Wednesday, 9th April 17:42 BDST: - Dinard-Pleurtuit Airfield, France
It would be easy to imagine Rudolf Müller in an August Sander portrait, sternly looking at the camera, while wearing his chef’s whites and holding a stainless steel bowl cradled under his arm. Frustratedly pausing from furiously whisking his meringues, and growing angry as a result, because the camera was being carefully focused at him. The fact though that he was leaning against a Heinkel 111 bomber at this moment, and that his barrel-chested frame was squeezed tightly, not into chef’s whites, but into a grey tunic secured in place by a black leather belt, silver buckle shining, might dissuade one of these thoughts.
He just had that look about him though, one might think again, as he rubbed the rosy-cheeks on his round, twenty-three-year-old fresh-face, and turned to follow a truck that drove by. Looking dismissively at the driver and thinking to himself, “why is this idiot so bloody cheerful?” All the time the driver whistled merrily the tune The Flag on High. His body, seemingly half leaning out of the window as he did, catching Rudolf looking at him and then smiling back.
“Bloody fool,” Rudolf thought to himself. His back straightened upwards while he unknowingly thumbed at the back of the silver, polished aluminium belt buckle with a Luftwaffe eagle on it, holding so tightly onto a swastika while in flight. He’d always wondered where it was carrying it to? That damn swastika. To feed its hungry chicks, high up in a nest, he’d once thought, but only to himself, whilst terribly drunk one night in a bar. The vision of it suddenly coming to him momentarily before he’d laughed out loud to himself. He thought of the bird ramming the swastika down the throats of opened mouthed chicks, and, as a result, laughed and spluttered beer out onto Werner. Werner, four years his senior, a tall, muscular, black-haired man, turned coolly to look at him, wiping beer and spit from his cheek, a grimace slowly forming into a smile, shaking his head, shouting back at his assailant, “Rudy you bloody idiot! Don’t you know that it’s Helmut’s job to dump the fuel before a crash landing and not you!”
Rudolf pauses, a slight smile forming, as his lips grip and then pull on a cigarette, before it drops down by his side, caught there in between two fingers. He’s still for a moment, entranced in thought, not long before he’d discussed tonight’s mission with the crew. All of them sitting on the grass watching Egon stretch his pointed finger across a map as he explained the ingress and egress routes. His hand rises again and, as he exhales, he notices a frayed grey thread that sticks out from the yellow Unteroffizier patch on the collar of his tunic, fluttering in the smoke. His weak chin disappears into his neck as his head drops forward to fix it. He sizes it up, eyes narrowing, and then pulls at it sharply in a single tug. Staring at it briefly, he pinches it in between the thumb and forefinger of his right hand. Flicking his thumb upwards, he sets it free towards Britain into the early evening air of Dinard, a few miles in from the Brittany coast.
All around Rudolf, ground crew are working feverishly on dozens of two-engined green, painted aeroplanes, their once blue underbellies now painted in black camouflage, the squadron having recently switched from day to night operations.
Some of them load bombs, nose first into an older P2 model 111, which the group has procured as a replacement, up through the opened dual bomb bay doors of the plane. The fins on their tail sections perched on wooden double-handled racks, which two men push upwards, before securing them in their bays as another man throws black paint over the red engine nose cone. The majority of the remaining black H-5’s have already had their bombs loaded onto external racks by this point. On one bomber, two Obergefreiter Tankwart stand on the wings, each man next to one of the engines as a solitary Waffenwart in between them checks the B-Stand guns. Both men on the wings secure fuel pumps which lead away from the plane like two lifeless snakes slithering away to a small tanker waiting to feed them. “They’re always so bloody happy,” Rudolf muses to himself yet again, his eyes fixed on a man whistling in the distance who rubs with vigour at a perspex cockpit window with chamois leather rags.
Soon all of the eleven planes of 4th Staffel II. Gruppe Kampfgeschwader Twenty-Seven (II./KG 27) will be readied for battle; all of them fueled, bomb-laden and expected to join the two-hundred and eighty-two other bombers heading for Birmingham in a few hours time. Perhaps with that thought in his mind, Rudolf puts the cigarette to his lips again, his pointed and extended fingers gripping it like pliers as he breathes the smoke down deep inside. Closing his eyes, wishing this world away, just for a moment, as his chest expands and rises slowly, a thumb still caught behind his belt buckle.
He thinks, his mind bemused, and his eyes open again suddenly. They’re as large as the gold-rimmed dinner plates in the officer’s mess he hoped one day to sit in, as a strange sound catches his ears. “My God, fuel leak!”, he thinks to himself, throwing the cigarette onto the grass and stamping a boot on it then turning quickly to look over his left shoulder, just in time to see a line of urine splashing down against the rear tyre of the aeroplane he’s leaning against.
Smoke splutters back up from his lungs, and out again in white puffs in front of him, as he bends over, coughing hoarsely as he looks at the boots of the man standing there. Rudolf’s hand finds his thigh as the other reaches out in front, helping him balance before he straightens upright with a broad smile on his face. Catching his breath again, he laughs, shouting, “Egon, you silly bastard, you know that piss can’t stop bullets!”
The whole crew screams with laughter as Egon shouts back that it will ward off those poncey English gentlemen! For the last three missions, Egon has urinated on the back tyre of their bomber for luck, and each time, like silly boys, they have all laughed.
For a moment they are all as one, this crew of 1G+KM. Rudolf Müller, the pilot, leaning there now with one hand against the fuselage again, and Helmut Hacke, the mechanic with his arm across wireless operator Werner Strecke’s shoulder. Both of them standing there in the shadow of the port wing, laughing with joy, as Egon Grolig, the navigator, walks into view from behind the tail fin, buttoning his fly with both hands, laughing and smoking a cigarette taken from its silver case and now clenched between his lips.
These are the moments that stay with you, Rudolf thought to himself turning to look back at his crew. The coastal wind blowing in across the airfield to stroke the grass back and forth in the sunlight at his feet before he threw his cigarette down onto the ground after only two drags, stamping on it and twisting the toes of his boot, quickly left and right, pressing it into the soil and tapping his big toe seven times for luck, then looking up towards the sky, his hand shielding his eyes as he watched a bird slowly circling in the windy world above him.
A sadness rising up inside him as he imagined a world where all of this would be gone.