During an impromptu flight to the Russian Front, the Führer was forced to forgo the comforts of his usual transport.
On a frigid day in early December 1941, Adolf Hitler paced back and forth in the situation room at Wolfsschanze in East Prussia. He pondered the noon report stating that the Red Army had just recaptured Rostov, a shock (Wolf’s Lair), his supreme headquarters for the Wehrmacht and for Hitler himself. This was the German army’s first defeat since the beginning of Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union, and the city was key to the German advance south into the Caucasus and the vital Russian oil fields. When Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, commander of Army Group South, requested permission to withdraw to the Mius River, Hitler re – fused. The Führer disliked arguing with his generals on the telephone, and when Rundstedt asked to be relieved of command, Hitler ordered him replaced with Field Marshal Walter von Reichenau, whom he considered more reliable. The situation on the southeastern front was confusing and worrisome to say the least, and Hitler, always distrustful of his generals, wanted answers.
He had also just received a secret message, out of channels, from his old Nazi comrade and former commander of his SS body guard regiment, Josef “Sepp” Dietrich, now commander of the 1st SS Panzer-Grenadier Division, “Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler.” According to Dietrich, after months of hard fighting, his division, now near Mariupol on the Sea of Azov, was worn down and short of vehicles, equipment and personnel. Hitler thought he could get the truth from Dietrich about the situation on the right flank of Army Group South, and made one of his spur-of-the-moment decisions. Motioning to an aide, he said, “Call Baur at the squadron and tell him to have a plane ready at dawn for a flight to Mariupol.”
Hans Baur, commander of Hitler’s personal transport squadron, the Fliegerstaffel des Führers, or F.d.F, immediately began preparations for the flight. At the Wolf’s Lair and other locations, this involved checking out the weather and contacting air intelligence concerning any enemy activity in the area to which they would fly. In some cases a fighter escort was required. Baur and his crew supervised the maintenance personnel who fueled and serviced the aircraft, and if Hitler was to be on board, Baur often took the plane up for a short test flight.
Baur, an NCO and nine-victory ace in World War I and a Lufthansa flight captain in the postwar period, had been selected in 1933 to be Hitler’s personal pilot and commander of a small unit providing air transportation for the Führer and senior government and Nazi Party officials. Based at Berlin’s Tempelhof Airport, Baur recruited other experienced Lufthansa pilots and maintenance personnel for the F.d.F., which was a separate government organization and not part of the Luftwaffe. He had received good pay and benefits as a Lufthansa flight captain, and to compensate him for leaving the airline, he was commissioned a colonel in the SS and also appointed a police major so that he could be responsible for the Führer’s security in connection with his flying duties. Among the men he brought with him from Lufthansa were his trusted copilot and flight engineer, Max Zintl, and Paul Leciejewski, radio operator and navigator.
By 1939 Baur’s squadron had 17 Junkers Ju-52/3m transports as – signed to it. Baur and his men flew the famous and infamous around Germany, and to all parts of Europe, in the service of the Nazi Party and government.
Hitler was the first head of state to have his own personal pilot and airplane. The first plane acquired for his use was a Junkers Ju-52/3m fe, registered as D-2600 and named Lufthansa transports except for a small folding table by Immelmann. It was configured the same as other Hitler’s favorite seat, located on the right side of the cabin. Hitler was always interested in the flight plan, and Baur had a clock, altimeter and airspeed indicator installed on the right side of the forward bulkhead. This plane was replaced in 1935 by a Ju-52/3m ge, reregistered as D-2600 and named Immelmann II.
By 1939 Baur had become interested in a prestigious new Lufthansa transport, the Focke-Wulf Fw-200 Condor, a large four-engine aircraft with much better performance and capacity than the old Junkers. After testing one at the factory, he convinced Hitler that two Condors should be acquired for the F.d.F., one for use as the Führer’s primary transport and one as a support aircraft. Baur picked up the support plane on June 30, 1939, and flew it to Berlin, where he gave Hitler a ride. Work on Hitler’s personal Condor was delayed by the beginning of World War II in early September and the urgent need to convert the Focke-Wulf factory to military production. The plane required considerable internal modification, personally approved by Hitler, and was not ready until October 19.
This Condor, Fw-200A-O (S-9), was again reregistered as D-2600 and given the name Immelmann III. It had two compartments, a small galley in the rear and a lavatory. The rear cabin was similar to the regular civilian Condor transport, with comfortable seats for 11 passengers. The front compartment was specially arranged for Hitler, with six regular seats and one large upholstered chair on the right side of the cabin. A wooden table was positioned ahead of Hitler’s armchair, and the clock and other instruments were on the forward bulkhead separating his cabin from the cockpit. A steel safe was built in to hold important documents and valuables.
After the German invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, Hitler and most members of his high command moved from Berlin to the Wolf’s Lair. It was from here that he and his staff now controlled military operations, so Baur transferred several of his planes, maintenance equipment and personnel from Tempelhof, setting up shop at the airfield near Rastenburg.
Unarmed Ju-52/3m and Fw-200 Condors were suitable for transportation while Germany enjoyed air supremacy over the Reich and occupied territory, but the campaign on the vast Eastern Front required new long-range, armed aircraft. Accordingly, Baur arranged for delivery in early 1942 of three armed Condors modified from the Fw-200s employed as maritime reconnaissance bombers over the Atlantic. One was outfitted as a passenger transport, and the other two were intended for Hitler’s personal use: Fw-200C-4/U1, marked CE+IB, his primary transport, and Fw-200C-4/U2, CE+IC, an accompanying aircraft. The new Condors were much stronger and more powerful, and Baur and his aircrews received instruction at the Focke-Wulf factory at the time of delivery.
Hitler’s primary transport had a cabin layout similar to that of Immelmann III. Directly behind the cockpit was an equipment compartment with the flight engineer’s panel and the radio operator and navigator position on the left. Above was the hydraulically operated forward machine gun turret. The next small compartment contained equipment and tanks for lubricant and fuel, with a lavatory on the right. Behind this, through a door, was Hitler’s insulated cabin, with a new version of his special armchair on the right, just behind his wooden table. An escape hatch was located in the floor in front of Hitler’s chair. Unlike the armchair in Immelmann III, this new chair had 8mm armor and a parachute in a compartment under the seat. Had Hitler been forced to bail out, he would have donned his parachute harness and then pulled a red handle on the wall that released the escape hatch.
Behind the rear bulkhead was a second passenger cabin with six seats. A small galley was separated from the rear passenger cabin by a bulkhead, followed by a dorsal gun turret. Oxygen tanks were located near the tail to provide oxygen at each seat. In the nacelle below the fuselage, entered through a trap door, was a forward gun position.
At the airfield near the Wolf’s Lair on that frosty December morning, Baur decided that it would be unwise to fly Hitler so close to the battlefront in an unarmed Condor because Mariupol was within range of Soviet fighter aircraft. The armed Condors were not yet available, so Baur would have to use one of the Heinkel He-111H-16 bombers he had acquired for use as transports. To convert this plane to a transport, the bomb racks and associated equipment had been removed and a floor installed in the bomb bay. Six airline passenger seats were bolted down and some insulation and heating provided. Oxygen masks and regulators were also available for the passengers.
Several experienced Luftwaffe NCOs had been placed on duty with the F.d.F. to man the guns on the Heinkels and the armed Condors. In winter or at high altitude, however, the converted bombers were difficult to heat because so much warmth escaped through the upper and lower gun positions.
Before dawn on December 2, 1941, Hitler left his cottage at the Wolf’s Lair and climbed into his Mercedes for the drive to the airfield. He was accompanied by Brig. Gen. Rudolf Schmundt, chief Wehrmacht adjutant, an SS NCO servant and a doctor. Departing the main security area, they passed through the last guarded gate of the compound, where the soldiers on duty, recognizing the Führer’s car, snapped to attention and gave the stiff-arm Nazi salute.
Baur had been notified that Hitler was on his way, and had the engines on the He-111 warmed up and ticking over when the Führer rolled up. He helped Hitler on board and saw to it that he was properly strapped into his seat and bundled up in an army blanket. After briefing him on the flight plan, Baur took his position at the controls and prepared for takeoff.
At Baur’s signal, the ground crew pulled the chocks and he taxied to the end of the airstrip, followed by a cloud of powdery snow churned up by the propwash. He waited for the control officer to flash a green light, then eased the throttles forward and began bumping down the airstrip, lifting off as the first glimmer of dawn lit up the sky. A second He-111, carrying the luggage, followed half an hour later as a backup plane. As Baur flew southeast over the vast white expanse of European Russia, Hitler and Schmundt read some papers and the other two passengers dozed off, lulled by the steady drone of the two Jumo engines.
During a rest stop at Kiev, Schmundt made telephone calls on a secure line to advise Generals Ewald von Kleist and Sepp Dietrich that the Führer would soon be arriving at Mariupol. Kleist was commander of the First Panzer Army, deployed at that time north of the Sea of Azov, and Dietrich’s division had been heavily engaged in battling the Soviet counteroffensive that had forced the German withdrawal from the Rostov sector.
Personnel at the Kiev airport were understandably surprised to see the Führer himself step stiffly out of a bomber and enter the terminal. Once inside, Hitler told Baur, “It’s bitter cold in your machine—my feet are like icicles!” Baur offered to get him a pair of flier’s boots, but Hitler, commander in chief of all German armed forces, declined, saying, “I am not authorized to wear them.”
Shortly after takeoff on the last leg of their flight to Mariupol, the passengers were advised that the gunners would soon test-fire their guns to ensure they were functioning properly in the freezing weather. Baur maintained radio silence until he neared Mariupol and re – quested landing instructions. The airfield was a former Soviet air force base with a large central landing area.
Baur circled the field once and noted that there were a number of German airplanes dispersed about, including several Ju-52s unloading cargo and boarding seriously wounded soldiers for evacuation to hospitals in the rear. Flak guns were positioned around the field, and there were many vehicles and tents.
The Heinkel rolled to a stop near the operations building, where two staff cars and military police met it. As Hitler deplaned, Kleist and Dietrich greeted him. Hitler, Schmundt and the SS NCO departed with their hosts for First Panzer Army headquarters, located nearby. After a heated discussion with Kleist, Hitler had a private conversation with Dietrich, who convinced him that the withdrawal from Rostov had not been due to any leadership deficiencies by Field Marshal von Rundstedt, Kleist or others in Army Group South. Hitler, in a better mood, then left with Kleist and Dietrich in an armed convoy for a short tour of Taganrog, the scene of much bitter fighting, before returning to the airfield.
Baur and his crew had remained behind to refuel the plane and make sure it was ready for flight at any time. While Hitler and the generals were having their conference and tour, Baur went to the officer’s mess for a meal and a rest.
Upon Hitler’s return to the air- field in the late afternoon— and while a further discussion ensued—Baur went to the nearby supply depot and re – quested a pair of flier’s boots. When the lieutenant in charge asked Baur if he was a flier, he replied that he was the Führer’s pilot, but the fur-lined boots were not for himself but for Hitler. The young officer produced a new pair of boots and said he would need the signature of the man who would actually wear them. Baur grinned and said, “Come with me, I’ll see what I can do.” They presented the boots to Hitler, and Baur said that the officer needed him to sign for them. The general started to object to bothering the Führer with such a trivial matter, but Hitler willingly signed the receipt and handed it back to the lieutenant. A few months later, when Baur again returned to Mariupol, he saw that same receipt, framed under glass, hanging on the wall in the officer’s mess.
Baur was then informed that instead of returning to Rastenburg they would fly to Poltava, headquarters of Army Group South. He had already sent the accompanying aircraft, with the luggage, on the return flight to Rastenburg, and he was unsuccessful in his attempt to contact it by radio. Baur took off quickly with his passengers and made it to Poltava at dusk, landing in heavy fog.
Rundstedt had his headquarters in a dilapidated old building resembling a castle. Hitler, who wanted to talk with him before he departed for Germany and was now fully aware of the reasons for Rundstedt’s actions in the battle for Rostov, treated him with marked courtesy. The Führer explained that a misunderstanding had occurred, and said that only the field marshal’s recent ill health prevented him from immediately offering Rundstedt another appointment. The two parted amicably, and Hitler then conferred late into the night with Rundstedt’s replacement, Field Marshal von Reichenau.
An insomniac under the best of conditions, Hitler was kept awake that night by bugs, as were Schmundt and Baur. In the morning, without luggage, Hitler borrowed Baur’s razor, and after a quick breakfast, the party was soon back in the air for a nonstop trip to Rastenburg. At least on that flight the Führer had warm feet.
C.G. Sweeting is a U.S. Air Force veteran and former curator at the National Air and Space Museum. For further reading, he suggests his Hitler’s Personal Pilot and Hitler’s Squadron.
Originally published in the September 2010 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.