With Adolf Hitler having committed suicide on Apr. 30, 1945, the Third Reich staggered on for another week with Reichsprasident Karl Donitz, formerly Grand Admiral of the Naval High Command, at the helm as his chosen successor.
According to Dan Sharp’s book Spitfires Over Berlin, from May 1, his first day in office, until the end of the war, Donitz did everything he could to ensure as many German servicemen as possible could surrender to the British and Americans while simultaneously continuing the war against the Soviets by whatever means remained available.
He first surrendered his forces in the Netherlands, Denmark and north-western Germany to Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery on May 4 — the terms including a complete ban on flights by Luftwaffe aircraft. With Luftwaffe opposition ended, this effectively brought hostilities to a close for the RAF.
The only known exception was at around 6.30am on May 5 when a patrol of three 130 Squadron Spitfire XIVs came across a Siebel Si 204 twin-engined transport/ trainer flying over the sea west of Hamburg. After it began evasive manoeuvres, it was shot down and jointly claimed by Flight Lieutenant Dudley Guy Gibbins and Warrant Officer Vic J Seymour — the last British victory of the air war.
The fighting carried on elsewhere however. Donitz had Admiral Hans-Georg von Friedeburg begin negotiations with US commander General Dwight D Eisenhower at Reims in France on May 5 and the German Chief of Staff Generaloberst Alfred Jodl arrived on May 6. Donitz had told him to hold off on agreeing to a full surrender for as long as possible so that more German forces could escape the Soviets.
He managed less than 24 hours, signing the instrument of unconditional surrender at 2.30am on May 7 with Donitz’s permission. The critical phrase in the instrument was “all forces under German control to cease offensive operations at 23.01 hours, central European time, on May 8, 1945”.
In the west, May 8 began with American airmen stationed in England preparing for two very different missions. Mission 986 was the Eighth Air Force’s las operational mission over Europe during the war and it involved 12 B-17s of the 306th Bomb Group dropping leaflets over key locations.
Aircraft of the 369th Bomb Squadron set off at 7.45am to fly over Dunkirk. The fortified town was still in German hands, having been surrounded and then bypasses by the British during the drive into occupied Europe. The leaflets told the garrison that they had been ordered to surrender — which they eventually did the following day.
On the opposite side of Europe however, combat was still raging. The highest scoring fighter ace of all time, 23-year-old Major Erich Hartmann of I./JG 52, took off with his wingman in their Bf 109s from his unit’s base in Czechoslovakia at 8am to intercept Soviet fighters over Brno. Recalling the events later in life, he said: “My wingman and I saw eight Yaks below us. I shot one down and that was my last victory.
I decided not to attack the others once I saw that there were 12 Mustangs on the scene above me.
“My wingman and I headed for the deck where the smoke of the bombing could hide us. We pulled through the smoke and saw once again the two allies fighting each other above us. Incredible! Well, we landed at the field and were told that the war was over.”
Hartmann, who ended the war with 352 victories, and his men fired off all their remaining munitions into the woods, destroyed their 25 remaining aircraft and set off in search of some British or American forces to surrender to. He succeeded in finding Americans but was then turned over to the Soviets anyway.
Also stationed in Czechoslovakia was Fw 190-equipped ground attack unit III./SG 77. Pilot Unteroffizier Bernhard Ellwanger recalled: “On May 8 all aircraft, with the exception of four, were drained of fuel. Why my crate was one of those four, I don’t know to this day.
“Led by Hauptmann Gunther Ludigkeit, Kapitan of 7. Staffel, we took off in the direction of Prague. Our mission was to destroy Prague radio station which was in the hands of Czech partisans. When we were at 4000m Prague came in sight.
“Then I saw something I couldn’t take my eyes off: hundreds of American fighters filled the sky like some gigantic flypast at an air show. The whole mass flashed silver in the sun. The sight almost made me miss our attack. Our Schwarm dived away to port with me following.
“With the target centred in my Revi, I released my bomb at 1500m. A direct hit. Then we got out of there, eastward back to base. So ended my last sortie on the very day of the capitulation, and with it my last chance of landing in the American zone.”
Leutnant Gerhard Thyben of JG 54 and his wingman Fritze Hangebrauck, escaping from the Courland pocket in Fw 190s, shot down a Pe-2 together at 7.54am on May 8 but Oberleutnant Fritz Stehle, Staffelkapitan of 2./JG 7, is believed to have scored the final Luftwaffe victory of the Second World War over Czechoslovakia at 4pm that day. He had taken off in Me 262 A-1a W.Nr. 111690 ‘White 5’ at 3.20pm to intercept Soviet Yak-9 fighters and succeeded in destroying one of them.
He then flew ‘White 5’ to Fassberg, where it was captured by the British.
The final American victory, and possibly the last Luftwaffe aircraft to be shot down during the war, was another Siebel Si 204. At 8pm, just three hours before the official cessation of hostilities, 2nd Lieutenant Kenneth L Swift, of the 429th Fighter Squadron, 474th Fighter Group, USAAF Ninth Air Force, was flying his Lockheed P-38 Lightning ‘Beauty Juny’ three miles southeast of Bad Rodach, Bavaria, when he encountered the German aircraft.
He fired warning shots, which were enough to prompt its pilot to crash land it. While most other USAAF units were stood down by this point, the 474th continued to provide tactical air support for the US First Army until May 9 from its air base, R-2 at Bad Langensalza. It was the only group in Northern Europe flying the P-38 by the end of the war.
The Siebel was Swift’s first and only victory of the war— although he would go on to fly North American F-86 Sabres during the Korean War, adding a further ‘kill’. Promoted to major, he later became an instructor in the German Air Force.
Overall, it is believed that nine German aircraft were shot down on May 8, 1945. How many Allied aircraft were shot down by Luftwaffe machines is unknown.
The last RAF pilot to die before the war’s official end was killed on May 8. Flight Lieutenant Donald James Hunter, 22, of Upminster, Essex, a member of 322 (Dutch) Squadron, was killed after his Spitfire, LF XVI, TB383 3W-A, suffered engine failure during a victory flypast near the unit’s base at Varrelbusch, Germany, and he made an unsuccessful emergency landing.
Finally, there are numerous reports of American and Soviet aircraft engaged in combat with one another on May 8 and afterwards. In one case, on May 8, Captain Malcolm L. Nash of the 39th Photographic Reconnaissance Squadron, 10th Photographic Group, Ninth Air Force was flying a PoW camp pinpointing mission in the vicinity of Dresden when his unarmed F-5E Lightning was attacked by Second Lieutenant Lazuta of the Soviet 106th Guards Fighter Air Regiment, based at what had been Focke-Wulf’s Cottbus factory airfield. Lazuta fatally damaged the Lightning and it crashed about 40km west of Dresden, Nash survived without serious injury.
In another instance on the same day, a pair of F-5s piloted by First Lieutenant Thomas P. Petrus and Second Lieutenant Thomas Jackson were attacked by Soviet P-39s from the 100th Guards Fighter Air Regiment near Prague. Major Pschenitchnikov shot down Petrus who parachuted to safety despite suffering severe burns, and claimed it as a Focke-Wulf Fw 189 for his 13th and final ‘kill’ of the war.
As late as May 11, Avro Anson Mk.XI PH539 of the Desert A Force Communication Flight was attacked by a trio of Soviet Yaks while off course near Graz in Austria. It force-landed in a field before crashing into some trees.
Spitfires Over Berlin is published by Mortons Books and is available to order here along with many other beautiful aviation books. Save 10% on all books with exclusive promotional code ‘AVGEEK10’!
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force Wikimedia Commons via Military History Now
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