At the outbreak of World War Two, Adolf Galland was a flight lieutenant in the Luftwaffe, having seen a tour of duty with the Condor Legion in the Spanish Civil War. He rose to the height of Inspector of Fighters during the war and ended up in combat again as the commander of Germany's largest (and practically only) jet fighter unit, battling against overwhelming odds with the world's first jet interceptor, the Messerschmidt 262.
The First and the Last is not really an autobiography as such - although the author briefly describes his early years, the book ends in 1945 (Galland lived on for some decades after the war). Nor will the reader find much detail about life in Nazi Germany except where Nazi politics impinged upon Luftwaffe operations (a fairly significant part of the book, particularly later in the war). This book is no more and no less than what it claims to be, the story of Germany's fighter force as seen by the man who became intimately associated with it.
The early part of the book illustrates the lengths to which German youth would go to fly, tacitly supported by the government with its support of glider schools. In those days it was quite acceptable for young men to build their own gliders and enter them into competitions. Like many fighter pilots, Galland seems to have been a rather high-spirited youth, qualities that stood them in good stead if they were capable of accepting discipline as well. Talking about the Spanish Civil War, he mentions his high regard for the ability of the Republicans to conceal their ground force. Interestingly he also notes that at least some Germans had reservations about Franco and his true intentions, and that the huge inequalities in Spain still seemed to exist despite the rhetoric of both sides. Throughout the book Galland does not make many political comments, so those that do emerge are often quite interesting.
Of chief interest to many British readers will of course be Galland's view of the Battle of Britain. During the campaign he commanded JG26 over the Channel coast. Looking back on this period, he notes that it is still difficult with hindsight to establish whether Seelion might have succeeded if it had been launched almost immediately, rather than being planned in the dilatory nature that really happened. His main explanations for the first Luftwaffe failure are the very short range of the Me109 at the time (covering about one tenth of British territory from their French airfields) and the low available strength of the bomber force, numbering only 600-700 medium bombers. When one considers that it took two years of 1,000 bomber raids by much larger Allied planes to cause significant damage to Germany, one must necessarily concede that Galland has a fair point. As he points out, this was also the first independent strategic air campaign in history, and lessons were still being learned with a fighting force that was still only four years old. The Western Allies were to learn from the experiences and use them against the Luftwaffe later on.
This reviewer found that the most interesting parts of the book were those relating to Germany's aerial decline, and how Galland accounts for it. Although it would have been easy (and cheap) for him to join the postwar tide in bashing Hitler and the Nazis, he refrains from this and instead looks for more specific reasons. It is hard not to see, however, that his opinion of Goering was not particularly high. Early on he pays tribute to Goering's role as architect of the Luftwaffe (supported by Hitler), but after this praise is indeed thin on the ground. Although he never personally uses the nickname, he notes dryly that "Fatty" (which seems to have Goering's nickname among commanders) once sent night fighters on a wild goose chase half way around the Reich after falling for a British deception. Later on Goering's stock fell even lower (in fact by the end of the war only Hitler's strange sense of personal loyalty to old comrades seems to have ensured his survival) and senior fighter commanders confronted him in 1945 with a list of concerns about the conduct of aerial warfare. Despite their professional intent of avoiding name calling, Goering saw this as a revolt and reacted angrily, exiling some to outlying posts as far away as Italy and gunning for Galland whom he saw as the ringleader. Ironically this gave Galland what he wanted, for the former Inspector of Fighters was dismissed from his desk job and put in charge of the Me262 squadron, a standard to which the few remaining Luftwaffe fighter pilots were to rally round in the last desperate days of the war.
Hitler himself does not emerge particularly well from the book. Again, although Galland refrains from direct and easy criticism of the dictator, he makes it clear that Hitler's interference in the matter of the Me262 - his demand to convert the jet fighter to a bomber - was regarded with horror by the professionals. Indeed, there is a particularly dry moment when he notes that Hitler exclaims "None of you would have thought of that!" and leaves the reader in no doubt as to precisely why none of the fliers and strategists would have thought of it. Although Alfred Price has more recently vindicated Hitler's decision, the consensus of opinion is that in view of the grave strategic air situation over Germany at the time, the attempt to convert the Me262 to a bomber led to serious delays which could be ill-afforded. The Heinkel 162, the last-ditch jet fighter which was to fascinate military thinkers for several decades after the war, also comes in for severe criticism, both the plane itself and also the hare-brained scheme to use glider-trained Hitler Youth as pilots (a "levee en masse in the air", as Galland calls it). In the event although a number were delivered, hardly any saw action and the plan to use teenage pilots thankfully never reached fruition. In view of the influence that the He162 had on postwar thought, Galland's comments are quite interesting. Although complimentary about the rocket-powered Messerschmidt 163, he also notes that the obsession towards the end of the war with "point defence" (having small groups of aircraft defend particular targets) was also a strategic blind alley. It is hard in view of what he says to disagree with his assessment that resources would have been better spent on the Me262, a proven and successful design.
The tenor of the book throughout is fairly professional and terse, without excessive dryness, moralising or self-pity. Although Galland obviously viewed the bombardment of German cities with anger, he refrains from railing against the Allies on this matter, just as he refrains from discussing the evil of the regime which he served. An interesting foreword to the book is contributed by the legless RAF ace Douglas Bader, who was shot down by Galland or one of his men over France and who met the German ace upon his (Bader's) subsequent capture. Bader relates the incident in his biography, Reach for the Sky, and Galland adds his own version of events and how Bader nearly persuaded him to let him fly an Me109 around the airfield! Both men seem to have had a genuine admiration for each other, and I believe kept in close touch after the war. Bader was aware of the horrors of Nazism proper but exonerates Galland from direct involvement since as a young man he could not be held responsible for the views and actions of Hitler and his henchmen. Instead he closes by saying
By any criterion, Galland is a brave man, and I personally shall look forward to meeting him again at any time, anywhere and in any company.
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