Wolfgang Falck: Father of the Night Fighters

I n his autobiography, Wolfgang Falck speaks about a chance encounter between himself and an unnamed government official who was present during a military selection process in Berlin towards the end of 1930. The 20-year- old Falck was hopeful for an army career–a difficult goal given the restrictions imposed upon Germany at the time by the Treaty of Versailles. It was a pivotal moment for Falck as he was asked whether he was interested in “air sports.” On answering “yes,” he suddenly found himself to be a candidate for flying school. It was a milestone in what was to be an extraordinary life. 

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Falck was awarded the Knight’s Cross (Ritterkreuz) on 1st October and presented on the 7th. Here, a colleague and Goering’s adjutant Major Bernd von Brauchitsch does the honor. Falck’s subsequent staff positions meant that he was unable to better his tally of 7 enemy aircraft. Courtesy Eagle Editions Ltd

EARLY?LIFE?AND?TRAINING
    
    Wolfgang Falck was born in Berlin on August 19, 1910, the youngest of three children. He entered the world during a time of Empires–indeed, one of Falck’s earliest memories was seeing Kaiser Wilhelm II and his Empress riding in their carriage down the main boulevard of Berlin at the beginning of World War One.

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Wolfgang Falck (right) as a young 14 year old with a friend at the German Sailors School. The school was covertly training young men for future naval service. Falck’s passion was for a naval career but recurring sea sickness lead him to seek a career in the Army instead. Courtesy Eagle Editions Ltd
    
    Images of wounded and dying young men feature prominently among Falck’s childhood memories. His father, a Lutheran pastor, took on the responsibility of visiting soldiers who were wounded from fighting in the trenches. He take his young son along on these visits. Falck states that this (understandably) affected him greatly.
    
    Following the conclusion of WWI and the stormy transition into the Weimar era, Falck worked his way steadily through his school years albeit, at times, with difficulty. Apparently, there was nothing particularly promising about the boy, or so at least one teacher thought.
    
    In 1925, Falck joined a Seaman’s Training School that was actually training young men (clandestinely) for future service in the German Navy. But Falck suffered from sea-sickness despite his keen interest in all things naval. So, in 1930, when the Reichswehrministerium (National Defense Ministry) ordered that applicants could volunteer for only one branch of the military, Falck–because he suffered from seasickness–was forced to choose the Army. But the aforementioned un-named official had other ideas.
    
    In April 1931, after meeting the selection criteria for pilot training, Falck was on his way to Schlei?heim, near Munich, together with 29 other recruits to train as “civilian” pilots. The training program included a period of time in Russia during which Falck took in a tour of Red Square, including Lenin’s Tomb! By March 1935, Falck was a legitimate member of the newly formed Luftwaffe with the rank of second lieutenant. The following month, he received the new Luftwaffe Pilot’s Badge.

WAR?AND?THE?”NACHTJAGD”
    
    As Hitler increased the political stakes during the latter part of the 1930s, the Luftwaffe experienced a rapid growth period. By the beginning of the war in 1939, Falck, by now a first lieutenant (Oberleutnant), had already experienced operations in the occupation of Czechoslovakia in March. Now, with his Me110 C twin-engine fighter-squadron, Falk was about to be among the first group of Luftwaffe pilots to experience war against the Poles.

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During his Luftwaffe career, Falck was to have many close calls. In this photo, ground crews repair the damage to an Me110 flown by Falck during the French campaign. He was chased by two spitfires at low altitude over the French countryside. He considered himself lucky to return to base. Courtesy Eagle Editions Ltd
    
    The month of September 1939 was a fortuitous one for Falck. His first aerial victory came on September 5, against a two-seater PZL 24. Falck later wrote a publicity report about this encounter. His second and third victories came on September 11, when he shot down a tri-motor Fokker transport and a small Polish reconnaissance plane. A few days later, Falck was ordered to fly back to Breslau to see Hermann Goring on account of the success of him and the group (Geschwader) in Poland. On meeting the Reichsmarshall, Falck was unceremoniously handed an Iron Cross, 2nd Class, in a cellophane bag.
    
    It wasn’t long after that Goring visited the airfield near Kielce, Poland, where Falck’s unit was stationed. A few days later, Hitler visited the same airfield. Falck had gained recognition as a brave and capable pilot. By the end of that month, he was promoted to captain.
    
    As the war progressed  with invasions into Denmark, Norway, the Low Countries and France, Falck gained valuable experience in aerial combat. The Luftwaffe eventually recognized Falck as having achieved seven combat victories. (In fact, one more victory that Falck achieved over an RAF Wellington Bomber in December 1939, was confirmed only in the last few years!)
    
    During the March and April 1940, English bombers were flying over the former Danish airfield of Aalborg where Falck’s Geschwader was based. On some occasions, the airfield was bombed forcing the German personnel into trenches. Falck simply thought that if the enemy could fly by night, why couldn’t he?

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Falck flew this aircraft, an Me 110 E-1 as the Commander of NJG1 during the winter of 1940/1. This was the first Me110 that was painted all black for night flying.Note the NGJ1 Emblem below the forward cockpit area. Courtesy Eagle Editions Ltd
    
    Although night fighting was nothing new–it had already been tried during the latter stages of WWI–the technology at the time placed severe limitations on any safe and successful methods. With the entry of Great Britain into the war and the fall of France in June 1940, the only way that the fight could be taken to the Germans was by means of the Royal Air Force bombing German targets. Initial attacks during daylight hours on German military installations had cost the RAF dearly–so much so that attacks had to be launched under the cover of darkness. This gave the attacking aircraft greater protection but at the expense of bombing and navigational accuracy.
    
    As a result of being on the receiving end of bombing, Falck put together a report on the feasibility of intercepting these night raiders. His ideas incorporated the use of radar, searchlights, flak and fighters used in conjunction and organized into a grid section representing a designated area. Falck’s report, written in the April 1940, included details on aircraft modifications, ground organizational requirements as well as necessary pilot skills. The report passed up to the Luftwaffe command. It wasn’t long afterwards when General Erhard Milch flew to Aalborg to discuss the report in detail.
    
    Soon after flying in the Battle of France, Falck was ordered to Dusseldorf to refor m his unit into a night fighter role. His report had obviously made an impact! On June 26, 1940, Goring, with Falck in attendance, announced to a group of Luftwaffe Generals (including Kesselring and Udet) that he was forming a new night fighter wing and appointing Hauptman Falck as its first commander. Falck was the youngest person then in the Luftwaffe to be promoted to such a rank. Nevertheless, since he was the first commander of the new unit, his pilots and crews dubbed the young captain, “The father of the night fighters.” It is a title that has stayed with him to this day.

PROMOTION?AND?TRANSFER
    
    In July 1940, Falck was promoted to major. In October of that year, he was awarded the Ritterkreuz (Knight’s Cross). Falck led Nachtjagdgeschwader 1 (NJG1) for the next three years. His work was largely organizational as he had been ordered not to fly operationally–the Luftwaffe deemed him too valuable to lose.  It was an order Falck found difficult to accept. It obviously kept him from being able improve his tally of enemy kills. Nevertheless, during these years he helped to establish an effective night fighter force–one that grew in complexity as tactics and equipment evolved.
    
    During this time, Falck was promoted and served in various command roles. In the summer of 1942, he was assigned to the Luftwaffe command staff. In January and July of 1943, he was promoted to lieutenant colonel and colonel respectively. In September of that year, he was assigned to air fleet command based in Berlin–a central post responsible for coordinating and administering ground and air defenses for all of Germany. Falck remained in this situation until August 1944. An unforeseen event was to suddenly change his circumstances.
    
    On July 20, 1944, as Falck was sitting in his office in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee, he received a call from a colleague informing him of Claus von Stauffenberg’s attempted assassination of Adolf Hitler. Falck had known von Stauffenberg since 1936, and had seen him as recently as a week or two before the attempt. Making things even a bit more uncomfortable for Falck  was that he had links with the von Stauffenberg family through his mother-in-law. In fact, he was renting a small unit at the time that belonged to a von Stauffenberg cousin. All of his clothes and belongings were in that unit and would prove to be very incriminating if discovered.
    
    As the arrests were being made that same evening throughout Berlin, Falck was concerned that the hysteria following the assassination attempt would somehow lead to him being implicated. Through his friendship with Adolf Galland, he obtained a quick transfer in August 1944 and became the fighter commander in the Balkans. Quite likely, the transfer out of Berlin saved his life. However, the war was going badly for the Germans and Falck’s command time in the Balkans was short.

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Wolfgang Falck’s military pilot’s license issued in Berlin on 25 May 1937. He had undergone extensive training both in Germany and Russia – all of it under the guise of “civilian” pilot training. Courtesy Eagle Editions Ltd
    
    The Russians were moving in fast from the East. Falck and his staff were forced to retreat back to Vienna. From there, Falck received various postings near Berlin and then in Munich but things were chaotic. The end of the war was imminent when Falck was taken prisoner by American forces in Pfarrkirchen, Bavaria, in May 1945.  

POSTWAR?LIFE
    
    Due to the kindness and generosity of some American officers, Falck was a POW for only 35 days. Despite the fact that nearly all former staff officers were being held for an undisclosed time, Falck was able to make his way by bike through Germany.

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Major Falck, Commander of Nachtjagd-geschwader 1 (NJG1) taken in 1942. Not long after this photo was taken, he was transferred to a Luftwaffe Command Staff position. Note the silver Close Combat Clasp awarded for 60 missions. Courtesy Eagle Editions Ltd
    
    Falck gained work, first as an agricultural hand ,then as a laborer making wheel barrows. In 1946, he managed to gain employment with the British Royal Engineers in Bielefeld. This progressed to work in the pharmaceutical industry and then onto becoming the CEO of a playing card company! Falck’s “big break” came in 1962 when he entered the aviation industry as the German consultant for North American Aviation. In 1966, he accepted an offer from the McDonnell Douglas Corporation where he remained until his retirement in 1987. At the time of writing, Wolfgang Falck still lives in peaceful retirement in a village in the Austrian Alps, soon to celebrate his 96th birthday.  

COLLECTING?AVIA-TION?HISTORY
    
    It probably comes as no surprise to learn that while WWII was raging there were already young enthusiasts busy collecting the autographs and pictures of their war heroes. In Germany, thousands of pictures and photos were produced depicting the warriors of land, sea and air. The Ritterkreuz-trager (Knight’s Cross holders) of the Luftwaffe were a particular favorite. This form of collecting has been going on now for over sixty years. Even today, it shows no sign of slowing down and yet this collecting area has become a richer field continuing to attract many aviation hobbyists.
    
    It has become a “richer field”  because so much additional information has been gathered and collated since the end of WWII. It has also spawned the related interest of aviation art. Not only can collectors acquire a picture and/or autograph of their favorite aviator, but also dramatic and splendid illustrations of the type of aircraft they flew. A number of biographies add to a collector’s knowledge.

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Wolfgang Falck in later years attending a function wearing his sanctioned 1957 version Knight’s Cross. A highly regarded gentleman both in the business and aviation worlds. Courtesy Eagle Editions Ltd
    
    Those who are interested in aviation collectibles, aces’ signatures, prints, should visit the following web sites:

    Of course there are many other sites out there, but these should whet the collecting appetite!

    The author gratefully acknowledges Judy Crandall and Eagle Editions Ltd for permission to use photos and quotes from the book Wolfgang Falck–The Happy Falcon published in 2002. For more information, see www.eagle-editions.com

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