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A matter of laundry, a Schaetzchen, tandem east wind that blew no good.


By January 1940 the new war in Europe was four months old and not yet universally perceived as a World War II. In America, most called it "The European War." The British and French had declared war with Germany in an effort to save Poland and then did practically nothing to help the Poles; the subsequent lack of activity on Germany's Western Front prompted other Americans to declare it a "Phony War." In France it was often called the drole de guerre--an "odd war." Humorists familiar with the German language referred to it as a Sitzkrieg. A few neutral analysts suspected that the British and French would eventually accept Germany's control of Poland as an accomplished fact and there would be a negotiated peace.

Adolf Hitler, however, had other ideas. As early as September 25, 1939, before Poland's defeat, he remarked on the necessity of an offensive in the West. Two days later he told his generals he wanted to attack as soon as possible, before the French and British became fully prepared, and he set a deadline of November 12. Meanwhile, on October 9 he presented his generals with Fuehrer Directive No. 6, "Plans for Offensive in the West," that ordered the attack . A few days later on October 18 he issued Directive No. 7, which specified "Preparations for Attack in the West."

The No. 6 planning directive expressed fears that Belgium, so far neutral, would soon drift into the Allied camp, and that the long term neutrality of the Netherlands seemed doubtful, so Germany had to act quickly to terminate their neutrality on terms most favorable to the Reich. It described a modest variation of the Schlieffen Plan that the Kaiser's Germany had used to invade France in 1914, violating Belgian neutrality en route. Schlieffen planned a grandiose battle of annihilation that required a swift march through Belgium and an ambitious sweep into France, encircling Paris from the west and smashing the French armies from the rear. Although a classic textbook operation, as executed in 1914 it miscarried.

Except for including the Dutch, Hitler's plans were far more modest. He expected only to put Belgium and the Netherlands in the German bag and seize as much territory as possible in northern France. This in effect would re- establish the territorial lines where the German offensive of 1914 had bogged down and where World War I ended in 1918.

Hitler thought that the occupation of the Netherlands, Belgium and northern France necessary to establish a geographic buffer in which an "early warning" alert system could be created to protect German's heavy industries in the Ruhr from Allied air attacks. Concurrently, this same territory would provide bases on the edge of the English Channel from which German bombers could easily attack Britain.

But many German generals were unhappy with Directive No. 6. The short campaign in Poland had revealed numerous shortcomings in the Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe, especially with logistics. These shortcomings needed to be corrected. They also did not like the prospect of again violating Belgian neutrality; and including the Netherlands seemed wholly unnecessary. It was no secret that the French had no stomach for the war. Anyone could read about the tenuous state of French morale in The New York Times. Given time, a negotiated peace seemed likely and the German generals found this prospect most satisfactory. Any offensive in the West would eliminate this political prospect. Finally, the whole plan proved militarily distasteful because it promised only a trifle more than a restoration of the Western Front of 1914-1918 with its static positional warfare and a probability of another war of attrition.


Planning went forward nevertheless. The operation was designated "Fall Gelb," literally "Case Yellow"; in American lexicon it would be termed "Operation Yellow." The Schwerpunkt, i.e., the concentrated mass of the attack, aimed at the Belgian city of Liege, from here it would divide, one arm sweeping north to encircle Antwerp and the Netherlands, the other driving west to roll up the Channel ports as far as Calais. Airborne troops simultaneously would seize strategic points in the Netherlands. The Wehrmacht generals, however, did not like this division of forces, and for them the Netherlands had always been an unnecessary complication of peripheral interest. So Gelb was revised, eliminating the Netherlands except for the Maastricht Appendix, a small tail of Dutch territory that lay in the path of the Wehrmacht's advance. But the Luftwaffe protested this change; its generals wanted all of the Netherlands for air bases. Hitler intervened and the hapless Dutch were restored to Gelb.

November 12 might be fixed as Angriffstag (Attack Day), but by the first week of November Europe had slipped into one of its most bitter winters on record, and German meteorologists could produce nothing but unfavorable weather forecasts. During November and December the date for Angriffstag was fixed, cancelled, and fixed again--fourteen times. All the while the anxiety, aggravation and a sense of futility generated within the German military by these repetitious alerts and stand-downs grew considerably. Among those in the middle and lower ranks who have to do most of the running in circles, such repeated false alarms inevitably leads to a state of mind in which the operation is deprived of all immediacy and takes on aspects of the surreal.

In the first week of 1940 Angriffstag remained meteorologically elusive, although nominally set for January 17. But if any Feldwebel in the Panzerkorps were asked his opinion of its probability, he likely would have replied: "Only the Russians would be foolish enough to start an offensive in a January like this one!"

And so it came to pass on Tuesday evening January 9, 1940, two Luftwaffe officers were sipping lager and massaging each other's ego in the Officer's Kasino at Loddenheide airfield near the city of Muenster in northwestern Germany. Muenster is about 35 miles from the Dutch frontier. Major Helmuth Reinberger had a problem, and Major Erich Hoenmann, the 52-year-old airfield commander, had nothing else to do but listen. Reinberger, a senior staff member of Luftflotte II responsible for organizing Flieger Division VIFs supply, the elite paratroop unit scheduled to land behind the Belgian lines at Namur on Angriffstag, had to report to its headquarters in Cologne the next day. It was only 80 miles to Cologne, a 90-minute drive. But he could not obtain a staff car and had to take a train. He would be leaving in just over an hour, much to his distress.


In Muenster Major Reinberger had made a comfortable connection with a lovely young lady of versatile charms, a real Schaetzchen. But instead of spending the evening with her this night, he would be on board a train for Cologne. There were morning trains, to be sure, but they arrived in Cologne too late for his meeting. Too bad that staff cars were only for the Herr Obersts and not for mere Majors. So he would be spending the rest of the night on a train and in a hotel in Cologne alone, when he might otherwise be with his Schaetzchen. Thoughts of the cold, empty hours ahead were dispiriting, to say the least.

Major Hoenmann had a solution to Major Reinberger's problem. He was scheduled for some flying time, his wife lived in Cologne, and he had soiled laundry that needed washing. His wife attended to small but necessary things like this. Hoenmann had already filed for a cross-country flight next day and a landing at Cologne was in the flight plan. Reinberger was welcome to come along. They could leave early, be in Cologne within the hour, and Reinberger would have ample time to reach headquarters.

Reinberger thought this a marvelous proposal. But a regulation prohibited staff officers carrying important papers from traveling in airplanes close to Germany's frontiers. It risked being shot down by enemy fighters making a sweep into German airspace, and of the wreck falling on the wrong side of the frontier. Or a pilot might become lost and accidentally land in enemy or neutral territory. Reinberger knew he would be carrying a copy of the Luftwaffe's war plan for the Attack in the West. It included the latest revisions for the assault by airborne troops on the airfields in what the Dutch liked to call "Fortress Holland." This weighty responsibility prompted Reinberger to have second thoughts about the proposal, though he chose not to inform Hoenmann that he would be carrying highly classified records.

But reassurances flowed from Major Hoenmann. There was nothing to the flight. He'd flown between Muenster and Cologne so many times he could do it in his sleep. Whereas other officers jumped on a trolley car to the local Waschfrau; he flew his soiled linen to Cologne. Moreover, from an altitude of only 10,000 feet above Muenster you could practically see Cologne, a sprawling city sited conspicuously on the west bank of the Rhine. And the Rhine is the largest river in Western Europe. You can't miss it! You pick up the river at Duisburg and then follow it right into Cologne. The flight was so short that you barely had the landing gear and flaps up after takeoff than you were putting them down again to land in Cologne--more like calisthenics than flying.

Reinberger's second thoughts of risk dissolved; there was nothing to it, and the flight ensured another night under the eiderdown with his Schaetzchen. He told Hoenmann that he would meet him on the flight line early next morning, and went out into the night in quest of a taxi. Hoenmann returned to his quarters and the familiar drill of assembling and packing dirty clothes.

The half-light of the hesitant wintry dawn of January 10 revealed a low ceiling and leaden sky. Given the weather, Reinberger's second thoughts returned, but it was too late for a train; the flight was the only way to his meeting in Cologne. Hoenmann and Reinberger roared off the runway into the low ceiling for their checkpoint at Duisburg where they would turn at the Rhine for Cologne. Their airplane, a Messerchmitt Bf 108 Taifun, was a small, single-engine, four-seat courier and communications vehicle of 2,990 pounds. The Bf 108 was not only an excellent airplane, it possessed some unique characteristics and pound-for-pound had no performance peers in the world. Its 240 horsepower engine yielded a top speed of 180 mph and it cruised comfortably at 150 mph. With full tanks its range at cruising speed was 620 miles, enough to fly four nonstop circuits between Muenster and Cologne.

The weather wasn't good, but neither was it bad; it involved the stuff of a typical North European winter charged with damp, bone-chilling cold and lots of heavy clouds. But this day found stiff winds aloft blowing in from the Baltic, east to west across Northern Germany toward the Atlantic. On this point it seems unlikely that Hoenmann checked weather reports before preflighting his airplane. In flying over his too familiar "calisthenics route" there seemed no need. It is the old story of familiarity, contempt, and of most accidents occurring nearby to home. This day, however, there was no way anyone at even 20,000 feet could see Cologne from Muenster. Indeed, even Duisburg 50 miles away was obscured from view. Hoenmann climbed above the cloud cover and turned to a compass heading of 200 degrees for Duisburg and their interception with the Rhine. Cruising at 150 mph they would be over the city in 20 minutes.


What the two majors discussed during their flight is not a matter of record. Perhaps it was of Schaetzchen they had known, or maybe they talked about the problem of button attrition in Waschfraus. In the event, however, they should have been talking about the intensity of the winds aloft because they had a wild one on their tail that almost doubled their ground speed.

At the appointed time Hoenmann spiraled down through the cloud cover in quest of Duisburg: the city was nowhere in sight. Nor was the Rhine! Now sweating profusely, they found a river but it flowed northeast whereas the Rhine flowed northwest. It was the Meuse, but by the time they had that figured out, the subject had long since become academic. They were lost and everything had gone terribly wrong. Although lost in a small area, in this part of Europe a few miles can make a world of difference. Were they still over Germany? Or had they wandered into Dutch airspace?

Had he turned to a compass heading of 90-degrees and held it for 15 minutes, Hoenmann would have regained German airspace. Before he could make a decision, however, his engine began losing power, most likely owed to carburetor icing. Whatever the cause, it dictated a forced landing.

Hoenmann brought his little airplane to a deadstick landing in a pasture. One pasture looks like another and they still had no idea where they were. Then some soldiers on bicycles appeared, and they were not wearing German uniforms. Worse, the soldiers hailed the German airmen in French! Reinberger hastily opened his briefcase, pulled out the thick sheaves of Gelb papers and, with his cigarette lighter, made a futile attempt to bum them. The soldiers disarmed the two German airmen, made Reinberger surrender his documents, and confiscated the lighter.


By this time the German majors recognized the soldiers as Belgian. Not as bad as if they had been French, but altogether bad enough. But how had they ever flown to Belgium? They had landed near the village of Mechelensur-Meuse, which is 110 miles from Muenster and 55 miles west of Cologne. The undetected tail wind had caused them to overfly their checkpoint at Duisburg by more than seventy miles. En route, they had also violated Dutch airspace overflying the Maastricht Appendix. That, however, was now among the very least of their worries.

The Belgian soldiers escorted the Germans to a local headquarters presided over by a Major Arthur Rodriques. All of the chilled participants were glad to get inside where a large, iron pot-bellied stove radiated welcome heat. Rodriques interrogated the Germans in a polite way as best he could, simply to establish basic information; meanwhile, his staff notified authorities in Brussels of the Germans' unexpected visit.

The soldiers gave Major Rodriques the bundle of fateful military materials related to Gelb, which he placed on his desktop. In the course of their interrogation, Reinberger suddenly lunged forward and seized the Gelb documents. Rushing to the stove, he opened its door, threw the documents into the fire, slammed the door shut, and turned to defend his incinerator against interference.

Major Rodriques jumped to his feet and rushed to the stove while soldiers wrestled Reinberger out of the way. The major opened the stove's door, reached into the fire with his bare hand, snatched out the documents and beat away the fire. The Gelb materials and Major Rodrique's hand were somewhat the worse for the experience, but he had saved the documents. Although heavily charred on their edges, their substance on most of the pages remained quite legible.

Next day the German officers and Gelb documents were delivered to Brussels where the former were put in touch with their embassy and its military attache, while the Belgian high command received the latter. Belgian officials at first suspected the materials to be a plant. To what purpose they could not explain. A German attempt to plant such an overt threat by way of misinformation simply defied logic. Instead of reinforcing Belgian neutrality, the Gelb documents seemed more likely to drive the Belgians into the arms of the French and British.

What about Reinberger's attempt to destroy them. If the materials were supposed to be "accepted" by the Belgians, why would he do this? And what if Major Rodriques had been possessed of less audacity and failed to retrieve them from the fire? Then the German effort to plant misinformation would have been for naught. What is more, after the Belgians brought Reinberger and the attache together at military headquarters they had the wit to conceal microphones in the room used by the Germans and heard an overwrought Reinberger repeatedly assure the attache that the documents had been burned badly enough to make them unreadable. By means of a telephone tap the Belgians heard the attache subsequently inform his superiors in Berlin to that effect. The Belgians knew this was not true. There was no reason for Reinberger to lie except to conceal his personal, disastrous blunder.

News of the Hoenmann-Reinberger Gleb fiasco hit Berlin like a bomb. Reichsmarshall Herman Goring, the sybaritic chief of the Luftwaffe, flew into a rage and sacked Generalmajor Hellmuth Felm and his chief of staff Colonel Josef Kammhuber of Luftflotte II, to whose staff Major Reinberger had been attached--as if these two senior officers could have anything to do with the major's private foibles. Most of the Wehrmacht's High Command of the Armed Forces Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, or OKW) was thrown into a quandary, but a few elements that did not like the plan were relieved to have Gelb compromised. Withal, the Brussels attache's claim that the Gelb documents had been successfully destroyed was received with mixed feelings. As an elementary precaution, everything related to the operation was put on "Hold."


If any doubts remained about the attack in the West being compromised, the Belgian Foreign Minister dispelled them on January 17--the Angriffstag date now cancelled-- when he summoned the German ambassador to his office and read him the riot act about "unfriendly" German war plans directed toward Belgium, quoting chapter and verse from Fall Gelb. Clearly, Fall Gelb of Fuehrer directives Nos. 6 and 7 had been "blown" and German plans for an attack on the West had to be changed. Fortuitously, an alternative plan existed.

General der Infanterie Erich von Manstein had always regarded the original Gelb as a dreadful package of half-measures that promised inadequate results. Moreover, he suspected that the Anglo-French military were preparing to defend themselves against something like Gelb. Put in their place, it was just what he would anticipate. On this point his instincts were absolutely correct. But Manstein's critique found few listeners that agreed.

Back in October 1939, Manstein thought he had found a weak spot in the French defenses where they faced the Belgian region of the Ardennes. Heavily forested and possessed of few good roads, the French had left it lightly fortified and had placed its defenses in the hands of second rate troops. Manstein believed a massive armored spearhead followed by mechanized infantry could break out of this forested region onto the plain of northern France where it could roll up the Anglo-French forces poised along the frontier with Belgium. Or, if the Anglo-French armies left their positions and moved north to reinforce the Belgians against a German attack similar to that described in the original Gelb, then the German armor could sweep in behind them, drive to the English Channel, cut off the Allied armies from their logistics in France and leave them trapped in Belgium.

It took three months and a couple of war games for Manstein to complete this plan. The German OKW, however, found it too radical and risky. But after the Hoenmann-Reinberger Affair in January it slowly began to be received as an increasingly practicable alternative. On February 18, 1940, Manstein managed to sell it to Hitler himself, which resulted in Fuehrer Directive No. 10 for a radically revised Gelb: "Concentration of Forces for 'Undertaking Yellow.'"

In the predawn of May 10 German Panzer division stormed out of the Ardennes onto the northern plain of France, reaching the English Channel with success that exceeded Manstein's most optimistic estimates. The Anglo-French armies were trapped in Belgium, although most of the British forces managed to escape by sea via Dunkerque. On June 17 France sued for an armistice, and on June 22 Hitler's Germany held sway over Europe from the River Bug in Poland to the Pyrenees on Spain's frontier.

It is doubtful whether events would have unfolded in this manner had there been a quarrel between Major Reinberger and his Schaetzchen earlier on January 9; or had Frau Hoenmann refused to wash her husband's laundry and told him to find a Waschfrau in Muenster; or had Major Hoenmann really known of the sharp winds aloft blowing across Europe from the Baltic on the morning of January 10, 1940.



The Third Reich tried Erich Hoenmann and Helmuth Reinberger in absentia and condemned them to death for violating the regulation that prohibited transporting classified documents by plane without explicit authorization. The verdicts would not be executed. The Allies evacuated both men in 1940, first to Britain and then to Canada. Hoenmann's wife did not survive interrogation by the Gestapo; his two sons, allowed to serve in the army, were killed in action during the war. On returning to Germany afterward, Reinberger and Hoenmann received pardons. ?


Belgium: The Official Account of what Happened, 1939-1940. London: The Belgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 1941.110 pp.

Benoist-Mechin, Jacques. Sixty Days that Shook the West: The Fall of France, 1940. New York: Putnam, 1963. 559 pp.

Churchill, Winston S. The Second World War: The Gathering Storm, Vol. I. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1948. 784 pp.

Cooper, Matthew. The German Army, 1933-1945. New York: Stein & Day, 1978. 598 pp.

Manvell, Roger, and Heinrich Fraenkel, Goering. New York: Simon &U Schuster, 1962, 442 pp.

Smith, J. R. and Antony Kay. German Aircraft of the Second World War. London: Pustnam, 1972. 745 pp.

Trevor-Roper, H. R., (Ed.) Hitler's War Directives, 1939-1945. London: Sidgwick & Jackson Ltd, 1964. 319 pp. Blitzkrieg to Defeat: Hitler's War Directives, 1939-1945. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1964. 231 pp.

Vanwelkenhuyzen, Jean. "L'alerte de 10 Janvier 1940." Revue de histoire de la Deuxime Guerre Mondiale, No. 12 (October 1953), pp. 33-54.

World Almanac and Book of Facts, 1940. New York: The New York World-Telegram, 1940. 960 pp.

Wikipedia, Mechelen Incident: https://en.wikipedia. org/wiki/Mechelen_incident

Wikipedia, Mechelen Incident, World History Project: 1/10/the-mechelen-incident

Achtung, Skyhawk! 2012/09/21/rare-aircraft-messerschmitt-bf-108-taifunrewrite/


Editor's Note: Von Hardesty and Cargill Hall furnished this chapter from an unpublished manuscript by Richard K. Smith, Flights That Changed History. Regrettably, unless it exists in the Smith collection at the Auburn University Archive, the manuscript is lost. This is the first of two draft chapters that Smith shared with his colleagues. Cargill Hall and Wolfgang Samuel edited this chapter, Samuel for German usage and Hall adding additional details now available. For those of you unfamiliar with Dick Smith (1929-2003) and his seminal contributions to the history of aeronautics, let me say that this maritime engineer and graduate of the University of Chicago overturned the cherished paradigm of a "DC aeronautical revolution" that occurred in the 1930s. This he managed with a study that turned on airplane weights: "The Intercontinental Airliner and the Essence of Airplane Performance, 1929-1939." At first rejected for publication by the Society for the History of Technology, Tom Crouch of NASM intervened and explained to its reviewers just what Smith had wrought. The study subsequently appeared in Technology and Culture, Vol. 24, No. 3, July 1983. For those wanting to know more about this remarkable historian, see "Richard K. Smith, An Appreciation," which appeared in the summer 2004 issue of Air Power History.
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Author:Smith, Richard K.
Publication:Air Power History
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Date:Jun 22, 2016
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