Later, when it was all over and he was in his hospital bed, all Herr Leutnant Johannes Keller could think about was how on earth Gerhard had managed to pull the Stuka out of its death dive into the flat, grey sea.
He knew it was partly the design. He had seen Stukas pull themselves up automatically even with Luftwaffe pilots who had passed out from the acceleration, but this had been so very different. Gerhard had managed to save his life; even as his own had ebbed away.
They had met the RAF in the clear skies over Portsmouth. Johannes had visited Portsmouth with his parents before the war when he had been very small. They had stayed in a boarding house with a sour landlady who did not like Germans, although she had not turned away his father’s money. It had been a trying holiday because of her attitude and his parents had argued. He had been frightened of the sea, the noise of the crashing waves and the sheer enormity of it. He had never seen anything like it before. He had been in the middle of telling Herr Oberleutnant Gerhard Lehmann this tale over their radio when the RAF had flown out of nowhere and caused such chaos and destruction to their formation.
They had had such an easy war, compared to many. Only one scrape in 1939 over Poland when they had been shot at from the ground and an engine had been partially damaged. Johannes remembered how he had managed to repair it, at five hundred metres, although his fingers had been both frozen and burnt. He had sworn and cursed at length and Gerhard had laughed, crazily, through sheer relief. It had seemed nothing when they landed, they had laughed about it together. So many of the Experten had not come back from the missions and the pair of them had always been so fortunate.
They had become closer than friends - brothers. Johannes’ tears ran down the sides of his face as he recalled the final moments of their flight, the horror of the sharp pitch towards the churning sea, the mist; and through it the irregular sight of the great concrete banks, running down from the road; the shore that seemed so near as to taunt them with its inaccessibility.
They had both had nightmares, ones that left them crying out in the night and waking drenched with sweat. Johannes had always feared crashing into the sea, he could not swim, he had confessed to Gerhard, who had sat on the end of his bed and shared a cigarette, returning the confidence with one of his own. He had feared being burnt.
Ironically Johannes had barely noticed the terror of the nearing sea as the Stuka had dived so crazily up and down, all his concern had been for his friend, hurt so badly by the bullets. As the plane had hurtled down to the shore, Gerhard had looked back for one last time, managing to smile through the blood and pain and mouth something – See Hans, I remembered you couldn’t swim - before turning back for a final effort to get them clear of the grey sea.
Johannes had known the crash would be bad, and it was. The impact had sheered at the fuselage of the Stuka, then smashed it to atoms, knocking all the breath out of his own body. Gritting his teeth against the pain and sending up a swift prayer for help, Johannes had eased his legs out from his Rear-Gunner’s seat, and dived, seizing Gerhard from the cockpit and rolling to the hard ground below, rolling and rolling and then stopping, utterly spent, as the flames rose around the Stuka and crept ever closer.
He had faded in and out of consciousness and recalled nothing further, but a German-speaking doctor had since told him that a group of schoolgirls had saved his life and completed his act of saving his dear friend's body from the flames.