Frustration permeates through the bomber, made unbearable by bursts of frigid air penetrating the thin, poorly riveted aluminum skin of this lumbering beast. High above the Atlantic Ocean, in search of a British convoy we know is out here, our flight of four Focke-Wulf 200 Condors is closing in on the fail-safe point – when we will have to head back to safety in France or risk running out of fuel. We are more than six hours out of our base near Bordeaux, my stomach is empty, my hands are freezing, even under the fur-lined gloves, and we may have to return home empty-handed.
As a navigator, bombardier, and part-time gunner, my job on this flight has been relatively easy. We are not the lead plane in our formation, so my navigational duties have been light. Because we have not yet found our target, I’ve yet to work the bombsight. Luckily, we have not been harassed by any escort carrier-based aircraft, so I’ve not had to fire the machine gun I man in the nose of the plane since testing it shortly after takeoff.
I cannot warm myself up here, so I let my mind wander back to Thursday night. The soft, warm embrace Danielle and I shared through the night heats me from the inside. I can still feel her supple lips on mine as I left her apartment Friday morning. That sensation stayed with me, palpable on my skin and inhabiting my mind. Closing my eyes, I can see her face staring back at me in the silence of the early morning. She opens her mouth….
The blare of the intercom tears me from my dream.
FOUND THE BASTARDS!
Damn, I’d rather be with Danielle.
It’s so cold!
EVERYONE, THIS IS IT!
If only I was still in bed instead of floating over….
HEINRICH, GET OFF YOUR ASS!
I rise from the navigator seat in order to bend myself over the bombsight. As I lean forward, the plane lurches to the right.
Nothing hits us, but the explosion is close. One of the ships in the convoy appears to be spitting fire in our direction. Every British ship these days carries machine-guns and anti-aircraft guns, but this ship is different: the size of a cruiser, it appears to be covered from bow to stern with anti-aircraft guns of all sizes intent on sending me to a watery grave.
They’re targeting me. What did I do to deserve this? I don’t want to be here. I want to be with Danielle.
Flying over the convoy, the first bomber releases its bombs. I can see the black dots descending from the Condors’ belly toward the slow-moving tubs below. Slowly, the bombs fall toward the water and its metal-encased occupants attempting to supply Allied forces in North Africa. The difference between a hit and a miss here could mean the lives of countless soldiers and airmen there.
Yes, they got one!
Just at that moment, number 2 Condor bursts into flames.
The anti-aircraft cruiser is pouring out fiery lead at a horrific rate.
The plane breaks apart, falling out of the sky in fragments of burning metal. Its altitude was so low that I did not see any parachutes before the debris hit the water.
I slowly peel my eyes away from the wreckage in order to adjust the bombsight. We are at 2,000 meters, travelling at 220 knots, with winds at 14km/h from East by Southeast. My eyes shut for just a moment.
Her image returns to me for just a brief instant, filling my mind with the remnants of her sensation. The feeling of her lips on mine returns.
Now it’s our turn. Our aircraft changes direction in order to fly over the ships. I can make out several potential targets in our flight path. A slow-moving freighter is just about three degrees off of our current trajectory.
I yell into the intercom: Captain, change angle to 189!
DON’T YELL, DAMN IT, HEINRICH!
The plane eases over on the adjusted bearing. We approach the freighter. A shudder shakes the plane again. My target is farther away from the cruiser that is firing all of those anti-aircraft guns compared to the other possible targets I could have chosen, but that death-wielding monster is still spewing its fire upon us.
Three seconds until we’re over the target.
I release the bombs. Immediately, I lift my head from the bombsight.
My job is done.
The captain begins a drastic turn, sharper than I expected, knocking me off balance, and pinning me against the glass window to my left.
ENEMY AIRCRAFT AT 9 O’CLOCK!
Must get up.
I didn’t see an aircraft carrier….
Still pinned to the window of the Condor, I look to my left. In the distance a lumbering beast, similar in size to our bomber, inches its way toward us.
No news on my bombs yet. They should be hitting about now.
I try to look back, but we have turned so hard that I cannot see the freighter I targeted. I turn toward the enemy plane again to see that it is gaining on us.
What’s he doing?
I can’t believe he’s heading right toward us.
The captain banks the plane to avoid the enemy aircraft. The shift in angle releases me from the sidewall of the aircraft and allows me to head toward the machine gun in front of me. My right hand catches on one of the grips, which I use to pull myself toward the gun.
The enemy plane, now recognizable as a B-24, is barreling at us and pulling up on our left side.
THEY’RE GOING TO FLY BY!
EVERYONE LIGHT HIM UP!
I’m going to get to use my machine gun against another bomber!
I can’t see the plane approach, but the sound of machine guns from my own plane fills the fuselage. The enemy bomber gains on us. Every one of its guns - front, side, top and bottom turret, are lit up. We’re outgunned two-to-one.
As the enemy bomber moves in, time slows down. I can make out the faces of the men in the plane; all are intently focused on firing their guns at us. I can see the pilot and co-pilot in the cockpit, both looking over as they fly by. The brown wavy hair of the co-pilot captures my attention. It’s the same color as Danielle’s hair.
We are firing broadsides like they used to with ancient sailing ships, like at Trafalgar!
The distressingly pained strain of metal ripping, human guttural screams, and shrieking bullets tearing through tempered steel and soft flesh claws its way forward up the Condor in an agonizing eternal fraction of a second. The B-24 is almost up to where my nose gun can have a crack at it.
I aim for the cockpit, hoping to hit the pilot and co-pilot.
I can’t fire.
My brain is telling my hand to fire the machine gun, but my fingers will not respond.
Danielle’s hair smelled like lilacs.
CRACK CRACK CRACK CRACK CRACK….
My machine gun remains idle in my hands. My world is now closed-in. Blackness descends on my mind, and all I can see is the beast of a bomber directly in front of me. The ball- and the tail-turrets occupy my whole horizon. Both stream forth with orange bursts of glass-shattering, metal-tearing, bone-crushing lead.
My head goes dark.
My hand goes weak.
A punch in my stomach, followed by another in my right shoulder, and then my left leg. Warmth begins to stream over and through me.
I’m in Danielle’s arms.
Redness fills my eyes.
Everything is out of sight now.
I am falling.
The Condor’s falling to the sea!
My body crashes against the metal frame that once held the glass nose-canopy of our Condor. Shards of broken glass, still inside the frame, scrape across my skin like uncontrollable razors as my body slides down the front of the plane.
There’s no pain here.
A slight fragrance of salt wafts to my nose.
Danielle, we’re near the water.
I can feel the gentle warmth of her lips on mine.