Falling From Grace - The Story of a Stuka Pilot

Based on the poem: 'To a Stuka Pilot' by "Newkirk's Heroes"

"Kameraden, we're up in thirty," came the cry from the squadron leader, a first time flyer, just a young Leutnant from the Rhine.

Finally, the end to my boredom. Stuck here in the mud, taking in the "beauty" of the Russian frontier. I'd rather be in France. We, the squadron, have been out of a job for a while now, getting our "Junkers" half way across Russia to clash with some more of Stalin's boys.

The engineers took their time setting up the strip; we just got moved in a few days ago. Apparently, we'll be flying into some city down on that nasty little river they call the Volga. I've heard a lot of talk about how we could have easily avoided it, but "Uncle Joe" has got his name on it, so the big guy thinks we should take it. I guess that warrants us risking our necks.

"Herr Feldwebel," The new Gefreiter snaps to attention in front of me, he's my replacement gunner, already dressed and ready for the battle.

"There's no need for all that, I told you, I'm not an officer. Another thing, enough of this rank stuff, my name is Reinhardt."

"Jawohl, Herr Feldwebel," I didn't bother correcting him as I shook my head and turned towards our plane.

Recently scrubbed down, and benefiting from a fresh coat of paint, it was almost a shame to have to use it. The Ju- 87 "Stuka" Dive Bomber. Beautiful.

"Alright, this one is pretty simple. If we do everything right we shouldn't be gone long," The Lieutenant said, rocking back and forth on his jackboots, quite possibly in anticipation. "We shouldn't get any resistance, at most some small arms fire from the Commissars," A few of the pilots laughed, remembering the stories about the Soviet Political Officers' over-zealous antics. "All we're doing is taking out some of the transports moving across the river. They're mainly packed with troops; a few have some ammo and supplies. Any extra ordinance left after the run will be "delivered" to the dock complexes. Like I said, we do this thing right, we're back here by lunch. Questions?" None of us have any. "Alright then, to the planes."

We can see the city in the distance, endless columns of smoke billowing forth from massive gouts of flame. They seemed to be guiding us in. Even at my height I could hear the sounds of the battle, the artillery blasting away at some foreign point.

The first members of the squadron begin to gain some more altitude, the Volga now visible below us. I can see the small shapes, moving to and fro, from bank to bank.

"Squadron, commence attack," The lieutenant orders, his voice uncertain, unaware of what's to come.

The forward most planes bank to the right and drop drastically, pushing themselves into the lethal dive. The rest of us follow suit, advancing in order as the radios come to life, everyone marking their targets below.

I spot a slow-moving barge leaving the shore, its deck choked with Soviet infantrymen, packed shoulder to shoulder. My Stuka seems to voice its approval as it lurches into a dive, "screaming" as it drops drastically in altitude. I try my best to keep the plane on course, the nose pointing directly towards the ground. The barge begins to grow closer and closer, the shapes of the soldiers on board beginning to break and panic. My gunner says something, but I am concentrating too hard to hear him. We are practically on top of them by the time I hit the release, pulling back sharply, fighting against gravity itself. I wait for the recognition, seconds of silence seeming to last days. Then, impact, music to my ears. My gunner cheers with excitement, watching as the transport is completely devastated, and God-knows-how many lives are lost. I breathe a sigh of relief, happy that my skills have not been lost since the last sortie.

I level out the Stuka and manage to view the ensuing chaos. All around us are the signs of our personal victories. The massive forms of twisted metal and steel, being dragged into the murky water as the surface is set ablaze by oil fires. The Corporal in the Gunner's hatch fires off a few rounds, striking a transport that somehow survived the squadron's wrath.

The final Stukas completed their runs and joined the rest of us, flying low to avoid the minimal flak being fired to fend us off. We all took a short time to fully appreciate the damage we had caused. I couldn't help but smile; I love my job.

Night on the base. The clinking of beer steins and the drunken cheers of the squadron filled the barracks as the young pilots celebrated their success. I sat on my bunk, trying to write a letter to my family.

"What's that?" I asked my gunner as he walked past me, carrying a few sheets of paper.

"Status reports, everything the Infantry managed to accomplish today."

"And? Anything interesting?"

"No, not really...just more of the same old stuff," The Corporal shuffled through a few of the papers, pausing for a moment on a particular page.

"What?" I asked inquisitively.

"Some SS officers found something today...ten German prisoners...in a cellar," He scanned the page quickly. "They were all bound with their hands behind their backs...and mutilated...Christ, they were even castrated."

The Corporal put down the paper and dropped down onto his bunk across from mine.

"Soviet schweinhunde," I managed to blurt out.

The gunner nodded and kicked off his boots before quickly falling to sleep. I put down my letter and stopped for a moment, thinking for once how lucky I was to be in the air, away from all the hell the soldiers of the Reich had to go through. I thought of my mother, asking me why I wanted to get into a war I wasn't a part of, why I would want to leave my new country to go back to the very thing my family fled, why I would want to give up everything I had gained in America. There, sitting on my bunk, I realized why. I was doing it, so that no one else would have to. I was experiencing it, to make sure that no one would ever have to see the things that I have seen.

"Feldwebel, wake up, we have to go shortly," Whispered my gunner, rousing me from a short sleep.

"What is it?" I responded groggily.

"Soviet armor, advancing on our position, supported by infantry. The scout plane spotted them about half an hour ago."

I cursed loudly as I practically dragged myself out of bed, quickly putting on my flying gear. I could hold off on a shave until we got back.

"How long do you think this will take?" Asked the Gefreiter.

"No time at all, if this particular column is anything like the Bolshevik tankers we've taken on before, then they'll turn and run at the mere sight of us," I joked as I brushed back my matted blonde hair.

"Hopefully you're right," For the first time I realized the gunner must not be a day over seventeen.

Within ten minutes, the squadron was in the air, bearing down on the doomed Russian tankers.

"Adler 1 to Adler 2," The squadron leader broke the radio silence as he chimed in, referring to my plane. "I'll give you the first shot, approach the front of the column and destroy the lead tanks, we'll try to box them in."

"Jawohl!"

The tanks were in range, mostly T-34's, supported by some mechanized transports and conscripted Infantry. As I moved forward into the dive, I pulled back the firing switch for the MG-17s, sending scattered rounds towards the Infantry. The Stuka began its familiar "scream" as the ground became closer and closer. A few rounds from the enemy below ricocheted harmlessly off of the outer canopy, their efforts to bring the plane down rendered futile. Another switch, and the 551 lbs bomb fixed to the centerline was dropped. It struck its target, hitting the front of the tank and rocking the entire vehicle forward and partially into the air as it disappeared in a sea of smoke, flame, and debris.

All around me, the rest of the squadron did their part, not a single bomb missing its target. The remaining T-34s struggled to put themselves into reverse, desperately trying to retreat to safety. I began to fire the machine guns again, strafing small groups of infantry as they fled from the scene, dodging flaming debris and pieces of shrapnel.

"Ratas! 12 o'clock high!" Came a desperate cry from one of my wingman, just finishing up his run.

I could just barely make them out, several dark shapes dropping down from above us, their guns already beginning to fire. They were Rata J-15s, some of "Big Brother's" pathetic excuses for fighters. No match at all for a Messerschmitt, but deadly to the slower and less maneuverable Stukas.

"Adler 3 hit! I can't maintain..." My wingman was cut off as the Soviets shot him out of the sky.

The four Soviets made their way towards my plane, two of them breaking off to chase down some of the other pilots. The gunner in the back hatch began to fire, a desperate act if there ever was one, trying to shoot down a fighter plane with an MG-15.

"Feldwebel! They're too fast, I can't hit them!" He shouted over the drone of his gun.

"Calm down, take your time, make sure to lead them," I said, managing to turn my head quickly to catch a glimpse of the ominous shapes chasing after us.

Then, I experienced one of the worst moments of my life. Several rounds tore their way through the plane, shattering glass and instrument panels. One of them struck my shoulder, tearing its way clean through and spraying my canopy with my own blood. I clenched my teeth to hold back the pain as the gunner screamed in agony. He shouted, whimpered, and pleaded, begging for something to stop the pain. There was nothing I could do as he slowly died in the gunner's hatch, the Soviet fighters still chasing and firing. I managed to hold back the tears as best as I could, it was all too much for me.

Suddenly, one of the Ratas seemed to implode. Debris from the plane struck my own as it fell from the sky. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the most beautiful thing, a Messerschmitt-109 bearing down on the enemy. The black tulip design on its nose spun continuously as it flew directly at the enemy fighter directly behind me. I managed to watch as it grew closer and closer, firing a dozen rounds or so once it was just about to strike the Soviet plane. The enemy's canopy shattered, the Rata pitching from side to side before it dove to the ground. The German pilot continued on, mercilessly gunning down the last remaining enemy pilots in a matter of minutes. As quickly as he had come, he was gone.

We buried the Corporal that same day on a little hill that overlooked the airfield. He was one of the first casualties of the squadron's new campaign. I waited until the others had said their words and left, to pay my own personal respects. I un-clasped the 'Knight's Cross' from around my neck and fastened it to the boy's cross. He deserved it; he had done more for the Vaterland than I ever would.