Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, Commander in Chief
Hermann Göring joined the Army as an infantryman in 1912, and served the early part of the First World War in the trenches gaining several distinctions for bravery. Suffering from arthritis, an additional hell to add to life in the trenches, he was prompted to transfer to the Air Service but was rejected on his first attempt due to low test scores. An old friend in the Service, Bruno Loerzer, recognised Göring’s fine abilities as a pilot, and assisted him on his second attempt. At the end of the war, Göring was flying an all white Fokker D.7 as the commander of the Richthofen Jasta, with 22 enemy aircraft to his credit.
The post-war depression and social unrest in Germany affected Göring in two ways; firstly he became fervently anti-communist in his politics, and secondly became more and more to accept the ideology offered by the rapidly growing Nazi party as the only real solution to Germany’s troubles. He was involved in the infamous “Beer Hall Putsch” of 1923, and became a staunch ally and supporter of Hitler. With the rise to power of Hitler, so Görings fortunes turned, he was made responsible for the formation of the Gestapo, and, due to his wartime record, was given the task of establishing a modern air force. These appointments gave Göring considerable and wide reaching political power within the Nazi hierarchy, and this was to be his undoing. He abused the powers he was given to appropriate large estates and other trappings of status and wealth, neglecting his military duties in the process, and effectively leaving the new Luftwaffe leaderless at the crucial time. Indeed, it may be said that his major instance of direct control over the conduct of the battle, the switching of targets from airfields to cities, was the decision that cost the Luftwaffe the Battle, if not, ultimately, the war.
This mistake was to set the tone for the whole of Göring’s leadership of the Luftwaffe, he rarely, if ever, listened to his field commanders, and involved himself in long and pointless discussion on minor matters, often neglecting and delaying important decisions. This affected the ability of the Luftwaffe to conduct the war on anything like the terms it could have considering the technical advances made in the German aviation industry during this time. In 1945, Göring was captured by the Allies, and was put on trial as a war criminal. He was sentenced to death, but took cyanide and died in his prison cell.
Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring, Commander Luftflotte II
Bavarian born Albert Kesselring served with the artillery in the First World War as part of the forces commanded by Prince Ruprecht. He became involved with aviation late in his career, only transferring to the Luftwaffe in 1933, but proved himself to be a very able leader and an adept politician, the latter being vital for survival and success in the new German military under the Nazi party.
The beginning of the Second World War saw Kesselring in command of the Luftflotte (Air Fleet) responsible for supporting the Army in the invasion of Poland. After the successful completion of this, the Norwegian and the Low Countries campaigns, he was given command of the northern of the two Luftflotte facing Britain. Luflotte II was much larger than the southern Luftflotte III, and was the nearest command to Britain, such was the faith in Kesselring’s abilities.
Despite the failure of the Luftwaffe to gain air superiority over the Channel, Kesselring’s career suffered little from this setback, itself a testimony to his political adroitness. In 1941, he was sent to command the air forces in North Africa, and for the next two years he and Erwin Rommel were responsible for the near defeat of the Allies, before being forced to withdraw to Italy. It was in Italy, from 1943 onward, that Kesselring’s abilities as a commander really came to the fore. He was given overall command of the air and ground forces, and despite poor supply and communications difficulties, he conducted a superb campaign causing over a year’s delay to the Allied advance.
Again, as with Göring, Kesselring stood trial at the end of the war accused of atrocities against Italian hostages. These charges were the subject of some controversy, being so out of character for a disciplined military commander such as he was. Although initially sentenced to death, this sentence was reduced to five years imprisonment and Kesselring was released in 1952.
Generalfeldmarschall Hugo Sperrle, Commander Luftflotte III
Commander of the smaller Luftflotte III, Hugo Sperrle’s greatest claim to fame came before the Second World War when he was given command of the infamous Legion Condor during the Spanish Civil War. A veteran of the First World War, Sperrle was promoted rapidly within the Nazi organisation, largely due to his willingness to follow orders to the letter and his open support of Göring against Erhard Milch. Often seen as an unimaginative and rigid thinker as a commander because of this, Sperrle was in fact a survivor within a system that did not reward initiative.
It is worthy of note that Sperrle alone recognised and spoke out against Göring’s decision to change the target priorities in the Battle from Fighter Command airfields to cities and other strategic targets. He observed that the Royal Air Force had not been beaten, and would be able to rebuild and increase its effectiveness if given a respite from the airfield attacks. As usual, his counsel was ignored by his commander, but this underscores Sperrle’s true capabilities as a commander, rather than the impression his survival instincts often paint of him.
Having said this, Sperrle suffered from similar excesses as his commander, not only was he akin to Göring in build and appearance, he also had his tastes, taking the most luxurious headquarters and private residences, and enjoying the gambling and other facilities offered by the defeated territories to the full.