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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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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