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.