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Posted Tuesday, May 24, 2005

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March 15, 1974


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

TO look at the genesis and downfall of the Luftwaffe with David Irving largely through the eyes of [Erhard] Milch is to be impressed once again with the German government's lack of vision, its rejection time after time of good advice and Göring's inability to pick the right man for the job -- or to back the right man when luck presented him.

Before war was imminent Milch submitted a ten-year plan for the development of air force equipment and training, and had it turned down. He concluded that what Göring wanted was a "propaganda air force ", not a real one, but he went on trying to convince his superiors of the need of an efficient fighter force. He nearly succeeded in 1943-44 when the' strategic campaigns of the RAF aid the United States Air Force were conducted only at great cost in men and aircraft. In the end he was eased out of his position as director of air armaments, but he continued to believe that not even the massive strikes of the Flying Fortresses against Germany's oil supplies could have defeated her if the fighters, particularly the jet fighters. could have taken over in sufficient numbers.

The Nazis had made an exciting start in evading the Versailles Treaty, with their secret pilot-training, their building of commercial aircraft convertible into bombers, their organization of an aircraft industry and an air staff. The seeds of trouble were sown when Hitler launched into war two years too soon early successes gave him his persistent faith in the bomber. By 1944 he was converted to the defensive idea which Milch had advocated from the start, but it was too late. Hitler and Göring had made no allowance for the fact that specialist aircraft took. much longer to develop in the 1940s than they had done in 1914. In any event, they had neglected the long-range bomber, partly because Göring emphasized numbers and Hitler the tactical use of the air arm. By 1943 they were fuming at the superior characteristics of the Fortresses, the Lancasters and especially the Mosquitoes. Milch's diaries, to which Mr Irving has had access, contain convincing evidence.

There can be no doubt from this evidence that Milch thought along the right lines and sought to influence policy and action. When he failed to move his masters, he remained loyal to them, though he had to contend with Göring's vanity and Udet's shiftlessness throughout the years when the latter was in charge of aircraft design and production. Milch was hampered, too, by Messerschmitt's love of new projects and lack of interest in production.

Later he found his friend Speer blocking his attempts to get the requisite men and materials for the aircraft industry. The wonder is that he succeeded between 1939 and 1944 in multiplying output four times: indeed, Hitler several times alluded to Milch as the man to whom the word "impossible" was unknown. Hitler also relied on his thrust and enterprise in the more difficult military situations, belatedly putting him in charge of supplying by air the beleaguered army in Stalingrad. The tale of how Milch restored the flow by energetic action on the airfields, with the temperature 27 degrees below zero, and inside Stalingrad itself is proof of the quality of the man (he had already won his Knight's Cross as field marshal directing the air operations in Norway.)

Milch in conference

Mr Irving occasionally describes Milch as "ruthless ". It would be more accurate to say "single-minded and endlessly energetic ". He was not ruthless enough to get Udet unseated when he went on neglecting his work and presenting misleading returns: Udet was his friend. He could do little to move or remove Göring, who admitted that he never read his reports and was clearly jealous of him: Göring, too, had been his friend. Milch remained devoted to Hitler despite his leader's annoyance when he spoke frankly.

There is no suggestion that, with these weaknesses cured, he could have saved the Luftwaffe. There were too many changes in military objectives and in the assessment of the means necessary to their realization. The Rise and Fall of the Luftwaffe does not alter in any marked degree earlier conclusions about the Luftwaffe's ultimate defeat.

But the book does set out the muddle of competing interests, the intense vitality of the air effort, and the clash of personalities watching their own prospects. Milch was not ruthless enough, or concerned enough with his own glory, to make a successful gladiator in that contest. Ironically, he was disgracefully used by the United States authorities when they got hold of him for treating his workers harshly. In truth, he fought harder for them than he did for himself.

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