The most fascinating thing about my current writing project (the exploits of Stuka Pilot Hans-Ulrich Rudel on WWII's Eastern Front), is the need to immerse myself in the emotions of soldiers on the bitter, losing end of World War II’s total war. The concept of total war leaves no room for dignity – one group of nations is the supreme victor, dictating the nature of a future life to a defeated nation. Rudel’s depictions of this ending are stoic, gritty, determined to forestall such reality. In The Final Hours, however, German pilot Steinhoff allows us to experience more of the emotional content of World War II Germany’s impending defeat, from Luftwaffe chief Göring to Luftwaffe pilots to SS troops, to confused, enraged civilians.
Toward the end of WWII, Steinhoff, a General in post-war Germany’s version of the Luftwaffe, teeters on the edge of mutiny as he and other pilots demand that Göring resign. Steinhoff is essentially fired, then ordered to train veteran pilots in flying the Luftwaffe's newfangled jets against daily waves of fighter-protected American and British bombers laying waste to German cities.
The jet fighter/bomber presaged modern air warfare. It was a German invention, along with aircraft missiles and a planned atomic bomb. These were developed as Germany began to be overwhelmed on its many war fronts, Hitler hoping for a miracle weapon to keep the Allies at bay.
Steinhoff’s depictions of the jet’s few forays into combat in the last months of the war seem almost comical – a modern military pilot would probably find their foibles tragic but hilarious. But Steinhoff's agenda here is to stand a final time against the Third Reich leaders’ view that the fighter plane arm of the Luftwaffe gave away the war, that jet fighters, not bombers, could have stopped the Allies’ carpet bombing.
Of the war memoirs I’ve read, this one is perhaps the best-written. The author, his editor and translator collude to give the reader tense dialogue and driven narrative. And flashback segments are handled as ably as a good fiction writer might.
Inevitably, however, the author can’t hide the ego behind the story. Whereas Rudel seems durable, driven but inventive, and able to go his own way amid boneheaded war decisions, Steinhoff and his friends seem less strong-willed; they seem to be excuse-mongering throughout. And they allow themselves to become victims of bureaucratic bungling that Rudel would never have tolerated. Still, Steinhoff’s version of this war’s end is as enthralling as the war’s overarching six-year panorama. Certainly, anyone interested in this portion of modern history, as well as armchair military wannabes, will find this book a good late-night read.