Saturday, 12 December 2020

Amazing story of survival in WW II

     There seem to be an endless number of amazing WW II stories that have, for the most part, been forgotten. As a history buff, I have used many of these incidents in my work as an author. One source for many of these stories has come from reading the obituaries of WW II veterans. Their numbers dwindle now to only a precious, remaining few. Still, every few weeks, I read of another. They are inevitably in their late nineties and now some even over a hundred. I highly recommend reading these obituaries of the last members of the Great Generation. There are stories about those who unraveled wartime secrets, stories of inventions that affected the war, stories of women who played major rolls in the outcome and stories of spies and heroes and sacrifice. In just a very few years, these stories will no longer appear.

     I recently came upon one such story, not from an obituary but from watching an old war movie on TV. The movie was "A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH."  It stars David Niven as an air force pilot who is shot down. Wiith his plane on fire, he bails out without a parachute. The movie goes off into issues of the afterlife. How could he survive? Well, in the movie, it is because of an error in heaven and there follows a trial up above as Niven argues that he should not have to report to die because he had survived and come back long enough to fall in love. Now, the powers that be owed him and the woman he loves, a full life. Of course, he gets his wish.

     In commentary after the movie, it is mentioned that there actually was a man who fell out of his plane during the war and survived. I had never heard this story and so looked it up.

     The man's name was Nicholas Alkemade. He was a Flight Sergeant in the 115 Squadron RAF during the second World War. On the night of March 24, 1944, 21-year-old Alkemade was one of seven crew members in a Lancaster bomber, returning from a 300-bomber-raid on Berlin. They were attacked by a German Junkers Ju 88 night-fighter--flown by Hauptmann Gerhard Friedrich. As a result, the English bomber caught fire and started to spiral out of control. Alkemade's parachute had gone up in flames and was no longer serviceable. So Nicholas Alkemade jumped from the plane without his parachute, preferring to die by impact rather than burn to death.

     Alkemade fell 18,000 feet to the ground below. Incredibly, his fall was broken by pine trees and a soft snow cover on the ground. His only injury was a sprained leg. The Lancaster crashed in flames, killing several other members of the crew. Alkemade was captured by the Germans. It was his bad luck to still be over Germany when he fell, though it would seem to have been better luck than if he had fallen into the British Channel. The Gestapo, who interviewed him, was initially suspicious of his claim to have fallen without a parachute until the wreckage of the plane was found and examined. The Germans actually gave Alkemade a certificate testifying to the truth of his incredible survival, and he became a celebrated prisoner of war before being repatriated in May 1945.

     After the war, Alkemade worked in the chemical industry. He appeared on the ITV series Just Amazing, a program that interviewed people who had, through accident or design, achieved feats of daring and survival. He died in 1987.

     It's interesting to speculate whether or not the movie, made in 1946 but not released until 1947, could have been partially inspired by Alkemade's 1944 true life adventure. But I will leave that to another researcher to determine.


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