By Nigel Holden
On 23 October 1943 the owner of a medium-sized aircraft company in Kassel drove in shock and horror from his home to his main factory. The city was little more than smoking ruins following a massive RAF bombing the night before. Some 6,000 people had died as a direct result and the death toll would reach 10,000. Gerhard Fieseler resolved that his brain-child – to him it was his brain-child – would bring deserving retribution to the accursed Tommies. This was the Fieseler 102, which the world would come to know as the V-1 flying bomb. But his dream was not to be fulfilled. He rued years later that it was an idiotic decision by the Nazi leadership to neglect the war-winning potential of his Luftwaffe-backed weapon by favouring the parallel development of the vastly more expensive Wehrmacht-sponsored V-2.
Hardly anyone these days links the name of Fieseler to the V-1. He is better known for the creation of the legendary Storch reconnaissance aircraft, one of the most acclaimed planes in its class ever built. The great British military test pilot, Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown, memorably described the Storch as ‘a virtuoso of slow flight’ and even ranked it in his top 20 best aircraft of the 487 he flew during and after the Second World War. Fieseler was not the designer behind the Storch, but he was intimately involved in its creation.
During the First World War Fieseler had been a fighter pilot and then in the 1920s and 30s an aerobatics pilot. He was German national champion four times and world champion in 1934. By that time he had set up a small aircraft manufacturing company in Kassel. He built first gliders then sports aircraft. From 1936 to 1945 he was building military aircraft for the Nazis, becoming a favoured manufacturer. He was not a trained engineer, but in peace and war he treated the air as a personal aeronautical laboratory, where he learned, as he put it, ‘the alpha and omega of flying.’ He had the precious knack of getting his designers and engineers to build into his aircraft, and especially the Storch, all his intuitions and experience. Some 10 countries tried to produce their own versions of the Storch. They failed. It had what today is called uncopiability, the only guarantor of technological leadership.
In 1938 Fieseler’s company beat over 80,000 other German companies to be one of just 73 enterprises to receive the Nazi’s top award for creating ‘an exemplary National-Socialist industrial community.’ His company won the award four years running. As for the Storch, it first saw operational service during the Spanish Civil War and was later involved in all the major Nazi campaigns of the Second World War. Its passenger list (as it were) includes Rommel, Speer, Mussolini, Churchill and Eisenhower. While it is possible to build up a heroic picture of the Storch, there is one unpleasant reminder of the regime which was its godfather. Female inmates of the Flossenbürg concentration camp nicknamed an especially unpleasant overseer Fieseler Storch on account of her spindly legs.
I was working in Kassel from 2001 to 2003, when by chance I was shown copies of the Fieseler company newspaper which was published from 1938 to 1943. I realised as a management professor and not a military historian that these newspapers were a treasure trove about a Nazi SME. Thus began my interest in Fieseler, who exemplified all the ideals of ‘a technocrat of rearmament,’ who could not resist entering into a Faustian pact with the Nazis. Probing his long life – he died in 1987 aged 91 – I made use of his admittedly selective autobiography published in 1982. With that and other works in German I discovered more about Fieseler, who was not necessarily fascinating in himself, but whose life filled in minor, but intriguing gaps in many accounts of military aviation and Germany’s wars in the first half of the 20th century.
He gives for example a detailed account of his flying experiences in Macedonia, a rarely discussed First World War campaign. He chronicles his close friendship with Ernst Udet, describing their less than complimentary assessment of Manfred von Richthofen, otherwise the most glorified pilot of the First World War. He gives his version of the creation of the V-1. There are pen portraits of the ‘obnoxious’ Hitler and of Göring in full swagger. If these two are despised, pure hatred is reserved for the Americans for their ‘infamous treatment’ of him as their prisoner during 1945-1946.
Fieseler is careful to stress his political indifference to the Nazi regime, even if in his company newspaper he had dedicated himself and his company to ‘serving an incomparably higher purpose.’ He regarded his post-war trial for war crimes as an employer of slave labour as a travesty. It should have been Hitler on trial, not him. Exonerated, he proved to be a failed entrepreneur, but did some judging of aerobatics contexts. All his later life Fieseler craved recognition as a pioneer of the air, words he had had inscribed on his epitaph. On the other hand, he did miss his chance. In 1953 he received an invitation from the USA to be one of three representatives from Germany to attend ceremonies to mark the 50th anniversary of the Wright Brothers’ flight. He turned down this singular honour, saying cryptically that it was against his principles. By this he meant he had not forgiven the Americans for their humiliating treatment of him after the war. He never saw the magnanimousness of their gesture.
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