By: Warren Gray

Copyright © 2023

“Heinz-Wolfgang Schnaufer’s name was one of those known in history, and for incredible reasons. The young pilot had two remarkable records…in (May) 1944…he shot down five aircraft…in a span of 15 minutes…taking five bombers out of the sky at the rate of one every three minutes. The other one occurred on February 21, 1945. He managed to down nine Lancasters, seven of which were

 in a span of 19 minutes of carnage. The first two…in the morning, and then…By 20:44, he began his spree, taking down the enemy aircraft one by one. By 21:03, he had downed seven enemy aircraft (plus an unconfirmed eighth at 21:10 hrs.)”

— SOFREP article, June 13, 2022

Major Heinz-Wolfgang Schnaufer of Germany, age 23 at the end of the war, was the undisputed, top-scoring, night-fighter ace of all time, with 121 confirmed kills in just 164 combat missions, mostly against British, four-engine bombers over Belgium, the Netherlands, and western Germany. He operated primarily from Sint-Truiden Air Base, or Saint-Trond in the French pronunciation, in occupied Belgium, beginning in 1942, and became so feared and deadly that the British bomber crews nicknamed him “The Night Ghost of Saint-Trond,” or “The Spook of Saint-Trond.”

His Messerschmitt Bf 110G-4 Zerstörer (“Destroyer) night-fighter aircraft held a three-man crew: pilot, radio/radar operator, and rear gunner, and he and his crew were so successful that they were the only Luftwaffe (German Air Force) night-fighter team in which all crew members had earned and wore the highly-prestigious Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross, equivalent to the U.S. Distinguished Service Cross (DSC) at its most basic level, with subsequent awards each equal to the U.S. Medal of Honor. Schnaufer himself earned the Knight’s Cross with Oakleaves, Swords and Diamonds, the German equivalent of one DSC and three Medals of Honor!

Major Heinz-Wolfgang Schnaufer, wearing the Knight’s Cross with Oakleaves, Swords, and Diamonds, October 1944. Photo credit: German Luftwaffe

Schnaufer attended the 1st Night-Fighter School at Schleißheim, near Munich, where his training focused on night takeoffs and landings, cooperation with searchlights, radio-beacon direction-finding, and cross-country flights. He learned to fly the Messerschmitt Bf 110E-2 twin-engine night fighter, painted all black, and shot down a British Halifax II bomber over Belgium on June 2, 1942, on his very first combat mission, but his plane was hit by enemy gunfire, and he was wounded in the leg.

For this first victory, he was awarded the Iron Cross, Second Class, and the Wound Badge in Black. Schnaufer was a novice pilot, and perhaps overzealous about his first attack, but being almost shot down and wounded in the process taught him a valuable lesson about using patience and the cover of darkness to his advantage.

Most of his early flights used ground-controlled interception (GCI), with large, German radars on the ground tracking enemy bomber formations, and guiding their night fighters by radio. But the advent of the Messerschmitt Bf 110G-4 night fighter added nose-mounted, airborne radar to the equation, with each Bf 110G-4 equipped with its own FuG 220b Lichtenstein SN-2 short-range, air intercept radar, with a maximum range of about three miles. Most G-4 models also received mottled, cloud-camouflage paint schemes, which actually proved more effective than solid black paint at night.

The Bf 110G-4 Zerstörer night fighter was powered by twin Daimler-Benz DB 605B V-12 piston engines, each generating 1,475 horsepower, and cruised at 304 miles per hour. Its armament included two forward-firing, 7.92mm MG 17 machine guns and two 20x80mm MG FF/M cannon in the nose, with a rear-firing, twin-barrel 7.92mm MG 81Z machine gun. The 20mm cannon were fairly weak, with low muzzle velocity (2,000 fps) and a low rate of fire (nine rounds per second), fed by 60-round, drum magazines, which were reloaded through the cockpit floor by the radio/radar operator. However, they were still brutally effective at close range.

This armament combination was often supplemented with an optional, Schräge Musik installation, a German colloquialism meaning “slanting music” or “oblique music,” and often translated as “Jazz Music.” Schräge Musik in the Bf 110G-4 normally consisted of a pair of upward-firing, 20x80mm MG FF/M cannon at an angle of 60 to 75 degrees, with the two guns mounted in the rear cockpit area, firing upward through twin, overhead holes in the canopy’s plexiglass.

The rear gunner’s machine gun was removed, and his new job was to reload the ammo drums for the Schräge Musik guns. This system was first used operationally on the night of August 17-18, 1943, during Operation Hydra, the first Allied bombing of Peenemünde, downing 40 British and Canadian bombers, and producing devastating results. It took the Allies several months to realize that upward-firing guns were in use.

However, the use of Schräge Musik required high-precision timing, firing for only a second or two, and swift evasion, since a badly damaged British bomber could rapidly shed debris, or even fall on the attacking Messerschmitt if the German pilot didn’t quickly bank away.

Major Schnaufer flew several different Bf 110G-4 aircraft, both with and without the Schräge Musik system, and was estimated to have scored 20 to 30 of his 121 aerial victories with the upward-firing guns. His most successful use of Schräge Musik occurred on the night of February 21, 1945, when he shot down seven British Lancaster heavy bombers in only 19 minutes.

As his night combat skills built, Schnaufer favored opening fire at very close range, and his crew amassed an impressive string of multiple aerial kills, including three on the night of August 1, 1942 (his second, third, and fourth kills), three more on May 30, 1943, three on June 29, 1943, four on December 16, 1943, three on February 15, 1944, three on March 25, four on April 25, three on May 13, five on May 25, three on June 13, four on June 22, three on July 29, four on August 13, four on September 23, three on November 6, seven more on February 21, 1945, and three on March 7, 1945.

Messerschmitt Bf 110G-4 night fighter equipped with Liechtenstein radar and a twin, 20mm cannon ventral gun pod for additional firepower. Photo credit:

Some Bf 110G-4 night fighters were equipped with an additional ventral pod holding two more 20mm MG FF/M cannon for extra firepower, although it is not known if Schnaufer ever flew such modified aircraft.

Second Lieutenant H.-W. Schnaufer in his Bf 110E-2 cockpit, June 1942. Photo credits: German Luftwaffe

First Lieutenant Schnaufer wearing the Knight’s Cross after 42 kills, December 1943. Photo credits: German Luftwaffe

As Schnaufer rapidly rose up through the ranks, he became group commander for IV Group, Night-Fighter Wing 1 (IV./NJG1) on March 1, 1944, as a first lieutenant and soon a captain, having already earned the Knight’s Cross after 42 aerial kills. On October 16, 1944, one week after achieving his 100th aerial victory, he was appointed wing commander of Night-Fighter Wing 4 (NJG 4) at Gütersloh, as a major. He also earned the Diamonds award for his Knights Cross with Oakleaves and Swords, equal to a third U.S. Medal of Honor!

Schnaufer became the leading night-fighter pilot on November 9, 1944, surpassing Colonel Helmut Lent’s record of 102 night-time victories, after Lent, a Ju-88G-6 pilot, age 26, was killed in action the previous month while landing on a cratered runway at Paderborn, striking high-voltage cables and crashing.

On March 7/8, 1945, Schnaufer shot down three more British bombers, attaining victories 119 to 121, his last of the war. He was then taken off combat status and tasked with evaluating the then-new Dornier Do 335A-5/A-6 Pfeil (“Arrow”) twin-engine, heavy fighter for its suitability as night fighter. Disobeying his ban from combat flying, he flew his last mission of the war on April 9, 1945, chasing a Lancaster from Faßberg Air Base, but he landed after 79 minutes without success.

The left tail fin of Schnaufer’s Bf 110G-4/U-8 night fighter, with 121 kill markings. Photo credit: Imperial War Museum, 2010

Major Heinz-Wolfgang Schnaufer was taken prisoner by the British Army in May 1945, and was transported to England for interrogation, and released in early 1946. After the war he took over his family’s business, Schnaufer’s Castle Mountain Winery, in Calw, and was involved in a vehicle accident just south of Bordeaux, France, on July 13, 1950, during a wine-purchasing visit.

His Mercedes-Benz 170S Cabriolet convertible was struck by a Renault 22 truck, and he suffered a fractured skull, and died in the local French hospital two days later, at the young age of 28. Schnaufer was a German national hero, whose legendary exploits have never been equaled in the history of warfare.

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Author (on left) with F-4E Phantom II jet fighter in Spain, 1985 (Photo by author).

Warren Gray is a retired U.S. Air Force intelligence officer with experience in joint special operations and counterterrorism. He served with three fighter squadrons in Europe (and visited Saint-Trond Air Base for three days during a NATO exercise) and the Middle East (two F-4E Phantom II squadrons in Germany, and one F-117A Nighthawk stealth fighter squadron in Saudi Arabia), earned Air Force and Navy parachutist wings, and four college degrees, including a Master of Aeronautical Science degree, and was a distinguished graduate of the Air Force Intelligence Operations Specialist Course, and the USAF Combat Targeting School. He is currently a published author and historian.