Luftwaffe Fighter Air Wing Jagdgeschwader52
Somewhere on the Eastern Front
Ukraine Soviet Socialist Republic
If you were looking for a poster boy for Nazi ideology, outwardly Oberst Kurt Strassner would certainly fit the bill. Crew cut flaxen hair, piercing blue eyes, thin lips twisted perpetually in a sneer, crowned by a sharp nose, tilted up at the tip, smoke curling out of the nostrils from the ever present cigarette.
The sneer did not originate from any dark sense of superiority. Far from it. It was from a belly landing on a training sortie at the academy at Bad Aibling. The landing gear of his Folke-Wulf had failed to deploy. The canopy had shattered from the jolt on the fuselage and a sliver of the Perspex had embedded itself in his right cheek next to his upper lip, leaving a permanent reminder of how fragile a fighter pilot’s life can be.
JoJo, as Strassner was fondly known by his kamarads, had humble beginnings, born to a simple priest and a plump school teacher whom the priest had grown up with in Konigsberg, Prussia. His father was a pious man who missed his only son so much, ever since the war had dragged him away three years back. The old man tried to make up for it by sending him postcards with pearls of wisdom, almost every week, words that were meant to remind him about his place in the universe.
JoJo especially appreciated one such postcard that the pastor had sent to his rookie pilot son on the day of his graduation from the academy. He had taped the postcard below the instrument panel in his Messerschmitt, to glance at when he could take his eyes off the tree tops swishing by below at 250 knots. The postcard read – Wahre Stärke liegt nicht in arroganz, sondern in Demut (Real strength lies not in arrogance, but in humility).
Possessing a postcard with words about humility and standing it up on the instrument panel in Nazi Germany could get a regular Luftwaffe pilot severely reprimanded, maybe even thrown inside one of their stalag lufts for a bit of disciplining. But this was Oberst Kurt Strassner – Ritterkreuz des Eisernen Kreuzes mit Goldenem Eichenlaub, Schwertern und Brillianten.
Translated into English, the decoration was a medal – Knight’s Cross with Golden Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds, Nazi Germany’s highest military honor. This medal, along with the promotion, had been pinned on by the hands of the Fuhrer himself, at a ceremony inside the Reich Chancellery, with the heads of all the branches of the German military and security services present. Oberstleutnant Kurt Strassner became the youngest man in the history of the Third Reich to reach the rank of Oberst.
The medal was essentially a Teutonic cross in black, bordered by gold, the four ends of the cross flared. Curved 18ct gold sprigs of oak leaves, encrusted with 58 tiny diamonds, enclosed the cross on either side and a black gold Swastika adorned the middle of the cross. The ribbon that attached the medal with a clasp at the end, was made of fine gold embroidered silk and had tiny twin lightning flashes along either border and a black band running through the middle. It was worn round the neck, tight enough for the cross to nestle just below the adam’s apple.
By the time the last howitzer fell silent on the western front in 1945, there would be altogether 27 Germans honored with the Knights Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds and just one who won it with golden oak leaves, Oberst Kurt Strassner. At the time he won the award, the ace was just 25 and his rank and honor came long before the tide of the war turned against the Nazis, well before the high command began the practice of desperately awarding medals and promotions in order to shore up morale.
The first thing that Strassner did upon returning to base, from the medal ceremony, was to walk up to his mechanic, Gert, and shake his hand and thank him for maintaining his Me109 in perfect shape all these years. Without Gert by his side, he would not only have not got to where he was but would probably be dead by now. Gert, who believed that Herr Oberst was a living God, was beside himself at this thoughtful recognition.
Added to all these people skills was the fact that Kurt Strassner was a heck of a fighter pilot. He didn’t fly planes. He wore them on him like his uniform. His arteries and tendons extended into all the control surfaces of his beloved Me109, call sign: Cobra, with a cobra painted on, it’s head reared back to strike, on both sides just below his canopy. His heart pumped a supercharged positive power of will, direct into the Messerschmitt’s 1450hp Daimler-Benz V12 engine, urging it on to greater speeds and steeper climbs. JoJo and his Cobra were one, a single bolt of lightning. The Soviet fighter pilots, no mean badasses themselves, made immediate preparations to flee a dogfight when they spotted the familiar cobra in the wolf-pack of Me109s that bore down on them.
By the end of Christmas, 1942, Strassner had notched up 223 confirmed kills, putting him way ahead of any other fighter pilot in history, Allied or Axis. The Fuhrer called him by his first name and repeatedly sought him out and asked after his welfare. Postcard on his dashboard? Why, JoJo Strasser could get away with almost anything if he so desired. He didn’t, of course. He took his father’s dictum very very seriously, taking care to blend in and spend time with Sepp, Dieter and the rest of the guys when they were shooting nothing other than just the breeze.
None of the guys, including Kurt himself, believed in all the Nazi mumbo-jumbo about racial superiority. They loathed the black-uniformed, jack-booted goons who strutted around with twin lightning flashes on their epaulets, feeling proud of scaring defenseless civilian populations in the occupied cities of Ukraine. They occupied their minds on flying and over the past three years of the war, they had learned not to take the Soviets for granted, even though their machines and their flying skills were considered generally of inferior quality.
Kurt and the boys spent most of their days in the skies over the ravaged towns in western Ukraine, the air inky in broad daylight from all the cordite, maneuvering around inside a compact airspace not more than a few city blocks in size, relentlessly pursuing the Yak-1s that were escorting Il-2 Shturmoviks, shooting the Il-2s out of the sky before they could release their bomb load.
Kurt cannot pinpoint the exact date it all began. His tryst with destiny, that is. Must have been around the late September of 1942, the day that Sepp returned with 20mm rounds in his abdomen, his right knee shattered, a good portion of his right hip missing too. He died later in the night, in the base hospital.
The death of a trusted colleague is something any military man could come to terms with after three years of intense conflict. Kurt was at the infirmary by Sepp’s bedside in the moments before he breathed his last. The grip on his wrist had tightened perceptibly, urging Kurt to bend over and place his ear close to Sepp’s lips.
Straining to lift his head off the pillow, Sepp Gunther whispered, “Vorsicht vor der…weißen.. blume, Herr Oberst, der blume… der weißen blume.. ” and then fell back immediately with a tortured wheeze. Gradually he released his grip on Kurts wrist, eyes turning opaque, staring sightlessly up. Kurt didn’t think twice of what Gunther had said. Delirium was known to make people hallucinate.
Until one week later, when the Oberst had his first brush with what he only later came to realize, was Sepp Gunther’s ‘weißen blume’.
There were four Me109s that day and they were assigned to a ‘free hunt’. A free hunt was when a fighter just nosed around looking for enemy, without a specific target or mission. Kurt Strassner and Dieter Bayern formed a Rotte (Eagle-1) and so did Wolfgang and Hans-Ulrich (Eagle-2). The two Rotten made up what the Germans termed as a Schwarm. Four fighters, in two pairs.
Eagle-2 was at a 2 o’clock position, so Strassner had them in his sight whenever he flicked a glance through the corner of his eye. Suddenly a huge bank of clouds appeared straight ahead of Eagle-2.
A typical Messershmitt schwarm
Due to their proximity to each other, Eagle-2 decided to fly straight through the cloud and join up with Eagle-1 at the other end. Strassner and Bayern in Eagle-1 kept on for what seemed like eternity, till they were finally past the cloud bank. Eagle-2 hadn’t emerged. They made a tight circle and came back in for a second look. Still no Eagle-2 in sight. It was as if they had never existed.
By now the schwarm had been in the air for quite a while and were running dangerously low on fuel. Strassner wiggled his wings to signal that it was time to head home. The two Messerschmitts did a tight banking turn and headed for base, dropping to below the cloud ceiling for visibility.
As the two aircraft emerged from the haze, they noticed that they had company. The grey fuselage of a lone Yak-1 glinted against a brilliant setting sun as it sped eastward. For about 15 seconds, the Yak kept pace with them, not even 50 metres to the right. It made no effort to flee, almost as if it was daring the Me109s to make the first move.
The three fighters flew on that way, the two Me109s, black darts bunched up together, as if seeking comfort in each other’s company and the lone Yak, a grey wraith, almost haughty in it’s solitude.
After a while, as if convinced that the Germans didn’t have the balls for a dogfight, the Yak waggled it’s wings saucily, banked sharply and disappeared into a low lying cloud bank, heading east. Given the fuel situation, Eagle-1 decided not to give chase. The wreckages of the Eagle-2 team Rotte were never located.
Strassner had encountered many a Yak, some in fact up so close he could have read their call signs quite clearly, had he known how to read Russian. Something made the German ace take a closer look at this one.
On it’s side, just below the canopy of the Soviet fighter, were two words, clearly legible in dark grey, nestled inside what seemed to Strassner like a white rose or maybe carnation in full bloom that stood out against the dull grey fuselage – Belyye Rozy
(to be continued…)