My order reads: ‘Reconnoitre area of Brest-Litovsk – Równe – Sarny – Bielsk, with the emphasis on airfields and railway traffic’. This was to be the first reconnaissance mission behind enemy lines our Staffel was asked to perform.
As we were getting ready, the other crews gathered around us. The day dawned murky, and the hills surrounding Allenstein (Olsztyn) were shrouded by a veil of grey haze.
“If I were you, I would stick to the railway line”, said Junghaus. “You won’t get lost.”
“Well, I’d take along a phrase book, just in case”, advised Niebelschütz. “There are few road signs in Poland, though you could always ask people working in the fields which way to go.”
“Or a policeman!” laughed Klimmer.
Poor chaps! Surely their witty remarks were tainted with envy.
“We’ll do fine, gentlemen”, I assured them. “When we get back, I’ll be counting on you to help me interpret the photos.” As our engines revved up the din drowned the hubbub of their excited voices. I tightened my parachute harness and climbed aboard the aircraft. My crew, Uffz. Kieler and Maiwald, were already inside. I turned around, waved farewell to our comrades and shouted: “I’ll bring you some postcards!” Then the wheel chocks were pulled away and our machine surged forward across the field.
We orbited over the airfield and then began to climb ever higher, finally disappearing into the solid overcast clouds, which extended south as far as the eye could see. We broke clear of the clouds at 1,200 meters, and pressed on with the crystal clear, blue dome overhead. Once at 3,000 meters, we turned south, towards the border. We carefully timed our approach. Twenty minutes later we were supposed to cross the border. It was a thrilling sensation. Down below, hidden under the layer of billowing clouds – which now, illuminated by the sun, resembled a frozen lake surface – lay enemy country. Like a seabed infested with hostile, dangerous creatures. It was time to have a look around. I motioned to the pilot. Kieler nodded in reply and down we went, submerging in the clouds. As we broke clear, I saw flat countryside spreading ahead of us. It was tinged dark brown, with patches of violet, where the heather bloomed. A wide, winding river, and a bridge in the distance.
“That’s the Bug river!” yelled Kieler.
We were flying at 800 meters. I saw flashes below, next to the bridge. Bright, red balls were heading our way. They drifted slowly through the air; I had no problem tracking their advance. They looked like a string of red mice, each with a long, fiery tail – Polish anti-aircraft batteries had opened up!
I could see we were being bracketed. Those red balls were getting too close for comfort. I pointed my finger skywards. Kieler pulled up the nose of our machine and we ducked into the clouds, continuing on instruments.
So this was our baptism of fire. In fact, quite anticlimactic. I had expected it to be much more dramatic. We flew on, suspended in the opaque, milky void. One could barely see the palm of an extended hand. We had to rely exclusively on the readings of our instruments: artificial horizon, turn and bank indicator, and the clock. If our timing was right, we were over Brest-Litovsk. Again we dropped below the cloud deck. Indeed, I could recognize the distinctive, angled contours of the Brest fortress – a grey-coloured patch, clearly outlined against a brown background. We had ventured too far out to the east and now we had to turn west to take photos of an airfield.
Directly below us, the Bug river leisurely wound its way. I could see sandy shallows under the surface of the clear water. Forlorn and distant, they made me think of the moon’s landscape. Suddenly… red bursts of anti-aircraft shells… At least three Flak cannons were taking pot shots at us. I motioned my hand to direct Kieler’s attention to the nearby airfield. However, he made a far too wide an orbit, perhaps due to a strong head wind, and we strayed to one side of the airfield. In order to take good photographs we had to line up the target and follow a straight course for several hundred meters. “Man, you can do better than that!” I exclaimed.
Finally on our third pass we got it right. The aerodrome was dead ahead. In the meantime, the number of Flak bursts had increased alarmingly. The shells zoomed up, reached the highest point of their trajectory, exploded in a fiery flash and cascaded down. Most of them went off below, but some burst on either side or ahead of us. This time I had a splendid view of the airfield. As soon as I took the photos, we gunned the engines and, dodging the Flak, sped off to the south. Curiously, not a single shell fragment hit us, and no fighter scrambled to intercept us.