April 7 1945—Sonderkommando Elbe


Sonderkommando Elbe (Special Command Elbe), one of the most bizarre units in the Luftwaffe, flew its only mission on April 7. The unit was the brainchild of Oberst Hajo Herrmann, who resurrected his once-rejected proposal for a bomber-ramming formation in January, after he had joined Gemaj. Peltz’s command. With Peltz’s approval, Herrmann got Chief of Staff Koller’s permission to present his proposal to Göring. He wrote a letter for Göring’s signature that solicited volunteers from the advanced training, fighter training and operational fighter units for a special operation “from which there is only the slightest possibility of your return.” Somewhat to Herrmann’s surprise, since it implicitly condemned Göring’s own conduct of the war, the Reichsmarschall signed it. Göring’s letter was read to the fighter units on March 8, and volunteers soon began reporting to Stendal, the Elbe base. On the radio the unit was always referred to as Schulungslehrgang Elbe (Training Course Elbe), which confused Allied intelligence as to its purpose.

Although the operation qualified as a Selbstopfer (suicide) plan, the pilots did have a real chance of survival. The plan called for the exclusive use of Bf 109 variants with high-altitude engines and metal propellers, to be used as scythes. The tactical unit for the mission was to be the Schwarm, each led by an experienced pilot. It was anticipated that the other pilots would be novices. The fighters were to climb to 11,000 meters (36,000 ft.), out-climbing any escorts encountered, and would receive their orders from the IX. Fliegerkorps (Jagd) transmitter at Treuenbrietzen, which had a 200-km (120-mile) range to this altitude. The fighters would then dive on their targets singly, from above. The bombers’ wings and engines were suggested as the aiming points, but Obfw. Willi Maximowitz, an ex-Sturmstaffel “ramming expert” brought in to lecture the pilots, claimed that clipping off the tail section would surely bring down the bomber with less hazard to the German pilots, and that advice was taken by most of them, even though they considered his own experiences in a heavily armored Fw 190 irrelevant to their own situation. Most of the Bf 109s were lightened by removal of their radio transmitters, all guns but a single cowling-mounted MG 131 machine gun, and most of the ammunition. Most pilots also had their Revi gunsights removed, to facilitate bailing out.

Koller scaled down Herrmann’s ambitious plan, code-named Werwolf (Werewolf), considerably. The requested 1,000 aircraft were reduced to 350, and then to 180. The number of volunteers was restricted to 300. Very few commissioned officers, and no experienced, decorated fighter formation leaders volunteered, so Herrmann was forced to draft some experienced officers from his non-operational KG(J) units. Command was given to Major Otto Köhnke, a bomber pilot who had been awarded the Knight’s Cross in KG 54, and had lost a leg in combat. Common characteristics of the true volunteers, according to unit survivor and author Arno Rose, were a lower-middle class, non-religious background; low rank; youth (most were less than 21 years old); loyalty to comrades and the Reich; obedience; and a desire to continue flying rather than be ordered to the infantry. Many sought revenge against the Terrorflieger who had destroyed their homes and killed their families. Their training at Stendal was very scanty, comprising anti-Semitic and nationalist movies, political lectures by college professors, and a single lecture on tactics by Maximowitz. The food and drink at Stendal were very good, however, and were recalled fondly by the survivors.

On the night of April 4–5 the pilots were taken from Stendal to the seven bases chosen for the operation, where they waited for the next major Eighth Air Force raid. This took place on the 7th. Herrmann, in the Treuenbrietzen control room, ordered the Elbe pilots to scramble. It was a clear, very cold day, good considering his pilots’ limited flying skills, but bad for their comfort; they were not issued flying suits, and most wore only their light service uniforms. Unfortunately for Herrmann, the Americans had a large number of targets, and the stream split up into no fewer than 60 small formations, creating chaos in his control room as his officers attempted to sort them out. The pilots heard nothing but nationalist songs and exhortations over their one-way radios until and unless they were finally given target instructions. Their fuel tanks had been only partially filled for their one-way flights, and some had to break off their missions early and return to base. Whether successful or not, the day marked the high point of most of the young pilots’ military careers, and many survivors have recorded their impressions. We chose Uffz. Klaus Hahn’s account as representative:

I transferred with 30 comrades to Sachau/Gardelegen on the night of April 4–5. I was given my own Bf 109G-6 or G-14 the morning of the 7th. The radio couldn’t transmit, only receive the Jägerwelle. The tank was half full. My machine was armed with one machine gun with 60 rounds. We took off on the green flare, but I couldn’t maintain speed, and fell behind my comrades in the climb. I had no thought of turning back, but kept on. I heard only marches on the radio. My aircraft suddenly gained speed, and I climbed to 10,000 meters [33,000 ft.], entirely alone. I approached four 109s, which proved to be Mustangs. One got on my tail, damaged the aircraft and wounded me in the throat. I decided to bail out despite the -50 degrees C temperature and lack of oxygen. But I saw a Fortress Pulk below, and decided to take one with me. My airplane was smoking, and the Mustangs didn’t follow. I was able to get up-sun, and dove on the far-right B-17 in the Pulk. I don’t know what happened next. There was a loud crash. I bailed out automatically, pulled the cord at 1,000 meters [3,300 ft.], apparently lost consciousness with the shock, and hit the ground hard, throwing both thighbones out of their sockets. Witnesses say the bomber didn’t crash, but I never found out exactly where I landed. I was wounded severely in one shoulder, arm, and hand. My left arm was amputated in a British POW hospital in June due to an infection. A quick recovery followed, and I was released in August [1945]. I later tried to find the village where I landed, but couldn’t—it must be between Steinhuder Meer and Verden, east of the Weser. I’m no longer interested, because the people who helped me are probably all dead now.

Most of the Elbe pilots attacked B-17s of the leading 3rd Air Division, which according to American records lost nine bombers to ramming and three to Me 262s. Four of the ramming victims were from the 452nd Bomb Group, which was awarded the Distinguished Unit Citation for its 40-minute-long combat. The only Luftwaffe fighters seen by the trailing 1st Air Division were two Me 262s, but the 2nd Air Division received some attacks, and according to the Americans lost four B-24s to ramming, two of these in a single attack that is well-documented from both sides. Gefreiter Willi Rösner dove on the 389th Bomb Group B-24 leading the division and rammed into its nose. Either the B-24 or the Bf 109 then careered into the deputy commander’s aircraft. Both B-24s crashed. Rösner bailed out, blacked out, regained consciousness on the ground with a broken collarbone, and returned to Stendal on the evening of the 7th. He was promoted to Unteroffizier and was awarded the Iron Crosses Second and First Class and the German Cross in Gold for this single mission, in violation of all directives.

The OKL war diary contains a bare-bones summary of the mission. Of the 183 fighters prepared for takeoff, 50 returned; 106 pilots had reported in by day’s end, claiming 23 successes. There were as yet no reports from 77 pilots. IX. Fliegerkorps (Jagd) was to order the remaining pilots to be released—the operation would not be repeated.

The Elbe mission remained somewhat of a mystery for decades after the war. The survivors were considered naive fools by other Luftwaffe veterans and, often, by their own families. But many of the Elbe-Männer eventually concluded that they had a right to take pride in the sacrificial mission for which they had volunteered, and began communicating with one another and cooperating with historians. As a result this is now one of the best-documented Luftwaffe missions of the war. Fritz Marktscheffel was an Elbe volunteer who did not fly on April 7 because he was too junior to be given one of the limited number of airplanes. He has for decades collected documents and pilot’s accounts pertaining to the mission, and his figures can be considered the best available. Marktscheffel concludes that about 188 Bf 109s were prepared for the mission at five bases in Germany and one outside Prague. About 143 fighters actually took off; 21 returned early due to technical defects; 15 from Stendal were never given a target and returned to base for lack of fuel; and those from Prague were recalled when the bombers turned north, putting them beyond range. About 90 contacted the enemy; as many as 40 attempted ramming attacks. Marktscheffel can identify the pilots in 18 ramming attacks on B-17s, three on B-24s, and three on unspecified heavy bombers. In addition, one B-17 and one fighter were claimed shot down by the single machine guns of the ram fighters. Casualties to the Elbe-Männer were surprisingly light: 18 pilots were killed, six failed to return and remained missing, and 13 were wounded. Sixteen bailed out and landed successfully; two died when their parachutes failed to open; and four were shot and killed by American fighter pilots while hanging on their chutes. Another pilot was shot at but suffered only a hard landing when his chute was shot through. Known Bf 109 losses total 13 to American escorts, three to German Flak, and 21 in ramming attacks; 14 force-landed for operational reasons after contacting the enemy.

The Elbe plots were told that they would be protected from American fighters by Me 262s, but there is no evidence that the jet pilots knew anything of this. Their primary mission was to attack bombers, not fighters, and this is what they did. Fifty-nine jets from JG 7 and I./KG(J) 54 were scrambled. JG 7 pilots claimed one F-4 (a reconnaissance P-38), two P-51s, one B-17, and one B-24, for no known losses. I./KG(J) 54 reported four victories over B-17s, and lost one Me 262 to a B-17 gunner.

Although the Eighth Air Force lost 17 bombers, the greatest loss on a bombing mission since February 3, and 189 more bombers returned to base with damage, it was certainly not in the Americans’ interest to publicize a successful suicide mission in the ETO while the Kamikazes were causing great concern in the Pacific, and the casualties due to ramming were downplayed. Allied intelligence professed no knowledge of a special operation. The Eighth Air Force mission summary concluded that,

While there were a number of instances of fighters ramming bombers, there is no evidence that these were intentional. In all cases the enemy aircraft was either out of control after being hit, or was manned by an inexperienced pilot trying a fly-through attack against a tight formation.

The sacrifices of the Elbe-Männer were thus not even acknowledged by the Americans, and certainly did not affect their morale, as Herrmann had hoped. Like Operation Bodenplatte, Werwolf was only a futile, bloody gesture.