Saturday, January 4, 2014

The Legend of Werner Baumbach: Karl Hanke's Mysterious Escape to Prague from Breslau

To fans of the Third Reich and its vaunted war machine, few characters get venerated quite as rabidly as Werner Baumbach, the Luftwaffe’s top bomber pilot. He ranks right up there alongside fighter aces like Adolf Galland, Ernst Rudel, Erich Hartmann, and a handful of others who somehow survived the war and then wrote books about it. But Baumbach is different. While everyone else’s fame rests on combat exploits which are more or less documented, Baumbach’s legend is fed by shadows. Around him whirl a host of stories, of rumors and innuendo, none which can ever be proven or disproven, of secret missions, of the daredevil helicopter rescue of one particularly loathsome individual, and reports that he might have flown out possibly hundreds of top Nazis to safe havens abroad during the final days of the war.

It turned out that in addition to having flown Ju-88 dive-bombers in nearly every front of the war, Werner Baumbach also flew for a shadowy Luftwaffe special operations command known as Kamphgeschwader 200, or KG200. Very little has ever been found out about them other than that they were organized into different squadrons, or Staffeln, which were all kept far apart and mostly ignorant of each other. There was a special unit that flew long-range agent insertion missions, and another that flew shorter-range ones. There were units that flew captured B-17s, B-24s, Mustangs, Spitfires and Soviet aircraft. There were units that did electronic warfare and others with massive flying boats officially used to service distant weather stations, including robotic ones set up in Labrador. There was even a squadron being developed to fly suicide missions using manned versions of the rocket-powered V-1 buzz bomb.

Baumbach’smemoir, titled variously, The Life and Death of the Luftwaffe, or Broken Swastika, made no mention of any of it, not surprisingly, since it largely avoids mentioning the end of the war in the first place. It is mainly about flying Ju-88s and the art of dive bombing ships and bridges. But if Baumbach’s book fails to mention what he did at the end of the war, other memoirs do. Mostly it’s just fragments, but added up, they paint a picture of a man moving at incredible speed, in and out of a multitude of places.

In November, 1944, Baumbach was put in command of KG200. He apparently already knew something about it, having flown missions for them from time to time and also having advised actively on one of their weapons development programs. This time he was surprised to learn that a new staffel was being organized made up of suicide pilots. Baumbach didn’t like the idea to begin with and after talking to some of them, he quickly concluded they didn’t really understand what they’d gotten signed up for and had the unit disbanded. Almost nothing is known about what else Baumbach did during his time running KG200. But since its job was running operatives in and out of places behind enemy lines, one can only assume that was what they did during this period. It is known that one of its B-17s crashed while transporting a group of agents into France. Other missions, presumably, were more successful.

Sometime during March, all or part of KG200 morphed into a “Special Escape Section,” whose primary purpose was to fly Nazi bigwigs out of Germany to Spain and other neutral countries. They used whatever aircraft they had, including captured B-17s, B-24s, British Wellingtons and other Allied aircraft. How many got out? Dozens? Hundreds? No one knows. But apparently none of it rested well with Baumbach, who was himself a bit of a diehard. At one point he discussed with his old friend Albert Speer possible ways Hitler might be tricked into boarding one of his airplanes, whereupon they would fly him to where he could be handed over to the British or Americans. The enterprise apparently never went beyond the talking stage and the SS-run charter airlines seem to have continued its operations through April. At one point earlier in that month, they began using a Ju-390, a massive six-engine bomber/transport which was said to have taken several planeloads of passengers out of Prague’s Ruzyne airport to Spain. Baumbach was said to have flown at least one of these missions.

Then a very odd thing happened. Hitler found out from the news that Heinrich Himmler, his ever-loyal head of the SS, was secretly negotiating a peace deal with the Western Allies. Hitler went into a rage and fired Himmler from all his posts, though not his Nazi party membership, and then sent messages to Grand Admiral Doenitz informing him of Himmler’s treachery and ordering Doenitz to move against him. Doenitz promised to do something. He went and confronted Himmler, but Himmler thinly assured him the news reports weren’t true, all the while positively primping himself with the anticipation of becoming the next Fuhrer. Not long after returning to his headquarters, Doenitz received another cable from Hitler, this time telling him he was the new Fuhrer. Some time after that Hitler shot himself, but not before sending out another message; this time to Karl Hanke, Gauleiter of Breslau. Hitler decided to reward Hanke for his steadfast defense of the city, surrounded and under Russian siege since February, by making him the new Reichsfuhrer SS.

Since KG200 took its orders from the SS and not the Luftwaffe, it meant that Baumbach was no longer obliged to take orders from Himmler or answerable to him. At the time of Hitler’s death, Baumbach was in Hamburg alongside its gauleiter, Karl Kaufmann, who wasn’t sure what he should do. His orders had been to fight to the death, something the British Army, now fighting its way through the city’s western suburbs, was more than willing to accommodate them on. But Baumbach advised Kaufmann to just put up white flags and save what was left of the city. He did and after that a cease fire was called.

It was a different story in Breslau. For the three months that the siege had gone on, Hanke had brooked no discussion about what they should do. They would fight to the death and anyone who thought otherwise ended up hanging from a lamppost with a placard around his neck offering a suitable warning to anyone else whose resolve might be wanting. But now, suddenly, Hanke had pressing business elsewhere. His orders for KG200 were quite simple; ‘Get me out!’ Luckily, Baumbach was an old friend of Hanke’s, having been introduced by their mutual friend Albert Speer before the war.

Truth be told, no one actually knows how Karl Hanke got out of Breslau and showed up at Prague Ruzyne airport just as it was about to fall to Czech partisans. The accepted explanation is that Hanke probably already had a Fieseler Storch or some other light airplane waiting for him under a tarp on the airstrip in Breslau and that he flew off in that. It’s a commonsensical explanation, especially compared with the incredible story Albert Speer tells in his ‘Spandau Diaries.’ In that account, Baumbach flew into Breslau in a helicopter, picked up Hanke and then flew him all the way to Prague.

All that is known is that Hanke did arrive at Ruzyne and that the 18th volunteer SS Panzergrenadier Division, or what was left of it, was there at the airport to take him back to Prague. But once in Prague, the fighting going on there had gotten to the point where Hanke’s rescuers didn’t see the point in sticking around. They tried heading back to Ruzyne, but the partisans had taken the area. They changed direction and headed west, up the Karlsbad Road, trying to get back to Germany. A day later they were all taken prisoner and put into a stockade near Nova Ves. Hanke was in the uniform of a private and not recognized. A few weeks later he was reportedly killed trying to escape.

As for Baumbach, nothing at all is known about how he got out of Ruzyne. Perhaps there was something there waiting there for him, a Ju-88 or some other longer-range aircraft. Perhaps he flew the helicopter to another location where he got flown out. All that is known is that five or six days later, Baumbach flies into Flensburg, the little port city on the Danish border that was the Reich’s new capital city, with a flight of four or five gigantic, six-engine B&V-222 flying boats.

It doesn’t take much to assume the aircraft had been flown into Flensburg with the purpose of taking out a very large number of well-heeled Nazis on a one-way flight to someplace friendly and that might have been what was intended, but once Baumbach had landed, it seemed he decided to call it a day and just kick back and start getting very drunk. Luckily, Albert Speer was there as well and from the look of him, looked like he could use cheering up.

By this point Speer was third man in the governing troika set up by Hitler’s successor, Grand Admiral Doenitz. He was in charge of economic issues while Doenitz acted as “Reich President” and an aristocratic non-entity named Schwerin von Krosigk served as Chancellor and Foreign Minister. It was obvious from the beginning it was going to be a thankless task. The only thing they could do that actually mattered was end the war, which was accomplished via three different unconditional surrenders which took nearly a week.

Each day, parts of the Reich got cut away. One day it was Denmark, then Norway, then the Channel Islands, and the French Biscay ports, followed by Crete, Rhodes, and Dunkirk. Soon the only remaining piece of sovereign German territory was the Marineschule where the Doenitz government had its offices. At the same time their government grew. Ministers were added, along with assistants, secretaries, clerks and typists. And each morning at eight, Doenitz would convene his government, during which time they would methodically attend to the affairs of state. It was the first time a Nazi government had met. In the twelve years Hitler had been in power, he hadn’t allowed it to convene even once.

For ten whole days, Speer stood by stoically as the Reich got dismembered and attended the government meetings, as if the business being discussed actually meant something. But then the day came when the advance team of Allied representatives arrived; about thirty, mostly British, mostly junior officers, and thoroughly unpleasant to a man. Almost the first thing they did upon showing up was taking over the Patria, the large, rusting Hamburg-Amerika liner docked just below the Marineschule, and ordering everyone currently living aboard it to immediately gather their things and clear out.

Speer was livid. Patria had been a kind of haven for him, a tiny piece of order and stability after being on the move non-stop for almost two months. Now he and three hundred others were being kicked off it so that a handful of Brits could rub their noses in the dirt!

Speer was still shaking with anger as he walked down the gangplank, bags in each hand. That was when he ran into Baumbach, who laughed long and loud when Speer described his misfortune.

“Kicked off the ship? No place to stay? Well, I guess you’ll just have to move into the castle with me, Speer,” said Baumbach. It turned out he was ensconced in Schloss Glucksburg, the stately castle just outside town, which his friend, the Duke of Mecklenburg, had lent him. At Baumbach’s invitation, Speer moved into the castle and almost immediately, the two of them started getting drunk.

Speer’s memoir reveals little of what the two talked about during the next two weeks, except that at one point during their drunken ramblings, Baumbach proposed the two of them fly off to Greenland in one of the flying boats, to spend the summer hunting, fishing, kayaking and writing their memoirs together. Speer never found out if Baumbach was joking. A day or two later, Speer had some surprise visitors; a group of American bankers, lawyers, and economists from something called the United States Strategic Bombing Survey, eager to pick Speer’s brain on the effectiveness of the American daylight bombing campaign on the German war economy.

For the next ten days, Speer held court with the Americans at the castle, while Baumbach just mostly stayed drunk. One night, somebody blew up the four flying boats, as they sat moored in the harbor. A few days later, Eisenhower and the Western overlords decided they’d had enough of Doenitz and his government and rolled it all up.

Speer and Baumbach were both arrested. Speer was tried at Nuremberg as a major war criminal and served twenty years in Spandau Prison. Baumbach spent three years as a British prisoner, during which time he was repeatedly interrogated. What he might have told them about KG200 and his end-of-the-war exploits has never been learned. He did testify during later war crimes trials. Finally Baumbach was freed, whereupon he moved to Argentina and became a test pilot and flight instructor for the air force. He settled easily into the German émigré community, painting himself as an unreconstructed Nazi.

One day in October, 1953, he test flew a British Lancaster bomber, which the Argentinean air force had just acquired. Some time after taking off, something exploded on the bomber. Baumbach managed to bring it down to a watery landing in the Rio de la Plata, but drowned before he could be rescued.

Baumbach's role in the three-week Flensburg period is explored heavily in my novel Germania (2008, Simon & Schuster, and now also available as an ebook). Baumbach's earlier activities, including his activities with the Special Escape Section, his rescue of Hanke and subsequent escape from Prague and arrival in Flensburg with the BV-222 flying boats will be the subject of my upcoming novel, tentatively titled Baumbach and Speer.

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