World War II prisoner of war camp - Stalag Luft I


World War II - Prisoners of War - Stalag Luft I 

A collection of stories, photos, art and information on Stalag Luft I


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Jackpot over Vechta 

by Marc L. Hamel in collaboration with Maj. Gen. Luther H. Richmond (USAF Ret.)

"His tracers looked like red golf balls coming up, and normally I would have zigged and zagged a bit so that he would miss.  On that day however, the temptation was too great and I held my aim steady as I could see my tracers hitting the flak site.  I felt the ship get hit, and almost immediately a tongue of flame licked back from around my feet and burned my hands quite badly. ‘You're on fire Colonel!’ my element leader radioed."

These words punctuate the abrupt transition of Lt. Col. Luther H. Richmond from aggressive leader of the 486th Fighter Squadron (FS) to troublesome "guest" of Germany.  Lt. Col. Lynn Farnol succinctly described Richmond in his wartime VIIIth Fighter Command tome  'To The Limit Of Their Endurance'  as,  "That pilot's pilot."   A better summation cannot be found, for Richmond's surviving squadron members praise his aerial leadership, foul-weather flying, and navigating skills to this day. These talents were tested over Vechta Airfield, Germany on April 15th, 1944 when it became the stage for a violent melee between the 486th Mustangs and the Luftwaffe's fighters and flak.

Early on the 15th, Lt. Col. Richmond pondered a peculiar order. "All of our Fighter Groups were ordered to strafe German fighter airfields! The 352nd FG was to hit three fields in northern Germany.  My target (leading the 486th) was an Fw-190 field at Vechta, about 50 miles from Bremen."  Noted aviation historian Tom Ivie adds that VIIIth Fighter Command selected April 15th for this first "Jackpot" strafing mission, involving over 600 USAAF fighters.

"We proceeded in group formation at about 25,000 feet, then split into squadrons at a predetermined point (near Dummer Lake).  My plan was to pass from about 25 miles south of Vechta, to a point 20 miles southeast of it, then head for the deck toward the field with the sun behind us.  This we did.  I had a section of eight aircraft with me on the deck (White and Red Flights), and eight above providing top cover.”  This top cover consisted of Yellow and Blue Flights, tasked with carrying out diversionary simulated dive bombing runs and post attack photography.

The 486th FS pilots were flying their P-51B model (and one ‘C’) Mustangs on this mission, having started the transition from Thunderbolts beginning in the first week of March. The ships had yet to receive their famed blue spinners and sweeping cowling paint, which later led to the group's sobriquet "The Bluenosed Bastards of Bodney".  Lt. Col. Richmond was piloting his assigned P-51B-10 Mustang coded “PZ*R”, s/n 43-7196, which was in natural aluminum finish with olive drab spinner and anti-glare panel.  Richmond appreciated its bright aluminum sheen, and allows "I wanted the Germans to see me, so maybe we could get together and sort things out. I figured that they would see the silver color from a long way off."

Richmond continues, "As we approached the airfield right on the treetops at about 1355 hours, I was preparing to pull up to 300 to 400 feet for the strafing run.  I glanced up and saw about twelve Fw-190's circling the field at about 500 feet.  I called my men and told them to forget the strafing run and engage the airborne aircraft.  The Jerries apparently never saw us, as they were at 500 feet and we were on the tree tops.  They may have been watching our top cover at 10,000 feet...probably were!

Luther kneeling on the wing of his P-47D "Sweetie"

We soon had a number of Fw-190's burning on the ground.  I remember they were in a rectangle as though the traffic pattern had been transposed to the surface.  I had a beam shot at my Fw-190, and he half-rolled into the ground. I've never been sure whether I shot him down, or whether he was taking evasive action without realizing how low he was. Things happen pretty fast in a dogfight.  Anyway, I received credit for the kill as my wingman reported it."

Lt. Chester V. “Chet” Harker’s Encounter Report (as White 3) confirms Richmond’s victory with, “Colonel Richmond opened up with a deflection shot with the result that strikes were soon all over the cockpit.  The E/A then flipped over, spun, crashed into the ground and exploded.”  Strike one Fw-190.

Lt. Alton J. Wallace of the 486th’s Red Flight recalls, "Seeing the 190's, Richmond sounded the alert and immediately turned after them.  Within seconds he had a 190 in his sights and sent it crashing to earth.  As Lt. Col. Richmond pulled up, Lt. Henry Miklajcyk (as White 2 in his P-51B “The Syracusan”, code “PZ*K”, s/n 42-106430) picked out another and sent it down with a few quick bursts of fire."  Wallace followed this action from the cockpit of his P-51B “Little Rebel”, s/n 43-7022 and coded “PZ*W”.  This mount was one of the first seven Mustangs assigned to the 352nd.

“Mike” Miklajcyk described his Fw-190 victory in his Encounter Report stating, “I made about a 100 degree turn and went after the Fw-190, when he turned to the left and headed southeast.  I used full throttle and closed in.  I gave him a burst at about 450 yards so he would turn.  I saw some strikes, and when he turned he almost lost control due to high-speed wing stall. He straightened out and I gave him another short burst.  The canopy fell off and a few parts were flying around.  He then turned again to the right and I gave him a two second burst from 70 to 90 degrees, and saw hits in the cockpit.  The ship blew up and went out of control, making a barrel roll just before it hit the deck and exploded.  I came over the Vechta Airdrome and strafed about four barracks northeast of the field and all of the barracks on the field.  The flak was intense and accurate, and I used violent evasive action.” 

Hearing the Colonel's call of planes in the air, Red Flight joined the proceedings. Lt. Martin Corcoran (Red Leader in “Button Nose”, “PZ*L”, s/n 42-106439) chopped two low-flying Fw-190's from the air in separate encounters. “Just as we came upon the field, White Leader (Richmond) called in ‘planes in the air’ and at the same time I observed Fw-190s going under me at almost 180 degrees to my course.  I pulled up to turn around and see where my flight was. I couldn’t see them, but saw a burning plane crash.  I then started to turn and saw an Fw-190 in a right turn start across the field.  I went down to get on him but he made an even steeper turn, so I took a two-second burst at nearly 90 degree deflection.  Since he was hidden under my nose, I couldn’t observe the results of this burst. I then picked him up again, and as he began to straighten out, I gave him another burst.  He burst into flames, straightened out, and crashed into the ground sliding some distance before exploding.  I then pulled up and observed another Fw-190 going away from the field.  I don’t think he saw me as I pulled up and gave him a short burst.  He caught fire and bailed out.  This action was from the deck all the way up to 800 feet.” 

Al Wallace went after four 109's that passed below at 180 degrees to his path. "I made a tight 180 degree turn to come down on their tails, but they turned sharply left, giving me about a 90 degree deflection shot", Wallace's report details.  "I fired a one second burst at the first one, with no results (more on this later).  I then laid off a little more deflection on the second and observed many hits around the canopy.  I did not see this plane crash, but Red Three (Cunningham) says he caught fire and crashed.  The number three aircraft was not making as tight a turn as the rest and broke off when I fired at the others, giving me a chance to swing around on his tail.  I fired a two second burst at about ten degree deflection with no result, probably because he was skidding and slipping.  So I stopped firing and carefully slid over exactly dead-astern at about 200 yards.  When I opened fire this time there were very many hits all over the plane and he burst into flames, crashing almost immediately."

After a close shave evading a ramming by one of Wallace's two crashing Fw-190's, Lt. Murdoch "Scotty" Cunningham (as Red 3 in Edwin Heller’s famous “HELL-ER-BUST”, “PZ*H”, s/n 43-6704) pursued and flamed another E/A which tried to evade by hugging the tree tops.  His Encounter Report details, "I continued after my 190. By this time he had some distance between us, but I soon closed, fired and observed strikes despite his violent weaving and turning.  He stayed within inches of the ground, and I fired many short bursts from various angles of deflection, from zero to fifteen.  At no time did he make a tight turn. He still had his belly tank on until he crashed.  He burst into violent flames and spread himself all over the countryside.  About half way through my attack, I observed Red Two (Wallace) coming in and covering my tail."  Fifty two years later Wallace added, "Scotty's 190 left this blazing trail across the field, whacked into the row of trees at the end, and went up in a ball of flames. Out of the whole mess came the guy's belly tank.  End over end over end, rolling across the next field.  Of course the trees had stopped the rest of the plane, but 50 some years later I can still see that belly tank... end over end."

Richmond continues, "After initial contact, we were badly split up and had ballooned up to about 6 to 8000 feet. I noticed a German survivor of the dogfight attempting to flee the scene at low level.  I was diving to intercept this Fw-190 when a flak gun opened up on me. I could see his tracers coming up as I passed through about 1000 feet.  The flak position was right in my sights, so instead of taking evasive action, I steadied on my target.  Temptation overcame my normally good judgment and I got off a long burst."

As recounted at the beginning of this narrative, the flak site found its mark and flames leapt into the Mustang's cockpit and seared Richmond's hands.  The Missing Aircrew Report for this mission carries Chet Harker's statement, "Anti-aircraft fire opened up in the southwest corner of the airdrome, probably 20 mm, and during the initial firing the Colonel's right wing tank was hit. Gas sprayed all over the plane, which continued about a fifth of a mile after it was hit." Richmond continues, "My hands were immediately burned quite badly, and swelled up like hams with huge blisters."  To Chet Harker's warning of fire, he radioed, "I know it!"

"I was going pretty fast at about 350 knots, and took a few seconds to pull out right on the treetops deliberately to avoid the continuing flak (Lt. Thomas Colby [flying as Yellow 2 in “Lil' Evey”, s/n 43-6864, coded “PZ*T”] detailed that this flak was the most accurate he’d encountered outside of the Ruhr).  Concerned about whether my ‘hams’ would be of use in bailing out, I struggled with my safety belt and harness and got it unbuckled. All that remained was to pull the yellow canopy release lever.  I pulled up quickly intending to zoom up to four to five thousand feet, roll inverted, and fall free.  I started up, and pulled the canopy release lever with some difficulty.

The canopy came off and there was an immediate concussion that sucked me half out of the cockpit due to my speed.  My helmet came off as soon as I hit the slipstream, along with my goggles and oxygen mask.  I wound up bent back over the turtledeck with my left foot caught around the throttle quadrant.  The parachute straps across my rear were likewise caught on something.  The airplane eased up to about 400 feet and then began a gradual descent with the engine running fine but the cockpit mighty hot.  I managed to squirm down until I was hanging from the left side of the cockpit, and struggled to free my G.I. shoe.  I thought of my wife and kids, and said a little prayer, all in a split second.  Then I quit struggling, felt my foot slip loose and the heavy web straps rip from around my rear (this turned out to be the dingy, though I thought for a moment that the chute had gone).

Free of the plane at last and floating feet-first on my back, I missed the tail I'd been staring at for a few seconds. All I could hear were the flak guns going off all around me.  The trees were going by fast.  With little time left, I managed with my right "ham" to get the ripcord out.  The chute opened with a terrific jerk and the harness straps pressed my escape pack (in my inside jacket pocket) hard enough to crack 3 or 4 ribs. It was only a five or six second ride to the ground.

The ground was hard and I hit like a ton of bricks, badly spraining both ankles.  There was a burning Fw-190 about 150 feet from me, and a flak position a couple of hundred feet in the other direction.  Soldiers in the flak position were glancing over at me, and with difficulty, I rolled up my chute attempting to be inconspicuous, but to no avail."

Harker's report back at base detailed, "The right wingtip of the Colonel's plane hit a tree, it cartwheeled and burst into flames immediately.  It is my contention that the Colonel was hit."  As can be gathered from these words, great confusion surrounded whether Richmond was able to get clear of the plane.

Richmond continues, "Soon the ‘All Clear’ siren sounded, and I was immediately surrounded by a dozen or more German soldiers with rifles pointed at me.  My hands were very painful when hanging, so I tried to keep them elevated to reduce the throbbing.  I then found that my left arm was practically useless, as apparently I had hit something during bailout.  A German soldier returned my gabardine flight cap to me, as it had apparently blown out of storage in the cockpit when the canopy was released.  As the soldiers prepared to load me into a truck, a German 2nd Lieutenant came up and started screaming in my face and patting his pistol.  I thought he was going to shoot me, and so did the surrounding soldiers as they started backing off.  I didn’t understand what he was saying, so I could do nothing but stand up straight and look him in the eye.  He finally wound down, and the soldiers moved back in and took me to the Vechta airfield doctor's office.  Here the doctor examined my hands, punctured the huge blisters with a pair of scissors, and applied ointment and paper bandages."

Amazingly Werner Oeltjebruns (an avid researcher in nearby Wardenburg, Germany) located an eye-witness to this event during early 2000. Gottfried Pagenstert, now a Senior Farmer, was 13 years old in 1944 and was one of the first to Luther’s crash site.  He relates, “On one day in April 1944 I was standing in front of our farmhouse, and several German fighter planes were circling around the airfield at Vechta. Their altitude was not very high. Suddenly some US fighters came down from above (he must have seen the top cover - author) and shot down 7 or 8 German fighters in a surprise attack.  At the same time the flak also began to fire. During the second pass of the US attack, I saw a single-engine airplane directly in front of me coming over from the northwest.  The fighter was burning and leaving a trail of smoke. Just a few seconds before the fighter hit the ground the pilot bailed out. Just when the parachute opened the pilot was at the ground.  A few hundred yards from the pilot the aircraft smashed onto a field and burned out.

At the same time, a few people from the airfield were standing with a kind of little lorry not far from our farmhouse and went to go get the pilot for prison. Soon after, a fanatical German Flak Lieutenant came up riding a bicycle. The chain had been coming loose many times (which no doubt did nothing positive for his mood - author).  When he arrived he shouted at the pilot. Another man, a courageous Sergeant of the Luftwaffe, asked the Lieutenant if he knew about the Geneva Convention, and think about what he would feel if he were the pilot? The Lieutenant backed off, and the injured pilot was advised to sit in the lorry and was moved away from the place.”  Today Luther adds, “I would very much like to meet that German Sergeant.

Luther's P-51B "PZ-R" resting in front of 486th Operations in April 1944, immediately before Luther was downed.

Tom Colby adds, "As I recall, at the time there was much confusion back at base over whether Luther survived or not.  It was weeks or months later that we had definite news that he was alive."

"Next stop was a small cell in the base jail with a plank cot along one wall and a couple of blankets", Richmond continues. "I hurt all over by this time, and lay down to try to forget what happened.  About dark, someone woke me by entering the cell and I struggled to my feet.  The jailer entered with a young soldier and said, ‘Herr Oberst Lieutenant, this is the Soldat who you Abgeschossen Hat.’ I figured this was the soldier who shot me down. Groping for appropriate words, I replied, ‘Tell him congratulations; I hope he gets the Iron Cross.’  The kid smiled and said what translated to, ‘You were very brave and killed some of my comrades, but I was brave too. I stuck to my guns and got you.’  I replied ‘C'est la guerre’ and they both understood that. So much for sportsmanship.  That night my nice warm leather jacket was stolen from under my pillow and I was without it for the duration. Northern Germany is cold in mid-April!"

Modestly, several 486th pilots have stated that perhaps it was a fighter training unit that was attacked that day, as the aerial action was very one-sided in favor of the 486th.  The German records indicate otherwise. According to noted researcher Doctor Jochen Prien, the unit attacked was III./Group of Jagdgeschwader 11 who at the time was based near the City of Oldenburg.  The Group was on a routine flight after earlier downing seven USAAF P-38s that day near Hamburg (most likely these were from the 364th FG, though the 55th FG also lost P-38’s that day). Obviously these were no ‘beginners’.  In fact, one of their pilots downed that day was Major Anton ‘Toni’ Hackl, who by April 15th had amassed a victory record of 141 planes. Though badly injured that day, he recovered to raise his tally to 192 confirmed (including 34 heavy bombers) and 24 unconfirmed before the end of the war. German pilots with P-38 victories that day were Ofw. Schulze, Ofw. Zick (two), Maj. Hackl, Ofw. Laskowski (two), and Fw. Keil.

Other interesting material from Germany regards the Luftwaffe loss record for that day. It appears that eight German fighters (seven Fw-190s and one Me-109) were downed on the 15th, versus the 486th’s claims of six.  This is unusual, as in the wild melees over the Continent, it was easy to over claim due to confusion.  At present it is assumed that either Al Wallace actually connected with the first Fw-190 he fired at, or two pilots bailed out deciding that ‘discretion was the better part of valor’ (at low speed and low altitude versus the attacking Mustangs).

Four German pilots bailed out and survived, and four were killed in action.  Those KIA were Uffz. Karl Blaha (the Me-109 pilot), Obfhr. Horst Binder, Uffz. Herbert Regel, and Lt. Willibald Kilian. Kilian crashed away from the field, and would undoubtedly be “Scotty” Cunningham’s highly evasive victim.

Though precipitously plucked from his position as highly respected CO of the 486th Fighter Squadron, "Kreigie" Richmond was to carry on the war by plaguing the Germans manning his POW camp.  Ultimately imprisoned in Stalag Luft I at Barth on the Baltic Sea coast, Richmond participated in innovative escape planning and a tunneling project, as well as passive resistance. Two hundred tunnels were initiated from this Stalag alone during the war, and although his escape attempt was unsuccessful, actions such as these tied up German manpower that could have been operational on front lines. Other noted inmates at Stalag Luft I during Richmond's stay were Duane Beeson, Gerald Johnson, Gabby Gabreski, Loren McCollom, Mark Hubbard, Cy Wilson, Henry Russ Spicer, and Hub Zemke.

After release in early May 1945, Lt. Col. Luther Richmond returned to duty in the USAAF. Ultimately attaining the rank of Major General, Richmond served in commands in the U.S., Japan, France and Germany, as well as two tours of duty at the USAF HQ in the Pentagon.  One of his more interesting assignments was with the American Embassy in Bonn, Germany. Here, from 1955 to 1958, he was responsible for rebuilding the German Luftwaffe.  Richmond recalled recently, "A few years ago I made a list of aircraft I have qualified in, and as I remember it totals about 78 types from single engine to four-engines."  This impressive total ran from the P-12 biplane all the way up through contemporary jets.  Richmond retired in 1970 after a long and successful career.

A fitting tribute to Richmond is the memory of the 486th FS’s popular parachute rigger Michael “Mike” Sandorse. “Everyone knew that the Colonel was an ‘ace’ both in and out of his airplane.  I do not specifically recall my thoughts at the time we learned Luther was missing, but I do remember telling the pilots that all of us would miss him very much.  I kept asking the pilots after the incident if they believed Luther was killed, and they all said there was no way he could have survived the crash.

When I attended my first 352nd FG Association reunion, I was told Luther was looking for me.  I asked, Luther who?’ ‘You know, the commanding officer’, I was told.  I replied that I thought he was killed - then I got the rest of the story.  Luther found me and hugged me and said, ‘If it wasn’t for you I would not be here today.’  What a wonderful moment for me that I will never forget.” 

Luther's  Mustang PZ-R (painted by Rocky Gooch). 

The two insignias are for the 21st FS/486th FS.  The Indian head is the 21st, which became the 486th.  The Pegasus denotes the 486th, but was never approved or worn on jackets.  The Indian head was worn throughout the war by the original members of the unit

The authors would like to thank Mrs. Dee Richmond and Patrice Hamel for their support and patience, Tom Ivie, Bob Powell and the 352nd FG Association members, Sam Sox, Jeff Grosse, Troy White, Herbert Fischer of Vechta, and Werner Oeltjebruns.

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