Monday, 15 November 2021

Peter Spoden NJG 5 and 6, " der Leitwerk-Reiter "- 100 years old


Peter Spoden was born in Borken (north of Duisberg and close to the Dutch border) on 8 November 1921 and just one week ago celebrated his 100th birthday. He is one of the last - if not the last - surviving German night fighter aces of World War II. He was credited with some 24 night victories and was awarded the German Cross in Gold. Spoden served with night fighter units NJG 5 and NJG 6 and was appointed Gruppenkommandeur of I./NJG 6 at the end of war. In the 1950s, after the re-establishment of the German airline Lufthansa, he became Captain on the DC-3 and the famous Lockheed L-1049 Super Constellation, later flying the Boeing 707 and Boeing 747. He trained hundreds of commercial pilots up to his retirement in 1981.

In 2006 Peter contacted me and asked me if I knew anyone who could help him produce a French-language version of his memoir. As it happened my friend Michele Levert was more than keen to take on the task and the French edition of "Ich war Nachtjäger in Görings Luftwaffe" entitled "Missions de nuit a la Luftwaffe" appeared in 2007. Peter's memoir was reprinted in 2014 as " Feinde in der Nacht: Geschichte eines Nachtjagdpiloten der Luftwaffe 1943-1945 ". Read in conjunction with books like Wilhelm Johnen's "Duell unter den Sternen" the reader gets a very good picture of events as the two books complement each other well.

Peter is perhaps best known for his sortie flown on August 23, 1943 over Berlin - original combat report or Gefechtsbericht - below. This was apparently typed up with Spoden still in his Berlin hospital bed (note top left "z. Zt. Res.Laz 101 Berlin"). Airborne from Parchim for the Funkfeuer Berta (radio beacon) west of Berlin Spoden reached 6,000 metres. Unlike the interception flown on August 17 (Peenemünde) when Berlin had been incorrectly identified as the target, Hauptstadt Berlin was already burning. As Spoden later related;  " the skies were full of contrails, tracers and multi-coloured target indicators, night fighters firing off signal flares and huge columns of smoke rising into the sky ..[..] a Lancaster attempted to escape a cone of searchlights by pulling up steeply into a loop  (sic - 'ein Looping' ).I had the impression that everybody was shooting at everybody else and I was caught up in the middle of this Hell! .."  The combat report relates that after downing a 'four-engine bomber with twin tailfins' (he was credited with a Halifax) Spoden sighted a Stirling at 4000 metres which he was obliged to attack from head-on as the RAF bomber turned in towards his 6./NJG 5 Bf 110 ( C9+KP). With an accurate salvo the Stirling went straight down but in so doing the brave tail-gunner was able to unleash several bursts into the Bf 110's fuselage setting it alight and badly wounding Spoden in the left leg ('Zerstrümmerung des linken Oberschenkels' -a comminuted fracture of the femur). After ordering the crew to bail out, Spoden jettisoned the canopy and departed his spinning aircraft only with difficulty.  Caught up on one of the tailfins by the ferocious slipstream - 'der Fahrtwind drückte mich am Leitwerk fest' -  he was luckily able to get free at around 1000 metres altitude, a feat which earned him the 'nickname' in the subsequent Signal report of 'der Leitwerk-Reiter'.(lit. 'tailfin rider' ..but in English 'rudder rider' sounds better ) As he later explained, it is known that more than one hundred Luftwaffe pilots bailing out of the Bf 110 were caught up against the twin-fin empennage and plunged to their deaths with the aircraft. Of his crew that night, radio operator Uffz. Kiel parachuted out safely, landing on the roof of a house in Berlin, while the body of his gunner, Uffz. Ballweg, was found in the wreck of the Bf 110. 

Some three months later Peter Spoden returned to combat, claiming a Lancaster heading for Berlin on November 23, 1943.

Spoden hängt am Leitwerk nach Luftkampf über Berlin (Zeichnung von Hans Liska in "Signal" Nr 8/1944)
Spoden caught on the tail fin as 'The rudder rider' during the Berlin raid of 23/24 August 1943 (drawing by Hans Liska published in "Signal" Nr 8/1944)

Peter Spoden's books on sale on his web site here