Milch resigned from the army in 1921 to pursue a career in civil aviation and rose to be the chief executive of Lufthansa, the German national airline. He became close friends with Hermann Göring in the process, and when the latter was appointed Reich commissar for air, Milch followed as his secretary of state. Milch is widely credited for laying the organizational groundwork for the Luftwaffe during this period. In many ways, he was the man who built the Luftwaffe into the world's most powerful air force by 1939, but he also shared responsibilities for its shortcomings during the war. Although not technically a member of the armed forces from 1921, Milch was made a Generalmajor (U.S. equiv. brigadier general) in 1934, a Generalleutnant (U.S. equiv. major general) in 1935, and Generaloberst (U.S. equiv. full general) in 1938.
He was named inspector general of the Luftwaffe in 1939, and his lone field command of the war came in 1940 when he directed Fifth Air Force in Norway. For this service, he earned the Knight's Cross and was promoted to field marshal by Adolf Hitler in July 1940. Milch advised an immediate descent on Britain following the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) at Dunkerque, but the idea was rebuffed by Hitler. Milch also expressed grave reservations about attacking the Soviet Union but was again ignored. Following the suicide of Ernst Udet in 1941, he took over his position as director of air armament. He then tripled aircraft production and improved aircraft maintenance procedures. Milch found himself increasingly estranged from both Göring and Hitler, who disliked his realistic assessments. They also rejected his belief that Germany's survival lay in having large numbers of fighters to protect industrial production.
Milch pushed development of new aircraft, but Göring removed him from his posts in July 1944. Taken prisoner by the British in May 1945, he was sentenced to life imprisonment for war crimes, chiefly the use of forced labor in production. He was released from prison in 1954 and died on 25 January 1972 in Wuppertal-Barmen, Germany.
Matthew Alan McNiece
Faber, Harold, ed. Luftwaffe: A History. New York: Time Books, 1978.; Irving, David. The Rise and Fall of the Luftwaffe: The Life of Field Marshal Erhard Milch. Boston: Little, Brown, 1973.; Killen, John. A History of the Luftwaffe. New York: Doubleday, 1968.