Spandau, Germany. 1940.
Gott had quietly asked a deafening question…
“What would the SS attitude be if they ever discovered that you’re a homosexual?”
It was a question that Gerhard had no answer to. He had deliberately closed his mind to the question.
“If I’m careful, how would they know?”
“Two possibilities… One, they might place pretty young men among the recruits to see who hits on them… Two… Even an auburn haired beauty like you could be selected for mating with a nice Nordic girl to seed babies for Himmler’s breeding programme… Would being shut up with a naked Rhine-maiden produce the right result?”
“I’ll give you a clue…” Gott said with a gentle smile… “You just lost your erection.”
“Oh God. It’s not even as if they’re a cheerful lot!” Was Gerhard’s despairing answer.
“They’re an elite organisation, but not an attractive one!” Was Gott’s view of the SS.
“What you really need around you is a bunch of guys who have total loyalty to each other, have fun doing what they do… and, get killed doing extraordinary things!” Gott continued.
He was helping his friend towards an answer that was blindingly obvious… if only to Gott.
“And they are?”
“The Fallschirmjäger… Come and jump out of planes with me!”
“Why wouldn’t they object to me being a homosexual?”
Gott had never told his friend any of his secret’s.
He was totally loyal to his friends at the base and hadn’t gossiped. Perhaps the time had come to do so, and rescue his lover in the process.
“They wouldn’t object after midnight… After midnight… that’s when only homos visit the shower-block.”
He said it quietly and deliberately… To even say it wasn’t easy. It was one thing to have fun after midnight, with Sigi and Harald, Heinz and Baldur… Boys, playing together… perhaps only because there were no women to hand… It was another to say that they enjoyed it because they were homosexuals.
It was soon after that…
Gerhard was opening his mail, when…
“No! No! No!…” He stamped around the room, kicked a chair and slammed a cupboard door.
“Whatever’s the matter?” Gott asked.
“It’s the SS. They want me to submit application forms! Immediately!”
‘We need to see Harald!’ Was Gott’s immediate thought.
“Don’t panic, sit quiet, don’t do anything and I’ll be back!” He said.
He ran to their instructor’s office, knocked on the door, stepped back and stood at attention.
Gott marched in and stood at attention in front of the instructor’s desk. This was a moment to take risks… He believed that he could read this new instructor, but… you could never be certain. He would have to jump and hope that his ‘chute was packed as well as he thought. He had been planning for this emergency for a few days.
“Sir, Permission to speak to you about a personal matter?”
“Certainly, take a seat.” The instructor looked concerned and made it clear that Gott had his full attention. The fact registered on Gott and he thought ‘A much better leader!’ before plunging on…
“It’s Gerhard… I mean Jungmann…” For a moment he groped for Gerhard’s surname…
“Don’t worry… Gerhard… I know exactly who you mean… your err.. boxing partner?” He said with a reassuring smile.
“Yes Sir, that Gerhard… He’s in trouble!”
“In trouble? After the boxing match I thought that he was staying well clear of trouble!”
“No Sir, not that sort of trouble… He’s wanted by the SS!”
This was not coming out quite as clearly as he had planned… no plan survives the start of battle!
“Wanted? What for? What has he done?”
“No, no Sir, not for anything bad… They want to recruit him!”
“But, that’s why he’s here? To prepare him for service with the SS… they sponsored him.”
“No Sir… It may have been when he arrived, but now… now it’s a very bad idea. It can only work out badly in the long run and that… would be bad for everyone… I didn’t fight the whole Hundred to see him… The SS is a very bad idea, Sir!”
The officer could see his distress, and his brain was rapidly sorting through the reasons for it.
“He has Jewish relatives?” Gott shook his head.
“Communists?” Another negative.
“He is… you are?”
Gott held his breath and made no move.
“Do you have a solution to his problem? Other than making it mine?” The officer smiled gently.
“Well, don’t keep it to yourself! I’m sure you came looking for assistance rather than a solution!”
“Yes Sir. I think that we should arrange for him to join the Fallschirmjäger, as soon as possible!”
“How soon do you think that would be? Assuming it could be arranged?”
“Saturday. Sir” Even to Gott it sounded ridiculous.
“Do you want me to speak to Oranienburg? Or would you prefer to do that yourself… You’re well known there, I believe. Isn’t it where you learnt to fly?”
“I know the officers well, but I would need leave of absence to explain to them.”
“Can’t you do it by phone?” He had the receiver in his hand already.
They reached the major at the first attempt and the officer listened to Gott’s end of the conversation.
“Yes, the boy I fought for, I mean fought in the ring… Yes, that one… the SS want to recruit him!”
“Yes exactly… after midnight… it would be a very bad idea… it could end very badly!”
“Can I bring him to see you this weekend? Oh the General did? Oh that’s wonderful! Yes I’ll ask my instructor to arrange for the documents to reach you by messenger. Would you like to speak to him?”
He passed the phone. There was a brief conversation and the instructor put the receiver back in it’s cradle.
“So, you seem to have had the whole of your plan in place before coming to see me…”
“Yes Sir… I mean No Sir… All the elements were there, but I hadn’t spoken to anybody!”
“I was joking… You’ve thought on your feet, and I agree you may well have saved your friend from a very unpleasant future!” The instructor looked pleased. “Well done, You should always have an escape plan when you decide to run risks.”
He smiled reassuringly, then…
“Leave at lunchtime Friday. I expect to receive you and a Fallschirmjäger in this office on Monday morning at 09.00h to complete the remaining paperwork, to regularise matters here. Meanwhile I shall inform the SS that Gerhard is no longer available. I will make it appear a routine matter, that he had already accepted a Luftwaffe offer but I had forgotten to inform the other services.”
Oranienburg, Germany. 1940.
That weekend, Gerhard received his first taste of Fallschirmjäger hospitality.
Harald was waiting with a full set of Fallschirmjäger enlistment documents, and a copy of Gerhard’s file from the Napola. He understood exactly why Gott wanted Gerhard to join the regiment, and after hearing the story of the boxing match he too had wanted Gerhard for the regiment, and for Gott… It would relieve him of all responsibility for having taken Sigi away from his young friend.
Harald, the major and their CO had discussed the matter at some length. That was how the sympathetic Luftwaffe general had come to organise medical records… and would stiffen the resolve of the Napola CO.
Dinner that evening was as good as ever and afterwards the three of them sat in the Officer’s Mess with a few beers.
“So, you not only need to sign up quickly, you need to leave the Napola as soon as possible.” Harald started.
“You’ve two months to your exams, a week for those, and then you are free to join a regiment?”
“Yes, that’s about it. But there will need to be medicals and fitness tests and all sorts before anyone could accept me formally.”
“Precisely… True of every branch of the military… except for the Luftwaffe… The general who was on the Napola panel had already identified you as a potential Fallschirmjäger recruit. He sent us your papers a year ago. If you recall, the head of the Napola’s medical assessment panel was also a Luftwaffe colonel. Yesterday, he very kindly made a copy of those medical notes available to us… by motorcycle courier. He has even re-dated them this weekend. Tomorrow our own M.O. will run a stethoscope over you to check that nothing disastrous has happened in the last eighteen months and then you will be through the medical.”
“And, assessment? Aren’t you choosy about who you recruit?” Gerhard was having difficulty keeping pace with events.
“Of course, That we shall take care of after lunch tomorrow, and during Sunday.”
“Pardon?” Gerhard gasped. “After lunch and on Sunday? Are you serious?”
“Yes indeed, perfectly serious, and Sunday afternoon your father will sign the application form!”
“But Papa is in Bavaria!” Gerhard gasped again.
“No he isn’t… Here he is…” Harald pointed to the Napola application form and to Gerhard’s father’s signature at the foot of the front page.
“We are a regiment with many informal skills… One of my corporals was a forger in a former life.”
“And, the Napola… won’t anyone question my failure to return the SS forms?”
“Have you forgotten which branch the Napola Commander is seconded from?”
“The Luftwaffe…” Gott said quietly.
“Indeed, the Luftwaffe! Our general has already spoken to your commander. I hear that SS mail is having an increasingly difficult time getting answers from some of the schools… particularly yours!” Harald smiled…
“By now your commanding officer will have contacted the SS. He will have pointed to the indiscipline that resulted in the boxing match and informed the SS that he had felt unable to recommend you to them on grounds of the grossest of indiscipline. Apparently he has said, with some regret, that as the Luftwaffe was responsible for sponsoring Gottfried’s recruitment to the Napola, the Luftwaffe felt obliged to find a home for the two of you.”
“So you want me to complete the forms?”
“No time like the present!” Harald said. “It will mean you’ll be late to bed I fear, no time for a hot bath tonight… It’s a cold shower after midnight for you two.”
They spent the next two hours writing quickly and drinking slowly. Gerhard was exhausted and terribly sober when they had a complete set of forms ready. The NCO with a former life was sent for and cheerfully made a very accurate job of obtaining Gerhard’s father’s approval for his son’s choice of career.
“Tomorrow…” Said Harald. “You will need to convince the major that you are what he wants. I am happy to take Gott’s word for your courage and determination… The major has accepted my version of events so far… But, there’s nothing like first hand persuasion.”
“What if I tell him that Gott’s told me so much about the joys of jumping that I really want to try it this weekend… from a balloon. It doesn’t seem too windy.” Gerhard said, with more determination than he actually felt.
“Yes, that would be good, so long as you mean it. Once you say that, you really are committed. Is that what you really want?” Harald said.
“To be honest, the idea scares me witless, but… I want to jump from a balloon a great deal more than serving with an SS Einsatz-Kommando. Killing babies appeals a lot less than jumping from a balloon!” Gerhard was at least honest.
“As it should!” Harald said. “I’ve heard a lot about you from Gott… I don’t think you’ll have any great problem. We now have a group of recruits, Jugend and even our own soldiers, they turn up whenever they see a balloon… to do it just for fun… Maybe one day people will do it for sport… like skiing. Now skiing, sliding down a mountain completely out of control… that scares me!”
Gerhard and Gott retired to the guest quarters, which as luck would have it was almost completely empty that weekend. They had a room to themselves, but with little in the way of curtains and no lock on the door. Gott felt obliged to suggest that they change for bed but leave their shower until after midnight…
“When only…” Gerhard started… “visit the shower block after midnight!” Gott finished for him… pointedly leaving out the only word that really mattered.
They weren’t the first to reach the shower block… they had fallen asleep, exhausted by the tension of the day.
Gerhard was now very close to being a member of the Fallschirmjäger, albeit with a set of documents that had been falsified and forged, from medical records to father’s signature. But as Harald had said…
“When you’re planning to jump out of aeroplanes and kill men with knife and automatic rifle… worrying about paperwork is… a little unnecessary don’t you think?” Gerhard nodded glumly. Faking his father’s signature, compared with serving in the SS, seemed a fair exchange of moral qualm… but he was still unhappy. He decided that if his father asked he would tell him that the Luftwaffe had signed on his behalf… it was nearer the truth… close but not a direct-hit!
When they entered the shower block they could hear activity and were just in time to see Sigi finding completion. He was bent over the still bandaged back of young Baldur. Baldur was not suffering… his right hand was busy achieving the satisfaction that Sigi was finding for himself. They were clearly well used to team-work as they reached perfection together.
They grinned when they saw our boys watching them… “This must be the famous Gerhard!” Sigi said… holding his hand out in greeting. Gerhard smiled and shook hands… He had never shaken hands with someone who was both completely naked and sporting the remains of a well-utilised erection. “I guess you are Sigi…” He glanced down… “You are just as Gott described you… perhaps more so!”
Baldur was looking slightly uncomfortable. They gathered round him to ask how his injuries were healing…
“Baldur tried flying without plane or parachute… He got it nearly right… They do say that any landing you can walk away from is pretty good…” Gott said.
“But, he didn’t… walk away… we carried him as I recall!” Sigi rejoined… It didn’t help.
Baldur’s nakedness allowed them to see just how far a blush could reach.
“The regiment is thinking of a new badge… a roman-candled ‘chute, for those qualified to get away with what they shouldn’t!” Gott had the last word before a grinning Baldur grabbed a towel and ran for the door, followed by Sigi trying to take the towel off him. Clearly Baldur felt just a little pleased to have become a celebrity among a regiment of exceptionally hard men.
“What’s a roman-candle?” Gerhard asked.
“I’ll tell you tomorrow night… First there is still a lot to do here and then you’ll need some sleep before starting the jumps that’ll qualify you as a full member of the regiment… perhaps if you manage six jumps you can be the first recruit to start with his jumper’s badge already in place!”
Gerhard was inspired by watching Sigi doing it. He cuddled up against Gott and loosened his belt. Their clothes they laid on a bench and then they retired to a quiet corner out of immediate sight of the door. The kiss was the first that they had been able to share in safety for some months. They had kissed in the woods on their runs and on their cycle rides, but after the boxing match and that near disaster, they never felt safe.
Here it was different. It was in the open in a shower block, with other men within ear-shot, but they both felt safe. They were among men who could be relied upon to close ranks around them if need be. The vast majority of the others on the base didn’t share their sexual needs… but, what they did share and understand was comradeship. They might not quite understand them, but they could be relied upon to protect their comrades from harm.
The following morning Gott took Gerhard to breakfast in the officer’s mess. For the time being they were still guests. It was an arrangement that wasn’t going to last much longer, just until the end of the weekend and acceptance of him as a recruit. But, as long as it did… breakfast was well worth getting up for. Apart from which, neither of them felt comfortable staring across the room at their friend’s nearly naked form. The ground floor position of their room and the lack of curtains made anything more than frustration a poor alternative to an early breakfast.
There was no sign of Harald yet, so they sat by themselves at a table away from the officers. That way they could discuss what Gerhard should say to the major. Their planning fell apart however when Gott crashed to his feet, saluting as he rose. Gerhard followed… wondering what was going on.
“Herr Major, this is Gerhard… our reason for visiting this weekend. Thank you for arranging everything so quickly!”
“Young Gottfried… a cynic might believe that it was you that arranged everything… We just did as requested!”
“Harald keeps assuring me that I should see it as leadership potential.” It was said with a smile, but Gott could read into it that he had called in a very large number of favours this time.
“I really am… we both are, very grateful for this chance to keep Gerhard for the regiment. The SS wanted him badly. We could see any number of ways that would end badly… and anyway… he’s going to make a brilliant Fallschirmjäger… honestly… I promise you!”
The major smiled and sat down… an orderly brought his usual breakfast.
“We can save time by doing everything except the paperwork while we eat… Between you, you have enough blood on the application… we don’t need egg as well.” It was said with a smile, but it was clearly an opening for Gerhard to justify the trouble and risks that the major had been asked for.
“Sir… first… there is no way that I would willingly serve with the SS. You say that there is blood on my application, and that has to be true. But there is more blood on the SS forms. From murdering babies and old people to serving as studs for Reichsführer Himmler’s breeding programme… None of it is my idea of what a soldier should be used for!” He said it with extraordinary vehemence.
“I guessed that you and Gott had good reason to avoid them… I’ve no reason to ask.… But, what causes you to be quite so definite about babies and old people.? I have only heard the rumours.
The major smiled and said “Look, if it helps… I too wouldn’t want to serve with the SS. It would take more than a beautifully designed uniform to make me associate with that bunch of thugs… But what has upset you so much?”
Gerhard took a deep breath and decided to risk being completely honest. If he couldn’t trust his future superior officer, who was going to teach him to jump out of aeroplanes… who could he trust?
Still he glanced at the next table, actually two tables away… The major saw his caution… “If you have finished breakfast, let’s go to my office… Actually, the coffee there is slightly better than here.”
“Gott… I shall see you later when we see how good your friend is at defying gravity.”
At the major’s office, coffee was ordered and the door was carefully shut.
“So, what was it that put you off the SS… that you didn’t want to be overheard saying?”
The walk from breakfast had given Gerhard time to think…
“Well Sir, It really is a matter of being put off… Ever since I was little I had wanted to join the SS… The Führer’s bodyguard, the black uniform… tall blond soldiers… it was all I dreamt about.”
“And then? Then what happened… to put you off?” The major prodded gently.
“Then they moved into our village… my parents live outside a small town in Bavaria… my father’s the village electrician.”
“I don’t understand, surely they had nothing to fear from an SS detachment in the village?”
“No indeed Sir… the soldiers were very polite… They built their camp… my father got work wiring up the electrical system… he wired up their electric-fences. When he was finished the lorries started to arrive. They couldn’t arrive until his work was complete.”
There were tears in Gerhard’s eyes.
“The lorries brought political criminals for correction?” The major had a sinking feeling… He hoped he was wrong.
“No Sir, the lorries brought mainly women and children… they wore yellow stars. A few young men wore pink triangles. When the lorries queued at the bottle-neck in the village square, mothers pleaded with our women to accept their small children. Then the SS came to quieten their load, and to drive our women away. They used their gun butts to drive my mother away!” Tears were now pouring down Gerhard’s face.
“But… that only happened while they populated the camp… surely?” The major wasn’t sure that he wanted to hear the rest, but a morbid fascination drove him on… Was it really true? What he had heard whispered in the Mess?”
“Yes, it went on happening… They needed more and more population… the smoke from the chimneys… and the terrible smell. Our village! The villagers are forbidden to talk about it… you’re the first person, the only person I’ve told…” He sighed. “Even Gott… I haven’t told Gott.”
“One day everyone will know the name of our town… one day everyone will know of Dachau!”
“Your parents, surely they just ignore it all! These camps have to be sited somewhere!”
“The smell, you can’t ignore the smell… and…”
“And, the SS insisted that my father stay on as the electrician for the camp… he sees… and he drinks… my poor mother… He drinks because he can’t sleep.”
The major shuddered and then decided that this needed to be brought to an end…
“So, you don’t wish to join the men in black… perfectly understandable… I don’t suppose the pink triangles made it any easier.” He smiled gently, at the gentle young man with the scarred face.
“No Sir, the triangles didn’t help… Mama cried when she explained what they meant.”
“She knows what? Sir… There was nothing to know… but she worries.”
The major pulled himself together…
“Right then young Gerhard… You don’t want to join the men in black… and, we don’t want you to… All you need to do is convince us that you want to jump out of aeroplanes over a battlefield more than you want to kill women and babies… and young men with pink triangles. Go with Harald and show us that… Then the Fallschirmjäger can save you from serving with the Fatherland’s other elite!”
He smiled to take the sting out of his words. Then… “Reichs Marshall Göring created our regiment as the Luftwaffe’s personal bodyguard for the Führer, so it’s not just the men in black! We guard the Führer too… but we try to do it without killing Germans.”
He had been a great deal more daring and frank than was either sensible or safe.
“Come! Let’s find Harald and Gott… I’m satisfied with your reasons for panic when the SS came looking for you… Let’s organise the rest of your rescue plan… Or, rather, Gott’s. One day that young man will either save us all… or get us killed. I don’t think he’s equipped to do less!”
He rose and led the way to the door…
“Wipe your face!”
The worst part of the morning in the hangar at Stendal turned out to be the fuselage door mockup. It wasn’t that Gerhard didn’t want to jump, it was more the completely unnatural way that they asked him to jump out face down, and land on elbows and knees.
As Gott would say “It shouldn’t be necessary to tell you how silly this is!”
It took him well over an hour to get it right. The instructors were of course not really that interested in whether he was keen to do it… if he was unhappy about it, that was more useful. They were really testing his ability to obey an unpalatable order. Clearly he was obeying… to the very best of his ability… it was just a terribly unnatural thing to do.
The high tower was another matter… Gerhard loved it. From the moment he saw Gott do one of his swallow-dives… he loved it. When it was his turn, he took two paces and dived, not jumped, he dived off the tower. After he had done that twice, Harald explained that he wasn’t there for fun but to do as he was told. He needed to show that he could do it safely from the balloon. So back up he went and this time he did it exactly as the other instructor showed him. Harald waited on the ground to see that he landed properly.
Clearly he was happy about jumping from a height and he was good at doing as he was ordered… once he understood that it was an order.
Then it was time for lunch.
After a long walk around the base to see the sights, see the facilities and walk off lunch, Harald took him to see how a parachute was packed. He watched Harald pack a parachute, so very carefully, every fold so precise. Then the parachute was handed to him, and he understood that he had just been watching the care that had gone into packing the ‘chute that he was about to depend on.
On the way to the balloon, they were crossing some grass when Harald put his ‘chute down and said “Watch this and then do the same when I tell you!” He stood at attention, tilted forward until he over-balanced and then absolutely rigid… fell flat on his face. Or at least he would have if, at the very last moment he hadn’t flipped his hands up to break his fall and protect his face.
“Now,” He said. “What I want to see is how late you can leave it before putting your hands out. If you put them out before starting to fall then you fail. If you leave it too late and break your nose then I’ll be impressed but… well, I’ll be impressed.”
So that’s how Gerhard, in an effort to please, got a bloody nose and a grazed cheek!
“You and Gott have that much in common!” Gerhard said to Harald, as he wiped the blood off his lip and set off again towards the balloon that awaited them. Harald smiled to himself.
Harald watched him discreetly as the balloon ascended. As with Sigi he had told the winchman to take them up to a greater height than usual. It would be both easier and more fun for Gerhard, if all went well. He had also told him to reduce the height by 50 metres for each subsequent jump. Gerhard wouldn’t notice because they had to return to the shed each time to repack the ‘chute. The gradually reducing height would however keep the pressure up, The greater feeling of height off the ground at lower altitude would make each jump that much scarier, while experience made each one easier.
As the balloon went up, Gerhard looked inside the basket, his eyes on his feet, Harald’s feet, Gott’s feet. Near the highest point Gott whispered to him… “It’s safe to look now!”
Gerhard, who had implicit trust in his friend, looked out of the basket at the view. He gasped, the view was indeed wonderful, but his knuckles whitened slightly as they gripped the stays that held the basket under the balloon. Harald could see that he was clearly afraid. Gerhard swallowed, and his face had paled. Harald corrected that to clearly terrified.
But then the vibration from the winch ceased and Harald took the end of Gott’s static line and snapped it onto the basket. “Ready?” he asked… Gott grinned. The gate was clipped open and Harald said… “Alright, in your own time…” but as always he said it to Gott’s back as he flew.
“When I say Go! two paces and jump. Don’t hesitate, hesitation makes it more difficult. Just do it!”
Gerhard, with a very slight quiver in his voice, said… “My turn… This is for my father and the people of my village!” He clipped his own line to the hasp and stood ready.
Gerhard was gone. He didn’t allow himself to think… he simply did it!
Then as the line jerked and his fall stopped, he realised… Gott was right! This was indeed the most wonderful sensation, floating like thistle-down… passing birds in flight… seeing someone in the village looking up at him… then he saw the major and waved to him. The major saluted and turned back towards his office, and then… the ground came up with a rush, a bit too fast for a tidy landing.
He lay there winded but elated. When his breath returned he scrambled to his feet in time to see Harald land some twenty metres away. He looked very pleased.
“Excellent! That was exactly what I wanted! You were terrified and you jumped anyway!”
“Is it always like that?” Gerhard asked quietly. “Terrifying and then wonderful?”
“Yes, always the first time… except perhaps for Gott… but he is strange enough to not count!”
“It was like that the first time… with Gott.” Gerhard said, and then blushed.
“I imagine it was… you lucky dog!” Was all Harald could think of to cap that remark.
You could read whatever you liked into what they had said, either way you would be equally correct.
They managed another three jumps that afternoon. Eventually after the fourth Gerhard said with a smile… “I just realised what you’ve been doing… Each one was a bit lower wasn’t it?”
“Yes, and for that reason, each was more difficult, but I was watching and each one scared you a lot less. That last one could have been… well, it certainly didn’t seem to scare you.”
“No, I knew that it wasn’t going to… un-man me… Once I knew I could do it despite the fear, the fear got less. I think I was more scared of the fear than I was of the height.”
“Precisely! Everyone can parachute… but not everyone can jump. You have to be able to make the first jump to know that there is really nothing to fear!” Harald was feeling philosophical…
He could afford to be philosophical… everything was as it should be.
Harald had Sigi. Gott had Gerhard. Gerhard had avoided the SS and found a home with the Fallschirmjäger…
Harald had made wise recommendations to the major, and he had made a good call when recommending Gott to the General on the Napola board. Everyone was happy…
Gott was in his heaven and all was well with the world!
Harald smiled broadly at everyone as they re-packed the ‘chutes…
“Time for beer!” He said.
By lunchtime the following day Gerhard had performed a total of seven balloon jumps and was actually qualified to try an aeroplane jump next. He still didn’t have a uniform!
The major came to lunch. Gerhard signed the papers, the major counter-signed them accepting Gerhard into the regiment. That was it, one weekend and Gerhard was a member of the regiment. He was told that he would now be seconded back to the Napola to complete his courses and to pass his exams!
“But, now we have an unusual problem, and I need your cooperation young man!” The major was serious.
“You still need to be part of an intake. You still need to learn all the other things a recruit needs. What I don’t need is a smart-arse who feels special and makes the other recruits feel like also-rans.”
“Me Sir? No Sir! I’ve just been here for a few Jugend camps and been for rides in the basket and a tower jump or two… Sir. No Sir, I’m a beginner like everyone else on the course. In fact I don’t think we have met yet, have we Sir?”
“Exactly!” The major said with a smile… “Exactly!”
Gerhard and Gott finally left the Napola in August. With their pass certificates safely packed in their luggage, they were heading for a world of organised bustle and chaos in the base at Oranienburg and the training ground at Stendal.
Now simply recruits, they took their place with the others, being ordered hither and yon as some semblance of order was brought to the base.
There was a chaos that Gott hadn’t seen at the base before… It wasn’t just that a huge new intake of recruits had arrived. This was August 1940 and there was a huge re-organisation going on. Fallschirmjäger Regiment 3 was being constructed by bringing in men from all over Europe to build a new regiment around the core of veterans of FJR1. That core included the major, Sigi and Harald, as well as others like Heinz and Baldur that the boys also knew well.
As recruits they had to survive the constant round of drill on the parade-ground, the well-nigh embarrassing process of learning to salute properly. One of the most difficult tasks was to make their bed to the inspecting-officer’s satisfaction. It was a satisfaction that appeared non-existent for the first two weeks.
Eventually it all calmed down, salutes were precise and beds were made. They moved on towards actual parachute-training, gunnery and tactical-training.
Gott and Gerhard coped well with the sillier aspects. They were no odder than the first weeks as new Jungmannen at the Napola. If anything, the Fallschirmjäger sillinesses seemed to serve more purpose. Gott in particular, from his many discussions with Harald and the major could see that adversity was creating a bond between the recruits. Even learning to make a bed, something many of them had never needed to do, even that, once learned felt an achievement the first time that they were able to stand there confident that they were not going to be shouted at.
The officers had ensured that Sigi, now a full corporal, was assigned to a distant platoon, minimising the risk of our boys giggling when he shouted at them. They had discussed at length what and when they should tell their peers about their experience jumping. They didn’t say anything at all about having met any of the Fallschirmjäger soldiers before, especially the officers. As for jumping, Gott said he had won some Jugend prizes that involved rides in the balloon, and one sneaked jump that was supposed to be a secret. That was in case his Napola interview wasn’t the secret he hoped it was. Gerhard said that he too had managed to sneak a jump on a weekend at Fallschirmjäger camp while he was at the Napola.
It wasn’t quite the plan that the officers had suggested, but the boys thought it safer and easier to keep their story straight if they flew just a touch closer to the truth.
Gott also felt that they had a unique opportunity to make jumping easier for their platoon. Not the way to land… that he couldn’t do… they had to do that the way they were told. No, it was that he could tell them from experience that it wasn’t going to be as frightening as they thought. He could tell them to keep their eyes inside the basket until it had risen to some height and then to watch for the beauty of the view, and that floating down would be the most wonderful thing they had experienced.
The jump instructor put the boys in different baskets and sent each of them out first. The ones in the basket heard their shouts of joy as they enjoyed the ride. The ones on the ground saw them waving. Everyone came that little bit closer to enjoying the day than they would have if they had been left to work on each other’s fear.
There were those who regretted the loss of crippling terror that sorted the men from the boys, but in general, officers and instructors agreed that having weeded out the weaklings at Jugend weekends, and having some recruits with basket experience made the whole thing easier. Despite the extra workload, the weekend camps for local Jugend were stepped up.
This was a period during which the men were clearly being prepared for something. What exactly that was, wasn’t yet clear. The atmosphere was similar to that before Eben Emael. But, where was the target? That was a subject of speculation in the messes. Europe was largely in German hands, or at the very least doing as it was told. The remaining enemy was Great Britain, or England as the Germans thought of it. Russia was neutralised by a treaty, perhaps that was why the Russian language was being studied so widely.
Languages were a major preoccupation, especially Russian, English and the languages of the eastern Mediterranean and North Africa. A close observation might have shown that an abnormally high number were working on English, Greek and Albanian. The answers were there if they looked in the right place and asked the right questions.
Gott was pretty sure that he had worked out the answer, but wisely kept his thoughts to himself. The answer was obviously hugely secret. Working it out for himself didn’t make it any less secret, or so he felt. The general would have been pleased with him.
There was a great deal of training. They worked to raise fitness and practised hand to hand, close-combat. It became clear that wherever they were going they were going to be on their own. They were not practising combined ops with artillery.
The major, encouraged by Harald, provided the equipment needed to rig up a webbing simulator for a select group of parachutists and recruits to practise the alternative of cutting themselves free of the rigging while lying on the ground. A few still thought that standing up to quickly shed the harness was more…dignified? disciplined? quicker? That small group didn’t include anyone who had jumped in the early days of the invasions in the Low Countries and Scandinavia.
As well as the time taken to escape from their parachute, there were two other problems that needed to be tackled. The first was that because they were expected to land in a heap it was considered too dangerous to have weapons strapped to their bodies when they hit the ground. Instead it was believed safer for them to land virtually unarmed and then wander about the battle-field looking for canisters of weapons that had been parachuted with them.
Gott was still saying “It shouldn’t be necessary to say how stupid that is!”
The other problem turned out to have an elegant solution. It just required good pilots, maybe great pilots. It also needed jump-masters in the planes who understood the need for extreme precision… and they had to practise, a lot of practise.
Conventionally, men jumped in a stream from the door of the plane, as close after one another as possible. The problem was that on the ground they were trained to fight in groups of three. But, three successive parachutists leaving the plane were a few seconds apart and at the speed of an aeroplane that placed them too far apart on landing for them to easily join forces.
The beautiful solution was to attack with planes in formations of three, flying as close together as possible.
Provided three men jumped simultaneously the chances of the three men landing near to one another was much better.
Although successive groups of three were still a long way apart along the track of the plane, each trio were close together across track.
Practise was needed, so practise they did, for nearly a year.
As to weapons, men took to tying weapons on a line, so that their gun landed just before the man did. It might not quite match the manual, but it seemed to make a great deal more sense.
As the months of winter and spring passed, the training involved larger and larger formations of hundreds of planes and thousands of men. If this was just training then it was expensive in men and materiel. If on the other hand it was a rehearsal, then it was for something big… something very big!
The new regiment had been formed in August 1940, at the height of the Battle of Britain. The Luftwaffe were attempting to break England’s RAF. They needed to clear the skies of the RAF’s Spitfires and Hurricanes, to make the way safe for the planned invasion of the British Isles
It was good that the men were busy and excited because 1940 would end in depression for the Luftwaffe.
There had been great excitement when Hermann Göring announced the air attack. An invasion of England must be imminent!
The Oranienburg base expected that this invasion too would be over in days, just as all the other blitzkrieg attacks had been.
The Luftwaffe would send bombers. The English would send up their limited supply of fighters. The fighters would be shot down by fighters flying with the bombers. Then when England had no air defences she would be bombed into surrender, while a vast invasion fleet landed somewhere on her southern shore.
Germany already had Europe. All the Luftwaffe had to do was defeat the RAF’s handful of fighter aircraft and England would go the same way everyone else had.
That was not how it went… Who was it said that no plan survives contact with the enemy?
News filtered back… They had under-estimated the English radar. German Intelligence had believed that because the RAF controlled their fighters from the ground it would leave the RAF defences inflexible, like railway engines waiting for signals and crossing-gates.
In fact what happened was that when the Luftwaffe sent tempting formations to bring out the RAF’s fighters, to destroy them, the RAF could use radar to tell the difference between genuine bomber formations and fighter-bomber traps. They simply avoided the traps and waited for the bombers.
The Luftwaffe had been so confident of their superiority on paper. They knew that the engines of English fighters cut out if they were forced to make a negative-g manoeuvre. The German fuel-injected engines, superior to the English carburettor fuelled engines, didn’t cut out. The RAF aircraft had only .303 machine guns compared with German 20mm cannon. The English planes were shooting with rifle bullets… German fighters had the firepower of a panzer.
The RAF’s Spitfires’ and Hurricanes’ only real advantage was that they had a much tighter turning circle. If they kept turning the German pilot must eventually lose.
So they kept on turning.
The real risk for them was if they blacked out during these turns… their brains starved of blood when it rushed into their legs. Would you believe, they even had a pilot who had lost both his legs in a crash! Without legs there was nowhere for the blood to go. He could turn even tighter! Douglas Bader was one of their best. He was so respected by both sides that when he lost his artificial legs while becoming a prisoner of war, the Luftwaffe permitted a “mercy” flight from England to drop a new pair of legs by parachute for him.
Of course, not everything depended on men and equipment. The RAF had other advantages.
Their pilots were often fighting only a few miles from their airfield… It was their airfields after all that were being attacked. German pilots were far from home, and only had limited fuel and time with which to attack. The defenders could go home for fuel and a cup of tea whenever it suited them. They fought largely over land that would greet them as friends. The Luftwaffe pilots flew over the Channel and hostile countryside.
It was soon clear that the key to the British success was their coastal radar stations. These were small targets that required extreme precision if they were to be bombed successfully. That precision had not been evident so far.
The major volunteered and then lobbied to send paratroopers on a one-way demolition mission. His offers were ignored. This was Hermann Göring’s fighters and bombers show… It was not going to be upstaged by paratroopers, even his own paratroopers.
The air war had started with coal! The English war-effort depended on coal and they were moving it by day in convoys of small ships.
Bombers were sent to sink them. The RAF had to send fighters up to protect them. The Luftwaffe sent fighters to shoot them down.
But… the Luftwaffe fighters were shot down faster than they could shoot down RAF planes.
By the middle of July the British worked out that their losses of pilots and planes didn’t justify the small number of ships that got through, and too many ships were still being sunk anyway.
The British had a simple and practical solution for that… they stopped sending coal by sea.
With no ships to attack, Germany now went after the RAF airfields and coastal radar defences. They needed the RAF fighters to continue to come out to fight. In many ways the targets mattered less than the number of RAF fighters and pilots killed defending them!
This second phase was called Adlerangriff, Eagle Attack!
Adlertag, Eagle-day, was the 13 August 1940.
The attack actually started on the day before, with raids on coastal radar stations. It then went on to bomb and strafe airfields.
Harald and the other officers held their breath. This attack no longer seemed likely to be over in days.
The attacks on the radar defences were by specialised units, trained for extreme precision bombing. But, they found that an aerial tower was a very small target, and very difficult to hit from the air. The few they hit were out of action for only six hours.
When Harald heard of the Luftwaffe’s problems with the radar towers, he went to see the major and made another recommendation for a paratroop attack with demolition charges. This time the refusal was brusque. He was told that it was better to show confidence in Göring’s strategy than to make suggestions that would be resented as well as ignored.
Bomber losses now increased to the point where the Luftwaffe’s fighters had to be diverted from sweeping the skies for RAF fighters. Instead, they were to protect the bombers. They had become the target rather than the weapon. Their losses mounted.
To reduce their losses, the Luftwaffe turned to night-bombing and the attacks on the radar stations ceased.
It had taken less than a week for Adlertag’s attack on fighters and radar to turn into an attack on factories. Another week after that and it seemed a war of attrition had been launched on British cities, albeit they were attempting to hit only industrial targets. Avoiding civilian targets was difficult and couldn’t last, an accident was bound to happen.
Eleven days in, some Heinkels deliberately or by accident dropped their bomb loads on London’s East End.
An enraged Churchill sent bombers to Berlin.
Total-war had come to Germany, to Berlin even!
Hitler sent total-war back.
Renewed efforts were made to bomb the airfields of south east England out of existence, but fighters didn’t need much of an airfield, just fuel and a strip of grass. They kept on coming up.
From radio traffic during dog-fights it was clear that the pilots weren’t just British. Some of the accents were hard to understand, there were Australians, New Zealanders, Canadians, South Africans, Rhodesians… even a Jew from Palestine! They weren’t even all speaking English… Many of the voices spoke in languages familiar to the German pilots. French, Belgian, Czech and Polish pilots were up there bent on taking revenge. The Poles were particularly deadly. Once the RAF’s high command accepted that the Poles weren’t there to do as they were told, they were there simply to kill as many Germans as possible, they let them loose… to kill as many Germans as they could.
By early September, Hitler’s desire for revenge for the bombing of Berlin meant that the Luftwaffe was bombing British cities that were well out of range of German fighter support. Now they were targeting the British civilian population. They were no longer targeting RAF fighters.
The battle for air supremacy in support of an invasion was over.
The RAF might not be able to prevent the bombing of civilians, but they had succeeded in preventing the invasion.
They had won the Battle of Britain.
On 17 September Harald heard that the invasion of England, and any role the Fallschirmjäger would have had in it, was postponed.
By December the invasion had been postponed indefinitely.
Now Hitler looked for somewhere else to invade.
With virtually all of Europe already under his control, he chose Crete, a large Greek Island that dominated the eastern Mediterranean and the approaches to the Black Sea and southern Russia.
The Battle of Britain had been the RAF’s “Finest Hour”.
Crete was to be the Fallschirmjägers’.
Like the RAF, their finest hour would be remembered for how few of them there were, how many died and how much the remaining few achieved.
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