Enemy Ace: Nemesis
Editor’s Note: Hans von Hammer (1894-1969) was one of Germany’s better-known flying aces of World War I. A member of “Red Baron” Manfred von Richthofen’s Jadgeschwader 1, Hammer survived the war as a prisoner of the Allies with 41 confirmed aerial victories to his credit. After the war Hammer flew for a time in Germany’s infant air mail and airline operations, before re-joining the military in 1929 as part of Germany’s secret efforts to begin rebuilding its armed forces.
Though disdainful of Hitler and his fellow Nazis, and never himself a member of the Nazi party, Hammer opportunistically served in the new Luftwaffe after Hitler’s rise to power. He later attributed his failure to rise above the rank of squadron leader to his own anti-Nazi sentiments; in fact his arrested career seems to have owed more to personal conflicts with superiors Hermann Goering and Ernst Udet. During the early stages of World War II Hammer became one of a very few men to fly combat missions in both world wars. He scored an additional six victories. In early 1941 he was grounded due to his age. Later in the war he served on the Eastern Front as a battalion commander in the ill-fated 16th Luftwaffe Field Division. In the war’s final weeks he found himself fighting across his family’s home region in Prussia and was able to evacuate his relatives and their dependents in the face of the advancing Soviet forces.
After the war Hammer emigrated to Peru and joined fellow former World War I ace Heinrich von Froenlich in a successful business venture supplying specialized equipment to mines in the Andes. In the early 1960s he retired and returned to West Germany, where he spent his final years. In 1965 he consented to the first of a series of interviews by American journalist R. Kanigher. Kanigher used these interviews as the basis for a biography entitled The Hammer of Hell. Later research has found this work to be unreliable in many details, thanks to the rather imaginative Kanigher’s tendency to embroider Hammer’s stories, which he in any case was too inclined to accept at face value. The book is nonetheless a vivid portrayal of what by all accounts was a remarkable life. In the excerpt below, Hammer describes his ill-fated final mission of World War I.
It was mid-April. We had been rushed up and down the front like a fire brigade, helping our outnumbered air corps to establish temporary local air superiority wherever we were needed most. I was off my game and had not scored a victory since the latter part of March, despite several encounters with the enemy. I believe with hindsight that I was suffering from what would later be termed “combat fatigue.” Certainly my nerves were in a state! I had scarcely a single night free from nightmares about combat. Indeed, I still suffer from them on occasion—I had one only last night. I believe that this sort of nervous exhaustion was what killed poor Richthofen only a week or so later, as much as any enemy bullet.
That day near Pont-a-Mousson I encountered a Sopwith with American markings. The pilot, though competent, appeared to have no particular skill. I ought to have “settled his hash,” as I believe you Americans put it, with a couple of quick bursts. But somehow—and again I put this down to my nervous exhaustion—I simply could not hit him. He fled toward his own lines. Despite having explicit standing orders to let the enemy come to us, I recklessly pursued him. I suppose I was determined to break my losing streak no matter what, to prove that I could still serve as an effective fighter.
Finally, over enemy lines, I ran out of ammunition. I don’t recall the exact sequence of events, but I further compounded my error by allowing my quarry—this merely competent pilot, this near amateur!—to get behind me on my tail. Now I was the hunted! I must confess that I lost the last shreds of my self-control and simply fled, going deeper into enemy territory well behind the lines. I heard bullets whistling past my ears.
Finally my engine began to smoke. With a great effort of will I managed to regain my composure sufficiently to manage a kind of controlled crash in an open field. The impact knocked me unconscious. I must not have been unconscious for long, because I was able, despite a broken leg and several bruised ribs, to crawl out of the wreckage of my machine before it burst into flames.
As I lay there beside the wreckage in a sort of delirium, I saw an aircraft dropping in for a landing in a nearby field. It was a Sopwith with American markings. My conqueror was landing to observe his victory, and no doubt to gloat! Heaven knew I had done it often enough myself. I suppose turnabout made fair play.
At this point I know I must have been delirious, for I saw a sight so bizarre it must surely have been merely a product of my own shocked brain. The pilot whom I saw approaching from the nearby aircraft was far too small. He was no more than a dwarf! What’s more, as he strode toward me and raised his goggles, I saw a large white proboscis with a round, black nose. This…apparition was no man, but rather a sort of extraordinary bipedal dog! Of course it could have never have happened, but I must say on my honor that I have the most vivid memory of the sight nonetheless.
As this…creature approached, he stopped a short distance away and regarded my form upon the grass beside my blazing machine. He began making gestures as if delivering a rant of some sort. All I heard were odd, inarticulate sounds. Yet I had an impression that I knew what the creature was saying. It is hard to describe, but it seems almost as if I could see his words. And his words were: “Curse you, Red Baron! You may have given me the slip again, but at least I’ve brought down one of your underlings!”
At this point I lost consciousness entirely and remember nothing more before awakening in an American hospital. About my captivity, the less said the better. The Americans treated me well enough, in their rather rough-and-ready fashion. I never met the pilot—the real pilot—who had shot me down. All I learned was that he came from Minnesota and was named Brown—no relation, I suppose, to the Canadian pilot of the same name who has been credited with bringing down Richthofen, though I for one remain skeptical of that claim.
I never told anyone of my curious vision. Yet in a peculiar sort of way I found myself drawing comfort from it. During the long months of captivity, and for some time afterward, I felt a great sense of shame at having become one of the few German pilots to survive in enemy captivity. But whenever I would find myself feeling this way, I would recall that vision of the dog in the flying uniform. Then I would remind myself that, however shamed I might feel at becoming a prisoner, I should at least be happy that I had not suffered the even greater shame of perishing at the hands---paws?—of so ludicrous an adversary!
The story of the cross is foolishness to those who perish, but to those who are being saved it is the power of God. If any man among you seems wise in this world, let him become a fool, that he may be wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness to God.