Günther Rall (1918 - 2009)

When the Second World War ended, Günther Rall had reached 275 victories and had been awarded some of Germany’s highest military honours

Issue: 12 / 2020By Joseph Noronha

Generalleutnant Günther Rall’s forty years of military service spanned a crucial period of German history – the Second World War, Germany’s defeat and the subsequent reconstruction. During the War this Luftwaffe pilot logged an amazing 275 aerial victories in 621 combat missions, making him the third highest scoring fighter ace ever. The aircraft that helped him achieve this record was the Messerschmitt Bf 109. He narrowly escaped death on several occasions, being shot down eight times and severely injured thrice.

Rall was born in Gaggenau on March 10, 1918. He volunteered for military service in December 1936 and two years later, he joined pilot training and soon qualified as a fighter pilot. He was posted to Jagdgeschwader 52 (JG 52, or the 52nd Fighter Wing), which later became one of the most famous flying units in aerial warfare. His squadron flew the Me 109E from Boblingen, near Stuttgart. On May 18, 1940, during the Battle of France, Rall scored his first victory over a French Curtiss P36.

In June 1940, the squadron moved to Coquelles, near Calais, to fly missions against English Channel ports and convoys. Rall later said, “The British were sporting. They would accept a fight under almost all conditions.” However, his inexperienced unit was no match for the Royal Air Force and sustained heavy casualties. At the age of 22, Rall was appointed Staffelkapitän (Squadron Leader) and participated in the Balkans Campaign in April-May 1941. In June 1941, JG 52 moved to the Eastern Front. It remained there from Operation Barbarossa – the code name for the Axis invasion of the Soviet Union – until the end of the War.

Günther Rall’s kills now came thick and fast against the raw Soviet pilots in their primitive planes. On November 28, 1941, he scored his 36th victory against a Polikarpov I-16 aircraft, but a momentary lapse of concentration led to his being shot. He tried to fly back to safety with a damaged engine, but had to crash-land in darkness and was knocked unconscious as a result. Fortunately, he was rescued from the wreck by German soldiers. The medical verdict was that his spine was broken in three places, his right leg was paralysed and he was finished as a pilot. He was transferred to a hospital in Vienna in December 1941 where romance blossomed between the severely injured pilot and Hertha Schön, the Viennese doctor treating him. They were married in 1943. Unknown to Rall, his wife was secretly helping Jewish acquaintances escape to safety from the Nazis. Although she was investigated by the Gestapo, the dreaded secret police of Nazi Germany, nothing came of it.

Meanwhile, Rall had returned to combat flying defying medical opinion. By October 1942, he had tallied 100 kills and received the Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves. In August 1943 he doubled this to 200 victories and was awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves and Swords – the second highest military award of Germany. It was during this period that he received a head injury when a Russian fighter plane shot away his cockpit canopy. And after reaching 250 kills, he was posted to the Western Front to command a squadron flying specially equipped Me 109G aircraft to conduct high altitude interception attacks against daylight bombing raids by the US Air Force. In May 1944, he was shot during combat with a P-47 Thunderbolt. His left thumb was badly injured and after he cleared the ice from his windshield with his right hand, he bailed out. The thumb later became infected and could not be saved. He spent six months in hospital in Nassau before taking over command of the Fighter Leader School in November 1944. This injury however, saved his life because the US Eighth Air Force had established air superiority over Germany for the rest of the war and any enemy plane getting airborne, was liable to be shot down.

When the war ended, Rall had reached 275 victories and had been awarded some of Germany’s highest military honours. How did he achieve this remarkable record? Unlike, the stereotypical fighter pilot he was modest of speech and manner. He once said, “I had no system of shooting as such. It is definitely more in the feeling side of things that these skills develop. I was at the front five and a half years and you just got a feeling for the right amount of lead.”

Günther Rall was a prisoner of war for many weeks. When the West German military was re-established in 1956, he volunteered to join the cadre of officers in the German Air Force. In January 1971 he was appointed Chief of the Air Staff and later became Germany’s military attaché with NATO. Rall died on October 4, 2009 at the age of 91, following a heart attack.