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ASN Wikibase Occurrence # 202915
Last updated: 12 October 2020
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Date:13-DEC-1941
Time:
Type:Silhouette image of generic ME09 model; specific model in this crash may look slightly different
Messerschmitt Bf 109F-4/Trop
Owner/operator:1./JG 27 Luftwaffe
Registration: 8477
C/n / msn:
Fatalities:Fatalities: 0 / Occupants: 1
Aircraft damage: Written off (damaged beyond repair)
Location:near Tobruk -   Libya
Phase: Combat
Nature:Military
Departure airport:
Destination airport:
Narrative:
On 13 December 1941 Sqn Ldr Tristram B de la Poer Beresford and Sqn Ldr D R Walker, the commanding officers of 94 and 260 Sqn respectively, flew to El Adem for a briefing. As they took off to return they were jumped by two Bf 109s while flying at 50 ft; between them, they fired at one of the German fighters which had overshot, hitting it from extremely long range which nonetheless caused it to force-land near Tobruk. It was the Bf 109 F-4/Trop WNr 8477 flown by Ofw Albert Espenlaub of 1./JG 27 who since his arrival in North Africa had claimed 14 victories.

Albert Espenlaub was born on 25 August 1913 in Balzholt, today part of Beuren, in Baden Wurttemberg, about 40 km south of Stuttgart. The Espenlaub family was already connected with aviation and, indeed, Albert’s older brother, Gottlob, born 13 years earlier, had grown up with a fascination for aeronautics which, in 1919, resulted in him being involved in the first of the R6hn glider trials on the Wasserkuppe. Later, Gottlob began building his own aircraft and gained world-wide fame in aviation circles for various feats which included making the first flight in a rocket-powered aircraft. Eventually, Gottlob launched his own company, EspenlaubFlugzeugbau which, after a modest beginning, quickly grew with premises successively located in Kassel, Goslar and later in Diisseldorf where the company was then completing aircraft at the rate of one per day. In 1939, the company moved to Wuppertal but, with the outbreak of war and the construction of private aircraft becoming more difficult, EspenlaubFlugzeugbau was engaged in the repair of ]u 87s and various fighter aircraft. Later, branches of the company were created at Riga in Latvia, and at Reval in Estonia, by which time the company employed about 3,000 workers.

To the great disappointment of Gottlob, who offered his brother a good position in his company, Albert was determined to become a Jagdflieger and entered the Wehrmacht in 1937. With his flying-training completed, at the end of 1940 Albert Espenlaub was transferred as an Unteroffizier to I./JG27, then under the command of Oblt. Wolfgang Redlich. Espenlaub claimed his first victory, a Hurricane near Tobruk, on 21 April 1941, the second day his Staffel was in action in North Africa. In spite of his outstanding abilities as a pilot, he claimed no more victories until November. By 15 November, he had made three claims and on that day claimed his fourth, again a Hurricane, and ended the month with a total of 12 victories including three’on the 23rd. On 7 December he shot down a P-40 and on the 11th, a Blenheim. This was to be his last victory for, two days later, he was himself shot down.

His Staffelfuhrer, Oblt. Hugo Schneider, described what happened in the following letter, addressed to Espenlaub family, and dated 1 January 1942:
"We had a fight with English Hurricanes over enemy territory. Your son, who had already claimed 14 victories, dived too soon towards one enemy aircraft and received hits in the cooling system of his aircraft’s engine. His comrades immediately drew the attention of the English on themselves in order to allow Albert and his damaged aircraft to leave the danger area and find protection in the clouds. He was last seen flying into such a cloud.
After a hit in the cooling system, the engine only runs five more minutes, after which one must land. I am certain that Albert made an emergency landing and was taken prisoner by the English who always treat captured airmen correctly and fairly. However, we are waiting for confirmation of this and although there is still a chance that he might be able to reach our lines and return to his unit, for the time being we must consider him missing in action. Should we receive any information from the English, I will inform you immediately. I am sorry that Albert is no longer with the Staffel, not only because he was our best fighter pilot, but also because I felt very close to him as a personal friend who taught me a lot."

In fact, Hugo Schneider was correct in believing that his friend was alive and in captivity, although he was probably never certain of this as he was himself killed in combat with a P-40 on 11 January. The same day, Ofw. Albert Espenlaub wrote his parents a one-page letter from Cage No. 14, Prisoner of War Camp No. 321, which induded the following lines:
"Dear Parents!
By now, the reason for my long silence will be clear to you. On 13 December I had to make a belly-landing and I am now a prisoner of the English. My health is pretty good and I hope that this is also the case with you. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to be home for Christmas as I had hoped and I must say how sorry I was about this."

In due course, the Espenlaub family received another letter, this time from the German Red Cross, which read:
’[. ..] Via the Spanish consul in Jerusalem and the Spanish Foreign Ministry, which contacted the German Embassy in Madrid, we have learned that a representative of the British armed forces has advised the Spanish authorities that in the early morning of 25 February 1942, Oberfeldwebel Albert Espenlaub was shot by guards while attempting to escape from a PoW camp. One shot was fired which killed him instantly. [. . .j’

Also in the PoW camp at that time was Otto Berchner, one of Albert Espenlaub’s contemporaries who had flown with 7./ZG 26 and who knew Espenlaub. Berchner was later transferred to Canada in August 1942 and, many years after the war, he visited cemetery near the camp and discovered Espenlaub’s grave. He recalled:
"In early 1942, there were about 25-30 officers an equivalent number of other ranks in the camp situated about 12 km from Jerusalem. Most of the Pow’s were members of the Afrika Korps but there were also, like me, members of the Luftwaffe who had been shot down and captured. The morale among us prisoners varied greatly. There were those who realised that the Allies outnumbered the Afrika Korps and no longer believed in a German victory. On the other hand, there were several others who still wanted to fight again, and it was not unusual to hear men discussing the possibility of escaping and reaching our lines. Personally, I never heard Espenlaub speak about his plans, but during the night of 24-25 February, while we were asleep he slipped out of our barracks and succeeded in getting over the first barbed-wire but, as he was attempting to get over the second one, he was discovered by a guard who opened fire. We were awoken by the sound of the shot and saw the tragic scene. Later; we were told that the guard responsible - a jew - had been court-martialled. Espenlaub was not the only German shot in this camp and I can recall at least two others."

As a final postscript, it should be mentioned that although Espenlaub was probably not aware of it, in Germany a young woman was expecting his child. Whether knowledge of this would have deterred him from risking his life in his escape attempt or made him even more determined to return is not known, but in due course the woman gave birth to a son, whom she named Albert, after his father. He lives today in Australia.

A number of sources say Espenlaub was killed while trying to escape on the day he was shot down, but this is wrong.

Sources:

"A history of the Mediterranean Air War 1940-1945. Volume One: North Africa June 1940 - January 1942", by Christopher Shores and Giovanni Massimello with Russel Guest. ISBN 978-1-908117-07-6
[LINK NOT WORKING ANYMORE:http://www.adlerhorst-hangar.com/friedrich-48.html] (no more online)
“Osprey Aviation Elite Units 12: Jagdgeschwader 27 ’Afrika’", by John Weal. ISBN 1-84176-538-4 (picture of the downed Bf 109 page 74)
http://www.rafcommands.com/archive/00013.php
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tobruk
http://www.maplandia.com/libya/tubruq-tobruk/tobruk/


Related books:

Revision history:

Date/timeContributorUpdates
13-Dec-2017 18:06 Laurent Rizzotti Added
12-Mar-2020 13:45 DG333 Updated [Operator, Operator]

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