Excerpt from Life by Mal Peet, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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An Exploded Diagram

by Mal Peet

Life by Mal Peet X
Life by Mal Peet
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2011, 416 pages
    Feb 2013, 400 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Norah Piehl

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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.

Excerpted from Life by Mal Peet. Copyright © 2011 by Mal Peet. Excerpted by permission of Candlewick Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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