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The US Air Raid on Schweinfurt: a WW II Memory

Tuesday, August 17, 1943 is a hot day. We are working away in papa’s machine shop; that is dad, apprentice Fritz, great grand father Schobert, apprentice Heinrich, forced laborer Rochus from Slovenia and my humble self. The machines are humming and we are almost happy. All of a sudden hydro blacks out and now we hear the air raid siren on the town hall wailing.  In no time, the shop is closed and everybody leaves for the closest bomb shelter, except Heinrich and I. We decide to go swimming. So we head for the Steinswehr, a weir in our Aisch River for powering the turbine in the Obermühle, a flourmill about one kilometer downstream. Riding our bikes, it takes us just five minutes to arrive at the popular site. Only men come here for swimming; for women and kids the Damenbad is assigned, about 200 meters downstream from here. In the Steinswehr one cannot stand, one has to be a swimmer.

The weather is perfect: 25 centigrade with the sun beaming down from a perfectly blue sky in the Southwest. Heinrich and I start swimming upstream from the wooden stair on the lower end of the site. After about 250  meters we arrive at the “Tümpel”, a particularly deep spot where we preferably exercise diving. Quite exhausted, we start our return to the stair, swimming on our backs and stare up to the sky. All of a sudden a fire ball, orange and red, is falling down from high up in the Northwest  leaving a black cloud in the blue sky, apparently right behind the hamlet of Diebach. We are scared and wondering what is going on?

Still, before we arrive at the stair and get out of the water, another one is coming down. These are to be plunging aircraft, we think. Something like that we have never seen before in reality, only in movies. As more and more of these glaring lights are coming down it dawns on us, that we are watching a unique drama: a grand scale air raid and–battle in broad daylight! Now we can see the bombers too: little glittering starlets flying in formations almost like flocks of geese and criss-crossing in between them smaller, dark dots, our fighters. And again plunging fiery infernos, altogether about 25 to 30. And, of course, while counting, we are celebrating everyone as a “Sieg” of the Luftwaffe, not even thinking for a moment, that our fighter planes are getting shot down as well.

And soon the spectacle is over only to start again a short while later as a second wave of bombers has arrived and fades away in northerly direction. And only now we realize that we have not heard a single thud or sound normally generated with explosions. So, this giant spectacle must have taken place farer away than Hambühl or Scheinfeld in the Northwest. We speculate about the possible target but without a conclusion.

Later, after having heard the all-clear signal, we head for home. Mama welcomes us with a reprehending sermon about our “unreasonably stupid” behavior, while Rochus listens in and is preparing for his  scoffing remark with a malicious grin: “Jetzt wird heissen Eier Dicker Meyer” (Now, your fat one will be called Meyer). He played on an assurance given by our Reichsmarschall Herman Göring, commander of the Luftwaffe, that never ever will an enemy aircraft cross the borders of the Reich, or he will be named Meyer.

Mama gesticulates towards Rochus, that he should keep his mouth shut while Papa pretends to have heard nothing by glancing up to the ceiling. Both of them don’t want to lose him for he has grown a member of the family; and he is by far the best cabinet maker in dad’s employ. Uncle Paul, my dad’s beloved brother, on leaf from the front in Russia where he drives a Sturmgeschütz, a piece of armored artillery, not storming anymore but in retreat, is visiting us and may not want to hear such “sacrilege”.

Our mood is dampened as we listen to the Großdeutsche Rundfunk, the main radio station of the Third Reich and we learn: first severe, strategic daylight  US air raid on the city of Schweinfurt (the center of the German roller bearings industry). Many 100 “flying fortresses” had successfully broken through the defense of the Luftwaffe, notwithstanding the heroic fight of our brave fighter pilots, who shot down 140 “terror” bombers while we lost about 40 fighter planes, most of them Me 109 (already kind of outdated). The ratio of 140-to-40 is celebrated by the report as a great victory of the Luftwaffe. This report got immediately trumped  by a propaganda announcement that these US bomber fleets, manned by gone wild cowboys and Chicago gangsters, will find their catastrophic doom should they ever dare again. Just wait for the Führer’s secret weapons, he will soon pull from out of his sleeves. Rochus keeps up his grin and all the others around the radio set keep an embarrassed silence. Later on we learn via the German language news on BBC, that the allies had lost 70 bombers whereas the Luftwaffe lost 300 fighters, with the numbers not confirmed yet by the Royal air force.

In hindsight, I think, that most of the gunners in the bombers participated in such a raid for the first time and were very nervous, excited and unexperienced. So whenever they saw a German fighter tumbling down they booked it on their account. In fairness to the BBC, they corrected the picture a day or two later, when the counting was done: 165 US bombers and some protection fighters lost over Belgium, versus 42 German fightey; very close to what our own report had stated. Yet, the Americans did not repeat grand style day light raids before D – day in July 1944, since then they could afford massive protection by fighter planes based on airstrips in France. The loss ratio in terms of airmen was even more hurting, since each bomber had a crew of ten guys, whereas the German fighters were single seat craft. If you Google this air battle you will learn the following details: 147 bombers downed or destroyed “beyond repair”, 95 damaged but escaped to airfields in North Africa. The Luftwaffe lost 42 fighters.

One year later the situation looked much worse for Germany. The US force was able to provide fighter protection from air fields in the Normandy, reaching deep into German airspace. Approaching the bombers was made impossible by a fighter ration of 10 to one. On top of it we had almost no trained pilots anymore, not to talk about fuel and ammunition. Many of our cities were already flattened and the moral for fighting was almost gone. To man the few remaining fighter craft, now including the superior Me 265, the first jet fighter in the world,the Luftwaffe engaged pilot trainers and Hitler Youth with glider experience, after giving them a two weeks crash course on the jets. Most of them crashed before any enemy contact. The desperation was just overwhelming.

On February 22. 1945 Tante Babett and I were on our way home from a sawmill near Gutenstetten, trudging along our yoke of cows who were pulling a wagon filled with fir boards. We had just arrived at the “Judensäcker” (Jewish graveyard) when we heard the sirens wailing: another air raid alarm. We did not care anymore since the alarm was on almost all the time. But once in a while my curiosity got the upper hand and I glanced up in the blue sky. Soon I discovered a  host of bombers glittering in the sun North of us, flying from West to East. No fighters around, no fireballs tumbling down; the Luftwaffe had seized to exist. Arrived at home we learned on the radio, that we had witnessed a grand scale raid on the city of Bamberg, we deemed totally senseless, because Bamberg had no strategic value whatsoever.

But I am ahead of my time; we still have August 17. 1944. Next day, on our way from our machine shop home for lunch, Heinrich and I passed the Market Square where a group of five captured US airmen were guarded by Herr Kraft, chief of our town police and a team of Hitler Youth, one of them, gangling Emil L. wielding a revolver was jumping around like crazy. The Americans showed no emotions; they looked tired and exhausted. To us they did not look like criminals, rather very much as our young guys, except for the different uniforms. Heinrich remarked: “they are humans too; I do hope Emil does not go wild!” I too was in fear for these “gangsters”, and we were glad tosee MP of the Wehrmacht arrive in a convoy  of Kübelwagen and take care of the prisoners of war.

Rumor had it that one of the damaged bombers managed an emergency landing near Schwarzenberg and its crew was captured by Hitler Youth camped in that castle where an Academy for Nazi cadres was accommodated.

This is excerpted from Hans-Armin Ohlmann’s memoir.   

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