Duel Under the Stars

2020-06-18

The Memoir of a Luftwaffe Night Pilot in World War II

by Wilhelm Johnen

Another one of my favorite World War 2 books, because it is written relatively shortly after the war, in 1956, by someone who was one of the actively involved participants. In this case, a young German pilot who wound up to be a night fighter pilot. Wilhelm Johnen is only 19 years old when he joins the German Luftwaffe (Air Force) and in 1941, after his flight training, he joins a night fighter squadron in Venlo, The Netherlands.

It is very hard to imagine how it must have been to fly in the dark in those days. Especially with so little landmarks visible on the ground, due to the blackouts in the countries. Yet these pilots not only managed to find their targets, but they also managed to find their way back to the airfield and land !

This book was first published 10 years after the war ended, so everything was still fresh in the author’s memory. This makes it so much more valuable than books researched decades later, often just having to rely on written documents and photos.
It also provides a very interesting and clear insight into the life of these German pilots at the time. Like another book I read, also fresh memories from a German soldier, it showed that for these young men it really started out as an exciting adventure, sometimes mixed with pride instigated by propaganda or education. Something to bear in mind when looking at more recent conflicts.

Wilhelm Johnen flew the Messerschmitt 110 (or Bf 110), a twin-engined aircraft with a crew of three…… nothing like the more commonly known fighter aircraft such as the Bf 109, Focke Wolf, Spitfire or Hurricane. In fact, this aircraft was no match for the British fighters in the Battle of Britain in the Summer of 1940, but proved very successful as a night fighter. Even more so with later added radar equipment.

Some amazing facts also turn up in his stories. Such as the large distances they sometimes flew from their base to intercept enemy bomber streams, and the subsequent long periods staying aloft.

Also amazing is the story of their forced landing in Switzerland and their internment for a few days. The neutral Swiss apparently had no lack of ‘luxury goods and food’ and the German pilots enjoyed their stay before they were released and sent back to Germany.
The dark side of this story is that the Gestapo immediately imprisoned their relatives, believing the pilots had defected! That shows the Nazi paranoia, knowing they were losing the war.

And last but not least, Wilhelm Johnen climbed aboard one of the first German jet fighters (an Me 262), and just took it for a spin ! One would think this required a thorough initial training, it being so very much different than the prop planes these pilots were used to. His recollection of that solo flight in the jet over Leipheim and Ulm is astonishing.
Ultimately the book provides an interesting view on the German air defense system and the various theatres where Johnen was in action, from The Netherlands, northern Germany, France, and even Hungary.

A really interesting book, especially for us WW2 aviation geeks. Available directly from the publisher in the UK, click here.

By Wilhelm Johnen, Foreword by James Holland, Translated by Joanna Chisholm
Greenhill Books
Pages: 320
Illustrations: 128
ISBN: 9781784382582
Published: 5th February 2018

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