On June 22, 1941, the first day of the German invasion of Russia, the Luftwaffe took advantage of beautiful weather to attack targets deep in enemy territory. Playing a big part in the initial onslaught were Messerschmitt Me-109E fighters of Jagdgeschwader (fighter wing) 77 “Herz As” (“Ace of Hearts”). Flying in pairs, the fighters took turns protecting a bridge near Yampol, determined to prevent the Soviets from destroying it so it could be used by advancing German troops. Although there was no sign of enemy aircraft that day, Soviet antiaircraft guns remained active. In fact, at about 2 p.m., the gunners found their mark on one of the circling Messerschmitts, severely damaging its cooling system. The pilot directed his stricken plane toward friendly lines but, when its engine seized, realized he couldn’t make it. Too late to bail out, he had no choice but to attempt a belly-landing on a level field in no man’s land. Suddenly, while approaching the field, the pilot saw a group of soldiers. “Oh, God!” he thought. “They’re Russians!”
The plane landed successfully, leaving a deep furrow in the ground—the pilot shaken but safe. Exiting the cockpit, he unsuccessfully tried to set his plane on fire and then began running toward German lines. The Red Army soldiers, however, were nowhere to be seen, apparently having retreated upon seeing the plane land. Little did those soldiers know that they had let one of the Third Reich’s most sinister men slip away. The lucky pilot running for his life was the third highest-ranking figure in the Reich—none other than SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich, chief architect of the Final Solution, the methodical, cold-blooded plan to exterminate all European Jews.
Heydrich, head of the Reichssicherheitshauptamt (RSHA–State Security Service) and later also military governor of the Czech puppet Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, was a devil with many faces. A cultured and good-looking killer, Heydrich did not fit the generally accepted image of an SS thug. The former naval officer was an excellent fencer, a good violin player, an irreproachable horseman and, in the end, a fighter pilot. He also was known as a risk taker, often disregarding his personal safety with seeming arrogance. In fact, he died at the hands of Czech assassins in June 1942 after riding in an open car through the streets of Prague.
Heydrich’s reckless nature undoubtedly is the reason why flying appealed to him so much, but curiously, in studies of the man’s life, his abbreviated career in aviation tends to be overlooked.
The infamous police chief began to pursue flying immediately after war broke out in 1939. At that time, Heydrich was not qualified as a pilot but reportedly flew missions as a gunner over Poland that September. He was a reserve officer in the Luftwaffe, most likely an Oberleutnant or Hauptmann, but his bomber unit is still unknown and details of his activities over Poland are sketchy.
As RSHA chief, Heydrich was unquestionably an exceptionally busy man. Nevertheless, he found time for flight training. Each morning he attended pilot school before heading to his office. It is uncertain from which school he eventually received his license, but it was probably in or near Berlin, home of RSHA headquarters.
In late 1939 and early 1940, Heydrich attended the well-known fighter pilot school in Werneuchen, north of Berlin, training at one point in a Messerschmitt Bf-109D. The RSHA chief was evidently a problematic apprentice for his instructor, Oberleutnant Frank-Werner Rott. “I was entrusted with the task to train [him] as a fighter pilot, although he was, according to the accepted requirements, rather too old for this,” Rott said of Heydrich, who was born on March 7, 1904, in Halle/Saale. “He was unusually sharp [abrupt] as a pilot, maybe because he was aware of the dangers threatening him, or maybe for some other reason.”
When Operation Weserübung, the German invasion of Denmark and Norway, began on April 9, 1940, Heydrich saw it as an opportunity to shine in aerial combat. Having just completed his training in Werneuchen, he flew to Norway in the uniform of a Luftwaffe Hauptmann to take part in the operation. At his side was Rott, now assigned the thankless job of being his aerial bodyguard. In the first few weeks of the campaign, Heydrich flew with Gruppe II of Jagdgeschwader 77 (II/JG.77), joining the 6th Staffel commanded by Hauptmann Franz-Heinz Lange. The 6th had at its disposal 12 Me-109E fighters (10 combatworthy) at the Trondheim-Vaernes airfield. Heydrich was soon transferred to the staff of II/JG.77, stationed at Kristiansad-Kjevik.
The group’s pilots accepted their new colleague with mixed feelings. “At that time, a Luftwaffe Hauptmann came to our 6th Staffel, at least such was his uniform, but some said that he was not at all a Luftwaffe Hauptmann, but a very important, big person,” Gefreiter Karl Holland later recalled. “We learned who he was: Reinhard Heydrich, chief of the RSHA. He remained with us about four weeks and took part like any other pilot of the Staffel in all combat missions. His behavior to us, the ordinary soldiers, was unusually friendly. In the beginning of May, when Hauptmann Lange was absent, he was the highest-ranking officer in the Staffel. At that time some of the soldiers had to be promoted, and it happened that I was promoted to Gefreiter by one of the cruelest butchers of the Third Reich. The signature of Heydrich can still be seen in my service book.”
While with II/JG.77, Heydrich could not neglect his obligations as RSHA chief. He remained in constant contact with the head office in Berlin and dutifully accomplished his police work in the evenings. According to an article written in the Prague newspaper Ceske Slovo on June 9, 1942, after his death, “His comrades and the pilots of the Staffel often asked: When did Major Heydrich actually sleep? Each morning he was always fresh and lively near his airplane, ready to fly.”
The combination of Heydrich’s lack of flying experience and the imperfect military equipment of the period nearly proved fatal, however. While taking off from the Stavanger-Sola airfield on May 13, 1940, Heydrich lost control of his Me-109E-1 “Yellow 3”—a common occurrence for that type of fighter when flown by inexperienced pilots. The plane turned over and suffered 90 percent damage, which required it to be scrapped. Heydrich, dragged from the wrecked plane with great difficulty, miraculously injured only his left hand in the crash and continued to fly. His stay in JG.77 ended soon after his brush with death, however, and he returned to Berlin.
No information is available on the exact number of missions Heydrich flew in Norway, but it is certain that he was not struck during aerial combat. He received both a bronze Combat Flight Badge and the Iron Cross 2nd Class—awards given to all Luftwaffe fighter pilots after a certain period of frontline service. The bronze flight badge was typically given to pilots after 20 successful combat missions.
In June 1941, after a 10-month break, Heydrich rejoined the Luftwaffe, this time with I/JG.1 stationed at Wangerooge in northern Germany. The unit was part of the Reich’s air defense, charged mainly with repulsing potential British air attacks from the North Sea. From Wangerooge, Heydrich conducted reconnaissance flights over the northern coasts of Germany and the Netherlands in an Me-109E-7, with an ancient Germanic runic character S for “Sieg” (victory) painted on the fuselage. Heydrich’s stay with JG.1 ended quickly, however—again the result of an accident. While taxiing on the runway trying to park, he hit an enclosure and damaged his plane, though he again avoided serious injury.
Despite his two accidents, Heydrich had certainly caught the “flying bug,” and he returned to the sky as Germany was preparing for Operation Barbarossa—its invasion of the Soviet Union. Heydrich was then in command of the notorious SS-Einsatzkommandos on the Eastern Front, which would serve as the Nazis’ mobile death squads—murdering thousands of “undesirables” in the wake of the advancing panzers.
In mid-June, he flew out of Berlin in his personal Me-109E-7. Disregarding the express order of the SS-Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler, who forbade him from flying combat missions, Heydrich arrived at the Baltsi airfield in the southern sector of the Eastern Front in his Luftwaffe major’s uniform. There he rejoined II/JG.77, now commanded by the experienced Hauptmann Anton Mader, an ace with 86 aerial victories and holder of the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross. Heydrich’s unauthorized stay in JG.77 caused nothing but trouble for Mader, starting with just the thought of what might happen to Heydrich at the front. Mader soon found that his worries were justified.
One fellow pilot who remembered intriguing details of Heydrich’s tenure in JG.77 was Oberleutnant Georg Schirmböck: “In the beginning of the campaign against the Soviet Union the SSObergruppenführer appeared as a major. He arrived with his personal Me-109 fighter. He told us that he had received this airplane from General Ernst Udet as [a token of] gratitude for the service he had rendered him in Berlin by procuring him special license plates for his car, which made it possible for Udet to drive during the night and during air-raid alerts. It was interesting to be with Heydrich, especially late in the evening, when after one or two glasses of wine he became more talkative and told us interesting details about life in the highest circles in Berlin. Some of the facts we learned were quite shocking. Heydrich offered to transfer Oberleutnant Brockmann and me to the Waffen-SS. He thought that after the war police attachés would be needed in the German embassies abroad, and for this post there would be a need for suitable people who had passed through the front. He promised us that if we transfer to the Waffen-SS he would promote us at least by one grade. I had flown with Heydrich. As a pilot he didn’t have great experience, and therefore he didn’t have successes.”
Another II/JG.77 pilot, Leutnant Joachim Deicke, recalled that Heydrich “was a very good card player and…was able to talk for a long time, full of enthusiasm, about the significance of the German invasion of Russia. According to him, it was our moral obligation to fully utilize the boundless riches of this country— something that the Russian people and the Communist leadership were not capable of achieving. He explained his fantastic ideas how under German rule these lands could be transformed into a paradise. At that time we were full of admiration, since our contact with the so-called ‘paradise of workers and peasants’ and the impression left by this paradise somehow confirmed Heydrich’s words. But nobody ever mentioned the terrible operations and murders committed by the SS-Einsatzkommandos in the name of our people.”
Mader’s fears were soon realized when Heydrich’s plane was struck by Soviet AA fire on the afternoon of June 22 and crash-landed in that field near Olshanka. When the other pilot in Heydrich’s team returned alone, the entire squadron panicked, with Mader driven to despair. “To this day, I remember how Hauptmann Mader walked around among us and asked how to answer the expected questions,” Deicke recalled. “The hours went by with no information on Heydrich. That evening I was on duty. Mader’s mood remained low. Suddenly the telephone rang. It was a call from Berlin. Before I could dispel all the black thoughts in my head, I heard a voice announcing a call from an infantry division at the front. An officer informed me that one of our pilots who had crashlanded in no-man’s land had been rescued by a reconnaissance patrol. He told me something like, ‘A pilot was shot down, but apparently he conceals something because he claims to be Reinhard Heydrich.’ After a short exchange with Mader, I said it was a natural misunderstanding, that one of our pilots is missing and it should be him. I asked him not to pay attention to the pilot’s talk because he is a good fellow. Please treat him good, and we will take him back as soon as possible.”
The following day, Heydrich returned to Germany. Again, the number of missions he flew in the East is unknown. Nevertheless, he was awarded the Iron Cross 1st Class and a silver Combat Flight Badge, which normally were awarded after 60 combat missions.
Himmler had never been pleased with Heydrich’s Luftwaffe antics, but upon hearing of the June 22 incident, the SS chief’s patience came to an end. Heydrich had violated his express orders not to fly combat missions and had been shot down over no man’s land. He had narrowly escaped capture by the Soviets, which could have had incalculable consequences for the Reich. Furious, Himmler grounded Heydrich once and for all. He never flew in combat again.
Despite the military decorations Heydrich received, those who flew with him did not regard him as an accomplished pilot, nor could he have been one. First of all, he was an “old” man playing a young man’s game—36 is simply too late to become a fighter pilot. Second, even if he had been able to overcome the strictures of age, his more nefarious duties prevented him from devoting his full energies to learning all the intricacies of aerial combat. Wish as he might, Heydrich would never become a “knight of the sky.”
The question remains as to Heydrich’s motives in even trying to learn to fly and take part in combat missions. Undoubtedly, his personal ambition and trademark bravado had to be factors, but politics probably played a primary role as well. Heydrich, like most of the Führer’s henchmen, was enthralled with wielding power. He was also a confirmed Nazi. Clearly he wanted to show his critics in the Wehrmacht that members of the SS were more than “asphalt soldiers” operating strictly behind the front line, but rather were new warriors of the Third Reich. In the case of Reinhard Heydrich, at least, the experience proved that even a self-styled Nazi Übermensch had his limitations. With his early death, however, no one will ever really be sure whether he might have tried to do more.
Originally published in the December 2006 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.