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.