March 23, 1944: Man Falls 18,000 Feet and Survives
Jump or burn. That’s the choice. You are 18,000 feet in the air in a burning plane. Your parachute is on fire and melting in from of your eyes. Things are getting a little warm. What do you do?
That was exactly the choice RAF gunner Sergeant Nicholas Alkemade made after his Lancaster bomber, the Werewolf, was hit by a German fighter plane.
Sgt Alkemade was only 21 on this day in 1944 sitting in the tail end of the Werewolf. It was his 13th mission as the Werewolf was flying a raid near Frankford Germany. The plane was attacked by Luftwaffe Ju 88 night fighters when it caught fire and began to spiral out of control.
From his account he now feared for his life. He was surrounded by fire with the heat melting the mask on his face. He saw his parachute was no longer on the rack but burning on the floor of the aircraft. In a later account 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”.
His clothes were scorched and began to burn. He had two options burn or jump. He elbowed the hatch open and fell back. Fell back 18,000 feet. He says that as he fell he could see the burning Lancaster explode, then stars beyond his feet. He gained momentum and breathing became difficult. 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…”
When Alkemade opened his eyes he cautiously moved each part of his body. He was a bit stiff but everything seemed alright. He looked at his watch, it read 3:25. He had jumped just after midnight.
He realized then, as he lay under a pine tree, that it was the trees and snow that had broken his fall. He was cold and unable to move so began blowing his rescue whistle. Alternating between whistle blows and smoking the remainder of his cigarettes he was finally found by a German patrol.
Nicholas was taken to one of the Germans most notorious prisoner of war camps, Stalag Luft III, the one that 76 men tunneled to freedom. The one the blockbuster movie was made of, “The Great Escape”. The one he was sent to the very day after the 76 had escaped.
Of course they threw him into solitary confinement for being a spy.
“Oh sure, you just fell 18,000 feet with no parachute. You just fell out of the sky. Of course we believe you!”
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 spent the next 14 months as a POW.