Monday, June 4, 2012

Person of Interest: Werner Baumbach

Werner Baumbach is a person on the fringes of history whom I've been interested in for a very long time. Apparently, so are a lot of other people. During the war, he was Germany's leading dive bomber pilot. He flew the JU-88 two-engine bomber on a number of fronts. He also got pulled out of combat in the middle of the war to help develop the "Mistel", an unmanned bomber. Shortly before the end of the war, he got put in charge of a secret, SS-run squadron known as KG200, which he reorganized into a special escape squadron to fly high-level Nazis out of Germany to safe havens abroad. They used any available aircraft, including captured B-17s, to do this.

KG200 remains one of the top mysteries of the Third Reich. Very little is actually known about it. It was organized into several different staffels, none of which apparently knew anything about each other's existence. Some staffels flew captured Allied aircraft, which they used for a variety of tasks, including parachuting secret agents abroad, as far away as Jordan and Iraq. They also flew massive BV222 Wiking flying boats to remote weather stations in the Arctic, as well as for who knows what else. It appears that not even Hermann Goering or Luftwaffe High Command knew anything about their activities. KG200 took its orders from Reichsfuehrer SS Heinrich Himmler. almost no one, including Hitler, knew, was that Himmler was not quite the "Faithful Heinrich" everyone believed him to be. He had secret negotiations going with the West and when he started flying top Nazis out of Germany, most people who knew about it assumed that it was being done on Hitler's orders, but in fact it was not. By all indications, Baumbach was a die-hard Nazi. And to this day, he is regarded as such within certain neo-Nazi circles. But according to some sources, most notably Albert Speer, his long-time friend, Baumbach was so disgusted with what he was being ordered to do, that he was entertaining notions of flying Hitler and other top Nazis into Allied hands, should he be given the opportunity. It is also rumored, though there is no way of proving it, that Baumbach had flown a giant JU-390 bomber out of Prague's Ruzyne airport, loaded with top Nazis, including SS General Hans Kammler, to Barcelona. Officially, Kammler died in Prague just as the Russians were coming in, but many now believe Kammler had been alowed to leave after cutting a deal with the Americans for German rocket scientists and secret weapons technology.

But possibly the strangest thing Baumbach is believed to have done was the way he broke with Heinrich Himmler. When Hitler found out Himmler had betrayed him, he removed him from the post of Reichsfuhrer SS and gave the post to Karl Hanke, Gauleiter of Breslau. The moment Hitler did that, Baumbach's loyalty to Himmler ended and was transfered to the new man. The problem was, Hanke was in Breslau, a German city inside Poland that had been surrounded by the Russians since February. Hanke was a die-hard Nazi, who had been hanging anyone in Breslau who questioned his orders to fight to the last. He had by this point executed more than two thousand citizens, hanging them from lamp posts. But when his new appointment came, he immediately got Baumbach to fly him out of Breslau in a helicopter. Baumbach flew him to Prague and after dropping him off, somehow high-tailed it north to Rugen, an island in the Baltic, where KG200 had a fleet of five fiant BV222 flying boats. Apparently the plan was to take them to Flensburg and load them up with Nazis that were gathered there, waiting eagerly for a flight out. It alone would have been his greatest feat, flying several thousand top Nazis out in one fell swoop. But instead, once he arrived in Flensburg with his aircraft, rather than carrying out his plan, he simply stopped. He holed up at Schloss Glucksburg, a nearby castle owned by one of his friends, he invited Albert Speer to stay with him, and the two proceeded to get very drunk. At one point, they talked about flying one of the Wikings to Greenland and spending the summer fishing, hunting walrus, kayaking and writing their memoirs together. Perhaps they would have done this, had Speer not been visited by a group of American economists, bankers and Wall Street lawyers, who wanted to interview him on the effects of strategic bombing on the German war economy.

It's not clear exactly what happened after that. Somehow the flying boats got blown up and sunk in the harbor. A few days later, the British rolled up the Flensburg government, taking Speer, and presumably Baumbach, prisoner. Baumbach spent two years in Britain in a POW camp. He apparently cooperated with his captors and testified against members of the SS during the Nurenburg war crimes trials. After that, he moved to Argentina and joined the Argentinian airforce. He gave interviews to Time Magazine and to visiting American scholars. There is a famous picture of him demonstrating an aircraft simulator to Juan Peron. Then one day in 1953 he was selected to take a newly purchased British Lancaster bomber on a test flight. But shortly after he got the Lancaster up in the air, the aircraft unaccountably exploded, killing Werner Baumbach.

Werner Baumbach is the main protagonist of Baumbach's Run, the novel I am currently writing. It will be a sequel, of sorts, to my first novel, Germania (Simon & Schuster, 2008, now also available on Kindle here). Both Baumbach and Speer are major characters in Germania.

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