A short time ago, I finished reading this book, which I enjoyed very much. It is made up of a series of interviews that the author had over the years with 4 of the premiere Luftwaffe fighter aces of the Second World War: Erich Hartmann, Johannes Steinhoff, Dietrich Hrabak, and Gunther Rall.
Hartmann and Rall, with 352 and 275 victories respectively, are among the top ranked aces in history. Hartmann’s story is explored in considerable detail in this book. Unlike the other 3 gentleman, Hartmann had not been a part of the prewar Luftwaffe and did not see action until late in 1942 on the Eastern Front, where he made the acquaintance of Steinhoff, Hrabak, and Rall (who occupied senior positions in the fighter wing to which Hartmann had been assigned upon completion of training: JG-52). I appreciated being able to “hear” Hartmann speak extensively about his life, training, his early days at the Front (which could have been his last), his capture and hair-raising escape from Soviet forces after his fighter had been forced down just inside Russian territory in the summer of 1943, his meetings with Hitler (as a result of earning some of the Third Reich’s highest military awards for bravery), his decade’s long imprisonment by the Soviets (May 1945 – October 1955), and his subsequent career in the West German Air Force.
Steinhoff, Hrabak, and Rall also had some very rich, colorful, and fascinating stories about their wartime (and postwar) careers. In contrast to Erich Hartmann (who mainly flew against the Soviets), Steinhoff, Hrabak, and Rall had also seen action from Poland, to the Battle of France, the Battle of Britain, to the Blitzkrieg in the Balkans and Greece. Steinhoff himself also served in Tunisia as a wing commander during the latter stages of the campaign in North Africa.
Besides learning so much more about the combat service of these 4 men, this book also gave me a glimpse into the basic decency and integrity they maintained throughout their lives. I came out liking and respecting these gentlemen. (I was fortunate enough, in 1997, to see Gunther Rall speak about his combat experiences in Russia at a special talk with Luftwaffe aces at the Air and Space Museum. His memory was sharp and he struck me as a very kind and considerate person.) For anyone who loves reading “living” history or is an aviation enthusiast, this is the book for you.