by J O E O Mahncke
In the fall of 1942, when it became clear that the covering blanket of Germany's anti-aircraft batteries was getting too thin, Adolf Hitler decided that high school students, born in 1926 and 1927, would be conscripted to serve as auxiliaries.
It was estimated that initially 41 000 students would be required to meet the needs of anti-aircraft batteries all over Germany. More were to follow during the summer of 1943 and further requests for 55 000 were expected for 1944 to replace those students who would leave for military service.
There are no reliable figures available as to how many students served successively in the anti-aircraft batteries between February 1943 and May 1945, but an estimate of about 90 000 to 100 000 seems reasonable.
Eventually, 30 000 students began their service in February 1943, after the unsuitable, the sick and the higher Hitler-Youth leaders had been exempted. The absence of the latter, explained by the need to keep them in their positions to motivate and lead the younger members of the movement, caused great resentment. The leaders were called cowards, even to their faces, when they arrived on their propaganda visits to the batteries, to depart as soon as pre-air-raid warnings were given.
The students were to serve as runners, telephonists and in similar positions, but also on direction finders, sound detectors and range finders, searchlights and conversion tables. They replaced trained soldiers who were sent to other fronts where they were desperately needed. However, circumstances soon made it necessary to train the students on small calibre guns and heavy guns as well, from 20 mm to 88 mm and 105 mm, up to 128 mm. In Berlin, twin 88 mm and 105 mm guns and a few twin 128 mm guns, with mechanical loading equipment, were employed and sited on the massive Flakbunkers near the Zoo. Funkmessgeräte or radar, were added to this list at a later stage. The student auxiliaries serving with the Luftwaffe were called the Luftwaffenhelfer; those serving with the Navy were the Marinehelfer. Marinehelfer served on Heligoland, for instance, which had been heavily fortified. In April 1945, the island was bombed and the batteries totally destroyed with considerable loss of life.
Initially, Reichsmarshall Hermann Goering had insisted that German high school girls should also be called up for service, to boost his image as commander in chief of a large Luftwaffe. This was rejected by Hitler.
The Reichsarbeitsdienst, the German labour corps, also supplied units as auxiliaries and they manned their own batteries. There were German women, often volunteers, for non-combatant duties. In addition, volunteers, conscripts and released prisoners from Russia, Hungary, the Ukraine and Latvia served, as well as foreign girls from these countries, the latter also for non-combatant duties. However, this article deals only with the German male high school student auxiliaries.
Before the call-up of students, a veritable tug-of-war began between the Luftwaffe on the one hand, and schools, parents, the Party and Hitler-Youth on the other. If the parents and teachers were understandably concerned about the education, future and safety of the boys, the Party and, with it, the youth leaders, were most upset that the students would be withdrawn from their sphere of influence. To them this was a severe loss of prestige, which they covered up by voicing fatherly concern for their well-being.
Hitler and Goering carried the day. On 15 February 1943, the first students marched to their batteries. Training began at once. Basic drill was short; the students were familiar with the basics already, due to their membership to Jungvolk and Hitlerjugend. Weapons training and lessons on aircraft identification followed and, depending on ability and physical stamina, they were then distributed to command posts or guns.
School lectures continued for a while, either in rooms or in the open, depending on the availability of space. Teachers arrived three times per week at first, but with the increase in night bombing raids, necessitating additional servicing of the weapons, and with loss of sleep and irregular hours of duty, lessons became fewer and fewer and eventually ceased altogether. The old teachers also found commuting very time-consuming and, with interruptions of the transport system, could not fulfil their duties. This meant that most students lost out on further education and, after the war, were ill-prepared to complete their education up to matric or to compete for jobs or apprenticeships in a devastated economy.
Uniforms were supplied to the student auxiliaries. They were the uniforms of the Hitler-Youth flying corps (the Flieger-Hitlerjugend) - dark blue and of a cut similar to the British battle-dress, although of a lighter weight. In winter, overcoats were worn with a leather belt. The Luftwaffenhelfer wore a field cap with the lozenge-shaped Hitler Youth emblem, a swastika armband on the left sleeve and a distinct triangular cloth air force badge on the right chest. These uniforms were only worn on parade together with an air force style steel helmet, or on weekend pass or leave. For general duty, overalls were issued. However, other types of uniforms were also worn in later months, depending on local conditions. The Marinehelfer wore uniforms of the Marine-Hitlerjugend, plus other uniform issues. As a rule, the auxiliaries were not armed unless, in isolated cases, they had to do guard duty. These semi-military uniforms at best, were the subject of a long debate. It was argued that the uniforms identified them as part of a political party and might constitute a breach of international law concerning members of the fighting forces, although they wore the steel helmet. If taken prisoner, they would not be protected by the Geneva Convention and could be shot as partisans. This did happen towards the end of the war when Luftwaffenhelfer and their batteries were caught up in the retreat of the armies in eastern Germany. Consequently, when the situation became critical, most battery commanders either sent the boys home or turned them into regular soldiers. However, the debate was eventually won by the Hitler Youth leaders, who refused to have the uniforms altered, regardless of the consequences.
When the author was called up for the first intake in Berlin, almost all the students were elated and proud - proud to become soldiers and serve at the guns; elated because they were glad to escape the yoke of school, in the author's case, boarding school, and their teachers. They did not understand the implications of an incomplete education.
The students were collected by a few Luftwaffe NCOs and had to board a number of inglorious city trains which brought them to the first battery at Ruhleben. There they were issued with proper Luftwaffe uniforms and taught to salute army-style. Food was average, but ample. However, the quality deteriorated as the war continued. The students received no sweets, which they craved, being under pressure most of the time; beer and cigarettes were forbidden. Nevertheless, they did smoke, not out of bravado, but to deaden their hunger. Barrack accommodation was spartan but acceptable.
Within a few weeks, the author and his fellow students had to exchange their beloved uniforms for the standard Hitler Youth uniforms and they had to salute with the Party Salute, the outstretched right arm. They felt degraded to kids and, as a protest, fastened the swastika armbands with press studs and the cap lozenge with a pin. The armband was removed when they went on pass, and the lozenge replaced by the metal Luftwaffe eagle, which made them feel more like men. If a Hitler-Youth patrol caught them like that, they were reported for punishment, but the battery commanders never did anything about it; the students were indispensable to them.
The students' legal position was ambiguous. In part, they still belonged to the Hitler-Youth and their regulations, partly to their school and partly to the Luftwaffe and their discipline and laws, with their parents running a poor fourth. The wrangling for control never stopped, the only beneficiaries being the students themselves, who played one off against the other, often with success.
Initially, the students only did fire-duty during air-raids and the author's most exciting gun practice was when his battery, as the only one in Berlin, spotted very low flying enemy aircraft. No air raid warning had been received, and the battery opened fire. When someone became suspicious, the guns stopped. There were a lot of red faces when it was discovered that they had fired at a flock of storks. Worse, no hits had been scored. From Ruhleben, the students were transferred to a battery near Seeburg on the western approaches to Berlin. Before their prefab barracks arrived, they had to rough it in a nearby village, marching back and forth at every alarm.
Once the sheds had been erected, the students lived six to a room in double bunks on straw mattresses. They had a table, chairs and a locker for each person. The affluent students had a radio as well. It was a matter of pride not to lock rooms or lockers and nothing was ever stolen at their base.
The author spent a year in that battery. From six 8,8 cm guns, a sound locator (which took hours to adjust, Stone Age style) and a searchlight (which was more of a hindrance than a help), they expanded to a Mammut Batterie (mammoth battery) of three batteries, each with six 8,8 cm guns and with 20 mm and 37 mm anti-aircraft guns and radar.
After a cautious beginning, the night raids by British bombers began in earnest and the squadrons invariably flew over the sector manned by the author and his fellow auxiliaries. This meant that they received an unfair share of incendiary sticks, bombs, phosphorous canisters and also mines. At one stage, the author supervised the conversion table underground; their protection consisted of a sheet of plywood with soil on top. It was a claustrophobic job and the author felt much safer when he was above ground serving at one of the guns.
Thinking back, the author remembers being afraid, with the sick feeling of anticipating the inevitable. However, this was only before the raids when the voice on their special radio frequency gave the position report of the approaching bomber stream and they waited for the data to arrive for the gun controls. After that, the training took over and among the din of the guns and the exploding bombs, the author forgot his fear and even experienced a kind of devil-may-care high.
The students did their duty, and the author believes that they did it well, even earning the praise and respect of the long-suffering Berliners who had, at first, laughed at them and called them belittling names. From the game of playing soldiers, the youths had graduated to battle hardened gunners, constantly tired and on edge, and they could only relax if the weather was bad. Their alarm periods lasted from four to six hours, depending on the weather and the moon, and quite often a lone Mosquito or three would appear before and after the air raids to catapult them out of bed again to run to the guns.
Talking to Captain Tony Speir, curator of the aviation collection at the South African National Museum of Military History, the author discovered that he and his companions in pathfinders and photo-reconnaissance Mosquitoes were, to a great extent, responsible for his lack of sleep. However, today these former enemies are on good terms.
After some of the raids, the author and an NCO bicycled off to search for and inspect bomber wrecks which they had claimed to have shot down. They noted the type of aircraft and other details to add to their battle reports.
During stand-by at night, when the bombers veered away from Berlin and attacked other targets, the auxiliaries assembled at the command post, someone brought a guitar and they sang or whistled modern dance tunes. Those were good hours.
Mothers were sometimes allowed to visit their sons on weekends. They braved inclement weather, a bad transport system and a long foot march to bring food or home-made sweets and, despite their sons' assumed tough airs, they were very glad to see them. The author is sure that the mothers left their sons to their duties with a heavy heart. His own mother came as often as she could, but after a couple of months, not being physically strong, she had to give up.
The students received a weekend pass whenever possible, to give them a chance to rest. For some it was an opportunity to search for bombed out family members. A friend of the author discovered a bottle of Napoleon Brandy in the cellar of his razed house. He brought it back to his room and he and his friends emptied it one evening on an empty stomach, though not really enjoying the taste. When the alarm sounded, the youths had great difficulty surfacing and, as one wit put it, crawled to the guns on their bare nipples.
They were entitled to two weeks of leave twice a year, which was rarely granted. They could not be spared and when day bombing raids by the Americans began, leave was stopped altogether. Since their battery only had 8,8 cm guns, they had to stand idly by as the Fortresses crossed over Berlin. The aircraft kept to altitudes which the guns could not reach and the auxiliaries could only watch helplessly as they bombed the city to ruins, the fire and smoke spreading across the horizon and high up into the sky, while the thunder made the ground tremble under their feet.
At night, the picture was similar but in full colour, with the 'christmas trees' descending in slow motion from the sky, demarcating areas to be bombed by the British bombers, and then the fire and flashes, red, yellow and dark red, and white smoke illuminated the clouds from below.
During the author's service in the battery, they claimed six bombers destroyed and a further four assisted by other batteries. Sometimes, German nightfighters appeared and the anti-aircraft auxiliaries received the order: '2 000 to 3 000 Wilde Sau (Wild Pig)', meaning that the fighters were to operate above that altitude. The auxiliaries then stopped firing in certain sectors and above an altitude of 2 000 to 3 000 mn and watched the spectacular explosions of destroyed bombers above them, to which they reacted with cheers.
Losses in the author's battery were minimal. However, at another battery close by, a direct hit on the command post killed fifteen students, and a unit of Reichsarbeitsdienst in the neighbourhood, laid low by scarlet fever in their barracks, was decimated by a mine. While there are no statistics available for losses suffered by the students, the author believes that a figure of ten to fifteen per cent might be close. This does not include the losses sustained by Luftwaffenhelfer who fought as infantry soldiers with the retreating forces in the east in 1945, some of whom, as mentioned before, were even executed by the Russians and Poles after surrendering.
A small number of students went AWOL. In one case, two tried to cross into Switzerland. They were caught and sentenced to detention barracks. Others deserted and went into hiding and some moved, without permission, with their parents to areas where there was no call-up of students, to escape the danger.
As far as military sabotage or political subversion was concerned, or the utterance of defeatist statements against the State, Hitler or the Party, the author has read of many students who were accused of such crimes. Listening to enemy radio broadcasts was punishable by a six month jail sentence. A student who stated that Hitler would have to be hanged before the war could be brought to a quick end was punished by a nine month jail sentence, but, because the Marinehelfer in question was still a minor and was expected to report for military service, this sentence was not carried out.
Spare time entertainment in the author's battery was totally lacking. They never had even one film show and, during his year, the students were invited to only two evenings of live shows with dancing to follow, but these were poor shows. Propaganda talks were more numerous but of the same poor quality.
The awarding of medals was another hotly discussed issue. Some Flak divisions were more generous than others. The auxiliaries were entitled to receive the Flakkampfzeichen (flak battle badge), if they could prove that they had actively participated in aircraft kills and, for this, a point system had been worked out. For valour, the Iron Cross or the War Merit Cross 2nd Class could be awarded and the author has heard of quite a few recipients. The Iron Cross or War Merit Cross 1st Class may have been awarded in exceptional cases, although the author has never heard of one.
The author's career came to an abrupt end when he was sent to hospital with severe tonsillitis and bronchitis. The doctor in charge prescribed sick leave and the author obtained a travel pass to visit his mother, who then lived in Austria, and even met his father, who took him to his HQ in Treviso in northern Italy, where he spent a glorious two weeks being spoiled and visiting a number of famous places.
When the author returned to his battery, it was almost as a stranger. His comrades had all left to join the compulsory Reichsarbeitsdienst and he was redundant. He joined the army as a Panzergrenadier and officer cadet and met a few of his friends again. Of all the rest, however, he saw only their photographs in the MIA questionnaires which the Red Cross sent to him after he had returned from prison camps in Egypt four and a half years later at the end of 1948. Even so, the author has no regrets. Every man will think badly of himself for not having been a soldier or for not having been to sea.
The author served as an air force anti-aircraft auxiliary from February 1943 until March 1944. Much of the content of the article is based on his first-hand experience. The following sources were also consulted:
Hans-Dietrich Nicolaisen, Die Flakhelfer (Ullstein-Berlin, 1981).
Hans-Dietrich Nicolaisen, Der Einsatz der Luftwaffen-und Marinehelfer im 2. Weltkrieg, Dokumentation (Publisher, 1981).
Ludwig Schaetz, Schueler-Soldaten (Thesen-Verlag, Frankfurt, 1972).
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