On 23-24/3/1944, Nicholas Alkemade was part of the all NCO crew of Lancaster DS664 taking part in a raid on Berlin, their first visit to this formidably well defended target. On this mission, Sgt. Alkemade occupied the rear turret.
Exceptionally high winds caused the group to become scattered, reducing their defensive power, but DS664 reached its target, bombed, and turned for home. Somewhere over the Ruhr, they were 'bounced' by a JU88. Sgt Alkemade joined the gunners returning fire and the night-fighter turned away, beginning to smoke. Nicholas realised that the tail of their own aircraft was on fire, just as Flight Sergeant Newman, their pilot, gave the order to bail out.
An additional hazard for the rear gunner stemmed from the fact that there was no room in the turret for his parachute. He would have to leave the turret to collect and don the 'chute, then return to the turret, turn it through 90 degrees and jump, from what had been the hatch into the fuselage. Trying to collect his parachute, Nicholas could actually see it burning, before being driven back by the heat, and he was faced by same the grim choice that confronted many airman; an agonising death by fire or jumping to a quicker but equally certain death. He jumped.
He regained consciousness on a deep mound of undergrowth, covered in snow – cold, with an intense pain in his back, but alive. His watch showed 3.20. The aircraft had been shot down around midnight. He found his cigarette tin, lit a cigarette, then began intermittently to blow the whistle all airmen carried. After a time he heard shouts, and he was found and carried to a nearby cottage, from where the German military would collect him.
Under interrogation, his account of his escape occasioned ridicule and anger; it was not until the wreck of DS664 was found, with the charred remnants of his parachute, was he believed and scepticism gave way to amazement. It is estimated that he fell several thousand feet!
Nicholas's whistle was taken as a souvenir by one of his rescuers; 65 years later, it returned to the site of the start of this saga, when it was presented to the RAF Witchford Collection.
The final chapter came in 2017 when the grandson of Sgt. Alkemade brought his father, also called Nicholas, with other members of their family, to visit the Collection. In a surprise at the end of the visit, there was a brief ceremony in which the whistle was returned to the family.
The picture shows the family with, on the right, Sue Aldridge and Beth Lane, of the Collection.
This story is told in full, together with pictures, in 'Memories of RAF Witchford'.