A Merry Christmas to all!

As the year draws to close and we spend time with our loved ones, I would like to just wish you all a very happy Christmas and a peaceful new year.

Another year has passed and looking back, we realise how quickly time passes. I am amazed how my own blog has gone from strength to strength, how my own writing has developed, from early posts that were merely a couple of paragraphs to more recent ones that are 2-3000 words long – a big change for me! I must admit I have a slight cringe when I read some of those early posts; as time has gone on I have started to revisit them (and the places they are about) and make some updates.

I would like to take time to thank each and every one of you who has read, commented and stayed with me during this journey, it has certainly been an experience I don’t want to forget.

This year, the blog surpassed 21,000 visitors and 50,000 views whilst not huge in comparison to some, it is certainly far more than I ever thought it would, and I appreciate each and every one.

Some notable posts/events you may have missed:

Hearbreak on Christmas Eve – the sad loss of Brigadier General  Frederick W. Castle (posted December 2015), whose awarding of the Medal of Honour, reflected the determination and personality of one of Eakers “Original Seven”. He chose to leave a safe position for a combat role, taking on the demoralised 94th, leading them into some of the Second World War’s most ferocious air battles.

The Last Word to Guy Gibson – also posted last year, a poignant word written in Gibson’s book.

In October 2015 we saw the end of an era, with the grounding of Avro Vulcan XH558. After an eight year reign as Queen of the skies, she finally bowed out after the three main technical companies that support her, withdrew their support. In her last flight on October 28th 2015, she completed a short 15 minute flight, the culmination of 228 flights and 346 hours flying time. A landmark in British Aviation history.

A number of British airfields were earmarked for development or planning applications, amongst them are the former: RAF Kings Cliffe, RAF Downham Market, RAF West Raynham, RAF Denethorpe and RAF Coltishall, with further applications affecting former RAF Dunsfold, RAF Bourn and RAF Wellesbourne Mountford. So what does the future hold for Britain’s airfields?

Early 2016, Aviation Trails was nominated for the Liebster Award by The Aviation Site and I was honoured to accept this award and in November it was nominated by Historypresent for a further writing accolade. Sadly this slipped off the list, but I would like to offer my sincere thanks for this very kind nomination.

With the total number of Trails standing at almost 40, I have visited what must be over 100 airfields; in addition a large number of memorials, and many great museums, and there are still many, many more of each to get to.

The interactive map has been useful to many readers outside of Britain hoping to find places where loved ones served, and a few people have contacted me which has hopefully helped trace some information thus filing in some gaps.

All in all it has been a marvellous year for AviationTrails, I wish to pass on my gratitude and thanks to each and every one of you.

So without further ado, a very Merry Christmas to everyone and a peaceful and safe New Year!

Andy

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Chivalry Amongst Enemies

On December 20th 1943, high above war-torn Europe, the lives of a Luftwaffe fighter pilot and the crew of an American B-17 would collide in an event that has become famous around the aviation world.

On that day, a B-17, “Ye Olde Pub“, of the 379th BG based at RAF Kimbolton (USAAF Station 117) , would be so severely damaged it would defy the laws of gravity and somehow remain airborne as it departed Bremen, Germany, having valiantly carried out its mission. In the skies over the freezing waters of the North Sea, the bomber hanging by a thread, with two engines out, all but one of its guns but the top turret empty or frozen, its rudder and left horizontal stabiliser torn to pieces, a dead crew member and several others wounded;  “The Pub”, as its crew affectionately nicknamed her, seemed destined to fall from the skies. Just then, the pilot and co-pilot watched helplessly as bullets ripped through the cockpit ceiling, wounding the pilot, and causing the oxygen system to malfunction, leaving the desperate crew destined to succumb to anoxia in mere moments. It was then that the bomber fell into a slow upside-down flat spin. It did not take long before the pilot saw his co-pilot, eyes closed due to lack of oxygen, that he too, slowly lost consciousness as he watched the farmlands of Germany far beneath them, grow closer with each passing moment. The fate appeared sealed for the badly beaten bomber and the lives of her remaining crew. “The Pub” would be easy prey for the hunters of the Luftwaffe. At that precise moment, and with hundreds of miles still to get home, a lone Bf 109 would see the stricken bomber, take off and prepare to shoot it down. The German pilot was an ace, and  his plane had 22 victory marks, and he only needed to shoot down one more bomber to earn the long coveted Knight’s Cross.

However, the loaded guns of the 109 did not rain down its fire of death upon the bomber. Instead – and against all that was meant to happen in war – they stayed silent. The 109 cautiously approached the B-17, its pilot carefully manoeuvred around the aircraft watching for any sign from the gun crews that might suggest they were about to fire.  Inside, he saw its pilot who sat stunned in disbelief at the sight before him, and from the outside of the bomber, he knew whatever crew remained were likely desperately fighting to save their wounded comrades and themselves. (As the B-17 lost altitude, the remaining crew, including the pilot and co-pilot regained consciousness, and somehow managed to right the plane and set her on a course for home.)

In the B-17, pilot 2nd Lieutenant Charlie Brown watched in amazement as the 109 piloted by 2nd Lieutenant Franz Stigler formed up against it, perhaps teasing the crew before delivering the final and devastating blow. Stigler however, a sworn enemy of the Eighth Air Force, instead of firing, gestured to the crewmen to fly to Sweden and safety. But Brown, stubborn in his determination to get his crew home, didn’t understand, and carried on flying straight and level toward the North Sea and home. Stigler flew alongside, fearing the bomber would never make it and crash into the sea, so he continued to gesture to the crew. Steadfast, they carried onward, watching the 109, waiting for him to attack the defenceless bomber. Finally, fearing he may be shot down himself, Stigler saluted the crew and departed, leaving the bomber to fly safely back to England.

The story of this brief encounter remained unknown for many years – Stigler sworn to secrecy for fear of his own life, and Brown for fear of complacency in the Air Force, were both unable to openly talk about the experience. Then, after many years and through extensive research and letter-writing, the two pilots finally met up in a meeting that was so charged with emotion that it reduced both men to tears.

Immortalised in John Shaw’s painting* and Adam Mako’s book, “A Higher Call” is the dramatic story of this strange and heartfelt encounter.

Image result for higher call

John Shaws’ painting of the two aircraft flying together.

This is not a book about one meeting though. This is a book  about two men, the people behind the guns, the characters, their experiences and their lives. It tells the story of Franz Stigler, how he, as a natural pacifist, was drawn into a vulgar fight waged by madmen and tyrants thirsty for revenge. The story is told as he progressed from flying school then onto Egypt and Sicily and eventually back to defend his homeland against the continued onslaught of heavy bomber formations reigning death and destruction upon a foe so evil, it led to the slaughter of millions of innocent people.

But why did Stigler let the bomber crew live? The book reveals his character, his determination to carry out his duty to defend his homeland, the honour that existed between friend and foe, the unwritten rules of warfare, and the distaste he had for all that Nazism stood for. When these worlds collided, he had to make a decision. His finger poised over the trigger, to squeeze it or not? That… That was the moment when Franz Stigler realized if he DID shoot, it would be no ‘victory’ for him. With that, his desire to earn the Knight’s Cross disappeared. He knew that there were more important aspirations for him.

In this well written book , Mako reveals the man behind the gesture. Through research and interviews with both crewmen, he lays out the story of Stigler delving into his character, digging deep into the memories of that night and the events that led up to and after it. He explores the events that created the man, the decisions that made him the person he was. A man to whom medals and numbers were not important, a man who would risk his own life to ensure the safety of others.

It would look at how the people of post war Germany, would turn against him and his kind, laying the blame for defeat firmly at the feet of the fighter pilot. How a once hero of the Reich would become the villain, be despised by those he protected even though he disagreed with what they stood for.

This is a fascinating and compelling book, detailed in every aspect – it is difficult to put down. It provides a fascinating insight into the man and his machine, the tragedies and traumas of war. Supplemented by original letters and photographs, this book is a fascinating read into the story behind the picture, and the events that occurred on that day, December 20th 1943.

A Higher Call is written by Adam Makos and Larry Alexander is published by Atlantic Books.

* The original painting was created by Robert Harper, the Assistant Intelligence Officer of the 448th BG at RAF Seething where Brown’s B-17 landed.

Luftwaffe diaries – Big Week

Following on from the earlier diaries of Luftwaffe pilots during the Battle of Britain, I have found other examples, worth sharing.

These examples, were written as the Allies launched the ‘Big Week’ campaign against heavily defended German targets. In defence, the Luftwaffe were operating a wide range of aircraft, heavily armed, they were designed to destroy the big heavy bombers, both quickly and easily. The US Eighth and Fifteenth Airforces were bombing during daylight whilst the RAF were bombing at night. As a result, brutal dogfights were common place between escorting P-51s, P-47s and P-38s and the German aircraft.

Based at Wunstorf near Hanover, was III Gruppe Zerstorergeschwader 26, (part of Luftflotte 2) whose primary role was defence of the North Western Sector of Europe, Belgium and the Netherlands. Formed along with I. and II. Gruppe; III. Gruppe were to suffer badly at the hands of their superior American counterparts. During 1940, they had a total fo 33 aircraft, by the time ‘Big Week’ had come in 1944, this number was significantly lower.

The entry starts in the middle of February, with visits from Generalmajor Ibel1, re-equiping of machines and flight training. Prior to Big week, the Gruppe were also operating in support of land forces. However, as the allied forces began their operations, this role changed.

20.2.44 – At 12:03 hours the Gruppe received orders from 2. Jagddivision to take off and engage reported enemy bomber formation. At 12:13 hours, Bf 110s were airborne and assembled at radio beacon Marie, after new orders re-assembled overhead base. The Kommandeur, Major Kogler, took off late with three more BF 110s at 12.19 hours but failed to meet up with the aircraft which had taken off at 12.13. At 4,000m the first formation was surprised by enemy fighters attacking out of the sun and as a result 11 Bf 110s were shot down2. During the incursion two enemy fighters carried out a low-level attack on the airfield. As a result nine aircraft were hit and suffered up to 30% damage.3

21.2.44 – At 12:41 hours the group received orders to engage incoming enemy formations. At 12:45 ten BF 110s were airborne; assembly over radio beacon Marie.
At 13:15 hours these aircraft joined up with the escort a friendly fighters in the Rottenburg area. Our formation made contact with the enemy force, but due to poor direction failed to reach a favourable position from which to attack.4

22.2.44 – The Gruppe was ordered to take off at 12:22 hours to engage incoming enemy formations. The Gruppe scrambled eight BF 110s at 12:28 hours. Weather at take-off: Fair weather, 50km visibility, cloud base 1,000m, 2–3/10 cover. At 12:55 to 13:00 hours joined own fighter escort at 7,000m above Lake Steinhude. The Gruppe joined up behind I./ZG 26 which was operating under the control of the 2. Jagddivision. At 13:35 hours three formations of Fortress IIs were sighted. The leader of our formation (I./ZG 26) closed on the enemy formation to attack from head-on. III./ZG 26, following, was too close behind for a head-on attack, and had to turn an attack from the rear. While closing in to attack, fire was opened from about 400m. The enemy machine flying on the left outside of the formation burst into flames along its right side. It began to curve away to the left and the second attack was carried out from above and to the left, from behind. This Fortress dropped away from the formation well ablaze. There was strong defensive fire from the enemy rear gun positions. Each enemy formation numbered about 60 aircraft, flying in arrow. Weather in operational area: about 3/10 cloud cover, cloud base 500m tops 2,000m. Visability above cloud more than 50km.

During the head-on attack, the formation leader turned in too soon, so that the aircraft coming behind were unable to get into an attacking position.

Landing: Two BF 110s landed at Wunstorf, at 13:58 and at 14:10 hours. Four BF 110s made belly-landings. No landing reports received so far from two BF 110s. 5

Successes: One Fortress II shot down by Oblt. Bley.

23.2.44 – No operations. The Gruppe carried out instrument flying training missions as planned. The 7th Staffel is in the process of receiving replacement aircraft.

24.2.44 – Operational report.
Take off: Four BF 110s from Wunstorf at 12:01 hours. Order: Scramble take-off to engage incoming enemy formations. The Gruppe assembled at 7,000m over Brunswick with ten BF 110s of I./ZG 26. II./JG 11 joined up to provide the escort at 12:15 hours. Instructions received from JaFue6 during the assembly. At 13:15 hours eight formations each of about 15 liberators were seen in the area of Nordhausen, stepped up from 4,000m to 7,000m and flying on the south-easterly heading. It was noticeable that the enemy aircraft were wavering about. On the approach of our Gruppe the enemy force turned south and later south-west. Attack was carried out at 13:00 hours in the area of Holzminden, from the left and above. III./ZG 26 scored one victory7 and one Herausschuss (bomber leaving formation after attack by Major Kogler). Several liberators were observed to be on fire; others were seen to crash8. The claims of I./ZG 26 are not to hand. Landing: Two BF 110s landed at Wunstorf at 14:08 and 14:14 hours. One BF 110 suffered damage to the cabin and turned back. One BF 110: no landing report received (Gern’s aircraft).

Supplement: the enemy bombers were escorted by Thunderbolts, which flew above the formation. It was ascertained that the leading formation, which I tried to attack, always went into a turn to the right when I was in front shortly before I turned in to make my attack. It is possible that this forced the bombers away from their target.

Diary written by Major (Gruppe Kommandeur) Kogler, 1944

On February 24th 1944, there were several missions flown by the USAAF: Mission 233, (to attack targets at: Gotha, Rostock, Poznan and Schweinfurt) and 234 which occurred at night.  Mission 233 was the second largest operation to take place during ‘Big Week’ and involved 809 bombers with 767 fighters as escort.

Mission 233 took place in 3 Waves, Wave 1 – 239 B-24s were sent to Gotha; Wave 2 – 266 B-17s were sent to Schweinfurt and Wave 3, 304 B-17s were dispatched to the primary target of Poznan.

A fatal mistake by the lead aircraft in the first Wave (due to a faulty oxygen mask) led to Eisenach being bombed by mistake. The following formation also bombed by mistake, following his mark.  These are the only B-24s that flew on that day and as a result, it is probable (but not certain) that these are the Liberators mentioned in Kogler’s diary for that day. Casualties reported by the USAAF for that mission were: 3 KIA, 6 WIA and 324 MIA9.

Liberators of the 392nd BG from RAF Wendling were involed in this mission, an account is available here along with MACRs and statements from those involved.

It has been interesting to compare explantions from both sides, with limited resources, any connection is only presumed, but it does give an interesting perspective to the bomber war over Europe.

Sources:

1 – Generalmajor Ibel was the Commander of 2. Jagddivision

2 – Six pilots and five radio operators were killed in the attack. Two pilots and four radio operators were wounded.

3 – One armourer was killed along with one Radio operator and one mechanic wounded.

4 – Combat report D1

5 – Later found to have been shot down, their crews were killed.

6 – JaFue – Fighter Controller.

7 – Oblt Meltz.

8 – Lt. Gern, who was shot down during the action but bailed out of his aircraft, logged a claim for one Fortress shot down when he returned to his unit.

9 – 8th Airforce Operations, http://8thafhs.com/missions.php

The full diary entry appeared in The Luftwaffe Data Book, by Dr. Alfred Price, Published by Greenhill Books, 1936, 1977, 1997. pg197-200

Diary of a Luftwaffe pilot

A recent visit to an antiques shop, led to the purchase of two books, one detailing the events of the Battle of Britain, the second included short diary entries of Luftwaffe pilots. Sadly, not many Luftwaffe diaries exist today, all but a few being destroyed in case they fell into enemy hands! As a result, records are sketchy, few and far between.

Some of these Luftwaffe entries refer to the Battle of Britain.  I tried to make a comparison, maybe one entry would refer to the other – sadly they were not sufficiently detailed enough to be certain. This aside, I was intrigued to see the Germans portrayed their part in the battle and how they might compare in terms of recounts.

After the fall of France, the Germans built up strong groups of fighters, transports and bombers in readiness for the coming invasion of Great Britain. Five main groups (Luftflotte ‘air fleets’ similar to the RAF groups) operated across the German empire. Covering the eastern borders were Luftflotte 1 and 4, to the north in Norway and Denmark was the newly formed Luftflotte 5 and in Belgium and France , Luftflotte 2 and 3 respectively.Total servicable aircraft facing Britain amounted to 3,157.

Jagdgeschwader 3 (fighter ‘wing’ made up of 3 Gruppen*1 and 1 Stab) normally stationed on the eastern front, had been brought in to bolster numbers in Luftflotte 2 and were now based at Samer not far from Boulogne. Commanded by Hauptmann Hans von Hahn*2 (himself a German Luftwaffe ace and recipient of the Knight’s Cross), Luftflotte 2 were able to field 23 Messerschmitt Bf 109Es at the start of September.

The mid part of September had been dogged by poor weather, on the 12th 13th and 14th, the Luftwaffe launched only small raids and reconnaissance missions with minimal numbers of aircraft. Many fighter pilots were given the luxury of rest periods some even taking in local sites.

One of the biggest days of the Battle of Britain, now celebrated as Battle of Britain day, was Sunday 15th September 1940. It saw a major change in Luftwaffe policies. The weather was misty but promised to improve, and the Germans saw this as an opportunity to bring a severe blow to London and the RAF; this would be the ultimate prelude to invasion.

The Unit war diary for 1 Gruppe, Jagdgeschwader 3, September 15th 1940*3, reads:

12:00.

Escort (by 12 aircraft) Do 17s against London. Oblt Keller shot down the Spitfire, Leutnant Rohwer a Hurricane. Fw Wollmer dived into the channel; the impact was seen by Lt Springer. This crash appears not to have been caused by enemy action. After a long dive Wollmer’s machine rolled a quarter turn into a vertical dive and he did not succeed in bailing out. A motorboat detached from a German convoy near Cap Gris Nez and went to the scene of the crash.

15:10.

Operation by nine aircraft to escort He 111s against London. At 1,500m there was almost total cloud cover. Over the Thames estuary and to the north of London there were gaps in the cloud. During the flight in there was contact with Spitfires. The bombers flew in loose formation to the north of London. Strong and accurate flak. The Spitfires came from above, fired, and dived away. Hauptmann von Hahn shot down the Spitfire, Lt Rohwer probably destroyed a Hurricane. During an attack by Spitfires Oberleutnant Reumschuessel became separated from his wing-man, Obfw Olejnik, and has not returned (this aircraft crashed near Charing, Kent; the pilot bailed out and was taken prisoner). After he was separated from the formation Obfw Hessel was heard on the radio, but he failed to return (this aircraft crash near Tenterdon; The pilot bailed out was taken prisoner). Obfw Buchholz’s aircraft was hit in the cooling system and forced down in the Channel. Oblt Keller made contact with the rescue aircraft nearby, which picked up Buchholz. He had injuries and was taken to the military hospital a Boulogne. The body of Lt Kloiber has been washed ashore near St. Cecile, and buried. Lt Meckel and two Feldwebeln attended the funeral. During the last few days news has been received from the Red Cross in Geneva that Oblt Tiedmann, Oblt Rau, Oblt Loidolt, Lt Landry (these last two wounded) and Obfw Lamskemper have been captured by the British”.

 An interesting read, if only there were more!

Notes:

*1 The singular is ‘Gruppe‘ and each Gruppen operated with three Gruppe. Each Gruppe would operate from one airfield but moved as a Gruppen.

*2 Hauptmann Hans von Hahn more infomration can be found at http://www.luftwaffe.cz/hahn3.html or http://falkeeins.blogspot.co.uk/2013/11/hans-von-hahn-and-his-stab-ijg-3.html

*3 The Luftwaffe Data Book, Dr. Alfred Price (1977) Greenhill Publications pg196-197