A much respected friend of mine, with an illustrious career in the Luftwaffe behind him, first mentioned the exploits of Walter Nowotny, his Luftwaffe comrade.
It is yet another lesson to remind us of the untapped strengths most people possess, without their being tested or being aware of it, unless faced with challenges that will test us to our limits.
As a young choir boy there was nothing to distinguish the young Walter yet he was destined to become top gun in aerial combat. It has been conceded that the Luftwaffe’s fighters were commonly piloted by airmen heroic for their outstanding bravery and kill ability. Set against such background Walter Nowotny’s short career as a fighter pilot ace was quite remarkable.
He was born December 7, 1920 in Gmuend. This is a typical town nestling in the foothills of Lower Austria within walking distance from what was then Czechoslovakia. One can only wonder at the career that might have been chosen by the youngster had the war not been declared or generous peace terms agreed as proposed by Hitler in 1940.
Nowotny graduated from a higher vocational school with honours after an excellent start in life as a choir boy at Zwettle Abbey. He was nineteen-years old when the stunned German nation awoke to hearing on their radios the British and French declarations of war on September 3, 1939. Their country had after all simply been defending its borders and repelling Polish incursions. In doing so they were following the Napoleonic maxim; ‘he who hits first hits twice.’ At that stage, mission accomplished, the war could satisfactorily have been over and Europe again might settle into its gentle and cultured ways.
As did many young men in all the combatant nations the young Walter volunteered to serve his country and opted for service in the Luftwaffe. By the time he reached his twentieth birthday he had been flying for two months. As a fighter pilot he was 19 months later posted to Jagdgeschwaer on the Eastern Front to join the ‘Grunherz’ JG54 Group.
Within weeks he had downed his first Russian J 18. Things didn’t always go the young fighter pilot’s way. On his 24th mission he was shot down and ended up in the Bay of Riga. There is nothing tropical about the Baltic Sea at any time of the year and for three days Nowotny clung to life in a small dinghy. On one occasion he was very nearly rammed by a Soviet torpedo boat. Eventually he drifted ashore where he was saved by a Lithuanian fisherman.
It was a kindly deed that would be repaid many times over. Lithuania, like neighbouring Estonia and Latvia; Poland too, was to be later handed over to Stalin’s slave empire by Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Revenge needs to be supped with a long spoon; the best revenge is to act first and deny the enemy his victories. From there on the twenty-one year old pilot was destined to become a highly decorated hero fighter pilot of the Third Reich. One had to be pretty special to become the cream of the Luftwaffe’s formidable gladiators of the skies.
As a person there was nothing that separated Nowotny from his airmen friends. He was in fact a typical fun loving young man; humble in his outlook, dismissive of his victories. There was an easy-going self-confidence about him. Stationed in Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital, he was thoroughly enjoying his war and celebrating his 250th downing of an enemy plane when on October 19, 1943 he was called to the telephone. At the other end of the line was Adolf Hitler to add to the congratulations. The German leader awarded the young flier with the Knight’s Cross with diamonds; an honour for which only seven other officers earned as tribute.
My friend, Willi (Wilhem Ludwig Kreissmann) describes the conditions in which they fought over the north Baltic Sea. ‘On June 19, 1943 a Russian anti-aircraft shell exploded at the plastic cupola of my He111 A! +BR-3rd squadron KG 53; we were high in the skies above the bridge head of Wolhoffstroj. The shell killed my wireless operator Eugen Merz. It ripped a large hole in the fuselage and damaged my aircraft’s rudder.
I received the order to drop my bombs and shear away from the group. Right away FW 190 fighter planes of the ‘Gruenherz’ wing. First Lieutenant Nowotny`s group was on my wing’s side. As so often the ‘Gruenherzler’ of JG 54 around Trautloft, Philipp and Nowotny were controlling the skies above Leningrad around the Ladoga Lake and all the way to the Illmen Lake.’
Willi adds: ‘By the time I flew my first missions on September 1942 as a bomber pilot, Walter Nowotny had cleared the skies of Russian Yaks and the U.S. manufactured Curtis aircraft of the elite Statlin squadron.’
After his 56th aerial victory, Walter Nowotny, in September 1942, received his Ritterkreuz (Knight’s Cross and a year later following his 191th victory the rare and coveted Oak Leaves Award. He says, ‘we were used to success in the skies defending Europe from Stalin’s hordes.’ Of special mention is when our group was engaged in aerial combat in which Nowotny shot down ten Russian fighters on a single day. When his kills reached 220 the fuehrer awarded my comrade in arms perhaps Germany’s highest honour.
It was on the fuehrer’s orders that Walter Nowotny was stood down; to leave his fighting wing. Nowotny’s notoriety was drawing flak. This was putting other fliers in danger. There was a price on the young fighter pilot’s head.
Soon afterwards a call came from Major General Galland, who was still general of the Jagflieder and now leading a new German fighter unit. Nowotny was ordered to Berlin – Rechlin. By early 1944 the Messerschmitt aircraft factories had the twin-engine jet propelled fighter ME 262 coming off the production lines. Walter Nowotny was chosen to create Germany’s first jet fighter squadron. It was touch and go at the time; there were disappointments but by autumn 1944 the squadron downed 4 MOTS, Mosquitoes and Mustangs. Unknown to the fuehrer Nowotny made his first kills and he successfully asked Reichsmarschall Herman Goering to lift the grounding order.
At the latter part of 1944 Nowotny’s 262 fighter group was located at Achmer in the north-west corner of Germany. The selection of the location was prudent for it commanded the main routes of the allied air armadas as they swept through on their way to incinerate German cities and towns.
On November 8, 1944 Major General Galland called on Walter Nowotny, after receiving news of a massive incoming attack. Wave after wave of American bombers was on their way. The group’s Messerschmitt force took to the air as Nowotny followed their progress from the Command Post. He was at his post when he received the disturbing news that two of his fighter pilots had been shot down.
Leaving his post he was in the air with his own jet fighter within minutes. Soon afterwards, in the thick of air battle, he had downed a Liberator and a Mustang fighter when his crackling radio carried a message from a fellow airborne fighter pilot telling him there were flames erupting from his aircraft. The plane, now disabled, spiralled towards the ground as Nowotny opened the canopy and bailed out. Tragically the parachute lines were tangled in the falling aircraft’s rudder and both fighter jet and pilot met their end. It was November 8, 1944.
The German nation mourned their loss and the young pilot was laid to rest with honours in a special lot in Vienna’s Central Cemetery.
During the Soviet occupation of Vienna, invited to occupy the stricken Austrian capital by the British and American leadership, Walter Nowotny’s grave was desecrated. Later restored it became a subject controversy when the city council refused to maintain it.
The tail of this story does have a happy ending. I hear from Vienna that Walter Nowotny’s last resting place is in the Group of Honour Graves at the Zentrafriedhof. The City Council denies having refused maintenance of the hero pilot’s grave. Since 2003 this special place has been well cared for and on special anniversaries his memory is told in the many wreaths and flowers that adorn the place where he now sleeps; perhaps dreaming of soaring high in the skies and denying the rape of Europe to so many of its invaders.
Biographic Detail: Walter Nowotny was credited with 442 flying missions and 258 victories in aerial combat. Of these 255 were on the Eastern Front and 3 whilst flying the world’s first jet fighters, the Messerschmitt Me 262. He achieved most of his victories in the Focke-Wulf Fw 190 and approximately 50 in the Messerschmitt Bf 109.
His achievements earned him the coveted Ritterkreuz mit Eichenlaub, Schwerten und Brillanten (Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds). After his death, Jagdgeschwader 7, the first operational jet fighter wing in history, was renamed Nowotny in his honour.