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.