MOMBASA, KENYA — MOMBASA, Kenya -- It's high noon, and the aroma of steaks on a charcoal grill wafts through the heavy air from a remote corner of a makeshift airfield here.
A high-protein meal for some Somalian refugees? No. It's the German Luftwaffe getting ready for lunch.
"Whenever we go out of the country, we eat steaks and, how do you call it, surf and turf," says Air Force Lt. Andreas Block, savoring every bit of his meal.
The young, blond lieutenant of classic German looks, and his 45 fellow airmen of Air Transport Wing 63, based in Hohn, Germany, also have brought along a set of porcelain dinnerware, stainless steel coolers to keep their fruit juices well chilled and cases of German beer.
The Germans who once colonized East Africa would have approved, one assumes.
Although dwarfed by the U.S. forces in the vanguard of Operation Restore Hope, the German wing has been playing one of the leading military roles in the operation. Lately, its aircrews have been routinely flying food and supplies to violence-ridden areas seldom visited by the fleet of U.S. Air Force C-130s here.
The Germans also have flown unarmed, hastily arranged missions to rescue Western relief workers from places where Somalian gunmen have been on the rampage since the U.S.-led landing in Mogadishu.
Last Friday, on their way back from delivering food to Bardera, the Germans responded to a frantic SOS from four relief workers in Gailalassi, swooping down to rescue them at a remote airfield.
Earlier, they rescued 13 relief workers from gunmen in the southern coastal town of Kismayo.
The air wing is specially equipped to make difficult air drops of food to reach starving villagers too far from the major feeding centers. Its planes can fly as low as 20 feet above ground to release cargo, compared to U.S. aircraft, which drop supplies by parachute from 600 feet.
The Germans seem to love the action and some derring-do. Last week a photographer sitting in the cockpit commented on a particularly smooth takeoff. That provoked a sudden display of aerobatics that one would expect from a smaller plane, but not a large cargo carrier.
The German unit, which leaves Dec. 29 at the end of its four-week rotation, has been responsible for more than 50 of the 305 missions flown by the German air force since arriving in Mombasa Aug. 20, according to Maj. Dieter Wiengarten.
Morale is high, even though the German airmen curse the oppressive heat and the trouble-plagued telephone and electrical system in this part of the world. They happily keep to themselves, possibly unaware that a few of their American counterparts construe this as arrogance.
The air wing here is in many respects symbolic of the new post-Cold War German military, a well-equipped and well-trained force that is ready to travel far outside NATO boundaries in Europe. The airmen themselves predict that German forces will be going to help in trouble spots much more often in the future.
Although Germany's post-World War II constitution prohibits the use of its military forces outside the jurisdiction of the NATO alliance, the air force has been able to support several United Nations operations over the years, including U.N. missions to Ethiopia in 1984 and the more recent airlift to Sarajevo in war-torn Bosnia-Herzegovina.
A debate is already under way in Bonn over changing the law so that troops may be committed to international peacekeeping efforts anywhere in the world -- the same kind of dramatic break from past policies that Japan, Germany's defeated World War II ally, made earlier this year.
Over the weekend, German Defense Minister Volker Ruehe called for changes in the constitution to allow greater German participation in humanitarian missions abroad, arguing that "the German army needs to be trained for international peace initiatives."
"I think it will take only a year to do this," said Capt. Wolfgang Stoehr.
The Germans here have set up a camp at one end of Mombasa's Moi International Airport, about 100 yards behind a concrete hangar that serves as U.S. headquarters for Operation Restore Hope.
The camp, off a runway where the Germans park their two Transall C-160 prop driven cargo planes, consists of an L-shaped arrangement of three field tents and several yellow airline baggage containers that are big enough to stand in.
The coffee and wicker chairs in the center of the camp, shaded by a tent of parachute silk, and the outdoor grill nearby suggest all the trappings of a leisurely backyard barbecue.
Presiding over all this is Lt. Col. Achim Wundrak, the 37-year-old air wing commander, an immensely charming spokesman for the German air force and a demanding officer.
In contrast to some U.S. officers here, the German colonel and his senior pilots have welcomed reporters who show up uninvited to seek transportation to Somalia's outlying towns and villages.
Pilots have offered seats in the cockpits even during difficult takeoffs and landings, and have gone on the plane's public address system to discuss the weather, runway conditions and flight plans as if they were operating a commercial airline.
The tall, slim commander has a knack for effective public relations. He is quick to offer food and drink to his visitors. He has a passion for conversation about international politics, especially the role of Germany in NATO, and he enjoys discussing details of his operations.
He also appears to be popular with his men. When one of the unit's three aircrews returned from a routine flight the other day, he passed out the beer and had one himself.
When told of U.S. military restrictions on drinking while on duty, Colonel Wundrak expressed amazement. "I think my men have good discipline," he said.
"It's important for an officer to drink with the men," he said. "These are men who, in the extreme, will die for me."
Another popular figure is the unit's flight surgeon, Dr. Michael Rudolf, a balding, heavyset man with eyes that always seem to be smiling. He is also the cook, but he says the double-duty is only for the duration of this mission.
Not long ago, wearing an apron and watching the day's ration of steaks sizzling on the grill, Dr. Rudolf supervised the collection of blood samples from all the men to test them for malaria. One TTC case was found.
"The men are normally very healthy here because I know what they are eating and I do the cooking," he said, adding that he orders the best steaks, fruits and vegetables from the supplier of Mombasa's five-star resort hotel.
"We've had only six cases of malaria out of 200 people since August," Dr. Rudolf said. "I enjoy cooking. Otherwise life here would be too boring."