An eagle in Africa

A Luftwaffe pilot talks to a soldier, standing next to a car of the make Adler (“Eagle”). The location is probably Libya or perhaps Tunisia, and it could be in 1942, give or take a few months. The air war over Northern Africa was intense at times. The premier ace was Hans-Joachim Marseille, a Luftwaffe pilot who scored 158 “kills”, earning the nickname “the Star of Africa”. Marseille was born in 1919, and joined the Luftwaffe in 1938. He participated in the Battle of Britain, with unremarkable results. There were disciplinary problems, and he was seen as a playboy who would either become a troublemaker or a great pilot. He not only stayed out late with girlfriends, but he also loved American jazz music, which was seen as “degenerate” by the Nazis. Marseille was transferred to Jagdgeschwader 27, which was deployed to Northern Africa.

It was here he came into his own as a pilot. In air combat, he was fearless, taking on superior numbers of enemies. He was an expert shot, scoring kills with a minimum of ammunition spent. Marseille was a natural pilot, employing unorthodox techniques. His disdain for the Nazi party came as a shock to his superiors, all the way up to Hitler. He befriended a black Southern African prisoner of war, who became his driver and personal assistant. The number of kills mounted. In one day, he claimed 17 kills, a record that is disputed. Even the sky was hardly a limit for Hans-Joachim Marseille, until the fateful day in 1942 when he flew his Messerschmitt Bf 109 G-2 fighter and his cockpit began to fill up with smoke. He had to bail out, but apparently he hit the tail section of his plane and was killed or knocked unconscious. Marseille plummeted to the ground, his parachute never deployed. He was 22 years old when he died.


Eye of the Army

Somewhere on the Eastern Front, probably in 1941. A Henschel Hs 126 reconnaissance aircraft stands on the harvested field used as a temporary airfield for take off and landing. The aircraft first saw action during the Spanish Civil War, and subsequently in most campaigns until 1942, where it operated in reconnaissance squadrons. Because of mounting losses, it was retired from frontline use and replaced by the more durable Focke-Wulf Fw 189. It had a crew of two, and could carry cameras or up to 150 kg of bombs. A total of 605 aircraft were built, and used for training and as glider tugs for the remainder of the war.


A Luftwaffe Unteroffizier floating a suggestion on how to invade Britain. Well, it had about as good a chance as Unternehmen Seelöwe (Operation Sea Lion), the projected German invasion of the UK. While the Brits felt real fear of an invasion, especially after losing lots of heavy weapons and vehicles in France and Belgium, they still had a formidable navy and air force. The invasion was never attempted, as the Germans didn’t achieve air supremacy over England – a major requirement in order to make a safe passage across the English Channel. In 1974, an invasion of Britain was played as a war game at the British military academy at Sandhurst. While the Germans managed to land, they couldn’t get enough men, weapons and supplies across in the second wave, and suffered a crushing defeat. The idea of a German invasion of Britain has been the theme for several novels, movies and TV series, though, like Len Deighton’s SS-GB.

As hard as an invasion of Britain would’ve been, invading the United States would’ve been an impossibility. One has to ignore many known facts in order to imagine a Nazi occupation of the US. If crossing the 40 km wide Channel was a challenge, crossing the Atlantic – a distance 130 times longer – was a pipe dream. Also, bringing enough men and gear to occupy the vastness of North America would’ve been totally outside the scope of the German Army. Sorry, authors and games designers – I don’t buy the idea!

The last hours in Africa

A group of Luftwaffe soldiers pose before the camera as they are about to go back to Europe. This could be in 1942 or early 1943, before the collapse of the German Forces in North Africa. Some of the soldiers wear pith helmets, the tropical helmets associated with troops in warmer climes. The kneeling guy on the left keeps his rifle in a cloth bag, which protects it from sand and dust. Most of them wear dark brown greatcoats, indicating that the photo might have been taken early in the morning before the temperature rose. How will they go back? Neither transport by air, nor by ship was safe. The Allied forces harried the German transport routes, which was one of the reasons why the Germans were beaten in North Africa; troops, supplies and fuel were lost to Allied attack aircraft, submarines, torpedo boats, and so on. Crossing from Tunisia via Sicily to the Italian mainland was the shortest route, and the fact that the soldier who mounted that photo in his album could write the caption tells us that he and his friends made it.

At the controls

This photo is rather blurry, but it’s one of the few I have of a Luftwaffe pilot while flying. He is piloting a Heinkel He 111, a medium bomber that was one of the most common German bombers. It had a couple of weaknesses, like low speed and inadequate defensive armament. During the Battle of Britain, 242 He 111s were lost despite often being escorted by Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighters. Still, the aircraft was relatively versatile, and saw service on all fronts throughout the war.


This is another photo from my collection. What we see is the view from the pilot’s seat, the port engine closest to the camera and three He 111s making up part of a bomber formation. The aircraft offered at least a pretty good field of view, as can be seen in the picture below, which is a screen capture from the computer game War Thunder.


The instruments are placed overhead, while the glazed “greenhouse” nose offers a good view of the ground. The navigator/bomb aimer is to the right, where he could also fire a machine gun at enemy airplanes or ground targets. Other crew were two machine gunners and the radio operator. The least popular position was that of the gunner in the tub-like gondola on the underside of the plane, which was sometimes referred to as the “death bed”. As mentioned, the defensive armament was inadequate, a drawback of most German bombers. A single British fighter plane could carry eight machine guns, while the bomber could train just one or at best two MGs on the attacking enemy.

Bomber pilots were regarded as better trained than fighter pilots, but that didn’t help when they became more or less sitting ducks. It took nerves of steel to go on mission after mission, knowing that it could be your last, but as with all other branches of service in the Wehrmacht, one served until killed, incapacitated, or captured.

The Twelve Year Reich

A Luftwaffe soldier stands guard at an entrance to a newly built barracks. The text says “Errichtet unter der Regierung Adolf Hitlers im Jahre 1935“, which translates as “Erected during the rule of Adolf Hitler in the year 1935”. While the location is unknown, it isn’t impossible that the barracks are still standing. There are many buildings dating from the period that are in use today, most notably the Olympic arena in Berlin. In most cases, swastikas were removed and the buildings put to use again. The Nazis built with posterity in mind, and while grandiose plans like the reimagining of Berlin into Germania, the capital of Greater Germany, never saw the light of day, many other structures survived the war. Some of them appear in movies set in the period, like in Valkyrie (2008), where they form an effective backdrop. As for posterity, Hitler’s vision of a thousand year Reich fell short with 988 years, but it was indicative of the attitude that Nazism was to last once it had asserted dominance. History teaches us that empires rarely survive for that long, but had the Nazis won, we might’ve seen a post-war world much like the one in the 1994 HBO TV movie Fatherland (based on Thomas Harris’ novel of the same name). Let’s be happy that life in the Tausendjähriges Reich is the domain of speculative fiction and alternate history. Hitler and his cohorts managed to mess up things enough in the twelve years they got.


The destruction of Dortmund

The Hansaplatz in Dortmund, 10 May, 1943. Some of the city’s more than 530,000 inhabitants walk past the ruins after the British bombing raid during the night of 4-5 May. The arcade with its shops and cafés lining one side of the square is in ruins, and the 14th century Probsteikirche behind it has met the same fate. Dortmund, an industrial and administrative center in the Ruhr area in western Germany, was a prime target for the Royal Air Force, beginning with a couple of raids in April, 1942. The attack in May 1943, coupled with another attack 19 nights later, claimed the lives of some 1,400 people and made more than a quarter of the population homeless. The final attack took place on 12 March 1945, when 1,108 RAF aircraft dropped 4,851 tons of bombs on Dortmund, the heaviest single bombing of any European city in WW2.

It was the RAF that flew most of the bombing missions against the about 260 German cities and towns that had been targeted for destruction. The British leadership under Air Marshal Arthur “Bomber” Harris (a man who would’ve ended up accused of war crimes if he had been in another uniform) thought, largely erroneously, that the war production would cease and the will of the German people would be broken by heavy area bombing of industrial and residential areas. Part of it was revenge for the Luftwaffe attacks on British cities, and the destruction of Hamburg and Dresden alone were enough to get even when it came to the death count. Poor precision (in many cases, the raids completely failed to hit the intended targets) and the dehousing strategy called for area bombing, most of it conducted at night. One tactic deployed was to drop incendiary bombs mixed with high explosive bombs with time fuses. When the rescue workers and fire-fighters were out, trying to put out the fires and helping people trapped in the ruins, the HE bombs went off, killing the rescue personnel.

A Luftwaffe officer can be seen in the photo. His boss, Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, claimed in a speech to his Luftwaffe in September 1939 that “No enemy bomber can reach the Ruhr. If one reaches the Ruhr, my name is not Göring. You can call me Meyer.” The Luftwaffe had a cap that the pilots and other personnel came to call the “Hermann Meyer cap” in a sarcastic nod to his boast…

When American troops captured Dortmund on 13 April 1945, 98 % of the city center was in ruins after 106 bomb raids, the final raid making Dortmund the most heavily bombed city in Germany. Few of Dortmund’s historical buildings were rebuilt, and the neo-gothic arcade in the photo was replaced with an ugly, functionalist counterpart. The Probsteikirche was restored, but the face of Dortmund had been changed forever. Thanks to extensive construction of air raid shelters, the number of killed was relatively low at 6,341 people in total. A further 15,520 Dortmund men who served in the Wehrmacht never returned home. About 5,000 Jews, gypsies, and other “undesirables” had been deported to concentration camps in the east, and it can be surmised that very few of them survived.

Unexploded bombs are still found buried in the ground in German cities, and Dortmund is no exception. In November 2013, a 1.8 ton British bomb was found, and 20,000 people had to be evacuated while experts defused and removed it. The war is still present, and the last victims of the bombs haven’t been claimed yet.