Category Archives: Today in History

29 April 1944 – Luftwaffe Fighters Meet USAAF Bomber Attack

Focke-Wulf Fw 190A-3 of 11/JG 2 after landing in the UK by mistake in June 1942. Introduced in 1941 to supplement the ME 109.

While RAF Bomber Command had finished their campaign against Berlin the 8th USAAF continued with daylight attacks. The RAF would maintain regular night time nuisance raids with Mosquitos, to keep the German capital awake until the end of the war.

The Luftwaffe fighters were doing their best to present a protective screen against the bombers. Since the beginning of the year, they had had to contend with growing numbers of escort fighters, accompanying the bombers ‘all the way’. Despite the Allied attacks on the German aircraft industry, they were not short of fighter aircraft. It was the losses of German fighter pilots that was causing the difficulty. Even the most experienced pilots were finding the odds against them were increasing every day. For Luftwaffe ace Heinz Knoke the challenge was especially evident today:

29. April 1944.

Three Bomber Divisions are launching an offensive from the Great Yarmouth area. Our formations in Holland report strong fighter escorts. My orders are to engage the escorting lighters in combat with my Squadron, draw them off and keep them occupied. Other Squadrons of Focke-Wulfs are thus to be enabled to deal with the bombers effectively without interference.

1130 hours: off to the west and below I spot the first vapor-trails. They are Lightnings. In a few minutes, they are directly below followed by the heavy bombers. These are strung out in an immense chain as far as the eye can reach. Thunderbolts and Mustangs wheel and spiral overhead and alongside. Then our Focke-Wulfs sweep right into them. At once I peel off and dive into the Lightnings below. They spot us and swing round towards us to meet the attack. A pack of Thunderbolts, about thirty in all, also come wheeling in towards us from the south. This is exactly what I wanted.

The way is now clear for the Focke-Wulfs. The first of the Fortresses are already in flames. Major Moritz goes in to attack with his Squadron of in-fighters (Rammjaeger).

Then we are in a madly milling dog-fight. Our job is done; it is a case of every man for himself. I remain on the tail of a Lightning for several minutes. It flies like the devil himself, turning, diving, and climbing almost like a rocket. I am never able to fire more than a few pot-shots.

Then a flight of Mustangs dives past. Tracers whistle close by my head. I pull back the stick with both hands, and the plane climbs steeply out of the way. My wingman, Sergeant Druhe, remains close to my tail.

Once again I have a chance to fire at a Lightning. My salvoes register at last. Smoke billows out of the right engine. I have to break away, however. Glancing back, I see that I have eight Thunderbolts sitting on my tail. The enemy tracers again come whistling past my head.

Evidently, my opponents are old hands at the game. I turn and dive and climb and roll and loop and spin. I use the methanol emergency booster, and try to get away in my favorite corkscrew climb. In only a few seconds the bastards are right back on my tail. They keep on firing all the time. I do not know how they just miss me, but they do.

My wingman sticks to me like glue, either behind or alongside. I call him to “Stay right there!” whatever happens. “Victor, Victor,” he calmly replies. In what I think could be a lucky break, I get a Yank in my sights. I open fire with all guns, steep climb. Then all his comrades are back again on my tail.

In spite of the freezing cold, sweat pours down my face. This kind of dog-fight is hell. One moment I am thrust down into the seat in a tight turn; the next I am upside down, hanging in the safety-harness with my head practically touching the canopy roof and the guts coming up into my mouth.

Every second seems like a lifetime.

The Focke-Wulfs have meanwhile done a good job. I have seen nearly thirty of the Fortresses go down in flames. But there are still several hundred more of the heavy bombers winging their way eastwards undaunted. Berlin is in for another hot day.

My fuel indicator needle registers zero. The red light starts to flicker its warning. Ten more minutes only, and my tank will be empty. I go down in a tight spiral dive. The Thunderbolts break away.

In a flash, I glance around, and then instinctively duck my head. There is a Thunderbolt sitting right on my tail, followed by seven more. All eight open fire. Their salvoes slam into my plane. My right-wing bursts into flames.

Knoke was shot down but lived to fight another day. See Heinz Knocke: I flew for the Fuhrer: Story of a German Airman  for his whole account of this day in action.

A Luftwaffe model used to study how to attack the B-17 bomber.
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Bombing of Berlin 1942-1945

A bomb crater in front of the Reich Chancellery, Berlin, January 1944.

In Berlin, there were plenty of people who could see which way the war was going. Yet sharing those thoughts with anyone who could not be completely trusted was very dangerous. The suspicious and vengeful Nazi machine would grow ever more paranoid in the last year of the war.

RAF Bomber Command had finished the sustained campaign of heavy bombing of Berlin that had lasted most of the winter, although few in the city could yet guess that the heavy bombing was over. For the remainder of the war, the threat of bombing remained – there were constant reminders as the RAF regularly sent Mosquito bombers on minor raids to set off the alarms and maintain the tension.

Ursula von Kardorff, a young journalist working in the city, was particularly well informed about the war situation. Yet she just needed to look around her to reflect on the reality of the war:

Easter in this grotesque city! I sat in brilliant sunshine in the most extraordinary place imaginable, just behind the Reichstag. Before the war, they cleared a great open space on which they were going to build Party offices of one kind and another.

Then with the bombing a lake, many feet deep, appeared in a landscape which looks like something from Hieronymus Bosch, flanked by the ruins of the former War Office, whose cellars are now occupied by the police, and by the wrecked houses of the diplomatic quarter, of which only the Swiss Consulate is still standing.

Children play on the lake, although they are forbidden to do so, and have made themselves rafts out of charred planks. A child was almost drowned the other day and was only saved at the last minute by an attaché from the Swiss Legation. Flowers grow in the rubble, rank and yellow, but the air is clean and the weeds are green and fish have already settled down in the lake. It is a kind of macabre idyll.

The space in front of the gutted Reichstag is littered with the burned-out wrecks of cars. Practical jokers have propped up the heads of the smashed statues on piles of stones. What with the ruins of the Kroll Opera and the rusty skeletons of the cars, Salvador Dali could sit here and draw from life.

I have been spending the last few evenings with actors and actresses, almost all of them bombed out, who have moved into hotels near the theatre district. As we sat in the Adlon and waited for the warning we passed the time by playing a game called ‘Hollywood’ – a sort of charades. A few people from the Foreign Office joined in. Aribert Wéischer was marvelous as a sphinx, Paul Hartmann was Venus, in furs, and Wilfried Seyffert played an Ancestress. The two Ambessers were quite tireless. There was an unpleasant moment when Minister Clodius pretended to be the Virgin Mary, which everybody guessed at once. I was not the only one to be shocked.

The raids have let up, for the moment, but a wave of new arrests has set in. All the guests at a tea-party given by Fraulein von Thadden were denounced by an informer, including Lagi Solf, her mother and many more.

12th April

I almost wept yesterday when I read that fifty of our best photographers have been commissioned to take pictures of the works of art and buildings, the churches and castles which still survive in Germany. One day those photographs will be the only evidence that these lost treasures ever existed.

Listening devices are used to try to discover buried victims of the bombing, Berlin 1944.
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22 January 1941 – 22 March 1941 – End of Operation Berlin

Scharnhorst.

Under the command of Admiral Günther Lütjens, German battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau departed from Kiel, Germany on 22 Jan 1941 to raid Allied shipping. The two surface warships were supported by supply ships and tankers Uckermark, Ermland, Schlettstadt, Friedrich Breme, and Hamburg. They were detected by the British in the Great Belt strait between the islands of Zealand and Funen in Denmark; in response, Admiral Sir John Tovey was dispatched with a fleet of 3 battleships, 8 cruisers, and 11 destroyers to intercept. While Tovey hypothesized that the German force would enter the Atlantic Ocean south of Iceland, Lütjens decided on the route north of Iceland instead, thus the British fleet failed to make contact with the German fleet.

Allied convoy HX-106, consisted of 41 ships, was en route from Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada to Liverpool, England, United Kingdom when it was detected by Scharnhorst and Gneisenau on 8 Feb. Captain Otto Ciliax of Scharnhorst offered to use his battleship’s superior speed to draw off British battleship HMS Ramillies escorting the convoy, allowing Gneisenau to overpower the transports. Lütjens, however, opted to abide by Adolf Hitler’s orders to avoid engaging Allied capital ships and broke off the attack. The convoy failed to make the correct identification on the two German battlecruisers, thus Tovey was not alerted of the actual location of his assigned prey.

Scharnhorst & Gneisenau.

The German battlecruisers then set to hunt down Allied convoy HX-111, during which attempt they came across another convoy on 22 Feb en route to the United States after already having emptied their cargo in Britain. This attack lasted over 12 hours, during which 5 ships were sunk. The attack was reported by the convoy.

Next, the Germans sailed south to the Azores off western Africa. They sighted a convoy, but due to the presence of battleship HMS Malaya, Lütjens decided not to pursue; instead, he shadowed the convoy and directed submarines in the area to attack.

Moving into the western Atlantic, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau sank a freighter, followed by two separate attacks on two convoys that resulted in 16 Allied ships sunk or captured.

Operation Berlin ended on 22 Mar 1941 as the fleet made a port call at Brest, France. The ships had traveled 17,800 miles during this operation, sinking or capturing 22 enemy ships totaling 113,690 tons.

Schlachtschiff Gneisenau.
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21 March 1944 – Cremer’s U-333 Survives Attack by Walkers’ Group

Peter Cremer was a lucky man. As a U-boat commander, he defied the odds and survived the war to write his memoirs. He did so after surviving a series of very close encounters with the Royal Navy. In 1942 he had been badly wounded in an engagement with HMS Crocus in October 1942. After recovering from his wounds he returned to command U-333.

On U-333’s 10th patrol they came up against a formidable adversary – the 2nd Escort Group under the command of Captain Walker, the most successful of all the U-boat hunters in the war. Walker’s group of ships was returning to port when they were alerted to a possible U-boat spotted by an aircraft. After the war, the Royal Navy examined the records of the Kriegsmarine and speculated that the 2nd Escort Group might have attacked U-333. Cremer was able to set the record straight in his memoir:

In English opinion ‘the move could well have taken the Group across the path of U 333, to which I can only say ‘it certainly did’, for our courses definitely crossed.

After the reconnaissance plane had observed and reported me in the early morning of 21 March, at about 1100 strong propeller noises were heard approaching in a broad spectrum extending from west to south.

I tried to outmaneuver the enemy and break through to the south-west but it was a hopeless enterprise. The weather itself was bad. A long Atlantic swell was running which even at 40 meters depth made itself unpleasantly felt and swung the boat to and fro.

This Group came at U 333 from two sides in the attack formation preferred by Walker. In broad line abreast the ships dropped depth charges at very short intervals. As prelude numerous samples were dropped in a few minutes, their explosions merging with one another so that it was impossible to count them.

Their pressure waves were so enormous that the conning-tower hatch began to shudder and we were all thrown about. Then it became suspiciously quiet until the odious ping – ping – ping of a searching ship was first heard thinly, then louder. Then that, too, broke off and there was another pause, explained perhaps by the fact that the enemy did not succeed in locating us with certainty.

It may be that the weather was responsible. At any rate, it was a situation of ‘no reports being made since their contact was not firm enough.’

This probably saved our lives, for suddenly all hell was let loose again. But now they were throwing them without aim, on suspicion. Escaping was not to be thought of. The ocean was too shallow here and the slightest of our machinery noises would have betrayed us.

It was best to play possum and let nothing be heard of us – come what might. So I laid the boat on the bottom where it bedded itself softly in sand and mud. I ordered the crew to rest and as far as possible not to think of depth charges, though it was impossible not to hear them. I thought: whoever throws so many will soon have none left. Meanwhile, the hands of our clock kept moving, the search dragged on and lasted into the night.

It was deathly still in the boat if that does not sound macabre. As distinct from in films and many a book, the U-boat men controlled themselves in precarious situations and only seldom lost their nerve. There were neither cries nor groans and even orders were passed in a whisper from mouth to mouth. Pst! The enemy is listening! Water is an uncanny conductor.

I myself crouched in the control room, knees and stomach wrapped in soft catskins. It was cold and old wounds were hurting.

The propeller noises of the destroyers sounded muted, then clearer. They came closer, moved further off, sometimes singly, sometimes several together. Time passed. The air was used up, the potash cartridges were nearly expended and I had to supply oxygen. Everyone was breathing in short, heavy gasps. After ten hours (but what hours!) I was forced to go up.

All hands — Action stations — Surface! At once they were wide awake. ‘Blow tanks!’ A high-pitched hissing noise. That was all – nothing else. The boat would not budge, an invisible hand was holding it down. This was something quite new. Again, the same maneuver. ‘Blow tanks!’ Nothing moved.

U-333 had bedded itself only too well into the sand and mud of the ocean bottom. There was an even more nerve-racking period as they tried to free the U-Boat from the bottom of the ocean.

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6 March in German History

1930

Death of Alfred von Tirpitz in Ebenhausen, Germany. Von Tirpitz became an admiral and worked with Kaiser Wilhelm II in attempting to build Germany’s navy to a level competitive with that of Britain. The first German Fleet Act was introduced in 1898 and set the goal of building a defensive navy. A second Fleet Act designed to allow the German navy to rival Britain was passed in 1900. Britain did not react until about 1905 when it began to develop its own fleet. Ironically it was an Austrian, Louis Alexander Battenberg who took on the task of building the British navy with Churchill. Battenberg changed his name to Mountbatten in 1917.

1984

Death of Martin Niemöller in Wiesbaden, Germany. Niemöller served as a commander of a submarine in World War I. He undertook studies in theology after the war and became a pastor in Berlin. He was a leader in the resistance against Hitler. He was arrested in 1937 and sent to the camp in Dachau. After the war, he returned to his work in the church. His experiences in the war and his conscience led him to very active pacifism during the “Cold War”. He was given the Lenin Peace Prize in 1967 and the German “Grand Cross of Merit” in 1971.

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25 February in German History

1634

Albrecht Wallenstein, the commanding general of the Holy Roman Empire in the Thirty Years’ War dies (assassination). Wallenstein was born in Hermanice, Bohemia (now in the Czech Republic). The classic dramatist Friedrich Schiller wrote a three-part play about the life of Wallenstein.

1947

The four occupation powers in Germany make the decision to liquidate the state of Prussia.

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