Air Combat From The German Cockpit
We dipped our noses and started to make our run towards the bomber formation. They grew in size at an exponential rate. I zeroed in on the lead plane. I switched on my gun-sight and lined him up. We were in perfect position for a head-on attack.
It was always intimidating to new blood how quickly these encounters happened. At such high speeds it took less than fifteen seconds to close from two miles out. One instant you’re flying towards what looks like nothing more than a dot on your windshield. Then the dot grows to a smudge. Then you make out the thin shape, like a ball with two lines sticking out on either side. Then the shape grows to a cockpit and wings. Then a plane. Then a very big plane. Then a four-engined monster bearing down on you with hundreds behind it! Suddenly you’re firing all your weapons. The guns on its turrets blinking like Christmas lights firing back at you. Tracers whizzing. A POP! if you’re hit. Then your own Thump! Thump! of cannons. Your plane shuddering. The white flashes as your rounds strike home near the cockpit. The screech of engines in your ear. Slam the stick forward. More rattling of machine guns and wailing of engines. More shapes flit past you. Tracer rounds criss-crossing as you slice through the bomber formation. That last buffet as you bounce though their prop wash. And then you’re below the stream and behind it. And now all is eerily quiet again but for the humming of your engine and the chatter on the radio. It all takes but a few seconds. You pull up and gently climb and maybe perform a chandelle to get a look at what mayhem you’ve just caused.
I leveled off at a ninety degree angle to the bomber stream and scanned across the open sky to see several trails of smoke spewing from a few bombers in the pack. One I saw spinning out of control to the ground. My gut told me that one was mine, although I’d have to wait to see what verdict my gun cameras returned.
And this is where I got sloppy.
I was too busy watching the combat a mile off to scan the sky around me. If I had, I might have noticed high thin contrails above me, moving wickedly fast across the sky. The white streaks weren’t bombers as they only showed two engines per plane. And they were swooping around to enter the fray–right above my head.
As always, it was Mueller calling from somewhere nearby to warn me. “Indians! Erich. Watch out behind you!”
“What?” I shouted.
I whipped my head around and cursed the 109 for its poor reward visibility. Instinctively I snapped into a hard roll right, and just in time. Tracers whizzed under my fuselage and would have fairly shredded my little fighter had I been in their path.
I heard the distinct hum of inline engines zoom past, and got my first glimpse of a strange looking machine. A twin-engine devil, sleek lines, with the pilot situated in a cockpit “pod” between the two booms. Lightnings! A whole squadron! The Yank had brought an escort of P-38s. We’d hit them early on their run and thus were in their range. And now I was caught up in a melee with high performance fighters and no wingman.
“Get out of here Hauptmann!” called out Gaetjens. I still had no idea where half the staffel was.
The American fighters had done their job in one respect. The heavy formation of bombers heading towards Germany would have to wait. We’d been caught by surprise no doubt. Now it was every man for himself and see you back at base.
A Focke-Wulf zipped in front of me from out of nowhere and bolted past with two Lightnings right behind him. It was Stahl.
“Stahl!” I commanded. “Don’t dive. Corkscrew! You can out-turn them. I’ll come in behind them.”
“Ja wohl,” he replied with surprising calm. You may survive yet, I thought to myself.
“I’m on them too!” called out Mueller.
I managed to pull the little Messerschmitt in behind one of the twin-tailed machines who was too intent on his own prey to watch his back. “No no my friend.” I uttered as I squeezed the trigger.
My tracers sliced through the Lightning’s right boom and the whole section snapped off. The plane broke in two and fell tumbling towards the gray layer of clouds below.
The other plane immediately dove for the clouds and cover, all thoughts of dispatching young Stahl forgotten.
“Anchus!” shouted Mueller. “The Hauptmann just saved your ass Stahl!”
“Thank you sir,” he said with relief.
But there was still a gaggle of Lightnings out there. The fact was brought home to me by the desperate calls of my surprised staffel on the radio. “I’m in trouble here!” A terrified voice: “Can’t shake them!” Another called: “Blast! Where’d they come from?” Resignation from this one: “Bailing out! See you home boys.” Frustration: “Get out of there Von Maur!” It was almost more than I could bear.
POP! POP! POP! What the hell? BANG!
Behind me. Two more Lightnings with guns blazing! Their concentrated fire from four fifty calibers and one 20 millimeter cannon all bunched in the cockpit pod had the effect of a shot-gun blast. They punched a great hole in my port wing and then I saw flames start to belch from the engine.
Oh oh, Hummel. This is not good, I thought.
POP! POP! POP! Again. Unrelenting they fired hot metal and explosive charges into my plane and now I felt a hammer blow followed by a searing burn spread over my shoulder. “Mueller!” I called out. “Those bastards just shot me!”
“Hang on,” he said frantically. “I’m on them.”
But it was already too late. It all happened so fast. One second I was flying a perfectly sound aircraft, arrogantly basking in the glow of my victory, and the next I was in serious trouble. I could feel the engine seizing. Smoke was filling the cockpit and then suddenly the world started to flash faster and faster before my eyes and I realized I was in a spin. My control surfaces were useless. I couldn’t move the stick. Spinning, falling. My stomach whipping all around. I floated in my chair as my plane fairly tumbled end-over-end through the air. At least they’ve stopped shooting, I comforted myself. Of course they have, you sot! They’ve already shot you down and moved on!
Suddenly all was grey out my canopy. I was in the clouds, I concluded. Still spinning. Altimeter bleeding. Oh hell I’m falling out of the damned sky.
“Hummel where are you?” Mueller was shouting. “Hummel you infernal nuisance get out of that plane do you hear me?”
“I’m trying dammit!” But I was having a hard time blowing the cockpit open. “Maybe I can recover.”
“You need TWO wings for that!”
Oh Christ! I darted my eyes to the left wing and saw that it had been sheered clean off. I MUST GET OUT OF THIS PLANE! Still falling.
Now it was no longer grey. I could see white and drab browns spinning past me. The ground! Do something now Hummel or you’ve had it! I raced to unbuckle my straps and then I leaned back in the cockpit fighting the centripetal forces suddenly whipping me this way and that. With both feet I tucked my knees up to my chest and then kicked up as hard as I could. Whooosh! The cockpit flew off and the whipping of the wind sliced into my face. I was too scared to notice the cold–or my injured shoulder.
I struggled to pull myself out of the spinning plane. Then as it somersaulted end over end I was literally tossed out into the air and sent tumbling with my legs flailing as if on a bicycle. Suddenly I felt a blinding pain slice through the back of my head and I immediately saw white spots. A dreamy sensation came upon me, as if I was outside myself. It was so peaceful and falling was such a pleasant sensation that I figured I could sleep the rest of the way to the ground.
I was so tired. Just close your eyes and it will be over, Hummel. My hand reached down and yanked on what I thought was the rip-chord of my parachute. But I didn’t really care. I was fading. Not even my head hurt any more. I smiled as I drifted off to sleep. Dying’s not so bad, I mused. And then all went black.
A sudden steep, climbing turn executed to alter flight direction and gain altitude simultaneously.