Wednesday, 9th April 1941: 01.14 BDST: Warwick, England


Part one:


Laying there in the darkness, while he stared out of the forward gun position, his left hand resting on the top of the gunstock, and his right index finger lightly caressing the trigger in a slow comforting soothing back and forth motion, he began to imagine himself standing at the bow of a ship that cut through a blackened sea, silver-grey dolphins swimming excitedly just ahead. 


In his mind’s eye, he watched as they rose up out of the sea and into the light, the sun glistening on their backs as they stalled in the air momentarily before falling gracefully back again. Splashing into the blackness, the ship pushing on towards the horizon, purposefully carving its way through the white-tipped waves.


“One day, I’ll stand on the bow of a ship like that and see those dolphins. They’ll dance for me – I know they will.” He had said this to his crewmates, after explaining what he thought about when trying to kill time on missions. The crew cast furtive glances at each other as he spoke. All of them, minus Heinz the pilot, having driven up there on leave to St. Malo, from Dinard with two other friends from another Gruppe. Driving merrily, they made their way up through the French countryside, as the conquering heroes of the Reich, in that long summer of 1940, when boys had tested themselves in battle and had become men.


The moment he’d finished regaling them with the insights of his mind, he’d known he’d made a terrible mistake. An uncomfortable feeling of exposure befell him. 


Everyone sat in excruciating silence, so painful that Helmuth had begun coughing, for no apparent reason, other than to break the tyranny of the silence, and then to look away from the expression of desperation on his friend’s face. Glancing down at his boots, then moving his chair back awkwardly away from the table, with a high pitched grating sound along the floor, which only heightened the tension. George turning to him, his screwed up puzzled face slowly unwinding as he pointed out, “you better not let our Heinz hear you say that!” Pulling his hand across his throat, in a slow cutting motion, his tongue sticking out from the corner of his mouth. Then looking over at the two lads from the other crew, Rudi and Werner, his eyes widening slightly as he tapped the side of his head with his finger and then rolling his eyes at them, before breaking into laughter. Everyone following suit if only to breathe again. “Oh,” Georg continued, his face straightening as he sat upward: “by the way, don’t forget to ask your friends the dolphins where those bloody night fighters are every now and again!” 


They all laughed again as Helmuth pushed Georg away mockingly, the flattened palm of his hand meeting his upper arm, causing him to sway away on his chair like a skittle, then back again as Helmut grabbed his head, under his arm, rubbing a knuckle playfully across it to the soundtrack of their laughter filling the bar. All this time, at nearby tables, the upper echelon of French society break from their polite conversations, roused by the sound of laughter, to raise their heads to frown and sneer down their noses at this group of gauche Germans. 


Beyond the large picture windows of this Grand Hôtel des Thermes, there is a different world outside. Out there beyond even the well-dressed young women who stroll along the promenade, in their best frocks, arm-in-arm with freshly bemedaled German officers, the tide rolls back lazily down the golden beach. Out once more the swelling water emits a sigh, into the channel again on its journey back towards a battered Britain which awaits patiently for their arrival.


It’s odd what you think about when you’re waiting to rain death and destruction down upon those below. One’s brain wanders off into thought as you wait patiently to atomise your enemy with high explosives or to shower them in the white burning glow of incendiaries. Laying there on your stomach, you shiver over a bombsight, your gloved fists, clenching closed and then open, with only your fears, plexiglass and the ever-so-thin aluminium between you and the cold, black sky outside. 


Not even the butterflies in your stomach, which flutter wildly each time you rise and fall in turbulence, can stop your wandering thoughts. The metal joints of the bomber, creaking and groaning, with the rise and fall, become lost beneath the roar of the Daimler-Benz engines which deafens, yet strangely soothes you, in their combined drone. 


Because as long as they keep running those damn engines, you’ll be fine, you’ll be OK, and you’ll have a chance to make it back home; that’s all you want, all you think about. Looking around sheepishly, with self-consciousness, and then jumping as the sound of nails being thrown down into a metal bucket startle you, your sphincter muscles clench and you try to quell the warm glow that burns in your stomach.


It’s flak hitting the bomber; your eyelids flutter for you know it was close. Just a little higher and you would have been right inside its burst radius, having to run the gauntlet of hundreds of red hot, razor-sharp pieces of shrapnel. A wave of anger rushes up in you, and you can’t wait for the bombs to drop away now, to get your own back. It’s only then that it dawns on you that you’re finding it hard to breathe. Counter-intuitively pulling off your facemask, with its oxygen supply, away from your face, you leave it there hanging loosely at the shoulder. Only then catching sight of hurried breaths condensing on the cold plexiglass window and realising that you are hyperventilating, Taking a gulp of air, breathing it deep down inside, trying to slow your breathing, you hold it before slowly exhaling and clipping the mask back in place again. 


All the while Heinz the pilot, up there behind you, is forcing his weight onto the yoke in an ongoing battle to keep you all on a steady path through the night. You scan the dark over and over, your head, on a swivel, turning left and then right. Your finger still caresses the trigger as you rotate the forward gun position in a circular motion to look out for those damn night fighters. Never knowing that Heinz, his arm straightened in the air right now like a salute, is rubbing the inside of his upper arm, by his armpit, against his brow to wipe the sweat away on his flight suit. 


These are the thoughts of Oberleutnant Hans Müller, the bombardier and observer, the man who also sometimes thinks of dolphins while laying there supine on his stomach at the pilot’s feet, looking out of the forward gun position. But there are no ships now or dolphins swimming ahead, as he pulls the collar of his flight suit up, and then tugs at the zip at his throat even though it can’t go any further. He’s stupidly left his lucky white scarf behind and his body trembles a little as he tugs one last time on the zip. He hears Heinz ask him over the intercom if he’s ready to take control of the bomber. 


It’s strange how being active takes one’s fears away. Well, maybe not taking them away as such, but hiding them at least. Routine stepping in and taking the mind off fear, or sweeping it under a rug for the time being. Whatever it is you react and instinct takes over. But just as the bomber slips out of the clouds once more, perhaps it’s the sight of the deep redness of the flames around the target, down there in the looming distance, as the engine’s tuneless drone plays on, which triggers his thoughts to wander again? 


Maybe it wasn’t the redness of the flames but the time that he had to think? Waiting for the automatic release mechanism of the Lofte 7 bombsight to actuate, as the crew implore you to just get those damn bombs away, or even the hypnotising cones of white light swaying on the horizon that is coming closer, as they shine up to lick at the sky to find you, causing your mind to wander again? 


Either way, he lay there prostrate, tilting his head back to glance up from the altitude dial and speedometer in front of him, looking out through the plexiglass window into the night. As the cold caught his throat, for some strange reason, he thought longingly of the red tricycle his uncle Friedrich had bought him, all those years before in a different life. 


Hans was a child of the Great War, born two months after his father’s death, and, like so many of those other “Kriegskinder” who sat at their desks at his village school, he too would never know his father. A single British artillery shell falling into his father’s trench in Neuve Chapelle on the morning of March 10th, 1915 would make sure of that. In his absence, Freidrich, his uncle with the straight back and the tweed jacket with green suede lapels, would become a father figure to him. “My boy!”, Freidrich would always shout, greeting the boy and shaking hands, always leaving a boiled sweet in his palm for him to marvel over as the large man looked down at the small child while twirling one side of his moustache.


He’d remembered watching his mother raise high up on her tippy toes to kiss Freidrich warmly on both cheeks when he visited. Looking at the hat he’d remove before kissing her, dangling from a hand by Friedrich’s knee. Hoping that one day they would marry, and be a family. But this would never come, never pass, as it was just another pipe dream of a boy who longed for a father. He had contented himself with stories of Jurgen, his father, as regaled by uncle Freidrich. About how they had laughed and played when they were his age too. But it was always when Freidich told him how much he was like his father that he loved to hear the most – one day he too would be a soldier. 


Even now, as the world burnt outside, he remembered the touch of Freidrich’s hand on his shoulder, pushing him along the path outside his mother’s home. His little bare knees at the hem of his shorts, undulating up and down like pistons as he peddled furiously. All while Freidrich laughed so hard and clapped his hands shouting, “go, Hans, go!” For a moment, perhaps out of a momentary thought that he was back in time, back home, Hans gave a quick glance upwards over his right shoulder. But there was no-one there, of course, only the empty seat of a bombardier whose mission today was to bomb a radiator factory in Coventry in the early hours of April 9th, 1941.


They’d been here before, of course, last November, in fact and now they were back again. They’d called that mission “the Big Easy”, as out of 449 bombers there was only 1 loss. The British and their woeful defences were no match for German exceptionalism and as the papers had said at the time Coventry had been, well, “Coventrated.” There was no sorrow for the 568 people killed that night. The lucky ones finding death, and the unlucky mutilation, burns and facial disfigurements which marked them for the rest of their lives. War is war, some aircrew said, as they clinked their glasses and swigged beer in celebration.


A year later though they were flying against an enemy who had learnt the hard lessons of war and whose desire for retribution was being demonstrated within an air defence which grew more deadly each day and with weapons which were becoming more potent.


In terms of his own weapons of war, in truth, he didn’t really know how it worked exactly. To be honest, the mechanics of the computer was a mystery to him, even if he had often bluffed his way into making the crew think that he did understand. All he needed to know was what to set on the dials of the bomb actuating device located beneath his chest. He checked that the airspeed, set on the right-hand dial, matched the true airspeed of the bomber by glancing up at the speedometer above his head before turning the dial on the bomb spread indicator next to it. Turning the dial away from the current setting, it was already on, and then back again – just to make sure that he’d set it correctly, and if only to give himself peace of mind. Then he lay there, with his thoughts again, waiting patiently for the automatic mechanism to engage and let the world beneath know that he was there. Up there in the world of dreams where yesterdays are real but tomorrow is never promised. Unclipping his face mask and wiping the snot pooling in his nose with the back of his gloves, then clipping it back again, he waited for the preset timer on the bombsight to deliver judgement on the British below, as they had equally delivered it to his father.


“Bombs gone, autopilot off!” Hans shouts excitedly into the intercom as he returns control back to the pilot, the bomber, rising upwards, freed from the burden of its bombs, which fall away from the exterior of the plane one by one to atomize or mutilate those bastards below.


“Taking control!” The pilot, Oberfeldwebel Heinz Müller, says calmly into the intercom, his strained face at odds with his words.


For several hours he’s been working hard to control the bomber since they’d left the safety of France, and now, after a brief interlude, he was taking the strain of it again, beginning to zigzag through the night, 15,000 feet over the flickering dots of yellow and orange fires below, which the bombs, still falling through the air, will soon add to. All this time, Hans has risen quickly from his prone position, pulling the cold grey metal cover back over the bomb aimer’s position, easing himself backwards, groping in the dark momentarily with one outstretched arm, finding something to hold onto and then pulling himself up from his prone position and back up into the elevated seat behind him, remembering just in time to pull the seat down first. 


He finally sits down, for a moment, just a brief one; a feeling of elation has stifled the sickening grip of fear that had held him so tightly since Heinz had throttled back the engines and taken them into flight. 


“My boy, every man must fight his own war,” Freidrich had told him, as they’d waited together for the train to take him away from the life he had, and onto the one which would soon find him, “and must battle his own instincts to do his duty; he must always do his duty.” With the end of this statement, Freidrich placed one hand on his shoulder and the other gripped his palm. 


Without knowing why, Hans throws a quick glance up at the silhouetted figure of Heinz, against the lights of war outside, and then glances back down at the map in front of him, plotting a line that will get them back onto the Fecamp navigational beacon and back home again. 


“Set course 2-7-0!” He shouts, his fear lessening perhaps now that his job is done, now that they could head home again. Heinz acknowledges the request, eyes darting left and right, then turning the yoke to the left, glancing out of the cockpit at the whirling blades of the propeller banking the Heinkel He 111H-5 and its crew in a westerly arc away from Coventry. The horizon rises above the canopy and the roofs of houses fill his view below the port-cockpit window.


For a moment, the bomber and its crew are lost in the clouds, drifting out and then back in again, just like those dolphins swimming at the bow of a ship, jumping free from the water and into the world of men above, before disappearing back again beneath once more. “Helmuth, Shaefer, did you see anything?” Heinz asks calmly, his head turning back from outside to survey the dials in front of him. “…Nothing” There’s a pause in his reply, and then radio operator, Unteroffizier Georg Schaefer shouts back again, “We must have hit a bloody cabbage patch down there!” 


There are chuckles from the crew and a moan of frustration from Heinz as he shakes his head slowly before Feldwebel Helmuth Müller, the gunner, chimes in . He’s laying down on his brown mat in the bathtub, over the ventral door, down there in the C stand position: “You idiot, I saw flashes and then secondaries down there, we hit it!” There are whoops of joy from the crew, as if their football team has just scored a goal. Hans looks over at Heinz with a smile on his face, but Heinz turns back to look at him shouting, “Shut up you fools and keep your eyes open for those damn fighters, they’re out there somewhere!”. Schaefer stops laughing, but he still smiles to himself, as he begins to rise from his seat, back there beyond the internal fuel tanks of the first bulkhead compartment, at the wireless operator’s position. Looking across at the figure in the starboard passenger seat next to him, he rises. 


He’d forgotten he was there, even though their knees were just inches apart previously. He looks so damned scared, so small as he huddles into his seat, Schaefer thinks to himself. As the passenger breaks from his thoughts and turns to look up at the figure standing above him, he then draws a smile on a face which was momentarily blank. Schaefer gives him a thumbs-up and smiles, giving a brisk pat on his back, just behind his shoulder, as he heads behind his seat to begin swinging the port waist gun up and then down, left and then right, pausing as he too looks out at the orange and yellow fires which move away on the horizon and at the little flashes of light that fade in the darkness. 


Helmuth reaches up a hand and Schaefer turns to grab it, pulling him up from the bathtub to straddle the gap in the floor he’s just arisen from. His legs stretch across the divide. It’s Helmuth’s turn to pat Schaefer on his back now, as he heads back to the wireless set to listen to the clicks of the navigational beacon and to pour himself a coffee from his flask. 


“Three’s a charm,” Schaefer had said to himself, just a few hours ago, as he climbed up into the bomber after helping push the passenger and his paunch up before him. As soon as he’d heard there would be a passenger called Müller coming on this mission, he’d thought they’d all been jinxed, and well, as they say, here they all were waiting for what fate had in store. “Four of them, four fucking Müllers?”, he shook his head to himself thinking, “it’s bad luck...why would this old boy volunteer for this, for this?” Glancing across at the unlucky passenger, sending him daggers with his eyes before plugging his intercom into place.


The old boy in question and the crew’s passenger tonight is thirty-year-old Sonderführer Wulf-Dieter Georg Franz Theobald Müller, a writer turned war reporter, two days away from becoming an even older boy of thirty-one, on April 11th. He’s only a few years older than the crew, but for these young twenty-somethings, a thirty-year-old might as well be their grandfather. Especially when he has a paunch, crafted carefully by French cheeses and the rich food he’d thrived on in Paris. “The working men always fight their wars”, Schaefer had once said, after too many beers, his eyes had flicked up and down Wulf-Dieter’s waistline, earlier, as they shook hands. “The rich just grow fat”, he thought to himself. 


Wulf-Dieter is joining them on this mission so that he can write home to tell the German people how brave the crew are and how just their fight is. Or perhaps he’d just always wanted to test himself in combat, and to see how brave he was? He’d thought so much about it, and written about it, in those inter-war years – combat and war. Perhaps all young men, too young for the First World War, and yet charged by its stories, dreamt of combat and yes, of vengeance. Charged by the feeling of defeat and that “damned Versailles Treaty,” as Wulf had always called it, always with the word damned in front, and he too burned with the desire to rectify these wrongs as he saw them. He’d once written about how the mix of technology, in the form of aviation, and the will of the people, would power them to change the world, and now here he was, watching the world change. Or burn, as he smelled the smoke from the world-changing below, in his nostrils, all the way up here in his huddled position in the clouds.