Night Fighters: Luftwaffe and RAF Air Combat over Europe, 1939–1945

  • Published

Night Fighters: Luftwaffe and RAF Air Combat over Europe, 1939–1945 by Colin D. Heaton and Anne-Marie Lewis. Naval Institute Press, 2008, 224 pp.

During World War II, the British nighttime aerial bombardment of Germany and occupied Europe, against a determined and skillful defense, represented a distinct campaign of great scope and sacrifice. At odds with the American daylight precision bombing strategy, the Royal Air Force (RAF) steadfastly pursued night attacks from 1939 to 1945 at a loss of “nearly 10,000 bombers and over 55,000 airmen killed, wounded, or captured” (p. 13). In Night Fighters, Colin Heaton and Anne-Marie Lewis—a photographer, researcher, and digital image specialist—recount the history of the ever-evolving tactics and technology of this air war, primarily from the perspective of the Luftwaffe fighter forces and RAF Bomber Command.

The book’s hallmark is tracing the evolution of night-fighting tactics, doctrine, and technology across the course of the war. Over the years that this campaign persisted, a deadly balancing act played out between belligerents as first one side, and then the other, adapted and became superior with deadly innovation in “the greatest technological arms race in history” (p. 28). Heaton painstakingly studied and conducted face-to-face interviews with many of the air war leaders and noble night-fighter pilots such as Wolfgang Falck, Hajo Herrmann, and Hans-Joachim Jabs. In this aspect, Heaton (a professor at the American Military University, a major online institution) shows obvious admiration for German aviators’ valor in the air and engineers’ ingenuity in the laboratory.

Night Fighters asserts that the tactics and technology of this battle “underwent a greater revolution . . . than in any other area of operations in any preceding era in history” with the exception of the nuclear age (p. 78). Heaton traces postwar advances in fly-by-wire technology, all types of radar, microwave ovens, transistors, ejection seats, shatterproof glass, motion sensors, and rocket and jet engines “to World War II and mostly to the night war in Europe” (p. 137).

Heaton is as critical of British leadership and tactics as he is full of admiration for the valor of the Luftwaffe pilots. The book occasionally becomes sidetracked from the subject of air-to-air combat to examine the failures and savagery of RAF Bomber Command’s nighttime area attacks on German cities versus the daylight precision bombing favored by the US Army Air Forces. It further touches on the desperate lot of the British bomber aircrews, their loss rates, the misunderstanding associated with treating woes stemming from low morale, and its connection to faulty leadership: “The class-conscious British hierarchy did little to instill faith in one’s superiors, who may have been promoted through family connections or had the privilege of an upper-class education” (p. 105). Conversely, Heaton finds fault with a less-than-competent Nazi hierarchy that denies critical resources and support necessary for the fighter force to prevail. In the Germans’ defeat, he finds that under their high command “it was as much an internal implosion as an external eradication” (p. 138).

Although the author gives just credit to the skill in the fielded Luftwaffe fighter force, Night Fighters is too small a volume (140 pages of narrative) to document the many conclusions that distract it from its thesis. The book’s strength lies in its colorful and energetic descriptions of nighttime air-to-air combat in World War II Europe, but its shortcomings are its expansive findings in tangential but related fields of strategy, leadership, and aircrew morale. Night Fighters gives serious attention to the worthy and underrepresented field of study involving how this arms race was fought and won in the night skies of World War II Europe. Airmen today would do well to heed the lessons of their predecessors—how they adapted and where they came up short.

Col John S. Chilstrom, USAF, Retired

Austin, Texas

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."