Hermann Goering and the Burning of Bialowieza

I’ve never liked Hermann Goering. It is true that he was a brave and skilful fighter pilot during the First World War (succeeding Baron von Richthofen as commander of the legendary “Flying Circus”), but that was his high-water mark.

His personality, however, is of perverse interest, not the least because it demonstrated that curious irony found in many top Nazis: they could regard wide-scale murder, pillage and cruel torture of fellow humans without qualm, while at the same time they professed a love of nature and wildlife, and promoted concepts of sacred forest groves that would be happily adopted by many modern environmentalists.

Goering’s rise to power and infamy is readily summarised. In the 1920s he joined the Nazis and became one of their highest officials. He was an adoring admirer of Adolf Hitler and a supporter of all of Nazism’s worst excesses. All through the 1930s and the early war years he was second in seniority only to Hitler in the Third Reich and was nominated as Hitler’s successor. He was behind many notorious developments. It was Goering, for example, who organised the stormtroopers who terrorised the Jewish people; he invented and set up the Gestapo; he created the first concentration camps; and he secretly rebuilt the German air force and munitions industry, in contravention of the Versailles treaty. For all of this he was well rewarded, becoming immensely rich and being appointed Commander in Chief of the Luftwaffe. This appointment allowed him to spearhead the crushing German advances over Poland and in Western Europe early in the Second World War.

But as the war continued, his many faults became obvious. He was vainglorious, ruthless, conceited and self-confident to the point of arrogance. He was obsequious towards Hitler and he demanded, in turn, that his officers were obsequious towards him. He swiftly became known to his subordinates as a man whose decisions must never be queried, while at the same time, his oversights must always be ignored. Antony Jay, in his book Management and Machiavelli, has an interesting observation on leaders whose “feedback nerve” has died:


The British victory in the Battle of Britain has been attributed to the fact that [the RAF commanders] proved capable of standing up to Churchill, while their German counterparts could not stand up to Goering, which is another way of saying that Churchill was alive to feedback while Goering was not.

It was a symbolic of his personality that Goering designed his own unique and magnificent uniforms. In Fighter, Len Deighton recalled that Goering even had his own luxuriously appointed train:

The train in which Goering travelled, and sometimes lived, was specially weighted to provide a smooth ride. This luxury meant that two of Germany’s heaviest locomotives were needed to move it. One coach was designed as a bedroom … and a study. Another coach was a modern cinema. A third was a command post with a map room, a fourth was a dining car, and a fifth accommodated his staff … at the front and the back were special wagons with anti-aircraft guns and crews …

Goering loved the forests and the outdoors. He was a keen huntsman and horseman, and as the Reich acquired new territories and his personal wealth grew so he was able to acquire extensive forests, hunting estates with luxurious lodges, and castles. He saw himself as a man of the people, and in fact was popular, especially with children, to whom he loved to give presents. But at the same time he was a morphine addict and a glutton, described by one wit as the sort of person who “drank wine by the hogshead and ate hogs by the hog”. And he was a blatant thief, purloining the art treasures of conquered nations for his personal collections.

In Landscape and Memory the historian Simon Schama does not mince his words:

Everything about Hermann Goering would have been preposterous had he also not been so dangerous … The essence of Goering’s personality was sensual appetite and in this he perfectly complemented Hitler, whose ecstasies were ideological. Hitler the nut cutlet vegetarian was offset by Goering the sensualist, who liked to sink his teeth into broad slabs of bleeding meat. There was something of the child playing Pasha about Goering; the acquisition of brutal despotism in order to reach out and grab whatever his fat little heart desired, without fear of opposition …

Worst of all, at least from the German point of view, Goering was not good at his job. For all his much-vaunted and boastful role as Reichsmarschall (a title created especially for him by Hitler), he oversaw only two successes in the Second World War and both were in situations where the Luftwaffe was scarcely opposed. The first was in 1939 on the eastern front, where his dive-bombers and fighters demolished first the Poles and later the Russians, neither of whom had an effective air force (the Russians reversed this situation by 1943). The second was in the early phases of the North African campaign, where the Germans and Italians triumphed over British forces who had almost no aerial support. Again this situation changed dramatically once the pressure to defend England lifted and the RAF could relocate Spitfire squadrons to North Africa and Malta. It changed even more dramatically after the Americans entered the war and began the co-ordinated African campaign with the British Eighth Army.

There were two aspects from Goering’s war career that I have always found especially revealing. The first was his refusal to take responsibility for anything that happened within his jurisdiction; the second was his destruction of the Bialowieza forest for the simple reason that if he couldn’t have it, neither could anyone else.

Goering’s disloyalty to his own pilots first became apparent when the Luftwaffe was up against overwhelming odds in the wake of the Axis defeats in North Africa. The virtual destruction of the Afrika Korps at El Alamein and in subsequent actions, and the pinching-off of their supply lines to the west by the Americans, and from the Mediterranean Sea by the British Navy and the RAF, had left the Axis forces (including remnant Luftwaffe fighter squadrons) cut off and surrounded in Tunisia. At this stage General Rommel pleaded with Hitler to approve a strategic withdrawal back to Italy and Europe. But as he had done at Stalingrad only months earlier, Hitler would not countenance a retreat, and the result was a disaster for the German army. At the last moment, the order was given to Luftwaffe fighter squadrons to retreat to Sicily, where another “defend to the death campaign” was to be mounted. This the Luftwaffe pilots understood. However, they were also ordered to fly out without their ground support crews, who were to be abandoned to the enemy. This they neither understood nor accepted.

As Goering must have known, each Luftwaffe fighter pilot had his own flight mechanic, who faithfully and personally serviced his aircraft, overseeing refuelling and re-arming, fixing problems, tuning the engine, testing the guns, greasing, oiling, painting, patching and mending as required; he was a modern-day groom looking after his knight’s steed. By 1943 many Luftwaffe pilots and their flight mechanics had been together for years, since most of the squadrons flying in North Africa had already fought in Western Europe, in the Battle of Britain and on the eastern front against the Russians. Apart from the pilots not wanting to start a defensive operation in Sicily without their ground support personnel, there were personal friendships and loyalties to be considered.

German military personnel did not disobey orders—but they could sometimes find a way around an order with which they disagreed. The fighter pilots retreating from Tunisia to Sicily overcame their problem in an interesting way: on the flight to Sicily, they carried their mechanics with them in the fuselages of their Messerschmitt 109s, crouched in the tiny space behind the pilot’s seat. One Me109 pilot gained hero status when he flew out with two ground crew on board, one crouched behind him and the other doubled up in the rear end of the fuselage. The weight of the two extra men greatly altered the flying balance of the aircraft, but this did not stop the pilot, en route to Sicily, from accepting a challenge from an American Kittyhawk, and shooting it down.

The defence of Sicily swiftly became a desperate task, as by now the Allied air forces had almost total aerial supremacy. The Allied strategy was to attack coastal defences and airfields, softening up the resistance before the invasion. British Wellington bombers came in by night, and by day the Americans mounted mass high-level raids with the new four-engine B-17 Flying Fortresses, supported by low-level attacks with Marauders. The bombers had ample fighter support, comprising the American Kittyhawks and P-38 Lightnings which accompanied the bombers on the short hop across from Tunisia, P-40 Warhawks flying out of the island base at Pantalieria, and three wings of Spitfires based at Malta. The Messerschmitt 109, which in 1940 had been just superior to the Hurricane and about equal as a fighter to the Spitfire, was in 1943 still superior to the American fighters in speed and manoeuvrability. But the American fighters still had the advantage, because they were able to combine with the Fortress’s firepower—and there were a great many of them. The Spitfires flying out of Malta, on the other hand, were the latest version with modified wings, and were a significantly superior fighter to the Me109, especially at altitudes over 20,000 feet where mostly the heavy bombers operated.

The German fighter pilots were brave and resourceful and led by experienced commanders. Many American bombers were shot down, but many more got through, and when they did they selectively bombed the Luftwaffe airfields. And while Allied bombers were going down, so were German fighters. The difference was that the German fighters were not being replaced.

By mid-1943 Germany’s war economy was beginning to hurt on many fronts, and the Luftwaffe squadrons in Sicily could no longer be adequately resupplied. They soon faced shortages of spare parts, fuel, engine coolant, and aircraft. Repair workshops and stores were under constant bombardment. Replacement pilots continued to arrive, but they were mostly youngsters fresh from flying school, with no air-fighting experience. This meant an ever-decreasing number of experienced pilots were being forced to fly ever-increasingly patched-up aeroplanes on non-stop missions. It was a classic rearguard action.

All of this comes through vividly in the recently translated book Messerschmitts over Sicily, by the German fighter pilot Johannes Steinhoff. By 1943, Steinhoff was a group commodore with 77 Fighter Group, commanding three wings of Me109s in Sicily and Sardinia. He was an experienced and decorated fighter pilot, having fought in the Battle of Britain, on the eastern front (including the battle of Stalingrad) and then in the North African campaign. In his book, he tells the whole story of the Allied invasion of Sicily, as seen from the viewpoint of a fighter leader whose assignment was to stem the tide of the American and British aerial assault. His command comprised (initially) about 130 Messerschmitt 109s, facing a combined total of over 5000 Allied bombers and fighters. As the fighting progressed, this imbalance became ever-worse; just before the invasion, his whole force was down to less than twenty aircraft, operating from farm paddocks, as their airfields had been destroyed. They had lost their workshops and stores, were pumping fuel by hand, running from aircraft to slit trenches and back as the waves of bombers came over, and trying to sleep by night in caves. To make matters even more impossible, there was no radar on Sicily, so Steinhoff and his pilots would be scrambled only after the approaching bomber fleet had been sighted from mountain-top lookouts.

They quickly discovered that even if they got through the fighter screen, the Flying Fortress was a very difficult opponent. A typical bombing raid might contain 200 Fortresses, accompanied by a similar number of fighters. Against this Steinhoff could put up only about fifty Messerschmitts at any one time. The bombers would fly in a vertically stepped-up formation, but so organised that groups of three machines could act as a mutually-supportive defensive unit. These units had enormous firepower. Three Fortresses carried between them forty 12mm Browning machine guns, firing incendiary bullets, and more than thirty of these could be brought to bear on one attacking fighter at any time. Approaching a B-17 was described by one Me109 pilot as like facing “water pouring at you out of a watering can”.

They also discovered that there was only one successful strategy that a fighter could adopt against the Flying Fortress. This was to meet the bomber head on. The Messerschmitt pilot would manoeuvre his way through the fighter screen and then fly straight at the bomber on a collision course. At the last moment he would concentrate his fire on the bomber’s cockpit and pull up or dive—and then start to defend himself against swarms of fighters. It was a hopeless operation, bravely attempted but mostly unsuccessful.

The inability of the German fighter pilots to stop the Allied bombers wreaking havoc on Sicily infuriated Goering. He simply could not understand it. Part of the problem was that by mid-1943 he was isolated from the real war, issuing orders from his train, his sumptuous palace in Paris, or his hunting lodge in Poland, and surrounded by staff afraid to give him the facts. He was also out of touch with the reality of modern war flying. Strategically, Goering had never really moved on from his days of flying with Baron von Richthofen.

Johannes Steinhoff provides a fascinating insight into all this. Back in 1940, Steinhoff had been assigned to a night fighter squadron defending Berlin from RAF Blenheim bombers. This also had been a hopeless task as at that time the Messerschmitt had no navigation system and no aids for locating bombers at night. The pilots were forced to take off and land in darkness (the German blackout was highly effective), and then attempt to find and shoot down incoming bombers which they could not see, flying in amongst their own flak. The success rate was negligible and Goering had been furious. As a night fighter squadron leader, Steinhoff was called to a meeting over which Goering was to preside, and at which Steinhoff hoped to get across a few insights from the front. In the conference room, Steinhoff recalled:

while we waited for the Reichsmarschall I had a moment to examine the conference room. The style was modern and revealed the marshal’s preference for oak, leather and furniture of imposing dimensions … at the head of the table towered a chair of a species all of its own, a chair of truly Teutonic proportions. This was the Reichsmarschall’s.

Goering then addressed the group, castigating the night fighters for failing to stop the British incursions. As his spoke his rage increased and:

all of a sudden he was back in Flanders and its air battles and the great fighter age of von Richthofen. He raised his hands to demonstrate the tactics of the attack from below. Moving his outstretched right hand in a swinging circular movement past his face, he chased it with his left and finally shot it down. He enthused about flying in bright moonlight, and how his fighters would go on stalking missions along the roads of Flanders, so as to spot the enemy’s silhouette against the paler sky above, then increase speed and attack from below …

Steinhoff quickly realised that “a whole world separated the Reichsmarschall’s elaboration of fighter tactics and the reality of modern war flying”.

Bravely Steinhoff interrupted Goering and started to describe the technical difficulties faced by night fighter pilots flying over Berlin, and to make suggestions as to how the situation could be improved. Goering was unimpressed. Taking his huge cigar from his mouth he simply told Steinhoff to sit down “on his little bottom” and keep his mouth shut. The problem, Goering said, was not technology, but the inadequacy of the pilots.

Back to Sicily in 1943. Faced with the failure of the Luftwaffe to stem the tide, Goering again fell back on blaming his pilots. He still believed that aerial warfare was a matter of who had the better and braver pilots. Again and again he demanded that they lift their game. Again and again he was disappointed.

There were compounding problems. Goering had by now begun to sense that his star was fading with Hitler. He had made too many promises and failed to deliver. For example, he had promised to defeat Fighter Command in the Battle of Britain and to bring Great Britain to its knees by terror-bombing cities, and failed; he had promised that the Luftwaffe would resupply the beleaguered army at Stalingrad, and they had not done so; and he had given a personal guarantee that no enemy bomber would ever reach Berlin—and Berlin was being bombed day and night.

Failing to prevent the invasion of Sicily was beginning to look like yet another bitter loss for Goering. In a fit of rage Goering decided that the fighter squadrons in Sicily must be taught a lesson once and for all, and he issued an infamous order:

During the defensive action against the bombing attack on the Straits of Messina the fighter element failed in its task. One pilot from each of the fighter wings taking part will be tried by court martial for cowardice in the face of the enemy.

Before long came an even nastier announcement. Addressed to the fighter pilots of the Luftwaffe in Sicily it went on:

I can only regard you with contempt. I want an immediate improvement in fighting spirit. If this improvement is not forthcoming, flying personnel from the commander down must be expected to be remanded to the ranks and transferred to the eastern front to serve on the ground.

The impact of these orders on the morale of the men in the field was devastating. Some of the older and most war-weary pilots immediately volunteered to be court martialled and shot; others were stunned, regarding the order as not just out of touch with reality and disloyal, but the antithesis of the code of arms by which they had proudly fought for the Fatherland over the years. Paul Diechmann was one of the pilots. Writing after the war (and quoted by Steinhoff) he reflected:

Because of the high command’s refusal to understand the factual reasons for the fighter’s lack of success against the four-engine bombers and also because of the outrageous measures outlined above, morale amongst the fighter pilots sunk very low indeed. It was obvious to any sensible person that the Commander in Chief of the Luftwaffe had lost his nerve when faced with the facts … and was burying his head in the sand.

In the end, the fighter commanders and squadron leaders took it upon themselves simply to ignore the orders, and prepared themselves to take the consequences. Most of them realised that the outcome would be a visit from the Gestapo, and a bullet in the back of the head.

Fortunately this was forestalled by events. First, the aircrew were already being decimated by the RAF and the US Air Force without any need for Gestapo bullets; however bravely they flew, it was impossible to win an aerial war without resupply of planes and parts. Second, they were swamped by the allied invasion of Sicily, which was followed by the retreat to Italy and then the long and bitter fighting up the Italian peninsula. Here a greatly reduced Luftwaffe suffered cruelly at the hands of the Allies, but again they fought and died bravely. By May 1945, when Germany capitulated, the Luftwaffe had almost ceased to exist. Johannes Steinhoff ended up in the desperate but hopeless defence of Berlin, and then as a prisoner of the Russians.

Hermann Goering has other things to answer for, including what he did to the Bialowieza —the name once used to describe the immense forest that overlapped the south-western border of Lithuania and north-eastern sections of Poland, perhaps the last remnant of the great primeval European forest. Bialowieza was a vast woodland of oak, spruce, beech, alder and fir, studded with lakes and mountains, an area almost untapped for its timber resources into modern times, and it teemed with deer, wild boar, elk, wolves, bears and buffalo. By the time of the First World War, the entire area had fallen under Russian control, and had been declared by the Tsar to be his royal hunting reserve. A private railway line had been constructed for the Tsar from Moscow to Bialowieza, and magnificent, luxurious hunting lodges erected. Simon Schama describes the scene:

Though its stock of game could hardly be rivalled, either in quantity or diversity, Bialowieza in some respects was no place for a half-hearted hunter. There was, after all, a good reason why this green ark of mammals had survived. Since the … wilderness had never been cleared, it presented (and still does) formidable obstacles to penetration by riders, let alone an easy shot. The roots of fallen oaks, many hundreds of years old, rise like brutally spliced ramparts, twenty feet high, from the forest floor. Carpets of brilliant green algae suddenly part to reveal the black brackish water of deep bogs beneath. And though there are clearings where elk and deer and bison like to graze, by the time hunters have appeared on the spot, their quarries have more than enough notice to flee. Which is why deep winter, when snow could muffle the sound of pursuit and when the animals could be tempted with strategically placed offerings of hay, became a favourite hunting season.

Schama goes on to describe how by the end of the nineteenth century, this ancient frontier forest became almost a sacred place in the “theology of the royal hunt”, a sort of national park to which only the Polish aristocracy and then the Tsar had rights. Spared the industrialisation of forests elsewhere in Europe, Bialowieza had no breweries, no glassworks, no tanneries, no iron forges, not even any charcoal burners. In a curious echo of the situation that prevails in most of Australia’s national parks today, the only commercial activity permitted was apiculture.

The peace of the forest came to an end during the final years of the First World War, when there was a terrible famine in Poland and Lithuania. Well-organised hunting parties, armed with modern weapons, worked though the woodlands, butchering the wildlife for food. This was followed in 1919 by a brief period of timber cutting, overseen by the British, as war reparation. But by the mid-1920s the forest had largely recovered and by the 1930s was again perhaps the greatest wildlife reserve in Europe.

Enter Hermann Goering. One of the lesser-known aspects of Goering’s career was that he was, for a while, Germany’s chief forester, although his interest was more wildlife than trees. Being an avid huntsman he had, in 1934, enacted the nation’s first game law. This meant that as well as being Germany’s Reichsforstmeister, he now made himself the first Reichsjagermeister (Chief Huntsman), allowing him (in Simon Schama’s phrase) to “dress up like an operatic extra”. Amongst other things, the new law provided the death penalty for anyone harming an eagle or practising vivisection on animals. Vivisection on humans, as practised by German doctors on Allied POWs, apparently did not worry Goering in the slightest.

Needless to say Goering soon cast his acquisitive eyes on Bialowieza. In June 1941, within five days of the German attack on Russia, a swastika was flying over the Tsar’s “palace” in Bialowieza and Goering installed himself as its owner. Nearby lodges were given to his cronies in the Reich and the Luftwaffe. The entire forest was declared a “sacred grove” available only to Goering and his fellow officers. The locals were ruthlessly deported and their villages razed. Foresters were replaced by the SS and scenes of terror and debauchery followed.

As the Third Reich crumbled in the last years of the war, so Goering became, as we have seen, increasingly remote from the real world and embittered at the failure of his staff and his troops. In his eyes, every setback was the fault of his subordinate staff or the man at the front, and he was always seeking ways of punishing them. At the very end, Goering took the coward’s way out, committing suicide after having been convicted as a war criminal and sentenced to hang. But before then he had decided to punish others by taking out his wrath on Bialowieza. In the final days, as Berlin fell, Goering ordered the SS to put the Bialowieza forest to the torch. The Tsar’s palace and the magnificent hunting lodges were all incinerated and an enormous wildfire engulfed the forest and its wildlife, burning for weeks. The historian Stephen Pyne has described this as “cultural self-immolation”, a fire that consumed and purged, symbolising both the end of Nazism and of Hermann Goering.

It would have been more fitting, it seems to me, had Goering perished in the fire himself, bringing more dramatically to an end the life of one of the twentieth century’s most unpleasant men.

Roger Underwood’s most recent contribution on history was “The Rum Sedges” in the January-February issue this year.

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