On this date in 1944, in the midst of a worldwide conflagration that would claim 70 million lives, one unknown crew member of an Allied bomber was shot by Nazi SS/SD troops in the woods around Enschede, Netherlands.
From late 1942, the Allies’ massive industrial capacity had sapped the vaunted Luftwaffe, bleeding down the German air force in desperate airborne combat in the Mediterranean and the Eastern front. Crippling losses in July and August 1943 lay Germany’s industrial heart open to devastating bombing and would within a year spell the end of the Luftwaffe as an effective fighting force.
The contest’s stakes were high. This hour-long compilation of contemporaneous U.S. propaganda footage celebrates the decisive effect of air supremacy in western Europe:
With hostile planes darkening Europe’s skies, the Germans called upon ruthlessness to stand in for materiel. Nazi SS chief Heinrich Himmler issued, according to Robin O’Neil, an August 1943 order to show no quarter to captured enemy pilots.
The young man shot this day suffered its effects:
The airman (estimated age 26 years), who was apparently unhurt, was taken by the SS to the cellar of the villa [serving as SS headquarters], where he was kept under guard while arrangements were made for his disposal. These arrangements consisted of the removal of his flying kit, and the substitution of a civilian light-coloured shirt, a pair of dark trousers, and a pair of socks.
In this dress he was put into a security vehicle, his hands handcuffed behind his back, and taken some distance in the grounds of the SS HQ to a spot within the compound where a grave had already been prepared. The airman was marched from the car by an escort of two SS men, one of whom dropped back and shot the airman in the back of the neck. He was buried and the grave was carefully camouflaged.
To this day, the airman’s identity has not been established. It was assumed that he was British or American, most probably American, as the trousers he was wearing were of a dark shade of khaki, and the fact that when he was informed in the car, in English, that he was to be executed, he made an indistinct reply in which the word “America” was uttered.
Countless such executions undoubtedly took place and were lost, forgotten or concealed in the charnel house of war. Thanks to the witness of Dutch prisoners who survived the war, this single act of routine brutality endured not only historically but juridically: little more than a year later, its author, Dr. Karl Eberhard Schongarth — an SS officer who participated in the Wannsee Conference and slaughtered thousands in occupied Poland and Holland — faced a war crimes prosecution for the execution of the anonymous airman.
His actions this date may have been small by the gauge of a bloodthirsty career, but since pre-war treaties explicitly regulated treatment of war prisoners, they also constituted a conveniently plain transgression of the far-from-bright line demarcating “war crimes.” For this one killing, Schongarth was himself hanged as a war criminal in Hamelin, Germany on May 16, 1946.