Thursday 3 November 2011

Final Luftwaffe flights into and out of Berlin during late April 1945 (Grey Wolf : The escape of Adolf Hitler )

Reluctant though I am to blog this book, you can hardly have failed to notice it given the megabytes of forum space that the authors have assiduously filled up in their valiant if rather vain attempts to dress it up as a serious work. And here in the UK author Williams managed to get a lengthy Sky News interview (his former employer) and the book has garnered plenty of (far more sceptical) newspaper column inches. Starting from the premise that there is no 'proof' that AH died in the bunker in Berlin in April 1945, the authors lengthy 'research' indicates that AH escaped to South America after being spirited away from Berlin in a Ju 52 during the last days of April 1945. It was during the night of the 27-28th April that AH and Eva Braun left the bunker via a 'secret' tunnel, their place in the bunker being taken by doubles - who presumably managed to fool Misch, Junge and all the other acolytes- and were flown to the coast on board a Luftwaffe Junkers Ju 52 before boarding a U-boot heading for South America. Fanciful and far-fetched, right ? Of course it is. British author Sir Max Hastings used the words "absolute drivel " when I mentioned this book in a 'question-and-answer session' in front of an audience of 250+ people at a recent book festival and added, " imagining new revelations from WWII is a disease of reporters and newsmen everywhere. In fact there haven't been any since the mid-1970s and the 'Ultra' secret ". However the subject of final flights into and out of the doomed Reichshauptstadt is certainly an interesting one but there are so few sources of any description aside from personal accounts that any attempt to either prove or disprove the version of events related in Dunstan's work is fraught with difficulty. With German-held territory shrinking rapidly and the country cut in two, flights reaching Berlin after the fall of the last airport within the city limits (Gatow, 26 April 1945) were 'resupply' missions - supplies dropped from transport aircraft and gliders operating from a handful of airfields on the Baltic coast. However, amidst a whirl of rumour,  conjecture and half-truths -opinion masquerading as 'facts'- the authors believe that there was a concerted effort made to fly high-ranking personalities out of Berlin - among them AH. This operation - codenamed "Unternehmen Reichskanzlei" - was presumbly inspired by Günther Ott's articles published in Jet & Prop magazine during 1995 entitled "Unternehmen Reichskanzlei". However Ott did  take the trouble to point out that no such codeword/operation for these flights existed - it being simply post-war journalistic shorthand for those various ad-hoc attempts to bring in supplies to Berlin for the besieged bunker occupants and their defenders. Dunstan and Williams conveniently overlook this small detail and go much further. Of course Hitler did indeed have his own 'flight' of transport aircraft, the so-called Fliegerstaffel des Führers (or more colloquially 'FdF' ..Für den Führer..) but this unit was equipped with large multi-engine types including Ju 290s from  FAGr 5, virtually all of which had been effectively grounded for months due to shortages of fuel. AH may have been urged by his acolytes to flee to some Alpine 'fortress' or other in southern Germany but only a handful of ad-hoc transport flights out of Berlin for high-ranking regime members were possible from mid-April, activity suddenly spurred by the opening of the last Russian offensive against Berlin launched on 16 April 1945. On 21 April Lt. Herbert Wagner flew 48 passengers from Berlin to Salzburg in a FAGr. 5  Ju 290 A-2 transport (9V+BK), returning to Gatow on the following evening. Hitler's personal transport Fw 200 C-4 coded "TK+CV" flew 12 passengers to Wittstock on 24 April but by now the last remaining airport within the city (Gatow) was coming under heavy Soviet artillery fire. 

An important role in this 'story' is played by the Charlottenburger Chaussee - the so-called Ost-West Achse. Hitler had designated this wide and long boulevard in central Berlin as a takeoff and landing strip in his 'order for the preparations of the defence of the Reichs capital'. But no large multi-engined aircraft could hope to land here. Perhaps this is why the authors of 'Grey Wolf' would have us believe that the 'final' flight was not made from this location!  One of the most 'notable' final flights into the centre of Berlin and the East-West Axis was made by Ritter von Greim and related by Hanna Reitsch. Summoned to the bunker, the last CO of the Luftwaffe and his girlfriend had been flown into Gatow south of Berlin centre under escort from JG 4 Fw 190s. By 25 April Gatow was the only airfield within the city boundary that was still in German hands although coming increasingly under Soviet fire. Indeed 26 April may have been the last day Gatow saw Luftwaffe aircraft take off. Routes into the city from the airfield had already been cut and the only way into the centre and the Chancellery as Hanna Reitsch and Ritter von Greim discovered was via Fiesler Storch. Their Stork came under Russian fire on the subsequent flight and von Greim was injured. According to Reitsch's own account,  Hitler (presumably his double) ordered them to save themselves late on Sunday 29 April 1945. They had one last chance to flee – a Junkers Ju 52 and an Arado 96 had just landed unscathed on the East-West Axis. Von Greim and Reitsch left the bunker and climbed aboard a half-track which drove them to the Arado under a night sky that was lit up by countless flashes and explosions. The pilots were waiting – the same Feldwebel who had brought them into Gatow aboard a Focke Wulf 190. This time he had touched down near the Zoo – the strip that was still in German hands amounted to no more than 400 metres in length and was shrinking progressively. The Arado trainer took off under a rain of fire and immediately sought refuge in the banks of cloud and smoke that had shrouded the city for weeks.

The Ju 52 that had 'successfully managed to land' on the Ost-West-Achse that night and then take-off again was apparently flown by one Oberfeldwebel Böhm from II./TGr 3. This was reported by another young Ju 52 pilot from this unit, Uffz. Johannes Lachmund who described events in his 2009 memoir. Although a pilot Lachmund flew on this sortie as a gunner. Lachmund records that this mission was flown from Güstrow to Berlin with five aircraft to evacuate high-ranking personnel from Berlin, including Ritter von Greim. As Lachmund reports, three of the five Ju 52s had to return after missed approaches, chiefly because the visibility was so poor from the heavy smoke from the fires everywhere on the ground. One Ju-52 was shot-down by the Soviets during the approach.
Lachmund mentions discussions via telephone from the 'air traffic control' command-post at the Siegessäule (Berlin's Victory column) between Ofw Böhm and the Bunker in the Reichskanzlei. There was apparently some dispute over the passengers to be flown-out, chiefly because Hanna Reitsch wanted to fly out the Ritter von Greim herself at the controls of the Arado Ar-96, and not leave Berlin as a passenger on this Ju-52 flight. Eventually, the Ju 52 boarded only a few other wounded passengers but not the VIPs. Because of damage to the 'runway' from shelling, the Junkers transport had only 400 metres in which to get airborne.  It is worth noting perhaps that Deutsche Lufthansa record the minimum take-off distance for their lighter (unarmoured and unarmed) Ju 52/3m as 500 metres..
( Johannes Lachmund : « Fliegen ; Mein Traumberuf – bis zu den bitteren Erlebnissen des Krieges », Verlagshaus Monsenstein und Vannerdat OHG Münster,  2009.)

As mentioned one fighter Geschwader charged with escorting senior figures in and out of the smoke-shrouded capital, including Hanna Reitsch and Ritter von Greim, was Jagdgeschwader 4. JG 4 had flown some of its last ground-attack missions of the war around the capital and the area of Neustrelitz on 29 April. Uffz. Manfred Kudell of 8.(Sturm)/JG 4 was one pilot who paid the price, airborne over Berlin at 08:45 that morning;

Between 14 and 29 April I flew 29 combat sorties over Berlin and its suburbs. These were mostly Jabo ground attack flights but we also flew plenty of Schlachtflieger escort missions over the Kremmen-Nauen sector in an attempt to slow the encirclement of the capital. Over Berlin itself we generally ran into Yak fighters. During the last days we flew such a high rate of sorties that there was little time to properly plan them, which meant that they were mostly ineffectual. I was airborne – with my Schwarm – on 29 April. My Fw 190 carried a 250kg bomb and I had orders to target Soviet tanks heading for the Chancellery. There was little hope of us successfully carrying out this mission given the huge pall of smoke that shrouded the city – it was impossible to make out anything on the ground clearly. In fact only those pilots – such as myself – who knew the city and could pick out landmarks to navigate by were dispatched. Each pilot was assigned to attack a street in the vicinity of the Reichs Chancellery. My objective was Stresemannstrasse. Airborne from Rechlin, we swept in over the Reichskanzlei at roof-top height. We had no radio or visual contact with each other and Berlin was one huge cloud of smoke. We had no idea where our own troops were. We dropped our ordnance and turned onto a northerly heading in an attempt to reach Rechlin. As I came out through the clouds of smoke I was immediately set upon by Soviet fighters and despite my desperate manoeuvres, had to bale out at 3,000 metres..I landed – badly burnt – in the midst of street fighting. I was captured by Russian soldiers.." 
(translated from Vol II of Erik Mombeeck's history of JG 4 " Storming the bombers ")

 So with the Russians virtually at the gates of the Reichskanzlei and the Ost-West Achse swept by heavy fire we are being asked to believe in this new book that AH disappeared from the bunker to be flown out of the city. Pilot for what must have been an epic feat of airmanship was one "Captain Peter Baumgart", a 128-victory ace (sic!), seconded to " the secretive" KG 200 during 1943. So secretive that his name fails to appear in any of the documentation reproduced by Günther Gellerman in his history of KG 200 " Moskau ruft Heeresgruppe Mitte.."  Perhaps this 'character' was a pseudonym ? No, apparently not - author Williams contacted me  after the first draft of this piece to (i) take me to task over the 'factual' errors I'd made in this article and (ii) to confirm that 'Baumgart' was indeed a real person. Factual errors indeed. According to the authors "Baumgart" was apparently put on trial and sentenced to a term in prison in Poland postwar - the authors reproduce facsimiles of period newspaper reports. 

" Luftwaffe Pilot Sent to jail For Five Years - WARSAW

Captain Peter Baumgart, a former Luftwaffe pilot, was sentenced to five years for being a member of the S.S., a crime which is punishable by death. He told the tribunal that he was born in South Africa but in 1935 he renounced British citizenship. He was the holder of the Iron Cross and other decorations. Baumgart said that " just before the fall of Berlin he flew Hitler and Eva Braun to Denmark, where they joined a submarine ”. The plane made a forced landing at Magdeburg, but, upon Hitler's insistence, he flew the following day through an artillery barrage to the Danish shore. Hitler “shook hands with him and gave him a cheque for 20,000 marks”.

One of the judges reminded Baumgart that Allied Intelligence reports showed that Hitler and Eva Braun killed themselves on May 3, 1945, but Baumgart stuck to his story, adding that Hitler was not the kind of man to take his own life...".

 Some of the 'final flights' often referred to in the literature did occur- Bv 138 seaplane operations from Lake Havel. Others did not - the air transport of large numbers of Kriegsmarine- and SS- infantry by land aircraft to Berlin 26-27 April referred to in statements by Dönitz and Jodl. They were planned, but they did not take place. Researchers have found no evidence to substantiate this. (see Jet & Prop 2/1996, p.53). Various German specialists have written articles on the subject of final flights into and out of Berlin during late April 1945, but none are so far-fetched as to detail any multi-engine flight into Berlin after 26 April when Berlin-Gatow effectively ceased to operate. With the loss of Flughafen Gatow the Heinkel He 111s of II./KG 4 were reduced to dropping supply canisters at low level. The crew of Lt. von der Heide flew four resupply sorties in He 111 H-20 coded 5J+IM from Tutow during the night of 26-27 April and again during the night of 28-29 April 1945. Two final sorties were flown from Rerik on the Baltic coast during the night of 29-30 April and 30 April -01 May 1945, Cargoes on all sorties were five VAB or Versorgungsabwurfbehälter (resupply canister). Similar sorties are detailed in the Flugbuch of Lt. Hermann Stärke flying He 111 H-20 5J+KP. The sortie flown by this pilot at 01:44 on the morning of 01 May 1945 from Lübeck-Blankensee may have been the last flight ever undertaken by the Luftwaffe over Berlin according to Georg Schlaug in Jet & Prop 2/96. Elsewhere KG 4 was flying resupply operations for the 9th Army encircled some 20 km south of Berlin - the last of these was flown on the night of 27/28 April -  He 111s of III./KG 4 dropped canisters at low level in the teeth of heavy ground fire.

While the Luftwaffe did attempt to use the East-West Axis as a landing site for container (Behälter) drops any attempts to land large transport aircraft on the Ost-West-Achse after 26 April - if they were made - are almost certain to have failed. Indeed there are pictures depicting a wrecked Ju-52 that apparently crashed on take off  from the East West Axis on 26 April 1945.

In his Flugbericht Lt. Hermann Stärke related that his sortie over Berlin was fraught with difficulty due to the concentrated flak, the updraughts from the huge fires, the smoke, a lack of oxygen at low level which caused engines to misfire and fail, and the almost impossible task of navigating over the city. Georg Schlaug in his Jet & Prop article on Berlin tranport flights April/May 1945  (Das Abgeworfene muß blitzartig an die Brennpunkte heran!”  Jet & Prop, 2/1996 1.Teil, pages 50-55.) reports that following urgent radio messages from the bunker transmitted during the afternoon of 27 April 1945 - " Luftlandemoeglichkeit auf der Ost-West Achse muss mit allen Mitteln versucht werden " - a landing attempt with all available means must be attempted on the East-West Axis - attempts to land gliders on the East-West Axis also met such heavy fire that every such landing attempt was defeated. In part two of his article Schlaug records that a Feldwebel  Heinz Schäfer witnessed two DFS 230 gliders departing Tarnewitz on the afternoon of 29 April 1945. These gliders had arrived the previous evening departing Rostock Marinenehe to Tarnewitz towed by a Heinkel He 111 of 3./TGr. 30. Interestingly Schäfer was shown the glider pilots Einsatzbefehl (mission orders) ; "Gruppe bereithalten, Führer aus Berlin befreien ". Interestingly, because by this time Hitler had already left Berlin according to Dunstan and Williams. Which begs one question of course;  what was the point of these last desperate attempts to reach central Berlin, if not to prolong for a short while longer the lives of those in the bunker including that of the Machthaber - AH. According to Schlaug the likelihood that such flights took place is slim even so. As it was over the final days of April virtually the only supplies getting into Berlin were being dropped by faster single engine fighters; the Fw 190s of SG 1 had for example flown many re-supply missions to the besieged fortresses of Küstrin on the Oder and Breslau during March 1945, escorted by the Bf 109s of I./JG 52 and were likely to have flown similar sorties over Berlin. One bunker witness Rittmeister Gerhard Boldt records that an unknown Gruppe of Bf 109s dropped containers (Versorgungsbomben - supply bombs) over the centre of Berlin on the morning of 26 April 1945 but that few of them could be recovered. These may have been in fact the Fw 190s of SG 1 under Maj. Arthur Pipan, which were in Gatow up to 26 April 1945 before moving to Mecklenburg to fly Schlacht missions. One of the last attempts to drop supplies into Berlin was flown by III./ KG 200 during the night of 30 April /01 May 1945 from Lübeck-Blankensee when some 30 Fw 190s were airborne according to pilot Werner Mende. Each 190 was carrying a Versorgungsabwurfbehälter (resupply canister) equipped with a Lastfallschirm (cargo parachute). It was on this flight that Gruppenkommandeur Maj. Helmut Viedebantt crashed and died when his chute deployed prematurely and wrapped itself around the aircraft's tailplane.