Messerschmitts Over Sicily Book Review

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Messerschmitts Over Sicily: Diary of a Luftwaffe Fighter Commander

By Johannes Steinhoff

Softcover, 271 pages, bibliography, and index

Published by Stackpole Books August 2004

Language: English

ISBN-10: 0811731596

ISBN-13: 978-081173159

Dimensions: 6.0 x 0.8 x 8.8 inches

Johannes “Macky” Steinhoff was one of the legends of the Luftwaffe, having flown throughout the entire war from beginning to end on every major front and surviving.  He flew a total of 993 sorties and was credited with 176 victories.  He was shot down himself on twelve occasions but only bailed out once, preferring to crash land his aircraft due to a mis-trust of parachutes.  He achieved most of his successes flying with JG 52 against the Soviets in the East but in March 1943 he was transferred to North Africa to lead JG 77 as Geschwaderkommodore.  He arrived just in time to move what remained of the Geschwader (Wing) from North Africa to Sicily.

Messerschmitts Over Sicily is Steinhoff’s autobiographical account of JG 77’s fight against the Allies during the summer of 1943.  The Luftwaffe faced over 5,000 American and British aircraft with only 350 of their own.  The German airfields were well within range of Allied fighters and were subjected to almost daily bombings by medium bombers.  This kept the German fliers on the move and resulted in material shortages, the Germans were often forced to utilize improvised landing fields to escape the attentions of prowling Allied aircraft.

A problem which the Luftwaffe never solved in the Italian Theater was how to deal with the American heavy bomber formations.  While Jagdwaffe units defending the Reich enjoyed some notable successes, American Flying Fortresses operated over Italy with relative impunity.  The proximity of Allied bases greatly reduced warning times which frustrated German attempts to mass and direct intercepting fighters, and the bomber boxes were able to be escorted by defending fighters all the way to their targets.  These obstacles, exasperated by the generally poor logistical situation, were not appreciated by the Luftwaffe high command.  Reichsmarschall Göring attributed the lack of success to cowardice on the part of his pilots which only served to reduce morale further.

This is an interesting study of command and leadership under adversity.  It reveals the complexities of managing the daily administrative responsibilities of managing a military unit while dealing with unrealistic expectations from superiors and also leading men in combat.  An interesting book and well worth a read, recommended.

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Recon Scout Book Review

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By Fred H. Salter

Hardcover in dustjacket, 339 pages, photographs, and index

Published by Ballantine Books, 1994

Language: English

ISBN-10: 0-7394-2372-X

Dimensions: 5.7 x 1.4 x 8.5 inches

Corporal Fred H. Salter entered the U.S. Army at the age of 17, forging his father’s signature to enlist in the Horse Cavalry.  He was assigned to the 91st Cavalry Recon Squadron, which gave up its horses for Jeeps before the unit landed in North Africa.  There the unit was attached to larger formations, acting in their intended role as a reconnaissance unit or leaving their vehicles behind to fight as infantry.  Salter soon specialized in night patrols, scouting out enemy positions.  He often worked alone, believing the he was safer in no-man’s-land shielded by the darkness.

After North Africa the 91st landed in Sicily and fought its way up the Italian peninsula.  His was one of several units which endured the Italian winter in the mountainous countryside, and he witnessed the destruction of the Benedictine Monastery at Monte Cassino in a mis-guided attempt to break through the German defenses.

This is very much a soldier’s story with few words spent explaining any military strategy more grandiose than the next objective assigned to Salter or his unit.  He was a musician and a poet, some of his poems are included in this work.  At several times he expresses regret at the decisions he’s made and things he’s done during his time in combat, even if the events were beyond his direct control.

Salter was fortunate to have been one of the lucky ones who survived months of combat and rotated home before he was killed or wounded, most of the original men in his unit were not as lucky. The strain took a toll on him, in addition to malaria it is apparent that he suffered from what we would call PTSD today.  It would be remarkable if he didn’t.

The style of some of the dialog brought back memories of the Sgt. Rock comics of my youth.  A little campy but it does not detract from the story.  There is definitely a tension to the book, sneaking around alone at night through enemy lines is not something just anyone could do.  An interesting story of one man’s experiences during the war.

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