Gunther Rall interview by James Holland @James1940 on Twitter
Gunther Rall sadly passed on 4th October 2009 at his home in Bad Reichenhall, Germany aged 91 years old.
I was born on 10 March, 1918 right at the very end of World War One. At that time my father was fighting at the front as an infantry man. He saw me for the first time late in 1918. my father and mother’s families are both from Wurtenburg. They are old families and the tribe goes way back in history. My father was, let’s say, a middle class merchant. He was successful but the family was not very wealthy. I grew up in this situation and I had a sister who was 4 years older and she is still alive. My father died at the age of 66 during the Second World War when I was in operations and when I hadn’t seen him for a year and a half and my mother died after the war. I was born in the Black Forest in a small village called Gaggenau but my parents moved to Stuttgart when I was 3 years old. My memories go back to Stuttgart and I consider Stuttgart as my home town. I was educated there and attended the classic Gymnasium where I was taught 9 years of Latin and 5 years of Greek and 3 years of English and the emphasis was on humanities – languages, history and literature.
Do you remember the rise to power of the National Socialists in Germany?
Oh yes; my youth was during the time when the Weimar Republic was in between (?) and there was a very revolutionary situation. I remember very well the inflation. In 1923, my father called my family and said ‘Please buy a kilo of butter tonight because we can’t afford it. The Mark runs up to 1 billion or 3 billion Marks.” It was ridiculous; the currency was completely broken and this was the situation and then the Communists and the Rightists came up and there was fighting in the streets and I remember this very well. My father was very conservative – what we called Deutsche Nationale; very patriotic and very religious. My mother sang in the Lutheran Church choir and so this was the frame of my education. At the age of 10, I became a Boy Scout and this had the most important impact on my education. In 1933, I was 15 years old and I experienced this change even though I wasn’t, neither my parents – my father was never a member of the Nazi Party, because he was a middle class, conservative man, and these others were too loud and too noisy and this wasn’t his level. But anyhow, when Hitler came to power, there was such a mess in Germany, economy-wise and political-wise that there was a hope that there would be some success because that first cabinet of Hitler was a combination of Conservatives and Nazis. So you couldn’t see at that time that this was a strict dictatorship of Hitler.
Why were the Boy Scouts so important to you?
This was the big challenge of my youth. We made expeditions every weekend; lived in tents – absorbed all the romantic imaginations of a boy.
You said that you saw street fighting – was that in Stuttgart?
Yes, there were riots; not very big but there was an unfriendly situation very often, if there was a demonstration or something like that. But it wasn’t every day; that would have been horrible.
How strong was the left wing in Stuttgart?
Stuttgart was a majority of Social Democrats because there is a lot of industry around Stuttgart.
Did the Communists have any influence there?
There were Communists there and they were very active and dynamic.
Who do you think was to blame for the street violence in Stuttgart?
All of them were to blame.
When the National Socialists came to power, were there any big meetings that you witnessed in Stuttgart – demonstrations in the street?
They demonstrated their victory but there was no opposition. There was a hope and even the Communists changed, maybe by force; maybe voluntarily to the Nazis. Both were extremists and both called for being Socialist, even the Nazis claimed to be Socialists – National Socialists. It didn’t take very long, but at the age of 15, I was not politically orientated. I was in the Scouts and I did a lot of sports and so I was absorbed by the Boy Scouts and by sports.
When the National Socialist government came into power, what effect did it have on you personally, if any?
None; it was normal life from the next day; there was no change.
Did it change the education in the schools?
You know you cannot change the classic Latin history. Later there may have come in a different aspect of weighing German history. We sang the National Anthem even more but the daily programme went on as before.
Could you tell whether or not the teachers favoured or disfavoured the National Socialist government?
It was hard to tell. We had some teachers who you could feel didn’t have much sympathy with the Nazis. For instance I had a mathematics teacher and he made some cynical jokes but it was not a tremendous or dramatic opposition. The daily work at school went on as it had before.
What did your parents say to you about the government?
Only what was happening. Don’t forget, we had 9,000,000 unemployed and the dream was that something must be done to get out of the economic mess and pretty soon there was success and even my father recognised this. What happened behind the scenes was secret; it wasn’t in the open.
Did your father’s business affairs change?
Not at all.
Was the Local Lutheran Church affected in any way?
No; I had my confirmation there. The change came one year later. I was a Christian Boy Scout and we were taken over by the Jung Volk (?) – the young Hitler Youth branch. Our activities didn’t change but we had a brown shirt instead of a grey shirt; the same leaders; the same unit.
Did you have any Jewish friends?
No; my father had a Jewish friend and there was no change. They knew each other in business and there was no change until this man disappeared. I was already in the army by the time and had lost touch with my friends in Stuttgart.
Can you tell me how you came to be in the forces?
I wanted to become an officer and at that time you had to pass an examination. There were a lot of applicants and I wanted to go into infantry regiment 13; an old, traditional regiment and there were 70 applicants. We had to undergo 3 days of examination with all kinds of activities – psychological and educational and sport. This was early in 1936 and then I was accepted and right after the final exam at school, I was enlisted into the regiment as a cadet, also in 1936.
What kind of training did you have as a cadet?
We were in the normal Company and we were trained in all different steps from the single to the group to the Company; exercises; weapons; infantryman. In addition to this we were educated by a lieutenant who cared for the cadets of the regiment and there were only 4 cadets in the regiment. In addition, we had horse back riding and tactics. We were trained at the regimental barracks in Ludigsbreug (?) near Stuttgart.
Did you like army life?
Yes; it was a new challenge to me and it was a challenge because it was a very rough education and they really tried to take you to the limits physically and psychologically and for young men it was no doubt a challenge. At that time I didn’t have any idea about flying, which came in later when I was at officer’s school in Dreisen (?). When I got to the rank of NCO cadet, from there we were sent to the officers’ school and this was real tactical training and all the facets of the profession. Nearby at that time was a flying school and a friend of mine was a pilot and we met every Saturday and I got the idea of flying. I made my application and was transferred to the Air Force. At that time, the Air Force was in the early stages of build up and the Air Force didn’t have all the facilities and capacity to train cadets as much as they needed and so they gave cadets to the Navy and the Army who were earmarked to become Air Force cadets later on. So in 1938 I was transferred as senior cadet to the Air Force and started my flying training near Munich.
Did the Luftwaffe have a better reputation with the Public than the Wehrmarcht?
No; I mean the Wehrmarcht had a good reputation which went back to the Reichsfier (?) which was a small but very well trained force; absolutely neutral as far as party politics were concerned and they had a high reputation in the country. And when the Army expanded, they carried the reputation of the Reichsfier. The Luftwaffe was a brand new service with different uniforms and was considered sloppy because we had a tie and half shoes and things like that. Pretty soon when aircraft flew in the sky, they had their reputation, no doubt.
The reason I ask is because at that time in Britain, the RAF had a certain glamour that the Army didn’t have.
That wasn’t true to us.
How did you get into the Luftwaffe?
I made an application and took an examination which dealt with your physical condition and some special attitudes you should have and I was happy to be selected and became a lieutenant in the Air Force and started my flying training.
You have suggested that discipline in the Luftwaffe wasn’t as strict……
The Luftwaffe was a very technical force and a technical force has its own regulations and roots and rights. You have to have discipline to the technical function and we were educated in this direction.
At this time, did you think that a war was coming?
No, not at all. That was the age – I was 20 – and we were absorbed by the daily duty, which was flying and we were eager to fly and certainly we watched the political situation and at that time. Hitler had great success; he absorbed Austria and Bohemia without any serious opposition from the world. He realised maybe a historical dream to enlarge our empire, but come to a war…….the situation for war……my generation and particularly the father’s of my generation, they had experienced war. The First World War was a big, deep cut in the lives of many, many people and in every family there was at least one person who got killed during that war and so there was no enthusiasm for war. It was “For Christ’s sake – NO war! This is the worst!”! And I think this was true til the outset of the war; no enthusiasm. In 1914, they were waving flags and shouting hurray! But not so in the Second World War. There was a big depressed mood throughout the country and everyone said “What’s going on?”
A sense of anxiety?
This is the one side. The other side was “If you go to war……” and at that time I was what would be called today a combat ready fighter pilot; just finished my fighter training. Certainly, if there is a war, I want to be as a fighter pilot in a combat unit and be successful and do my duty. This is the next thing – we had to decide for the war but the population was very much shocked by it; no doubt.
Some of the Luftwaffe went off to the war in Spain.
Yes; I was too young for that but many friends of mine were in the Spanish Civil War and they had their first successes. It was a proving ground but we also had losses.
Did some of them speak to you about their time in Spain?
Oh sure; when they went, it was a big secret but you cannot camouflage this for ever and when they came back there was a big discussion and also a big discussion about experience, for instance, which came out of the Spanish Civil War. It introduced the new 4 ship formation; until then we flew 3 ships. Merlindross (?) developed this in the Spanish war with the idea that one aeroplane attacks and the other one protects and this is very flexible in the air. He can attack; I protect or I attack and he protects me. So this was a flexible formation which was invented in that war.
Do you remember any specific stories that friends told you about the Spanish war?
Well…….the armaments on the other side was not high level technology. They felt, particularly when the 109 came in, superior to these aeroplanes.
What was you own political attitude to the Spanish Civil War?
We were informed that the Communists would take over Spain and Franco was defending Spain against Communism and so we favoured Franco’s idea. People were down there – pilots, on a very individual basis and sometimes they’d say “For Christ’s sake, I don’t know whether we are on the wrong side.” They saw the reality and as far as they were able to do…….they didn’t have too much of a handle on the overall situation, but some doubts came up for some individual pilots, but as a whole, I think we favoured the idea that protecting Spain from the Communists was a good idea because it would have a very great impact on Europe.
What was your attitude, and that of your comrades in the Luftwaffe, to Great Britain at that time? Was Britain regarded as a threat or an enemy?
Not even in the Heilstaff (?). Until 1938, Britain was never considered to be a threat in military thinking and consideration. The threat were our immediate enemies – France, Czechoslovakia and Poland; nothing else. So the whole equipment was designed around that. We had short range fighters; we didn’t have strategic bombers. There was one developer who unfortunately got killed in an air crash who favoured strategic bombers, but it never came to reality; not even in the war. There was the Heinkel 144, but it never worked. The emphasis was on a medium bomber and short range fighters and a tactical force with 287 and even the reconnaissance was not tailored to those distances in a strategic way. In other words, I don’t think Great Britain was considered to be a threat until shortly before the war.
Did you know much about the RAF?
No; certainly we knew about some equipment but in those days, there were biplanes and this kind of thing. We didn’t put too much emphasis, as we do now, to have a very detailed knowledge about the weapons system of the other side.
Did any VIPs visit your unit? Did you meet Goering or Hitler?
Jagdgeschwader Richtofen, a very traditional wing, was stationed near Berlin when some political leaders, VIP’s, visited Berlin and certainly they were taken out there. This was the propaganda wing; it was a very good wing; I don’t want to decry them. They had a tradition; a name; a reputation and were stationed near to Berlin.
Shortly before the war, I underwent my fighter pilot’s training in Vernoisnigen (?), a very famous fighter pilot school, where all the big fighter pilots were instructor pilots at that time and right at the outset of war, I was transferred to a combat unit – the second group of jagdgeschwader 52 – wing 52 – which was stationed near Stuttgart. So I never experienced visits by VIP’s or politicians.
Did an esprit de corps develop very quickly? Was there a pride in the service?
Absolutely! Aviators were very proud to be pilots but we had a tradition which went back to the First World War when you had such names as Richtofen and Bercher. So we had names. The Versailles Treaty had forbidden any flying activities but it is well know there was some secret activity and some German pilots were trained in Russia. Actually at the time I didn’t know this because it was very secret. But an esprit de corps was formed very quickly.
You mentioned the Versailles Treaty – was there much bitterness towards Britain and France because of it?
Yes; the Versailles Treaty really ruined the German economy and this was the big bitterness, particularly against France. I as a young man, or as a boy, knew the names……Clemenceau and so on. That treaty was felt every day in Germany; we had to pay and we had restrictions.
When you joined jagdgeschwader 52, what kind of equipment did you have?
We had the 109 Dorer (?), the 2 bladed propeller and it was one of the first marks of the 109. Strangely enough, at the fighter pilot school in Vernoischen (?) I flew the Orado 68 and the Heinkel 51 which were biplanes and we were trained still in the 3 ship formations and right at the end I was checked out on the M108, a nice aeroplane, but a trainer for the 109. I flew the 108 and then I got 2 or 3 rides on the 109 and this was my combat aircraft.
What was it like to fly the Messerschmitt 109?
The 109 had some problems, for instance with the undercarriage. They had very high, very narrow struts. This means that if you push your throttle forward to accelerate, the aircraft starts rolling and you get forward pressure to get the tail up. As soon as the tail gets up you feel the torque effect and you have to give immediately opposite rudder. When you got used to it, it was no problem but as a newcomer, very often they broke off the wheel on the undercarriage. As a whole, and I flew all the different marks, the 109 in my judgement, I liked it. I was very familiar with that aeroplane and looking back at the 109 today, I can’t figure out how I could have flown that for 5 and a half years because it was a very tiny, narrow cockpit and the view to the back was very limited. We didn’t have the cockpits like we have today. But once you get used to it……we flew them in Russia; in snow and mud and everything and it felt familiar.
Did you have an affection for the aeroplane?
Yes; it was something that grew up. If you were successful in some dog fights with this aeroplane, you get the feeling it is a superior aircraft. Then you had the Spitfires – that was a different thing.
You joined jagdgeschwader 52 in 1939?
Yes; the end of August 1939; just before the war. I came to the wing and the war started.
And where were you?
Boblingen, close to Stuttgart on the Western Front.
Did you hear an announcement on the radio that war had begun?
Sure; Hitler said “From now on we are firing back……” that famous speech and we knew that was war now, even if it was against Poland and everyone was curious as to what was going to happen with the west. France had a guarantee for Czechoslovakia as well as Poland as well as the UK but 2 days later, the declared war. It was a galloping situation and there was excitement about what was going on.
And the reaction in your squadron to the declaration of war?
It was more or less individual. Certainly as a soldier and a pilot you think yes, we are ready; let’s go and do it. What you feel inside – that’s your problem.
What did you feel inside?
There wasn’t a great anxiety – you wanted to prove that you had mastered what you had learnt. This is your professional ambition. Besides this is your political impression about the war situation; this is a different thing.
What did your parents think about the war?
I didn’t talk to my parents then; I was in the wing you know? I didn’t see them for a while and then when I saw them, the war was on and in those days we had to deal with ration cards and ……the daily problems.
You were stationed quite near Stuttgart.
Yes, but we couldn’t leave the wing at that time. It was important that the wing sticks together and grows together because it was a newly formed wing with pilots from all over.
What was the station at Boblingen like?
It was an old airport. Klem had his factory for light planes there and in those days it was a sizeable airport which was civilian as well, but that part was shut down when we were stationed there.
You didn’t take part in the Polish campaign?
No; we were on the western front.
While the Polish campaign was going on, did you think that the French would attack in the west?
There was no indication. We flew our missions along the Rhine and the Frensh were on the other side. Actually, I didn’t see any but it happened that there was a German patrol on the eastern side of the Rhine, not allowed to cross the river and the French on the other side obviously with the same orders. There was a hesitation on both sides to be provocative or get into a hot fight. I remember Muldos, he made some fighter sweeps into France. He was an experienced man and wanted to check the quality of the French forces.
He had permission to do that?
I think so; I know they had some fighter sweeps into France. We were not allowed but we did chase some French reconnaissance planes which came over, although seldom. There was no intensive air activity in this part.
Did you obey your orders to stay on your side?
Oh yes; yes. In those days in the squadron, we did a lot of training. I wasn’t much trained on the 4 ship formation; this was done in the common wing. We had time because there wasn’t a lot of fighting in the air then.
Who was your commanding officer at that time?
Captain Schumann; a very fine man; respected leader but he got killed during the war.
Why was he so respected?
He was a leader; his personality……he was a goof pilot and he really took care of other pilots and you felt here was a trustworthy man and a good leader.
Let’s go on to the actual hot war in May 1940 – what do you remember about that?
In January 1940, we were on alert and we thought now we’ll be going to hot war. There was a big attack planned and I remember we were going to fly some missions into France and the group commander told us that was cancelled because there was a German plane with 2 staff officers on and they landed in Belgium with plans and these plans were taken by the enemy and so the whole thing was cancelled. Then there was a quiet period of time until the crossing into the Netherlands, Belgium and France and this was my first confrontation with the French Air Force and I remember it very well; 12th May 1940. My squadron – we had 2 types of fighter units; those that were in a flying corps for attack and those under the command of a Luftkalle (?) which was more or less for home defence. But there was no attack into Germany from the front side and so it was useless for them to sit around and wait until somebody came to attack and so we were transferred to a flying corps and flew our missions under the command of this flying corps which attacked France. My first mission where I came into contact was to pick up a German reconnaissance plane which was a Heinkel 111 and escort it back to Germany. This plane was supposed to fly reconnaissance deep in France. On 12th May we went to the airport at Drier (?) and we took off on time; 10 aircraft. I was the leader of the second flight – 4 ship formation – we had 4 : 4 : and 2 above. We spotted the German reconnaissance plane flying east towards Germany and way out behind we saw 12 dots chasing and getting closer to that reconnaissance plane. When we approached, we saw these P36 French fighters and a tremendous dog fight started. I came into the second echelon of the P36’s and it was tremendously exciting – the first time you come that close to the enemy and you see his eyes. The 109 had slots at the leading edge of the wing and if you did a high G turn, the slots came out and you got in a little bit of a stall – this happened to me but I was lucky enough and I sot down a P36 and I also got a lot of bullets into my aeroplane in that first dog fight.
How did you shoot it down?
We turned and he came across right in front of me and I fired and he was all flames and went down. I got bullets in the back of me. It was late afternoon and I didn’t know where I was. I’d lost my orientation and I thought I want to go home! Where’s my base! And at that time we had one in a forest in Hoppesteden (?). I didn’t fiddle around too much and I decided on Mannheim (?). I knew Mannheim because I’d been stationed there before and so I flew to the east and it’s a big city and I found it. 3 or 4 of us came into Mannheim. The visibility was very poor; low sun and dusty but it was my first victory and that’s very important – it has a very important psychological effect. You had proved that you can do the job.
I have been reading the autobiography of Adolph Gallons and he says that before combat he was absolutely terrified but that once he got airborne and up to a few thousand feet, all his anxieties disappeared. Is that true?
Well, every individual had his own reactions, but generally speaking it is true. If you were waiting for a mission it is nerve killing. In my case, until I get the wheels up, flaps up and now……here we go! Then you become quiet and concentrate. Before that, you are very anxious and nervous but these were individual reactions. This attitude certainly shouldn’t last for long; certainly not until the combat itself and this sorts the right ones from the wrong ones. Everybody has to fight his own nervous attitude, but only up to a certain time, after which you have to have completely concentration.
Did you have comrades whose personalities were unsuitable for combat? In the RAF, they had something called Lack of Moral Fibre, a polite word for cowardice. Did you have something similar in the Luftwaffe?
Well, yes…..but these characters eliminate themselves. I remember when we were stationed at Cocquelles, near Calais, we took off from a cut grain field and even at 100m high you could see Dover and flames and you were just about to fly right there and then a call would come form one of the pilots – “I have oxygen problems” and we’d send them back – out of the unit. It’s ridiculous! At 100m you don’t have oxygen problems you know?! But that is one example; it happened; not very often and the majority of my fighter pilots were very brave, very dedicated, not all equally successful but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t fight in an acceptable way; a brave pilot. Bit those guys – out – you can’t use them.
What happened to them?
I don’t know; that one was transferred to a ground job I think. But it wasn’t my business and I lost contact.
Back to the battle for France – you described your first dog fight on 12th May – can you remember what happened after the 12th May?
We moved in France near Sidon, Arras, Paris – we were in several fields because there were no airports. The farmers had cut the grass and these were our airfields. There were haystacks around. But I never saw any French aeroplanes from then on. The French Air Force was not structured to fight a war like this one. The French spent too much money for the Maginot Line which was a strategic failure and they didn’t spend the money to build up an Air Force. They didn’t recognise then importance of an Air Force.
You were going out on patrols?
Sure; escorting bombers and picking up 287’s. This was more a tactical war which operated perfectly. These 287’s escorted by fighters more or less with tactical and not strategic targets.
And you didn’t come across the RAF either in France then?
No; the RAF was at the Channel. I was in the middle part in those days; the most northerly was Arras, near Cambrais. So we didn’t come close to the English Channel and I didn’t see an English aeroplane or a French one either at that time. Then we were transferred down to Frieburg where the French were trying to cross the Rhine river which was a nonsensical operation and pretty soon afterwards came the armistice. So we flew escort, but there was no enemy. This was my own personal experience.
Did the rapidity of the German victory in the west take you by surprise?
It was a surprise; this was a fast moving thing with Gudirion and his tanks after Dunkirk. Every day you had
At that time, in June 1940, who was it who was getting all the credit for this spectacular German advance? The German generals or Hitler?
That’s hard to say; this was his strategic plan and what we know now – in those days as a lieutenant I didn’t have the deep look inside. I saw the outside like everyone else, but now we know there was the great plan of Mannstein (?) which was new and unconventional – to break through the Ardennes with tanks and without a secure situation on our flanks. Just moving forward up to Dunkirk. The big surprise to all of us was the stop – Hitler’s order to stop at Dunkirk with the British expeditionary army right down at the beach, inside of the tanks. Everyone said “Why? Why are we stopping?” And Hitler had a love/hate relationship with England and maybe he didn’t want…….it was the same situation in 1866 with Bismark and Moltker (?). Moltker wanted to march to Vienna and Bismarck told him no because that was their next ally. May be some sort of feeling like that caused Hitler to stop. Maybe he wanted to use England in a further course of the war.
After this, the next great air battle was the Battle of Britain. In Britain, we say the beginning of the Battle of Britain was July 1940 – how did it begin for you personally?
Right after the armistice in France, my wing was taken back to Germany and we were equipped with dinghies and we trained for flying over the sea. Then we went through the Netherlands where we spent 2 nights and then got to Cocquelles, near Calais. There was a brand new, clear field because the farmer had cut the grain the day before. It was a little curved and my squadron was stationed on one side and 2 other squadrons were on the other side but we couldn’t see each other because there was a hillock between. It was a brand new area for us and a brand new enemy. We were not very experienced at all because the only experience I had was the one time in May with the French. We had to escort 287’s, which was an obsolete aircraft anyway. And the British had Spitfires and Hurricanes and we got the order to fly direct escort. In most cases the rendezvous was over Boulogne. We met over Boulogne at 4,000 or 5,000 meters and escorted this heavily laden 287 across the Channel to Margate and Ramsgate and other British ports, and convoys that came down the Channel from the mouth of the Thames. It was very difficult to stay with them at speed, not as we were used, to sweep or stagger – now at the same altitude and giving up all the advantages of speed, altitude and manoeuvrability. So we had heavy losses right after the first missions. We lost our group commander; I lost my squadron commander – he was shot down and the weather was not very good and the Spitfires waited for us upstairs and came out of the clouds at high speed and then pulled up again. We lost a lot of aircraft and after 2 or 3 missions, we had lost the squadron commander and the group commander and so as a lieutenant, I had to take over the 8th squadron and from then on I was squadron commander for the next 3 and a half years.
Do you remember the names of those 2 commanders?
Yes; the group commander was Major Von Heovalt and my squadron commander was Captain Ehrlich. He was shot down and he bailed out and his wing man saw him dashing into a very rough sea and he disappeared; obviously drowned in the English Channel. So we were not very successful and we learned our lesson with the Spitfires and the Hurricanes but we didn’t gain enough experience and we were not in free fighter engagement; we were always escorting somebody and in most cases the 287, which was inferior in speed and manoeuvrability to all the other aircraft around. After this period, we were pulled out and sent back to Germany for re-building, because we had lost too many. This would have been in late June. Unfortunately, I don’t have my logbook any more.
Do you remember any particular incidents when you were based at Cocquelles?
I was in a dogfight – coming out of this very inferior position, the 287’s dived down, and we were engaged in a dogfight, but we had to pull up speed from an inferior position and bring them back again, so it was not a very enjoyable situation and, as I mentioned, we couldn’t gain experience in a dogfight, because it wasn’t a free dogfight.
So you weren’t able to shoot anyone down?
No; I wasn’t successful and then we were pulled out. Lieutenants were leading 7th, 8th and 9th squadrons on that wing. We went back to near Berlin and were re-built with new pilots and a new group commander. We trained well; very intensively, particularly my squadron. I was a young squadron commander and I wanted a good fighting squadron, and also we got new equipment. We flew 2 missions a day and we were a well-formed squadron. In September 1940 we got a new group commander and then we got the order to go down to the south of Vienna, to Pandov (?) and there we got a new order and maps to go to Romania; Bucharest. The whole thing was a little bit secret. We didn’t get the full…….we couldn’t imagine what we’d do south of Vienna because the war was in the west. In the east there was nothing. Poland was over so why did we go to Pandov? We were told we’d get new orders in Pandov and this was in the autumn of 1940. Then we got these maps for Bucharest and our order was to protect the oil wells and to train the Romanians to fly the 109. In those days, it was a very particular mission because officially Romania was a neutral country. In Romania in those days there were still British, American, French and Russian representation by the embassies. I well remember the birthday of King Karl who left with Madame Lupescu and the new king was King Mihail (?) his son; a fine gentleman, highly respected but very young and he had a birthday parade. The Romanian troops marched and the German officers were in the grandstand together with the American ambassador. It was a little bit funny. So we were there and we flew and got acquainted with the area. We flew with the Romanians and had a very good relationship with them. That Christmas, I went back to Germany by train. It was a quiet area and I returned in January 1941. One night I was invited with a friend of mine to a Romanian dinner party, in full uniform. It was near the castle in Bucharest. It was snowing and cold and we stayed as pilots in a hotel and went by taxi to the airfield. When I came back form this party at about 11pm, we walked back to the hotel and I recognised the sound of 6 pistol shots and we rushed to the main street and saw a German officer collapsing and a huge man, a civilian, running away. We ran after him shouting and when we caught up with him, he was throwing away a pistol into the snow. Then some taxi drivers joined us in surrounding him and he couldn’t escape. This guy had come in from Turkey on a mission of the Secret Service to shoot the German commanding general – General Hansen. He was the leader of a German delegation to an attachment in Romania. A general has the red stripe down his breeches and this guy watched through the window of the Café Bucharest, which was in the building of the hotel and saw a guy with red stripes down his breeches but he was a German staff officer – a different red for a lieutenant colonel. He shot and killed him. Subsequently, he was buried and there was a big ceremony and Romanians escorted the body. There was the Iron Guard and Prime Minister Antonescu and some kind of revolution started. There was a lot of shooting among the Romanians in Bucharest and we as Germans were in between. Each day we went out to the airfield and there was an inner circle which was the legal troops and the outer circle the rebels. They were friendly to us, all of them, because they needed us, but they were shooting at each other. There was a hell of a lot of confusion in the country and finally Antonescu was supported by Hitler as the official leader and after a couple of weeks the whole thing was over. I was there til we moved into Greece, to Athens. My group was engaged in the conquering of the island of Crete.
Crete was the next time you were in action after the battles over the Channel?
Where were you stationed in Greece?
In the south Peloponnese in Mollai, a small, very old village. Every morning, at 4am, we flew our missions up to Crete.
How big a German unit was stationed at Mollai?
It was 2 groups and another wing – wing 77 I think and we were under the command of that wing; my group. We flew across the Mediterranean from Akritira to Crete and at that time, this was a lousy battle with tremendous losses and finally the German side made it but it was such a state.
Why was it such a lousy battle for you?
First of all, the whole operation was known to our opponents because the British had some intelligence and knew we were coming. Secondly, the parachuters were dropped at an altitude that was too high; too long on the parachute and they were shot at on their parachutes. They were almost all wiped out. Gliders were pulled to Crete and they cut the cable and sailed down and it’s a very hilly island and they just crashed into the olive plantations and more got killed. It was a very tricky situation. Then the Germans dropped containers filled with machine guns and there were meant to be Swastika flags to mark the forward position but they were dropped into the New Zealand position and they put up the flags and then we didn’t know who was who. This was in the first weeks; lots of mistakes but finally we made it and the British and the New Zealanders escaped to North Africa. We didn’t like this operation at all. There was no fighting in the air and we had to fly ground attacks in an unknown situation. I don’t know how long it lasted but about 2 or 3 weeks and then Crete was in firm hands and we were then pulled back to Athens and then to Romania.
So to stay with Crete a moment, your targets were at Mallami aerodrome were they?
Mallami was at that time in German hands but was heavily shot at. There was artillery on a hill in direct sight and they shot at the incoming planes. The other disadvantage of Mallami was that when you took off, you whirled up red sand and you couldn’t see very much. There were a lot of collisions because there was no organisation; one took off from this side; another from this side and crashed in the middle. In Mallami I was told we lost more than 100 252 which was a tremendously serious loss of transport and I underline this because later on in Russia when we were really stuck with the transport aircraft because there was no moving because of the ice and snow and mud, we’d sent the trucks back to Poland and everything was moved with 252’2. But they were much less because these Mallami losses were never made up.
So in using Mallami airfield, how intense was the flak?
When we came in I didn’t recognise the anti-aircraft fire first of all. We just landed in Mallami, refuelled and flew a mission. We never stayed over night. What we recognised was the direct shooting from the artillery; the New Zealanders, which was then taken by Germans paratroopers. So it was silenced but it took a lot of lives.
Did you have enough fuel?
No problems then compared with later, particularly in Germany when we couldn’t get enough fuel.
In the battle for Crete, did you also attack the Royal Navy ships?
Not me but I had a friend who attacked The York in Suda (?) Bay and it burnt out. I paid a visit many years later to South Africa in 1974. I was a guest of the Admiral of the South African Navy in Simonstown and we were talking about the war. Finally I realised that he’d been a lieutenant on the York and I was a pilot, a lieutenant, circling the York. But it was already burnt out in Suda Bay at that time.
So you went back to Romania after Crete?
Yes, back to Romania, to Nisil (?) and we got new aeroplanes. We got the 109F with the round wing tips and the new engine. It was a perfect aircraft; we loved it and felt very superior and pretty soon there was a build up of forces in Romania and we couldn’t imagine what this was about until an officer from the Army came and said we were going to war against Russia. No one could believe that! It was against the doctrine! In the west the war wasn’t finished; it was still going strong! Why go to Russia?! We know now. Russia was his objective of the war and all other operations were deviations……..
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