Retreat Back to Poland Summer 1944 I

By 1 July 1944 Generalfeldmarschall Walter Model was certain the most easterly line he could try to hold was between Baranovichi and Molodechno. He expected some advantage from earthworks and trenches left there from World War I, but told Hitler he would need several divisions from Army Group North to defend Molodechno. He was worried most about his left flank. Between the Army Group North flank, “nailed down” at Polotsk by Hitler’s orders, and the Third Panzer Army left flank northeast of Minsk, a 50-mile gap had opened. A gap nearly as wide separated the panzer army’s right flank and the Fourth Army short line around Molodechno. Third Panzer Army could be encircled or simply swept away any time the Russians wanted to make the effort, and thereafter the road to Riga and the Baltic coast would be open.

Although Model branded it “a futile experiment,” Hitler insisted that Army Group North hold Polotsk and strike to the southwest from there to regain contact with Third Panzer Army. The Commanding General, Army Group North, Generaloberst Georg Lindemann, reported that with two divisions, all he could spare if his flank had to stay at Polotsk, he could not attack. When on 3 July, after receiving permission to go back a short distance from Polotsk, Lindemann continued to insist he could not attack, Hitler dismissed him and appointed Generaloberst Johannes Friessner in his place.

When the Russians reached Minsk, Army Group Center, judging by past experience, assumed that they had attained their first major objective and, having gone 125 miles, more than their usual limit on one issue of supplies, would pause at least several days to regroup and resupply. The army group was mistaken. The first objective, indeed, had been reached, but the Stavka had ordered the offensive carried west on a broad front without stopping. First Baltic Front was to go toward Dvinsk, Third Belorussian Front to Molodechno and then via Vil’nyus and Lida to the Neman, and First Belorussian Front to Baranovichi and west toward Brest. Second Belorussian Front stayed behind to mop up around Minsk.

The Russians moved faster than Army Group Center could deploy its meager forces even to attempt a stand. Russian troops were through the narrows south and east of Molodechno by 6 July, and the army group reported that they had full freedom of movement toward Vil’nyus. Second Army committed enough troops around Baranovichi to brake the advance a few days, but one panzer division and a Hungarian cavalry division could not stop four Soviet tank corps backed by infantry. Baranovichi fell on 8 July as did Lida, the road and rail junction west of the Nalibocka Forest.

By stretching its front west, Army Group North narrowed the gap to Third Panzer Army to about twenty miles. Friessner was going to attack south with three divisions, but First Baltic Front’s Fourth Shock and Sixth Guards Armies began pressing toward Dvinsk and thus tied down everything on the army group’s flank. Friessner then proposed as a “small solution” to let Sixteenth Army withdraw to the LITHUANIA position, a line being constructed from Kraslava east of Dvinsk to Ostrov; Hitler refused to consider going more than half that distance.

On the 8th Model reported that he could not hold the line Vil’nyus-Lida-Baranovichi—in fact, the attempt had already failed completely. The first town was surrounded and the latter two were lost. Since he did not expect any reinforcements within the next eight days, he could not attempt to stop the Russians anywhere. He asked for an audience with Hitler the next day.

At Führer headquarters, Hitler proposed giving him a panzer division from Germany and two divisions from Army Group North right away, two more later. With these Third Panzer Army was to attack north and close the gap. On the question of the “big solution,” taking Army Group North back to the Riga-Dvinsk-Dvina River line, which was what Model wanted most, Hitler was adamant. Admiral Dönitz, he said, had submitted a report proving such a withdrawal ruinous for the Navy.

For the next several days the Army Group Center front drifted west toward Kaunas, the Neman River, and Bialystok. The help from Army Group North did not come. Friessner could neither release the divisions promised Army Group Center nor attack south himself. Between the Dvina and the Velikaya, Second Baltic Front and the right flank army of Third Baltic Front were engaging Sixteenth Army in a series of vicious and costly battles. South of the Dvina, around Dvinsk, First Baltic Front troops cracked the line in two places.

On 12 July Friessner reported to Hitler that he still proposed to attack south toward Third Panzer Army, but even if the attack succeeded it would have no lasting effect. General Ivan Bagramyan’s armies would keep on going west. Moreover, he could no longer maintain a stable defense anywhere on his own front south of Ostrov. He urged—”if one wants to save the armies of Army Group North”—taking Armeeabteilung Narva back to Reval and from there by sea to Riga, Liepaja, or Memel and withdrawing the Sixteenth and Eighteenth Armies to the line Riga-Kaunas. “I cannot,” Friessner wrote, “reconcile with my conscience not having made every effort in this fateful hour to spare these loyal troops the worst that could befall them and not having found for them an employment that would make it possible to hold the enemy away from the eastern border of our Homeland.” If Hitler could not give him freedom of action he asked to be relieved of his command.

Hitler, who rejected Friessner’s proposal emphatically, had another plan. He intended to give Model five panzer divisions, including the big Hermann Göring Parachute Panzer Division, and have them assembled behind Kaunas to attack and close the gap between the army groups. The OKH operations chief pointed out that the battle was moving too fast; in the time it would take to assemble the divisions, the front would undoubtedly change so greatly that the attack would be impossible.

On 13 July Model reported that he would try to stop the Russians forward of the Kaunas-Neman River-Grodno-Brest line, but he would have to use the fresh panzer divisions to do it. Counting new arrivals expected through 21 July, he would then only have 16 fully combat-worthy divisions against 160 Russian divisions and brigades. In a conference at Führer headquarters in Rastenburg on the 14th, Hitler changed his mind to the extent of giving Model the dual mission of first halting the offensive and then creating an attack force on the north flank.

During the third week of the month the Third Panzer and Fourth Armies managed to come to stop on a line from Ukmerge south past Kaunas and along the Neman to south of Grodno. Second Army, echeloned east, was consolidating as it drew back toward Bialystok. The Ninth Army staff supervised work on a line protecting the East Prussian border and organized blocking detachments to catch stragglers. The army group was beginning to regain its balance.

The Russians, having covered better than 200 miles without a pause, had for the time being outrun their supplies. They were now deep in territory ravaged by recent fighting, and bridges had to be rebuilt and rails relaid. Where there had been time to use it, the Germans’ Schienenwolf (rail wolf), a massive steel plow towed by a locomotive had, as on other similar occasions, turned long stretches of railroad into tangles of twisted rails and broken ties.

The North Flank of Army Group Center and Army Group North 18 July-31 August 1944

A Threat to Army Group North

On the 17th, the day the Russians marched 57,000 German prisoners through the main streets of Moscow to mark the victory in Belorussia, Army Group Center radio monitors intercepted messages to Soviet tank units north of Vil’nyus telling them to attack into the gap between Army Groups Center and North. Another, possibly greater, German disaster seemed to be at hand. Model advised the OKH he could not assemble the projected attack force in time to stop the Soviet armor; Army Group North would have to do it or suffer the consequences.

Army Group North was fully occupied trying to get into the LITHUANIA position, which was beginning to crack at the points where it had been reached. On 16 July Friessner informed Hitler that it was “a marvel” that the Russians had not already sent a force toward Riga to envelop the army group flank. He had nothing to use against them. He was taking one division out of the front at Narva; but it would be fully committed by the 10th; after that he would have no more reserves. “From then on,” he concluded, “that the front will fall apart must be taken into account.”

In a conference with Model and Friessner on 18 July, Hitler ordered the fighting in the gap conducted with mobile forces. He would have two self-propelled assault gun brigades there in four days, and by that time Göring would have strong air units ready to help. The army groups would each supply some infantry and a half dozen or so panzer and self-propelled artillery battalions. Göring, who was present, for once screwed up his courage and remarked that one had to speak out, the only way to get forces was to go back to the Dvina line. Hitler agreed that would be the simplest. But, he contended, it would lose him the Latvian oil, Swedish iron ore, and Finnish nickel; therefore, Army Group North’s mission would be to hold the front where it was “by every means and employing every imaginable improvisation.” Trying for the last time to talk Hitler around, Generaloberst Kurt Zeitzler Chief of Staff, OKH carried his argument to the point of offering his resignation and, finally, reporting himself sick. Hitler countered with an order forbidding officers to relinquish their posts voluntarily.

The Battle Expands to the Flanks

By mid-July, when the frontal advance against Army Group Center began to lose momentum, the Stavka was ready to apply pressure against the flanks. In the north the gap between the Third Panzer and Sixteenth Armies, the “Baltic Gap,” offered a ready-made opportunity. First Baltic Front, given the Second Guards and Fifty-first Armies, which had been moved up from the Crimea, deployed them for a strike west toward Shaulyay and from there north toward Riga.

On the south, Army Group North Ukraine was still strong, by current German standards, but it was not the massive “block” that had been created in May and June. It had lost three panzer and two infantry divisions outright and in exchanges had received several divisions that were not battle tested. In the southern three-quarters of the North Ukraine zone, Marshal Ivan Stepanovich Konev’s First Ukrainian Front had ten armies, three of them tank armies. In the northern quarter First Belorussian Front had three armies, reinforced during the second week of July by a guards army and a tank army transferred from the two southern fronts and the Polish First Army, a token force of four divisions. Apparently using the operation against Army Group Center as a model, Marshal Konstantin Rokossovsky and Konev had positioned their armies for thrusts in the north toward Brest and Lublin, in the center toward Rava Russkaya and L’vov, and in the south toward Stanislav.

Army Group North Ukraine and the Ninth Army 14 July-15 September 1944

Army Group North Ukraine Broken Through

The Army Group Center disaster mitigated the Army Group North Ukraine command problem somewhat in that it produced a slightly more flexible attitude in the highest headquarters. At the end of June Hitler lifted the “fortified place” designations on Kovel’ and Brody and a week later allowed Fourth Panzer Army to give up Kovel’ and go into a shorter line fifteen miles west of the city. In the second week of July he also allowed the army to straighten a bulge on its right flank around Torchin.

When Fourth Panzer Army started back from Torchin, Konev, hoping to catch the Germans off balance, opened his attack toward Rava Russkaya on 13 July, a day earlier than planned. That move disconcerted both sides. Third Guards Army made a ragged start. The German divisions in motion stopped where they were supposed to, but a division a few miles farther south crumbled and a panzer division ordered to backstop it was slowed by air attacks. Next day Thirteenth Army found the weak spot and worked in deeper.

On 14 July two armies hit the First Panzer Army left flank due east of L’vov. The army had two reserve panzer divisions close behind the front. On the 15th they counterattacked from the south, stopped Thirty-eighth Army, and even drove it back a mile or two. But farther north Sixtieth Army opened a small breach in the German line.

Without waiting for the gaps to be widened, Konev on 16 July committed First Guards Tank Army to the fighting on the Fourth Panzer Army right flank and a day later did the same with Third Guards Tank Army on the First Panzer Army left flank. The two German armies took their flanks back fifteen miles to a switch position named the PRINZ EUGEN, but before that was done the Russians penetrated the new front at the two crucial points. Elsewhere the withdrawal did not shorten the line enough to release troops either to close the gaps or to stop the westward rolling tank columns.

On the 18th Soviet armored spearheads from the north and south met on the Bug River thirty miles west of L’vov. Behind them XIII Corps (five German divisions and the SS Division Galicia), was encircled. During the same day First Guards Tank Army, going toward Rava Russkaya, crossed the Bug near Krystynopol. That night Fourth Panzer Army began taking its whole front back to the Bug. The withdrawal was necessary both because of the breakthrough in the south and because Second Army, its neighbor on the north, was being forced back toward Brest. Fourth Panzer Army reported that it had 20 tanks and 154 self-propelled assault guns in working order; the Russians had between 500 and 600 tanks. The army’s 12 divisions faced 34 Soviet rifle divisions, 2 mechanized corps, and 2 tank corps. The Russians had 10 rifle divisions, 2 cavalry corps, and 4 independent tank regiments in reserve.

After 18 July the whole Army Group North Ukraine front from Stanislav north was in motion. Having waited for Fourth Panzer Army to start toward the Bug, First Belorussian Front began its thrust to Lublin. On the 10th Eighth Guards Army forced its way across the river nearly to Chelm.

That day, First Guards Tank Army, striking between the Fourth and First Panzer Armies, reached Rava Russkaya, and Third Guards Tank Army passed north of L’vov, while the newly committed Fourth Tank Army closed up to the city from the east. XIII Corps, encircled forty miles east of L’vov, was drawing its divisions together for an attempt to escape to the south before the right half of the First Panzer Army front was pushed too far west.

On 22 July the Second Army right flank went into the Brest defense ring. Against Fourth Panzer Army Soviet tanks rammed through at Chelm in the morning, covered the forty miles to Lublin by afternoon, and after nightfall 70 enemy tanks and 300 to 400 trucks were reported going northwest past Lublin. Hitler refused to lift the “fortified place” designation, and the 900-man garrison stayed in the city. In the gap between the Fourth and First Panzer Armies, by then thirty miles wide, First Guards Tank Army had an open road to the San River. Fourth Panzer Army told the army group that the only way it could save itself was to withdraw behind the Vistula and San Rivers without delay. During the day XIII Corps staged its breakout attempt, but it had too far to go. Of 30,000 men in the pocket no more than 5,000 escaped. Around L’vov First Panzer Army resisted more strongly than the Russians expected, which probably explains why Konev did not launch his planned thrust toward Stanislav.

The Baltic Gap

By 18 July the increased weight against the adjacent flanks of Army Groups Center and North was also being felt. (Map 29) A captured Soviet officer said that he had seen Second Guards Army moving west toward the Third Panzer Army north flank. Fifth Guards Tank Army, with Thirty-third Army close behind, had closed up to the Third Panzer Army front east of Kaunas and along the Neman River south of the city. Reinhardt, who had a weak panzer division and 4 infantry divisions facing 18 rifle divisions, 3 tank corps, a mechanized corps, and 3 independent tank brigades, reported that he saw no chance of restoring contact with Army Group North and proposed that he be allowed to take back his flank on the north enough at least to get a strong front around Kaunas. Model, having returned from the day’s conference with Hitler, told him the army would have to stay where it was. Stretching the facts slightly, he said Army Group North would take care of closing the gap. He promised Reinhardt the Herman Göring Division.

During the next three days, while Fifth Tank Army increased its threat to Kaunas by working its way into several bridgeheads on the Neman, Second Guards Army moved west into the Baltic Gap and began pushing the Third Panzer Army flank south. By 22 July the flank division, trying to hold off six guards rifle divisions, was beginning to fall apart, and the gap had opened to a width of thirty-six miles. During the day Second Guards Army’s advance elements reached Panevezhis, forty miles behind the Third Panzer Army front. The army was down to a combat effective strength of 13,850 men, but Model again refused a request to go back. As far as reinforcements were concerned, he told Reinhardt, the army would have to withstand the “drought” for two or three more days.

Sixteenth Army, meanwhile, had completed its withdrawal into the LITHUANIA position on 19 July but had not been able to stop the Russians there. On the 22d Friessner ordered the army back another five to ten miles, which meant giving up its northern anchor at Pskov. To Hitler he sent word there was no other way of holding the army together; the new line also would not hold, and then he would have to go back again. Soon, he added, the front would lose its Pskov Lake-Lake Peipus tie-in, and getting behind the Dvina would then become a “question of life or death” for the whole army group.

Attentat!—Guderian—Schörner

In the Führer headquarters on 20 July the Attentat (attempted assassination) against Hitler had taken place. A time-bomb had injured all nineteen of the officers at the afternoon situation conference, three of them fatally, and had demolished the building in which the meeting was being held; but Hitler had escaped with minor burns, bruises, and an ear injury. In the first few hours after the explosion, a widespread anti-Hitler conspiracy centered in the Army and reaching into the highest command echelons, especially the Army General Staff, came to light. It was quickly smashed, and before the day was out Hitler had placed new men in a number of key posts. The most significant change as far as the Eastern Front was concerned was Guderian’s appointment as Acting Chief of Staff, OKH.

Guderian got the appointment by default. In fact, Hitler’s first choice was General der Infanterie Walter Buhle, who was among those wounded in the assassination attempt, and now could not assume the post until he had recovered. Hitler never completely forgave a general who had once failed him, but on 20 July 1944 Guderian was perhaps the only general in the OKH not under direct suspicion. Although his motives were not entirely clear, Guderian had been the officer who, in Berlin on the afternoon of the assassination attempt, had turned back the tank battalion drawn up to take the SS headquarters on the Fehrbelliner Platz. He had, moreover, lately been full of ideas for winning the war, and he had not attempted to dissemble his low opinion of the field generalship on the Eastern Front since the time he had been relieved of command there. His recent charges of defeatism in the General Staff made it appear unlikely that he had been a member of the conspiracy.

On his appointment, Guderian moved swiftly to give fresh evidence of loyalty to the Führer and to dissociate himself from his predecessors. In an order to all General Staff officers, he demanded of them an “exemplary [Nazi] attitude” on political questions and that publicly. Those who could not comply were to request to be removed from the General Staff. “In order to ease the transition to, for them, possibly new lines of thought,” he directed further, that all General Staff officers were to be given opportunities to hear political lectures and were to be detailed to National Socialist leadership discussions.

On his first day in his new post Guderian demonstrated how he proposed to conduct the war on the Eastern Front. When the Army Group North chief of staff told him Friessner was convinced the course Hitler was following would lose him the Baltic States and the Sixteenth and Eighteenth Armies to boot, Guderian dismissed the statement with a sneer, saying he expected “General Friessner will be man enough to give the necessary orders [to surrender] in the event of a catastrophe.”

After Friessner sent in his 22 July report his hours in command of Army Group North were numbered. The next day, at Guderian’s behest, Friessner and Schörner traded commands. Guderian told Model he was confident Schörner would “put things in order” at Army Group North. It was time, he added, also to stiffen the Army Group North Ukraine command’s backbone.

Schörner went to Army Group North with a special patent from Hitler giving him command authority over all combat forces of the three Wehrmacht branches, the Waffen-SS, and the party and civil offices in the Baltic States. Unusual as such sweeping power was, substantively it did not amount to much. It placed at Schörner’s disposal a few thousand men who could be committed in the gap on the army group’s south flank; otherwise, its main effect was to underscore Hitler’s determination to hold what was left of the Baltic States.

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Retreat Back to Poland Summer 1944 II

“The thrust is the best parry”

Worried by the threatening developments the day before on his front and flanks, Model, early on 23 July, predicted that the Russians would strike via L’vov to the San River, thrust past Lublin to Warsaw, encircle Second Army at Brest, advance on East Prussia across the Bialystok-Grodno line and by way of Kaunas, and attack past the army group left flank via Shaulyay to Memel or Riga. During the day Model’s concern, particularly for his south flank, grew to alarm as the Russians moved north rapidly between the Vistula and the Bug toward Siedlce, the main road junction between Warsaw and Brest. In the late afternoon, after several of his reports had gone unanswered, Model called to tell the Operations Branch, OKH, it was “no use sitting on one’s hands, there could be only one decision and that was to retreat to the Vistula-San line.” The branch chief replied that he agreed, but Guderian wanted to set a different objective. Later the army group chief of staff talked to Guderian, who quickly took up a proposal to create a strong tank force around Siedlce but would not hear of giving up any of the most threatened points. “We must take the offensive everywhere!” he demanded, “To retreat any farther is absolutely not tolerable.”

Before daylight the next morning Guderian had completed a directive which was issued over Hitler’s signature. Army Groups North and North Ukraine were to halt where they were and start attacking to close the gaps. Army Group Center was to create a solid front on the line Kaunas-Bialystok-Brest and assemble strong forces on both its flanks. These would strike north and south to restore contact with the neighboring army groups. All three army groups were promised reinforcements. The directive ended with the aphorism “The thrust is the best parry” (der Hieb ist die beste Parade). After reading the directive Model’s chief of staff told the OKH operations chief it would be seven days before the army groups would get any sizable reinforcements—in that time much could happen.

During the last week in the month the Soviet armies rolled west through the shattered German front. On 24 July First Panzer Army still held L’vov and its front to the south, but behind the panzer army’s flank, 50 miles west of L’vov, First Tank Army, Third Guards Tank Army, and the Cavalry-Mechanized Group Baranov had four tank and mechanized corps closing to the San River on the stretch between Jaroslaw and Przemysl. That day Fourth Panzer Army fell back 25 miles to a 40-mile front on the Wieprz River southeast of Lublin; off both its flanks the Russians tore open the front for a distance of 65 miles in the south and 55 miles in the north. Second Army had drawn its three right flank corps back to form a horizontal V with the point at Brest. Behind the army a Second Tank Army spearhead reached the outskirts of Siedlce at nightfall on the 24th, and during the day Forty-seventh and Seventieth Armies had turned in against the south flank.

To defend Siedlce, Warsaw, and the Vistula south to Pulawy, Model, on the 24th, returned Headquarters, Ninth Army, to the front and gave it the Hermann Göring Division, the SS Totenkopf Division, and two infantry divisions, the latter three divisions still in transit. From the long columns coming west across the Vistula, the army began screening out what troops it could. In Warsaw it expected an uprising any day.

The next day Fourth Tank Army crossed the San between Jaroslaw and Przemysl. To try to stop that thrust, Army Group North Ukraine, on orders from the OKH, took two divisions from Fourth Panzer Army and gave the army permission to withdraw to the Vistula. In the Ninth Army sector Rokossovskiy’s armor pierced a thin screening line around the Vistula crossings at Deblin and Pulawy and reached the east bank of the river.

Morning air reconnaissance on the 26th reported 1,400 Soviet trucks and tanks heading north past Deblin on the Warsaw road. At the same time, on the Army Group Center north flank reconnaissance planes located “endless” motorized columns moving west out of Panevezhis behind Third Panzer Army. During the day Second Army declared it could not hold Brest any longer, but Hitler and Guderian refused a decision until after midnight, by which time the corps in and around the city were virtually encircled.

In two more days First Panzer Army lost L’vov and fell back to the southwest toward the Carpathians. Fourth Panzer Army went behind the Vistula and beat off several attempts to carry the pursuit across the river. Ninth Army threw all the forces it could muster east of Warsaw to defend the city, hold Siedlce, and keep open a route to the west for the divisions coming out of Brest. South of Pulawy two Soviet platoons crossed the Vistula and created a bridgehead; Ninth Army noted that the Russians were expert at building on such small beginnings.

In the gap between Army Groups Center and North, Bagramyan’s motorized columns passed through Shaulyay, turned north, covered the fifty miles to Jelgava, and cut the last rail line to Army Group North. In a desperate attempt to slow that advance, Third Panzer Army dispatched one panzer division on a thrust toward Panevezhis. Hitler wanted two more divisions put in, but they could only have come from the front on the Neman, where the army was already losing its struggle to hold Kaunas.

The 29th brought Army Group Center fresh troubles. Nine rifle divisions and two guards tank corps hit the Third Panzer Army right flank on the Neman front south of Kaunas. Rokossovsky’s armor drove north past Warsaw, cutting the road and rail connections between the Ninth and Second Armies and setting the stage for converging attacks on Warsaw from the southeast, east, and north.

On the 30th the Third Panzer Army flank collapsed, the Russians advanced to Mariampol, twenty miles from the East Prussian border, and could have gone even farther had they so desired. Between Mariampol and Kaunas the front was shattered. In Kaunas and in the World War I fortifications east of the city two divisions were in danger of being ground to pieces as the enemy swung in behind them from the south. Model told Reinhardt that the army group could not grant permission to give up the city and it was useless to ask the OKH. Reinhardt replied, “Very well, if that is how things stand, I will save my troops”; at ten minutes after midnight he ordered the corps holding Kaunas to retreat to the Nevayazha River ten miles to the west.

On the Warsaw approaches during the day Second Tank Army came within seven miles of the city on the southeast and took Wolomin eight miles to the northeast. In the city shooting erupted in numerous places. In the San-Vistula triangle First Tank Army stabbed past Fourth Army and headed northwest toward an open stretch of the Vistula on both sides of Baranow. Off the tank army’s south flank the OKH gave the Headquarters, Seventeenth Army, command of two and a half divisions to try to plug the gap between Fourth Army and First Panzer Army.

On the last day of the month elements of a guards mechanized corps reached the Gulf of Riga west of Riga. Forty miles south of Warsaw Eighth Guards Army took a small bridgehead near Magnuszew. Between the Fourth and Seventeenth Armies, First Tank Army began taking its armor across the Vistula at Baranow. That day, too, for the first time, the offensive faltered: Bagramyan did not move to expand his handhold on the Baltic; apparently short of gasoline, the tanks attacking toward Warsaw suddenly slowed almost to a stop; a German counterattack west from Siedlce began to make progress; and General Ivan Danilovich Chernyakovsky did not take advantage of the opening between Mariampol and Kaunas.

At midnight on 31 July Hitler reviewed the total German situation in a long, erratic, monologue delivered to Jodl and a handful of other officers. The news from the West was also grim: there the Allies were breaking out of the Cotentin Peninsula, and on the 31st U.S. First Army had passed Avranches. Nevertheless, the most immediate danger, Hitler said, was in the East, because if the fighting reached into Upper Silesia or East Prussia, the psychological effects in Germany would be severe. As it was, the retreat was arousing apprehension in Finland and the Balkan countries, and Turkey was on the verge of abandoning its neutrality. What was needed was to stabilize the front and, possibly, win a battle or two to restore German prestige.

The deeper problem, as Hitler saw it, was “this human, this moral crisis,” in other words, the recently revealed officers’ conspiracy against him; he went on:

“In the final analysis, what can we expect of a front . . . . if one now sees that in the rear the most important posts were occupied by downright destructionists, not defeatists but destructionists. One does not even know how long they have been conspiring with the enemy or with those people over there [Seydlitz’s League of German Officers]. In a year or two the Russians have not become that much better; we have become worse because we have that outfit over there constantly spreading poison by means of the General Staff, the Quartermaster General, the Chief of Communications, and so on. If we overcome this moral crisis . . . in my opinion we will be able to set things right in the East.”

Fifteen new grenadier divisions and ten panzer brigades being set up, he predicted, would be enough to stabilize the Eastern Front. Being pushed into a relatively narrow space, he thought, was not entirely bad; it reduced the Army’s need for manpower-consuming service and support organizations.

The Recovery

In predicting that the front could be stabilized, Hitler came close to the mark. In fact, even his expressed wish for a victory or two was about to be partially gratified. Model was keeping his forces in hand, and he was gradually gaining strength. Having advanced, in some instances more than 150 miles, the Soviet armies were again getting ahead of their supplies. The flood had reached its crest. It would do more damage; but in places it could also be dammed and diverted.

Crosscurrents

On 1 August Third Panzer Army, not yet recovered from the beating it had taken between Kaunas and Mariampol, shifted the right half of its front into the East Prussia defense position. Third Belorussian Front, following close, cut through this last line forward of German territory in three places and took Vilkavishkis, ten miles east of the border. The general commanding the corps in the weakened sector warned that the Russians could be in East Prussia in another day.

The panzer army staff, set up in Schlossberg on the west side of the border, found being in an “orderly little German city almost incomprehensible after three years on Soviet soil.” But Reinhardt was shaken, almost horrified, when he discovered that the Gauleiter of East Prussia, Erich Koch, who was also civil defense commissioner for East Prussia, had not so much as established a plan for evacuating women and children from the areas closest to the front. The army group chief of staff said that he had been protesting daily and had been ignored; apparently Koch was carrying out a Führer directive.

In Warsaw on 1 August the Polish Armia Krajowa (Home Army), under General Tadeusz Bor-Komorowski, staged an insurrection. The Poles were trained and well-armed. They moved quickly to take over the heart of the city and the through streets, but the key points the insurgents needed to establish contact with the Russians, the four Vistula bridges and Praga, the suburb on the east bank, stayed in German hands. Worse yet for the insurgents, south of Wolomin the Hermann Göring Division, 19th Panzer Division, and SS Wiking Division closed in behind the III Tank Corps, which after sweeping north past Warsaw had slowed to a near stop on 31 July. In the next two or three days, while the German divisions set about destroying III Tank Corps, Second Tank Army shifted its effort away from Warsaw and began to concentrate on enlarging the bridgehead at Magnuszew, thirty-five miles to the south.

Stalin was obviously not interested in helping the insurgents achieve their objectives: a share in liberating the Polish capital and, based on that, a claim to a stronger voice in the post-war settlement for Premier Stanislaw Mikolajczyk’s British-and-American-supported exile government. On 22 July the Soviet Union had established in Lublin the hand-picked Polish Committee of National Liberation, which as one of its first official acts came out wholeheartedly in favor of the Soviet-proposed border on the old Curzon Line, the main point of contention between the Soviet Union and the Mikolajczyk government. That Mikolajczyk was then in Moscow (he had arrived on 30 July) negotiating for a free and independent Poland added urgency to the revolt but at the same time reduced the insurgents in Soviet eyes to the status of inconvenient political pawns.

Army Group North Ukraine on 1 August was in the second day of a counterattack, which had originally aimed at clearing the entire San-Vistula triangle, but which had been reduced before it started to an attempt to cut off the First Tank Army elements that had crossed the Vistula at Baranow. Although Seventeenth Army and Fourth Panzer Army both gained ground, they did not slow or, for that matter, much disturb Konev’s thrust across the Vistula. A dozen large pontoon ferries, capable of floating up to sixty tons, were transporting troops, tanks, equipment, and supplies of Third Guards Tank and Thirteenth Armies across the river. By the end of the day Fourth Panzer Army had gone as far as it could. The next afternoon the army group had to call a halt altogether. The divisions were needed west of the river where First Tank Army, backed by Third Guards Tank Army and Thirteenth Army, had forces strong enough to strike, if it chose, north toward Radom or southwest toward Krakow.

On the night of 3 August Model sent Hitler a cautiously optimistic report. Army Group Center, he said, had set up a continuous front from south of Shaulyay to the right boundary on the Vistula near Pulawy. It was thin—on the 420 miles of front thirty-nine German divisions and brigades faced an estimated third of the total Soviet strength—but it seemed that the time had come when the army group could hold its own, react deliberately, and start planning to take the initiative itself. Model proposed to take the 19th Panzer Division and the Hermann Göring Division behind the Vistula to seal off the Magnuszew bridgehead, to move a panzer division into the Tilsit area to support the Army Group North flank, and to use the Grossdeutschland Division, coming from Army Group South Ukraine, to counterattack at Vilkavishkis. He planned to free two panzer divisions by letting Second Army and the right flank of Fourth Army withdraw toward the Narew River. With luck, he thought, these missions could be completed by 15 August. After that, he could assemble six panzer divisions on the north flank and attack to regain contact with Army Group North.

For a change, fortune half-favored the Germans. The Hermann Göring Division and the 15th Panzer Division boxed in the Magnuszew bridgehead. Against the promise of a replacement in a week or so, Model gave up the panzer division he had expected to station near Tilsit. The division went to Army Group North Ukraine where Konev, after relinquishing the left half of his front to the reconstituted Headquarters, Fourth Ukrainian Front, under General Polkovnik Ivan Y. Petrov, was now also pushing Fourth Tank Army into the Baranow bridgehead. The bridgehead continued to expand like a growing boil but not as rapidly as might have been expected considering the inequality of the opposing forces.

In the second week of the month three grenadier divisions and two panzer brigades arrived at Army Group Center. On 9 August the Grossdeutschland Division attacked south of Vilkavishkis. Through their agents the Russians were forewarned. They were ready with heavy air support and two fresh divisions. This opposition blunted the German attack somewhat, but the Grossdeutschland Division took Vilkavishkis, even though it could not completely eliminate the salient north of the town before it was taken out and sent north on 10 August.

A Corridor to Army Group North

In the first week of August the most urgent question was whether help could be brought to Army Group North before it collapsed completely. On 6 August Schörner told Hitler that his front would hold until Army Group Center had restored contact, provided “not too much time elapsed” in the interval; his troops were exhausted, and the Russians were relentlessly driving them back by pouring in troops, often 14-year-old boys and old men, at every weak point on the long, thickly forested front. To Guderian he said that if Army Group Center could not attack soon, all that was left was to retreat south and go back to a line Riga-Shaulyay-Kaunas, and even that was becoming more difficult every day.

On 10 August Third Baltic and Second Baltic Fronts launched massive air and artillery-supported assaults against Eighteenth Army below Pskov Lake and north of the Dvina. They broke through in both places on the first day. Having no reserves worth mentioning, Schörner applied his talent for wringing the last drop of effort out of the troops. To one of the division commanders he sent the message: “Generalleutnant Charles de Beaulieu is to be told that he is to restore his own and his division’s honor by a courageous deed or I will chase him out in disgrace. Furthermore, he is to report by 2100 which commanders he has had shot or is having shot for cowardice.” From the Commanding General, Eighteenth Army, he demanded “Draconian intervention” and “ruthlessness to the point of brutality.”

To boost morale in Schörner’s command, the Air Force sent the Stuka squadron commanded by Major Hans Rudel, the famous Panzerknacker (tank cracker), who a few days before had chalked up his 300th Soviet tank destroyed by dive bombing. Hitler sent word on the 12th that Army Group Center would attack two days earlier than planned. From Königsberg the OKH had a grenadier division airlifted to Eighteenth Army.

Army Group Center began the relief operation on 16 August. Two panzer corps, neither fully assembled, jumped off west and north of Shaulyay. Simultaneously, Third Belorussian Front threw the Fifth, Thirty-third, and Eleventh Guards Armies against Third Panzer Army’s right flank and retook Vilkavishkis. During the day Model received an order appointing him to command the Western Theater. Reinhardt, the senior army commander, took command of the army group, and Generaloberst Erhard Raus replaced him as Commanding General, Third Panzer Army.

The next day, while the offensive on the north flank rolled ahead, Chernyakovsky’s thrust reached the East Prussian border northwest of Vilkavishkis. One platoon, wiped out before the day’s end, crossed the border and for the first time carried the war to German soil. In the next two days the Russians came perilously close to breaking into East Prussia.

On the extreme north flank of Third Panzer Army two panzer brigades, with artillery support from the cruiser Prinz Eugen standing offshore in the Gulf of Riga, on the 10th took Tukums and made contact with Army Group North. On orders from the OKH, the brigades were immediately put aboard trains in Riga and dispatched to the front below Lake Peipus. The next day Third Panzer Army took a firmer foothold along the coast from Tukums east and dispatched a truck column with supplies for Army Group North. On the East Prussian border the army’s front was weak and beginning to waver, but the Russians were by then concentrating entirely on the north and did not make the bid to enter German territory. Reinhardt told Guderian during the day that to expand the corridor and get control of the railroad to Army Group North through Jelgava would take too long. He recommended evacuating Army Group North. Guderian replied that he himself agreed but that Hitler refused on political grounds. The offensive continued through 27 August, when Hitler ordered a panzer division transferred to Army Group North.

At the end, the contact with Army Group North was still restricted to an 18-mile-wide coastal corridor. For the time being that was enough. On the last day of the month the Second and Third Baltic Fronts suddenly went over to the defensive.

The Battle Subsides

Throughout the zones of Army Groups Center and North Ukraine, the Soviet offensive, as the month ended, trailed off into random swirls and eddies. After taking Sandomierz on 18 August First Ukrainian Front gradually shifted to the defensive even though it had four full armies, three of them tank armies, jammed into its Vistula bridgehead. North of Warsaw First Belorussian Front had harried Second Army mercilessly as it withdrew toward the Narew, and in the first week of September, when the army went behind the river, took sizable bridgeheads at Serock and Rozan. But for more than two weeks Rokossovsky evinced no interest in the bridgehead around Warsaw, which Ninth Army was left holding after Second Army withdrew.

In Warsaw at the turn of the month the uprising seemed to be nearing its end. One reason why the insurgents had held out as long as they did was that the Germans had been unable and unwilling to employ regular troops in the house-to-house fighting. They had brought up various remote-controlled demolition vehicles, rocket projectors, and artillery—including a 24-inch howitzer—and had turned the operations against the insurgents over to General von dem Bach-Zelewski and SS-Gruppenführer Heinz Reinefarth. The units engaged were mostly SS and police and included such oddments as the Kaminski Brigade and the Dirlewanger Brigade. As a consequence, the fighting was carried on at an unprecedented level of viciousness without commensurate tactical results.

On 2 September Polish resistance in the city center collapsed and 50,000 civilians passed through the German lines. On the 9th Bor-Komorowski sent out two officer parliamentaries, and the Germans offered prisoner of war treatment for the members of the Armia Krajowa. The next day, in a lukewarm effort to keep the uprising alive, the Soviet Forty-seventh Army attacked the Warsaw bridgehead, and the Poles did not reply to the German offer. Under the attack, the 73d Infantry Division, a hastily rebuilt Crimea division, collapsed and in another two days Ninth Army had to give up the bridgehead, evacuate Praga, and destroy the Vistula bridges. The success apparently was bigger than the Stavka had wanted; on the 14th, even though 100 U.S. 4-motored bombers flew a support mission for the insurgents, the fighting subsided. Until 10 September the Soviet Government had refused to open its airfields to American planes flying supplies to the insurgents. On 18 September American planes flew a shuttle mission, but the areas under insurgent control were by then too small for accurate drops and a second planned mission had to be canceled.

During the night of 16-17 September Polish First Army, its Soviet support limited to artillery fire from the east bank, staged crossings into Warsaw. The Soviet account claims that half a dozen battalions of a planned three-division force were put across. The German estimates put the strength at no more than a few companies, and Ninth Army observed that the whole operation became dormant on the second day. The Poles who had crossed were evacuated on 23 September. On the 26th Bor-Komorowski sent parliamentaries a second time, and on 2 October his representatives signed the capitulation.

The psychological reverberations of the summer’s disasters continued after the battles died down. In September Reinhardt wrote Guderian that rumors in Germany concerning Busch’s alleged disgrace, demotion, suicide, and even desertion were undermining the nation’s confidence in Army Group Center. He asked that Busch be given some sort of public token of the Führer’s continuing esteem. In the first week of October, Busch was permitted to give an address at the funeral of Hitler’s chief adjutant, Schmundt, who had died of wounds he received on 20 July. If that restored public confidence, it was certainly no mark of Hitler’s renewed faith either in Busch or in the generals as a class. He had already placed Busch on the select list of generals who were not to be considered for future assignments as army or army group commanders. After most of the eighteen generals captured by the Russians during the retreat joined the Soviet-sponsored League of German Officers, Hitler also decreed that henceforth none of the higher decorations were to be awarded to Army Group Center officers.

Where Hitler saw treason in high places, others saw more widespread, more virulent, more disabling maladies: the fear of being encircled and captured and the fear of being wounded and abandoned. The German soldier was being pursued by the specters of Stalingrad, Cherkassy, and the Crimea. Once, he could not even imagine the ultimate disaster—now he expected it.

Nachtjagd I

Leopold Fellerer was born in Vienna, Austria on 7 June 1919. In November 1940 he was posted as a bomber pilot, before being assigned as Technical Officer to II./NJG1. He claimed his first victory on 11 February 1941, a Hampden on 49 Squadron north of Bergen-Alkmaar. He was transferred to 4./NJG1 in June. In October 1942 Fellerer was made Staffelkapitän of 3./NJG1 before being posted to NJG5 in December that year. Promoted to Hauptmann, he became Gruppenkommandeur of II./NJG5 in December 1943. During this period, Fellerer raised his score to 18 victories. In January 1944 he claimed a B-24 Liberator on 4 January and a B-17 Flying Fortress on 11 January. On the night of 20/21 January he claimed five RAF Viermots. He was then awarded the German Cross in Gold in February and after 34 victories was awarded the Knight’s Cross on 8 April. Fellerer then moved to command III./NJG6 in May. During August-October 1944 Fellerer and III./NJG6 also flew operations to counter supply operations from Italy to the Polish Home Army uprising in Warsaw. He claimed two Douglas DC-3s and two Liberators during this time, his final kill coming in October. In 450 sorties Leopold Fellerer claimed 41 aerial victories, 39 of them at night.

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Sir Richard Peirse committed a total of 222 aircraft to oil targets in Hannover on 10/11 February, which fell during the February new moon. The previous highest Bomber Command sortie rate was 135, to Gelsenkirchen in the January 1941 moon period. The bulk of the Hannover force was made up once again of Wellingtons, of which 112 took part. Sergeant pilot Bill Garrioch and his crew on 15 Squadron took off from RAF Wyton near Huntingdon in Wellington IC T2702 ‘H-Harry’ for their 16th operation of the war as he recalls:

‘The briefing officer announced the target, the route in and out and the bomb load – 4,000lb made up of seven 500lb bombs and the balance in incendiaries. The Met Office forecast clear skies, strong westerly winds, a full moon and very cold. The CO, Group Captain Forster said that this was to be the biggest show of the war to date, wished us all the usual good luck and told us to beware of moving stars (night fighters)! This great man, a First World War pilot, still wore a steel brace on his back caused by spinal injuries received in a crash. Even so, he flew with us occasionally. Take-off was timed for 1730 hours and the flight duration expected to be about seven hours. Then followed the usual pre-flight planning between pilot, navigator and crews. We then went to the mess for our tea of bacon and eggs, back to our quarters to change into warmer clothing and of course to empty our pockets. The ritual of this act always gave me a momentary feeling of apprehension until I put some small change back into my pocket in case we had to land away from base on return. The funny thing is I had only half a crown in small change, which I put into my pocket; that being the only article carried on my person.

‘We boarded the Bedford crew bus for the six-mile journey to Alconbury our satellite airfield. Generally during these bus journeys there was the usual chatter, pocket chess or cards but on this occasion everyone seemed quiet and preoccupied with their thoughts, so much so that our navigator Sergeant Bob Beioley remarked on it. Bob and Sergeant Glyndwr ‘Taffy’ Rearden, WOp/AG had completed twelve operations with me on Blenheims prior to converting to the ‘Wimpy’). Prior to air test in the morning Taffy expressed the wish to be front gunner that night as a change from being cooped up inside the cabin. I agreed, as WOp/AG Sergeant George Hedge RNZAF was also a fully qualified WOp/AG. Soon we arrived at our dispersal. I signed the Form 700 and as I climbed the ladder into the aircraft Chiefy Wright said to me, ‘If you break this one; don’t bring it back!’ (‘H-Harry’ was Flight Lieutenant Morris’s aircraft but my ‘D-Dog’ was being repaired after I had accidentally hit my wingtip on the control caravan during a previous take-off). I laughed and said that I would be a good boy and nurse his precious ‘Wimpy’. I glanced at my watch and at the other aircraft around the dispersal area.

‘Time to start up. Fuel on, first port and the starboard engines coughed, burst into life and warmed up at 1,000 rpm. Soon we ran each engine up to take-off rpm (2,650), tested the magnetos, oil pressure and temperature and cylinder head temperature and checked and set the gyro, cooling gills, flaps, etc. All the crew reported ready. The time was now 1725 hours. I gave the signal and with a final wave to our much-appreciated ground crew, we moved out towards our take-off position near the end of the runway. We were No.2 to go. At precisely 1730 hours No.1 started his take-off run and as he reached the end of the runway I lined up and got my green light from the caravan. Brakes off, I opened the throttle slowly to maximum power as we started rolling. As we gathered speed the noise was deafening and seemed to reach a crescendo that vibrated throughout the loaded aircraft. I kept the nose down until the last bit of the all-too-short runway loomed up, then, pulling up; she lifted clear, a light kiss on the concrete and off. Wheels up and nose kept down to increase flying speed. I throttled back to climbing rpm to reach operating height and the engine noise now changed to a welcome hum. All was well.

‘Bob gave me the course, which I confirmed from my kneepad. As the snow-covered countryside receded far below in the darkness, Sergeant Bill Jordan, the 2nd pilot who was on his second trip with me for familiarization, flew the aircraft and the gunners entered their turrets while I visited each member of the crew to ensure that all was in order. Soon we reached the coast at Orfordness and levelled off at 11,000 feet. The navigator and the wireless operator were at their stations and the lighting was very subdued, creating an eerie yet efficient atmosphere tinged with the smell of dope and fuel, amid the roar of the smooth-sounding Pegasus engines. When we were over the sea Taffy and Sergeant Jock Hall, rear gunner, a Scotsman with many trips in Coastal Command, test-fired their guns. From now on we were on the alert for night fighters. It was cold and clear. The patches of white cumulus would make us an easily identified target seen from above. I took over before we reached the Dutch coast, which we crossed at 1850 hours – another 213 miles and 65 minutes to the target. We had a very strong tail wind and ground speed was nearly 200 mph. Bob got a pinpoint. We were almost dead on track – a slight course alteration and all was well. We were lucky so far.

‘It was unbelievably quiet. We flew towards the target and still there was no flak. We were very much alert but it was the easiest run-in so far and the ground was easily identifiable. Only five minutes to the target. Then we saw it. Bob was a good navigator – we were almost spot on. On the eastern horizon the rising moon assisted target identification. With bomb doors opened and bombs fused Bob went down to the bombsights. He saw the target nestled in the crook of the ‘Y’-section of a big road junction. We had a following wind so I throttled back a little and kept the aircraft steady. Right a little … I did not see any activity at all, not even a little flak. The first Wimpy’s bombs burst. Then suddenly there was a series of flashes close to Gilmore’s aircraft. Bob called, ‘Left… left … left … a bit more … steady now … steady.’ Flak now curled lazily up towards us and then there was heavy ack-ack to our left. It was accurate for height but was not near us. Must be the other aircraft in trouble. Bob called ‘Bombs gone!’ and I immediately turned steeply to port. Jock in the rear turret watched our bombs burst. There were only six flashes. Where was the seventh? Gilmore’s aircraft started a fire and our incendiaries were well alight. Ack-Ack was almost non-existent with us but as we flew away we saw other aircraft getting a hot reception and the sky was full of flak. All this time the fires seemed to grow in intensity – Hannover was visible forty miles away. The moon was up and it was like daylight. We watched for enemy fighters but all was quiet and we could not even see other aircraft.

‘Against a strong head wind our ground speed was now only 85 knots; it was going to be a long haul home. Large white cumulus clouds were building up below. As we crossed the eastern coast of the Zuider Zee at Kempen, Jock suddenly called out, ‘Fighter below and behind!’ I put the engines to cruising revs and steep turned to starboard to face him. As I turned I saw a Me 110, which was turning to meet me. I turned violently to port to avoid him. Jock gave him a long burst but he still attacked, hitting the aircraft in the fuselage and port engine. I put the flaps down and soon the shooting stopped. He had overshot. I heard the cannon fire hit the aircraft somewhere behind me. Jock said that he had been hit. Could we get him out of the turret? The port engine was on fire. I turned off the fuel and full throttle. Bob called, ‘Are we on fire?’ Bob’s sudden announcement on the intercom must have paralyzed my senses if only for a fleeting instant because as I was looking through the cockpit window, superimposed in space, just outside the windscreen was a very clear picture of my grandfather and a great uncle looking directly at me. It was so clear that I even recognized my uncle’s old tweed jacket! Then it was gone and I was back to reality. It frightened me because these two much-loved relatives had been dead for about seven years. Much later George told me that cannon shells came through the fuselage and exploded in his radio equipment. How he and Bob were not hit I’ll never know. I was saved by the armour plate behind my head. At that moment I knew we had to survive and I seemed to find added strength and courage to risk anything that would bring us out of this alive. I looked back and the fuselage was full of smoke. I could not see anyone. Perhaps a flare was burning. Taffy moaned faintly saying, ‘Get me out’ and I saw the fighter turn to port over our port wingtip. Bill Jordan went forward to open the escape hatch and to get Taffy out of the turret. I told the crew to prepare to bail out and raised the flaps.

‘We were diving now. The fighter came in again and once more I put the flaps down and the aircraft yawed violently to port while I throttled back and side slipped to almost stalling speed. Cannon and machine-gun tracer went just over the top of us but miraculously we were not hit. This time, as the fighter went over the top of us I raised the flaps and control was easier. I think only the starboard flap worked. I told Taffy to shoot the fighter down, position 10 o’clock. He did not answer. Bill Jordan tried desperately to operate the turret door release and get him out. George Hedge was standing beside me ready to help when Bill opened the floor escape hatch. Bob and Jock were still back in the smoke-filled fuselage. Were they alive? I did not know. I decided that unless we bailed out or landed quickly we would all die. We were blazing very badly now. I signalled to George not to jump as I had not given the order and I dived for the ground in the hope that a crash landing might save some of us. The aircraft persisted in turning to port. We were diving very steeply and fast, over 300 knots. Through the cockpit window I saw the port engine and that the inner wing was now on fire. Off all fuel and full throttle starboard engine. The frozen expanse of the Zuider Zee was hurtling towards us. I tried to level off but the elevators were sluggish and we hit the ice slightly nose down and skidded for what seemed to be miles. Then, suddenly, she broke through the ice and the nose filled up with water and ice through the open escape hatch. Then the aircraft stopped. We must have crashed at about 2230.’

‘Taffy’ Rearden died trapped in his front turret, which sank beneath the ice. Jock Hall was badly injured with his foot almost severed and he had bullet holes in his burned clothing but surgery at the Queen Wilhelmina hospital in Amsterdam was successful and he survived. ‘H-Harry’ was one of four losses on the Hannover raid and was credited to Hauptmann Walter Ehle of Stab (staff flight) II/NJG1 from Middenmeer north of Schiphol for his fifth victory. Ehle poured 560 rounds of 7mm machine gun and 100 rounds of 20mm cannon into Wellington T2702, which crashed on the frozen Ijsselmeer about seventeen kilometres west of Kempen. Walter Ehle was born on 28 April 1913 at Windhoek in German West Africa (now Namibia). At the start of World War Two Ehle flew with 3./ZG1 and was credited with three daylight victories before the unit was re-designated 3./NJG1 and he became a night fighter. Ehle would become one of the longest serving Gruppenkommandeur in the Luftwaffe, leading II./NJG1 from October 1940 until his death in November 1943. His sixth night victory was a Bristol Blenheim shot down on 2 June 1942 and he had sixteen victories in total by the end of 1942.

Three other bombers were lost on 10/11 February and included Hampden X3001 on 49 Squadron at Scampton, which was shot down by Austrian-born Leutnant Leopold ‘Poldi’ Fellerer of 5./NJG1 north of Bergen-Alkmaar for his victory. Pilot Officer J. H. Green and two of his crew were taken prisoner; one crew member being killed. Dornier Do 17Z and Ju 88C-2 Intruders of NJG2 claimed six aircraft over England: Oberleutnant Albert Schulz and Hauptmann Rudolf ‘Rolf’ Jung of 2./NJG2 claimed a 21 Squadron Blenheim and a Wellington near West Raynham in Norfolk respectively. The Blenheim, which Schulz shot down on its return to Watton, was the Oberleutnant’s third victory having shot down two Blenheims at Church Fenton airfield on 16 January. Pilot Officer Albert Chatteway and Pilot Officer George Eltham Sharvell were killed. Schulz was shot down and killed by B-17 return fire on 30 January 1944. (Feldwebel Heinz Krüger his bordfunker was killed and Unteroffizier Georg Frieben, bordshütze, bailed out safely). Wellington IC R1084 piloted by Sergeant Harold Humphrey Rogers, crash landed at Narborough without injury to the crew.18 Twenty-five year old Oberleutnant Paul Semrau of 3./NJG2 claimed two Blenheims near Feltwell for his first and second Night-Abschüsse. As a destroyer pilot, he had destroyed six aircraft on the ground). Oberleutnant Kurt Hermann and his bordfunker Unteroffizier Englebert Böttner of I./NJG2 claimed two Hampdens near Waddington for their 5th and 6th victories. Their first victim was AD719 on 49 Squadron piloted by Sergeant G. M. Bates who was returning to Scampton. A burst of fire set the aircraft on fire. Bates and one of his crew bailed out safely but the other two perished in the aircraft which crashed at Langworth, Lincolnshire. A few minutes later Herrmann attacked a 144 Squadron Hampden piloted by Sergeant William Alexander McVie who was flying with his navigation lights on. Herrmann’s fire hit the aircraft’s hydraulics, undercarriage and flaps. The lights went out and the Hampden dived away to land safely at Hemswell.

Another 144 Squadron Hampden flown by Sergeant E. Dainty orbited Hemswell but was refused permission to land because of the intruder activity and eventually, low on fuel, the crew abandoned the aircraft, which crashed at Snettisham, Norfolk. After attacking three airfields with incendiary bombs and chasing an unidentified aircraft without result, Hauptmann Rolf Jung, Staffelkapitän 2/NJG2 saw a Wellington with its navigation lights on. It was a 115 Squadron Wellington returning to Marham and flown by Sergeant Harold Humphrey Rogers. He had narrowly missed colliding with two other aircraft and was intent on avoiding a similar situation. Rogers had attacked Rotterdam as strong winds had prevented him reaching his target at Hannover. He had also machine-gunned two airfields in Holland on the return. Near a flashing landmark beacon at Swaffham, Rogers switched on the Wellington’s navigation lights. Almost immediately the port engine was hit and Sergeant Hill the rear gunner was wounded in his left arm. The aircraft began to lose height rapidly but Rogers was able to make a successful forced landing on a railway cutting at Narborough. The intruders of I./NJG2 claimed twelve bombers destroyed on intruding operations over England during February.

Despite these highly efficient intruder operations Hitler soon put a stop to ‘Fernnachtjagd’. He told Kammhuber: ‘If the long-range night-fighting really had results, the British would have copied it a long time ago, as they imitate anything good that I do.’ ‘And’ he added, ‘The German citizen, whose house has been destroyed by a British bomber, would prefer it if the British aircraft were shot down by a German night-fighter to crash next to his burning house.’ This decision allowed Bomber Command (and later the 8th Air Force) to build up and launch a crushing strategic bombing offensive against Germany virtually undisturbed over the British Isles and it undoubtedly was a decisive factor in the outcome of the war.

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In June 1942 no less than 62 RAF bombers (including twelve Halifaxes) were claimed shot down by II./NJG2, the top-scoring night fighters based at Leeuwarden. On 31 June Hitler decreed that all searchlight regiments except one (which was kept in action in the Venlo area for experimental purposes against the possible resumption of the searchlight techniques at some later date) should be given up to the flak for the protection of special industrial and urban targets, which eliminated any further use of the ‘Helle Nachtjagd’ technique. Kammhuber, who strongly contested the decision (though he later decided that the step proved beneficial to the development of the ‘Himmelbett’ system) compensated by further extending the existing radar positions. This had the double aim of leaving no gap through which attacking aircraft might penetrate and to put fighters into a position to attack bombers continuously along the penetration and return flights. By early 1942 ‘Himmelbett’ was so advanced that all that was necessary to make good the loss of searchlights was the further extension of the existing radar positions. To achieve greatest density of interception, Kammhuber retained these positions intact, though for more coverage he might have spread them more widely apart. Further positions were equipped, first covering the entire foresector up to the coast and then gradually taking in the main target areas in the rear. The old Grossraum was combined with new positions to form the new Nachtjagdgrossraum under the command of a Nachtjagdführer. Night fighter divisions eventually consisted of four to six of these night fighting areas. The Bomber Command tactics of staggered approach, involving a period of long duration (between one and one and a half hours) over a target were ideal for the successful operation of the ‘Himmelbett’ system. From June 1942 until the British introduction of ‘Window’ in July 1943 German night fighters inflicted heavy losses on the bomber forces. Leutnant ‘Dieter’ Schmidt of III./NJG1 comments:

‘The British began now not only using heavier machines, they also changed their tactics by no longer approaching loosely on a broad front but, in order to overwhelm the defences, coming tightly packed in what became known as a ‘bomber stream’. The first of these attacks was the famous 1,000 bomber raid on Cologne in the night of 30/31 May 1942. We responded with a defence network of night-fighting areas, the ‘Dunkle Nachtjagd’, which was independent of searchlights, reaching from the coast far back into the hinterland. The growing intensity of the air war but especially the difficulty of air operations at night resulted in the first and for us young ones hard to bear losses of experienced crews: after 23 victories Oberleutnant Woltersdorf, Kommandeur of the 7th Staffel was killed in a belly landing on 2 June. On 30 June Oberleutnant Werner Rowlin lost his life while bailing out and Feldwebel Richard Philipp of the 9th Staffel, who landed his aircraft on 9 June in spite of being shot through the lung, was out of action for a long time.

‘In mid-1942 our Gruppe not only got a new commander in Hauptmann Thimmig, our equipment was also significantly improved by aircraft fitted with radar, the Lichtenstein BC, which had been developed since August 1941 by IV./NJG1. Until now, the success of the ‘Dunkle Nachtjagd’ had been entirely dependent on the skill of the ground controller to direct the fighter accurately, especially during the final phase of the approach to the enemy aircraft. Now it would suffice to guide the crew close enough to be able to pick up the target with their on-board radar. Also, the aircraft were no longer painted black but in a light colour and by the end of the year our Bf 110Fs with their unreliable engines were replaced by the G4 night fighter version, which was to serve us well until the end of the war.’

On the night of 29/30 June Bomber Command dispatched 253 aircraft to Bremen. Eleven aircraft failed to return. Nine were shot down by night-fighters including six by II./NJG2. Three of these were Halifax IIs on 405 ‘Vancouver’ Squadron RCAF. W1113 LQ-G piloted by Pilot Officer Henry Adolphus Echin RAAF (who served as Chinn) was shot down at 0148 hours by Oberleutnant Rudolf Sigmund of II./NJG2 and crashed between Wolvega and Noordwolde. There were no survivors. W7714 flown by Warrant Officer Lawrence Sidney RCAF was shot down at 0214 hours by Oberstleutnant Alfred Helm of Stab IV/NJG1 and crashed at Sybrandaburen with the loss of all the crew. W7715 LQ-H flown by Flight Lieutenant Harold Liversidge was claimed by two pilots within one minute of each other: Leutnant Rolf Rüssmann of III./NJG3 into the Borger swamps south of Papenburg at 0145 hours and Unteroffizier Alfred Brackmann of 2./NJG3 at Bimolton, seven kilometres NNW of Nordhorn at 0146 hours. Only the rear gunner survived. Wellington III X3539 on 75 Squadron RNZAF was shot down at 0308 hours by Oberleutnant Egmont Prinz zur Lippe Weissenfeld of II./NJG2 and crashed in Waddenzee south of Ameland. Pilot Officer Walter Jack Monk RNZAF and crew were killed. A Wellington III on 57 Squadron, which returned to Methwold, carried the dead body of Pilot Officer Buston the rear gunner who was killed in a night fighter attack. Stirling I N3076 MG-S on 7 Squadron was probably shot down at 0233 hours by Leutnant Günther Löwa and Feldwebel Möller of 5./NJG2 in Bf 110F-4 R4+JN. The bomber crashed in the North Sea 35 kilometres northwest of Vlieland. Flight Sergeant M. G. Bailey RCAF and his two gunners were taken prisoner. The five others were killed. Löwa probably collided with the bomber and crashed in the sea near his final victim and he and Möller were killed. Stirling I BF310 OJ-H on 149 Squadron was shot down at 0302 hours by Oberleutnant Leopold ‘Poldi’ Fellerer of 5./NJG2. It also crashed in the Ijsselmeer off Schellingwoude. Pilot Officer Cecil William Simmons RCAF, an American from Winston-Salem, North Carolina and his crew were killed and are buried at Amsterdam.

Warrant Officer Len Collins RAAF a Stirling gunner on 149 Squadron at Lakenheath who had completed his tour and was awaiting a posting to an EFTS to train as a pilot volunteered for an extra op. He stood in for the mid-upper-gunner, who was ill, on the crew of Squadron Leader George William Alexander, who would be flying N6082. It would be Collins’ 33rd trip. He recalls:

‘Other than the second pilot, Flying Officer William George Barnes, on his first trip to gain experience, the remainder of the crew were on their thirtieth. All were RAF. I was the only Aussie. The trip to Bremen was uneventful. Conversing with the squadron leader I found that he was most interested with the pyrotechnic display from the flak and the colours of the searchlights as we crossed the enemy coast. I predicted we were in for trouble when a blue one slid off our wing tip. However, either our doctored IFF did not work or the Germans were given a tip-off. Over Bremen we received a direct hit from flak on our inner starboard engine, killing Alexander and Pilot Officer Cyril William Dellow, observer and injuring the wireless operator, Philip Frank Hickley. The bombs were dropped live, a photo taken and we headed for home on three engines. Over the Zuider Zee a night fighter [a Bf 110 of 6./NJG2 flown by Leutnant Hans-Georg Bötel] appeared. I can still recall the flash of his windscreen in the darkness as he opened fire. As I was speaking to the rear gunner, Sergeant [Richard Thomas Patrick] Gallagher he was blown out of his turret. I was ringed with cannon shells and injured in the leg by shrapnel. Owing to the electrical cut out which protected the tail of the aircraft from the mid-upper guns, I was unable to fire on the fighter attacking us. Fortunately, the turret became jammed in the rear position, allowing me to vacate it. Forward, the aircraft was burning like a torch. I could not contact any crewmember. The position was hopeless. I felt I had no option but to leave the aircraft. My parachute was not in its storage holder. I found it under the legs of the mid-upper turret with a cannon shell burn in it. I removed the rear escape hatch, clipped on the parachute and sat on the edge of the hatch. I pulled the ripcord and tumbled out. The parachute, having several holes from the shell burn, ‘candlesticked’ (twirled) as I descended and I landed in a canal. I was apprehended the following day and was taken to Leeuwarden airfield for interrogation. Here I met the pilot of the Messerschmitt 110 who claimed to have shot us down. I abused him in good Australian. He understood, having spent three years at Oxford University.’

N6082 was shot down at 0204 hours and crashed in the Ijsselmeer near Wons south of Harlingen. Collins was the only survivor. The others who were killed were Flight Sergeant Leslie Wiltshire and Sergeant Leslie Shearer. Bötel was killed on 3 July 1942 when his 110 crashed at Britswerd Holland, north of Sneek on his final approach to Leeuwarden airfield. He had three victories.

Nachtjagd II


Josef Kammhuber

When Britain declared war on Germany in September 1939 young RAF bomber pilots were enthusiastic and confident in their aircraft and equipment. The RAF believed that modern aircraft like the twin-engined Hampden, Wellington, Whitley and Blenheims with machine-gun turrets and flying in close formation to maximise defensive firepower against attacking fighter aircraft were unbeatable. The strategy was that these aircraft did not need fighter escort to reach and destroy targets but as the Luftwaffe would discover in the Battle of Britain (and much later the Americans from 1942 onward), this was all wishful thinking. The Handley Page Hampden and the Vickers Armstrong Wellington, Armstrong Whitworth Whitley and Bristol Blenheim, all twin engined bombers, were the mainstay of Bomber Command early in the war.

Like many of its genre, the Wellington was weakly armed but quite often it was this bomber’s exploits, which featured in the headlines in the British press and sometimes in German papers as well. During the first month of the war the RAF mostly focused its bomber attacks against anti-shipping operations on the German Bight. Operations by 24 Wellingtons against elements of the German fleet at Heligoland on 3 September 1939 met with stiff opposition from fighters and flak. Although ‘Freya’ radar had warned the German gunners of the impending raid the thick cloud at their bombing altitude fortunately had hidden the Wellingtons from view. Four Messerschmitt Bf 109Ds of 1 Gruppe Zerstörergeschwader 26 at Jever led by Hauptmann Friedrich-Karl Dickore climbed and intercepted the bombers after they had bombed but their aim was spoiled by cloudy conditions. Even so, the two pairs of Bf 109Ds damaged two of the Wellingtons in the attack. One pair attacked from above and the other pair from below. Leutnant Günther Specht, who damaged one of the Wellingtons, was shot down by return fire. Specht ditched in the sea and he was later rescued. The German had been wounded in the face and later had to have his left eye removed. Luckily for the Wellington crews, the three remaining Bf 109Ds were low on fuel and they broke off the engagement, while sixteen Bf 109D/Es and eight of I./ZG26’s new Bf 110Cs arrived too late to intercept the bombers.

Continued bombing operations by the inexperienced Wellington crews were brave but foolhardy; especially when one considers that many of their battle-hardened opponents had honed their fighting skills in the Legion Kondor in Spain. On 14 December twelve Wellingtons on shipping searches were attacked Bf 109Es of II./JG77 that had taken off from Wangerooge together with four Bf 110s of 2/ZG26 at Jever and five Wellingtons were shot down. Air Vice-Marshal John Eustace Arthur ‘Jackie’ Baldwin, AOC 3 Group was compelled to compare it to the Charge of the Light Brigade. Worse was to follow. RAF bombers mounted a heavy attack against shipping off Wilhelmshaven on 18 December in what came to be known as the ‘Battle of the Heligoland Bight’. Twenty-four Wellingtons on 9 Squadron, 37 Squadron and 149 Squadron formed up over Norfolk heading for the island of Heligoland. Two aircraft aborted the operation due to mechanical defects, but the remaining 22 pursued the attack and as the Wellingtons approached the German coast near Cuxhaven, Bf 109 and Bf 110 fighters of Jagdgeschwader 1, guided by radar plots of the incoming formation made by the experimental ‘Freya’ early warning radar installation at Wangerooge and directed by ground control, were waiting. The Wellingtons were easy pickings and the RAF crews were caught cold as the cunning German fighter pilots made beam attacks from above. Previously, attacks had been made from the rear but now the German pilots tore into the bombers safe in the knowledge that the ventral gun was powerless at this angle of attack. They knew too that the front and rear turrets could not traverse sufficiently to draw a bead on them. For almost half an hour 44 Luftwaffe fighters tore into the Wellingtons. In addition to the twelve Wellingtons lost and the two written off in crashes, three others were damaged in crash landings in England. Luftwaffe fighter claims for aircraft destroyed on the raid totalled 38, which later, were pared down to 26 or 27. Among these, Oberleutnant Johannes Steinhoff’s claim for two destroyed was reduced to one. Hauptmann Wolfgang Falck of 2./ZG76 who claimed two Wellingtons, force-landed his aircraft on Wangerooge after return fire from the bombers damaged his engines. Only two of I/ZG76’s sixteen claims were disallowed, one of which was Falck’s second. Falck’s wingman, Unteroffizier Fresia, was credited with two confirmed destroyed. Leutnant Uellenbeck limped back to Jever with no fewer than 33 bullet holes in his 110.

‘I was with the second formation on a course of 120 degrees, about fifty kilometres to the north of Ameland. Suddenly we came upon two Wellingtons flying 300 metres beneath us, on the opposite heading. I attacked the leader from the side and it caught fire. Then I opened fire on the second one, from the left and above. When he didn’t budge I moved into position 300 metres behind him and opened up with everything. The nose of the bomber fell and it dived towards the sea. It was at this time that I was hit by a bullet, between my neck and left shoulder; the round went clean through me and hit Unteroffizier Dombrowski the radio operator on his left wrist.’

Uellenbeck’s claims for two destroyed was upheld. Though RAF crews claimed twelve German single and twin-engined fighters, just three Bf 109 fighters were lost and a handful damaged or hit.

Wolfgang Falck, born on 19 August 1910 in Berlin, had begun his pilot training at the Deutsche Verkehrsfliegerschule (German Air Transport School) at Schleissheim on 7 April 1931. The course he and 29 other trainees attended was called Kameradschaft 31 among whom were men like Hannes Trautloft and Günther Lützow. Falck graduated from the Deutsche Verkehrfliegerschule 19 February 1932. In February 1933 he attended the Infantry School at Dresden for officer training and made Leutnant in October 1934. In March 1935 Falck became an instructor at the Deutsche Verkehrsfliegerschule at Schleissheim and in April 1936 he was promoted to Oberleutnant and transferred to JG132 ‘Richthofen’ at Jüterbog-Damm as Staffelkapitän of 5 Staffel. In July 1938 Falck was appointed Staffelkapitän of 8 Staffel of the new JG132 at Fürstenwalde. The new unit was later redesignated I./ZG76 and equipped with the Bf 110 Zerstörer fighter. Falck led 2./ZG76 during the Polish campaign from Ohlau in Silesia, gaining three victories over Polish Air Force aircraft. The unit was then relocated to Jever to protect the northern seaboard and the Kriegsmarine naval bases.

As well as Falck the ‘Battle of the Heligoland Bight’ also produced another pilot destined to find fame with the Nachtjagd, although success at night at first seemed to elude him. Leutnant Helmut ‘Bubi’ (‘Nipper’) Lent of 1./ZG76 in a lone Bf 110 Zerstörer was one of the pilots ordered to intercept and engage the attacking bomber force and he put in claims for three of the Wellingtons when he landed at Jever. Two of these, which were shot down at 1430 and 1445, were later confirmed. Both aircraft were on 37 Squadron and were captained by Flying Officer P. A. Wimberley and Australian Flying Officer Oliver John Trevor Lewis respectively and they crashed in the shallow sea off Borkum. Wimberley survived but his crew died. Lewis and his crew were killed also. It is likely that his third claim may have been Wellington IA N2396 LF-J on 37 Squadron, piloted by Sergeant H. Ruse, which he crash-landed on the sand dunes of Borkum with two men dead. Lent was refused the victory over Wimberley, as the Wellington was attacked by Lent after it had already been badly damaged and was about to crash. The Wellington was credited to Carl-August Schumacher. Lent later flew combat operations in Norway with 1./ZG76, where he scored seven victories and was awarded the Iron Cross 1st Class.

Blenheim light bombers fared no better than the Wellingtons on daylight shipping searches in the North Sea. In the first and only encounter between Blenheims and Bf 110s, on 10 January 1940 in mid-morning, nine Blenheims on 110 Squadron led by Squadron Leader Ken Doran DFC took off from Wattisham in Suffolk in three ‘vics’ for a North Sea shipping reconnaissance. At roughly the same time, Hauptmann Wolfgang Falck led four Bf 110s of 2./ZG76 from Jever airfield near Wilhelmshaven on a westerly course over the North Sea for a routine patrol. When flying 200 kilometres north of Terschelling Island, one of the German pilots spotted a handful of specks on the horizon and warned his leader on R/T. Swiftly, the sleek Zerstörers curved onto the course of the British intruders. Within seconds, Falck identified the dots as Bristol Blenheims and ordered his Flight to attack. At 1152 the fighters dropped onto the tails of the Blenheims, which at that time, having no under armament, were very vulnerable to attack from below so Doran led the formation of three vics of three aircraft down to sea level in plus 9 boost. It was to no avail – Schwarmführer Falck’s cannon shells struck home and Blenheim P4859 of 110 Squadron exploded on the surface of the sea. Twenty-six year old Sergeant John Henry Hanne, married, of Maida Vale, London, his 23-year old observer, Sergeant George Llewelyn Williams, of Ynsddu, Monmouthshire and nineteen-year old AC1 Edwin Vick, WOp/AG of Morecombe, Lancashire, were killed. Two other Blenheims on 110 Squadron were badly shot up during the 25 minute engagement. N6203 crashed on return at Manby in Lincolnshire and N6213 was written off at Wattisham. These were claimed destroyed by Leutnants Helmut Fahlbusch and Maximilian Graeff. After expending all their ammunition, the four German fighter pilots broke off the fight and jubilantly flew back to Jever, all with slight damage. Following this encounter Doran continued with the reconnaissance, which earned him a bar to his DFC.

During the period from 14 February to the end of March 1940 Blenheims of 2 Group completed another 250 North Sea shipping sweeps, which resulted in the loss of only four aircraft and their crews. They all fell victim to German fighters. One of these was N6211 on 110 Squadron, shot down by Hauptmann Falck of 2./ZG76 on 17 February north of the Dutch Frisian Islands. Sergeant Frederick John Raymond Bigg, the 27-year old pilot, Sergeant William Barnard Woods, the 21-year old observer and AC1 Jack Orchard the 20-year old WOp/AG were reported missing and are commemorated on the Memorial at Runnymede for those members of the RAF and Commonwealth Air Forces who have no known grave. That same month Hauptmann Falck was appointed Gruppenkommandeur ZG1 at Düsseldorf. The Gruppe was relocated to the Baltic coast in April and on 9 April Falck led the unit during the invasion of Denmark. He recorded his seventh (and final) victory, shooting down a Danish Fokker C.V taking off from Værløse.

Serious losses finally convinced the Air Staff that a profound change of its daylight policy was necessary. Following heavy Wellington and Blenheim losses in daylight the elderly Whitley squadrons were immediately employed in night leaflet dropping operations and made no appearance in daylight at all. When RAF Bomber Command took the decision in May 1940 to start strategic bombing of Germany by night, there was little the Luftwaffe could do to counter these early raids. The subject of night fighting was raised at a conference of German service chiefs just before the war and according to Kommodore Josef Kammhuber who was present at the conference it was dismissed out of hand by Hermann Göring with the words, ‘Night fighting! It will never come to that!’

Up until May 1940 the night air defence of the Reich was almost entirely the province of the flak arm of the Luftwaffe. No specialised night fighting arm existed though one fighter Gruppe (IV./(N)JG2) was undertaking experimental ‘Helle Nachtjagd’ (illuminated night fighting) sorties with the aid of searchlights in northern Germany and in the Rhineland. IV./(N)JG2 flew the Bf 109D with the cockpit hood removed as a precaution against the pilots being blinded by the glare of the searchlights.

On the night of 25/26 April Oberfeldwebel Hermann Förster of the 11th Staffel NJG2 shot down a Hampden on a mine-laying operation near Sylt, the first Bomber Command aircraft to be shot down by a fighter at night. The aircraft was L1319 on 49 Squadron. Pilot Officer Arthur Herbert Benson and crew were killed. Forster went on to claim two Fokker G.Is in Raum (‘Box’) ‘Rotterdam’ on 10 May and Hampden P4286 on 44 Squadron at Oosterhout on 14/15 May. Pilot Officer Leslie James Ashfield and his crew were killed. On 24 May Förster destroyed a Blenheim at Borkum. Förster also claimed Hampden I P1178 on 83 Squadron at Often near Aachen on 3/4 June. Flying Officer Francis John Haydon and crew were killed. On 9 July he destroyed a Whitley twenty kilometres north of Heligoland. Forster joined 2./JG27, scoring another six daylight victories. Hermann Förster was killed in action on 14 December 1941 flying with JG27 Afrika in North Africa. His last victory was on 10 December when he shot down a Boston III fifteen kilometres east of Bir Hacheim to take his final total to twelve Abschüsse.

On 22 June 1940 Hauptmann Wolfgang Falck, Kommandeur, I./ZG1 who had some experience with radar-directed night-fighting sorties in the Bf 110 flying from Aalborg in northern Denmark that April, was ordered to form the basis of a Nachtjagd, or night fighting arm, by establishing the first night fighter Gruppe, I./NJG1. While at Aalborg Falck had prepared a comprehensive tactical appraisal report on night interception. Thus after I./ZG1’s participation in the Battle of France General Albert Kesselring ordered Falck to take his unit to Düsseldorf and reform for the night fighter role. On 26 June Falck was appointed Kommodore of NJG1 and IV./(N)JG2 was incorporated into the first Nachtjagd Geschwader as III./NJG1. From Düsseldorf airfield Bf 110s and Do 17Zs of NJG1 undertook experimental night-fighting sorties in defence of the Ruhr with the aid of one flak searchlight regiment. In July the creation of a true night air defence for the Third Reich was dramatically accelerated when Göring ordered Josef Kammhuber to set up of a full-scale night fighting arm. Within three months, Kammhuber’s organisation was remodelled into Fliegerkorps XII and by the end of 1940 the infant Nachtjagd had matured into three searchlight battalions and five night fighter Gruppen. Major Falck received the Ritterkreuz in October 1940. He was to command NJG1 for three years and in partnership with General Josef Kammhuber develop a highly effective night fighter force.

Kammhuber organized the night fighting units into a chain known to the British as the ‘Kammhuber Line’, in which a series of radar stations with overlapping coverage were layered three deep from Denmark to the middle of France, each covering a zone about 32 kilometres long (north-south) and twenty kilometres wide (east-west). Each control centre or zone was known as a ‘Himmelbett’ (literally translated, ‘bed of heavenly bliss’ or ‘four-poster bed’ because of the four night-fighter control zones), consisting of a ‘Freya’ radar with a range of about 100 kilometres, a number of searchlights spread through the cell and one primary and one backup night fighter assigned to the cell. RAF bombers flying into Germany or France would have to cross the line at some point and the radar would direct a searchlight to illuminate the aircraft. Once this had happened other manually controlled searchlights would also pick up the aircraft and the night fighter would be directed to intercept the now-illuminated bomber. However, demands by Bürgermeisters in Germany led to the recall of the searchlights to the major cities. Later versions of the ‘Himmelbett’ added two Würzburg radars, with a range of about thirty kilometres. Unlike the early-warning ‘Freya’ radar, Würzburgs were accurate (and complex) tracking radars. One would be locked onto the night fighter as soon as it entered the cell. After the Freya picked up a target the second Würzburg would lock onto it, thereby allowing controllers in the ‘Himmelbett’ centre to obtain continual readings on the positions of both aircraft, controlling them to a visual interception. To aid in this, a number of the night fighters were fitted with a short-range infrared searchlight mounted in the nose of the aircraft to illuminate the target and a receiver to pick up the reflected energy known as ‘Spanner’ or ‘Spanneranlage’ (‘Spanner’ installation) literally translated, a ‘peeping Tom’. ‘Spanner I’ and ‘Spanner II’, a passive device that in theory used the heat from engine exhausts to detect its target, were not very successful.

Nachtjagd’s first official victory over the Reich was credited to Oberfeldwebel Paul Förster of 8./NJG1 when off Heligoland at 0250 hours on 9 July he destroyed Whitley V N1496 on 10 Squadron at Dishforth. Flight Lieutenant D. A. Ffrench-Mullen and his four crew who were on a bombing operation to Kiel, survived and were taken prisoner. Förster was a former soldier who trained as a pilot in 1936 and as a Zerstörer pilot he scored three day victories in 1940. After he was shot down and wounded he was assigned to the role of flying instructor and later served as a staff officer. In 1943 he retrained as a night fighter pilot and on 1 June 1943 he joined 1./NJG1 where Förster achieved four more night victories.

Often called ‘Father of the Nachtjagd’ Werner Streib, born on 13 June 1911 in Pforzheim, helped develop the operational tactics used by the Nachtjagd during the early and with the likes of Wolfgang Falck made the Luftwaffe’s night-fighter arm an effective fighting force against the RAF bombing offensive. After a spell in banking and finance, Streib had joined the Wehrmacht as an infantryman. A transfer to the Luftwaffe, as an observer in a reconnaissance unit followed and later he trained as a fighter pilot. In 1937 he was assigned to Jagdgeschwader 2 ‘Richthofen’ at Jüterbog-Damm. He then became a Bf 110 Zerstörer pilot in Wolfgang Falck’s ZG1 as the war began. The first of Streib’s 66 Abschüsse and the only one in daylight was a Bristol Blenheim on 10 May 1940. By the end of July I./NJG1 operating from Gütersloh airfield near Münster had a fortunate spell of operations, destroying six bombers in the ‘Helle Nachtjagd’ system. Streib, now Staffelkapitän, 2./NJG1, shot down Whitley V P5007 on 51 Squadron in the early hours on 20 July 25 kilometres northwest of Kiel. Flight Lieutenant Stephen Edward Frederick Curry and three others on his crew were killed and one was taken prisoner. This was followed on 21/22 July by Whitley V N1487 on 78 Squadron flown by Sergeant Victor Clarence Monkhouse ten kilometres north of Münster. All the crew were killed. Streib soon added to his score, claiming two Wellingtons on 30/31 August and three bombers on 30 September/1 October. Kammhuber realised that ‘Helle Nachtjagd’, entirely dependent as it was on weather conditions and radar-guided searchlights was only a short-term solution; it simply could not penetrate thick layers of cloud or industrial haze over the Ruhr and other industrial centres in the Reich. He soon concentrated all his energies in developing an efficient radar-controlled air defence system.

Nachtjagd III

In July 1940 Patrick Foss was promoted Squadron Leader and he joined 115 Squadron at Marham in Norfolk which was equipped with Wellingtons. ‘At the time’ wrote Foss ‘there were three RAF Groups operating night bombers, mainly against Germany. The Wellingtons were in 3 Group, Whitleys in 4 Group and Hampdens in 5 Group. Other Groups controlled the light bombers, fighters, coastal reconnaissance and so on. All three Groups of night bombers had twin-engined aircraft with crews of between four and six. Bomber Command’s attack plan called for raids each night, if weather allowed, on such ‘military’ targets as oil plants, factories, harbours and railway marshalling yards. When the moon was minimal one Group would fly each night. When there was a moon the three Groups doubled up, which meant we did a raid every other night. A raid was a major operation; a station complement of two thousand or more was needed to launch up to twenty Wellingtons on one night.

‘Aircrews lived a strange life. On our off days, on these comfortable, long-established stations, we lived like country gentlemen in a fair degree of luxury and almost as if the war did not exist. On flying nights, we stole out like cat burglars to venture out, each aircraft singly, over the seas and into enemy territory, where we felt hunted and watched every minute. We flew in a high degree of tension. The sight of shells bursting in the sky ahead, often seen for an hour or more before we reached a target, had a mesmeric effect on me as my imagination leaped around. Highly subjective feelings kept me thinking more about my skin than about the people in the dark far below me. I did not want to die, nor have my courage tested by a shell burst or a fighter’s attack.

‘I realised somehow I had to conquer this deep desire for self-preservation and treat the whole business as a surgeon would an operation. As each trip brought more near-misses by shells or close encounters with fighters, I became more and more conscious of the dangers and I also began to question whether what we were doing was of any real use in the war. This helped me to understand why some men, their fear building up raid after raid, failed to press home attacks on their targets and instead dumped their bombs in the area before turning for home. It meant, of course, that they told lies to the debriefing officers and their aircrew went along with them because they, too, were afraid.

‘It was the responsibility of a flight and squadron commander to know his men and understand the build-up of pressures, raid after raid. Each captain was different and the commander had to judge when each crew should come off operations to allow them to rest and re-think, as well as to train new crews in all that they had experienced. At this time Command had set a tour of 31 trips. The average loss rate was around 25 trips, so every raid over 25 gave a crew the sense they were lucky to be still alive.

‘During World War I men were treated as cowards when they lost their nerve; and some authorities took the same line early in World War II. It proved to be a useless course; it encouraged no one to do better. The desirable way was to get a man to be honest and admit his fears and seek the support of his brother officers. When I did this with men, particularly when I became squadron commander in Malta, it seemed to have a profound effect on them and on me too. I learned that the more afraid the average man is, the more likely he is to push home attacks and take risks, if only to prove he is not afraid. The bravest men, I found, were those who conquered their fear by facing it, not those who had no idea of the danger of what they did.

‘I could see that we lived double lives – our ‘gentlemen’s lives’ and our almost secret nefarious outings to Germany. It was a very personal war. If we did not fight it, no one else would. Almost all of us experienced ‘twitch’ and other symptoms of stress in the eyes, the lips or the bowels. But the stress did not lead us to dump bombs or pull away from attack. It boosted morale in a remarkable way, so long as it was contained by a relationship with each other which was honest and caring. Looking back at the raids we flew in the early days to attack ‘military’ targets, the marshalling yards and factories, I shudder at how amateur we were. The targets for new crews were the big railway yards at Hamm and Soest, on the edge of the Ruhr industrial area – Ham and Eggs was the obvious crew slang for them.10 They were large area targets and not so heavily defended as was the Ruhr area itself. There were planners who believed that bombing a railway yard would cause delays and disruption of communications. My own experience in 1938, before the war, of trial bombings of railway lines at the Army Corps of Transport railway experimental centre had convinced me – and the Army – that damage could be repaired in a few hours and did not cause much delay in a marshalling yard. These attacks were rather artificial, by low-flying Battles, but war experience confirmed that without continuous bombardment the yards were an unproductive target. However, our new crews did gain the experience of flying over Germany, of being shelled and hunted by fighters and of just how difficult it was to identify a military target from a great height in European weather.

‘My first bombing raid was on Gelsenkirchen in the Ruhr – the target was a factory. When we arrived in the target area thick smoke and layers of cloud made it impossible to identify anything as small as a factory. I was very suspicious of our visual navigation, although I had an excellent navigator and had myself been an experienced navigator in peacetime. Since we left England we had seen nothing to pinpoint our position. We could only release our bombs in the general area and turn for home. The German reaction with anti-aircraft flak and searchlights was strong and accurate. As we flew towards Marham, 300 miles distant, our crew talked about the experience. Our conclusion was that if that was the worst we would meet, we had some chance of surviving our tour of operations. But in my mind was the question whether we had bombed the right town, let alone the specific factory. On this and other raids our great problem was finding and identifying a military target by our available means of navigation – map-reading, calculation and hoping to find some identification near our target. Our weather forecasters had only a general and limited idea of the local conditions 300 miles from the UK. They seemed unable to forecast smog or the height of cloud layers.

‘On this first raid my navigator and I had hoped that we might see the river Rhine and get a fix from that, but we never saw the river. There was one aid on which we came to rely heavily, the German range-type wireless stations, which they switched on to aid their own aircraft. We took bearings with our loop aerial. But these only helped us to get into a four or five mile area around the target. There came a night when we filed into the briefing room before a raid and were horrified to be told that no German radio station was on the air. It would not have surprised me to learn that each of our aircraft hit a different target that night.

‘On my next raid, to an oil processing plant at Wesseling, near Cologne we carried a photo flash bomb with our other bombs so that we could photograph our target. My navigator and I worked out a track to strike the Rhine at its junction with the Moselle. From there we would count the loops in the Rhine until we reached the one on which Wesseling lay. As we approached the Wesseling curve, my bomb aimer lay below me, looking down through the aiming window, directing me by intercom, while the other four crew manned the fore and rear gun turrets and the look-out in the upper astrodome. The second pilot sat beside me, acting as counsellor, lookout and ready to take over the controls, should I be wounded. In order to get a good photograph, the flash bomb had to be dropped at a precise height and the camera, fixed in the aircraft, had to be aimed so that the lens did not pick up the direct light of the flash, when the bomb burst after falling to about one thousand feet above the ground. The flash activated a photo cell which closed the camera shutter. This photography required that the Wellington be flown straight and level on a long run in. Straight and level at a precise height was a delight for German flak gunners!

‘This was another murky night, with a layer of cloud at the height we had planned to drop the flash bomb. We could see a Whitley bomber caught in the beams of searchlights, directly above our target, lit up by the reflection from the clouds as though in bright moonlight. Shells were bursting all round him. We decided to glide in below him, hoping the defences would not pick us up while they concentrated on the Whitley. We arrived over the target without being picked up and let go our bombs and the flash bomb. When the flash went off it seemed as though the defences were blinded for a few seconds. Then all hell was let loose at us. Shells began to burst around us; we could hear the explosions and see the black puffs of smoke. Our rear-gunner called that he thought he saw the lights of a fighter nearby. The searchlights bracketed us and I threw the Wellington into twists and turns to try to throw them off. They did not let go. Any moment could be our last. I sweated with fear as I pulled and twisted the controls. Then I offered up a prayer to be shown what to do.

‘At that moment an extraordinary impression came over me. I seemed to be outside the Wellington, away in the sky. I could see the aircraft in the lights and shell bursts, as though I were a spectator. Then I saw how I might break out of the defences if I made a highly dangerous manoeuvre. As I saw this, I had a feeling of confidence that what I should do was right. Then I was back in the Wellington, frightened and heaving at the controls. I pulled the aircraft up into a big stall turn, fell over and spiralled down towards the earth. Almost at once the lights shut off and we were falling in utter darkness. I eased the aircraft out of the dive to be parallel with the unseen ground. At that moment a single searchlight came on and lay along our track, showing us that we were a few hundred feet above the countryside and lighting up hills ahead of us. The light went out and we climbed to avoid the hills and return to operating height for the flight home.

‘Back in the interrogation room at Marham we commented, rather smugly, the Commander-in-Chief calls our bombing ‘gardening’ [not to be confused with minelaying operations which were called ‘Gardening’]. Air Marshal Sir Charles Portal, Chief of Bomber Command, had been invited by our Station Commander to witness a demonstration of dive bombing by a Wellington. Afterwards the C-in-C talked to us about the pin-pointing of targets by night. He said we were digging up the German countryside with our bombs. It was not until 1942 with the introduction of the pathfinder force, which used radar to fix their positions and marked them with fires that the main force bombers could be sure where the area of the target of the night lay. A few minutes after our ‘gardening’ the print of our flash photo revealed a factory in a curve of the Rhine with four bombs bursting on the roof! Unfortunately, when we compared the photo with our detailed map of the target, it in no way fitted. Someone suggested that perhaps the map was wrong. Wearily, we trailed off to bed. Three weeks later a report arrived from the Photo Interpretation Unit. They had identified the place where our bombs had fallen – a tank factory in Cologne, ten miles from our intended target!

‘When the Luftwaffe made their bombing attacks on London in July 1940, the Prime Minister ordered us to attack Berlin. This was the longest trip we had ever attempted in the Wellington, close to our maximum range with full tanks and minimum bomb load. We set off for Berlin with half a gale blowing from the west, low and middle cloud and murk on the ground. We were given strict instructions to turn back after three and three-quarter hours flying, wherever we were, to be sure of returning to Britain against the gale. As I reached three and three-quarter hours we thought we might be in the Berlin area. We had failed to get any fixes on the route and the weather was heavy cloud and total blackness. We glimpsed below us lakes and forests, but never a light or other indication of a city. There was nothing worth bombing and no time for a search. We turned for home and began to plug back against the gale. After an hour or so we saw lights on the ground, which we identified as an airfield working night fighters. We made to bomb them but our bomb releases failed to work. We plugged on and finally, over the North Sea, succeeded in losing our bomb load, saving us some petrol. We landed at Marham with less than thirty minutes of fuel remaining after eight and a half hours in the air. Our other crews returned with similar stories. No one was sure he had hit Berlin. We hoped other stations had had more luck.

‘A few days later, we were ordered to bomb the Channel ports, Calais and Le Havre, our shortest trips ever. They were on brilliant moonlit nights and we could clearly see the lines of barges waiting to carry the German army to invade Britain. From 6,000 feet they looked like match sticks. We had filled every hook with high explosives and fire bombs. The Germans had only deployed light flak guns and these were less accurate at our height. I saw fires break out along the docksides and in the barges, followed by many explosions. On one raid I saw quite clearly water jets being played by fire-fighters – the first time we had seen a result of our attacks. Thanks to the efforts of our fighters, the Germans never achieved the air supremacy over southern England which they needed for a successful invasion. However, the destruction wrought by our bombers on the ports and barges must also have played a part in their decision to call off the invasion. That decision ultimately meant losing the war.

‘In August 1940 we made a long trip towards Magdeburg to attack an aircraft factory at Bernberg. The night was clear and moonlit and I could see the Hartz Mountains where I had visited friends in 1932. We passed near Goslar, the home of Renate, my pre-war girl friend. When we reached our estimated time of arrival we were delighted to see below us a cross of big runways and sheds, but I was not sure that this was our target so put the second pilot in my seat and went down to lie beside the bomb aimer to have a better look. I had been troubled by seeing, five miles to the south, bombs bursting and flak coming up and wondered if that was the right target. As we lay there, trying to decide, suddenly our Wellington went into a steep dive and then we saw our bombs leave and crash through the roofs of the sheds. As we pulled out of the dive, chunks of the roofs flew past us, very close. At once guns opened fire and I could feel strikes on our aircraft. At the same time a force, like a giant hand, seized our Wellington and threw it upwards. Once we were away from the target area the second pilot started making excuses for the attack, saying we were running out of time and he was sure that we had found the right target.

‘I went all around the aircraft to see what damage we had sustained and found nothing that was serious. However, I was very troubled that each of our three compasses seemed to be giving a different reading. We attempted to verify them by the moon, but without moon tables or a sextant we failed. So we averaged the three readings and steered a general westerly direction. Clouds now prevented us from fixing a position. When we expected to reach the coast we saw a coastline and a flashing beacon. In a discussion with the crew, one of them thought the beacon might be on the English coast, so we flew close and fired our recognition signal, a very light giving the colours of the day. It was answered by light flak and we dashed out to sea. In a couple of minutes we passed over a bund and then wave crests. This convinced me we must have crossed a part of the Dutch Zuider Zee and if so we were embarking on a flight of about 150 miles across the North Sea.

‘I checked our fuel gauges and found several were showing nil and others only small amounts of fuel, maybe half an hour’s running, certainly not enough to get us beyond the middle of the North Sea. We seemed bound for an emergency landing at sea, something none of us had rehearsed; indeed, I had no idea even how to activate the dinghies. I doubted whether air/sea rescue boats operated so far out. I asked the crew for their suggestions. One option was to turn back and land on the beach and surrender ourselves. No one would hear of that. So we continued westwards. As we strained our eyes looking for land, we kept seeing it, only to find it was cloud on the water.

‘When I asked the wireless operator to try and get a bearing from the Direction Finding service in England, he told me his wireless was playing up, but he would try. Then he told me he could hear several SOS calls and that meant that the D/F stations would concentrate on them. I insisted he keep trying and he finally received a bearing. I plotted it on the chart; it was almost due north and put us out in the English Channel.

‘I couldn’t believe it. I asked our operator if the bearing could be a false one put out by a German station. They were known to give false bearings to our aircraft in distress. If we were half way across the North Sea and turned north we would go down in the cold sea en route to Iceland. The operator assured me it was a good bearing from an English station. I swallowed my doubts and turned north. The sun was up, but cloud was solid below us. Suddenly there was a gap and I saw a green field. I pulled back the engines and dived for this break. I saw fields dotted with high posts and other antiinvasion obstructions; it must be the south of England. I gingerly opened up our engines again, noting that every fuel gauge registered empty.

‘Suddenly, right ahead, appeared a grass airfield, apparently empty. I dared not circle to look more closely because if we banked our wings the petrol might run away from the outlets and stop the engines. I shut down and went straight in. As we ran across the field I noted large piles of earth dotted about. We came to a halt beside a flying control building with no sign of life. We got out and began to look for someone. We came upon a sandbagged shelter and out of it peered a steel-helmeted RAF figure, a Pilot Officer.

‘What’s this place?’ we asked. ‘This is West Malling’ (in mid-Kent).

‘Funny sort of airfield,’ I commented, ‘full of molehills.’

‘Not moles’ he replied, ‘unexploded bombs; they’ve been going off all through the night.’

‘We jumped down into his hole, telephoned Marham and requested to be re-fuelled.

‘I went and looked over the Wellington and decided it was safe to fly on. A refueller arrived, manned by some very nervous airmen. We had never been refuelled so fast; then they were gone. We learned that on the previous day a big raid by German bombers flying towards London had been met by RAF fighters over West Malling and had dumped their bombs before turning back to France. The airfield had been evacuated, its fighters sent elsewhere. Only this one flying control officer had been left. We rumbled across the airfield to take off, my heart in my mouth, fearing our vibration might set off an explosion.

‘Back in the interrogation room at Marham our plots and timings were carefully analysed. Another crew had claimed to have hit the target factory and set it on fire. It was probably the fire we had seen to the south of us. The other Captain was a very experienced pilot from civil aviation and he was convinced he had hit the right place. We put a bold face on our story, although I had doubts. To complicate matters, the Group Air Vice-Marshal had telephoned to congratulate the station and added, ‘There is an immediate award of a Distinguished Flying Cross in this, please give me the name.’ Both crews were bone weary and it seemed impossible to decide who had hit the right target. The Station Commander invited us to toss a coin and the other Captain won. I was glad of it, especially when, a few days later, he was shot down. His wife had something to show off his gallantry.

‘Operations over Europe became steadily more hazardous week by week as the Germans developed their air defence from the coast to Germany, with permanent sites for radar, searchlights, flak and night fighters with their elaborate control. One night, as we returned from a raid on the Ruhr, our rear-gunner reported that he could see a fighter following us. He had first reported its white downward recognition light (which helped his gunners on the ground.) Then he reported blue and gold lights in the cockpit and he could count two heads. I asked him to keep giving me their distance behind us, estimated with his gunsight, but on no account to fire. I reckoned our firing would give our enemy a pinpoint to aim at and his cannons were much more deadly than our two Vickers guns firing at a head-on fighter. He crept up on us slowly. I turned left, he followed us. I turned right and dived and again he followed us. It was clear he could not see us, but had some device by which he could follow us. Before the war I had exercised with ground operators who listened to aircraft approaching England for air defence purposes and I had helped them to calibrate. In the course of doing this I heard a hint that there were other ways of picking up and fixing aircraft flying in. So I had a suspicion that this German fighter might be carrying similar equipment.

‘As we made our way to the Belgian coast we played a cat and mouse game. I could not throw him off and he did not have enough confidence to open fire. Finally I instructed the rear-gunner to aim and, when the fighter came within 150 yards, to shout. At once I pulled the Wellington up into a high stall. We hung there on the engines and then fell out of the stall, to find that the fighter was about one hundred yards ahead of us. He immediately began hunting around to find us on his screen, but he couldn’t see backwards. At the coast he dived away and we continued on our way to Marham.

‘Our Intelligence people appeared to be very interested in our report of this encounter. One hinted that this was a very early report of German airborne radar in use. The RAF had its own disinformation campaign about radar. Before each sortie bomber aircrews were handed red lozenges – we called them cat’s eyes – and were informed that they were carrots, to help us see better in the dark. After the war, I heard that the Germans, after many interrogations of shot-down crews, had put scientists to work to investigate the powers of the carrot, perhaps to explain their own bomber losses by night over Britain.’

On the other side of the North Sea Nachtjagd pilots began to rack up high scores. Oberfeldwebel Paul Gildner of 3./NJG1 claimed three aircraft over the Netherlands during September 1940. Gildner, born on 1 February 1914 in Nimptsch (Silesia), had volunteered for the Wehrmacht in 1934 as an infantry officer but had transferred to the Luftwaffe. Gildner was already serving as a Oberfeldwebel Zerstörer pilot when war began in September 1939, flying the Messerschmitt Bf 110 with 1/ZG1. Gildner flew intensively during the European campaign in May-June 1940 and also flew sorties during early stages of the Battle of Britain. In August 1940 after training in night flying he was transferred to 4./NJG1). He scored his first Abschuss on 3 September 1940 when he shot down Hampden I P4370 on 144 Squadron (which he identified as a Whitley) and which was detailed to bomb Ludwigshafen. The bomber crashed near Sittard just on the German side of the border with Holland at 0045 hours on the night of the 2nd/3rd when 84 aircraft of RAF Bomber Command attacked a wide variety of targets in Germany, France, Holland and Italy. Pilot Officer R. S. A. Churchill and one crewmember were taken prisoner; the two others were killed. On the night of 18/19th at 2230 hours near Groenlo, Gildner shot down Whitley V P5008 on 58 Squadron, which had been detailed to bomb Hamm. Sergeant Albert Alfred Ellis Crossland and crew were killed. Two hours later, at Zieuwent, Gildner shot down another Whitley, N1425 on 77 Squadron, which was detailed to bomb Soest. Pilot Officer Peter Ernest Eldridge and his crew were killed. After Falck and Streib, Gildner was the third Nachtjagd pilot to be awarded the Ritterkreuz, on 9 July 1941 after his 14th Abschuss.

On the evening of 16 October 1940 Leutnant Ludwig Becker of 4./NJG1 and his bordfunker Unteroffizier Josef Staub claimed Nachtjagd’s first ground radar-directed kill at Oosterwolde. Ludwig Becker was born on 22 August 1911 in Dortmund-Aplerbeck in the Province of Westphalia, a province of the Kingdom of Prussia. Joining the Luftwaffe volunteers in 1934, by 1939 he was a test pilot and a Leutnant in the Luftwaffe reserve. Serving with NJG1, he crashed a Messerschmitt Bf 110 near Winterswijk on 30 August 1940. On what was a perfect moonlight night on the 16th of October flying a Dornier Do 17Z-10 equipped with the experimental ‘Spanner’ night-vision device they were guided onto the tail of a Wellington by Jägerleitoffizier (JLO or fighter-control officer) Leutnant Hermann Diehl of the experimental ‘Freya’ station at Nunspeet in Holland. The Wellington, L7844 KX-I on 311 Czechoslovak Squadron at East Wretham, was being flown by Pilot Officer Bohumil Landa. Becker reported:

‘At about 21.20 I was controlled by Leutnant Diehl at Nunspeet using Freya mit Zusatz and Würzburg, using Morse on the tactical frequency. I was guided very well at the correct height of 3300 metres with constant corrections towards the enemy at his starboard rear and suddenly saw, about 100 metres to my left and above, an aircraft in the moonlight, which on approaching closer I recognized as a Vickers Wellington. I closed in slowly behind him and gave a burst of about five of six seconds, aiming at the fuselage and wing roots. The starboard engine caught fire at once and I drew my machine up above him. For a while the Englishman [sic] continued, rapidly losing height; then the fire went out and I watched him spinning downward and finally crash. I observed no one bailing out. I returned to my standby area.’

The Wellington crashed at 2145 hours near Oosterwolde/Doornspijk. Landa and three crew were killed. Sergeants Emanuel Novotny and Augustin Sestak bailed out safely before their aircraft was completely destroyed in the crash near Oosterwolde at 2145. Landa and three of his crew were found dead in the wreckage the next day. It was Becker’s first Abschuss. Becker, born on 22 August 1911 in Dortmund-Aplerbeck in the Province of Westphalia, a province of the Kingdom of Prussia, had volunteered for the Luftwaffe in 1934 and became a Stuka pilot before joining the Bf 110 Zerstörer and becoming a night fighter pilot in July 1940. Serving with NJG1, he crashed a Messerschmitt Bf 110 near Winterswijk on 30 August 1940. In 1941-42 Becker became one of the leading ‘Experten’ in the Luftwaffe night fighter arm. He shot down forty bombers in 1942 and taught the new and young crews from his experiences. To them Becker ‘The Night Fighting Professor’ was an inspiring fatherly figure. Instrumental in introducing the Lichtenstein AI radar into the night fighter arm in 1941 though most night fighter aircrew were sceptical about it (they liked to rely on the ‘Mk I Eyeball’). Becker had one of the still experimental sets installed in his Do 217Z night fighter at Leeuwarden, 161 kilometres (100 miles) north of Arnheim on the Friesland coast. Guided by the revolutionary radar, his and Nachtjagd’s first AI victory was in the early hours on 9 August 1941 in a Do 215B-5 night fighter version of the Do 215 reconnaissance-bomber when 44 Wellingtons of Bomber Command attacked Hamburg. Becker shot down six RAF night bombers 8/9 August-29/30 September 1941. He was awarded the Knight’s Cross in July 1942 and he then served as a Staffelkapitän in 12./NJG1. By the end of the year, Becker had forty victories to his credit. Becker and his bordfunker Oberfeldwebel Josef Straub (who had taken part in forty victories) were posted missing in action on 26 February 1943 in a Bf 110G-4 while on a daylight sortie intercepting a Boeing B-17 formation over the North Sea and crashing north of Schiermonnikoog in the Netherlands. All his 46 victories were at night.

At midnight on 1/2 October 1940 Leutnant Hans-Georg Mangelsdorf of the 2nd Staffel NJG1 shot down a Whitley V near Hummelo, 21 kilometres east of Arnhem. His victim was P4964 on 78 Squadron at Dishforth which crashed at Sterkrade with the loss of New Zealand Pilot Officer Neville Halsey Andrew and crew. Two weeks later, on the 14/15th, Mangelsdorf was killed during aerial combat with a Hampden on 44 Squadron, crashing eight kilometres west of Gardelegen airfield. I./NJG1 at Venlo, Netherlands in order to more easily intercept the known RAF bomber routes into targets in the Ruhr, claimed five ‘Helle Nachtjagd’ kills. These included Hampden Is X2910 on 44 Squadron piloted by Sergeant Leonard John Burt and X2993 on 50 Squadron flown by South African Pilot Officer Arthur Howell Davies on a bombing operation on Berlin. Burt and two of his crew were killed, one being taken into captivity. Davies and one of his crew were killed, two others being taken prisoner. Three of I./NJG1 ‘s victories were credited to Oberleutnant Streib, a feat which earned him the award of the Ritterkreuz on 6 October with eight victories claimed. He was the first night fighter pilot to be honoured with the Knight’s Cross.

Nachtjagd’s final kills over the Continent during 1940 went to 4./NJG1. Oberleutnant Egmont Prinz zur Lippe Weissenfeld destroyed Wellington IC P9286 on 115 Squadron ten kilometres west of Medemblik on 16/17 November, the aircraft going down in flames at 0205 hours to crash near Winkel, Holland and with the loss of Sergeant Donald Ewart Larkman and crew. Twenty-nine year old Feldwebel Hans Rasper of the same Staffel destroyed Whitley V P5012 on 102 Squadron on 15/16 December ten kilometres northwest of Petten off the Dutch coast at Egmond. Flight Lieutenant Kenneth Thomas Hannah and his crew were killed. Rasper’s bordfunker, Erich Schreiber was killed in 1942. Rasper was taken prisoner on 26/27 April 1945 after he was shot down in Mittelfels, near Cham, by American ack-ack during a strafing run. He had seven Abschüsse. At least nineteen Bomber Command aircraft were destroyed July-December 1940 in the ‘Kammhuber Line’, as the continuous belt of searchlights and radar positions between Schleswig-Holstein and northern France was christened by the British bomber crews. About thirty bombers were brought down by flak during the same period. Apart from organising an effective short-range defensive Nachtjagd, Kammhuber also appreciated the value and effectiveness of ‘Fernnachtjagd’ (long-range night intruding) over Britain but the ‘Intruder’ force was never raised beyond one single Gruppe (I./NJG2) which operated the Ju 88C-6 and Do 17 from Gilze-Rijen in the Netherlands. It never exceeded 21 aircraft but despite this and severe operational losses (21 aircraft alone during 1940) ‘Fernnachtjagd’ made a promising start. The Gruppe’s first intruder victories were two Wellingtons destroyed by Feldwebel Otto Wiese 100 kilometres west of Texel and Georg ‘Gustav’ Schramm over the North Sea on the night of 22/23 July 1940. Weise was killed on 21/22 June 1941, shot down over Peterborough by Beaufighter R2277 on 25 Squadron piloted by Flying Officer J. M. Herrick and he crashed at Deeping St James. By December 1940 claims for another sixteen bombers followed. (By October 1941 the handful of crews in I./NJG2 had claimed more aircraft destroyed than all other Nachtjagd units combined). On 20/21 October 1940 when 139 bombers went to many targets in the occupied countries, Italy and Germany, a Whitley, ‘O-Orange’ on 58 Squadron at Linton-on-Ouse, which crashed on fire, on the slopes of the Cleveland Hills near Ingleby Greenow in Yorkshire, was claimed shot down by Hauptmann Karl Hülshoff commanding I./NJG2, the specialist German intruder unit. Pilot Officer Ernest Henry Brown and two of his crew were killed. Two were injured, one of whom died two days later. Hülshoff claimed the Whitley as a ‘Hereford’. He destroyed four more aircraft over England during 1940-41, adding another seven victories before the end of the war. Hülshoff was awarded the Deutscheskreuz in Gold. He was taken prisoner on 10 March 1941.

Hamburg, the second largest city of the Reich, with a population of just over a million and a half, was one of many targets bombed on 24/25 October when 113 aircraft tried to reach many targets in the Reich. One Wellington was lost on the raid on Hamburg. At Linton-on-Ouse nine Whitley Vs on 102 Squadron were detailed to bomb the Air Ministry Building in the Leipzigstrasse in Berlin. Pilot Officer A. G. Davies took off at 2202 hours and just six minutes later he was shot down in flames near Tholthorpe by 21-year old Feldwebel Hans Hahn of III./NJG2 who claimed it as a ‘Wellington’ for his first victory. Davies was injured and the second pilot and the observer died in the aircraft. Sergeant Angus Stewart Wilson and Pilot Officer Terence Edward Lee died of their injuries on 2 November.

On 28 October Leutnant Heinz Völker flying a Ju 88C-4 attacked two Hampdens on 49 Squadron as they were returning from Hamburg to Lindholme. The first Hampden was damaged but was able to land safely. Völker then attacked a second, which went down in the North Sea half a mile off Skegness with the loss of all Pilot Officer John Raymond Bufton’s crew. Völker scored a total of twelve victories and was awarded the Ritterkreuz. He and his two crew were killed on 22 July 1941 when over Ashwell, Hertfordshire, their Ju 88C-4 collided with a Wellington of 11 OTU. All eight men on the Wimpy were killed.

Victory claims submitted by night-fighter crews in the Reichsverteidigung (Air Defence of Germany) coupled by the long-range intruder operations over the UK and the North Sea grew steadily. During January 1941 eight bombers were destroyed by Nachtjagd. Six were by the intruders of I./NJG2. The two others – Whitley V T4203 on 78 Squadron by 23-year old Oberleutnant Reinhold Eckardt of II./NJG1 on the night of 9/10th, which went down between Millingen and Kekerdom, Holland with the loss of Sergeant Charles Arthur Smith and crew – and Whitley V N1521 on 58 Squadron by Oberleutnant Egmont Prinz zur Lippe-Weissenfeld of 4./NJG1, which crashed near Callantsoog, Holland on the 15/16th. Pilot Officer William Edgar Peers and his crew also died.

Theodor Tolsdorff

Theodor Tolsdorff was born in Lehnarten, East Prussia, on November 3, 1909. He volunteered for the service in 1934 and was commissioned in the 22nd Infantry Regiment at Gumbinnen, East Prussia (now Gusev, Russia), in 1936. He was still in the 22nd on November 1, 1943, when he assumed command of the regiment. From 1939 to 1945, he rose from a lieutenant commanding a company to a lieutenant general commanding a corps. In the meantime, he earned the Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords, and Diamonds-mostly on the Eastern Front. He was wounded fourteen times. Tolsdorff assumed command of the 340th Volksgrenadier Division on September 1, 1944, and fought in the Siegfried Line battles. He took charge of the LXXXII Corps on April 1, 1945. After the war, he lived in Wuppertal-Barmen and died in Dortmund on May 5, 1978.

340th Volksgrenadier Division

Col. Theodor Tolsdorff

694, 695, and 696 VG Regiments

340 Artillery Regiment

340 Antitank Battalion

340 Engineer Battalion

(committed in late December at Bastogne under the 1st SS Panzer Corps)

Having absorbed the remnants of another division, the division had more veterans than most, but since it had only recently come from the line near Aachen, it was considerably under strength.

Kampfgruppe Tolsdorff Vilnius

The Home Army intended to use the arrival of the Red Army as an opportunity to seize control of parts of Poland from the Germans, with coordinated uprisings in several cities under the codename Burza (`Tempest’ or `Storm’). In Vilnius, the operation was codenamed Ostra Brama (`Gate of Dawn’), after a famous landmark on the south-east edge of the old heart of the city. Late on 6 July 1944, the Home Army tried to seize Vilnius in an attempt to gain control of the city before the arrival of the Red Army. In the preceding days, the Home Army had effectively secured much of the countryside around the city, but the unexpectedly fast advance of the Soviet forces – about a day ahead of Polish expectations – resulted in Krzyzanowski moving his own timetable forward. Consequently, Krzeszowski had fewer troops at his disposal than he might have wished, and his men were left in possession of only the north-east part of the city. Much of the Polish 77th Infantry Regiment found itself held at arm’s length to the east of Vilnius, its movements further hampered by a German armoured train. Elements of the Polish 85th Infantry Regiment took up positions to the west, beyond the River Vilnia, threatening the German lines of retreat. It is striking that despite years of Soviet and German occupation and tens of thousands of arrests, the AK continued to organise itself into formations that drew their ancestry from the pre-war Polish Army.

Soviet forces arrived outside Vilnius at about the same time that the Poles launched their attack. 35th Guards Tank Brigade, part of General Rotmistrov’s 5th Guards Tank Army, was involved in heavy fighting with the German paratroopers at the airport, from where fighting gradually spread into the city. On 8 July, Krylov’s 5th Army reached the city outskirts, while the Soviet armour gradually encircled the garrison.

It had been General Aleksander Krzyżanowski’s [Polish Home Army] intention to secure the city for Poland before the arrival of the Red Army, but the planners of Burza had always intended that the Poles would cooperate at a tactical level with the Soviets, though they would attempt to set up their own Polish civil authorities before the Red Army could establish pro-Soviet administrations. Unlike in many of the other `fortresses’ that Hitler insisted were defended to the last man, the Vilnius garrison put up a stiff fight, inflicting heavy losses on their opponents. Rotmistrov’s tanks had suffered considerable losses in Minsk, and now found themselves engaged in close-range combat against a determined enemy, equipped with weapons such as the Panzerfaust, that were at their most effective in this environment. Nevertheless, there could be no question of the Germans holding on for long.

Relief was on the way. The rest of 16th Fallschirmjäger Regiment arrived by train near Vilnius early on 9 July, and almost immediately it was assigned to an ad hoc battlegroup, Kampfgruppe Tolsdorff, which went into action outside the western outskirts. Another formation dispatched to try to stem the Soviet flood was 6th Panzer Division, which had been recuperating in Soltau in Germany after suffering heavy casualties earlier in the year. As the men of the panzer division arrived, they were hastily organised into two battlegroups. Gruppe Pössl consisted of a battalion of tanks from the Grossdeutschland division, a battalion of 6th Panzer Division’s panzergrenadiers, and artillery support; it was ordered to advance to make contact with Tolsdorff ‘s group on the outskirts of Vilnius, and thence to link up with the garrison. Gruppe Stahl, with two panzergrenadier battalions and artillery support, would attempt to hold open the line of retreat.

The attack began on 13 July, with Generalleutnant Waldenfels, the commander of 6th Panzer Division, and Generaloberst Georg-Hans Reinhardt, commander of 3rd Panzer Army, accompanying Pössl’s group. The thin screen of Soviet and Polish forces to the west of Vilnius was unable to stop the thrust, which reached Rikantai, about eight miles outside the city. Here, contact was established with Gruppe Tolsdorff, which in turn had a tenuous connection with the Vilnius garrison. During the afternoon, German wounded were evacuated from Vilnius and along the road to the west.

The Soviet response to the German breakout was slow. Late on 13 July, uncoordinated attacks along the narrow escape route were repulsed, but the following day there were several crises as increasingly strong Soviet pincer attacks cut the road repeatedly. Finally, as darkness fell on 14 July, the Germans withdrew to the west. About 5,000 men from the garrison were able to escape, but over 10,000 were lost.

The Soviet authorities proclaimed the liberation of Vilnius on 13 July, but there was still the question of what to do with the Polish Home Army forces that had fought both against the garrison and against Gruppe Tolsdorff to the west of the city. Krzyzanowski and his fellow officers wished to use their men to recreate the pre-war Polish 19th Infantry Division, itself a controversial unit in that it was raised by Poland in the Vilnius region after that area was seized by Poland.

Rudolf Witzig

Witzig’s 1st Battalion of the 21st Parachute Engineer Regiment at Vilnius

The 954 soldiers of the 16th Parachute Regiment entrained for Vilnius, in the south-eastern corner of modern Lithuania, in July. The German High Command considered the defence of Vilnius imperative. If the city fell, it would be impossible to maintain contact between the two German army groups in the Baltic States and to stop the Red Army’s advance towards East Prussia. It had thus been declared a ‘fortress’ city by Hitler and was to be held to the last man. Schirmer’s regiment was subordinated to Field Marshal Model’s Army Group Centre and the Third Panzer Army. Under the direct control of Major General Stahel, an air-defence officer and commander of Vilnius, the 16th Parachute Regiment joined a hotch-potch of units in defence of the city, including the 399th and 1067th Panzergrenadier Regiments, an independent panzergrenadier brigade, the 16th SS Police Regiment, the 2nd Battalion, 240th Field Artillery Regiment, the 256th Anti-Tank Battalion and the 296th Flak Battalion. In addition, elements of the 731st Anti-Tank Detachment, with 25 Hetzer tank destroyers were also available, as well as the 103rd Panzer Brigade with 21 Panther tanks, the 8th Assault Gun Detachment and the 6th Panzer Division with 23 Panzer IV tanks and 26 Panthers.

Poised to advance on the Lithuanian capital were elements of the Soviet 5th and 5th Guards Armies of the Third Belorussian Front. The Soviet attack on the city began on 8 July 1944, with Russian tanks and infantry attacking across Lake Narocz towards the airfield, which was defended by the paratroopers. After bitter fighting, the Soviet 35th Tank Brigade took the airfield. Intense street fighting then commenced as the Soviets attempted to reduce German defences. By midday, the Red Army had fought its way into the city, overrunning the initial line of anti-tank obstacles and destroying a number of the ad hoc German battle groups. The following day, the Germans reported 500 dead and another 500 wounded. By 9 July, Vilnius was encircled. Two days later, the German High Command ordered a break-out. The following night, the defenders broke contact with the enemy and crossed the Vilnia River. Some 2,000 Landsers made it across. With the fall of Vilnius the Wehrmacht’s position in the Baltic States became untenable.

In the meantime, the 16th Parachute Regiment had been followed to the Baltics by Witzig’s 1st Battalion of the 21st Parachute Engineer Regiment, which arrived from France. The battalion, which had an authorized strength of 21 officers and 1,011 other ranks, had been conducting night parachute training at the Salzwedel airbase when it was alerted for movement to Lithuania. ‘By means of a railway movement of several days duration via Berlin and through the peaceful and marvellously sunny summer countryside of Brandenburg and West Prussia and then through East Prussia the battalion reached the border with Lithuania,’ wrote Witzig. ‘The first deployment took place in the Kaunas area.’ Witzig’s battalion reached their planned defensive positions between Schescuppe and Wilkowischen, located only 10 km from the East Prussian border, at the end of July and began to entrench. Within a few days of arriving, the unit was reinforced with an artillery detachment and elements of an assault gun brigade.

Due to the length of the front we were deployed from right to left as follows: Parachute Engineer Battalion, 2nd Battalion, 1st Battalion, and the 3rd Battalion with the 13th Company in reserve and an assault gun brigade [recorded Witzig]. After a while the regiment, which was only equipped with its infantry weapons, received four 75-mm anti-tank guns, which were distributed among the frontline battalions. This position was held the whole of August and September 1944.

Initially the Russians were nowhere in sight. Instead, the men of Witzig’s battalion witnessed the massive westward exodus of Nazi civilian leaders and their families fleeing for their lives to escape the advancing Red Army. The German population in the path of the Russians was thus left leaderless. ‘This was the beginning of the breakdown of law and order,’ remembered Witzig.

After changing positions several times, the battalion finally made contact with the Russians. Witzig’s 3rd Company relieved the 500th SS Parachute Battalion, a punishment battalion:

Only the commander and a few members of the staff had the required rank. All of the company, platoon, and squad leaders were demoted SS officers and NCOs, who wore only an arm badge with their official position. These men had conducted a jump in a coup de main against the headquarters of Yugoslav partisan commander Marshal Tito, only a few weeks earlier. Only with great effort and at the very last moment had he managed to escape.

On the day of their relief, the SS paratroopers bloodily repulsed a Russian tank attack.

On 20 July 1944, a bomb planted at Hitler’s East Prussian headquarters barely missed killing the leader of the Third Reich. In the confusion that followed the attempt, the vast majority of the Wehrmacht’s leaders swore their loyalty to the Führer, while those opposed to the regime were hunted down, cruelly tortured and brutally murdered. A small number committed suicide; only a few survived. Hearing the news at an impromptu parade complete with loudspeakers, Witzig and his men were stunned and felt betrayed. ‘Can you imagine how you would feel if you learned, fighting in the middle of a war, that someone had tried to kill your president?’ one veteran asked the author, when recounting the incident.

But the war went on. According to Witzig, the Red Army attacked his positions about once a week, usually in division strength. Twice Soviet armour, in regimental strength, broke through the German positions:

The majority of tanks, and especially the accompanying infantry, were destroyed by our forward companies in close combat, while the tanks which penetrated deeper were shot by our assault gun brigade. The position was reformed after each attack.

Witzig noted that the Soviets had a large superiority in artillery, which they used liberally. As a result, the terrain surrounding the German defensive positions ‘looked liked the World War I Verdun battlefield’. From time to time the artillery detachment attached to the regiment neutralized a Soviet battery, but it was a losing battle. Nonetheless, Witzig’s battalion, which was deployed as infantry, fought with great determination.

In one particularly hard-fought battle, Witzig’s battalion was mentioned in communiqués for destroying 27 Soviet tanks and stopping the advance of an entire Red Army tank division. On 25 July 1944, the battalion covered a movement to, first, the Kaunas–Daugavpils road and, later in the evening, still further to the north-east to Jonava and entrenched there. ‘A few days ago a strong concentration of enemy tanks was observed and reported in this area,’ reported Witzig, ‘so it was assumed a major attack was imminent.’ The 1st Battalion, 21st Parachute Engineer Regiment, was attached to a battle group commanded by a Colonel Theodor von Tolstorff for this deployment. Tolstorff was, according to Witzig, an excellent officer, and he would win the Swords and Diamonds to the Knight’s Cross the following year as commander of the 340th Volksgrenadier Division.

As had been so often the case, one of Witzig’s companies was detached from the battalion and Witzig was forced to defend with his three remaining companies. The ground on which the battle was fought was open, although the battalion’s flanks were covered by a large forest. The 1st Company, commanded by Lieutenant Kubillus, deployed on the left of the Kaunas–Daugavpils road, while the 2nd Company, commanded by Lieutenant Walther, deployed on the right as it was clear that the Soviets would focus their attacks on this road. Elements of Lieutenant Schürmann’s understrength 4th Company were attached to the 2nd Company, while the remainder served as a battalion reserve. The 3rd Company, commanded by Lieutenant von Albert, was detached from the battalion to serve as a corps reserve in the rear. According to Witzig, several assault and anti-tank guns were deployed with the battalion, located at the edge of a wood and in battle positions in a cornfield, but were not attached to it. The battalion’s own T-mines, stored in stacks of a hundred, had been left in the woods in forward positions. Witzig notes that every squad was equipped with anti-tank weapons of some sort, including at least one Panzerschreck and three to five Panzerfausts.

The Panzerschreck (‘Tank Terror’) or Ofenrohr (‘Stovepipe’) was similar to the American Bazooka rocket-launcher. More than 1.5 metres long and weighing more than 11 kg it was a handful for any soldier to carry, much less use effectively. However, its 88-mm, 3-kg, anti-tank rocket was capable of stopping any Allied tank at ranges of up to 120 metres. The Panzerfaust, on the other hand, was the world’s first truly disposable anti-tank recoilless launcher. Weighing only 6 kg and easy to use, this shoulder-fired launcher shot a hollow-charge anti-tank grenade, which could pierce 200 mm at ranges of 30–80 metres. This was literally point-blank range against a tank and it took a great deal of raw courage, steady nerves and patience to use the weapon effectively. By 1944, both weapons had acquired a fearsome reputation. In the last year of the war, the Allies would find themselves losing hundreds of vehicles a week to the Panzerschreck and Panzerfaust.

During the night of 25/26 July, Witzig’s companies entrenched in fighting positions optimized for anti-tank defence, with two to three men in each position. To defend against surprise attacks, a string of forward outposts had been established, especially in the 1st Company sector. These preparations all took place against a backdrop of the constant sound of Russian tanks moving into place just forward of the battalion’s positions. ‘The defensive position was too exposed,’ complained Witzig, who was convinced that the Russians would attack in strength. The battle began that night, with a combat patrol by the 4th Company, which surprised and captured a Soviet tank crew and a commissar. A short time later, a Russian patrol evened the odds by capturing two outposts of the 2nd Company. Shortly afterwards, a third outpost disappeared. ‘Another outpost was gone,’ remembered Witzig. ‘Only the soldier’s rifle was left in his foxhole.’ The sound of tanks massing continued throughout the night and at the crack of dawn the next day they were visible across a wide front some 1,200 metres from the battalion’s positions.

At the break of dawn on July 26, 1944 the men of the battalion were aware that a day was starting that would demand the greatest efforts from them. With a provoking directness an armada of steel and iron, aware of its superiority, deployed so that even the bravest individual felt depressed. Countless T-34 tanks, artillery pieces and the dreaded ‘Stalin Organ’ [multiple rocket launcher] and assault guns were deployed to break through the defensive positions of the parachute engineers. Yet not one round was fired. There was an uncanny silence on both sides, the calm before the storm.

The silence, however did not last long. ‘And then, flashes from the other side, from thousands of barrels simultaneously’, and shells were pounding the German positions unmercifully: ‘Again and again, pounding, hammering, shattering, pulsating, bursting and cracking,’ recorded Witzig. The incessant barrage lasted for an hour without any reduction in intensity, inflicting numerous casualties on the battalion. As it began to lift, Witzig’s men noticed that the German assault guns had abandoned their battle positions and were nowhere to be seen. But there was nothing that could be done, for the Russian tanks, heavily laden with foot soldiers, were already advancing on the paratroopers through the smoke and the dust with more infantry running alongside the tanks.

Witzig’s men held their fire until the first line of enemy tanks were only twenty metres away, then unleashed a devastating barrage of antitank rounds. At this range, nothing, not even the thickly armoured Josef Stalin tank, was immune from the deadly German volley:

The men of the 1st [Company] took heart and set themselves against this colossus. It came to furious fighting directly on the highway. Lieutenant Fromme fired his Panzerfaust at a T-34 which ground to a halt, engulfed in flames. He himself was wounded. Then Lieutenant Kubillus, the company commander, who had hastened to the highway after realizing the focal point of the attack, went down seriously wounded. Sergeant Weber took command of the company. He himself blew apart three tanks, which stood burning and shattered in front of the company foxholes. Then he saw Sergeants Scheuring, Hüchering and a few other engineers, whom he could not recognize because of the dust and smoke, obliterate another three tanks. Within a short period, the men of the 1st Company, using Panzerfausts and Ofenrohr, had turned fifteen tanks into burning, smouldering iron.

As the enemy tank attack was broken up, leaving dozens of T-34s and Soviet assault guns engulfed in flames, the Russian infantry sprang from their carriers to the ground, intent on making the paratroopers pay. Instead, they were cut down at close range by MG 42s. Caught in the open and without their tanks to suppress the machine guns, the Red Army soldiers were slaughtered. Within minutes, the first Russian attack had collapsed under the massed and accurate anti-tank and machinegun fire of Witzig’s parachute engineers. But the battalion, in turn, suffered heavy losses, with the 1st Company reduced to thirty men.

In the meantime, to the south of the Kaunas–Daugavpils road the 2nd Company, reinforced with the understrength 4th Company, was having a more difficult time containing the Russian assault. A group of some fifty T-34s succeeded in fighting their way through the company positions and cutting off the road behind the two companies. ‘The mounted infantry were taken under fire first and forced to jump off,’ wrote Witzig. ‘Engineer Stauss engaged a tank with his Ofenrohr and suddenly a second tank was also on fire. But the remainder rolled westward without bothering about their infantrymen left behind.’ The German assault guns, which might have defeated the Russian tanks, had already left the battlefield and these had been followed by the surviving anti-tank guns, leaving the paratroopers to fight unsupported. ‘I engaged the tanks which were passing close by my right as the Russians did not attack head on,’ remembered Sergeant Hans-Ulrich Schmidt, from Hamburg, relating his escape in the midst of the advancing Red Army:

After the first echelon passed by, I discovered about five Russian soldiers on every T-34. At the same moment another T-34 showed up about 100 metres to the right of me. I fired one shot with my Ofenrohr and hit it, but after two minutes it began moving and firing again. I charged my Ofenrohr with a second shell immediately as I heard the noise of battle behind me. I tried to establish contact to the right and left of me, but no one had remained in their positions. So I left the position and ran back into the cornfield behind me. Here I found myself between several Russian tanks, which surrounded me. I raised my Ofenrohr, aimed and fired, but the electrical firing trigger failed. One of the tanks discovered me and fired with its gun. I was knocked to the ground by the blast of the shell and hit my forehead against the Ofenrohr. That was my salvation. I pretended to be dead and the tanks moved on. After they were out of sight I ran as fast as I could to the rear, concealed by the cornfield.

By this point in the battle, there were Russian soldiers to the front, on the right flank and behind the battalion’s position. Now it was only a matter of breaking contact with the Soviets as quickly as possible, withdrawing before the battalion could be encircled and annihilated, and regrouping on defensive positions to the west. But the Soviet tanks which had broken through had been followed by masses of Russian infantry, which attacked the German paratroopers as they sought to cross the 2 km of open ground to reach the safety of the forest and cover. Now it was the Russian machine guns which fired unremittingly, mowing down the German paratroopers as they sought to escape. Few made it. Only twelve unwounded survivors of the 1st Company made it to the battalion rally point, along with only ten men from the 2nd Company. Major Witzig led the remnants of his battalion through the forests, bypassing the Soviets and avoiding battle until the survivors reached the German lines.

We set out towards the north under heavy fire along a small trail [remembered Private Anzenhofer]. For some time we strayed through the forest in column formation led by Major Witzig, meeting remnants of the battalion. The commander led us, through Russian tank and crowded troop formations, back to our own lines without further losses. To this day, everyone who survived still gives him credit.

Witzig himself had only praise for his men, especially his medical personnel, as he wrote after the war:

Their sense of duty saved the lives of hundreds of German and Russian soldiers. Only someone who has been in the inferno of death and destruction can measure how these men fought. Selfless and fearless, animated by the thought of helping their wounded comrades, no matter which uniform they were wearing and bringing them back safely as quickly as possible.

Many of the German medics were killed or seriously wounded, while others disappeared, never to be seen again.

Over the course of the next several days, other paratroopers rejoined the battalion, which, according to Witzig’s account, numbered sixty-five men. Witzig used these to establish blocking positions and prevent the Russians from breaking through. This remnant of Witzig’s battalion was committed again and again in a futile attempt to stop the Red Army. By the end of August, the 1st Battalion, 21st Parachute Engineer Regiment, had a total strength of 8 officers and 274 men. Of these, however, only 4 officers and 184 men were frontline soldiers. Karl-Heinz Hammerschlag, who fought under Witzig in Lithuania, remembered that from a battalion of more than 1,000 men in the summer of 1944, only 30 remained by September. ‘We had no tanks, no field artillery, no anti-tank artillery and no Luftwaffe,’ he told the author. ‘We fought mostly with Panzerfausts and anti-tank mines.’

 

Fire Direction and Radar Equipment on the Bismarck Class BBs

Weapons and Fire Control Systems

The designers of the Bismarck class adhered to the tried and tested main armament arrangement of two twin turrets forward and aft, the rearmost of each superfiring. The reason for this was the better field of fire and more effective sequence of salvos. The smaller calibres—the 15cm secondary artillery and the 10.5cm flak—followed the previous layout.

The concept of the 15cm gun was its role as a classic anti-destroyer weapon. It fired a theoretical eight, but in practice only six, rounds per barrel per minute, and was in no respects of any value as an anti-aircraft gun, having too slow a rate of fire and turret rotation speed and an inadequate angle of elevation. Together with the main armament, it was used on Tirpitz in an anti-aircraft role as it could put up a long-range barrage of time-fused shells to confront approaching bomber formations with a curtain of shrapnel.

German naval flak was inadequate, and lacked a gun which was capable of engaging both a fast bomber at high altitude and long distance and also a torpedo bomber closing in just above the wave tops. The planners had failed to grasp the concept of the multi-purpose flak gun. There would certainly have been room for them, but it was left to other navies to address the problem and to come up with workable solutions towards the end of the war. Of course, Germany already had an excellent flak gun, the 12.7cm Flak L/45 Model 34, which had a range, at 30 degrees’ elevation, of 10,497.3m, a shell weight of 23.45kg and a muzzle velocity of 829.97m/sec and which had given outstanding results against enemy bombers over the Reich.

The VDI-Memorandum (which had had handwritten comments added in April 1957 by former ministerial adviser Dipl-Ing Ludwig Cordes, from December 1942 Chief of the Official Group for Artillery Construction at Naval Command, a personality familiar with the whole subject inside and out) drew special attention to fire direction centres with the following notable conclusion:

There was no technical expert at Naval Command (OKM) charged with responsibility for this particular interest. Rulings were ultimately within the jurisdiction of a military centre, which led to frequent erroneous decisions.’

Flak

There were two different models. The 10.5cm model C33 guns of Bismarck were fitted in twin mountings, C31 forward and C37 aft. The guns differed principally in the coordination system for their target data. In themselves both weapons were flawless, but unfortunately when the C37 had been shipped, the necessity to install the fire direction equipment individual to each model of gun had been overlooked, with the result that, when the fire direction instructions were transmitted, Flak C33 fired at the target and Flak C37 at a point beyond it. The error here clearly lay with Kriegsmarine planning, which resulted in the linking of an incompatible battery to the control centre.

Flak Direction Centres

Until the end of the war, German heavy units were equipped with grossly inferior flak direction centres based on the Cardan ring system with a large revolving base. At a massive 40 tons, their weight tended to affect the ship’s stability. In battle, many defects came to light, for the Cardan ring system was very sensitive to underwater hits: even the lightest hits could cause a break in the ring, resulting in a total system breakdown.

As early as 1932 engineers had set out proposals for an improved and more suitable development which had a smaller and triaxial rotating base. Despite repeated reminders, it was not until 1942 that the new device was first commissioned, and the experimental prototype was eventually ready by the end of the war though never fitted aboard ship. Complementing a far superior handling capability and better armour protection, the new device had a weight of only 6 tons.

In 1933 proposals had been put forward for automatic fire direction mountings for 3.7cm and 2cm guns. This demonstrates how far-sighted the German weapons engineering industry was, but in this case nothing came of the proposals.

Radar Equipment

At the outbreak of war in 1939 Germany had two workable radar systems, Freya (2.4cm waveband) and Würzburg (50cm waveband). At the time, the Third Reich led the world in this field. This would change. In the autumn of that year the British built a 12m system and then concentrated their efforts on the centimetre wavebands. In 1943, they introduced the 9cm device known to the Germans as ‘Rotterdam’.

In Germany the industry was fragmented, and instead of drawing on the experience of well-established firms, new companies were set up and the Luftwaffe commandeered all new developments. In 1942–43 it was decided that no new developments in radars of wavebands less than 20cm were possible, and all research into that area was abandoned. Only when a ‘Rotterdam’ set fell into German hands was work resumed. None of the equipment built worked satisfactorily in service. Germany had ‘missed the bus’.

These few concluding remarks may be sufficient to permit a more critical assessment of German warship construction of the period than is normally the case. At their completion, the two Bismarck class units were the culmination of capital ship building, but they were already obsolescent. They were powerful and sturdy fighting ships, but not unsinkable. In their final form they were, asthetically, the crowning glory of German warship construction.

The destruction by Bismarck of the world’s largest capital ship of the time, the battlecruiser Hood, is an impressive testimonial to German naval gunnery. But in respect of this success, it must be remembered that it was achieved against a warship which had been laid down in the Great War twenty-five years previously—certainly modernised but unchanged in her basic structure.

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