Henry wanted to be a pilot.
He learnt to fly gliders before the war and, when asked which branch of the Services he wanted to join, said simply that “I would like to fly aeroplanes because I already have a glider pilot’s licence”. Initially rejected for being too short, he served for a while on an anti-aircraft unit. But after a few months someone at headquarters evidently had a change of heart, and Henry found himself posted to pilot training school. Once he got there, so keen was he to learn everything he could about his new job that he would continue to study by torchlight, under the blankets, after lights out. After qualifying Henry flew many operational flights on a dozen or so different types of aircraft, ranging from twin-engined fighters and medium bombers to his country’s largest four-engined aeroplanes. Henry’s story is similar to those of so many World War II aircrew, and is included in Michael Veitch’s excellent book Fly (Penguin, 2008). But there is one key difference.
Henry’s real name is Heinz Hampel, and he was a pilot in Germany’s Luftwaffe.
What is eerily noticeable is how much Henry’s story parallels those of many Commonwealth airmen. Gil Pate, for example, served as a sapper in an anti-aircraft searchlight unit before enlisting as aircrew. Don Southwell told me of staying awake until one or two in the morning to study while at ITS. And a key motivation for many aircrew – for example David Mattingley (C07-052-015) – was the desire to learn to fly. The fighter pilots that the bomber aircrew would come up against in the skies over Germany were, in so many ways, just like themselves: ordinary young men who wanted to fly caught up in decidedly extraordinary circumstances. As Veitch writes in the same book about Peter Mehrtens, another German pilot, “sadly, it was the similarities rather than the differences with the people he was fighting that stood out for me the most”.
My friend Bryan, on a trip to Oktoberfest in Munich a couple of years ago, started chatting with a local lad of about the same age. Somehow the topic of the war came up. The young German had recently discovered a stash of his grandfather’s wartime memorabilia, including photos, medals and a Luger pistol. He had, as it transpired, been an anti-aircraft gunner in Dortmund. Bryan could relate a similar experience – his own grandfather, after whom he was named, was a man named Brian Fallon, a mid-upper gunner with 463 Squadron, and Bryan has his medals at home. “Brian had been on bombing trips to Dortmund so often”, he told me a few weeks ago, “that they called it the Milk Run.” He was staggered to realise that his grandfather and his new German friend’s grandfather had quite possibly been shooting at each other over the city. And now the two young men were sitting in a large tent, in the middle of a huge crowd of people, having a friendly conversation while drinking enormous steins of beer.
Seven decades earlier they might have met in very different circumstances.
© 2013 Adam Purcell