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EAA AirVenture Oshkosh RSS FeedGerman ace salutes Oshkosh visitors
By Frederick A. Johnsen, EAA AirVenture Today
Photo by Frederick A. Johnsen
German World War II fighter ace Gen. Gunther Rall salutes the crowd at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2009 as he begins his Warbirds in Review presentation.

July 31, 2009 - Oshkosh, Wisconsin  - Gunther Rall's 275 aerial victories in World War II came at a price. He was shot down eight times. "You get used to it," he said with a chuckle, as his large audience laughed with him.

Gen. Rall conducted a Warbirds in Review session today, seated in front of a P-38 Lightning fighter. In combat, Rall went up against Lightnings. When one of his wartime injuries cost his left thumb, in convalescence he was assigned to a special Luftwaffe unit that flew captured Allied aircraft-including the P-38.

Rall joined the German army in 1936, subsequently applying for flight training two years later. "As soon as I started flying I knew I wanted to be a fighter pilot." From training to his retirement in the 1970s, Rall counts 47 different aircraft types that he has flown. Flying German biplane trainers of the 1930s-Fw-44s, Bucker Jungmanns, and others-Rall was introduced to the slim Messerschmitt Me-109 about the time the war started for Germany in 1939-40.

When French air patrols and German air patrols clashed near the Rhine River, combat began. "The first fight we had with the French air force, I got my first victory," Rall recalled. Analyzing that battle, Gunther said the victory gave him the confidence to press on as a fighter pilot, while damage his own Messerschmitt received in the fray gave him a dose of caution as well.

German military officers were required to be apolitical, and not members of political parties. This many decades after the fall of Hitler's Germany, Rall told his audience: "Hitler's biggest mistake was his racism." Responding to a question, Rall said he met Hitler three times during the war. On the first occasion in 1942, he said Hitler was optimistically making development plans for territory. Rall's second meeting, nine months later, saw Hitler grasping at straws and still looking for optimism in the bleak post-Stalingrad period. Rall's final meeting with Hitler was in April 1944, two months before the Allied invasion of western Europe. All Hitler wanted to discuss was the impending invasion; gone was the optimism.

After transferring from the western to the Russian front, Rall was recalled to the west. "I came back to Germany because Germany was threatened by the 8th Air Force and the 15th Air Force." Rall said it was during a massive U.S. Army Air Forces bombing mission on May 12, 1944, featuring 800 B-24s and B-17s plus maybe 1,000 escorting fighters over Stuttgart, when he lost his left thumb in aerial combat.

Before that injury fully healed, Rall was given a non-combat assignment flying captured Allied aircraft. "I flew the P-51, the 47, the 38…all the aircraft," he recounted. After seeing what an ordeal it was to start German fighters with hand-crank inertia starters in the middle of the Russian winter, Rall said the P-51's electric starter impressed him. Sixty-five years later he still recalled his observations about the captured P-51: "Beautiful cockpit, very good visibility." He said the P-51's stout and wide landing gear was far superior to that of the Me-109. "The main difference," he added, was "the endurance of the 51 was seven-and-a-half hours; the 109 one-and-a-half hours."

Rall also endured a broken back-in three places-following a shoot-down over the Russian front. With peace in 1945, he took work as a salesman before joining the new postwar West German air force in 1956, training on jet fighters. As West Germany's F-104 project officer, he was closely involved with the introduction of that aircraft to postwar German fliers. He told his AirVenture audience: "There's only one favorite airplane, and I love it: the F-104 Starfighter…It was for me a genius aircraft." He said a spate of crashes of German F-104s was not the fault of the aircraft, and back-to-basics training remedied the situation.

As raindrops began randomly spattering the Warbirds in Review ramp, many of the audience joined Gunther Rall in a tent where he signed autographs. "I'm very grateful that I could come," he said.

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