February 8 in Russian history


The snowfall finally stopped at the German island of Usedom in the Baltic Sea. A group of ten Soviet prisoners from a forced labor camp was sent to repair the caponiers on the local military airdrome. During the dinner, when the German pilots and the technicians left to the canteen, they killed a watchguard and climbed to a Heinkel He 111 bomber. They kept an eye on this Heinkel for some months and they knew that it was fueled and ready for flight — even across the frontline. One of these ten Soviets was Mikhail Petrovich Devyatayev, a fighter pilot whose plane was downed on 13 July 1944.

He was captured near Lviv and sent to the Łódź concentration camp in Poland. Soon he was transferred to another concentration camp, called New Königsberg. He and a group of his fellow inmates began building an escape tunnel. They dug it with spoons and plates, but when only a few meters remained, the tunnel was found by the Nazi guards. Devyatayev and his friends were sent to the death camp Sachsenhausen. He had to die, but when he was in the quarantine barrack, another prisoner, local barber, saved him. The barber replaced Devyatayev's label ID that marked him as condemned to death with the label of man who was sentenced to forced labor, but was killed recently by the guards, teacher Grigory Nikitenko. In the end of October 1944 a large group of 1,500 prisoners of Sachsenhausen including Devyatayev was transferred to Usedom island. A village located on this island later became known world-wide. It's name was Peenemünde and Sturmbannführer of SS Wernher von Braun, the father of V2 rockets, was developing a new German Wunderwaffe there. He commanded a team of about 20,000 slaves who produced V2. Due to the secrecy of this program, of course, all of them had only one way to get out — through the crematorium furnace.

The Soviet prisoners began the preparations for the escape. They noticed that one He 111 bomber that was used for rocket test launches was always fuelled and ready for the flight. It was comfortably located at the edge of the airdrome and they decided that they could hijack it. The plan was thoroughly prepared and everyone knew his duties: one man had to free the wheels, another had to take away the clamps from the wings and so on. Devyatayev studied the controls of the German airplanes. His friends brought and translated the plates with the German inscriptions from the damaged airplanes lying around. Devyatayev even managed to get into these airplanes and learn the location of the controls and gauges. Once, when Devyatayev was watching from a safe distance a German pilot preparing for the flight, the pilot noticed him and performed the whole procedure demonstratively, showing to the stupid Russian the superiority of the Teutonic creative spirit.

The slaves were usually convoyed by one of the two Wachmanns, guards. One of them was very friendly and the prisoners didn't want to kill him. They even offered him to escape to the USSR with them. He refused saying that if he does, all his family, all his relatives will be executed. He did not betray them, though. The second Wachmann was a 200% Nazi. However, soon they had no choice. Some of the prisoners in the camp collaborated with the Nazis and they had a tradition called "ten days of life". The German officers or the guards chose a victim and that group of collaborators tortured the man for ten days and finally killed him. In February, Mikhail Devyatayev was chosen as the victim. Fortunately, on 8 February, they were escorted by the second Wachmann. When the pilots and the tech staff left the airfield, they set a small fire and when the Wachmann came closer, Ivan Krivonogov smashed his head. Pyotr Kutergin put the Wachmann's overcoat on and pretended that he was convoying the prisoners along the airfield. When they got to their Heinkel, Devyatayev climbed in. For the first time he saw the cockpit of He 111. He pressed the starter button, but it didn't work. Devyatayev recalled that there's a small knife-switch behind and turned it on. Pressed the button again and once again the engines did not move. There was no voltage in the network. Devyatayev wanted to plug the accumulators, but shocked to see that they were absent. Fortunately, the prisoners knew where the accumulators were stored and soon found them. Finally, he managed to launch the engines. Ivan Krivonogov released the brakes on the wheels and the airplane went forward. They were ready to move into the runway when a woman from the airfield staff raised the flags indicating that some planes were landing. A group of Junkers bombers were coming back. The hijacked Heinkel was standing quietly in the corner and waiting for the bombers to free the runway. Finally, they began the acceleration, but when the plane was ready to take off, Devyatayev found out that he cannot move the control column and the airplane will not take off. Fortunately, the runway was long enough and he managed to stop the airplane only some meters from the precipice at the end of the runway. Of course, the Germans noticed the unusual behaviour of the airplane and were already running to it.

There was no way back. Devyatayev began the second attempt in the opposite direction. Finally, he understood that the heavy bombers, unlike the fighters he was accustomed to, have trimmers on the wings. The trimmers had three positions: normal, landing and take-off. When they are in the landing position, they force the airplane down. Devyatayev did not know where the trimmer controls were located and he asked his friends to help him with the control column. By joint efforts, they moved it and the He 111 finally took off.

The Germans had no idea of what was happening — there were no pilots among the Soviet prisoners (Devyatayev was for them a teacher named Nikitenko) so what was happening? No matter what, they had to stop them. We don't know how many Messerschmitts and Fokke-Wulfs were sent after them. One FW found them and was quite near, but Devyatayev escaped in the clouds. Fortunately, but this time he had already found the trimmers controls. Later, after the war, they learned that that FW was returning from a mission and had no ammo at all. When flying over the sea, they noticed a sea convoy escorted by Messerschmitts, but the German fighters had their own orders and were not too interested in the lonely Heinkel.

One of the most difficult parts was, of course, the front line. The Soviet anti-aircraft guns attacked them immediately. They hit the airplane and the flight was over. Devyatov landed the Heinkel on the Soviet territory. When Sovet soldiers understood that they see the people who just escaped from a concentration camp, they immediately took them to the kitchen. The doctors warned the refugees that they can die if they eat too much, but they refused to listen and ate and ate and ate...

Here are the names of those ten people: Mikhail Devyataev, Ivan Krivonogov, Vladimir Sokolov, Vladimir Nemchenko, Fyodor Adamov, Ivan Oleynik, Mikhail Yemets, Pyotr Kutergin, Nikolay Urbanovich, Dmitri Serdyukov.

Sokolov was killed during the crossing of Oder. Urbanovich also was killed. Kutergin, Serdyukov and Nemchenko came to Berlin and were killed there. Oleynik fought against Japan in the Far East and was killed there. Adamov returned to his home in Belaya Kalitva. Devyataev, Krivonogov and Yemets spent the last months of the war in a hospital.

Wikipedia writes about what followed:

The NKVD did not believe Devyataev's story, arguing that it was impossible for the prisoners to take over an airplane without cooperation from the Germans. Thus, Devyataev was suspected of being a German spy and sent to a penal military unit. He was discharged in November 1945 and worked as a manual laborer in Kazan.

Soviet authorities cleared Devyataev only in 1957, after the head of the Soviet space program Sergey Korolyov personally presented his case, arguing that the information provided by Devyataev and the other escapees had been critical for the Soviet space program. On 15 August of that year, Devyataev became a Hero of the Soviet Union, and a subject of multiple books and newspaper articles. He continued to live in Kazan, working as a captain of first hydrofoil passenger ships on the Volga.

Devyataev was awarded the Order of Lenin, the Order of Red Banner twice, Order of the Patriotic War (first and second class), and many other awards. He became a honoured citizen of Mordovia Republic, the cities of Kazan, Wolgast and Zinnowitz (Germany).

He died in 2002 and is buried in an old Arsk Field cemetery in Kazan near a World War II Memorial.

There is a museum of Devyataev in his native Torbeyevo (opened on the 8 May 1975) and a monument in Usedom and Kazan. A small rocket ship (project 1234.1), serving the 166th Novorossian division, is named after him.

In 1968 Mikhail Devyataev came with his family to Usedom again and spent some weeks at a resort there.


Anonymous said...

Now it can't be just me, I mean, anyone can see that these stories from the Russian past always contain a little bit of warmth, humor, spirit in general...
I mean, there is a stark contrast to contemporary stories from the west, not to mention Hollywood renditions..

Wait a minute, there's a source of great fun right there, just imagining the way Hollywood would present this one... God, I can't believe we're fed thousands of John Rambo movies, next to true stories like these...

Dimitri said...

Dear Vojislav, I can offer another idea: just imagine the way this story could be presented in a modern Russian movie, something like The 9th Company or, gods forbid, The Night Watch :).

Unfortunately, this hollowness is typical for the modern cinema in general. So, let's hope this story will never become the source of inspiration for the script writers, wherever they live :).

Anonymous said...

Nice Fairytale...sounds like Shaving Private Ryan :))