South African Military History 

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Our speaker on 13 October 2011 was Mr John (Jochen) Mahncke, whose topic was For Kaiser and Hitler: From Military Aviator To High Command - The Memoirs of Luftwaffe General Alfred Mahncke 1910-1945. His topic for the evening was based on the diary of his late father who served in the German Air Force in both world wars with great distinction. Mr Jochen Mahncke edited the diary and published his father's memoirs (under the same title) earlier this year, to great acclaim by the international historical aviation fraternity. Our speaker is an honorary member of the society and was a long-serving committee member for both the Gauteng and Cape Town branches.

Born in 1888 in West Prussia, Alfred Mahncke finished his schooling in 1908 and decided to join the German armed forces. The Navy had too many volunteers so the next choice was the Army. The cavalry was too expensive - officers had to provide their own uniforms and mounts - and he had no interest in the infantry or artillery - so he joined the Railway Regiment in Berlin. In 1909 he was promoted to Lieutenant. All new officers had to be introduced to the Kaiser in those days. In those more genteel days, officers stationed in Berlin were often required to attend the various formal balls which were a feature of the time, where they rubbed shoulders with high society and nobility. A feature of such events was the requirement that they were to ensure that all "wallflowers" present would have dancing partners. One could not just approach the lady and ask her for a dance. This had to be done through an intermediary. Only once the meeting had been effected according to protocol, could an officer ask a society lady for a subsequent dance. Officers' salaries were not generous and their living quarters were Spartan, to say the least. Furniture was basic and there were few comforts. A further requirement was that officers had to have moustaches, part of the uniform apparently.

In 1911, Lt Mahncke heard about the new German Army Flying Service (Fliegerwaffe) based at Doeberitz near Berlin and decided to volunteer. He was interviewed and accepted. He arrived at the airfield and was not very impressed with what he found - one Farman aircraft, eight officers and a few mechanics. It must be remembered that this was in the earliest days of military aviation.

With only one aircraft available, this had to be treated with great care so it was a while before he had his first flight, seated behind the pilot in the observer's seat. A second aircraft was purchased and the young Mahncke became very enthusiastic about flying. He received his pilot's wings in 1911. The Farman Company had offered to train two German pilots if the Germans bought an aircraft. Lt Mahncke and another pilot did the course in France but, before the aircraft could be delivered, the French press created such a furore that this became impossible. However, where there's a will, there's a way - the aircraft was sold to a Swiss intermediary who then sold it on to the Germans.

The Crown Prince was very interested in flying but his father, the Kaiser, had made it known that pilots were not to take him up in an aircraft. Lt Mahncke allowed himself to be persuaded by the Crown Prince and early one morning the flight took place. Luckily everything went well and all was quiet for a while, but word somehow got out and the Kaiser came to hear about it. Lt Mahncke was summoned to report to the commanding officer who gave him a terrific blasting for contravening the Kaiser's order. However the Crown Prince had taken the blame for the incident and was punished with nine day's house arrest. Lt Mahncke's punishment was three day's house arrest. The Crown Prince subsequently invited him to afternoon tea, and apologised for the inconvenience his brashness had caused and to make up for it, gave him a signed photograph of himself. His wife was most appreciative of the outcome as she confided to Lt Mahncke that it was the longest period that the Crown Prince had been home lately without any interruptions and that his family were most appreciative of the fact. Even the Royal Family lived a very normal life whenever royal duties allowed it and he found them to be pleasant people and not at all pompous, despite popular opinion.

More aircraft were purchased from a variety of manufacturers and, in 1912, the Fliegerwaffe took part in the autumn manoeuvres of the Army. These were on a large scale and took place after the crops had been harvested. This was the first time that the air arm had taken part in manoeuvres and the aircraft were allocated to the various army corps. Their task was to reconnoitre and observe the "enemy". Not an easy task as aircraft were very flimsy and not very reliable in those days (100 years ago.) and crashed quite frequently.

As usual there was a review of the troops after the manoeuvres, this included the Fliegerwaffe. The officers were introduced to the Kaiser and, when Lt Mahncke was introduced, the Kaiser said "ah, the man who took my son flying in defiance of my orders" - fortunately said with a smile.

Lt Mahncke was transferred to a Flieger-Batallion stationed in East Prussia. As 1914 approached, the war clouds started to gather and he spent much time and effort in reorganising and reinforcing the air units in East Prussia. In 1914, Lt Mahncke spent his leave in England and was fortunately able to return to Germany without being interned. Mobilisation was in full progress when he returned to East Prussia.

Lt Mahncke had wanted to further his military career and this involved courses at the War Academy for which he had applied. He had been performing staff duties as well as flying in the pre-war period. When the war started he was involved in reconnaissance flights and even took part in the latter part of the Battle of Tannenberg, on foot, and even participated in an infantry charge on enemy positions. He served on both the Eastern and the Western fronts in a variety of flying and staff posts.

The war brought many improvements to military aviation. Despite aircraft becoming more advanced little night flying took place. Advancing From observation and reconnaissance only, aircraft were now used to drop bombs and engage other aircraft. The original arrangement was to allocate aircraft to the various field armies but, later in the war, aircraft were grouped into fighter, bomber and observation units and a Flying Service was set up reporting directly to the General Staff. This was originally headed by a little known staff major who had scant knowledge of flying but who was a brilliant organiser. His name was Maj Thomsen and he was replaced by a Generalleutnant von Hoeppner, whose chief of staff he became. The general kept the German High Command happy while the Chief of Staff did the organising - which worked very well. Lt Mahncke joined this staff.

Turkey was an ally and received assistance from Germany, including a force of aircraft on the Palestinian Front where the Turks were attempting to block the Suez Canal. In 1916, Lt Mahncke was sent to Palestine to find out what the problems there were and to evaluate the needs of the German forces involved.

He travelled to Constantinople and then by train to Damascus. Here he saw the difficulties under which the Germans operated - long and inefficient supply lines, inadequate numbers, extreme climatic conditions and an increasingly active British opponent. The Arab Revolt had started and the Turks were heavily involved in countering this. Lt Mahncke also undertook a reconnaissance mission over the Suez Canal and received a hot welcome from the British defences - ironically it was the exact-same area where 25 years later his son would be made a Prisoner-of-War.

On his return to France in January 1917, Lt Mahncke was promoted to Hauptmann (Captain). This meant leaving the Fliegerwaffe but, with Thomsen's support, he was accepted for General Staff training. He was however required to serve at the front for a number of months, with the 11th Reserve Division. They were in the line near Arras. The division then moved to a very much more active area near Vimy Ridge. After a period on the staff he was given command of an infantry company in the line. Here he was involved in heavy fighting on Hill 211 countering an Allied attack, enduring heavy artillery barrages and hand-to-hand fighting, with massive losses on both sides. (Of his 122-strong company, only 26 survived - all wounded and one went completely mad and was kept tied up for both the enemy's and their own safety. The descriptions of this fighting in Jochen Mahncke's book "From Kaiser to Hitler" are harrowing in the extreme and reminds one of the similar experiences of the famous German author, Ernst Juenger, as recounted in his books "Storms of Steel" and "Copse 125".)

In October 1917 Hptm Mahncke returned to the Eastern Front where things were much quieter as a result of the Bolshevik revolution and divisions were being prepared to move to the West for a last major effort. In early 1918 he was given command of the Koeniglich Saechsische Flieger Abteilung (A) 231 (Royal Saxon Flying Detachment) and, in July 1918, the German Army launched its last major attack of the war. In September 1918, Thomsen had him transferred back to his command, but by now it was clear to everyone that the writing was on the wall. The end of the war was fast approaching and mutiny was in the air. On 11 November 1918 the war ended and in February 1919 Hptm Mahncke resigned and returned to the family home to help his parents run the family farm.

A period of considerable turmoil followed with near revolution and a threat of Bolshevik revolution. This situation was not helped by the Treaty of Versailles, which one well-known French general - as well as General Jan Christiaan Smuts - described as an invitation to the next World War. The family farm was sold and Alfred Mahncke joined the Security Police in East Prussia - this was a form of para-military police force deployed in the rural areas to provide internal security and combat revolutionary insurgency. It succeeded in doing this. In 1923 Mahncke got married and in 1926 a son (our speaker this evening) was born.

Mahncke rose through the ranks of the police (now called the Schutzpolizei - Protection Police Force) during this time of unemployment, terrible inflation and inevitable political turmoil.

He returned to East Prussia and became head of the Police Academy with the rank of Oberst (colonel). He had proved himself to be an excellent trainer of men - not harsh and overbearing but fair. With more and more political interference, especially after 1933, and the resurrection of the German Air Force, Mahncke applied to join the new Luftwaffe.

However, soon after joining the resurgent Luftwaffe and to his consternation, the new Oberst found himself appointed the new Reichsluftsportfuehrer (C-in-C of all aviation sport organisations in Germany). His job was to coordinate all forms of air-related sport and encourage young people to take an interest in all forms of aviation. In carrying out his duties he came into contact with many of the leading lights in the National-Socialist Party and the military. Foreign countries also took an interest via their defence and air attachés. In 1936 the Olympic Games took place in Berlin and here Mahncke met Charles Lindbergh whom he found to be a modest person and very interested in the work being done to encourage interest in aviation. However, the Nazi Party and Hitlerjugend (Hitler Youth movement) started to muscle in and politicise the Luftsport organisation so Alfred Mahncke decided to return to military aviation.

In February 1937 he was appointed to command Kampfgeschwader 152, a bomber wing. There were problems in that insufficient aircraft and trained aircrews were available. But these problems were tackled vigorously. But every so often trained crews were removed from the wing. Only later did Mahncke find out that these were joining the Legion Condor in Spain where the Civil War was in full swing from 1936 to 1939.

At about this time Colonel-General Ernst Udet was placed in charge of technical development in the Luftwaffe, a post of critical strategic importance. Alfred Mahncke felt that this was a wrong decision and he was proved to be correct later in the war when the Germans fell behind in the development of advanced aircraft. Udet was a WWI comrade of Goering and a famous fighter ace in his own right, as well as an accomplished and popular stunt pilot.

The Anschluss (union) with Austria and the takeover of Czechoslovakia followed and promotion to Generalmajor ensued. Mahncke was appointed head of training first in Muenster and then Hamburg. Here he first met the future Field-Marshal Wolfram Freiherr von Richthofen, on his return from Spain, where he had proved to be a particularly vigorous and effective commander. He also met Hitler and found him to be a compelling speaker and to have a considerable knowledge of matters military.

In September 1939 Poland was invaded and World War 2 started. Alfred Mahncke had been ordered to form Luftgau zbV 12 (Special-purpose Air District), an ad hoc administrative organisation which would be used to take over Polish airfields, repair these for use by the Luftwaffe and organise supplies for them. This was done but there were command problems - Goering appointed senior officers not according to their qualifications, suitability and personality, but because they were old comrades of his or of his cronies.

When France fell in 1940, Mahncke was ordered to France to take over Luftgaustab 12 reporting to Luftflotte (Air Fleet) 2 under Field-Marshal Hugo Sperrle, a somewhat choleric person. Everything was in disarray, airfields were disorganised, everyone wanted to enjoy the pleasures of Paris and all of this hindered the preparations for the aerial assault on Britain. Mahncke was ordered to sort this all out. He did so ruthlessly and quickly, a task that made him extremely unpopular with the impromptu "tourists" and joyriders. The chief of staff of the Luftwaffe at the time was Jeschonnek, who confided to Mahncke that he could not stomach the intrigues and rivalries in Goering's headquarters. Mahncke was appointed Inspector of Pilot Training, based in Berlin and promoted to Generalleutnant.

In June 1941, the war against Russia started. Goering had opposed this war but gave in to Hitler. The initial heady victories were followed by disillusionment as disasters followed spectacular victories. As Luftwaffe C-in-C, Goering would not responsibility for the setbacks but sought scape-goats to blame. The Chief of the Luftwaffe's Technical Office Ernst Udet was picked by Goering as scape-goat for the Luftwaffe's Russian reverses. Udet was an artistic personality, totally unsuited for such a demanding position, and he committed suicide when the pressure became unbearable.

In May 1942 Mahncke was appointed to command Luftgaustab 21 and move this to Russia to support the attack on the Crimea and the advance to Rostov and beyond into the Caucasus.

Our speaker described the problems caused by distance, lack of roads, lack of vehicles and fuel and the lack of information from higher command as observed first-hand by his father. He described these conditions against the background of Hitler's decision to capture Stalingrad and how this caused more problems for the supply and administrative services of the Luftwaffe. With two major thrusts, to Stalingrad and the Caucasus, Luftflotte 4 was over-extended and the problems of supply worsened with the advent of winter. General Mahncke was placed in command of all Luftwaffe units not attached to a Fliegerkorps or Fliegerdivision and was also given the job of forming an ad hoc Luftwaffenfelddivision (an infantry Division.) out of disorganised, lost or redundant ground personnel. The 15th Luftwaffenfelddivision was subordinated to Fliegerkorps VIII under the command of the redoubtable Generaloberst Wolfram Freiherr von Richthofen, the unchallenged expert and foremost exponent of close-air support and dive-bombing tactics during WWII. He regarded Freiherr von Richthofen as imaginative, energetic and well experienced - a commanding officer of quality and a man of quick decision. This liaison laid the basis of a highly-successful partnership that tested the mettle, leadership and organisational abilities of Gen Mahncke through some of the most critical periods of fighting in Russia, and again in Italy (which only came to an end due to Von Richthofen's failing health in late 1944).

When the Russian counterattack came Stalingrad could only be supplied only from the air. Goering had promised Hitler that this could be done, another example of his flight from reality. Von Richthofen appointed Alfred Mahncke to the command of a Fliegerdivision to operate between the Don and Donetz rivers. This was to support the remnants of divisions under generals Hollidt and Fretter-Pico who were trying to hold a line along the Donetz River, as well as the air transport attempts to supply the beleaguered 6th army. Losses were heavy and there were just not enough aircraft. Even so, many wounded were evacuated. The severe winter also contributed to the air supply problems. Eventually Stalingrad fell and the losses in troops were enormous.

The Luftwaffe units fought bravely - Mahncke speaks of Rudel, the Stuka pilot, who destroyed hundreds of tanks - as but one of many pilots who fought bravely despite the insurmountable odds. In the end there were just too few German aircraft to keep a resurgent and rapidly expanding Russian Air Force in check. The armies in the Caucasus had managed to retreat safely to Rostov. After this followed the unrelenting fighting retreat on the Southern Front - including the loss and brilliant retaking of Khar'Kov - a period in which Mahncke's air division with its subordinate units of ground-attack aircraft often saved the day. (In one week's fighting to retake Khar'kov his tired, dedicated fliers undertook over 4,000 combat missions in adverse winter conditions.). Mahncke led Fliegerdivision Donez under these trying and harrowing times brilliantly and resolutely. With both armies exhausted and temporarily at an impasse, a physically and mentally tired Mahncke took leave. On his return in April 1943, he was appointed to the temporary command of Fliegerkorps VIII, an appointment that gave him great joy and satisfaction, but alas, which proved to be of short duration. The German armies had managed to reform, rebuilt their strength and re-equip their units and were planning a major offensive to eradicate the Kursk salient. Fliegerkorps VIII was to support the 4th Panzerarmee under Gen Hoth, a calm and brilliant Panzer commander. But then Mahncke was transferred to the Kuban to stave off another crisis.

In the meantime Von Richthofen had been transferred to Italy to command Luftflotte 2 and in mid-June he summoned Mahncke to join him there. This was in May 1943, one month after the fall of North Africa and the consequent heavy losses of scarce manpower His new job was deputy to Von Richthofen and, later, commander of the Luftgau Italien (the administrative and logistical organisation for the Luftwaffe in Italy). The forces available to the Germans were not large and the organisational setup was in a state of confusion. Gen Mahncke spent his time flying round Italy, concentrating on Sicily and Sardinia, turning confusion into order. It was obvious that the Allies would be invading in the near future. Both Von Richthofen and Kesselring (overall C-in-C Mediterranean), were certain of this. Mahncke thought very highly of the latter, describing him as one of the best senior commanders and strategists the Germans had, always cheerful and a very active, able and unflappable commander.

When the Allies landed in Sicily in July 1943, Mahncke was sent to the island to assess the situation and see what could be done by the Luftwaffe to support the army. He flew down in a Fieseler Storch, a very slow liaison aircraft (a real puddle jumper), and consulted with Gen von Zenger und Etterlin, a fine Panzer commander. The Germans had the Fallschirmpanzer Division Hermann Goering (paratroop armoured division) there but it was clear that the Allies had a huge superiority in ground, air and naval forces and that the Italians could not be relied on. Paratroopers and another Panzer division under command of Gen Hans Hube, an excellent and very experienced commander, were on the way. This was reported to Von Richthofen. His order was "get all the technical and ground personnel out and set up a new organisation in Southern Italy". Mahncke was sent to Sicily to do this. He was joined by Gen-Maj Stahel, an old friend from Russia and an expert in stopping panic-stricken retreats. In the process Mahncke was shot down by an Allied fighter and crash-landed, but survived virtually unscathed. The two of them stopped the panic and started to organise the evacuation. The Flak Command was strengthened and a ferry service started with the help of the Navy and a little help from the Italians. At the same time Hube was moving combat troops into Sicily. The evacuation was successful as was the later evacuation of the Army.

Gen Mahncke was then appointed Commander of the Luftgau Italien in July 1943 and promoted to General der Flieger (full general) in September 1943. Von Richthofen had been dissatisfied with the performance of the Luftgau. The staff was inflated and the people there had got used to a very pleasant life in Rome, so a clean-out of surplus and non-performing people was carried out and the headquarters slimmed down to the size of a Luftgau staff as found in Russia. Staff officers were required to work - something they did not appreciate.

At about this time Mussolini was deposed and an army of eight divisions moved into Northern Italy, commanded by Field-Marshall Erwin Rommel. Kesselring commanded the forces further south, while Von Richthofen reported directly to Goering.

In September 1943, the Allies landed in mainland Italy and slowly made their way north. The Luftgau now had to move all of its stores and workshops north, an extremely difficult task in light of the Allies' aerial superiority. The Germans also had to disarm the Italian armed forces as only some Fascist units remained loyal to Mussolini. Then came the landings at Salerno and, later, the landings at Anzio. The Germans opposed the Allied advance north with considerable skill, under the command of Kesselring. He was supported by the skimpy air force remaining in Italy which, with the administrative units, was then based in Northern Italy. A partisan war had also started in the rear areas, Rome had been left to the Allies and the Gustav line was being defended with great determination and considerable skill.

Von Richthofen was by now an ill man, suffering from a brain tumour. Luftflotte 2 had left Italy and the Luftgau had been broken up. Only a shell of an air force was left to be overwhelmed by the Allied air forces. The Allies had landed in Normandy and, later, in the south of France, the Russians were steamrollering their way to Germany and the writing was on the wall. As a result of the constant strain and long hours of toil, Gen Mahncke's health was also suffering. After a period of leave, he was appointed to an administrative post in Hamburg. Due to the deteriorating war situation and ever-shortening frontlines, senior officers became in over-supply and often redundant. Thus Gen Mahncke could foresee that his military career was almost over. His son was in Italy but his wife had managed to get out of East Prussia in time before the Russians came. Then the war ended.

He became a prisoner of the British in Camp D28 in Gettorf where he was held with many other senior officers. The treatment was not too bad and, by the end of 1945, all officers up to the rank of Oberst were released. The others ended up in March 1946, after many moves, in the notorious Camp 2226 at Zedelghem in Belgium where they existed on rations which were almost at starvation level. In April 1946, Gen Mahncke was moved to Camp 2221 at Vilvoorde near Brussels where they came under the control of a former Luftwaffe sergeant, who treated them with considerable brutality. Their rations were insufficient and many suffered from malnutrition. Mahncke then ended up in a Civilian Internment Camp near Staumuhle in Germany.

The occupation period up to the time of the start of the Cold War and later, the Korean War, was a time of great deprivation and tribulation due to lack of shelter and overcrowding, food shortages, lack of heating sources and uncertainty about the future. Luckily Gen Mahncke had contact with his wife and the food parcels she sent him kept him alive. In May 1947 he was released and travelled to Hamburg where he was reunited with his wife. Having studied horticulture in the camps, he was able to obtain work as a trainee gardener - as a career officer he was only permitted to perform manual labour. He worked from 0700 to 1730 in all kinds of weather - and it was hard manual work. In June 1948 many of the restrictions were lifted and Germany could start the rebuilding process. In October 1948, his son returned healthy in body and spirit - they had lost much but were a family once again.

During question time our speaker was asked about his military service. Briefly this was as follows:

* From 1943 to 1944, as a schoolboy he was a Flakhelfer - an artillery auxiliary - in a heavy anti-aircraft artillery unit in Berlin;
* Called up for military service in the army, he underwent training as an officer cadet;
* He served as a Panzergrenadier (motorised infantry in support of armoured units) in the Vesubio Pass in Northern Italy, keeping the partisans from cutting off the escape route of the retreating German Army troops in their retreat to Austria;
* The troops retreating were all rear-echelon staff who had had a very comfortable life safe from the dangers of the front line. They retreated with all the luxuries and comforts which they accumulated and were trying to take it all back to Germany - very different to the frontline troops;
* Initially captured by the British, they handed him over to the Americans who transported him to a field, closed in with barbed wire, where he and his colleagues were dumped without rations or shelter. Later they were fed and offered a chance of repatriation to Germany - our speaker opted for this and found himself in Sorrento and then shipped to El Alamein in North Africa;
* Sent to a POW camp in the Suez Canal area where he eventually became a guard (with a truncheon and whistle.) at a Royal Signals camp, keeping the "worthy oriental gentlemen" from pilfering and appropriating HM property. Here he got paid and received British Army rations. He played the drums in a band at the various messes and even was able to sightsee (illegally) in the canal zone;
* Served as a paymaster's clerk and rose to second in command of the pay office, and
* He was repatriated in 1948.

Our secretary Ray Hattingh thanked our speaker for an enthralling talk and presented him with the customary gift.



Fellow-member Dr Rodney Warwick had recently published an article in the Cape Argus and The Witness titled Gallant WW2 Effort Ignored by Politics. In the letter he expressed the opinion that when it comes to the commemoration of the military heritage of all races who participated in conflicts in the 20th Century, political expediency and parochial interests of the governments of the day tended to polarise different communities instead of building a common nationhood. The editor is of the opinion that Dr Warwick's letter touches on a contentious issue well worth taking note of and has taken the liberty to obtain the author's permission to reproduce it for circulation to our members. Dr Warwick has graciously consented to its inclusion for which we wish to express our appreciation.



There are some membership renewals for 2011 still outstanding. The treasurer will follow it up individually with the few members whose dues are still outstanding, just to remind them. The membership dues for 2012 remain the same and a RENEWAL FORM for 2012 is enclosed.




PLEASE NOTE: The first meeting for 2012 will be held on the 19th of January 2012 - the THIRD THURSDAY of January. (Subsequent meetings will be on the SECOND Thursday of each month.)


9 MARCH 2011: THE RAND REVOLT, 1922 by Dr Rodney Warwick (Illustrated)

BOB BUSER: Treasurer/Asst. Scribe
Phone: 021-689-1639 (Home) ;
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