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Posted Monday, July 18, 2005

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London, March 10, 1974


by Stephen Roskill

THOUGH we already have many accounts of the Battle of Britain and of the strategic bombing campaign against Germany from the British point of view, much less has been published here about how those conflicts were waged by the other side.

David Irving's full study The Rise and Fall of the Luftwaffe: the Life of Luftwaffe Marshal Erhard Milch therefore deserves a warm welcome, since Milch was a key figure, first in the illegal re-creation of German air power, as a director of Lufthansa, and later in every respect of its application in the Second World War.

Milch reached the peak of his power and influence early in 1943 when he held simultaneously the offices of State Secretary to Göring as Air Minister, Inspector-General and Deputy C.-in-C. of the Luftwaffe, Director of Air Armament and Chairman of Lufthansa.

Until his sudden and complete fall early in 1945 he wielded vast power; he was repeatedly given seemingly impossible tasks by Hitler, such as organising the air-lift by which it was hoped to save Paulus's Sixth Army in Stalingrad; he displayed outstanding administrative ability, great resource and indomitable courage.

Though his devotion to Hitler and his friendship with Himmler will not endear him to British readers, he was one of the very few in the Fuhrer's sycophantic entourage who told him the truth to his face -- unpalatable though it might be.

In the field of production the almost miraculous feat of completing 2,000 fighters per month in the spring of 1944, and 3,375 in September, despite the heavy damage inflicted on the aircraft factories by Allied bombers, was chiefly Milch's accomplishment. The temporary defeat of both our daylight raids and of the night attacks on Berlin must also be attributed to him.

On virtually every strategic issue -- from urging the immediate invasion of this country in June, 1940, to opposing the attack on Russia and telling, Hitler that he should make peace after the defeat at Stalingrad -- Milch now appears to have been correct. He was also right in his desire to give the first jet fighter (the Me. 262) absolute priority, and in his insistence that the V1 pilotless bomber was a far more cost-effective weapon than the V2 rocket.

Milch in conferenceIndeed, it does not go too far to say that, had his advice been heeded more often, the outcome of the war might have been different.

Though Mr. Irving has made splendid use of the Milch papers and other German records which he has been able to study, his narrative is marred by a number of slips or mistakes which, taken together, suggest that he is less familiar with the broad history of . the period than with the details of events inside Germany. To give only a few examples: he shifts the 1932 Genoa Conference to Geneva; it is an exaggeration to say that Britain was "arming fast" in 1936 (the first Defence Loans Act was not passed until 1937). Mr. Irving is wrong about our intentions at the start of the Norwegian campaign in 1940, and he has given renewed currency to the legend that it was "shoals of British small craft" that rescued the B.E.F. from Dunkirk.

No matter what Milch's faults may have been, it is difficult not to feel a sense of shame at his treatment while a prisoner of war in our hands. The way in which we handed him over for the travesty of a trial as a war criminal by the Americans at Nuremberg, and his conviction largely on the perjured evidence of a proven criminal, must shock anyone who trusts in the basic justice applied by democratic nations.

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