The numbness at losing Joan via that lone exit from an existence we cannot understand has yet to wear off sufficiently for me to return to blogs that require thought and research, so I will submit, this time, to just repeating a page from my book that I infer many of you may not have read. Perhaps, a page when Life was also challenging from an ancient human fault we have yet to correct. But I do need to explain the setting:
It was February 1945 and I had just arrived in Nürnberg after a long, cold, and hungry trek fleeing the Soviet advance from, we discovered, the relative bliss of Stalag Luft III in Sagan, Silesia, to where we could better understand the horrors our side was also contributing, increasing our shame at being members of the human species.
Allied Air Forces made numerous calls on Nürnberg, and we were in the outskirts of it, but we suffered less than those in the city. Most raids were by RAF Mosquitoes that would come over singly or in groups, striking terror from dusk until dawn. Several of their 2-ton ‘cookies’ exploded close to our compound, and I became accustomed to the blinding flash, then the heat and shock waves, followed by the suction that made our roofs and walls all but collapse. These raids would wake us from sleep and, when over, cold and hunger teamed up with bites from bed bugs even though our building had no beds, no intact windows, but holes in the floor that let the rain run out from holes in the roof. Our toilet for 130 men was a pail in the corners we cleaned out each morning. Our rations guaranteed no obesity: one ladle of soup made from dehydrated peas and scores of weavils for dinner, 4 slices of black bread and 2 potatoes for supper. Water? One tap for 260 men.
Short, sharp Mosquito raids were interspersed with calls from the ‘heavies’. The first of these came a few nights after my arrival. Our sleep was being lulled by the wail of distant sirens when closer - more urgent - sirens summoned instant wakefulness. I took the usual precaution of opening the closest windows to prevent concussion from shattering what remaining glass we had and hurling the pieces at us. I then laid back on the floor, hoping the raid would by-pass us. Soon, the drone of high-flying Merlin engines became perceptible and, as the throb grew inexorably in volume, they seemed to chant, over and over again, “You’ve had it, chum! You’ve had it, chum! You’ve had it, Chum! Our nervousness increased with the aerial armada’s approach and, as we milled about in the dark, the pail in the corner never lacked for customers.
It was a play unfolding. Terrifying wails of the ‘Imminent Attack!’ sirens and the sharp cracks of hundreds of 88mm flak guns ushered in the next act with ear-splitting din: Someone shouted, “Markers are down!” as red and green marker flares cascaded from the depths of the night sky. There was no doubt now as to the ‘Target for Tonight’. I watched fascinated as the markers seemed to be floating straight for my open mouth!
Two walls of flame erupted in front of us as the sounds of exploding bombs deafened us and the heat warmed us. These bombs were much too close for us to rely on the safety of our frail hut. Slit trenches had been dug outside but, strangely, the guards were ordered to shoot us if we left the huts during an air raid. Only Jack Ball seemed to be unperturbed; he was still relaxing on the floor. Bill, Harry, and I tried to joke about it, explaining that he was either too lazy to move or just scared stiffer than the rest of us. We asked Harry if we had under-rated British imperturbability. Harry replied that he did not know the difference between imperturbability and gross stupidity.
Kriegies (POWs) were convinced their buildings would collapse on top of them, so hundreds dove out the windows and raced for the slit trenches, and I was among them. No shots from the guards - they were too occupied is seeking their own shelter.
The scene before us was one of dreadful fascination. It was a most beautiful maze of light that hid the stench of death. Powerful searchlights made an ever-changing lattice, high up on which myriads of exploding flak shells blossomed in a variety of colours, then died. Every few seconds a particularly large blossom would streak downwards followed by an orange trail as another bomber and its crew were written off. At the base of this huge lattice work were countless tongues of flame, growing in size and numbers, their dance pausing frequently to merge with dull-red glows as 2-ton bombs exploded. Two descending parachutes floated through a searchlight beam. Someone shouted, “Another cut in rations - here come more kriegies!”
As the inferno raged on, the smell of burning reached and surrounded us. Then a high-pitched scream, the likes of which I never want to hear again, tore at us, increasing in agony until it spoke for all the tortures of the ages. We did not comprehend its meaning, but it was coming at us from all directions, blotting out the rest of the universe.
There was absolutely nothing left but our small slit trench, there was nowhere to run. I crouched low, not knowing what to expect. Immeasurably long seconds passed, then the tortured soul of a blazing Lancaster screamed overhead, barely missing our hut and, escaping its tormentors, plunged to its death in the trees just outside the wire.
We were all several shades whiter. Most of us had escaped from aircraft in similar death plunges, but this was different. We had heard the soul of a dying aircraft, crying out in terrified protest.
The Battle of Nürnberg was still raging, and we were discovering that slit trenches had one big disadvantage: hunks of jagged metal from exploding flak shells were raining down on us; one ugly piece buried itself in the earth beside me. It could just as easily have made an unsightly hole in my head. At least the roof in the hut could offer some protection. Several kriegies raced for their huts while many of us stayed in the trenches. The raid lasted no more than thirty minutes, but it seemed an eternity. As the last bomber turned for home to showers, eggs, and warm beds, ugly black smoke welled up from the fires of Nürnberg to blot out the stars as though man, now ashamed of his deeds, was trying to hide them from the wrath of God.