Published on January 21, 2013
By Thomas Van Hare
Three weeks into 1944, the Allied bomber onslaught had accelerated, threatening to bring Germany to its knees. The RAF’s Bomber Command came by night and the USAAF 8th and 9th Air Forces came by day. Six months earlier, Germany had seen the bombing of Hamburg during Operation Gomorrah. Allied bombers had unleashed what was later described as a “firestorm” — a first in military history. Casualty estimates were that 42,000 civilians had been killed and 37,000 injured. The question of whether the rest of Germany would experience the same destruction as Hamburg kept millions awake at night, unsure if they would live to see another year, or even another tomorrow.
Since the end of 1943, RAF Bomber Command had started to regularly target Berlin. Germany’s only real defense, beside flak, which was fairly ineffective at night against bombers that were flying alone in a wide “bomber stream”, was in the hands its night fighter forces. Those forces were too few, but were taking a toll on the RAF.
Among the Luftwaffe’s night fighter pilots was aristocratic German named Heinrich Prinz zu Sayn-Wittgenstein. He was an ace. He was among the best Germany had. The many kills he scored in his night fighter did not change the outcome of the war, but rather his death is what mattered most. It wasn’t what he did that counted, but what he never got the chance to do. On the night of January 21, 1944, he was shot down and killed — today in aviation history — and history changed as a result.
The Making of an Ace
Heinrich Alexander Ludwig Peter Prinz zu Sayn-Wittgenstein was an aristocrat and the son of a German diplomat. Born in Copenhagen while his parents were serving abroad, he was raised well, having the best of everything, the finest homes and food. He went to the finest schools and had the best private tutors. He a life that was befitting that of a German Prince, which was, after all, a title he held with honor.
Early on, he joined the Hitler Youth. He became a steadfast Nazi and as one of the elite, he trained first as a bomber navigator. Later, he trained as a pilot. He participated in the Battle of France and the Battle of Britain. Then he changed career paths and qualified as a night fighter pilot.
With his aristocratic upbringing and family connections, he soon established himself as one of the favored elites among the elite night fighter units. His upbringing, however, was only part of that — performance in the air is what mattered most. From the start, he showed extraordinary skill in intercepting and shooting down the RAF’s bombers. It was as if had a “sixth sense” that gave him the ability to find RAF bombers, almost as if without radar. He would pick out targets at night even when others would fail. Above all, his night vision was extraordinary. As a result, he had become an ace in the early years of the war.
As his fame grew, he used his reputation and influence to choose the best crew members for his airplanes. He was able to get himself assigned to the bases that were the most active in intercepting the RAF’s bombers. He had first choice of the newest technologies and radar detection equipment. In the air, he was able to get priority when working with the radar controllers as well. He used these advantages to ensure that he could hunt the best targets. By July 1943, however, despite his best efforts — and despite the best efforts of hundreds of other pilots in the night fighter force — Germany was losing the air war. Hamburg was a smoldering, burned out ruin of a city. The Luftwaffe was failing in its bid to protect Germany.
Aces like Sayn-Wittgenstein soldiered on, however, knowing that they were the only defense that Germany had. By the end of August 1943, he had accrued 54 victories. By the end of December, he reached a personal score of 68 victories. Then, in a single night on January 1/2, 1944, he claimed six RAF bombers shot down — all were confirmed kills. The wreckage of the bombers that he had shot down was undeniable testimony to his deadly skill.
By that time, his night fighting strategy had evolved considerably. He had adjusted perfectly to the changing technologies and tactics of the RAF. One key to his strategy was that he would wait on the ground until the right targets were identified on German radars and heading his way. Then he would take off and call out on the radio to the other Luftwaffe pilots that were in the air — “Hier Wittgenstein — geh weg!” (Here is Wittgenstein — move away!). The others would pull back and Sayn-Wittgenstein would enter the bomber stream alone and get to work. He would shoot down aircraft after aircraft, often three or more on each night when he flew. The other pilots would move elsewhere and engage the RAF bombers at different points on the map.
A Deadly Series of Engagements
On the night of January 20/21, 1944, the RAF targeted Berlin. Sayn-Wittgenstein waited and when the target was clearly identified, he took off and entered the core of the bomber stream. He shot down three Lancaster bombers in short order, bringing his personal score to 78 kills. The last bomber he shot down, however, once hit, had spun out of control. It collided with his twin-engined night fighter and its propeller cut off two meters of Sayn-Wittgenstein’s wing. His plane was put into a spin and he barely managed to recover. In the darkness of the night he made a belly landing, destroying his plane. He and his crew walked away uninjured.
The very next night, January 21/22, 1944, RAF Bomber Command launched another mission against Berlin. Sayn-Wittgenstein and his crew took off in another Junkers Ju 88 C-6c, unit code “R4+XM”. As always, he was fast to work. At 10:00 pm, he was vectored by radar controllers behind a Lancaster heavy bomber. Five minutes later, at 10:05 pm, he shot it down with his usual precision. Sayn-Wittgenstein was positioned perfectly in the middle of the bomber stream. and was surrounded by targets. At 10:15 pm, he spotted and promptly shot down a second Lancaster bomber. A third was downed fifteen minutes later at 10:30 pm. Then at 10:40 pm, he shot down a fourth bomber. In the span of just 40 minutes, he had downed four planes. This wasn’t quite his record, but the night was still early — earlier, on July 20, 1943, he had shot down six bombers in just 47 minutes.
The End of Sayn-Wittgenstein
Despite being so well-positioned, it took another half hour to locate a fifth bomber. The Moon was in its waning crescent phase, offering little light to help him find his targets. He positioned himself behind it and closed rapidly. Then once in range, he opened fire. The bomber burst instantly into flames, which proved unexpectedly to be his undoing. For a brief instant, Sayn-Wittgenstein’s aircraft was illuminated by the light of the burning bomber. By ill chance, nearby a de Havilland Mosquito F.II of RAF 141 Squadron was on patrol. The Mosquito was crewed by P/O Desmon Snape and F/O L. Fowler. The pair spotted Sayn-Wittgenstein’s Ju 88 C-6c. The hunt was on.
The de Havilland Mosquito was a fast, light fighter-bomber, powered by twin Merlin engines. Nearly invisible to German radar due to its wood construction, the Mosquito was one of the best aircraft in the RAF during the war. Like two other Mosquitos on patrol that night, Snape and Fowler carried the RAF’s new Serrate radar detector system. This allowed them to hunt the German night fighters by tracking their own radar emissions.
Flying a Serrate mission was an intense and dangerous job. Mosquito pilots would cruise amidst the bomber stream at the same speeds and altitudes to mimic the appearance of a Lancaster on German radar sets. The Serrate detector would let them know if a German night fighter was coming in to attack from behind. Based on the intensity of the signal, the crew could estimate the distance as the attacker closed. Essentially, the Mosquito crews served as their own bait. When the enemy plane reached about a mile back, the pilot would roll the plane hard over into a near vertical bank and do a tight 360 degree. The turn was timed so that if it worked correctly, the German night fighter would end up just ahead when the pilot rolled out of his turn. Once in front, the Mosquito’s own airborne radar system could acquire the German night fighter and they would make an instant attack.
That night, Snape and Fowler had picked up Sayn-Wittgenstein’s Ju 88 C-6c on their Serrate. What they didn’t know was that he was closing on another aircraft, not theirs. Near their Mosquito, hidden in the darkness of night, was an RAF Lancaster. When Sayn-Wittgenstein was a mile back, Snape and Fowler executed their sharp turn, circling around to come into firing position. Just as they were pulling in behind Sayn-Wittgenstein’s night fighter, the German ace downed his fifth and final victim of the night. The RAF Lancaster bomber was destroyed by his accurate fire, exploding into fire. The time was precisely 11:18 pm.
Once again, with the fires of the downed bomber illuminating the German night fighter, the Mosquito crew could pick it out easily and press their attack. Sayn-Wittgenstein’s aircraft was so well-illuminated that the Mosquito crew thought that its wingtip lights were accidentally left turned on. This was the reflection of the fires from the burning bomber. They had the plane in their sights. It was just ahead and in full view. With a quick kick of the rudder, Snape fired his Mosquito’s guns and scored hits across the entire plane, raking it from wing to wing. A moment later, they lost track of it. Sayn-Wittgenstein dove away from the burning bomber and disappeared into the darkness of the night.
Unsure of the outcome, the Mosquito continued its patrol, flying back in the bomber stream as it fought its way home back across Germany, across the Low Countries, and finally across the English Channel and home. After landing, the two RAF Serrate crew members reported the plane that they had fired at only as “damaged”. It was the only engagement reported that night by any of the British Serrate crews. No other crew had made a single interception.
What they reported as “damaged”, however, was far more severe. The Ju 88’s left wing was riddled with bullets. Its gas tanks was severely holed. Shortly after escaping from the sights of the Mosquito, Sayn-Wittgenstein’s plane caught fire. Realizing that the plane was not recoverable, he ordered the other two men of his flight crew to bail out. Once he was sure that they were out of the plane, he too jumped, expecting to parachute to safety.
Both of his crew survived the night. However, Sayn-Wittgenstein was less lucky. When he jumped, he apparently hit the vertical stabilizer on the tail of his aircraft. Whether he died instantly or was knocked unconscious is unclear. He never opened his parachute. His body, either already dead or just unconscious plummeted from perhaps 20,000 feet of altitude to the ground. His crushed, lifeless body was found later in a small wooded area.
A Little Known Plan
Heinrch Prinz zu Sayn-Wittgenstein’s final score was 83 kills. Yet there was one more kill that he had wished to achieve above all others. Fate had denied him the chance, however. That final kill, one long in planning, might also have gone down in history as the night fighter ace’s greatest kill in the entire war.
As one of Germany’s greatest night fighter aces, Sayn-Wittgenstein had been awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves. With such high awards, it was protocol that each new medal was to be pinned on by Adolf Hitler himself. With his victories mounting, Sayn-Wittgenstein knew that it would be only a matter of weeks or months before he would be awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves and Swords. This was one of the highest awards in the entire German armed forces. The medal would be pinned on by Adolf Hitler personally. The thought of this alone had driven Sayn-Wittgenstein to score as many kills as he could — and as fast as possible. Put simply, he was hoping for his next medal ceremony, but it wasn’t out of patriotism or devotion to the Nazi regime, rather just the opposite.
The many nights he had flown against an ever more powerful and numerous enemy, had convinced Sayn-Wittgenstein that the war was a mistake. He had become disillusioned with Hitler. He had recognized the futility of war and had come to question the Nazi leadership. He recognized them as power hungry dictators and, as a German prince, he felt that they were not reflective of what Germany was or should be.
Where others hoped that the German armed forces would somehow prevail, many in the Luftwaffe recognized the grim future that was to come. Even if the Americans and the British could be held off, they knew that Soviets were unstoppable. Sayn-Wittgenstein had been on the Eastern Front. He knew what this meant. He knew too that Hitler had to be stopped — and that meant killing him.
He made a plan. When his next medal was awarded — and he was confident it would soon would — he planned on assassinating Adolf Hitler. As an officer, he was allowed to wear his pistol and ceremonial sword to the meeting. Security would be lax. After all, he was a hero of Nazi effort, not a threat to Germany’s leader. As a result, he would simply have to draw his pistol and shoot Hitler repeatedly through the chest and into the head. If he had time and the need, he would finish the job with his sword.
He would have been almost certainly successful, firing his sidearm into Hitler from close range.
Only a few people knew of his plans and among them was his mother. Another who knew, was named Tatiana von Metternich. She would later report that Sayn-Wittgenstein had told her, “I am not married, I have no children — I am expendable. He will receive me personally. Who else among us can ever get as near to him?”
The plan never was carried out, however. Instead of getting his opportunity to kill Hitler, Sayn-Wittgenstein was killed in combat. The British night fighter crew didn’t even know that they had shot him down. Their victory that night in the skies over Germany changed the course of history, even if inadvertently. Sadly, not every victory proved to be for the better. Sayn-Wittgenstein died — and so Hitler lived. Six months later, on July 20, 1944, another German resistance movement made an attempt. A small group of co-conspirators tried to assassinate Hitler at his so-called “Wolf’s Lair” by bombing a meeting he was attending. Once again, however, Hitler’s luck saved him.
Today’s Aviation Trivia Question
What was the ultimate fate of Pilot Officer Desmond Snape, RAF?
6 thoughts on “A Strange Twist of Fate”
He was shot down and killed while on patrol on the night of 24 Feb. 44, his plane was the only one lost that evening..
Killed while bailing out over the Netherlands on February the 24th 1944
Excellent photo of the two men on that page — thank you!
I am the sister of Pilot Officer Desmon Byrne Snape. As the youngest in the family, I am the only remaining sibling and, at nearly 90 years of age, don’t expect to be around for very much longer. If there is anything you might wish to know about Des’s early days ask now.
A nephew, named for Des, found this page and directed me to it in the last few days.
A Canadian Flying Officer, Ian Fowler, visited us in Australia and we kept in touch until his death. I was surprised at the account of that night of 21st January, 1944, as it didn’t agree with what Ian told us. He said they were on the way home when he had a blip on his radar and they came upon the Junkers 88 which was showing a small light. Des fired, they knew they had hit it but didn’t see it go down so only claimed it as damaged.
It is believed Zayn Wittgenstein was knocked unconscious when exiting the plane and his parachute was unopened. Ironically, a month later, 24th February, 1944, Des and Ian’s Mosquito engine malfunctioned and they caught on fire. Des ordered Ian out but apparently the door of a Mosquito was very difficult to manoeuvre and he had hurt his head, probably knocked unconscious, as the plane lurched. His parachute was only partially opened.
Ian spent the rest of the war in Stalagluft 3. Des was 20 years old and his grave is beautifully cared for in Lopppersum Cemetery, the Netherlands.
Thank you for your story. Your brother was a true hero – as was Heinrich von Sayn-Wittgenstein.
The insanity and madness of war is nowhere as clear as in stories like that. In other circumstances your brother and Heinrich von Sayn-Wittgenstein could have been good friends. I am an aviatrix myself and I know how much people like us like flying. But Fate threw them against each other, as adversaries, and both these fine young men paid the highest price.
They both died as heroes of their respective countries. One on vanquishing the worst tyranny the world history has known and another defending his loved ones and family. But thanks to their sacrifice, the world has now enjoyed 70 years of peace.
Flying the Serrate missions is putting oneself deliberately on risk and exposing oneself as target. Since the Serrate Mosquito picked up German radar signals from behind with its tail towards the enemy, your brother must have been an extraordinarily courageous man to do it.
My wife’s uncle and crew were shot down by Wittgenstein on 23/24 July 1942. The Lancaster crashed into the North Sea about 20 miles west of Den Hague with no survivors. All were posted as ‘Missing’ but 3 months later the body of the front gunner/bomb aimer washed ashore near Ijmuiden in the Netherlands and is now buried in Amsterdam Cemetery. The others remain ‘Missing’.