Walter "Gulle" Oesau was born to a bank director in Farnewinkel near Meldorf, Germany on 28 June 1913. He joined the German Army (Heer) in October 1933 and served in the Second Artillery Regiment as an enlisted soldier. After being transferred to a Luftwaffe transport unit, he undertook flying training in 1934 as a cadet (Fahnenjunker) at the Luftwaffe Academy (Deutsche Verkehrsfliegerschule) in Hanover. Upon completion of his training he was assigned to Jagdgeschwader 132, as a Leutnant. The unit was re–designated as Jagdgeschwader 2 "Richthofen" in May 1939.
Oesau started his operational career with the Condor Legion, along with future contemporary aces such as Werner Mölders and Adolf Galland. He was one of the first to join 3. Jagdgruppe 88 in Spain in April 1938. The Staffel, commanded by Werner Mölders, took part in the Spanish Civil War where Oesau claimed nine victories, flying 130 combat missions. For this he received the Spanish Cross (Spanienkreuz) in Gold with Diamonds. He was also wounded in this conflict which earned him the Spanish Wound Badge. He also received the Medalla de la Campaña and the Medalla Militar.
On 1 March 1939 Oesau joined the Headquarters Flight (Stabsschwarm) of I./JG 2. By 15 July 1939 Oesau was promoted to Oberleutnant and given command of 2./JG 20. On 15 July 1939, I./JG 20 was activated in Döberitz initially consisting of two Staffeln drawn from JG 2. Prior to the invasion of Poland I./JG 20 was transferred to Strausbergon 26 August 1939. From there, the group was transferred to Sprottau (modern Szprotawa) anticipating an attack from the Polish Air Force. A week later the group moved to Brandenburg. On 21 February 1940, the unit was relocated to Bönninghardt under the control of JG 51. It continued to operate in this fashion until the end of the Battle of France. On 4 July it was re–designated III./JG 51. Oesau served as Staffelkapitän of 7./JG 51.
Oesau got his first World War II victory during the Battle of France on 13 May 1940, when he claimed a French Curtiss P-36 Hawk over Halsteren in the Netherlands, earning him the Iron Cross 1st class (Eisernes Kreuz 1. Klasse). On 31 May, he claimed three Spitfires during a patrol North West of Dunkirk and next day he claimed a Bristol Blenheim. On 13 June 1940, he shot down the last French aircraft kill claimed by JG 51, a French Amiot bomber. By the end of hostilities in France on 25 June, his World War II tally stood at 5 (13 including Spanish kills).
Following the Battle of France, the Luftwaffe started its attacks on Channel convoys as a prelude to the Battle of Britain. The primary task of JG 51 during this time was to provide fighter escort to these bomber missions. The commander of JG 51, Oberst Theo Osterkamp established a policy of unrestricted combat air patrol (freie Jagd) of fighter Staffeln providing loose protection rather than close escort to the bombers, actively seeking out Royal Air Force fighters. On 7 July 1940 Oesau claimed one Spitfire.
On 10 July 1940, the first major clashes of the Battle of Britain occurred in a phase known as the Kanalkampf. 20 Bf 109s of III./JG 51 led by Hauptmann Hannes Trautloft and 30 Bf 110 C of I./Zerstörergeschwader 26 escorted 20 Dornier Do 17 bombers of II./Kampfgeschwader 2 attacking a large convoy off Folkestone. Oberleutnant Oesau was leading 7./JG 51.
Trautloft noticed three of a flight of six intercepting Hurricanes of No. 32 squadron higher than the escorts, attempting to intercept the bombers. Soon they were joined by four squadrons of British fighters: No. 56 Squadron, No. 111 Squadron, No. 64 Squadron and No. 74 Squadron. Oesau was able to claim three Spitfires. Two 7./JG 51 aircraft crash landed in France. British losses show that no Spitfire was lost or destroyed in the ensuing battle. Only one No. 32 Hurricane, piloted by Pilot Officer Higgs, was destroyed in a collision with one of the Do 17s and only one other Hurricane was damaged. It is possible Oesau was responsible for damaging Higgs' Hurricane, causing him to lose control. Two Spitfires landed with light damage while a third was also slightly damaged and force-landed at RAF Manston. Over claiming of enemy losses was rife on both sides during the battle.
On 19 July, III./JG 51 were confronted by Defiants of No. 141 Squadron south of Folkestone. As the German pilots were now aware of the Defiant's lack of forward armament, they soon gained the advantage in combat and claimed 11 Defiants shot down in 8 minutes. Oesau was credited with one Defiant, taking his score to 19. He was the first one of JG 51 to reach double digits in World War II. RAF losses record six Defiants destroyed and two damaged.
On 18 August 1940, III./JG 51 escorted Dorniers attacking Hornchurch airfield. Intercepted by Hurricanes over Kent, Oesau claimed one Hurricane shot down as his 20th victory, earning him the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross (Ritterkreuz des Eisernen Kreuzes) two days later, the first pilot of JG 51 to be thus honored. On 23 August 1940, Trautloft took over as Geschwaderkommodore of JG 54, and Walter Oesau replaced him as Gruppenkommandeur of III./JG 51. By October 1940, Oesau had a total score of 48 (including 26 Spitfires).
On 10 November 1940 Oesau succeeded Wilhelm Balthasar as Gruppenkommandeur of III./JG 3. With 39 victories he was currently the 4th highest scoring Ace behind Helmut Wick, Werner Mölders and Adolf Galland. On 5 February 1941 he shot down a Hurricane over Desvres, France, his 40th victory. He was awarded the Oak Leaves (mit Eichenlaub) to his Knight's Cross next day. It also earned him a second entry in the Wehrmachtbericht. In early 1941, JG 3 returned to Germany to replace their Bf 109 'Emils' with the new 'F' variant (Friedrich). However, Oesau disliked the Bf 109F and kept flying his 'Emils' for some time. JG 3 returned to France in May 1941 and Oesau added two more kills on 16 May and 28 May bringing his total to 51.
Oesau's III./JG 3 was then involved in Operation Barbarossa the invasion of Russia, launched on 22 June 1941. Oesau shot down his first Soviet aircraft on 24 June 1941, and by 30 June 1941 had reached his 60th victory, downing a Tupolev SB bomber. Next day he downed three more SB bombers near Lvov (modern Lviv, Ukraine). This earned him his 3rd entry in the Wehrmachtbericht. On 10 July 1941, Oesau claimed 5 more aircraft and two more kills by 11 July 1941. On 12 July 1941, he shot down 7 Soviet aircraft in one sortie. In the five weeks since moving to the Eastern Front, Oesau was credited with 44 Soviet aircraft downed. He became the third pilot to reach 80 victories, the 80th kill an Ilyushin DB-3 bomber. He was awarded the Swords to his Knight's Cross with Oak Leaves (Ritterkreuz mit Eichenlaub und Schwertern) on same day. He was the third person to earn the Swords. He was again then wounded, receiving heavy splinter injuries in face and knee. A fortnight later he was transferred to the Western Front to take over JG 2.
He succeeded Balthasar for the second time as JG 2 commander, who had died in combat with Spitfires over northern France when he pulled the tail off his Bf 109F in a dive. The Bf 109F-2 proved an excellent match to the Spitfire V, but Oesau disliked its reduced armament compared to the 'Emil', and continued to fly an E-4 model in preference to the Bf 109F, until lack of spares forced him to switch to the newer variant. Upon his appointment on 4 July 1941, he addressed JG 2 with the following words.
In the spirit of Manfred von Richthofen, and following the example set by my predecessors, Major Wick and Hauptmann Balthasar, constant readiness and devotion to duty will enable us to achieve yet further successes.
JG 2 was tasked with defending targets in occupied France against the RAF fighter offensive. For the next two years Oesau led JG 2 through the war of attrition waged by the RAF. On 10 August 1941 Oesau claimed a Spitfire for his first kill with JG 2. Over the next two days, he claimed four more Spitfires. By the end of September 1941, Oesau had claimed two more Spitfires.
JG 2 participated in the Luftwaffe air cover of the Channel Dash. Two B-17 C Flying fortresses of No. 90 Squadron attacked the German battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. In one of the highest altitude interceptions of World War II, the bombers were attacked by I./JG 2, resulting in the destruction of one. This aircraft put JG 2's score past the 800 mark, matching the score of their Great War namesake. Kills No. 88 to 92 were all Spitfires claimed between Calais and Dungeness on 12 August 1941. Oesau claimed his 100th kill on 26 October 1941, the third pilot to do so. This earned him his 4th entry in the Wehrmachtbericht.
He was then grounded from flying on operations, as his experience and leadership qualities were regarded as too valuable to risk further in front line combat. He did fly on occasional sorties, the most famous involving the shooting down of a Lancaster bomber of No. 44 Squadron RAF piloted by Warrant Officer G. T. Rhodes in April 1942, during a rare RAF daylight raid on targets in Augsberg. It was his 101st kill. In August 1942, the Geschwaderstab of JG 2 exchanged their Bf 109 F aircraft for the FW 190 A–2s.
From late 1942 onwards JG 2 was in the front line against the increasingly numerous United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) day bomber formations of B-17s and B-24s.
Oesau added four more to his tally by mid-1943. Shortly before his 30th birthday, Oesau was elevated to a series of Luftwaffe staff and administration positions. On 1 July 1943 he was posted as Fighter Leader Brittany (Jagdfliegerführer Bretagne), before being appointed as Geschwaderkommodore of JG 1 on 12 November 1943, following the death of JG 1's Hans Philipp in October 1943. The ban on Oesau's combat flying was lifted. While commanding JG 1, Oesau became an expert (Experten) at shooting down 4 engine bombers, with 14 bomber kills claimed. He was awarded the Combined Pilots-Observation Badge in gold and diamonds on 17 October 1943. He was awarded the German Cross in Gold on 10 January 1944.
For Commander-in-Chief of the Luftwaffe Hermann Göring it was an ongoing concern that inadequate numbers of fighters were able to continually engage the bomber streams, at the very time that the USAAF's 8th Air Force's new commander, Maj. Gen. Jimmy Doolittle had instituted a new fighter strategy against the Luftwaffe. Hence on 23 February 1944 — near the midpoint of the USAAF's Big Week bomber offensive against the Luftwaffe, also being carried out by the 15th Air Force flying out of Italian bases — Generalmajor Joseph Schmid Commander of I. Jagdkorps established a new rule for the fighters returning to base. They were to arrive at the nearest designated fighter airfield for resupply instead of returning to their own base. They were to be commanded by the senior pilot landing on that airfield, irrespective of their unit. This was meant to turn around the fighters in time to intercept returning bombers.
On next day, B-24s of 2nd Bomb division of the Eighth Air Force bombed Gotha. JG 1 (under Oesau), JG 11 and JG 3 were sent to intercept. Due to high winds, the bombers were ahead of the escorts unprotected. Two groups of JG 1 met them before Gotha and 9 B-24s were claimed as a result. Since B-17s of 1st Bomb division also bombed Schweinfurt, other fighter units also arrived to intercept, eventually involving almost all the Western day fighter units of the Luftwaffe. This caused some confusion among pilots landing on airfields other than their own. This tested the directive of Schmid. Oesau led one of two such improvised formations successfully, with the other led by Hauptmann Borris of I./JG 26 Oesau added 4 fighters to his score between January and March 1944, and his tally stood at 117. On 8 May 1944 he claimed a Thunderbolt shot down over Hanover; his last kill.
While being the Geschwaderkommodore of JG 1 Oesau frequently received his share of Hermann Göring's anger and frustration over the failure to beat off the Allied bomber offensive. Göring questioned the commitment of commanders who were not flying regularly and thus not really "leading" their respective units. In this context it should be stated that in order not to risk one of the Luftwaffe expert's life [German fighter aces were called Experten], there was an automatic ban on Oesau for further combat flying since his 100th victory. Perhaps the ban was lifted temporarily or bypassed when he was appointed Geschwaderkommodore of JG 1. On the other hand, Oesau might simply have ignored the ban and continued to lead missions.
Oesau added several victories over American heavy bombers in the first five months of 1944. On 11 May 1944 one thousand U.S. heavy bombers from Eighth Air Force attacked railway targets in Eastern France and North East Belgium. They were escorted by even more numbers of P-38 and P-51 fighters. Oesau was in bed with influenza. Upon hearing the news, Göring phoned Oesau's staff:
Göring – "Is the Kommodore flying?"
Staff – "No, he is in bed with fever."
Göring – "Yes, yes, I know that kind!", Göring said scornfully,
Göring – "He has also turned tired and coward!"
Angered by this comment, Oesau took off in a Bf 109 G-6/AS "Green 13" (Wing Number 20601) from Paderborn despite a high fever. Leading three aircraft of the Geschwaderstab, the schwarm broke formation over the Ardennes as it approached the bombers. In the dogfight Oesau's wingman reported damage to his machine and he was ordered to break off. Left alone, Oesau faced P-38s and possibly P-51s as well. According to Major Hartmann Grasser, Gruppenkommandeur of III./JG 1, who was on the same mission, there were five P-38s facing Oesau.
What followed is unclear as there are several versions. Oesau was chased by 1st Lt. James Leslie Doyle, 1st Lt. Wilbur L. Jarvis III and 1st Lt. James C. Austin, of the 428th Fighter Squadron (474th FG, 9th AF). All three were experienced pilots and chased Oesau from 28,000 feet to tree-top level. In the ensuing 20 minute dogfight, Oesau defended skillfully, though his aircraft was damaged by gunfire. While attempting an emergency landing, his Gustav received a final burst of fire in the cockpit area and crashed into the ground 6 miles south west of St. Vith. His body was thrown clear of the aircraft some yards away.
According to the "Eighth Air Force Mission Folder for 11 May 1944, Mission 351", Lt. Doyle engaged in a turning dogfight with a pair of Bf 109s, scoring hits on the leader. Doyle had then broken off combat without claiming a kill, unaware that his victim, Oesau, had been killed by a 20 mm shell. Doyle's kill had been the first kill of the 474th Fighter Group in its first combat with the Luftwaffe.
There is some dispute regarding who exactly shot down his fighter. Some sources claim that he was shot during the dogfight and while the aircraft was falling to the ground, he was shot at again a few feet above ground, possibly by the Mustangs of 354th FG. Lt Wilbur Jarvis, No. 2 in the flight led by Doyle received a Damaged credit (not a kill) for Oesau's aircraft. Doyle noted bullet damage in the cockpit area and his gun camera footage showed that it was Oesau's Green 13. German records indicated that his death was caused by an explosive shell in the cockpit, his body having several bullet wounds. Later an image from the Gun camera was published (without caption) that purportedly showed Oesau's aircraft from the right side.
Oesau was aged 30 at the time of his death. He had a total of 127 kills gained over 300 missions. 27 were Spitfires, 14 four-engined bombers, 44 were scored on the Eastern Front and 9 in the Spanish Civil War. In recognition of his record, JG 1 received the title Oesau in honor of its fallen Geschwaderkommodore. Only Werner Mölders had a similar honor with JG 51 Mölders. Walter Oesau is buried in Meldorf, close to his birthplace and the town museum (Dithmarscher Landesmuseum) has documented his last journey in pictures.
Johannes Steinhoff, the high-ranking Luftwaffe ace (176 Kills) who went on to become the Chief of Staff for Allied Air Forces in Central Europe, once said: "Walter Gulle Oesau was the toughest fighter pilot in the Luftwaffe".
In 1940, frustrated with the perceived lack of success against RAF Fighter Command, Göring was keen on infusing the fighter force leadership with younger blood. He perceived a lack of aggressiveness in the Jagdgeschwader leadership. The likes of Theo Osterkamp were the first victim of this policy, handing over JG 51 to Werner Mölders. Oesau was considered to be one such rising star. However, being a star and staying in Göring's favor required keeping up the kill rate and promotions were invariably linked to scores. According to Dr. Kurt Tank, the Focke–Wulf designer, although many of the younger generation were good flyers, they were unable to cope with problems of overall planning and broader strategic aspects. However, Oesau was one of the outstanding leaders ever produced by Luftwaffe fighter wings with the likes of Werner Mölders and Adolf Galland.
The decision to continually retain or return gifted experts (Experten) to front line battle proved extremely costly, resulting in the death in combat of many of the earlier experts and aces. This, coupled with the acute shortage of well trained pilots and the fact that by 1943 they were facing a better equipped and well-trained enemy, meant the life expectancy of even the most gifted was tragically short. Author John Weal says that, although other Geschwaderkommodore would end up dying in combat, nothing would showcase the changing fortunes of Luftwaffe fighter forces than the death of Walter Oesau.
German historian Hans Otto Böhm commented on Oesau as "One of my best professors". There is little information available on the personal side of Walter Oesau. He had good sense of humor and liked to spend time with his friends. He was a simple man, who did not display any flamboyant personal emblems on his aircraft. His aircraft while commanding JG 2 did not have any special markings except for the unit's normal yellow under–cowling. While Oesau commanded, JG 2, like many others, dropped the special symbols for Stab (headquarters flight) units in favor of numerals. This helped make the leader's aircraft anonymous. Unlike other aces, Oesau reportedly never had markings on his rudder representing his personal tally, although this is contradicted by some photos displaying what may be his aircraft rudder painted with score of downed aircraft. The authenticity of the photograph is questioned by some as there are also Ju 87 photos supposedly signed by Oesau (he never flew a Stuka bomber).Spanish Medalla de la Campaña
Spanish Medalla Militar
Spanish Cross in Gold with Swords and Diamonds
Iron Cross (1939) 2nd Class (15 May 1940) & 1st Class (20 May 1940)
Front Flying Clasp of the Luftwaffe in Gold for fighter pilots with pennant "300"
Wound Badge (1939) in Black
German Cross in Gold on 17 October 1943 as Oberstleutnant and Jagdfliegerführer 4
Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves and Sword
Knight's Cross on 20 August 1940 as Hauptmann and Staffelkapitän of the 7./JG 51
9th Oak Leaves on 6 February 1941 as Hauptmann and Gruppenkommandeur of the III./JG 3
3rd Swords on 15 July 1941 as Hauptmann and Gruppenkommandeur of the III./JG 3