German kamikaze pilots in World War II?

by Andy Rhude
U.S. Air Forces in Europe Warrior Preparation Center exercise planner

As was discussed last week, Germany did recruit pilots for a kamikaze-like mission toward the end of World War II in the Sonderkommando Elbe Luftwaffe task force. The aircraft used was the ubiquitous Bf 109. It was a stripped down version with armor and all guns removed except one that was loaded with only 60 rounds of ammo.

This allowed the aircraft to climb rapidly, get above the bomber formations and their fighter escorts, and attack with speed. The targeted part of the bomber (and the most survivable by the attacking pilot) was the delicate tail section, with the wing behind the engine nacelles and the cockpit the backup points of impact. The only mission flown by the Sonderkommando Elbe was on April 7, 1945. As a massive force of 1,300 American bombers and 800 escort fighters with the 8th AF headed toward central Germany, 180 ELBE Bf 109s launched to intercept them.

The most visible and famous encounter during this attack was that of Uffz Heinrich Rosner against the lead formation of 389th Bomb Group “Sky Scorpions” (with 31 B-24 Liberators, the most produced four-engine heavy bomber of World War II).

He managed to fly his 109 through the entire formation, slice through the cockpit of the lead B-24 “Palace of Dallas” and then careen into the deputy lead B-24, taking them both out (the 389th completed its mission successfully despite this loss). Amazingly, Rosner bailed out and survived with minor injuries. A total of 15 Allied bombers were attacked this way and eight were destroyed.

Luftwaffe records claim that at least 22 to 24 American bombers were victims of the Sonderkommando Elbe. An estimated 47 to 53 Elbe aircraft were shot down that day by escorting American fighters, with the death of 30 to 40 Elbe pilots. Sixty of the 180 Bf 109s launched that day returned with mechanical problems. The rammings were played down by American authorities and had little effect on the bombing campaign.

Prior to this effort, in 1944 there was a precedent set by the Luftwaffe to use ramming tactics against bombers. This Sturm-Jagdgruppe used heavily armed (30 mm cannons) and armored Fw 190s, nicknamed “Sturmbock,” or battering ram. This tactic though was only used as a last resort if they were unable to destroy their targeted bomber with cannon fire.  The tactic was effective, but the heavily laden fighters proved vulnerable to escorting American fighters.

Additionally, there was a unit more similar to the true Kamikaze. As Germany began losing the war, fanatical Nazi officers like Hanna Reitsch proposed attacks using suicide pilots. These proposed attacks, which had roots in German mythology, took advantage of the fanatical Nazi spirit and were glorified by Nazi propaganda. Hitler was reluctant but eventually agreed and the Leonidas Squadron was formed, formally known as 5th Staffel of Kampfgeschwander 200.

This unit was formed to fly a manned version of the V-1 flying bomb, the Fieseler Fi 103R (Reichenberg), and more than 70 volunteers, mostly young pilot recruits, began training to fly.  Although likely to be killed, the pilot was still expected to attempt to bail out at the last second and survive.

The position of the cockpit directly in front of the intake of the pulsejet engine made this a dubious proposition. The KG 200 commander and his superiors thought this tactic a waste of life and resources so the Reichenberg was never used in combat. They instead used a Mistel (German for mistletoe) guided bomb, where a converted Ju 88 bomber airframe with explosive-laden nose was remotely guided to its target from a fighter that was joined to its top prior to release. These proved generally ineffective though.

Finally, from April 17 to 20 during the Battle for Berlin, it is reported that as a last ditch effort, pilots from the 5th Staffel used any aircraft that were available to destroy bridges with suicide attacks to thwart the advancing Soviets. Their effectiveness is debated by historians and generally considered a high price to pay for a temporary delay to the Soviets.