Luftwaffe Eagle: A WWII German Airman’s Story – Review by Mark Barnes

This intriguing book is the autobiography of the Luftwaffe airman Erich Sommer who flew as a navigator on bombing missions and photo-reconnaissance flights before becoming a pilot operating the Arado 234 jet bomber. He had a very busy war.

The book begins in the author’s formative years and progresses through his extensive education in the brewing industry before he finally takes the important step of getting into uniform. As his story develops it becomes apparent that Mr Sommer’s career is far from run of the mill.

He takes part in the invasion of Norway and then we see him during the German attack in the West. He flies a number of bombing missions over Britain, but even here the author moves into the world of the specialist using the X-Geråt system to navigate to the target while serving with Kampfgruppe 100.

Sommer was intended to take part in the infamous raid on Coventry but his aircraft suffered technical problems so the pilot aborted the mission.

Do 17 bombers during the Battle of Britain. Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-342-0603-25 / Ketelhohn [Kettelhohn] / CC-BY-SA 3.0
Do 17 bombers during the Battle of Britain. Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-342-0603-25 / Ketelhohn [Kettelhohn] / CC-BY-SA 3.0
Next, we found our man flying high altitude bombing raids in a modified Junkers 86. The destructive value of these single aircraft attacks could be considered minimal, but they were effective inasmuch as it prompted the British to modify a small number of Spitfires so they could reach 40,000 feet to intercept the German aircraft. Mr. Sommer recounts how this might have gone very badly for him had one of the cannons not jammed in the aircraft that got to him. We also hear from the Spitfire pilot.

The author finds his way on to the roster of Kampfgruppe 200 flying captured Allied aircraft and doing other interesting things. He makes a brief statement about the often sensationalist claims made about the role of the unit. Somewhere in my house, I have a paperback thriller telling how the unit attacks London using Flying Fortresses. It’s all good fun but I assume this is the sort of wild storytelling Sommer had in mind.

The author takes part in a number of high altitude photoreconnaissance flights and was clearly a specialist in this role. This leads him to train as a pilot and after a few adventures, he moves on to flying the new Arado 234.

The chapters relating to the jet bomber are probably the most interesting element of the entire book. Mr. Sommer had a solid memory for detail and could rely on the recollections of his great friend Horst Götz. Another bonus is the use of the author’s photo collection and I have to say I would like to see some of them reproduced in a larger scale.

Arado Ar 234 B-2
Arado Ar 234 B-2

The final chapters recount a number of missions with the Arado 234 as Nazi Germany spirals to defeat. From the outset the author makes a point of rejecting Hitler and the Nazis and his stories of the boastful one-upmanship of senior officers attempting to ingratiate themselves with the elite illustrate the high level of delusional nonsense we have heard so much about that took place within the high command.

There is one particular story where our hero carried out a reconnaissance that disproved the lies of a senior officer who promptly wanted him arrested. The inference is that for all the bravery and resourcefulness of the German front line forces, their leadership were as mad as a bag of frogs.

None of this is news and I profess to being a little cynical about yet another German airmen claiming no affection for the Nazis. None of this detracts from a pretty good read. The book cracks along and there is plenty of detail to take in. Mr Sommer wasn’t a bad writer and the book has benefited from the editing work done by the aviation historian J Richard Smith.

By far the most appealing thing about this book is that is different from much of the usual fare I get to see. There is no question that Mr. Sommer is a likable and honorable bloke and his skill and bravery is beyond question.

I reviewed a book written by Philippe Bauduin about secret reconnaissance flights made over the Allied bridgehead in Normandy by Arado 234s way back in 2014. I remember it as a highly entertaining piece of work, but I did not keep the book in my collection.  Mr. Sommer was the pilot on these missions. His war ended in Italy. He chose to move to Australia after the war and enjoyed a good life in the construction industry.

This is an entertaining read that will appeal to anyone interested in the Luftwaffe. The author’s war seems to have been one of great variety and his association with a range of special units, innovative aircraft and systems kept me engaged to the end. Good stuff.

Reviewed by Mark Barnes for War History Online

A WWII German Airman’s Story
By Erich Sommer
Edited by J Richard Smith
Grub Street
ISBN: 978 1 910690 54 3

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.