Today, there are only a few examples of intact Bf 110s still in existence, and there are not many people left who sat under its canopy. Fortunately, we were able to sit down with someone who spent most of the war with this aircraft. “Luther Haarte” flew the first half of the war as a radio operator/gunner, seeing firsthand the Blitz over England – and later fought in Russia. After being wounded twice in Russia, he was grounded. He served as a ground-based radio operator for a Luftwaffe forward air control unit in when he was sent back to Russia. (Writer’s note: The subject’s name has been changed at his request. While he wanted to share the experiences of a typical German airman in World War II, the subject preferred to remain anonymous. No other details have been changed.)
His story, which began with his descriptions of the early campaign against Poland through the Battle of Britain and will be told here over the course of three installments, is a first-person account of the aircraft and what it meant to be in military campaigns that suffered setback after setback due to poor planning, inadequate logistical support, and a seriously over-extended military.
Where did your unit go after the Blitz?
Luther Haarte: First, when the Blitz stopped, we heard rumors that we were going to occupy Switzerland, and units were moved down to the Swiss border. And then we were supposed to hit Switzerland and occupy it, like we did with any other country.
But then suddenly in the spring we were moved away from France (because we were not doing anything down there) and then we were moved suddenly to Poland – very suddenly. And in Poland, we were maybe 20 or 10 miles from the Russian border. The Russians had occupied Poland from the other side, and we were on the west. Poland was divided in half, and we didn’t know where we were going to move then.
The rumors we got and heard were that we were going to move through Russia, because we were peaceful with Russia. We were going to move through Russia to Iran – to occupy Iran and get the British out of it. That was the rumor. We were with Russia. And then one day, bingo, the next day we were in Russia. We were told that the Russians were trying to attack us. That’s what the Germans were told, which was a lie, because when we went into Russia, there weren’t any troops, very little.
The airports, they were empty. They had armies, but they were not attacking armies. They were just occupying armies, and the whole thing was a lie.
Well, we went only up to Moscow. The Russians were running, running and running. We were leaving them behind us, whole armies were left behind us. But then the winter came and we were in front of Moscow. The first German troops, they were outside of Moscow where the trolley cars end – that is as far as they got.
What Russian planes were you flying against?
The Rata [German nickname for the I-16 made by Polikarpov] – that was an old wood and canvas plane. It was very slow, but it was very flexible. It was hard to catch them because they could turn around on a dime. Later on, [the Russians] developed better fighter planes and they got American fighters. That’s when it became more difficult, but we stayed in Russia.
The third group of our ZG26 was up near Norway, north of the Arctic Circle, to fight convoys, and they were very successful. That group was actually under naval command. In 1942 or 1943, they were moved back to us in Russia, and we shared an airfield with them. We thought those guys had all gone nuts because they didn’t say “yes” anymore. They all said “aye-aye.”
But at this time, most of the 110s were fighting in Russia. The ones that stayed to fight over Germany were mostly night fighters. They could fit a lot of radar equipment in the nose and the cockpit of the airplane.
The Bf 110 had another weapon. It had rockets, right?
Yes, we could carry about 72 missiles under the wings, 36 under each wing. They were packed in tightly, and when you fired them, they all went off at the same time. And when you shot them, they didn’t go straight, they went all over the place.
Sometimes they even went off by themselves on the ground.
We used them a lot in Russia, against everything from ground troops to trains. I had a chance to see up close what they did, and it was terrible. After that, I hated when they pushed that button.
I wasn’t there, but I talked to some guys who flew the 110 against the first American bombers over Germany. They said that the Americans flew so close together that once you shot your rockets into the formation you had a good chance of hitting something; then the bombers would start colliding into each other. That didn’t last very long, because the American bombers quickly spread out their formations.
After that, the 110 wasn’t effective against bombers in the daytime. Our planes couldn’t get close enough to them [without being shot down].
Was the 110 be a stable aircraft if it was flying with only one of its engines?
Yes, it could still fly.
Not really. Twice, we had to do emergency landings. Both times it was because one engine was shot, and the other one was sputtering. Some other types of planes would tend to flip over on belly landings. But you could make safe belly landings with the 110 as long as you could find a nice flat field, and that’s all Russia was at that time – fields. Unfortunately, that always seemed to happen behind enemy lines. Then we would have to find our way back to our side. That’s how I got injured one time.