Luftwaffe secret weapons - everyone knows about Germany's V-1 and V-2 missiles and the Luftwaffe jet and rocket aircraft, but they were no real secret, even during the war, as London's civilians and allied pilots knew about them and saw them in action, and allied intelligence knew about them even earlier.
This essay is about the most secret Luftwaffe unit, which operated its most secret aircraft and flew its most special missions. A ghost unit which became known to allied intelligence only after World War 2 ended. This is the story of Luftwaffe wing 200.
Every large Air Force has squadrons and aircraft for strategic intelligence missions and for missions requiring the use of special aircraft and special weapons. Sometimes "innocent" civilian aircraft are being used for espionage missions, or even a few captured enemy aircraft. There are also units that test fly experimental and captured aircraft. These special and secret aircraft are usually flown by the most experienced and skilled pilots, and covered by the deepest secrecy, often for decades.
For example, in the post-war United States these were the SR-71 Blackbird spy plane, the stealth aircraft, the CIA-operated aircraft, and the captured Russian aircraft and experimental aircraft flown from Area 51 in Nevada, nicknamed Dreamland.
In Nazi Germany, the top secret Luftwaffe unit code-named Bomber Wing 200 ( KG 200 ) was all that.
When the German military began to prepare for World War 2, it needed air photos of the countries it intended to invade. Since flights by the standard Luftwaffe photo recon aircraft were not just violation of those countries airspace but also a clear warning sign of German intentions, the German military intelligence used aerial cameras carefully hidden in German passenger and commercial aircraft which flew over those countries.
The rise in landing delays by the formerly precise German pilots made the Polish intelligence suspect that the innocent civilian German aircraft are used for photo reconnaissance, but they could not find the hidden cameras, when they checked those aircraft when they landed in Polish airports.
The Luftwaffe operated civilian aircraft for photo recon missions all over Europe and North Africa before and during World War 2. Initially the aircraft belonged to the German military intelligence, but during the war they were assigned to the Luftwaffe.
When World War 2 started, German spies and saboteurs had to be inserted to or extracted from allied countries. Some were inserted or extracted by German submarines, some travelled via neutral countries, and some, like many allied secret agents, parachuted from Luftwaffe aircraft.
In February 1944, Luftwaffe headquarters ordered that all strategic and covert aerial reconnaissance, secret agent deliveries, special delivery flights to Japan, and experimental aircraft testing, in fact all special missions, will be concentrated in one new unit, code-named bomber wing 200. The commander of the new unit was Werner Baumbach, a very experienced and highly decorated bomber pilot and leader who survived over four years of bombing missions over enemy territory, over France, Britain, Russia, and elsewhere.
KG 200 was made of several large squadrons. It was also geographically spread in multiple bases all over Europe. The total secrecy in KG 200, as common in such top secret units, was such that its people knew very little of each other's activity, to minimize security breach in case of captivity. It had over 100 air crews and operated over 30 different German and allied aircraft types.
The 1st squadron of KG 200 was in charge of flying German secret agents to and from allied territory. It had a long-range group, and a short-range group which was spread all over Europe. It got its operational orders directly from the SD, the Nazi party's intelligence service.
The 2nd squadron of KG 200 was in charge of all other operations, including electronic warfare and special bombing missions, long range patrols as far as the US East coast, and special cargo missions which flew all the way to Japanese held North China. It operated from hidden airstrips all over Europe, usually near forests, used to hide their special aircraft from allied pilots.
Additional squadrons which were established but did not become operational before the war ended, were the German suicide attack unit, equipped with a human-piloted version of the V-1 cruise missile, and a very long range squadron intended to reach the US East coast and other remote targets.
All secret agent delivery missions were night missions, to further minimize exposure to the enemy, and they relied on the navigation skills of the navigators, which were the best and most experienced navigators in the Luftwaffe.
To further minimize the risk to both pilots and agents in secret agent insertion missions, especially when a team of agents was involved, the Luftwaffe developed a special human air drop device. It was a bomb-like cylinder carried by a bomber, in which three secret agents and their equipment could be safely dropped from the bomber to the enemy ground. The cylinder was equipped with a parachute, a telephone which enabled the secret agents to speak with the bomber pilot during the flight, and a shock absorber to further ease the landing. It allowed the German intelligence to safely land single, or teams, of secret agents in enemy territory, with heavier equipment and without the common risk of parachuting leg injuries.
During the war, the Luftwaffe downed many allied bombers over German held territory. Others landed because of technical problems. Some of these bombers remained flyable. Initially these captured bombers, such as American B-17s and B-24s and Russian Pe-2s and Tupolevs and other aircraft, were flown by the Luftwaffe for studying their capabilities for intelligence and technological analysis. These test-flown bombers were given Luftwaffe markings, like the one in the picture above.
Later, KG 200 began to use these captured long range bombers for its top secret missions. With the increasing air superiority of allied air forces, the German retreats, and the increasing use of RADAR and RADAR-equipped night fighters, it became ever harder for the German bombers to fly deep into allied airspace. Flying long-ranged captured allied bombers instead of the smaller and shorter range German bombers was a perfect solution for the Luftwaffe. These bombers could fly further and could fly over the most protected allied targets, day and night, without being even shot at, as they looked and sounded exactly like allied bombers. It was the perfect equivalent of the stealth bomber. The captured allied bombers used by KG 200 were not given German markings and remained with their original allied colors and markings for complete day or night deception of allied pilots and anti-aircraft gunners which saw them. They could fly anywhere, day or night, make aerial photos, drop agents, bomb targets, track allied bomber formations and constantly report their exact position and altitude without being intercepted by their fighter escorts, etc, etc, and so they did.
In World War 2, Germany led in the development of guided bombs and missiles. In addition to operating normal guided weapons, such as the Hs-293 missile and Fritz X bomb, KG 200 operated the heaviest and most unique type of weapon operated by the Luftwaffe, the Mistel bomber-size missile.
Mistel was a bomber, usually a Junkers 88, that was transformed to a huge missile by replacing its cockpit with a four tons warhead, placing a mount on its back for carrying a mounted fighter aircraft (picture above), and connecting the unmanned bomber's flight controls to the fighter, so that the fighter's pilot could fly the dual aircraft all the way to the target, usually a large fixed strategic target such as a dam, a power station, or a large bridge, aim the bomber to its final dive to the target, and then disconnect the fighter from it and fly home. The Mistel bomber-missile had a long range and could smash the largest targets.
In their first attack, in June 1944, four Mistels sank ships in the English Channel. One of the major planned Luftwaffe attacks was supposed to destroy Russia's largest hydro-electric power stations with Mistels, and by doing so reduce Russia's electricity production by 75%, but most of them were destroyed on the ground by a US air attack before the operation. The Mistel's last attack, in march 1945, was personally led by Werner Baumbach, commander of KG 200. A large group of Mistels took off for the mission, most of them were shot down, but five Mistels destroyed large bridges over rivers in East Germany, in order to delay Russian advance into Germany.
The Mistel was like a suicide aircraft but without the suicide. As Germany was losing the war, there were some fanatic and influential Nazi officers like Hanna Reitsch, a famous female test pilot and pre-war gliding champion, Otto Skorzeny, a special operations expert, and Hajo Hermann, a senior bomber and night fighter leader, who suggested, unrelated to the Japanese use of Kamikaze suicide pilots, that Germany will use volunteers as suicide pilots in order to overcome the allied technological and numerical advantages with their fanatic spirit. The idea had roots in German mythology that was glorified by Nazi propaganda, it was "Totenritt", a death ride.
Hitler was reluctant, but eventually agreed to Reitsch's request to establish and train a suicide attack air unit, in condition that it will not be operated in combat without his approval. The new unit, nicknamed the Leonidas Squadron, also became part of KG 200.
Leonidas was the Greek warrior king of Sparta who in 480BC stopped the invading Persian army at the narrow Thermopylae pass in East Greece with just 300 elite warriors who fought to the last man. Their sacrifice saved Greece from occupation, and a statue of Leonidas still stands at Thermopylae. The desperate Nazi fanatics thought they can save Germany too by suicide tactics.
The aircraft to be used was the Fi-103 Reichenberg, a manned version of the German V-1 cruise missile, equipped with a small cockpit and flight controls. After two volunteers were killed trying to test fly it, it was successfully flown by Hanna Reitsch, the experienced test pilot who was the first to sign as a volunteer suicide pilot. 24 V-1 cruise missiles were initially modified to manned suicide missiles and over 70 volunteers, mostly young recruits, began training to fly the V-1 as a suicide missile. They were called "self-sacrificers". Theoretically they were supposed to try to bail out after aiming their piloted missile to its final dive at the target, but it was clear that the chances of survival were very low. Also, unlike the much faster rocket-powered Japanese Okha suicide missile, that was much faster than all allied fighters, the jet-powered V-1 was slow enough to be intercepted.
The suicide squadron of KG 200 was never used in combat because Werner Baumbach and his superiors considered it an unnecessary waste of life and resources, and preferred the Mistel. Baumbach claimed that Mistel was better than both a manned bomber and a suicide missile, because of the minimal loss of crew lives, as losing a manned bomber meant the loss of a full crew while Mistel was flown by a single pilot, and unlike a suicide missile pilot, the Mistel pilot had a chance to return safely.
Eventually another German suicide tactic was used in combat. It was the interception of heavy bombers by ramming, as suggested by Hajo Hermann, head of the German night fighters command. Fighter wing 300 (JG 300) was assigned to use this tactic very late in the war, equipped with ordinary Me-109 and Fw-190 fighters, but it was used just a few times, with little success. Few bombers were destroyed by collisions, and few suicide pilots who managed to bail out were killed by the furious gunners of the other bombers.
At the last days of World War 2, Luftwaffe bomber wing 200 retreated its remaining special aircraft to South Germany, the documents about its secret activities were destroyed, and that's were its secret war ended.
In march 1945, shortly before the end of World War 2, Werner Baumbach, the highly decorated bomber pilot, and commander of KG 200, was promoted to commander of what was left of the German bomber command. After the war, still a Nazi, he wrote an autobiography. The total secrecy spirit of KG 200, which remained even after the war, is best demonstrated by the fact that while he describes his long and distinguished wartime service as a Luftwaffe bomber pilot in the book, he does not mention KG 200 there with a single word. Like many other Nazis, he immigrated after the war to Argentina where he worked as a test pilot. He was killed in 1953 at age 36 during a test flight, taking many secrets of KG 200 with him.