Willi Holtfreter

German Luftwaffe Pilot

Interview by James Holland

Willi was born in Abtsharden (?) and his father was in charge of 100 men at the timber yard. They cut planks and made parquet flooring. He had 2 brothers and 2 sisters and he was number 3. The oldest son died in the war. He was a Fallschirmjäger leader in France in 1944, in Normandy. He says they wanted to win the war, not lose it! He had a happy childhood in a close family. There was also another, younger, sister, who died aged 35, of natural causes.

Has it changed much round here?

No, not so much.

Can you ask about the factory we saw? Was it a timber factory?

Yes, that’s factory where his father worked and he studied saw work there also. He studied engineering for wood techniques in Dresden after the war. That was the place to go to study wood engineering technologies. He worked at the factory too before and after the war. He was an apprentice; a trainee. He was 14 when he left the village school in Abtsharden.

Presumably things were quite tough when he was growing up, in the depression?

It was ok; we didn’t see much poverty. Everybody who here almost worked in the timber works. They sometimes went a little hungry. They got up to normal school boy tricks but they never missed a day of school because that would have been unforgivable at home. His mother was quite fierce about that. Both his mother and his father were.

How much were they aware of what was going on in the rest of Germany?

He doesn’t know. They were Social Democrats.

Can he remember talk of war coming?

He can’t say.

How did he come to join the Luftwaffe?

He volunteered and registered. He says he’s still got his log book and pilot’s licence. There was an airport near here at Parov. The boys used to go there and watch the planes. They were gliders; pulled up by a cable and when they got to 800 or 1000m and then let them go. It was called a sielwinder.

Did he have to do Hitler Youth up here?

You could learn without being in the Hitler Youth, but in general they were all very enthusiastic about it. They were members. He got glider training in Parov with the Hitler Youth.

Was he completely hooked on flying at that stage?

Naturally and times were like that too.

It must have seemed so new and exciting.

It was a great honour to take part and the girls probably liked you for it as well! But it was a long time ago. He was born in 1923. He was in Hamburg Rissen and you could register there.

Did he register before he was conscripted?

Yes; he was young and he wanted to fight for the Fatherland. That’s how it was in those days.

Was his goal to be a fighter pilot?

You registered and you said what you wanted to do. He wrote down that he wanted to be a fighter pilot. In the training it became clear whether or not you had the talent. You had a choice, but it was decided according to aptitude.

Was it one long training or split up into units?

There was basic training, A training and then B training in which you flew many different aircraft. It’s all in his flight book. He flew the Fokker Wolf…….we can look in the book.

Can he remember getting his wings?

You get like a passport which says which planes you can fly and it was in Hamburg-Rissen that he did his training. There was a lot of classroom learning and if you weren’t good enough in class, you’d get thrown off the course. He had the experience of the gliding and had to do like an air driving licence. Fighter tactics were part of the training and practise. Here’s his flight book. His first solo flight was 23 January 1943 at 10.46 in Upper Silesia. He did 5 minutes. It was in a ? 44. He said he was happy to get down in one piece. They wore fur lined flying suits and fur lined boots. He says you were so excited you couldn’t get cold anyway! This one is to get experience reading maps. At the beginning they just took off and landed. Then they got experience of longer flights.

There’s a lot of training; 100 hours.

109K was what he was flying here. He did aerobatics, rolling and looping. It was part of the programme and they had to complete it. You performed above the air force and were marked by the people on the ground. 50 shot and hit 4 – gallery practise. They set up boards on the ground and they had to fly in and shoot. He got better. Here he’s already been training for over a year. Here he’s been made a fighter pilot. This is an attack on the AR96 – a trial attack. 4th training – flying and orientation. He’s in a 109 there and a 108. First 109 flight is 02/09/43 at 7.30am. He did 4 flights on the same day. There was an artist in the squadron (Sorry, I can’t make out what Sarah’s saying here). The 109 was good plane to fly.

Can you ask him if he remembers the difference between the trainer plane and the fighter? And how the 109 felt to fly?

It flew well.

He flew a 108 in training; much less powerful. Can he remember the difference in power?

The 108 is a light plane; taking off and landing is very different. The more planes you flew, the more experienced you got at handling the different types. They flew a lot of different types. He had a number of landings on his stomach in 109’s because the wheels didn’t come down. Sometimes one wheel came down and the other didn’t and then that would normally be a crash landing. He found the visibility good in the 109. It the beginning it’s a bit difficult to see but then you speed up and you can see better. Landing it wasn’t a problem. I think this is the end of training and this is his first action – in France and its fighter reserve. Lachenspierdorf (?) an airport on the Rhine. 2 JG OST that’s the fighter group he’s in. Here it says the machine gun jammed. Italy now.

Posted to JG 53 a really famous fighter group; a celebrated fighter group. Did he know he was going to such a celebrated fighter group?

He can’t say. He was flying at Monte Cassino, doing observations. He was accompanying some reconnaissance and there was an air fight with Spitfires and he had to jump from the plane with a parachute. This was 23 April. They took off at 3.45. Then he crashed because his engine was damaged on 1 May 44. He was taken to a military hospital at Monte Fiasconi (?). He was hit and bailed out. It’s a long time ago; he doesn’t remember the details. He remembers that he didn’t worry about the parachute failing to open! He was back flying 18 days later. He is in Tuscany. Here it says – parachute jump – wounded on 06/08/44 10am. Bailed out again. He was in ?? Sounds like he was back in Germany. Here it says enemy bombing ???? air battle with Spitfires. So he was in Tuscany throughout May 44 anyway. Hunting – flying over – don’t know what that is. 12/06 – 12/07 there’s a break. He’s in Lip-something. But this is reserve action again.

There was so little Luftwaffe in Italy. Was he aware how outnumbered they were?

Yes, it was obvious. When the bombers came, there were so many planes accompanying them that the Luftwaffe couldn’t get at them. The planes would involve them in battles so they couldn’t get to the bombers.

What was morale like?

We had a job to do and we had to do it. They’d been trained to fight for the Fatherland and he didn’t know anyone in his group who refused to do it or ran away.

It must have been terrifying for 3 or 4 planes to take on 50.

A job’s a job! When everything went well, you had a Schnapps afterwards!

He seems a clear-headed person, well equipped to deal with any situation; doesn’t get flustered easily.

He said it just happened as it happened.

Does he think it was partly because they were so young?

Yes, and they’d been brought up that way; duty has to be done.

Can he remember the airfield in Tuscany?

They were in barracks around the airfield. It was an Italian military place.

Were they constantly short of fuel?

No, it was always there for them. If your aircraft was damaged you were told to land at a certain place. The place was called Maniago in Italy where they went on 02/06/44.

Presumably they were very dependent on the ground crew? And had great respect for them?

Yes, the technical expertise was extremely good and if a part was needed, they’d just phone up and it would be delivered. It was so important to keep the planes in action. He was in the 9th Staffel and the commander was Major Gotz, who was very good; very particular. You couldn’t talk back to him. He wasn’t much older than him, the major. Willi was born 12 April 1923. He had his 21st birthday there. He can’t remember how they celebrated but they definitely celebrated. There were 3 staffel’s in a group. He was the only fighter leader since the JG 53 was set up who was still flying with the group. He was tough but fair. The 3rd JG 53 was set up in autumn 39 and he was still there in May 44. He flew with them. Mostly they flew in 4’s; never in pairs; it was too dangerous to do that. The airfield was strafed and bombed and then they had to use a neighbouring strip. He can’t remember how often.

Did they have much to do with the Italian civilians?

He said they didn’t have much to do with the locals but that there’s been some Italians working at the timber mill and he had their address and he went to visit them and they jumped for joy to see him. They were in Tuscany. They were very generous to him; given something to eat and they got wine bottles out; very good hosts!

Did they have any form of radar? Warning system?

No, they didn’t have it.

How did they know when to fly?

They had radar stations but not at every airfield; not at their airfield. They got a phone call and then they flew. They almost always played a German card game called Doppelkopf in tents. They lay in deck chairs and dozed. And their hearts would beat faster when the telephone rang. He never smoked but some of the others smoked an awful lot. The technicians were always there; started the starter motor with a mobile battery. If it was “sitting (?) preparation” that meant you already had your helmet and parachute on, sitting in the tent.

Did each pilot tend to have his own plane?

In principal, yes, but when a plane was damaged then you’d get a replacement. He had the same technicians always and he trusted them completely.

Did he receive letters from his parents?

Yes; he had a field post number and the post would always come on time and they were very happy when they had news from home. His sisters didn’t write very much. His brother had died before he went to Italy, when he was in Germany. He never saw any of the top commanders like Kesselring and they didn’t get much information about what was going on back home. At the airfield the food was regular and good. The got breakfast when they arrived at the airfield in the morning and if they were there at lunchtime, they got lunch and dinner at the barracks at night. They got up early but they could doze in their deck chairs in the day. The camaraderie was good; good colleagues. The major was a bit over-precise but…..there was a good atmosphere. He had close friends but they are no longer alive. One he still saw after the war but he died of throat cancer 2 years ago. When a comrade didn’t come back, yes you just had to get on with it and put them out of your mind. They never lost their sense of humour even though they had many losses. In one action, they lost 9 machines. At the barracks in the evening they’d tell stories, have a little drink. The camaraderie was good. He never lost his interest in flying. He wouldn’t have wanted to have been an infantryman on the ground. He didn’t find it difficult flying in the mountainous regions. He remembers getting to a certain height and being able to see the Adriatic on one side and the Mediterranean on the other. To be that high, it was a whole different feeling. They flew about 30m apart. It wasn’t good to get too close in case the wings touched. They had headphones for communicating with each other. They were called Egon 1, 2, 3, 4, or Franz or….any first name. For each staffel it stayed the same and his was Egon. When he was posted back to Lippspringer (?) they flew against 4 engined bombers a lot, but he wasn’t able to shoot anything down because he was too outnumbered. In May 44 he was shot down, but it was in August that his injury occurred when he was shot by something which was forbidden; he was shot as he was parachuting down; that was not allowed. Some people didn’t respect that. It was a bullet to his calf and upper arm. He soon recovered. In May he went to hospital just for observation.

Did he predominantly fight Spitfires?

Yes; not American planes.

Did they respect the allied pilots or were they just the enemy?

Just the enemy.

Where was he at the end of the war?

Near Baden, in Munlinghem en Kokker (??) with an aunt of a friend. He flew til the end. On 1 May, they blew up the machine. He was in prison. He had the stay in the west. His family was in the east. One night he escaped over the border in order to get home and there he stayed. This became the biggest parquet flooring company in Germany and this is where he stayed. He got married to Eva after the war and they had children.

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