Aircraft of the Aces #99 - Aces of the Legion Condor
From 1936 to 1939, nearly 19,000 German ‘volunteers’ (some of whom actually did volunteer) made up an aviation group known as the Legion Condor. Number 99 in Osprey’s ‘Aircraft of the Aces’ series provides an interesting and well-researched story of how Germany’s involvement in the Spanish Civil war came about, what the Luftwaffe volunteers experienced as member of the Legion Condor and how many of the pilots eventually achieved ace status. It is a fascinating story about a significant time in history.
Aces of the Legion Condor is a 112-page book worth including in any collection of reference books on the subject. Most people with even a passing interest in this eventful period of history have read that Germany exploited the opportunity to test its military equipment and tactics in real combat by supporting the Nationalists’ side. And in this book, author Robert Forsyth elaborates on that fact by explaining, in a logical manner, how that opportunity was realized and, in some ways, fostered not by the Nazi high command but rather by the high-ranking German officers who found themselves assigned to command positions in Spain. As a result, in the end German military aircraft were markedly improved, the Luftwaffe acquired effective tactical battlefield experience that prepared them for their coming roll in WW II and a greater number of Luftwaffe pilots would become aces.
Forsyth is a renowned expert on the subject of the German Luftwaffe in WW II, and this book prove he knows quite a bit about the pre-war Luftwaffe too. In Aces of the Legion Condor, his knowledge of the subject is confirmed in a thoroughly documented text. He begins the story months before Germany agrees to support Franco’s army and, in the first ten pages, clearly explains the origins of the civil war and then describes in detail how minimal German support grew from a hand-full of pilots and 16 aircraft under Nationalist command at the onset to a virtual leadership responsibility within a year. The story is fascinating and delivered in a well-written style. The pages just seem to turn themselves and it is difficult to find a place to stop until the end.
Initially tasked with supporting Franco’s Nationalist army as it waged war against the established government (AKA, the Republicans), the Legion Condor evolved into virtual command over Nationalist military aviation operations. From the overrated He 51 to the sleek Messerschmitt 109s, from flying in tight wing-to-wing ‘Vic” echelon formations to looser ‘Rotte’ formations used later by the Germans in WW II, the four-year experience proved to be of great value to the Luftwaffe. The experience, however, was not all that pleasant for many of the Germans involved. The weather was very hot in the Summer time and there was a lot of dust to contend with. Interaction with their Nationals brethren generated conflict and military objectives were often not well coordinated. Stafflen were constantly being moved closer to the ever-changing front lines, and living conditions were primitive. And, for a time, their Republican adversaries were aggressive well-trained Russian pilots who flew better combat aircraft. Eventually, as the Luftwaffe command agreed to ‘test’ the new monoplane fighters from Messerschmitt and Heinkel, the scales began tipping in favor of the Legion Condor. In time, the superior aircraft and changes in fighter tactics, learned the hard way from experience, directly contributed to a number of the Legion Condor pilots achieving ace status with an eventual combined total of 150 confirmed Republican aircraft shot down.
Forsythe does a masterful job of telling the story. He intertwines an easy to follow historical narrative with quotes from many pilots’ personal journals that bring a very personal anecdote to each chapter. Pilots like Adolf Galland, Fritz Losigkeit, Günther Lützow, Harroe Harder, Günther Radusch and Herbert Ihlefeld are quoted. Missions are described as vividly human experiences and the reader becomes personally connected to the German airmen. Also sprinkled among the chapters are interesting little tidbits like the origins of the ‘Zylinderhut” emblem of 2.J/88 and the ‘Cadenas’ emblem adorning the sides of He 51s.
As with all other books in this series, Aces of the Legion Condor includes a wealth of period photos, 92 of them to be exact. There also are twenty-four full-color profiles accompanied by eleven detailed Jagdeschwader emblems and numerous appendices and footnoted references at the end of the book.
I would recommend this book to anyone with a general interest in the history of military aviation in the 1930s and highly recommend it to anyone with a particular interest in the air war during the Spanish Civil War. My thanks to IPMS/USA and Osprey Publishing for the opportunity to review this book.