EAGLES OVER THE SEA, 1943-45: A HISTORY OF LUFTWAFFE MARITIME OPERATIONS

Reviewed by: Chris Melville

This is the second volume of Laurence Paterson’s retelling of the history of German maritime aviation in the Second World War. Picking up beautifully where the first volume left off, it is eminently readable as a standalone work and details the last two years of the war. Where the first volume of Paterson’s work was largely about a failure of interpersonal relationships, this feels more like an autopsy of the corpses of strategy and procurement. The toxic behaviour of Goering is still here, culminating in Raeder’s resignation in January 1943, but it doesn’t feel like the main event it was in the first volume. With the context of broken relationships very firmly established, it allows the author to focus on the effects of continually changing strategic priorities and the failure of the Reich to provide its maritime arm with MPA that were fit for purpose.

The lack of decent heavy bombers which could be modified into long-range patrol aircraft is a recurring theme. The Condors that had given good service in the early years of the war quickly became outclassed – outpaced and outgunned – by Allied long-range fighters. The Heinkel He177, apparently designed in the absence of any knowledge that its engines would need servicing in the field, was not available in sufficient numbers and sufficient serviceability to be useful, meaning that convoys were unlocated and U-boats unescorted.

The lack of a clear strategy for the use of aircraft in the maritime role, and the inability of first Raeder and then Doenitz to consistently keep naval operations anywhere near main effort meant that resources were continually dribbled away to support the German Army in a series of increasingly desperate defensive battles. Production priorities were switched to defensive fighters to try and stem the relentless Allied offensives: meanwhile the Luftwaffe staff spun themselves fairy stories of future aircraft as their fielded units became increasingly ineffective, running out of both aircraft and trained crews.

This book has more tactical accounts than the first volume, and these are all excellent. From detailed accounts of the German use of the very first precision guided weapons (Fritz X anti-shipping guided missiles) to the account of an RAAF Sunderland engaged with eight Ju-88 over a 45-minute running battle (in which the crew won a DSO, two DFCs, and a DFM) they add depth, colour, and immediacy to the narrative. There are some intriguing sections on the early use of U-boat tankers supporting German flying boats – effectively providing a forward air refuelling point at sea – which was discontinued due to heavy losses both due to weather and enemy action.

Patterson has again done an outstanding job of documenting the failure of the Reich to appreciate both the importance of its Navy and the absolute imperative to provide it with effective air support. Repeated failure to provide the Navy with sufficient MPA to counter allied shipping and submarines meant that the sea lines of communication were never cut and thus materiel continued to reinforce Allied action in both the Atlantic and Mediterranean theatres. Failure to design and prioritise a heavy/long-range fighter meant that what MPA and flying boats the Germans were able to put in the air were decimated by Beaufighters and Mosquitoes, while German U-boats were sunk in increasing numbers by Sunderlands and Liberators which were able to fend off the Ju-88s.

This is a fabulous book. Like its predecessor, it could really use a map or two, but this isn’t a deal-breaker. It complements the first volume well: there are clear themes running between the two books, broadly leaning towards failed relationships in the first and failed strategy in the second. Taken as a pair, they provide a thorough but readable account of the defeat of the Luftwaffe over the sea and expose the reasons – both human and technical – behind it.