Under a Sky on Fire - Suzanne Kelman


15 August 1940 – The First Bomb

Hauptmann Rubensdörffer swiped the sweat from his brow and blinked twice, struggling to clear his vision one more time and steady his breathing. In his ears his heart pounded like a drum as he attempted to recover from the attack that had come out of the blue. With twenty-one planes behind him counting on his leadership, he sought desperately to grapple with the fear and anger that boiled inside him. Hot sweat gathered under his collar, prickled the backs of his hands and trickled between his fingers inside his leather gloves as he gripped the control stick harder with the sheer frustration of it. With great fury he recalled the assurance from the intelligence reports he had studied before take-off that the British squadrons had all been destroyed on this route. But now his own airmen were, hundreds of miles from their air base, deep in enemy territory, and they had barely made it through the last attack, losing their fighter support in the process. His greatest fear was upon him: under his leadership the entire bomber squadron were flying towards London alone and unprotected.

Dramatically unbuckling and yanking back the strap of his leather flying cap, stretched so tightly across his throat it felt as though it would strangle him, he struggled frantically to recall the route he had so meticulously committed to memory, but he felt so rattled that everything just swam in front of his eyes. Trying to shake off his terror and orientate himself, he peered across the stretch of the silver wingtip of his Messerschmitt BF 110 as it bobbed and weaved through the hazy cloud, the glint of the setting sun’s orange glow blinding him as it flashed along the wing like a lighthouse beacon.

Another terrifying thought suddenly gripped him. What if more fighters were waiting for them on the direct route into Kenley? Surely, they would never survive another attack.

‘I’m going to take a different route,’ he barked into his radio to the gunner sitting behind him.

‘You think that is wise?’ came back the hesitant response. ‘Why don’t we just drop the bombs and get the hell out of here?’

Rubensdörffer could hear the fear in his gunner’s voice but reasoned if they passed the target and approached from the north they could drop the bombs and clear the target faster.

Undeterred by his counterpart’s concerns, Rubensdörffer leaned heavily on the throttle controls, racing past the target, then banked hard right as the engines shook and whined with the strain. Behind him, the rest of his squadron blindly followed. Diving to a lower altitude, the rush of the accelerated airspeed screeched to a deafening pitch as below them terrified ground crew and personnel ran in a hundred different directions to avoid the attack.

Suddenly, a stream of bullets peppered the side of Rubensdörffer’s Messerschmitt, and behind him his rear gunner swore as he swung his guns to engage the new squadron of British fighters. He banked hard away to avoid the onslaught as a fresh trail of bullets blazed over his cockpit window. A Hurricane tore past, diving down then up and away to engage him again. From the other side, another rally of bullets cracked the window behind him and as he swivelled his head back he gasped in shock: he had lost his rear gunner. The man he had flown with, his friend for five years, was slumped over his gun, very obviously dead.

Filled with bottled-up anger and overwhelming grief at his friend’s death, he wanted more than anything to get away; he had to get away fast. Rubensdörffer knew his bomber squadron couldn’t sustain another attack, especially as he now could see that Spitfires filled the sky and he was completely defenceless. So, making a desperate decision, knowing it was controversial, as there were factories and housing close to the airfield, but not caring, he slammed his hand down on the bomb release. The plane shuddered as the five-hundred-pound explosives were freed from the bomb bay.

All around, his group followed suit, bombs scattering everywhere, missing the intended target of Kenley.

Banking hard away at full throttle, his engines roared. With perspiration now dripping down his face and blurring his eyes completely, he sped towards the Channel, trying to put out of his mind the fact that instead of bombing the Kenley airfield as he had been intending to do he may have just killed innocent civilians. He would explain to his commanders the impossible position he had been in, and