Aces High: How the 56th Fighter Group Smashed Hitler’s Air Force

World War II History
April 22, 2021 Topic: World War II History Region: Europe Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: World War IIAir WarFighter AcesAir WarfareBombers

Aces High: How the 56th Fighter Group Smashed Hitler’s Air Force

Germany might have had some good aces, but this entire Fighter Group was one of the finest of the war.

In October, Zemke was again informed he was slated for a desk job. With 19 confirmed kills and now in a position to add to this total, he remained emphatically disinterested in a paperwork career and was busily scheming to avoid it and stay in the sky as he took off on his next patrol.

He was cruising for home with two of his men when an Me-262 jet fighter attacked them. Powering their Merlin engines to their fullest and twisting through an interminable series of gyrations, the trio of young Americans was able to avoid the jet’s deadly passes until the German ran low on fuel and departed. Unknown to Zemke, the wild maneuvers had severely weakened his Mustang’s structural integrity, and when he lifted off on October 30, 1944, on what was slated to be his last combat flight he did not suspect it would be one mission too many for his strained machine.

Captured by the Germans

The weather forecasters had goofed, and as the bombers and their escort penetrated German airspace they were forced to weave through masses of cumulus clouds. When the Liberators blithely flew directly into a particularly enormous cloudbank, Zemke and his flight had no choice but to follow.

Upon entering the clouds, the Mustangs commenced a violent bucking in the severe turbulence, so Zemke ordered a direction reversal. When he attempted to turn it, his P-51 nosed over into a tailspin, and as he tried to pull out the starboard wing buckled, slammed against the fuselage, and was ripped off by the wind. Over the next few seconds the plane simply disintegrated around the pilot, leaving him plummeting earthward in the seat to which he was still strapped. Kicking loose, he noticed his right arm was not functioning, so he pulled the parachute ring with his left hand.

After hobbling westward for two dreary, bone-chilling days Zemke despaired of reaching the still distant Allied lines. Becoming desperate for medical attention for his injured right arm and leg, severely bruised when the wing hit the side of the cockpit, he surrendered.

The Germans were intrigued by this youthful American who was so proficient in their language. This and his name made it easy to deduce his heritage, and realizing what a propaganda bombshell it would be if they could pull it off, they tried for a whole month to persuade him to come over to their side. All their cajoling, threats, wining, and dining were utterly unsuccessful, for Colonel Hubert Zemke would no more have considered taking up arms or a propaganda microphone against America than he would have against his own immigrant parents. This prodigal “son of the Fatherland” was 100 percent American.

By Christmas, Zemke’s disappointed captors had given up and packed him off to a prison camp outside the northern German town of Barth. Here he spent the remaining months of the war eagerly awaiting the arrival of his comrades from across the sea.

The desk job back at wing headquarters went to somebody else.

This article originally appeared on the Warfare History Network. Originally Published December 9, 2018.
Image: Wikimedia Commons.