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An Eagle’s Odyssey – Johannes Kaufmann

Review by Neil Page.

Johannes Kaufmann enjoyed a long and diverse flying career in the Luftwaffe. He spent the first two years of the war as an instructor before flying his first combat sorties in July 1941, having retrained as a Bf 110 Zerstörer pilot with SKG 210 and ZG 1. He participated in the invasion of the Soviet Union (Barbarossa) and, as a ground attack pilot, flew low level strafing and bombing sorties against Russian tank and troop concentrations. His war ended at the controls of a Bf 109 escorting JG 4 Selbstopfer (self sacrifice) pilots flying against the Oder bridges. He also managed to score twelve victories, including a Thunderbolt over the Ardennes and a Shturmovik in the final days of the war over the ruins of a shattered Berlin.

That he survived is testament to his flying skills. His memoir Meine Flugberichte (My flight log) first appeared in German in 1989 – the cover photo depicted him being presented with a wreath to mark his 100th combat sortie in Russia. His career spanned most of Hitler’s war and highlights the ever-changing demands made on the Luftwaffe’s pilots. In his role as a ground attack pilot in Russia he had no experience, little training and developed his ‘tactical awareness’ in the unforgiving apprenticeship of combat. From low level bombing and strafing sorties (he flew at Stalingrad), he subsequently went on to maritime operations over the Atlantic with KG 40, before ‘re-training’ as a Bf 109 fighter pilot thrown into the desperate efforts to stem the Allied bomber offensive.

Unfortunately, while Kaufmann’s account is fascinating, the original German text was a difficult, if not to say somewhat dull, read, with timings for take offs and landings repeated throughout, and written almost exclusively from the point of view of Kaufmann’s logbook (hence the original title no doubt). However, translator John Weal was well aware of this and this new English edition – revised and enlarged from the original – attempts to rectify that situation by cutting out some of the detail and incorporating more context and background information on campaigns, locations and units. So, whereas, for example, Kaufmann did not fly his first sorties with JG 4 until late summer 1944 – having seen his Ju 88 ZG 1 Gruppe disbanded and reconstituted as III./ JG 4 – the translator provides an account of this unit’s establishment and early history defending the Ploesti oil fields in Romania. While he had done little combat flying with KG 40 and ZG 1 (chapters are devoted to both units), Kaufmann saw rather more action flying Reich defence sorties against the massed formations of US bombers, clashing with P-51 Mustang escorts on 27 September and 2 November 1944 missions which saw heavy losses inflicted on JG 4. While Kaufmann did not fly on the Bodenplatte operation, Weal includes an account of JG 4’s participation on the New Year’s Day attack on the Allied airfiels and the subsequent changes in command at the head of III./JG 4 resulting from the charges of ‘cowardice’ filed against Kommandeur Eberle.

Not withstanding the fact the translator’s voice comes to the fore throughout, the result provides a good insight into the life and times of an ‘ordinary’ Luftwaffe pilot. While there is a good deal of background on what life in a frontline combat unit was actually like, political comment is notable by its almost total absence (although Kaufmann does at one point attend one of Hitler’s rallies and listens to the three hour speech with ‘rapt attention’). Indeed, the neutral tone adopted throughout is a little disconcerting. There is no commentary whatsoever on the evolving war situation, nor is there any sense of impending defeat and chaos, Kaufmann, during a fighter leaders’ training course in March 1945, makes the point that lectures covering the German war economy and ‘post-war’ diplomacy were still being delivered. Weal’s writing is always a pleasure to read and if you have any of his previous translated personal accounts, such as Hanning’s Luftwaffe Fighter Ace, then this is worthy purchase. Rather unfortunately, perhaps, there are no photographs in this new edition. If you are going to add good chunks of text as Weal does, then a photo page insert would have rounded the book out nicely.

ISBN 978-1-7843-8253-7

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