Adolf Galland was the ace of aces of the ‘luftwaffe‘. The data speak for themselves: in the 705 combat missions in which he participated, he shot down a total of 104 enemy aircraft; all of them on the western front. The German claimed 53 Spitfires; 31 Hurricane; a P-38; a B-24 Liberator; 3 B-17 and 4 B-26 Marauders. Almost anything. But even the most well-versed pilots can make mistakes; and he was no less. In 1945, in the throes of Second World War, a failure during a ‘dogfight’ (combat in the skies) contributed to it being hit by an allied fighter. Although he survived, it was his last encounter.
Face to face
Galland fought his last ‘dog fight’ on April 26, 1945. This is confirmed by historian Robert Forsyth in his historic essay, ‘Me 262 Northwest Europe 1944–45’, where he specifies that the fighter genius took off with his unit at half past eleven in the morning from Riem airfield. In this region of Munich, two dozen aircraft belonging to the ‘Jagdverband 44’ (JV 44). That was no small feat. “This squadron had been formed in March and became the most extraordinary unit formed in the history of aviation to date”, explains Felipe Botaya in ‘Operação Hagen’.
He is not without reason. Galland was looking for and capturing the best pilots who had still been hanging around the ailing Third Reich since February. And he recruited from renegade officers to valid airmen, but who spent the last part of the Second World War in hospitals afflicted with anxiety. «Upon learning of the new Galland unit, many wanted to enlist; others literally ran away from their respective squads and enlisted without transfer order”, adds the Spanish author. And twelve of them left with a clear mission on that April 26th: to intercept Allied B-26 Marauders heading towards the Lechfeld base and the Schrobenhausen ammunition depot.
Galland made it clear that not all the experience accumulated during the Second World War would serve them to win a war that was already lost. His only hope, as he revealed in a speech to his pilots, was to win a battle and delay the Allied advance as much as possible. Die killing. “From a military point of view, the war is lost. Our action here can’t change anything… I’m going to keep fighting, because combat stuck me, because I feel proud to be part of the last fighter pilots of the ‘Luftwaffe’… Only those who feel the same as I do should keep flying with me ”, he asked.
In his favor he had the brand new eu-262 Fresh from the German factories of messerschmitt, the first jet fighters to be actively used in the conflict. These revolutionary devices reached a speed never seen before, 850 kilometers per hour, 25% faster than their North American counterparts. At the time, Galland showered him with praise:
“Aircraft 262 is a great success. This will give us an incredible advantage in air warfare as long as the enemy continues to use the piston engine. Airworthiness made the best impression on me. The engines are totally convincing except on takeoff and landing. This aircraft opens the door to entirely new tactical possibilities.”
For their part, Galland and his colleagues received a new secret weapon shortly before departure – evolution, dammit – ideal for taking down enemy aircraft in the air. As Philip Kaplan explains in ‘Aces of the Luftwaffe in World War II’, they were “some rocket carrier devices located under the wings capable of containing twenty-four five-centimeter R4M rockets. Each of them could take down a heavy bomber and allow the pilot to stay out of range of enemy fire. “Aiming well, if all the rockets were fired at the same time, they could theoretically hit several bombers”, completes the Anglo-Saxon specialist in his work.
In return, the Germans used to face the popular Thunderbolt P-47. Historian and journalist Jesus Hernandez, author of numerous historical essays on the conflict such as ‘That Wasn’t In My World War II Book,’ explains to ABC that this device “proved great performance in all kinds of action” despite being something old. “Experimental pilots even made land attacks against tanks and trucks, and were forced to destroy bridges, very difficult to reach with the usual bombing techniques”, he explained to this newspaper. In the ‘dogfights’ he still held up thanks to the fact that he was one of the fastest to dive.
The reality, however, is that the Me-262 were too modern and fast enemies for these fighters conceived in the thirties and launched in the skies in 1941. «It must be admitted that the P-47 did not stand out in anything in particular, it was losing in aerial duels with the ‘Luftwaffe’, and it lacked the mystique that accompanied other American devices such as the P-51 Mustang or the B-17 Flying Fortress, but the reality is that it was profusely used throughout the war due to its robustness and versatility, and would end up being part of the air forces of 24 countries, so I think this device deserves recognition”, says Jesús Hernández.
battle to death
The drums of war resounded on April 26 through scattered clouds and poor visibility. ‘Jagdverband 44’ set out with the idea of shooting down half a dozen B-26 Marauders; and Galland was the first to spot them. The Germans had everything going for them except experience. The few missions on the back of these planes caused them serious problems in assessing the approach speed of heavy and slow bombers. To make matters worse, despite being located at the recommended safe distance, the defensive shots launched from those flying fortresses hit their boys. Very bad deal.
As if the problems weren’t enough, the star made a rookie mistake when it came to attacking. “At first, in the excitement, he forgot to open the safety device on the rocket. When he was in perfect firing position, Galland pressed the button, but the rockets did not fire,” explains Kaplan. Although he had to get a little closer, the cannons worked. ‘Tac, tac, tac, tac, tac’. One of the Marauders in the formation burst into flames. During the fall, he also hit one of his colleagues and seriously injured him. But Galland, in return, was shot multiple times in his Me-262, damaging an engine and creating a thick cloud of smoke.
And from there, to disaster. Galland didn’t see how, out of nowhere, a P-47 swooped down to protect the Marauders. His Me-262 was a flying smoke signal. Bullets streaked across the sky. After the fire, the cabin and instrument panel were blown to pieces; the right knee was very painful. Would it have changed anything to have fired the missiles earlier? We’ll never know. What we do know is the name and surname of the Allied pilot who flew that device: James J. Finnegan, of the 50th Fighter Group of the Ninth Air Force of the United States Army. And we have this data because he himself narrated that ‘dog fight’ shortly after World War II:
“I remember it well because it was the first time I saw these planes in flight. They had been in use since October 1944 and we were told we would find them. However, like other information we received at the time, the threat had not materialized. until then. […] The German fighters were below me, and I didn’t even see it coming. [a Galland]. He shot down a B-26 and then another. Bang! Galland doubled to make another pass. I asked myself, ‘God, what the hell are these things?’ and prepared to attack. It was close to 13,000 feet and he was between 9,000 and 10,000. I took a dip. I fired a three-second burst and could see the impacts on the Me-262.”
This is how Galland recalled that encounter in his memoirs:
“A rain of fire enveloped me. I felt a blow to my right knee and the instrument panel broke. The right engine was also hit; its metal lid came loose in the wind and partially fell off. Then the same thing happened with the left. I only had one wish: to get out of that ‘drawer’. But then I was paralyzed by the terror of being shot while skydiving. Experience taught me that this was doable. After a few tweaks, I was able to get my battered Me-262 under control. After passing through a layer of clouds, I saw the ‘Autobahn’ below. Ahead was Munich, and on the left Riem. In a few seconds he would be over the airfield.
To avoid further trouble, Galland cut both engines as he drove to the edge of the airfield. The landing was out of a movie; The nose wheel was deflated from a shot and it had no brakes. But despite this, he managed to stop the plane, run out of its interior and fall into a bomb crater. Because yes, while he was making that dangerous maneuver, the P-47 unit began to unleash its fury on the area. ‘As Galland and his pilots calculated, the fighting resulted in five enemy aircraft destroyed and no German casualties. Galland was taken to a hospital in Munich, where they tended to his knee and put a cast on his leg,” explains the Anglo-Saxon author.