Rob Hardy on books

 

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A Tale of Two Airmen

 

 

Rob Hardy

 

The book jacket shows a photograph of silhouettes of bombers at an airfield, and it bears a rubber stamp of an eagle holding a swastika, as if this were an official Nazi photo. It is clear from the cover that this is a book about World War II, but it isn't clear that it is a dual personal story. Perilous Moon: Occupied France, 1944 - The End Game (Casemate) by Stuart Nimmo is about the adventures of the author's father, an RAF bomber pilot, and the Nazi ace who shot him down. The frontispiece of the book is heartbreaking, and sets the tone of what is to follow. "Our two protagonists," it is labeled, "in all their youth and innocence." Yes, two protagonists. Little Neil Nimmo is in bow tie, kilt, and sporran. Little Helmut Bergmann prophetically wears an aviator's cap and goggles. The two would be inescapably caught up in a huge war, both doing what they had to do. The author has put over the boyish photographs a quotation from Voltaire: "Every man is a creature of the age in which he lives, and few are able to raise themselves above the ideas of the time." These little boys were to show pluck and bravery and devotion to duty and to their countries, and it is merely happenstance that one of them died for the cause of barbarism. 

 

 

 

The more detailed of the two stories, unsurprisingly, is Neil Nimmo's, and is told in his voice. He tried to write his account of his exploits after the war, and was encouraged to do so by his sons, who were enthralled by his oral account. After his death, the sons eventually gathered the written parts, and filed them away as part of their family history. Neil Nimmo was a professional photographer, and his son Stuart had an interest in photography, coming across Axis photos, including some from Helmut Bergmann's own albums. The photographs here have not been published before, and Perilous Moon is full of them, over 200 images showing war machines, and warriors at work and play. 

 

 

 

Neil Nimmo had been an RAF flying instructor in Canada during the first part of the war, and was recalled to Britain in 1944. He almost immediately went on his first run, and then on a second the following night, 10 April. He was a pilot of a "battle-weary, but nevertheless magnificent" Lancaster, which "wasn't crisp and seemed rather slow. It was a bit like flying a soggy pancake." With his crew of six other airmen, the plane was assigned to a routine "piece of cake" bombing of rail yards near the Franco-Belgian border. The bombing indeed went well, but on the way back, the plane went through flak and an attack from a Messerschmitt piloted by Bergmann.  

 

 

 

Bergmann had had a busy night. He was a former member of the Hitler Youth, the son of a Luftwaffe major. He was a dedicated Nazi (not many pilots were), and in photos wears his uniform with obvious pride; he was blonde, young, and handsome. He had started as a pilot in 1942, and he was good at it. Since the past November, though, luck had passed him by; he had shot down not a single plane. That night changed everything. In his report of the attack on Nimmo's Lancaster, he wrote, "I saw the Lancaster... The pilot was taking evasive action, weaving about, maybe avoiding searchlights. I started firing at 02:52 a.m. from about 100m below and into the fuselage and right wing, which promptly caught fire. The burning Lancaster [was] trapped by the searchlights. At 02:54 I saw it burning on the ground." Nimmo's bomber was the sixth Lancaster Bergmann brought down that night, and then there was a seventh before the ace was too low on fuel to do anything but return to base. He won a coveted Knight's Cross. Like many young men, he was interested in photography, which is why some of his trove can be published here; he also liked to go to the wreckage of planes he had brought down to do a war dance on them. There is a picture here of him doing just that. In a way, it isn't surprising that he was so ruthless. Not only had he an upbringing that made him unavoidably attached to Hitler's efforts, his home city of Bochum had been bombed and gutted of its medieval center, and such bombings gave him purpose. "He loathed Allied terrorfliegers (terror fliers) for everything they stood for and above all for what he and his family had lost." 

 

 

 

Few of the British airmen survived Bergmann's attentions that night, but Nimmo parachuted onto a ploughed French field, and began the adventure that must have thrilled his sons. His account is full of jaunty asides and self-deprecating humor. He got help from French citizens, some just helpful, others working for the Resistance. He was hidden away in a farmhouse cupboard and given clothes that were untraceable. "I tried to help by giving them the money from my escape kit, but they would not hear of it." He was being taken care of, and he got visits from English-speaking Frenchmen to keep him from feeling as if he were alone or neglected. He was, after all, hot property, and the Resistance wanted him as comfortable as possible: "Should I have gone off on the loose again and fallen into the hands of the Germans, dressed as I was they would know that I had been helped. I would have been interrogated and tortured until I told them everything I knew." Astonishingly, he was transferred to another hiding place in the middle of Paris, and even with limited skills in French, he went about the city like any other victim of the occupation. "I was still in hiding, of course, but it's relatively easy to achieve anonymity in a big city like Paris." A couple of the men who helped him laughed at his surprise that they could easily see he was an Englishman. "Oh, you're obviously British," one said, "every Frenchman can see that; but the Germans can't of course." He even notes the efforts of Parisian women to stay in fashion, using table cloths or curtains turned into dresses, reblocking and refeathering hats into new shapes, and affixing new wooden soles to worn-out shoes. "I must say, they did really rather well and made Paris very chic and even more of a sight after the austerity back home." 

 

 

 

Eventually after the liberation of Paris, Nimmo was moved to Versailles into an America POW camp, where he had to be held to make sure he wasn't a German spy. "It felt odd to have been so comparatively free in Paris under German occupation only to find myself, to all intents and purposes, imprisoned by the British. It had to be done of course, but it wasn't a pleasant experience." He was eventually flown back to England, and was back flying against the Nazis again. Bergmann's luck was to run out on 7 August, when in a frantic battle over Mortain his Messerschmitt was downed, and no one knows how. His devastated father gathered Bergmann's remains, and albums and decorations. The photographs and official papers which were supposed to have documented a promising young man's ascent within the Luftwaffe, went into an attic, the family faded away, and eventually the album contents became available to be included here. 

 

 

 

Putting the stories together this way makes this a special volume among the many about the war. Nimmo's story is the jollier; he had some funny experiences, and after all, he lived and was on the winning side. Bergmann's life story isn't as rich in detail, but it is supplemented with many photographs and with explanations about the Luftwaffe and such things as the way the Germans used electronic countermeasures. Bergmann was only 24 when he died, and the author properly assesses him as just another of Hitler's victims. Neil Nimmo would not have seen it that way, but writes in one of his chapters a quotation from The Good Soldier Svejk: "Wars are great aren't they? They are always glorious, always honorable, always the fight for justice, and always the other fellow's fault. That's maybe why we have so many of them." 

 

 

 

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