Monday, 24 August 2020

"Unser letzter Flug .." Kurland evacuation - last flight of the Luftwaffe, May 1945

The order for the capitulation of all German armed forces signed a week after the suicide of Adolf Hitler on May 7, 1945 contained a special addendum referring specifically to the Heeresgruppe Kurland and the necessity to implement an evacuation of as many personnel as possible to the West.. The following day,  May 8 1945, the Luftwaffe launched a desperate rescue mission to evacuate German wounded and troops from the 'Festung'  (the 'fortress' or rather 'pocket', the so-called Kurlandkessel) in Latvia. German forces had been effectively cut off since late 1944 by the Soviet advance. According to the Mark Felton video below, that morning - May 8, 1945 - some 35 Ju 52s flew into Grobina/Grobin in Latvia from Norway to evacuate encircled German troops from the peninsula, intending to fly the wounded troops and men with children back to Germany. Over the Baltic the transports were set upon by Soviet fighters and no fewer than 32 of the Ju 52s were set alight and downed and the mission ended in tragedy and destruction.

Mit Ju 52 aus Windau am 8 Mai 1945

".. on May 8, 1945 at around 15h00 six Ju 52s managed to get airborne from Windau and head back to Germany - Richtung Heimat! The machines were overloaded - carrying at least 30 passengers - and I needed two attempts to get airborne. Near Greifswald my machine took hits from ground fire and was set alight. I managed to make a successful crash-landing but we ended up in Soviet captivity. Did any of the comrades from that flight survive Soviet imprisonment? What became of the other five transports? Does anyone know what happened to pilots Hptm. Brettschneider and Fw. Skripitz? "

Helmut Hemmer in  Jägerblatt  magazine.

Mark Felton video -  a single click to view here

In a 1986 issue of  Jägerblatt  I./ JG 54 ace Artur Gärtner wrote;

"..I managed to get out of Kurland in a Ju 52 of Transportgeschwader 1. 1.Staffel of I./JG 54 was based in Windau but conditions on the airstrip were so bad that the Fw 190s could not get airborne. We were almost certainly bound for Soviet captivity. We were extremely thankful for the efforts of our fellow airmen in the transport units who dared to undertake those last flights into the pocket - a number of Ju 52 crews lost their lives as a result. The crews that came into Libau could have had little or no idea of the dispositions of Soviet ground forces or even the location of the front lines and many came under heavy ground fire as they flew their landing approach..."


November 1944 on the Feldflugplatz at Skrunda in Kurland - 1. Staffel pilots in front of the A-8 'white 12' flown by Staffelführer Sepp Heinzeller, fifth from the left.

For the fighters of JG 54 there were also dramatic scenes on the last day in the 'Kurlandkessel'.

In an early 1980s issue of Jägerblatt magazine, Fw. Karl Wolf,  a former II./JG 54 ground crew member, recalled;

".. in the early hours of the morning of May 8, a friend from my home town, Ogfr. Ernst Eggers of the Luftn-Truppe called me. His unit was stationed with us on the airfield at Cirawa.

" Karl, der Krieg ist aus..! - the war is over .."

I passed the news around to my comrades in our Blockhaus bunker - we were all shocked. What would happen to us now, 1200 kms from home surrounded by the Russians ('der Iwan'). It was around 02:30 when the call went out for the Staffel to assemble at our dispersal on the airfield some 4 kms distant. Transported in trucks, we were to take only what we could carry. Our 'boss' Ritterkreuzträger Oblt. Schleinhege gave out the necessary instructions and delivered a brief pep-talk confirming the war was over. There was a call of 'three cheers for the Fatherland'. At 05:00 the machines were prepared - all equipment such as radios and armament - was removed to save weight and create space. Harnesses were fitted into the fuselage spaces so that three ground crew members could be transported in each Focke Wulf 190. All remaining rations were shared out. By 07:30 the machines were ready. At 07:40 a Soviet recce machine appeared overhead - there was no flak fire and nothing moved on the airfield. A short while later as I was still in the cockpit of 'Black 8' making final checks I saw Herbert Leymann pointing to the sky to the north - it was full of Russian aircraft. Our first thought was that this was an attack on the airfield - we dashed quickly to the slit trenches and took cover as the Russians - Gott sei Dank - plastered the far side of the field. Shortly afterwards 3. Staffel flew in from Windau to make the trip home with us. We were to get airborne at 09:00. Before then several Ju 188 Fernaufklärer landed and parked up alongside the strip adding to the confusion on the small and sandy runway. At 09:00 there was another raid on the field, with no great damage and then finally at 10:00 the signal to get airborne came through ..."..Start frei.." ..I was the last of the four of us to climb into our 'black 8' retracting the footstep and giving the 'OK' signal to our pilot Ofhr. Karl Heber -  alles fertig!... "

Uffz.Karl-Heinz Höfer of 6. Staffel was another 'schwarze Mann' in the radio compartment - the so-called 'FuG-Loch'- of a Fw 190, in this particular instance Uffz. Walter's 'Yellow 12', the aircraft taking off from Libau-Nord and landing safely in Flensburg on the morning of May 8.

Below; 6.Staffel sleigh ride in Libau, 1945, Staffelkapitän Hptm. Helmut Wettstein holding the reins, Uffz.Karl-Heinz Höfer under the 'arrow', Fw. Toni Meißner on the Panjepferd.

Oblt. Gerd Thyben, Staffelkapitän of 7./JG 54 recalled the end in Kurland;

".. all sorts of rumours were circulating by the evening of May 7, 1945. When the orders for the Geschwader arrived Hptm. Findeisen, last Gruppenkommandeur of II./JG 54 summoned his Staffelchefs in Libau and informed them of the surrender of all German forces and gave orders that all aircraft be made serviceable and prepared to takeoff.  In the early hours of the morning of May 8 I received the Klarmeldungen for my aircraft and Hptm. Findeisen gave us our transfer orders (Verlegungsbefehle). Takeoffs for our departure from the Courland 'fortress' were to get underway from 07:30 in Rotten or Schwarm-sized groups. Airborne that morning we set course for Kiel-holtenau  - my Katschmarek Fritze Hangebrauck was tucked in alongside me on my port side. Suddenly I spotted off to the port side in the distance and some 500 meters below us crossing our path on a northerly track a single twin-engined machine...a Soviet Pe-2..."

In a 1976 issue of Jägerblatt magazine a former Luftwaffe Techn. Inspektor based in Libau, Kurland named Wilhelm Uhlshöfer noted;

".. on May 5 I learnt that the fighter units intended to fly back to Schleswig-Holstein. However to carry out this flight each machine would need to be equipped with a 300 ltr Zusatz tank. There were plenty of drop tanks in our store. However we had none of the (hose/rack) connectors - Verbindungsteile - that ran from the tank to the machine. I knew where they had be ordered in from - a depot somewhere between Königsberg and Berlin - but the necessary telegram had to be counter-signed by a General or equivalent rank. No such person was available. I had to employ a certain amount of deceit and cunning  to get the order sent- - I forged the signature. Thanks to my underhand action a Ju 52 arrived the following day with the necessary parts, enabling some 127 fighters to fly back to Germany. When I talk to former comrades now we often wonder whether we took advantage unfairly but at the same time we saved many men from Soviet captivity...".

‘Kurland-Zeitung’ report of the 22 December 1944 action over Libau; Thyben returned five victories and his wingman Uffz. Hans Thein the 1000th for the Staffel...


15 August 1944 in Riga, Kapitän Kittel after another successful mission. (100th victory for 3.Staffel according to some sources..) He would be lost in combat during February 1945, the highest scoring Luftwaffe ace KIA. A piece on Artur Gärtner (left) in Jägerblatt 4/87 cites 14 February 1945 as Kittel's death date (source, Kurowski) as do a number of other sources. The date of Kittel's last clash with Il-2s was most probably 16 February.  Gärtner added, "..Als Otto Kittel gefallen war, wurde es für uns dunkel im Kurlandkessel.."

'Happier' times for JG 54. July 1942 in Krasnogvardeisk, Ferntrauung ('distant marriage') of Otto Kittel. This wartime ceremony allowed marriage to be contracted when the fiancé could not take leave. While the soldier signed a document with great pomp and circumstance in front of the Commander of his unit, his fiancée did the same in front of the Bürgemeister in his locality.