Friday, 7 May 2010

"Hitler's Kamikazes" - from Sturmstaffel 1 to Schulungslehrgang Elbe

An interesting documentary film broadcast on Franco-German TV channel 'Arte' and available on a German-language DVD.

" On 17 April 1945, just three weeks before the end of WWII, German suicide pilots - Kamikaze Flieger - dove their aircraft into the Oder bridges near Küstrin -the pilots, human bombs, died in vain in a war that was already long since lost. Kamikaze pilots were not just a Japanese phenomenon. At the end drew nearer for the Third Reich even German pilots flew so-called Selbstopfer-Angriffe - 'self-sacrifice attacks'. On the orders of Hermann Göring himself young pilots fresh out of training school were ordered to fly ramming attacks against US bombers in unarmed and war-weary combat machines or to fly so-called 'total' missions in bomb-laden craft diving them into bridges and other strategic targets. Their duty was to sacrifice themselves for the Fatherland and their chances of survival were slim. This is the story of six pilots who lived through these final weeks of the war as the regime took its last radical steps. Their story begins in the Flugschulen (flying schools) of the Hitler Jugend..."

The first half of the documentary looks at the activities of the Sturmstaffel in interviews with former Sturmstaffel pilots Oskar Bösch and Siegfried Müller, with particular focus on the ramming mission of the Sturmstaffel.

Oskar Bösch recalled;

"...We were young boys when we learnt to fly. In the HJ we learnt to fly gliders. These were 'high performance machines' - I personally made one flight of over ten and a half hours duration. Such activities were actively encouraged so that we went practically from riding bicycles to piloting high performance fighters like the Fw 190 of 3,000 hp. The sheer pleasure of being able to fly was so great you never thought of the three minutes of air combat. The biggest dangers in combat lay in the approach to the bomber formations since the gunners would open up while you were still some way from the formation. The flashes of their guns sparkled like candles at Christmas, it all looked relatively harmless from a distance of 2 kilometres. When you flew through that and curved away, you knew your fire would have inflicted damage, possibly even set alight the bomber - and that he wouldn't get home in that state. It wasn't about killing men - you just saw the machines and they had to be brought down..

...After the sortie we would relax in the Kasino (mess) .. sometimes there would be girls and dancing and accordion playing and we'd drink and eat - lots of alcohol would be consumed so that the next morning if we had to fly a sortie we'd probably still be under the effects of the drink. We could clear our heads with a blast of oxygen and at that moment as the engine was started up then we'd feel fresh again and high on adrenalin. We did everything that we could to harden ourselves, we weren't heroes. It wasn't as if we'd shout " Hurrah - jetzt greifen wir an ! - attack !". no, it wasn't like that at all..."

More specifically on the Sturmstaffel's 'ramming' mission, Bösch continues;

"Ich verpflicte mich als Sturmjäger an den Feind zu gehen ohne Rücksicht auf das eigene Leben..die Pflict zu erfüllen, wenn die Bomber nicht abgeschossen wird, dann muß man durch Rammen den bomber zum Absturz bringen.. our duty if we couldn't shoot the bomber down through cannon fire was to bring it down by ramming, using our propellers like giant circular saws to hack through the tailplane. As to how to do this I didn't really give it much thought - I remember on one sortie suddenly there was a bomber in front of me, and I was out of ammunition and the opportunity was there to fly a ramming attack. I was about fifty metres behind the bomber and caught in the turbulent slipstream from the engines and it was all I could do to keep my aircraft under control. I was buffeted and bumped, and then literally tossed over the Boeing's wing, missing it by about half a metre with my own wing..."

The second part of the documentary discusses so-called 'Totaleinsätze' where the chances of survival were much lower. Chief of these was the call for volunteer pilots for a 'Sondereinsatz' or 'special mission' which would enable young and inexperienced pilots especially to demonstrate their 'heroischer Einsatzbereitschaft' - their 'heroic preparedness for combat' - brought together under the Deckname -or cover name- Schulungslegrgang Elbe.

In the programme Fritz Marktscheffel describes how fledgling pilots barely out of their teens rubbed shoulders with more experienced fighter pilots in the Schulungslehrgang Elbe. There were volunteers from all ranks from Gefreiter up to a Hauptmann and Ritterkreuzträger, pilots who had just finished their basic training and pilots with more than 400 missions. Marktscheffel details his own flying experiences prior to joining Elbe - 'my personal experience as a pilot comprised basic training, training on multiple engine a/c, blindflying licence (especially Ju 88), member of a nightfighter training unit, but just for 6 weeks (no training as result of fuel shortages) and finally volunteering for day fighter training. I had about 50 takeoffs and 10-12 hrs. on the Bf 109'.

Forbidden from discussing the order that had brought them to Stendal with fellow pilots, the volunteers believed that they were on a 'Schulungslehrgang' or training course but after a week at Stendal their orders came through.

'We didn't know what task we were being trained for until Oberst Herrmann came to Stendal to explain that our special mission would be to destroy enemy bombers in a Rammstoß'.

This would be Göring's 'großer Schlag' or 'Big Blow'. The illusion had to be maintained that the pilots would be participating in 'Heldenhaften Kampf' or 'heroic combat'. However, much of the training comprised Nazi indoctrination with the viewing of propaganda films and lectures on the dysfunctioning capitalist system. According to Marktscheffel the young recruits were unsettled by the preparations being undertaken with the aircraft - radio equipment and onboard armament was removed. Many of the aircraft to be flown in the attack were no longer 'Einsatzfähig' or serviceable. The Luftwaffe was slowly collapsing. For this reason around a third of the young pilots brought to Stendal would not be able to fly the sortie. Following an 'Abschieds' or 'leaving' ceremony 120 pilots awaited the order to takeoff. The 'Elbe' mission finally launched on 7 April 1945 was the first combat sortie flown by fighter pilot Klaus Hahn. Hahn had already decided that he would not ram a bomber but once in the air he was set upon by P-51s and in the ensuing combat seriously injured. According to Marktscheffel some twenty five bombers were rammed by Elbe pilots - some forty Elbe pilots died that day. Göbbels' diary entry for 7 April 1945 mentions this first German Rammeinsatz. ' ..The results were not what had been expected from this first experiment '..
In the final part of the film Gerhard Baeker, a former He 111 and He 177 pilot with KG 1 and later Gruppenkommandeur II./JG 3 is also interviewed - ' there was an 'echte Untergangs Stimmung' - a real mood of defeatism at the end. Yet the propaganda machine continued to urge that every sacrifice had to be made for the preservation of our German way of life and community - "du bist nichts, dein Volk ist alles". On 16 April Soviet tanks crossed the Oder and as Baeker explains he had to seek out volunteers from among his pilots to fly 'Selbstopfer' or self-sacrifce missions..'da kam ein Aufruf zur Selbstopferung...all attempts to destroy the Oder bridges had failed and now the only possibility of staving off defeat was for suicide pilots to dive their bombed-up machines into the bridges. But I gave no orders to any pilots of my unit that I myself would not have flown..'

Jagdpilot Erich Kreul ends the film by talking of the hopelessness of the situation, of German attempts to prevent the Russians crossing the Oder and his suicide mission - ' I hadn't really thought much about it before but now when I took off on the sortie it was striking how small Germany had suddenly become..' Kruel describes how he survived the sortie by baling out - he had decided that he was unable to go through with the Selbstmordmission - and as a result was perhaps the only survivor of this Kommando.

One final thought - I'm certain that the veterans in this film would object most strongly the very dramatic title given to this film. Not only were they almost certainly not 'Nazis' but the two types of air-to-air missions frequently characterized as German "Kamikaze" missions had perhaps less in common with the Japanese Kamikaze than might be imagined. Surviving Sturmjäger pilots recall very few ramming attacks - in a letter Hubert Engst recalled having witnessed only one - Klaus Bretschneider's ramming of 7 October 1944. And while Schulungslehrgang Elbe was established specifically to ram US heavy bombers, emphasis was placed on personal survival and the option of baling out after ramming. However Selbstopfer 'kamikaze' mssions by pilots instructed to dive their laden machines into the bridges over the Oder were indeed a feature of the last weeks of the war as this film chillingly and movingly makes clear.