A few weeks ago, Kai gave me an interesting book on a subject of which I am almost entirely ignorant: recent military history. Auf den Spuren des “Elbe-Kommandos” Rammjäger by Dietrich Alsdorf (2001) deals with an episode toward the end of the Second World War, the so-called “Sonderkommando Elbe“.
Things were grim in the Third Reich in the spring of 1945. Germany had effectively lost control of her own airspace, allowing Allied bomber fleets to operate with murderous efficiency far into Eastern Europe. The Germans had ample numbers of fighter planes and pilots, but hardly any aeroplane fuel. Possessing no oilfields, they had to make their fuel from coal, and the refineries had been high-priority targets for bombing. Furthermore, the development of German piston-engine fighters was lagging behind that of the Allied planes they had to get past in order to have a shot at the bombers. The first jet fighter models, though German, had not been — and would indeed never be — built in significant numbers.
In those end-times, desperate measures were tried. The Japanese had employed kamikaze suicide attacks since October 1944. Colonel Hajo Herrmann (born in 1913 and still with us) hit upon a similar idea for the air war: using fighter planes to ram Allied bombers.
Herrmann envisioned a thousand fighter planes employed in this manner, which might set back the Allies thousands of airmen and give the beleaguered German war machine a much needed reprieve to make fuel, build Düsenjäger jet fighters and train pilots in their use. Himself a seasoned bomber pilot with 350 missions to his name, Herrmann understood perfectly well that a pilot’s chances of surviving a ram attack would be slim even if he got out and parachuted before the collision. (Those few ram pilots who did survive tended to do so by staying in their seats, hitting the vulnerable tail end of a bomber and then making an emergency landing.) But Herrmann was/is apparently a batshit Nazi idealist who felt that the end justified the means. After the war and ten years in Soviet prison, he became a lawyer, “focusing his activities mostly on the defence of former Nazis and Neo-Nazis, deniers of the holocaust and political activists of the far-right” as Wikipedia puts it.
Due to fuel shortages and a lack of enthusiasm on the part of Herrmann’s superior, General Karl Koller, only 120-150 fighter planes flew on the single mission that came out of the initiative, on 7 April 1945. Most of the pilots were very young and barely out of basic training. They volunteered for the mission for reasons including a desire to avenge themselves for loved ones lost to bomber raids, unwillingness to be sent as foot soldiers to the Eastern Front, and general end-of-war fatalism. Surviving pilots quoted in Alsdorf’s book emphasise that they had several chances to back out of the mission, that they were ordered to save themselves if they could, and that Sonderkommando Elbe thus should not be seen as “German kamikaze”. But H.M. Kruchem describes his sense of disillusionment when the nature of the secret mission he had signed up for became clear: “… in that moment I knew with absolute certainty that we had lost the war. There was no wonder weapon. There was no atom bomb. We would simply be sent to the slaughter. And only to prolong the rule of the Third Reich’s big boys by minutes. … My world finally fell apart.” (p. 25) Fortunately for him, due to last-minute technical difficulties Kruchem’s fighter plane never got off the ground.
Only about 20 Allied bombers were hit by the ram attacks. Not all of them were destroyed. One ram pilot, Werner Kölsche, was lucky enough to hit a bomber, then hit another, then see one of them crash into a third flying alongside it, and finally make a successful emergency landing. But to put the 20 rammed bombers in perspective, note that the Allies sent over 1300 of them into German airspace on that day.
About a third of the Sonderkommando’s members who started from the airfields died that day. On 17 April the unit was disbanded and the men were allocated variously to infantry units on the Eastern Front or to a final last-ditch effort of Hajo Herrmann’s: the Sonderkommando Bienenstock. German forces across Europe surrendered piecemeal from 29 April to 8 May. Hitler shot himself on 30 April.
The book is full of fascinating details. Many of the pilots were issued with brand-new Messerschmitt fighter planes, straight out of the factory, which had never left the ground before. Some hadn’t even been painted. Yet when they asked to take their machines for a spin over the airfield to make sure everything worked, it turned out that there wasn’t any extra fuel. The mission fuel had in fact largely been collected from other planes. Several pilots died or were forced to land simply because their untested machines didn’t work very well, while others never got into the air at all.
To save weight (and thus fuel), the planes were relieved of their armament. To avoid detection, their radio transmitters were removed. All the pilots could hear in the headphones as they left the airbases was morale-boosting marching-band music, and now and then a female voice reminding them of all the innocent people who had died in Dresden. The pilots’ inability to communicate among themselves proved fatal to several members of the Sonderkommando, as their mates were helpless to warn them of approaching enemy aircraft.
Little thought had been given to the well-being of the pilots. Remembers survivor Werner Zell, “… they gave everyone of us a set of summer gear, known in pilot parlance as ‘the bone bag’. Were we supposed to wear that at more than 11 000 feet? Assurances about cabin heating weren’t convincing, because what would you do if it failed though some technical glitch? … This was pretty depressing. At heights like that we would certainly have to deal with temperatures from minus 40 to 50 centigrade [-58 to -40 Fahrenheit]. As little consolation, electrically heated gloves would keep our hands from going numb …”. But up he went. After his ram attack, when Zell was about to parachute for the first time in his life from his damaged Messerschmitt, he found that the canopy had gotten jammed in place. He only got out of the machine because presently a passing Mustang fighter shot the hood clean off!
The reason that Kai chose this book for my edification wasn’t primarily the historical angle. Alsdorf is not an historian, he’s an archaeologist with the Spurensuche workgroup at the Sandbostel POW camp memorial site. The subtitle of his book is Schicksale – Schauplätze – Funde: “Fates, Battlegrounds, Finds”, and much of it concerns finds made at sites where planes crashed on 7 April 1945 due to the activities of the Sonderkommando Elbe. Finding the sites is tricky, as the final weeks of the war were characterised by what the Germans with a wince and a shudder call Durcheinander, “through-each-other”, that is, disorder. It’s battlefield archaeology on a grand scale, where the traces of an individual battle are found scattered across many kilometres of landscape. In lucky cases, the identity both of the shot-down pilots and of their killers can be ascertained.
Most of the crash sites were excavated by scrap metal collectors shortly after the war or in the 1950s, when the Korean war sent aluminium prices soaring. In the rare cases where an untouched site is found, you will encounter a deep funnel-shaped crater filled with fragments of the plane’s fuselage, and at the bottom, the engine and propeller. In cases where the pilot went down with the machine, you will also find severely fragmented human bones and clothing accessories. The plane’s wings and tailplane usually ended up in pieces on the surface around the crater and rarely remain to be found. Judging from the examples in the book, fieldwork methodology has generally been crude at the crash sites. There are many pictures of mechanical excavators ripping chunks of tortured metal out of the ground while men in rubber boots pick through the debris. No sieves or folding rules there.
I enjoyed the book a lot and learned much, including bits of German aircraft terminology. Dragfläche! Flugzeugtriebwerk! Luftschraubenblatt! However, I’ll end with two points of criticism. First, the archaeology is almost exclusively used to illustrate the historical narrative. The book is full of pictures of young airmen and of wreckage, but the text hardly ever refers directly to them. The book does not actually offer much of the Neuzeit-Archäologie advertised on its cover.
Secondly, this is pretty much dead-end popularisation. It offers no pointers on where to go next if you want to learn more. It contains sporadic references to an apparently quite extensive literature, usually just the surname of an author and a page number. But there is no list of cited works for the reader who would like to dig deeper.
The main reasons to study these air battle remains, and I don’t mean to say that they are necessarily poor reasons, seem to be a) to lay to rest the memory of individual airmen who disappeared in the war, b) the excitement and glamour inherent in military aircraft. Archaeology has added a few interesting details to our knowledge of the Sonderkommano Elbe’s single hopeless mission, but it has not changed, and cannot change, the picture dramatically. Maybe, one day in the very distant future when today’s historical knowledge has been obliterated by the grind of the millennia, these crash sites will come into their own as important sources of knowledge about a forgotten war fought way back in the 20th century.