They had passed through 6,000 metres. Ernst pressed the mask more closely to his mouth and drew deep breaths, but it was no good. The mask must be defective.
Ernst started to panic. He had to dive. He had to get back down where he could breathe. He couldn’t just dive. He had to tell someone. The CO. In his mounting panic, he just barely managed to find the radio switch and croak out, “Herr Hauptmann! Geuke, here! My oxygen isn’t working!”
“All right, Geuke. Return to 1,000 metres and see if you can sort it out. If not, return to base.”
Without thinking Ernst shoved the nose down and turned away at the same time. He didn’t register that by doing that he was flying away from the rest of the Gruppe.
Only slowly did he come to his senses. He remembered that he was supposed to see if he could repair the oxygen supply in flight. He dutifully checked the tube leading from the oxygen tank. It was hanging loose. It wasn’t plugged in at all! Broken? No, just not plugged in. He’d been in such of a hurry to take off, he’d waved his fitter aside before he was finished with the drill.
Ernst was overwhelmed by shame. It was bad enough to have forgotten something, but he’d not only shouted about his problem over the R/T, he’d also absented himself from the flight. And now, at last, he realised what he’d done when he’d peeled away while diving. This was terrible! Rather than simply flying along with the Staffel at a lower level, he was now miles away from them. It would be almost impossible to find them again. But if he returned to base, they would accuse him of just running away. Ernst swung his Messerschmitt about again and tried to remember the last course they had been on. He thought it was 110, and he climbed back to 8000 metres.
Rather than finding the Gruppe, he found only increasing cloud. The sky was thick with the stuff, and it blocked his vision almost everywhere he looked. Ernst changed his course several times, but he found nothing but more cloud. Now a sheet of low cloud was creeping inland below him.
Afraid of getting lost entirely, Ernst abandoned all hope of finding the Gruppe and dived below the cloud cover. He found the coastline and followed it eastward, expecting to find a landmark he recognised. After flying almost ten minutes, he decided that he must have turned the wrong way. He reversed and flew along the coast in the opposite direction for fifteen minutes. He could find nothing he recognised.
The cloud continued to increase and sink. Ernst descended to 500 metres to keep below it, but mist started forming on his windscreen as he flew just beneath the dense, dark clouds. The wind had picked up as well. The little, delicate Messerschmitt was buffeted about harshly, and the engine strained against the headwinds. Abruptly, rain started pelting him. It smashed so hard against his canopy, that it overwhelmed the feeble efforts of the windscreen wiper. He could only see out of the side windows, but these too were streaming rain and steaming up.
Ernst tried to beat back his mounting panic. He started flying very carefully in an increasing square looking for a landmark, but as his fuel gauge steadily recorded his diminishing fuel reserves his hopes faded. He resigned himself to the coming crash, yet he knew that the crash investigation would reveal that he’d made one mistake after another. He’d be washed out. They’d never let him fly again. And they were right. He didn’t deserve to fly. He was worthless.
When the engine finally cut out, it was almost a relief. The agony of trying was over. He had only one task left: putting the Messerschmitt down with as much skill as he had. Or should he just smash it and himself into the earth at a speed that would put them both out of their misery? Ernst thought about it, but his survival instinct was still stronger than his despair.
The countryside was open and there were plenty of pastures. There were hedges and stone walls, too. You don’t want to go into a stone wall at 100 km an hour! Or trees, either. No, over there. He banked a little, gliding towards a field cut in two by a little stream. Ernst spiralled down towards the outer edge of his chosen field so he could see around the long snout of the Emil. He was so low the cattle were galloping away in terror. He eased the throttle back, straightened, pulled the nose up and applied more flap. Whop! With a horrible crash she was on the ground, slithering along on her belly, and Ernst was flung against the instrument panel so violently that he was knocked out.
When he came to again, he was being hauled out of the cockpit by solicitous Luftwaffe medics. They asked him if he was injured, and groggily he denied it. Ernst couldn’t understand where the Luftwaffe medics had come from until, ten minutes later, he discovered he had crash-landed less than 10 km from the base of a Zerstörer Gruppe. He was taken directly to the Gruppe medical officer, who determined he had a concussion. Ernst was feeling a bit dizzy and queasy, and they made him lie down. Everyone just assumed he’d been trying to make the base after a sweep over the channel when his fuel had run out. The Medical Officer gave him a shot, and he fell asleep still in a state of bewilderment.
Then Christian was there. He’d driven over from JG 23 to pick Ernst up. Still feeling very confused, Ernst thanked the medical officer, pulled on his flying boots and carried his helmet, life vest and parachute out to the waiting staff car. It was pouring rain and dark as dusk – or maybe it was dusk?
“What time is it, Christian?”
Ernst thought about it. He’d eaten nothing since breakfast. “Yes, I am,” he decided.
“Good, I saw a very nice little café on the way down. We can stop there.” Christian sounded cheerful.
Ernst didn’t understand why. He must be annoyed to have to drive all the way over here in the pouring rain. Timidly, Ernst remarked, “It’s very nice of you to pick me up, Christian.”
Christian waved it aside. “I was delighted to have an excuse to get away from base. Bartels got it into his head he ought to put on a programme. Pure Party shit!”
Ernst was so shocked he laughed nervously. Then he looked sidelong at Christian. This wasn’t the first time Christian had been irreverent towards either the CO or the NSDAP. Ernst didn’t quite know what to make of it.
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