Wednesday, 9th April 1941: 01.14 BDST: Warwick, England
He’d smiled back at Schaefer, returning his thumbs-up sign earlier, then attempted to press his pencil onto his notepad, as Schaefer passed behind him, but nothing would come other than sharp meaningless scratches and marks scrawled on the page. He couldn’t work out whether it was him or the vibration from the plane causing him to shake. Maybe it was both? He breathed in deeply, trying not to let the dark thoughts in, but he couldn’t stop them. Besides, they had already made themselves at home, long before take-off, and long before this moment. Prior even to sitting in the briefing room earlier with the pilots to look at Coventry on the map. Even before then he’d had that feeling in the pit of his stomach. He’d tried to vomit it out, of course, but it was still there growing unchecked - gnawing at him. He whispered to himself, “be careful what you wish for Herr Wulf, be careful.” Whilst all the time, nestled in the dark recesses of his guts, tentacles of fear churned over themselves.
“The nation that is ready . . . will achieve total victory”, he whispered once more to himself pausing as he looked off into the distance. In his 1934 biography of Ernst Junger - Ernst Jünger A Life in the Change of Time, Wulf-Dieter had written, “the nation that is ‘ready’ first, that adjusts all its life expressions first . . . and thereby becomes a total unity, will have the greatest chance to display its powers and. . .will . . .fight until it achieves victory”
Dropping bombs onto the people below, some sleeping in shelters, others in their beds, was a display of these powers perhaps? He had no care for them though, these people, the enemy. “They had started this!”, he would often say, “That silly little weak man, that Chamberlain fellow, how dare he! How dare he declare war on the German people!” He shouted this to friends back on that autumnal day in 1939 when war was declared, all the time his barely concealed glee bubbling just beneath the surface of his anger. Now they were getting it back in spades. He’d thought about writing this down in his notebook, just for a moment his pencil poised, and then was startled as he looked up to see Schaefer’s outstretched hand, holding a cup of coffee poured from his flask.
He heard “course 1-7-0!!” over the intercom and, as the plane banked again, coffee spilt onto his notepad. He raised it high up into the air at the end of his outstretched arm to shake it dry, as Schaefer looked on aghast, but Wulf calmed him: “it’s OK, it’s fine, no problem!” But it wasn’t though, there were two days worth of notes in there. Upon realising that Schaefer couldn’t hear him above the drone of the engines, he now tried sign language, smiling and shaking his head, with his palms up towards him wafting from side to side to show that it was OK.
“Sorry, my friend,” Schaefer shouts, leaning in close to him, then backing away his one palm raised up in front of him too. “But,” thought Schaefer, “he really only wants to ask “why have you jinxed us, why are you even here?” Not to say sorry. But then he felt bad for thinking this, afterall, “maybe he didn’t want to be here either?” He mused, looking at his watch: it’s 01.14 am as he pulls his goggles into place and then turns to clamber up into the B stand gun position up there on the top of the bomber. Closing the footrest into place first, pulling it down and securing before stepping up onto it and then into the seat which counterbalances the guns, he plugged in his intercom. Then sweeping left and then right, the wind rushing around him while he looks into the night. He thinks he sees something, on the port side, but no, it’s nothing, but he can’t stop looking. Is that a blue light? Blue flames. Are they coming from an engine? My God, is it a plane? Maybe it hasn’t seen us, maybe I shouldn’t fire? He keeps staring into the night, his mouth poised to speak as the bomber slips into the clouds.
Down below Wulf sips the warm coffee, sighing as he looks at his notebook, shaking his head as he stops and then tilts back to secure every last drop. He rises from his seat, plugging out his intercom, so that he can venture forwards towards the cockpit. Stopping to put the notebook into the pocket of the thigh of his flight suit and walking on a few steps before remembering the cup in his hand, turning back, crouching down and screwing the cup back onto Schaefer’s flask, still sticking out of his kit bag found under his seat in front of the wireless set.
The bomber is rising and lowering in turbulence and his steps become lost in the air, hanging there momentarily, or landing prematurely, causing him to fall forwards, as the bomber dips down and then rises. Yet all the time he crawls forward, his hands pulling him on. He pauses, resting a hand on the entrance to the first bulkhead. He watches Heinz turn over his right shoulder to give something to Hans and then walks into the first bulkhead compartment, dipping down into his pocket to pull out the notepad and pencil.
Sparks light up the darkness around him and the sound of the clatter of metal hitting metal rings in his ears, his body hunching and his head pulling in close to his shoulders as arms fold in over his head. ”Why can’t I move?”, he asks himself desperately as he just stands there until he feels a punch in his side, the wind taken from him until a cough brings up the metallic taste of blood that fills his mouth. His knees buckle and he drops down, an arm reaching out in the darkness. He can’t breathe, but he still feels them all around him, the bullets in the air, rushing past him and then onwards as they pass through the bomber. He tries to stand once more, falling against the starboard side of the plane. His face hitting against the metal interior, as the bomber banks hard. Tears well in his eyes; he coughs again trying to clear his airways, trying to breathe as he looks at the blood that splatters out onto his gloved hand. Lifting his hand, he watches it tremble and then suddenly the thought enters his mind: somewhere out there a man is trying to kill him. To kill him, but why, what had he done? How could someone be so cruel? He searches within himself.
Up above, Schaefer is shouting into the intercom, “night fighter!!!” The bomber banks as he finally fires, the sound of his guns soon following in the intercom while he shoots blindly into the night, tracers reaching out like prodding figures hoping to find something lost in the darkness, closing his eyes as not to be blinded by the muzzle flashes as the shell cases clatter down inside the fuselage. He stops firing and looks out into the night again, he sees a tiny blue glow again. Just for a second, he thinks, because his eyes are readjusting to the darkness again: “My God, it’s the fighter’s engine cowling,” it dawns on him, and he readies himself to fire again.
An arc of fire comes from the darkness, towards the bomber, but Schaefer is just a bystander as he watches it veer in towards the plane – he doesn’t fire back, he can’t, he can only watch. In the dark below, Wulf-Dieter is still leaning across the starboard side, trying to catch his breath, his forehead now pressed against metal. He finally pushes himself from the fuselage and turns his back to the cockpit to get away from it all, and it’s as if his world has descended into silence. The incessant drone of the engines have faded down to nothing, and the smell of cordite in the air has gone, even though it is still there, hanging heavy.
His world is one of silence, and as he lifts his foot up to walk forwards, incendiary bullets find the port side of the bomber, rupturing the internal auxiliary fuel tank just behind him.
In an instant, the fuselage of the plane is alight in a bright, overpowering whiteness. Gallons of burning aviation fuel soak into Wulf-Dieter’s clothing down to his skin, while Heinz and Hans duck down on either side of the cockpit door, behind it all, dodging the flames that flash in to rise above their cowering figures below. Against the flames Wulf-Dieter’s darkened silhouette is succumbing to the light, his arms rising higher now; he’s engulfed in the maelstrom of flames taking hold of him. An explosion rips open the port side of the bomber, peeling its metal outwards, as it dashes him with contempt back from whence he came and towards the wireless operator’s position. The back of his burning head clatters into Scheaffer’s kit back and sends the flask scuttling.
Flames are streaking backwards along the exterior of the bomber all the way down past the machine gun that Helmuth still holds, shock gripping him, looking over his left shoulder while the heat works its way down towards him.
He turns, face forward now, his body freed from inaction, then recoils backwards, rising slowly from his crouched position, an arm held out in front of his face as the light and the heat finds him. He surveys the scene through a filter of bewilderment. “Schaefer? Schaefer!”, Helmut asks in puzzlement and then screams his name again as he sees the burning figure trying to stand, his back ablaze, as more flames from the ruptured fuel tank creep closer towards him. It’s as if the figure’s senses have returned, and with them, a piercing scream follows too. It’s animal-like; it’s pathetic and yet strangely mournful as it grows silent while his arms begin to flail towards his back. The clothes have gone now and skin, tissue and muscle begin to fuse. “Mother, mother, mother!”, he screams, in one last attempt to reclaim his humanity, but Helmuth does nothing: he can’t move. Forgetting the heat of the flames which reach him, he slowly stands up straight. He can only watch and then lurch backwards, as the figure stumbles forwards towards him. Flames are engulfing the inside of the fuselage, twisting around it like a snake squeezing its prey. An oxygen tank explodes like a rocket and hits the burning figure off his left shoulder, spinning him around to fall down on his back.
Wulf-Dieter’s cries for his mother descend into a guttural gurgling as he pulls his arms together to cover his face with his hands in a futile and forlorn gesture, but the flames offer him no mercy, none at all, as they consume him. The muscles in his arms contract and the hands-on his face clamp down tightly like a venus flytrap falling on its prey.
Helmuth reaches for his sidearm. He’s going to shoot his friend Schaefer, he thinks, to put the poor bastard out of his misery, but bullets from spare magazines begin to ricochet over his head, cooking off in the flames, and he ducks down, looking at the C Stand position below.
It wasn’t the sign of a human on fire, the thought of it being his friend Schaefer, or even the smell of burning flesh that would haunt Helmuth into his elderly days. He wouldn’t even know that he had been screaming into the intercom, telling the rest of the crew that Schaefer was burning. Strangely, at those odd moments, long after the war, often when he chopped wood in his garden, it wasn’t the fact that he did nothing to help this man. It would be the sound of him calling for his mother, as he lay there, burning to death, that would always haunt him.
In the B stand position, above the flames, on the top of the bomber, Schaefer would think that Helmut, down there below, had been calling for him to save him in the flames. The very same flames which are now licking at his boots, as his legs rise up from the footrest to hang there suspended in mid-air, to stop them from cooking. He pushes the canopy backwards behind his head and then pushes himself upwards to look over the side to see the flames and is thrust forward with the wind. But in the brief second before the wind embraced him, pushing his chest down onto the top of the bomber, his head narrowly missing the wireless aerial, he saw the port engine ablaze, its propeller wind-milling freely, as flames bellowed out and up from the port side.
He doesn’t need to wait for the alarm to ring, or for Heinz to shout for them to bail out; he knows what is happening down there. The screams from Helmuth into the intercom, that was enough for him, that was all he needed to know. Even before Heinz had given up the ghost and stopped trying to counter the loss in power and the growing yaw, even before the fire had cut the control columns, Schaefer was already getting ready to jump away from it all. Swinging the guns all the way behind him, pushing his feet down into the flames once more, ignoring the pain as the flames burned at him, forcing himself upwards into his seat. The wind propelling him forwards, again, pinning his chest onto the top of the bomber, trying to push himself over the starboard side just as it begins to go into a steep dive.
By now Helmuth, below, has untethered himself and jumped down into the C stand position, throwing the mat above the door behind him, back into the flames. He glances quickly at the ammunition store in front of him and then pauses to look down at the now clear ventral door, holding its handle in his hand. “Is this happening, is it really happening?”, he thinks, as he falls back on his bottom and then his back. With the steepening dive, flames are beginning to lick and flick across the ceiling above him, inching forward to the ammunition store. He rolls on his side and begins to use the structural beams as a ladder. It takes all his strength to pull himself forward towards the door and finally open it.
Almost in unison, Schaefer and Helmuth fall from the top and the bottom of the bomber as it begins to rotate. Two figures in the sky, caught in the orbit of the bomber but then drifting slowly away from it in the night. Waiting to be clear of it before opening their parachutes, Schaefer slowly counts in his head to five before pulling his ripcord. Not far behind are Heinz and Hans, falling through the night too, after jumping out of their respective cockpit canopy windows, but there’s no Wulf-Dieter, consumed as he was by the flames. His charred body rising up in the flames to press against the ceiling of his flying tomb, still burning in the flames, as the steepness of the dive increases. Fixed there by the centrifugal forces of physics as much as destiny.
It’s odd what you think about as you’re falling through the coldness of a blackened sky when you no longer have plexiglass and aluminium between you and the world any more – but the fears are still there. You wait to clear the bomber and then reach for the ripcord of your parachute – but nothing happens.
Pulling at it again and again, in hurried, frantic and then forlorn desperation that breaks into enraged screams and then pathetic sobs of “..no, no nooo!” And yet still you plummet as one’s mind splits into multiple places all at the same time. The past, the present and the impending future foreshadowing it all. Time, that beast, which has given you everything, yet now will take it all, you fall through the darkness – knowing that the ground beneath will soon find you.
Perhaps all bomber crews lived their lives this way, always waiting for a fall they hoped would never come? Always living in the past and fearing the future. Dying a thousand times.
Yet, as Heinz, Schaefer and Helmuth floated down to captivity, this is the fate that would find Hans – he would fall to his death, his parachute failing to open. In his haste, he’d put his parachute on incorrectly, and it would be the last thing that he would do.
Maybe that’s what the mind does at times of great stress? It takes one back to better times, to certain times, happy times. So as Hans fell, in the eternity of time which he had, before the world found him in that field, I hope that the thoughts of Freidrich’s hand on his shoulder came to mind to console him. Or if not, the thoughts of those silver-grey dolphins which danced at the bow of a ship which carved its way through a blackened sea.
Those on the ground, who looked up to the sky that night, woken as they were by the sounds of war, would never know of the dramas which unravelled up there above them in the cold black sky. Or know of the pain and anguish felt by those airmen as the bright streak of yellow in the sky fell downwards. Falling to earth at Little Hill Farm in Warwick, with the sound of a dull thud and that brief flash of orange fading into a silver glow on the horizon before the darkness of the night reigned once more.
All that those below, who saw that sight thought of though, as they closed their curtains again and turned to stumble back into their beds, was not of the woeful inhumanity of man’s gestures onto man, but simply the succour of sleep and the promise of a new day to come.
Hans Müller and Wulf Müller were originally buried in St. Peters Churchyard, Wellesbourne. They were re-interned at the Deutsche Soldatenfriedhof Cemetery at Cannock Chase on the 3rd of May, 1962