Experiences in Air Raids
It was short before midnight of June 12, 1944 and I was sleeping on a cattle-wagon's floor. In the same wagon were my comrades from officer's training school at Stockerau near Vienna. We were on our way to a military parade to be held at Zagreb, the capital of "Independent State of Croatia" (short "NDH").
Since early November 1943 our group of 20 started the training for artillery officers. Now, in June 1944 and few days after the Allied Forces landed in Normandy, we were coming home for our first (and only) leave. Before that we had to stay several days at Neusiedel (Neusiedler Lake) in eastern Austria where some 1000 of officer trainees had assembled coming from different camps. We all were recruits of "Hrvatski Domobran" (Croatian Home Guard) called into army late 1943. First we had to pass several days training of German parade marching step that is rather hard and difficult. Our small group hadn't been subjected to this training because of our heavy artillery-riding boots in whom we couldn't match the other comrades in short infantry boots.
Now a train full of young expectant officers stopped at Bregana railway station that is on the border between Slovenia and Croatia some 30 km from Zagreb only. Our train stopped between two other ones waiting to continue their journeys early next morning too. Closest to station buildings were wagons full of kerosene in barrels and several fuel-wagons too. At both ends of this train were flat wagons had mounted on "Vierlings" that anti-aircraft automatic four-barrel guns. These AAA-guns were dreaded by low flying aircraft's or attacking infantry and were manned by German soldiers. At other side of our train were ones loaded coal and some other material in open wagons. Meadows stretched beyond of few empty rail tracks at opposite of the station. The night was mild and quite - we left wagon doors open to catch some evening breeze. We didn't have any arms, as rifles would be distributed in Zagreb to those participating in the parade only.
NORTHROP P 61B "Black Widow". Two-tailed aircraft with a flying of range 4500 km with max. speed of 590 km/h and a two-member crew.
Short before midnight and out of nothing machine guns opened fire followed by noisy clanks of "Vierlings". Soon sky became red of burning fuel - barrels flying into air exploding and spraying fire all around. Above all this din commands echoed "Partisan's attack", "Get out of wagons" or "Run for safety". One could hear aircraft flying at low level above the trains too. I jumped out of the wagon, squirmed under nearest one loaded with coal and looked back. The night was ablaze with dancing fires of ignited and exploding kerosene and fuel. Some coal started burning on open wagons too and our train was just amid this horrible inferno.
I scrambled out of my shelter and walked fast towards adjacent meadows. Next I was running for my life as fast as I could in those heavy boots. Suddenly I stumbled incautiously over a rail, lost balance and fell on another rail straight on my chest bone. The impact took out of me all my wits and senses for few long moments. I couldn't breathe or feel anything and just lie prostrate there like rooted. Then I saw tracer bullets of an assaulting aircraft coming straight at me! The noises were paralyzing, flames and sparks everywhere, more explosions and more bullets coming my way. Dear God, I cannot move! Soon I heard calls: "Peggy is hit" ("Peggy" was my nickname) or "Zvonko is dead". Still I couldn't move and no sound would come out of my throat. My lungs were like paralyzed. From somewhere two pals came for me, pulled me up and drew me away over remaining tracks into meadows. They deposited me there and I lied for a while until I got to my breath again. Gradually I could start speaking but with a rather strange croaking voice coming out of my aching chest.
Rest of night I spent sleeping in a barn on freshly smelling hay. At sunrise I extricated myself out of the hay and slowly returned to the station. But what havoc was there! Few coal loads were still smoldering and about half of German fuel train had burned out completely remaining a twisted ruin only. German soldiers were looking after dead comrades in burned out wagons. Never before have I seen a human body being reduced to such a small charred lump. The stench was repulsive and horrid that I would never forget. During the onslaught our train was pulled out of the station. One comrade stirred the locomotive pulling our wagons out of the dangerous neighborhood - fortunately his father taught him how to drive it. Quickly we embarked into wagons and soon were on our way to Zagreb. The parade at Zagreb was cancelled as the officer's trainees looked rather ruffled and dirty being uneasy by night's air raid too. On the arrival to Zagreb I got my travel order and could leave the capital on the first train travelling towards my hometown Osijek.
CONSOLIDATE B 24J "Liberator" with 4 Twin-Wasp-Star engines. Flying range 3360 km with 2260-kg bomb's cargo and 10 to 12-member crew.
Same afternoon we arrived at Slavonski Brod railway station that is half way to Osijek. That day's morning USAF bombarded the station so we had to disembark far out of it. Station buildings got several hits; there were many craters and some fires along tracks of which certain stretches were destroyed or rail twisted. We learned about the first air raid against Osijek on the same morning too. USAF "Liberators" flew regularly to Ploesti (Rumania) important fuel refinery that had strong air-defenses. On the way back to Italy some airplanes would discharge bombs on Osijek or Brod (both towns had smaller refineries and some industries). I expected the refinery destroyed in Osijek and the Lower Town severely damaged too. I wondered what happened to my home situated in Tvrdja (medieval Fortress) that is midway between Osijek's Upper and Lower Town communities?
I reached Osijek in another train boarded at Brod station's other side late afternoon. On my way home I passed several still smoldering and damaged houses. Finally I saw Krezmina Street that trees and houses undamaged. After ringing at doorbell I entered garden's front being expected by a loud barking dog showing of its Doberman's strong teeth. Our dog "Peggy" was obviously irritated by this oddly smelling and dirty looking uniformed man. I was back home after 8 months at last but I'd have to leave it soon again returning to Stockerau and to take part in World War II tragic end several months later.
Teachers' Training School of Osijek at Lower Town almost destroyed during the air raid on June 14, 1944. Dozens of persons were killed in its shelter.
USAF "Flying Fortresses" raided targets in Austria mostly by daylight flying in from airfields in England or later from France. However British airplanes flew night air raids coming from bases in England. I was various places or close to few ones during air raids and bombardments. I was seconded few times to care for horses when air raid sirens started in time of training in Stockerau. We saddled horses fast to ride them out to nearby thickly wooded Danube's backwater channels. For a while we would continue galloping up and down the many paths there but horses had to be returned sweat-dry to the stables. Sometimes we manned machine-gun outposts around barracks and one wondered what could be achieved with light machine-gun fire against high-flying bombers too. The safest place was the communication post in barracks's basement. All such old military buildings had rather thick brick walls. Staying there underground one felt soil tremors when bombs exploded at closer Klosterneuburg or nearer to Vienna Floridsdorf. At both places refineries were targets and we could see black smoke rising at short distance when bombs struck at them.
On my free weekends I went to Vienna visiting performances in Burg Theater or in State Opera House. Often I looked to Prater's entertainment places or visited Hagenbeck's Circus housed on Praterstern Square. On a Sunday morning early autumn 1944 I walked to Schoebrunn Park ascending to "Gloriette" when veiling sirens announced anew air raid alert. I run for cover to nearest trench and I could see bombs falling out of highflying planes. First it looked like a carpet that stretched so one could recognize single bombs as they were closing nearer to ground. At same time heavy anti-aircraft artillery opened fire and soon a "rain" of fragments was falling on the park area. I remember well the thunder of explosions when ground trembled and could seen outburst of fires farther away. After a while blazing hot draughts reached trenches where one took refuge. After alert ceased I scrambled out finding that few grenade scraps caught into my uniform too. Fortunately I wasn't hurt however returned to Stockerau barracks of shaken spirits earlier that it was really needed. On the way to Vienna's Northwest station I passed through few streets where buildings were damaged or destroyed, peoples running around some of them crying or screaming. They were dazed and injured living beings like me.
Russian pursuit aircraft type I 16 called often as "Frog". Single star engine with max. speed of 460 km/h and one-man crew.
The story "Homage to my horse in war" describes probably my most sadly remembrance of an air raid. I was lieutenant-junior seconded to a Howitzer battery that started its retreat from Osijek on April 13, 1945. When passing through Nasice Township next day Russian airplanes attacked Croatian army columns. My riding horse named "Zelenko" run with a stampede and I'd found it far away few hours later. All theankles were broken and my horse was waiting immobile for the mercy relieving it of pains. I had to kill my horse of war - a shock I would never forget.
Email Zvonko Springer at : email@example.com