Hide and Seek, Excerpt Two: Surrender
The intercom crackled into life. 'I can see land. That's Scotland ahead!'
On hearing Hans's voice, Rudolf Hartmann, Rudi to his few friends, twisted round to his right, then his left, trying to get a glimpse of their destination from his rear-facing seat in the back of the cockpit. He couldn't see far enough to the front, so he unstrapped his harness and stood up, turning to his left, careful to avoid the unforgiving rear of the MG 131 machine gun. This left him standing a little awkwardly with his head slightly bowed to avoid the cockpit canopy. At least it meant he was able to get a clear view ahead, past the right side of the top of the armoured pilot's seat, past Hans's leather-helmeted head and over the top of Wolfgang's, sitting in the lower right-hand flight engineer's seat.
Wolfgang seemed to be straining against his harness, leaning forwards. Then he sat back and pointed, ahead and slightly to their left. 'Yes, I see it too. I suppose it's too late to ask if this is a sensible idea?'
Oberleutnant Hans Weber looked round from the pilot's seat. 'It was too late from the moment we radioed fighter HQ in Denmark to tell them the starboard engine was on fire. They'll have aircraft out looking for us by now. They might even have found the empty life raft we dropped. There's no going back. Not unless you like the idea of standing in front of a firing squad.'
From behind him, Rudi patted Wolfgang on the shoulder. 'Don't worry. We've talked this through. We'll be fine.'
Wolfgang turned in his seat and smiled nervously in response.
Rudi reminded himself that Wolfgang was little more than a boy, just 20. He was right to be nervous. Rudi was frankly terrified of what they were about to do. If they survived the next fifteen minutes, they would be fine. But he didn't know what their chances were of surviving the next fifteen minutes.
Hans looked round again. 'Can we have less chat please, gentlemen? Our lives could depend on seeing the fighters they send up before they see us. As you say, Rudi, the time for talking is behind us. Now we need to turn words into actions. Wolfgang, have you got the flare pistol ready?'
Wolfgang held up the pistol in response.
'Good,' said Hans. 'Make sure you only fire red flares and, once I give the word to start, keep firing them as quickly as you can until I tell you to stop. We can only be a couple of kilometres off the coast. I'll go into a gentle left-hand orbit.'
'What's our altitude?' asked Rudi.
'50 metres. That's higher than we've been for most of the crossing, certainly since we pretended to ditch in the Skagerrak.'
'Will the British radar have picked us up?'
'This close to the coast, I think so. I'll climb a little to give them a better view. I'll also let our orbits move slowly west, as far as the coast. Both of you keep a constant lookout. Visibility is quite good so we should see them coming. Unless we've drifted well off course, we should be between the RAF airfields at Dyce to the south and Peterhead to the north. But the fighters could approach from any direction.'
There was a tense silence in the cockpit. With just the noise of the engines as background, Wolfgang scanned the sky to the rear and the sides of their Junkers Ju 88 heavy fighter. It was a role he was well used to as the part-time rear gunner in the aircraft.
'A Spitfire is coming from the south!' The tone of Wolfgang's voice in Rudi's headphones suggested he was very scared. 'No, there are two of them! A little high and a little inland.'
'I see them,' said Hans. He seemed to Rudi to be trying to keep his voice calm, without completely succeeding. 'Right, Wolfgang, start firing those red flares. I'll lower the undercarriage and waggle the wings.'
Rudi could do nothing except watch the two fighters close rapidly with them. 'This is a view of a Spitfire I always prayed I'd never see,' he said.
'You can keep on praying,' said Hans, 'only now you should pray they don't open fire. If anyone sees either of them firing, shout and I'll do what I can to get us onto the beach down there, though I'm making no promises.'
There was a moment, just a moment, when Rudi thought that the nearest Spitfire was going to fire at them, but then it turned to match their course and moved in closely on their left, waggling its wings in reply to the movement of the Ju 88. It was close enough for Rudi to see the Spitfire pilot make a 'going down' gesture with his hand to Hans, who echoed it.
'Stop firing the flares, Wolfgang,' said Hans 'He's moving in front of us. He wants us to follow him. He's a brave man, he must know we could blow him out of the sky in seconds. Where's his wingman?'
'He's taken up position behind us,' said Rudi. 'We could get one of them, but the other would certainly get us.'
'Whatever you do, don't touch the machine gun back there,' said Hans. 'The last thing we want is for the pilot of the second aircraft to see it move and think we are about to open fire.'
The thought had already crossed Rudi's mind.
'I've got the undercarriage back up,' said Hans. 'He's taking us south, so I think he wants us to land at RAF Dyce.'
Rudi's attention was fixated on the front of the wings of the Spitfire behind them, where the aircraft's gun muzzles were. He felt paralysed by the overwhelming certainty that at any moment he'd see flashes and sparkles as the guns were fired.
But it didn't happen and after what seemed like an age, but couldn't have been many minutes, Rudi felt and heard the undercarriage being lowered again, then the aircraft's flaps coming down.
As they got close to the ground, the following Spitfire moved to their right, Rudi assumed so it could fly past as they landed. Suddenly there was a flash from the rear of the Ju 88 and a bang that reverberated through the aircraft.
'What was that?' shouted Hans.
'We've been hit!' said Rudi. 'I think someone on the ground opened fire on us.'
'I can't see any signs of flak so if they were firing, I think they've stopped now. What did they hit?'
'The tailplane, I think.'
'The controls seem all right.'
Rudi felt himself exhaling deeply. He wasn't sure how long he'd been holding his breath.
Nothing more was said in the cockpit during the landing, not until they had come to a complete halt.
'They're moving lorries to block the runway ahead of us,' said Wolfgang.
'And behind us,' said Rudi.
'OK,' said Hans. 'I'll stop the engines. Let's get the access hatch and ladder lowered. Make sure we leave our personal weapons in the aircraft. Remember what we discussed. The hard part is behind us. We survived the interception. It will be a lot easier and safer from now on.'
Rudi followed Hans and Wolfgang out of the aircraft, clambering down through the hatch. Several men were standing by the parked lorries on the runway ahead of them. Hans raised his hands and walked slowly over towards two of them, men wearing RAF uniforms with white tops on their hats and pointing submachine guns at him.
Hans's English was much better than Rudi's. As he walked, he called out clearly, 'Hello, we are surrendering. Can I speak to your commanding officer, please?'
A sudden roar made Rudi look up as a Spitfire passed fast and low overhead before pulling up and doing a victory roll. He smiled. The pilot deserved his moment of glory for holding back and not killing them when he so very easily could have done.