Throughout 2020, the Air War Publications team plans to release a series of interviews with prominent Luftwaffe and aviation researchers, historians, artists and authors, seeking their thoughts about a variety of issues connected to their work. Andrew, Morten and Adam have already conducted several interviews over Skype and via email with people interested in many different aspects associated with the Luftwaffe and Second World War history. Below is the first interview in the series, with the much-respected and very knowledgeable Larry deZeng, who, in collaboration with Doug Stankey, is perhaps best known for his work on the Luftwaffe Officer Career Summaries database. However, this hasn’t been Larry’s only focus over a research career spanning many decades. Larry is the author of several published titles, with an interesting backstory of his own. We hope you enjoy getting to know Larry just as much as Andrew did interviewing him.
1. When and how did you become interested in researching the Luftwaffe in the Second World War?
It was in the fall of 1945 when my godfather, former Hollywood actor Robert Wilcox, returned from the European Theater of Operations, where he had served as a Captain in the USO (United Service Organization, that is, entertaining troops). When the Battle of the Bulge broke forth on 16 December 1944, he was rushed from Scotland to Belgium and assigned to a forward Prisoner Of War sorting centre because he spoke German. Gradually to the end of the war, he accumulated two or three footlockers full of weapons, uniforms, badges, decorations, etc. He was able to get these back to Scotland and in August aboard a C-54 (DC-4) bound for Griffiss Air Force Base at Rome, New York. No customs. He then visited our house in Rochester, New York, and gave one of the footlockers to my parents. It didn’t take long for me to get into the stuff and, as an impressionable seven-year-old, become obsessed with all things Wehrmacht.
2. What was the first Luftwaffe subject you really looked into?
While serving in the armed forces years later, I got into a car accident in Freiburg in south-west Germany when a Renault went through an intersection and plowed into my 1962 Oldsmobile F-85. My car was towed to a German collision and body shop where they later presented me with a list of nearly 60 parts that would have to be ordered from the United States. That took six months, during which I ran into a British magazine called R.A.F. Flying Review that was filled with Second World War aviation stories and a modeling section containing two or three pages of colour profiles. I had never seen colour profiles before. Having little to do in my off-duty time without a car, I became fascinated with the Luftwaffe aircraft, their history and the campaigns. So, I think we could say that it was Luftwaffe aircraft, camouflage and markings that I initially began to focus on, and that was in September 1964.
3. What was the first book you wrote, and when was it published?
First, a little background. Writing books was never on my ‘To Do’ list until Doug Stankey and I began talking about it around the late 1990s. Prior to that, from roughly 1964 to 1998, it was all about the Vietnam War and serving in Thailand, working full time in a family-owned business back home, going to university full-time to earn another BS followed by an MBA, working full-time as a Vice President Finance in several firms, and finally working part time as a semi-retired independent consultant on Second World War war crime cases. So my first book, together with Doug Stankey, wasn’t published until 2007:
deZeng, Henry L. & Stankey, Douglas G. Bomber Units of the Luftwaffe 1933-1945: A Reference Source, Volume 1, Ian Allan Publishing, Hersham, 2007, ISBN: (10) 1 903223 72 5. [hardcover, dust jacket, 208 pages, many illustrations and source notes, colour artwork]
This title was followed by three more of the same genre:
deZeng, Henry L. & Stankey, Douglas G. Bomber Units of the Luftwaffe 1933-1945: A Reference Source, Volume 2, Ian Allan Publishing, Hersham, 2008, ISBN: (10) 1 903223 87 3. [hardcover, dust jacket, 204 pages, many illustrations and source notes, colour artwork]
deZeng, Henry L. & Stankey, Douglas G. Dive-Bomber and Ground-Attack Units of the Luftwaffe 1933-1945: A Reference Source, Volume 1, Ian Allan Publishing, Hersham, 2009, ISBN: (13) 978 1 903223 87 1. [hardcover, dust jacket, 208 pages, many illustrations and source notes, colour artwork]
deZeng, Henry L. & Stankey, Douglas G. Dive-Bomber and Ground-Attack Units of the Luftwaffe 1933-1945: A Reference Source, Volume 2, Ian Allan Publishing, Hersham, 2010, ISBN: (13) 978 1 903223. [hardcover, dust jacket, 204 pages, many illustrations and source notes, colour artwork]
4. What is your current primary research focus?
Unlike the majority of the community, my interests have for the past 40 years been with the non-flying component of the Luftwaffe, the Bodenorganisation, i.e., Flakwaffe (Anti-Aircraft Artillery Branch), Luftnachrichtentruppe (Air Signals Branch), logistics and airfields. To that can be added the building of a database that provides the wartime careers of Luftwaffe officers. My co-author, Doug Stankey, and I eventually agreed that this great mass of data could not be produced and made available in the form of books due to the sheer cost of trying to publish twenty-plus unillustrated volumes for a tiny niche market (huge expense, zero return), so we decided to use the Internet instead. This material is in constant update and expansion and can be found in the menu on the Michael Holm website. This is what Doug and I are researching now, as we have been since the mid-1980s.
5. What was the hook, or the moment that made you realise you wanted to carry on down the path of research?
I don’t know that there was a particular ‘hook’ or epiphany that made me suddenly turn in this direction, but rather more a slowly developing catalytic result of several things. As I noted earlier, I had already been ‘bitten’ by the Second World War ‘bug’, which resulted in a lot of heavy reading beginning at the age of eight or nine, which led to a lot of hours in my school library preparing for papers I had to write beginning in tenth grade (age fifteen), and then carried over into university where the research and resulting papers got longer and more complex. The more school research I did the more curious and interested I became in the lesser known aspects of the war, and this finally led to topics only to be found in archives in the United States and abroad.
6. How did you find yourself collaborating with Doug Stankey?
Dr. Jim Kitchens, a familiar name for many reading this, introduced me to Doug and vice versa in the summer of 1990 in conjunction with Jim’s development of a little community newsletter called Luftwaffe Circle around the time the annual International Plastic Modellers Society convention was being held in Miami, Florida. Prior to that, we had never heard of each other.
7. How has research changed over the years, do you think?
Wow, that’s an easy one. The advent of the Internet and the digital camera, of course. Before, you had to go to the documents and books; now, they come to you. Gone are the days of making long, expensive research trips to archives and big research libraries all over the world. My first expedition of this sort was to the Modern Military Branch of the U.S. National Archives at 8th and Pennsylvania Avenue in downtown Washington in July 1979. For each of the next thirteen years, I spent two weeks traveling to NARA, the Suitland Federal Records Center in suburban Maryland, the Library of Congress, the U.S. Army Military History Institute at Carlisle Barracks in Pennsylvania, the University of North Carolina Library in Chapel Hill, the Air Force Historical Research Agency at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama, the 8th Air Force Museum Library in Savannah, Georgia, Florida State University Library in Tallahassee, the University of Florida Library in Gainesville, and a few others. There was also a research trip to the Bundesarchiv-Militärarchiv in Freiburg in August 1990, and to other state archives in Zagreb and Ljubljana. I also borrowed hundreds of books and microfilms from more than 60 libraries worldwide using the interlibrary loan system. But the ‘old school’ way of doing research has all changed now – the Internet brings it all to your computer and you no longer have to leave home.
8. What do you think the future of research is in terms of the Luftwaffe?
This is a tough question, but I think the main effort should be for the repositories, that is the archives, libraries, museums, etc., to complete the work that they have already started, and finish the digitization of their holdings so that eventually everything they have can be made available on the Internet. It will take many years and a great deal of money to accomplish that goal, but many of the repositories are working toward that objective right now.
9. What’s an important aspect of the Luftwaffe or the air war in general that you think hasn’t been looked at enough, or at all?
In my personal opinion, I would like to see more – lots more – done with the ground organization, logistics, Flak, signals and what have you, but that just is not going to happen because there is near zero interest in those topics, not even as short articles appearing on the Internet. As for the flying branch of the Luftwaffe, the only subject area that has been nearly exhausted is the Jagdwaffe (Fighter Arm), so there is plenty of room for further research, articles and books on bombers, ground-attack, transports and maritime aviation.
10. If you had any advice for people getting into this field, what would it be?
Assuming this question concerns dissertation-level research, then I would say the three essential resources would be time, language skills and funds. Each book and document leads to another, and then to another and so forth, almost without end. It can take weeks, months and years to track down all of these evolving research leads. Once you have consulted material that can be found on the Internet, research expeditions to archives, both domestic and foreign, become necessary, and that will take some money for travel and accommodation. Finally, it would be a big help to have a couple of years of German grammar (or whatever the prime language of the research topic might be). Google Translate and other computer translators are wonderful, but if you are sitting in an archive somewhere taking notes on your laptop, you will not have time to type hundreds of pages of foreign language script into translator software. Having a basic understanding of the language can help you quickly scan the documents to see what you need to translate, copy or photograph.
11. How do you think we can encourage people to get into research – especially in an age of Wikipedia and the History Channel – to avoid repeating generalities and half-truths and in some instances, falsities?
One way would be to require Internet discussion forum participants to source their postings. Those who disagree with the statements made then have at least a starting point for further research. Unfortunately, few if any of the Luftwaffe-related websites do this and the Internet has become by far the biggest distributor of erroneous information. If readers are concerned enough about statements made relevant to a particular subject or topic in which they have a strong interest, then it should be incumbent upon them to verify and critique what was said.
12. What’s been the biggest frustration in research that you’ve faced?
For me, it was the ever-growing realization that the archival and German language material that I needed to explore was a bottomless pit that I could never reach the bottom of and thus be satisfied that I had completed my research. I think this happens to most researchers and it illustrates the need to establish an outline with parameters and cut-off dates. Without these self-imposed tools, the tendency to get sidetracked into other topics, be they related to the primary subject or otherwise, becomes a dangerous distraction.
13. What’s one ‘wow’ moment that you’ve had in researching the Luftwaffe?
In 1987, ten years after I had started researching the Luftwaffe, I discovered that Clearwater Publishing had microfilmed the ULTRA DEFE 3 series at the PRO (Public Record Office = British National Archives) in London, and that all or parts of the series had been bought by various university libraries and these were available through interlibrary loan. Hallelujah!!! I was already convinced that I would die before ever getting to see this material, which consisted of the decryption of tens of thousands of classified Luftwaffe wartime messages. The series proved to be a huge goldmine of new information concerning units, operations, names of Luftwaffe personnel, etc. It was truly a ‘wow’ moment and only got better over the next twenty to 25 years as more and more of this material became open to the public. For me, it was like a bloodhound picking up a fresh scent.
14. Is there a project you’d love to look into, but just don’t have the time?
When I became a serious researcher and ‘archive rat’ using material in a variety of European languages it was 1977, and for the next twelve years my interests were very broad and included the German Wehrmacht, the armed forces of those nations that allied themselves with Germany (Bulgaria, Croatia, Finland, Hungary, Italy, Japan, Romania, and Slovakia), foreign volunteer units (the Osttruppen in particular), the Abwehr (German military intelligence service), etc. It wasn’t until the late 1980s that I began a very gradual shift to focus exclusively on the Luftwaffe. My time has run out to do anything more with these now (I was born the year before the Second World War began), so my final two projects after completing the Airfields monograph on Russia (including Belorussia, Bessarabia and Ukraine), plus the final monograph to cover the Baltic States, will be a revision of two of the others and then, if time allows, my last project will be to continue working on the history and units of the Flakartillerie branch of the Luftwaffe.
15. As a final question, do you have a favourite Luftwaffe aircraft, and if so, what is it?
Well, that’s kind of a tough question, but I think I would pick the Ju 188 in the role of a Fernaufklärer. There were a few others, certainly, that come close, but the Ju 188 has always had an edge on the others.