Willi Holtfreter was a fighter pilot with JG 53 in France, Italy and Germany.
I was born in Abtshagen. My father was in charge of 100 men at the timber works. They cut planks and made parquet flooring. I had two brothers and two sisters; I was the third. My oldest brother died in the war – he was a fallschirmjager leader in Normandy and died in 1944. We all wanted to win the war, not lose it!
How was your childhood? Was it happy?
Yes, I had a happy childhood. We were a close family. My father could be quite strict, but yes, it was a good time. Later, my younger sister died – when she was thirty-five, but of natural causes.
Has it changed much round here?
No, not so much.
What about the wood works? We saw a big disused factory as we drove through.
Yes, that’s factory where my father worked and where I also studied woodwork. I studied engineering for wood techniques in Dresden before I joined up. That was the place to go to study wood engineering technologies. Before that, I worked at the factory – after leaving school. I went back there after the war, too. I was an apprentice; a trainee. I was 14 when I left the village school in Abtshagen.
Presumably things were quite tough when you were growing up, in the depression?
It was ok; we didn’t see much poverty. Almost everyone who lived here worked in the timber works. I suppose sometimes we went a little hungry, but I don’t recall struggling too much. As boys, we got up to the normal schoolboy tricks – but my brother and I never once missed a day of school because that would have been unforgivable at home. My mother was quite fierce about that. Both my mother and father were quite strict.
How much were you aware of what was going on in the rest of Germany?
Um, I’m not sure really. Most people were Social Democrats round here, but I don’t remember much talk of politics.
Can you remember talk of war coming?
How did you come to join the Luftwaffe?
I volunteered and registered. I’ve still got my log book and pilot’s licence. There was an airport near here at Parov. We boys used to go there and watch the planes. They were gliders; they were pulled up by a cable and when they got to 800 or 1000m they let them go. It was called a sidewinder.
Did you have to join the Hitler Youth up here?
You could learn to be a glider without being in the Hitler Youth, but in general we were all very enthusiastic about it. We were members. I got glider training in Parov with the Hitler Youth.
Were you completely hooked on flying at that stage?
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.
So when were you born exactly?
I was born in 1923. I was in Hamburg Rissen and one could register for the Luftwafffe there.
Did you register before he was conscripted?
Yes; I was young and I wanted to fight for the Fatherland. That’s how it was in those days.
Was your goal to be a fighter pilot?
You registered and you said what you wanted to do. I wrote down that I wanted to be a fighter pilot. In the training it became clear whether or not you had the talent. You had an initial choice, but it was then 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 my flight book. I flew flew Fokker Wolf 58s and a number of others.
Can you remember getting your wings?
You were given a form passport which says which planes you can fly and it was in Hamburg-Rissen that I did much of my training. There was a lot of classroom learning and if you weren’t good enough in class, you’d get thrown off the course. I had my glider flying experience, but had get my flying licence. Fighter tactics were part of the training and practise. This is my flight book. My first solo flight was 23 January 1943 at 10.46 in Gross-Stein in Upper Silesia. I did 5 minutes. It was in a FW44. I was certainly happy to get back down again in one piece! We wore fur lined flying suits and fur lined boots, although I was so excited most of the time I didn’t feel the cold anyway! This flight here one is to get experience reading maps – navigation. At the beginning we just took off and landed. Then as we became more experienced, we went on longer flights.
There’s a lot of training; 100 hours.
I was flying the 109K in Italy, but the first 109 I flew was a 109D. I did aerobatics, rolling and looping. It was part of the programme and we had to complete all of it. You performed above the air force and were marked by the people on the ground. There was gunnery training too. Here – I 50 shot and hit 4 – that was gallery practise. They set up boards on the ground and we had to fly in and shoot. I got better. Here, look, I’ve already been training for over a year. Then here, this is when I was made a fighter pilot. This is an attack on the AR96 – a trial attack. 4th training – flying and orientation. I was flying a 109 by then, but also a Messerschmitt 108. My first flight in a 109 is 02/09/43 at 7.30am. I did 4 flights on the same day. The 109 was good plane to fly.
Can you remember the difference between the trainer plane and the fighter? And how the 109 felt to fly?
It flew well.
You flew a 108 in training; much less powerful. Can you 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. We flew a lot of different types.
The 109 was notoriously tricky to land with its narrow undercarriage. Did you ever have any problems?
I had a number of landings on my 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.
And what about the visibility in a 109?
Visibility was good. At 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 my training and this is my first action – in France, with Fighter Reserve. Lachenspierdorf, an airport on the Rhine. 2 JG OST that’s the fighter group I was in. Here it says the machine gun jammed. Italy now.
You were posted to JG 53, a really famous fighter group; a celebrated fighter group. Did you know it had such a great reputation?
I can’t remember. I was flying at Monte Cassino, doing observations. He was accompanying some reconnaissance and there was an air fight with Spitfires and I had to jump from the plane with a parachute. This was 23 April. We took off at 3.45. Then I crashed because his engine was damaged on 1 May 44. I was taken to a military hospital at Montefiascone. I was hit and bailed out. It’s a long time ago; I don’t remember the details. I do remember that I didn’t worry about the parachute failing to open! I was back flying 18 days later. We were based in Tuscany then. Here it says – parachute jump – wounded on 06/08/44 10am. Bailed out again.
There was so little Luftwaffe in Italy. Were you aware how outnumbered you 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 enemy fighters would engage us in battles so we couldn’t get to the bombers.
What was morale like?
We had a job to do and we had to do it. We’d been trained to fight for the Fatherland and I didn’t know anyone in his group who refused to do it or ran away.
It must have been terrifying to have been one of three or four planes taking on 50.
A job’s a job! When everything went well, we had a Schnapps afterwards!
You seem to have been a clear-headed person, well equipped to deal with any situation; it seems as though you didn’t get flustered too easily.
(Shrugs). It just happened as it happened.
Do you think that was partly because you were so young?
Yes, but we’d also been brought up that way; duty has to be done.
Can you remember the airfield in Tuscany?
We were in barracks around the airfield. It was an Italian military place.
Were you constantly short of fuel?
No, there was always fuel for us. If your aircraft was damaged you were told to land at a certain place. On 2 June 1944, we moved to a place called Maniago.
Presumably you 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. I 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.
When exactly were you born?
On 12 April 1923. I had my 21st birthday in Italy. I can’t remember how we celebrated exactly, but we definitely celebrated! There were 3 staffels in a gruppen. Gotz was the only fighter leader since the JG 53 was set up in 1937 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 fours, 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, although I couldn’t say how often.
Did you have much to do with the Italian civilians?
Not much but that there had 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 me. They were in Tuscany. They were very generous to me – they gave me something to eat and they got wine bottles out. They were very good hosts!
Did you have any form of radar? Or a warning system?
No, we didn’t.
How did they know when to fly?
Well, we had radar stations but not at every airfield; not at our airfield. We would get a phone call and then we flew.
How did you pass the time between sorties?
We almost always played a German card game called Doppelkopf in the dispersal tents. And we lay in deck chairs and dozed. And our hearts would beat faster when the telephone rang. I personally never smoked but some of the others smoked an awful lot.
The technicians were always there ready by your plane; they started the starter motor with a mobile battery.
Were there different types of readiness?
If it was â€œsitting 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.
And did you always have the same groundcrew working on your plane?
Yes – I always had the same technicians. I trusted them completely.
Did you receive letters from his parents?
Yes; I had a field post number and the post would always come on time. We were always very happy when we had news from home. My sisters didn’t write very much.
Did you ever see Kesselring or any of the senior commanders?
No, never. Nor did we get much information about what was going on back home.
What about food? Did you get enough?
At the airfield the food was regular and good. We got breakfast when we arrived at the airfield in the morning and if they we were there at lunchtime, we got lunch, and then dinner at the barracks at night.
Presumably you were up before dawn?
We got up early but then we could doze in our deck chairs during the day.
And was there a good sense of camaraderie?
Yes, the camaraderie was good; I had good colleagues. The major was a bit over-precise but..there was a good atmosphere.
And did you have any particularly good friends?
I did have close friends but they are no longer alive. One I 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.
And what about humour?
We never lost our sense of humour even though we had many losses. In one action, we lost 9 machines. At the barracks in the evening we’d talk and tell stories, have a little drink. The camaraderie was good.
And you never lost your love of flying?
No, never. I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to have been an infantryman on the ground.
Did you have any difficulties flying in such mountainous country?
Not really. I remember 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.
And what about flying formations?
We flew about 30m apart. It wasn’t good to get too close in case the wings touched. We had headphones for communicating with each other. We were called Egon 1, 2, 3, 4, or Franz or.any first name. For each staffel it stayed the same and mine was Egon. When I was posted back to Lippspringer we flew against 4 engined bombers a lot, but I wasn’t able to shoot anything down because I was always too outnumbered. In May 44, I was shot down, but it was in August that I was more seriously injured when I was shot as I was parachuting down; that was forbidden. That was not allowed, but some people didn’t respect it. I was shot in my calf and upper arm, but I soon recovered. When I was shot down in May 1944, I wasn’t badly hurt. I just went to hospital just for observation.
Did he predominantly fight Spitfires?
Yes; I don’t remember coming across American planes.
Did you respect the Allied pilots or were they just the enemy?
Just the enemy.
Where were you at the end of the war?
Near Baden, in Munlinghem with an aunt of a friend. But I flew right unti the end. On 1 May 1945, we blew up our machines. Then I was captured and put in prison. I had to stay in the west, but my home and family were now in the east. One night I escaped over the border in order to get home and there I stayed. This became the biggest parquet flooring company in Germany and this is where I’ve lived ever since. After the war I married Eva and we had a family of our own.