Luftwaffe pilots and crew exhaustion in the Battle of Britain

“Target London”

”This is the best Luftwaffe bomber painting I have ever seen…it captures the atmosphere exactly”

Hajo Herrmann K.C.O.S.

In September 1940, the final phase of the Battle of Britain, the Luftwaffe turned its attention away from the RAF’s airfields and made London its target. This fascinatingly detailed painting depicts a devastating raid which took place on September 15th when more than one hundred Heinkel 111 and Dornier bombers swarmed over the docklands and the East End. Believing the RAF to be down to their last 50 fighters, the Luftwaffe had not expected much opposition, and so were greatly surprised to be met by no fewer than 28 squadrons of Hurricanes and Spitfires. One He111 of KG53 is seen here having been hit, before struggling back to France. Many others were not so fortunate and, by the end of the day, the German losses were so great that Hitler postponed the invasion of Britain indefinitely.

Luftwaffe pilots were given leave, but usually only after a number of months in the front line. By the second week of October, Siegfried Bethke was one of only four pilots remaining from those far-off days of May, and one of those was home on leave. Several of the new pilots he had sent back for being ‘too soft’. One of the other originals was struggling with Kanalkrankheit – the combat fatigue version. ‘Rothkirch is not adding up,’ he noted – he had flown just eight missions in two months. ‘He’s always “sick”. A pathetic figure.’ A few days later, Hauptmann Helmut Wick returned from Berlin, where he had been awarded the Eichenlaub – ‘Oak Leaves’ – to his Knight’s Cross, an award given for forty victories. Hitler himself had placed it around his neck. Wick reported back all that he had been told. Both Hitler and Göring, he said, still hoped the Luftwaffe would completely destroy the British fighters in a few days of good weather. Siegfried thought that impossible. ‘It is also hoped,’ he noted, recording much of what Wick had told him, ‘that through the blockade, there will be serious disruptions to supplies in England. Unfortunately, not enough submarines off the west coast of England.’

At Coquelles, as losses mounted, the evening debates were becoming increasingly tense. It was not helping these young pilots to endlessly discuss tactics at night. With leave so infrequent, they needed to use the time off from operations to try and put the fighting to one side and relax – but there was little chance for that, it seemed. The biggest complaints came from the NCO pilots, who felt strongly that too many of the commanders were glory hunters only interested in getting medals. It did not seem fair to them that awards should only be handed out for aerial victories, when it often took more bravery to sit at the back of the formation, keeping watch over the glory boys’ backsides. Ulrich had quite a lot of sympathy – he had never thought much of the special treatment given to men like Dolfo Galland.

Of greater concern to him as a senior member of the Staffel was the loss of pilots as well as the shortage of aircraft. At the beginning of the western campaign, their Gruppe had had thirty-six experienced pilots with at least three years in the Luftwaffe under their belts. Now they were getting new boys straight from fighter school, and unlike in Fighter Command, there was no structure in place by which they could be given further training before being thrown into the front line. He and Kühle did their best to take care of these fledglings until they had acquired a bit more experience but this was not always possible.

At the end of September, a new NCO pilot arrived with minimal flying time and only a tiny amount of air-to-ground gunnery. He had never flown using oxygen and had no idea how to use his radio. Ulrich gave him around ten hours of extra ‘tuition’, taking him and some of the other new boys out across the Channel to shoot at shadows or at the old lighthouse at Dungeness. But they could not be kept off operations for ever so Ulrich took his particular charge and made him his wingman. Climbing out over the Channel, the Gefreiter struggled to keep up and it was clear he had no idea how to manage his propeller pitch control. Eventually, Kühle ordered him home, but instead of heading for France, the new boy made for Dover. Ulrich raced after him, catching up just before they reached the balloon barrage. Only by violently rocking his wings did Ulrich manage to make him understand, and then he led him back. It was one of only two missions he missed all through the battle. ‘They were supposed to be replacements,’ noted Ulrich, ‘but in the event they were more of a problem for us than reinforcement for the Staffel.’

This simply put greater pressure on the more experienced ones. There were increasingly more cases of Kanalkrankheit in the 2nd Staffel too. Ulrich had noticed that Oberfeldwebel Grosse, a Condor Legion veteran, had begun to fly back home more and more frequently with ‘engine trouble’. ‘It seemed you could just wear out like any other machine,’ noted Ulrich. ‘And that is where things were going wrong; we just weren’t getting a break.’

It was much the same for the bomber crews. Hajo Herrmann bombed the port at Great Yarmouth on 5 October, then London three nights later, and the night after that, and the night after that. And again two nights later and for another three nights on the trot. By 18 October, he had carried out twenty-one attacks on London alone, and nearly ninety combat missions since the start of the war, a truly astonishing number, and way, way more than his British counterparts would ever have been expected to fly. That night, as he took off with two 1,000 kg bombs beneath him, his left tyre shredded on some bomb splinters that had not been cleared after an earlier attack by Bomber Command, and he crashed, wrecking the aircraft. Fortunately the bombs did not explode, but Hajo was pulled from the wreckage unconscious. He had broken a lumbar vertebra and strained another and suffered some cuts and concussion. When he came to he wept uncontrollably. ‘Why, I don’t know.’ Then he spotted a Knight’s Cross on the bedside lamp. The doctor told him the Reichsmarschall had personally awarded it to him three days earlier. He had forgotten the occasion completely.

Peter Stahl was flying over London almost as often as Hajo, and often three nights running, something that would never have been demanded of Bomber Command crews. His Staffel was also struggling with inexperienced new crews. On 16 October, during yet another night attack on London, four crews failed to return and two crashed on landing, although the men escaped alive. But six aircraft out of nine was a terrible night of losses. In the bus back to their quarters afterwards they discussed what point there was in sending out hundreds of aircrews every night without any hope of reasonable results. ‘And tomorrow,’ noted Peter, ‘the communiqué of the OKW will state that our brave aircrews have flown another major operation and despite bad weather conditions, have inflicted devastating blows on various vital targets. Our own losses were only “minimal”!’

There was no leave for Hans-Ekkehard Bob either, who as a Staffel commander was very much expected to lead the way. On constant front-line duty since the opening of the western campaign, he had now been given even greater responsibilities, for on 2 October Kesselring had visited JG 54 and ordered Trautloft to form one of his Staffeln from each Gruppe into a Jagdbomber – fighter-bomber – unit, and from the third Gruppe had chosen Hans’s 7th Staffel for the task. The Jabo pilots – as they were known – of Erpro 210 had all been carefully trained in such operations, but Hans and his pilots had never ever carried out such a task; many doubted it was really possible. There was only one way to find out, and Hans opted to be the first to try and fly with a 250 kg bomb strapped underneath the plane. It was a nerve-wracking experience, but worked. The key now was to get the men trained as Jabos as quickly as possible. On 4 October, four of Trautloft’s best pilots, Hans included, took off for a practice mission to Dungeness – the ruined lighthouse was becoming a favoured marker for the Luftwaffe pilots. The results were not encouraging, but after more practice it was decided that attacking in a low, shallow dive produced the least inaccurate results. Hans later bombed Tilbury Docks in London, but the Jabos were not really very effective. The Me 109 was simply not designed for such a role and the pilots had not been given enough training. Even experienced Experten like Hans could not suddenly become fighter-bomber marksmen overnight.

The fighting continued – the Luftwaffe lost 379 aircraft in October and Fighter Command 185 – but the Germans were further away than ever from achieving air superiority. On 4 October, after all the blistering air battles of September, Fighter Command had, for the first time, more than 700 fighters ready to take to the skies. The Germans could keep coming over all they liked, but they were not going to win. Neither Göring nor Hitler had any idea of the true strength of Fighter Command, but they now began to accept that the great battle against Britain had failed – for 1940, at any rate. On 12 October, Hitler finally postponed SEALION until the following spring. Naval personnel and shipping were to be released, tugs and barges returned to their normal, much-needed roles, although many of the divisions allocated for the invasion were to remain along the coastal areas. All that effort, all that cost; it had come to nothing. Air operations over Britain would continue, especially the night bombing, but Hitler was now ever more set upon his next course of action. If Britain could not be brought to heel now, then she would once the Soviet Union had been absorbed into the Third Reich.

Last Flight

On the last Sunday in October, the 27th, Ulrich Steinhilper woke up early. His tent smelled musty, and it was cold; winter was on its way. With some effort, he pulled back the blankets and got up, staggering over to the makeshift washstand. He looked tired, he knew, his eyes dark, his cheeks thin. But he was tired. He had flown over 150 combat missions over England. On one day he had even flown seven sorties, excessive even by Luftwaffe standards.

He was on Early Alarm, which meant being at dispersal by dawn, mercifully later now that the days were rapidly shortening. Having shaved, he dressed, putting his trousers and shirt straight over his pyjamas, then with two others drove over to dispersal. A low mist hung over the greying stubble fields that were their runways. Smells of coffee and food came from the tented camp at one side of the airfield. Groundcrews stamped feet and rubbed hands to keep warm, while pilots smoked cigarettes.

Helmut Kühle, Ulrich’s Staffelkapitän, suddenly drove up in his car, having been to the morning briefing. ‘Protect the fighter-bombers,’ he told the waiting pilots. ‘Target London. Take off 09.05 hours.’

Ulrich now hurried over to his plane, Yellow 2, with its five stripes on the tail, one stripe for each of his victories. His mechanic, Peter, was already waiting for him on the port wing. Clambering up, Ulrich put on his harness with Peter’s help, then clambered into the tight cockpit. Reaching for the starter lever, he felt the aircraft rock gently as Peter began to wind up the eclipse starter before it could be engaged, so turning over the Daimler-Benz 601 engine. Pulling the starter, Ulrich felt the engine roar into life and then set the throttle lightly forwards so that he could complete his start-up checks. The other eight remaining Me 109s were all running now, then they began to emerge from their camouflaged dispersal pens. This was all that could be mustered from the entire Gruppe.

As he finished his taxi, Ulrich glanced around him, then pushed the throttle on to full power and felt the Messerschmitt surge forward. He lifted the tail as the machine bumped over the rough field, Yellow 2 bounced a little, then suddenly the jolting stopped as the plane became airborne. Retracting the undercarriage, he waited a few moments whilst his speed increased, then eased back the control column and began to climb away. Looking either side of him, he watched the position of the others and then they began to tighten up for the climb.

They met cloud over Kent, but as they approached London the sky cleared, just as the met officer had predicted. Everyone began scanning the sky, but nothing could be seen – yet. The engine in front of him throbbed rhythmically. It was noisy in any fighter, but with his headphones strapped close to his ears it became such a constant background thrum that he might as well have been flying in silence; and the silence in his headset only added to the tension he felt as he waited for the moment the British fighters would be spotted.

Ulrich continued searching the sky behind, in front, either side, below, but especially above. Suddenly a voice full of static crackled in his ear, ‘Raven calling! Raven calling! Eleven o’clock high! Eleven o’clock high. Condensation trails, same course.’ Ulrich looked up and saw them now, about 3,000 feet above, to their left, the vivid white contrails clear against the deep blue. The fighting had got higher in recent weeks. The Gruppe were already at 32,000 feet, which meant the Spitfires were now at 35,000, an incredible height. It was hard flying at those heights. The 109 did not like it and the pilots had to constantly change the propeller pitch and throttle to improve performance: with a fine pitch, they could increase the RPM and get more pressure from the engine’s supercharger, but by then switching to coarse pitch they could make up some speed, which was essential if they were to keep up with the rest of the formation.

But there was something up with Yellow 2. Ulrich was struggling to change pitch. Most probably condensation had begun to collect in the grease of the pitch-changing gear during the cold nights of the past week, and now, at 32,000 feet, it had frozen, which had affected the pitch control. For a moment, Ulrich thought about turning back but then dismissed the idea, opting instead to keep the pitch fine and run the engine at high revs and rely on the supercharger to help maintain speed. It meant the engine would be running at a level higher than the recommended RPM, but that happened all the time in combat. In any case, having made his decision to fly on, he did not have any other choice.

A pattern had emerged in this latest phase of the air battle. The Luftwaffe’s planes would assemble and set course for London. The Tommies, meanwhile, warned of the approaching raid, would climb up high and wait for them. They would then patrol the sky, and just as the German formations turned for home at their tactically weakest point and at the limit of the fighters’ range, they would pounce, from height with the sun behind them. Now, as the moment to turn for home approached, Ulrich waited for the order with increasing trepidation.

The Jabos began their attack, the radio suddenly full of chatter until there were so many different voices that the noise merged into a jarring whistling. Moments later and the formation was turning, but to the left, rather than the right, as they had been expecting. The eight machines of I/JG 52 quickly manoeuvred into their Rotte position, Ulrich’s wingman, Lothar Schieverhöfer, moving in beside and behind him. Suddenly someone shouted, ‘Out of the sun! Out of the sun!’ and Ulrich swivelled and craned his neck upwards to see a number of Spitfires diving down towards Lothar. Ulrich shouted out a warning and tried to move to protect his tail, only to see him doing the same. Behind, at least four Spitfires were stepped up, each lining up to fire. Ulrich now dived away, his revs way too high, so at 22,000 feet he levelled out, eyeing a safe-looking bank of cloud below. He was wondering whether Lothar had got away when suddenly there was a loud bang as something exploded on the left side of his machine, and as something clattered into his elevator his stick shook in his hands. Frantically looking around, he could see no sign of the enemy so decided it must have been his supercharger that had blown. Glancing at his instrument panel, he saw everything still appeared to be working, but his oil pressure was dropping dramatically. Air speed was around 400 mph in his shallow dive and he was still able to weave from side to side, so he pushed the stick forward, put the nose down, and dived down towards the cloud layer, reaching the milky mass at around 6,000 feet. Moments later he was out into the blindingly bright sun, but at least it enabled him to get a fix. If he was on course for home, the sun should have been ahead and slightly to the right, and so it was, so he slipped back into the protective shroud of the cloud.

He checked his instruments again and everything still seemed to be in order apart from the oil loss, but just as he was beginning to breathe a little more easily, he slid out of the cloud again and was horrified first to see the Thames estuary below – he thought he had made more distance – and then in front and slightly below him a formation of Hurricanes. Deciding attack was his only option, he checked the lights that told him his guns were armed and ready, then seeing four green lights switched on the gunsight. But this was not working – there was too much ice on the windscreen from his long dive. He would have to use the metal emergency sight, but as he removed his oxygen mask, he was suddenly gripped with fear – his engine was beginning to boil and if it came to a tussle he was not sure how long his machine would keep flying. Gently, and very slowly, he climbed back into the cloud.

His engine temperature was now 130 degrees. He could not understand why it was so high; his engine was losing oil, but that would not affect the cooling system. He was sure he had dived before the Spitfires had opened fire, but a bullet in the radiator seemed the only cause of his rapidly rising temperature gauge. ‘This is Owl 2a,’ he called over the radio, ‘have been hit in the radiator, will try to reach the Channel. Taking course from Thames to Manston. Please confirm.’ But there was no reply – just a hiss of static.

At 6,000 feet once more, and still in cloud, he switched off the engine, so that he was now gliding and blind flying. At 4,000 feet he emerged through the cloud once more, but still he continued his glide and decided to try another radio call. This time the ground station in the Pas de Calais replied. ‘Understood Owl 2a. Air-Sea Rescue will be notified. Only go into the water when absolutely necessary.’ He now heard Kühle’s voice too, telling him he would start searching the Channel immediately while the others would return, refuel then continue the search if necessary. Ulrich felt his spirits lift.

Now, at around 1,600 feet, he began to attract some light flak, so he decided it was time to restart the engine. It whirred into life immediately and he began to climb once more, the oil temperature still under control. In the clouds, he transmitted another fix to the ground station, but by now the temperature was beginning to rise alarmingly again so he cut the engine once more, hoping to repeat Hans-Ekkehard Bob’s trick of ‘bobbing’ back across the Channel.

But the engine’s power was fading, and he was soon struggling to gain any height at all. He had to open the throttle further – there was no alternative – but as he did so, the engine seized. There was no bang, no sudden explosion – just silence. With his machine dead, he knew he would have to jump. Having sent a last message, he briefly wondered whether he should perhaps try and crash-land instead but then madly decided he must not let his machine fall into enemy hands. No, bailing out was the only option. He ran through the emergency procedures: oxygen off. Throat microphone off. Remove flying helmet and headset. Reaching for the canopy jettison lever he pulled but it broke off in his hand. Trying desperately not to panic he shot a glance at his altimeter – he was now at only 800 feet. He needed to get out of there quickly – very quickly. He now tried to open the canopy as normal and as he pulled the lever and pushed, it burst open with a sudden rush of wind and cold air that forced the Perspex hood off its hinges so that it clattered noisily down the side of the fuselage. Gasping from the cold, he released his belts and pushed himself up into the incredibly strong 130 mph draught, but as he did so was buffeted backwards, wedging his parachute under the rear part of the canopy and catching his legs under the instrument panel. Frantically, he tried to claw his hands back down on to the control column in an effort to flip the machine over, but he could not reach. And now Yellow 2 was beginning its final dive. There was nothing for it: he would have to risk tearing his parachute or die. Leaning over to the right, with one last effort he pulled his legs free and up towards his body and suddenly he was rolling through the air, somersaulting past the tail of his Messerschmitt.

Still tumbling he pulled the parachute release but for a moment nothing happened, and in panic he began groping helplessly at the pack, only for the silk to burst out. As the main parachute opened, the secondary ’chute managed to get tangled around his left leg causing him intense pain so that he was hanging upside down, his leg feeling as though it was being pulled from his hip. Somehow, he managed to right himself and was relieved to discover his leg was still intact, although the pain was excruciating. Ahead he now saw Yellow 2 dive into the ground in the middle of a field of cows, which were scattering in all directions. He heard a soft thump as it hit the ground and then the ammunition began exploding.

The ground was now rising up to meet him, but fortunately he landed on his right leg and the ground was soft, and he was able to release the parachute harness with ease. He was lying beside a canal embankment. A short distance away, although out of sight, ammunition was still exploding. Looking around, he could see no-one. He felt desperately alone and helpless, and his throat began to tighten. He thought he might cry.

But then the moment passed as he began to discard his rubber dinghy, flare pistol, and sea water dye container. Suddenly a shot rang out and he quickly lay flat, pressing his head into the damp ground. Carefully raising his head again he saw a man in civilian clothes approaching him, an armband around his left sleeve and clutching a shotgun.

‘Get up!’ he yelled.

‘My leg is hurt!’ Ulrich replied. He tried to get up, but collapsed in pain.

‘I’ll come round to you,’ called out the man.

Ulrich sat there on the wet grass, waiting for his captor. Depression swept over him. He was twenty-two and a prisoner of war. The battle was over.

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