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.