by Lady Day
The last days of the air war over Germany through the eyes of a Luftwaffe pilot
| My fingers tremble against the switches, and as I watch the worn black glove in front of me I become aware that it feels like someone else's hand, supported by someone else's arm, moved to action by someone else's mind. My thoughts are swirling around all the possibilities the day might bring, yet are strangely anchored to the task that lies before me. Music echoes across the field from the rickety old loud speaker system, a formal rambling chorus of orchestral music and men's synchronized voices set to the tone of an old Prussian military march. My every muscle is tensed to hear the authoritative voice interupt the melody with the familiar words that will end my anxiety.
Cockpit readiness is equivalent to Hell as far as I'm concerned.
I've always hated the waiting. I'd rather hear bullets slamming hard into the metal armor around my cockpit than this deathly silence that seems to hang around me like a forboding fog. Alone with my thoughts is the last place I want to be, yet seemingly the most necesary and appropriate in these final quiet moments. Once I am up in the clouds, my mind will be crystal clear, unclouded by the jumbled thoughts that always plague me on the ground. Any distraction at all would suffice to defer the memories that fight for control of my wits...But this is the point of no return. Here, my mind always wants to drift backwards instead of offering up my unworthy soul to the Almighty like I should during this calm before the storm. I've come to fear the silence more than death. I know with the silence comes the sounds that I can never forget...Rattling explosions of bombs, the sound of an air raid siren, bullets burying themselves in the metal surrounding me, voices of comrades as they burn or bleed to death in thier cockpits, the deafening sound of my MK 108 canon lobbing rounds, the sound of my own labored breathing through the oxygen mask...These sounds will haunt me until my dying day of this I am sure.
Then I hear a child's voice somewhere far away, and a laughing woman, and I know another memory is coming. I wonder if I will ever be able to remember the faces the way they were. I close my eyes to try again. I feel my muscles relax a bit after a few seconds. I cue my mind to begin, and then it appears.
...A round, babyish face with saucer sized blue eyes staring up at me as if I hold the key to all that is lovely and good. A beautiful woman holding him, Her wavy golden hair falling just short of her shoulders. She is angling the small one towards me, shifting her weight to transfer him from her arms to mine. My mother is there is also, her smile as beautiful as it ever was. I cradle the little body in my arms, he smiles and reaches up, his tiny fingers curling around a peice of my shirt. He coos as he suddenly turns his eyes away from mine, seemingly looking past me skyward. I turn around as I hear a faraway rumbling, a droning like a thousand giant bees around a hive. Hundreds of black specks dot the sky, moving in a tidy formation nearer to us. Suddenly a whistling object hurtles earthward, then another, followed by five more, twenty more, hundreds more. Explosions rattle the ground under my feet. I look down to see the faces around me melt away as wax from a flame, and heavy in my arms is a drab colored bomb, its fuse spinning down the last few seconds of my life....
..."Attention, all pilots! Alarmstart!" The shrill commands shatter my thoughts like breaking glass, and I am grateful.
Now it is time to get on with things.
My eyes fly open, and my fingers work the switches expertly, trained from the hundreds of times I have repeated this same process. It has become more familiar to me than breathing, and as I draw in a chest full of air with the big BMW radial engine, I wonder if maybe it hasn't become just as vital. The prop begins to move slowly, inching its way around like the hands on a clock. The engine whines and coughs like an old man as a puff of smoke escapes, shuddering violently as it finally draws its first breath and begins to idle unevenly. The radio begins to buzz with activity in my ears as my staffel mates check clear for takeoff. Some of the voices are as familiar as my own, the "old hares" that have been here since the beginning. Others sound shaky and unsure, the "new growths" who've barely had time to learn how to handle thier machines before being pushed into the front lines of combat.
...There's the tenor voice of Emil Nuemann, the stubby Austrian and the bass of Fritz Bauer the boisterous Bavarian, both who have been my room mates on and off since we had all signed on in '43. There's the almost docile delivery of Steffen Abel, the shy Bohemian who'd flown my wing the day I brought down my first four-engined "Ami Viermot". There's Mathias von Ohlendorf's cocksure baritone, veteran of the East and baron from Cologne who has an affinity for the finest Wurzburg champagne. Each man's voice is steady and unemotional. And then I hear the voice of Max Stahl, normally a husky baritone who is today two octaves higher than normal. He is possibly the most pitiful among us as our newest replacement and without a kill to his name, but the teller of some of the best obscene jokes I've ever heard in my life. He will be flying his first combat mission today after logging only fourteen hours flying time in the FW-190 whose cowling he's painted with his beloved's name. He is the epitomy of the late-war state of the Luftwaffe. Plenty of brave men, not enough time and fuel to prepare them...
I check each switch and lever, each gauge for pressure and temperature. I lower flaps for takeoff. Set trim and mixture. I do all these things methodically until the mental checklist is completed. My Erste Wart, Rudi Eisen, who has been standing by faithfully reaches in to tug on my parachute and seat harnesses, and finding them secure he gives quick salute.
"Go with God on your shoulder, Egon!" I can barely hear his call of good luck as it is carried away by the wind from the propeller and rumble of the engine. He pushes the lip of the glass canopy forward on the track, and it slides shut with the sharp slap of metal on metal. I secure the latch. Things sound different now, more nasal and muted inside the cockpit. I am finally sealed inside the only world that matters. Rudi lays down flat, molding himself to the wing. He reaches for his hat but not before it is swept away by the gale behind the propeller. No matter how many times we've done this same routine, he never fails to lose his hat. Undaunted, he begins to motion me forward. On the ground he is the only eyes I have, my forward view being nothing but a mix of instruments and blue sky almost straight up through the windscreen. I throttle up until the hulk of airplane moves under the power of the engine, slowly forward away from the dispersal towards the others, clustered at the start of the runway and shooting skyward in pairs. Once I am lined up Rudi waves slightly and slides from the wing, rushing back to the dispersal to join the other ground crews. Here they will wait like a flock of mother hens to watch thier brood leave the nest, and wonder if we will return. I have taken to calling him "Mother Rudi". He despises this. I depress the button to engage the mic instinctively.
"White Seven clear for takeoff."
It is now a waiting game once again.
The briefing loops in my head like a newsreel. I omit all but the highlights.
"...We will form a large gefechtsverband battle formation with JG's 4 and 300...Expect a mixed force...five hundred plus...If the pulk is heavily escorted do not engage...Men and machines cannot be spared..."
The pressure on us is becoming more palpable, although few ever speak of it, even behind closed doors. You never know who might be listening, and "treason" has a broad definition these days.
"White seven!" The loud voice cut through the slight static of the radio. "Control tower here, you are cleared to proceed with takeoff." The next process happens quickly. I throttle up my A-8 to max power, and fight the rudder pedals to keep her heading straight down the runway as she picks up speed. As the tailwheel leaves the ground I see a green runway over her massive nose, and finally feel the vibrations of the ground turn to the silky smoothness of the air under all three wheels. The waiting is over. We are finally underway.
It is somewhere between raising gear and banking slightly over the airfield to pick up my already airborne staffelmates that it happens.
"Attention all pilots..." The radio buzzes to life once again. The radio man spits out codes that my mind quickly deciphers. Large pulk of bombers at six thousand meters. Heading northeast. Current position is the vicinity of Koblenz...
I get that little twinge somewhere deep down. An uneasy uncertainty rising in the pit of my stomach that lasts for only a few seconds. Then the cold fingers grip my abdomen as a numbing coldness sets through my middle. It is something that I have long ago been trained to kill when I am inside the cockpit. However, the familiarity of it takes me by surprise this time. Although it has been a year since this unwelcomed guest came in for a visit, I have no trouble recognizing him.
Autumn, 1943 seems like two lifetimes ago to me now, and in a way it was. That life plagues me nightly in dreams that have occured ever since and the death and destruction that rained down from the sky serves as the fuel that keeps me going even on the most grim of days. Now, as I watch the trees and hedgerows become smaller underneath me, it hits me hard in the gut that I'll be going back to the scene of my anguish.
The target for the bombers today will be the place where my life began twenty one years ago and also the place where, in my opinion, my life also came to an end on a moonless night in October of 1943...The night I lost everything that I had ever held dear to me.
Today I will be going back under the circumstances I have dreamed about since that horrible night. Instead of watching helplessly from below, I will be in the midst of the monsters, slashing at them like the sword of an ancient knight. Today, I'll make sure plenty of them don't come back. Today will be revenge for all that had been prematurely taken from me in this spot fourteen months ago. Whether or not I will live to tell about it won't be certain until another day of this war is over and my wheels are back on the grass at Alteno. After awhile you begin to forget that one "Ami Viermot" or American Flying Fortress has 13 angry .50 caliber machine guns pointed in your direction, and at the minimum you will be facing anywhere from four hundred to as many as a thousand tightly grouped in combat boxes.
There are but two important "ends" in our vernacular these days. The end of life and the end of the war. I used to dream about the day the war would be over, and our lives would return to the way they were, but as the realization came to me that life as we knew it will never exist that way again I find myself only looking forward to the trivial things like sleep and a hot breakfast...And coming back safely after yet another mission against the bombers. Some days I'm not so sure that even that is a blessing. What kind of future do we have to look forward to when this is all over? There is nothing for us to go home to, and as a result we have nothing but each other and even that number dwindles from day to day. Of the 20 some odd men that signed thier names with mine less than a year and a half ago only 8 of them are still alive. We knew it would be this way because of the mission they were asking of us, but we all had our reasons. Lives will end today, of that there is no question. It will be the end for some of us, an end for some of them, it always is. As for the war, well.....Maybe another day. Sometimes I wonder which will come first for me. I am strangely indifferent to both possibilities, until I think of Rudi shading his eyes against the sun in anticipation of my return. I quickly push that thought away, back to the place where I shoved the rest of my emotions a long time ago. I am reminded of a quote from my favorite author, Goethe, whose books have occupied many hours of my time..."Life belongs to the living, and he who lives must be prepared for changes."
I feel myself shiver, and I swallow hard as the nausea rises, pushing it downwards. It retreats as quickly as it comes and I am alone once again with only the drone of the engine to keep me company. I feel a sudden cramp in my hand and notice that I am gripping the stick with a force that is beginning to numb my fingers.
I turn quickly back to the task at hand with a new determined intensity, and say a quick prayer as fourty-four FW190's vector east hunting the tell-tale contrails of five hundred four-engined bombers.
One way or another, it will all be over soon...And he who lives must be prepared for changes.