Editor’s note: This is part one of a two-part story on Germany’s kamikaze pilots. Check back next week for the second part of this story.
Were there kamikaze pilots in the German air force in World War II? Technically, no. But the Germans did have something similar.
In Japan, the kamikaze (literally “Wind of God” or “Divine Wind”) were planned suicide attacks by military aviators from the Empire of Japan beginning in October 1944. They piloted explosive-laden fighter aircraft or purpose-built, pilot-guided missiles against ground targets, primarily warships.
Kamikaze pilots were expected to die in their attacks. This was a last-ditch effort by Japan to protect its homeland during its rapidly declining industrial capacity and the advances of U.S. forces toward the Japanese home islands. It also reflected the lack of well-trained and experienced pilots. The concept carried on the deeply ingrained Japanese military tradition of death instead of defeat, capture or shame.
Japanese kamikaze attacks were marginally more effective than conventional attacks; about 14 percent of the total number of attacks successfully struck a ship, but the damage was often significant.
In Germany, also toward the end of the war, Sonderkommando Elbe was a Luftwaffe task force created to blunt or halt the wave of Allied bombers wreaking havoc on Germany for four to six weeks, long enough for them to produce enough of the advanced Me 262 jet fighters to regain air superiority.
Germany had managed to sustain a fair supply of piston powered fighter airplanes at that point in the war, but not a corresponding supply of well-trained pilots or fuel. The mission of Sonderkommando Elbe pilots, nicknamed “Rammjäger,” or ram hunters, was to ram their aircraft into Allied bombers, destroying them before they reached their targets, and shocking and demoralizing the remaining forces.
The difference between this and the kamikaze was that Elbe pilots were not on a suicide mission; they were expected to attempt to collide in a survivable manner and, after mortally wounding a bomber, bail out and return to fly another mission.
Although the chances of survival were questionable, it was not considered a suicide mission. There were 2,000 volunteers for the mission and 300 were selected, mostly young pilots with little or no combat experience.
This task force did see operational service, and there were reports of actual suicide runs at the close of the war, as will be discussed in next week’s KA.