Flight at Christmas
Why we like it: This story captures some of the dangers faced by pilots in WWII. A calm scene quickly becomes a haze of fire, smoke and bullets. Interactions with strangers on foreign ground is scary. Toward the end of the story, the pilot has completely forgotten Christmas- as many others may have done during wartime. The joyful reunion with family accurately shows how happy families were to have their soldiers back with them again.
I banked the Spitfire, trying to catch back up with the rest of the squadron. It was my last patrol before Christmas. I had been one of the more fortunate guys and had received four days of Christmas leave.
Glancing back for a final look at France, I took in the scene. War-stricken or not, it was quite pretty with patches of snow everywhere.
Suddenly, the sky was full of aircraft. It was the Luftwaffe. Messerschmitt fighter aircraft were pouring out of the clouds, bullets flying. The Christmas-like picture of France was now an ugly wartime scene with clouds of smoke everywhere.
I nosed the plane into a steep climb, assessing the situation, when a Luftwaffe fighter roared down around me, its bullets barely missing me. I dove down after him, guns blazing, when my engine cut out. A Messerschmitt rolled away behind me.
Suddenly, my aircraft burst into flames. I threw the canopy back and hurled myself out of the airplane. The parachute had barely opened when I plunged into the English Channel’s icy water.
I swam to shore as quickly as I could. If I didn’t get out of this freezing water soon, I wouldn’t be getting home at all, much less for Christmas.
I crawled onto the beach, just then realizing how cold I was. I walked across the sand and reached the edge of the beach. I had heard stories from one of the guys back at the base. He had crash landed and found a friendly French farmer. He found that this farmer was hiding Jewish divers. Somehow, the farmer with the help of the French resistance had gotten him back to England. Judging the landscape I figured that I must be some where close to that farmer’s house. It wasn’t much to go on, but it was my only hope.
Suddenly, I heard a noise behind me. I turned around and saw a pony cart. I mustered my best French accent and spoke.
“Bonjour, “I said.
My accent must have sounded terrible, because the man, who I could tell was a farmer, nearly burst out into laughter. “Good afternoon.” said the farmer in perfect English. “My name’s Desjardin, Samuel Desjardin. “What happened to your plane?”
“What!” I gasped. I’m not sure if that sounded like a question to him or an exclamation, but he kept on talking.
“I’d better get you hidden,” the farmer said. “The Germans will know you’re a downed airman without a second glance.” “Get in the back of this cart and we’ll take you to my house.” Moments later we pulled into a small lane leading to a farmyard. Samuel had stopped the cart right beside a little red barn. He continued, “You can go in there. You’ll find some haystacks you can rest on. I’ll send someone to feed you and show you round.” He clicked to the horse and the cart pulled behind the house.
I made my way toward the large barn door and pulled it open. I spotted a haystack and lay down. I don’t know how long I slept, but I awoke to someone shaking my shoulder. I sat up ready to defend myself when I saw a short little man in overalls and remembered where I was.
We shared breakfast together, and after that he showed me the farm. He was a Jewish diver hiding from the Nazis. He led me through the barn to what seemed to be a hay fort. Then he kicked aside a pile of hay revealing a trapdoor.
“This,” he said, “is where we hide when the Nazis search the farm.” He led me down the dark stairs into a large open space.
“Samuel used to keep extra hay down here. Now it is our hiding place.” said the man. We went back up the stairs and saw someone in the barn. It was a man in a uniform. I went to duck behind a hay bale, but the man pulled me up again. “Calm down” he said. “I’m only the game warden, come to help Mr. Desjardin get you back to England.” After that we settled into a conversation. The warden had a cousin who was a fisherman and had hidden his boat from the Germans. Tomorrow, his cousin would take me across the English Channel to England.
I slept well that night. The next evening, I crawled into the back of Samuel’s cart and he covered me with hay. We traveled for a few minutes to the seaside. I could feel the cart stop and I slid out. I walked across the beach to where a small rowboat was waiting with the warden’s cousin in it. I stepped in and he rowed away from shore without a sound. When we reached the fishing boat, we climbed in.
We said nothing the whole trip.
The fishing boat chugged away all night and into the early morning when we finally pulled into an English harbor. I was heavily interrogated by customs officers until some of my squadron’s high-ranking personnel showed up. They took me back to the air base and asked me questions about my escapade.
In the morning, I got a lift from the base by a pilot on leave. We rode into Dover, where I caught a bus to London. Once in London, I flagged down a taxi to my parent’s home. The taxi stopped in front of their house and I was hit by a sudden realization that today was Christmas! The doors on the houses up and down the street were decorated with wreaths and ribbons. I strode towards the door and rapped the knocker. Dad opened the door and Mom was right behind him.
“Son!” Dad nearly shouted and Mom cried “George, oh Georgy!”
My two younger brothers and sister streamed out the door and I was nearly mauled by hugs, pats, and a few kisses. When my family finally stepped back for a second I seized the opportunity and said: “Merry Christmas everyone!”
Note: A Jewish “diver” was a Jew hiding from the Nazis in someone’s home or premises during the Second World War. The Luftwaffe is the German air force, and Messerschmitts were German fighter aircraft.