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Luftwaffe: Last Flight to Evacuate Entrapped Troops in Courland

A senior air warrior, graduate from the Staff College, and a PG in military studies. He is qualified to write on war and allied matters

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luftewaffe-last-flight-to-evacuate-entrapped-troops-in-courland

Background

On 30 April 1945, Adolf Hitler committed suicide in his bunker. That was the time when the red Army had entered Berlin and streetfighting was on. In his will, Hitler appointed Grand Admiral Karl Donitz as the president. Donitz took charge but he knew that the days of the Reich were over and he was ready to sign the unconditional surrender as demanded by the Allies.

On 7 May 1945, the rump of the Nazi government headed by Donitz agreed to sign the surrender. The surrender ceremony was conducted at Reims in France and on behalf of Germany Colonel General Alfred Jodl and Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel signed. The surrender was effective from 11 AM on 8 May 1945. To appease the Soviets another surrender ceremony took place in Berlin on 9 May 1945 but fighting continued even after that date as the orders reached the troops a bit late.

A bigger problem for the Germans at that time was that almost 200,000 German troops were bottled up in the Courland peninsula in Eastern Europe. A majority of the troops did not want to surrender to the Red Army which had surrounded them and was pounding them with heavy artillery and air attacks. There was no escape route for the German troops which was surrounded by the Red Army.

As President of Germany, Grand Admiral Donitz held a meeting on 8 May 45 and it was decided that a last-ditch effort should be made to rescue as many soldiers as possible from the Courland peninsula to prevent them from falling into Soviet hands.

The order was passed to cobble together any number of aircraft to fly into the Peninsula and rescue the soldiers and the wounded. This was the last action of the Luftwaffe but it was a relative failure.

As a man who has spent a fair amount of time in the air force, I have reached the conclusion that the Luftwaffe pilots were good but they were done in by the top brass and political leadership which never developed the strategic bomber and the long-range aircraft.

Army Group Courland

The Courland peninsula was an area that was part of Latvia in Eastern Europe. It had been occupied by the German Army in 1941. From 9 March 1944, the Red Army began to roll the Germans back. Army Group North was cut off from the rest of the German force. It was renamed Army Group Courland and was bottled up in the Peninsula. The Red Army had surrounded the pocket.

Colonel-General Guderian requested Hitler to withdraw the German force from Courland for the defence of the homeland. Hitler refused thinking that in case the German force remains in the peninsula it will tie down the Soviet forces. Though he relented and eight divisions were withdrawn yet his assessment proved wrong. The Red Army had enough troops for the assault on Berlin. On 8 May 1945, there were 27 German divisions in the Courland Peninsula.

The German divisions were not keen to surrender to the Soviets because that would have meant long captivity and certain death. This was inevitable as the Germans had allowed 3 million Russians, soldiers, to die in captivity. The German army was keen to surrender to the Americans and British in the hope of a better deal or even flee to a neutral country.

Donitz was aware of the problem and he had already ordered the evacuation of civilians from the Baltic states. Before VE day the German navy was able to remove 800,000 civilians and 350,000 soldiers back to Germany. The operation had been given the name ' Operation Hannibal.'

With the Allies having given the final ultimatum for unconditional surrender, the stage was set for one last operation by the Luftwaffe. The Luftwaffe cobbled together as many aircraft as possible from all over occupied areas including Norway to rescue as many soldiers as possible from Courland. The operation lasted till 9 May 1945. After that day no further operations could be carried out as per the terms of surrender.


The last flight

In the first lot, 35 JU- 52 and four HE-111 aircraft were cobbled together for the mission. The JU 52 also known as the 'iron man' was well known to the Allies. It had taken part in the bombing of England during the Battle of Britain. The JU- 52 was also used as the main transport plane of the Luftwaffe and was used to drop paratroopers. The HE-111 had been used in the Spanish Civil War as well as the Battle of Britain. It was now pressed for the rescue effort. All the aircraft which flew were unarmed and unescorted as per the terms of the surrender. Each of the aircraft could bring between 30 and 35 soldiers, many of whom were wounded and would not have survived the rigors of imprisonment in Russia.

There were some other planes also used and one of them was the JU- 88. This was a faster aircraft than the JU- 52. All the planes reached the designated airfields without mishap and there was a scramble to get into the planes and escape westwards so as not to fall into the hands of the Red Army. It was supposed to be a one-way ticket to freedom

It was however a very dangerous trip and more than 100 Yak fighters of the Soviet Air Force were patrolling the area over the Baltic Sea and the Courland Peninsula. The JU 52 and the HE1 111 were sitting ducks for the Soviet fighters and out of the 35 Junkers 52, 33 were shot down and all the HE111 were also sent to the grave. It was a massacre. Only two JU 52 reached Germany and that was basically because of the flying skill of the pilots who flew the plane just 60 feet above the sea and evaded the Soviet fighters. The JU 88 fared better because of their faster speed and almost all of them could make it to Germany.

Other planes of the Luftwaffe in the east which did not want to surrender to the Soviets took off and landed in neutral Sweden. A few of the German seaplanes were able to rescue soldiers and take them across to Sweden. Army Group Courland began negotiations for surrender on the 9th and surrendered on the 13th. The pocket was cleared by the 23rd of May and almost 190,000 German soldiers including 42 generals were fed into the Soviet Labour camps. Those who survived were sent back to Germany by mid-1955

Last word

In hindsight, the war on the eastern front was marked by extreme barbarity on the part of the Germans. This was the reason they were apprehensive of falling into the hands of the red Army because they feared they would get the same treatment. There was a mad rush to try and surrender to the Americans and the British. As an aviator, I can say that overall the performance of the Luftwaffe during World War II was extremely poor. Even in Stalingrad, the empty boast of Goering that he could supply the army turned out to be a big zero.

The problem was that the top leadership of the German armed forces was land oriented and they had never read the works of Gullio Douhet and the concept of the air war was alien to them. Their failure to create a favourable air situation for their army led to their defeat. The operation in Courland was a brave effort but in hindsight, it was just that- a brave effort with nothing to show as an achievement.

Comments

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on August 30, 2020:

Thank you, Greaney, I guess its all part of the game

Sp Greaney from Ireland on August 30, 2020:

Wow this is tragic. I supposed we shouldn't feel sorry for the german soldiers as they were just as bad. But after that rescue attempt you kinda feel like things should have turned out better. But as you mention lack of knowledge in this area was their downfall. A very interesting read.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on August 24, 2020:

Pamela, sweet of you to spare time and comment.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on August 24, 2020:

After all the people Adolf Hitler had slaudered the fact that he committed suicide is rather pathetic. As an aviator you have such a good understanding of the various aircraft and the problems encountered throughout history. i always enjoy your articles. This is a very well-written, interesting article, as always

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on August 23, 2020:

Flourish, thank you so much for sparing time and commenting. It's always a pleasure to read your opinion.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on August 23, 2020:

Jeremiah, so nice of you to have commented. I look forward to greater interaction with you.

FlourishAnyway from USA on August 23, 2020:

This was an excellent read and the fact that you are an experienced aviator with an opinion on the subject adds to the article.

JEREMIAH MWANIKI KILUNDA from Nairobi on August 23, 2020:

So Adolf Hitler committed suicide? I never knew. Thanks for informing me. A very good and detailed article.