There have been many stories about bravery and acts of courage in all the Armed Forces involved in war. Jumping out of a burning aircraft at 18,000 ft without a parachute must come as one of those that will live on in history.
There have been a number of recorded incidents where this has occurred, and the crew member involved has lived to tell the tale. On the night of March 23rd/24th 1944, such a thing happened, and to the astonishment of both the Germans and the crew member, he survived to tell the tale.
Flt Sgt Nicholas Stephen (Nico Stephan) Alkemade was born the 10 December 1922 (believed to be North Walsham, Norfolk, England), and was just 21 years old on that eventful night. He was stationed at RAF Witchford in Cambridgeshire, England and operated as a rear gunner in a Lancaster bomber.
On the night of the 23rd March 1944, the squadron was called to report to briefing to find that their mission for that night would be Berlin, the heart of Germany. They would form part of an 811 strong force made up of Lancasters, Halifaxes and Mosquitos. This was to be the final run over Berlin.
Later that night, Alkemade climbed into the rear turret of 115 Squadron RAF, 3 Group, Lancaster DS664 named ‘Werewolf’ and prepared himself for the coming raid which was to be his 13th mission.
Once over Oberkochen, nr, Frankfurt, Germany, the aircraft was attacked by a Luftwaffe Ju 88 night-fighters, it caught fire and began to spiral out of control.
Now fearing for his life, the aircraft burning furiously, he looked round for his parachute. Turrets being notoriously small, he was not wearing it and would have to find it from inside the fuselage and put it on before exiting the aircraft.
He found himself surrounded by fire, the heat melting his mask and his skin burning. The fuselage was by now a massive fire. It was at this point, that he noticed his parachute no longer on the rack but burning on the floor of the aircraft. In his recount later in life, he describes how he felt:
“For a brief moment I stared while it dissolved before my eyes. It was not so much a feeling of fear, or dismay, or horror, as a sensation, a sort of twisting in the stomach”.
The fire reached his turret, his clothes scorched, now began to burn. With two options, die in an inferno or jump, he rotated the turret, elbowed open the hatch and fell back, he was 18,000 feet (5,500 m) up. As he fell, he could see the stricken Lancaster explode, then the stars beneath his feet. As he gained momentum, breathing became difficult, again his account reads:
‘Funny, I thought, but if this is dying, it’s not so bad . Then the rushing air, the stars, the ground, the sky, all merged and were forgotten as unconsciousness crept over me…’
Three hours later, Alkemade opened his eyes and looked at his watch, it read 3:25. He had jumped just after midnight. cautiously, he moved each part of his body to find everything was alright, if not a little stiff.
It was at this moment he realised what he had done and that he was lying beneath pine tress in snow. It was these trees and snow that had saved his life. Cold and unable to move, he needed help. Taking out his whistle, he blew hard, and continued with alternate blows and smokes of his remaining cigarettes, until found, unfortunately for him, by a German patrol.
The Gestapo interrogated Alkemade, at first in disbelief of his story, but after examining the wreckage of his aircraft, they found the remains of his parachute and were so amazed by his escape, they (reputedly) gave him a certificate in acknowledgment of his testimony.
He was taken to Stalag Luft 3, North Compound, in Poland, and was given Prisoner number: 4175. On the night he jumped, 76 men escaped from the very same prison, an event that became known as ‘The Great Escape’.
Alkemade’s stay was initially very unpleasant, spending days in solitary confinement for being a spy. He was eventually billeted amongst other airmen in the very same hut that one of the tunnels was dug from. He, like other prisoners, was given a diary which was his only and most prized possession. In it he wrote about the boredom and monotony of prison life. He became friends with the artist Ley Kenyon, who added illustrations to his diary.
Sporadic letters from home kept his spirits up, and eventually the Allies reached the camp and he was set free.
Alkemade found out later that the Lancaster had crashed, killing the pilot Jack Newman and three other members of the crew. Both the wireless operator and Navigator survived being thrown clear on impact. The deceased are all believed to be buried in the CWGC’s Hanover War Cemetery. Alkemade was repatriated in May 1945. Post war he returned to Leicestershire, where he married Pearl with whom he had been sending letters and was employed initially in a chemical works (where he survived 3 chemical accidents) and then as a furniture salesman until his death on June 29th 1987, in Cornwall.
Nicholas Alkemade’s story, along with his whistle, is recorded in the RAF Witchford Museum along with artefacts and other personal memorabilia from the crews and staff of the airfield. His diary and letters remain with his son in their Leicestershire home. Pictures from his diary were published in the ‘Leicester Mercury’ Newspaper, November 2013.
For more information about RAF Witchford see Trial 11.
The location of Both RAF Witchford and the Witchford Museum can be found on the Interactive map, Airfields, Museums and Memorials page.