Prince Heinrich Zu Sayn-Wittgenstein was born in Copenhagen, Denmark, on August 14, 1916, the descendant of a Russian field marshal and the son of a German diplomat. Prince Heinrich was an arrogant, highly intense, deeply patriotic, and extremely abrasive and ambitious young aristocrat.
Military service was a tradition with his family, and he cared for very little other than personal glory and serving his country. His strong and humorless sense of self-discipline led him to demand the highest standards of himself and his men. He was respected, but certainly not loved, by his contemporaries. To his girlfriend, a White Russian émigrée, however, he showed an entirely different side of his personality. Initially an enthusiastic Hitler Youth, he was profoundly disappointed with Hitler and the Nazis. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he was sensitive to what was happening to Germany and, in 1943, even discussed personally assassinating Hitler when he received his next decoration, because he had access to the Fuehrer and considered himself expendable. Unfortunately, he would receive that decoration posthumously.
Wittgenstein (as he called himself) entered the Luftwaffe about the time Hitler declared its existence in 1935. He began his combat career flying bombers in 1939 and took part in the Battle of Britain as a captain in 1940. After more than 150 missions as a bomber pilot, he transferred to the night fighters in August 1941. (Prince Heinrich flew the Ju-88 bomber, an aircraft that was being used extensively as a night fighter in 1941.) In his new role, the prince proved to be a courageous warrior and an excellent air-to-air marksman with a sixth sense for danger. By 1943, he was Germany’s leading night fighting ace. He also proved to be a highly competitive and envious young man; his wing commander, for example, had a difficult time making him take leave or go to Rastenburg to receive a decoration from the Fuehrer, because Captain Prince zu Sayn-Wittgenstein was afraid that Helmut Lent or Werner Streib might exceed his night kill total during his absence.
Prince Heinrich was too concerned with his own personal victory totals to be a good junior commander; nevertheless, he was successively promoted to squadron leader (in the 2nd Night Fighter Wing [NJG 2]), group commander (I/NJG 100), and wing commander of NJG 2. In late 1942, he was sent to Russia to help devise tactics against Red Air Force night attacks. Here he commanded one of the first “Dark Trains”—self-contained air units that could be moved by rail to various sectors of the front and deployed rapidly on dirt fields, allowing the German pilots to surprise their Soviet counterparts on successive nights and to inflict heavy casualties on them. Sayn-Wittgenstein personally shot down 29 Soviet airplanes using these deployment tactics, including three in 15 minutes.
Sent back to the Western Front in 1943, he celebrated New Year’s Day 1944 by shooting down six RAF heavy bombers. On January 21, 1944, Prince Heinrich (now a major) attacked a large formation of British bombers over Schoenhausen and shot down five of them. As the last bomber exploded, a Mosquito fighter (flying escort for the bombers) spotted him in the flames of the dying bomber and shot him down. Two members of his crew managed to bail out, but not Sayn-Wittgenstein. At the time of his death, Prince Heinrich zu Sayn-Wittgenstein had 83 victories—all at night. Fifty-four of these were scored against the British, and most of these were four-engine bombers. On January 23 he was posthumously awarded the Swords to his Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves. Initially buried in the cemetery at Deelen Air Base, he was later reinterred at the Prince Egmont zur Lippe-Weissenfeld Cemetery at Ysselsteyn, the Netherlands.