Luftwaffe Fighter Air Wing Jagdgeschwader52
Somewhere on the Eastern Front
Ukraine Soviet Socialist Republic
The Ukrainian was a damned good fighter pilot. Lieutenant Ivan Stevchenko was one of a handful of Ukrainian aviators who had been recruited by the Nazis to fight for them as Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of Soviet Russia, gathered steam.
Stevchenko was by birth a Cossack. Ferocious fighters, the Cossacks were characterized by their fleece Astrakhan hats, knee-length riding boots, bushy mustaches and furry beards. They were known for dare devilry, besides expert horsemanship. But what set them apart from other citizens of the Soviet Union was their dislike of the Bolsheviks.
The folks that gave the famed British cavalry a hard time in Lord Tennyson’s slice of the Crimean War, ‘The charge of the light brigade’ were Cossacks. Tennyson made little mention of them in his famous poem but trust me, that day at Balaclava, in 1854, the British cavalry would have got what was coming to them, with or without that blundering Earl of Lucan’s command to charge into the ‘valley of death’.
Ever since the Crimean War, the Cossacks had been yearning for their own nation, having even chosen a name for it… Kozakya. When Operation Barbarossa began, the Cossacks fell for the notion that joining up with the Nazis would deliver them their homeland from the Soviets.
Fate however, dealt the Cossacks a crushing coup de grace instead. As Germany collapsed in 1945, Cossacks realized that being taken prisoner by the Soviets meant certain torture and execution as traitors. Over 100,000 Cossack fighters who had fought for the Germans, made a desperate dash for the American and British lines and surrendered to them.
The Cossack fighters however weren’t aware of the treaties that the Soviets and the Western Allies had already signed at Yalta, which made it mandatory for the west to deliver all ‘deserters’ and ‘traitors’ to the Soviets. And this the Americans and the British carried out faithfully, repatriating to the Russians all the Cossacks who had sought refuge, sending them to their slaughter under Stalin.
What’s more, before the hand-over, just so that the Cossacks wouldn’t try to flee should they get wind of their real destination, their Allied hosts made them believe that they were going to be given safe passage to settle in Canada and Australia. Instead, they died in their thousands in the Soviet Gulags.
Ivan Stevchenko’s life had taken a slightly different path than most of his Cossack brethren. He did not have any burning hatred toward the Soviets, maybe because he had fared comparatively well within the Soviet system. He was given the chance to join the prestigious Borisoglebsk Red Banner Flying School and pursue his passion – flying. In case you are wondering why he happened to be flying with the Germans, it was more than a twist of fate, maybe many twists and turns.
That morning, on being summoned, Lt. Stevchenko came up to Strassner on the double and stood stiffly with a staccato “Zu Befehl, Herr Oberst” with only a trace of an accent. The Oberst glanced up at him as he stood at attention. Ostvolken (German for ‘the eastern people’), even the officers like Stevchenko, were looked down upon by the German regulars, as inferior Slavics.
But this Ostvolker was different. This Ivan had already accumulated two Iron Crosses and one Ostvolk Medal First Class with Gold Ribbon in just the past one year that he had been with the Luftwaffe. Prior to this, when he was flying Yaks, Mig-3s and La-7s with the Soviet Air Force, he had downed nineteen Messershmitts and five Stukas and been awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union for his feat.
Let’s go back a bit. Stevchenko’s story was the classic heavy-handed, bull-in-the-china-store treatment that the Soviet Union meted out to its military officers. One night in the summer of 1942, after he had had one vodka too many at the officers’ mess, he had let loose on the pathetic state of unpreparedness of the Soviet Air Force and the lack of proper training.
Ivan Stevchenko’s words had barely left his vocal chords when he was overheard by one of those ubiquitous political commissars. He was hauled away to a summary court martial and sentenced to five years in a gulag in Kolyma in the Russian far-east, near the arctic circle. Imprisoning a Hero of the Soviet Union was a delicate matter but making an example was a big part of the Soviet leadership’s ethos at the time.
A day before he was going to board a Tu-9 that would take him half way, upto Irkutsk with three refuelling stops, Stevchenko was told that the charges could be dropped if he signed a letter of remorse, which he promptly did. It was a win-win proposition. They needed pilots desperately and for him, anything was better than being stuck in a joint where the average summertime temperature hovered around -18°C.
Lt. Stevchenko was back in business. He proceeded to slay Messershmitts, Ju-88s, Heinkels and Folk Wulfs with a vengeance, notching up those 24 Luftwaffe aircraft.
Until fate, in the form of a flak barrage, caught up with him one murky night over Minsk, in Nazi-occupied Belarus. He bailed out and was extremely fortunate to be found unconscious by Wehrmacht troops and not the Waffen SS or the Einsatzgruppen SS, or else he would surely have wound up in one of those Nazi labs as some high-altitude endurance experiment specimen, like some of his compatriots.
Hospitalized, he recovered and with a little bit of coaxing from his captors, he signed up to fly for them. He had been fortunate one more time and that was to be placed under a heck of a boss, Oberst Kurt Strassner, whom just about everybody in the base hero-worshipped. Strassner treated everybody the same, Ostvolk or no Ostvolk.
Strassner came straight to the point. “Lieutenant, take a look at this and tell me what it means”. He held out a sheet torn out of a diary. On it was an amateurish scrawl by his own hands, an attempt to draw the Russian words ‘белые розы’.
The Ukranian reached inside his tunic pocket, drew out a small notepad and a pencil, scribbled ‘белые розы’ swiftly and held it out for Strassner’s scrutiny. “Here,” he said,” is this exactly what you saw, Herr Oberst?”
Strassner glanced at the pad and nodded,” That’s it”.
Stevchenko did not take more than a second,” White rose, that’s what it says. White rose.” And then, sensing he was about to be dismissed, the Ukrainian hurriedly interjected, “It’s that Yak, isn’t it, Sir?” He was referring to the Russian single-engine fighter that had of late begun appearing out of nowhere and brazenly mowing down Messerschmitts, two at a time.
Strassner nodded again,” The bastard got Hans Rudel and there’s word that he got someone over at JG51 too, a Stuka, an ace with 16 kills. He got both the same day.” To this, Stevchenko made to say something but changed his mind and remained silent, ramrod stiff, waiting for Strassner to dismiss him.
But the Oberst wasn’t done yet. “Perhaps we are no longer playing with bumbling Soviet bears, Lieutenant. Maybe it’s time we started showing them some respect,” Strassner looked the Ukrainian in the eye,” There’s something you wished to add but changed your mind. What was it?”
The Cossack looked at his boots awkwardly for a moment and then looked up,” Maybe we ought to form a ‘wolf pack’ and give the hurensohn a bait to draw him out. And then, when we have him there all by himself, we blow him out of the sky.”
JoJo Strassner stared at the Ukrainian for a moment and nodded appreciatively,” Exactly my thoughts. Four rotten, two go after him while the other two make sure he doesn’t get help from his comrades. At ease, Leutnant, dismissed.” (A pair of Messerschmitts flying as a single unit was called a rotte, rotten in plural).
Strassner turned slowly and looked out the window over the hills to the west. A Heinkel He-111 was lumbering in. Despite the thick black smoke streaming from it’s starboard engine and it’s rudder shot to shreds, it was managing to hold steady as it swooped down majestically and disappeared from his line of vision. He waited and in a moment, he clearly heard the ‘poff! poff!’ of the tyres touching down as the large bomber settled it’s 20 ton weight on the tarmac and rolled on toward the end of the runway, out of sight. A posse of fire trucks sped by.
“White Rose…. weiße Rose…we shall have to nip you in the bud. The next time you show up, I’ll be waiting for you, White Rose.” The sneer from the scar above Oberst Kurt Strassner’s lips deepened into a snarl.
(to be continued…)