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?