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Archive Report: Axis Forces
1914-1918   1935-1945

Compiled from official National Archive and Service sources, contemporary press reports, personal logbooks, diaries and correspondence, reference books, other sources, and interviews.


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Luftwaffe
Peter Paul Habicht: Dream job as an aviator

PETER PAUL HABICHT

Born: 21st August 1911 in Bieber near Offenbach am Main, Germany.
KiA: 11th January 1944 in Oschersleben near Halberstadt, Germany.

Son of a Catholic worker, trade union member and member of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), 1925-1929 apprenticeship as a precision mechanic, 1930-1934 unemployed, 1932 Flying Club Offenbach, 1934 founder of the
Deutsche Luftsport-Verband (DLV) Flying Club Bieber, 1934-1935 German Research Institute for Gliding, from 1936 civilian motor flight instructor in the Luftwaffe, 1937 Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (NSDAP), 1937 Nationalsozialistisches Flieger Korps (NSFK) Leutnant (2nd Lt) and clerk for gliding in the district Palatinate, 1938-1939 participation in the Rhön Competition, 1940 Luftwaffe officer, 1942 Staffelkapitän in a fighter-bomber Gruppe tasked with securing supplies and ground combat support in Libya and Egypt, 1943 Gruppenkommandeur in Braunschweig, 1944 shot down in air combat.

Abrupt end of a sports career in Straubing

In Straubing, the professional career of Peter Paul Habicht was approaching its peak. The years of nomadic life on the airfields of the Reich far away from family and homeland seemed to have finally paid off in 1939. It had been a hard-fought rise that had made him, an unemployed mechanic without prospects, to a respected flight instructor and regionally known aerobatic pilot within six years. His success on the Deutschlandflug 1938 (1938 Air Rally) had even earned him and his comrades from the NSFK an invitation to the Viennese private rooms of Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (NSDAP) leader Josef Bürckel (1895 - 1944). Newspapers reported on Habicht's spectacular glider flights in some large articles. In Straubing, the 28-year-old now wanted to come to rest and enjoy the fruits of his labour. Nothing documents this pause in his life more than that he now – after more than six years of engagement – married his increasingly pressing childhood sweetheart Wilhelmina Werner (1914-1992) and finally founded a common household at Donaugasse 17 in Straubing.

Note: the NSDAP was colloquially known as the Nazi party

The newlywed could feel on the sunny side of life. In 1936, the enthusiastic pilot, who was "up to all the flying tricks” had found his permanent place in Hermann Göring's (1893-1946) air rearmament and since then has been teaching the recruits of the Luftwaffe as a civilian flight instructor. In April 1939, as a member of the Flugzeugführerschule Flieger-Ausbildungs-Regiment. 53 (Aviation training regiment No. 53), he was transferred to Straubing Fliegerhorst (airfield), where he began to realize big plans: as part of his voluntary work for the NSFK, he initiated and ran the founding of the Straubing Performance Gliding School. In mid-1939, the local press addressed a sensational glider flight of Habicht over the city which, supported by the Luftwaffe, would be repeated regularly in the future. The words seemed to be followed by deeds: On Sunday, 4th September 1939, a Lower Bavarian community announced a stand concert in front of its town hall in honour of the 1937 Nationalsozialistisches Flieger Korps (NSFK) (Nationalist Socialist Flying Corps). The great event of the festival was scheduled for the afternoon with pilots and gliders over the fairground and demonstrations of the high school of gliding from an altitude of 3000 m, by the master pilots of the NSFK Weissenseel and Habicht.

Straubing Fliegerhorst was in Bavaria some 109 km NE of Munich and 6km SSW of Straubing itself.

However, the Luftwaffe could not come as they were on alert. Three days earlier, German troops had invaded Poland. The illusion of a civilian career in Hitler's booming Reich had burst for millions of party and people's comrades, without them having fully grasped it at that time. This also applied to the passionate glider pilot Habicht, who at that time hardly saw the outbreak of war as a catastrophe, but above all as an opportunity: At the suggestion of his superiors, the 29-year-old volunteered for an officer training course in 1940 and justified this as follows: "during my work as an NSFK leader to attract suitable young people to the Luftwaffe, it has always been my wish to be able to work as an officer for the Führer and the training of airmen of the Luftwaffe." The wish came true.

Education in the social democratic skilled worker milieu

Habicht's brilliant career in a right-wing extremist society was not in his cradle. As a working-class child without a higher education, a life in gloomy factory halls seemed predetermined to him. His father Peter Habicht Sr. (1886-1978), a type setter, social democrat and veteran of the German labour movement, supported his only child within the limits of his financial possibilities: from 1925 to 1929, son Peter received an apprenticeship as a precision mechanic at the Frankfurt type foundry, D. Stempel AG. At the local Werner von Siemens vocational school, he took lessons in mechanical engineering. The junior was gifted and ambitious. His interests were in sports and classical music. He played the violin in the Offenbach Mozart Orchestra and was successful in amateur cycling. His hometown of Bieber was 75% Catholic. From 1919, the post of Bürgermeister (mayor) was held by the social democratic politician Adam Marsch (1893-1971), a neighbour and personal friend of his father. The senior's world view was socially democratic, church-sceptical and patriotic. For the WW1 soldier, neighbouring France always remained the "hereditary enemy". His experiences with the temporary occupation of Offenbach by French troops in 1920 may have contributed to this. The son does not seem to have shared his father's party-political preference: Although he was a member of several Bieber associations, there is no evidence of involvement in the working class youth. Distance to the established parties characterized the political attitude of a large part of the post-war youth of the time: For them, the SPD in particular were considered over-era and unattractive.

The youth as a disposable mass of state air armament at the end of the Weimar Republic

At the end of 1930, Habicht lost his position and remained unemployed for the following four years. After a failed business start-up with a bicycle workshop, he turned in 1932 to gliding, with which he had already come into contact in 1929 in his vocational school. Habicht thus fell into a state-imposed trap: From the mid 1920s, the Bundesverband der Deutschen Luftverkehrswirtschaft (German Aviation Association), the Prussian Ministry of Trade and Industry and the Reichsverkehrsministerium(RVM) (Reich Ministry of Transport) pursued the goal of inspiring German youth for gliding. By ministerial order, the issue was dealt with in schools and universities. At the same time, the authorities promoted civic initiatives to found aviation sports clubs. However, it was not about sport: the Berlin authorities planned to undermine the Paris Aviation Agreement concluded in 1926, in which they had committed themselves not to promote sports aviation with public funds. The victorious powers of WW1 had enforced this because they rightly feared that Germany, which had committed itself in the Treaty of Versailles to refrain from forming an air force, would acquire a militarily usable pilot reserve under the guise of air sports.

In Offenbach, the Flying Club Offenbach (FSVO) was founded in 1928, which acquired three gliders by 1931. The founders were the municipal official Karl Wasenmüller (1894-1970), a WW1 pilot and SPD member, as well as the authorized signatory and reserve officer Franz Hofmann (1894-1946). From 1926 to 1928, Hofmann had received military sports training at the "anti-constitutional" German Officers’ Association and participated in military simulation games. He then founded the FSVO, that quickly enjoyed the influx of young people. Habicht attended the gliding competition on the Rhön in 1932 and then joined the FSVO. In 1933 he began training at the glider school on the Wasserkuppe. There was a revisionist and anti-republican spirit: A monument erected in 1923 by the Ring of Airmen praised the war death of the pilots and called on the people not to accept the defeat of 1918. In 1933, Habicht pasted a photo of this monument into his album and wrote down there: "Our motto!" The right-wing extremist influence of the youth came from headmaster Fritz Stamer (1897-1969), a war aviator and NSDAP member from 1932, who planned "the creation of an aviation youth movement". In 1937 he published a novel with autobiographical features, in which he boasted: "above the work on the Wasserkuppe stood the Swastika." One is inclined to believe him: in the Reichstag election of July 1932, the NSDAP received more than 50% of the votes there.

Dream job as an aviator in the "Third Reich"

In April 1933, Lufthansa board member Erhard Milch was promoted to State Secretary in the newly founded Reichsluftfahrtministerium (RLM) (Reich Aviation Ministry) Milch immediately ensured the founding of the German DLV. The previous associations had to dissolve and bring their members to the DLV. Its purpose was to show a sporting face to foreign countries in order to camouflage the air armament, which from then on was as contrary to the treaty as it was massively operated. To train the next members of the Luftwaffe, the DLV set up numerous training grounds and flying schools, which had to be staffed with civilian flight instructors due to the prevailing lack of military instructors. Habicht quickly understood the signs of the times: together with Philipp Wahl (1905-1970), a small entrepreneur who had been a member of the SA since 1931 and the NSDAP since 1932, and even served as a local group leader from 1940, he founded a DLV flying club in Bieber in May 1933. Together with friends, Habicht built gliders and trained Hitlerjugend (HJ) members in flying.

Above: Peter Habicht (in a dark jacket with hat) In 1933 with his childhood friends from Bieber while building a glider.

For this he went through a leader training in the Sturmabteilung (SA) sports school Hanau II. The commitment paid off: in July 1934, Habicht got a job at the Deutsche Forschungsanstalt für Segelflug (German Institute for Glider research) in Darmstadt, headed by Walter Georgii (1888-1968). At the end of 1935 he was trained as a pilot by the local DLV flying training centre, which took him over in 1936 as an engine flight instructor (of the Reich Ministry of Aviation). In March 1937, Habicht was transferred from Darmstadt to the Lachen-Speyerdorf air training area (Palatinate), which was soon taken over by the Luftwaffe, continued as an aircraft pilot's school and finally integrated into the newly formed Aviation Training Regiment 53 based in Straubing in April 1939.

Above: Peter Habicht (centre) on July 10, 1938 with the aerobatic squadron of the NSFK Group 16 in Singen (Baden). The squadron flew Focke Wulf 44 aircraft, called the"Stieglitz".

In addition to his professional activities, Habicht was involved in the NSFK, the legal successor of the DLV, which was dissolved in 1937. Founded on the 17th April 1937, the NSFK was headed by Generalleutnant (Maj Gen) Friedrich Christiansen (1879-1972), who had previously been a ministerial councillor in the Reich Aviation Ministry (RLM) and from 1936 commander of all aviation schools of the Luftwaffe. Outside the military sphere, the NSFK had an all-encompassing competence in aviation: with the help of spectacular air shows, it inspired young people to fly (propaganda) and taught them in model making, gliding and powered flight (pre-military training and aptitude test for the Luftwaffe). In addition, the NSFK had a monopoly in air sports, which is why no one who wanted to be active in this field could ignore it.

The promoter of Habicht's NSFK career was Werner Zahn (1897-1976), a WW1 pilot who had found his way into the NSDAP and the SchutzStaffel Aviation organisation (Flyer-SS) in 1932. From 1934 he served as staff leader of the District Group VII (southwest) based in Darmstadt. In the autumn of 1937, he was appointed leader of the newly created NSFK district group 16 (Baden and Saarpfalz) based in Karlsruhe. Zahn and Habicht shared a passion for gliding and apparently found each other sympathetic. In any case, Habicht was appointed by Zahn as a consultant for gliding in the district Saarpfalz and in 1937/38 he was often used as an aerobatic pilot at regional aviation events. As a highlight of his career, Habicht must have felt that he was allowed to participate in the Deutschlandflug 1938, the world's largest event of its kind, as a pilot in Zahn's staff squadron, which in the end won fourth place. Habicht's service with the NSFK had a beneficial effect on his sporting opportunities: as a corps member, he was given access to high-performance gliders, with which he was able to participate in the gliding competitions on the Rhön in the summer of 1938 and 1939. In 1939, the Luftwaffe gave him a truck and an auxiliary team especially to his support. In 1938 Habicht flew the Condor II model developed by Heini Dittmar (1911-1960), and in 1939 he selected the Mü 13, a glider with which Kurt Schmidt (1905-1944) had won the Rhön competition three years earlier. Habicht had now risen into the illustrious circle of recognized best glider pilots.

Marriage-creating effect of a speech of the "Führer"

In 1940 Habicht's school regiment was transferred to East Prussia, where he took an officer's course at the Luftkriegsschule 4 (Air Warfare School No.4). His only surviving assessment explains Habicht's rapid ascent and attests to his great potential for development. His character profile obviously met the requirements expected of a Luftwaffe officer in the "Third Reich": empowerment as a leader and flying qualities.

His assessment by the Pilots' School on the 10th April 1941 stated. "Upright and impeccable character. Fresh, lively, and open-minded in nature. A tough and hard nature. Physically well predisposed. Outspoken daredevil. A tight soldier with good initiative, who will find his way in all situations. A passionate pilot with above-average flying and theoretical performance, who has always proven himself as a group flight instructor and has always given his flight students the best example of commitment and prudence. Very popular in the circle of comrades."

The price of success demanded by the regime was political adaptation. Whether it was unreasonably high from Habicht's point of view is doubtful. Although his own father, Peter Habicht Sr., who never joined the party, reassured his granddaughters after 1945 with the assurance that his son was "not a Nazi", the question arises as how to one should describe the political attitude of a person who joined the NSDAP in May 1937 and was certified by his boss in 1941, that he was positive about the National Socialist worldview. In Habicht's private correspondence there are only two passages of political content. Thus, the Reichstag speech of the 30th January 1937, in which Hitler celebrated his economic successes, apparently had a marriage-creating effect.

Anyway, the fiancée Mina wrote to her Peter the following day: "I am most pleased that the Führer's speech brings you to the same thoughts as me. If we possess and take with us into marriage only a part of the blood and spirit with which the Führer led our German people out of powerlessness into a new budding life (whose flourishing our children, give God his blessing, may enjoy), then it must necessarily become the happiest future.“ In mid-1942, Peter exhorted his Mina from faraway Africa to pay attention to her health, because "we both have the sacred duty to be healthy parents for ourselves or our children for the next twenty years for the benefit of the people's body for which we are now fighting and, unfortunately, also for those who have not yet recognized the great mission of our time."

On the Mediterranean with Zerstörergeschwader (ZG) 26 "Horst Wessel"

Since the Luftwaffe had suffered heavy losses in the Battle of Britain, the gaps had to be closed for the coming Eastern campaign. The top leadership believed in a short war in 1941 and began to plunder the training system. Habicht, promoted to Oberleutnant (1st Lt) at the end of 1940, fell into the maelstrom of these events. In the summer of 1941, he received training in Memmingen on the twin-engine fighter-bomber of the type Messerschmitt Bf 110.

Afterwards he was sent as a pilot to Gruppe III of ZG 26 (Destroyer Division 26), which was stationed in Crete in the autumn of 1941. Their main task was to secure supplies by sea for Rommel's North African tank army from British air and submarine attacks. Habicht developed a distinct corps spirit in his new place of work. In a letter to wife Mina, he praised "the excellent camaraderie that prevails here. On the one hand the enemy, on the other hand the Mediterranean [...] officer and man forge together into a single tight-knit community.“

Above: Habicht's Messerschmitt Bf 110 (3U+DR) is serviced in the Hangar of Trapani in 1941. Habicht is on the engine nacelle on the far right.

Initially, the airspace was dominated by the Axis powers. In the autumn of 1941, Habicht then in Sicily wrote: "Staying here is like a better holiday trip. [...] You can hardly believe that you are in the middle of the war zone and just over 100 km further south is the English fortress Malta.“ Habicht felt severely underchallenged by the rather undemanding ship escort duties. Bordfunker (radio operator) Horst Willborn (1921-?) remembered his flights with Habicht in 2011: "He was [...] a great guy. Sometimes, I set the Direction Finder (DF) to pick up a radio station and listen to music during the escort missions for several hours. Then Habicht maneuvered the Dornier Do 17Z swaying in waltz beat." Habicht quickly learned that even boring missions could be dangerous. On November 8, 1941 he crashed into the Mediterranean at Spartivento after an engine failure and suffered a fractured skull. Only at dawn the next day were Habicht and his Bordfunker Helmut Busch (1916-1944) rescued at the very last moment.

Low-flying attacks for Rommel's tank army at El Alamein

After a long recovery, Habicht returned to Sicily with the 8./ZG 26. He flew bombing raids on Malta and sea escort, in the context of which he claimed the shooting down of a British B-17 bomber in February 1942.

A Boeing B-17 was claimed by Oblt. Habicht, from 8./ZG 26 on the 22nd February 1942 at 14:42 hrs. (The Oberkommando der Luftwaffe (OKL) (German Air Force High Command) fighter claims for the Mediterranean & Southern Front 1941-42).

The claim is also recorded in the History of the Mediterranean Air War 1940-1945, Vol. 2, on p. 189 - Steve Shores, Christopher/ Massimello, Giovanni but just describes the aircraft as a "B-17" with no additional detail.

Note: The 220 Sqn detachment at RAF Shallufa in Egypt launched Fortress B.I AN518 on the 22nd February 1942 at 11:00 hrs in search of the Italian Fleet which was intercepted at 14:00 hrs. On the 3rd bombing run the B-17 was attacked by two Me 110s one of which was claimed as probably destroyed. The B-17 jettisoned its bombs and returned to RAF Shallufa at 16:50 hrs. This was the only RAF B-17 mission in the area on this day. Furthermore there were no American B-17s in the region.

In addition, Habicht's squadron often provided ground combat support for Rommel's troops. His stakes were now much harder. They brought successes and commendations, but also led to painful losses among the German fighter pilots.

Habicht proudly reported: "South of Derna we completely destroyed a collection of English armoured scout cars and trucks in low-altitude flight. Around 40 cars were set on fire. The English department was completely destroyed. Feldmarschall (Field Marshal) Kesselring and Generaloberst (Colonel General) Rommel sent a letter of congratulations to the squadron in the evening, which caused great enthusiasm among crews and ground staff."

Due to his achievements, Habicht was promoted to Hauptmann (Capt) in April 1942 and was appointed Staffelkapitän (squadron leader) of the newly formed 10./ZG 26 in June 1942. In the summer of 1942, the unit, equipped with the Dornier Do 17 aircraft type, and was positioned behind the Libyan front at numerous airfields. It flew ship escort protection and ground attacks with sometimes spectacular actions, Habicht proved to be a prudent and determined leader. On the 21st June 1942, for example, he took an airfield near Tobruk; shortly afterwards he saved a pilot from captivity at Marsa Matruh by a daring action. On the 18th July 1942 he received the Eiserne Kreuz, 1. Klasse (Iron Cross of the First Class).

Above: Habicht as he wanted to be perceived. His self-written caption reads: "North Africa June 1942. Return from war."

Above: Habicht's crew in the winter of 1942/43 before departure with their destroyer Ju 88.

After the German offensive was stuck at El Alamein, Staffel 10 (10 Squadron) was transferred to Crete in September 1942 and converted to Ju 88 C-6 destroyers. In an airspace that was now increasingly dominated by the enemy, it secured air and sea transport to remedy Rommel's fuel crisis. Habicht proudly wrote home that his Staffel would be upgraded to 16 aircraft. "I can make a really good war with that but the best thing I would love is to be back home." Subtle hints of a longing for peace now resonated more often in his letters. Instead, the demands increased. On the 8th October 1942, Habicht pcarried out his 150th mission. On the 25th October 1942 he shot down a British Beaufighter north of Tobruk.

In a letter home he wrote “In 3 days I did the entire retraining on the new Ju 88 destroyer and since then I have flown missions every day. Yesterday on 25th October at 11:15 hrs I had the success of the Sqn with the Ju 88. During a backup mission over the Mediterranean north of Tobruk I was engaged in a 20 mins of air combat with 2 English fighters of the type Beaufighter, who wanted to carry out an attack the ships we were protecting. I managed to shoot down one of them, which fell into the sea with a huge fountain. The other aircraft quickly fled. A total of 5 Beaufighters were claimed by the group which was reported by the Wehrmacht as successes. We have no losses of our own. There was no damage to my aircraft. My missions against the enemy is now approaching 200.”

A Beaufighter from 201 Group, 272 Sqn failed to return from operations on the 25th October 1942. Beaufighter Ic T5070, XK:B was lost 3 miles off Crete after intercepting some Ju-52s. Pilot: Wg Cdr. John Mortimer White 41640 RAF and Observer: Flt Sgt. Richard Andrew Francis 996910 RAFVR were both reported MiA.

Above is a sequence of photographs shows a dogfight, taken from the perspective of a Ju 88. There are two enemy (Allied) aircraft in the sequence. One of them is heading directly towards Habicht's Ju 88 (middle image on the right). It is quite likely that the photographs show the dogfight on the 25th October 1942.

At home, he tried to spread optimism, because "with victory we are all heading for a happy future. [...] My Staffel has now grown to 200 men and bears one of the main burdens in the current defensive battle. Tonight, I flew to Egypt and at dawn I inflicted some heavy losses on the English with my aircraft. Large vehicle accumulations at Fuka we have covered with bombs and according to the location of the hits 20 to 30 English vehicles have been destroyed. According to the type of bombs used, there have certainly been severe personnel losses.“ The mission for Rommel was in vain because exactly on this day his front collapsed.

After the landing of US forces in North Africa, Gruppe III (Group No 3) of ZG 26 was transferred to Sicily in order to be able to hold the bridgehead in Tunisia. On the 19th November 1942, Habicht was appointed Gruppenkommandeur (Group Commander) on a temporary basis and thus given great responsibility in these decisive days. The former confidence in victory had suffered greatly. Habicht wrote about the subdued atmosphere on Christmas Eve 1942, "With a simple get-together with the comrades at our 'castle', the evening has passed quietly." The following months were marked by massive losses: in an airspace completely dominated by the enemy, the Luftwaffe lost numerous aircraft and airmen in dogfights and bombing raids on Trapani and other airfields.

Above: In 1943 Habicht celebrated his 300th enemy flight in a bay in Sicily. However, the time of success was long gone.

After the capitulation of the Axis powers in Tunisia on the 13th May 1943, III./ZG 26 withdrew to the Italian mainland; Staffel 10 was divided and one half as Staffel 11 under Habicht's command was sent to Eleusis in Greece, where it carried out destroyer missions with bombs and on-board weapons and coastal reconnaissance off its own and enemy coasts.

Above: From the spring of 1943, the US Air Force systematically destroyed the airfields and aircraft of the Axis powers in Sicily. Habicht's squadron was not spared either.

On the 9th September 1943, Habicht was recalled from his post and on the 17th October 1943, he was awarded der Kriegsorden Deutsches Kreuz (War Order of the German Cross) in Gold. This award is ranked higher than the Eiserne Kreuz, 1.Klasse and below the Ritterkreuz des Eisernen Kreuzes (the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross).

Gruppenkommandeur in Braunschweig

During 1943, the Allied bomber offensive on the cities and industrial areas in the German Reich intensified massively. The lack of German fighter aircraft and the high bullet resistance of the American B-17 bombers led to the decision in the summer of 1943 to withdraw the destroyer units from the fronts and use them to combat the US bomber offensive. The Bf 110 and Me 410 armed with rockets initially achieved good success, as the penetration depth of the US hunting escort was low. To Göring's horror, who in mid-1943 had dismissed such warnings by Adolf Galland (1912-1996), the General der Flieger (General of the Aviators) as "fantasies", the range of the US fighters extended to the German target areas at the end of 1943. With the new P-51 Mustang, the German fighters now faced an overpowering opponent.

If your Me 410 was attacked by a Mustang, all you could do was pray. [...] The 410 was worthless in cornering, you couldn't turn with it or do anything like that. We felt like we were competing in the Kentucky Derby on a farm horse. So said Oberleutnant Fritz Stehle from the Zerstörergeschwader (ZG 1).

As a Gruppenkommandeur, Habicht led from September 1943 the Ergänzende Zerstörergruppe (Stab/Erg.Zerst.Gr.) at Braunschweig-Broitzem, a school unit for the training of young pilots. He often flew to Berlin to discuss with Galland and the Luftwaffe leadership. The content of the conversation remained hidden from Habicht's family, but not the fact that there were arguments at the conferences. The massive air superiority of the Allies and the constant accusations of Göring, who insulted his fighter pilots as "floppy tails" and "cowardly cripples" and threatened them with being shot down by their own superior may have done little to raise morale. Habicht must have known that the war was lost. At Christmas 1943 he started his last holiday in Bieber and said goodbye to his friends. He asked the wife of his childhood friend Karl Daniel Steine (1910-1982) to take care of his family if necessary. He gave the younger daughter, born in December, the programmatic name Sigrid Johanna. Sigrid was of Germanic origin and was translated at that time as: "the one riding to victory"; the second name could have been inspired by Joan of Arc. On the 3rd January 1944, Habicht wrote the last surviving letter to his wife. His optimism of the past had completely faded.

Death in dogfight

On 11th January 1944, 663 US bombers took off from SE England for a major attack on German industry. 177 Flying Fortresses of the 1st Bomber Division set course for the AGO aircraft plant in Oschersleben near Halberstadt. As a backup for the entire armada, 592 escort fighters flew along; among them were 49 P-51 Mustangs of the 354th Fighter Group led by Maj. James Howell Howard (1913-1995). One of the pilots was Lt. Robert Stephens (1921-1960).

Like Habicht, Stephens came from the working-class milieu, was an enthusiastic baseball player and flew a P-51B #43-12424. In reference to his previous knockout victories as a boxer, he had given it the name "Killer". When the 1st US Bomber Division flew over the Dutch coast at 10:34 hrs the German Luftwaffe successively launched 239 fighters and destroyers into the air. Around 10:40 hrs Habicht's took off from Braunschweig-Broitzem with his tried and tested Bordfunker, Helmut Busch. After that, both were considered missing. Their Me 410 A-1 was last seen by his wingman, before he alone attacked a group of about 80 four-engine bombers.

Robert Stephens described what had happened. Around 11:40 hrs he defended a US bomber that had fallen out of the formation over Oschersleben.

“The bomber was attacked by three (3) Me 410’s. Picking out one of the 410’s as my target, I worked in behind him. He saw me and started a steep spiral down. Following him I gave him a few short bursts. Observing no strikes I pulled off him at 12,000 ft. I circled around once more and saw the same Me 410 was climbing back up toward the box of bombers. I waited for him and got behind him, this time unnoticed. With only one gun firing, I shot several long bursts before I saw strikes on his left engine nacelle. Then the engine blew up and the plane caught fire. I closed in, still firing, and observed more strikes all over the fuselage. Pulling up so as to avoid running into him, I rolled left to see the entire Me 410 engulfed in flames.”

Other US pilots confirmed that Stephens had fired a large burst directly into the cockpit. Afterwards the Me 410 peeled off to the left enveloped in flame. It then nosed over and went straight down.

It is very likely that Habicht and Busch died in the plane shot down by Stephens: the type of aircraft and the crash site match the German and American sources. In Habicht's family, it is known that a Mustang caused his death.

According to the 354th Mission Summary Report, Howard's Fighter Group shot down only one Me 410 on the 11th January 1944, the one Robert Stephens could write on his victories. Another Me 410 was classified as "damaged" in the 354th Mission Summary Report.

Robert W. Stephens claimed 13 victories by the end of the war. He was then stationed in Straubing, the air base where Habicht had once taught his students. On April 6, 1960, the highly decorated Col. died in an accident in the service of the USAF Robert Winston Stephens. He was only 38 years old.

Habicht's surviving dependents were probably informed by the Bieber NSDAP Ortsgruppenleiter (local group leader) Philipp Wahl, with whom Habicht had founded the local flying group ten years earlier. With great sympathy, the pilot, who had only turned 32, received his last escort on the 19th January 1944, at the Bieber cemetery.

In 357 frontline missions, he had claimed two Abschüsse (Victories). The Luftwaffe showed its respect with a military funeral with an honour guard gun salute and stated in matter-of-fact words that Habicht had given "his life on the airfield of honour for the Führer, the people and the fatherland." In their obituary, the family refrained from mentioning the "Führer" and wrote that "Aviation and its expansion was his purpose in life."

Based upon the German version of the story of Peter Paul Habicht researched by Wolf-Ingo Seidelmann, son-in-law of Peter Paul Habicht, who also provide the additional photographs from his extensive collection, and adapted for posting on Aircrew Remembered. Dedicated to the memory of Peter Paul Habicht and to his family.

WIS & RS 12.10.2022 - Corrections and additional photographs

Acknowledgements: Sources used by us in compiling Archive Reports include: Bill Chorley - 'Bomber Command Losses Vols. 1-9, plus ongoing revisions', Dr. Theo E.W. Boiten and Mr. Roderick J. Mackenzie - 'Nightfighter War Diaries Vols. 1 and 2', Martin Middlebrook and Chris Everitt - 'Bomber Command War Diaries', Commonwealth War Graves Commission, Tom Kracker - Kracker Luftwaffe Archives, Michel Beckers, Major Fred Paradie (RCAF) and MWO François Dutil (RCAF) - Paradie Archive (on this site), Jean Schadskaje, Major Jack O'Connor USAF (Retd.), Robert Gretzyngier, Wojtek Matusiak, Waldemar Wójcik and Józef Zieliński - 'Ku Czci Połeglyçh Lotnikow 1939-1945', Archiwum - Polish Air Force Archive (on this site), Anna Krzystek, Tadeusz Krzystek - 'Polskie Siły Powietrzne w Wielkiej Brytanii', Franek Grabowski, Norman L.R. Franks 'Fighter Command Losses', Aircrew Remembered Databases and our own archives. We are grateful for the support and encouragement of CWGC, UK Imperial War Museum, Australian War Memorial, Australian National Archives, New Zealand National Archives, UK National Archives and Fold3 and countless dedicated friends and researchers across the world.
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