Richard Overy on a recently rediscovered meeting that reveals Goering at his best and worst – egocentric and vain, but full of fascinating insights into the German air war.
On 10 May 1945, just three days after the German surrender, an historic meeting took place at the Ritter School in Augsburg, Germany, between General Carl Spaatz, the commander of the US air force in Europe, and Reich Marshal Hermann Goering, commander-in-chief of the German Air Force which fought against Spaatz until the last days of the war. The interview, at the headquarters of the US Seventh Army lasted two hours.
The interrogation was recorded by Bruce Hopper, an American historian who accompanied Spaatz and whose job it was to write up the history of the US air forces in Europe. It was a remarkable meeting of two very different men who only hours before had been sworn opponents. The record of the meeting was written up by Hopper and has remained hidden away in the Spaatz papers at the Library of Congress in Washington DC. It shows Goering at his best and worst – egocentric and vain, but full of fascinating insights into the German air war.
Goering came into the interrogation room in his field grey uniform, a large silver ring on his hand , wearing tan boots. ‘Blue eyes, ruddy not unpleasant face, big thighs,’ wrote Hopper. Spaatz and his team asked him questions for two hours. Goering covered most of the key questions. The jet fighter and jet bomber were his biggest regret: without interruption from American bombing they would have turned the tide of the war. The failure to develop them faster was Hitler’s fault. ‘Hitler knew nothing about the air.’ On the Blitz against England, he blamed Hitler for moving against the Soviet Union. ‘Only the diversion of the Luftwaffe to Russia saved England. She was unable to save herself.’ Goering claimed ‘I was always against the Russian campaign’ (which now seems to have been the case), and regretted the loss of ‘my beautiful bomber fleet’.
On the British and American bombing of Germany, Goering was adamant that precision bombing was decisive. ‘Destroyed cities could be evacuated,’ he replied. Transport attacks were the most damaging. The failures of German strategy he blamed on Hitler – the missed opportunity in seizing Gibraltar and closing the Mediterranean, the construction of the V1 and V2, which were a waste of resources, the failure to occupy the Azores. When he was asked how he would build the German Air Force if he had to start again from scratch, he said with jet aircraft and a bomber that could reach America.
He rated the different air forces differently. The Russians were ‘no good’, the English, Germans and Americans about equal as fighters in the air. At the end of the discussion he stood up and made a statement which he had probably prepared for his visitors. ‘The Allies,’ he said, ‘must thank the American Air Force for winning the war’. The Normandy invasion would not have succeeded. And, he finished, ‘the war would still be going on.’ Spaatz asked for this final paragraph not to be quoted in any publicity or newspaper article. He had his British and Soviet allies to think of.
Goering was indicted for war crimes five months later and committed suicide just before he was due to hang on 16 October 1946. The Spaatz interrogation was unusual, one supreme commander in conversation with the one he had just defeated. A unique moment in the aftermath of war; an intriguing insight into the missed opportunities that might have meant a different outcome. ■