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Theodor Rowehl
Lieutenant Colonel Theodor Rowehl in 1940, the year he was awarded the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross
Born (1894-02-09)February 9, 1894
Died 6 June 1978(1978-06-06) (aged 84)
Place of birth Barstede[1]
Place of death Münster, Germany
Allegiance  Nazi Germany
Service/branch Luftwaffe
Rank Oberst
Battles/wars World War I, World War II
Awards Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross

Theodor Rowehl (9 February 1894 – 6 June 1978) was a German pilot who founded the Luftwaffe's strategic air reconnaissance programme, and headed what became known as the Rowehl Squadron and became Kampfgeschwader 200 after his resignation in December 1943.

Early life and service in World War I

Rowehl was from Göttingen.[1] In World War I he served in the Imperial German Navy and made reconnaissance flights over England.[2][3]

Interwar surveillance

After the war, concerned over both the strategic influence of the alliance between the newly reconstituted Poland and France and rumours of Polish construction of border fortifications, Rowehl began flying a hired private plane in his free time and photographing from 13,000 feet (4,000 m) to evade detection.[4][5] He showed the photographs to the Abwehr and in 1930 was placed on the payroll, sometimes flying along the border with Poland and sometimes penetrating Polish airspace. He flew in the Junkers W 34 that had set the world altitude record at 12,739 metres on 26 May 1929.[6] From this one-man restart of German strategic aerial reconnaissance,[7] by 1934, Rowehl's operation had expanded to five aircraft and a small group of hand-picked pilots based at Kiel, and he had re-enlisted in the military as an officer.[6][8]

After the signing of the German–Polish Non-Aggression Pact in 1934 the unit went underground as the Experimental Post for High-Altitude Flights, purportedly investigating weather,[9] and moved to Berlin, flying out of the Staaken airfield.[6][8] They expanded operations to aerial reconnaissance of the Soviet Union, France, and Czechoslovakia, where they made the first use in Germany of stereophotography.[6]

In 1936, at Göring's invitation, Rowehl's unit was transferred to the Luftwaffe, where it became the Squadron for Special Purposes, under the General Staff of the 5th Branch (intelligence).[10][11][12] The greater financial resources of the Luftwaffe enabled Rowehl to recruit more pilots—he sought out men with experience with aerial photography companies, international airlines and aircraft manufacturers, and two had been aviation adventurers in the 1920s and earlier in the 1930s, Count Hoensbroech and Count Soerma.[13] He also advised on the development of specialised aircraft. The unit used converted bombers, beginning with the Heinkel He 111,[14][15] later also the Dornier Do 215, Junkers Ju 86 and Junkers Ju 88, Dornier Do 217, Henschel Hs 130, and Messerschmitt Me 410.[16] These were equipped with auxiliary fuel tanks and with an oxygen-nitrogen fuel mix that would supercharge the engine for 20–25 minutes to facilitate escape.[14][17] Some had pressurised cabins.[18] They were disguised as civilian planes or had minimal markings.[17] Rowehl also advised Zeiss on the development of special automatic cameras[17] which used infra-red film.[14]

The unit, often called the Rowehl Group, provided strategic reconnaissance for both the army and the Luftwaffe.[19] Its base moved to Oranienburg, near the Luftwaffe General Staff, and Rowehl was for a while head of the Luftwaffe's Main Photo Centre.[17]

World War II

After the war began, the squadron grew to three squadrons, each with 12 aeroplanes, and became the Reconnaissance Group of the Commander in Chief of the Air Force (Fernaufklärungsgruppe des Oberbefehlshabers der Luftwaffe, abbreviated AufklGrp OB der Lw).[18] A fourth squadron was created in January 1941 to spy on the Soviet Union.[18] At its largest, the unit comprised 200 to 300 men and approximately 50 aircraft.[16] Rowehl now only occasionally flew.

In December 1943, the Third Reich was on the defensive. Seeing a diminished need for strategic aerial reconnaissance—he is quoted as having said, "Our homeland we knew"—and needing to care for two small children after his wife was lost in an air raid, Rowehl resigned.[20] His unit was renamed Kampfgeschwader 200 and used for broader purposes.[20]


Rowehl was awarded the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross on 27 September 1940.[21][22][23][24]


  1. 1.0 1.1 David Kahn, Hitler's Spies: German Military Intelligence in World War II, New York: Macmillan, 1978, ISBN 978-0-02-560610-4; repr. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Da Capo, 2000, ISBN 978-0-306-80949-1, p. 115 states that he was from Göttingen. However, according to Veit Scherzer, Die Ritterkreuzträger 1939–1945: Die Inhaber des Eisernen Kreuzes von Heer, Luftwaffe, Kriegsmarine, Waffen-SS, Volkssturm sowie mit Deutschland verbündete Streitkräfte nach den Unterlagen des Bundesarchivs, Jena: Ranis/Scherzerg, 2007, ISBN 978-3-938845-17-2, p. 642 (German), he was born in Barstede, part of Ihlow.
  2. Kahn, p. 115.
  3. Roderich Cescotti, Kampfflugzeuge und Aufklärer: Entwicklung, Produktion, Einsatz und zeitgeschichtliche Rahmenbedingungen von 1935 bis heute, Deutsche Luftfahrt 15, Koblenz: Bernard & Graefe, 1989, ISBN 978-3-7637-5293-5, p. 100 (German)
  4. Kahn, pp. 115–16.
  5. Roy Godson and James J. Wirtz, Strategic Denial and Deception: The Twenty-First Century Challenge, New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction, 2002, ISBN 978-0-7658-0113-5, p. 61.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 Kahn, p. 116.
  7. Barton Whaley, Covert German Rearmament, 1919–1939: Deception and Misperception, Foreign Intelligence Book Series, Frederick, Maryland: University Publications of America, 1984, ISBN 978-0-89093-542-2, p. 43: "[When Conrad Patzig was appointed head of the Abwehr on 7 June 1932], its strategic aerial photoreconnaissance was still little more than Theodor Rowehl's one-man show."
  8. 8.0 8.1 Godson and Wirtz, p. 64.
  9. "Luftaufklärung", Der Spiegel, 18 May 1960 (German)
  10. Kahn, pp. 116–17.
  11. Whaley, p. 55.
  12. Godson and Wirtz, p. 67.
  13. Kahn, p. 117.
  14. 14.0 14.1 14.2 Heinz Nowarra, Heinkel He 111: A Documentary History, translated ed., London/New York: Jane's, 1980, ISBN 978-0-531-03710-2, p. 81.
  15. Godson and Wirtz, p. 71.
  16. 16.0 16.1 Kahn, p. 120.
  17. 17.0 17.1 17.2 17.3 Kahn, p. 118.
  18. 18.0 18.1 18.2 Kahn, p. 119.
  19. Kahn, p. 123.
  20. 20.0 20.1 Kahn, p. 122.
  21. Franz Kurowski, Deutsche Kommandotrupps 1939–1945: "Brandenburger" und Abwehr im weltweiten Einsatz, volume 1 Stuttgart: Motorbuch, 2000, ISBN 978-3-613-02018-4, p. 32 (German)
  22. Georg Brütting and Peter Supf, Das Buch der deutschen Fluggeschichte volume 3, Die grosse Zeit der deutschen Luftfahrt bis 1945, Verein zur Förderung des Luftsports, Stuttgart: Drei-Brunnen, 1979, ISBN 978-3-87174-001-5 (German)
  23. Walther-Peer Fellgiebel, Elite of the Third Reich: The Recipients of the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross 1939–45: An Illustrated Reference, translated, Solihull: Helion, 2003, ISBN 978-1-874622-46-8, p. 297.
  24. Gerhard von Seemen, Die Ritterkreuzträger, 1939–1945: die Ritterkreuzträger sämtlicher Wehrmachtteile, Brillanten-, Schwerter- und Eichenlaubträger in der Reihenfolge der Verleihung: Anhang mit Verleihungsbestimmungen und weiteren Angaben, Friedberg: Podzun, [1976], ISBN 978-3-7909-0051-4, p. 288 (German)

Further reading

  • Norbert Rohde. Die fliegenden Augen des Oberst Rowehl: die geheime deutsche Luftbildaufklärung: eine Dokumentation. Historische Militärobjekte der Region Oberhavel 4. Velten: VV Veltener Verlagsgesellschaft, 2010. ISBN 978-3-9813649-3-4 (German)

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