TODAY marks the 75th anniversary of one of the most bizarre events of the Second World War, when Nazi Germany launched its one and only suicide air attack.

That Germany had its own equivalent of the Japanese kamikazes is a forgotten part of the history of the war. The German air force, the Luftwaffe, tried to suppress all knowledge of the existence of the unit known as Sonderkommando Elbe to protect the commanders who would have faced war crimes charges for authorising the tactics.

Unlike the kamikazes of Japan, the pilots of the Sonderkommando Elbe attacked aircraft rather than ships. But like the kamikazes, they failed in their aim of disrupting the Allies’ progress towards ending the war.


THE first name means “special command unit” and the Elbe was one of the main rivers of Germany. The designation was chosen perhaps because of the Nazi High Command’s determination to try stop the Allies’ advance from the west at the River Elbe, the Soviet Union troops and tanks having already reached far into Germany.

Interestingly, the proper designation of the Japanese kamikaze flyers was also as a “special” unit, the Special Attack Force. It had first gone into suicidal action at the Battle of Leyte Gulf in October 1944, six of them attacking the US Navy and sinking the aircraft carrier USS St Lo, the first major warship of the war to be sunk in this way, though not the last.

It is not known whether the example of the Japanese kamikaze inspired the Nazis to try similar tactics, but the pilots who volunteered probably had the same notions as their Axis colleagues – by 1945, the survival rate of German and Japanese pilots was so low that suicide did not seem such an awful option.


DESPERATION, mostly. The British and American bomb raids were increasingly damaging Germany’s cities, towns and industrial infrastructure, with the Luftwaffe suffering from twin shortages of aircraft and experienced pilots.

Night raids (by the British) and daylight bombing by the Americans – who also had long distance fighters to protect them – had so degraded Germany’s ability to defend itself that even the most fanatical Nazis could see the end in sight, especially as the country’s oil supplies had been bombed almost out of existence. Germany did have one major weapon in the fights against the bomber, the Me262 jet fighter that was superior to anything the Allies had.

But there were too few of them to make a difference, and a massive air raid was planned for April 7, 1945, to take out the airfields where most of the Luftwaffe’s planes, including the jets, were based.

The raid was to be carried out by the Americans’ Eighth Air Force with its B-17 Flying Fortresses and B-24 Liberators, both heavy bombers protected by their own machine guns and escorted by P51 Mustangs with Rolls-Royce Merlin engines. In the eyes of many experts, these made the Mustang the best fighter of the war.

The Nazis had one last tactic to throw at this raid by 1300 bombers and more than 850 fighters, and that was a suicidal attack. There had been occasions in the past when pilots deliberately crashed their own aircraft into an enemy plane, but that was always an individual’s decision, not that of an organised group under orders.

All the Sonderkommando Elbe pilots were volunteers and although they were told to ram the bombers and parachute out, in reality they all knew it was a suicide mission. They appear to have been brainwashed with Nazi ideology about the defence of the Fatherland and, to make the true nature of their operation obvious, their aircraft – ageing Messerschmitts Me-109s mostly – were stripped of their armour plating and only one machine gun with just 50 rounds of ammunition was fitted to each plane.

As with Japan’s kamikaze fighters, the Sonderkommando Elbe was the ultimate admission of Nazi Germany’s failure.


THE Eighth Air Force took off from various airfields across southern England and made its way across the North Sea. It was one of the biggest daylight raids of the war, featuring 32 bomber units and 14 Mustang fighter groups.

The Luftwaffe soon knew they were coming and sent up its Me-262 jets to tackle the escort fighter while ordinary fighters tried to get at bombers on the edge of the formations, leaving the way open for dozens of Sonderkommado Elbe aircraft to ram into as many bombers as they could. Estimates of how many such aircraft took part range from 120 to 180.

We know what happened to a dozen of the pilots who attacked the American bombers. Heinrich

Rosner rammed the lead American B-24 Liberator then smashed into a second one – incredibly, he was able to bale out and survived.

Eberhard Prock downed a B-17 Flying Fortress and also parachuted out, only to be killed by machine gun fire from another aircraft.

Either because they failed to hit the vulnerable areas of the American bombers – the cockpit and tail – or because they were shot down by escort fighters and the bombers themselves, only 15 of the Sonderkommando Elbe suicide raiders actually struck their targets, and only eight of the bombers were downed, while of those 15 pilots who made successful attacks, just four survived.

The raid was a success, with 300 German aircraft destroyed on the ground. A similar raid a week later destroyed another 700 planes. The Luftwaffe had virtually ceased to exist and simply had no more planes which is why the Sonderkommando Elbe never flew again.

Scotland is in lockdown. Shops are closing and newspaper sales are falling fast. It’s no exaggeration to say that the future of The National is at stake. Please consider supporting us through this with a digital subscription from just £2 for 2 months by following this link: http://www.thenational.scot/subscribe. Thanks – and stay safe.