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Posted Tuesday, May 24, 2005

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March 10, 1974


by A J P Taylor

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

THE German Air Force or Luftwaffe was Hitler's secret weapon in the years before the Second World War. British and French statesmen trembled before it like a rabbit before a snake.

The bomber will always get through; two million casualties in the first fortnight; all the great cities of Europe raised to the. ground. When war came, though there was damage enough, it fell far below expectations. In the end it was Germany's enemies who used air power to decisive effect. Here is a remarkable topic, not yet adequately explored.

David Irving found a new and invaluable source for his book. This was Erhard Milch, creator of Lufthansa - Germany's international airline - after the First World War; State Secretary for Air, immediately under Goering, when the Nazis came to power; the ablest figure in the Luftwaffe during the Second World War and its senior Field Marshal. Sentenced to life imprisonment on perjured evidence after the Second World War, Milch was released on parole 10 years later and was living obscurely in retirement when Irving met him. He produced all his official records and private papers, insisted on the semi-concealment of one private point and otherwise gave Irving a free hand.

The result is a biography of Milch, slanted as it were towards the Luftwaffe. Irving's earlier books have sometimes shown exaggeration and lack of judgement. This one is scholarly, fair and highly informative. With its details about aircraft types and equipment, it is not an easy book to read. Those more technically minded than I am will not find this an obstacle.

Technicalities apart, the effect of the book is clear: the entire Nazi system, once so feared, was incredibly inefficient, and the Luftwaffe high up on this scale. The Germans were not clear for what purpose, apart from Army co-operation, they wanted aircraft. They had no aircraft suited to long-range bombing and never got round to four-engine bombers. They never devised a fighter up to the level of the Spitfire. Production always dragged behind promises. In 1941, for instance, the factories produced fewer aircraft than in 1940. The air commanders were not perturbed. In 1942 the chief of the air staff said: 'I do not know what I should do with more than 360 fighters a month.' Milch raised the figure to 1,000, and this proved far from enough. By 1944, when Milch was pushed aside, the industry was producing 15 times as many aircraft as in 1941. The story of Milch's conflicts with his air marshals makes me feel quite at home: it is the story of the Ministry of Aircraft Production and the Air Staff all over again.

Great Britain fortunately had MAP. Milch had to fight his battles as an individual. Goering put his favourites in the top posts. Udet, the chief of them, was driven to suicide by his own incompetence. Professors Messerschmitt and Heinkel, the two leading designers (I wonder whether they were really professors?) refused to do what they were told and intrigued with Hitler in order to be able to do something else.

Hitler had flashes of appreciating Milch and ranked him with Speer as "the men for whom, as for me, there was no such word as impossible." But Milch stood up to Hitler too much. After Stalingrad he told Hitler that, had he been Paulus, he would have disobeyed orders and broken out. Hitler replied that he would have then been obliged to lay Milch's head at his feet, to which Milch answered: 'Mein Fuhrer. it would have been worth it! One field marshal sacrificed, to save 300,000 men." Not surprisingly Milch ended the war in virtual retirement.

The sequel should make any British or American reader cringe. Milch was arrested by British troops who stole his gold watches and cigarette case. At the prison camp a commando officer [Brigadier Derek Mills-Roberts] beat him over the head with his field marshal's baton. The British handed Milch over to the Americans quite illegally, and their treatment of the 'war criminals' was as bad as that of the Nazis towards their opponents had been -- including confinement in Dachau under exactly similar conditions.

Milch in conference

Though Milch had quarrelled with Goering before the end of the war, he gave evidence in Goering's defence. Two exchanges with the American prosecutor are worthy of record. What was his attitude towards air raids on civilians?

Milch: I can think of nothing crueller and more objectionable than such air raids; and anybody who still has any doubts has only to look at Hamburg, Berlin, Leipzig, the Ruhr cities and particularly Dresden to see what I mean.

Prosecutor: You are of course aware that Norway's neutrality was violated?

Milch: Jawohl. To our knowledge, in our view, it was violated twice.

(Milch understated: it was violated three times - twice by Great Britain, once by Germany.) The American prosecution also made great play with Milch's half-Jewish origin, a discreditable line to take even if true. It was not true. Milch tolerated the rumours to conceal that his father was his mother's maternal uncle, the one fact that Irving chivalrously evades.

Milch directed the unsuccessful air lift to Stalingrad - unsuccessful because inadequately sustained by Goering and the air marshals. Tho last signal of the Stalingrad radio station was 'signing over and out.' Milch chose the announcement of his own death: ' Erhard Milch,, Field Marshal: born 30 March 1892, died 25 January 1972, signs over and out.'

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