Sometimes it’s good to read “the other side of the story.” Remember, history is (usually) written by the victors, and sometimes the losing side is portrayed with more villainy than perhaps they deserve.
I wasn’t sure what I would find when I started reading a journal by a German fighter pilot from World War II, especially one with “Fuhrer” (German term for leader, usually associated with Hitler) in the title. However, it was a fascinating book to read and I learned a lot.
Before we go farther in this article, I’d like to clarify two things. 1) Hitler, Nazism, and the horrible, horrible atrocities committed by the Nazis were despicable and I would never want to justify or condone their lives or actions. 2) It is important to know that many Germans did not know about the on-going Holocaust and other war crimes.
First published in 1953, this book is the journal of Heinz Knoke, a German fighter pilot during World War II. There are some notes and editing – probably by Knoke – that suggest he made a few revisions of his original diary to make it a little easier to understand. (The book does contain some mild profanities and graphic descriptions of air warfare casualties – parental guidance advised for young readers).
What I appreciated about the book was its honesty. Knoke started out thinking Hitler was a great leader…by the end of the war, he’s changing his mind. Knoke had no idea what atrocities the Nazis were enacting; he was horrified when he learned the truth. Knoke was flying for his country; he was not keen on fighting the western allies and wanted to battle Communism in the east (Russia). Knoke was a pilot – he loved flying and developed a “fighter instinct” for air combat. Knoke was often inspired and conflicted by the beauty of the sky and began questioning the devastating warfare that the cost the lives of so many of his comrades. Knoke was a German fighter ace and developed the unique strategy for dropping bombs on Allied B-17 Bombers.
Have I convinced you to read the book yet?
Passages From The Book
…I watched Fuhrmann [a comrade]. He was posted to my Flight several months ago. He became one of our comrades. The sky was his element. Like the rest of us, he felt at home there. With all its many changes of mood, the sky gives us a sense of remoteness from the war-torn battlefields of Europe over which we flew.
Together with the rest of us, he became passionately addicted to the life of a fighter pilot, the combination of intense joy in flying and the thrill of battle. Because he also shared our sense of patriotism, he became a good soldier, as well as a good pilot.
For him, as for us, the wonderful fact of flying and the spirit of chivalry which still exists in battle far above the clouds resulted in a sense of unrestricted happiness and peace of mind. The ever-present prospect of sudden death adds a zest to life while it lasts. Dedicated as we are to the serious business of fighting for our country, we are able to enjoy the mere fact of existence with a superb exhilaration simply because it is so uncertain and precious… (Pages 127-128)
4th January, 1944
…Closing in to attack one of several separate groups [of Allied bombers and fighters], my aircraft is caught by a direct hit. It immediately becomes tail-heavy. The roar of the engine turns into a high-pitched wail and then into a grating screech, and finally all is silent. One of the flak-shells has shot away my airscrew, cowling and the front part of the engine. It is all I can do to hold the aircraft under control.
Next moment a Thunderbolt [Allied aircraft] comes diving at me and shoots up the wing which bursts into flames. He does not have a second chance to attack me though…
It is only by exerting all my strength that I am able to hold the stick at all. I must bale out before being overcome by the flames. Jettison the canopy; unfasten the safety-belt! I know the routine now… (Page 136)
Why YOU Should Read This Book
It’s great to read about the flights and victories of Allied pilots, but sometimes we wonder what flying was like for the German pilots. This books sheds some light on their lives and challenges. Reading like a novel, this primary source is a valuable look at the “other side” of World War II aviation.
It also helps break down the over-simplified history that everyone agreed with Hitler and his regime. This diary reveals a German patriotism that survives even as Knoke’s awe of Hitler fades to disgust as the war goes on. It helps modern readers understand the life of a German pilot and his motivations for fighting.
P.S. Have you read other primary source accounts from “the other sides” of World War II?