Tail-end Charlie. That’s what they called us. It’s true, we were stuck down the back – “all behind like the cow’s tail” my old mum would say. The position was totally remote from the rest of the crew, perched up there at the front with heat piped into the cockpit from the engines. It’s like working on an island and when the intercom fails, as it invariably does, you’re all alone with just the stars and guns for company.
Thirty thousand feet, at night, in mid-winter, over Germany, in the middle of a formation of two hundred other bombers – what more could a chap ask for?
It was cold - bloody cold. The clouds below were bathed in iridescent light from a full moon - a bomber’s moon. The gaps around the clear-view panels and guns sucked the freezing air directly into the turret, my office, turning it into a refrigerator. The fur collar of my Irvine jacket was encrusted with tiny diamonds of frost. My mask, through which I sucked pure oxygen, was frozen to my face. Without it I would suffocate; without my heated flying suit I would quickly take on the form of a side of beef.
Suddenly a spine shattering explosion right behind me threw forward onto the gun controls. I blacked out. When I came round, the dawning of realisation came slowly. I was falling. The moon and clouds gyrated around me at an alarming rate. My helmet and mask had been blown away, my face was bloody and frozen and I struggled to breathe the thin frigid air. My parachute had been lost, incinerated. My predicament was becoming clearer by the second – and there was nothing I could do.
I suppose it’s time to make my peace with…well, someone up there, I thought. Thinking was all I was capable of at that point, my whole body felt as numb as something on a Billingsgate fish market slab.
I wondered how my old mum would get the news of my death. I hoped it wouldn’t be one of those grubby brown envelopes that the sad looking telegram boy brings. Maybe the squadron adjutant will drive up to town and tell her personally – Hmm, probably not for a mere sergeant. I wonder if any of the other chaps got out. Well, at least this way I’ll get the chance to…
Everything went black. Then I realised my eyes were shut. With effort I forced them open. I was surrounded by a beautiful pearlescent white light. There was no sound, no movement, no feeling, nothing but serene whiteness. So this is what it’s like to be dead. Wow!
I don’t know how long it was but then I felt movement, something was tugging at me. The white light turned to a muted green. I looked up at the pine trees which had broken my fall before I hit the massive snow drift. A German soldier helped me up. I was taken prisoner. It was the best present – ever.
21-year-old Nicholas Alkemade, a Lancaster tail gunner, was going down in flames reached for his chute, but it was a smouldering ruin from the fire. He faced a grim choice – burn to death or jump without a chute. He jumped. Amazingly, he lived, falling through pine boughs and landing in a snow drift.