In the spring of 1943 the Allies commenced the around-the-clock bombing campaign of the western parts of the III Reich.
After sundown streams of RAF bombers invaded the enemy airspace. In broad daylight they were replaced by tightly packed defensive boxes of American Flying Fortresses and Liberators. Germans scrambled every airworthy fighter aircraft in the Luftwaffe’s inventory in this part of Europe to challenge those raids. The most demanding task in the Defence of the Reich system fell upon the night fighter pilots, pressed into combat equally at night and at day. One of them was the young Lt. Dieter Schmidt-Barbo, who in September 1941 – at the age of 22 – was posted to 8./NJG 1, which at that time was stationed at Twente in the Netherlands.
Like many other young and enthusiastic night fighter pilots, upon his arrival at the unit he eagerly started the hazardous frontline service. Soon he realized that the Himmelbett (“four-poster bed”) system, in use at that time with the Luftwaffe, favoured the most experienced crews, which were assigned “more profitable” patrol zones. The Himmelbett system based on zones or ‘boxes’, marked on maps. Each zone was patrolled by a single fighter, waiting in the dark for his prey. Obviously, RAF bombers followed the same approach routes to their targets, across a limited number of the Himmelbett zones. Those ‘hunting grounds’ were manned by the most experienced night fighter crews, whose scores continued to mount. Meanwhile, the ‘youngsters’ had to contend themselves with marginal ‘boxes’, where a stray enemy bomber could rarely be chanced upon.
Such was the fate of Lt. Dieter Schmidt-Barbo who did not tally a single victory during a year and a half of his night fighter frontline service. Hoverer, this was to change on 4th March 1943, when unexpectedly his Staffel was scrambled at day to counter the incoming formation of Fortresses. Schmidt-Barbo recalled:
“At 1030 hrs I was still in bed when Werner Rapp (who on that day served as our liaison officer at the day fighter force HQ) called me with the following order: the Staffel at combat readiness!
I passed the news to Gustel Geiger, who responded: What a nonsense! We won’t even catch up with them, as usually.
– Whatever, you’ve got to get off the bed anyway!
Our commander, Hptm. Lütje, did not show up yet, so I called up Werner asking, if he had talked to him already. Werner was very excited: Yes, yes, I just talked to him. He didn’t turn up yet? The Americans will be over the airfield any minute now. Twenty bombers! I’ll get back to you later!
So, off we go! I rode my motorbike to our aircraft. On the way I met Hptm. Lütje, who was completing crews for the mission. He himself slept in the command post quarters. Our aircraft was ready for action. The groundcrew bustled around it. I called Werner again from the operations room to ask if we were supposed to climb aboard our machines.
– Of course, for Christ’s sake, where on earth are you anyway? How much longer will you hang around? How many crews are ready?
– Good, get on now!
That day I was to fly the Bf 110G-4 “Kurfürst-Siegfried”. To my left, where the CO’s machine was parked, I heard the roar of the engines revved up. A moment I saw the signal “start the engines”. When I pressed the starters, one thought rumbled around in my head: Keep your fingers crossed and hope that malicious gnomes did not spoil anything! Both engines roared to life. The commander was already taxiing out in front of me. I quickly rolled in trail. Becker was still in the hangar and couldn’t see the remaining machines. Chaos reigned on the field. In front of us an aircraft from the 9. Staffel was taking off. Behind him, two machines from the 7. Staffel barred each other’s way. Another aircraft from the 9. Staffel showed up; clouds of dust billowed up, the situation seemed to slip out of control. At that moment the commander’s aircraft rushed forward. Should I follow him closely? I lingered for too long and by now all I could see ahead was swirling dirt, kicked up by the CO’s manoeuvring machine. I took the risk to move on and quickly teamed up with him in the air. Only two of us got airborne, Heinzelmann mucked about for to long on the ground and was to join us later.
We were slowly climbing up. Our headsets filled with loud static, which died away after a while, whereupon we heard a clear voice of a ground controller, directing us towards the enemy.
I did not pay much attention to the radio communication. After all, it was meant for our commander. Suddenly the CO rocked the wings of his machine and slowed down. Something must have happened! I looked around but didn’t see anything of interest. We kept the north-east course, gradually loosing speed. In the distance, The Zuider Zee bay already came into sight. Suddenly, a voice ran in my ears: This is Karin 1, confirmed. We have them in sight!
I asked Schönfeld: Is Karin the code of our flight?
– But I can’t see anything!
– Neither can I!