Freelance writer from Cornwall
It’s April, 1944. The once-mighty Luftwaffe is a shattered and broken shadow of its former self. With crippling shortages of fuel, ammunition, spare parts and, worst off all, having lost most of its best and most experienced fighter pilots, it’s unable to properly defend Hitler’s German. Unable to adequately defend Germany in the conventional sense, Colonel Hans-Joachim Hermann (a former bomber and night-fighter pilot with nine kills) makes a radical and desperate proposal that’s as simple as it is terrifying.
He forms ‘Sonderkommando Elbe’, made up of 2000 volunteers (mostly novices with little training and no battle experience) with 2000 Messserschmidt 109 fighters. The pilots are often barely able to fly and the planes have been stripped of protective armour and guns, retaining only a single machine gun. Their purpose? Destroy Allied bombers by deliberate aerial ramming. Aerial ramming was a simple tactic with a simple objective. It was a terror weapon designed to buy time by spreading fear among Allied bomber crews. The theory went that sufficient terror would cause them to refuse to fly. If they could be terrified into refusing to fly then bomber raids would be limited or even halted long enough for the new jet fighters like the Messerschmidt 262 to delivered in sufficient numbers to turn the tide of the air war and regain Luftwaffe control of German airspace. The objective was as desperate as the tactics employed and far more unrealistic.
‘Sonderkommando Elbe’ weren’t kamikazes in the traditional sense. Japanese suicide pilots simply had to die to achieve their mission whereas Herrmann’s pilots have a chance of survival. If they evade enemy escort fighters, aren’t shot down by the gunners aboard the Allied bombers, survive the collision, bale out, their parachutes work and nobody decides to machine-gun them while they’re floating down, then they have a chance of surviving a mission. A 10% chance. Then they’ll be given another stripped-down 109 and sent up to do the same thing again and again.
It was volunteer-only and didn’t come with a pension plan.
The shortage of experienced combat pilots didn’t matter as much in ‘Sonderkommando Elbe’ as it would in a regular fighter unit. All pilots needed to do was take off and either crash into an enemy bomber or fly home and land. There wasn’t a great need for dog-fighting or aerobatics. On sighting enemy bombers they simply picked one out, rammed it and hoped they survived the crash and could bail out. No need for fancy flying there.
Their Messerschmidt 109 fighters were stripped of armour to make them lighter and more agile and stripped of all but a single gun because there wasn’t a need to waste a four-gun fighter on a one-way mission. The lack of armour made them lighter, faster and more agile. It also made them far more vulnerable to gunfire which only added to the risk. They weren’t kamikazes in the strictest sense, but their chances of survival were so small as to make little difference. Their tactics were equally stripped-down. With no need for dog-fighting pilots were told to aim for the most vulnerable parts of a bomber. They could ram the tail of a bomber and send it out of control. They could crash into the engines and hopefully explode the fuel lines and tanks. Or they could aim for the cockpit, smashing into a bomber from one side or above. Being lighter, faster and far more agile than the bombers, once a bomber was chosen it was doomed unless either its gunners or escort fighters could respond in time.
‘Sonderkommando Elbe’ only flew one mission, on April 7, 1945. 180 Messerschmidts took on 1300 Allied bombers escorted by 800 fighters. The results were inconclusive. Only 15 bombers were attacked by ramming and only 8 of those went down according to US 8th Air Force records. According to Luftwaffe records the results were better with possibly 24 Allied bombers either shot down or destroyed by ramming. Luftwaffe losses were about the same. The results weren’t enough to make another mass ramming attack viable and the pilots of ‘Sonderkommando Elbe’ never flew another.
It would have made no difference. By April 7, 1945 Hitler was only two weeks away from suicide, the Allied ground forces were tearing into Germany from every direction and many Germans themselves had simply given up the fight. The Allied bomber crews were, at best, highly unlikely to have indulged in a mass mutiny simply because of being rammed by enemy fighters even in large numbers. The new Messerschmidt 262 jet fighters never arrived in the numbers required to make a difference. Even if they had there were simply too few pilots left with the skill and experience to fly them in battle. Aerial ramming was a desperate tactic with an unrealistic objective, a sign that the war was already lost.