27 August 2009

Insanity and improbability

Crew of B461On the night of 4 November 1943, four Stirling bombers from 75 Squadron took off from an RAF airbase at Mepal in England on a mission to lay mines in the Baltic Sea. Near Kallerup in Denmark a German JU88 night fighter piloted by Leutnant Karl Rechberger attacked Stirling BF461. Some of the fighter's fire hit home, but Rechberger was wounded in the thigh by return fire from the bomber. Despite the injury he landed safely.

The Stirling wasn't so lucky. The exact nature of the damage will never be known, but it was sufficient to cripple the bomber. Unable to control the doomed plane, pilot Gordon Williams gave the command to bail out.

On hearing the order, the front gunner spun his turret to align it so he could climb back into the bulkhead to retrieve his parachute. Unfortunately, he misaligned the turret; the wind caught and wrenched it and strained the hinges and he found himself trapped in the turret. Fighting panic, he ripped off his helmet and managed to squeeze his head and shoulders through the gap. Suddenly, the plane lurched and he Frank McGregorwas thrown through the gap into the bulkhead. He reached for his parachute and tried to clip it on, but by now his fingers were numb and he couldn't tell if the clips had buckled securely. Time was running out. He opened the hatch and lowered his legs into space, then, with a terrific effort of will, released his hold and tumbled into the night sky, away from the crippled bomber. He waited several seconds, freefalling through the night until he was sure his parachute would clear the plane, then pulled the ripcord. A moment later he felt the impact as the parachute opened. The clips were secure.

With help from local Danes he evaded capture for two days but was finally turned over to the Germans. He spent the remainder of World War II as a Prisoner of War in the huge Stalag IV-B at Mühlburg, about 50 km north of Dresden.

He was my father.

When I think about those events of almost 70 years ago, two overriding thoughts come to mind. The first is the sheer insanity of what happened, the second is the absurd improbability that those events and their successors could have led to my sitting here thinking about them.

First the insanity.

I sit in the Celtic, enjoying a beer with a cosmopolitan group of friends: French, US American, Canadian, Irish, English, Spanish—and German. Seventy years ago, I might have been shooting at Marco or dropping bombs on Melanie. Arne might have been forced to throw grenades at me. Christina might have been working on an assembly line manufacturing the night fighter that would shoot my plane from the sky; Barbara perhaps packing boxes of ammunition—bullets to be shot at me. Instead of laughing and hugging each other, helping our team come oh so close to winning the night's quiz, we might have been hiding, waiting for the chance to escape or to kill each other.

How do people rationalise killing people they've never met, have never known? Perhaps it's precisely because of that — because they don't know those people as individuals — that they're able to squeeze a trigger, press a button, or follow — or issue — an order. My father had never travelled overseas before being shipped toStalag IV-B Canada for his training, and, as far as I know, he'd never met anyone from Germany. Apparently, when he released bombs over German cities he felt convinced that what he was doing was utterly justified. Nevertheless, like many of his contemporaries, he seldom spoke about what he'd been through, and by the time I'd grown up enough to discuss it with him, it was too late. But I wonder how he'd have felt if he'd had the opportunity to enjoy friendships with people from the country he viewed as “the enemy”. If he'd talked and laughed and eaten with the person who would eventually become Marco's father or Melanie's mum or Arne's uncle. If someone from Barbara's home town had slept in the shearers' quarters where my father grew up and had sat at the table and eaten roast lamb and peas and tried to describe the huge variety of sausage back home. In short, if he'd had the opportunities and friendships I've been so lucky to enjoy. If, if, if.

Which brings me to the second thought — the vanishingly small probability that I, writing this, should be here, writing this.

If the turret had jammed with the opening just a little smaller. If the plane hadn't lurched; if the clips on his parachute hadn't been buckled properly. If he'd fallen fatally ill in Stalag IV-B. The list of “ifs” seems infinite, stretching back into the past, before he was born, before his parents were born and so on; and stretching out towards me, as I sit writing this. Once, somewhere in the Southern Alps of New Zealand, he slipped on a mountainside and saved himself by grabbing a small, wiry bush. If a seed hadn't germinated there years before, he'd have fallen over the bluff, probably to his death.

My existence seems an improbability of truly cosmic proportions. Still, I'm here, writing this, and I'm glad. But tell me this. If the chances of any actual event are so infinitesimal, how can wars be so common?

Stalag IV-B; F. McGregor watercolour

1. I'm particularly grateful to Mogens Kruse and Anders Straarup for finding us and providing information additional to Dad's records.
2. Airwar over Denmark by Søren Flensted has a page about Stirling BF461 and its crew.
3. Allied Airmen 1939-45 DK by Anders Straarup includes good information about STI BF461 and all its crew members with many links. If you're keen, you can read Dad's account of the mission and his time in Stalag IV-B by downloading the pdf (70 pages; almost 6 Mb); a smaller pdf (about 600 Kb) is a 7-page account of the week before the camp was liberated. Copyright in both articles resides with the estate of F.E. McGregor.
4. B461 crashed here (thanks to Mogens Kruse for this).
(I photographed these from Dad's albums. Apart from a little cleaning up of spots and scratches they're as close as I can get to the originals.)
1. The crew of Stirling BF461 ("B for Beer"). [Standing, L-R]: W.F. Morice (navigator), W.J. Champion (wireless operator), G.K. Williams (pilot), J. Black (mid-upper gunner), R. Ingray (tail gunner); [Kneeling, L-R]: F.E. McGregor (bomb aimer/front gunner), H. Moffat (engineer).
2. Frank McGregor. I'm not sure of the date of the photo, but assume it was during his training, or perhaps while he was on active service before he was shot down.
3. The main road of Stalag IV-B, from a photo in Frank McGregor's albums.
4. One of his watercolour sketches. It's dated 1945; Stalag IV-B was abandoned by its German guards in April 1945 shortly before a Russian contingent arrived.
Photos and original text © 2009 Pete McGregor


P.E.A. said...

Although I have been driven to despair by some of the McGregor clan's compulsion to hoard it is wonderful that your father left such a vivid account of his young life, and that others have preserved it in this way.
So many of the very young men who were caught up in these appalling situations remained unable to speak about their experiences. So many were simply lost forever.
This is a remarkable story of chance/destiny, and of hope for some sort of positive outcome from war.

the watercats said...

I wouldn't even begin to try and contemplate such things, not just because I lack the intelligence to do so, but because it's the never ending quest for answers. The fact that even our little freakish planet exsists at all is a big enough headfeck... a few molecules less or more....
The story of your father's dramatic story is very touching. It's hard to imagine how many individual stories there must be from during that time and how anyone managed to stay sain after it is an even bigger wonder!..

pohanginapete said...

P.E.A., I know of others whose compulsion to hoard is at least the equal of those you're thinking of! I hope I don't have the gene... But yes, sometimes hoarding — of non-material things especially — can provide a link to the past in ways more lasting than mere fallible memory.

Watercats, it certainly messes with your head, and when modern physics adds its bit it's just too much for ordinary mortals like me! In the end I have to resort to thinking, well, I'm here, so no matter how improbable it seems, it did in fact happen! And, regarding your last point, many of those who survived that war did so only in body; the psychological damage was lasting for far too many.

Emma said...

I've given up seeking real answers for these types of questions, which is different from giving up wondering. The wondering is endlessly fascinating, not unlike your post.

My father was an "Oops!" baby, born at home, as was the norm, to a 48-year-old mother and 52-year-old father in 1953 in a very rural area of Mexico. My mother very nearly drowned in a friend's pool at age 12. My father was in a grotesque accident shortly after he and my mother met. He was not expected to live; and if he lived, he was not expected to walk. He did both. In 1985 (or '86? I can't remember), the two of them, plus my brother and myself, were bumped from a flight to Mexico; we were flying standby and the flight was overbooked. That flight crashed and left no survivors.

It's so amazing, so convoluted, so delightfully improbable. And yet we go on.

Ruahines said...

Kia ora Pete,
As usual I have returned here a few times to read and even now I still sit here sort of lost in thought and contemplation of these things.
I agree with Watercats in that so many of these stories have gone untold, the experiences gone and lost forever, and some of the ripples still lap the shores. The mere fact you can share your fathers story is a legacy in itself. I know more than a few men of our generation, and in particular a lot of Kiwis, whose fathers never uttered a word of those times. The pain of carrying all that around must have been huge. My father too fought in the war, as a Yank of course, and was here for a time as well. He talked very little of his experiences, and sometimes got very exasperated at his young son (me) pestering him. My grandmother once pinned against the wall as a young boy and looked me sternly in the eye and told me to leave him alone, that "good soldiers never talk". I guess that sums it up. Yet my grandma years later also gave me all his old letters and a scrap book she had compiled. They are treasures.
The fact my dad came back from the war and went to university 8 years older than had he gone straight from high school, and met my mom always has made me think the same way, the chance of that happening lo and behold and here I am.
Pete, another stimulating and beautiful post. Well worth the wait. Hope we can catch up soon!

Avus said...

"What if?" eh Pete?
I guess impersonal war, at a distance, is less involving than cutting off an opponent's head, face to face in battle. We can now kill without even knowing who we have killed. But many guys coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan are still experiencing serious post traumatic stress disorders.
I wonder how much those like your Dad bottled up when they came home from WW II? Speaking about it was the last thing they wanted to do and yet it might have helped. "Autres temps, autres moeurs".

Brenda Schmidt said...

Wow. What an amazing story. So much to think about.

That's a wonderful watercolor.

jacqueline b said...

life's such a mystery

KiwiSoupGirl said...

What dashing heroe your Dad appears, and indeed it seems, was! Such courage and fortitude and determination to survive - its a testament to the human spirit in a way, as perhaps - in some awful way - war itself also is. I feel only one thing about war...and that is that we should never cease asking "why". It is not something we should ever accept unquestioningly as a given, and I feel incredibly deeply about that. Survival stories are always wonderful, and I have one of my own that I must tell soon and honour those concerned by doing so. Thanks for the prompt Pete, coz I needed that! And thank you, as always, for your wonderful stories and pictures. :-)

pohanginapete said...

Emma — and I thought I was lucky to be here! Your story must be as close as it gets to, well, not being around, I suppose. Glad you are, though :^)

Robb, my grandfather (on my mum's side) never spoke much about his war experiences either (his, of course were from the first World War). However, I remember my mum telling us how he didn't like walking on beaches because the sand reminded him of the time he spent in the desert. Unlike my father, he left no written record, and now his memories are gone. But perhaps that's how he would have wanted it: that we remember him, not his memories.

Avus, lots of very good points in your comment. Thanks. "Autres temps, autres moeurs" reminds me, too, always to be cautious about judging, because it can only be based in my own customs and values.

Brenda, both my parents were accomplished artists (not that my mum would admit the quality of her work). Somehow I missed out on that gene, though ;^)

Jacq, so true. And a mystery not to be solved, but savoured.

KSG, thanks; glad it's been a prompt for you! As for the heroism thing, well, when one has no alternative, the only real heroism is in not giving up or switching off. And, I hope I never have the opportunity to earn the tag, "hero"!

Don't Feed The Pixies said...

OK - so i saw that you'd posted two posts the other day but just KNEW i had to wait until i could sit back and read them properly - it's always worth it with your posts.

I heard a line that went if you put two people together they become a couple, three and they become a community, four and they make one an outsider. OK so that's on a macrocosm scale - but maybe its partly why we still can't settle our differences without war (or because the ape is still only just below the skin?)

A beautiful story of your father here - i actually felt nervous in places. I think that you're right to say that in these situations each person has to find their own rationalisation and way of acceptance or go mad. But then what would we do if it came down to just the two of us, you and me for survival?

I'd like to hope we'd find some way for mutual survival - but i guess kids would be out of the question :) (he he)

pohanginapete said...

Hungry pixies, thanks — good to know you appreciate the posts, and that's quite something that you felt nervous ;^) Actually, I think kids must be the key to solutions. On average, they'll be around for far longer than we will; moreover, they're still at the stage of forming their prejudices and dislikes whereas ours have been largely formed long ago and it's harder to change a bad habit than form a good one in the first place. Maybe, the more that kids get to enjoy friendships with a great diversity of other kids (and adults), the more they'll naturally assume we're all part of the same enormous family. I probably sound hugely idealistic, but I'd like to think it's hopeful idealism, not naive idealism. Thanks for the thoughts.

Anonymous said...

Hi Pete,
...there was no war during the last centuries where the responsible politicians have been in the front line, ...or was there one?
During my traveling years I learned to look at everything from different angles...
...have you ever tried to find out how and why this insanity begun?
Take care,

pohanginapete said...

Hey W, thanks. I think if we all tried to see things from different angles the world would be far more peaceful, even if we didn't agree or accept all the different perspectives. But, if we don't even attempt that breadth of view, how can we be anything other than prejudiced, biased and intolerant?

A good point about the initiators never being in the front line — but what I most hope for is that the "front line" will become a thing of the past, at least for wars among humans.

I can wonder how they start, but never know. Lots of different angles to that, too.

Cheers W.

Tony Bridge said...

Pete: As usual, your posts are inspirational. So often the thread of our lives hangs on a slender happenstance...

pohanginapete said...

Thank you, Tony. Good to hear from you.

Di said...

Beautiful. I've just spent the last couple of months living and working in Berlin. These are things I thought about as I wandered ... but never written as beautifully thought-filled as you write them.

pohanginapete said...

Thankyou, Di.

75nzsquadron said...

A fantastic story, perhaps you would like to contribute it.....


pohanginapete said...

Thanks Simon. Your blog looks excellent. Feel free to link to the post, and you're welcome to email me (email address below my profile photograph on the left).

Check the notes at the bottom of the post, too, because there's a lot of information I think you'll find useful and interesting in those links.