Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Duel under the Stars - The Story of Wilhelm Johnen

Wilhelm "Wim" Johnen was born on 9 October 1921 in Homberg, near Duisburg. As soon as he turned 18 Johnen joined the Luftwaffe, already sporting a glider pilot license. Accepted as an officer cadet, the future-Experte began his training at Pardubitz (Czechoslovakia), with Fliegerausbildungsregiment 32. After infantry training  - a common feature for the early war training programms - Johnen spent several months practising on single-engined trainers, and qualified for his license on 21 September 1940. He was subsequently sent to Zeltweg, where C-Schule prepared pilots for operations on twin-engined aircrafts; there he flew He 111s and Do 17s and even Ju-52s. He then received Zerstorer training, finally graduating as a Leutnant.
On 18 May 1941 Johnen volounteered for the Nachtjagd; many Zerstorer pilots joined the newly-formed branch of the Luftwaffe, aware of the fact that the Bf-110 was at that time totally outclassed by single-engined fighters and unsuited for daylight operations. After six intense weeks of night fighting training, Johnen was transferred to 3./NJG 1, together with his gunner Gefreiter Albrecht Risop.
The pair flew his first operational mission on 11 July 1941 during which they intercepted a Wellington: Johnen positioned for the attack, but a moment before pulling the trigger, the bomber turned sharply to its right and disappeared. For that night, Johnen it was all they could see;i n his very first mission, Johnen had been showed with all the difficulties of night operations. The first victory came 8 months later, when on 28 March 1942 Johnen and Risop downed a Wellington west of Wesel. The bomber is thought to be Wellington X3589 KO-F from No. 115 Squadron.
A few minutes after their succesfull interception, Johnen sighted a four-engined aircraft; Gefreiter Risop was surprised:

"We've never seen that kind of bomber".

Gefreiter Risop's graveyard
It was infact one of the firsts Short Stirlings intercepted over Germany. The four-engined bomber was slow and had a poor ceiling perfomance, but had something the Wellington had not: a ventral gunner. Johnen positioned his Bf-110 for a beam attack, slowed down levelling his speed to the bomber's. At the very same moment he pulled the trigger, the Stirling's gunner did the same hitting the aircraft's cockpit and engines; Gefreiter Risop died instantly, Johnen fought desperatly to extricate himself from the burning Messerschmitt without success; already convinced he was going to die, Johnen was uncosciouscly expelled from the cockpit without realizing how it could have happen, opened his parachute and landed in a grass field. He passed out and woke up at the hospital, with a badly burned leg.

In early December 1942, 3./ NJG 1 was re-designated 5./NJG 5 and transferred to north-eastern Germany. In this geographical area RAF raids were rare, therefore the Staffel flew only a small number of mission and interceted few bombers. In May of 1943, the unit eventually relocated to the Ruhr area, and on the night of 21/22 Johnen scored his third and fourth kills, almost a year after the second one, downing a Wellington and a Halifax which took part in Bomber Command's raid on Krefeld. Three nights later, on the 25th, Johnen shot down a Halifax for his fifth confirmed victory, and was subsequently promoted to Oberleutnant on the first day of July. From that point Johnen started to score steadily, downing a Stirling and a Halifax on 24 August, and his first Lancaster on 1 September.

In November, Bomber Command's AOC Arthur "Bomber" Harris launched a prolonged series of night raids against the Reich's capital, in what is now famous as the "Air Battle of Berlin". Harris' belief was that this campaign would have cost Germany the war, however the whole matter was a costly failure for the Bomber Command, which lost 1,047 bombers and over 7,000 aircrew from November 1943-March 1944.
Johnen's Bf-110 G-4 at Dubendorf
Oberleutenant Johned shot down 7 Lancasters in January, 3 of which on the 27th, followed by other three on 15 February, elevating his score to 18. This series of successes led to his promotion as Staffelkapitan of 6./NJG 5, and in early April 1944 his unit moved to Eastern France, close to the Ruhr region. On 28 April Johnen downed at 01.31 a Lancaster, part of a force of 322 heavy bombers sent to bomb Friedrichshafen. Continuing his patrol Johnen attacked a second four-engined bomber but was hit by return fire on his port engine. While attacking the bomber, he had strayed over the Swiss border; illuminated by searchllights and with his aircraft badly damaged Johnen was forced to land at the nearest available airfield, which turned out to be Zurich-Dubendorf.
Johnen and his crew - Oberfeldwebel Mahle and Leutnant Kamprath - were interned by Swiss authorities. The damaged nightfighter was equipped with a SN-2 "Naxos" radar set and "Schrage Musik" guns; the Germans were deeply worried about leaving a sophisticatedly equipped nightfighter in the hands of a foreign government, even if it was a neutral one. The Bf-110 was blown up three days later: some sources claim it was destroyed by Gestapo's secret agents, while others suggest it was destroyed under German supervision in exchange for 18 Bf-109 G-6 delivered to the Swiss at a favourable price. Johnen and his crew were repatriated less than a week later.
In the meantime, the crewmen's families had been arrested, since it was at first believed that the three had defected; with their comeback, their families were luckily released and the incident covered up.
Johnen aircraft's tail

In May, II./NJG 5 was redesignted III./NJG 6, with Johnen in charge of 8. Staffel. The unit moved to the Austro-Hungarian border, with the task of defending Budapest and Wien from allied bombers operating from Italian bases. In the span of three months, Johnen downed 14 enemy bombers - 7 Halifaxes, 4 Mitchells and 3 Wellingtons.
With his score now standing at 33, Johnen was promoted Hautpmann and awarded the Knight's Cross on 29 October. Despite his personal honours, the situation for Luftwaffe units in the area was dangerous: the Red Army was rapidly advancing through Hungary and Reich's Southern borders were threatened; the Gruppe was therefore forced to relocate within German territory, around Munich. Johnen was nominated Gruppenkommandeur of III./NJG 6 on February and on 15/16 March scored his last kill, shooting down a Lancaster over Wurzburg.
Johnen's Gruppe surrendered to American forces on 30 April, after having destroyed all his serviceable Messerschmitts. After a brief captivity, Johnen settled to Munich and attended university, achieving a engineering degree in construction. He worked for Willi Messerschmitt for a short time, and then started his own company. He also wrote his biography, "Duel under the Stars", one of the first English-written books about the Luftwaffe. Wilhelm Johnen died on 7 February 2002 at Uberlingen, at the age of 81.

Awards : Ehrenpokal (20 March 1943)
                Deutsches Kreuz in Gold (23 July 1944)
                Ritterkreuz (29 October 1944)

1 comment:

  1. In aufrichtiger Dankbarkeit für die Opfer, die die deutsche Tag- und Nachtjagd gebracht haben! Sie sind nicht vergessen.