Even if they failed to contact the enemy, every one of their sorties amounted to a brush with death. There were many dangers for Luftwaffe night fighters to contend with;
hazardous weather conditions, fog rolling out of nowhere, machine-gun fire from the British bombers, enemy night fighters at work over German airfields and simple fatigue could all lead to tragedy. One of the men who survived all of this was Ofw. Kurt Bundrock. Born on 2 February 1917 in Berlin, Bundrock flew as Bordfunker (radio operator) with NJG 1 ace Hptm. Reinhold Knacke (44 night victories). He recalled his experiences:
“..I’d be more than happy to tell you what a typical “Dunkle Nachtjagd” mission looked like before we had on-board radar. We were guided by ground radar over the radio to the general area of the enemy and given information about his altitude and heading. At that point we had to depend solely on our eyes and were at the mercy of visibility and the whims of the enemy pilot. There were times when the first thing we saw were his exhaust flames, while the enormous silhouette of the plane was all but invisible.
“Our exhausts were shielded by long flame dampers and were visible only from a position directly behind us. The English, even with flame shields, emitted flames that could on occasion be visible from 100-150 meters.
Turbulence was a good sign that the enemy was near. When our machine began to shake and lurch, we knew that we were behind him and the pilot would release the gun safety and keep his thumb on the trigger, ready to unleash a salvo from our four machine guns and two cannon at any moment.
“There he is! Three o’clock, three hundred meters!”
Initially we noticed a slight silhouette in the night sky, and then, as we moved in, a more defined outline. Knacke flew his closing approach, keeping some 50 meters below the English plane because it was easier to make out the outline against the sky than the horizon, where it blended in.
The bomber flew in a rocking motion and because of this we were unable to make out the type. At the same time we knew we had to watch out for a tail gunner, a dorsal gunner or both. Once we were certain, we could decide on the appropriate tactics.
In the meantime the pilot’s voice came over the headset – «Short Stirling, Pauke, Pauke!» And ground control would reply – «Viktor, good luck!» Knacke began climbing and positioned himself underneath and to the side of the huge machine. The difference in size between the two planes was like that between a small sports car and a tractor-trailer. When we were 50 meters from the Stirling we started to follow his maneuvers and closed in to 30 meters.
“I hope his bombs don’t go off when you hit him, sir,” I said through the throat-mike. Knacke replied calmly, “I’m going to go for the left wing.” That was reassuring because if the bomber exploded it would take us with it.
The Leutnant lifted the nose so fast that it seemed as if something was pushing our tail down. At the same time a long burst ripped from our machine guns and tore into the left wing between the fuselage and engine where the fuel tanks were. We had gotten dangerously close and Knacke allowed the plane to drop to the right and brought us out of the dive after we had gotten a safe distance from the Stirling.
We saw some embers and sparks and a trail of lightly colored smoke, but there were no flames. The Stirling started to dive to evade us, but we followed it down. At the same time the tail gunner opened up on us and the bomb bay doors opened as the pilot jettisoned his bomb load.
From a slightly higher altitude Knacke loosed off bursts at the right wing, allowing the bullets to tear into the fuselage. The tail gunner was constantly correcting his aim, and when we fired he could see us better. We had the advantage of speed though, and we quickly veered from his starboard to port side and went below his line of sight. The Stirling began to burn, and pieces started to come off, swept along by the slipstream. We circled around at a constant altitude and watched as the bomber plunged earthwards. At the point of impact there was an enormous explosion.
I made a note of the time, wrote a detailed report of the conditions and based on information from ground control I made an estimate as to the wreck’s location. Ground control asked if we had seen any parachutes. We replied in the negative.
But it wasn’t always that easy. On average a night fighter had to mount two or three attacks. Often during the second or third attack we would take hits ourselves, which made us stand out from the other crews. Knacke was young, (b. 1919) very courageous but not crazy or foolhardy. In spite of that, he tended to get too close to the enemy. I think he was afraid that he would miss, since I noticed more than once that he wasn’t a very good shot and he had trouble aiming at a moving target.
I remember one such occasion when ground control at Würzburg-Riese on Sylt island guided us over the North Sea between Sylt and Heligoland onto a twin engine Whitley bomber. Knacke made his first attack from below and from the side. The only effect was a few defensive maneuvers and a series of tracers from the tail gunner.