Arriving at the Nebelsee, literally ‘The Lake of Fog’, we discovered that the body of water truly lives up to its name. The long and meandering waters that sit on the border between Brandenburg and Mecklenburg were shrouded in an early-morning mist. Hidden among the haze and forestland on the lake’s southwest bank, we found an inconspicuous grave bearing the name ‘Walter Starbati’. It reportedly belongs to a man that took part in a Nazi project to create their very own kamikaze unit - by manning live bombs with pilots. The project never fully took off, but Starbati was one of the few men to pilot a Fieseler Fi 103R ‘flying bomb’ - better known by its propaganda name, the V-1. He was reportedly killed when the flying bomb he was test-piloting crashed at the end of World War II. But why was he buried at Nebelsee? And how did a German pilot end up sitting on top of a bomb?
In the spring of 1944, the Nazis started to think a method for so-called military "self-sacrifice" similar to that employed by their Japanese allies. The quickest solution was to fill the previously unmanned V1, essentially a cruise missile, with a pilot.
Pilot Staff Engineer Heinz Kensche was commissioned to manage the technical preparations. During a meeting of the Aviation Research Academy (Luftfahrt-Forschungsakademie) on 27 March 1944, the engineer described the technical development of a manned glide bomb. Two months later, Robert Lusser - the technical director of the aircraft manufacturer Fieseler Flugzeug-Werke - was commissioned to adapt the Fi 103 to accommodate a pilot.
The contract for the machine was awarded to the transport manufacturer Henschel-Flugzeugwerke, located in the area of Berlin-Schönefeld. Captain Dipl.-Ing. Fiedler, design engineer and works pilot at Fieseler, was brought in to oversee the management of the project. His development group was called "Segelflug Reichenberg GmbH", and on taking up the project, they settled in the Henschel Flugzeug-Werke in Schönefeld.
The first prototype of a manned Fi 103 was the Re 1, referencing the presiding company’s name. It was launched at the end of August 1944 from a Heinkel He 111 bomber at the Rechlin-Lärz Air Force Research Station.
It was necessary for the aircraft to drop the bomb from a great altitude. Before the weapon was equipped with a pilot seat, the Fi 103 was trialled as a remote-controlled projectile at the Peenemünde-West test site. Now that the flying bomb was manned, the site was moved to the Rechlin-Lärz testing station, just a few kilometres from the misty waters of Nebelsee.
Although the identity of the first man to pilot the prototype has never been confirmed, it’s likely that his name was Willy Fiedler. His plane had no engine: it flew as a glider. During the first trial, the aircraft reportedly spent six minutes in the air before landing smoothly. The second flight of the day, this time with manned by Rechlin test pilot Rudolf Ziegler, wasn’t as successful. The plane was destroyed during landing and Ziegler was seriously injured.
The next two prototypes, the Re 2 and 3, were also tested by Rechlin pilots, and this time they had engines. The Re 3 was equipped both with and without a pilot and designed for a two-person crew. There were some considerable differences between the Re 1, the first prototype, and the Re 4. Under the command of Werner Baumbach of Combat Wing 200, a small unit of Reichenberg pilots were trained to man the machines, but they were never sent on a frontline mission.
The owner of the grave we found at Nebelsee, Walter Starbati, had been detached to Rechlin-Lärz to carry out aeronautical testing as a single pilot for the Reichenberg project. Prior to that, he was chief pilot of Zeppelin-Werke airship construction in Friedrichshafen, where he was involved in the development of the enormous transport aircraft, the Messerschmitt Me 323 "Gigant".
(Source: Hans-Peter Dabrowski)
There are records showing that when Starbati died, he was aboard a Re 3, serial number 10 and R 4-10. He was killed during a training flight on March 5, 1945, after the two wings of the Reichenberg came loose and fell off the aircraft. It was written up as a "crash after the loosening of wing panelling". The accident report describes the deadly event with dispassionate words:
"The Reichenberg Re 3 plane with shortened wings was at 16.58 o'clock in the ascent of about 2,800m height after a normal take-off. The speed was between 400 and 500 km/h. During a weak left turn, both wings broke off, one after the other... The aircraft went into an almost vertical fall while the engine was running, without the pilot unsuccessfully trying to leave the aircraft after dropping from the side fairing..."
The accident was one of the reasons why the development of the manned flying bomb and the unit set to fly them were both disbanded. In the war diary of an official aircraft development group of the TLR on March 15, 1945, there is a note: "After the last accident, at the suggestion of Fi-E, KG 200 and the management staff will refrain from further work on the Re-So aircraft.” And so they did, and the project was never fully realised.
Grave of Walter Starbati at Nebelsee
And if you want further evidence of how a pilot fell into the Nebelsee aboard a V-1 bomb, the wreck remains are still at the bottom of the lake for all to find.
Heinrich Beauvais/Karl Kössler/Max Mayer/Christoph Regel, „Die deutsche Luftfahrt – Flugerprobungsstellen bis 1945“, S. 135f.
Horst Materna, Die Geschichte der Hentschel Flugzeugwerke in Schönefeld bei Berlin 1933 – 1945, Verlag, Rockstuhl, S. 272.