|Sergeant Joe Cleary meeting Lieutenant H. Rokker, who shot down the Lancaster on that fateful night|
Congratulations to Luke Aikins for his successful no-parachute jump. What follows is the tale of Nicholas Alkemade who also survived jumping without a parachute, from a burning plane in 1944!
As Flight Sergeant Newman approached Berlin they could see the searchlights probing the sky. Soon they saw the red and green markers dropped by the Pathfinders and made their run-in to drop their 4,000lb ‘cookie’ and incendiaries. Turning for home through the searchlights, the crew kept a sharp look out for night fighters. The crew could see other Lancasters under attack and some going down in a great ball of fire. They were somewhere over the Ruhr when a series of shuddering crashes hit the Lancaster from nose to tail. Two cannon shells exploded on the ring mounting of the rear turret, shattering the plexiglass and sending a large piece slicing into Sergeant Alkemade`s right leg. Quickly he depresses his guns and saw not fifty yards astern, a JU 88 blazing away at the Lancaster. Sergeant Alkemade fired at the enemy aircraft and it peeled away trailing flame. It was now that he realised that flaming fuel was running past him, and he started to report to his skipper that the tail was on fire, but he was cut short when Flight Sergeant Newman said, "I can’t hold her lads, bale out! Bale out!" Alkemade flicked the turret doors behind him open with his elbows and turned to open the fuselage door beyond. There before him was a giant ball of fire. Flame and smoke came towards him and he pulled back into his turret coughing and blinded by smoke. Nicholas desperately needed to get to his parachute, which was always stowed in the fuselage, a few feet inside the second door. He opened the door again, but it was too late as the case had been burnt off and the silk was coming out in folds and disappearing in puffs of flame. It was decision time, the oil from the rear turret’s hydraulic system was now on fire and flames were now burning his hands and face, and it was only time before the plane would explode. He decided it would be better to die a quick death by jumping out, than die being roasted alive. Quickly he rotated the turret, flipped open the doors and in pain and desperation fell backwards into the night. His last recollection was the relief of being away from the searing heat, and the cold air on his face. Nicholas had no feeling of falling but could see the stars below his feet, so he knew he was falling head first. If this was dying, he thought to himself, it was nothing to be afraid of. His only regret was not being able to say goodbye to his friends and girlfriend Pearl, then he blacked out.
Slowly, Sergeant Nicholas Alkemade regained his senses. Above him he could see a patch of starlit sky. Slowly, the dark patch framing the area of sky turned into a hole in a thick group of fir trees. As he gained more of his senses, he realised he was laying on a deep mound of under bush covered in snow. He was very cold and his head and back throbbed with terrible pain, but he was all in one piece, and a feeling of total wonderment fell upon him when he began to realise that he had fallen over three miles, had his fall broken by fir trees and a snow drift and survived. He tried to sit up, but the pain was too much. Looking around, he found that his flying boots were gone and his uniform was scorched and torn. In his pocket he found a badly burnt tin in which he kept his cigarettes and lighter. He lit up a cigarette and looked at his watch; it was still going and the luminous hands showed 3.20am. It had been near midnight when the aircraft was hit.
Nicholas removed the whistle from his collar and from time to time gave it a blow. After what seemed hours, he heard a far off "Hulloo". He kept blowing the whistle and then saw flashlights approaching. Soon some men and boys appeared and ordered him to get up. When they saw he could not, they put him on a tarpaulin and dragged him across the frozen ground to a cottage where an old lady gave him a warm drink. Soon a car arrived and two men came in, dressed in plain clothes. Totally oblivious to his pain, they pulled him up and took him to their car and on to hospital. After coming out of the operating theatre, he learned that he had burnt legs, twisted right knee, a deep splinter wound in the thigh, strained back, slight concussion and a deep scalp wound, first-second and third degree burns on his face and hands, most of which had been received before he jumped from the aircraft. Cleaned up and installed in a clean bed, he was visited by a member of the Wehrmacht. Through an interpreter, Nicholas was asked the usual questions. "What was your target?" "Where is your base?" "How many aircraft are there?" Answering name, rank and number he said that he was not allowed to answer the other questions. The questioning then turned to his parachute. "Where is your parachute?" "Where did you bury it?" When Sergeant Alkemade replied, "I did not use one", the German officer nearly burst with rage, turned on his heels and stormed out. After three weeks, Sergeant Alkemade’s wounds were almost healed and he was taken to Dulag Luft near Frankfurt, and put into solitary confinement.
A week later a young Luftwaffe Lieutenant led him into Kommandant’s Office. "We have to congratulate you, I believe, Sergeant", said the Kommandant in English, and asked Sergeant Alkemade to tell his story once again. After listening to the explanation, he said, "A very tall story I think Sergeant". Sergeant Alkemade said that the story could be proved if the wreckage of the aircraft was found, for the remnants of the parachute pack would still be there, just forward of the rear fuselage door, and also the parachute harness could be examined to prove that it had never been used. The Kommandant, who had listened to the story in silence said, "A really remarkable story, and I have heard many". He then gave the Lieutenant some orders, who then saluted and left. Fifteen minutes later the Lieutenant returned waving Sergeant Alkemade`s parachute harness, accompanied by three other officers, all shouting excitedly in German. The Lieutenant put the harness on the desk and pointed to the snap hooks that were still in their clips, and the lift web still fastened down on the chest straps. The Kommandant leaned back in his chair, studied each of them in turn and said, "Gentlemen, a miracle – no less". He then rose and offered his hand to Sergeant Alkemade and said, " Congratulations my boy, on being alive. Tomorrow I promise your Comrades will be told how you became POW.
Next morning back in the Kommandant’s office, Nicholas saw that the Luftwaffe had been busy, for there on the desk lay some pieces of scorched metal, including the D-handle of a parachute ripcord and a piece of wire that would be the ripcord itself. "The remains of your parachute pack", said the Kommandant. "We found it where you said it would be; to us this is the final proof". The crash site of the Lancaster lay twenty kilometres from where Nicholas had landed. The bodies of Pilot Flight Sergeant Newman, Flight Engineer Sergeant Warren, Bomb Aimer Sergeant Hilder and Mid Upper Gunner Sergeant McDonough had been found in the wreckage. They had been buried with full military honours in a cemetery near Meschede. Later Nicholas was to learn that Wireless Operator Sergeant Berwell and Navigator Sergeant Cleary had been blown clear and had also survived.
Sergeant Nicholas Alkemade was marched into the compound by a German Officer and two N.C.O`s, where two hundred captured alied flyers were assembled and was directed to stand on a bench. The Officer then recounted the story to the assembled men. Sergeant Alkemade was then surrounded by Airmen of all nationalities, all wishing to shake his hand, and offering cigarettes or chocolates. Sergeant Alkemade was then presented with a paper, signed by the Senior British Officer, who had taken down the German authentication in writing and had it witnessed by two Senior British NCOs. It reads as follows:
It has been investigated and corroborated by the German authorities that the claim made by Sergeant Alkemade, 1431537 RAF is true in all respects, namely, that he made a descent from 18,000 feet without a parachute, having been on fire in the aircraft. He landed in deep snow among fir trees. Corroboration witnessed by:
Flight Lieutenant H.J. Moore, SeniorBritish Officer.
Flight Sergeant R.R. Lamb, 1339582.
Flight Sergeant T.A. Jones, 411 Senior British NCOs.
After the war Nicholas returned to England and married his girlfriend Pearl. Geoffrey Berwell was their Best Man. Nicholas died in 1987.
Extract from 'Memories of RAF Witchford' by Barry & Sue Aldridge, published by Milton Contact Ltd. Visit the RAF Witchford Display of Memorabilia