MEMOIRS OF A STUKA PILOT – Review by Mark Barnes

Stuka operations have always fascinated me, so I was very pleased to read this book by the veteran airman Helmut Mahlke.

The author takes us from the first days of his long military life as young naval cadet through to his flying training and early career at sea. His memory for detail is immense and his modesty coupled with a strong but likeable personality help you warm to him with ease. As a naval aviator he expected to serve on the aircraft carrier Graf Zeppelinbut world events soon outran that possibility.

As the threat of war loomed, Mahlke was transferred to the Luftwaffe where he soon became an adept dive-bomber specialist and a solid leader. From the outbreak of war he was involved in operations in just about every major theatre; Poland, Norway, France, England, Malta, North Africa, mainland Greece and Crete before finally fighting in Russia. His original naval background in anti-shipping operations is brought to the fore on many occasions.

It was in Russia that Mahlke had his most dangerous adventures, including two forced landings behind enemy lines. His courage and seemingly unflappable nature are described without a hint of boastfulness. This is immensely appealing and helps the pages flow by.

Mahlke’s flying career ended in 1941 and you have to wonder how he had experienced so much in such a relatively short time. But the Stuka pilot’s war was intense and this comes through in spades in this book

There is a lot more to the story of Helmut Mahlke and I don’t want to spoil it by revealing the essentials here. This is a significant account of the air war of World War II and could be considered required reading for historians of it.

The translation by John Weal is superb. He gets in all the subtleties without losing the essence of German perspective and humour the author expresses. I really have enjoyed this book. Stukas remain a deep fascination, but this is probably the closest I have come to gaining any strong idea what they were like to fly and fight in. You won’t see many of the type in the flesh and if you are in the UK the place to go is the RAF Museum at Hendon.

Helmut Mahlke died in 1998 aged eighty-five. He was a principled man who I think we can say lived a life of decency and honour. Despite my deep antipathy to the whole Nazi edifice I admire him immensely, much more than I expected to. His account is, quite typically perhaps, almost entirely devoid of politics and this seems right. He was a pilot first and foremost and he got on with the job. I can’t say any fairer than that.

Reviewed by Mark Barnes for War History Online

By Helmut Mahlke
ISBN: 978 1 84832 664 4

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.