Hans-Ekkehard Bob interview by James Holland @James1940 on Twitter
Hans-Ekkehard Bob sadly passed on 12 August 2013 in Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany.
About the family – how many sisters did you have?
Four, they were all older than me. My mother was 43 years old when I was born and my father 46.
How big was the age gap?
My youngest sister was seven years older and the eldest fourteen years older.
They all spoiled me.
What did your father do?
He had his own firm – a leather business, which was founded in 1908. And he said then that synthetics will ruin him. His firm was closed before the war started. My father died before the war and my mother in 1952. We lived in Stauffen, a nice little town.
How did you get interested in flying?
I was in the Hitler Youth – like a scout. One day I found out that there was a flying Hitler Youth.
What did you do?
I was technically very gifted and we built our own planes. That gave me a lot of fun and if you did well you were allowed to fly.
When did you join the Luftwaffe?
I joined the squadron in 1938. After the Abitur everybody had to join the forces anyway, for two years. Because I liked flying so much I wanted to join the Luftwaffe to become a pilot. The training was expensive and you had to sign a permanent contract. But that was fine with me.
How did they single you out to become a fighter pilot? Was that always your ambition?
Yes, I wanted to become a fighter pilot. I was very gifted. I was allowed to fly alone after only 17 starts. Average was 50 flights before you were on your own. Normally the good ones became fighter pilots.
Did you think the fighter pilots were the elite?
Oh yes, definitely. They became the most medals, decorations. One could see the success.
Was there a bit of rivalry between the fighter and bomber pilots?
Yes, always. The bomber pilots never really knew, if they hit their targets. And we said jokingly that they would miss anyway. Our instructors could see who would be good as a fighter pilot, or who could become either a bomber or reconnaissance pilot. The bad ones had to leave.
Do you think it was good to be a pre-war pilot?
Oh yes, that was a big advantage.
Did you still have to think about flying? Or could you totally concentrate of the task in hand?
Flying became automatic, but of course, you had to gain all your own experiences. [The story about Trauloft and his diary.] He has written 2000 pages, an entry every day. Because I was his friend I received the diary after his death. Trautloft wanted to become a pilot in the early 1930’s. But because Germany was only allowed to have an army with 100,000 men after the 1st World War training to become a pilot was impossible. But Germany formed a secret treaty with Russia. Aeroplanes were built on Russian soil and pilots were trained there. This was between 1932–33. In return the Russians got the plans to build and develop their own air force. Trauloft had an even bigger advantage because he took part in the war in Spain. He was together with Garland, Mölder and Wick. And Hartmann was super gifted. The diary has been printed in German and will be translated into English.
Where were you when the battle of Britain started?
In the summer 1940 I was near Calais in Guines. The field had just been harvested and there was a small forest around. We had tents and Nissen huts in there and a kitchen. There were two air strips which we built ourselves.
Did you stay there?
Only when we were on duty. Otherwise we had accommodation in town.
How many planes were on duty?
There were always two aeroplanes. And you had to be ready in 3 minutes.
Did you have enough food?
There was a kitchen and there was always lots of food. We had chocolate, coffee and every day ½ l milk. We lived like “Gott in Frankreich”. (a German saying). Around the area where we stayed the French population had fled and left their farm animals behind.
What did a typical day look like? Was there a regular routine?
No, it depended very much on the tactical strategy.
How many pilots were in a squadron?
I was the squadron leader with another 11 pilots. 12 aeroplanes in a squadron – 3 squadrons formed a group.
Did all the aeroplanes go out for missions?
Normally twelve planes went out on a mission. The others were repaired or serviced etc.
How did you receive your orders for the day?
We had a telephone connection with the commanding officers. The orders came in over the phone. Very often the evening before the mission it was decided what every pilot had to do the next day. There were three different possibilities. You were in a chasing position over a great area. You were protection for the bombers. You were to accompany the bombers for the last stretch of their journey. The fighter aeroplanes had only petrol for 1 hour and 15 minutes, so they had to go back in time.
When did the missions normally start?
At 9 o’clock or when the bombers arrived.
Did you have your own mechanic?
Yes, we had our own mechanics in my squadron. There were 3 attendants to each aeroplane and a radio controller for the whole group. My mechanic was Oberfeldwebel Hölzner. He came to me before the war, as an Unteroffizier.
Did you trust him?
Through and through. I think if I didn’t have my good mechanic I would have not survived. My mechanics looked very well after my aeroplane. I promoted him to the highest rank – Oberfeldwebel. And after the war he was my engineer in my factory.
Did you think it was a big advantage to have guns and not only machine guns on board of your aeroplane?
A huge advantage.
Did you fly lots of missions?
All in all probably 2,000 flights, missions officially 700 but I think more like 970. Yes I did with the B109. I had lots of experience and confidence. For instance there was a sort of ridge in our air strip which wasn’t too difficult for me. But the other pilots found it very tricky to start and land.
Did you have days off?
That was planned but it was not always possible.
What did you do when there was spare time?
We went to Lille. The town had nice pubs and restaurants and very, very nice girls.
How did you get to Lille?
We had several cars for the squadron – a Citroen – 12 cylinder – automatic. It was a fantastic car.
Did you have a girlfriend?
Not only one. When we had bad weather and we couldn’t fly we played cards, mostly “Skat”. You play it with 3 or 4 players.
Did you swim in the sea?
So, 1940 were very exciting times for you?
Yes, certainly. We had lots of success and we were happy.
Did you have particular good friends?
I was very well known.
Was there a strong feeling of camaraderie?
In the beginning, with all the success, this feeling was really strong. Later it wasn’t there anymore, because of all the newcomers.
Did you expect that Britain would surrender?
Yes, after the tragedy of Dunkirk. I have watched thousands of small transport ships getting ready to take the German army to England. But Göring thought he could win the war just with the air force. And nterestingly we young enthusiastic Germans didn’t see what would happen and neither did the leadership. Kesselring couldn’t do anything. The generals were full of despair. But the invasion was stopped.
Where were you in May – August 1944?
Yes, I was there when the Norman invasion took place. But it was very difficult.
It has always been said that the infantry was there but not the German air force.
Our aeroplanes were hidden under trees and sometimes before we even started the Americans were above us in big numbers. At other times we succeeded and flew up to a height of 5000 to 8000 feet but the American planes appeared above us. In 1 mission we had losses of 60 %. We didn’t have a chance. Once I had 10 Mustangs around me and they all wanted to bring me down. But they disturbed each other and didn’t succeed. I had to fly very low. To survive I flew in and out of forests and houses. I had to ask everything of my 109 and I am only still alive because of my great experience and my flying skills. Let me tell you a story from Russia. I took a Storch once to go swimming in a river. Soldiers were swimming there as well. When they saw me coming by plane they remarked, ‘Yes, naturally the gentlemen from the air force come by plane.’ Once I flew with somebody else to get a barrel of beer. There wasn’t lots of room in the plane so the other person had to sit on the barrel for the whole duration of the flight back.
I’ve been looking at the 9th Staffel War Diary and were wondering what the personnel and aircraft figures represented?
With the personnel, it’s officers, non-commissioned officers and manschaften – other ranks. The aircraft refers to what we had in the squadron and what was ready to fly.
And what is an Einweisungsfüge?
It’s an old hand, or one of the experienced pilots, taking a new pilot up and showing him some of the ropes. A familiarization flight.
And the kühlerschuss?
The kühlerschuss is the cooling system. If you get shot there you have very little time to get back before the engine seizes.
Tell me a bit more about Guines, the airfield you were operating from during the Battle of Britain, and the technician’s tent. Presumably that was effectively the gruppe workshop?
Guines was a wheatfield that had just been harvested when we arrived. This was good because the ground was nice and firm. The technicians’ tent was really big – big enough to fit an aircraft in. It was the place where most of the maintenance was done on the machines.
There were references in the diary to ‘Tschika’ and ‘Teddy’?
Not ‘Tschika’ but ‘Chica’! Chica was my dog, and Teddy was another, who looked a bit like a bear so we called him Teddy. Chica was my dog, a fox terroer. I had been in Spain as a boy and had had a good time there. Chica is the name for a girl in Spain. So because of my time out there I called my dog Chica. Chica and Teddy had puppies. Chica would always flying with me whenever we moved airfields. She would sit behind my seat – there is a small luggage hold in the 109 and that’s where she went whenever we moved. She always wanted to fly. She was a passionate flyer! She always cried when she wasn’t allowed to come with me. Everyone always spoiled her – a very cheeky dog. Everyone would say, ‘It’s the boss’s dog, so…’ But she was a very good dog. At the end of the war we had to move airfields a lot. One day we came back from a flight and she wasn’t there any more. I don’t know what happened to her – if someone took her, or if she was killed. But she was gone. We’d been through the whole war together. It was very sad.
The diary mentions that RAF bombers – Blenheims – making repeated attacks on the airfield. Did that affect your sleep?
We were always trying to find places to sleep as far away as possible so that we could sleep. As far as 20 km away. It was the groundcrew who got the short end of the stick because they had to remain at the airfield all the time. But for us pilots, if there was a pretty girl in one spot you tended to stay there. You could stay anywhere you wanted. If we went to Lille, for example, we would come back the following morning. It wasn’t too much of a problem being that far from the airfield because there were cars and bus to take us there and back. The British bombers were not effective at all in terms of bomb damage. They were irritating but not very effective. I don’t remember really hearing the flak guns too much. I usually slept pretty well.
There’s a bit in the diary that refers to one of the pilots having a sore throat – or pretending to have a sore throat. Dödel? Was that his name? I wondered whether he was trying get out of flying.
(Laughs). No, you’ve got it quite wrong! Saying someone has a sore throat means they are really ambitious. They are a Dödel because they are trying to get a Knights Cross, which ties around the throat. A Dödel is a name – a rude name – for a penis, like a dick. But it is also a name to describe the ritterkreuz. The Knights Cross and Knights Cross only! And since the Kinghts Cross tied around the neck, we would say someone had a sore throat.
But what about Kanal Krank – Channel Fever?
Kanal Krank. There are two sides to this. One, when your nerves are shot and you simply cannot fly anymore, and second, when you are desperate for a Knights Cross. One is a syndrome – a mental illness – the other is ambition. The urge to keep flying and shooting down aircraft.
Most of the time you seem to have no more than nine aircraft in the squadron. I thought a staffel was supposed to be twelve?
There were supposed to be twelve machines in a squadron but we never had that many. Usually we had only nine because of all sorts of reasons – later because of a shortage of labour, damage to factories and so, but mainly because of the losses. The problem was that the 109 was difficult to take off in and to land and we lost a lot during training. There was a pilot called Müller. He was a good pilot in the air but bad at taking off and landing. We called him ‘Crash Müller.’ For every plane he shot down, he lost one himself. Later, when we were in Russia and we were flying from an airstrip that was surrounded by the Russians, I told him, ‘If you crash your aircraft you will never be able to get out of here. The Russians will get you.’ He never crashed again. He was perfectly capable to doing it, but he didn’t concentrate enough.
But were you conscious that there were not enough aircraft during the Battle of Britain?
I was definitely aware that there did not seem to be enough machines. And as the battle progressed, there were definitely fewer. Guines was interesting. Two thirds of the way through the airfield there was a track through the stubble. It ran across the field just at the point where you took off and just where you landed, but the track caused a bit of a dip. If you didn’t judge it right, it was very easy to jolt the plane. Then a wingtip would hit the ground, then the propeller and before you knew it, the machine had flipped with the engine dug into the ground. This was a called a ringelpiez. We lost many that way. Squadrons that crashed fewer aircraft at their airfields tended to get replacement aircraft quicker. At least, I assume that was the case. That’s how it seemed at the time.
When you made it back over the Channel after being hit, how did you manage it?
I was hit in the engine, so I knew the engine could easily seize. I switched the engine off completely. But the wind was turning the prop because I was gliding downwards. Because of this, and because the engine was off and I was gliding, the engine cooled. Then I could start it up again for a little bit and climb again and repeat the process. Actually, it was very simple – it’s all about timing. You can’t keep the engine going too long – but I was the first one to try it. The trick is to turn off the engine before everything seizes. It’s the same with any aircraft with an inline engine. Lots of pilots would crash land or bale out over England rather than ditch in the Channel, but I was determined not to do that.
I was fascinated about the story of your action against the French pilot on 26th May.
What I did on 26th May was forbidden – landing beside him and helping him. I could have been court-martialled for that. The Messerschmitt 109 was very fragile and if you didn’t land on a proper airstrip the chances were you’d crash. But I was an expert! I was very experienced on the 109 – I had flown every type. When I got back, I had to admit to what I’d done because I’d away for nearly three hours and I still had fuel left. I had to say something. They let me off, though. I was euphoric – I’d shot this aircraft down, and had then landed beside him and saved him. If I’d stopped to think about it I would never have done it. It was an instinctive thing. This action had been a big fight. Twenty against twenty, but that then it broke down to one-on-one. The fact that I was the only one to shoot one down was also a pat on my shoulder. But I was very experienced by then. I’d flown the B the Cesar, the Dora and now the Emil.