Who would think that a damaged, old leather glove, with the thumb badly torn, could be a valuable item? But if that damaged glove belonged to Luftwaffe pilot Günther Rall, with 275 aerial victories and the third highest scoring ace in aviation history, then it becomes an item of unique historic value. And now that item has found a home at the National Air and Space Museum. In addition to the glove, the Museum also received Rall’s diary from 1942, documenting his actions at the Eastern Front, and a portrait of the pilot in summer 1945, created by another prisoner of war, Wolfgang Willrich, during their time in captivity in Fouquainville, France.
Günther Rall was born in 1918 at the end of World War I and became a pilot with the Luftwaffe in 1938. During World War II, he fought in the skies over France, Great Britain, Yugoslavia, Greece, Russia, and later in the air defense over Germany against the American and British strategic bombardment campaign—always flying theMesserschmitt Bf 109. In November 1941, after 37 air victories, Rall was shot down for the first time and rescued by a German tank crew, his back broken in three places. Told that he would never be able to walk (let alone fly) again, Rall returned to combat just one year later.
In April 1944, Major Günther Rall was made Group Commander of the 2nd group of Fighter Wing 11, defending the skies over Germany against the overwhelming powers of the Allied Air Forces. At that time, the Allies had seven to 10 times more aircraft in the air over Germany than Germany did. Even worse, U.S. pilots had about 400 flight hours of training when they were sent into battle, while German pilots, due to lack of instructors and fuel, had almost none. Many of these young, inexperienced German pilots were shot down before their 10thsortie.
On May 12, 1944, Rall led his group against an American air raid. His pilots flew two different aircraft. Some flew Me 109s with engines equipped with special chargers to allow them to reach altitudes of 8,000 to 10,000 meters where they were able to attack the P-51 Mustang and P-47 Thunderbolts that protected Allied bomber units. Other pilots flew Fw 190s and attacked the lower-flying U.S. bomber aircraft. Rall shot down two Thunderbolts, but then other P-47s arrived. One of them fired at Rall’s Me 109. Bullets from a .50 caliber machine gun hit his cockpit, his engine, his cooler, and his left hand at the control stick, shooting his thumb. The glove donated to the Museum is the very glove worn by Rall during that engagement, and it clearly shows the damage from the machine gun round. Günther Rall bailed out and landed in a field. He was taken to a hospital and his left thumb amputated. Due to the onset of infections he was not able to fly for months.
The air battles of that day marked the beginning of a systematic U.S. offensive against the German fuel industry, one of the weakest links in the German war economy. The 8th and 9th USAAF with 886 bombers, and 980 accompanying fighters, flew attacks against refineries and production sites for synthetic fuel in the heart of Germany. Facing heavy German resistance, the U.S. lost 46 bombers and 12 fighters. On the German side, 28 pilots were killed and 26 wounded that day, among them was the entirety of Rall’s group. Later, Albert Speer, Reich Minister of Armament and War Production, would declare: “On that day, the fate of Germany’s technical warfare was decided.”
In November 1944, Rall returned to active duty. He spent the last months of the war with Fighter Wing 300, which mostly sat idly due to lack of fuel and supplies. At the end of the war, after 621 missions flown, 275 confirmed aerial victories, shot down eight times, and wounded three, Rall became a prisoner of war of the American Forces. Released in August 1945, he had to adjust to a civilian life and became a representative for the Siemens Company. In 1956, he joined the newly established Armed Forces of the Federal Republic in the rank of a Major of the Luftwaffe. He was put in charge of modifying the F-104 fighter jet for Luftwaffe’s requirements and worked his way to the position of Luftwaffe’s Inspector General, a rank he held from 1971 to 1974. That year, he was made the German military representative in NATO’s Military Committee at Brussels, with the rank of a Lieutenant General.
In 1977, Günther Rall visited a meeting of U.S. fighter pilots. While inquiring about the 1944 incident where he lost his thumb, he learned that he had encountered the notorious “Wolf Pack” on that fateful day in 1944, the 56th Fighter Group under Col. Hubert Hub Zemke. Zemke’s pilots were by far the most successful American fighter group in the European theatre, and Zemke himself was known as a supreme tactician. From that meeting, a close friendship developed between Rall, Hub Zemke, Zemke’s 2nd Lieutenant Robert “Shortie” Rankin, and other U.S. pilots. During his visits to the U.S., Rall frequently gave talks about his life as a pilot, often together with U.S. pilots like Hub Zemke or Chuck Yeager. In May 1996, he joined the Gathering of Eagles at the Museum and talked about his war time experiences. In 2003, he was made an honorary member of the prestigious Society of Experimental Test Pilots, and one year later published his memoirs, Mein Flugbuch [edited by Kurt Braatz, Moosburg/Germany: Edition NeunundzwanzigSechs]. In them, the third-highest scoring ace of all time said:
“Nothing is further from my mind than to join into the praise for the last Knights of the Air which you hear so often when people talk about World War II fighter pilots. The sober truth […] is that we fought each other for life and death, although we wanted nothing but to live, and that these fights became the more relentless the longer this terrible war lasted. […] War is not the continuation of politics with other means, but an infamy; it is the utter failure of political action.”
Günther Rall died in 2009. The Museum plans to incorporate his glove, his diary, and his portrait in a new exhibition on World War II.