Werner Mölders

Werner Mölders
Werner Mölders
The head and shoulders of a young man, shown in semi-profile. He wears a field cap and a pilot's leather jacket with a fur collar, with an Iron Cross displayed at the front of his shirt collar. His hair is dark and short, his nose is long and straight, and his facial expression is a determined and confident smile; his eyes gaze into the distance.

Werner Mölders
Nickname Vati ("Pappy" or "Daddy")
Born 18 March 1913(1913-03-18)
Gelsenkirchen, Westphalia
Died 22 November 1941(1941-11-22) (aged 28)
Buried at Invalidenfriedhof Berlin
Allegiance  Nazi Germany
Service/branch Luftwaffe
Years of service 1935–1941
Rank Oberst (Colonel)
Unit Condor Legion, JG 53, JG 51
Commands held III./JG 53, JG 51

Spanish Civil War
World War II

Awards Spanish Cross in Gold with Swords and Diamonds
Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds

Werner Mölders (18 March 1913 – 22 November 1941) was a World War II German Luftwaffe pilot and the leading German fighter ace in the Spanish Civil War. Mölders became the first pilot in aviation history to claim 100 aerial victories—that is, 100 aerial combat encounters resulting in the destruction of the enemy aircraft, and was highly decorated for his achievements. He was instrumental in the development of new fighter tactics which led to the finger-four formation. He died in an air crash in which he was a passenger.

Mölders joined the Luftwaffe in 1934 at age 21. In 1938, he volunteered for service in the Condor Legion, which supported General Francisco Franco's Nationalist side in the Spanish Civil War, and shot down 15 aircraft.[1] In World War II, he lost two wingmen in the Battle of France and the Battle of Britain, but shot down 53 enemy aircraft. With his tally standing at 68 victories, Mölders and his unit, the Jagdgeschwader 51 (JG 51), were transferred to the Eastern Front in June 1941 for the opening of Operation Barbarossa. By the end of 22 June 1941, the first day of Barbarossa, he had added another four victories to his tally and a week later, Mölders surpassed Manfred von Richthofen's 1918 record of 80 victories. By mid-July, he had 100.

Prevented from flying further combat missions for propaganda reasons, at the age of 28 Mölders was promoted to Oberst, and appointed Inspector General of Fighters. He was inspecting the Luftwaffe units in the Crimea when he was ordered to Berlin to attend the state funeral of Ernst Udet, the World War I flying ace. On the flight to Berlin, the Heinkel He 111 in which he was travelling as a passenger encountered a heavy thunderstorm during which one of the aircraft's engines failed. While attempting to land, the Heinkel crashed at Breslau, killing Mölders and two others. The German Wehrmacht of the Third Reich and the Bundeswehr of the Federal Republic of Germany both honoured him by naming two fighter wings, a destroyer and barracks after him.


Childhood, education and early career

Mölders was born on 18 March 1913 in Gelsenkirchen, the son of teacher Viktor Mölders and his wife Annemarie, née Riedel. He was the third of four children, with an older sister, Annemarie, an older brother, Hans, and a younger brother, Victor.[2] After his father, a Reserve Leutnant in the King's 145th Infantry Regiment, was killed in action on 2 March 1915 in the Argonne Forest in France, his mother moved the family into her parents' house in Brandenburg an der Havel.[3]

In Brandenburg, Mölders found a father figure in Chaplain Erich Klawitter, who instilled firm religious beliefs in him.[4] From 1919 to 1931, Mölders attended, first, the elementary school and then the Saldria-Gymnasium, or secondary school. At school he discovered his love for water sports, especially rowing. He joined two rowing clubs, first the Saldria-Brandenburg and later the Brandenburger Ruderclub, and enjoyed success at rowing-regattas. He was also a member of the Bund Neudeutschland in der katholischen Jugendbewegung, a Catholic youth organisation.[4] Mölders graduated from school in early 1931 with the Abitur (diploma) and expressed a desire to become an officer in the armed forces.[3]

Mölders joined the II./2 infantry regiment of the Reichswehr in Allenstein, East Prussia on 1 April 1931, serving as an officer cadet in the infantry. He attained the rank of Fahnenjunker-Gefreiter on 1 October 1931, rising to Fahnenjunker-Unteroffizier on 1 April 1932.[3] After completing his basic military training in October 1932, he transferred to the Military School Dresden. On 1 June 1933, he successfully completed his training in Dresden and was promoted to ensign.[3] He again was transferred, this time to the 1st Prussian Pioneer Battalion (Infantry Regiment 2) at the Pioneer School in Munich. During his training years, Mölders made his first attempt to fulfil his dream of flying and volunteered for pilot training, but was declared unfit for flying. He tried again and was given conditional permission (bedingt tauglich—with constraints) to begin flight training.[5]

After his promotion to Oberfähnrich on 1 February 1934, Mölders began his pilot training at the Deutsche Verkehrsfliegerschule (German transport flying school) in Cottbus, lasting from 6 February 1934 to 31 December 1934.[6] On 1 March 1934, he was promoted to Leutnant and assigned to the recently established Luftwaffe. In the early stages of his pilot training, he suffered continually from nausea and vomiting, but he eventually overcame these problems and finished the course at the top of his class. The next phase of his military pilot's training was from 1 January 1935 to 30 June 1935 at the combat flying school in Tutow and the Jagdfliegerschule (fighter pilot school) at Schleißheim near Munich. He received the newly created Pilot's Badge of the Luftwaffe on 21 May 1935.[7]

On 1 July 1935, Leutnant Mölders was posted to Fliegergruppe Schwerin (I./JG 162 "Immelmann"). On 7 March 1936, during the remilitarisation of the Rhineland, Mölders and his squadron (Staffel) flew from Lippstadt across the Ruhr region; his unit was the first to arrive in Düsseldorf. During this period, Mölders met Luise Baldauf, whom he was to marry a few years later, shortly before his death. On 20 April 1936, Adolf Hitler's birthday, numerous promotions were handed out, and Mölders advanced to Oberleutnant, effective as of 1 April 1936. At the same time, he became leader of the fighter training squadron of the 2nd Group of Jagdgeschwader 134 "Horst Wessel". This group was under the command of Major Theo Osterkamp, who became another of Mölders' early mentors. Mölders was appointed squadron leader (Staffelkapitän) of the 1st squadron of Jagdgeschwader 334 on 15 March 1937 and served as an instructor in Wiesbaden.[8]

Condor Legion

In 1936, the Germans sent a Luftwaffe force, the Condor Legion, to assist the Falangists in the Spanish Civil War. Mölders volunteered for service, and arrived by sea in Cadiz on 14 April 1938. He was assigned to the 3rd squadron of Jagdgruppe 88 (J 88) commanded by Oberleutnant Adolf Galland. The unit, stationed at the ValenciaEbro front, was equipped with the Heinkel He 51, but later switched to the Messerschmitt Bf 109 B-2. Mölders assumed command of the squadron on 24 May 1938, when Galland returned to Germany.[9] He claimed his first aerial victory, shooting down a Polikarpov I-15 "Chato" ("Curtiss" to the Germans) near Algar, on 15 July 1938.[10] Over the remaining months of the year, Mölders became the leading ace of the Condor Legion, shooting down 15 aircraft in Spain: two I-15 "Curtiss", 12 I-16 "Rata" and one Tupolev SB (one "Rata" claimed on 23 September 1938 was not confirmed).[11]

The flight paths of four aircraft travelling in an asymmetrical V formation: the leading aircraft at the tip of the V-shape is aircraft 1, followed by aircraft 2 on its left, and aircraft 3 and 4 on its right. For the entire formation to execute a 90-degree right-hand turn, aircraft 2 is the first aircraft to make the turn, rising and passing over the flight paths of aircraft 1, 3 and 4. The flight path of aircraft 1 is next to curve right, passing over the flight paths of aircraft 3 and 4. Then the flight path of aircraft 3 curves right at a 90° angle, passing over the path of aircraft 4, which is the last to turn right. Once all four aircraft have completed the turn, aircraft 2 is to the right of aircraft 1, which has aircraft 3 on its left, followed by aircraft 4 on the far left of the formation.
Schwarm formation and cross-over turn[12]

In recognition of his exceptional performance as a commander and fighter pilot, Mölders was promoted to Hauptmann (captain) on 18 October 1938, effective as of 1 October 1938. He claimed his 14th and final confirmed aerial victory of the conflict by downing a Polikarpov I-16 "Rata" near Mola on 3 November 1938[13] and returned to Germany on 5 December 1938.[14] From 6 December 1938 until March 1939, Mölders was a member of the 1st group of Jagdgeschwader 133 (JG 133) and held a staff position with the Inspector of Fighters at the Reichsluftfahrtministerium (Imperial Air Ministry) in Berlin. His task was to devise new fighter pilot tactics. In March 1939 he was given command as Staffelkapitän of 1./JG 133, taking over command from Oberleutnant Hubertus von Bonin. JG 133 was later renamed Jagdgeschwader 53 Pik As (Ace of Spades).[15][16][Notes 1]

For his achievements in Spain, Mölders was honoured with the Spanish Medalla de la Campaña and Medalla Militar on 4 May 1939 and the German Spanish Cross in Gold with Swords and Diamonds (Spanienkreuz in Gold mit Schwertern und Brillanten) on 6 June 1939.[17] The Condor Legion officially returned to Germany on 6 June 1939 and troops marched through Berlin to the Lustgarten, where the fallen were honoured. A formal state banquet for the most highly decorated soldiers was held in the marble gallery of the Reich Chancellery. Mölders was seated at table 1, with General der Flieger Hugo Sperrle, General Don Antonio Aranda, General Gonzalo Queipo de Llano, Oberst Walter Warlimont, Oberstleutnant von Donat, Leutnant Reinhard Seiler and Oberfeldwebel Ignatz Prestele.[18]

Tactical innovations

With other airmen in Spain, Mölders developed the formation known as the "finger-four".[19] This improved the all-round field of vision and combat flexibility of a flight (Schwarm), enhanced mutual protection, and encouraged pilot initiative. In the "finger-four", the aircraft assumed positions corresponding to the fingertips of an outstretched hand. The fighters flew in two elements (Rotten) of two aircraft each; two Rotten (four aircraft) made up a Schwarm (swarm).[19]

Mölders is often credited with inventing the cross-over turn.[19] An early version of the manoeuvre, as used by a "Vic" of five aircraft (a tight formation forming the letter "V"), appeared in the Royal Air Force (RAF) Training Manual of 1922, and the manoeuvre may even date back to 1918. However, it had fallen into disuse due to the difficulty of performing it in a multi-aircraft formation with the contemporary spacing of less than 100 feet (30 m) between aircraft. The wide lateral separation of 1,800 feet (550 m) introduced by J 88 both necessitated such a turning manoeuvre, to enable a Schwarm to turn as a unit, and minimised the risk of midair collisions previously associated with it.[19]

World War II

Phoney War and the Battle of France

At the outbreak of World War II on 1 September 1939, Mölders' Staffel was stationed in the west protecting Germany's border in the MoselSaarPfalz region.[20] On 8 September 1939, Mölders' fighter suffered an engine failure; he crash-landed, flipping the aircraft over and injuring his back. The injury kept him out of combat for several days.[21] He returned to flying on 19 September. The following day, between Contz and Sierck, at the apex of the Dreiländereck,[22] over the three borders area, he shot down his first aircraft of the war, a Curtiss P-36 (according to other historians, it was one of a trio of French Hawk H-75As [22]), of Groupe de Chasse II/5 (Sgt Queginer baled out). Thanks to that victory, he earned the Iron Cross 2nd Class.[15][23] He recalled his first victory:

I took off with my Schwarm at 14.27 hrs to intercept six enemy monoplanes reported south of Trier. As the Schwarm overflew the river Saar near Merzig at 4500 meters, six machines were sighted south of Conz at 5000 meters. I climbed above the enemy in a wide curve to the north and carried out a surprise attack on the rearmost machine. I opened fire from approximately 50 metres, whereupon the Curtiss began to fishtail. After a further lengthy burst, smoke came out or the machine and individual pieces flew off it. It then tipped forward into a dive and I lost sight of it, as I had to defend myself against other opponents newly arriving on the scene.


On 26 September 1939, JG 53 was ordered to form its III. Gruppe. Mölders relinquished command of 1./JG 53 to Oberleutnant Hans-Karl Mayer and organized the formation of III./JG 53 at WiesbadenErbenheim; within two weeks, Gruppenkommandeur Mölders reported that the Gruppe was conditionally operational with 40 pilots and 48 aircraft.[24]

On 22 December, Mölders, leading four Bf 109s from III./JG 53, engaged three Hawker Hurricanes over the Saar River, between Metz and Thionville, that were trying to intercept an unidentified aircraft.[25] Mölders and Hans von Hahn shot down two Hurricanes flown by Sergeants R.M. Perry and J. Winn, becoming the first German fighter pilots to shoot down an Hawker Hurricane. Mölders shot down another Hurricane on 2 April, when he forced Flight Lieutenant C.D. "Pussy" Palmer of No. 1 Squadron RAF, to bail out, and on 20 April, he destroyed a French Curtiss P-36 HawkA east of Saarbrücken.[26]

By the time the Phoney War ended and Operation Case Yellow (Fall Gelb, the invasion of France and the Low Countries on 10 May 1940) opened the Battle of France, Mölders' tally of aerial victories on the Western Front had increased to nine. This number included one Bristol Blenheim, two Curtiss P-36 Hawks, two Morane-Saulnier M.S.406s and four Hawker Hurricanes.[11] On 14 May, while engaging enemy bombers over Sedan, Mölders was shot down, but bailed out safely.[27] He claimed his 19th and 20th victories on 27 May 1940, downing two Curtiss Hawks 15 kilometres (9.3 mi) southwest of Amiens. Subsequently, he became the first fighter pilot to be awarded the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross (Ritterkreuz des Eisernen Kreuzes) and on 29 May 1940 was honourably mentioned in the Wehrmachtbericht radio report, the first of 11 such mentions.[28]

On 5 June 1940, on his 133rd combat mission of the war, engaging in aerial combat for the 32nd time, Mölders was shot down near Compiègne at about 18:40 by Sous lieutenant René Pomier-Layrargues, flying a French Air Force Dewoitine D.520.[29] Mölders was taken prisoner but liberated three weeks later upon the armistice with France.[15] While in French captivity, Mölders asked to shake hands with the pilot who had shot him down, and learned that Pomier-Layrargues had been killed in action 30 minutes after their encounter. His initial experience in French captivity was harsh; he sustained abrasions to his face and his Knight's Cross was stolen from him. A French officer, Capitaine Giron, intervened, ensured he was treated fairly, and returned the stolen medal. When a French soldier was later sentenced to death by the Germans for beating Mölders, Mölders approached Hermann Göring and requested clemency, which was granted.[30]

Battle of Britain

Black-and-white photograph of four men wearing uniforms sitting on wooden chairs around a table in a living room. An older man is sitting at the head of the table on the left. Two younger men are sitting along the table's side, with their backs towards a tiled fireplace on the room's far wall. A fourth man is sitting at the head of the table on the right, leaning back, his left leg folded over his right. The table is covered by a white table cloth. The right-hand side of the table is empty, except for a large dark ashtray, a spoon and an empty glass; the left and centre of the table is covered by an assortment of empty plates, coffee cups and other dishes; there is also a bowl of fruit. The second man from the left has his hands raised, palms facing the camera, and the fingers of both hands pointing to the left of the image. The heads of the three other men are turned towards him.
Theo Osterkamp's birthday party on 15 April 1941 at Le Touquet on the Channel front
From left to right: Major Dr. Wenzel (Mölders' aide), Adolf Galland, Werner Mölders and Theo Osterkamp. Galland is describing a dogfight[31]

Returning to Germany, Mölders was promoted to Major on 19 July 1940 and took command the following day of Fighter Wing 51 (JG 51) from the recently promoted Generalmajor Theo Osterkamp.[32] Mölders flew his first combat sortie with JG 51 on 28 July, attacking a No. 41 Squadron Supermarine Spitfire flown by Flying Officer A.D.J. Lovell.[33] On this mission, according to legend, Mölders was hit in a dogfight over Dover by the South African ace Sailor Malan, sustaining three splinter wounds in the lower leg, one in the knee and one in the left foot. Oberleutnant Richard Leppla shot down the pursuing Spitfire, and Mölders was able to make an emergency landing at Wissant, France.[34][35] Recent research suggests Mölders was actually wounded in combat by Flight Lieutenant J.L. Webster in a Spitfire of 41 Squadron. Webster was killed in action on 5 September 1940.[33][36] His wounds, although not serious, kept Mölders from further operational flying for a month. Generalmajor Osterkamp briefly led the Geschwader again during Mölders' convalescence. On 7 August 1940, Mölders returned to the Geschwader without medical clearance for combat, to participate in Operation Eagle Attack (code name Adlertag). Adolf Hitler had issued Führer Directive no. 17 (Weisung Nr. 17) on 1 August 1940; the strategic objective was to engage and defeat the Royal Air Force (RAF) so as to achieve air superiority in preparation for Operation Sea Lion (Unternehmen Seelöwe), the proposed amphibious invasion of Great Britain.[37]

Mölders returned to approved operational flying status and flew his next two combat missions on 28 August 1940. His aide and wingman, Oberleutnant Kircheis, was shot down and taken prisoner during one of these missions; Oberleutnant Georg Claus took his place.[38] Mölders claimed two Hurricanes on 31 August and was mentioned again in the Wehrmachtbericht.[39] Oberleutnant Victor Mölders, his younger brother, who had been appointed Staffelkapitän of the 2./JG 51 on 11 September, was shot down and taken prisoner of war on 5 October 1940.[40] Two Spitfires of No. 92 Squadron RAF (Sgt PR Eyles and P/O HP Hill both killed) were shot down near Dungeness on 20 September increased Mölders' tally of aerial victories to 40. He was the first fighter pilot to reach this number during the war and was awarded the 2nd Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves (Ritterkreuz des Eisernen Kreuzes mit Eichenlaub) on 21 September 1940. The award was presented by Adolf Hitler on 23 September in the new Reichskanzlei in Berlin. After the award ceremony, Hermann Göring invited Mölders to his hunting lodge in the Rominter Heide.[41]

Black-and-white photograph showing half-length view of two uniformed men outdoors, standing next to each other. The young man on the left is wearing a field cap and a pilot's leather jacket with fur collar, with an Iron Cross displayed at the front of his shirt collar. The middle-aged man on the right is shown in three-quarter profile; he is smiling and wears a jacket with military decorations.
Mölders with Arthur Laumann in September 1940

Mölders returned to his unit by the end of September and continued to win aerial victories. On 11 October, Mölders claimed his 43rd victory. The 66 Squadron Spitfire I X4562 was flown by Pilot Officer J. H. T. Pickering, who bailed out, wounded, over Canterbury.[42] Three Hurricanes on 12 October brought his tally to 51 victories, and he received a preferential promotion to Oberstleutnant in recognition of his 50 victories on 25 October 1940.[1] While a severe bout of influenza then kept him grounded for a few weeks, his wingman in over 60 aerial combats, Oberleutnant Georg Claus, was killed over the Thames.[43] On 1 December, Mölders claimed his last and 55th victory of 1940, 25 of which occurred in the Battle of France and 30 in the Battle of Britain.[44]

Mölders and members of JG 53 spent a couple of weeks of R&R skiing in the Vorarlberg before continuing operations against the RAF over the Channel and occupied France during early 1941.[45] His new wingman from January 1941 was Oberleutnant Hartmann Grasser.[46] Mölders claimed his first aerial victory after the lengthy vacation on 10 February 1941; his tally reached 60 on 26 February and stood at 68& when the Geschwader was recalled from the Channel front. His logbook showed 238 combat missions plus an additional 71 reconnaissance flights; he had engaged in aerial combat 70 times.[47]

A fighter aircraft, shown in profile, viewed from the left. The aircraft is grey, with predominantly yellow nose and a yellow rudder at the rear. Decorations include black lines, black-and-white crosses on the body and on top of the wing, and a black swastika on the tail; the yellow rudder bears approximately 70 small vertical black lines arranged in five blocks of varying length.
Messerschmitt Bf 109 F-2, Stab/JG 51, Geschwaderkommodore Oberstleutnant Werner Mölders, June 1941

Eastern Front

Black-and-white photograph showing the face and upper body of a young man in uniform, his hands behind his back, standing in a featureless landscape. His cap and the front right of his jacket bear eagle-and-swastika emblems; the front left of his jacket and the front of his shirt collar bear Iron Cross decorations, black with light outline. He is shown in semi-profile, gazing at a point in the distance to the left of the camera, his facial expression confident.
Oberst Werner Mölders

In June 1941, JG 51 and the majority of the Luftwaffe were transferred to the Eastern Front in preparation for Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union. On the first day of combat operations, 22 June 1941, Mölders shot down three Tupolev SB bombers and one Curtis Hawk, earning him the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves and Swords (Ritterkreuz des Eisernen Kreuzes mit Eichenlaub und Schwertern). Mölders was only the second German serviceman to receive this award; Adolf Galland, Fighter Squadron Commodore (Geschwaderkommodore) of Fighter Squadron 26, had received one the day before.[48] The award was presented by Adolf Hitler on 3 July 1941 in the Wolfsschanze Hitler's Headquarters in Rastenburg. On 30 June, Mölders had become the highest-scoring fighter pilot in the history of aerial warfare after downing five Soviet bombers[49] and bringing his tally to 82, two more than the record set in World War I by the "Red Baron", Manfred von Richthofen.[50]

On 12 July 1941, JG 51 under the leadership of Mölders reported that it had destroyed 500 Soviet aircraft since the beginning of hostilities against the Soviets on 22 June, and had suffered three casualties. That day, JG 51 also reported its 1,200th aerial victory of the war, the credit going to Hauptmann Leppla.[51] Three days later, on 15 July 1941, Mölders surpassed the C mark, claiming victories Nos. 100 and 101, and celebrated with a victory roll over the airfield.[52] The following day he received news that he had been awarded the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds (Ritterkreuz des Eisernen Kreuzes mit Eichenlaub, Schwertern und Brillanten).[53] Mölders was the first of 27 German servicemen to receive this award. The diamonds added to the Knight's Cross were introduced officially on 28 September 1941, more than two months after Mölders earned the award. Mölders was promoted to Oberst on 20 July 1941, effective immediately, and banned from further combat flying. Surrendering command of JG 51 to Major Friedrich Beckh he was transferred to the Reich Air Ministry, a temporary position he held until 6 August 1941. Mölders was summoned to the Wolfsschanze again, where he received the Diamonds from Adolf Hitler on 26 July 1941. On 7 August 1941, he was appointed Inspector of Fighters (Inspekteur der Jagdflieger).[54]

High command

An Oberst at 28, Mölders was appointed Inspector General of Fighters, a post responsible for deciding the ongoing tactical and operational doctrine of the Luftwaffe's fighter strategies. Returning to Russia in September 1941, he set up a command post at Chaplinka airfield, from where he flew in his personal Fieseler Fi 156 Storch (stork) on tours of the Jagdwaffe and personally directed German fighter operations.[55]

Mölders also flew unofficially on missions, and actively commanded his old unit, JG 51, for several more months. On 9 August 1941, he took Herbert Kaiser on a "teaching" mission against a formation of Il-2 Stormoviks. Mölders showed Kaiser how to shoot them down. He recalled later: "He positioned himself off to one side of-and some distance away from-the last Il-2 in a formation of six. He then turned in quickly and opened fire at the enemy's cockpit from an angle of some 30 degrees. The Il-2 immediately burst into flames and crashed. 'Do you see how it's done?', Oberst Mölders' voice came over the R/T. 'Right, now you take the next one.' I carried out the same manoeuvre and, sure enough, the next Il-2 went down on fire. 'And again!' It was like being on a training flight. Another short burst and the third Il-2 was ablaze. The whole lesson had lasted no more than 12 minutes!"[56] In this way, Kaiser scored his 23rd and 24th kills. But because Mölders was officially banned from operational flying, the first Russian aircraft was never officially credited to him.[56] Within the next two months, it is speculated that Mölders unofficially shot down around another 30 Soviet aircraft. At least six of Mölders' unofficial victories are recorded in his fellow pilots' private log books.[57]


Black-and-white photograph of a wooden cross on a grave, bearing the inscription "Oberst Werner Mölders, 18. 3. 1913 – 22. 11. 1944." The name Werner Mölders is in large letters. Trees are seen in the background; the area in front of the cross is covered with low-growing plants bearing flowers.
Werner Mölders' original grave marker, 1941

On 22 November 1941, Mölders traveled as a passenger in a Heinkel He 111 of Kampfgeschwader 27 "Boelcke" from the Crimea to Germany to attend the funeral of his superior, Ernst Udet, who had committed suicide. Attempting to land at Breslau during a thunderstorm, the aircraft crashed. Mölders, pilot Oberleutnant Kolbe and flight engineer Oberfeldwebel Hobbie were killed. Major Dr. Wenzel and radio operator Oberfeldwebel Tenz survived the crash landing. Dr. Wenzel sustained a broken arm and leg as well as a concussion, and Tenz a broken ankle. Mölders' fatal injuries included a broken back and a crushed ribcage. Accident investigators then and since have speculated whether Mölders would have survived the crash if he had used his seat belt.[58]

Mölders was given a state funeral in Berlin on 28 November 1941. His coffin was laid out in the honour court of the Imperial Air Ministry. The guard of honour consisted of Johann Schalk, Günther Lützow, Walter Oesau, Joachim Müncheberg, Adolf Galland, Wolfgang Falck, Herbert Kaminski and Karl-Gottfried Nordmann. Mölders was buried next to Ernst Udet and Manfred von Richthofen at the Invalidenfriedhof in Berlin. The 8.8 cm flak in Berlin Tiergarten fired a salute; Hermann Göring gave the eulogy.[59]

Personal life and character

Mölders was well known for his strength of character. His men nicknamed him "Vati" (Daddy), in recognition of his paternal attitude toward them, and the care he took of their well-being.[20] He was a devoutly religious individual who demanded that all Allied aviators captured by those under his command be treated civilly, and often would invite captured pilots to dine with him.[60]

"He was a marvelous tactician. My admiration for him was boundless. He had a great wit and great personality. He was the most highly principled man I ever met."[61]

Günther Rall, Chief of the Air Staff of the post-war Luftwaffe

Mölders married Luise Baldauf, née Thurner, the widow of a friend who had been killed in active service, on 13 September 1941.[62] Erich Klawitter, Mölders' childhood mentor, performed the religious ceremony in Falkenstein, Taunus. Witnesses to the wedding included Leutnant Erwin Fleig and Oberleutnant Hartmann Grasser. The marriage produced a posthumous daughter, Verena.[63]

Third Reich authorities disapproved of his choice of a Catholic marriage ceremony, performed by Klawitter. Klawitter had been barred from membership in the Reichskulturkammer (Reich Culture Chamber) and was considered politically unreliable after a 1936 breach of the Pulpit Law, a remnant of the 1870s Kulturkampf that barred Catholics from criticizing the state from the pulpit.[64]


Werner Mölders' old unit, Jagdgeschwader 51, was christened "Mölders" in his honour, on 22 November 1941, only hours after his death. Its members were entitled to wear the "Mölders" cuffband.[54] His death, however, was also put to other uses. Shortly after Mölders died, the British Intelligence agency dropped a flyer over Germany. The so called Möldersbrief (Mölders-letter) was a copy of correspondence supposedly written by Mölders to the provost of Schwerin. In this letter, he expressed his strong belief in Catholicism and stated that, especially in the face of death, many supporters of National Socialism still find strength and courage with Catholicism.[65]

Mölders' premature death, just shortly after Udet's own suicide, was too great an opportunity for Sefton Delmer, the chief of the British black propaganda in the Political Warfare Executive (PWE), to ignore. His idea was to use Mölders' popularity in Germany, distributing a letter thus creating the assumption that Mölders strong belief led him to oppose the Nazi regime in Germany. The letter was extremely well conceived. It did not bluntly call for opposition against the state. It never even mentioned the National Socialists by name but rather used metaphors like "the godless". Nevertheless every German reader knew what was meant.[66]

The letter caused a stir in the upper echelons of the Nazi regime. In his diaries, Joseph Goebbels assumed that someone in the German Catholic church organization wrote, and distributed, the letter. A bounty of 100,000 Reichsmark, posted by the Führer himself, revealed no clues to its origins. Even the strongest repressive actions could not hinder the distribution of the letter.[65]

Post-war honors

A marbled-grey stone slab, lying flat on the ground, surrounded by grass and weeds, bearing the golden inscription "Oberst Werner Mölders 18.3.1913–22.11.1944" just below the centre of the slab. Above the inscription, there is a small Christian cross and a terracotta bowl with flowers towards the right-hand edge of the slab.
Werner Mölders re-established grave site (1991) in the Invalidenfriedhof Berlin

The Invalidenfriedhof, where Mölders is buried, lay in East Berlin and in 1975 East German officials ordered all the graves leveled. After the 1990 German reunification, Mölders' grave was rebuilt and rededicated on 11 October 1991 by Mölders' school friend and Domherr of the St. Hedwig's Cathedral, Heribert Rosal. The ceremony was witnessed by guests from the United States, Great Britain, Austria, Spain and Hungary.[67][68]

After the war, on 13 April 1968, a destroyer of the Bundesmarine (Federal German Navy) was christened Mölders in Bath, Maine (USA). It was in service between 1969 and 2003. As of 24 June 2005, it is the central attraction at the Navy Museum in Wilhelmshaven.[54] On 9 November 1972, a base of a battalion of the 34th Signal Regiment of the Bundeswehr (Federal German Army) in Visselhövede received the name "Mölders".[69] Most recently, the Fighter Wing 74 (Jagdgeschwader 74), stationed in Neuburg an der Donau, received the name "Mölders" in 1973. Fighter Ace Generalleutnant Günther Rall presented the cuffbands.[70]

Reversal of honors: report by the Office for Military History and its consequences

Mölders' career and legacy offer an example of the challenges posed in placing the heroism of the German armed forces in the post-war cultural, political and social setting. In 1998, on the occasion of the 61st anniversary of the bombing of the Spanish town of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War, the German Parliament decided that members of the Condor Legion, such as Mölders, should "no longer be honoured".[69][71] In 2005, the German Ministry of Defence (Bundesministerium der Verteidigung) decided to remove the name "Mölders" from the JG 74. The decision was confirmed on 11 March 2005 by the Federal Minister of Defence Peter Struck, and at 10:00, the flags and cufftitles were removed.[72]

Mölders' supporters challenged the ruling, and pointed out that Mölders had been posted to Spain well after the bombing of Guernica.[60] They pointed to his equivocal political attitude towards National Socialism and his unequivocal moral commitment to Catholicism. Not only did he have a Catholic religious marriage ceremony but Klawitter, regarded by the Third Reich as politically "unreliable," had performed the ceremony. Furthermore, Mölders had joined the Catholic youth organisation Bund Neudeutschland (Union for New Germany) on 1 October 1925 and had been a youth leader of the organization from 1929 to 1931. The Third Reich clearly had considered the Bund Neudeutschland as a threat: The Völkischer Beobachter (The People's Observer, the official newspaper of the party) had reported on 26 January 1938 that the Bund had been outlawed for its proven subversive activities against the Reich, based on the Verordnung des Reichspräsidenten zum Schutz von Volk und Staat (Reich Presidential Decree for the Protection of People and State) of 28 February 1933.[73] Despite petitions from politicians and high-ranking active and retired servicemen, among them Horst Seehofer, Günther Rall and Jörg Kuebart, the Office for Military History (MGFA) noted that Mölders' membership in the Bund Neudeutschland did not provide sufficient evidence of his having been critical of the regime, but rather showed the contrary and concluded that it was questionable whether Mölders had distanced himself enough from National Socialism before his death in 1941. Consequently, the decision remained in force.[74][75]

Other evidence has surfaced illustrating Mölders' ambiguous relationship with the National Socialist regime. Mölders may have been in contact with bishop Clemens August Graf von Galen, who was highly critical of the Nazi regime. Von Galen publicly criticized the regime for the Gestapo's tactics and the deportation and euthanasia of the mentally ill. According to the diary kept by Heinrich Portmann, von Galen's secretary and chaplain, Mölders threatened to return his awards if von Galen's euthanasia accusation turned out to be true. Furthermore, Portmann stated that Hitler had asked Mölders during the presentation of the Diamonds to the Knight's Cross if there was anything he wished for. Mölders reportedly responded, "Please leave the bishop of Münster alone." Hitler assured him that "Yes, nothing will happen to the bishop of Münster." The MGFA concluded in 2004 that this story was most likely false. The MGFA revised its position again on 28 June 2007, concluding that there had been contact between Mölders and von Galen.[76]

Evidence also demonstrates Mölders' propensity to value friendships over political expediency. According to Viktor Mölders, his brother had saved Georg Küch, one of Werner Mölders' closest friends, who had been classified as a half-Jew by the Nuremberg Laws, from death in the concentration camps. Mölders' and Küch's friendship dated to their school days at the Saldria-Gymnasium in Brandenburg an der Havel. Küch's mother, Alice née Siegel, was of Jewish birth.[77] Küch's father, Richard Küch, owned and operated a pharmacy in Brandenburg. Georg, himself a pharmacy student, was expelled from university under the Nuremberg Laws, just two semesters shy of his graduation. In 1940, Richard Küch fell ill, and owning and operating the pharmacy became a bureaucratic problem for the family. Georg Küch contacted his friend Mölders in mid-February 1941, asking for help. Werner Mölders immediately responded to Küch on 16 February 1941, stating that he had taken care of the matter and asking Küch not to pursue the issue on his own. When Richard Küch died in June 1941, his wife was able to sell the pharmacy for fair market value. Normally, since she was Jewish, it would have been confiscated. She also remained exempt from wearing the detested yellow badge until late 1943. She was then taken to the Theresienstadt concentration camp, where she worked as a cook. Georg Küch, Alice Küch, and Georg's sister Friedel survived the Holocaust. Friedel Küch repeatedly stated that Werner Mölders had been responsible for protecting the family; the mantle of his protection had persisted beyond his death.[78] The MGFA ruled this assertion "highly speculative," and did not investigate further.[79]

Summary of career


References in the Wehrmachtbericht

Date Original German Wehrmachtbericht wording Direct English translation
Wednesday, 29 May 1940 Hauptmann Mölders errang seinen 20. Luftsieg.[87] Hauptmann Mölders achieved his 20th aerial victory.
Friday, 6 September 1940 Außer vier bereits genannten Offizieren haben in den Luftkämpfen der letzten Wochen drei weitere Jagdflieger 20 oder mehr Luftsiege errungen und zwar: Hauptmann Mayer, Hauptmann Oesau und Hauptmann Tietzen. An der Spitze der Sieger in Luftkämpfen steht Major Mölders mit 32 Abschüssen.[88] In addition to four officers previously mentioned, a further three fighter pilots have achieved 20 or more victories in aerial combat over the past few weeks. They are: Hauptmann Mayer, Hauptmann Oesau und Hauptmann Tietzen. The overall leader in aerial combat victories is Major Mölders with 32 aerial victories.
Wednesday, 25 September 1940 Major Mölders und Major Galland errangen ihren 40. Luftsieg.[89] Major Mölders and Major Galland achieved their 40th aerial victories.
Tuesday, 23 October 1940 Major Mölders schoß, wie schon bekanntgegeben, in einem Luftkampf gegen zahlenmäßig überlegene feindliche Jäger seinen 49. 50. und 51. Gegner ab.[90] As already announced, Major Mölders shot down his 49th, 50th and 51st opponents in aerial combat against numerically superior enemy fighter forces.
Sunday, 26 October 1940 Im Laufe der gestrigen Luftkämpfe schossen unsere Jagdflugzeuge 17 feindliche Jäger ab. Dabei errang Oberstleutnant Mölders seinen 52. und 53. Luftsieg.[91] Our fighter force shot down 17 enemy fighters in yesterday's aerial combat. Oberstleutnant Mölders achieved his 52nd and 53rd aerial victories in the course of the action.
Tuesday, 11 February 1941 Oberstleutnant Mölders errang seinen 56. Luftsieg.[92] Oberstleutnant Mölders achieved his 56th aerial victory.
Wednesday, 27 February 1941 Oberstleutnant Mölders errang gestern seinen 60. Luftsieg.[93] Oberstleutnant Mölders achieved his 60th aerial victory yesterday.
Friday, 18 April 1941 Oberstleutnant Mölders errang am 16. April seinen 64. und 65., Oberstleutnant Galland am 15. April seinen 59. und 60. Luftsieg.[94] Oberstleutnant Mölders achieved his 64th and 65th aerial victories on 16 April, while Oberstleutnant Galland achieved his 59th and 60th on 15 April.
Tuesday, 24 June 1941 Das Jagdgeschwader unter Führung von Oberstleutnant Mölders errang am 22. Juni seinen 750. Luftsieg.[95] The fighter wing under the leadership of Oberstleutnant Mölders achieved its 750th aerial victory on 22 June.
Tuesday, 1 July 1941 ... Oberstleutnant Mölders errang hierbei seinen 82., Hauptmann Joppien seinen 52. Luftsieg.[96] ... in the process, Oberstleutnant Mölders achieved his 82nd, and Hauptmann Joppien, his 52nd aerial victory.
Wednesday, 16 July 1941 (So.) Bei den Kämpfen an der Ostfront schoß Oberstleutnant Mölders, Kommodore eines Jagdgeschwaders, gestern fünf Sowjetflugzeuge ab. Er hat damit in diesem Kriege insgesamt 101 Abschüsse erzielt und einschließlich seiner 14 Abschüsse im Spanienfeldzug insgesamt 115 Luftsiege errungen.
Der Führer und Oberste Befehlshaber der Wehrmacht hat diesem heldenhaften Vorbild der Luftwaffe und erfolgreichsten Jagdflieger der Welt als erstem Offizier der deutschen Wehrmacht die höchste deutsche Tapferkeitsauszeichnung, das Eichenlaub mit Schwertern und Brillanten zum Ritterkreuz des Eisernen Kreuzes verliehen.
(Extra) Oberstleutnant Mölders, commodore of a fighter wing, shot down five Soviet aircraft yesterday in combat on the Eastern Front. This means he has achieved a total of 101 aerial victories in this war and, combined with his 14 aerial victories in the Spanish campaign, a grand total of 115 aerial victories overall.
The Führer and commander-in-chief of the Wehrmacht has chosen this heroic Luftwaffe exemplar, the world's most successful fighter pilot, to be the first Wehrmacht officer to receive the highest German award for bravery, the Oak Leaves with Swords and Diamonds to the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross.


1 October 1931: Fahnenjunker-Gefreiter[3]
1 April 1932: Fahnenjunker-Unteroffizier[3]
1 June 1933: Fähnrich[3]
1 February 1934: Oberfähnrich[3]
1 March 1934: Leutnant (Second Lieutenant)[98]
20 April 1936: Oberleutnant (First Lieutenant), effective as of 1 April 1936[98]
18 October 1938: Hauptmann (Captain), effective as of 1 October 1938[98]
19 July 1940: Major (Major)[1]
25 October 1940: Oberstleutnant (Lieutenant Colonel)[1]
20 July 1941: Oberst (Colonel)[54]



  1. ^ For an explanation of Luftwaffe unit designations see Organisation of the Luftwaffe during World War II.


  1. ^ a b c d e Obermaier and Held 1996, p. 34.
  2. ^ Obermaier and Held 1996, p. 44.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h Obermaier and Held 1996, p. 31.
  4. ^ a b Obermaier and Held 1996, p. 10.
  5. ^ Obermaier and Held 1996, p. 11.
  6. ^ Obermaier and Held 1996, pp. 11, 32.
  7. ^ Obermaier and Held 1996, pp. 11, 32, 66.
  8. ^ Obermaier and Held 1996, pp. 11–12, 32.
  9. ^ Obermaier and Held 1996, p. 12.
  10. ^ Obermaier and Held 1996, p. 13.
  11. ^ a b Obermaier and Held 1996, p. 40.
  12. ^ Spick 1996, p. 18.
  13. ^ Obermaier and Held 1996, pp. 12, 32.
  14. ^ Obermaier and Held 1996, pp. 14, 33, 40.
  15. ^ a b c d e f g h Obermaier and Held 1996, p. 33.
  16. ^ Prien 1997, p. 30.
  17. ^ Obermaier and Held 1996, pp. 33, 89.
  18. ^ Obermaier and Held 1996, pp. 88–92.
  19. ^ a b c d Spick 1996, p. 15.
  20. ^ a b Obermaier and Held 1996, p. 14.
  21. ^ Prien 1997, p. 40.
  22. ^ a b c Weal 2007, p. 13.
  23. ^ Prien 1997, p. 44.
  24. ^ Prien 1997, pp. 50–51.
  25. ^ Weal 1999, p. 44.
  26. ^ Weal 1999, p. 46.
  27. ^ Hooton 2007, p. 65.
  28. ^ Obermaier and Held 1996, p. 16.
  29. ^ Hooton 2007, p. 65
  30. ^ Obermaier and Held 1996, pp. 16–18, 33.
  31. ^ Obermaier and Held 1996, p. 149.
  32. ^ Aders and Held 1993, p. 62.
  33. ^ a b Obermaier and Held 1996, p. 19.
  34. ^ Aders and Held p63
  35. ^ Kaplan 2007, p. 56.
  36. ^ Shores and Williams, p. 622.
  37. ^ Aders and Held p. 63.
  38. ^ Aders and Held 1993, p. 67.
  39. ^ Obermaier and Held p. 19.
  40. ^ Aders and Held 1993, pp. 69, 71.
  41. ^ Obermaier and Held 1996, pp. 19–20, 34, 122.
  42. ^ Weal 1999, p. 7.
  43. ^ Obermaier and Held 1996, pp. 20, 124–125.
  44. ^ Obermaier and Held 1996, p. 41.
  45. ^ Obermaier and Held 1996, pp. 21, 137–141.
  46. ^ Obermaier and Held 1996, p. 147.
  47. ^ Obermaier and Held 1996, pp. 21, 40–41.
  48. ^ Obermaier and Held 1996, pp. 21, 41.
  49. ^ Bergström 2007, p. 27.
  50. ^ Weal 2001, p. 22.
  51. ^ Aders and Held 1993, p. 91.
  52. ^ Weal 2001, p. 18.
  53. ^ Obermaier and Held 1996, pp. 21, 35.
  54. ^ a b c d Obermaier and Held 1996, p. 35.
  55. ^ Obermaier and Held 1996, pp. 188–189.
  56. ^ a b Weal 2001, p. 29.
  57. ^ Weal 2007, p. 11.
  58. ^ Obermaier and Held 1996, p. 23.
  59. ^ Obermaier and Held 1996, pp. 200–206.
  60. ^ a b Weal 2006, p. 120.
  61. ^ MacLean 2007, p. 6.
  62. ^ Obermaier and Held 1996, p. 22.
  63. ^ Obermaier and Held 1996, pp. 35, 180–182, 209.
  64. ^ Hagena 2008, p. 54.
  65. ^ a b Hagena 2008, p. 67.
  66. ^ Hagena 2008, pp. 67–68.
  67. ^ Obermaier and Held 1996, p. 206.
  68. ^ Hagena 2008, p. 119.
  69. ^ a b Obermaier and Held 1996, p. 36.
  70. ^ Obermaier and Held 1996, pp. 214–218.
  71. ^ Hagena 2008, p. 8.
  72. ^ Hagena 2008, p. 132.
  73. ^ Hagena 2008, p. 56.
  74. ^ Hagena 2008, p. 138.
  75. ^ Kaplan 2007, p. 51.
  76. ^ Hagena 2008, pp. 60–64.
  77. ^ Hagena 2008, p. 73.
  78. ^ Hagena 2008, 74–83.
  79. ^ Hagena 2008, p. 72.
  80. ^ Obermaier and Held 1996, p. 75.
  81. ^ a b Berger 2000, p. 228.
  82. ^ a b c d Scherzer 2007, p. 548.
  83. ^ Fellgiebel 2000, p. 313.
  84. ^ Fellgiebel 2000, p. 53.
  85. ^ Fellgiebel 2000, p. 39.
  86. ^ Fellgiebel 2000, p. 36.
  87. ^ Die Wehrmachtberichte 1939–1945 Band 1, p. 174.
  88. ^ Die Wehrmachtberichte 1939–1945 Band 1, p. 296.
  89. ^ Die Wehrmachtberichte 1939–1945 Band 1, p. 311.
  90. ^ Die Wehrmachtberichte 1939–1945 Band 1, p. 339.
  91. ^ Die Wehrmachtberichte 1939–1945 Band 1, p. 341.
  92. ^ Die Wehrmachtberichte 1939–1945 Band 1, p. 420.
  93. ^ Die Wehrmachtberichte 1939–1945 Band 1, p. 433.
  94. ^ Die Wehrmachtberichte 1939–1945 Band 1, p. 494.
  95. ^ Die Wehrmachtberichte 1939–1945 Band 1, p. 587.
  96. ^ Die Wehrmachtberichte 1939–1945 Band 1, p. 598.
  97. ^ Die Wehrmachtberichte 1939–1945 Band 1, p. 617.
  98. ^ a b c Obermaier and Held 1996, p. 32.


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Media related to Werner Mölders at Wikimedia Commons

Military offices
Preceded by
Oberst Theo Osterkamp
Commander of Jagdgeschwader 51
27 July 1940 – 19 July 1941
Succeeded by
Obstlt Friedrich Beckh
Preceded by
Generalmajor Kurt-Bertram von Döring
Inspekteur der Jagdflieger
7 August 1941 – 22 November 1941
Succeeded by
Generalleutnant Adolf Galland

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