Jim walked into the hotel lounge and approached the bar, without giving much previous thought to how he was going to ask for a drink in German. He decided, just to take a seat and wait for Cathy whom he hoped would be along soon. He noticed a rail of newspapers on the wall beside him and instinctively picked up a newspaper, and felt very foolish when he saw ‘Die Weldt’ was, of course, all in German, and had to put it down again. Sitting back down, his social awkwardness was increased when the barman came over and asked him if he wanted a drink – or at least, he presumed that was what the barman was asking him.
“Eh, . . .oh, . . .Aye, I’ll have a beer, son,” Jim stammered.
The barman, at first paused as he tried to work out this unfamiliar dialect. The confused look on the barman’s face clearly struck a chord with Jim, so he tried again, holding up a single finger to help with translation.
“Ein, beer? Yes. Ein . . . Ein beer.”
The barman smiled and, this time in perfect English, replied,
“Yes, sir, a beer – of course. We have Heineken, Becks, Stella Artois, or a local beer - Wolfsburg.”
Jim decided to encourage cordial local relations and asked for the Wolfsburg, even though he would have preferred a nice cold pint of Stella.
“I probably flattened the brewery, too, the last time I was here,” he thought to himself as the barman went to get his beer.
As Jim sat waiting for it, he looked at the newspaper rail again and caught a sight of part of the front page of the paper that he was shown, unwittingly, by the receptionist earlier. He pondered the idea of getting up and retrieving one to try and work out exactly why he was here, but his attention was soon diverted by the barman bringing over his glass of ‘Wolfsburg’
the glass coated in condensation and the coaster it was sitting on bearing the logo of the brewery.
“Your room number sir?” asked the barman politely.
“Oh, aye . . eh . . . oh, christ, what is it, again . . .226, aye, son – 226,” Jim stammered.
The barman smiled as he noted it down on the bill and asked,
“Are you on holiday in Darmstadt? I do not recognise your accent – it is not English, no?”
Jim thought about his last visit to Darmstadt and, once again a feeling of guilt and despondency crept in, just as he felt at the railway station.
“Scottish. Aye, a sort of holiday . . .my daughter has brought me over here to the reunion of Luftwaffe crew, tonight. They invited me, so we are turning it into a sort of holiday, I guess.”
The barman looked puzzled and checked out the squadron badge on the elderly man’s blazer.
“You were RAF, yes, but you go to a Luftwaffe reunion?”
“Aye, son. And I have no idea why. Maybe they are going to get their own back and murder me!”
The barman smiled politely and said,
“Enjoy your evening, sir – whatever happens!” and left him, still smiling.
Jim caught sight of the paper again, and realised he had missed an opportunity there, to find out what the article said. He could have got the barman to tell him.
He quickly dismissed the thought, as it would ruin the moment for Cathy, whatever she had organised.
“She would be really upset,” he thought to himself, and then went through a torturous process of arguing with himself on the merits and drawbacks of such a plan.
“It might even hurt her feelings as she had gone to a lot of trouble here, so it wouldn’t be fair if I found out an hour or two before I was meant to,” He thought.
“Then again, I could find out in advance, and just pretend when the big surprise (if there was one) came – it couldn’t hurt. Could it?”
He took a sip of his beer, never taking his eyes off the paper and as he put down the glass, he checked the entrance door to the lounge then looked at the paper again.
After another check of the door and a quick glance to make sure the barman was not occupied, he thought,
“To hell with this, let’s find out what all this is really about.”
He had just stood up and was making his way over to the newspaper rail when he was stopped dead in his tracks by a voice . . .
Like a child caught opening a biscuit jar, he turned around quickly and choked.
“What . . .errr,” and turned to see Cathy, coming through the lounge door. She hadn’t figured that he was heading for the newspaper rail and assumed he was going to the bar.
Cathy came over to him and held his arm as if to steady him, thinking she had given him a fright.
“Sorry, Dad. I didn’t mean to startle you. I’ll get this one!”
Jim felt relief and a bit guilty that he had been almost ‘caught’ trying to read the paper.
“What were you drinking?”
“Wolfsburg,” her father replied.
Cathy smiled at him and went to the bar.
Jim breathed a sigh of relief as he sat back down and watched his daughter getting the drinks in.
He watched with fascination as he could see the body language of the barman, and his facial expression change from professional in his customer service, to bewilderment as Cathy spoke back to him. The barman said something else to her and pointed away from the bar area, towards the newspaper rail. He then saw Cathy nod quickly and smiling with enthusiasm. Cathy then made to pay for the drinks and he saw the barman shake his head and wave his hand in front of her, refusing all payment.
“Well,” thought the elderly man,
“I’ve no idea what she said, or what the hell I am doing here, but if it gets me free drinks, then I’ll happily play along!”
He drained his glass, just as Cathy came back with the refills.
“There you go!” she said excitedly.
“We’d better drink these quickly. We’re due next door in a minute.”
Jim took a sip of his beer and said,
“I’m actually looking forward to this, now. It will be a new experience seeing what the Gerry’s do at their reunions!”
Cathy smiled at her father and replied,
“Well, I guess it’s a ’plane enthusiasts dream, this. The modern Luftwaffe are here too, and I know there are all sorts of displays and things in there.”
“Aye, and I suppose I’ll find out exactly why I am here, sticking out like a sore thumb with an RAF squadron badge!”
Cathy laughed and replied,
“Yes, you will – no more secrets after tonight.”
Cathy then became serious for a minute and said,
“I hope it does work out the way I hoped. I found out a lot about Grandad and the events that happened while you were missing during the war and I just thought it was best that someone else should tell you about it. I thought it was a remarkable story, and I really hope you do too.”
Her father smiled reassuringly at Cathy and said,
“Don’t worry - and this person lives in Germany, now, I presume?”
“Yes, and he is here tonight.”
Jim was still trying to guess what was going on, but he knew, at least, that the German pilot pictured beside him on the newspaper, was possibly the key to it all, and that this pilot could be the person that Cathy was talking about.
Jim finished his beer and said,
“Well, at least I’ll get to have a good talk about ’planes with someone from the ’other side!”
He then added, almost alarmingly,
“Oh, hell – I am presuming he speaks English!”
“Yes, he does. That I know for sure!”
Cathy finished her drink,
“Come on. Let’s go and talk aeroplanes!”
The Heidelberg suite was a large conference room behind the hotel, which had been decorated with all sorts of memorabilia from various squadron’s history. There were large squadron flags draped down the walls, including many from the modern Luftwaffe, who also had representatives there and a large display from a local historical society, who had brought along many of the wartime artefacts. Among the displays and stands, was an area set up by the veterans of Geschwader 17 Tactical Reconnaissance Unit. The veterans were all on the wrong side of seventy years old, but looking remarkably fit and stood straight and proud as they chatted among the other veterans and modern day airmen of the Luftwaffe. The local press were taking pictures and there was even a television crew setting up lighting and running cables in to the camera.
At the entrance to the suite, there was a table with name badges, and a Luftwaffe uniformed airman, his rank Cathy couldn’t determine, greeted Cathy and her father as they approached. He smiled and as he nodded towards the squadron badge on the elderly mans jacket, he said,
“Good evening you must be Flight Leutenant Jim MacLaren of the Royal Air Force. My name is Gunther. Gunther Klein,” and put his hand out, which the elderly man instinctively shook.
Cathy smiled when she heard the airman’s name, the significance of that, of course, was lost on her father at this time.
“It’s been a long time since someone called me that, son, but, yes, I am Jim MacLaren.”
Jim introduced Cathy,
“This is my daughter, Cathy. She’s the one who brought me here.”
The airman shook hands with Cathy and said,
“Ah, yes, Cathy. We have exchanged regular e-mails. It is very pleasing to meet you both.”
He then reached behind him and gave them their name badges and a small bag, each, with various leaflets and keepsakes for the evening.
“Please, stroll around and enjoy the evening. I believe there are some people who would particularly like to speak to you!”
“Aye, evidently! Cheers, son,” and they both strolled in to the large conference room which looked as if it were intended for weddings and banquets when not playing host to a large gathering of war veterans.
The elderly man peered inside the bag as they walked in, and he pulled out a box, which contained a small plastic model kit of a Messerschmitt 109 fighter ’plane.
“Bloody, hell!” he exclaimed,
“Look at this! I can just see your Grandad’s face, now, if I had this sitting on the mantelpiece!”
Cathy looked at the box and laughed, knowing that Grandad had actually had the real thing, if not on his mantelpiece, then on his land!
“Oh, you never know. I think he would be able to construct it for you in no time.”
“Aye, he was good with his hands. Not sure if he could build ’planes, though.”
“Oh, I don’t know. You might be surprised,” Cathy said, turning her head away from her father deliberately as she said it so that he didn’t catch any real meaning of what she was implying.
Cathy turned back again quickly, adding,
“I said, he was very talented. You never know what he could have done, if given the chance,” she replied,
“Oh, aye, aye. He was that!”
They had started strolling around the room and had stopped at the display by the modern Luftwaffe, watching the video tape of a recruitment film, which was the usual glamourous image of off- duty airmen skiing and flying around, having fun! The two airmen manning the stand, on seeing his badge, immediately engaged him in conversation in perfect English. They were fascinated by the elderly pilot and how he was in bombers, and they kept him talking for a long time about
his flying experience. Jim was made to feel much easier about being here, and was aware of the mutual respect that airmen had for each other. This respect crossed all the generation gaps and, apparently, crossed the divide between former adversaries. Jim was touched by this, remembering that it was this camaraderie that assisted the survival of him and his friends, so many years ago. He made a point of telling the airmen that ‘their boys’ saw them alright after baling out and did their best to make sure they never fell into the hands of the SS.
He felt much more at home as he chatted to the airmen about the merits of various aircraft and comparing things now to how they used to be. The airmen, for their part, were full of awe and respect for the way people like him flew against the odds of survival, night after night, and despite their history of being on the ‘other side’ they were happy to show this respect. Jim, found it incredible that any man could control and fly a jet fighter as fast and as complex and as expensive as the ones that these young men were given responsibility for.
As they talked, one of the airmen introduced himself to Jim,
“My name is Karl Henke,” he said and held out his hand,
Jim shook his hand and replied,
“Oh, aye, right, son. Jim. Jim MacLaren.”
Henke then said with a smile,
“I would presume that this is not your first time in Germany?”
Jim felt a bit uncomfortable at the meaning behind the question, but realised that Henke was trying to lighten the emotions for the elderly RAF pilot, being here.
“No, son. It’s not. I am sad to say I have been here many times before and yet never even saw the place. I only did one mission over Darmstadt. I wouldn’t want to have seen it after that, truth be told.”
“By flying at night you were spared the sight of the damage. That was a good thing for you all.”
Jim furrowed his eyes and said,
“Aye, that’s for sure. It didn’t make it any easier, mind. You always wondered about the poor sods down below – but only
when you were nearly home. You were too busy fighting for your own survival to dwell on what you were there for.”
After a second or two, Jim added,
“Immediately afterwards, some squadrons took the ground crew and their WAAF’s over in Lancasters to Berlin and the like, to let them see what they had been doing. I always thought that was a bit sick ,if you ask me. They wouldn’t have been so bloody keen to go if they had been getting shot at! I really thought that was in poor taste – a bit like gawping at the scene of an accident.”
The elderly man shook his head and added,
“Cook’s Tours! Aye, that’s what they called them. Bloody Cook’s Tours!”
Henke was soon joined by a colleague as they began to chat about their flying careers and the motivation to join up.
“When you were flying, at your peak, you would not normally have been trusted with the family car, and yet an entire nation were dependant on you to fly your bombers and risk your lives for them. How did that feel?”
Jim considered the question and answered simply,
“We had no choice, son. We didn’t want to be ruled by Hitler, and we really didn’t think there was any other way to stop him. We were only doing what we felt we had to. I remember the Army couldn’t take the war to Germany, the Navy were battling for control of the Atlantic, and then there was us – the only one’s left that could really fight back and attack.”
The other young airman nodded in appreciation of the fact as Jim continued,
“And of course, we were enthusiastic. A bit of youthful spirit certainly took the sting out of reality – for a while, at least. We didn’t realise how dangerous or how bad it really would be until it was too late. By that time we were recruited, crammed in to a bomber and we were off! No going back!”
Henke, smiling slightly at the simplicity of the description of an entire war, asked,
“Would you have preferred to have been in fighters rather than bombers?”
“I don’t know. I suppose you are on your own, so if you make a mistake it’s only yourself that gets the chop. That was the responsibility we had as bomber pilots, see. We had to make decisions for the whole of the crew, you know? ”
He then considered the next part while looking at the simulator of the Eurofighter that had been installed on the stand and added,
“I think they were a bit bloody fast for me, anyway. Spitfires, Hurricanes, or whatever. I wasn’t that good a pilot!”
The other airman, who introduced himself as Stolz, said,
“You must have been good enough – you survived.”
Jim, nodded and looked at the ground as he replied,
“Aye, son. A few of us were just plain lucky. Many weren’t. Your lot will know about that, too.”
To break the mood, Stolz then said,
“You must try the simulator!”
“The simulator,” replied Henke,
“It’s the latest development in the Eurofighter, and we have the training simulator here. It will let you see what it feels like to fly in a modern jet.”
Jim was a bit sceptical,
“You can be a passenger, if you like, and enjoy the trip!”
At this point, Cathy interrupted,
“Go on, Dad!” she enthused,
“When would you ever get the chance to fly in a fighter jet?”
Jim saw the look of enthusiasm on her face and felt he couldn’t refuse.
“Alright son,” Jim said,
“Let’s have a go.”
Henke and Stolz helped the elderly pilot and Cathy into the small bench seat. They closed the doors and the screen in front of them displayed the view out of the front window of a fighter jet and it felt as though it was moving as the image began to thunder down the runway. Cathy gave out a scream as the ’plane took off and the hydraulic arms on the simulator caused it
to lean back slightly, giving the effect of take off to match the image.
Cathy felt as though she was on a rollercoaster as the ’plane climbed and turned and dived from the sky, the effect of the movement of the simulator cabin giving an effective feeling of actually being in the jet. As scenery, sky, clouds and the runway itself flashed by in a blur, Jim couldn’t imagine how anyone could fly this and survive! Eventually the ’plane came in to land and the simulator doors opened for Stolz and Henke to help them out again.
Henke turned to Cathy and said,
“We hear that you, perhaps, liked your trip?” he said with Stolz laughing,
Cathy was exhilarated with it and said,
“That was fantastic. Better than any fairground ride! Thank you!”
“You’re welcome! How did you find it, sir?” Henke asked Jim as he came off the last step,
“Incredible! I really don’t know how you can fly that. You boys must have some nerve!”
Stolz simplified the enormity of the task by saying,
“A lot of the flying is aided by computers, now, of course.”
The airmen continued to talk to Jim about the differing aspects of today’s air force, the routines, the discipline, the training and the roles they would be likely to perform. When they had exhausted the conversation, they bade him a good reunion and left him to look around the stand and watch what was left of the video loop.
Cathy looked around the room while her father watched the last of the video and scanned the area looking for the veterans of the Tactical Reconnaissance Unit of World War 2. She noticed them in the corner, underneath a huge banner hanging from the wall, half a dozen, or so, veterans were milling around talking to various people and there was one, in particular that caught her eye. He was quite tall, despite a slight stoop, through advancing years, and sported a good head of white hair. He was very distinguished looking, with a wiry white moustache and a pair of expensive looking modern glasses on, which he
peered over when he spoke to people. He wore a pale blue coloured jacket, sporting a crest on the pocket, which she recognised as being the same as the one that hung from the wall on the banner. Leaning on a stick, he was talking to a young man with headphones on and with some sound equipment slung around his shoulders. His face looked warm and kindly and he seemed to smile a lot in conversation. As Cathy watched, the old airman seemed to be getting treated like some kind of minor celebrity as the other colleagues of the man with the headphones fussed around him. She watched him carefully, trying to imagine what he must have looked like as a young, frightened pilot, crashing on a foreign, hostile land, probably very scared and very homesick. This man was, no doubt Oberleutnent Jorgen Wolfgang Klein, who was going to tell her father the story that would fill in the gaps of a part of his heritage that he never knew existed! Cathy felt very excited at seeing him for the first time. He looked slightly different in ‘real life’ and a lot more active than Cathy originally envisaged.
Cathy tagged along with her father as they continued to stroll around the conference room. He was particularly interested in a display that had been set up that featured a mock up of a cockpit from a World War Two fighter aircraft and a simulator screen in front. He was peering in to the cockpit when a young man appeared and, in a soft German voice, said something that neither he, nor Cathy could understand. Jim simply stood up and said,
“Eh? Oh, sorry son, we don’t speak German.”
The young man was a representative of a large company that made computer software for aircraft and had set up this display of a fighter simulator to demonstrate its wares. The young man apologised and said, politely,
“I am sorry. I was not expecting anyone from England to be here.”
Cathy then stepped in,
“My father has been invited by a veterans group here. He’s a pilot.”
The young man’s face lit up with interest and, like many others this evening, his eyebrows furrowed in puzzlement as he saw the
RAF squadron badge that the elderly man was wearing! Nevertheless, his smile and enthusiasm for his product returned and he said to Jim,
“A pilot? Then you must try this, sir. It is a flight simulator. We do not have any Spitfires, but you can fly a Messerschmitt 109, if you like?”
“Oh, god, not another one!” Jim said.
Cathy, full of enthusiasm as usual, egged him on,
“Go on, Dad. You’ve got to take advantage!”
Jim, looked at the young representative and said,
“Aye alright, son. Let’s have a go at the Messerschmitt. I never flew the Spitfire either. At least these will be a bit slower than that Euro – thing!”
The young man, led into the question, asked,
“What did you fly?”
Jim, climbing in to the cockpit mock up, answered, almost embarrassingly,
“Eh,. . .Lancasters. You know, eh, bombers and stuff.”
Cathy watched for the young mans expression closely, but he never flinched.
“Ah, the Lancaster. It was a large aircraft. Very hard to fly I would imagine, no?”
Jim never answered, but got himself comfortable, and the young representative leant in and set up the simulator for a Messerschmitt 109E.
“This is the 109E – Emil. The Emil being the name for the designation letter. The torque on the engine is very high in this model. If you open the throttles too much before it has reached take off speed, then you will simply turn the ’plane over – sadly, just like the real thing!”
Jim looked up at him for reassurance that this would not happen.
“Of course, it is only the image that will turn over. The simulator is bolted down very securely. You are not going anywhere!”
“Thank god for that!” Jim replied incredulously,
“That’s the kind of realism I can do without!”
He then leant away from the cockpit and made sure the elderly pilot was set up.
“Ready?” he asked. Jim nodded,
“Go for it, son!”
With a click of a switch the screen filled up with the view of a runway and Jim instinctively went through the routine of opening throttles, checking gauges and instruments and releasing brakes before tearing down the runway. An instinct seemed to kick in right away as he concentrated on the controls and he seemed to be transported back to the 1940’s. To the young man, and Cathy’s astonishment, they watched the screen as Jim pulled back on the stick and the simulator aircraft rose up into the sky, faultlessly! The young man was clearly impressed as Jim, with a look of total concentration on his face, banked the aircraft on to its side and circled the airfield. Jim looked totally at ease as he banked the aircraft from side to side, watching the gauges and trimming the aircraft properly, revealing his skill and competence as a real combat pilot.
“Right,” he said emphatically to the young man,
“I’ve got the hang of this, I think – how about a roll?”
The young man turned to Cathy and said,
“Most people, even good pilots, have smashed the Emil into the ground by now!”
They watched in astonishment as Jim completed a perfect barrel roll and then dived quickly towards the airfield again. As he flew low over the runway, he wobbled the wings in a victory salute, before gaining height again and completing some more turns and circuits before coming back in to land.
Cathy noticed that they had attracted a small crowd of people, watching the outside screen and observing a real pilot in action! They were astonished to see, not only an elderly man at the controls of an ME109, but the fact that he was wearing an RAF badge!
Jim lined up the 109 for landing and lowered the undercarriage and flaps. The ‘aircraft’ came in at perfect landing speed and only a slight bounce on landing, quickly corrected, betrayed the slowing reactions of an elderly pilot, before he slowed it down and parked it on the side of the runway. The young man helped him out of the cockpit.
“You are clearly an excellent pilot, mein Herr. The Emil does not suffer fools gladly, for all its ability in the air.”
“Thanks, son. I enjoyed that!”