In the waning days of World War II in Europe, German pilot Sergeant Wilhelm Simonsohn is given his last mission of the war, which involves flying one of the most versatile non-combat airplanes in the German air force, the Fieseler Fi 156 Storch. "Chronicles of Courage: Stories of Wartime and Innovation" is a co-production of Vulcan Productions and NBC Learn.
Chronicles of Courage -- Storch
KATE SNOW, reporting:
Allied troops are closing in on victory during the final days of World War II, after nearly six years of fighting. Berlin is being bombed into submission by the Soviet Union, while American and British troops pursue the last Axis powers in Germany and Austria.
ED HERLIHY (Universal Newsreel): From all sides, Allied might crushes in on the remains of the Wehrmacht, bringing home the horrors of war to the German people as they never experienced it before.
SNOW: German pilot Sergeant Wilhelm Simonsohn feels the end is near.
WILHELM SIMONSOHN (Pilot, German Air Force): The Americans were already in Styria, already in Salzburg, already in Passau.
SNOW: Adolf Hitler, the German Chancellor and leader of the Nazi Party, is dead, having committed suicide in an underground bunker just three days earlier. Knowing the war is lost and that they will likely be charged with war crimes, high-ranking German officers try to escape. At his assigned post in Austria, Simonsohn receives his final order of the war.
SIMONSOHN: On this May 3, our group received a telegram from the air fleet, from Field Marshall Ritter von Greim, the last top commander.
SNOW: Simonsohn is ordered to fly undetected to a pre-determined meeting point to help top Nazi commanders evade capture. He is hand-picked for the mission because of his experience piloting one of the most versatile non-combat airplanes in the German air force, the Fieseler Fi 156 Storch.
SIMONSOHN: I, of all people, there were still a dozen or so of us pilots. All the Fieseler Storch were ordered to go there in order to still fly some famous people somewhere.
SNOW: Orders like this are common throughout the war, with the Germans relying on the Storch for a variety of missions, from reconnaissance to transportation of officers, often important missions requiring a reliable and dedicated pilot.
SIMONSOHN: Every unit had a Fieseler Storch. When the commander had to fly to a meeting, to some higher staff meeting or so, you had a Fieseler Storch along as a courier aircraft.
SNOW: What makes the Storch most valuable for these types of missions is its ability to take off and land in very short distances.
JASON MUSZALA (Flying Heritage Collection): The Fieseler Storch is extremely unique in that it was the first S-T-O-L, which is an acronym for short takeoff and landing.
SNOW: The ability for short takeoffs and landings allows the Storch to access areas that are much more difficult, if not impossible, for other airplanes that need longer runways.
MUSZALA: You can get in and out of extremely small places. You don't need an airport or even a runway, per se. You just need a small meadow to get a Fieseler Storch in and out.
SNOW: The Storch's S-T-O-L, or "STOL", capabilities are due, first and foremost, to its extreme lightweight construction and innovation.
MUSZALA: They were able to achieve that by making a lightweight airframe out of tubing and wood and fabric.
SNOW: The lightweight qualities of the Storch help with something in aeronautics called "loading factor," the ratio of the plane's lift to its weight. The Storch's long wings and light frame give it a loading factor of just ten pounds per square foot, only a fraction of other German planes' loading factors, helping the Storch maintain lift even at very low speeds.
SIMONSOHN: You can keep it up in the air at 55 km/h in the air, and it can fly at a cruising speed of up to 150 km/h.
SNOW: The Storch's unique STOL abilities are made famous in 1943, when one is used to rescue Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini, from a rugged mountaintop compound.
SNOW: For Simonsohn, these same STOL characteristics allow him to carry off his last mission of the war as he takes off for the woods of Austria to help Nazi officers escape. But Simonsohn is determined to save someone else, and brings onboard a desperate stowaway, his wife.
SIMONSOHN: Officially, I wasn't allowed to take her with me. But her bags were in the Storch.
SNOW: Simonsohn and his wife successfully land at the designated meeting point in a small clearing, but further orders never arrive.
SIMONSOHN: That's where I ended the war on my own account.
SNOW: Simonsohn surrenders to the Allies as the war in Europe finally comes to an end. His love of flying is tainted by the harsh realities of war.
SIMONSOHN: But what really saddens me, depresses me, really, is the fact that fulfilling one of mankind's dreams, namely flying, has degenerated into a means of mass extermination.
SNOW: With the defeat of Germany, the Allies turn their attention to the Pacific, and their final fight to victory in World War II.
The story of D-Day, June 6, 1944, has been told many times. Suffice it to say here that Allied General Dwight D. Eisenhower did four things that will distinguish him forever.
"Chronicles of Courage: Stories of Wartime and Innovation", World War II, WWII, Second World War, Fieseler Fi 156 Storch, Storch, Aviation, Aeronautics, Airplanes, Planes, Aircraft, Luftwaffe, Germany, Nazis, Wilhelm Simonsohn, Loading Factor, Adolf Hitler, STOL, Short Takeoff and Landing, Takeoff, Landing, Flight, Flying, Lightweight, Innovation, Load Factor, Benito Mussolini, V-E Day, Victory in Europe, Jason Muszala, Flying Heritage Collection