DAYS OF SMOKE looks at war and Holocaust through the eyes of Hans Udet, a flyer involved from the earliest days with Hitler's air force. Across battlefields raging over much of Europe, Hans progresses from naïve young fighter pilot to ace of increasing rank and responsibility. But unfolding events pit Hans’ love of the Fatherland against his natural compassion for humanity, after he saves a young Jewish woman from brutal assault. As growing feelings for Rachel sensitize him to the so-called "Jewish problem," Hans is torn between mounting disdain for the Nazis and his sense of duty to Germany.
November 2, 1937; Near Posadas, Spain
We took off by elements of two – a total of eight aircraft – and formed-up over the field. By abandoning the tight formations of peacetime, we could pay less attention to the demands of close-in formation flight and more attention to the skies, from which an unannounced threat might come at any time. We climbed directly to an altitude of 28,000 feet, and swung around so as to come out of the east, with the sun behind us, as we approached contested airspace. In the clear, cold air of the upper heights, visibility was exceptional.
“Aircraft, two o’clock low!” Boffo sang out on the radio. They apparently had not seen us, and we now had the greater advantages of height and surprise.
Rintel called, “By elements, follow me.” He sounded cool and calm on the radio, as he nosed his Messerschmitt gently over. We followed.
The airspeed began to build, slipstream noises rising simultaneously in pitch, as stick pressure grew quite firm. I made sure my weapons were hot, and that my optical gunsight was on.
We were diving on a group of nine aircraft in a tight formation. All were Polikarpovs that appeared to be brand new. Rintel was careful not to let our airspeed get too high as he didn’t want to overshoot the formation and forewarn everyone. I focused on the last plane on the right. I was fortunate to be Rintel’s wingman, second in line for a shot at a Rat.
He grew in my sights, until his wingtips touched opposite sides of the lighted ring of my gunsight. Rintel and I opened fire at almost the same instant. I initially used only my machine guns, watching as the tracers converged on the Rat, only then adding cannon fire.
Pieces immediately began to flake off the Rat. I watched, fascinated, as first a wisp, then a plume of smoke trailed behind the plane. A furious fire sprouted from the wing root, fed by high-octane fuel and the two hundred mile-per-hour wind. Only now did the pilot maneuver – he pulled up so abruptly that the damaged right wing folded, tearing away. The plane wrapped into an uncontrollable right spin, the pilot pinned in the cockpit by centrifugal force and he rode the plane down. It shattered into a million pieces eighteen thousand feet below us, a thick column of smoke serving as a marker.
I couldn’t believe it, I'd shot down a fighter plane! I felt like Oswald Boelcke! I felt like von Richthofen! I felt like Uncle Ernst – he would be so proud of me. My entire family would be proud. All of this passed through my mind in an instant, followed by the realization that I had better pay attention or risk becoming someone else’s trophy.
As Rintel and I continued through the formation, the I–16s scattered in all directions. We leveled off and wracked the 109s around in a tight turn, as the other elements made their passes. The Rats had been alerted, so subsequent passes were not as effective as our initial pass. Nevertheless, two more aircraft went down trailing smoke, and a third was obviously damaged.
Any order in our formation was now lost. The visible airspace was filled with hurtling airplanes. I mainly tried to keep on Rintel’s tail. When a plane with Republican markings went by, I squeezed off a burst at it, if possible.
Rintel flew like a wild man, maneuvering as if his life depended on it...which it did. We pulled hard Gs most of the time, and it was here that one of the few flaws in the Messerschmitt was revealed. The 109 had no problem pulling maximum positive G at any time, but it failed when negative G-force was applied to the plane.
The problem was that carburetors did not work under negative gravity conditions – the engine always cut out until positive gravity was restored. Our solution, when one needed to nose-over rapidly, was to perform a Split-S, that is, to roll inverted and pull back on the stick, executing the bottom half of a loop. Although it slowed maneuvers it was better than having one’s engine cut out. Sudden silence in the midst of battle could be unnerving.
So, Rintel did everything in the book except negative G maneuvers. My job was to prevent any enemy aircraft from getting on his tail. Considering the way he was flying, that was not a difficult job.
Rintel’s task was to hunt the enemy, and he carried it out with implacable professionalism. Rintel was an excellent pilot, but he was even more adept at stalking prey. All of his skills and gifts came together in combat flying: hand-eye coordination, keen eyesight, flying ability, shooting skills, and awesome discipline. I watched Captain Erich Rintel shoot down a second Rat as though he was playing a game of billiards.
He then fastened onto the tail of a third Rat, quickly damaging it. Black smoke had already begun to trail behind when he did something that puzzled me. He skidded his aircraft away from the Rat – it appeared that he was letting the pilot survive. My confusion was swept away by his radio call.
“Your turn, Udet.”
Rintel was letting me finish off his kill – a magnificent act of generosity. We fighter pilots put great store in these numbers. He was giving me a valuable gift. Tonight and for the rest of my life, I could tell people that I had shot down not one but two aircraft on my first successful offensive patrol. Not many combat pilots could make that claim. Fewer still would surrender the opportunity to make three kills in a single flight, as Rintel had done.
I slid behind the Rat and sighted him in. I hit the machine guns and the cannon at the same time – immediate strikes were apparent around the cockpit and wing roots. With a tremendous explosion, the Rat disintegrated in midair. I could hear pieces of it hitting my airframe, several sounding quite loud as I flew through the fireball. I was immediately concerned for my plane, since one piece of wreckage through the glycol radiator could bring it down, albeit slowly.
I looked over at Rintel, who coolly nodded his head as he retook the lead. I was struck by how quickly the skies could empty. We were alone.
The sky swallowed victim and victor both as we headed for home.
I made a bad landing, bouncing the 109 several times as I porpoised across the grass. Werner, of course, missed nothing I did with his aircraft within sight of the field. He assisted me down from the wing.
“I see the gunport patches are shot away and gunpowder residue is on the prop spinner, Leutnant. Any action today?” he inquired with a half-grin. He could plainly see that I was fit to burst.
“I shot down two Rats!” I blurted, unable in my excitement to follow the unwritten code of false modesty.
“So.” He dropped his joking manner and looked at me in a professional way. “I congratulate you, Leutnant. I knew that you would be a successful combat pilot. Mark my words, these are the first of many.”
My crew chief regained his usual joviality. “I saw your bad landing. I realized as I watched that your landing is a reverse-barometer of your flight.” At my puzzled expression he continued, “Your landing the day of your first offensive mission was excellent. Today’s was bad. You tell me,” he said, arching his eyebrows.
“Captain, thank you for giving me the second Rat. That was a generous thing to do, and I won’t forget it.”
The captain was turning out to be less spit-and-polish than I had originally thought.
“You won’t mind painting emblems of success, will you Sergeant Landers?” asked Rintel.
“No, sir!” Werner enthused. “It will be my pleasure, Captain.”
“We will paint their entire air force on our rudders,” Rintel stated quietly.
That evening, after accepting the jokes, as well as the proffered drinks and hearty back slaps from my fellow pilots, I stepped outside for a breath of fresh air. It was dusk, the setting sun painting the high cirrus clouds a brilliant shade of magenta. A light breeze made the heat of the day a fading memory. I idly watched a lizard lounging in the failing light.
The end of a highly satisfactory day was at hand. I could relax and enjoy the effects of five schnapps. I felt a sort of kinship with the lizard. He, too, appeared to have had a fine day. His belly looked full to bulging and he lazily extended and retracted the colorful pouch under his neck, hoping to attract a late-hour mate. We both savored the final several minutes of daylight, as the clouds faded to a dim red. The protective cloak of the night prepared to envelop us.
Out of nowhere a small hawk swooped down, and when he lifted a split second later I could see the unfortunate lizard wriggling in his talons.
That lizard could have been me, the day I sat in the cockpit and allowed the Russian pilot a free shot! Only fate, or luck, or God had allowed me to avoid the shadow that day. That lizard represented both of the pilots I had killed earlier today. Like me, they had been chosen for their aggressiveness and trained in combat tactics, and had no doubt felt secure in their new and capable airplanes. And yet, I had snatched them unaware from among the living.
I supposed all of us must live with the knowledge that raptors are hovering just over our shoulders.
Military Writers Society of America -- Gold Medal Award
"Read this book if you are a history buff looking for technical accuracy, a person who believes in the basic goodness of the human heart, a military man, or better yet, an aviator. If you are lucky, watch it on the movie screen some day. I will send this book to a lot of people who, like me, will turn the pages deep into the night."
Steve Donoghue, Historical Novel Society
“Mark Ozeroff...gives us the indelible character of Luftwaffe pilot Hans Udet, who, during WWII, fights for his country, not for Nazism...so winning a creation is young Hans that the reader quickly forgets that, in most historical novels of the period, Hans would be a faceless villain. Here, he's a stiff-necked young man...proud of his war-time accomplishments...and as equally prone to guilt over the sufferings the war inflicts on innocent civilians...Ozeroff's narrative skill wins the day every time.”
Robert Gandt, aviation author
"Here is an adventure story that has it all: heart-stopping action, a believable protagonist, a wrenching love story, and a moralistic tale set against the backdrop of war and the Third Reich. With DAYS OF SMOKE, Mark Ozeroff has written a winner."