An artillery piece in position not far from the village of Acquafondata.

Here it is the same everyday, up at 400 hours, at readiness all day, bombs, air combat, heat flies and to bed at 10.00 in the evening. It it tremendously wearing and one can’t get used to it. I don’t enjoy the southern theater anymore.

Lt Carl Pashas 5/jg53

A POTENTIALLY UNNECESSARILY LONG PREFACE:

Before I wrote this post, I knew not much more about the German Luftwaffe than what I’d seen in movies or as a side note in the stories I’d read about the American experience in WWII: those villains in their drab charcoal planes, sweeping in for the kill on the hero of the show, or raining terror down on Allied cities.  They occupied in my mind what may be described as a typical American centric retelling of the war. They were inferior. Malevolent. Destined for defeat due to their inadequacies in men, machinery, and strategy.

Not all of this is totally untrue, but the more I learned about the Luftwaffe, the more I realized what a marvel of a modern military machine it was in its time. One which transformed from a hyper organized but secretive force in the early 1930’s to a giant battle tested behemoth of 1.7 million men in 1941. Its pilots, honed not over mere months but years of relentless combat, aviation, and mechanical training, epitomized excellence in their craft. This was a force to be reckoned with and one which many in Europe and Africa when found to be its target would come to fear.

Its leader, the haughty ex-fighter pilot of WWI Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, stands as a stark symbol of both the Luftwaffe’s glory and its downfall: infected by an insatiable desire to impress Hitler and a yes man to his core, Göring epitomized the sycophantic tendencies pervasive in the Führer’s inner circle that eventually brought a once formidable force to its ruin.

All this being said, the Luftwaffe was in many ways doomed to failure given the reckless ambitions of its leaders. By early 1944, the Luftwaffe was operating with around 270 aircraft compared to the Allies’ 2600. Nothing could be done in the face of such a vast superiority in strength except a quickly won war on all fronts. But in 1940 this seemed to be within Germany and the Luftwaffe’s grasp.

Yes, this air force served a purpose which poisoned the earth in a way humanity had never seen. But the story of the men who piloted these planes and in the latter years fought such an uneven battle so courageously is one which is worth remembering. This is not a tribute to the purpose that they served, but one of the men who flew these planes, with photographs of loved ones adorning their steel cockpit panels, soaring into the heavens with a fervent passion for flight, becoming pioneers in the sky in a world which had never known such a thing. 

They were the men who my grandfather would spend the better part of his early life studying, with the end goal that he could pick them out of the sky. Yet, in his pursuit, he glimpsed their shared humanity. They were men who had mothers that cared about them. He would tell me how he took no pleasure in pulling a trigger that hurled giant 50 caliber bullets at them. Such was the reality of the conflict, where compassion wrestled with duty in the crucible of battle.

Stepping Back in Time
In the fall of 2023 I visited the picturesque Italian mountain village of Acquafondata, the object of Kurt Müller’s group of 4 BF 109 fighters on the morning of February 5, 1944. The village and its people came alive to me in ways that I hadn’t expected. I walked down a small grassy country road where a guide from the Combat Road History Museum held up a laptop, and as we squinted in the sun he showed photos of the exact Allied positions in 1944 against the backdrop of how they looked today.
 
It was fascinating. Just off the side of the road on which I stood, I could see my grandfather in the mess tent, I could smell the bacon, eggs and coffee in the air, feel the chill that settled into the mountains there in that punishing winter of 1943 – 1944.
 
It was with this fascination that my retelling of this part of his story transformed. Originally I thought it would be one post, to retell what his time in Italy was like. But this town inspired me to tell it better, or at least more comprehensively. 
 
A few months ago I attempted to retell the story of its people. The struggles they had in the winter my grandfather was there. The terrors they suffered. The massacre at Collegluno, in which 42 Italian cilvilians were murdered in cold blood on a mountainside that fall at the hands of German soldiers (you can see their names here, in this no-nonsence recollection which has evaded most history books). After writing this, a son of one of the only survivors of this tragedy reached out to me, shocked no doubt to find some recollection of this 80 years later on a random obscure history blog. Having touched one soul from this time reminded me of why this journey I was on was so important: to not forget those who suffered through this for no fault of their own. 
 
Obviously I also wanted to recreate my grandfather’s experience there as I had originally imagined. One shaped by his own retelling and the people and places I encountered. But that left a missing piece. The enemy. 
 
I found the story of why this obscure place became such a focus of both the Germans and the Allies during the war to be so intriguing, and a look from only one side seemed incomplete. So what follows became part II of a three part series in bringing this part of letters home to life, told this time from the cockpit of a BF-109, the war machine which so menaced the Allies all through the war. 

THE SORTIE

Setting the Stage: JG 77’s Struggle

Jagerschwader 77 (JG 77) was fighting a losing battle and they knew it. Their confidence in their commander “Smilin’” Albert Kesselring, known for his optimism and composure in the face of overwhelmingly unfavorable situations, had not waned through the winter of 1943, yet it seemed with with every passing day, they would learn new JG’s and fighters being relocated from Italy to the Eastern front, where the Germans were locked in a death struggle with the Red Army as it bore down on the Fatherland. The Germans hold on Italy was at this point simply a tactical retreat, with Kesselring at its head putting up a valiant struggle that none in the Allied high command had expected. The resources demanded in the East meant that it would never again be the priority of men and material that it had once been when the Allies had initially made their push into the Mediterranean theater.

Preparation at Ciampino Airfield

Müller and his three wingmen had been up since 0400 and Ciampino Airfield just outside of Rome and the chill of morning still hung in the air. If tenuous, the Allies had established a foothold in Anzio, just 50 kilometers or so to the south, and the feeling was tense in the remaining German forces occupying Rome. Outnumbered, but not out-planned, the Germans dug in and frustratingly watched as the joint British, American and French forces failed again and again to formulate any truly cooperative and integrated battle plan, but due to strength in numbers, still pinned the Germans down on the Gustav line. The exhausted German soldiers, clad in somber grey, would eventually have to abandon their posts, trudge northward, brace themselves for the relentless cycle of conflict once more.

Mission Briefing: Target Acquafondata

The four men pulled down and strapped on their canvas flight caps as they walked out on the tarmac towards the waiting BF-109s, the icy breeze in their faces and the smell of oil and nitrate in the air. It was now 1200, and the mission briefing an hour before revealed that Acquafondata, a tiny mountain village 125 kilometers southeast, awaited their precision strike. Instructed to approach from the ENE, veiled by the glare of the midday sun as they dropped out of the sky, their target loomed ahead: a formidable 155mm cannon, operated by the French 3rd DIA, its lethal reach menacing the German stronghold in Cassino.

They would approach at 4500m and acquire the target from overhead. Cutting the engines to idle, the planes would enter a terrifying 80 degree dive, approaching speeds of 560 kph, holding the target in their crosshairs on the descent. After 30 seconds of hurtling towards earth, they would release their bombs 1000m over the target and the plane’s auto recovery system would engage, pulling the aircraft out of the dive so quickly that they were trained to push their heads back into their seats with all of their strength so as not to break their jaw on their chest. Pilots would usually black out briefly at this moment of 3-4Gs as the auto-recovery took over and pulled the aircraft out of the dive. They would be vulnerable in those last few seconds, as from intel, they knew that an anti aircraft battery was in the area and would oppose the attack with fury once they came into view. Müller, the Staffelkapitan, had circulated an aerial photograph of the target at the briefing, etching its image into their minds as they mentally rehearsed the impending assault.

The men climbed in their cockpits and pulled the buckle down over their chests. With a click they locked into place and Müller carefully pulled out a picture from his jacket pocket and taped just above the horizon indicator. 

“Guten Morgen meine Lieben,” he whispered softly, his finger caressing the images of his bride and two children.

He turned the magneto and the fearsome machine came to life. The familiar drone of the engines grumbled in their low and ominous pulsating way. Müller’s BF-109G had seen action in North Africa, Sicily and Italy. After over 100 sorties both the aircraft and Müller were seasoned veterans and he shared a certain affinity with her after all this time. Battle had taken its toll: bullet holes pocked the fuselage, testament to countless near misses, the beaten up manifolds of the cockpit that vibrated as the Daimler-Benz DB 605 groaned, the chipped dark green paint all along the bolts holding the cockpit together, revealing the shiny metal underneath. 

After running through a preflight instrument checklist of his altimeter, airspeed indicator, compass, and engine gauges he gave a thumbs up to the Bondenmann standing on the ground in front of the 4 planes, who after a few moments repeated it back, indicated that all four pilots had given the “good to go.” The man removed the chocks from the wheels, gave the signal to go and ran out of the way. 

Takeoff

Müller nudged the throttle forward, and the quartet of planes rolled along the runway. A fog hung in the air making visibility low, but the Gruppe weatherman judged that the target would be clear. With each aircraft taking its turn, they ascended into the mist-shrouded day. Müller, positioned second, observed as the first plane gracefully lifted off, vanishing into the hazy veil enveloping Monti Prenestini. As his own aircraft reached 60 knots, he eased back on the yoke, feeling the wheels leave the earth with a reassuring rumble. Climbing steadily into the eastern sky, a sense of tranquility washed over him. In the south, tendrils of black smoke billowed from Anzio, a stark reminder of the Allies’ desperate struggle in their ill-fated push towards Rome.

Flight Over the Liri Valley

Soon the rolling hills of the Liri Valley gave way to the forested peaks of the Apennines and the mist made for a sight that Kurt Müller had never tired of even when he knew he was off to an uncertain fate. Smoke rose from the chimneys of the the farmhouses that dotted the countryside along the road that winded south from Rome. 

Just a teenager in 1935, he’d joined the Luftwaffe cadet unit. His fascination with flight had been ignited long ago in the streets of Heidelberg. Enthralled by the tales of Manfred von Richthofen’s daring exploits in WWI, the young Müller dreamed of emulating the legendary fighter ace, known far and wide as the “Red Baron.” Von Richthofen’s legacy would echo through the years, inspiring scores of young men like Müller to take to the skies in Luftwaffe cockpits, each harboring aspirations of emulating their national hero.

Kurt and his wingmates hugged the rugged mountainside as they charted their course eastward before veering south and west towards Acquafondata. Mostly the journey was over thick uninhabited forest, but every now and again they fly over a town, and Kurt could see Italian peasants grabbing their children and rushing to shelter: seeing the black cross on the underside of the wings – a symbol synonymous with German aggression.

It was a blessing and a curse: the BF-109 was easily recognizable as German to both friend and foe; on the Allied side, this was often less so. The Allied soldiers training to recognize a plane as friendly was the pneumonic device WEFT: “Wings. Engine. Fuselage. Tail.” To Allied airmen this become known affectionately as “Wrong. Every. F**cking. Time.” The trigger happy boys on the ground seemed to fire at anything in the sky that moved.

After about 25 minutes into their flight they had reached Castel di Sangro and the three planes ascended to their attack altitude and made a wide sweeping right turn to 200 degrees as they drew closer to the Gustav Line. Kurt looked at the photo, vibrating from the pulsating groans of the engine as it climbed. Recalling the terrain from the morning briefing, he squinted, discerning the silhouette of Monti della Meta on the horizon, its imposing form towering above the forest canopy, serving as a guiding beacon for their approach.

Approaching Aquafondata: The Target Revealed

As they passed over final ridge, he scanned the ground and identified the position of the artillery piece from far above. He gripped the throttle and cut it to idle, the engine responding suddenly as if it had been choked as the plane pointed its nose towards the earth. As the plane dipped, he saw Acquafondata come into view. It was a beautiful little town. Clinging to the hillside. Peaceful as if it were are small little town in the Bavarian alps where he had grown up. 

He looked to the right and in the tight formation could see his wingman’s face. “Auf geht’s!”

Engagement and Escalation: Facing Enemy Fire

For a full 30 seconds the plane dove, and as it got closer and closer to the mountains more and more details came into focus. At 1500m above ground, he realized that the artillery position he had identified was not artillery at all, but an abandoned supply depot of some sort. Had the gun been moved? It was not where the intelligence reported from just days before. Instead, a nearby gun emplacement opened fire. Tracer rounds streaked towards him, accompanied by the ominous bursts of flak exploding in the air. The familiar cacophony of metal striking metal echoed through the cockpit as shards of shrapnel peppered the fuselage, a relentless assault sounding like coins hurled against tin.

“Scheiße!”

Now seeing the AA battery below him he squeezed the trigger, realizing that plan B was underway as the primary target was no where to be found: a strafing run to harass the enemy’s positions. As the earth got closer and closer a tableau unfolded: the hunter green tent village to the west of town, the stark white cross atop the makeshift hospital, the orderly chaos of trucks lining the roadside, men lined up outside the mess for chow now scrambling for cover. Amidst it all, the AA battery sprang to life, its crew scrambling to man their guns, unleashing a storm of bullets into the heavens towards them. Below, farmers tending to their livestock scattered for safety, the tranquility of the countryside shattered by the sudden onslaught.

Klank – klank – klank – klank

A stream of bullets quickly pinged through the plane’s fuselage in succession. Amidst the gunfire, he discerned a sound he knew all too well—a shell penetrating a part of the aircraft that posed no threat to its operation. But this time, it was different. The cockpit manifold emitted a menacing hiss, and suddenly, a scalding splash of engine oil obscured his vision like a hot skillet flung into his face. With gritted teeth, he yanked back on the yoke, attempting to pull out of the dive amidst the haze of confusion. His gaze flickered to the right, a sinking feeling gripping him as he saw the unresponsiveness of his ailerons to his desperate commands.

With a surge of desperation, he continued to pull on the yolk and pushed his head back into his seat. Yet, through the veil of oil-slicked goggles, all he saw was a mountainside, looming ever closer. It resembled Bavaria, he thought — those familiar woods, those beautiful mountains. As his hand hesitated over the lever, ready for the final, desperate act of ejection, memories flooded his mind: of hunting in those Bavarian woods as a boy, his father by his side. The birds calling. The crackle of twigs underfoot. It’s funny, he thought for a brief moment, the things that you think about before you die. Moments from impact, he felt the sudden engaging of the auto-recovery system, pulling the plane away from the ground. In a few seconds all went black. 



Sources:

  1. Air War Over Italy –  2000. Andrew Brookes
  2. World War II in the Mediterranean, 1942-1945 (Major Battles and Campaigns) 1990. by Carlo D’Este (Author), John S. D. Eisenhower (Introduction)
  3. The Luftwaffe 1933-45. Hitler’s Eagles.  2012. Chris McNab
  4. German Planes on an Airfield. 2024. AI Generated Image. Fooocus AI
  5. Belin, Jaques. In the sector of the 3rd DIA (Algerian infantry division), sappers from the 180th BG (engineering battalion) repaired and paved a road leading to the village of Acquafondata. 1944. Photograph. Images Defense. imagesdefense.gouv.fr
  6. Belin, Jaques. An artillery piece in position not far from the village of Acquafondata. 1944. Photograph. Images Defense. imagesdefense.gouv.fr
  7. U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. “US Army Morning Reports. 67th CA. 1943.”

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In the sector of the 3rd DIA (Algerian infantry division), sappers from the 180th BG (engineering battalion) repaired and paved a road leading to the village of Acquafondata.
Morning Report. Feb 5, 1944. 67th CA. Acquafondata, Italy. Text reads: "Feb 5th - Acquafondata, Italy. Registration mission fired at 1245 hours expending 14 rounds. Fired on four ME-109’s, expending 15 rounds. One probably damaged by 50 Cal. fire."
View from the cockpit of a BF-109 over Acquafondata. Screenshot from Flight Simulator. Yes, I am a nerd.

6 Responses

  1. WOW, as always a beautifly writen piece giving the feeling you’re right there with them. Love your story telling!

    This is not a tribute to the purpose that they served, but one of the men who flew these planes

    soaring into the heavens with a fervent passion for flight, becoming pioneers in the sky in a world which had never known such a thing.
    Such was the reality of the conflict, where compassion wrestled with duty in the crucible of battle.
    He turned the magneto and the fearsome machine came to life.

    The familiar cacophony of metal striking metal echoed through the cockpit as shards of shrapnel peppered the fuselage, a relentless assault sounding like coins hurled against tin.

  2. Gripping story telling, well done!
    If you allow my pointing a small typo: it is ‘chocks’ and not ‘chalks’.

    1. So I have been told by a few others as well. I had not anticipated so many airplane enthusiasts to view the post 🙂

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