On the night of 24th/25th March 1944 the heavy bombers of RAF Bomber Command went back to Berlin for the last time. The stream of 811 Lancasters, Halifaxes and Mosquitos taking part was severely disrupted by heavy winds coming from the north, scattering the aircraft and making navigation difficult. Target marking over Berlin was disrupted by the wind, pushing the bombing over the south west of the city, with many bombs falling further away. Returning bombers, struggling with their navigation, found themselves flying over Flak sites which they should have avoided – losses were heavy, 8.9% of the total force.
On one of the scattered Lancasters caught by night fighters was rear gunner Flight Sergeant Nicholas Alkemade. Early in the morning of the 25th his aircraft was suddenly engulfed in a blazing fire. There was only one option for a rear gunner in such circumstances, to bale out. For Sergeant Alkemade there was one significant obstacle to this course of action:
I found myself in a ring of fire that was singeing my face and melting the rubber of my oxygen mask.
I leaned back, pushed open the turret doors, and reached into the fuselage to grab my parachute from its rack. The whole length of the fuselage was blazing. The flames reached right down to the door of my turret. And there, in a ﬁerce little fire of its own, my parachute was blazing, too.
For a brief moment I stared while it dissolved before my eyes. It was not so much a feeling of fear, or dismay, or horror, as a sensation, a sort of twisting in the stomach.
As I turned back I noticed that my leather trousers and jacket had caught fire. The turret was like an inferno, and getting worse all the time. My face was tingling, and I could almost feel my flesh shrivelling in that unbearable heat.
Desperately, seeking to escape from the heat, I rotated the turret to port, elbowed the sliding doors open, and back-ﬂipped out into space, 18,000 feet deep. As I left the Lancaster I half sensed, half saw, a great explosion from her, then I was falling through the cold night air.
I found myself dropping to attention, as though it were a formal occasion, and beyond my feet I had an impression of stars shining. I felt quite calm as the air swept past me, faster and faster, until it became difficult to breathe.
‘Funny,’ I thought, ‘but if this is dying, it’s not at all strange.’ Then the rushing air, the stars, the ground, the sky, all merged and were forgotten as unconsciousness crept over me…
I opened my eyes to see the stars shining through a dark lattice of pine branches. It was peaceful, and rather lovely. I don’t remember feeling surprised about the fact that I was alive; it was not until ages later that realisation came to me and I began to sweat.
I looked at my watch and found it read 3.25, I had jumped shortly after midnight, so I must have been unconscious for more than three hours. I wriggled my toes. They worked. Then I moved my arms, legs and neck. Everything seemed to work, though my right knee was a little stiff.
Then I rolled over, and noticed for the first time that I was lying in a small drift of snow, about eighteen inches deep. Later, I realised that I owed my life to the pine branches and the snow, both of which had helped to break my fall. I was very sore and the cold was beginning to creep through my limbs.
As I couldn’t walk and would only freeze or starve where I lay, I pulled up the whistle hanging from my jacket and blew a series af blasts. After that I lay still, alternately blowing my whistle and smoking a cigarette, until a German search party found me,
This account appears in Baling Out: Amazing Dramas of Military Flying. Sergeant Alkemade was made POW and recovered from relatively minor injuries, mainly caused by his burns. The Germans finally accepted his story when they searched his crashed aircraft and found the charred remains of a parachute inside, near the rear gunners’ turret.