A burning plane 18,000′ over Germany and no parachute

Avro Lancaster B Mark I, DV397 'QR-W', of No. 61 Squadron RAF taxying past the windsock at Coningsby, Lincolnshire. DV398 was lost during a raid on Berlin, Germany on 24/25 March 1944.

Avro Lancaster B Mark I, DV397 ‘QR-W’, of No. 61 Squadron RAF taxying past the windsock at Coningsby, Lincolnshire. DV398 was lost during a raid on Berlin, Germany on 24/25 March 1944.

Veteran air gunner Flt Lt J A Howard DFC in the rear turret of a No 619 Squadron Lancaster, 14 February 1944.

Veteran air gunner Flt Lt J A Howard DFC in the rear turret of a No 619 Squadron Lancaster, 14 February 1944.

Back at their base, East Wretham, Norfolk, two members of the crew of Avro Lancaster B Mark II, DS669 'KO-L', of No. 115 Squadron RAF, examine the rear of their aircraft, where the rear turret, with its unfortunate gunner, was sheared off by bombs dropped from an aircraft flying above, during a raid on Cologne on the night of 28/29 June 1943.

Back at their base, East Wretham, Norfolk, two members of the crew of Avro Lancaster B Mark II, DS669 ‘KO-L’, of No. 115 Squadron RAF, examine the rear of their aircraft, where the rear turret, with its unfortunate gunner, was sheared off by bombs dropped from an aircraft flying above, during a raid on Cologne on the night of 28/29 June 1943.

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.

The wrecked rear turret of Avro Lancaster B Mark I, ED413 'DX-M' "Minnie the Moocher", of No. 57 Squadron RAF at Scampton, Lincolnshire,

The wrecked rear turret of Avro Lancaster B Mark I, ED413 ‘DX-M’ “Minnie the Moocher”, of No. 57 Squadron RAF at Scampton, Lincolnshire, after returning from a night raid to Oberhausen, Germany, on the night of 14/15 June 1943, during which it was attacked by German night fighters. A cannon shell exploded in the rear turret, killing the gunner, Sergeant R F Haynes of Nuneaton Cheshire, while further strikes smashed the radio and navigational equipment, and riddled the fuselage of the aircraft with holes. The pilot, Sergeant A H Moores of Bromley, Kent, who was on his fifth operation over Germany, carried on nevertheless and bombed the target before making a succesful return to Scampton.

Flight -Sergeant J Morgan, the rear gunner of an Avro Lancaster of No. 630 Squadron RAF at East Kirkby, Lincolnshire, checks his guns in the Nash & Thompson FN20 tail turret before taking off on a night raid on the marshalling yards at Juvisy-sur-Orge, France.

Flight -Sergeant J Morgan, the rear gunner of an Avro Lancaster of No. 630 Squadron RAF at East Kirkby, Lincolnshire, checks his guns in the Nash & Thompson FN20 tail turret before taking off on a night raid on the marshalling yards at Juvisy-sur-Orge, France.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Don March 30, 2014 at 12:16 pm

All bombers were pulled off raiding Germany due to the preparing for D-Day June 6th 1944

CK March 26, 2014 at 3:12 pm

Amazing story, hadn’t heard it in the first person before. There are around 10 people known to have ever survived a fall without a parachute. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Fall_survivors

You see the picture above with the Lancaster whose rear turrent was sheared off by a bomb dropped from an aircraft above? That’s not the only time it happened, here’s a story related by a relative of a 603 squadron chap who had that happen to him:

http://www.reddit.com/r/history/comments/21dpkt/account_of_a_rear_gunner_ww2/

ccg March 25, 2014 at 6:22 pm

WOW! What an amazing story. Why was this the last RAF raid over Berlin? Did they consider it already too damaged or were there more important targets to take its place?

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