The Night Aces
By Lee Brimmicombe-Wood

#1. Heinrich Prinz zu Sayn-Wittgenstein

Born in 1916 in Copenhagen, Prince Heinrich Alexander Ludwig Peter zu Sayn-Wittgenstein was the son of Prince Gustav Alexander zu Sayn-Wittgenstein and Walburga, Baroness of Friesen. A true blue-blood, he was a descendant of Graf Heinrich III who took part in the Fifth Crusade and Ludwig Adolf Peter Graf von Sayn-Wittgenstein who had fought against Napoleon at the Beresina in 1812 and been elevated to the rank of Prince by King Friedrich Wilhelm III.

Prince Heinrich's father was a diplomatic envoy and so the boy was raised in numerous locations across Europe. Schooled in Bavaria and Switzerland, young Heinrich was of a delicate constitution. As a child he set himself high targets for physical activity, persevering in spite of physical weakness until he achieved them. This dedication would mark him as an adult.

Both at school and in the Hitler Youth this gangly young man excelled, soon finding himself in leadership positions. He naturally gravitated towards a military career, joining a Bamberg cavalry regiment in 1936 and rapidly rising through the ranks. However, flying attracted him and against the wishes of his family he joined the Luftwaffe and was commissioned in 1938. In letters he plainly told his parents that he could fulfill expectations far more effectively as an aviator and also made it plain that he was not prepared to suffer the financial ruin of a life as a Prince in a cavalry regiment. His Luftwaffe career was to be notable for a lack of airs--he preferred to be known simply as 'Wittgenstein'--though he was not averse to occasionally pulling rank for gain.

Accepted into flying training in Braunschweig, Wittgenstein learned to fly and navigate. During the Battles of France and Britain, and during the Blitz, he served in Kampfgeschwader 1 'Hindenburg' flying combat missions as a navigator and bomb aimer. It seems from his logs that he took part in attacks on Biggin Hill, Ramsgate and Coventry.

During the Winter of 1940/41 the Prince, now a combat veteran, went back to pilot's school and passed the pilot exam for blind flying. Then Wittgenstein went East to take part in the attack on Russia and flew 150 combat missions against the Soviets. In January 1942 the Prince mysteriously volunteered for the unprestigious night fighter arm. One biographer suggest that he had developed a dislike of dropping bombs that might hit civilians. Another indicates he had a bitter revulsion towards the slaughter exacted by Bomber Command on Germany's cities and resolved to fight it.

Earning his first night victory against a Bristol Blenheim in May 1942 Wittgenstein was soon promoted to Hauptmann and moved east to join the Night Gruppe IV/NJG 5 in its fight against the Russians. In a target-rich environment the Prince and his Ju88 racked up kills. By the time he moved West to fight the British in the Battle of the Ruhr he had more than 25 victories to his name and had built a solid reputation as an Experte.

To his subordinates Wittgenstein was the complete German officer and a remote, arrogant aristocrat. His fellow officers regarded him as ruthlessly ambitious and obsessive. His energy and ability earned him honours. He was caught up in a rivalry between the top aces (particularly Helmut Lent) for scores, and became fidgety if not allowed to fly operations. By the war's end he was the third highest-scoring night ace in the Luftwaffe.

Herbert Kümmritz, Wittgenstein's Funker (radar operator) for much of 1943, believed him to be no glory hunter but an earnest and serious man driven by a deep sense of duty. Kümmritz thought the Prince carried the aristocratic conviction that his duty was to lead and defend his country, even to the death. In a service where most flyers sought to survive the war, this single-mindedness was unusual.

Wittgenstein's commanding officer, Wolfgang Falck, agreed with this, noting that "Prince Wittgenstein was a nobleman, but not a National Socialist. He fought for Germany as had his family for 500 years and he was quite successful and a true gentleman." Falck noted that night flying worked on the nerves in a way that day flying did not and this may have contributed to Wittgenstein's hospitalization in early 1943 with fatigue and stomach complaints. The Prince's letters from this time reveal an unease about the direction Germany was moving politically and the family in private voiced growing concerns about Hitler.

PHOTO: The legendary Wittgenstein.

Wittgenstein's lifestyle was austere, though one Funker remembers a rare Christmas (in 1943) spent shooting wild sheep in Holland and sharing a glass of Sekt with the Prince. He was a nervous and demanding man, exacting the best out of his radar operators and frustratedly berating them if they could not find a blip on their scopes. One story had it that he ordered one Funker to stand to attention in his plane and confined him to quarters for three days for losing a contact; then the Prince shot down three bombers shortly afterwards and so pardoned the man, awarding him the Iron Cross First Class. Kümmritz was his longest-serving fighting partner and stuck it out as the disciplinarian prince's Funker for ten months.

The weakness of the German nightfighter defences for much of the early war was due to the fighter control system. A sector of airspace could be patrolled by one nightfighter at a time. This meant that it was not unusual for novice pilots on patrol to be replaced by an experienced ace as soon as a raid was detected. Wittgenstein appears to have been unusually brusque about 'pulling rank' this way. He would fly to radio beacons and radio the fighter on station to clear off with his trademark 'Hier Wittgenstein--geh' weg!' Falck noted that the Prince was a natural leader but not a good one, preferring to be something of a lone wolf.

Building his scores on the Western Front, Wittgenstein was eventually shipped back to the East were as Kommandeur of 1./NJG 100 he became enthusiastic about the idea of upward-firing guns. Wittgenstein improvised his own oblique gun installation and it became his preferred method of attack--stalking the bomber target from below to shoot into its belly or the underside of the wing. Oddly enough, the Prince's night vision wasn't all that good and he often relied on his Funker to watch out of the cockpit for him when following a target visually.

ILLUSTRATION: Hauptmann Wittgenstein's Ju88C-6 in January 1944.

Wittgenstein returned to the Western Front where, as Kommodore of NJG 2 he found himself in a contest with Helmut Lent for the title of leading night ace (Lent would end the war as second highest scorer). On the night of 20 January 1944 Wittgenstein shot down three Lancasters, but the third collided with his Ju88, its propeller shearing off a chunk of wing. The Prince made a crash landing at Erfurt, where he commandeered another Ju88 to fly back to his airfield at Deelen. The next night he was to stalk more Lancasters, bringing down four in the space of forty minutes. He had just lined up and shot at a fifth when his aircraft was hit. Wittgenstein shouted 'Raus' to his Funker, who bailed out. The radar operator survived, but Wittgenstein's body was found near the wreckage of the Ju88, his parachute unopened. It was thought he'd hit his head during the escape and had been unable to pull the ripcord.

Wittgenstein was Germany's leading nightfighter ace at the time of his death, with a score of 83. He was posthumously awarded the Swords to the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross, Germany's second highest decoration for gallantry. Wittgenstein's killer is unknown, with a Lancaster tail-gunner mentioned as a possible candidate. It has been suggested that a Mosquito flown by RAF Flight Sergeant Desmon Snape may have been responsible. Snape's log shows that the Ju88 he shot down had been burning its navigation lights. If this had been Wittgenstein then it would be an irony if the perfectionist Prince had been undone by such a simple and obvious error.

By the time of his death Wittgenstein's anti-Hitler sentiments were reaching boiling point. Like many aristocrats the Sayn-Wittgensteins had been disgusted with the chaos that followed Germany's defeat in the Great War and worried about Communist takeover. Hitler's rise promised a restoration of order and economic strength and had contributed to the young Prince's passion for the Hitler Youth and Luftwaffe. However, by the middle of the war the family could see the wheels coming off the wagon. His mother commented that Heinrich was now "boundlessly disillusioned" and that in 1943 he had contemplated shooting Hitler.

The Prince had become close to a Russian Princess, Marie Wassiltschikow, known affectionately as 'Missie', who worked as a secretary in the Foreign Ministry in Berlin. She diaried that Heinrich had talked of being decorated by 'our darling' (a sarcastic reference to the Führer) and had noted that his pistol had not been removed in the leader's presence and that he agonized that he had missed an opportunity to "bump him off" then and there. Missie's sister Tatjana also recalls Heinrich volunteering to "shoot the bastard", even though this violated his officer's oath. In January 1944 he talked to Marie of blowing himself up when he and Hitler next shook hands. He never got the chance. A few days later, the young Prince was dead.

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