Adolf Galland was the ace of aces of the ‘air force‘. The data speaks for itself: 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 nothing. But even the most well-versed pilots can make mistakes; and he was no less. In 1945, in the death throes of Second World War, a failure during a ‘dogfight’ (combat in the skies) contributed to its being hit by an allied fighter. Although he survived, it was his last confrontation.
Dear to dear
Galland fought his last ‘dogfight’ on April 26, 1945. This is confirmed by the 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 ‘Hunting Association 44’ (JV 44). That was no small feat. “This squadron had been formed in March and had become the most extraordinary unit formed in the history of aviation to date,” explains Felipe Botaya in ‘Operation Hagen’.
He is not without reason. Galland had been searching for and capturing the best pilots still hanging around the ailing Third Reich since February. And he had recruited from renegade officers to valid airmen, but who had passed the last part of the Second World War in hospitals afflicted with anxiety. «Upon learning of Galland’s new unit, many wanted to enlist; others literally escaped from their respective squads, and without any transfer order they enlisted”, adds the Spanish author. And twelve of them left with a clear mission that April 26: to intercept the allied B-26 Marauders that were heading to the Lechfeld base and the Schrobenhausen ammunition depot.
Galland was clear that not all the experience accumulated throughout 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 some battle and delay the Allied advance as much as possible. Die killing. «From the military point of view the war is lost. Our action here cannot change anything… I will continue to fight, because the combat has me trapped, because I feel proud to be part of the last fighter pilots of the ‘Luftwaffe’… Only those who feel the same as me they must continue flying with me, “he inquired.
In his favor he had the brand new Me-262 fresh from the German factories of Messerschmitt, the first jet fighters to see active use 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:
“The 262 aircraft is a great success. It’s going to give us an incredible advantage in air warfare, as long as the enemy continues to use the piston engine. Airworthiness has produced the best impression on me. The engines are totally convincing, except on takeoff and landing. This aircraft opens the doors to entirely new tactical possibilities.”
In turn, Galland and his colleagues received shortly before departure a new secret weapon – evolution, gosh – ideal for mowing 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 holding twenty-four R4M five-centimeter rockets. Each of them could shoot down a heavy bomber and allowed the pilot to stay out of range of enemy fire. “Aiming well, if all the rockets were fired at the same time, theoretically they could hit several bombers,” completes the Anglo-Saxon expert in his work.
In return, the Germans used to face the popular P-47 Thunderbolt. The historian and journalist Jesus Hernandez, author of countless historical essays on the conflict such as ‘That was not in my book on World War II’, explains to ABC that this device “offered great performance in all kinds of actions” despite being something old. “The experimental pilots even made ground attacks against tanks and trucks, and were required to destroy bridges, very difficult to hit with the usual bombing techniques,” he explained to this newspaper. In the ‘dog fights’ he was still up to scratch 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 designed in the thirties and launched into the skies in 1941. «It must be admitted that the P-47 did not stand out in anything in particular, it was losing in air 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 used profusely throughout the entire war due to its toughness and versatility, and it would end up integrating the air force of 24 countries, so I think this device deserves recognition”, says Jesús Hernández.
battle to the death
War drums resounded on April 26 through scattered clouds and poor visibility. The ‘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 him, except experience. The few missions on the back of these planes caused them severe problems when evaluating the speed of approach to the heavy and slow bombers. To make matters worse, despite being located at the recommended safety distance, the defensive shots launched from those flying fortresses reached their boys. Very bad business.
As if there weren’t enough problems, the ace made a rookie mistake when attacking. “At first, in the excitement, he forgot to open the rocket safety device. When he was in perfect firing position, Galland pressed the button, but the rockets didn’t fire,” Kaplan explains. Although he had to get a little closer, the cannons did work. ‘Tac, tac, tac, tac, tac’. One of the Marauders in the formation burst into flames. During his fall, he also hit one of his colleagues and caused severe damage. But Galland, in return, was shot several times in his Me-262, damaging an engine and creating a thick cloud of smoke.
And from there, to disaster. Galland did not see how, out of nowhere, a P-47 descended to protect the Marauders. His Me-262 was a flying smoke signal. Bullets streaked across the sky. After the fire, the cabin and the instrument panel were blown to pieces; the right knee was very sore. Would it have changed anything to have fired earlier with the missiles? We will 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 these 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 used since October 1944 and they repeated to us that we would meet them. However, as with other intelligence 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. Boom! Galland tacked 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. He dove me down. I released a three second burst and could see the impacts on the Me-262.”
This is how Galland recalled that meeting in his memoirs:
«A fire rain enveloped me. I felt a blow to my right knee and the instrument panel shattered. The right engine also took a hit; its metal cover was blown loose by the wind and fell off in part. 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 parachuting. Experience had taught me that this was feasible. After some adjustments, I was able to control my battered Me-262. After passing a layer of clouds I saw the ‘Autobahn’ below. Ahead was Munich and, to the left, Riem. In a few seconds it would be over the airfield.
To avoid further trouble, Galland shut down 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 had no brakes. But despite this, he managed to stop the plane, race out of it and into a bomb crater. Because yes, while he undertook that dangerous maneuver, the P-47 unit had begun to unleash its fury on the area. «As calculated by Galland and his pilots, the combat resulted in five enemy aircraft destroyed and no German casualties. Galland was taken to a hospital in Munich, where they treated his knee and put a cast on his leg, “explains the Anglo-Saxon author.