Book Review: The Luftwaffe: Creating the Operational Air War, 1918-1940

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by James S. Corum

Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1997. 378pp. illus., index. $35.00. ISBN:0-7006-0836-2

One of the most misunderstood military forces in history is Hitler's Luftwaffe. It has long been derided by a great many American authors, such as Samuel Mitcham, Jr. and Edwin P. Hoyt, to name two of the more popular ones, as a force so tactically oriented that it was little more than the handmaiden of the Army." The basic reason for this misconception is, as James Corum points out in his introduction, that the vast majority of American popular writers on the Luftwaffe lack one minor skill needed to write accurately on the German Air Force -- the ability to read German.

Working largely from documents located in the National Archives in Washington and the Bundesarchiv-Militararchiv in Freiburg, Germany, Corum has produced the best single volume history of the Luftwaffe during the inter-war period.

Much like his earlier book The Roots of Blitzkrieg, Corum picks up his story at the end of the First World War. Like a number of other scholars of the German Army and Air Force, Corum emphasizes the evolutionary nature of the Luftwaffe's development, first as a clandestine air service in the Versailles Treaty period and later as the Third Reich's most technologically advanced service. He ends with the Luftwaffe's failure in the battle of Britain.

The book's two greatest strengths are its cogent discussion of German air doctrine as it developed into what would ultimately be called Operativ Luftkieg, or “Operational Air War," and its relentless myth puncturing. Unlike so many authors who either cannot read German or simply do not bother to do original research, Corum has read just about every German document or article related to air doctrine. On the basis of this research, Corum argues that the Luftwaffe was a much more balanced force than its critics maintain. It was indeed a strategic force, but only within the context of a war in central Europe. With its strategic targets no more than 120 miles away from the German border, the aircraft the Luftwaffe possessed in 1939 were more than ample to allow the Luftuwaffe successfully to conduct aerial warfare at every level. In addition, the book has an excellent number of personal portraits of the key figures involved in the development of the Luftwaffe.

The book also punctures a great number of myths about the Luftwaffe. Aside from the popular nonsense about the Luftuwaffe being only a support force for the Army, Corum also decisively refutes the notion about the bombing of Guernica in the Spanish Civil War being a terror bombing. He points out that the town was garrisoned by two Basque battalions, and that it was a critical road junction for the twenty-three battalions holding the defensive line east of Bilbao, crucial to their successful retreat. Corum also notes that the Germans were ignorant of Basque culture, and that the total number of people killed was no more than 300, not the wildly inflated figure of 2,500 that is commonly claimed. (Any former member of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade who reads this is strongly advised to take a sedative first.) The book also has a number of fascinating photographs, many from the private collections of the families of Luftwaffe commanders whom Corum interviewed. The only real drawback the absence of maps, which would have been a useful addition in the chapter on the Spanish Civil War. Taken all together, this is a superb work that, along with The Roots of Blitzkrieg, marks Corum as one of the premier scholars of German military history in the United States.

Reviewer: R.L. DiNardo   


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