliding sc hools. 'If you value gliding so highly,' Churchill went on, 'could you not with profit dispense with powered flight entirely? That would eminently solve our difficulties!' This query brought delighted chuckles from the English members of the party, who showed surprise when Milch replied, 'I am convinced that our Fuehrer would accept such a proposal.'

Churchill thereupon removed his cigar and said, 'Oh, really?' Milch then proceeded to explain that there was one small condition attached to Germany's acceptance of the proposal - 'that the Royal Navy revert to those beautiful old sailing ships!' This time it was the turn of Milch to chuckle, as Lord Swinton loudly proclaimed, 'One-nil to Milch!' It must have been an amusing occasion, since according to Milch's unpublished memoirs, which are the authority for this story, the party did not break up until the small hours of the morning.

Unfortunately Germany did not have anything comparable to Britain's Ministry of Aircraft Production, which whatever it's faults under the late Lord Beaverbrook's dynamic personality at least produced goods. The whole German system was incredibly inefficient, while the clash of personalities and intrigues at a high level were fatal for Milch's work. For instance the Germans were never able to devise a fighter comparable to the Spitfire, and they never got round to four-engined bombers in spite of their Stukas; production always lagged behind promises designed to reassure Hitler. Milch was one of the very few who stood up to the Fuehrer and for this he paid the penalty of being pushed aside. But he did manage to keep alive, unlike the two generals, Ernst Udet, the director of the air arnament, and Hans Jeschonnek, the chief of the air staff, who both committed suicide.

Milch in conference

In the middle of January 1943, Milch was ordered to save Paulus's Sixth Army, entrapped before Stalingrad, by a strong reinforcement of Luftwaffe fighters and bombers, dropping supplies. Milch did his best but was inadequately sustained by Goering and the other air marshals. As the Russian forces were smashing in the door of the German radio station at Stalingrad, the station 'signed over and out'. This final message brought tears to Milch's eyes as he heard it over the air.

When Milch died twenty-nine years later, the German press published the news in the terms he had expressly requested: 'Erhard Milch, Field Marshal, born 30 March 1892, died 25 January 1972, signs over and out.' It was the last characteristic gesture of the man who had been compelled to stand by helpless and watch the deterioration and eventual destruction of the air force which he above all in the Third Reich had built up.

Whatever damage his literary reputation may have suffered as the result of the publication of The Destruction of Convoy PQ 17 and the consequent libel proceedings David Irving has handsomely retrieved it by his latest work. In my judgement The Rise and Fall of the Luftwaffe ranks with Albert Speer's memoirs Inside the Third Reich as by far the most important book on Hitler's Germany to have appeared.

The first-hand information it contains is vividly as well as painstakingly and methodically presented by Mr Irving, with a useful wealth of technical detail, and his achievement is a magnificent contribution to the history of our times. It has been a long while since I have read anything based on such massive original documentary and other research which has told me so much about its subject. Undoubtedly, it places David Irving in the front rank of contemporary historians.

I WISH I could say the same about Mr Basil Collier and his latest study of air power, or air operations, for that is what his book is realty about.[2] Incidentally Mr Collier's work contains only four brief references to Milch, scarcely adequate, I should have thought, in a work of this kind which must necessarily devote some space to the history of the Luftwaffe. And two of the references are inaccurate. Milch was not chairman of Deutsche Lufthansa, but Managing Director, or Chief Executive. Nor is it strictly speaking correct to describe him as 'Secretary of State for Air', which suggests that he was head of the German Air Ministry. In fact, Goering headed it. Milch was Staatssekretar or 'State Secretary', if you like, ie. the top civil servant in the department. But these are minor blemishes in a competent survey.

I must be fair to Mr Collier, who is a military historian of note and indeed has worked in the Cabinet office as one of the official historians of the Second World War. The bibliography of his latest book indicates that he has confined himself entirely to works which have already been published and he does not appear to have made any direct use of original documentary and unpublished sources. But subject to this limitation he has produced a useful account in compact form of the story of air power, or rather air operations, from the invention of the kite by the Chinese 2,300 years ago to the Israeli-Egyptian Six Day War and the American war with the Communists in Vietnam.

Mr Collier rightly points out that the Israelis owed their superiority in the air not, as was widely believed in Arab countries, to help given them by foreign air forces, for in fact such help was not forthcoming. They owed it to careful preparation and planning the choice of targets, as well as the skill and courage of well-trained airmen. In the result the Israeli Air Force destroyed nearly three hundred Egyptian aircraft on the ground in three hours on 5 June 1967 similarly wiping out the Jordanian Air Force. The Arabs learned their lesson, so that the going was not nearly so easy for the Israelis in the more recent Yom Kippur War.

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