On the Eastern Front, even as their ground forces pulled back the Luftwaffe remained a potent force, still capable of providing the close aerial support that was a key part of German tactics. Nevertheless they faced a Soviet airforce that was growing in strength every day.
Hermann Buchner was one of the few Luftwaffe pilots to fly both bombers and fighters and to survive the whole war. His memoirs recall how close he came to becoming a casualty:
The 29th of September 1943 was another great day!
That evening, near Krivoi Rog, a tank counter-attack began and we were to fly support. I was assigned as Schwannieger and Hans Wihnerdinger as Rottenieger. From far away one could already see the clouds of smoke, interspersed with the blast clouds from the flak. We were to drop our bombs, but the Yaks and LaGGs appeared, so we jettisoned them. We were ready and looking for a fight. A furious turning battle began.
My Rotte was alone in a group of Russians, but I got into a good shooting position and shot down a Yak in flames. Another Yak was still in front of me and I was in a good position to shoot. My wingman called over the radio that the coast was clear.
It was an old habit of mine that, before opening fire, I glanced behind me. To my horror I saw gunfire coming from a Yak with a red engine cover at close range — how had it got there‘? Already the rounds were hitting my cockpit; he’d hit the armour plating near my head and the splinters injured my head and neck. Instinctively I pulled the stick hard against my chest, my 190 climbed steeply upwards and I lost consciousness.
I was unconscious only momentarily, there was a frightful roar and a gust of wind blew my maps out of the cockpit. My eyes opened and I regained my senses. My machine was in a spin and plummeting towards the ground. On the ground everything was burning and smoking, but I had enough altitude to stabilise my machine and bring it under control, initially towards the sun, to the west.
My gauges were wrecked and the wind had blown my maps away. Anything that was not well anchored down had been blown out of the cabin. I had to stay calm and keep my nerve. I could hear or see nothing of my wingman, I was alone in the area and my course for the time being was westwards towards the sun.
The motor howled, but the tachometer was broken. I throttled back, the engine revs went down and I flew the machine by ear. All instruments were destroyed — only the engine reacted when the throttle was applied. My luck was that I was alone, without enemy aircraft nearby. But I had no idea where I was.
At about 500m altitude, I continued to fly westwards. I calmed down a bit and thought about what I should do next. But then came my next unpleasant discovery: my back was warm and my neck damp. I reached up to examine my neck and to my horror I confirmed that I was bleeding. My hand was sticky with blood — the back of my head had been wounded.
I had to keep my nerve and try to find an airfield. It was my luck, as mentioned, that no enemy fighters were in the area, so I had to be over our own territory. After flying for 25-30 minutes I flew over a small brook running from right to left, so deduced it was owing from north to south. I turned right and flew along the bed of the stream — somewhere along it there had to be a settlement or airfield. I reckoned I was flying at about 1,000 metres, my wounds had stopped bleeding, everything was sticky, and the engine just ran and ran.
I was slowly becoming uneasy: no settlements, no airfields in sight — where on earth was I? There, in the distance I could make out a town. Just stay calm, for the closer I came, the more I would have to concentrate. On the north-east side of the town — it was definitely a town — I found an airfield that had German aircraft on it; He 111s, fighters and Stukas were parked there.
I was relieved, after so much uncertainty, to be back with my own people. I lined up to land from the east, throttled back — everything by feel with the instruments out of order – lowered the undercarriage and gently came down onto the ground. My 190 landed quietly on the ground and taxied. I had done that with my last ounce of strength.
I fell headlong over the controls and lost consciousness. How long I was there and how long my 190 stood on the edge of the airfield I cannot say. Our mechanics were not concerned when they saw a 190 standing on the edge of the airfield; they simply took a motorbike to the standing machine and discovered me unconscious.