Wednesday, May 18, 2022

The Angel

Heinkel He 59 of the Seenotdienst¹
Feldwebel Ernst Wolfram and his gunner Flieger Hans Decker had been on their second mission of the day when they had been bounced by a section of two aircraft which had cut through their formation like a scythe. The fighter escort from JG 54 had been surprised as well. They hadn't seen the British fighters until it was far too late.

One Ju 87 had exploded in mid-air when a single .303 round had hit the 250 kg bomb slung under the fuselage. That explosion had sent that aircraft's wingman into a spin from which it never recovered. Wolfram swore he had seen the aircraft's empennage tear loose as the bird spun towards the dark waters of the Channel far below.

As Wolfram sat briefly mesmerized, his own aircraft had been rocked by a series of strikes along the wings and across the nose. The controls had immediately turned to slop, but far worse, a piece of the fuselage next to his seat had been blown inwards. Slicing through his life vest and flight suit like a hot knife, then embedding itself in his side. The pain had been immediate and intense.

Grimacing he assessed the condition of his aircraft, she had but minutes to live, the engine was already sputtering and coughing. Thick smoke was issuing from the exhaust stacks.

"Hans ..." Wolfram paused, taking a breath which sent pain through his entire left side, "are you okay? I think we need to step over the side."

"I'm okay, Herr Feldwebel, but the bird is a mess, I think the left aileron has been shot away and the rudder looks like Swiss cheese. You're hit, aren't you?"

"Ja Junge, I am, it hurts but I don't think it's that bad." Wolfram lied.

Even as he said that he reached back with his right hand and pressed the wound gently. His hand came back with the glove soaked red with blood. He had felt the metal protruding from his side. Though tempted, he knew better than to try and pull it out. His mind screamed for his hands to do something to stop the pain. 

"Hans, I'm switching the radio so you can transmit. Call the Seenotdienst, I'm going to try and get the bird as close to the coast as I can, I'm aiming for Cherbourg, but I don't think we can stay airborne much longer."

Before Decker could take any action, a radio call got the crew's attention. "You boys need any help, you look shot to shit. Look to your right."

Decker turned immediately and saw a Rotte² of two Bf-109s from JG 54 flying formation with them. Not close, it was apparent to the lead Messerschmitt pilot that the Stuka was in rough shape.

Wolfram was woozy and didn't turn, "Is this a miracle Hans? Am I dreaming?"

"Nein, Herr Feldwebel, the Grüne Herzen³ have come to watch over us."

"Stuka, can you maintain this altitude?" the Messerschmitt lead radioed.

"Negative, the controls are mush, the engine is ready to quit. I want my gunner to jump while I can keep the bird in the air. How far from the coast are we?" Wolfram managed to answer.

It took all of Wolfram's strength to try and control the aircraft and speak. He had checked his wound again, the bleeding seemed to have stopped. While he didn't feel any worse, he didn't feel any better either. He now wondered if he would be able to jump.

"Seenotdienst is inbound and should be on station in ten minutes. You're losing altitude gradually, if it were me, I'd let her sink to twenty-five hundred meters then jump. Can you manage that?"

Wolfram checked the altimeter, then remembered that it had been smashed, "My instruments are shot away, let me know when we reach twenty-five, ja?"

"Will do." The Messerschmitt lead transmitted.

The big Heinkel biplane, with its white paint job and prominent red crosses painted everywhere, lumbered over the water. The pilot was homing on the transmissions from the fighters escorting the stricken bomber. He had heard the mention of the Stuka crew bailing out, at least they should be able to spot the chutes easily enough, the sky was as blue as he had ever seen it.

It was then that Hauptmann Gerd Richter saw two dots, low on the horizon, slowly growing in size. Had to be two aircraft, down on the deck, coming their way. But whose were they?

"Grünherz Lead, this is Engel⁴ One, approaching your position. I think I've got company inbound. Looks like two bogies at my ten o'clock, same altitude."

"Copy Engel, we'll have a look."

Flying Officer Horace Buckingham was nearly salivating as his flight of two bore in on the lumbering rescue aircraft. Though standing orders stated that only rescue aircraft in the vicinity of active operations could be attacked, he considered the entire Channel to be an active operation.

His younger brother, James, had been killed in action in the early stages of the German attack in the west. His brother had been a Battle pilot and had gone down in an ill-advised attack on a bridge in Belgium. Since that day, Buckingham lived to kill Germans. Being transferred to a Spitfire squadron had made that goal even easier.

"I say Bucky, seems we're a bit farther east than we should be. Petrol's going to be iffy pretty soon." Buckingham's wingman, Pilot Officer Louis Trotter, transmitted. He was leery of getting too far away from England. There was just the two of them and those rescue aircraft often had fighter escorts.

"Break off then Lou, if you don't have the bollocks for it, go home."

Oberleutnant Joachim von Bolleberg lined up his gun sight just forward of the lead Spitfire. He was content to wait as the range closed. The big floatplane wasn't in range of the British fighters yet. He had ample time to kill them both he calculated.

Far above him he heard the last transmission of the crippled Stuka as the crew abandoned their dying aircraft. He knew that his wingman, Unteroffizier Klaus Riess would protect the Stuka crew as they dangled in their parachutes. He could focus on the two men who had attacked and broken up the Stuka formation.

Trotter saw a shadow on the water, as he pondered what it was, his lead was spattered with gunfire from above. Buckingham never had a chance, from being hit to plowing into the waters of the Channel, maybe three seconds had elapsed. Now Trotter was in a fight for his life.

He rammed the throttles forward to put on every ounce of speed he could. As he did so he began to gain altitude, ever so slightly, he hesitated to maneuver this close to the water. Glancing in his rear view mirror, he caught sight of the Hun who had killed his lead.

Von Bolleberg thought about how pretty the Spitfire was, those elliptical wings are distinctive, he thought. He knew the Tommy really only had one chance, von Bolleberg was too close for the Spit to outrun him. He figured the Englishman would try and chop his throttles and drop his flaps, trying to abruptly slow his aircraft and cause the Messerschmitt to overshoot.

"Keine chance Tommy, not a chance." von Bolleberg, with six kills in Poland and five in France, hissed as he squeezed his trigger.

Trotter chopped the throttle and dropped his flaps, far too late. The machine guns of the pursuing Messerschmitt walked from the tail of his aircraft up to and over the cockpit, Trotter was hit multiple times. He knew, almost instantly, that his wounds were mortal. Time seemed to slow to a standstill.

At the same time, the Messerschmitt's two, 2 cm wing cannons smashed into the beautiful wings of Reginald Mitchell's superb design. Had Trotter been at a higher altitude, the wings would have folded upwards, forming a shroud over the dying pilot. But at just above the water, they simply snapped off as the Spitfire caught the peak of a wave.

Trotter was already dead, dying within seconds of being hit, when the aircraft smashed into the sea and broke up. The shattered aircraft quickly disappeared into the dark depths of the English Channel.

Decker had dragged Wolfram into the raft, he hadn't seen the short engagement which killed the two Spitfires, but he involuntarily ducked as the Messerschmitt which had downed the English fighters boomed low over their raft, waggling his wings, then zoom climbed to rejoin his wingman.

The big He 59 floatplane was down and taxiing over to their raft. Decker squeezed Wolfram's hand. "You still there, you big lout?"

Wolfram blinked then moaned, "Yes, I'm still here. You're buying the beer tonight, klar?"

"Aber natürlich, Herr Feldwebel. No doubt you would claim that you forgot your billfold in the aircraft."

"No doubt. Am I still bleeding?"

"Yes, a little, here's the Angel, you'll be in hospital in no time, now shut up would you?"

"Cheeky bastard." Wolfram groaned before closing his eyes and listening to the Heinkel's engines slow. Perhaps he had survived again.

But for how long?

¹ The Seenotdienst (sea rescue service) was a German military organization formed within the Luftwaffe (German Air Force) to save downed airmen from emergency water landings. The Seenotdienst operated from 1935 to 1945 and was the first organized air-sea rescue service. (Source)
² An element of two aircraft (German)
³ Green Hearts, a green heart was the emblem of Jagdgeschwader 54 (German)
⁴ Angel (German)
⁵ The British Fairey Battle light bomber had seen serious losses early in the attack on the Low Countries (Source)
⁶ But naturally, Sergeant. (German)


  1. Great segment Sarge! Had no knowledge of the Seenotdienst till your writing. Pretty "unsporting" of the Brits to target them, though in a fight for survival ( which this was) understandable. "No quarter" does have a way of escalating rapidly.
    Boat Guy

    1. I was surprised that those rescue birds were targeted (and it was allowed). But then again, if the Germans had stayed home, then there wouldn't be a problem, "don't start none. won't be none." As they say ...

    2. Yep, it they'd stayed home... Leaving American troops in Germany after 1945 did keep them home for the next 77 years

    3. Well, when you make a habit of invading the neighbors ...

    4. One of the most poignant scenes in "Band of Brothers" is where the news of Hitler's suicide is delivered; a response is "He shoulda done that years ago and saved us all this trouble" Ron Livingston's delivery of " Yeah, he shoulda...but he didn't" depicts the weariness and sadness of those who saw it through to the end.

    5. Great scene, great series.

  2. I'd never seen this use of 'bounce' before (transitive, air combat) To attack unexpectedly. - Wiktionary) TNX

  3. Great writing, as always. I appreciate that your muse continues to allow you to tie these vignettes together.
    Minor editting nit, you missed the superscript three after "Grüne Herzen".
    Mike the EE

    1. Thanks Mike.

      (Fixed the missing superscript ...)

  4. Low and slow doesn't make for a long life eh Sarge? Two Spits never to return home and two pilots MIA, ah.....

    1. When you're out of speed and altitude, you're out of luck!

  5. Vengeance can be a cruel taskmaster. For some reason, this reminds me of Kipling's "Grave of the Hundred Heads". Excellent segment.

    1. I'd never read that bit of Kipling before, very good. (Also very terrifying in the revenge taken for their subaltern.)

    2. There are days when I hear that bugel faintly calling, even now. So far, I've recognized and remembered that that's desire calling, that is neither cause nor order. Some days are harder than others, and I know I'd dread the consequences.

  6. . . . Decker had dragged Wolfram into the raft, he hadn't seen the short engagement which killed the two Spitfires, but he involuntarily ducked as the Messerschmitt which had downed them boomed low over their raft, waggling his wings, then zoom climbed to rejoin his wingman.

    I doubt that the Messerschmitt had downed the Stuka. I think they followed it down?

    1. In this case "them" is the two Spitfires, but yeah it could be interpreted as the two aircrew in the raft. I am once again the winner of the "Awkward Sentence Award." I'll fix it.

  7. You have a remarkable gift of writing from the view of the other side. The reality is that if there had been no war, these might have all been the best of friends with a shared interest (flying). Instead, they are flying and fighting and crashing into the Channel.

    1. A number of the men who flew against each other in the Battle of Britain met after the war, some did become friends.

      War is a hideous waste no matter how you look at it. But as long as there are those who seek to impose their will on others by force of arms, war will be necessary.

  8. I hate it when the good guys lose. Great piece of the story though, as I didn't realize the Germans has a rescue service either. I've never seen that aircraft before.

    1. They had a few floatplanes they used for rescue. A little known facet of the Battle of Britain.

      And yes, the good guys don't always come home.

  9. At least the Germans didn't have to seek out one of their rescue buoys.

    1. Only the Germans did. The nearest we had were GATOs and BALAOs on rescue duty. But they had to be arranged beforehand.

    2. I knew that, submarines were indeed used in the Pacific to rescue flyers.

  10. Seaplanes were extraordinarly useful as search and rescue birds. RAF used Walrus flying boat for same purpose, and US of course the games Catalina


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