|Karl-Heinz Lüdtke autobiografy part 4|
The 7. Seenotstaffel
All beginnings are hard, a German saying says, and fortunately that's how it didn't feel to me. There were no problems and i received my newly decorated room. As we were in the south of Europe and it was very warm I received a khaki uniform, suited for the heat. These uniforms were standard issue around the mediterranean and were a pleasure to wear in the heat of the day. Back to my room, the white villa where I lived for a short time, belonged to the owner of the factory that stood next to it. During the time I lived there, there were some small flat hull boats there. Before I begin to tell the things that I remember I have to say that I will mostly speak of the happy memories and will only mention the bad memories briefly, and those bad memories are plenty.
Now we start with the memories from Athens-Phaleron with my initiation as mechanic to the crew of Oberfeldwebel Wilhelm Lange, who lived in a small house, to which I would move. There were two crews in the house, so in total 12 people. It was situated in the middle of the village of Phaleron, a suburb of Athens. To the left and right were greecs and we lived in good harmony. Next to us was a shoemaker who put our shoers in good order in trade for food, because there was not plent around of that. I almost forgot that he made boots of goatsleather for the women, they wern't bad and fair in price. Back to the house, it didn;t have an actual roof, just half a meter thick walls. We lived peacefully if there just hadn't been a war going on. As flying personel we had good provisions and to get through the situation better we helped ourselves to some olive-oil and eggs, actually we were doing a sort of black market. As we flew back and forth to the islands, where supplies were plenty, especially cigarettes. My friend was the purest black market trader around and traded everything with the greecs. Lesbos, with its capitol Mitilini, was mainly an olivetree island, where even before the war German olive-oil company's were present. The soap was mainly produced from oil, as was the margarine. The name of the firm has slipped my mind. As we needed olive-oil, to bake eggs and for my speciality, mayonaise, and to make potatosalde, yes we knew what was good for us, and the Greecs needed oil too. So we traded. That was just the island with the oil, then there was an island with the precious wine. When you drank a glass of this wine, if you could stop there, you had to be very carefull, that alcohol percantage was enormous! When I think back to the islands I can't help comparing it to now with all the tourism. Back then they had enough to eat and drink but were very poor. The German company I mentioned offered some paid labour, but there was little else around. During the first period I didn't even notice the war, everything was so peaceful. The front gun in the Do-24 wasn't even installed, later after America physically joined the war we did install it because then things got hectic. Coming back to the islands, the understanding between the Germans and the Greecs was very peaceful, nowhere was there an insult or assault in any way. On Crete we even slept under the olivetrees or walked at night from Chania to Suda. The German soldiers weren't so bad as the media makes them out to be these days. The people of Crete were actually very different from the Greecs. The Cretes had been conquered many times in the past by the Romans, The Turks and finally the Greecs. Crete is the biggest island in the Mediterranean and the outpost of Seentostaffel 7 was Suda, where there was always one Do-24 ready for take-off in case of an emergency. We were often in the capital Chania, a city that hasn't changed in the last 50 years. Crete was the only island with an airfield and all the other islands were dependant on the Do-24 or ships. So besides slying SAR we made many transportflights, we even transported a general once, he was an infantery general who wanted to look at the islands from above. I can't remember his name.
My pilot, Flugzeugführer Lange, one of the best pilots, knew the Do-24 like the inside of his pocket. He knew how to take-off and land without any difficulty and that wasn't easy as he had to judge the waves which were always different. It was good that we had the Feldwebel as pilot because when we were shot down by a nightfighter so many things could have gone wrong, but more of that later. Lange, and he was not alone in this, was found of the drink, not only when he was thirsty but also when he was flying. In the evening when we were hangin' around, Oberfeldwebel Lumpi called me over. He said he had something for me, of course he referred to his Dröpkes, this while he knew I didn't like alcohol. He convinced me to taste it, the Greec wine was disgusting, but you had to have fun and there was plenty of that. But he was able to fly under any circumstance, he was a pilot through and through, he was the best. That was even mentioned in a paper by Hauptmann Gorican, who deserted with a Do-24 to Turkey, and he mentioned this fact to the English.
In our neighborhood was an elderly German lady, and she was a real lady. As we later found out she was the widow of a brewery owner from Athens. She lived in a small house and cooked for us we brought something to eat back with us as food was in short supply in Greece. Oil and eggs were our inbring and with a little negotiation she supplied the rest and cooked for us,. Those were happy times I will never forget, sitting on her porch in the evening with a lovely wine from christal glasses. We looked like the Count of Luxembourg. It was like there was no war.
We had our barber, of course a Greec. When we supplied the food he would cook for us. All the bars were situated on the sea, the beach right beside it. So when you had too much to drink you could "cool down" in the sea. Among out men was a dark haired guy from Hannover who was much loved with the Greec women. He often came too late on service and was often punished for this. His name was Helmut and he was a good friend. From the training as mechanic we were together and also travelled to Athens-Phaleron together. What became of Helmut I don't know, our stations were far apart. His name was often spoken off in the Staffel when he (again) was arrested for being too late.
In the Staffel we had a young Greec to who'm Oberfeldwebel Lange was like a second father. He was part of an Albanian group that worked around the base and when not at work was always to be found in our group. He spoke perfect German and when we eventualy had to leave Greece in tront of the Allied troops we took him along, even all the way to Germany. This boy still lives today in the U.S.A. and still visits and calls "father" Lange. The Lange crew got orders to pick up a Do-24 in Kiel-Holtenau, a welcome job for any crew. We flew with a Junkers Ju-52 from Terteu to Vienna and from there on by rail to Kiel. When we arrived there the Do-24 wasn't frontline ready yet so we had some time for ourselves. The trip back was wonderful, always magnificent views from the plane. Ik took us four weeks due to the weather (it was December). Our Feldwebel Lange was promoted during this flight to Oberfeldwebel. Leutnant Kemp, our observer and former teacher from Vienna, was a very fine gentleman. The promotion was made official by Kemp in a small tavern somewhere in Yugoslavia. He told the rest of the crew to outside the tavern and Lange had to report to him in full military style after which he promoted Lange to his surprise and to the surprise of the rest of the crew. As we were in a tavern this had to be celebrated. A more complete report of this flight will follow at the end of my memoires.
The Italians, known to us as Itackers, changed sides in 1943 and were now our enemy. As most of the islands in the mediterranean were occupied by them we had to re-occupy them as quickly as possible. During the night we were ripped from our dreams and had to report to the Staffel immediately, where we arrived early in the morning. Soldiers were all around the building and as we later found out the were the famous Brandenburger, an elite regiment. We didn't know what was going on and didn't even know that the Italians had switched sides. During the briefing we were told what was going on. The British had to have acted very quick as most of the islands were now occupied by them as we found out around noon on the first island. Without the Do-24 the quick retaking of the islands could not have happened. We were not in action every day and there was ample time to do things for oneself. There was more than enough to view in and around Athens but we were never able to see everything as most of these sights were too far away, though they could be reached by train or bus. We of course visited the Acropolis and also the palace of the Greec king. The harbor of Piräus was an important one as the ferry's to the islands all started there. Around 1943 these had all been stopped and for the averge Greec is was very difficult to get to one of the islands. Whenever we flew to Crete we went via Monkmountain where the monks had a monestery in a mountainrange. We passed very close and could recognise the monks. The olympic stadium was also worth a visit. There is so much to see and write about Athens, too much for these memoires.
Now a story about an unusual rescuemission. Here again we were ripped from our dreams when the alarm sounded. The Italians switched sides as told and the islands had to be occupied again, which wasn't easy as there was an enormous effort in transportation needed. We hurried to the building where the cookl had already prepared a quick breakfast for us. Three crews were ordered in and they arrived one after the other. After the briefing we knew the details, a transportship, the Ingeborg, was torpedoed by a submarine and we had to rescue the shipwrecked from the water. When we arrived at the scene Lange first circled the site to locate people who drifted away. The sailors all wore their yellow lifejacket and were easily identified. Lange landed the Do-24 and now we started with the heavy work of getting as many people on board as possible. Meißner and I pulled the shipwrecked on the stumps and that wasn't easy with their soaked and thus heavy uniforms. We counted 52 people on board and with the crew that came to 58 in total, we prayed that everything would go ok. As told Lange was a superb pilot and he could do anything with the Do-24, but an overloaded aircraft, how would he handle that. If he didn't take care on take-off we could ge nose under and end up as a submarine. After a very long run we were airborne to the delight of everyone on board. We later found out that the Do-24 was only able to carry 24 people, now she had 34 extra and all were putting in extra weight with the added water, and still the Do-24 flew! The shipwrecked were soldiers of the punishment batallion 999 who were to take over from the Italians in occupying some of the islands.
Another mission, a life endangering one, was a transportflight to one of the islands, I think it was Cos. The harbor was near a small mountainrange and we had to lay in the harbor for quite some time awaiting our further orders. When we received them we prepaired for departure, all wearing our lifevests, thank god for that as I couldn't swim. Two enemy fighters suddenly appeared from behind the mountainrange and in no time were attacking our Do-24. Faster than any of us were ever able to think possible we jumped out the back of the aircraft just in time before the bullets struck. We escaped wet but unhurt. The Do-24 wasn't damaged very much as the two pilots decided it was safer to leave after one strike as they were fired upon from the German groundtroops. The pilots had to have been informed about our presence, maybe by one of the local people, who knows? After an inspection the Do-24 was found still airworthy and without any enemy contact (we kept a sharp look out) we flew back to Phaleron. It goes to shot that not all missions, be it rescuework of transportation, were easy. Many of my colleages have lost their lives for Germany. I must also say that things were only getting worse when the U.S.A. entered the war. The English were fair solders and they knew we flew rescuemissions that could even save their countrymen's lives. The U.S.A. didn't care, we were the enemy and they shot us down regardless, and soon the English would follow in their trail.
When in Greece, as in Russia, the withdrawl started, the nice life in Phaleron ended. A pity because it was a very good time (if you could forget the war around you). When things got hectic we had to clear all the islands of German troops and this wasn't easy. Lange and crew were ordered to help in clearing Crete. We started on October 1st 1944 from Phaleron and we arrived in the Suda Bight without an enemy encounterter, which was rare in those days. It was also my first flight as an Unteroffizier as I got promoted a few days earlier. Unteroffizier Meißner and I readied the Do-24 to take on the soldiers for the returnflight. 22 soldiers entered the aircraft and we handed them a lifejacket. The last one to enter was an officer carrying a crate with documents. This was too much for Lange who said that the crate had to be left behind, something which the officer declined to do and he stated that he was the higher ranking officer and Lange had to to what he was told. Lange on the other hand was the Flugzeugfuhrer and was in command of the airplane regardless of the rank of anybody on board. Things got so bad that the airport commander had to intervien. The Oberleutnant had to open the crate to his embaressment and was ordered to stay behind and catch the next flight. Due to all this delay it was dark by the time we were ready for the returnflight to Phaleron. To make things worse we received a message that Allied nightfighters were reported in the neighborhood. After consultation with the higher command they told us that despite everything we had to take-off for Phaleron. Fate were taking it's course! Just short of the island Milos we were shot down by an Allied nightfighter and Lange managed to land the crippled aircraft on the water, not without hitting the water with the right wing. Thank god almost everybody got out alive. During the attack however the tailguner Feldwebel Wüstenfeld and radio-operator Feldwebel Lind were badly hurt or killed in the action, we don't know as the aircraft sunk taking both of the down into the deep waters. All the soldiers, as far as we could see, were able to get out and had on their lifevests, which was a good thing. However those vests were made of capok which was good stuff, but after 4 to 5 hours it starts to suck up water and thus lose it's floating capacity. The remainder of the original crew had enflatable lifevests on and this was our rescue. I don't know if any of the 22 soldiers was saved by the German navy which was still on the island of Milos because they were afraid to leave the harbour in fear of getting shot at. I thus doubt that any of the soldiers survived. Lange was unfortunate because during the escape from the cockpit hatch he ripped his oneman dinghy off and thus only had his lifevest. When he noticed me in my dinghy he swam over and asked if he could join me, something which I could not deny. But would a oneman dinghy hold two people? I let Lange enter the dinghy first (as a good host should) and he started blowing the tube to get more air in, after that I entered. In that way we floated for about 19 hours under the blazing sun in the mediterranean. The dinghy was of excellent quality to hold us both for such a long time. We closed in faster on the coast than our Meißner as we used our scarfe as a sail. We had great difficulty covering the last part of the journey as we were both unable to move for so long our joints were stiff. When we were on land we immediately fell into a deep sleep, we were so very tired. The next morning we started walking and saw a sheepherder in the distance. He told us that he hadn't seen any German soldiers for along time. He was a friendly man who was armed, so he could have shot us at any time. This just goed to show that the Germans couldn't haven been that bad in occupied countries as the media makes them out to be. We even got some bread, sigarettes and fresh milk from the sheep. I am still very thankfull for the help the sperhard gave us as we had to leave everything behind on the beach. We told him where the dinghy and the other stuff was and told him he could have it, it was the only thing we could offer in return. The island where we were was named Poliagos and was part of three islands located close together. The shepard brought us to Kimolos in his small sailingboat, the weather was awful and there was a fierce storm blazing. Lange and I were very happy when we reached land. On Kimolos was a small village where we were greated by the Mayor with red wine, raisonmarmalade and bread. The bread was so hard we had to scrape it with our teeth. The bread was so hard because then it could be kept fresh a longer time. For the journey to the next island, which was Milos, he even provided us with medication and sent along a jung man to help us. When we appraoched Milos we made ourselves known by a flare and the Germany navy who was still on the island sent a boat to pick us up and later we we driven by car to the HQ there. Later Meißner also arrived there, he had also landed on Kimolos. He brought the sad news that Oberfeldwebel Fuhrmann passed away shortly before he reached dry land. He approached a cliff coast and wasn't able to grab hold of the cliffs when the wind pushed him in high waves on the rocks. He fell and hit his head on the rocks with the next wave. It all happened so fast that Meißner wasn't able to rescue him. We reported by radio to our base and were picked up by a Do-24 from Phaleron, flown by Feldwebel Sommer. Without an enemy encounter we were back at Phaleron where we were greated by Staffelkapitän Oberleutnant Karlheinz Daehn with a glass of sect. He was happy to be able to great at least three of the original six members back on base. I heard that our crew was reported missing so I can understand the way Daehn was feeling.
In Athens many things had changed during our three days absence, our house had been cleaned out and our stuff was packed in a local school, ready for evacuation. The groundcrew was ready for the retreat and still missions were flown with the Do-24, getting Germans of the many islands. Many an aircraft was shot at and even shot down. I, Lange and Meißner were no longer on active duty. I got a dry pleurisy that hurt badly which I encountered the first night on Kimolos. I stayed in my bunk and hoped to be cured by the time we had to evacuate. I was ordered as support for the last train, packed with material, that left Athens for Saloniki. I was very disappointed in the staff of Seenotstaffel 7 as to why they could have let me go on this train in my state of illness, but as they say I had to follow orders. I wanted to stay to the last day and be there when the Seenostaffel 7 was disbanded.
I have to tell you about Crete, not all the Germans could be evacuated as there were simply not enough planes and boats available. The locals were under occupation for many many years before the Germans arrived and when the remaining Germans were captured by the English the local people revolted against the English and tried to help them!