Dornier Do 17/Do 215

The farther we flew on the southerly course, the lighter the sky grew. Solid overcast gave way to broken clouds, and in the breaks we could see stretches of land merrily illuminated by the sunrays. We enjoyed the bucolic scenes below: meadows with large flocks of wild geese grazing on them, peasants toiling in the fields, and dark patches of woodland veiled in mists. From time to time we caught a glimpse of hamlets, their cottages with thatched roofs blurring into the surrounding countryside. We spotted the Kovel railway station, clogged with trains, then passed over Równe and Sarny. Directly behind Sarny lay the Rokitna marshes – a grey, soggy wasteland mottled with white-trunked birches and pools of water. Lying prone, I marked all our findings on the map. Just then the pilot leaned to me and shouted to my ear: “Fighters on our tail!” Simultaneously, the machine gun manned by our radio operator began to clatter. I clambered back to my station and looked behind. Indeed, three Polish PZL 24 fighters boring in on us!1 With their slim fuselages and short, stubby wings they looked very much like agitated hornets. One of them closed the distance to some 400 meters and fired its guns. Strings of white tracers groped towards us. Then the sickening noise of bullets tearing into our machine… and again… time after time. Splinters swished inside the crew compartment. Maiwald, our radio operator, curled up. A stray bullet had torn one of his trouser legs, nicked his calf and embedded itself in the cockpit roof.
One more burst of gunfire found its mark… This time our control surfaces were hit. So this was the real baptism of fire! What a nasty feeling – three against one, and we were just a hapless, hard-working ‘bee’ on a reconnaissance mission! If only we could turn around and return fire… But our task was to reconnoiter at all costs, not to fight.

dornier 2

Maiwald kept shooting back, whilst Kieler directed our machine into a cumulus cloud, which glided majestically across the blue sky like a white ark. We plunged inside, changed course several times, and popped out on the other side of the cloud. Almost instantly hard, metallic cracks reverberated in the cockpit. One of the Poles had tagged onto our tail and was spraying us with bullets. He was a mere 200 meters away. I felt a surge of fury overcome me. I went towards the rear, pushed Mailwald aside, and grabbed his machine gun. In the meantime Kieler accelerated into a dive, racing for the cloud layer billowing to the north of us. The Polish fighter fell behind and after a few tense moments we were again enveloped by clouds.
Half an hour had passed before we emerged into the clear. We were alone. We took up a north – north-west heading, straight towards our home base. On the way we spotted a freight train moving along the Warsaw-Białystok line. With the adrenaline still pumping through our veins from the recent scrap with fighters, we did not hesitate for long. For only a brief moment did the recollection of Hptm. Kerber’s stern words pass through my mind: ‘Avoid combat at all costs. Delivering the results of your reconnaissance run is of the utmost importance’. But now it was too late. We were racing down, and taking aim at the locomotive. Our forward-pointing gun ripped out a short burst and a geyser of steam shot up from the punctured boiler. The train slowly ground to a halt. We veered around and rushed back, going flat out ‘on the deck’. We were in fact flying so low that I could see treetops bowing under the pressure of our slipstream. We made a second firing pass at the locomotive. Ahead, there was a seemingly endless column of box cars. Several people, apparently brakemen, fled in panic across the fields and away from the train. At the head of the train one man, the engine driver, could be seen. A small, black figure, aiming a rifle at us.
Again our slugs thudded into the bulky, shiny boiler. Suddenly I heard a cracking noise behind my back. Turning around, I saw a hole in my observer’s seat, left by a bullet that had gone right through it to stick in the cockpit roof. The guy with the rifle was a sharp shooter, and a lucky one, too. Had I been in my seat, that bullet would have killed me. One more pass. Incredibly, the guy was still there, standing fast in his bluish, sooty overalls. With the butt of his rifle pressed to his shoulder, he drew a bead on us. For a moment a felt a sense of respect for this tough, selfless man, who dared to duel with our overwhelming firepower. However, his locomotive was already knocked out for good. As we pulled up, it was standing there, like a mortally wounded animal, its boiler bleeding off steam from numerous punctures.
At noon we landed at our airfield. We had been in the air for six hours and ten minutes. Our comrades came running up to greet us and tightly circled our machine. They counted nine bullet holes in the aircraft. We jumped to the ground in high spirits. Everybody asked questions and cheered as if we had returned from the dead. Only the officer responsible for our onboard photographic equipment remained calm. “I hope you bunch of heroes didn’t let my camera get shot to pieces?” he said wryly.2

Design and Development