Monday, August 19, 2013

New DVD offers salute to German war ace Günther Rall

I have been fascinated by aircraft and the adventurous men and women who have flown them since a very young age.  I have explored air museums from Cape Canaveral in Florida to the Huntsville Space and and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama to Evergreen's Air and Space Museum near my home in McMinnville, Oregon.  So, it would be natural for me to be interested in a new DVD collection from Acorn Media about Günther Rall, one of Germany's most decorated air aces of WWII.

This particular DVD entitled "Germany's Last Ace" is part of the Military Channel series "Missions that Changed the War" narrated by Gary Senise.  The most unique aspect of this DVD is that it includes clips from an actual interview with Rall not long before his death at the age of 91 in 2009.  But despite his advanced age, Rall's recollections are clear and precise and bring his life and experiences as a combat pilot in WWII vividly to life.

List of Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross recip...
Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross recipient  Günther Rall (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Günther Rall was born in Gaggenau, a small village in the Black Forest on 10 March, 1918.  His father was a merchant.  The economy was in a shambles after World War I so like many other businessmen, his father supported the economic reforms proposed by the newly formed Nazi party, although Rall points out that his father never became involved in politics and never joined the Nazi party.

Rall was a good student and participated in the Chrisitian Scouts program until he completed his schooling.  Then he joined the Wehrmacht and spent two years as an infantryman before he applied for officer's candidate training in 1936.  He was accepted into the War College in Dresden where a friend convinced him to join the Luftwaffe.  He was accepted and by 1938 had become a qualified pilot and commissioned as a Leutnant (Second Lieutenant).  Rall exclaims that the was sent to the French/German border with only two months of training.

Rall scored no victories during his first year in combat flying against British Spitfires and Hurricans, with Rall saying the British pilots were the toughest he ever faced.  Then, he scored his first air victory on May 12, 1940 when he shot down a Curtiss Hawk 75A fighter piloted by Czech Sgt. Chef Otto Hanzliceka, who was attacking a German reconnaissance aircraft.  This was to become the first of 275 air victories achieved during almost 800 combat missions, flying the Messerschmitt Bf 109 most of the time.

In the interview, Rall describes how the initial orders to fly bomber escort in tight formation was very unsuccessful because "you cannot dictate a fighter pilot's air space!"

Rall was eventually sent to Rumania to protect the Reich's precious oil fields from Russian bombers.  There he found terrible conditions for both the pilots and the mechanics that serviced their aircraft.
"The mechanics only had thin coveralls and no gloves", he exclaims "and the weather was brutally cold."  He went on to describe how the men lived in lice-ridden tents that offered little protection from the wind and freezing temperatures.  Then, as the war progressed Hitler launched his campaign against Russia called "Barbarossa" and Rall found himself ordered to fly three to five combat sorties a day.

At first the Russians flew badly outdated aircraft left over from the Spanish Civil War.  On the first day of the invasion, Rall said the Germans shot down over 1800 Russian piloted planes.  But as the war dragged on, the British gave the Russians American P47s that the British had received through the Lend-Lease program and more experienced Russian pilots began to deploy tactical strategies that were more effective during air combat.

After shooting down his 36th enemy aircraft, Rall himself was shot down, hard landing in a gully and breaking his back in three places.  Paralyzed on his right side, Rall explained that he was told by a German surgeon that he would never walk again, let alone fly.

Rall was shipped to Vienna to recuperate where his physicians, thinking he needed someone to encourage him, introduced him to a vivacious, young Dr. Hertha Schön.  The "prescription" worked wonders because after five months of rehabilitation he shed his full body cast and by August 1942 returned to the Russian front in time to fly in the hard fought battle of Kursk even though he had to strap his "lame leg" to the rudder pedal to fly the plane.

From August to November Rall claimed another 38 victories, bringing his total to 101. On 3 September 1942, Rall was awarded the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross (Ritterkreuz des Eisernen Kreuzes). On 26 November 1942 he was given the Eichenlaub to his Ritterkreuz des Eisernen Kreuzes by Adolf Hitler personally. - Kaplan, Philip (2007). Fighter Aces of the Luftwaffe in World War II.

Heinrich Prinz zu Sayn-Wittgenstein and others...
Heinrich Prinz zu Sayn-Wittgenstein and others receiving the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
As Rall's air victories soared, first to 200 then to 250, each time he received his military honors personally from Adolf Hitler and in the interviews Rall describes his impressions of Hitler each time they met.  He describes how Hitler first appeared very confident with an impressive command of details of the developments on each front.  But as the war wore on, Hitler appeared less confident and ill-at-ease until at their last meeting when Rall received swords for his previously awarded Knight's Cross, Hitler was muttering mystically about the dark valleys ahead.  These personal observations are the true gems of this presentation.

Another thing that impressed me about this courageous officer was that he kept fighting valiantly despite dwindling fuel and supplies and even during a Gestapo investigation of his wife (he had married his doctor in 1943) who had Jewish friends that she had helped to escape to England.  Rall tells us that fortunately, the inquiries were quashed after he was awarded the swords but can you imagine how unnerving that would be for a pilot in the hair-trigger environment of air combat?

Of course when Rall was eventually transferred back to Germany to defend his homeland in the final stages of the war, he now flew against bomber fleets raining destruction upon many major cities and surely must have feared for his family even more so then, too.

It was then that he was shot down for the 8th and last time by American ace, Robert Rankin.  The DVD includes biographical backgrounds for both Rankin and his squadron commander Hubert Zemke as well as interview clips of Rankin and Zemke's son.

Rall survives a devastating infection resulting from the wounds he suffered in his last combat engagement to become a flight instructor.  Rall flew and studied several American planes that had fallen into the possession of the Luftwaffe to find their strengths and weaknesses and develop better strategies to combat them that he could teach his students.

"He flew the P-51 and was amazed at the luxury and quality of the American planes. He found they were spacious, heated, had armoured plate protection, and used materials and equipment that had been long unavailable to Germany. He explained that being unable to fly in combat probably saved his life at a time when Germany was totally outnumbered and the chances of staying alive were drastically dropping. " - Weal, John (2002). German Aces of the Russian Front.

After the war, Rall, almost unbelievably, could not find work and starts up a small woodcutting business.  But he eventually lands a job with Siemens before finally rejoining the military in 1956  as an engineer for the new Luftwaffe der Bundeswehr after the re-militarization of West Germany.  In April 1974, he is named a military attaché for NATO and retires in 1975 after achieving the rank of Generalleutnant.  Much of this DVD is based on his autobiography, Mein Flugbuch ("My Flightbook").

My main criticism of "Germany's Last Ace" centers around the producer's decision to surround the fascinating events of Rall's career with practically a complete mini-history of World War II.  Rather than enhancing the portrait of Rall, it serves to bury it in an overload of only distantly relevant information and hours of unrelated combat footage.  The division of the program into four separate episodes also results in the repetition of information in subsequent sections.  The resulting 3 hours running time should have been pared to only one or at most one and a half hours.

Recently, my husband and I have started watching a new series on the Military Channel entitled "Air Aces". Each tightly written 45-minute episode features a dramatized biography of one particular fighter pilot that includes little live action mini-dramas featuring professional actors interspersed with live reenactments and beautifully rendered CGI combat sequences created using state-of-the-art game engines like the one in Konami's "Birds of Steel" or Kalypso Media's "Air Conflicts".

Instead of hours of talking heads cut between often blurry vintage camera footage, we see the fear on the faces of ardent young men facing death rushing at them at hundreds of miles an hour captured in sharply detailed HD.  Their aircraft is as breathtaking as it was the day it rolled off the assembly line and when hit bursts into explosive showers of flame and smoke.  I was hooked on the series from the very first episode about the "Falcon of Malta", George Beurling.  (My father served aboard one of the U.S. Navy ships that were sent to supply Malta early in the war) I would love to see the series redo the profile of Günther Rall, to truly offer a worthy salute to this amazing individual.

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