on the shell was written ‘to whom it may concern’

Whilst I was surveying the ludicrous photo of the ex-Stasi German leader crossing hands with the French puppet at the Verdun memorial, I noticed a short piece about a former US Army Air Force B-17 Fortress gunner who, on a tour to the places he had been based during WW2, died of a heart attack. I realised some time back that most young British people do not know of the great sacrifice made by both British and American men, average age 21, during the Air Campaigns, flown mainly from England but also from North Africa, against the Nazi Enemy in Germany; in the years from 1939 to 1945. 135,000 Americans flew against Hitler’s Lufwaffe, and 33,000 paid the price; a price which was also paid, in full, by the Royal Air Force’s Bomber Command; with 55,000 aircrew dead from a total of 125,000 operational aircrew.

When engaged in research for my novel which features a Boeing B-17’s crew, I came across a webpage written by another survivor of those bitter, bloody campaigns fought five miles in the sky, and his memories of the day the U.S.A.A.F. flew a full attack on Schweinfurt. His writing struck a chord with me, and I append a few paragraphs to demonstrate exactly what is meant by ‘Total War’.

Suddenly I heard on the intercom from the top turret “Bandits 9:00 O’clock High” instantaneously followed by the tail and the nose of fighters coming in from all directions. Immediately you could feel those 20 millimeters going through the plane. The sound of a cannon shell hitting a fortress depends on where you are. If you aren’t too close it is like a metallic woof and you feel a jar that shakes the whole plane, which reaches you and leaves you instantly. If the shell explodes close to you there is nothing gentle and it certainly isn’t a momentary tremor. It is like a giant slapping his hand on the water. There are two sounds one from the impact and the second of it exploding. It’s like firing a shotgun into a bucket which all comes back exploding in your face. For a moment you aren’t scared because your senses are dulled. Your bowels seem weak, (you tighten your pucker string); your stomach shrivels up until you can figure out how much you are hurt. It was as if a huge electrical shock had hit me and from then on to this day I have never felt fear. It was as if my mind had gone into a corner to hide and had then come charging out to do battle. In talking to others later, I found we all have gone through some factors of this type of withdrawal. Some retreated from themselves and would no longer be able perform.

I immediately found myself in a world alien to everything I had ever experienced. There were ME-109s and FW-190s leaping into existence from everywhere without warning. When they opened fire you saw sudden flashes of light winking at you from the distance. All at once there existed a canopy of cannon shells and bombs, aerial mines and rockets exploding everywhere. Each one was intent on hitting our pregnant bomb load and us. We are no longer in a stately march in tight formation through the upper heavens. We try desperately to return to the crisp efficiency of our tight formation, but it is impossible to achieve in this raging space of time. We find ourselves slogging our way through a thickening mass of exploding flame and smoke, with the equal determination of every member of the crew. We are driving ahead through a solid whirlwind of steel splinters, flame, and jagged chunks of red hot metal. The steel is everywhere; it crashes into wings, engines, bulkhead and airplane bodies; and into the bodies of men–spewing blood, tissues, intestines, and brains.

The plane seemingly is alive with lights as all the guns are firing and the noise is deafening. There is the continued on the intercom shout of “incoming bandits” from all around the clock (fighters). The fourteen caliber 50 machine guns of our plane can be heard and felt above all the roar of the plane. Our world seems to plunge into insanity as the sounds of air battle are all around us seemingly merging into an inhuman shriek. Our ship doesn’t seem to be occupied by men, we are transformed into beings from another world, with the strange breathing systems dangling beneath our faces.

As quickly as it started the fighters are gone and we are alone with only the extremely bright sun. Our enemy now is the temperature, which is minus fifty degrees and never seems to relax its vigil against us for any exposure to sensitive flesh and frostbite.

I urge the reader to scan and absorb every syllable which this brave man wrote, of his journey into hell and of returning to sanity, only to prepare for another mission in four or five days time. Yes, we should remember Verdun, but let us give thanks to those brave boys who stood, fought, flew and sometimes died so that we might live without an armoured boot upon our throat.