A few years ago Theo Boiten asked me if I wouldn't mind helping out on his Nachtjagd War Diaries project published by Red Kite in 2008. In the end I translated about 65 pages worth of vets accounts including Peter Spoden's moving and eloquent Foreword.
Here is one of the lengthy personal accounts that I translated for the book.
Written by Karl Johanssen, he describes his most memorable sortie, flown on the night of 14/15 March 1945, when his 'Kutscher' or 'driver', leading nightfighter ace Martin 'Tino' Becker, claimed nine Lancaster bombers shot down (victories 49-57) a Nachtjagd record. Three of Becker's victims were in fact shot down by his crewman Karl Johanssen with his MG 131 rearward facing armament.
"...Our IV Gruppe of Nachtjagdgeschwader 6 was stationed at Kitzingen am Main. Although the aerodrome itself was still unscathed, American Jabos -fighter bombers- were over the field from dawn to dusk. They would have needed some luck hunting out our machines since they were mostly hidden in the nearby woods in camouflaged shelters cut back along a taxi-track of some length. The enemy's bomber formations droned overhead on an almost daily basis to carpet-bomb cities, supply lines and -most importantly - operational ME 262 jet bases. From dawn to dusk we were at an almost constant state of readiness - to evacuate the field should the alarm "Bombenteppich" - carpet bombing ! - be raised. As dusk fell all our machines would return to the airfield, including those operational aircraft that had played 'hide-and-seek' through the day - in other words they had been flown out to smaller hard-to-locate grass strips in the vicinity and hidden from prying eyes. Armourers and flight engineers set about preparing these aircraft for their night sortie. Some possibly required an air-test. There was still a certain amount of time to kill prior to the weather briefing and pre-sortie pep talk. The radio operators busied themselves with the documentation that they required for a sortie - the Y-Linie frequencies, call signs and code letters that were changed on a daily basis - and checked over their radar and radio sets - the FuG X, FuG XVI, SN2, and Naxos direction finding and homing equipment, along with the EiV, the crew intercom - among other tasks. By 18h00 all the crews had gathered at the Gefechtsstand for the weather forecast and mission briefing. For some time now even this activity had taken place 'underground' in the cellar. Long range enemy intruder aircraft operated over the aerodrome almost nightly, lurking in the hope of catching our aircraft landing and taking off. It was imperative to maintain absolute radio silence and the dimmed runway lighting could be flicked on only briefly and sporadically. That evening in the command post we had the feeling that something big was in the offing. Weather conditions were favourable. According to HQ everything pointed to a "dicker Hund" - a maximum effort by the British. The 'weather frog' - Regierungsrat and meterologist - took us through the forecast for the coming night. For the enemy, conditions over north-west France and England -for launching a raid- were good. As far as the territory of the Reich was concerned there were two bands of cloud situated over southern Germany at 1000 to 1500 metres and at around 5,000 metres altitude. The possibilities for diverting to other airfields were discussed. During the early hours mist was likely to form. The Reportage - a land-line network linking all operational night fighter bases - collated the numbers of serviceable aircraft and crews to man them. The meteorologist concluded his report while the Nachrichtenoffizier -the signals officer- gave out the Y-Linie frequencies and key letters for the FuG 25 codes. The Y-Linie was the radio traffic system carrying so-called UKW transmissions over a frequency emanating from the Divisonal command post - information such as the enemy air situation report, location and airfield reports. All too often the enemy jammed even these communications – as they did others. The crews subsequently made their way to the readiness rooms located close to the individual Staffel dispersals. We were now at 'heightened readiness'. Soft gramophone record music played through the loudspeaker network around the aerodrome. Hard-bitten Doppelkopf or Skat players set up their card schools. Radio operators took their code folders and ES signal flare munitions out to their machines. Even outside on the taxiways the various announcements being broadcast could be heard. The music was interrupted once again. The speaker blew into the microphone by way of a test before broadcasting his message; " Achtung Achtung an Alle ! - Attention everybody! Prepare for cockpit readiness. Heavy enemy formations reported over Holland, currently in Grid Square MN, heading 160 degrees! Ende - Message ends!" A few more bars of sentimental music played through the speakers before we heard the order, "Everyone to cockpit readiness!". The next announcement was broadcast even before all of the crews had clambered up into their machines; " All aircraft to take off, heading radio beacon Dachs!". For those of my comrades that might not perhaps have realised what was happening flares were fired off; green-red-green. The plaintive refrain of "Komm zurück" started up in the loudspeakers although the noise of engines being run up drowned out the melody while the first machines were already taxiing out to the runway takeoff point. The Kommandeur remained in the command post until the last possible moment, which was why our Ju88 - coded 'MF' - was one of the last to move off. Even as we taxied out to our takeoff point the radio receiver was being tuned into the frequencies so that we could eavesdrop on the reports coming in on the enemy formation and the orders being transmitted to the night fighters. We lined up into the wind on the showing of two white lights. An airman with a lamp was on duty at the threshold. After identifying our aircraft code letters, we were given the green light - all-clear to take off. The roar of the two Jumo 213 engines rose to a crescendo and then we were airborne. The faintly lit airfield faded into the darkness behind us. All our radio and radar sets were switched on and working. We were now reliant on them for all the information that we could glean with regard to the incoming raid. When I say 'we' I'm referring to the pilot and the radar operator sitting in front and the two rearward-facing crew members - the flight engineer perched on the cockpit entry/exit hatch and myself the radio operator and gunner sitting on the 'high chair'. As soon as we had climbed through the first cloud layer at around 2,000 metres we swung onto heading 260 in the direction of Funkfeuer -radio beacon- Dachs. Sporadic transmissions were coming through on the Y-Linie. After some twenty minutes flying time we were over the Dachs beacon and received the following report "de v1s-50 RP,RQ 080 - vmzRR 3"; in plain language it meant that the enemy bombers were at 5,000 metres altitude, heading 80 degrees in Grid Squares RP and RQ and that the target was probably RR 3, in the Mainz sector. We immediately took up a new heading, banking onto course RR and could see the first target markers and explosions some distance off. As luck would have it we were too late arriving over the target. The 'fireworks' had just ended which led us to conclude that this had been a feint, a raid mounted by Mosquitos, intended to lure the night fighters away from the bomber streams. We swung around homewards while I pricked up my ears, trying to decipher through the jamming where the main body of the raid might be. The interference was so heavy on all frequencies that we learnt nothing. At the same time I was staring fixedly at the Naxos intercept radar screen which could home in on the emissions of the "Rotterdam" sets - the British H2S navigation and bombing radar - used by the pathfinders. In order to pick up a return we had to be within the beam cone of the transmitting aircraft. It was at that point, with the Naxos operating at its greatest range that I saw tiny little blips on the screen at 90 degrees to our direction of flight, far off to the south. I brought this to Becker's attention although he was initially sceptical. Angered at having being lured towards the diversionary raid, he was interested only in returning home as quickly as possible. The aerodrome lay in our path ahead of us. The blinking red light on the Schwanberg could be clearly discerned. I had soon picked up our Gefechtsstand frequency. They informed us that a large bomber formation was heading towards Nuremberg, thus confirming the Naxos returns. We pressed on, but arriving in the vicinity of the city there were no indications whatsoever that this was the objective. Ordinarily the target markers would already have dropped their 'Christmas trees' . The only aircraft dodging the meandering searchlight beams in the mist were our own night fighters. At 3,000 metres altitude I managed to tune into the UKW transmission, plotting the track of the "fat cars" - the enemy bomber formation. In Grid Square TB the bomber stream had swung onto a heading in the direction of square NO. We flew a similar course and before long had picked up the track of the enemy bombers having worked out a heading via the ground station running broadcast " you are in the bomber stream.." Each member of the crew tensely quartered the darkness with eyes peeled or stared hard at the screens of the intercept SN2 and Naxos radar sets. At our altitude the SN2 had an effective range of 3 km but there was nothing to be seen. Intermittently the Naxos showed up tiny blips, indicating that the enemy bombers were ploughing through the skies directly ahead of us. Our 'driver' was somewhat dismissive of these returns. As it later turned out, we had been flying on a north-easterly track parallel to the bomber stream. By now we had the first returns on the SN2, although this could have been the Düppel strips - the aluminium chaff dropped by the British bombers to overwhelm the search radars. Ahead of us the pathfinders were dropping the first target markers while Ofw. Rauch guided us onto a Lancaster with the SN2. The silhouette of the bomber could be clearly seen against the illuminated backdrop of the target area. It loomed off our starboard quarter at lower altitude but couldn't see us as we were coming out of the darkness. As we closed to within 200 metres Becker pulled up the nose of our 'MF' and hammered the first bursts of fire into the black hulk, which immediately lurched steeply down over its port wing streaming a banner of flame. We followed and watched as its cargo of bombs, previously jettisoned, now exploded on the ground. Pieces of debris had flown off the bomber as it plunged down into the void. Moments later a bright burst of flame revealed the point of impact as the bomber smashed into the ground. It was 21h53. I noted our location, altitude and the time. Four pairs of eyes had now to be constantly on the look-out. Fires stoking up the ground and falling incendiaries rendered lighting conditions so bright that there was no longer any need to use our search radar. And although the four engine bombers were no longer shrouded in a cloak of darkness we were also much more visible ourselves. Two pairs of eyes, belonging to Ofw. Brandl and myself, stared hard into the darkness behind us. We zigzagged across the sky, constantly modifying our altitude, in order to make ourselves less of a target for our own flak batteries. Puffs of black smoke – the bursts of exploding shells - were alarmingly close. Suddenly the aircraft’s nose dropped and we were diving down onto a new target. Ahead of us, some 500 metres lower down, Becker had made out another Lancaster. We bore in on the starboard quarter and the great bulk of the bomber was suddenly ablaze, as a burst of fire from our 20mm cannon struck home. The Lancaster pressed on, spraying the sky around us with wild defensive fire from its gun turrets. Now above us and off to the starboard side, we observed some of the crew abandoning the burning machine and taking to their parachutes. We delivered the coup de grâce, a short firing pass from underneath on the port side. In its death throes the Lancaster started to break apart, burning debris tumbling down into the depths, strewing over a wide area as it impacted the ground. I noted the time at 21h59 and our position as MD7. Once again our attention was focused on the night sky around us. The ground station –which we could make out only faintly- was transmitting constantly - agz –LE 4, agz LE 4 - shorthand for ‘Angriffsziel liegt im Planquadrat LE 4’ - enemy objective in Grid Square LE 4. The actual location was of no concern to us at all at that stage - we were already there. Over the intercom the crew exchanged their observations or made sudden interjections as they reacted to our pilot’s unexpected flight manoeuvres. The flight engineer called out; “ ein Schatten in Rolf oben – I can see a shadow off to starboard above us”. All eyes glanced briefly in this direction. Becker had sighted the target and manoeuvred the aircraft into position and flew a firing pass from below on the port quarter. It was 22h03 as this Lancaster also plunged earthwards. It hit the ground in a dazzling explosion, most probably having impacted with its bomb load. Position MD 5. Bombs were still falling in LE4. We considered the so-called Blitzlichtbomben – flash bombs – dropped by the pathfinders, automatically triggering on-board cameras- most annoying. The flash of the detonation blinded us for brief seconds - it could appear an age when you were reliant on being alive to everything around you in the night sky. More so now that things were happened thick and fast. The bombers were coming off the target area. We sighted a Lancaster at lower altitude heading out on a reciprocal course. We curved down in a steep dive to port, levelling out underneath the target and then pulling up to unleash a burst of fire from the lower starboard side. We dipped away to the port side. There was another one! A similar burst from above on the starboard quarter. Both Lancasters fell away in flames and hit the ground at 22h05 and around 22h06 in MD 5. We had to some extent followed them down and had lost altitude. I noted the details and heard the following ground station transmission; ‘Ausflüge von LE 4. Kurs 205 - enemy bombers leaving LE 4..Heading 205’. Becker was furious since his forward-firing cannon were now not all functioning. The circuit breakers had sprung open and the flight engineer was despairingly trying to keep them all pressed in with his fingers. I tried to mollify him; “ trying to keep the buttons in won’t serve any purpose”. We had now swung on to heading 205 and had levelled out at the bombers’ altitude. We were leaving the blazing target area behind us. We wondered which city it might have been but didn’t have time to dwell on it, since all eyes were once again boring into the darkness outside. Finally we picked up a return on the SN2 at much lower altitude. Rauch was relaying his instructions to the Kutscher – the ‘driver’; “Rolf..etwas Rolf …right, right a bit..”- “Frieda, Frieda – descend, descend - Marie 2,5 –etwas Lisa – left a little..” “genau voraus! – directly ahead !”.. “Da!..ich sehe schon ..There!..I can see it already!”. We slid into an attack position, 200 metres to the right and slightly lower than the black hulk. We could now clearly make out its silhouette.. Bluish flames flickered and darted from eight exhaust ejector stubs. It was another Lancaster. Becker eased it into his sights. He gave a short burst of fire. Only a few rounds had been unleashed as his cannon had stop firing. Becker cursed, while Brandl alongside me was at his wits end as the breakers had once again popped open. We flew a second firing pass from the other side once the buttons were in again. Only a few shells had left the barrels before flames leapt from the Lancaster’s wing and fuselage. It went down in a steep spiral, the clock showing 22h15 as it hit the ground. Position approximately ND2.We were still at 2,000 metres. Annoyed at the failure of his weapons, the pilot said; “ that’s enough for today - what’s our course home..?” “205 degrees - the same track as the bombers” I replied. We attempted to get the cannon working again but now they were totally unserviceable. I suggested trying out the Naxos, since we had time - plenty of it - and were flying on the same course as the bombers heading homewards. There had thus far been only limited experience with the set and few attempts to utilise its capabilities to home in on aircraft using the Rotterdamgerät (H2S). There were a good number of intermittent returns on the 'tubes'. I concentrated my attention on the strongest of these and gave the pilot instructions accordingly. He had to climb for altitude. We closed gradually, latched on to the cone-shaped beam array pulsing from the rotating transmitter on the bomber's belly. There! Radar operator Rauch had a return on the SN2 and took over the intercept. At a range of about 500 metres we both spotted two four engine bombers, some 100 metres above us. We slowly edged in nearer. Over the intercom we discussed how we should proceed. The forward-firing armament was unserviceable. We couldn't just let these enemy kites get away scot-free. They ploughed on doggedly, now and again making slight changes in altitude. It occurred to me - since it was right in front of my eyes - that I had at my disposal the radio operator’s MG 131 Z twin machine-guns, pointing rearwards and vertically. They were cocked and ready to fire. We were all agreed that I should attempt to use them. However this meant that the target had to be behind and above us - in such a position that our pilot would no longer be able to see it. So it would be up to me to guide the pilot so that he could fly the enemy bomber into my arc of fire. This meant descending much lower under the bomber. It all sounded relatively straightforward in theory. In the heat of the moment and the tension and excitement and the fact that we were sitting back to back meant that it took a while - and several Rolfs-Lisas, Siegfrieds and Friedas - to manoeuvre the bomber into the gunsight and into a position where I could squeeze the trigger. The target was as huge as a house. I aimed for the starboard inner engine and wing root. I fired an initial burst that immediately caused the weapon to jam. I cleared the stoppage and gave him a burst of tracer, some of which buried itself in the target. In my headphones I heard, "Its on fire!". We peeled away to starboard and watched as the Lancaster went down in a steep spiral trailing a banner of flame. I noted the time, 23h00, and our position, TA4, with trembling hands. Where had the second bomber disappeared? We had lost height. The MG had been reloaded and was ready to fire - the last salvo had been curtailed by a stoppage. I could still see the same strong returns in the Naxos. This appeared to indicate that we had caught two aircraft that were not using their Rotterdam sets (H2S). We re-played the intercept and closing approach with the Naxos and SN2. Once again Beckermanoeuvred in accordance with my instructions despite not being able to see the enemy machine. On this occasion we got in somewhat closer. I could see the turbochargers on the four engines glowing red. The enemy crate droned on serenely a little off to starboard and about 200 metres above me. It was now easier to draw a bead on the port inboard engine and wing root. I set it on fire with the first burst. I gave it anotherburst before the Lancaster went down streaming bright flames, impacting the ground at 23h15 in BU1. The tension started to recede. We were still heading on the same course as the bombers lumbering homewards. There was no longer any interference on any of the channels. All the bombers were now heading out away from the target area. Our ground controllers transmitted messages of congratulations, while reporting that there were still potential targets in close proximity. Both of us radar operators concentrated our attentions back on the scopes. There were a number of faint blips on the Naxos screen. Adjusting the resolution, I concentrated on the strongest echo and gave my instructions. We flew an approach but were far too low. As we had to climb to the bomber's altitude we managed to make up the distance separating us from the target only slowly. Suddenly the SN2 showed a target echo as it moved out from the ground traces and after changes of track Becker caught sight of a four engine bomber some distance ahead of us. Once again it was up to me guide us into the target. I called out instructions, imagining the pilot's discomfiture as he manoeuvred blindly into position in accordance with my commands, waiting with pent-up tension until he finally heard the clatter of the machine guns. We hadn't encountered any defensive fire up to that point, although the tail gunners sprayed unaimed salvos from their turrets. Who could have expected to come under attack from the front and at lower altitude. The bomber was some 200 metres above us on the starboard quarter as the first burst of fire from the MG 131 Z struck home in the inboard engine and wing leading edge. I could see only the glow of tiny flames licking around the wing. Again a burst of tracer fire buried itself in the target. The bomber veered off course and was suddenly heading towards us. We moved aside and while banked over on one wingtip I loosed off another burst. The machine started to spiral down in wide circles. It did not have the twin tail fin and rudders of a Lancaster nor did it resemble a Short Stirling. It was a B-17 Flying Fortress, the first one we'd encountered on a night raid. Although it was soon swallowed up by the darkness we set off in pursuit. The fire was increasing in intensity, illuminating the night. We could see some of the crew taking to their parachutes. The Boeing went down in circles over its burning wing before suddenly slamming into an area of snow-covered, wooded mountainside. The time was 23h37. This was the ninth occasion that night that we had reported in to the ground station with a 'Sieg Heil' (enemy aircraft downed) following the ritual 'Pauke Pauke' (we are attacking). We now turned on a course for home. Where were we exactly? The ground station reported that we were in square CR somewhere over the Schwarzwald-the Black Forest and gave us a heading for Kitzingen. Our 'MF' had performed well and had already been airborne for some three and a half hours. We didn't have enough fuel for the 200km back to base. However Schwäbisch Hall lay en route. We discussed the events of the previous hours over the intercom. We'd rather lost track of how many enemy aircraft we had downed. We’d received congratulations for nine victories from the controller - that must have been the case then. We had difficulty raising Schwäbisch Hall on the radio although we could see the airfield lighting up ahead. The airfield finally came on the frequency and in response to our request to land indicated that the runway was blocked following an earlier crash landing. There was no possibility of putting down there. What next? The nearest airfield where we might be able to land was Groß-Sachsenheim, north of Stuttgart. We swung back on our tracks. We knew that this aerodrome had recently come under attack and that the landing strip was restricted as a consequence. The ground station confirmed again that this was indeed the case. We flew a circuit and then came in. We touched down a little late along the runway already shortened by bomb craters - it was simply not long enough for our run-out. We braked so heavily that the tail came off the ground. There was an almighty clattering and crashing as if we’d run through some potholes, before the aircraft finally came to a stand. It was a case of magnetos off and get out!. Our ‘MF’ had overrun the strip and ended up in a neighbouring meadow. Ofw. Brandl – flying with us as the fourth crew member but ordinarily in charge of technical operations on the ground for the entire Gruppe – soon had our kite hauled out of the mud. There was much backslapping and cheering when we entered the command post. We could barely get our reports written. We celebrated with the odd glass of champagne. Berlin called up on the phone; “ notable experiences with the Naxos were of particular interest and had to be relayed to all crews ”. The excitement gradually abated and we were soon longing for some shut-eye. Yet we couldn’t go to sleep. We’d landed at 00h20 but it wasn’t until 04h05 that we were given the green light to get airborne for our return home. We touched down at Kitzingen at 04h38 after an eventful night’s flying.."
When I was finally able to peruse the books I was hugely impressed with the sheer size of the two tomes (total of 750+ pages!) and the evident deep research therein. If pushed I'd say the four or five different font sizes make some of the pages look a little untidy at first glance, but only in places (claims info, text, pic captions, personal account side bars) while I guess Vol II is a touch short on pics (a few too many generic images from ww2images.com) but very text heavy. These are really pretty minor league criticisms though. The list of sources, contributors, bibliography and explanation of methodology are eye-opening. Considering there is little or no info out there for 1945 Vol II especially is a superb achievement. The special collectors edition is currently available from publisher Red Kite books with a reprint of the two titles planned for late 2010.
Peter Spoden and Rolf Ebhardt sitting with author Theo Boiten at the launch of the Nachtjagd War Diaries. Standing behind are Rod Mackenzie and Mark Postlethwaite, flanked by the team from The Aviation Bookshop who organised the launch. (Hi Simon!)