By early in 1943, morale in the Luftwaffe was wilting as many of its officers saw the futility of Hitler’s and Goering’s determination that the air force would remain strictly an offensive weapon. Bomber manufacture and production flourished with fighter production receiving a much lower priority. It would result in a desperate need for pilots and aircraft in the defence of Germany as the Allied strategic bombing capability grew. At the beginning of the year, the German daytime fighter defence force numbered only 200 single-seat aircraft. While their fighters were good – the Focke-Wulf Fw 190 and the Messerschmitt Bf-109 – it was a ridiculously outnumbered force to cope with the large and burgeoning American bomber raiders. The highly manoeuvrable Fw 190A-3, recently added to the GAF inventory, was powered by a BMW 1,700-horsepower radial engine which gave it a top speed of 418 mph. Unfortunately for the Germans, they didn’t have nearly enough of them. The nightfighter force of the Luftwaffe was somewhat better prepared, with about 390 aircraft, largely Messerschmitt Me-110 twin-engined fighters.
By spring, Major General Josef Kammhuber, chief of the Luftwaffe’s night defence fighters, had persuaded Reichsmarshall Hermann Goering of the need to expand the German night defence force to at least 2,100 aircraft. When Kammhuber’s plan was submitted to Hitler for approval, the Führer refused to listen to the general’s view that the Reich would shortly be suffering the effects of the Allied air forces’ rapidly increasing bombing capability. Kammhuber was proven correct in the next few months.
As General of the Fighter Arm Adolf Galland recalled:
For 2 years we had been on the wrong track. After the Battle of Britain we should have switched over to defence in the west. We should have given the fighter priority over the bomber, as the British had done when they were threatened by the German raids, before they took the offensive again. Only the re-establishment of air superiority over our own territory would put us into the position that one day would allow us to resume the offensive.
Known as ‘the Falcon’, Wolfgang Falck accounted for only seven victories in his career as a Me-110 nightfighter pilot, but he was far more important to the Luftwaffe than that total would seem to indicate. He would become the ‘Father of the German Night Fighting Force’.
Falck trained at the German Air Transport School at Schleissheim where he soloed in 1931 at the age of twenty-one. He was then selected for fighter pilot training at Lipetsk in the Soviet Union as part of the German-Russian training agreement. Falck:
Our staff was German but all the mechanics, hangar workers, and maintenance people were Russians – Russian Soldiers – as it was a Red Army base. We flew the Fokker P-3, a Dutch-designed aircraft with a British Napier Lion engine, flown by German pilots in Russia using technical manuals written in Spanish. We had a hell of a time with those manuals. Germany was not allowed [by the terms of the Versailles Treaty after the First World War] to have aircraft, so the machines had been bought by a South American government, I don’t know which one, and then sold and re-shipped to Russia for German use. At least five nations were thus involved in the ‘secret’ training of German pilots in Russia.
At the age of twenty-four, Falck was promoted to Lieutenant and was immediately ordered to write to the Minister of War and tender his resignation from military service. When the resignation was accepted, he was made an instructor at the Schleissheim fighter pilot school. With the German reoccupation of the Rhineland, Falck and the other fighter instructors at Schleissheim joined a new fighter group being established at Kitzingen, near Frankfurt. Falck:
We were the only group at that time that had real machine-guns and ammunition. The other groups were as harmless as moths. One French fighter wing could have obliterated the entire German Air Force in those days.
The Falcon was soon transferred to the Richthofen Fighter Wing as commander of the First Squadron. With establishment of III Gruppe of the Richthofen Wing, he was given command of a squadron in the new unit and just before the start of the Second World War, III Gruppe was transferred to a Destroyer Wing, ZG-26 (Zerstörergeschwader), which was equipped with the Me-110.
The twelve 110s of Falck’s squadron were the first German aircraft airborne in the war which began on 1 September 1939. After participating in the Polish campaign, his unit was moved to the German Bight, where it took part in the largest air battle since the First World War, between the Germans and the British, on 18 December. In the encounter, the Luftwaffe fighters intercepted a big force of R.A.F. Wellington bombers raiding Wilhelmshaven. The attack proved disastrous for the British and resulted in a major propaganda coup for the Germans. They exploited it heavily as a Luftwaffe victory which, according to German newspaper and magazine accounts, had produced three new air force heroes: Lieutenant Colonel Carl Schumacher (the Wing Commander), and Johannes Steinhoff and Wolfgang Falck – two of Schumacher’s finest squadron commanders. Steinhoff had led the Bf-109 fighters and Falck the Me-110s. The editor of the British aviation periodical The Aeroplane said of Falck, who he had met before the war:
He looks like a falcon. He is not big enough to be an eagle. But he has the aquiline features which artists and novelists love to ascribe to heroic birdmen. He speaks excellent English and is a charming companion.
Falck’s participation in the Wilhelmshaven air battle made him one of the most famous squadron commanders in the Luftwaffe, and a few months later General Albert Kesselring ordered him to Düsseldorf to take charge of I/ZG-1.
Falck’s unit was based at Aalborg near the Danish border in 1940 and was frequently the victim of pre-dawn bombing and strafing attacks by the RAF, and the Falcon often found himself, with his fellow pilots, stretched flat and face down in the mud of a slit trench as the enemy planes arrived.
There we were, fighter pilots, lying in ditches. How we hated it. We had a young radar officer with us, and he would give his predictions. The British are coming across the bay. They will be here in 10 minutes … 8 minutes… 3 minutes.’ Then all hell broke loose. In this time, radar was very new to us – that is easily forgotten now that it is so commonplace. Then, the proper ways of using this instrument had not yet been devised. But I thought that if we knew where the bombers were, and when they were likely to arrive, there must be a good chance of intercepting them. Anything was better than being in a ditch waiting for a bomb on my head. I thought that there had to be a way to take off before they came, and then after the raid to fly out to sea with them in the darkness and fly with them until daylight. Then we could shoot them down. I worked out a system for this after meetings with the searchlight commander and the radar man. We set up a specially coded map. I first tried it with three crews to see if we could fly at night with the Me-110. In retrospect, this seems incredible, but it shows how little we knew in those days and how ill-prepared we were for what was to come.
During one of the night attacks by the RAF, Falck became so infuriated at being powerless against the enemy force, that he said to his pilots: “Let’s take off and go get those Englishmen.” They raced to their planes and, without helmets, parachutes or even radios, took off. There could be no communication between the Me-110 pilots. They chased and caught the British bombers and engaged in brief exchanges of gunfire to no apparent result. But the exercise proved to Falck that, with radar and good communications, it would certainly be possible to intercept and shoot down the enemy raiders. He later wrote a report on the experience, giving his conclusions and his theories about night fighting. It went to the German Air Ministry and got immediate action. Falck received visits from Ernst Udet, Colonel General Erhard Milch, and General Albert Kesselring. It began to look as if the time had come for an effective Luftwaffe nightfighter force.
With the Battle of France, any such plans were shelved. Wolfgang Falck and ZG-1 fought in the Battle operating from a base at Le Havre and, at its successful conclusion, Kesselring ordered him to bring a squadron back to Düsseldorf where he was to form a new nightfighter wing to defend the area against RAF attack. At Düsseldorf, Falck received the cooperation of the Lieutenant Colonel running the searchlight operation, but ran into trouble when he encountered the commander of a Bf-109 squadron which had been experimenting with nightfighter operations. The commander was an obstructionist and a Major, whereas Falck was a mere Captain. As Falck worked to organize the new Me-110 nightfighter wing, he was ordered to a meeting at The Hague, to discuss his theories of nightfighting with Goering, Kesselring, Udet, Chief of Personnel General Kastener, and General Bruno Loerzer, a friend and mentor of Goering.
In the meeting, Goering made Falck Wing Commander of Nachtjagdgeschwader 1 (NJG-1), but did not promote him. He would be the only captain in the history of the Luftwaffe to serve as a wing commander. He told Goering of the problem he was having back in Düsseldorf with the uncooperative major, and the Reichsmarshall told him to go back to Düsseldorf and fire the major. “Pick out a new officer to command that 109 group. You also need a good radar man and a good flak man. You have your pick of officers in the Luftwaffe.” On his return to base, Falck sacked the recalcitrant major and promoted Johannes Steinhoff to command II/NJG-1. The next problem for Falck was the commander of the area flak unit, who was also uncooperative, to the point of impugning the courage of the nightfighter pilots. Falck then arranged for the man to fly on a night mission in a Me-110 the next evening: “I want you to see how it is, Colonel, up there in the dark, with your own flak firing at you and British gunners shooting multiple machine-guns at you.” The colonel declined the invitation and proved the soul of cooperation thereafter.
Soon Falck’s nightfighter wing began to grow far larger than a normal fighter wing. He received two squadrons of Dornier Do-17s to fly as intruders in nightfighter operations over RAF bases in England. As the night fighting activity grew and the unit’s successes mounted, Kesselring decided to appoint Colonel Josef Kammhuber of the General Staff, to be Night Fighter Division Commander responsible for the coordination of searchlights, radar and air operations. Falck:
I did not know Kammhuber very well then. He came to my office and said, “Please can you tell me about these operations from your viewpoint?” He told me to stay seated and was kindness itself. In a few days all that changed, of course, but we were as close as twins for the next three years. Kammhuber was outstanding, capable, and realistic, and I admired him.
With the evolution of the Luftwaffe nightfighter organization under Kammhuber and Falck, came many important and innovative developments leading to a highly efficient operation. Instead of running three fighter groups as was standard practice for a wing commander, Falck found himself in charge of eight groups spread geographically from Norway down to the Brest peninsula. He rose to the rank of Colonel, functioning in effect as a division commander and became deputy to Kammhuber, who was promoted to General. Finally, after three years of working successfully together, their differences in approach to the massive problems of the nightfighter operation caused them to part company.
After his departure from Kammhuber’s staff, Wolfgang Falck held a responsible role in the day and night fighter defence of the Reich until summer 1944 when he contacted his old friend, Adolf Galland, to ask for a flying job. Galland offered him Fighter Leader in the Balkans, with a headquarters near Belgrade, a job that dissolved a few days later when Rumania and Bulgaria switched sides in the war. In March 1945, Falck was given a fighter command in the Rhineland, but on his arrival in the area he was unable to track down either his staff or his headquarters. He spent the last weeks of the war in southern Germany and became a prisoner of war of the Americans on 3 May 1945.
The British later brought the Falcon to Bielefeld to work with the Royal Engineers overseeing German workers. It ultimately led to him working for North American Aviation, as a consultant in Bonn. Adolf Galland, whose excellent book, The First and The Last, told of the rise and fall of the Luftwaffe, said of him:
Wolfgang Falck was not only one of ‘The First’ who flew in 1939, but also one of the greatest in terms of pioneering and innovations to the new art of night fighting. He was one of our best men.