The groundwork for that desire was laid in April of 1942 at the time when German might reached its pinnacle. We had conquered most of Europe, from the English Channel deep into Russia and from the tip of Norway to the shores of Africa. I had not the slightest doubt that eventually we would defeat both Soviet Russia and the United States. Great Britain still existed only because of the American intervention. I had put in my required four years in the Jungvolk, without much distinction. I had risen no higher than to the rank of Jungenschaftsführer, comparable to corporal. All that changed when I was asked to join the elite unit of the senior Hitler Youth, the Flieger, or Flying Hitler Youth. This by itself was quite a step. Only about 55,000 boys of roughly five million served in the Flying Hitler Youth. In my case, it happened mainly because the local unit leader attended my Gymnasium — though any Gymnasium student had a much better chance to become a pilot than, for instance, a butcher’s apprentice. To my surprise, just two weeks after I had been sworn in — again on Hitler’s birthday — I found myself in glider-flight training in a camp operated under the patronage of the Luftwaffe. From the moment I was catapulted to a height of 40 feet or so in a crude training device, I had found my destiny. I fell under the spell of flying and resolved to volunteer for the Luftwaffe for life. For the next two years, I spent all of my school vacations and one extra month each summer in flight training.
When I returned from my last flight course — on June 3, 1944, three days before the Allied landing in Normandy — the unit leader who had asked me to join the Flying Hitler Youth in 1942 received his call-up to the Luftwaffe. (As a result of our horrendous casualties, most of us were now drafted into the armed forces at 16 instead of remaining in the Hitler Youth until 18.) He proposed my as his successor. The Reich leader of the Hitler Youth assented, and I was promoted to Gefolgschaftsführer, equivalent to the rank of captain. I assumed command of the 180 boys of Gefolgschaft 244.
I didn’t expect to remain in the Hitler Youth for much longer than another month. The Luftwaffe needed pilots desperately. More than anything else, I hoped to be sent to fighter-pilot school. But the Allies intervened. A few days after D-Day, I was on a train bound for Luxembourg, I had been ordered to assemble my unit and report to an anti-aircraft battery near the French-Luxembourg border within 48 hours. We were called flak “helpers,” but within a month we took over three 88mm guns of the battery ourselves. The soldiers we relieved were sent to the Normandy front to help stem the tide of the Allied invasion. It seems unbelievable now, but then, despite the steady deterioration of our situation since the battle of Stalingrad (which cost us nearly 300,000 men, largely because Hitler wouldn’t allow them to retreat in time), I did not perceive the possibility of German defeat. But I was about to meet an officer who tried to tell me the truth.
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