A Wing and a Prayer

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Chapter 5

Unlike the other crew members, including Caldwell and Philips, who had baled out first and just made it over to the allied lines, MacLaren landed near woodland area, well North of Darmstadt, near Mainz and Weisbaden. When he eventually hit the ground, MacLaren first of all gathered up the parachute and hid it in some bushes and then considered his next move. He knew it would be a long trek towards the Allied lines, and he was determined to make it, if only he knew exactly where he was. He knew by the gunfire and the ’planes droning overhead that he wasn’t too far from Darmstadt, so it was just a case of finding the right direction to walk in. The RAF usually provided maps of the area they were bombing that night printed on silk in escape kits and MacLaren struggled to read his in the light available. Eventually he decided to take shelter in the woods and watched the last waves of bombers flying over and, taking careful note of each one’s course as it passed overhead, headed off in the direction that they flew in. He noted that Mainz was North of where he wanted to go, so looking for any signs for Mainz, he knew that if he tried to keep the town on his right hand side, he would be heading in the right direction. Luckily for MacLaren the river that ran beside Wiesbaden was behind him and he was able to follow the ’planes direction for quite some time. He had landed near the town of Lorzweiler and, fortunately for him, he had come down well north of it. He knew from previous raids on Russelheim that he was headed in the right direction, so there was nothing else for him to do but to walk in the countryside and head for Saarbrucken, and then, hopefully on to Allied lines just over a hundred miles away.

He had been walking for about an hour, when he came across some wreckage from a Lancaster bomber scattered over a field. At first, the parts were fairly small – bent pieces of aluminium, still hot in places and sticking out of the ground in

grotesque shapes. The silence was eerie and disconcerting as he wandered among this graveyard of men and machine. There were no guards beside it, as there usually would have been, however MacLaren became extra vigilant as he crept silently through the debris field. Eventually he came across a large section of the tail, relatively intact, the numbers of the bomber easily distinguished in front of the tail fins. It was not his aircraft and the numbers were unfamiliar to him. The most poignant and saddening part of this wreckage was the tail turret, its guns bent to the side like pipe cleaners and the Perspex turret body completely smashed away by cannon fire. ‘Poor sod,’ thought MacLaren, knowing that anyone sitting here when the lethal dose of the 20mm cannon fire of the German fighter was unleashed, would not have stood a chance. Macabre as it was, MacLaren couldn’t help but to have a closer look inside the turret. He was ashamed of himself for doing so, in the same way that some might want to look at a road crash as they drive by it, but he was still overcome by the macabre desire. As MacLaren peered through the shattered turret, he noticed that the inside of the turret was ‘clean’ – there was no blood or any sign of the remains of the rear gunner, only the many spent cartridge shells lining the floor to show where once there had been much activity. MacLaren suddenly felt relieved and happy that perhaps the gunner baled out before the fighter shot the turret up, or maybe it was all impact damage with the ground.

MacLaren tentatively explored the wreck further and walked on a bit more, coming across more bits of the ’plane littering the countryside. He came across a large section of the fuselage, broken in two at the wing spar and peered inside the still smouldering wreckage. The cockpit was missing from the section, and the wireless operators section was burnt out and debris littered the area around the wreckage. MacLaren had a look around and discovered an intact escape kit and picked it up, along with other items he found such as a chocolate bar, and two medical kits. He never ventured into the fuselage section, as he could make out the outline of an airman’s broken body, twisted into an unnatural shape, further inside the ’plane. The macabre fascination of looking in the rear turret was enough – to actually

see the body was something that MacLaren was not prepared for. He was just about to walk away when he realised that he couldn’t possibly leave without checking that the airman was actually dead. What if he was still alive? MacLaren knew he could never live with the thought of never having checked, so he carefully climbed into the broken ’plane and cautiously made his way towards the body. MacLaren got as close as he could and slowly reached out with his hand and felt the back of the airman’s neck, vaguely looking for a pulse. There was, however, no sign of life in the unfortunate airman and his neck was unnaturally cold. MacLaren had a look beside the body and noticed that there was a lot of blood from the waist down, satisfying him that there was nothing he could do. He scrambled back out of the wreckage and quickly stuffed the items he found into his flying jacket and headed off towards the woods with the sound of the ant-aircraft gunfire still ringing in his ears in the distance.

MacLaren continued along his route, stopping every so often to check the silk map from the escape kit he found, to ensure he was heading West. He stuck to the outskirts of the woods and had been walking for another hour when he was startled to hear an aircraft suddenly fly low right over his path. Instinctively he dived for cover and looked up to see a small Henschel monoplane aircraft, the type that was used sometimes as a training ’plane. The pilot would not have seen MacLaren in the dark, but he was so low, that perhaps there was an airfield nearby as he could only have just taken off. MacLaren sat down and thought about how he could avoid it on his route and even considered the possibility of either stowing away on a truck, stealing a truck or even trying to get a hold of one of the little ’planes to fly behind allied lines! The possibilities of all three ideas were the most likely way of getting out of the situation, so MacLaren carefully got up and headed through the woods in the direction of the airfield. After about half an hour, he came across a clearing with a wire fence and on the other side, were rows of Nissan-type huts and half a dozen or so of these little Henschel aircraft, painted slate grey with the familiar black cross markings and swastika insignia on. The grass runway ran

parallel to the fence, with a truck at the end of it, presumably to act as air traffic control. In the distance there were three large silos for refuelling – far too big for an airfield that was home to these small aircraft and MacLaren guessed that this field may be used to refuel the fighters when protecting the likes of Mannheim and Frankfurt. No wonder, then, when on the bombing raids, there seemed to be endless streams of fighters! MacLaren thought that the Germans had hundreds of fighter squadrons in the air, when in fact, it looked like they were refuelling the same aircraft, again and again at temporary airfields like this one! Unbeknown to MacLaren at the time, however, these silos were largely empty as the chronic shortage of aviation fuel at this time in the war for Germany meant that the plan they had for these airfields was never fully implemented.

The airfield looked very sparsely populated and MacLaren identified the markings on the huts as belonging to Luftwaffe squadrons and guessed that this must be a training airfield for new pilots. The only other aircraft on view were a tired-looking Junkers JU52 transport ’plane and a pair of Focke Wolf FW190 fighters, no doubt there to escort the ageing Junkers in flight. Behind another row of Nissan huts were several Junkers 88 fighter bombers like the one that shot MacLaren down, displaying varying scars of battle damage, and there was even one at the side of the runway that had belly-landed, its bent propellers and shattered tail fin silhouetted against the reddening sky of Darmstadt. MacLaren seriously thought about breaking into the base and trying to sneak into one of the little Henschels, but thought better of it, knowing that by the time he got it started and had taken off, someone would either shoot at it, or even worse, give chase in one of the Focke Wolf fighters. He also had no idea how he could signal the Allies that he was a ‘friendly’ as he flew over them at a few hundred feet!

In the end, the decision was eventually taken for him when two sentries appeared, chatting and smoking as they approached near to where MacLaren was hiding. He could have hidden there unseen as the sentries were not exactly being very

vigilant and displayed a very casual manner towards their patrol. The alsatian dog they had with them, however, was a lot more alert and began barking and straining at the leash towards MacLaren, prompting its handler to try and see what was upsetting it.

As soon as the handler began trying to calm the dog down, the other sentry spotted MacLaren and in an instant shouted “Terrorflieger!” and turned his rifle towards MacLaren who instinctively threw his hands in the air and waited for the shots to ring out.

The two sentries beckoned MacLaren to stand up and they shouted something to him in German, which MacLaren could not understand. He shrugged his shoulders and the dog handler tried to make himself understood,

“Amerikain? Englander?”

MacLaren noticed that the two sentries looked more terrified than he did! They were, however very young looking.

“Scottish, actually . . .” MacLaren replied, but on seeing the lack of understanding on their faces, tried to reinforce it,

“Sco-ttish . . .oh, shit, you know - Scotland, Glasgow? Tartan and shit like that.”

Normally MacLaren would have tried the time-honoured way of making themselves understood by foreigners by shouting at them in the language that they don’t actually speak, however, he decided against raising his voice to two nervous kids with guns!

“Shcotland?” one of them repeated.

“Ein, Shcotlander?” The other one clarified.

MacLaren wasn’t sure if there was such a word in German translated as ‘Scotlander’, but it seemed comical to be debating the difference at the wrong end of a rifle.

“Aye – ‘Shcotland’!” MacLaren imitated, with a nod of his head and a roll of his eyes.

The two sentries beckoned MacLaren to walk forward and they marched him the short distance back to the base.

As they approached the gate, the sentry there, opened the gates and after a short conversation, they marched MacLaren to one of the Nissan huts where a Luftwaffe officer was waiting outside, also having a fly smoke! On the approach of MacLaren

and the two sentries, he hurriedly dropped the cigarette and pulled out his revolver and looked very uncomfortable at being ‘caught’ like that by the two junior sentries, and seemed to let them know it in no uncertain terms. He barked something to the soldiers, more out of his own embarrassment rather than anger at them, and then softened his tone as he looked at the young, eager faces who thought they had done well in catching the terrorflieger. He dismissed them with a final order and beckoned MacLaren to go inside the Nissan hut. Inside was like a small office, with other officers sitting at desks tapping out morse messages and writing away under their angle poise lamps. There seemed to be no concern or fear as shown by the sentries at his presence and MacLaren quickly established that the order and discipline expected from the German military was nowhere to be seen here. The officers themselves wore their uniforms with open tunics and they didn’t look very authoritive. In fact MacLaren thought they just looked dishevelled and downright scruffy. Even the portrait of Hitler on the wall, lay at a slight angle and was partly obscured by a large map, the detail on which, MacLaren was unable to see. This alone would have got the officers court-martialled for sure if anyone more senior were to enter the room at this point!

Fortunately for MacLaren, they all spoke excellent English and the officer beckoned MacLaren to sit down while he put his gun on the table.

The sound of gunfire from Darmstadt was fading now as the raid ended and the officer sat down at the desk beside MacLaren and started asking him questions.

“I am Kapitain Friegel. These officers and I are what remains of Gruppen 9. I believe we may have met a few hours ago, if not formally, then certainly by trading gunfire. What is your squadron?”

MacLaren knew that ‘name, rank and serial number’ answers were the only dialogue permitted in these situations.

MacLaren answered,

“Flight Leutenant MacLaren,” was all he offered.

The German officer looked at MacLaren and sighed with a reserved look on his face of someone who had nothing left to

fight with in him. He looked to the side at one of the other officers and said,

“I cannot be troubled with all this any more. It is hopeless,” he said, looking back at MacLaren.

“I could just shoot you, here, and dump you with the rest of your friends in the many wrecks of aircraft that are here, or I could send you to Berlin. What should I do?”

MacLaren realising full well that either course of action was not really a serious option for the officer, just looked back at him and said,

“Or you could drop me off just before the allied lines and I’ll disappear – how’s that?”

The officer smiled and then said,

“You are not an Englander, nein?”

MacLaren replied,

“No – Scotland.”

“It is all the same to us – you fly English aircraft, you take orders from English politicians. You even fight for an English monarch, in effect.”

MacLaren had never thought of the politics of the war like that before.

The officer then added, with a smile,

“In fact, your monarch is actually of German origin – how ironic.”

MacLaren thought for a second and replied,

“Well, since we’ve got something in common, you should definitely drop me off at the Allied lines then! Leave me there and the lads and I will come back and get rid of Hitler for you!”

Something in the way the officers face changed as he stared at him with steely eyes, told MacLaren that the officer would have jumped on this suggestion for real, if there was any chance it could be done!

Instead, the sound of a lorry stopping outside snapped him out of his most private of thoughts,

“You are just in time for the transport,” the officer said,

“We have some of your friends in the truck waiting to be taken to Frankfurt. You are not the first to be picked up tonight. We are sending you all to Frankfurt and the Luftwaffe units can take

it from there. While we have fuel left, we must go and fight a war. We have to carry out Berlin’s demands. We cannot sit around all night collecting enemy airmen!”

MacLaren felt a bit uneasy, now, but he recognized that these officers were no longer displaying the proud and arrogant behaviour that he would have expected from the Luftwaffe, but were broken men. Their war was almost over. They had seen the inevitable, and that defeat was closing in on them. The leadership, holed up in a bunker in Berlin, might as well be a million miles from where they sat, watching Darmstadt burn in the distance, exhausted with dwindling fuel supplies and the Russians advancing in the East. In a small way, MacLaren even felt sorry for them. If they had any sense, they would clear out now while they still could. They were old enough to have been career men long before Hitler came along and therefore their motivation to die for the Nazi cause was questionable at best. MacLaren didn’t think he, or any other military men on the Allied side would be any different if they were in the same boat.

The officer called on two other, military police types, to come over and he gave them an order. He then turned to MacLaren and said,

“They will put you on a truck and on to an airfield 30kilometers east of Frankfurt. There is a prison camp there belonging to, and run by the Luftwaffe. I can assure you that you will be treated well until the war is over and the Geneva Convention will be honoured. We are all out for ourselves now, and I personally have no desire to answer for any war crimes when all this mess is over.”

The officer then turned to look out the window, where the glow of Darmstadt’s fires reflected in the officer’s emotionless face through the window and added,

“From what I can see, the end to all this won’t be very far away, for all of us.”

He then turned to look at MacLaren and said,

“Remember some of us were career military men. Professionals – not the lapdogs to the Reich that you will have been told about back home.”

One of the younger officers sitting at the desk looked up in surprise at his superior making a negative remark about the Reich like this and then dropped his head just as quickly as he too, admitted to himself the reality.

MacLaren would have felt sorry for the officer, at this confirmation of status, had he not felt more sorry for himself! The use of the past tense in the officers statement was curious and an admission of defeat. MacLaren had heard from intelligence sources back at base, that any airman shot down and captured by the Luftwaffe would be treated fairly. MacLaren now hoped that this would prove to be true as his original intention of always ‘walking back’ from a faltering ’plane were proving impossible now!

MacLaren was ushered out of the hut and into a truck where there were other RAF airmen, and a few Americans from the daylight raids. They greeted each other with subdued welcomes and introductions, however, MacLaren was glad of the familiar company.

MacLaren immediately saw that none of his crew were here and he wasn’t sure whether or not to take that as a good sign or not. He also quickly established that there was no-one here from his squadron, although one or two airmen were from 5 Group and had taken part on the raid on Darmstadt with him. They hadn’t removed any insignia from their battledress. None of these airmen from 5 Group, were familiar faces to MacLaren, either. All of the airmen had baled out as they were shot down and there was not one complete crew among them. The Americans had been on a daylight raid to Frankfurt and one of them spoke to Jim about the carnage that they witnessed as bombers fell from the skies all around them.

“Man, it’s a turkey shoot – or like fish in a freakin’ barrel! Their damn fighters were actually queuing up to have a pop at us,” the airman explained in an accent that MacLaren thought was from one of the southern states.

MacLaren was thankful that the RAF flew during the night as they were the spared the morale crumbling sight of watching familiar planes containing friends and comrades being

blown out of the sky with few, or no parachutes tumbling out. The intelligence boys told them that the Germans fired ‘scarecrow’ shells, which were designed to explode in such a way as to look like aircraft being blown up. However despite the elaborate explanation of the workings of these shells, most of the crews never believed this and knew they were actually seeing their own comrades being blown out of the sky. As long as they all thought the shells were real, however, and morale was kept up, no-one would ever admit knowing the truth. If it helped get crews through their tours without cracking up, then maybe a little deception like this was acceptable.

They were able to see out of the canvas sides of the truck and watched the fireglow at Darmstadt get further into the distance as they headed for the Luftwaffe camp. It was at this point that one of the American airmen noted that they were being driven by just two soldiers. He suggested that it would be very easy to either overcome them or simply jump out of the truck and make a run for it.

MacLaren pointed out to the American that their situation now was by far preferable to fumbling around in the dark, deep in enemy territory, with the SS crawling around on the ground, and their own bombers still carrying out raids above. After some debate, the American relented, but vowed to escape from the camp within hours of arriving.

“It won’t be long before the SS are crawling around this area, and I don’t fancy anyone’s chances of being caught by them. At least the Luftwaffe are airmen like us,” MacLaren reasoned.

They then started to talk about the things they would do when the war was over and indulging into some speculation as to when that might be. The American, who introduced himself to MacLaren as Lieutenant Ed Miller, was from Fayetteville, North Carolina, and said in his laid back drawl,

“I guess it won’t be too long. Our boys have been hitting the ball bearing factories, and if you don’t have ball bearings, you don’t have no war machinery!”

MacLaren had heard about the American raids on the ball bearing factories, and also knew about the tremendous losses that the USAAF were suffering as a result. Despite the

fact that they were seemingly being shot out of the skies faster than their bombs could fall, Miller still seemed positive about the task. For Miller, however, now as a prisoner of war, the personal risk had just been removed by circumstances, so it was easy to be philosophical now! Just as the debate was gathering momentum among all the aircrew in the back of the truck, it stopped at a pair of gates and one of the soldiers jumped out to confirm his identity with the sentry. The truck began to trundle in to the camp, which looked like an old airfield, with Nissan huts and various small concrete and brick buildings on either side of a grass runway. They drove through into a separate pen, which had a dormitory style building in the middle of it. The truck stopped and when the tailgate was dropped down, the airmen were met by three Luftwaffe officers and about a dozen soldiers, all of whom looked tired and weary. They were beckoned down and told to line up alongside the van while the officers took their ‘names, rank and serial numbers’. Unlike some of the other prison camps, the officers didn’t seem to be too interested in anything else! Once they had these meagre details, they were all marched up to one of the brick buildings in the pen and told that this was to be their temporary new home until such times as they, and other captured airmen could be brought together in a more suitable camp. They were assigned beds in the dormitory, which was clean and equipped with heating and bunk beds. MacLaren ended up in the top bunk above Miller, who kept MacLaren entertained about his tales of his parent’s tobacco farm in North Carolina and how he was trained for aircrew out in California. The two men’s lives and upbringing couldn’t be more different. The next day, they were interviewed, one by one and asked if they required any medical attention or any special requirements.

They were relieved of all their personal possessions and any weapons removed from them and given access to a shower and some food. What the airmen didn’t know was, that due to the Luftwaffe officers reluctance to get involved with any more of the war, they never thought to inform the Red Cross, or keep any records of their charges. They were keeping the administration to the minimum in order to be able to abandon

them at the first sign of the Allied advance! As a result, the airmen here would disappear from sight until near enough the end of the war, when the Allies finally broke through and found them.

The next morning, the German soldiers quickly got the airmen to gather up everything they had and told them they were all moving out. Information was scant, but as they all got themselves together, one of the younger soldiers told Miller that they were taking them further East as the Allies were closing in fast. This news created a much lighter mood among the captured airmen, but they were still wary about being moved further away from repatriation. They were loaded back into the truck and boarded a train near Frankfurt and from there they were all transported as far East as possible to another small camp once run by the Luftwaffe. Jim MacLaren’s life was about to start its new phase, when eventually, the Russians liberated the camp and proved to be even less adept at administration than their German adversaries. The Russians looked after the airmen well enough, but their future was not the priority for the Russian units, and so time drifted by endlessly as the Russians advanced and the airmen found themselves in limbo. By the time they were freed and repatriated, many of the airmen’s families had been told they were dead. For those airmen who came from the cities or larger towns, the mistake was rectified fairly quickly in the closing months and weeks of the war, but for those like MacLaren who lived on a small island in Scotland, news was not so efficient at getting through!

Back on the idyllic isle of Arran just off the west coast of Scotland, MacLaren’s parents, Andy and Mags, were carrying on with their lives as normal, tending their meagre farm and with the thoughts of their son’s safety always at the forefront of their minds. September 12 began just like any other day for them, until four days later, during a heavy rainfall, that Gordon McCulloch, the part-time Policeman on the island knocked on the door with a sombre look on his face and small brown telegramme in his hand. Folk on Arran didn’t get telegrammes very often, and certainly not during wartime unless the news in it was exceptionally bad. As Andy MacLaren tentatively took

the telegram from McCulloch, he knew exactly what it was without opening it. The game was over for Jim. This would be news that he was either ‘missing in action’, presumed dead or actually confirming his death. Either way, the result was the same – Jim wouldn’t be coming home.

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