Friday 22 July 2011

'Feindberührung' - Julius Meimberg memoir published by 296 Verlag

On 12 May 1944 the US 8th Air Force dispatched hundreds of B-17s and B-24s- screened by long range escort fighters - to petro-chemical targets in central Germany. One unit that rose to meet this awesome array of strength was II. Gruppe of JG 53 commanded by Julius Meimberg. Aged twenty seven years old, he had seen service in France and Africa with JG 2 and was now responsible for some eight hundred men in the defence of the Reich, knowing already that the war was lost. His vividly written memoir 'Feindberührung' - Contact with the Enemy - opens with a description of his bail out that day. Scrambled from Eschborn at 11:30, Meimberg's Schwarm had sighted Mustangs glinting in the sunlight at lower altitude and swept down on the bounce. Opening up with the engine mounted cannon, Meimberg was quickly in trouble - a defective 30mm round suddenly exploded in his weapon..The following translated extract nicely captures the drama of Meimburg's vivid account..

" ......Get out! Out! OUT! Oh my God - get out! Quick!

While reason is still fighting the rising panic, my hands start to dart around the cockpit in a well-rehearsed ballet of actions...

My left hand pulls the throttle lever back to idle and with a jerk I disconnect the cable that runs to the flight helmet from the radio set. My right hand releases its grip from the stick and starts to grope for the clasp of the harness. Even as I'm doing this the aircraft has already started to fall away in an uncontrollable dive.

I do not want to get roasted as happened last year over Tunis.

The push-in buckle of the clasp has to be open before the negative acceleration of the plummeting fighter in its final dive pins me so tightly into my straps that it will impossible to release it. It has to be undone before I release the canopy - the force of the slipstream will whip and lash my body so powerfully that the belt lock will block.

With both hands I fumble around on the safety catch.

Done! My left hand flies up to the emergency canopy- jettison lever but the hood sits tight; both hands grab the lever which opens the canopy normally and and start to wind it furiously but the hood remains closed. I can feel the panic rising again, choking. The explosion must have bent something; some ridiculously small part, a peg, a locking mechanism, a linkage or a drill hole.

Through the black film of oil that the shot-up engine is spraying onto the plexiglass wind shield, I can see bight red flames streaming back along the fuselage. My 109 is on fire. Feet drawn up onto the seat already, I arch my back against the canopy hood desperately. The Messerschmitt continues its headlong plunge to earth - now no more than a blazing torch.

There-finally: a crack! A tiny opening! Any hope of being able to escape the deadly trap imparts almost superhuman strength.

A bang, the brute punch of the airflow against head and chest - I am free...right hand groping for the handle for the ripcord, I whirl down through the skies. As soon as I open my eyes, I see a grey-green expanse above me and deep blue at my feet. Strange how you always fall head first. I have to resist the urge to pull the ripcord now. This would be very dangerous: far too many comrades have been machine-gunned while hanging in their chutes recently. Discernable details come into focus in the grey-green mass above me - here a village, surrounded by fields of rape oil seed blossoming brightly, there a small forest. Now, country roads and gravel paths come into view.

No, don't pull it yet.

I've at least 500 or 600 more metres to fall - that would be two -much too - long, dangerous minutes hanging under the open chute. But very quickly the red-white area of the village resolves into individual houses and the light- and dark grey of the wood develops into conifers and broad-leafed trees.


One last moment of terror - I hold the ripcord handle with its short wire in my hand and think that it has been torn off – but then - just at that instant - the jolt of the chute as it billows out behind me brakes my descent and I float downwards, envelopped by the tender smell of Spring.

My jump ends on a slope full of fresh green. Suddenly the roar of the engines of the three American P-51 Mustangs - appearing out of nowhere they sweep over my landing site without attacking - resonates as a dramatic final chord.

And then - silence. This redeeming silence which talks even more vividly not letting you hear any sound at all.

I will be here forever, it says; behind the thunder of your engines, the hammering of your guns, the rattling inferno of your orders and your death-cries in the earphones, I will await you, timeless and indifferently. Your war – your war does not touch me …

In front of me a pair of rabbit ears pops up in a furrow. I do not move. Flat on my belly, my head raised, I listen into this silence. A hare stretches,bobs up for a few seconds and then jumps away without any hurry.

With a deep breath, childish joy flows through me: joy for the Spring, the sun, the colours and the smells around me. I'm alive. Again, Still. And infinitely thankful.

A whirling sound drills itself into my ears and ends in a hollow banging and splintering sound. Over there - where just seconds before the hare was musing - the cabin hood of my plane smashed into the ground.

I pull myself together and head towards it - the canopy is scorched, charred, bent, shattered and covered with a raw, blinding coat of boiling oil.

“Hands up !”  I hear the voice behind me as -with shaking hands- I'm still trying to clean a fragment of the hood for safekeeping...the villagers are here, lead by a man who is being pulled by a barking mutt that looks very aggressive. No, I have to disappoint them. All they have before them is a German airman. A German fighter pilot, brought down by his own machine five minutes ago.

That must have been how it happened, I think to myself, while we are trotting towards their village; There is no other reasonable explanation for this turn of events. We were climbing, when I saw something flashing to the right below me- the glinting of sunlight on the aluminium body of an enemy aircraft, a glittering spot above the Taunus hills - still more flashing spots were swarming eastwards, weaving and bobbing. The American fighter sweep is below us, we are up at 5000 metres and have the sun in our backs. The ideal position to attack.... "

'Feindberührung' is published by 296 Verlag. An English-language edition has been promised for some time now. Unfortunately I have no news on its possible appearance. Elsewhere Meimberg contributes extensively to Erik Mombeek's history of JG 2 (two volumes published in French, one in English - translator Neil Page)

More Meimberg on this blog