This is a bit Longer than usual but it’s worth the read.
We are all familiar with the exploits of the Japanese suicide pilots, dubbed Kamikazes, pilots who were sealed into the cockpits of their aircraft and then bombed up who would then proceed to crash their planes into Allied warships, particularly singling out aircraft carriers. However, not many people are aware that the Germans also formed their own ‘Kamikaze,’ squadrons who were supposed to fly their aircraft into the big, lumbering B-25s and B-17s of the USAF and Lancasters and Halifax of the RAF and the bridges slung across the Order River by the Soviets as they advanced on Berlin during the last months of world war Two.
To be dubbed Rammkommando, they were possibly inspired by the Japanese Kamikaze and like the German operations were born out of desperation. Yet neither the Germans nor the Japanese was the first to resort to ramming, during the German invasion of Poland in September 1939 there were incidents of Polish pilots ramming German bombers. Such desperate acts of bravery would be witnessed again by the Germans during Operation Barbarossa (Codename, for the Axis attack on the Soviet Union) when Red Air Force pilots were also seen to deliberately ram enemy aircraft, often after running out of ammunition, however, how many of these were deliberate or where results of accidental mid-air-collisions we will never know but there is no doubt that some were deliberate, yet these were isolated incidents and not adopted tactics.
Ramming, known as ‘Sturm,’ by the Germans was first endorsed by the Nazis by Reichmarshal Hermann Goring when he encouraged German fighter pilots to ram the big four-engined bombers of the Allies as a last resort. However, no units were specially created for ramming, until the establishing of Rammkommando Elbe differed from the Japanese Kamikaze by not being a strict suicide outfit, as the pilots would only ram when they had a fair chance of baling out first.
On 4th October 1943, the US Eighth Air Force bombed Frank-on-Main. The Luftwaffe failed to intercept the American bombers, whom the Germans referred to as ‘Terror bombers.’ outraged that the enemy aircraft had not been engaged the local leader protested to Hermann Goring who issued the following order.
“There are no weather conditions unfavourable enough to prevent units from taking-off; every fighter pilot who lands an undamaged machine without scoring a kill will be court-marshalled, if a fighter pilot runs out of ammunition or if his guns jam he is to ram the enemy bomber.”
(Reichmarshal Hermann Goring)
Of cause, these silly orders were put to rest and virtually forgotten by the commanders of the Luftwaffe. But the order did prompt Major Hans-Georg (Gunter) von Kornatzki 2nd June 1906 – 12th September 1944) to persuade the powers-to-be to let him form an experimental unit which was to be based on the army’s storm formations who got to close quarters with the enemy forces and engaged them in hand-to-hand combat. He had the idea of forming a unit that would be used to break up the heavily armed four-engined bombers of the American 8th
Air Force. Recruits pledged their loyalty to the new unit with a handshake from Kornatzki. The unit had a strict set of rules of engagement, which were…
“…to look for a fight with 4 engined bombers, and wherever possible to avoid engagement with a fighter, to not open fire on the bombers until at a position of 150 to 200 metres, when the four engines appeared to be in the target circle of the Revi gunsight to ram the bomber if weapons failed or the gunfire was ineffective.”
The new squadron, (Staffel in German) was made operational in January 1944 with Major Kornatzki in command. They were to be based in Dortmund alongside First Gruppe of Jagdgeshwader 1/1, (JG1) they were equipped with the famous Focke-Wulf FW 190s. The unit’s planes were heavily armed with 30 mm cannon and were nicknamed ‘Sturmbock or battering ram by the Germans. This method though was to be only as a last result if the pilots were unable to take down their targets with cannon fire.
The Staffel’s first victory was scored by Oberleutnant Zehart when he brought down a B-17 Flying Fortress on the 11th January 1944. Zehart’s success was followed by Underofficer Willi Mazimowitz on 30th January 1944 near Hannover.
The unit became an immediate success and was quickly regarded as one of the elite; however, few pilots actually resorted to ramming unless they had a good chance of escaping.
“The attack lasted less than two minutes, and when we looked around; only two of the twelve B-17s remained information. The other ten had disappeared as if by magic. What had hit us on that fateful day was a LUFTWAFFE STORM GROUP, but I didn’t learn of the existence of the STORM GROUPS until 49 years later.”
(Actor, Jimmy Stewart.)
As demolishing as these attacks were the storm units suffered terrible losses at the hands of the escort fighters, Stormstaffel 1 on its own suffered a 350% of loss of pilots during its brief period of action. Another issue was that at a time when German industry was being pounded day and night by Allied bombers was it beneficial to waste fighters in ramming attacks when every fighter they processed was a valuable commodity.
(A German Focke-Wulf FW 190 slams into the rear of an American B-17. Unlike the Japanese kamikaze, the Germans were supposed to bale out seconds before the impact. Drawing by Helmuth Ellgaard.)
The unit formed for ramming the bombers was known as the Sondercommando Elbe which flew Messerschmitt BF 109s, these were stripped down with armour and had all their guns removed except with just a mere sixty rounds of ammunition. This was done to enable the aircraft to climb rapidly so as to get above the bombers in preparation for a dive. They would target the tail end of the bombers, as this was the most delicate area and the most survivable for the attacking pilots. However, only one major mission was flown by Sondercommando Elbe, this was in April 1945 when they attacked a huge force of 1’300 American bombers escorted by 800 fighters of the 8th, US Air Force heading for central Germany. The Sondercommando Elbe had just an 180 BF 109s ready for the interception.
The most famous incident during the battle was when Uffizi Heinrich Rosner came in against the formation of the 389th Bomb Group nicknamed the ‘Sky Scorpion,’ which had 31 B-24 Liberators. Somehow avoiding the hail of fire coming towards him from the rear-guns Rosner smashed into the lead Liberator, the ‘Palace of Dallas, and then careened into another B-24, the deputy lead aircraft taking them both, amazingly Rosner managed to bail out and he survived with only minor injuries.
The Luftwaffe claims that at least 22 to 24 B-24 Liberators fell victim to the Sondercommando Elbe but somewhere between 47 to 53 fighters were shot down either by the bomber’s defensive firepower or by American fighters with 30 to 40 of the German pilots being killed. The Americans tried to down play the ramming attacks, as fearful as they were they had little effect on the overall bombing campaign. The losses were high though, as there were no ejectors seats the chances of survival was only a mere 10%.
Another unit was formed however, this being the Gruppe of Jagdgeshwader 4 (11/Storm) JG 4 which was built around the original Sturmstaffel 1, with no other than Major Kornatzki in command.
It was decided that better equipped aircraft was needed to combat the fig four-engined bombers at close ranges. Though the Focke-Wulf 190 A was known to be a good fighter for intercepting bombers it took too long to close in the tail on attack which left the aircraft vulnerable to the escort fighters and the bomber’s defensive machine-guns.
The Sturm would use the 190 A-5s and the A-6s with added 5-inch armour plating which was applied to the critical areas of the aircraft and was called a ‘Panzerplatten,’ in addition 30-mm glass panels were added to the canopy and to the quarter-panels of the wind screen.
There was a problem with these new and heavier aircraft and that was that they used almost double the amount of fuel, something that Germany was critically short of in this stage of the war. Fuel drop tanks were added which further weighed down the aircraft, in spite of the heavier armour the armament remained the same.
Walther Dalh (27th March 1916 – 25th November 1985) commander of the JG 200 would emerge as the most successful of the four-engined bomber killers, scoring an impressive 36 kills, all big bombers. Dalh was nearly court-marshalled and sentenced to death when he refused an order by Goeing to take off and engage huge force of bombers in bad weather, only the intervention of General der Jagdflieger (Inspector of Fighters) Adolf Galland (19th March 1912 – 9th February 1996) saved him.
There was another unit, which was more similar to the Japanese style Kamikaze; this was the Leonidas Squadron, the 5th Staffel of Kampfgeshwander 200. This unit was to fly a manned version of the V-1 flying bomb, the Fieseler Fi 103R (Reichenberg) or ‘Doodlebug’ as it was known to the Londoners.
(The infamous Doodlebug or V-1 flying bomb, by putting a cockpit in them the Germans turned them into manned bombs, similar to the Japanese Ohka. (Cherry Blossom)/ It differed from the Japanese aircraft by the fact that the German pilots were expected to bail out the moment before impact though the chances of survival would have been slim the to say the least.)
The idea was that the pilots would aim the aircrafts at the targets and then bail out at the last possible second, however with the position of the cockpit directly in front of the air intact this made such a prospect highly unlikely.
Fanatical Nazis like Hanna Reitsch thought up the idea for these attacks, relaying on the fanatical spirit of the Nazi youth, which was glorified in German propaganda. At first, Hitler was reluctant, saying that the whole idea was alien to the German culture but he was eventually persuaded to back the project and the Leonidas Squadron was formed.
As many as 70 men volunteered, these were mostly young men, it may seem surprising to us now that so many young men would volunteer for what was almost a suicide mission, but we most not underrate the power of the Nazi propaganda machine, which indoctrinated a fierce fanaticism into the German youth almost from the cradle up.
However, the KG 200 and the higher elections thought that this tactic was a waste of life and of valuable resources and opted instead to use the ‘Mistel’ (German for Mistletoe) guided bomb. This was a stripped down, pilotless Ju-88 that was to be guided to the target by a fighter, though there was some success with these, they were small, and the Mistel proved to be ineffective.
On the 6th June 1944 came the D-Day landings and when it became obvious that the Allies were not going to be thrown back into the sea, Goeing remembered the suicide pilots and ordered them activated. But there was a problem, none of the Buzz Bombs as the V-1 were known, were ready, the pilots were astounded; what were they to fly? It was revealed that the volunteers would fly Focke Wulf FW 190s, which would be fitted to carry a 4’000 pound bomb. But now another problem became known, no one in the German air force had flown this type of aircraft with such a heavy load and it was suspect that the aircraft could even get airborne without crashing. As a result of this, test pilots refused to fly the plane with such a load. Not to be put off the commander announced that his men would fly the planes themselves in the next few days, in spite of the fact none of them ever flown an FW 190. It was lucky for these men, that Hitler, having heard about the plans for the FW 190s, stepped in and ordered the programme counciled.
As a last desperate measure to slow the Soviet advance on Berlin from 17h April to the 20th the Germans are said to have used any available aircraft that they could lay their hands on in an attempt to destroy the bridges over the Oder River. The German air force had come up with its own terms for these suicide operations, calling them Sellstopfereinsatz (Self-sacrifice missions) which was based at Juterbog and was commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Heiner Lange. Lange is said to have signed an official document that ended in the words “I am above all clear that the mission will end in my death.”
In honour of the pilots a farewell dance was hold on the evening of the 6th April in which young women from the Luftwaffe signals unit were invited. The dance had ended with a song, where the overall commander, Major-General Fuchs was seen to be holding back his tears.
The morning of the 17th April would see the first of what was called the ‘Total Mission,’ undertaken against the thirty-two under and over-water bridges that had been built and repaired by Soviet engineers. (Under water bridges refers to bridges built a few inches below the service of the water in order to hide them from aerial reconnaissance.) The Germans attacked with a verity of aircraft, these included Focke-Wulf 190s, Messerschmitt 109s and Junkers Ju 88s, whatever planes they could lay their hands on.
On the following day, one of the Sellstopfereinsatz pilots, Ernest Beichi flying a Focke Wulf carrying a 500 lb bomb took off for his assigned target. Later, aerial reconnaissance would report that his target, a pontoon bridge near Zellin was destroyed, however the only other bridge that seems to have been hit was the railway bridge at Kustrin.
Yet it would seem that their effectiveness is still debated by historians, many of whom consider it a high price to pay just to slow the Soviet advance, thirty-five brave pilots and aircraft had been lost.
However ineffective their sacrifice had been it would not stop General Fuchs (11th May 1895 – 15th January 1977) from sending their names to Adolf Hitler as a special 56th Birthday present.
(A German Focke-Wulf 190. Aircraft like these were used in suicide attacks on the Oder bridges on 17th April 1945, this particular example had been captured by the Americans who had applied the swastika in thew incorrect size and proportions.)