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German Kamikazes: Little-Known WWII Tale of Suicidal Pilots Over Europe

Towards the end of World War II, the German Luftwaffe airforce resorted to a series of deadly suicide missions. Die Welt journalist and historian Sven Felix Kellerhoff examines a little documented chapter in Germany’s military history.

The Messerschmitt Bf-109
The Messerschmitt Bf-109
Sven Felix Kellerhoff

The attack came from above. On April 7, 1945, as more than 1,300 four-engine, U.S. Air Force bombers began their approach over northern Germany, on a mission to target factories and freight stations, they were suddenly challenged. At 1:35 in the afternoon, German single-engine planes began to fall out of the sky from above them. But instead of closing in from the usual distance of about 600 meters, firing, and then turning away, the German planes set themselves on a collision course.

The U.S. pilots of the B-17 and B-24 bombers were left with only seconds to quickly maneuver their comparatively slower planes out of the way. Nearly two dozen of the Flying Fortresses and Liberators did not succeed: they collided with the fighters. Various reports cite that between eight and 15 U.S. planes were torn apart or so badly damaged that they had to be abandoned. Another 28 bombers were shot down by German fighters.

It was the only major attack undertaken by the "Sonderkommando Elbe", a special unit whose mission illustrated the total despair that had befallen the Luftwaffe during the last months of the War. Ten days later, the group launched another attack - this time the pilots dove into Soviet troops crossing bridges over the Oder River east of Berlin. The full details of these attacks are lost in rumors and myths. Similarly, legends are told of a SS special unit with the same mission that was known under the code name "Leonidas." Whether this group actually existed or whether it was a post-War invention still remains unclear.

What is known, however, is that the idea for the "self-sacrifice" missions using fighter aircraft came from the pilot and Hermann Goering confidant Hajo Herrmann. He was also the inventor of "Wilde Sau," the technique that engaged British night bombers with single-seat fighter planes. Day fighters were used during these attacks, and their rapid surprise attacks were enabled by light grenades that lit up the night sky. The initiative suffered such great losses that it was given up after just a few months.

When it became clear that a new mass production of British and American planes would begin no earlier than mid-April 1945, Herrmann suggested the creation of a special unit of relentless young pilots. They were to ram enemy bombers with stripped versions of the older Messerschmitt Bf-109 aircraft. The men were ordered to abandon their planes at the last moment with a parachute. However, because there were no ejection seats, their chance of survival was only 10 percent.

The "Sonderkommando Elbe", which began recruiting at the end of 1944, consisted mostly of young volunteers who had grown up under the Nazi regime and were ready to sacrifice their lives for their leaders and their country. Their use, however, remained limited. The only official use of the Sonderkommando Elbe was over the Steinhude Sea, Germany's largest inland sea, on April 7, 1945. Most of the pilots died, but the enemy was not harmed as much as had been hoped. The attack on the bridges over the Oder yielded similarly weak results.

A manned version of the "Vengeance Weapon" V-1, the first cruise missile in military history, was never employed. The first 175 copies were built with a cockpit made for flight tests, but the Luftwaffe briefly considered using these simple bombs as suicide weapons.

This device bore a surprising similarity to the Japanese "Oka" ("Cherry Blossom") aircraft, which was essentially a manned glide bomb. These Japanese planes, in contrast with the German ones, were used more than 70 times between March and June 1945. However, only one US destroyer was sunk while half a dozen smaller warships were badly damaged.

Suicide attacks conducted with conventional aircraft were more "successful." For these, the Japanese equipped type "Zero" fighter planes with heavy bombs and just enough fuel to reach their destinations. More than 3000 such operations were documented, and only a few of the pilots survived. Approximately 360 Allied ships were damaged during the campaign, including several aircraft carriers. But only three of them - the USS Bunker Hill, USS Intrepid, and the already obsolete USS Enterprise - were so badly damaged that they were removed from battle.

It is likely that the German suicide pilot missions were inspired by the Japanese example, but there is no conclusive evidence to confirm that. It is clear, however, that this murderous plan fell short of its goal: though the psychological impact of the missions was immense, the physical damage they incurred was minimal. Once the US Navy was able to recover from the initial terror of the attacks, their effect waned. Any approaching aircraft that were believed to be on kamikaze missions were shot down before they had a chance to reach their target.

Several hundred pilots who were ready to sacrifice their lives still remained in service by the time the Japanese surrendered at the end of World War II. On the day of the Armistice, their commander took his life. Yet Hajo Hermann, who led the German suicide pilots, began a new life after the war. Following a decade of prison in the Soviet Union, he became a lawyer, before dying last November at the age of 97.

Read the original article in German

Photo - Filko Dawidzinski

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