Here is the opening chapter of Buried Pasts. This covers the opening few hours of a1944 air raid over Berlin, seen through the eyes of Canadian bomber pilot Mike Stafford, and Siggi Hoffman, a twenty year-old German girl desperate to get back to her family in south-west Berlin.
The repercussions of this night set in motion the dramatic events that are to take place eighteen years later in a small North Yorkshire town.
This novel is dedicated to my Canadian father, and the fifty-five thousand other men from Britain and the Commonwealth, who gave their lives whilst serving with RAF Bomber Command during WWII.
Killed in action 19th July 1944
Five had already gone. It was Stafford’s turn next.
In the rapidly fading light of a chill Yorkshire evening, he eased the big Lancaster bomber into position at the end of the runway and applied the brakes. The noise from his four Rolls Royce Merlin engines increased to a roar as he ran them all at full revs.
To a pilot of Flight Sergeant Mike Stafford’s experience, the pre-flight checks were second nature. Not that familiarity with the take-off routine ever eased the tension of the moment for him. Nor, he considered, was it likely to make things any easier for the six members of his crew scattered in their respective positions throughout the length of the now violently shuddering fuselage. Each one of them would be going through pretty much the same range of apprehensive emotions as himself while preparing for yet another trip to the ‘Big City’ – Berlin.
Below them all in the darkness of the bomb bay lurked the aircraft’s non-human cargo: one 8000lb ‘cookie’ bomb, plus well over a thousand small incendiary devices.
Stafford shifted slightly in his seat. He prayed that it would be only their bombs, and not the entire bloody plane, that came crashing down on enemy territory. But the odds on another safe return to base were debatable. They had already somehow managed to survive twenty-seven previous ops. Still, he told himself, only three more to go and their tour of duty would be completed. After that there would be a nice spot of leave to enjoy. Even as this pleasant thought formed, he remembered that so many crews did not even get beyond their first five missions. Was it unreasonable to think that Lancaster K for King may now be flying on borrowed time?
Pre-flight checks completed, and with engines now running steady, he waited for the green light that would signal his clearance for take off. Altogether there were seventeen Lancasters from 79 Squadron at RAF Wetherditch on operations that night. They were leaving at one-minute intervals.
The green light came.
Stafford applied full power. The heavy bomber trembled as it began its forward surge. Rapidly gathering pace, it thundered down the runway. Outside the marker lights set on the ground flashed by. Eighty miles an hour – then ninety – then one hundred.
At this speed Stafford eased back the stick. The Lancaster, heavily burdened with its bomb load and over two thousand gallons of high-octane fuel, clung stubbornly to the ground before finally yielding to the law of aerodynamics. As the four propellers clawed furiously at the air for more altitude, he raised the undercarriage.
Once again they were on their way to Berlin.
* * *
Stafford was well aware of why Berlin had been nicknamed the ‘Big City’. Quite apart from the sheer size and importance of the place, the city’s ground defences were the most formidable in Germany. Hundreds of heavy flak guns, each capable of destroying a plane with a single shot, had been massed together to protect the German capital. Situated as it was in the heart of the country, a trip there meant that K for King could expect to be in the air and under threat of attack for around eight hours. Maybe much longer if damaged or forced to take a diversion.
Enemy night fighters were an almost constant danger. Those defending the target area would be waiting high above the flak barrage like birds of prey. With their vastly superior speed and armament, these Luftwaffe pilots were sure to find many more easy pickings before the night was over. Tonight’s raid numbered nearly a thousand aircraft – the sky would be packed with potential victims. Far too many for the German fighters to gobble up completely before the opportunity had passed. Survival in a Lancaster, and in the even more vulnerable Halifax, often came down to nothing other than the passing whim of an enemy pilot.
‘Eeny – meeny – miny – mo,’ Stafford murmured to himself in a moment of dark humour.
* * *
The navigator’s voice sounded over the intercom, giving Stafford his course for the first leg of the journey. A few minutes later they crossed the English coast just south of Hull and were heading out across the North Sea. Further snippets of information came from both the flight engineer and navigator. Twice he made slight adjustments to their course to compensate for the strong crosswind they were experiencing.
Twenty-five miles out over the water, he once again flicked the intercom switch on the front of his oxygen mask. His accent was pure Canadian. ‘Pilot to gunners. Test your guns now.’
Flight Sergeant ‘Geordie’ Heatley was the first to respond. Exposed for the duration in his isolated transparent turret at the tail of the aircraft, everyone on board knew that his was the loneliest and most dangerous job of all. With just four lightweight .303 machine guns to defend himself and the Lancaster with, he would make a highly tempting target for the heavy cannons of any night fighters seeking to attack from the rear.
Each of Geordie’s guns fired off a short burst into the night sky. Above and behind him, their New Zealand born mid-upper gunner, Sergeant Phil Thomas, went through the same routine.
‘All guns okay skipper,’ both men reported.
From the very front of the aircraft, the south London tones of Sergeant Jimmy Knight also responded. ‘Same here skipper. All guns okay.’
As the bomb aimer positioned in the nose turret, it was Jimmy’s job to double up as their front gunner.
Stafford smiled at his best friend’s chirpy tone. They were both only twenty-four years old, but just two months ago Jimmy had astonished everyone by getting married. Stafford could still hardly believe how suddenly it had happened. Not that Jimmy was making the most of his new status at present. With his wife many miles away in London, the couple had seen each other only twice since their big day. Stafford smiled again. There was little doubt how his buddy would be spending his time on leave once they’d got through this tour of duty.
Jimmy’s voice came over the intercom once again, bringing his mind back to the job in hand. ‘Bombs selected on all switches skipper.’
Stafford acknowledged this, at the same time casting his eyes around the sky. He could see two other Lancasters, but already their squadron was being scattered by the strong crosswinds.
After two hours in the air, Flying Officer Doug Short, the navigator and only commissioned officer on board, came out with the words that the entire crew were apprehensively waiting for.
‘Enemy coast ahead.’
Stafford responded to this with a general broadcast. ‘Right you guys. Keep your eyes open and no lights on if you can help it.’
They flew over the Danish coast at 18,000 feet and began to climb until Stafford levelled out at 21,000 feet. He glanced yet again at the airspeed indicator. At this higher altitude it was approaching 220 mph.
It wasn’t long before Warrant Officer Hughie Smith, the Flight Engineer occupying the seat alongside Stafford, was offering further advice. ‘I’d ease back on the revs a bit skipper, we’re drinking up the fuel.’
The engines dropped a tone as Stafford acted on this advice. They sure as hell wanted enough fuel to get them back home. He then checked himself. That was always assuming that K for King would be making the return journey. There was no room for complacency.
* * *
The Dresden to Berlin train ground noisily to a halt thirty miles short of its destination, bringing a frown to Siggi Hoffman’s face.
‘Not another delay,’ she sighed to herself. They were already running over three hours late. At just twenty years old, Hitler’s war had been with her for nearly a quarter of her life. It felt far longer. All she wanted right now was to be home again with her mother and elder sister, Astrid. Although away for only a few days, she was already missing them both a great deal.
Her whispered words must have sounded louder than she imagined. A soldier sitting directly opposite gave her a wry smile. ‘Better to arrive late than not arrive at all,’ he told her. ‘I’m sure there is a very good reason for us stopping again.’
He hesitated before adding: ‘Are you from Berlin?’
Siggi studied him briefly before replying. He was only two or three years older than herself. A corporal in one of the infantry divisions she would guess by the look of the insignia on his jacket.
‘Yes, I live in Steglitz in the south-west of the city,’ she said, deciding that the soldier was being genuinely friendly and not interrogating her. ‘I’m just returning from visiting a relative in Dresden.’
‘Did you enjoy your visit?’
‘It was … ‘ She shrugged in a vague, non-committal way.
He took the hint and did not press her with further questions.
Maybe the expression on her face had discouraged him as well, she realised. In truth, it was all she could do to suppress a shudder as she recalled the last three days spent with her uncle. She would never understand how her relative had become so indoctrinated into Nazi party ways. When younger, she had always thought of him as being a fair and reasonable man. Now he was a fanatic. Just prior to her departing he’d even had the nerve to suggest she should be proud that her father – his own brother – had sacrificed his life for the Führer on the Russian Front.
She clenched her fists as the memory of this provoked a spurt of anger. Her father had never had the slightest belief in the cause he’d been compelled to fight and die for. She had no belief in it either, nor did her mother and sister. In many ways all three of them hoped that Germany would lose the war. Better that than a lifetime under the Nazis.
But it was one thing to think these anti-party thoughts, quite another to express them openly. There were people everywhere prepared to report such loose talk to the Gestapo, so on the surface at least, she and her family were forced to go on supporting the Nazis. At the same time, in spite of the increasing demands being made of the civilian population, each of them did as little as they could get away with to aid Hitler’s war effort.
Straining her eyes to see in the dimly lit carriage, she looked at the watch on her wrist. It was 9.30 pm.
‘Why have we stopped again?’ she asked a passing guard.
The man paused briefly to spit on the floor. Siggi felt disgust at both his manners, and sense of hygiene. ‘The British bombers are coming again,’ he almost shouted at her. ‘Hundreds of them.’ He then continued on his way down the carriage, muttering loudly to himself.
Many other passengers sitting nearby could not fail to also hear the guard’s words. Almost immediately a concentrated murmuring developed. An old lady two seats further along began praying in a loud, shrill voice.
Siggi’s thoughts immediately went out to her mother and sister. Not Berlin again – surely not? Why couldn’t they leave the city alone? She tried to reassure herself. The majority of the bombs were usually directed much more towards the city centre than to suburbs like Steglitz. Their area had escaped reasonably lightly up until now, so why should it be any different tonight? Although it was strictly forbidden under the blackout laws, she tugged nervously at the window blind, raising it a touch to peer outside.
She could see little in the darkness apart from the fact that they were in the middle of the countryside. Then a distant droning reached her ears. It was the all too familiar sound of approaching bombers. A sound that was invariably the prelude to ear-shattering noise, fire and death.
The sound rapidly grew, as did the babble of voices on the train. Disregarding the rules, more people began raising the blinds. Some even opened the windows and leaned out in an effort to spot the planes.
‘There’s one!’ exclaimed a middle-aged man with a moustache clearly modelled on the Führer’s very own. ‘And another! And another!’
The noise from the bombers was now very loud. In contrast, a hush descended over the carriage, as if the passengers were suddenly realising the vulnerability of their position. Siggi knew they would stand little chance while crammed together like this if a stray bomb were to fall nearby.
The guard returned. ‘Everybody off the train,’ he ordered.
No one needed telling twice. Siggi was swept up in the mad crush as people began scrambling for the nearest door. For over a minute it was sheer madness. Then the soldier who she had spoken to briefly was by her side. He placed a protective arm around her shoulder. Grateful for his help, she allowed herself to be guided safely off the train. Together, they walked to the middle of a field. Both of them gazed skyward.
The flak guns had now started, their noise competing for supremacy with the monotonous drone of wave after wave of bombers. Searchlights probed the sky, endlessly searching for targets to trap in their glare.
And then they heard the first of the bombs falling. Even at a distance of thirty miles, the sounds and smells reached them clearly. Looking away, Siggi buried her face in her hands.
Like the old woman on the train earlier, she began to pray.
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