Night hunt: on operations with the Nachtjagd
It is hot. The evening sun sets low on the western horizon and shoots rays of light through dark clouds-- a sign for the experienced flier that the weather will worsen. For us, this is familiar. The British usually time their raids so their takeoff and landing conditions are favorable, whereas we German night fighters struggle with bad weather over our hunting grounds. That is exactly the case tonight.
After our meal in the officers' mess at approximately 18:00 hours, we head to the Gefechtsstand (operation theatre) for a briefing. At first, the MET gives us the weather forecast for Holland, Belgium and Northern Germany, warning us of heavy thunderstorms, and he gives us special information for tonight regarding flak-defended areas, searchlight positions, radio frequencies and tonight's possible targets (set by the high command at the town of Stade, 60 miles west of Hamburg). Afterward, the crews retire to their readiness rooms, and the officers remain in the operation theater, where the ground-control officers-- and many radar girls-wait for the enemy bombers to appear on their screens.
Now begins a time of increasing nervous tension. In a way, the attackers are better off, as they have definite orders when to take off, where to fly, etc. The defenders have to wait, wait and wait! And this tension rises to a peak and then fades again. The telephone rings; but the call is unimportant.
To understand the pressure we live with at this stage of the War, consider the following facts: most of us are still flying the Bf 110, which is heavily armed but slow. It is absolutely readiness for experienced crews only. It applies only to ObIt. Schmidt and me. (From the summer of 1944, there was an alarming shortage of fuel, and under doubtful weather conditions, we did not expect the younger crews to have any success.)
24:00 hours .
We are still waiting. The weather has deteriorated; from time to time, lightning flashes light up the night and are followed by thunder and heavy rain. Suddenly, the phone rings again. ObIt. Schmidt answers it. Immediately we can see from his face that something is happening. "Erhohte Bereitschaft!" [readiness]. We quickly put on our flight suits and wait for the order to rush to our aircraft in the hangars.
My crew, Bordfunker (wireless/radar operator) "Schani" Pinter [Austrian] and our so-called "third man" Emil Mathan have already arrived at the hangar by crew truck. The 1.Wart (first mechanic) has checked our plane (G9+ES), and it is ready for flight. We squeeze ourselves into the cockpit, fasten our parachutes and seatbelts and wait for further orders. Fortunately, the rain has stopped and the thunderstorms have moved away to the east. Will we be ordered to take off? Or is this just another false alarm?
Suddenly, at 00:13 hours, the sleeping airfield comes to life! A white flash rises into the sky to indicate "Startbefehl" (our order to take off). At the same time, the loudspeaker in the hangar announces the order: "Startbefehl each Funkfeuer Quelle" (takeoff to radio beacon Quelle [fountain]-the code word for the letter "Q," situated 150 miles west of Hamburg). My technician closes the roof of the canopy; I start the engines. Taxiing to the departure point must be done in absolute darkness; there are no identification lights or taxiway markings. In case intruders are patrolling the area, we sometimes have to take off without the runway's being lit by the flare path. In such a case, a dim light at the end of the runway guides us in the proper direction.
The first one airborne is ObIt. Schmidt. When I see the sparks coming from his exhaust pipes, I know he is away and it is my turn. When I push the throttles forward, my plane immediately roars down the runway and into the night. I am surrounded by absolute darkness. We are in clouds with our course set for 70 degrees; we climb at full power and are shaken by the ever increasing storm clouds around us. Lightning occasionally illuminates the cockpit in a ghostly, pale color. All of a sudden, a mauve light flickers on our aerials and propeller tips-"Elmsfeuer."
My "ES" becomes increasingly difficult to fly as the grip of ice takes over, and we are tossed like a toy by the forces of nature. Shaken up and down, I am concerned as we slowly inferior in every way to the Mosquito, and it is sometimes slower than the four-engine Lancasters without their bomb load. The Heinkel He 219, equal to the Mosquito, is supplied to only 20 to 30 crews. Far superior to all Allied aircraft is the new, jet-powered Arado 234. (A night-fighter version of the Arado was proposed, but it came too late and was used only as a reconnaissance aircraft at altitudes of over 30,000 feet during the last three months of the War.) Furthermore, radio communication and radar (ground/air, board/board and the airborne radar) are often completely jammed by specially equipped RAF bombers that fly in formations.
To overcome the jamming, the German controllers sometimes use other methods to pass information about the anticipated target to pilots. Radio stations transmit music typical of the area that the controllers thought were to be bombed. Example: Viennese waltzes if Austria (then Germany) was suspected; shanties for Hamburg; carnival songs for the Rhineland; typical Bavarian melodies for Munich and operettas from well-known Berlin composers for Berlin.
Thus, little information about the bomber formation's course, altitude or main target (there are always diversionary raids) is available to us. Furthermore, the increasing effective action of the Mosquito intruders, with their superior radar and flying performance-coupled with poor weather and inexperienced crews-contribute to many of our losses. All this while facing defeat within the foreseeable future! In spite of it all, the crews' morale remains high; nobody speaks about the terrible end. Everybody secretly hopes for the "wonder weapons" promised by our political leaders.
We do not hate the British or the Americans; these boys are doing their duty just as we are. Neither side can change the political situation, so we have to carry on with our job to prevent as many Allied bombers as possible from destroying our cities and killing our people.
A couple of minutes later, the order comes through: "Sitzbereitschaft fur Spitzenbesatzungen" cockpit start to lose altitude. After several agonizing minutes, we break free into a shaft of clear air. The ice loosens its grip, slips away, and we are now safe and can fly freely again to 21,000 feet. The hunt begins.
When we reach radio beacon "Queue,' the first RAF pathfinders are dropping their target indicators. We see cascades of red, green and white flares marking the aiming point. They light up the area and descend slowly on little parachutes. We call them "Christbaume' (Christmas trees). From now on, it doesn't take long for the terrible spectacle to begin! Thirty miles away, we can see the first explosions on the ground in Hamburg, and they're followed by widespread fires. These eventually combine into one enormous fire that covers entire suburbs with a disastrous firestorm. The updraft brings wind velocities of 120mph, and the firestorm consumes everything in its path; there is no chance at all!
Soon, we see the first kills by night fighters and flak: Lancasters, Halifaxes and our own comrades go down as orange colored torches, descending in steep dives to explode on impact with the ground. We see parachutes of the lucky men who manage to bail out; there are not many! Searchlights move all over the night sky, looking like pale arms of an octopus in search of prey. In addition, explosions of antiaircraft shells at all altitudes make life difficult for friend and foe! Over the city are many aircraft from both sides, and there are collisions.
Altogether, it is an inferno-hell for everybody. We night fighters can easily be seen by enemy bombers' gunners and by the marauding British night fighters, and we are hit by our own flak. We have to be cautious to avoid colliding with other aircraft, as all around us are at least 50 to 80 four-engine bombers and a similar number of night fighters. Bombs, incendiaries and target indicators fall between us. The fires send up their light to 20,000 feet. It is as bright as day; you could read a newspaper! The smell of smoke fills our cockpit.
While the raid is in full swing, I see a Halifax and follow it into the darkness. I slowly close into position under it so I can use my "Schrage Musik": two, 20mm MG/FF upward-firing cannon. I am almost in firing position when a nearby aircraft catches fire and lights up the sky-for me, a dangerous situation, so I quickly move to the darker side and wait. After a couple of minutes, I close in again and aim between its two port engines where the fuel tanks are. A short burst of cannon fire causes a small bluish flame, but the bomber immediately goes into a steep dive and crashes in an explosion 20 miles west of Hamburg. We see two of the crew bail out.
Later, Schani has a blip on his cathode-ray tube; he takes over and guides me. "Marie 800 [distance 800 meters], a bit higher, left, left, straight now, Marie 500, straight ahead, a bit higher and to the right, now you should be able to see him!" And so it is another Halifax flying home, straight and level, no evasive actions. Again I close into the same position and fire! This time, the tanks in the right wing immediately catch fire, which quickly extends along the fuselage to behind the tail. We can clearly recognize the code letters "W-BM" on the camouflage-colored Halifax. The burning aircraft flies onward for another two minutes, and again, only two crewmen bail out.
Eventually, as if in agony, the Halifax turns slowly upside down and falls to the ground. It crashes at 01:28 hours.
We are right in the middle of the returning bomber formation and look for our next victim. Again, Schani sees a blip on his screen, so we start the chase for the third time, however, we are having trouble closing the distance. I give my "ES" full power. There are some Polar lights in the north that enable me to see the bomber quite early: another Halifax, recognizable by its bluish exhaust glow (the Lancaster's exhaust glow looks orange). This time, I close in from astern and then give a burst from my two, forward-firing Mk 108 30mm cannon. Its right wing immediately bursts into flames, and I notice the code "EQ-P." The Halifax inclines to the left and slowly goes down.
Suddenly, something unexpected happens: diving away, the brave British rear gunner gives me a burst from his four Brownings, and my plane is hit in the right engine, which immediately catches fire. To watch the bomber go down, I had to lower my left wing, and that saved my life. The bullets pass over my head and into my right engine. While the burning Halifax goes down [at 01:36 hours], I try to extinguish the fire. Unlike the British, we have no fire extinguishers. The only means of putting out the fire is a steep dive with a strong relative wind that we hope will extinguish the flames. Thank God, it works!
Our altitude is now 6,000 feet; I shut down the engine and manage to feather the propeller. Only now do we realize that our chase has brought us far out over the North Sea. We have no Mae Wests nor dinghies and only one engine left to take us home! To fly with one engine is not usually a problem for the Bf 110, as long as we don't have to climb. I set a heading of 180 degrees to reach the Dutch coast to the south, and I'm very cautious to avoid the heavy flak-defended areas around Bremen and Bremerhaven on one side and the East Frisian Islands on the other side on my return flight.
Schani calls the tower at Twente, still 150 miles away. Luckily, they hear us, faintly, but they warn us that an intruder Mosquito is patrolling the area. This could be fatal for us, but I must take the chance, as no airfields are nearby with a runway long enough to allow a single-engine landing by night; the only other suitable airfields Leeuwarden (Holland) and Wittmundhaven are fogged in. When the intruders are on patrol, all lights on the airfield are dimmed to an absolute minimum. But because of our emergency, these restrictions are now ignored and all help is given to us. The runway is fully lit, and the flak searchlights form a "dome" that is visible for quite a distance as a white patch on top of the clouds. This gives us absolute priority for communications and landing, and the fire brigades and medical personnel are prepared to rush to the site of a crash!
By now we are flying at 5,000 feet, partly in the clouds and with a speed of only 180mph. It is not at all easy because our artificial horizon is out of order; the dead engine powered it. Again, we are lucky, as after about 45 minutes, the tower radios that the Mosquito has left the area. I prepare for an instrument landing, and my only remaining problem, to avoid an additional circuit, is to meet the main beam of our ILS at a point and altitude at which we usually begin our approach. To fly another circuit with the Bf110 at low altitude and one engine is not a good idea!
Fortunately, I manage to hit the main beam at the favourable point of 600 feet. Still in the clouds, I lower the flaps and landing gear. At 150 feet, I break free of the clouds and realize that I am short of the runway. So I start the right engine again, but it immediately starts to shoot sparks and flames, so I turn it off; it does, however, give me the necessary few metres I need to reach the airfield and cross the 200 yards to the runway, where we land safely. Our blood pressures go back to normal!
The following article was written by Rolf Ebhardt for Flight Journal in 2001. It gives an interesting insight into the pressures, the difficulties and the frustrations that many pilots felt serving in the Nachtjagd.