Karl Spreitzer interview by James Holland @James1940 on Twitter.
Sadly Karl Spreitzer passed away on February 2nd, 2009 (Ranten/Styria, Austria)
Interview May 2008
We will talk a little bit about your war experience. How did you receive the Panzerkampfabzeichen? You were a Stuka pilot and not in the Infantry?
It was something special. I was in the 10th Panzerstaffel but as a pilot. We had to distract the enemy from the Panzergruppe by flying over them. I flew a 310 ??? with 7 small canons on board. And with these canons I destroyed 12 polish tanks. After the successful mission the commander suggested the Panzerkreuz for me.
Did you fly with Rudel?
Yes, at the end of the war mostly with Rudel. First I was in Poland. From 9th April 1940 I was flying in Norway – Oslo. Because the Norwegians had much slower aeroplanes the airstrip was not very long. We had great losses through the shortness of the airfield and because behind were rocks.Then we went to Narvik, after that to the Lofoten Islands. In Sept. 1940 we were in Stavanger when we heard about the missions to England.
Let us talk a little about your family. When and where were you born?
I was born on 26th January 1918 here at Steiermark. My father was a farmer but died early in 1930. He was an invalid from the 1st World War. My parents were very economical but we couldn’t buy anything. At least we didn’t starve. They planted wheat and other food. 1932 I went to the Gymnasium in Burg an der Muhr. I left in 1936. At that time Austria didn’t have a future and the only opportunity was to go to the oesterreichisches Bundesheer for 6 years, if you were suitable. After the 6 years you had a claim to become either a policeman, postman or work for the railway. Nobody thought about war at that time. That was the beginning of my career.
Didn’t the experience your father had from the 1st World War put you off?
There was no other possibility. So in 1936, when I was 18 I joined the infantry. In 1937 I joined the oesterreichische Fliegertruppe. The Luftwaffe was very primitive.
Did you always like the idea to become a pilot?
As a young boy I had a certain dream about flying. A double-decker over Austria was a very rare sight at that time. But yes, I always loved aircrafts. So in 1937 I changed from the infantry to the flying school. I needed the signature of my mother because I was still too young. My mother thought it was far too dangerous and tried to persuade me to go to the Gebirgsjaeger, because I could ski and knew the mountains. I was determined and said that I would leave her and would find a way to join and so she signed the papers with tears in her eyes. 1938 was the invasion of Austria. The invasion was greeted with great enthusiasm. The Austrian farmers had big debts. But the German government erased the loans to guarantee the food supply. Probably with the war on their minds – but finally life improved. 1938 I was in Vienna and the osterreichische Fliegertruppe became the German Luftwaffe. We had very good equipment.
What did you want to become, a bomber, fighter or reconnaissance pilot?
We didn’t have a choice. We were tested for different flying styles. And after those tests we were selected.
How many flight hours did you have?
Quite a lot, we were all keen to fly as much as possible, probably 200 hours.
Were you a confident general pilot by the time you received your wings?
Did you fly German aircrafts, Stukas?
From Vienna I was moved to Graz. I trained on the Ju 87 and had to practice aiming with concrete bags. We were laughing about this and joked about on whose head we should drop them on. On 29th August 1939 we had to fly out to West Prussia to a Reichsparteitag with the Stuka Staffel. We were 2 days there. On 1st Sept, early in the morning, there was an alarm. I can remember it was still dark. We received our flight aims and flew into Poland. We were very surprised because we didn’t know anything about this mission beforehand. The Poles were prepared because their infantry was stationed at the border. This 1st mission was easy and our Staffel captain received a prize. We didn’t, and didn’t have to show anything for our war efforts.
Were you scared?
I was more curious, a little anxious and adventurous, really all together.
Were you worried going into Poland?
I didn’t have time because it came so suddenly.
Can we go back to the time when you became a Stuka pilot. Did you like the idea?
Yes, I was satisfied. At that time nearly everybody could become a fighter pilot. Flying as a fighter pilot was not that difficult. Yes, you had to be skilled and you had to be brave. But not everybody was made to become a Stuka pilot. Diving in a 75 – 80° was very difficult. One of my colleagues tried to dive 90° – vertical, but the diving wasn’t the hardest part. That was the coming-up and not everybody could do that.
So you were proud to be a Stuka pilot? How were you trained for this?
From a height of 1000m you dived in an angle of 75 – 80° down to circa 150 – 200m for the come-up.
Was that even for your first training flight?
Yes and my stomach came up, too. I felt quite sick.
Did you have an instructor?
Yes, my training commandant sat behind me and gave me the instructions.
What were you thinking during your first dive?
I have to admit I was very anxious.
Hurtling towards the ground like this must have been a very terrifying experience. How did you feel after you have landed?
I was very proud about myself and that I actually could do it. I liked it.
Did you lose aircrafts?
Yes! We were sent for some training to the Baltic Sea near Stettin. On the water were sort of sea plates we had to dive towards. We trained with new equipment, with automatic come-ups. Three aircraft plunged into the sea and after this the come-ups were manually handled again. Later I was in Braunschweig and I had some training in parachuting. I was already a pilot and it was part of the Stuka training. We were 12 pilots in this Ju52 and we had orders to jump as quickly as possible in succession. For my first jump I was sort of in the middle and a little hesitant. My comrade behind me gave me a kick in my backside. Back on the ground he apologized. But after that I was really enthusiastic.
Did every pilot have to do this training?
Yes, in my squadron everybody. It was important to be able to exit the aircraft in an emergency.
How many jumps?
We had 8 jumps. I was keen. I was always sporty and saw the flying and the parachuting as a sport. But then we had to fly in the war. In Norway that wasn’t too bad. But later with more and more losses it became increasingly difficult. We were too slow. But desertion wasn’t an option for me. I would have been ashamed. I joined the air force voluntarily. My brother had to join the GebirgsjÃ¤ger. 1933, in the area where I came from there wasn’t any SS. I was never a Nazi, I was never politically engaged. Young men who were strong, tall and healthy joined the SS but not very often with a political reason. Unemployment was so high in Austria that lots of people went illegally over the border to Bavaria to help building the motorway. They had money and holidays. The invasion of Austria wasn’t about Adolf Hitler – it was because with the anschluss and the Nazis living became better. Suddenly the farmers had fertilizer and machines for example and prosperity boomed. Later in the war, I served in Africa. We were living in our tents in a wadi. We were listening to an English Radio programme in German. They were lying. But that was, of course, on both sides – war propaganda.
Did you develop a personal technique dive bombing?
We had a reflex visor and like the fighter aircrafts we had a Fahnenkreuz. Because the bomb didn’t fall vertical I had to advance my equipment for 1-2 seconds to be able to get a hit. So before each aim I had to make this calculation. I was always a good shot – I was good with my gun. As a very young boy I learned to shoot. My uncle taught me to shoot deer, because we lived off that. That was one of the reasons why I originally joined a panzer regiment. Before the war we did some target shooting. Three shots on a twelve ring target. I hit two twelves and another near twelve. I was well known as sharp shooter in my squadron. Actually, I once shot an elk in Norway.
Did you like the Stuka?
They were too slow.
Any other negative points about the Stuka?
No, just the speed.
Was the landing and starting good?
Yes, because the Stuka had a dive-brake. If you went down too fast the plane started rattling and it would use automatically the brake. I flew also the Focker Wolf 190. A much easier bomber to fly and it was so much faster.
Was it in the squadron?
No, only in training.
Why was it easier to fly?
It had more speed and you felt the greater friction. The Stuka moved heavily and fast diving was necessary because the flak could no aim at a fast moving plane. I was involved in 652 combat missions. A mission only counted if there was involvement with flak or other fighters.
Do you still have your flight book?
No, the Americans took it at the end of the war. I was proud of my flight book. Every flight, every mission I had to record in it.
Do you have any documents?
No they are all gone. All my prizes and medals were taken by the Americans, they were no gentlemen. I was a prisoner of war under the Americans in Schernebeck an der Elbe. There were 42,000 prisoners who stayed mostly outside. Because I had been an officer I was in a factory hall.
Did you have to flee the Russians and get over the Elbe?
The Americans caught me in Zerbst an der Elbe. Why was I there? I’ll tell you. At the end of April 1945 we were at the airfield in Fastenwalde, between Frankfurt a.d. Oder and Berlin. After an American bombing raid all our aeroplanes were destroyed. Two comrades and I received the order to go the airfield at Gatow near Berlin to get three Focker Wolf 190s. There were at least fifteen planes guarded by a man from the Volkssturm. They were camouflaged. We took the three 190s back to FÃ¼rstenwalde but in the night there was another bombing and again the machines were destroyed. After that we went to Berlin. The Russians were very close but not yet in the centre. We were sort of recruited and tried to defend Berlin. But from the 1st May there were no orders – nothing. So I said to my men they could do what they liked. I thought I would go back to the airfield at Gatow and try to get an aeroplane to fly home, and when I was near there use a parachute. I found the airfield and one aeroplane still guarded. I climbed into the cockpit, the key was there and the tank was full. Because there was a big crater in the airfield starting was very difficult and there was Russian flak. Somehow I flew over the Wannsee, just about, and over Potsdam and when I looked at my right wing I saw that it was full of holes. I changed to a West course for ¼ hour when I saw a formation of American aeroplanes. I waggled my wings, the sign to surrender. Three machines accompanied me to the American air field in Zerbst. There they treated me like their comrades.
How were the crews made up in the Stuka squadrons? Did you always have the same rear gunner?
No, I lost five of my gunners. In Sebastopol, in Russia, I was hit the first time. I lost consciousness and flew into a rock. I was pinned down in the cockpit but was saved by Hungarian artillerists who were nearby. My gunner broke his neck when he was catapulted out of the plane. The second hit was over North Africa at around 6000m. The gunner died in the burning plane. I was saved by my ejector seat and my parachute. My comrades didn’t see me and I was blown to the south by a scirocco. I was in the desert for three days and three nights when I saw a vehicle. I thought that it might have been the English but I didn’t care because this was a good chance to be with other human beings. So I filled my parachute with sand and let the sand fly. And this was spotted by the Italians who saved me. They tried to get in touch with my squadron. But because they had been involved in heavy fighting they did not collect me until after one week. I received some leave to go home. My mother didn’t recognize me straight away because I had become so thin. My brother had died and my mother received a message that I was missing in combat.
When you were in Norway was that with the Stuka-squadron II?
No, in Norway that was the Stuka squadron I was with Paul-Werner Hozzel, the Oak Leaves winner. Later it was renamed to the Stuka Squadron II – Immelmann.
When did you fly with Rudel?
That was during the Balkan campaign, in Greece. At the beginning of his flying career he was not a very good pilot. He said so himself and thought he would never improve. But then on the Balkan campaign something clicked and he became very famous. He was the only one to be decorated with the highest award, the Golden Oak Leaves. He was one of the best comrades I had. Although he was higher up in the hierarchy he never showed it. He had one advantage. Whenever his aeroplane was damaged he could just ask one of his pilots to give his to him. He destroyed 500 tanks.
Were you right at the beginning of the Norway campaign in Norway, on the 9th April 1940?
Yes, our squadron was there. We flew from Danzig to Norway. We were moved around. I was in Stavanger, Narvik but mostly in Oslo, without any combat. Only the fighters were engaged in combat flying, but in the North of Norway.
What did you do after Norway capitulated?
We went up the west coast as far as the North Cape and it was beautiful, the fjords and the coast line.
Did you enjoy your stay in Norway and did it remind you of home?
Yes, it was the most beautiful place I have experienced during war time.
When did you start flying to the Orkney Islands?
In Sept. 1940 – another surprise. We were stationed in Stavanger. The day before the attack the ground crew were loading the bombs on the aeroplanes. The next morning there was an alarm and we had to go.
What was the aim?
Ships. At Scapa Flow.
Did you hit a ship?
On the approach I could see everything, but then there was flak. Before I diverted I dropped my bombs and was gone very quickly. So, I didn’t see if it was a hit, but my rear gunner said that it was one.
What ship was it?
Where there other ships?
Yes, there were more ships.
How many Stukas flew the attack?
Between 22 – 24 planes, two Squadrons. We have lost 5 Stukas, all shot down by the flak and fallen into the sea.
Which formation did you fly?
In chains of three – staggered. From the ground it looked as if all the planes were on one level, but they flew on different heights.
Which height did you fly over the North Sea?
Two thousand metres.
And you dived from that height?
Where was your place in the formation?
In the first third, a good position and after you have dropped your bombs you could go back.
How many bombs did you have?
One big one, the main bomb and two each side, smaller scattering bombs.
Did you release them all in one go?
Did you see the flak?
Yes, before the attack. You fly into it. Our slogan was: close your eyes, switch off the brain, do your task and go!!
Was that a terrifying experience?
No, we were used to it, we were immune to it.
Did you accept whatever would happen? What did you think? How did you deal with it?
Oh dear, they will get me.
When you flew towards the flak, that must have been so hard. Flying in a Stuka was more a question of chance, of luck then of skill.
My thoughts were: hopefully I will hit the target and not get hit myself. In Poland nothing could affect me but later on I grew more anxious.
Was there only one attack from Stavanger?
No, we flew three times towards the Shetland Isles. The fourth time was cancelled.
Did you have certain targets to bomb?
Yes, every pilot had a different target. It was ships or the flak.
Did you have a briefing before every mission? Where there aerial photos?
Yes, first the reconnaissance planes would go out to make photos. During the briefing we received our targets.
The hit on the cruiser was that the first mission?
What happened on the second and third mission?
I can’t really remember. On the third mission I had to target the flak.
Was there a decent airport at Stavanger?
No, it was very bad. The airfield was in a terrible condition. The Norwegians didn’t have fast planes, so they didn’t really need good air strips. All the airports were bad.
Where did you live?
There were Norwegian barracks we used. We looked at the Norwegian soldiers as civilians. Everybody was very honest. The houses were never locked. Near Lillehammer, near the air field, was a small farm where we bought eggs and butter. The money was lying on the table and the farmers wife went to fetch the eggs. She just left it there, nobody stole. That was a very good experience.
What was the weather like on your first mission?
The sky was without a cloud. We preferred the clouds, because we could fly over them, then break through and bomb the target.
Did you ever fly over Malta?
Nine times, from Sicily.
Apparently the flak over Malta was terrible. How many missions did you fly over Greece – Crete?
We were stationed in the north of Athens and were very surprised to receive the order to attack Crete. The reconnaissance planes have been to Crete, an attack plan has been made and we had a short briefing. The reconnaissance planes didn’t experience any flak. We flew over dropped our bombs and came back without any losses, although there was some flak. On the way back we saw a big formation of Ju52s, probably a hundred planes with the parachutists on board. We refuelled and new bombs were loaded and we flew a second attack. Towards Crete I saw thousands of parachutes floating in the sea, others were hanging from the olive trees. Germany lost lots of their men in that mission.
Back to the Battle of Britain. Did you know when you were in Norway that the battle would happen?
We always hoped – and Hitler as well – that it wouldn’t happen. There was German blood in the royal family and lots of shared history.
Did you think it would be harder fighting against England, a tougher nut to crack?
I thought it wouldn’t be a good idea. England was not the enemy of Germany. We were on the same level, had the same mentality. Nobody hated England. The hatred developed later with the bombing of Harris on civilians. And then Dresden happened.
On the missions to the Shetlands you encountered Spitfires and Hurricanes?
They came very suddenly and I didn’t know where they came from. I think they were waiting for us. I didn’t see any airfields on the Shetlands.
Did you hear about the Spitfires and Hurricanes before your missions. Did you hear how good they were?
We had training about enemy aeroplanes.
What did you do after the war?
I worked in Salzburg for an insurance company as a director. I had a very good life. And I have a good pension. I married and have two sons. The eldest is a director in a bank and the other a teacher in a Gymnasium. I have four grandchildren. After the war everybody was a Nazi and everybody was a war criminal. That was painful.