“Luftwaffe In Colour” – Book Review by Mark Barnes

There has been a steady growth in the fashion for colorizing black and white photographs and you only have to spend a short time on Facebook to see examples that offer varying degrees of quality.  Saying the genre is keenly debated may a bit too dramatic but most people have an opinion on it that cover all levels of approval from enthusiastically positive to totally negative. My view is some images work and some don’t. Being a photo archive professional with forty years in the trade I tend to like my monochrome images to stay loyally black and white.  The major British newspapers found on today’s newsstands did not ‘go color’ until 1990 and my formative years in the business were anchored in a world fuelled by Ilford HP5 and Kodak Tri-X film stock. I prefer my past to stay that way.

Colour images from World War II have a quality born out of the innovative chemistry that created them. Processing the film was more complicated than the slam dunk world of black and white and the materials the dark room technicians were using were a long way from the refined products we only abandoned for digital just a decade ago. There are starches and other goodies in them to create the colours in films that have not stood the test of time and an extremely eminent film conservator with a lot of letters after his name made it alarmingly clear to me that even films taken a quarter of a century ago are under attack from the atmosphere around them from the get go. Black and white will outlive them.

Skewed colors and funny tones create an imbalance making wartime images stand out. They look just a bit off and lack depth, but they remain immensely attractive. We only have to look at the sort of stuff that appeared in Signal to see how important color films were to selling the Nazi idyll and these two superb books capture all that in presenting a genuinely outstanding collection of images of the Luftwaffe and German aviation from before the war until its terrible finale.

The authors have trawled collections to bring us a varied and stimulating broad sweep of Luftwaffe operations, showing us people and airplanes in all manner of situations. A lot of this stuff is immensely rare and I am utterly jealous because I would love to get a look at some of the originals.

The opening volume begins with a brief look at color photography of the period and this does enough to set the scene before we get on with looking at the images. You cannot tire of this stuff. The photographs are vivid and utterly cool. This is all great but what does the book do to enhance our understanding of the Luftwaffe and the war in the air? The answer is not very much, but who cares? There have been far too many books and magazine articles accompanied by color artwork informing us about unit markings and camouflage schemes and we will all have seen at least some of the images that appear in these books before in some form or another. What they do is give us all of it in two volumes making the package accessible and complete. The accompanying captions are a separate matter – they are excellent. The authors’ knowledge and passion is evident throughout.

All our favorite aircraft are here from the thoroughbred sphere of Luftwaffe aircraft. There are plenty of Messerschmitts and Focke-Wulfs to keep us all happy, but there are plenty of Henschels, Heinkels, and other delights to keep us entertained as well.

These are books to thumb through in your favorite chair with a beverage of your choice when you get some treasured quiet time. I am no stranger to writing archive photography books and really appreciate the work of others. The authors have done an outstanding job. Both volumes are a fantastic addition to your aviation library. The reproduction quality is superb and the nuances of early color film shine through on every page. The effect is charming and offers something else I struggle to define that fixes these images to their moment in history. I am aware I am spouting pure unashamed hyperbole and I don’t give a damn. Good books are good books and these two are up there with the best.

Reviewed by Mark Barnes for War History Online.

By Christophe Cony and Jean-Louis Roba
Casemate Publishers

The Victory Years 1939-1942
ISBN: 978-1-61200-408-2

From Glory to Defeat 1942-1945
ISBN: 978-1-61200-455-6

Mark Barnes

Mark Barnes is a longstanding friend of WHO, providing features, photography and reviews. He has contributed to The Times of London and other publications. He is the author of The Liberation of Europe (pub 2016) and If War Should Come due later in 2020.