The New Normal
“For here is the truth; each day contains much more than its own hours, or minutes, or seconds. In fact, it would be no exaggeration to say that every day contains all of history.”
- Kei Miller, Augustown
In seven episodes, the second starting on the 79th anniversary of the day depicted in this story and the reminder following every Thursday for five weeks. I imagine the lives of real strangers, on both sides of the conflict, brought together during just one day out of the two thousand, one hundred and ninety-four days of the Second World War. Exploring the ways in which their lives became entwined on April 9th, 1941, in a small town called Smethwick, by fate as much as by politics.
I began this story, as an experiment, an attempt to express the past through the lives of people I will never know. The limitations of understanding, perspective, and even grammatical tense, have been made plain to me through this process. I initially grappled with this challenge in a world which seems so far away now and at a time when I could only pretend to imagine the level of ontological insecurity which befell those who endured The Blitz. In that respect, like those in the past, we all now also share and experience the anxieties of having one’s whole way of life changed and replaced by a new normal. More so than ever we all now live in the past, the present and within our futures - our tenses made strange.
In the pandemic, which we all currently live, politicians, of all descriptions, have valiantly tried to rouse us into believing that we’re at war with the Coronavirus. In the United Kingdom, for example, within speeches by our leaders that strived to be empowering yet settled for haphazard, the spirit of the Blitz has been evoked as a rallying cry to a nation in fear of the future.
It is wrong to draw upon the analogy of war for the situation we currently find ourselves in. Notwithstanding that equating the virus to an enemy, in a period of the Second World War where the enemy’s “bomber always got through” to the extent that it would kill over 40 thousand Britians in the 8 months between September 1940 and April 1941, might be a tad short-sighted and dare I say counterproductive to those of us socially distancing ourselves in our dwellings and hoping upon all hope not to be found by the virus.
But more so, it’s also wrong to incite the notion of war as, while some are mobilising and heading off to the frontline in the NHS, or as a delivery driver or manning cash registers, the rest of the nation are retreating into passive and self-isolatory existences within their homes. Where the Second World War, with all of its moral and just urgency to crush fascism, gave Britain and her allies a role and purpose, in contrast, the Coronavirus has removed a sense of purpose and potency for so many.
That said, all of us today, just as those who headed to their bunkers each night during The Blitz have to adapt to the new normal of our respective realities so there are of course parallels to be drawn.
If we turn away from the current evocations of a wartime spirit, perhaps it’s apt, in the year Britain has left the European Union – a union, incidentally, that has effectively provided member states with economic incentives to avoid conflict for the last 75 years – that I have chosen to look back to a time before this when Europe was actually at war.
As the last few years of British politics have proven, burying one’s head in the sand is no defence to the fallout which follows political acts. It is as true today, as it was then, 79 years ago, during the early hours of April 10th, 1941 in Smethwick, that all of us, regardless of our political persuasions, or our attempts to hide from or ignore it, are touched by politics.
This is explored within my work via the collision of strangers, brought together by war, and then framed by one single day. In the Night of the Day is a historical imagining of the lives of these real-life strangers touched by war and the factual events which brought them together.
Ultimately, though, this work has been shaped by my commission from The Living Memory Project, who are dedicated to exploring the relationship between photography and the life stories they share, and the opportunity it afforded me to work with the wonderful staff of the Sandwell Community History and Archive Service at Smethwick Library.
On first becoming acquainted with the artefacts in the archive, it was clear that producing new photography was going to be an impractical solution to the aims being developed. I wanted to reflect history. I knew that I wanted to produce a work which relied upon the information I found there, as well as other archival sources from that period. I would use this as a foundation to further my own historical imaginings. In this light, the work which I was intending to produce had to be a real-life event documented within the archive. This decision led me to the events of April 9th/10th, 1941.
From these initial thoughts I developed a work about a single day in the life of Smethwick; notwithstanding, this approach still required the time to research, find and then disseminate reams of documents within the archive, which itself proved to be a time consuming and at times arduous task. What proved most interesting to me though were the things absent from the archive.
Archives are not empathic spaces; they are often cool and dispassionate ones which aspire more to facts and evidence than to emotions. They are spaces where an air of objectivity reigns at all times, even if one could ask how objective can these spaces actually be when their curation is always the result of subjective decisions? That said, the only mention in the archive of the central protagonists within my work are names written in ink within old documents – there is nothing there that tells you about their lives. Their legacy, and that of the approximately 30 other civilian war dead, killed over that three day period of bombing in Smethwick, what they felt and the hopes that they all had, is absent.
As long as I can remember I’ve been intrigued by the Second World War, but in truth, I’m not entirely sure why. Perhaps it was the comforting soma presented by the narrative of old war films watched on TV on lazy Sunday afternoons, with their simplistic plot devices of right and wrong, of good and bad, which had seduced me? Yet, as time went on, it became clear that my interest was increasingly being shaped by the way war, in its telling, created opportunities for me to observe and explore the human condition.
This is exactly what I hope to achieve within this work: to explore the human condition. An exploration, in this case, that creates an image through words. Those imagined, innermost emotions of the human condition, and all of their nuances, are perhaps best told by a thousand words, through language, instead of a photograph. As a photographer, I’m more used to using a camera to tell stories, so I’m grateful for this opportunity to now use words.
So, yes, as the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War approaches, it’s as important as ever for us to retell stories which may have already been told. In this light, we must consider history, and it's telling, as an opportunity not only for revision but also an act of remembrance and reverence, for those who died for us to live.
Most importantly, we can see it as an opportunity to give life, once more, to those who are gone – if only through our words.
The story begins on Thursday, April 9th, with a new episode every Thursday until May 7th.
Commissioned by Living Memory & kindly supported by Sandwell History & Archive Service
“The bomber will always get through.”
- Stanley Baldwin MP
"...Up to the time of the last war, civilians were exempt from the worst perils of war. They suffered sometimes from hunger, sometimes from the loss of sons and relatives serving in the Army. But now, in addition to this, they suffered from the constant fear not only of being killed themselves, but, what is perhaps worse for a man, of seeing his wife and children killed from the air. These feelings exist among the ordinary people throughout the whole of the civilized world, but I doubt if many of those who have that fear realize one or two things with reference to the cause of that fear.
That is the appalling speed which the air has brought into modern warfare, the speed of the attack. The speed of the attack, compared with the attack of an army, is as the speed of a motor-car to that of a four-in-hand. In the next war you will find that any town within reach of an aerodrome can be bombed within the first five minutes of war. …
I think it is well also for the man in the street to realize that there is no power on earth that can protect him from being bombed, whatever people may tell him. The bomber will always get through, and it is very easy to understand that if you realize the area of space. Take any large town you like on this island or on the Continent within reach of an aerodrome. For the defence of that town and its suburbs, you have to split up the air into sectors for defence. Calculate that the bombing aeroplanes will be at least 20,000 feet high in the air, and perhaps higher, and it is a matter of mathematical calculation that you will have sectors of from tens to hundreds of cubic miles.
Imagine 100 cubic miles covered with cloud and fog, and you can calculate how many aeroplanes you would have to throw into that to have much chance of catching odd aeroplanes as they fly through it. It cannot be done, and there is no expert in Europe who will say that it can.
The only defence is in offense, which means that you have got to kill more women and children more quickly than the enemy if you want to save yourselves. …"
House of Commons, November 10th 1932
“Middle-class car owners are now going out of the city more than ever. There are still many cases where cars have empty seats and little seems to have been done to stir up the consciences of such citizens. Bus stops are crowded with people trying to get out of town.”
- Mass-Observation File Report 606, 15 March 1941.
Drivers in cars, enslaved as they are today to satnavs that choose routes for them to drive along, sometimes break free from the sound of their master’s voices to notice that two houses on the road they’re driving are slightly different somehow from the others. Maybe some notice a slight change in the colouring of the brickwork or that for some reason they just look out of place.
Some, though, just have a strange feeling, one they can’t quite put their finger on, that something isn’t quite right about those two houses on the meandering road they’re travelling on. Yet their eyes fix and follow them, heads turning slowly while they drive by, only stopping when the voice of the satnav calls them to action once more, and they turn back to focus on the road ahead.
But sometimes, just sometimes, someone is intrigued enough to glance up at their rearview mirror and to take another look back at those two houses again, sitting there on St. Mark’s Road. Those two old, red-brick houses numbered 23 and 25 respectively, growing smaller in the distance. They continue to wonder to themselves: why are those damned houses so damned different from the others?
On August 31st,1939, the 43-year-old Catholic farmer Franciszek Honiok would become the first casualty of the Second World War. Kidnapped from his village in Polomia by an elite six-man team led by SS-Sturmbannfuhrer Alfred Naujocks, he would be drugged and then shot at the German Gliwice radio station in Schlesien (as the Germans called it, or Silesia, as the Poles did) and dressed in the uniform of a Polish soldier. This false-flag operation, called Grossmutter Gestorben, was designed as a pretence for German aggression the next day.
At around 04:47 on September 1st, 1939, the German battleship Schleswig-Holstein opened fire, with her main battery, on Polish positions on the Westerplatte, heralding what the world would later come to call the Second World War. It would end at 09:04 on September 2nd, 1945, with the stroke of a pen, when US Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur accepted Japan’s unconditional surrender aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay.
As the Japanese envoys Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu and Gen. Yoshijiro Umezu signed their names on the Instrument of Surrender, Smethwick was still in darkness, still at sleep.
Just as it had been on the night of April 9th, 1941.
The Second World War would rage on for two thousand, one hundred and ninety-four days, yet In the Night of the Day explores just one of those days. Told through archival documents, first-person accounts and reimagining, it focuses on the ways the world came to touch the lives of so many in Smethwick and the ways that very touch still lingers and lives on.
“I noticed that a girder had come down from above and crushed my two companions, but that the curve of it had just cleared me, and held up the other debris from crushing me. What an escape but escape from what, I wonder, for I am in a living tomb. Fear takes hold of me, and I join my shouts again with those poor wounded and dying, but little did realise the depth of the ruins above us. No one from outside could hear our cries.”
- Frank Hilley, Small Heath, Birmingham. November 19th 1940
"Then I noticed that a fire had started near my feet and was starting to burn furiously. This increased my fright and fear. No escape now I thought, while the cries of the injured and dying were all around me. Some were offering prayers for their wives and children in the future, for they knew they would never see the outside world again, neither did I expect to at that time. I still shouted louder, louder, but could get no reply."
- Frank Hilley, Small Heath, Birmingham. November 19th 1940
“...millions...are just now beginning to process the severity of the situation...If you’re feeling overwhelmed as you try to assess what this all means for you and your family, know that this is a normal and perhaps even useful response. “The adjustment reaction is an emotional rehearsal, getting you psychologically ready to cope if you have to,” Peter Sandman, an expert on risk management, has written. “It is also a logistical rehearsal; it’s how you start figuring out what to do and how to do it.”
12th March 2020
A new episode is released every Thursday, until May 7th.
Commissioned by Living Memory & supported by Sandwell History & Archive Service
“Maybe all one can do is hope to end up with the right regrets.”
– Arthur Miller
Wednesday, 9th April 1941: 01.14 BDST: Warwick, England
Laying there in the darkness, while he stared out of the forward gun position, his left hand resting on the top of the gunstock, and his right index finger lightly caressing the trigger in a slow comforting soothing back and forth motion, he began to imagine himself standing at the bow of a ship that cut through a blackened sea, silver-grey dolphins swimming excitedly just ahead.
In his mind’s eye, he watched as they rose up out of the sea and into the light, the sun glistening on their backs as they stalled in the air momentarily before falling gracefully back again. Splashing into the blackness, the ship pushing on towards the horizon, purposefully carving its way through the white-tipped waves.
“One day, I’ll stand on the bow of a ship like that and see those dolphins. They’ll dance for me – I know they will.” He had said this to his crewmates, after explaining what he thought about when trying to kill time on missions. The crew cast furtive glances at each other as he spoke. All of them, minus Heinz the pilot, having driven up there on leave to St. Malo, from Dinard with two other friends from another Gruppe. Driving merrily, they made their way up through the French countryside, as the conquering heroes of the Reich, in that long summer of 1940, when boys had tested themselves in battle and had become men.
The moment he’d finished regaling them with the insights of his mind, he’d known he’d made a terrible mistake. An uncomfortable feeling of exposure befell him.
Everyone sat in excruciating silence, so painful that Helmuth had begun coughing, for no apparent reason, other than to break the tyranny of the silence, and then to look away from the expression of desperation on his friend’s face. Glancing down at his boots, then moving his chair back awkwardly away from the table, with a high pitched grating sound along the floor, which only heightened the tension. George turning to him, his screwed up puzzled face slowly unwinding as he pointed out, “you better not let our Heinz hear you say that!” Pulling his hand across his throat, in a slow cutting motion, his tongue sticking out from the corner of his mouth. Then looking over at the two lads from the other crew, Rudi and Werner, his eyes widening slightly as he tapped the side of his head with his finger and then rolling his eyes at them, before breaking into laughter. Everyone following suit if only to breathe again. “Oh,” Georg continued, his face straightening as he sat upward: “by the way, don’t forget to ask your friends the dolphins where those bloody night fighters are every now and again!”
They all laughed again as Helmuth pushed Georg away mockingly, the flattened palm of his hand meeting his upper arm, causing him to sway away on his chair like a skittle, then back again as Helmut grabbed his head, under his arm, rubbing a knuckle playfully across it to the soundtrack of their laughter filling the bar. All this time, at nearby tables, the upper echelon of French society break from their polite conversations, roused by the sound of laughter, to raise their heads to frown and sneer down their noses at this group of gauche Germans.
Beyond the large picture windows of this Grand Hôtel des Thermes, there is a different world outside. Out there beyond even the well-dressed young women who stroll along the promenade, in their best frocks, arm-in-arm with freshly bemedaled German officers, the tide rolls back lazily down the golden beach. Out once more the swelling water emits a sigh, into the channel again on its journey back towards a battered Britain which awaits patiently for their arrival.
It’s odd what you think about when you’re waiting to rain death and destruction down upon those below. One’s brain wanders off into thought as you wait patiently to atomise your enemy with high explosives or to shower them in the white burning glow of incendiaries. Laying there on your stomach, you shiver over a bombsight, your gloved fists, clenching closed and then open, with only your fears, plexiglass and the ever-so-thin aluminium between you and the cold, black sky outside.
Not even the butterflies in your stomach, which flutter wildly each time you rise and fall in turbulence, can stop your wandering thoughts. The metal joints of the bomber, creaking and groaning, with the rise and fall, become lost beneath the roar of the Daimler-Benz engines which deafens, yet strangely soothes you, in their combined drone.
Because as long as they keep running those damn engines, you’ll be fine, you’ll be OK, and you’ll have a chance to make it back home; that’s all you want, all you think about. Looking around sheepishly, with self-consciousness, and then jumping as the sound of nails being thrown down into a metal bucket startle you, your sphincter muscles clench and you try to quell the warm glow that burns in your stomach.
It’s flak hitting the bomber; your eyelids flutter for you know it was close. Just a little higher and you would have been right inside its burst radius, having to run the gauntlet of hundreds of red hot, razor-sharp pieces of shrapnel. A wave of anger rushes up in you, and you can’t wait for the bombs to drop away now, to get your own back. It’s only then that it dawns on you that you’re finding it hard to breathe. Counter-intuitively pulling off your facemask, with its oxygen supply, away from your face, you leave it there hanging loosely at the shoulder. Only then catching sight of hurried breaths condensing on the cold plexiglass window and realising that you are hyperventilating, Taking a gulp of air, breathing it deep down inside, trying to slow your breathing, you hold it before slowly exhaling and clipping the mask back in place again.
All the while Heinz the pilot, up there behind you, is forcing his weight onto the yoke in an ongoing battle to keep you all on a steady path through the night. You scan the dark over and over, your head, on a swivel, turning left and then right. Your finger still caresses the trigger as you rotate the forward gun position in a circular motion to look out for those damn night fighters. Never knowing that Heinz, his arm straightened in the air right now like a salute, is rubbing the inside of his upper arm, by his armpit, against his brow to wipe the sweat away on his flight suit.
These are the thoughts of Oberleutnant Hans Müller, the bombardier and observer, the man who also sometimes thinks of dolphins while laying there supine on his stomach at the pilot’s feet, looking out of the forward gun position. But there are no ships now or dolphins swimming ahead, as he pulls the collar of his flight suit up, and then tugs at the zip at his throat even though it can’t go any further. He’s stupidly left his lucky white scarf behind and his body trembles a little as he tugs one last time on the zip. He hears Heinz ask him over the intercom if he’s ready to take control of the bomber.
It’s strange how being active takes one’s fears away. Well, maybe not taking them away as such, but hiding them at least. Routine stepping in and taking the mind off fear, or sweeping it under a rug for the time being. Whatever it is you react and instinct takes over. But just as the bomber slips out of the clouds once more, perhaps it’s the sight of the deep redness of the flames around the target, down there in the looming distance, as the engine’s tuneless drone plays on, which triggers his thoughts to wander again?
Maybe it wasn’t the redness of the flames but the time that he had to think? Waiting for the automatic release mechanism of the Lofte 7 bombsight to actuate, as the crew implore you to just get those damn bombs away, or even the hypnotising cones of white light swaying on the horizon that is coming closer, as they shine up to lick at the sky to find you, causing your mind to wander again?
Either way, he lay there prostrate, tilting his head back to glance up from the altitude dial and speedometer in front of him, looking out through the plexiglass window into the night. As the cold caught his throat, for some strange reason, he thought longingly of the red tricycle his uncle Friedrich had bought him, all those years before in a different life.
Hans was a child of the Great War, born two months after his father’s death, and, like so many of those other “Kriegskinder” who sat at their desks at his village school, he too would never know his father. A single British artillery shell falling into his father’s trench in Neuve Chapelle on the morning of March 10th, 1915 would make sure of that. In his absence, Freidrich, his uncle with the straight back and the tweed jacket with green suede lapels, would become a father figure to him. “My boy!”, Freidrich would always shout, greeting the boy and shaking hands, always leaving a boiled sweet in his palm for him to marvel over as the large man looked down at the small child while twirling one side of his moustache.
He’d remembered watching his mother raise high up on her tippy toes to kiss Freidrich warmly on both cheeks when he visited. Looking at the hat he’d remove before kissing her, dangling from a hand by Friedrich’s knee. Hoping that one day they would marry, and be a family. But this would never come, never pass, as it was just another pipe dream of a boy who longed for a father. He had contented himself with stories of Jurgen, his father, as regaled by uncle Freidrich. About how they had laughed and played when they were his age too. But it was always when Freidich told him how much he was like his father that he loved to hear the most – one day he too would be a soldier.
Even now, as the world burnt outside, he remembered the touch of Freidrich’s hand on his shoulder, pushing him along the path outside his mother’s home. His little bare knees at the hem of his shorts, undulating up and down like pistons as he peddled furiously. All while Freidrich laughed so hard and clapped his hands shouting, “go, Hans, go!” For a moment, perhaps out of a momentary thought that he was back in time, back home, Hans gave a quick glance upwards over his right shoulder. But there was no-one there, of course, only the empty seat of a bombardier whose mission today was to bomb a radiator factory in Coventry in the early hours of April 9th, 1941.
They’d been here before, of course, last November, in fact and now they were back again. They’d called that mission “the Big Easy”, as out of 449 bombers there was only 1 loss. The British and their woeful defences were no match for German exceptionalism and as the papers had said at the time Coventry had been, well, “Coventrated.” There was no sorrow for the 568 people killed that night. The lucky ones finding death, and the unlucky mutilation, burns and facial disfigurements which marked them for the rest of their lives. War is war, some aircrew said, as they clinked their glasses and swigged beer in celebration.
A year later though they were flying against an enemy who had learnt the hard lessons of war and whose desire for retribution was being demonstrated within an air defence which grew more deadly each day and with weapons which were becoming more potent.
In terms of his own weapons of war, in truth, he didn’t really know how it worked exactly. To be honest, the mechanics of the computer was a mystery to him, even if he had often bluffed his way into making the crew think that he did understand. All he needed to know was what to set on the dials of the bomb actuating device located beneath his chest. He checked that the airspeed, set on the right-hand dial, matched the true airspeed of the bomber by glancing up at the speedometer above his head before turning the dial on the bomb spread indicator next to it. Turning the dial away from the current setting, it was already on, and then back again – just to make sure that he’d set it correctly, and if only to give himself peace of mind. Then he lay there, with his thoughts again, waiting patiently for the automatic mechanism to engage and let the world beneath know that he was there. Up there in the world of dreams where yesterdays are real but tomorrow is never promised. Unclipping his face mask and wiping the snot pooling in his nose with the back of his gloves, then clipping it back again, he waited for the preset timer on the bombsight to deliver judgement on the British below, as they had equally delivered it to his father.
“Bombs gone, autopilot off!” Hans shouts excitedly into the intercom as he returns control back to the pilot, the bomber, rising upwards, freed from the burden of its bombs, which fall away from the exterior of the plane one by one to atomize or mutilate those bastards below.
“Taking control!” The pilot, Oberfeldwebel Heinz Müller, says calmly into the intercom, his strained face at odds with his words.
For several hours he’s been working hard to control the bomber since they’d left the safety of France, and now, after a brief interlude, he was taking the strain of it again, beginning to zigzag through the night, 15,000 feet over the flickering dots of yellow and orange fires below, which the bombs, still falling through the air, will soon add to. All this time, Hans has risen quickly from his prone position, pulling the cold grey metal cover back over the bomb aimer’s position, easing himself backwards, groping in the dark momentarily with one outstretched arm, finding something to hold onto and then pulling himself up from his prone position and back up into the elevated seat behind him, remembering just in time to pull the seat down first.
He finally sits down, for a moment, just a brief one; a feeling of elation has stifled the sickening grip of fear that had held him so tightly since Heinz had throttled back the engines and taken them into flight.
“My boy, every man must fight his own war,” Freidrich had told him, as they’d waited together for the train to take him away from the life he had, and onto the one which would soon find him, “and must battle his own instincts to do his duty; he must always do his duty.” With the end of this statement, Freidrich placed one hand on his shoulder and the other gripped his palm.
Without knowing why, Hans throws a quick glance up at the silhouetted figure of Heinz, against the lights of war outside, and then glances back down at the map in front of him, plotting a line that will get them back onto the Fecamp navigational beacon and back home again.
“Set course 2-7-0!” He shouts, his fear lessening perhaps now that his job is done, now that they could head home again. Heinz acknowledges the request, eyes darting left and right, then turning the yoke to the left, glancing out of the cockpit at the whirling blades of the propeller banking the Heinkel He 111H-5 and its crew in a westerly arc away from Coventry. The horizon rises above the canopy and the roofs of houses fill his view below the port-cockpit window.
For a moment, the bomber and its crew are lost in the clouds, drifting out and then back in again, just like those dolphins swimming at the bow of a ship, jumping free from the water and into the world of men above, before disappearing back again beneath once more. “Helmuth, Shaefer, did you see anything?” Heinz asks calmly, his head turning back from outside to survey the dials in front of him. “…Nothing” There’s a pause in his reply, and then radio operator, Unteroffizier Georg Schaefer shouts back again, “We must have hit a bloody cabbage patch down there!”
There are chuckles from the crew and a moan of frustration from Heinz as he shakes his head slowly before Feldwebel Helmuth Müller, the gunner, chimes in . He’s laying down on his brown mat in the bathtub, over the ventral door, down there in the C stand position: “You idiot, I saw flashes and then secondaries down there, we hit it!” There are whoops of joy from the crew, as if their football team has just scored a goal. Hans looks over at Heinz with a smile on his face, but Heinz turns back to look at him shouting, “Shut up you fools and keep your eyes open for those damn fighters, they’re out there somewhere!”. Schaefer stops laughing, but he still smiles to himself, as he begins to rise from his seat, back there beyond the internal fuel tanks of the first bulkhead compartment, at the wireless operator’s position. Looking across at the figure in the starboard passenger seat next to him, he rises.
He’d forgotten he was there, even though their knees were just inches apart previously. He looks so damned scared, so small as he huddles into his seat, Schaefer thinks to himself. As the passenger breaks from his thoughts and turns to look up at the figure standing above him, he then draws a smile on a face which was momentarily blank. Schaefer gives him a thumbs-up and smiles, giving a brisk pat on his back, just behind his shoulder, as he heads behind his seat to begin swinging the port waist gun up and then down, left and then right, pausing as he too looks out at the orange and yellow fires which move away on the horizon and at the little flashes of light that fade in the darkness.
Helmuth reaches up a hand and Schaefer turns to grab it, pulling him up from the bathtub to straddle the gap in the floor he’s just arisen from. His legs stretch across the divide. It’s Helmuth’s turn to pat Schaefer on his back now, as he heads back to the wireless set to listen to the clicks of the navigational beacon and to pour himself a coffee from his flask.
“Three’s a charm,” Schaefer had said to himself, just a few hours ago, as he climbed up into the bomber after helping push the passenger and his paunch up before him. As soon as he’d heard there would be a passenger called Müller coming on this mission, he’d thought they’d all been jinxed, and well, as they say, here they all were waiting for what fate had in store. “Four of them, four fucking Müllers?”, he shook his head to himself thinking, “it’s bad luck...why would this old boy volunteer for this, for this?” Glancing across at the unlucky passenger, sending him daggers with his eyes before plugging his intercom into place.
The old boy in question and the crew’s passenger tonight is thirty-year-old Sonderführer Wulf-Dieter Georg Franz Theobald Müller, a writer turned war reporter, two days away from becoming an even older boy of thirty-one, on April 11th. He’s only a few years older than the crew, but for these young twenty-somethings, a thirty-year-old might as well be their grandfather. Especially when he has a paunch, crafted carefully by French cheeses and the rich food he’d thrived on in Paris. “The working men always fight their wars”, Schaefer had once said, after too many beers, his eyes had flicked up and down Wulf-Dieter’s waistline, earlier, as they shook hands. “The rich just grow fat”, he thought to himself.
Wulf-Dieter is joining them on this mission so that he can write home to tell the German people how brave the crew are and how just their fight is. Or perhaps he’d just always wanted to test himself in combat, and to see how brave he was? He’d thought so much about it, and written about it, in those inter-war years – combat and war. Perhaps all young men, too young for the First World War, and yet charged by its stories, dreamt of combat and yes, of vengeance. Charged by the feeling of defeat and that “damned Versailles Treaty,” as Wulf had always called it, always with the word damned in front, and he too burned with the desire to rectify these wrongs as he saw them. He’d once written about how the mix of technology, in the form of aviation, and the will of the people, would power them to change the world, and now here he was, watching the world change. Or burn, as he smelled the smoke from the world-changing below, in his nostrils, all the way up here in his huddled position in the clouds.
Wednesday, 9th April 1941: 01.14 BDST: Warwick, England
He’d smiled back at Schaefer, returning his thumbs-up sign earlier, then attempted to press his pencil onto his notepad, as Schaefer passed behind him, but nothing would come other than sharp meaningless scratches and marks scrawled on the page. He couldn’t work out whether it was him or the vibration from the plane causing him to shake. Maybe it was both? He breathed in deeply, trying not to let the dark thoughts in, but he couldn’t stop them. Besides, they had already made themselves at home, long before take-off, and long before this moment. Prior even to sitting in the briefing room earlier with the pilots to look at Coventry on the map. Even before then he’d had that feeling in the pit of his stomach. He’d tried to vomit it out, of course, but it was still there growing unchecked - gnawing at him. He whispered to himself, “be careful what you wish for Herr Wulf, be careful.” Whilst all the time, nestled in the dark recesses of his guts, tentacles of fear churned over themselves.
“The nation that is ready . . . will achieve total victory”, he whispered once more to himself pausing as he looked off into the distance. In his 1934 biography of Ernst Junger - Ernst Jünger A Life in the Change of Time, Wulf-Dieter had written, “the nation that is ‘ready’ first, that adjusts all its life expressions first . . . and thereby becomes a total unity, will have the greatest chance to display its powers and. . .will . . .fight until it achieves victory”
Dropping bombs onto the people below, some sleeping in shelters, others in their beds, was a display of these powers perhaps? He had no care for them though, these people, the enemy. “They had started this!”, he would often say, “That silly little weak man, that Chamberlain fellow, how dare he! How dare he declare war on the German people!” He shouted this to friends back on that autumnal day in 1939 when war was declared, all the time his barely concealed glee bubbling just beneath the surface of his anger. Now they were getting it back in spades. He’d thought about writing this down in his notebook, just for a moment his pencil poised, and then was startled as he looked up to see Schaefer’s outstretched hand, holding a cup of coffee poured from his flask.
He heard “course 1-7-0!!” over the intercom and, as the plane banked again, coffee spilt onto his notepad. He raised it high up into the air at the end of his outstretched arm to shake it dry, as Schaefer looked on aghast, but Wulf calmed him: “it’s OK, it’s fine, no problem!” But it wasn’t though, there were two days worth of notes in there. Upon realising that Schaefer couldn’t hear him above the drone of the engines, he now tried sign language, smiling and shaking his head, with his palms up towards him wafting from side to side to show that it was OK.
“Sorry, my friend,” Schaefer shouts, leaning in close to him, then backing away his one palm raised up in front of him too. “But,” thought Schaefer, “he really only wants to ask “why have you jinxed us, why are you even here?” Not to say sorry. But then he felt bad for thinking this, afterall, “maybe he didn’t want to be here either?” He mused, looking at his watch: it’s 01.14 am as he pulls his goggles into place and then turns to clamber up into the B stand gun position up there on the top of the bomber. Closing the footrest into place first, pulling it down and securing before stepping up onto it and then into the seat which counterbalances the guns, he plugged in his intercom. Then sweeping left and then right, the wind rushing around him while he looks into the night. He thinks he sees something, on the port side, but no, it’s nothing, but he can’t stop looking. Is that a blue light? Blue flames. Are they coming from an engine? My God, is it a plane? Maybe it hasn’t seen us, maybe I shouldn’t fire? He keeps staring into the night, his mouth poised to speak as the bomber slips into the clouds.
Down below Wulf sips the warm coffee, sighing as he looks at his notebook, shaking his head as he stops and then tilts back to secure every last drop. He rises from his seat, plugging out his intercom, so that he can venture forwards towards the cockpit. Stopping to put the notebook into the pocket of the thigh of his flight suit and walking on a few steps before remembering the cup in his hand, turning back, crouching down and screwing the cup back onto Schaefer’s flask, still sticking out of his kit bag found under his seat in front of the wireless set.
The bomber is rising and lowering in turbulence and his steps become lost in the air, hanging there momentarily, or landing prematurely, causing him to fall forwards, as the bomber dips down and then rises. Yet all the time he crawls forward, his hands pulling him on. He pauses, resting a hand on the entrance to the first bulkhead. He watches Heinz turn over his right shoulder to give something to Hans and then walks into the first bulkhead compartment, dipping down into his pocket to pull out the notepad and pencil.
Sparks light up the darkness around him and the sound of the clatter of metal hitting metal rings in his ears, his body hunching and his head pulling in close to his shoulders as arms fold in over his head. ”Why can’t I move?”, he asks himself desperately as he just stands there until he feels a punch in his side, the wind taken from him until a cough brings up the metallic taste of blood that fills his mouth. His knees buckle and he drops down, an arm reaching out in the darkness. He can’t breathe, but he still feels them all around him, the bullets in the air, rushing past him and then onwards as they pass through the bomber. He tries to stand once more, falling against the starboard side of the plane. His face hitting against the metal interior, as the bomber banks hard. Tears well in his eyes; he coughs again trying to clear his airways, trying to breathe as he looks at the blood that splatters out onto his gloved hand. Lifting his hand, he watches it tremble and then suddenly the thought enters his mind: somewhere out there a man is trying to kill him. To kill him, but why, what had he done? How could someone be so cruel? He searches within himself.
Up above, Schaefer is shouting into the intercom, “night fighter!!!” The bomber banks as he finally fires, the sound of his guns soon following in the intercom while he shoots blindly into the night, tracers reaching out like prodding figures hoping to find something lost in the darkness, closing his eyes as not to be blinded by the muzzle flashes as the shell cases clatter down inside the fuselage. He stops firing and looks out into the night again, he sees a tiny blue glow again. Just for a second, he thinks, because his eyes are readjusting to the darkness again: “My God, it’s the fighter’s engine cowling,” it dawns on him, and he readies himself to fire again.
An arc of fire comes from the darkness, towards the bomber, but Schaefer is just a bystander as he watches it veer in towards the plane – he doesn’t fire back, he can’t, he can only watch. In the dark below, Wulf-Dieter is still leaning across the starboard side, trying to catch his breath, his forehead now pressed against metal. He finally pushes himself from the fuselage and turns his back to the cockpit to get away from it all, and it’s as if his world has descended into silence. The incessant drone of the engines have faded down to nothing, and the smell of cordite in the air has gone, even though it is still there, hanging heavy.
His world is one of silence, and as he lifts his foot up to walk forwards, incendiary bullets find the port side of the bomber, rupturing the internal auxiliary fuel tank just behind him.
In an instant, the fuselage of the plane is alight in a bright, overpowering whiteness. Gallons of burning aviation fuel soak into Wulf-Dieter’s clothing down to his skin, while Heinz and Hans duck down on either side of the cockpit door, behind it all, dodging the flames that flash in to rise above their cowering figures below. Against the flames Wulf-Dieter’s darkened silhouette is succumbing to the light, his arms rising higher now; he’s engulfed in the maelstrom of flames taking hold of him. An explosion rips open the port side of the bomber, peeling its metal outwards, as it dashes him with contempt back from whence he came and towards the wireless operator’s position. The back of his burning head clatters into Scheaffer’s kit back and sends the flask scuttling.
Flames are streaking backwards along the exterior of the bomber all the way down past the machine gun that Helmuth still holds, shock gripping him, looking over his left shoulder while the heat works its way down towards him.
He turns, face forward now, his body freed from inaction, then recoils backwards, rising slowly from his crouched position, an arm held out in front of his face as the light and the heat finds him. He surveys the scene through a filter of bewilderment. “Schaefer? Schaefer!”, Helmut asks in puzzlement and then screams his name again as he sees the burning figure trying to stand, his back ablaze, as more flames from the ruptured fuel tank creep closer towards him. It’s as if the figure’s senses have returned, and with them, a piercing scream follows too. It’s animal-like; it’s pathetic and yet strangely mournful as it grows silent while his arms begin to flail towards his back. The clothes have gone now and skin, tissue and muscle begin to fuse. “Mother, mother, mother!”, he screams, in one last attempt to reclaim his humanity, but Helmuth does nothing: he can’t move. Forgetting the heat of the flames which reach him, he slowly stands up straight. He can only watch and then lurch backwards, as the figure stumbles forwards towards him. Flames are engulfing the inside of the fuselage, twisting around it like a snake squeezing its prey. An oxygen tank explodes like a rocket and hits the burning figure off his left shoulder, spinning him around to fall down on his back.
Wulf-Dieter’s cries for his mother descend into a guttural gurgling as he pulls his arms together to cover his face with his hands in a futile and forlorn gesture, but the flames offer him no mercy, none at all, as they consume him. The muscles in his arms contract and the hands-on his face clamp down tightly like a venus flytrap falling on its prey.
Helmuth reaches for his sidearm. He’s going to shoot his friend Schaefer, he thinks, to put the poor bastard out of his misery, but bullets from spare magazines begin to ricochet over his head, cooking off in the flames, and he ducks down, looking at the C Stand position below.
It wasn’t the sign of a human on fire, the thought of it being his friend Schaefer, or even the smell of burning flesh that would haunt Helmuth into his elderly days. He wouldn’t even know that he had been screaming into the intercom, telling the rest of the crew that Schaefer was burning. Strangely, at those odd moments, long after the war, often when he chopped wood in his garden, it wasn’t the fact that he did nothing to help this man. It would be the sound of him calling for his mother, as he lay there, burning to death, that would always haunt him.
In the B stand position, above the flames, on the top of the bomber, Schaefer would think that Helmut, down there below, had been calling for him to save him in the flames. The very same flames which are now licking at his boots, as his legs rise up from the footrest to hang there suspended in mid-air, to stop them from cooking. He pushes the canopy backwards behind his head and then pushes himself upwards to look over the side to see the flames and is thrust forward with the wind. But in the brief second before the wind embraced him, pushing his chest down onto the top of the bomber, his head narrowly missing the wireless aerial, he saw the port engine ablaze, its propeller wind-milling freely, as flames bellowed out and up from the port side.
He doesn’t need to wait for the alarm to ring, or for Heinz to shout for them to bail out; he knows what is happening down there. The screams from Helmuth into the intercom, that was enough for him, that was all he needed to know. Even before Heinz had given up the ghost and stopped trying to counter the loss in power and the growing yaw, even before the fire had cut the control columns, Schaefer was already getting ready to jump away from it all. Swinging the guns all the way behind him, pushing his feet down into the flames once more, ignoring the pain as the flames burned at him, forcing himself upwards into his seat. The wind propelling him forwards, again, pinning his chest onto the top of the bomber, trying to push himself over the starboard side just as it begins to go into a steep dive.
By now Helmuth, below, has untethered himself and jumped down into the C stand position, throwing the mat above the door behind him, back into the flames. He glances quickly at the ammunition store in front of him and then pauses to look down at the now clear ventral door, holding its handle in his hand. “Is this happening, is it really happening?”, he thinks, as he falls back on his bottom and then his back. With the steepening dive, flames are beginning to lick and flick across the ceiling above him, inching forward to the ammunition store. He rolls on his side and begins to use the structural beams as a ladder. It takes all his strength to pull himself forward towards the door and finally open it.
Almost in unison, Schaefer and Helmuth fall from the top and the bottom of the bomber as it begins to rotate. Two figures in the sky, caught in the orbit of the bomber but then drifting slowly away from it in the night. Waiting to be clear of it before opening their parachutes, Schaefer slowly counts in his head to five before pulling his ripcord. Not far behind are Heinz and Hans, falling through the night too, after jumping out of their respective cockpit canopy windows, but there’s no Wulf-Dieter, consumed as he was by the flames. His charred body rising up in the flames to press against the ceiling of his flying tomb, still burning in the flames, as the steepness of the dive increases. Fixed there by the centrifugal forces of physics as much as destiny.
It’s odd what you think about as you’re falling through the coldness of a blackened sky when you no longer have plexiglass and aluminium between you and the world any more – but the fears are still there. You wait to clear the bomber and then reach for the ripcord of your parachute – but nothing happens.
Pulling at it again and again, in hurried, frantic and then forlorn desperation that breaks into enraged screams and then pathetic sobs of “..no, no nooo!” And yet still you plummet as one’s mind splits into multiple places all at the same time. The past, the present and the impending future foreshadowing it all. Time, that beast, which has given you everything, yet now will take it all, you fall through the darkness – knowing that the ground beneath will soon find you.
Perhaps all bomber crews lived their lives this way, always waiting for a fall they hoped would never come? Always living in the past and fearing the future. Dying a thousand times.
Yet, as Heinz, Schaefer and Helmuth floated down to captivity, this is the fate that would find Hans – he would fall to his death, his parachute failing to open. In his haste, he’d put his parachute on incorrectly, and it would be the last thing that he would do.
Maybe that’s what the mind does at times of great stress? It takes one back to better times, to certain times, happy times. So as Hans fell, in the eternity of time which he had, before the world found him in that field, I hope that the thoughts of Freidrich’s hand on his shoulder came to mind to console him. Or if not, the thoughts of those silver-grey dolphins which danced at the bow of a ship which carved its way through a blackened sea.
Those on the ground, who looked up to the sky that night, woken as they were by the sounds of war, would never know of the dramas which unravelled up there above them in the cold black sky. Or know of the pain and anguish felt by those airmen as the bright streak of yellow in the sky fell downwards. Falling to earth at Little Hill Farm in Warwick, with the sound of a dull thud and that brief flash of orange fading into a silver glow on the horizon before the darkness of the night reigned once more.
All that those below, who saw that sight thought of though, as they closed their curtains again and turned to stumble back into their beds, was not of the woeful inhumanity of man’s gestures onto man, but simply the succour of sleep and the promise of a new day to come.
Hans Müller and Wulf Müller were originally buried in St. Peters Churchyard, Wellesbourne. They were re-interned at the Deutsche Soldatenfriedhof Cemetery at Cannock Chase on the 3rd of May, 1962
Wednesday, 9th April 1941: 01.30 BDST: Smethwick, England
The Heinkel 111 H-5 1G + FK (Werke Nr. 4018) of 2./KG 27 buries itself into a sodden field in Warwick, its propellers bending backwards into half clenched-like claws, just six miles away from Shakespeare’s birthplace. At that very moment, Thomas Atkins, a large, heavy-set man with a receding ginger hairline, breaks wind aggressively in a communal shelter down in the basement of Thimblemill Swimming baths in Smethwick. Trumpeting out a night time sonata, the length and loudness of which shakes him from his own slumber. He sighs, his senses returning, as he rolls slightly onto his side, and then his startled eyes open quickly. “Oh my goodness!”, he thinks to himself, shame quickly finding him, and then prodding its accusatory finger at him like a dagger – his body crumples. Thomas, ‘Tooting Tommo’ or ‘Ack-Ack Atkins’, as his fellow shelter dwellers have begun to christen him, over previous nights of ‘confined combat’, suddenly remembers that he’s not at home in the privacy of his own bed, but instead is in the company of forty-nine other strangers in the shelter, deep down in the bowels of the swimming baths, and so keeps deathly still.
Laying there playing possum, closing his eyes again, his cheeks flush beetroot. “Oh, the bloody shame of it!”, he thinks, torturing himself with shame again, without ever realising that he’s been terrorising his fellow shelter dwellers every night he’s slept in the shelter. His eyelids squeeze tightly as a mob is growing around him, roused by the stench in their nostrils, symbolic pitchforks and burning torches glowing – this mob wants blood. “Oh, you dirty bugger”, says one. “Ruddy twat!”, shouts another, and a baby begins to cry when the fallout reaches its nose, their mother humming a lullaby from behind the handkerchief pressed over her mouth and nose. But instead of comfort, she emits a toneless and muffled drone that only adds to the distress of the poor child.
“Ack-Ack Atkin’s at it again boyo!”, someone else blurts out from the shadows, laughing loudly as Thomas, the ‘Ginger Whinger’ to his mates down on at the bowling green, pretends to gently snore out loud, the smell of the cabbages he had for supper continuing to waft around the shelter, dispersed as it is by synchronised out-stretched arms wafting in the night. Trying to fan it away from themselves – but only spreading the toxic fumes. “I finally needed my ruddy gas mask Ethel,” an older woman’s voice chirps up in the pall of darkness which befits the shelter. Doreen Joan Hanson rolls over in disgust, pulling a bedsheet up over her head in a huff, hearing her copy of the Radio Times fall to the floor, but too upset to care as she pinches her nose closed while silently mouthing the words “filthy pig” to herself, vowing with all power to sleep in her own blooming shelter tomorrow night.
Doreen, the twenty-four-year-old dressmaker and the perineal owner of a short, washed and set hairstyle, had been evacuated up to Smethwick from Acton in London back in 1939. Moving up to stay with her uncle Theo, his wife Emily and their daughter Florence. By then Frederick, Theo’s and Emily’s son, was at sea with the Merchant Navy, his absence made all the harder as their first child and their eldest daughter Beatrice had sadly died three years previously to her arrival. Florence, Doreen’s junior by five years, had felt that she’d got an older sister back again, someone to look up to. The fact that Doreen would have the dressmaking skills to give her wardrobe a new lease of life wouldn’t hurt either.
Doreen stayed with them all until her mother Amy made the journey up from London, after they’d secured housing for them both on Hales Lane. Amy had left her husband William behind as his job, as an engineer, was deemed important for the war effort and he’d been forced to stay put.
For Amy, born just up the road in Handsworth in 1892, it was strange to be coming back to live in the West Midlands again. Coming back for a visit was always a pleasure, she loved to visit, but to stay? Well, like Doreen, the pace of London life suited them both, but in reflection, the chance to be close to so many family members again was a comfort when William seemed so far away.
But 1939 seemed so far away too now as quiet began to descend in the shelter. The numerous coughs and clearing of throats fading, the first overtures of snores, quietly at first, then gratingly beginning to replace them and then to reign as overlord where laughter once had. Tiredness gently caresses Doreen in its slumbering call, seducing her with its warm tranquil glow and it’s offer to slip the surly bonds of the pressures of the world. Calling her deeper and deeper into its clutches as the warmth under her blanket grew. A feeling of inner peace swelling in her too as all seemed, just for now at least, at peace. The anxieties of it all exhaled out of her in a long sigh of air that she drew back in again to grate at the back of her throat, as a ponderous snore, while sleep finally took her in its grip.
I experienced at least five or six air raids before joining the Army, maybe more. I remember one night I was out when the sirens started going-off, and I had to run to one of the underground shelters down at Clapham Common. There must have been at least 1,000 people there, all crammed in, and inside it was horrible. It was cold, damp and smelly, and it had really uncomfortable metal beds with no bedding.
You didn't really have any choice other than to go into them. It was worse outside, and if the wardens caught you out on the street they'd throw you in anyway.
Wednesday, 9th April 1941: 06.52 BDST: Smethwick, England
The sun was just rising when Doreen stepped out of the swimming baths on Thimblemill Lane. All night she’d longed for fresh air, so much perhaps, that she’d even dreamt of standing on a beach all alone, just looking longingly out to sea. The sea breeze blowing in against her as she tilted her head back, undoing her hair from its bun to let it flow free in the wind. She was wearing sunglasses, just like the type she’d seen Vivian Leigh wearing once, and it all seemed so grand, standing there in the sun.
Then she’d become aware that her mom wasn’t there. Why wasn’t she there, she’d wondered, taking the sunglasses off and looking around the beach anxiously. “Mom, mom!”, she’d shouted. But no-one answered. She continued her ponderous thoughts, “where is everyone?”, until she saw a figure in the distance, back turned from her, walking slowly away into the distance. “Mom?”, Doreen whispered quizzically, as she began to breathe excitedly before shouting loudly, “Mom!” But the figure never turned, so she’d tried to run after it, but found that she couldn’t move. Looking down, she was shocked to find the answer why: the sight of her feet buried ankle-deep in the sand. She turned hurriedly towards the figure to shout, “Mom, help!”, and then quickly back to look down again at her feet, noticing that the tide was coming in as she arched her back to lean forward, both of her hands grasping at her calf, trying desperately to lift her foot out of the sand. She could feel the fear growing, but tried to put a lid on it, as water slowly ran over the sand which had claimed her feet to lap at her ankles. “Oh my God, mom, oh God!”, she whimpered, as she looked up to see a large wave rolling in from the sea, growing larger as it came in ever closer to her. She crouched down to pull at her ankles, again tugging angrily in sharp, jolting motions and then slowly standing upright, resigned to it all as the waves came down to crash – and then she was awake. Sitting upright with the sound of the long all-clear siren melancholically wheezing out its emancipatory cry.
She was alive, and all was well. Then she thought of mom, her dry mouth opening and closing like a fish out of water. Looking at the world around her and then, while wiping sleep from her eyes, noticing that a woman sleeping nearby had her copy of the Radio Times held tight in her comatose grip.
A quick, furtive look around her own cot had confirmed that this must have been her copy. She arose quickly as she fixed it in her sights, a little too quickly perhaps, becoming light-headed for a second (the staleness of the air in the shelter may have had something to do with this as well) before sneaking over, crouching down to slowly ease in towards the woman to pull it slowly from her grip. The woman’s hand suddenly clenching tighter, holding it fast. Doreen, losing all patience now, alongside her temper, snatched at it like it was Christmas cracker, with a violent tug that caused the woman to splutter and say something inaudible under her breath as she drew her yanked out arm back in close towards her. “Silly old sod”, Doreen muttered, stepping back as she held her spoils of war up in the air triumphantly, checking for creases or torn pages, and then giggling as she noticed the headline on the cover: ‘Women hitting Back’.
She’d thought to herself at the time, as she ran up the steps from the shelter, that she was like a ‘rat out of a trap’ rushing up the meandering steps, before finally stepping out into a new day to come. Pulling up her coat collar with her rolled-up copy of the Radio Times stuck under one arm, she held firmly in her grip her cousin Freddie’s old sports bag, overflowing with her pillow and crumpled sheets. She was reborn.
Doreen had paid the price for her exertions though, trying to catch her breath as she paused to survey the world around her. “It was all still there”, she thought, as she cast her gaze up Thimblemill Lane, replying, “good morning” to a woman, whose name she’d forgotten, who walked by and had wished her the same. Both women were just happy to have another morning, to have another day. She looked at it all, noticing that everything was untouched and still all there. “It only took one bomb. Just one. Ten houses could be in a row and only one of them would be bombed, only one. It made no sense mom”, she thought, remembering the conversation she’d had with her mom, as she implored her to come to the shelter with her last night. But she hadn’t, choosing to sleep in her own bed.
But here at least all the buildings were still standing this morning. “Good!”, she thought to herself, thinking about her mom again and crossing her fingers, as she rushed up the road to get home.
Every morning that she walked back from the shelter, getting closer to home, her mind would always begin to play tricks on her. Each step, as she strode home up Thimblemill Lane, would become tainted by bad thoughts, evil thoughts. Ones that made her think, when she walked down her street on Hales Lane, just after passing Hillfield Road on her left, that when she’d turn the corner she’d find the bombed debris of home. With rescuers picking through their world, a body wobbling on a stretcher, while those carrying it walked on uncertain ground. All the time the neighbours, still in their dressing gowns, of course, gawking at the sight. They would always be there in her imagination to nosily look on.
“I bet Mrs Wexford would be there,” she thought, thinking of her with arms crossed and her nose up in the air, making a dry comment or two about the decor left behind in the rubble. Doreen often had those thoughts while walking home, thoughts of all being lost, and now she was about to turn the corner again to find out if it was. “Please God, please”, she said out loud, her hands wringing, feeling embarrassed when she realised that someone on the other side of the road had turned to look at her upon hearing her voice. Continuing on, she made sure to chant it only in her head now – and then there it was.
Still standing there in the early morning sun – 281 Hales Lane – home.
Wednesday, 9th April 1941: 12.14 BDST: London, England
WINSTON CHURCHILL'S SPEECH TO THE HOUSES OF PARLIAMENT ON RECENT MIDDLE EAST VICTORIES.
The Prime Minister (Mr. Churchill)
I beg to move, That this House on the occasion of the recent victories by sea, land and air in North Africa, Greece and the Mediterranean, records with gratitude its high appreciation of the services of all ranks of His Majesty's Forces in these brilliant operations, and also of those who by their labours and fortitude at home have furnished the means which made these successes possible. We are now able and indeed required to take a more general view of the war than when this Resolution of thanks was first conceived. The loss of Benghazi and the withdrawal imposed upon us by the incursion into Cyrenaica are injurious chiefly on account of the valuable airfields around Benghazi which have now passed into the enemy's hands. Apart from this important aspect, we should have been content, in view of the danger which was growing in the Balkans, to have halted our original advance at Tobruk. The rout of the Italians, however, made it possible to gain a good deal of ground easily and cheaply, and it was thought worthwhile to do this, although, in consequence of other obligations already beginning to descend upon us, only comparatively light forces could be employed to hold what was won. The movement of the German air forces and armoured troops from Italy and Sicily into Tripoli had begun even before we took Benghazi, and our submarines and aircraft have taken a steady toll of the transport-carrying German troops and vehicles.
©Hansard For more of the speech click here
“Situations that are unpredictable, threaten our survival and in which we have no sense of control “are all going to make us react in a very distressed way, either with hostility, with anger (or) with protection,” Juster said. “And I think this hoarding behaviour is a real example of that. … But the problem with that is there’s an individuality element, where people are really just thinking about themselves.”
March 27th 2020
A new episode is released every Thursday until May 7th.
Commissioned by Living Memory & supported by Sandwell History & Archive Service
The Flag on High
“It is lamentable, that to be a good patriot one must become the enemy of the balance of mankind.”
Britain At War: Wednesday, 9th April 1941
By April 9th, 1941 the war was still very much a European one rather than a world one, even if combatants from many different parts of the world were slowly being drawn in. Though memories of Neville Chamberlain waving the Munich Peace Agreement remain in the air, autumn 1938 has been consigned to history, alongside, of course, any thought of peace in anyone’s time in Britain. Russia is still two full months away from being invaded by Germany on June 22nd. A Germany, incidentally, whom they’re still in a ten-year non-aggression pact with.
On this day in April, German forces are busily attacking positions in Greece and Yugoslavia but are also plotting to invade Russia, having put an elaborate deception plan in place called Operation Harpune designed to convince the Russians that they are instead planning on finally invading Britain.
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, some in America are still championing isolation, even as the winds of war are forming on its Pacific horizon. President Roosevelt has given Britain a life-line, less than a month before, on March 11th, by enacting the Lend-Lease Policy. Ominously though, on April 10th, the day after Winston Churchill would cite the sales of arms to Britain as a ‘sword of retributive justice’ in the House of Commons, America would take one step closer to becoming entangled in the European conflict itself, when the US Navy ship Niblack would fire the United States’ first rounds in anger against a German U-Boat, whilst defending a convoy under its protection (the same day a Joint Resolution of Congress reaffirms the Monroe Doctrine).
It is interesting to note on that very day before this attack, the American Ambassador to Japan, Joseph Grew, would telegram Roosevelt informing of Grew’s belief that Japan would go to war with America, just at the moment Japan was indeed entering into full stage planning for an attack.
Eight months later, on December 7th, they would bomb the Pacific Fleet in Pearl Harbour: and America would be at war with Japan. But also, bizarrely, with Germany at the same time, who would declare war on America four days after the Japanese attack.
If we step back in time to April 1941 once again, what we still have is a clash of the established British Empire colliding against a new up and coming empire: The Third Reich. By April 9th, this clash has endured for seventeen long months, and whilst it has seen Britain and her Commonwealth allies pitted in mortal combat against Germany and the other Axis nations in various theatres of war, it is still a distinctly Anglo-German war, albeit one that is slowly engulfing the world due to the Reich’s need for Lebensraum and the ensuing logistical demands that would be necessary to expand, maintain and defend it.
But as we draw closer to the events of that day, four days before Easter Sunday on the morning of Wednesday, April 9th, 1941, it has only been nine months since the bedraggled British Expeditionary Forces had retreated back home from the beaches of Dunkirk. France had fallen, Hitler signing their surrender in the same train car which Germany had done at the end of the Great War. The RAF fought bravely in the following months during the Battle of Britain. Staving off invasion and buying Britain valuable time to rearm, the consequence of this Battle, would see the Luftwaffe turning its attention away from attempting to destroy the RAF and onto blitzing Britain’s cities, killing almost forty thousand civilians in the seven months alone.
As terrible as this is, more importantly, Britain, an importer of almost seventy per cent of its food, is slowly being strangled by the German Wolfpack out at sea in the Atlantic. So, while the Battle of Britain may have been won in the summer and autumn of 1940, the Battle of the Atlantic is still unfolding. By the end of 1940 alone, 728,000 tons of food making its way to Britain had been lost, sunk by German submarine activity, and it is looking like unless Britain can take measures to turn the tide, the war might be lost.
April 1941 is a pivotal moment in world history because, after this month, the world would never be the same again.
Great Britain - Military Situation, April 1941
Great Britain - Military Situation, April 1941 (British Diplomatic Correspondence to President Roosevelt).
National Archives Identifier: 16618514
Doreen Hanson’s partial letter extract (Abridged) to her father William Hanson of 80 Newark Crescent, London NW10 - Postmarked March 21st, 1941: 14.37 BDST:
A blithering loudmouth, a real know-it-all type, got thrown out of the Red Cow tonight, dad. You know the pub, it’s the one with the queer-looking ox head on the wall by the door as you walk in. The one with the eyes which follow you around the pub. He was going on and on about how Stalin and Hitler were going to team up and clobber us. “Invade!”, he said, a finger raised up into the air like he was giving a speech down at Speakers Corner.
“Stop your blathering Tommo!”, an old man shouted. Goodness, he didn’t half look like Will Hay standing upright by the bar, with one hand under his braces stretching it out as his voice rose. Oh, the very thought of it! An old lady with a blonde wig on sat next to him shouted as she gasped. It was so funny, dad, like something out of one of the funnies we used to watch down at the Odeon.
He came over all queer he did, all red-faced and flustered, blustering as he took his hat off and mopping at his receding hairline with a white hankie. “You bloody defeatist!”, Will Hay shouted again, letting his brace strap hit his chest, and then pointing as he followed up, “Look! Even your ruddy hair looks defeated!”
Oh, how everyone laughed, dad.
Bless him, they’d all given him such a rollicking, but I couldn’t help but laugh too, as he pulled his white hankie over his thinning ginger hair again. It didn’t half look like a flag of surrender. I thought Will Hay would have been straight in there about it and said the very same, but bless him, he was too busy laughing, bent all over he was.
Anyway, the landlord told Tommo to leave – well, he told him to “B” off, in fact, with an outstretched finger pointing towards the door, like a football referee sending him off the pitch, for causing a fuss. And then that was that.
They’re the queerest folk up here, dad.
But you know what? After he’d skulked off, when the laughter died down, you could tell on everyone’s faces that they were thinking, blimey, what if they did team up and invade?
You don’t think they will, do you, dad?
See you soonest,
Love you lots,
Doreen Hanson’s partial letter extract (Abridged) to her father William Hanson of 80 Newark Crescent, London NW10 - Postmarked April 5th, 1941: 21.37 BDST:
I never knew fear before, dad. Or that perishing feeling of hollowness that comes with it – which nothing seems to fill. It’s something frightful, it is. Once, the wireless or heading down to the pictures could take me away from it all, but now they’re just interludes between the dark thoughts I have.
This war, dad, this terrible war. I caught myself thinking about Freddie again last week. I still can’t believe that he’s gone, and it’s nearly six months now since he left us. It just seems like last week when Uncle Theo got the telegram and came around to ours to tell us. Mom fell to the floor sobbing she did, but Uncle was so strong. A real rock he was, dad.
Twenty-two, it’s no age at all, is it? Uncle’s only son, with his whole life ahead of him, and he’s gone – just like that. Those terrible Huns, I hate them so, every frightful last one of them.
I’m glad that Freddie got to go to sea though; it’s all he ever spoke about when we came up here for the summer holidays as children. He always wanted to play pirates on the high seas all the ruddy time. Pushing the hook from a coat hanger up his sleeve and shouting, “Ahoy matey!”
Dad, we don’t even have anywhere to leave flowers for him.
I remember when we went over for tea and the Red Cross Telegram arrived to tell uncle that Freddie was buried in Germany. I’ll never forget him punching the bread bin as aunty Emily sobbed. He stormed out and sat in his shed. His only son, dad. I feel for them and for Florence too, as she’s the only child left now after Beatrice died back in ‘36.
Anyway, mom said we could leave some flowers down at the war memorial in Oldbury. I didn’t half give her daggers when she said that, dad. Because where are we getting flowers from these days? Everywhere’s dug up to grow blooming vegetables now.
Can we come back home, dad, please? We miss you so. The newsreels keep telling us that Britain can take it, but I’m not so sure.
I miss you so much, dad.
Truly, I do and I know that mother does too. It’s been almost two years we’ve been up here, can’t we come home now, please, dad? I don’t even mind the Blitz, dad, why don’t we just come home, shall we?
I hear mom sobbing her heart out most nights in her room before I leave for the shelter – it’s always something frightful to hear.
She was always so gay, dad, your bright little butterfly, you’d call her. But she’s ever so pale, dad. I let the kitchen door go the other day and as it slammed she fell to the floor sobbing. We sat there howling, arm in arm sitting on the floor as ITMA droned on. I imagine that we looked like two silly sods sitting there. Then we both burst out laughing. It was good to see the glow in her cheeks, but it didn’t last.
I fear that mother’s losing the plot, dad, maybe I am though, writing this to you now? As it all seems like a dream. One minute I’m happy thinking about the wedding, and the next I’m all maudlin thinking about mother and you.
I worry about her ever so much as she to come to the shelter anymore, and I’ve begged her to until I’m blue in the face, honestly, I have, but she still doesn’t. It worries me something awful to think of her all alone but she says if her number’s up, she’d sooner die in her own bed than in a dirty old smelly shelter with dirty old men. I told her we need to sort out our shelter in the garden and reluctantly she said she’d help.
That’s a start right?
Anyway, the wedding next month will sort her out, you wait and see. I’m ever so nervous, just the thought of saying my vows in front of everyone gives me the flutters, it does, but at least we’ll all be together as a family again.
I can’t wait to see you dad, it’s not long now! Hey-ho, here’s to blue skies and brighter days.
See you soonest,
Lots of love,
P.S. Write to me soon, dad!!!
Ordnance Artificer 4th Class Frederick ‘Freddie’ Walter Clark Service No: C/MX 57429 was one of 30 ratings and 1 officer killed when the Destroyer HMS Ivanhoe struck a mine on September 1st, 1940 off Frisian Islands, Holland. He was buried in the Ohlsdorfer Friedhof Cemetary in Hamburg, Germany.
“I do not often cry, but the sight of the mother and the little boy burned under the wreckage touched a sore spot. It still seems unbelievable that my three friends are dead.”
Birmingham, April 10th, 1941
© Mass Observation Archive. University of Sussex Special Collections
Wednesday, 9th April 16:47 BDST: Smethwick, England
A dull grey tin bucket crashes down onto the grass with a hollow dull-like thud. It’s been thrown out from the Anderson Shelter before Doreen’s half-crouched form hobbles out of the gloom and towards the light. The bucket’s watery contents are seeping back into the soil, while little bubbles form in the spots where it’s sinking down the quickest. To the insects down there, living unseen in the grass, a tsunami is wreaking havoc upon them, crashing them about, but up in the world of humans, their turmoil is simply a sign of the end of manual labour for a mother and daughter. “Sod it mom!”, Doreen shouts as she finally clambers out of the shelter, still bent over, her nose scrunching up with indignation and her lips pursed. Finally, she stands upright defiantly, hands on her hips.
Amy has a shocked look on her face, for a moment at least, and then breaks into laughter. “Yeah, sod it!”, she shouts back too, following up with, “Tea break!” She throws her own bucket down on the grass too. Mother and daughter descend into fits of laughter again, as Doreen throws her arms around the shoulders of her mother, glancing back at the water-logged Anderson Shelter momentarily, flicking her two fingers up at it before looking ahead again. They walk back down the garden path towards the house, arm-in-arm.
A pair of worn-out, green, muddy wellingtons drop to the floor, bouncing back up in the air, a little on the doormat, and then swaying apart and then back together again as if they’re on sentry duty by the back door. Their owner has left them behind, and, in the distance, the wireless strikes up in the parlour with the sounds of Jay Wilbur and his Orchestra on the Hi, Gang! show. In slow motion, Amy slumps down onto a kitchen chair she’s just pulled out from under the kitchen table. As it still creaks with her weight, she reaches for her slippers, down by her side, just as Doreen shouts out, “This is for you mom, it’s your fancy man again with Once in Awhile!” Laughter echoes out from the parlour.
Amy rolls her eyes upwards, mouthing the words, “oh, you little brat you,” but smiles nonetheless at the long-standing running joke which originally had been just between her and her husband William. He’d joked that she’d appeared awfully keen on Jay Wilber ever since she’d heard him and the band play I’m thru with Love on the wireless back in 1931. But then, William, tired of her going on about him, had shown her a photo of Jay. On seeing that he looked a bit like Arthur Askey, and nothing like the Hollywood heartthrob she’d imagined, she’d gone all cold on him.
Her smile drops. It often came on from nowhere, thoughts of William, down there all alone in London. They’d been together for so long, marrying in 1915 just before he’d gone off to France in that war to end all wars, and yet here they were again, once more separated by war. “Separated by the bloody Boche again,” she seethed inside, just stopping herself from crying this time, standing up quickly and then smoothing down her apron, as if she’s pushing the thoughts away, and walking over to the sink to fill the kettle under the tap. Just at this moment, Doreen waltzes into the kitchen, arms outstretched as if embracing an imaginary dance partner, but Amy just looks on out of the kitchen window, back up the garden path to the water-logged Anderson Shelter and through the dark outline of herself, reflecting back to stare at her.
Wednesday, 9th April 17:42 BDST: - Dinard-Pleurtuit Airfield, France
It would be easy to imagine Rudolf Müller in an August Sander portrait, sternly looking at the camera, while wearing his chef’s whites and holding a stainless steel bowl cradled under his arm. Frustratedly pausing from furiously whisking his meringues, and growing angry as a result, because the camera was being carefully focused at him. The fact though that he was leaning against a Heinkel 111 bomber at this moment, and that his barrel-chested frame was squeezed tightly, not into chef’s whites, but into a grey tunic secured in place by a black leather belt, silver buckle shining, might dissuade one of these thoughts.
He just had that look about him though, one might think again, as he rubbed the rosy-cheeks on his round, twenty-three-year-old fresh-face, and turned to follow a truck that drove by. Looking dismissively at the driver and thinking to himself, “why is this idiot so bloody cheerful?” All the time the driver whistled merrily the tune The Flag on High. His body, seemingly half leaning out of the window as he did, catching Rudolf looking at him and then smiling back.
“Bloody fool,” Rudolf thought to himself. His back straightened upwards while he unknowingly thumbed at the back of the silver, polished aluminium belt buckle with a Luftwaffe eagle on it, holding so tightly onto a swastika while in flight. He’d always wondered where it was carrying it to? That damn swastika. To feed its hungry chicks, high up in a nest, he’d once thought, but only to himself, whilst terribly drunk one night in a bar. The vision of it suddenly coming to him momentarily before he’d laughed out loud to himself. He thought of the bird ramming the swastika down the throats of opened mouthed chicks, and, as a result, laughed and spluttered beer out onto Werner. Werner, four years his senior, a tall, muscular, black-haired man, turned coolly to look at him, wiping beer and spit from his cheek, a grimace slowly forming into a smile, shaking his head, shouting back at his assailant, “Rudy you bloody idiot! Don’t you know that it’s Helmut’s job to dump the fuel before a crash landing and not you!”
Rudolf pauses, a slight smile forming, as his lips grip and then pull on a cigarette, before it drops down by his side, caught there in between two fingers. He’s still for a moment, entranced in thought, not long before he’d discussed tonight’s mission with the crew. All of them sitting on the grass watching Egon stretch his pointed finger across a map as he explained the ingress and egress routes. His hand rises again and, as he exhales, he notices a frayed grey thread that sticks out from the yellow Unteroffizier patch on the collar of his tunic, fluttering in the smoke. His weak chin disappears into his neck as his head drops forward to fix it. He sizes it up, eyes narrowing, and then pulls at it sharply in a single tug. Staring at it briefly, he pinches it in between the thumb and forefinger of his right hand. Flicking his thumb upwards, he sets it free towards Britain into the early evening air of Dinard, a few miles in from the Brittany coast.
All around Rudolf, ground crew are working feverishly on dozens of two-engined green, painted aeroplanes, their once blue underbellies now painted in black camouflage, the squadron having recently switched from day to night operations.
Some of them load bombs, nose first into an older P2 model 111, which the group has procured as a replacement, up through the opened dual bomb bay doors of the plane. The fins on their tail sections perched on wooden double-handled racks, which two men push upwards, before securing them in their bays as another man throws black paint over the red engine nose cone. The majority of the remaining black H-5’s have already had their bombs loaded onto external racks by this point. On one bomber, two Obergefreiter Tankwart stand on the wings, each man next to one of the engines as a solitary Waffenwart in between them checks the B-Stand guns. Both men on the wings secure fuel pumps which lead away from the plane like two lifeless snakes slithering away to a small tanker waiting to feed them. “They’re always so bloody happy,” Rudolf muses to himself yet again, his eyes fixed on a man whistling in the distance who rubs with vigour at a perspex cockpit window with chamois leather rags.
Soon all of the eleven planes of 4th Staffel II. Gruppe Kampfgeschwader Twenty-Seven (II./KG 27) will be readied for battle; all of them fueled, bomb-laden and expected to join the two-hundred and eighty-two other bombers heading for Birmingham in a few hours time. Perhaps with that thought in his mind, Rudolf puts the cigarette to his lips again, his pointed and extended fingers gripping it like pliers as he breathes the smoke down deep inside. Closing his eyes, wishing this world away, just for a moment, as his chest expands and rises slowly, a thumb still caught behind his belt buckle.
He thinks, his mind bemused, and his eyes open again suddenly. They’re as large as the gold-rimmed dinner plates in the officer’s mess he hoped one day to sit in, as a strange sound catches his ears. “My God, fuel leak!”, he thinks to himself, throwing the cigarette onto the grass and stamping a boot on it then turning quickly to look over his left shoulder, just in time to see a line of urine splashing down against the rear tyre of the aeroplane he’s leaning against.
Smoke splutters back up from his lungs, and out again in white puffs in front of him, as he bends over, coughing hoarsely as he looks at the boots of the man standing there. Rudolf’s hand finds his thigh as the other reaches out in front, helping him balance before he straightens upright with a broad smile on his face. Catching his breath again, he laughs, shouting, “Egon, you silly bastard, you know that piss can’t stop bullets!”
The whole crew screams with laughter as Egon shouts back that it will ward off those poncey English gentlemen! For the last three missions, Egon has urinated on the back tyre of their bomber for luck, and each time, like silly boys, they have all laughed.
For a moment they are all as one, this crew of 1G+KM. Rudolf Müller, the pilot, leaning there now with one hand against the fuselage again, and Helmut Hacke, the mechanic with his arm across wireless operator Werner Strecke’s shoulder. Both of them standing there in the shadow of the port wing, laughing with joy, as Egon Grolig, the navigator, walks into view from behind the tail fin, buttoning his fly with both hands, laughing and smoking a cigarette taken from its silver case and now clenched between his lips.
These are the moments that stay with you, Rudolf thought to himself turning to look back at his crew. The coastal wind blowing in across the airfield to stroke the grass back and forth in the sunlight at his feet before he threw his cigarette down onto the ground after only two drags, stamping on it and twisting the toes of his boot, quickly left and right, pressing it into the soil and tapping his big toe seven times for luck, then looking up towards the sky, his hand shielding his eyes as he watched a bird slowly circling in the windy world above him.
A sadness rising up inside him as he imagined a world where all of this would be gone.
Thursday, 9th April 18:35: BDST: Smethwick, England
Amy’s eyes bulged open as if the hug Doreen was giving her was going to cause her eyes to pop out. “I love you mom,” Doreen gushed out excitedly as she squeezed. “Awww I love you too love,” Amy replied quizzically, hugging her back. “What was that for?”, she thought, puzzled for a moment. Then she let the thought go and nestled her head against Doreen’s shoulder with a contented smile, squeezing her back tightly again.
The last few months had been so hard and at times she hadn’t known whether she was coming or going. She was happy one minute, and sad the other. “There was no rhyme or reason to it,” she’d told her sister Edith after she found herself bursting into tears for no reason when in the John Dallaway Greengrocer up there on the High Street. “The shame of it Edith,” she said again and again as her sister consoled her. The last straw though was when she’d thrown herself to the floor when Doreen slammed the kitchen door closed. She saw the look on Edith’s face as she was telling her this and thought she saw pity in her sister’s eyes, just staring at her as she stirred her tea. People can feel sorry for you all they want but pity, no. “I don’t want anyone’s pity,” she thought as she quickly collected her things, saying that she had to go. It didn’t matter that Edith had shouted for her to come back.
But as she walked out into the street she felt so foolish, so lost. She’d walked home from Edith’s feeling faint, and stopped to lean against a gate. Her head spinning, she tried to collect her thoughts; it felt like her head was going to explode. Her heart pounded until she noticed a window curtain-twitching. Someone must have wondered who this woman was leaning against their gate.
“So are we going back out to clear the shelter mom?”, Doreen asked. “In a bit, love, in a bit,” Amy replied, breathing in deeply as she pressed her head back against Doreen’s shoulder again, holding her as tight as she could.
We are all trying to imagine where (hopefully) we will be in a month, let alone six months. The anxiety of that great unknown is almost paralysing in itself. But now as the reality of near-total societal shutdown bites, new layers of personal apprehension and uncertainty daily compound our anxieties.
Paul Daley - The Guardian
March 24, 2020
A new episode is released every Thursday until May 7th.
Commissioned by Living Memory & supported by Sandwell History & Archive Service
“A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth.”
― Tim O'Brien, The Things They Carried
As well as the widely expected and feared bombing raids, it was also thought that poison gas might be used against civilians. Gas masks were issued in 1938, and over 44 million had been distributed by the outbreak of war in September 1939.
― Amanda Mason, IWM
Wednesday, 9th April 19:38 BDST: Smethwick, England
Doreen sits on the sofa gazing intently at the cover of a magazine. Laurence Oliver and his wife Vivian Leigh smile out at the world as a black and white cat sits unmoved in Olivier’s arms. “Laurence Oliver is joining the Fleet Air Arm mom,” shouts Doreen, lost in thought, wishing she was the cat until she remembers she’s getting married in a couple of weeks. On the wireless, she hears an announcer introduce Living the Christian Life: “A series of four talks by the Reverend Jack Winslow”, the announcer continues. Doreen sighs and slumps down into the sofa. It’s only then that she realises how late it is.
“Mom, mom! Oh, sugar, it’s getting dark out, what about the shelter mom!”, Doreen shouts, following up, “we never finished bailing it out did we?”
“It’ll be alright love, stay at home with your mom tonight eh love?”, Amy shouts back, almost pleading, walking in from the kitchen, and wiping her hands on a tea towel. “I’ll do us a spot of supper eh, that’ll do us alright that will,” she says, standing there smiling.
“OK mom, I’ll stay home tonight,” Doreen says grudgingly as she tries to smile as she shouts back, “but only if I can turn off the wireless and put the gramophone on!”
Signal Magazine, February 1st, 1941
Signal was a glossy, illustrated photo journal and German army propaganda tool, meant specifically for audiences in neutral, allied, and occupied countries.
Wednesday, 9th April 21:02 BDST: - Dinard-Pleurtuit Airfield, France
Egon’s eyes narrow slightly, smoke wafting by them and then stinging them with its touch, as he closes his magazine. He fiddles to find the edge of the next page, wishing he hadn’t decided to cut his nails earlier, before finally finding the page’s edge and pulling the magazine apart to reveal an image of a swarthy, semi-clad, Indian man and a white woman in a bikini looking quite contentedly back at him. It’s a feature on something called ‘yoga’. He looks at them both, bemused, his head tilting to the side, casting his eyes up and down, this brown man and this white woman, then looking at her eyes, and then her smile, which ends at the corner of her full lips.
He draws the magazine in close, pulling her face towards him and pulls on the cigarette again, trapped there in between his fingers, which also holds his copy of Signal. Dragging it out from his grip to hold the cigarette firmly in his mouth, and squinting once more, as he tilts his head back to shield his eyes from the smoke that rises to drift upwards, up above him over the door of the cubicle, stopping only when it reaches the ceiling of the latrines.
At this moment he is at peace and time to his own thoughts, the flimsy white wooden doors in front of him shielding him from the world outside. The sounds of life beyond them, the unseen figures no longer existing on his side of the door.
A groaning comes from the adjoining cubicle, and Egon rolls his eyes, sighing as he looks up towards the ceiling, the groan growing in his ears, clearly it’s the sound of a man now straining against the choices of his diet. The bass notes of escaping air and splashing water follow, ending with a contented sigh of a man freed from his burden.
“Shit!” The voice shouts from the other cubicle.
Egon’s eyes roll once again, as he recognises Helmut’s voice. There’s banging on the wall. “Hey, pal there’s no bloody paper over here, do you have any?”, Helmut shouts, banging again as he follows up once more with “Hey, you there!”
“Use your bloody sleeve!”, Egon shouts, Helmut’s face forming into a smile as he too recognises this voice, replying, “Oh, you’d want me to disrespect the uniform of the Luftwaffe, you swine!” Both men laugh, the cigarette balancing precariously in Egon’s lips as they clamp closed on it, but his laughter stops abruptly as he looks down again at the magazine, two massive bombs strung under a bomber filling its front cover. “Here, use this!” Egon shouts, throwing the magazine to Helmut under the cubicle wall.
Wednesday, 9th April 21:34 BDST: Smethwick, England
Doreen wakes up with a start, sitting up quickly and feeling helpless, as she watches the magazine flying through the air to fall onto the floor in a heap. She looks down at Laurence’s crumpled face and at the cat staring back up from out of a crease as it slowly dawns on her that the air raid siren is blaring out. “Oh no!”, her words sigh out in a whimper under her breath. She stands up quickly, just looking around her, not really sure what for. Her world is spinning, the sirens are blaring, but for some reason, Sylvia Cecil still sings on – it’s all so bizarre, all so crazy.
She feels so alone. “Mom, Mom!”, she screams out, “Where are you mom?!?” The last words breaking up as she begins to sob then stops, wiping her hand across her face and collects herself. Running into the kitchen, and skidding on the polished floor, she stops like Tom chasing Jerry, then runs back out again to head up the staircase. She pushes open Amy’s bedroom door, banging it against a wall to see her asleep with her glasses still on and a book open next to her. Doreen grabs her mother by the shoulders and shakes her quickly. Amy’s eyes startle open, she gasps, and she’s speechless as she stares up at Doreen, her mouth stuck open. “Come on mom,” Doreen shouts, grabbing Amy’s wrist and yanking her upwards into life. Before she knows it, she’s halfway down the stairs. “Under the table mom, come on!”, Doreen yells, pointing ahead with a finger at the tip of her outstretched hand.
Mother and daughter fall to the floor, huddled up under the dining room table, as the sounds of the guns all the way over in Victoria Park blast shells out into the night sky. Amy sits there wringing her wrists with her hand, trying to breathe through her tears. “Oh, mom,” Doreen gasps out, pulling her in again and holding her tight under the table. Both women jolt apart and then hold each other even closer again as a mobile ‘pom-pom’ AA gun trundles down Thimblemill Lane, firing blindly into the air.
Beyond the music from the radio in the world next door they can hear the high notes of the Smart children crying and their mother trying to comfort them. Beyond the pleasantries of a “how’d you do?” when their paths crossed while leaving the house, or hanging out the washing, they hadn’t really had much to do with the Smarts. Doreen had blown a fuse from time to time when the children’s ball had come over the fence, but strangely, right now, as Sylvia Cecil still sang on, both Amy and Doreen felt a strange connection to them all next door, cowering too, all in the same boat.
Wednesday, 9th April 23:59 BDST: Lodge Bottom, Busbridge, Godalming, Surrey, England
Rudolf and the crew head towards the airfield, huddled up from the cold in the back of a canvass topped lorry, trundling through the night, rattling them around like spuds in a sack, as Werner has just pointed out. While Rudolf was lost in thought, busily lining the inside of his boot with newspaper then pulling it on before staring ahead silently, his head slowly stooping downwards.
“Cheer up Rudi,” Helmut shouts, “you’re getting a free trip to England compliments of the Third Reich, you should be grateful!” The whole truck laughs at him as he casts daggers back at Helmut while throwing his cigarette butt out in disgust of the back of the truck, out through where the gap in the canvas left room for the world to come in.
At the bomber, Rudolf kicks the tyres of the plane, one last time, and then wriggles his big toe in his boot clockwise, seven times for luck as he always did, always clockwise. He then felt a tinge of self-consciousness as he remembered that Helmut was waiting patiently behind him, his arms crossed. Helmut had to wait for Rudolf because he was always the last one on, he was their lucky charm, after all. “Rudi,” Helmuth called, and he turned and held out a hand for Rudolf to shake as no words were exchanged. Then Rudolf dragged himself up to the bomber, Helmuth followed and a crewman outside shut the bomber door closed.
So this was the crew of 1G+KM, the Second Group of Bomber Wing Twenty-Seven sitting here on Dinard-Pleurtuit Airfield on April 9th, 1941 on the stroke of a new day. Egon Grolig, the navigator and bombardier in the right seat next to the pilot Rudolf Muller. Werner Strecke, the wireless operator sitting in the wireless operator's station and Helmut Hacke, the engineer down in the ventral position.
As Rudolf made himself comfortable, in the pilot’s seat, tapping his big toe, seven times for luck, yet again, he’d never know that one of the bombers from 5./KG55, which had set off ahead of them for Birmingham earlier that night, is heading towards its fate in a field in Britain – the hunter has become the hunted. Those who had come to England to kill now finding themselves fighting for a life that slowly slipped from their grip.
Blood streams from the face of Unteroffizier. Alfred Müller, the pilot of G1+DN Werk no: 1423. He’s lucky to be alive, having been shot twice in the face, one bullet passing through his cheek and breaking his jaw bone as it smashes through him, another taking off the tip of his nose after puncturing his oxygen mask.
He immediately had put the bomber into a dive, pushing forwards on the yoke and heading deep into the clouds beneath him, while above, Radio/Op: Gefreiter. Heinrich Berg fired back from the B Gun Position, blindly through the whiteness, a whiteness which had consumed them – and momentarily saved them.
Müller had unclipped his oxygen mask, trying to spit out blood, but teeth had followed even if the skin, cartilage and bone of his nose didn’t embedded as it was in the leather of the mask. He tried to push his jaw back up with one gloved hand, blood pouring over it, and running down his neck then down the front of his flight suit. Having to spit blood out to breath as he focused on getting out of the dive. It’s strange, but he was just surprised that it didn’t hurt more. He fought the urge to think of what he looked like at this moment and then in the future he hoped would come, as the cold wind blew in through the shattered cockpit.
Perhaps the absence of pain had more to do with the wonders of shock, and yes, the cold wind rushing into the cockpit and against his face. Maybe it was the wind, too, which sobered his thoughts, bringing him back to the world to hear Observer: Gefreiter. Rudolf Langhans screaming, writhing at his feet. Rolling on his back to clutch at his stomach while behind him Flt/Eng: Unteroffizier. Gerhard Neumann and Berg were fighting a fire in the fuselage.
It was just too much. He looked out of the cockpit at the fields below and just wanted to make ground: “Brace for landing,” he tried to shout, and whether they had heard his garbled words or not, he looked out for a spot to land.
As the plane came down to land, Müller hadn’t seen the woods at the end of his approach in the darkness. The bomber crashed into them, tearing off the wings and splitting open the nose, where Langhans lay. All of them thrown, violently ripped from their grip on life, and tumbling, crashing, thrown clear from the bomber with such force they landed in bone-crunching heaps out in the muddy English field. Only Heinrich Berg would survive the turmoil, his only injury a broken leg.
“Why do some live and others die?”, Berg would often ask himself, living with the guilt of survival. Every birthday to come, from this moment, he’d think of how old his crewmates would have been. He would wonder, too, what lives they would have led, and then measure the value of his own life against theirs. Asking the question, if anyone dared asked him about war, “what was it all for?”
When Berg lay in that field among the debris of broken trees carried by the bomber as it crashed through them, calling out the names of his crewmates, forlornly, no answer coming from their limp, broken bodies, Rudolf and his crew were yet to make it to flight yet all of them were readying themselves for their own fate still to come.
Personal Combat Report of F/Sgt E. R. Thorn DFM.
I took off from Biggin Hill at 2250 hours on 9/4/41 being under Kenley G.R. control. We gained height and finally orbited 15,00 feet. We were vectored after our A/E on approx 300 vector but were unable to make contact and so returned to Biggin Hill and once more orbited.
We were then given a great number of vectors rapidly and finally on a 090 vector we sighted E/A (enemy aircraft) at about 1000 yards ahead and 200 feet above us flying on the same course at 18,000 feet. We closed in on his starboard side and made a beam attack with a burst of 2 seconds.
The de Wilde ammunition was observed to be bursting in the fuselage and there was return fire, of which only one hit could be traced subsequently in the starboard wing. We then crossed under the port side and gave another good burst of 2 seconds, and the port engine was seen to glow.
E/A then started to lose height and turned away to starboard and coming over above him we fired a burst at the pilot. Returning to the port side we gave him another burst in the fuselage, and there was again return fire, but now from one forward gun. We then asked Control for our position, which was given as approx over Brookland’s. We followed the enemy aircraft down to 9,000 feet and it disappeared into cloud in a steep dive with lots of white smoke coming from it, which I thought to be Glycol, heading in approx a southerly direction.
E/A was clearly seen to be HE 111 and is now established to have crashed at Godalming in Surrey.
There was no anti-aircraft or searchlight co-operation and Kenley Control was excellent. The weather was very clear above a white cloud base 10/10 at 7,000 feet. We used 1079 rounds of ammunition and landed back at Biggin Hill at 0016 hours on 10.4.41.
We claim one He 111 destroyed. My gunner was Sgt Barker.
Signed (pilot) E. R. Thorn.
(Above: Thorn is seated, first left © BBM)
For more information on F/Sgt E. R. Thorn See below:
"Humans are by nature careful about the messages they receive. When evaluating information, we first compare what we’re told (or have read) with our existing beliefs: if it fits, we tend to accept the information. Fake news takes advantage of this by reinforcing our prejudices: drinkers believe that alcohol is a cure, and racists blame Chinese scientists. By contrast, any message that clashes with our personal experience, in particular if it calls for some costly action, is initially rejected. Early warnings were thus, for many, difficult to hear: confinement seemed drastic in reaction to a threat that hadn’t affected us or anyone we knew yet."
Fake news in the time of coronavirus: how big is the threat?
Hugh Mercier - The Guardian
March 30, 2020
A new episode is released every Thursday until May 7th.
Commissioned by Living Memory & supported by Sandwell History & Archive Service
The Witching Hour
“And when all the wars are over, a butterfly will still be beautiful.”
― Ruskin Bond, Scenes from a Writer's Life
"I was 21 when I was nearly killed when a bomb went off across the road from me. I was courting my wife at the time. I had been visiting her house when I had to leave to go and meet a friend at Thornton Heath Ponds. When the bomb hit the glass from shop windows didn't shatter but blew apart as it flew towards me. I immediately ducked down to get away. I was left shaking but I wasn't afraid. I don't remember the blast from that bomb, but I still remember the shrapnel bombs and the metal flying all over the place; when it hit the wall it was a bright star."
Thursday, 10th April 00:00 BDST: Smethwick, England
“Filthy beasts!”, Amy had once proclaimed, a few years before war, after visiting her friend Maureen Barnes for tea and finding herself having to share the settee in the parlour with Maureen’s dachshund, Fritz. Fritz had been furtively attempting to lick at the back of her hand, as she tried carefully to edge her full cup of tea away from him without spilling it on herself. She tried, all the time, to keep a smile fixed on her face and hide the contempt she felt growing inside. “Oh, yes Maureen he’s a lovely boy,” she’d agreed happily through gritted teeth, while imagining herself booting Fritz off the settee and sending him whimpering for the door.
Instead, Fritz would keep on licking at her, inching forward to follow her as she edged slowly away, all the time wondering to herself, who’d call their dog after the ruddy Bosche?
“How could those filthy beasts have that animal on the settee?”, she’d asked, incredulously, on returning home, to find around the kitchen table William reading his newspaper and Amy her magazine, “Oh, I can still feel his tongue on my wrist, well, no one wants that do they? Dogs and feet a settee shall never meet!” She was blustering, tying her apron tightly around her waist. “No, love,” William agreed, hidden behind his newspaper, his eyes rolling as he rustled it, pulling it taut, then raising it higher in the air in front of him, like a shield he hoped would protect him from the jaws of needless conversation that was about to snap closed on him. Doreen sighed out a “no mom.” Immediately she wondered whether it should have been a yes mom though, just like dad’s.
Doreen smiled to herself, as the thought of whether Fritz had been interned for the duration entered her mind. But the old kitchen table, back down there in London, seemed so far away now. She rose up a little to look down at her bare legs on the settee. Her head propped up on Amy’s lap, her mother’s hand stroking at her hair as the news started up on the wireless. Doreen tilted her head back down and looked up at her mother, who was lost in thought: “Remember Maureen’s dog, mom? Imagine her trying to find him during the blackout, shouting out, ‘Fritz, Fritz, where are you, here boy!’”
Amy’s face cracked into laughter and Doreen raised her head up again from her mother’s lap. They both hugged each other and laughed. “Dog’s and feet a settee shall never meet, don't you know!”, Doreen shouted out in a posh accent bouncing her feet up and down on the settee like a toddler in a paddling pool. “Oh, you rotter you!”, Amy shouted back, seeing her bare feet there as they both laughed again, a mother and daughter hugging each other in the living room of their home. Outside, just a few inches beyond the bricks and mortar of their home, the world, gone mad, was full of people busily trying to kill each other through increasingly more devious, yet ingenious ways.
“Come on, let’s go back under the table mom,” Doreen said, standing up and pulling out a section of seat cushion from the sofa to lay under the table, Amy followed, and they lay there together listening to the world outside with all of its thunder. The smell of cordite seeped in, along with the cold and the dull thuds of artillery prodding into the night. The shrill sound of a siren breaking in was audible, and then faded. Amy began to cry. “Don’t cry mom, we’ll get through this, you watch, blue skies all the way,” Doreen responded, pulling a hanky from her sleeve and dabbing at her mother’s face. “I know love, we will. I just miss your dad and the life we had. You don’t really know what you have until it’s gone, do you?”, Amy said, holding Doreen gently by the wrist, if only to stop her from dabbing at her face, as she wondered where Doreen’s hanky had been, then paused to think to herself for a moment and then smiled, continuing, “you’re going to be such a wonderful mother one day.”
“Oh mom do you think so?”, Doreen blushingly replied, her hand falling to her face, “you’re going to tear me up too, mom,” she followed up, her hand wafting in front of her face. “You will love - the best,” Amy said, her hand wiping away her daughter’s tears now, and then whispering, “blue skies all the way.”
Thursday, 10th April 00:15 BDST: Dinard-Pleurtuit Airfield, France
Looking out beyond the scratched plexiglass window at the motionless props of the port engine, cast in the shadows of a dark blue night, Rudolf wasn’t sure which was worse: the silence or the idle chit chat by the rest of the crew used to break it as they waited anxiously for flight.
In that charged space in time, as minds searched for distractions from the feelings of fear which tried to seep out with each breath, the silence would often draw Rudolf to thoughts of his mother and a sense of deep sadness that would come when he imagined her hearing of his death. That sadness would often transform into a perverse feeling of warmth inside each time he imagined her crying at the news of his death.
This always disturbed Rudolf, yet he would replay it in his mind nonetheless, getting a strange sense of satisfaction and comfort from it all each time. Perhaps the thought of someone mourning him gave meaning to it all, giving meaning to taking off into a night sky to face the horrors which could befall airmen and fire was always close to his thoughts.
He'd burnt himself as a child, tending to the logs in the hearth, a log falling onto his barefoot. He still remembered the pain, and his screams, as his mother carried him to run his foot under cold water and the blisters that formed on his skin. The fear of being burnt again had haunted him ever since. To burn alive, well, his meandering thoughts always stopped there as he pulled on his seat harness which strapped him in tightly to a bomber full of high explosives and 750 gallons of highly flammable aviation fuel. But he’d found an extra fire extinguisher, with the help of the quartermaster, and kept it close to the pilot’s seat, so that was that.
Perhaps it was because he didn’t have a sweetheart waiting for him to return to, like the others in his crew, which gave his mother the starring role in his thoughts? He’d told the crew he had a girl back home though. She looked a bit like the movie star Zarah Leander, he’d told them after they’d watched her in the film The Desert Song last August. They’d returned in the early hours from a mission over the South coast of England and the film had been shown later that day as a morale booster after it was revealed that the group’s Commanding Officer, Major Friedrich-Karl Schlichting, had failed to return from the mission. The trick had worked, of course, all the thoughts of if he’d got it what about us, evaporating with beers and film night.
Helmut had whistled as he’d pulled his collar away with his finger, to pretend to let out heat, upon hearing Rudolf’s news of his girl back home but Werner just rolled his eyes and sighed, their eyes locking as Rudolf looked away sheepishly, but Werner never said a word. Nobody did in fact, no-one asked him any more questions about his sweetheart after that. Not even to ask him why he didn’t have a photo of her by his bunk as they all had of their sweethearts.
Anyway, on the other hand, the infernal chit chat before flight just got him angry. “It is always the same, every single time!”, he’d voiced when drunk one time when out with a fellow pilot from another crew. “Egon that bloody wet eater!”, as Rudolf would call him, always talking about the food in Swabia, and what he could eat right now. Always in his stupid thick accent - which Rudolf had to listen so carefully to understand. Just as with Werner, or as the crew called him, ‘The Pole’, always jokingly asking him whose side he was on having come from Schlesien. It always also amazed Rudolf that Werner was the crew’s wireless operator - with that accent.
Oh, and then there was Helmut, always talking about football. If he heard the story, just one more time, about his trials for Bayern Munich, he would have to shoot him, he often thought. He imagined himself saying, in defence, that the British had done it. Helmut’s story would always unfurl in exactly the same order every time. Always with the same jokes in the same places. “Yes, yes, you trained alongside Rudi Fink and yes we know that if it wasn’t for your knee injury you would have been in goal instead of him. Yes, yes, for Christ’s sake Helmut move on!”, Rudolf mused to himself until it hit him that Helmut was only doing the same as himself. Just trying to find meaning in a world which was quickly losing it.
Rudolf sighed and looked out of the cockpit window again, just looking out into the darkness for a moment as the sound of a second hand ticked loudly on the instrument panel clock.
Finally, well, there was Egon. Egon; he was always whistling and always the same infernal tune.
Right on cue, the sound of “Schön ist die Nacht” whistled out from next to him - Rudolf sighed again as he thought to himself, “these bloody clowns,” his head shaking, slowly “bloody jokers,” a smile now forming as he thought of them all, his crew, snorting out a puff of air. “Rudi”, Helmut asked, after coming up to the cockpit from the C gun position. Rudolf began to turn his body then was restrained by his harness, so instead wrenched his neck back as far as it would go.“Yes?”, he replied slightly surprised.
“Do you think Britain and Russia will form a pact against us?”, Helmut asked. Rudolf paused, a quizzical look forming on his face, then replied, “What’s that got to do with Bayern Munich?” The crew laughed as a blank expression formed on Helmut’s face, his shoulders arching upwards. “I don’t get it,” he shouted over the laughter, “I don’t get it!” Turning to look at Werner at the wireless set behind him, still laughing at him, as he headed back to the C gun position.
“Rudi, look, the crew chief!”, Egon shouts, waving a hand at Rudolf to get his attention, breaking him from his laughter, then turning to point outside to the figure walking ahead of the bomber, holding a lantern in his hand to stand around nine or ten yards in front of them. Rudolf looks up at Egon’s finger, then, preening his head upwards, follows its pointed direction with his eyes to look through the plexiglass and stare intently at the figure ahead. “This is it lads, all clear!”, Rudolf shouts over the intercom, each crew member replying one by one as they ready themselves for flight, each of them in their own world for a moment, just for a moment, before routine takes over.
The crew chief too, outside, appears in his own world, looking anxiously into the distance, off to his left, for a signal to come from the take-off and landing officer, his hand smoothing down his hair, again and again, at the back of his neck. “Maybe he’s bored,” Rudolf thinks to himself dismissively, “Are we boring you?” He thinks again. Then feels bad, as he begins to think about how hard all of the ‘Blackies’ work. Right now all over the airfield, these small vignettes are taking place as men await flight and combat, some of them with excitement, but most others with fear. Rudolf inhales and then swallows his fears while his hand wavers over the starter clutch, and his eyes set on the preening crew chief, still looking off to the left. He quickly opens the cockpit window, his hand nudging against the flap lever and waits for his sign to start the engines.
The signal comes, the crew chief waves his lantern and Rudolf shouts out at him, “clear ahead?” The crew chief’s answer is to turn and point ahead with the lantern at the end of an outstretched arm down the runway before quickly running out of the way to repeat the process with the bomber behind. With confirmation, he shouts out over the intercom, “port free!”, and presses down the starter clutch at the same time. Life comes to 1G+KM, oil-infused smoke belching out of the port engine as a throaty roar grows louder with the life it’s been given. “Starboard free!”, he shouts again, remembering to close the canopy window, as smoke comes in through it. Now both engines have life, their roar growing louder; he pushes forward on the throttle, just a little, to test the generators.
All around the airfield, other crews are giving their own bombers life too, inside them observers and pilots repeating the same preflight checks. Reciting the same often-repeated lines of actors, to themselves in the exact same order, each time, in a long-running play that for some would have very different endings.
Dinard-Pleurtuit Airfield (FR)
(48 35 30 N – 02 05 00 W)
General: airfield in NW France 60 km NW of Rennes in Brittany; airfield located 5 km SSW of Dinard and 1.75 km NW of the village of Pleurtuit.
History: used as found during 1940 and early 1941 by the Luftwaffe and then developed into a major airbase for bombers. Relatively active right through to Jun 44.
Dimensions: approx. 1830 x 1000 meters (2000 x 1100 yards) with an irregular shape.
Surface and Runways: artificially drained grass on clay subsoil. There were 2 concrete runways in the form of a cross – (1) 1740 meters (1900 yards) aligned N/S with assembly hardstands at both ends, and (2) 1600 meters (1750 yards) aligned NW/SE with assembly hardstands at both ends. A perimeter road encircled the landing area. Equipped with boundary lighting, runway illumination, a visual beacon, a beam approach system and visual Lorenz systems for each runway.
Fuel and Ammunition: refuelling loops were on the E and W boundaries and in the East and West dispersal areas. Bulk fuel storage was in woods 1 km NW of the hangars. The main bomb dump was 1.6 km WSW of the airfield and 4 smaller dumps in the surrounding woods and in the dispersal areas.
Infrastructure: had 5 medium hangars, all grouped on the NW boundary.
Workshop buildings and motor vehicle sheds and garages were behind the hangars. Station HQ, admin offices and aircrew quarters were in a group of buildings in a stand of trees behind the hangars. Station officers were billeted in château about 1 km S of the airfield, personnel in barracks SE on the outskirts of Pleurtuit and additional personnel in hotels in Dinard.
A light rail spur off the main Dinard line encircled the airfield on the W and S sides.
Dispersal: the 3 dispersals – East, West and Northwest – had a total of 26 large and 1 medium covered aircraft shelters in Jul 43. An additional 8 shelters were under construction in Mar 44.
Defences: protected by 5 heavy and 17 light Flak positions out to a radius of 3 km from the centre of the airfield.
© Luftwaffe Airfields 1935-45 France (with Corsica and Channel Islands) By Henry L. deZeng IV
Thursday, 10th April 00:25 BDST: - Dinard-Pleurtuit Airfield, France
It never really crossed Rudolf’s mind that much, as his plane took to the sky, in the early hours, that he was actually in the business of killing people. His job, he thought, on this 10th day of April 1941, was merely to fly his bomber to a fixed point in the sky and then fly it back home again. It was Egon Grolig’s job, who lay face-down in the canopy, in the nose of the bomber, whose job it was to take care of the killing part, and to actually drop the bombs on those below.
He was only the pilot, after all. All that he did was merely follow the directions of the navigator, yes that man Egon Grolig again, laying down there at his feet, behind that thin layer of plexiglass, whistling “Schön ist die Nacht”, as he plotted his course through the darkness. Listening for the clicks of the direction beam indicators to tell him that he was on course and following the invisible navigational beams which stretched through the night and crisscrossed over Birmingham at target fifty-two. His role, Rudolf thought, was to only ever follow orders, it was only ever to get Egon to wherever he needed to be, tonight, tomorrow or until someone told him to stop.
Or someone made him stop, of course.
I wonder if Rudolf and Bodien would have become friends if they'd met in friendlier times? Those two men, two pilots on either side of history, soon to be heading towards each other in the skies above England as perhaps destiny had always planned. Sergeant Henry Bodien, the R.A.F. pilot who, in less than an hour, would intercept 1G+KM and set it ablaze.
But of course, Rudolf knew nothing of him, as he and his crew finally took to the sky while the other planes in the bomber stream of two-hundred and eighty-two aircraft, ahead of them, having already dropped their bombs on Birmingham, were heading for home. Except, of course, for the crew of G1+DN Werk no: 1423, all but one of them, at that very moment, laying dead in a field outside of Godalming in Surrey, as the undercarriage of 1G+KM retracted as it rose up into the night sky.
I’m sure it would have crossed Rudolf’s mind, or those of his crew, as they waited for flight, sat there strapped into the seats of their plane, on the runway at Dinard, there in Brittany, just to the West of Saint-Malo, waiting for take-off. At that same moment, British pilots would be doing the same. Readying themselves to find them. And indeed they were, Sergeant Henry Bodien, “Snowy” to his friends, and, his gunner, New Zealander Dudley Jonas, had been preparing for their own night mission to patrol over the skies of Birmingham, after earlier sitting with red goggles on, trying to get their eyes accustomed to the night.
Rudolf would have felt stupid if the rest of the crew had known that, while he waited, he often tapped his toe in his boot, seven times for luck, as it rested behind the yoke before each flight. Even more perhaps if they’d known also about the newspaper folded up in his boot. While he’d sat there, stern-faced, and focused on what was to come as he rolled down the runway, adjusting himself in his seat, mentally taking his fears and placing them in a box, pushed to the back of his mind. Doing what a superior had told him to once do: imagining the worst that could happen, so that when it did he wouldn’t freeze.
Rudolf wouldn’t have known then that fate had conspired for the lives of so many strangers to collide, these men and women from three different countries, and for fate to them in the night sky above the West Midlands.
“Another night, I remember being at home and hearing a German bomber overhead. I rushed out into the street to get a closer look; a hatch underneath the plane opened up and two bombs dropped into the cemetery across the street. The mess it made was unbelievable. There were decomposed bodies and skeletons everywhere, and they all had to be picked up and reburied. It wasn't pleasant, but it had to be done.”
Thursday, 10th April 00:50 BDST: Smethwick, England.
“Reeney, Reeney. Come on, love, let’s get you up to bed, come on girl let’s have you,” Amy’s words slowly begin to raise Doreen from slumber. Yet, as the world floods in she can’t remember how the blanket on top of her got there before, but she rolls it back slightly nonetheless as a sign that she’s getting up, looking out at her mother’s feet from under the table, through one slightly open eye. “OK mom, in a minute,” she slurs, closing her one eye again and pulling the blanket back up.
“Come on love it’s one in the morning; you’ll do yourself no good sleeping under there, go to bed, there’s a good girl. Come on let’s go up to bed love.” With the sound of pleading in her mother’s voice, Doreen breaks sleep’s grip and throws the blanket off from her torso and the cold begins to embrace her. Through the same eye again she sighs as she looks over to the fireplace and sees that the fire’s out. But before she can surrender her position on her terms, Amy pulls the blanket away with a flourish. “Well, ”she says, “you can freeze to death or go up to bed!”, placing a hot water bottle by the table as a peace offering. “Thanks mom,” Doreen begrudgingly sighs out, rolling her eyes and stretching an arm, then pulling it in close, feeling its warmth as she begins to crawl out into the cold living room, standing up and then stumbling into the outstretched arms of Doreen who hugs her tight, rubbing up and down her back to warm her up. “I miss dad so much, mom,” Doreen sleepily muses.
“I know love, there isn’t a day that I don’t think of him all alone down there, but two weeks tomorrow we’ll be a family again for your big day. I can’t believe my little girl is getting married,” Amy says, pausing as she looks upward, tilting her head backwards so her tears don’t spill out. “Everytime I walk past your bedroom, if the door’s ajar, I have to stop and stare at your wedding dress hanging up like a work of art on your wall. It’s so beautiful. Goodness, I always think to myself, my little girl made that, my little girl.” The tears flow just as Doreen gets her words out and they hug again, their embrace breaking as Doreen bends down to pull the cushion seats out to put them back in the settee. “Leave them love, we’ll do that in the morning, let’s get you to bed,” Amy says, grabbing Doreen in an embrace again and kissing her quickly on her head. “I love you mom,” Doreen mutters, her eyes closed, as Amy whispers back, “I love you too. Love you to the moon and back”.
"We believed, in our ignorance and arrogance, that we can be invincible, that we are superior to any other living being on the face of the earth....And now we find ourselves stopped, beaten by a life lesson that we did not expect, we consider ourselves unjust, we consider ourselves at war."
― Corina Abdulahm Negura
Commissioned by Living Memory & supported by Sandwell History & Archive Service
Schön ist die Nacht
“Only the dead have seen the end of war.”
"My mother, brother and myself used to play Ludo in the evenings which helped my mother relax a little before the air raids started. As soon we heard the wailing of the sirens we would go into the shelter which was in the garden.
Sometimes it was very dark and we would carefully use a torch. Usually, the sky was lit up with searchlights. Often we could see fires where the German planes had dropped incendiary bombs...
Then the terrible noise would begin of the guns, droning of the planes and the thud of the bombs falling."
Rudolf shielded his eyes from the bright flashes bursting, out from the front of the bomber as Egon tested the guns in short bursts while Helmut and Werner did the same, from below and above. Rudolf, turning his head away, couldn’t help but look up at the moon. The same moon he’d stared at and wondered about as a child. “That damn full moon,” Rudolf thought, turning his head to look up at it and eyeing it with contempt, “it’s going to get us killed.”
He didn’t say a word to the crew as he turned back; he just breathed heavily and surveyed the world around him, all the time trying to keep his emotions checked and stowed away out of reach. It wasn’t easy though. Earlier, he found it mournful watching the bombers ahead of him switch off their navigation lights so soon after take-off, those 25 or so minutes ago. Leaving them on just long enough so that each bomber would know where they were in the darkness to avoid a collision, but also helping them find their place in the formation. As they went out, that feeling of mournfulness grew to be one of betrayal. Egon jumped back up into his seat to watch the instruments for takeoff, sitting there as the engines throttled up, the bomber straining on its leash to be set free, waiting for Egon to give the sign. Then Rudolf freeing the brakes and pushing the throttles of each engine forward to send the bomber on its way down the runway, easing back on the yoke as the scarlet indicator makers on the runway begin to blur until flight comes.
We were all meant to be in this together, Rudolf thought, as each light had flickered out, but then it suddenly became apparent that it was every bomber for themselves. All of the crews peering out separately into the night to spot the other bombers around them, hoping all the time that they wouldn’t collide, clipping a wing and being sent spiralling down into the Channel.
Well, not all of his crew peered out there into the darkness. Werner never once looked out there, he always sat at the wireless station, unmoved, testing his radio set methodically. “So do you want us to lose the navigational beam and fly all the way to bloody Ireland? Huh? You look out for those bloody planes and I'll take care of the radio telemetry,” he’d shouted when Helmut had dared joke about it. Then Rudolf snorted, to himself, remembering the time he’d driven up to St Malo with Werner’s friend Heinz, or Hans, he could never quite remember which, and always simply called him Dolphin Boy.
What a time that was, he remembered fondly. “Werner, how’s The Dolphin?”, Rudolf asks over the intercom. Egon, clenching the gun stock laying there in the A Gun Position and rolling his eyes, he knows it’s a story he’s heard so many times before, one that never has room for him. “Still looking over that bow!”, Werner replied, laughing loudly. “Well, tell him not to jump. So, have you heard from him lately?”, Rudolf asks again. Neither of them knew, at that point, he’d been dead for 24 hours, after falling to his death - his parachute failing to upon. “I got a letter from him last weekend. He seemed in good spirits,” says Werner excitedly, “Oh, listen to this, the lucky bugger said he was going home next weekend on leave to get married! Good for…”
Before Rudolf can finish, Egon breaks in, “Coming up to the English coast, boss.” This stops the conversation, which he’d felt excluded from, dead. He still didn’t know why they hadn't asked him to come, and it still hurt him, still leaving him to wonder what he did wrong. “Sod them,” he thinks to himself, just as Rudolf breaks in over the intercom: “OK lads, this is it,” Rudolf tells them, pausing, then muttering, “God be with you,” and then the intercom falls silent. Rudolf breathing in heavily then looking down at Egon, in the moonlight, crossing himself.
Thursday, 10th April 01:10 BDST: Wittering, Peterborough, England.
As Bodien and Jonas’s defiant night fighter rose into the air, the hands on the altimeter dial found life, rotating clockwise with the easing back of the yoke. This pushed Jonas forwards in his seat, back there in the gun turret, behind Bodien, having to prop himself in place with rigid outstretched arms on either side of the canopy. His stomach fluttering slightly as the starboard wing dipped unexpectedly in a crosswind, Bodien correcting, lowering his left aileron as the wheels of the undercarriage rose away from the runway at RAF Wittering. The spinning wheels locking themselves into place as the hydraulic mechanism retracted them up into the underside of the wings.
The mission had started with what Jonas had hoped wasn’t a bad omen. He’d cocked the guns, for the second time, during the arduous preflight gun turret drill. Setting each from their safe to fire positions and remembering to put the cocking toggles away to its holder afterwards. In his haste though he’d tried to power operate the turret, switching on the motor switch before he’d released the armoured switch on the control column first, resulting in a blown fuse. A bright flash came from the fuse, letting him know what an idiot he’d been. Looking around, sheepishly, he then experienced a sense of relief, knowing he’d had a spare fuse. New fuse in, and motor switch on, he finally powered up the turret, moving from port to starboard and then back again to stow the guns pointing forwards for takeoff. They’d called the Boulton Paul “Defiant, the Widowmaker.” It had no forward facing guns, in the wings, just the guns in the rear turret; during the Battle of France and Britain they’d taken a mauling from the German fighters. No good for daylight operations, they painted them black and designated them as night fighters.
Not many pilots knew that they could fire the rear guns when in a forward facing position – firing them with a dead sight, but a lack of training, kept many of them in the dark. But where else would you find a night fighter? Besides, the rear gunner couldn’t get out of the turret when in a forward position; he’d have to crawl out through a small hatch below. If the plane lost hydraulic power, they’d be stuck too, having to manually crank the turret around to bail out or again crawling out through the hatch below knowing that their parasuit with all of its loops and buckles on could to snag and trap them. It was so bad that, later on, gunners would take the risk of just wearing a harness and clipping on a parachute they’d stowed in the turret.
For the gunner, the Defiant was a death trap, but with his clumsy safety straps now in place, Jonas had reported “guns OK” to Bodien, and they were ready for flight.
It only ever seemed real for Dudley Everard Charles Jonas – the fact that he was heading off on a mission to shoot down another plane – at the moment he heard the bang of the undercarriage closing beneath him. Until then he’d always felt out of sorts, as if one day someone would find out that he wasn’t meant to be a gunner all along, even though he dreamt of being a Pilot Officer. “It was all a terrible mistake,” he often waited for someone to tell him, at any minute a hand falling on his shoulder and a voice asking them to come with them to become a cook or a quartermaster. He just didn’t feel as if he quite belonged at times, not like Bodien. Bodien had a swagger about him, inner confidence. Bodien was a man’s man, after all, who was made for his uniform and for combat. He was a man who enjoyed the thrill of the chase, one who had found himself in war. Jonas, well, he was just happy to get away from the drudgery of his life in New Zealand. Sure, he wanted to do his bit, of course he did, but he’d also just had his fill of selling used cars.
For Jonas, the whole matter of war wasn’t personal, he didn’t hate the ‘Jerries’, not like some in the squadron, but at the same time he hadn’t lost anyone as they had, and the Germans, after all, weren't bombing his cities back home. No, for Jonas it was never personal, besides, he wasn’t killing another human, he was just shooting down a lifeless plane – and this hadn’t happened for a while, well, for at least two months now.
In the early hours of February 5th, Jonas had spotted a Dornier 17 z-10 on a night intruder sortie – looking for planes to shoot down. Bodien had skillfully gotten Jonas into an ideal firing position abreast and above them before Jonas gave them a ‘squirt’ into the cockpit. Jonas wouldn’t know then that he’d be shooting down the second to last Dornier 17 bomber on British soil, or that that ‘squirt’ had exploded into the crown of Oberleuntant Otto Hauser’s head, just as he turned to port to look up at something that had caught his eye.
As the top of his head, well, caught the bullets, his body and arms convulsed into a rigid spasm, sending his arms out straight in front of him and, unfortunately, forcing the yoke forwards and the bomber into a dive, sending brain matter and bone fragments over the back of the legs of the bomb aimer as he lurched forwards. As the bomber dived, Bodien quickly descended into a dive too, following him in a cat-and-mouse pursuit, catching up, then skillfully flying away to port, pulling out of the dive, and then rolling starboard, dipping his wing to give Jonas another chance to fire.
Jonas’s second ‘squirt’ was a three-second burst from above, as the plane drifted across the German. This action shredded the port wing, blowing off parts of the flaps and setting the engine ablaze, severing a fuel pipe and causing it to unexpectedly explode into flames, startling Jonas, and breaking the wing in two, hurtling the terrified crew inside to corkscrew down into the ground.
Neither Bodien nor Jonas would hear the hysterical screams of the crew in the Do 17 Z-10 of Kampfgeschwader 2, Werk No. 2843 R4+BK, of course, while they fell through the night sky, spiralling down as they went. Besides, Bodien and Jonas were too busy whooping it up. Bodien, rolling back to port, and turning in an arc, looking over his shoulder, thumb to his nose as his fingers waggled, looking on at the streaks of flame that fell downwards.
Jonas never thought about the men who were in that plane, their bodies ripped apart and set ablaze in a field close to Cowthick Lodge, Weldon, as they pummeled into the ground. He never thought of the fate which he had sealed for them, but why would he? Whilst he felt no joy in their death, there was the exhilaration of knowing that they’d vanquished another night fighter in a duel to the death – it was simply kill or be killed.
As Bodien and Jonas continued to rise from the runway, in a slow climb, the aircraft lazily banked starboard, giving Jonas, sitting in the electric gun turret, a chance to look down at the moon glistening off the canopy of Sgt Lionel Staples’s plane, as he too pushed the throttle forward on his own night fighter. They watched him accelerating down the runway, just as they had, correcting the veer to the left with the right rudder and picking up speed behind them to join them in the air.
It’s strange to imagine now, but at the moment Staples pushed the throttle forward, and Jonas looked down upon him, all of those who would die, within that next hour, in the early hours of that April 10th morning, were still alive. All of them breathing breaths and living lives they hoped would last forever in a world where destiny crept ever closer to them and to Smethwick.
Quantum physics dictates that our notion of time, as something which is a constant linear flow forward, is a misguided one. It presumes, instead, that the past, present and future are not separate states but co-existent fluid ones which fluidly coexist all at once. All of time, in its entirety, and it’s histories were written at the moment of the Big Bang.
Perhaps then, within that paradigm, Bodien and Jonas were always meant to be slowly rising up into the night sky, with Staples throttling up on the runway behind them. Doreen was always going to be asleep in her bed in Smethwick as her mother Amy slept in the adjoining bedroom, while Rudolf flew on his way towards them.
What would come next was always meant to be, just as, eleven hours before, Amy was always meant to be walking back home from the shops on Smethwick High Street, at midday, with that day’s tea and supper for her and Doreen in her wicker basket. Her arm looped through the handle of her handbag on that bright spring Wednesday, April 9th. While Amy was walking home with her eight ounces of ham, at the very moment, Winston Churchill was standing at the Despatch Box, briefing the House of Commons on how the conduct of the war was progressing. Telling the world that “however far Hitler may go or whatever new millions and scores of millions he may lap in misery, we who are armed with the sword of retributive justice shall be on his track.”
That sword of retributive justice, carried by Bodien and entrusted to Jonas to wield, sitting there in his turret looking up at the moon-lit sky above him.
"One night the family were in the Anderson shelter in the garden when it received a direct hit. The bomb made a huge crater and they all fell into it. Mum was at the bottom of the pile and was badly injured.
Doris and her sister escaped injury, but father had broken bones and bad concussion. The house hadn't been hit and the fire wardens got Dad into it, only to have a piano nearly fall on him. Both parents were taken to different hospitals, mum stayed in hers for 4 months.
Doris and her sister didn't know where their parents had gone and weren't told until four days later when the vicar came to tell them. During this time they had to cope on their own."
“Mom!” Doreen shouts in her sleep, waking herself up then sitting upright. The sound of planes in the night, flying off in the distance and the growing explosions from the anti-aircraft guns suddenly pulling her back into the world of the living. She reaches quickly for the torch on her bedside table, too quickly, her hand jutting out and knocking it to the floor. Another loud bang rings out, followed by three more in quick succession and Doreen pulls the sheets from her and throws herself to the floor by the side of her bed. “Ow, ow ow!”She screams out, beginning to sob with pain and fear “Oh, Mom!”, she cries, but the sound of the artillery fire grows louder and more rapid. Bang, bang, bang, then the sound of a car screeches to a stop somewhere outside and more firing blazes out, louder and more quickly. It’s the pom-pom gun again, from earlier, that has been roaming the streets all night. The Smart children are screaming bloody murder next door. High pitched wails that would threaten to break glass in the window frames if they weren’t taped up, but Doreen rolls under her bed, half of her world from London still kept there in an old suitcase. Clothes from a peace-time past that she said she was always going to wear again, or make do and mend but never got around to it, in this life of war, where windows are taped up behind blackout curtains and men in the sky drop bombs on those below.
Still rubbing her shoulder, pulling her nightie away, pointing the torch at it to see if there was a cut, and with tears running down her flushed cheeks she points the torch out up at the wedding dress hanging up on the wall. Her eyes linger on it, the beam of light rising and falling slightly as she breathes, before turning off the torch, darkness reigning again, taking light from this world and leaving only the sound of sobbing coming from under a bed in Smethwick in a home from home.
He often imagined it to be like running through a darkened room knowing that somewhere in there was a sharp needle waiting for you to find it. That’s what Rudolf often felt it was like. Ingressing in the dark towards the target, knowing the night fighters prowled the blackness to find him. Well, that’s what he’d thought about, before he’d tapped his toes in his boots, those seven times for luck yet again, now for the seventh time that night, then nestling his boot, complete with the newspaper in, beneath the pedals. It was a constant battle to control one’s thoughts when all of one’s attention had to be focused on flying a bomber that took everything from a pilot to control and fly it, often even their life.
Perhaps that’s why he’d never noticed that Bodien had intercepted their course, as Rudolf ducked instinctively as shells burst ahead. He was too focused on keeping the plane in the air to see that Bodien was slowly getting into position beneath his bomber, down on his port side. Why didn’t Helmut see them, moving into position?
In those final few seconds, seconds that had been counting down to this moment, since the Big Bang, to where everyone was always meant to be, maybe their fate indeed always having been written, and the choices they had made, their free will all moot points in a universe that was fixed since it began?
None of that mattered though for Bodien or Rudolf; Rudolf sitting up above Bodien, never realising that the ack-ack fire, which had missed him in the distance, had nonetheless secretly damned him. Bodien had used the signs of shell bursts, as well as the flames from his engine’s exhaust, as navigational devices to find him Rudolf long before. Perhaps this is why Helmut had not seen that the enemy fighter was out there? The Defiant had been built with exhaust dampers that prevented flames from shooting out and giving away their position in the night.
Bodien accelerated to catch and then slowed to match the speed of Rudolf’s bomber, moving into position beneath him. Egon still whistled all the same, as Helmut Hacke lay unknowingly down in the ‘bathtub’ ventral gun position, on a mat over the door, looking back into the night, back there towards where they’d come from, laying there trying to stifle a yawn while rubbing wearily at the back of his neck.
Unseen, Bodien sat beneath them all, chomping at the bit on the edge of his seat, the shark’s mouth decal beneath him, painted on the outside of his plane. He leant forward, like a jockey on a horse, pulling at the leashes, straining at his harness, while excitedly manoeuvring himself, looking back up at the black figure of the plane looming larger above him, the propellers whirling contentedly. Shouting over the intercom, “We’ve got him Jono, but wait until I tell you to fire,” then quickly looking back down to scan his instruments, throttling back a little to match the speed of the bomber, being careful not to overshoot him, then veering to starboard a little. Listening to Jonas telling him to “get a little closer, Skip, just a little closer,” moving closer by two hundred yards, as that’s where he knew the guns were set for the bullets to converge and cause maximum damage. Bodien tried with all of his might to contain the feeling of exhilaration growing within him. He had no qualms about killing the men inside: “it’s the only way we’ll win this war,” he’d said, “we have to take off our gloves and kill them all; every man Jack of them.” “Here, here,” a voice had followed up in the mess, in heartfelt agreement, even if deep down they hadn’t really meant it.
As Bodien looked back up at the bomber, against the moonlight, he became transfixed by it, his heart racing in his chest, pounding with excitement, the thrill of the chase still pushing him to the edge of his seat with only the harness holding him back. Jonas, the rear gunner, turning his turret and then pointing his guns upward, waiting to fire. He was getting ready to close his eyes so as not to be blinded by the bright muzzle flashes in the darkness – waiting beneath the bomber with two thousand, four hundred rounds of incendiary ammunition at his disposal waiting to be unleashed.
He’d once thought about using welding glasses to protect his eyes upon firing, thinking they’d be great for this purpose until the ground crew had laughed at him scornfully as he asked to borrow a pair. “So, what will I do if you don’t come back pal, where’s that leave me?”, one of them sardonically replied, before putting his cigarette back between his lips. Yet, here he was, waiting patiently for IG+KM to fill his sights, waiting for Bodien to give him the green light, the moment he would fire and roar air out his lungs like an animal as he squeezed the trigger on the control column, watching in awe as the four guns recoiled, spitting out what he called his ‘blue-tipped wonders’. Sending them skywards to flash on contact with the soft, unarmoured underbelly of the plane: the folly of the Luftwaffe and its conquest to overcome Britain.
It’s not good for a man to think of where bullets may strike him, when lying there supine and prostate, with four machine guns firing upwards not far beneath him towards the lower half of his body. Especially ones that can cut through metal like butter. Helmut, lying face-down there at the bottom of the fuselage, in the ‘bathtub’, had no clue that another human had him in his sights, and saw him as prey.
As Jonas breathed heavily, his hand clutching the control column and squeezing it tight as his forefinger twitched into life just enough to squeeze down on the trigger, and the second hand of fate nudged forward, one second at a time, counting down until all four guns exploded into life. Bodien giving the order and Jonas tilting the guns, walking tracers forward into the nose cone, then raking them back along the belly of the fuselage, engaging the electric turret, turning it clockwise to continue strafing all the way down to the tail - pushing his guns downwards and then back up again. Helmut Hacke’s body, laying over his mat in the ventral gondola, ripped and broken, bones shattered, abdomen torn and his intestines exposed as he’s cast around just like a rag doll in a child’s game. The force rolled him over onto his back to leave him looking face upwards with pleading eyes in the darkness, his hands in the warmth of his own blood. His fingers touched his intestines, trying to push them back in, as he began to scream a guttural maddening scream of a man who knew that fate had damned him.
Before Rudolf could react, more bullets entered through the underside of the plane, smashing up into nose cone again and into the cockpit instrument panel, twisting and tearing metal as they crashed on through and sending glowing orange and blue sparks flying around, in what for Rudolf seemed like slow motion. Rudolf wouldn’t know, at the time, that the armoured plate beneath his seat - the only armour in the plane - was saving him. Maybe he was too busy with other concerns, his body instinctively recoiling inwards, to make himself as small as possible while bullets flew past him. Werner doing the same in the wireless station, but not faring as well as a bullet passed through his leg, even though he was yet to realise this, shouting “fighter!” into the intercom, as he began to run to the port side gun position.
Rudolf would also be ignorant of the bullets which were passing through Egon, laying there at his feet, at the moment the world slowed down for him, never even giving Egon a chance to scream as they riddled his body, bullets first entering through the underside of his jaw, rising upwards to pass through his skull, and then out through his cloth helmet. Blood sprayed out in its wake, like a holed pipe, up onto the plexiglass window of the forward gun position. His head fell forward, his body rising momentarily and then slumping forward face down, convulsing in short sharp jerks. He then became still, air from his lungs sighing out of him - one last time - the contents of his bowels and bladder set free as the muscles of his body relaxed and life left him.
To the end, Egon would never know why Rudolf had never taken him with Werner to the coast last year.
It wasn’t until Doreen had clambered out from under her bed, standing and then arching her back and then finding herself running across the landing into Amy’s bedroom, at the front of the house. Jumping into the bed and curling up crying - waking Amy up unexpectedly in the process, and bringing her to the realisation that all hell was breaking loose outside. Until then ignorance and slumber, in an alliance, had been bliss. Now though, both of them, mother and daughter, hugged and held each other. Hiding from the world under the bedsheets of Amy’s bed, like children scared of the night. The sound of the artillery skyward firing outside becoming too much to bear. “Make it stop mom! Make it stop!”, Doreen wailed, plugging her fingers in her ears as she shouted. But all that Amy could do was to hold her daughter tighter, pulling her in until she felt her heart pounding next to her, and through her own tears, promising her that it would all be alright.
We are all connected in wars.
The young woman who pressed the casings of the ‘blue-tipped wonders’ at the Royal Ordnance Factory, Blackpole, Worcester, those months before, clocking off her shift that evening and meeting the love of her life at a dance later in the night, would never know who those bullets would kill. Neither would the driver, who loaded them on the truck outside of the factory, and then drove them to RAF Wittering, while both asleep now, somewhere down there below, both unknowingly complicit within their war effort, their joint venture, to help to kill an enemy airman called Egon, as sure as if they had pulled the trigger like Jonas.
It was only as Rudolf tried hard to regain control, perhaps of himself as much as the plane, that it dawned on him that there was a night fighter still down there beneath him, getting ready to shoot again. So he pushed forward quickly onto the yoke. Sending the bomber down into a dive to crowd, whoever was there, out of the sky.
Bodien, looking up at the black mass descending upon him, nose dives downwards, in an almost suicidal vertical dive into the cables of the barrage balloons below. All the while Jonas shouts again and again over the intercom, “Skip, bloody hell, Skip!!!” There is no reply, and, thinking that Bodien had copped it, he unplugs the intercom, rotating the turret starboard, undoing his harness and inching himself out, with his back to the world, into the slipstream. The turret was too small for Defiant gunners to wear a parachute and so they had to wear an all-in-one GQ Parasuit that slipped on over their flight overalls. A ‘rhino suit’, it was often called, because someone once said it made the wearer look like they had a large rear end. “Oooh, look at the arse on that one!”, the ground crew would sometimes joke to themselves, as a gunner waddled by heading towards their turrets.
As Jonas inched his way out of the turret, only to be forcibly grabbed and then dragged out into the night in the plane’s slipstream of wind, flak continued to burst out in the night, not far away, but enough to illuminate the cockpit in which Rudolf sat, red flashes of light forming behind Egon’s silhouette, now pushed forward into the red-stained plexiglass window. “Egon!”, he shouted, kicking the bottom of his boots again and again as he suddenly became aware of his plight. At first, he thought there was hope, until Egon’s lifeless body began to slowly slide forward again, into the forward gun position. The plane began to scream in the dive, just like Helmut, as if both fear and pain had located the bomber too.
Yet it all faded to silence, the world which he found himself in. Time slowed once again, as he glanced down at Egon and then across at his empty observer's seat, Egon’s seat, and then back to just looking ahead. Suddenly wondering about the rest of the crew, Rudolf shouted over the intercom “crew check!”, trying to pull back on the yoke at the same time, the plane climbing too slowly out of the dive.
“The port engine’s on fire!”, Werner shouts, “I'm with Helmut I can’t stop the blee…” His intercom splutters out as Rudolf tries to cut the fuel to the port engine. The dive still forces Egon to inch further down the elevated bomb aimers ramp even though the growing steepness of the dive lessens, but Rudolf jettisons the external bomb load, without arming them, dumping them out into the void to crash down somewhere around Icknield Street.
The bombs drop away, and the bomber finally begins to respond and level out of the dive, but Rudolf looks again at the port engine, still on fire, and it dawns on him to set off the port engine fire extinguisher and then to begin to feather its propellers so as to cut drag. Strangely, it seems not to matter; nothing does right now, not the flames still coming from the engine, nor the world closing in on just his own thoughts. It’s as if he’s in a giant bell that someone has bashed from the outside. He’s stunned, caught in a woolly-headed stupor. It just doesn’t matter, any of this, not even the sound of Werner cutting back in on the intercom, screaming about flames in the fuselage. It wasn’t a feeling that all was lost: it was, well, he was too busy thinking of home and that his mother would finally be getting that telegram he’d imagined for so many missions.
This was real. She really would fall to the floor in grief, telegram in hand, he thought, surveying the carnage at his feet, the scene, the smells of this world finally reaching his nose.
As 1G+KM’s fuselage began to catch fire, the port Daimler-Benz DB601 engines failed to respond to Rudolf's attempts to feather. They began to burn out of control, the plane’s propeller starting to spin freely, burning debris falling from it. Not even this broke Rudolf from his stupor. It was, however, the starboard wing crashing against the cable of a barrage balloon from No. 6 Centre moored at Site 15/17 in Wythall, the whole bomber feeling as if it had been grabbed and shaken by a giant hand, which did.
Rudolf finally slapped by the hand of reality, right across his face, the bomber beginning to roll uncontrollably towards starboard, the port wing pitching up into the air, while all the time Rudolf now pulled with all his might on the yoke, as Werner was thrown to the floor like a discarded toy.
The bomber is vibrating in a way Rudolf has never known before, and yet he pulls back on the yoke, easing the dive while trying to counter the roll to the right. He looks out at the damaged starboard wing and wonders how long he can keep them in the air. “Werner,” he shouts, the smell of burning hitting his nose, the feeling of all being lost finally rushing in as he just feels helpless, but he fights it, and forces the thoughts down, getting control once again. He finally gets the courage to ask himself, “so is this it?”
The pull out of the dive and the excessive g-forces begin to take their toll, as parts of the damaged starboard wing finally break off in flames, the fuel pipes leading to the self-sealing fuel tanks ripping open and igniting, falling away from the plane. Rudolf and Werner are oblivious, too busy being cruelly thrown around, to see it falling through the air to reach the homes below in Balden Road, Harborne, setting them ablaze and burning pensioner Sarah Davies and toddler Anthony Smith to death.
Rudolf wasn’t sure what had just happened, all that he knew was that his senses had returned as if he’d just been teleported into the pilot’s seat, from elsewhere, and that’s when he realised that he had to get out, and get out now. Screaming into the intercom, “Werner, bailout!” Then it was every man for himself. He’d heard that said in training, but as he unplugged his intercom and then attempted to stand up, he found that his foot was trapped under one of the pedals. He yanked at it frantically, the dive returning as if at the start of a rollercoaster ride, slowly picking up speed and gradually becoming steeper and steeper as it rolled towards starboard, pulling at his foot again and again until it came free, slipping out of his boot and leaving it and the folded newspaper inside left behind.
Quickly he climbed up onto his seat, his body now at a 45-degree angle against the dive. He tried to jettison the canopy escape hatch, the g-forces pushing him down, smashing his bare fists against it to release it, cutting his hands. He finally released it and then had to struggle to clamber up, pulling his body up through the downward pressure, but then suddenly being sucked out, tumbling out into the night, scraping along the side of the bomber, falling past the burning engine and narrowly missing the aileron, before he fell free into the night. Werner and Helmut left behind to try and find their own way out before the bomber rolled onto its back, making escape impossible. Rudolf never thought of Helmut or Werner, somewhere behind him; at that moment, in great need, he thought only of himself.
Back up there and behind him, Werner would never hear Rudolf screaming into the intercom, as he fought his way up to the cockpit to see what was happening. The intercom wasn’t working, though he tried with all his might to climb up back towards the cockpit. Fighting the g-force, he inched his way upwards, with each pull, but when he finally reached, he saw the escape hatch open and Rudolf gone. Finally, only then knowing that all was lost, then it hit him: should he go back for Helmut, or save himself?
Thursday, 10th April 01:38 BDST: West Midlands, England.
As he jumped, battered and bruised, from the burning bomber, desperately trying to break free from its grip upon him, Rudolf wouldn't know about Amy Hanson and her daughter Doreen, huddled up together under their dining room table, just a few miles away, a mother and daughter falling asleep in each other’s arms, down there below in Smethwick. He wouldn’t know what they’d had for tea, just a few hours before. Or how much they’d longed just to head back home to London to be with William, a man who was both husband and father.
He fell through the sky, through the darkness, losing himself momentarily, bursting shells illuminating the night in pockmarked flashes, columns of white searchlights rising up from below, to prod methodically into the night. All that came to Rudolf’s mind when the cones of light looked for more planes to knock from the sky was the realisation that he should pull his ripcord, and then his war snapped back into focus, the wind taken from him; his chute jerked open, and he rose back up again into the sky once more.
Yet, as Rudolf floated down towards the ground of Quinton, even then when the burning plane carried on in flight, still with hundreds of gallons of aviation fuel waiting to ignite on impact, his boot still trapped there behind the pedal, Werner fought for his life, on a bomber which carried him towards death. Rudolf would never know that Jonas was floating down to earth too, leaving Bodien alone to land back safely at RAF Wittering and then be shocked to see his gunner’s seat empty.
The noise of the engines of 1G+KM faded away, to leave him behind with only the dull thuds of shells exploding somewhere off in the distance, and the sound of the wind rushing up past and through his canopy above him. He was never really worried about where it would land or what damage it would do to those below, as that was fate’s doing now, and beyond his control. Besides, he couldn’t even control his parachute, let alone fate; he was just glad to be alive, just happy not to be trapped and burning alive inside of that damn plane.
So, not long after Rudolf's parachute collapsed around him at the back of No.12 Barston Road, in Quinton, his feet slipping off a wall and tilting him backwards before hitting the ground on the flat of his back, the wind caught his canopy once more, and dragged him along the road, just for a short distance, before he could finally find his feet, one of them bootless, of course. The fur-lined boot still flying in the sky, still with the newspaper from his hometown he’d put there for luck, all carefully folded up. Maybe at that moment, as he finally stood on the land of his enemy, his wet foot on the cold ground, perhaps Sarah Davies or Anthony Smith were still alive?
Still hanging on to life, not that far away, in Bladen Road, calling out for help that would never come, crying as they screamed, and hiding behind furniture as hope and oxygen left them. The uncontrollable flames engulfing and then consuming them. And yet still 1G+KM would carry on, both engines dead now and with flames trailing behind the fuselage, it’s glide path written by fate. Werner would finally make it out, just three seconds before it would crash, floating down to land on the roof of number thirty-three, the Oval, his parachute snagging on the chimney, smashing his face into the tiles, and dangling him there like a bizarre pennant while the bomber would carry on into No. 281 and No. 283 Hales Lane in Smethwick. Amy held her child tight as the sound of the screaming bomber came ever closer, wrapping her body around Doreen to cradle her as it smashed into the row houses, engulfing them and four others in flames. Killing all inside.
In that bright flash of white light, as 1G+KM nosedived to ignite into an inferno, at that moment when night became day, the world for so many became nought. The future of the Smart children, the plans for weddings being made by Doreen and Amy, and that journey, too, from West Acton in London, to the perceived safety of the West Midlands, also failing to bear fruit.
The mushroom cloud of flames rose up, into a large orange ball, casting strange shadows made by the branches of the trees, in the street like a giant lantern that was swinging up above. The bitter legacy of death and its bitter taste was still yet to resonate in the lips of William Hanson, still asleep in his Anderson shelter, one-hundred and twenty miles away in London. Still yet to know that his world and his wife and daughter were lost.
The sad irony, which would always haunt him, as his life moved on in the years to come, is that the home where Amy and Doreen were evacuated from was never bombed and so it would have always been safer for them to stay in London - even at the height of the Blitz.
Hindsight though is always so easy to conjure. What if, perhaps, Bodien had never found Rudolf in the night? Or if Egon had lost the direction beacon’s beams, becoming lost in the darkness? The checks and balances of fate always lead us to the same path, the same payment, and the same cost, even if it never stops us from wondering, why do some live, and others die, in moments of national crisis?
Perhaps it is only fate that can answer.
Twenty-four hours after vowing to sleep in her own bed, Doreen Joan Hanson would die in her mother’s. People often pacify acts of war, failing to speak of its inhumanity or brevity. But her body was trapped under rubble and then incinerated, still in the embrace of her mother, Amy.
Next door two families would experience the same fate. Alfred Smart and his son Malcolm, still just a toddler, and Doris Smart too, Alfred’s sister-in-law, and her two sons, teenager Albert and Brian, still an infant - all would die too. Like William, Doris’s husband and Alfred’s brother, Albert was yet to taste the bitterness of their loss. Out there in Smethwick on fire-watching duty, the truth though, with its bitter taste would soon reach him.
If only Amy and Doreen had bailed out their shelter that night and slept in there, instead of leaving it for a tomorrow that would never come, what life would Doreen have had in marriage and perhaps motherhood?
A white blanket fell over Egon’s charred corpse.
“Well, he’s some poor mother’s son, after all,” a surviving neighbour on Hales Lane, Mrs Mynott, would say, as she covered him.
An air raid warden having dragged his body from the burning wreckage and leaving his body there. The severed head of Helmut lay further down the road in a gutter. Neither of them would ever know that their bomber would crash just a short distance from the top-secret Chance Factory in Spon Lane, which the King and Queen had recently visited, and which their German superiors believed to be somewhere in Wales.
In the morning’s light that gave this scene new life, making all visible for eyes to see, the tail section of the bomber could be seen rising out of the rubble, through the palls of painting soft clouds lazily up into the morning air. The black and white Iron Cross of the plane still visible on the scorched metal, still having the power to jar all those who peered at it. Neighbours in dressing gowns gawked, arms folded, at the strange landscape which had once been their neighbour’s lives and at the homes which had once been 281 and 283 Hales Lane. Some still, nonetheless, found time to make comments about the decor of their former neighbour’s homes, yet no one saw the neighbour who found Rudolf’s fur-lined boot with its paper still inside, miraculously unscathed from the flames. Quizzically reading those German words and then posting the newspaper to her friend as a memento of war, a trophy of her survival.
Even amidst this carnage, with so much to see, people would still only remember two things from that morning. Doreen’s wedding dress, still hanging up in the remains of her bedroom, and, finally, that both the Hanson’s and Smart’s Anderson shelters, in their back gardens, once unseen from Hales Lane, were now visible from beyond the rubble, still there, and both untouched. Everyone, in their own time, coming to the same saddening conclusion that if Amy, Doreen and the Smarts had only slept in their shelters, slept in the cold and damp, they would have all survived - they would all have lived.
Later that night, everyone who witnessed that scene, chose cold and damp over the comfort of their own beds.
Thursday, 10th April 1941: 01.40 BDST: 18 Blackthorne Road, Smethwick England
Eyewitness testimony by Frederick John Cross, aged 10
Article ID: A4315015 taken from BBC WW2 People’s War
On the night of April the 10th 1941 an air-raid had been in progress for a few hours. My mother and I had been sheltering in the Anderson shelter at the top of the back garden.
We lived in Blackthorne Road, Smethwick, but the air-raid that night appeared to be centred on Birmingham, apart from a few incendiary bombs locally, the noise of enemy aircraft and explosions was quite faint and distant. Then we heard the sound of aircraft engines gradually getting louder and nearer until it became obvious that it was flying very low. As well as the deep note of the bomber we were able to distinguish another engine sound, faster than the bomber; and then machine gunfire. The very next moment there was a tremendous explosion.
I was a ten-year-old boy, very excited and eager to get out of the shelter to see what was happening. The scene before me was unbelievable. The blackness of the night had been transformed by a brilliant golden-red light. I could not understand why the houses in front of me looked so unusual. Instead of the drab brickwork and bottle-green painted doors and window frames, the houses were now illuminated by the brilliant golden light. The brickwork now shimmered a deep golden orange and the doors and windows were brown.
The houses were thankfully still standing, but as I turned to look behind me across the back gardens of the surrounding houses to the houses in Hales Lane, I saw the most amazing sight of giant flames leaping skywards, silhouetting the houses immediately across the gardens.
I couldn’t contain myself, I wanted to go to find out what had happened but my mother held me firmly and would not let go. I was dragged, protesting back into the shelter.
Tuesday, 13th May 2001: 13.45 BST: Fearon Place, Smethwick
I moved to Smethwick in the Spring of 2001 - precisely sixty years and thirty-three days after the events which you’ve just read about, and twenty-seven years after William Hanson would die on August 8th, 1974 in Basford, Nottingham. The new life he’d found for himself ended with the new partner, who’d saved him, putting back the broken pieces of a man who wasn’t able to say goodbye to his first love, his Little Butterfly, Amy, and his daughter, Reeney.
William and Amy had married in Kings Norton, Worcestershire, in October 1915, not long before he’d gone off to war in France. War had separated them and it had again in 1939, but that time, forever.
A year after landing in a heap in his rhino suit, Jonas would marry Margaret Walker in Nottingham and then achieve his goal of becoming a Pilot Officer before returning back to New Zealand with his war bride.
For Bodien, this would not be his last war, he’d fly bombers himself in the Korean War, seconded to the United States Air Force from the Royal Canadian Airforce, which he’d joined after migrating there.
Bodien was a man who was made for war.
After moving to Smethwick, I attempted to familiarise myself with my new world and my new neighbourhood by walking its streets and imagining the lives that had existed before my arrival. Walking by buildings with histories unknown to me, that once housed lives lived, and lost, and which had faced war and then reconciliation. If an Englishman’s home is his castle, that place where he is free to explore the safety of his own thoughts, that notion, of course, would be duly tested by war. That time where bricks and mortar were no defence to high explosives or white phosphorus firebombs.
I’ve often wondered what it must have been like to live at this time.
To live in a time of war where technology promised great terrors must have been such a great shock for so many, a great psychological strain and upheaval which bore down on one’s ontological security. This would be apparent, just a few months after moving to Smethwick, when on September 11th so many people, from around the world, would become witnesses to a singular act of terrorism, so unexpected that many were dumbfounded.
Yet the German invasion of Russia alone, which started two months after Amy and Doreen were buried, if we just look at combatants, including those who died in prisoners of war camps, would claim the lives of 10.6 million Russian soldiers and 4.3 million German.
But of course, civilians would be the great victims of the Second World War - with more civilians dying than soldiers. The air war over Britain, as Germany would find, was indiscriminate and cold. Families were killed by bombs in their homes while they slept, or they could even be machined gunned from above, as would befall one man in Cape Hill, Smethwick. The brief period of peace, in the interwar period from 1918, had seduced many into believing that war was a thing of the past, but peace in their time would of course never last.
My home, on Fearon Place, 0.9 miles away from Hales Lane and nestled in a cul-de-sac just behind the police station on Piddocks Lane, was built many years after the war. Indeed, many things have changed since that night in April. 281 and 283 Hales Lane would be rebuilt by the local authority, renaming the part of Hales Lane where they once stood as St Mark’s Road, giving these new houses the respective numbers of 23 and 25. The local authority perhaps attempting to draw a line under the past in the hope that it won’t seep into the future.
Rudolf would be captured by civilians on that night, a neighbour with a broomstick thrusting in in his back as he marched him to the end of the road to hand him over to the authorities at the end of a brief chase. He was given to the police, shortly after he had found his feet, and tried to make a run for it. From there he was taken to the police station, behind where I live, walking up its beige steps and into captivity to be strip-searched and kept there for several hours before he was handed, once more, over to the Home Guard later that night, who would then take him to Oldbury. Werner too would be captured and also taken the same night to the same police station on Piddock Road.
Years later, Rudolf would return to the West Midlands in 2002 to relive the night of Thursday, April 10th, 1941, as the guest of local historian Anthony N. Rosser. Coming back, now as an old and frail man, older than Sarah Davies would have been at the time when debris fell from his plane and burnt her to death. Walking the same Smethwick streets that Amy and Doreen once would have. Seeing the same familiar sights on Crockett’s Lane of the grade-two listed college building, which are now, in 2020, luxury apartments, and of course the beige steps of the police station on Piddock Road, which still lead up to the large brown doors he once stepped through into captivity.
Perhaps I even walked past Rudolf on the day he came back to visit? Walking past an old man in search of the past, without even a second thought to who he was and why he was there?
I wonder what Rudolf had told Rosser other than, “We would simply follow the beam, at night you could not see anything.”
To the end, Rudolf, whether merely following orders, or the navigation beam, in the darkness of that Smethwick night, was distanced from it all. The death of his crew and the civilians was something that happened beyond his control. It was Egon, after all, who had followed the navigational clicks and beams through the night into Bodien’s path. And it was Jonas who had fired his guns, killing his crew and then setting his plane alight. Indeed, if it weren't for the barrage balloon cables, put there by the British, his plane would never have gone into the spin which caused the crash in Hales Lane.
So, yes, No. 281 and 283 have been rebuilt now, urban planning cosmetically healing the legacy of the terror and horror which was once there. The six burning houses, two of them demolished with seven dead bodies inside. Egon’s charred corpse with a white sheet laid over it and Helmut’s head in the gutter erased by time, history, fading memories and the deaths of those who hold time’s secrets.
All that Rudolf had done, after all, on that night, was to fly his plane to a fixed point in the sky. I’m imagining that’s what he thought, standing there on Crockett’s Lane, as a red and white number eighty bus drove by behind him, heading off on its way to West Bromwich, while the clasped hands behind his back squeezed slightly, the shrunken figure turning to survey the scene. Remembering the terror of it all, just for a moment, opening up the box in his mind again, in which he’d stored that night away for so long.
Feeling sad as his mind replayed the sound of Egon whistling “Schön ist die Nacht”, just one last time, remembering the face of his friend Werner, who he’d never see again after the war. Then breathing in deeply and holding his breath, momentarily, before exhaling it out and squeezing his hands even tighter, behind his back, before walking on past the police station on Piddock Road, and on towards the Calvary Apostolic Church on the corner. Standing there now on the Smethwick High Street, looking left and then right, and waiting to be told by Rosser which way to turn.
“There have been many plagues in the world as there have been wars, yet plagues and wars always find people equally unprepared.
- Albert Camus
Dedicated to everyone just trying to make it through to the other side.
Written by Andrew Jackson
With special thanks to literary editor, Erin MacLeod
and to Felix Girke and everyone else who has helped with translation.
Commissioned by Living Memory & supported by Sandwell History & Archive Service