» » The Big Show: Some Experiences of a French Fighter Pilot in the R.A.F. (Wings of War) (English and French Edition)

ePub The Big Show: Some Experiences of a French Fighter Pilot in the R.A.F. (Wings of War) (English and French Edition) download

by Oliver Berthoud,Pierre Clostermann

ePub The Big Show: Some Experiences of a French Fighter Pilot in the R.A.F. (Wings of War) (English and French Edition) download
Oliver Berthoud,Pierre Clostermann
Time Life Education (November 1, 1989)
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1390 kb
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Book by Clostermann, Pierre
  • Very happy with the service and the book.

  • I first read this book in a Danish translation when I was a boy, I have always taken a keen interest in WW2 especially aviation.
    Pierre Clostermann writes in a honest and straight forward way, that grips my attention and makes it difficult to leave the book unread.

  • Very interesting.

  • First, the good. There's loads of air combat action in this book. The preliminaries are dispensed with on pages 3-13. Pages 13-268 are full of Clostermann's combat flying. I think that's why so many people like it. It's a fun read. Some books are slow to get to the action, but not this one.

    Now, the bad. I've got two issues with the book. ONE - despite his success, Clostermann does not set a good example for a disciplined fighter pilot. He's not a wingman a leader can depend on. If there's an enemy aircraft to shoot at, Clostermann will ditch his leader. I'm surprised he's so open about it.

    TWO - the book is full of inaccuracies and faulty analysis. Some of these errors are so blatant, I find myself wondering how they were possible. Did the author/editor/publisher not bother to do even the most basic fact checking? My best guess is that Clostermann wanted to spice up the book by making his achievements seem even more impressive than they actually were. How else to explain such blatant errors? If so, that was a big mistake, since Clostermann's actual achievements need no enhancement.

    The rest of the review is a (very long) list of wingman/accuracy/analysis issues I have found in the book. I do not consider myself an authority, but I want to point out Clostermann's claims I take issue with. I hate to think of a newcomer reading this book and accepting everything in it as the truth, which a lot of people seem to do given the high ratings this book receives. Frankly, I think the The Big Show is highly overrated due to all the factual errors. After reading my issues with the book, I encourage you to do your own fact checking and draw your own conclusions.


    Page 27 (in my Bantam paperback): "The sky, which had been filled with hurtling Spitfires, seemed suddenly empty - my No. 1 had disappeared. Never mind, I was not going to lose my Focke-Wulf." (Clostermann's first mission - Lt Martell was his No. 1)

    Page 34: "I was flabbergasted. I had shot down two Huns! Two Huns! I was at the same time bursting with pride and trembling with suppressed jitters, my nerves all jangled."

    "What about Martel? What had happened to him? He would again think I had left him in the lurch. The sky was empty." (Clostermann's second mission - 27 July 1943 - wingman to Lt Martell again)

    Pages 37-43: "I was Commandant Mouchotte's No. 2."

    "A Hun opened fire; the tracers passed 15 yards from my wing tips. Decidedly unhealthy. I opened the throttle wide, pulled desperately on the stick to follow Mouchotte who was doing a very tight turn and climbing almost vertically."

    "I had pulled too hard. The engine cut out for one precious second and I hung there, with my nose in the air, while the first Huns began to flash like thunderbolts in between our sections."

    "My engine picked up, with a terrific jerk, but too late; I had lost contact with my section, whom I could see 100 yards further up, climbing in a spiral. Couldn't be helped. I did a wide barrel roll, which brought me within 100 yards of a Focke-Wulf at whom I let loose a long burst of 20mm. with 40 degree correction."

    "A few seconds later I heard, for the last time, Commandant Mouchotte's voice, calling: `I am alone!'"

    (Flying as his Squadron Commander's wingman, Clostermann loses him, and Mouchotte is isolated and killed - this time he claims his engine cut for one second as an excuse for losing his leader - do I believe him after the previous incidents?)

    Page 87: "Meanwhile Jacques and I - contrary to our settled habits - followed on Sutherland's heels like faithful hounds and had the pleasure of seeing him liquidate another `190' at 600 yards range."

    (Clostermann freely admits his "settled habit" is not to stay with his leader)


    Page 30: "All the Richthofen pilots were hand-picked. They were commanded by one of the aces of the German Air Force, Major von Graff."

    Page 36: "To complete the picture, we heard over the German radio three days later that Major von Graff, Iron Cross with swords, oak-leaves and diamonds, had been wounded in the course of a heroic combat against an enemy force very superior in numbers!"

    I cannot find a reference to "Major von Graff" in the historical record, which would be hard to believe for a pilot who won the Knight's Cross with oak-leaves, swords, and diamonds - Germany's highest decoration (other than the Knights Cross in gold presented only to Rudel).

    I assume Clostermann is referring to Hermann Graf here, who was a JG commander who won the decoration described.

    However, Hermann Graf was never the commander of JG-2 Richthofen, nor was he shot down by Clostermann's Tempest unit. The list of commanders of JG-2 does not include anyone named "Graff".

    202 of Graf's 212 victories were scored with JG-52 on the eastern front. On 28 January 1943, Graf came to the western front as an instructor pilot. On 11 June 1943, he took command and began creating a high altitude fighter unit that was eventually designated JG-50. On 11 November 1943, Graf was given command of JG-11. It was while flying with JG-11 on 29 March 1944 that Graf shot down a P-51 Mustang and in the confusion of the dog fight collided with another Mustang. He managed to bail out, but was injured and had to spend some time in the hospital. Graf eventually returned to the eastern front and JG-52 as its commander on 1 October 1944. He was JG-52's last wartime commander. By choosing Graf, with his astounding victory tally of 212, as their opponent, was Clostermann trying to impress?

    Pages 70-71: "On my right was a Fortress, holed like a sieve but flying all the same, and on my left a red-nosed Mustang limped along."

    "England at last. Just inland I could make our four crashed Fortresses in the fields."

    "We landed at Manston after the Fortress, exhausted, drained. We parked by the Mustang. Introductions. The pilot was the renowned Major Beeson, commander of the 7th Mustang Squadron. It was his last mission, for he was due to be repatriated to the States the week after."

    "The Schweinfurt factory had been razed to the ground, but out of the 280 Fortresses only about 50 were still airworthy." (Here Clostermann is describing his escort duties on the second Schweinfurt raid on 14 October 1943)

    At the time of the second Schweinfurt raid, Beeson was a Lieutenant (not a Major) in the 334th Fighter Squadron (not the 7th) and was not the commander of that squadron. Furthermore, he was flying a Thunderbolt (not a Mustang) at that time. Beeson did not fly a Mustang until 28 February 1944. Finally, the red noses were not authorized until mid-March 1944. Clostermann is way off on his facts here.

    On the second Schweinfurt raid, 60 B-17s were lost, 121 were damaged but returned, leaving 99 undamaged. 17 of the damaged B-17s could not be repaired and were scrapped. So, 104 of the 121 damaged B-17s were still flyable and could be repaired and put back into service. So, 99 B-17s that returned from second Schweinfurt were undamaged, and up to 203 B-17s could be considered airworthy. 50 airworthy B-17s was a big exaggeration.

    Page 115: "Against these the Allied Expeditionary Air Forces could pit exactly 2,371 first-line fighters, of which 1,764 were R.A.F."

    For D-Day, the 9th Air Force had 18 Fighter Groups, and the 8th Air Force had 15 Fighter Groups for a total of 33. 33 Fighter Groups, with 3 Squadrons in each Group, with each Squadron puting up 16 aircraft yields 1584 U.S. fighters. Clostermann implies there were only 607 U.S. fighters for D-Day. I can't say 1584 is the exact number, but I think it's safe to say that Clostermann is a little light on the U.S. contribution. It seems to me that Clostermann has a penchant for minimizing the U.S. contribution in general.

    Page 162: "In emergencies you could over-boost it up to nearly 3,000 h.p. and 4,000 revs., and the speed went up to 460 m.p.h. In a dive the Tempest was the only aircraft to reach, without interfering with its handling qualities to any marked extent, sub-sonic speeds, i.e. 550-600 m.p.h." (Clostermann refers to the Tempest here)

    The Tempest was definitely a high-performance aircraft in its day, but I would have to see some data before I would believe 600 mph - with no detriment to handling qualities - in a dive.

    Page 164: "...and another costly raid by Fortresses had to be laid on (about 100 never came back)..." (Clostermann is referring to a raid on Wiener-Neustadt here)

    The second raid on Schweinfurt was the U.S. bomber raid with the highest losses in WW2. 60 bombers were lost. Clostermann's claim of 100 bombers lost on a raid on Wiener-Neustadt is far too high.

    Page 168: "The Messerschmitt 262 was very tricky to fly with a wing loading of 44 lbs. per square foot, a landing speed of just under 200 m.p.h. and a difficult take-off. The turbines also gave trouble and there were certainly high losses through accidents - JG-52, for instance, losing 23 pilots in three months."

    I read a British report on a captured Me-262 that reports a touchdown speed of 175 kilometers per hour, which translates into 109 mph. Clostermann's Me-262 landing speed is about double what it should be. A 200 mph landing speed would have been a real handful!

    JG-52 never flew the Me-262. It flew the Me-109 exclusively throughout the war. Also, JG-52 was never in combat with Clostermann's unit. JG-52 fought on the eastern front starting with the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 through the end of the war. In the last days of the war, as the German lines collapsed, JG-52 was based in Austria and Czechoslovakia. During that time, JG-52 has some isolated combats with allied bomber escorts.

    Page 170: "All in all the average standard of German fighter pilots was much higher at the turn of the year 1944-5 than at any other time since 1940. This can only be explained - apart from possible considerations of morale, such as the defence of the Fatherland - by the fact that the crack fighter units had absolute priority in everything, including personnel and also the handing out of fuel and lubricants. We were therefore very likely to meet in combat nothing but very experienced pilots, while in 1942, 1943 and early 1944 there had been a rotation of pilots between the Western and Russian fronts which often brought us in contact with units of very middling worth. These were later concentrated exclusively on the Eastern front. In principle the Russian front was a rest cure for the Luftwaffe, quantity mattering more than quality, and the best units were kept in reserve to face the R.A.F. and protect German towns against American daylight bombing. Such, grosso modo, was the situation of the Luftwaffe at the end of 1944."

    Clostermann's claim that German pilot proficiency was at a peak at the end of 1944/beginning of 1945 is in complete opposition to everything I have read on the subject. My understanding is that the German fighter force was at a low-ebb after sustaining serious losses over the previous year.

    Between February 20-25, 1944, as part of the European strategic bombing campaign, the United States Strategic Air Forces (USSTAF) launched Operation Argument, a series of missions against German-held territory that became known as Big Week. Over the course of Big Week, the German fighter force lost 17 percent of its pilots - nearly 100 were killed. Big Week is frequently described as a watershed event. Losses of experienced German fighter pilots were so severe in this one week that the force never recovered and went into steady decline until the end of the war. Intense air combat attrition on the eastern front and over the course of the allied invasion of Europe made a bad situation even worse.

    Of course, experienced German fighter pilots were still flying, and those individuals were as dangerous as ever, but their numbers dropped with each passing day. Most of the German fighter force was made up of newer pilots who generally had significantly less experience than their Allied opponents. Clostermann's claim flies in the face of virtually every other source. Perhaps he wants his opponents to appear more powerful than they actually were in order to impress his readers.

    Page 175: "This operation had been brilliantly worked out and superbly executed. Allied public opinion would have been dealt a staggering blow if it had known of it. The American censorship and the press services, in a flat spin, tried to present this attack as a great Allied victory, by publishing peculiar figures. We pilots were still laughing about them three months later." (Clostermann is referring to Operation Bodenplatte here)

    Clostermann's assessment of Bodelplatte is in opposition to all that I have read about it. Operation Bodenplatte achieved some surprise and tactical success, but was ultimately a failure. A great many Allied aircraft were destroyed on the ground, but these losses were quickly replaced. Since the majority of Allied losses were empty planes sitting on the ground, Allied aircrew casualties were quite small. Conversely, the Germans lost many fighter pilots they could not replace.

    The Luftwaffe lost 143 pilots killed and missing. 70 were captured and 21 wounded including three Geschwaderkommodore, five Gruppenkommandeure, and 14 Staffelkapitäne - the largest single-day loss for the Luftwaffe. Clearly, many of the pilots lost were experienced leaders and veterans. Thus, Bodenplatte was a short-term success but a long-term failure. Allied losses were soon made up. The Luftwaffe pilots lost were irreplaceable. German historian Gerhard Weinberg wrote that it left the Germans, "weaker than ever and incapable of mounting any major attack again."

    Page 195: "And we closed the discussion by a conclusive argument that always annoyed Spitfire pilots considerably, i.e. that our landing speed was almost greater than their cruising speed."

    If this was said as a joke, and not a "conclusive argument", it might be worth a laugh. However, maintaining that a Spitfire (with a top speed around 400 mph) has a cruise speed that is barely above the Tempest's 100+ mph landing speed is ridiculous.

    Page 211: "At Rheine/Hopsten Nowotny was in sole charge of Jagdgeschwader 52, which was dispersed on various satellites: Nordhorn, Plantlunne, Neuenkirchen, Luned, Hesepe and Bramsche. JG-52 effectives comprised about 75 Me 109's, 75 Focke-Wulf 190's and about 100 jet Messerschmitt 262s. A staffel of Junkers 88 night fighters was attached to it. This represented, with the tactical reserve, about 400 fighter planes under the orders of this twenty-two-year-old Lieutenant Colonel."

    Page 212: "Hurtling through the air like a bullet Bob Clark miraculously went through the wall of flack without being hit and fired a long burst at the silvery Me 262, which was in the final phase of its approach. The Messerschmitt crashed in flames just on the edge of the airfield."

    "A fortnight later we learnt by cross-checking captured document and prisoners' reports that that Me 262 had been piloted by Nowotny."

    JG-52 flew the Me-109 exclusively throughout the war. No FW-190's, Me-262's or Ju-88's as claimed by Clostermann. As mentioned earlier, JG-52 fought on the eastern front and never faced Clostermann's unit. Again, I think Clostermann is trying to build up his opponent here. JG-52 was the most renowned and successful fighter wing of World War Two, with over 10,000 aerial victories claimed, so I suspect Clostermann claims to have fought JG-52 to impress his readers.

    Walter Nowotny never commanded JG-52. He was the Luftwaffe's 5th highest scoring Ace with 258 victories. He spent his entire eastern front combat time in JG-54. He briefly commanded JG-101, then a fighter training school, and then Kommando Nowotny flying the Me-262. Nowotny was 24 years old in 1944 (not 22). Nowotny scored 3 victories in the Me-262 before he was killed flying it on 8 November 1944.

    It remains unclear whether Nowotny was killed due to engine failure or whether he was shot down by United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) Captain Ernest Fiebelkorn (20th Fighter Group) and 1st Lieutenant Edward "Buddy" Haydon (357th Fighter Group) east of Hesepe. What is clear is that Nowotny was not shot down by Clostermann's Tempest squadron. Again, I suspect Clostermann has chosen to claim Nowotny's shoot down to impress his readers.

    Page 233: "S.S. planes had been shooting up and bombing our advanced columns, considerably hampering their progress and their supply echelons."

    I have never heard of SS fighter or bomber units! SS ground units had a reputation for combat prowess and fanaticism. Again, I believe Clostermann has invented SS air units to impress his readers.

    This is a long list of egregious errors. Why did Clostermann do it? I have to believe he was not a lazy writer who did not bother to research his facts. I can only conclude that he felt the need to embellish his story to impress his readers. Too bad, because the unvarnished truth is impressive enough. It's still a fun book to read, just don't put too much stock in any of the facts, figures, or opinions.

    By the way, there are much better fighter pilot memoirs out there. If the RAF in WW2 is your interest, try "Spitfire Pilot" by Roger Hall, "First Light" by Geoffrey Wellum, "Nine Lives" by Alan Deere, "Flying Start" by Hugh Dundas, "Fight for the Sky" by Douglas Bader, "Fly for Your Life" by Robert Stanford Tuck, "Tale of a Guinea Pig" by Geoffrey Page. Good reads, and believable too!

  • I first read The Big Show and the sequel Flames in the Sky (?) back around 1966, as a 10 year old. Soon after, I got to flying de Havilland Tiger Moths and Slingsby T 21-B Gliders and re-read both books over and over during the endless hours hanging out at the airstrip waiting for my turn at the stick. Absolutely top class - I wonder how many times those silly people talking about 11 kills and 16 and whatever - I wonder how many times they were ever shot at or were inverted at 50 feet and 400 plus mph? War isn't a ball game for scores and statistics, except for armchair NON-combatants who duck for cover when the lead starts flying. When you hold your friend's dripping intestines in your hands, your kill tally becomes very very inconsequential in a major hurry. Clostermann has conveyed that aspect of war with nauseating clarity. The Big Show is a must read for everyone interested in air-combat, as are Saburo Sakai and Dolfo Galland.

  • Literally speaking, this is the best book ever written by a WW II fighter pilot. THere's no question about that. It's emotional, fast-paced, everything in the right proportion. But CLostermann didn't shot down the 33 enemie planes he says he did. RAF's greatest French Ace was Jean Demozay. Clostermann never was recognized by this number (33) of aerial victories. He's very very behind Johnnie Johnson, Ginger Lacey, Beurling, Malan, Robert Stanford Tuck, Wade, Colin Gray, Frank Carey and others, regarding to aerial victories. But his courage and braveness are amazing, flying more than 400 sorties in Spitfires and Tempests. Fantastic.

  • I first read "The Big Show" when I was thirteen years old in Norway, 1969. The book was translated into Norwegian (Luftens Oerner), and I was absolutley captivated by the writing style, technical accuracy, and excitement. So much so, that I would read it over and over from cover to cover along with its companion book, "Flames in the Sky." The books were my father's: He bought them at a book sale in Oslo, Norway about 10 years after the war's end. Following the liberation of Norway, the RAF flew a victory air show over downtown Oslo with 4 Tempest fighters. One of those pilots was at this book sale 10 years later, signing his new books. The Norwegian version books I have are both signed by Pierre Clostermann. I still have these books proudly displayed in my bookcase: I read them again just last week, and they're just as exciting as ever. From the inspiration I received from these books, I went on to learn to fly, and have made a career out of aviation/aerospace as a result of the imagination that was sparked from reading these works. I'm now using some of the photos in the books, and descriptions in the books, to assist in the restoration of two ME109's. I now want so much for my own kids to read the books, too, but they don't read Norwegian. I do hope to find a set in English to compliment my original set!

  • The most inspiring book of the air battles of WW2. I was given this book by my Father in 1968 then aged nine. I have read it at least twice a year since then! I have Leo 25 Airborne but have never read Flames in the sky. The Big show also inspired me to learn to fly. When in the air I try to imagen the thoughts & feelings of the young fighter pilots of WW2.Be it in a Piper, Cessna, Yak 52 or Jet Provost, I am with them, this book gives the reader the closest insight of a brave, determined, yet scared man 'just doing his job' I once asked Stephen Grey of the Duxford based 'Fighter Colletion' what aircraft would you like, but can't have? "a Tempest V" he replied. He was also inspired.