Adolf Gallands Fighter Wing JG-26 (Me109s) taking off to do combat with R.A.F. Spitfires and Hurricanes. If ever a fighter commander led the front, Adolf Galland did. He flew throughout the war, achieving over 100 air victories all on the Western Front against the top aces of the RAF and the USAAF, and when the end came he was still flying and fighting, leading a wing of Me262 jets. Perhaps the most memorable period of the war for Adolf Galland came after he took command of the III/JG-26 fighter wing in June 1940. In true fashion he scored two aerial victories on his first day and in no time transformed JG-26 Schlageter into an elite formation that became known as the Abbeville Boys. Robert Taylor has recreated a scene from those heady days in 1941, when the Abbeville boys were at the height of their reputation, doing daily combat with the Spitfires and Hurricanes of the RAF. Adolf Galland leads his pilots in a typical loose formation take-off, the Messerschmitt Bf109F fighters roaring across the runway for yet another clash with the foe. The Abbeville boys are on the Warpath!
Bloemertz was one of the famed “Abbeville Boys”, flying Me 109s out of Abbeville in Northern France during the German Occupation.
What was it father said long ago – “You want to be an airman? Now think, my boy. Downstairs there’s a family like ours: father, mother and child, saying grace before supper – and you want to go and drop a bomb into all this peacefulness!”
“No,” I replied, “no, father, I want to be a fighter pilot, one of the ones who shoots bombers down.”
Then I was stretching both hands out of the window of the railway carriage, with mother quietly crying and father saying in a low voice, “Come back safely, my . . .” The first flight over the fields and the wide forest, above the red tiled roofs of the town . . . the heavy suitcases when I arrived at the front. Oh – they were heavy! I had put them down and entered the dusty, dry barracks. That was in Abbeville . . . Abbeville – the front.
The spare man in the plain linen flying-suit standing before me was the Kommandeur of the Abbeville Boys. A bright yellow life jacket hung loosely across his shoulder and chest, and a black, white and red ribbon stood out from under his collar.
“Nineteen, Herr Major.”
His lower lip came forward and he stared at me for a moment. “Have you any request to make?”
It sounded like an execution. But I did actually have a request – to get near two of my friends. Werner and Ulrich were a reminder of home . . .
The sun-warmed air was shimmering above the long concrete runways and wide stretches of grass. I had to walk on for quite half an hour with my heavy cases to the other side of the airfield. Close above the horizon, far beyond the shimmering layer, something sparkled for a second. A dozen fine streaks lay mutely across the sky: twelve fighters were either flying away from me or would be over my head in a few seconds. The streaks grew larger. Soon cockpits, wings and armament could be made out – the aircraft were already flying so low over the grass that in the hot eddying air they seemed to fuse with the ground, and still I could hear no engine noise. I saw the heads behind the goggles, the blunt noses of the motors hurtling towards me. A thin singing hum grew momentarily louder, then they were roaring over my head in lightning and thunder – and away.
I turned my head. The twelve trails with their dots in front were once again high in the sky. So those were they: the Tommies called them the “Abbeville Boys”, and feared and respected them.
“Line-shooters!” I said to myself.
The line-shooters returned. Banking steeply, they circled the airfield and then swept in to land, whistling and bellowing, sharp explosions punctuating the flat accompaniment of idly-turning propellers. For a fraction of a second they displayed their flat, silver-blue bellies, drew down ever more closely towards their shadows on the grass, and alighted carefully with legs spread wide. Perhaps that’s my squadron, I thought, perhaps Werner and Ulrich are with them. Or had they already been killed? I hauled my suitcases on a bit further, spurred by the joyful anticipation of seeing two old friends again.
At that very moment, from the squadron dispersal area, a “bird” rose in a leisurely, awkward fashion into the air. Its engine roaring, it vibrated slowly along towards me, splaying out its thin stork-like legs as though about to land again any moment. In fact the “Storch” landed scarcely thirty paces away on the greensward. The pilot jumped out, clowning in dumb show.
“Hallo, old boy! What a sight for my poor old eyes. You, too, taking your bones to market?”
Ulrich was standing before me: Ulrich, the dark-eyed, spare-framed reservist with the long, almost black hair – Ulrich, my pal of recruit days, who had worn his service nightshirt with such lazy distinction and had climbed every night into the topmost bunk of the row.
“Ulrich, old fellow, how did you know I was here?” I mumbled.
“Slow as ever in the uptake! How did I know you were here? Caught sight of you during the approach, recognised your old moon face quite plainly. Hawk’s eyes, old boy – hawk’s eyes! Cigarette?”
Ulrich’s lapels smelt as they always had done of Soir de Paris.
“Incidentally, you look a regular porter,” he went on unkindly. “There wasn’t a car handy at the squadron but a Storch is just as good. Simple, isn’t it? Coming?”
We went laughing to the aircraft. Ulrich’s walk was as it used to be, leaning forward so you expected him to fall on his nose any moment. Around his mouth and at the corners of the eyes there had appeared finely drawn wrinkles.
“Yes, the Abbeville Boys have had a good deal of scrapping,” he grinned. “And this evening we’re going to drown it all.”
“Where’s Werner?” I asked, hesitating.
“Baled out an hour ago over St Orner. Got a bit above himself. The little Spitfires gave him a bellyful. Poor chap rang up just now. He’s flying back with a replacement in the morning. Chuck your cigarette away!”
We climbed in to the cockpit of the Storch, and the shortest air journey of my career began. A few seconds later we climbed out between two dispersal hangars.
“The one in front is the Kapitan,” Ulrich muttered under his breath. The Kapitan might well have been a cadet, for his fresh, brown face made him look just like an eighteen-year-old. The pilots were lying back in their easy chairs between the aircraft and waiting for the next sortie. The Kapitän led me round from one to the other, and Ulrich drew me finally to a chair next to his own.
The pair to my right were called Vogel and Meyer II, a strange couple who seemed only to exist for each other.
“The best of the whole squadron,” whispered Ulrich, indicating them with his eyes.
The pilots’ attention was jerked to the loudspeaker. Ulrich listened tautly with his lips pressed together. Only a hum could be heard at first – the current as it was switched on – and then came the announcement.
“Achtung! achtung! Enemy aircraft forming up in strength over London, probably four-engined bombers.”
Ulrich swallowed a curse. “Off we go again.”
Drawing nervously at his cigarette he turned abruptly away, making for his machine. The other pilots were already clambering into their cockpits.
“Immediate readiness!” came through the loudspeaker, and the latecomers sprang into their aircraft. I stood on the wing beside Ulrich, who was crouched in the narrow cockpit, fastening his harness.
“Do your stuff!”
Laughing, he punched me in the chest.
“Can do,” he nodded, and then, softly and nervously, “can do-can do. . . .”
His fists were clenched and I could see he had become suddenly serious. His eyes, lost in an unearthly distance, reflected something strange and rare, not fear – but perhaps a certain figure with a scythe coming towards him across the wide field. Since I had got to know Ulrich it was this curious expression in the eyes which had led me to the fancy that he might be a visitor from another planet wishing to study affairs on earth, moving among human beings to experience their habits, joys and sorrows, so he, too, could love, fight and die like any of them.
“Achtung! Achtung! Squadron take off at once! Enemy formation airborne over Thames Estuary. Course Flushing.”
The two-thousand-h.p. engines sprang into deafening life, their slip-stream forcing me backwards, as if eighty thousand horses were thundering all around. Forty small, compact single-seaters roared across the airfield, rose laboriously from the ground and drove with gathering speed towards the enemy.
That very day one of the pilots in our squadron had won his twenty-fifth victory in the air. In the evening a crowd of fellows came into our mess to celebrate in the company of their successful comrade. The Kommandeur with his staff, the Kapitäns of the neighbouring units and the pilots of our own squadron were all there. The men of the morning had changed very much in appearance, for instead of oily flying-suits they were wearing smart white or dark-blue uniforms, white shirts and – in accordance with a special squadron custom – loosely fitting white socks. Even in the Palace of Versailles you would not have found greater correctness in social conduct than here; but in spite of this, the conversation was pretty easy.
The Welfare Officer of our squadron was there too, a reserve major who always wore uniforms of English cut. Known as “Papi”, he could easily have been the father of any one of us. He got now to telling a story about the evening a strange guest had been entertained in a small château not far from St Omer: a legendary Englishman who had already lost both his legs and who had now been shot down in combat. The brave Englishman had landed safely, but his artificial limbs had been smashed. So there was the captured enemy airman, the renowned Wing-Commander Bader from the other side, sitting in the middle of a group of German pilots – the Fighter General himself had invited him to an evening party.
The two of them, both experts at their craft, had sat in deep armchairs by the fireplace, their gaze fixed on the crackling embers. The atmosphere was rather oppressive, everyone appreciating the feelings of their guest, the airmen’s immobile expressions flung into relief by the light of the flaming logs. No one spoke a word. Every now and again they sipped their drinks quietly and with reserve, never forgetting the little formalities which went with it. Germans are incapable of behaving in any other way – they honoured their guest as the man who had forgotten both his legs were missing to go out and fight for his country.
The strangeness of the occasion and reflections about their shot-down opponent led every man’s thoughts the same way, suddenly to anathematise the war and that fate which throws a man into one particular society at his birth, and makes it his duty to conform to it. Why hadn’t each of them been born in England? That would have given England one more pilot. Why was the Englishman sitting by the fireplace not a German? He might perhaps have been a kommodore of our own. Hadn’t we often enough in peacetime sat down at table with those whom today it seemed our highest duty to kill? It was suddenly impossible to understand how men of the same sort, with the same feelings, desires, and needs could come to mangle one another to death.
The Englishman might well have been thinking somewhat similar thoughts, but he too had found himself unable to solve this problem and so perhaps had let it rest. At that, as he looked up, they raised their glasses to him. And subsequently there slowly developed between him and the German General an intimate discussion about fights experienced in common, told after the usual manner of fighter pilots – the sort of conversation only good friends can have.
That same evening the guest had asked if his reserve legs could be sent across from England, and a few hours afterwards a British radio operator was holding the message in his hands – the Germans had offered an escort at a pre-arranged time, at a specified point where the legs could be dropped by parachute. But over there they didn’t seem to trust “the Jerries” very much, for next day the Germans received a message to the effect that the legs had been dropped at a different time and in another area.
Our close attention had rewarded the Major for his narrative. I had quite recently heard more about the remarkable R.A.F. officer who continuously encouraged his companions in the prisoner-of-war camps to escape. He had finally got away himself, and it was even suggested our General had given him encouragement in doing so: at any rate the former had sworn heartily when he heard the British party had been recaptured.
As the last words of the narrator died away a disconcerted silence settled over the company. Few of my fellow pilots had known that memorable fireside circle at the Château of St Omer: the others were no longer living. It was not surprising we were silent.
The Kommandeur rose to his feet.
“Kameraden! The Abbeville boys come, do their duty and go. They follow the example of their fallen friends with all that they have in them. These friends have bequeathed to us their knightly spirit. May every one of us carry this spirit in him, and hand it on even when the enemy wins a victory. To the health of all true knights!”
Subdued strains of jazz could be heard from the next room, I thought to myself – in every age there’ll always be knights.
Late that evening, with glasses of brandy in our hands, Ulrich and I received orders to take off at first light from a small airfield north of Abbeville. This field lay at the edge of the Forest of Crécy, and was one of those which the English had used during the First World War. From it we were to intercept two Spitfires which used to fly over from Biggin Hill each morning at the same time and patrol along the coast. A reconnaisance at daylight from the English point of view was a small risk, comparable to that which defence against such early risers presented to us. But the Tommies didn’t believe we ever sat ready in our aircraft at this hour, and we counted on this. For this reason both we and the English used to let a learner go out on these operations, a “guinea-pig” so to speak, this being the quickest way of giving him his baptism of fire.
And now I was the guinea-pig. It was striking six when I put my right leg out of bed. In an hour’s time someone would be shooting at me and I would perhaps be training my guns for the first time on a human being.
I took things as they came, as millions had done before me, trying to banish all such thoughts from my mind. I looked at my “new” aircraft: perhaps I should soon be lying in the ground in company with it. But really it was so old one could almost attribute to it a consciousness and experience of its own; some people even maintained it could fly without a pilot and shoot down an enemy aircraft of its own accord. I put on my dressing-gown.
That moment there came the order: “Tommies close off the mouth of the Somme. Take off at once!”
The Englishmen would certainly not have spent last night drinking brandy! I ran to my machine. Ulrich, too, with puffy eyes and in pyjamas was hurrying to his aircraft. As the engine revved up someone threw a life-jacket round me and someone else fastened my parachute harness and belt.
Full throttle! As I left the ground and swept low over the tree tops of the Forest of Crécy beside Ulrich, I put on my helmet and goggles with my left hand, adjusted the R/T pads around my neck, retracted the under-carriage, raised the flaps, set the trimmer and made the innumerable small manual adjustments which were required.
We were already over the sea, with a visibility of barely a thousand metres. Then, through the grey, damp morning mist, the two Spitfires were all at once rushing towards us. To wrench the stick round, sight, turn, aim and fire was a matter of seconds in which body and brain acted with automatic precision – a mechanical reaction for which I had prepared myself for two years, against a target which I now hit quite without conscious volition or regard to the consequences. The enemy crumpled under my fire.
Victory! A transport of happiness and pride possessed me, from which it took me a moment to recover. Finally I turned my aircraft and looked round with anxious eyes for Ulrich. Far astern, guns were sparkling in the clear sky over the mainland: the adversaries pursuing one another in a series of steep, tight turns. Before I could help, a small white mushroom unfolded, and slowly sank towards the earth. Ulrich’s aircraft spun into a wood, and the Tommy flew on his way.
I circled low over my friend, whose pyjamas were flapping in the breeze. Ulrich waved to me, seemingly unhurt. He had scarcely landed in a small meadow when from all directions gallant infantrymen with rifles at the ready came hurrying to take him prisoner. They had obviously mistaken him for the defeated enemy and me for the victorious German. For the first time since the fight I actually began to laugh – Ulrich, the “captured Tommy” was standing down there in his pyjamas with his hands above his head!
I had too much to attend to in my machine to watch this spectacle for long, but I saw them taking Ulrich away, and I had already flown a good part of the journey home when I looked round again. To my horror I saw another aircraft on my quarter, apparently almost within touching distance. Just as well it wasn’t a Tommy. The unknown pilot put his hand to his helmet, and I returned his salute. The other was smiling all over his face.
“Good morning, old man,” came through my earphones. I looked again, more closely.
“Werner, hallo Werner!”
I had to look ahead again, but now I understood. Werner had baled out yesterday near St Omer and was now flying a new machine back to Abbeville. I looked across at him again – he was staring before him and spoke without turning his head.
“Are you landing at Abbeville?”
“Can’t very well. Look at this!” I lifted the skirt of my dressing-gown to the window of the cockpit. It was a little while before Werner understood.
“Good show,” he laughed. I didn’t know whether he meant my dressing-gown, Ulrich’s pyjamas or this strange reunion. And when, a few minutes later, I dropped away over Crécy and we waved to each other again it was as though a few days only had passed, instead of five long years, since we had last seen one another.
That welcome night brought to an end what had been a difficult day. I lay awake and thought of the daylight hours just passed. They had been commonplace for many, decisive for some. Today, as for many years past, death and mourning, victory and ecstasy had been arbitrarily apportioned among us. Friend and foe alike had been under the same illusion as they said their prayers, of supplication or gratitude, hurriedly, humbly or proudly, each one wishing only to love the good and to hate evil. And we too belonged to that company.
From time to time we openly recognised the meaninglessness of this existence. More often we simply sensed it. But, at moments like these, what could our disgust alone do against the links of this fateful chain made up of our own bodies and souls, dragging us all along? Good motives there were – here as well as “over there” – our own country, our own wives and children at home must be protected as stoutly as those on the other side. We young men were incapable of comprehending the meaning of it all. Fate plunged onwards down its ordained path, and however we might try to protect ourselves it struck us exactly as it pleased. I couldn’t block its way; and you – you who had wanted to kill me early in the morning – you couldn’t do so either. Tommy, if you still live, are you perhaps drinking at this moment in some bar in the West End? Or perhaps you’re in some quiet corner, grieving over one of your own friends or squadron mates who died in the early morning; perhaps you’re writing at this moment to his parents or his fiancée, who, still cheerful, have as yet no idea what has happened? Tommy, I know you would do that, just as I should.
How joyfully I grasped my comrades’ hands! I jumped beaming from the cockpit, while a soul went up from the still warm body of a man I had killed. How proud I had still been in the time before the bell tolled for him whom I had shot.
The day passed in jollity, dancing and girls’ laughter. I wanted to forget the morning, to wipe the vision of blood and shining roundels from before my eyes. Now the silent night lay over all. I was very tired, but I couldn’t sleep. Agonising thoughts still passed through my head. Did every soldier experience this feeling when he had killed a man for the first time?
I listened to Ulrich’s quiet breathing. Perhaps he would laugh if I asked him about it.
“You could have saved yourself the last burst!” he had said smilingly, not ironically or frivolously, and certainly not sadly. I could see it still, the Tommy in his Spitfire hovering in the air close in front of me. I have no idea whether I have hit him. But I fire – for whole seconds in my excitement. Then we go into turns, the tightest possible turns. It seems any moment I must go into a spin. The rough sea spray is scarcely a hundred metres below me, and we are far out from the shore. I am still lying not quite right astern of the enemy, and the correct deflection for hitting him has not yet been reached. Nerves are stretched to the uttermost. My quarry hauls his machine all of a sudden right round in front of me, so that heavy vapour-trails appear in the sky. I react instantaneously and take a chance between crashing the aircraft and getting the final ounce out of it. Heaving the stick towards me with both hands, for the fraction of a second I achieved the correct firing-angle. My index-finger shifts by a millimetre on the triggers of my guns, and the burst flashes into the enemy’s fuselage.
He plunges almost vertically, but regains control just above the surface with desperate strength, and climbs steeply – mortally hit. I see him struggling to get out – he wants to jump, He’s like a hunted quarry during any such chase and I feel with him – pray feverishly for him.
There she goes! The damaged aircraft’s climbing vertically in front of me in its last convulsion, the great roundels on the wings standing out bright and hostile – filling me only with horror. In the seconds which decide a man’s life my finger again crooks automatically one millimetre – and the burst streaks redly out! – I shudder. It shouldn’t have happened, it wasn’t necessary. But I can’t bring those deadly jewels back; it’s done now.
“Jump! man, jump!” I shouted aloud in despair. Instead I see him bathed in the red of his own blood; his body strains half over the side to hang there, mutilated. Then the waves close over him. . . .
Perhaps it was only the trembling of my finger that brought death to that man? I didn’t know. But again it came to me – how fate goes its own way and strikes us down as it pleases. I couldn’t stop it, and nor could you – whoever you may have been.
I turned over on my pillow and reached for the reading-lamp and the cigarettes. For a long while I gazed meditatively at the pictures of my parents. Perhaps tomorrow they would be weeping for me.
“Still awake?” Ulrich asked softly, although he knew well I wasn’t sleeping. He too was staring at the ceiling. “What are you thinking about?”
“What am I thinking about. . . .” I repeated, rather at a loss. It was a difficult question; as a soldier I had had to forget how to talk from the heart. But it was easier to talk lying there gazing upwards – you can speak so much more easily and naturally to the ceiling.
“What am I thinking about, Ulrich? The Tommy of this morning,” I confessed. “It simply wasn’t necessary. Why didn’t the man jump before he did?”
“You must forget it,” Ulrich replied. “One gets used to anything, including shooting people down . . . but even so, war’s a pretty bloody business.” We were silent. “But, you know,” he began again after a pause, “it’s a great deal bloodier for someone like me who does it all without any real conviction.”
Nothing more was said. I don’t know how long we lay there with our eyes open, and the light was still burning when the dawn woke us.