You'll think it fanciful, I suppose, but I blame that
German plane for my life-long dislike of surprises and
loud noises. It's an unfortunate dislike, really, because the
world, during my long stay in it, has got noisier and noisier.
And more and more surprising.
It so happens that I know who flew that Junkers 88
over Bratton Morley, at little more than tree-height, on
9th March 1945. Forty years after his suicidal flight, I was
in Holland, researching for a picture book about what were
called "doodlebugs", the German rocket bombs launched
upon England during the last year of the Second World
War. In Amsterdam I spent almost a week in a thin and
lovely old building full of books and maps and documents
and photographs. It was like being in an immensely tall
bookcase. On my last day, one of the librarians brought
me a book entitled Our Last Days. It was a collection
of first-person accounts, by German servicemen and
civilians, of their experiences during the final desperate
stage of the war they knew they had lost. I flicked
through it and saw the words RAF Beckford, which was
the name of the Norfolk airbase four miles from where,
in an untimely and messy fashion, I was born. I licked my
finger and turned the pages back. The piece was a badly
written (or poorly translated) story by a former Luftwaffe
sergeant called Ottmar Sammer.
I struggle to tell you how I felt when I read it. A bit like
looking in a mirror for the first time in years, perhaps.
Here, in my own words, is Sammer's story.
He'd spent the last two years of the war in charge of the
ground crew of a squadron commanded by Oberst Karlheinz
Metz. Metz was, as a pilot, both brilliant and fearless. He'd
joined the Luftwaffe at the age of eighteen and, by the time
he was twenty, he was dropping bombs on Spanish democrats,
thus helping to inspire Picasso's Guernica. During the
blitzkrieg on Britain he'd flown more raids than any other
officer. Once, he'd flown his crippled bomber back from
Plymouth with all his crew dead. He'd won so many medals
that, if he'd worn them all at once, the sheer weight of them
would have made him fall flat on his face. (That was the
nearest that Sammer came to making a joke.) Metz was also
a passionate Nazi. There was a photograph of him in the
book. The odd thing was that, no matter how long I studied
it, I forgot what he looked like as soon as I turned the page.
He was weirdly ordinary-looking.
In March 1945 Metz's squadron was stationed in
western Holland. His situation was quite hopeless.
American and Canadian forces were less than fifty miles
from his airfield. He had not flown, nor received any orders,
for more than two weeks. Of the twenty-two planes he'd
originally commanded, only seven still existed. Of those,
only three were airworthy. He had, despite his demands,
only enough fuel to get one plane to England and maybe
back. On 7th March he received a signal from Berlin telling
him to destroy his aircraft and retreat his squadron eastwards
to the German border.
Metz did as he was told, almost. On the morning of
9th March he assembled the surviving members of his
squadron and made an inspirational speech about the
defence of the Fatherland. His men raised their hats and
cheered him; then they put explosives in all the aircraft
except one and blew them up. Imagine that: a row of
machines, which had known the inside of clouds, going
bang and slumping their flaming arms to the ground.
Sammer said that Metz kept his face straight while he
supervised it but that tears ran down his face. (I suspect
that Ottmar was gilding the lily, there.) Metz then ordered
his men into trucks and watched them drive away. Not all
the men, though. He'd kept Sammer and the armourer and
another man behind. Metz got them to fuel up the surviving
88. He also got them to load the belt-fed machine guns,
despite the fact that there were no gunners. At this point
Sammer realized what the Oberst was intending to do. He
claims that he tried to talk Metz out of it but was ignored.
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