My new friend, P-51 Pilot Burt Newmark, told me about a friend he had who flew for the Luftwaffe during WWII so after some looking, I found Wilhelm Kriessmann. Willi is a super great guy and was very nice to let me interview him. He showed us his log book with all his flights in it from his first flight on May 16th 1939 before the war started until the end of the war. He showed us his photo album with lots of photos from boot camp and we saw his first class and second class Iron Crosses and his other medals.
“On April 1st 1938, boot camp was over and I went to flight school. My first flight was sometime in early May, in the Focke-Wulf 44 Stieglitz. It was a school plane, a double-winged single seater. It was very exciting. We had at least half a dozen people and airplanes for the initial schooling, AB school, they called it. I finished the so-called AB flight school in October 1939. Then I was sent down to the next school, C-school. All the way from Bavaria, where we started out, up to the Baltic Sea. That was a severe winter, it was like Siberia and there we started primarily with Junkers Ju-52’s, the Dornier Do-11, and the Heinkel He-111, but primarily the Junkers. We did cross-country navigation, night flights, and instrument flying. By June I was transferred in to the next step of my pilot career, which is bomber school, for 2 months. That was still farther east, after the war of Poland was over. Then I got gunner and bombardier training. We trained for two months. From there I went to Konigsberg, East Prussia, to what they called “blind flying school” for instrument training at the Lufthansa flying school there. The teachers we had were Lufthansa pilots. Even though it was already war, they still had their civilian Lufthansa flying hats and coats. By early September, I was transferred to a reserve unit of a bomber wing who were getting ready and exercising in a big hangar hall in West Germany for missions over England. I had my whole crew there and we were waiting, by then it was the 8th of September, 1940, and the Battle of Britain was practically over. So we had lots of crewman, but not enough planes. We trained in Heinkel He-111’s and Dornier Do-17’s.”
But still no action!
“I was transferred to Berlin to fly target for the anti aircraft batteries, what they called ‘Target Flying’ with the plane only, or sometimes a sack behind the plane being towed, but not actual shooting. I also did night flying for the searchlight men to practice on. We knew Berlin from the inside out, or at least from the air. I didn’t like it, so we pushed for going out to action, and getting decorations, and stuff like that. I was 21 then. I got assigned to fly the staff of the Supreme Command of Air Defense in Central Europe, Germany, Denmark, and Holland. I was stationed outside Berlin at Doeberitz and our airfield was at the former Olympic village. Our quarters were in the Olympic Stadium. I flew the Fieseler Fi-156 Storch. We took off from the meadows in front of the headquarters. We also had a Messerschmitt Bf-108 Taifun, a Siebel 104, a Junkers Ju-52, and a Heinkel He-111. We crisscrossed Europe to Denmark, Holland, Paris, and even West Germany, all with staff officers. I was the pilot who took them wherever they needed to go. The first air attacks on Western Germany had started so all the staff officers were there checking out the damage there. We went all over.”
“I had an exciting life in Berlin. At that time it was still very cultural with the opera. Never in my life had I seen and heard so many plays, so many symphonies, and so many things. I even saw the final soccer championship in Berlin in 1941. The bombing of Berlin hadn’t started yet. That started in Easter of 1941. That was the first bombing raid and it damaged the state opera.”
“Then finally I got my missions. I was transferred in April 1942 to a bombing group for practicing and training. It was then, in September 1942, I was transferred to Eastern Russia. It was there I had my 93 missions. Primarily it was not strategic bombing; it was 90% support of the fighting troops. We were just flying artillery. Only a few missions were really strategic which was unusual for a Heinkel 111 because we had to go down in low attacks, surprise, strafe 30 feet above the ground, and drop timed release bombs. I escaped with very close calls a few times. Sometimes I came home with only 1 engine. I was very lucky. I was shot down by Yaks very close to my last mission. It was in the summer during the battle of Kursk, ‘Operation Citadel.’ My bombardier didn’t release the bombs properly, so we flew out of formation to make another pass, which was when the Yaks came. There were four of them, and they shot up my airplane and left engine. We didn’t want to jump because we were too close to the battlefield, so we belly landed with a burning engine in a wheat field. It was like a cushion, because the wheat was so tall. We were able to jump out, but the people in the tail section got a little burned on the shoulders, however the observer and I were okay. We were hiding in the tall wheat and we heard a tank coming. We thought ‘Oh, oh.’ But then we saw the black cross and knew it was a German tank. Four days later I flew my last mission.”
Willi's Heinkel 111 burning in the wheat field after being shot down
“I lost my radio operator at about 16,000 feet on a strategic bombing mission to a rail yard. We were in a Heinkel 111. We had been bombing two or three days in a row on this important target in Russia. The Russians knew it was a very important spot and they had concentrated antiaircraft guns. So at 16,000-18,000 feet high an 8.8cm AA hit my left wing. It didn’t explode there. You could see later on that it had formed a little ridge in the aluminum. It hit the plastic cupola where the radio operator was seated and it exploded there and took his head off. The He 111 took quite a lot of damage.”
“Several times we came home with one engine. One time we flew so low that the light was glaring on the snow and I hit the ground with the propeller. I pulled the plane high up and turned it off and you could see the stumps of the propeller blades.”
“Very early in practice, in June 1942, one of the last practices before I was to go off to Russia, I was approaching an airfield in a three plane formation flight of He 111’s and all of a sudden my left engine turned wild and started to race. We were very low – maybe 200 feet off the ground. It was uncontrollable and we hit the ground. We smashed one engine, I hit my head, my second officer broke his hip, the back crew was badly damaged but nobody was killed.”
Back to business - as a Ferry Pilot
“I got some home leave for about three weeks and then I was called back to southern France to the reserve units. I stayed there for about a month and then I went to hospital in Paris and was allowed to stay in Paris for four weeks. I went to college there and got my credits there. The University of Strasbourg had three week college classes held in a movie theater. I got permission to attend and had a room in a hotel. I studied international law. Our professors took us to the French foreign office and looked at the original treaties of Versailles and I got college credit for it.”
“But then I got called back to Russia in November 1943 to the southern part close to the Black Sea near Ukraine. Already before that I was having trouble with my eyes flying at night. I couldn’t differentiate the lights properly so I didn’t fly any missions there. They were flying strictly night missions there but there was a kind of a ferry pilot job. We flew from the southern part of Russia all the way up to Lithuania. I was sent to a clinic in East Prussia where they found out that I had a deficiency in my night vision. So since my squadron was only flying at night I was the ferry pilot and took damaged planes for repair back to eastern Prussia. And that lasted until April 1944 when I was sent to headquarters in Berlin and was interviewed by a colonel who looked at my record and said, ‘Well, you are a seasoned pilot, I’ll send you to the industry.’ So they sent me to Junkers and I flew the Junkers Ju-88’s, the night fighters, from the factory to other factories where they put in armament, radios, and whatever else. Then I practiced and they sent me into airfields to fly the Ju-188, and they sent me to fly the Heinkel He-177, then they sent me to Messerschmitt to fly the Me-110, Me-210, and Me-410. Focke-Wulf Fw-44, Fw-190, the Me-109, Junkers Ju-86, Ju-87, Ju-88, Ju-188, Dornier Do-10, Do-11, Do-17, Do-215 and Do-217.”
“In December, 1944, they called me up to fly the Arado 234, the jet bomber. It was originally a reconnaissance plane but then they switched it over to a bomber. So that’s what I did until the end of the war, ferrying Arado 234’s from the factory to different places where they installed optical equipment, bombing equipment, etc. I flew the first one on Dec 12, 1944, from Hamburg to Kampfgeschwader 76 and the last on May 1st 1945.”
"I was at the airfield at Kampfgeschwader 76 when the war ended and a Canadian tank division came to the airfield."
“I liked the Arado very much. It was a wonderful plane. I thought it was designed better than the Messerschmitt 262. It was a single seater so we didn’t have time to practice much so we had some ‘dry classes.’ Landing and taking off was very different from a prop plane.”
“The Arado flew at close to 900kmh. Sometimes the whole ferrying flight took no more than 15-20 minutes. The higher up you go, the longer you could fly but an hour to an hour 20 minutes was the utmost you could go but I never had time for pleasure. The pleasure was before the war when we started out flying, when we were chasing farmers and the cows! Once the war started there was no time for that.”
“When I was ferrying, the sky was controlled by the allies. I had rocket assisted take off. One time I took the plane from Grossenheim to Burg and half way through the warning signal come in – ‘Don’t land, we are under attack!’ So I had to look for another field. I went west and I knew an airfield, Hildesheim, which I knew inside and out. I knew it’s a small field and with a jet I had to side slip in there but couldn’t get out so I had to wait two days until the rockets came in so I could take off. They installed the rockets and I was lucky getting rockets that worked because sometime they wouldn’t. At that time we had to reuse them and they had little parachutes so they could be recovered.”
“The Arado had no weapons. I never ran into any allied fighters. We were like sitting ducks taking off and landing in the Arado. We had to accelerate and slow down very slowly because the blades in the engine were very weak. Taking off and landing is when many were shot down. I remember hearing pilots saying that they had Messerschmitts protecting them over the airfield when they were supposed to land in their Arado. The only Arado still in existence, in the Smithsonian, is one I flew.”
“I flew just about everything in the German inventory except for the four engine JU-90, the Focke-Wulf 200 Condor, Messerschmitt 262, Heinkel 162 Volksjager or the Messerschmitt 163 Comet. The Dornier 335, I was supposed to fly – the factory was north of Munich and they sent me there to ferry it but I had my doubts. So I went to the commander office and said I’d never flown one before and I need instructions. He said no way, if you don’t know it, it would take too long, forget it.”
“I got away from the mess in Berlin at the end of the war, too! That was the end of the war for us, because we were captured by a Canadian tank division, and were transferred to the beach of the North Sea. They separated the Austrians to send us back to the Austrian Republic. It took quite a while to do that – about 6 months – so I didn’t get home until September 1945.”
After the war
“I flew very little after the war. I was really done with it. I was lucky I survived.”
“I finished college and got my PhD in economics and joined the Austrian Foreign Service. I was sent to the US in 1952 and in 1953 opened up the trade commission in Los Angeles. After 9 years I was up for a transfer and I didn’t want to go. I stayed here in California and after 1964 moved to Northern California and went into the import-export business. I have four children and six grand children. I might be a great grandfather soon!”
I had a great time chatting with Willi and listening to his amazing stories. I hope you like them too!
You HAVE to check out Sir Ernie Hamilton Boyette
and his interview with Willi. It's really good. Also be sure to look at his artwork which is amazing!
Story by Evan Isenstein-Brand - photos courtesy of Willi Kriessmann - and my dad