Fierce Days and Nights Page 1


Fierce Days and Nights
in Flanders
by Hanns-Gerd Rabe

1 - 2 - 3

Page 1

The calls for help from the hard-pressed infantry became ever more urgent in the late summer of 1918. Consequently, my pilot and I now flew in all sorts of weather, often three times a day, as all along the front barrages blazed, keeping our trenches under constant attack. It had gotten to the point where I no longer kept a flight log and so I made no personal notes about my flights by type, duration and mission. Only occasionally in a fleeting sentence of a letter did I refer to my strenuous flying activity. But these brief references could not possibly capture the swarm of emotions one felt during such flights: the giddy feeling at high altitude, the desire for solitude, the sense of detachment from the earth and of being closer to heaven...or the strange sensation of re-starting the engine at high altitude, being entirely at the mercy of the three dimensions; marveling at how the single engine, its precise firing order seeming to bring it to life one cylinder at a time, became a new form of noiselessness because the enormity of the great expanse of empty sky smothered the racket it made. . .or the fascination of watching the muted vibrations trembling over the fabric of the wings. . .or feeling the heat of the ground slowly change to coolness and then frosty coldness...or watching the shadows of the clouds drift across the earth far below. . .or feeling the rain hit one's face with whip strokes...or at high altitude, seeing the landscape transformed into a big abstract art chart...all this until the pilot disrupted the silent spell, signaling with a waggling of the wings: "Wake up! We are there. Six thousand meters (19,750 feet) altitude." I nodded, knowing that we had entered an area of everchanging hazard, an unknown land where the opponent was a bird of death decorated with cockades or anti-aircraft fire with the twisted black spewing of its muzzle seeming to hang in the air, waiting for its victim.

Some direct impressions of the time can be seen in a letter of 28 July 1918, to my ladyfriend Franziska, a teacher at a school for German military and civilian dependents in Brussels:

I am in a capricious mood. The bad weather lately is appropriate, for the sky is like a giant cow whose udder is hard to milk. There is much rain, of course. It rains in streams and, despite that, I, the poor Franz' (aviation slang for observer) have flown, ranged heavy artillery batteries and come back all crumpled up, thoroughly waterlogged and then covered with black 'goo' from a leaky oil line that 'spritzed' in my face constantly. Our crate is now in the hangar and the Emil (slang for pilot), not plagued by scruples, is in his bed, while I must have a long telephone conversation with the General in charge of artillery in this area.

Thus I write to you, stern goddess, and lay my childlike dreams upon your altar. This jumble of incongruities is part of the foolishness of war, but does aid an otherwise spiritually-tainted happiness."Just to settle it once and for all, I did apply for training as a fighter pilot, but was turned down and admonished: The shortage of good observers is too great. T-o-o b-a-d ! ! The war will waltz along as before, with smiles and bravado. That includes the possibility, and not to dwell on it, that one time I may not come back. Perhaps that is a hint for you.

And were all of you happy that I was able to fly right by your windows? Then why did all of you open your sweet little mouths so wide? Of course, I did not hear it if you all yelled 'Hurra, Hanns-Gerd'.

The flight over the Front in the rain mentioned in the letter concerned the laborious ranging of a 21-centimeter mortar battery against a British command post. While doing that, I experienced technical difficulties with the radio transmission, because the "Lords" (as we called the British) found out what frequency I was using and immediately jammed it so that I had to repeatedly switch to other frequencies, which required me to fumble around with the radio.

Mention of the flight to Brussels pertains to a day on which we were ordered to fly to the Armee-Flug-Park at Tournai to pick up new radio equipment and cameras. As the material had not yet been picked up and would require several hours to be so prepared for us, I persuaded my pilot, Feldwebel (Sergeant) Peter Johannes, to make a recreational flight to Brussels. We circled the German school there at treetop height, thundered over the rooftops with our Hannover CLIIIa and waved to the girls who were standing and cheering at each window. We then landed at Tournai just in time to take on the equipment that had been packed up. I did not need to tell any "little fibs" when we got back to Flieger-Abteilung (A ) 253, as we obtained enough fuel to fill the tank right to the top.


Fierce Days and Nights
in Flanders
by Hanns-Gerd Rabe

1 - 2 - 3

Page 2


One day in mid-August a strange thing happened as we were returning from a long-range high-altitude reconnaissance in a Rumpler C.VII. We had flown almost to the Channel coast near Boulogne, where the Americans were pushing forward with all their technical resources on an immense railway supply line. On the way back, we broke through a heavy cloud cover while I on the other side of the lines. As the mist cleared, we found ourselves at 5,000 meters (16,000 feet) and moving with a flight 12 British DeHavilland D.H.9 bombers, evidently on the way German targets. Peter Johannes was the first to discover that the aircraft moving just ahead of us were not our own, as I was busy with my reports, sketches and notes. He had a horror-stricken look on his face.

"Stay calm!" I yelled to him. "Aircraft at the same altitude stay together, so throttle down and drop back and they won't recognize us at all. When we get over our own airfield, make a steep dive away from them!" I yelled to him.

I switched off the safety of my machine gun and stood ready in case we had to fight our way out of this situation. Then, over Pont-?-Marque, Peter suddenly pushed the crate right over on its nose and whizzed at 240 kilometers per hour (150 mph) toward the ground. I must assume that the startled Englishmen made faces as bewildered as that of the ground observer, who, seeing an aircraft drop out of the British formation, surely said in jubilation: "A D.H.9 has been shot down!"

At our airfield much excitement followed. But even greater was astonishment of seeing the "crashing" aircraft turn out to be one of our own Rumplers. We made a quick thundering circuit around the airfield, wingtips close to the ground, with Peter and I waving in obvious high spirits to the crowd gathered before hangars.

I had just peeled off my fur-lined flight suit and wiped the sweat and oil streaks off my face when Monteur (mechanic) Noll reported: "Over there behind the dense poplars is a man in a peculiar uniform with cords laced across the breast and a thick fur hat on his head. He photographs every airplane that lands. Can he be a spy?" "No, my boy. He is a Hussar (light cavalry) officer in uniform he usually wears back in the rear areas. Let's have a look at this fancy bird," I said, fixing my monocle into my eye.

The gentleman turned out to be a Rittmeister (calvary captain) originally assigned to a Hussar regiment and entitled to wear the traditional uniform. By way of introduction I asked: "Would Herr Rittmeister perhaps like to make a flight?" He shuddered in response: "With that wired-together crate there? Never! It would be sheer suicide! Have you really just come back in that airplane? From a flight over the lines?"

"Certainly. Two hours ago I was over Boulogne on the Channel coast," I replied.

With that we introduced ourselves to each other. He was RittmeisterFreiherr (Baron) von Buchwaldt. He was obviously of some distinction, as he wore the decoration of a knight of the Johanniter-Orden (Order of St. John), the Protestant counterpart of the Knights of Malta. As he made a favorable impression me, I invited him to have a cognac in our Kasino(officers' mess)

We traveled the short distance to the Kasino in a fancy dog cart pulled by a well-groomed horse. During the short trip I learned that he was the local chief of agriculture, responsible for obtaining provisions from farms in the region. I was then embarassed to have him visit our Kasino with its meager food supply. But he very shortly invited me to visit his "chateau" and I returned our old Daimler car loaded with all manner of foodstuffs for our aircrews. We then invited him to visit us every week for an Kasino-Abend (mess evening). We fetched him with our car, loaded him up with strong drink and sent him home that night the next morning stiff as a poker.

This somewhat self-serving and forced friendship was built on deception, namely our success in providing him with aviation gasoline from our supplies for him to use in his car. The extra allowance of provisions we received from him increased accordingly and enriched our scanty Prussian rations with butter, milk, tomatoes, artichokes, cucumbers, cheese, all sorts of vegetables, and the robust pleasures of meat, chicken, freshly shot rabbits, partridge and fish from his ponds and streams.

As I took greater pains and became more attentive when he came by, we became personally closer. But it surprised even me he seriously suggested I become a regular Army office, after which he would use his far-reaching connections to high places so that I would immediately be promoted toOberleutnant (First Lieutenant), with the prospect of a successful career. He made this offer to me repeatedly, but I always declined with a smile and presented him with a large cognac as a consolation.

The craziest part of his whole extravagant plan was as the last son in his branch of the family to bear the name and title Freiherr von Buchwaldt, he wanted me to adopt his baronial name, which of course would be possible not without certain financial obligations on my part, as he very properly pointed out. To that I could only take a deep breath, but leave open the possibility, as there was still much to be considered before a decision had be made. As this offer was made shortly before my furlough, we did not see each other again to resolve it. After my return, Flieger Abteilung (A) 253 was at another airfield and Freiherr von Buchwaldt and his duty station had disappeared, as the steadily retreating frontline had make an end to the agricultural undertaking.

Many years later the name of Freiherr von Buchwaldt surfaced again when my friend Erich Maria Remarque adopted it after the sudden surprise of his literary succes. For a while he called himself "Erich Maria Freiherr von Buchwaldt, gennant (known as) Remarque." There still exist authentic examples of calling cards of that time bearing the baronial crest and this use of the name. Likewise, the municipal register Wilmersdorf section of Berlin supports this fact. But Remarque soon let loose of this pardonable form of mild fraud, established during the intoxicating success of his celebrated novel 'Im Westen nichts Neues' (All Quiet on the Western Front)

Later, I could fiind not a trace of the Royal Prussian Hussar RittmeisterFreiherr von Buchwaldt. But he was just one of many fleeting images that, for us, played a pleasantly lucrative roll in the colorfully whirling center ring of our aviation circus in Pont-á-Marque. To be sure, what he drank--and he could put it away as boundlessly as any student--all went on our bill. For that reason, I plundered his provisions cabinets without hesitation for our Kasino table.

All that was, of course, for our after hours amusement. A letter from 18 August 1918, to my parents describes the more serious part of life at the Front:

It is Sunday and there was 'fliers' weather.' 30 kilometer (18 m.p.h.) winds, storm and rain. I laboriously gather my thoughts after this strenuous day, during which I had much flying to do: long-range reconnaissance at 6,500 meters (21,400 feet) altitude, artillery spotting for a 38-centimeter cannon, some wild air battles with British Fliegerkanonen (flying aces), whose attacks, often made with elegant loops, came at us until we were almost at ground level. Finally, because I had no more ammunition, I had to wait until they came with their two-fixed machine guns to within 20 meters (65 feet). Then I fired my flare pistol or threw hand grenades at them. Despite all that, it turned out alright. I received praise and recognition from high-ranking staff people for my aerial reconnaissance work. But what does all of this nonsense mean! Dear Mother, I wanted to and I could bring you the beautiful roses that are now on my table... and then there must be peace... Lord knows, this filthy war must finally come to an end.

Just prior to one of our many Saufabende (booze nights), the duration of which could not be predicted, I had volunteered to undertake on of those required strenuous long-range reconnaissances. In preparation for the next morning, at midnight I chased my pilot, Peter Johannes, off to bed so that at least one of us would be clear-headed if there should be complications during the flight.

Fierce Days and Nights
in Flanders
by Hanns-Gerd Rabe

1 - 2 - 3

Page 3


Shortly after seven o'clock the next morning, Peter found me drunk in an armchair. "Will the Herr Leutnant really fly today?" he asked.

"Don't be silly," I blurted. "Roll out the crate and get it ready for take-off."

The Kasino orderly brought me coffee that was so hot to my mouth that I spat it out onto the trousers of a snoring squadronmate asleep on the floor. It did not awaken him.

With much effort, I stumbled out onto the airfield and looked around at the clouds hanging low in the sky. Nearby, the aircraft engine thundered during its warm-up. The wetterfrosch ("weather frog." nickname for the meteorology officer) came over with the weather charts. I waved him away: "I already know... it's all thick crap... makes no difference... we will fly anyway. Put 60 photographic plates and the radio equipment in the plane and let's go."

In fact, the situation was this: heavy, low cloud cover with light rain. Nowhere was there a patch of blue sky, a Damenhöschen (pair of panties) as we then called such a pleasantly inviting opening in the clouds that would offer more optimistic opportunities.

The noise of the engine and the clatter of test-firing the machine guns startled our commanding officer, Hauptmann (Captain) Reinhold. He came out onto the airfield and inquired: "You still want to do some flying?"

Swaying a bit, I steadied myself against the fuselage side and replied:"Leutnant Rabe is ready to take off on a long-range flight in the direction of St. Pol, Hesdin, St. Omer and the Channel coast."

"You are not only insane," he shouted over the roar of the engine, "but still drunk, as well!"

"Jawohl, Herr Hauptmann. The reconnaissance mission that has been both ordered and desired will be flown. Up there the sun is shining," I said.

"I will have you locked up if you muck up and come back with messed-up plates and a shot-up airplane," he growled.

"Jawohl! Los! (Let's go!) Hoist me into this rubble! Peter, full speed ahead!"

My mechanics, Lucka and Noll, buckled me in and I fell asleep immediately after the bumpy take-off. At 3,000 meters (9,800 feet) I became quite cool. I woke up and saw that we were flying over a broad cloud cover. At 5,000 meters (16,000 feet) I felt as though I were freezing in an ice-cold bath. Massaged by the icy airstream, I quickly sobered up. As I had set Peter on a westward course, the other side of the Front, behind La Bassée, which had been buried beneath the clouds, suddenly came into view as the clouds parted before us. Peter grinned at me happily in his little rear-view mirror. Using the back-seat controls, I throttled down the engine so he could hear me say: "Das is heute Titte mit Ei!" (Loose translation: This is the frosting on the cake!) The Old Man will be amazed. Please keep the aircraft steady at 5,000 meters... in a straight line... I want all of the photographs to be to the same scale."

"It will be done," he said, pushing the throttle forward.

As the weather over the Front and our rear areas did not allow any British aerial activity, there were no "Lords" in the air where we were. Only the first shots fired by British anti-aircraft batteries aroused their fighter pilots. I could look down at their airfields and see the Sopwith Camels and SE5s being pulled out of their hangars, being started and formed up, and then slowly clambering into the air. But for them it would be a laborious business to catch up to us at the altitude and speed we had attained with our Rumpler-Maybach engine.

Meanwhile, with a stop-watch in one hand to time each photographic plate taken in the splendid and mist-free air, in which every object casts a sharply-defined shadow so that all of the objects in each photo could be clearly discerned. I exposed 60 plates. I even had time to make note of railway traffic by time of day, location, direction and number of cars. The blue sky sparkled with a splendid cleanness that revealed, 300 meters (about 1,000 feet) below us, that we were being trailed by several flights of Sopwiths and SE5s. Just for fun, I fired some flare cartridges at them and waved at them with my hand. Small joys of bravado!

As my plates were all exposed, I motioned to Peter to head for home and yelled: "Stay at 5,000 meters. We will make it home undisturbed."

In the arrogance of my alcohol-sotted brain, I clambered over the fuselage decking, holding tightly onto the pylon between the fuselage and upper wing, and sang bawdy songs. Peter fumed at this recklessness.

Once we were over the cloud cover, I behaved myself and sat down in my folding seat in the rear cockpit. The dark laundry room of the clouds swirled around us as the pilot penetrated them carefully to keep from losing his orientation to the horizon. At 2,000 meters (6,500 feet) I was shocked to notice that I was becoming oppressively warm: the closer we came to the ground, the more active the alcohol in my blood became. By the time we got over our airfield, I felt as though I were slightly drunk.

Everyone was waiting for us. It was still raining in steady streams when Peter set the plane down at about eleven o'clock. In front of the hangar I jumped out of the airplane, and not very gracefully at that, to report to the Chief: "Back from a flight over the lines. The weather was magnificent and there were only occasional enemy anti-aircraft or fighter disruptions. The railway reconnaissance was successful and we exposed 60 plates."

Icily he replied: "We have been very anxious about that. The Armeé Gruppe, as well."

The photo-donkies grabbed the plates and Peter rolled the Rumpler into the hangar while I lay in bed during the three-hour wait for the plates to be developed and readied for evaluation. With my detailed report about traffic and other visual observations the plates were rushed off to theGruppe (Group) Headquarters.

At dinnertime I appeared in the Kasino looking as fresh as ever."Congratulations!" said Hauptmann Reinhold, now all smiles. "The photographs are excellent and all to the same scale. You are really to be congratulated. If it had been otherwise, I would have to lock you up for disobedience."

"Thanks most obediently," I said with an ironic smile. Then I turned to Peter and said: "For This we have earned a good bottle. If I had been sober, I surely would not have flown in this crappy weather."

Translated by Peter Kilduff.

Fierce Days and Nights
in Flanders
by Hanns-Gerd Rabe

1 - 2 - 3