Sunday, 5 July 2009

Often a strong bond of friendship grows between former enemies. Each realizes the other was caught up in the least noble of human activities through no fault of his own - and each knows only too well the horrors of war. It is so with Rod and Otti and Joan and me. We entertained their family in our home in Centralia and we spent a delightful week in their home in Fürstenfeldbruck, Bavaria, in August 1987. Otti had lost family members to our bombs in Hamburg, a city I had bombed.

I first met Rod in 1957 when, as a major in the new Luftwaffe, he led the first group of 300 German cadets to London and Centralia, Ontario, to commence pilot training. Later I was to find among this group one who, as a high school student in March 1943, was manning the flak battery that initiated the train of events that led to the destruction of my Halifax and 800 days of internment. We also became friends.

As a Squadron Leader in charge of the ground courses for the cadets, I seized the opportunity to greet all new arrivals, Canadian and European, and to integrate them as NATO trainees, believing that the political aspects would eventually outweigh the military. From the start I found Rod to be a conscientious, hard-working, and likable officer. I recognized in him a man with immense air experience that he had to hide. The military was not popular in post-war Germany and uniforms were restricted to military bases. In Canada there was residual resentment towards rebuilding the German military and, although he genuinely believed the right side won the war, Rod had to tread cautiously. For him there were no reunions or war stories that the rest of us enjoyed. It has taken me years to gradually piece together Rod’s amazing, varied, and most dangerous career to come up with this very brief summary:

Roderich Cescotti was born in Bad Herrenalb, SW Germany, 4 May1919. He joined the Luftwaffe in 1937, earning his wings and commission in 1939. He was sent to Norway, after the invasion, to fly bombers against the Rolls Royce plant near Glasgow, shipping off Scotland, and Murmansk convoys. The climax of the Battle of Britain, 15 September 1940, was the date of Rod’s 12th raid on England. Near London, a Spitfire put 30 holes in his Heinkel 111. Staggering home to his Belgian base, he crash-landed. Göring was making a surprise visit , and all personnel had to assemble quickly, including bruised and battered Rod. Göring’s scowl at seeing this unkempt officer in the ranks turned to smiles when his queries revealed Rod’s career. He summoned his aide, the Chief of Luftwaffe Personnel, and pinned an iron cross on Rod’s flying jacket.

Rod was again wounded in 1941 by naval flak while attacking shipping, but he went on to fly Dornier 217s and Focke Wulf 200s, and he survived an amazing 129 bombing operations over Britain, the Russian front including Stalingrad, Tunisia, Italy, and southern France. In January 1944 he crash-landed his Heinkel 177 bomber to save his crew, but dislocated his shoulder when thrown out of his harness. It required a 12-cm pin, and still bothers him. We of the Royal Air Forces could retire from combat after 60 operations. Only death or capture could retire Luftwaffe crews.

In October 1944 Rod was based at Celle, NE of Hannover, after Kampfgeschwader 100 with its He177s and Dornier 217s, equipped with remote-controlled glide and buzz bombs and armour-piercing anti-shipping bombs, had been disbanded because German priorities were now shifting to home defence and Major Aufhammer, Kommodore of Jagdgeschwader 301, (JG 301), flying FW190s and Me109s, needed a wing technical officer responsible for 278 fighters, and chose Rod. Aufhammer, a former bomber pilot, had destroyed, with his bomber formation, the USAAF plan to use Soviet bases for “shuttle bombing” by knocking out 42 B-17s, 15 P-51s and Soviet aircraft on the ground at Poltawa.

New wings were being formed to combat Allied air attacks and Rod discovered it was easier to get new FW190s than experienced pilots as most were now dead. Pilots were being posted in with very little flying experience so casualties were high. One day in bad weather a decorated commander of the neighbouring JG 300 refused to scramble his young pilots against an incoming Berlin raid. Göring ordered the entire station to assemble. He called them cowards and tore the Knight’s Cross from the neck of the commander, then demoted him. In protest all the pilots in wings 300 and 301 would not wear their medals for the rest of the war. The life expectancy of pilots and their FW190s was 10 flying hours. Fuel was another major problem. It was now taking a week to refuel all aircraft after a major attack. Units of JG301 were based at Welzow from where they buzzed my POW camp in Sagan. We inferred the pilots were young and inexperienced as one barely survived when he hit the top of a tree on the compound perimeter. We imagined the questions that awaited his return to base.

Rod also flew the Tank, named for Kurt Tank, the FW190 designer. This high-altitude fighter was designed to combat the B-29. In April 1945 Rod took command, in the rank of Hauptmann (captain), of II./JG 301 with its 4 squadrons, but knowing the war was about over he sought to safeguard the lives of his air and ground crews. His last operational flight was on 25 April 1945 against Soviet artillery bombing Berlin. He then took his men on a hazardous trek to a safe area to await the inevitable surrender. During the war, Rod had sustained flak damage to his personal aircraft on 14 occasions.

Rod, on 8 June 45, feeling that death was no longer imminent, married Otti Hemmerling who had worked in the Operations Section of JG 301. They were to have two sons and one daughter. One son now lives in Brussels, the other in Moscow with his Russian wife. The daughter lives in Munich.

On 1 July the British disbanded JG 301, moving its personnel to POW camps. As a POW, Rod worked on the now-RAF bases of Münster-Handorf and Gütersloh, and as an interpreter. He then attended language college and became an export executive for a steel company. In 1952 he joined the new Luftwaffe in the Air Planning Group where he remained until going to Canada in 1957. In 1959 he went to Luftwaffe Training Command, then spent 5 years as commanding officer of a tactical reconnaissance wing in Schleswig-Holstein flying RF-84Fs and RF-104Gs. He then attended the NATO Staff College in Paris. From 1965 to 1969 he served in Washington and Brussels. In 1969 he was promoted to Brigadier General and appointed Air Attaché in London. In 1973 he went to Lisbon as Chief of the German Military Mission. In 1974 he assumed command of Allied Sector Two at Uedem. In 1975 he was promoted to Major General to be Chief of Staff at TWOATAF, and, in 1977, he was appointed Commander, Allied Air Forces Baltic Approaches in Denmark. He retired in 1980, after 4,000 flying hours and qualifying on 34 different types of aircraft.

Never idle, Rod went on to publish a 312-page, illustrated book on Luftwaffe bomber and reconnaissance aircraft as well as several editions of a German-English aeronautical dictionary. I am the proud possessor of copies of all.

We continue to correspond.


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