Date: Monday, November 22, 1943
Picture yourself in the dark interior of a brick lined basement. The stench of unwashed bodies and fear overcomes the odor of mildew. A thin sheet used as a curtain in a corner hides a large bucket, the only toilet available for the two dozen people packed into the small room. Everyone sits on wooden benches. Their ages range from elderly to infants. There are no able bodies men present, as they are all at the front. A few buckets of sand line the floor and everyone wears a helmet, even the children. A radio in the corner keeps up a running commentary on what is taking place above ground. Enemy bomber formations have passed east of Braunschweig. Anticipated target is Berlin. Outside, the sirens howl. Then, antiaircraft batteries open fire, sending sheets of flame shooting into the night sky. And then you hear it, the shriek of falling bombs. Each one explodes with a loud CRUMP which causes your building to shake. Dust drifts down from the ceiling. The bombs march closer and closer. Some of the children start to cry. A few of the adults begin to pray. Will the next bomb have your name on it? Or will it hit the next block?
Now picture yourself in the sky overhead. Searchlights stab at the sky around you. To be caught in one means death, unless you can escape the cone. This is your 30th mission. If you make it back, you’ll be the first in your squadron to complete a tour in several months. Before takeoff, you learn that some of the other crews have placed bets on your odds of survival. The odds aren’t good. In the past five months, you’ve seen crews come and go. New crews get shot down so fast you don’t have time to learn their names. Two of your own crew died a few nights ago over the same city where you find yourself now. A burning Lancaster drifts across your line of sight. It rolls onto its side and plummets towards the ground, the seven men inside trapped in a fiery coffin. Your bomb aimer, in the nose of your plane, calls out corrections as you reach the target indicators. Left, left. Steady. Right. Right. Steady. Steady. Almost there. A sudden noise makes you jump as your rear gunner opens up on a night fighter. Shrapnel from the flak batteries ping against the side of your plane, like a child throwing pebbles against it. And then the searchlights catch you.
Now transport yourself 600 miles away. Several months ago, you met a young pilot while he was on leave. Six weeks ago, he proposed and you said yes. When he completes his tour tonight, he’ll be off operations for a while and receive a much safer assignment as an instructor pilot. You know he is flying tonight, and you’ll be married in three days time. As the searchlights catch his aircraft, you are traveling to the small village near his airbase so you can greet him when he gets back. There’s something you need to tell him before the wedding. You meant to do it when you saw him a couple of days ago, but you couldn’t bring yourself to do it. Will he care? Will he cancel the wedding? He seemed withdrawn last time you saw him. And with good reason, he’d just come back from a mission in which two of his crew were killed and one seriously injured. That’s why he got a weekend pass to begin with. His last words when you parted at the train station were “I’m glad I met you.” Hardly the words of a man planning on having a future.
Let us now return to the city under the bombs. You wait out the raid in a reinforced room on the ground floor of your fire station. In the midst of war, your job is still to save lives. You are a veteran fireman with over ten years on the job. The war interrupted your career and you spent several years on the front lines in Poland, France, and Russia before an injury led to your discharge, aided by the fact that cities needed experienced fire service personnel. You saw the firestorm in Hamburg and its images flash through you mind every time you close your eyes. And now? Now your city is being pounded. As soon as the heaviest bombing passes, you and your crew, one other experienced man and four young women who belong to the Luftschutz leave the station and drive towards the fires burning in the distance. A few bombs are still falling, and as you pull up in front of a blazing apartment building, a bomb explodes just up the block. Shrapnel leaves pockmarks on your truck, but it cuts down four firemen in the street ahead. You can hear the screams over the roar of the flame as you exit the fire engine and go to work. A quick glance up. You see a bomber caught in the searchlights. Black objects tumble from the center of the plane and start their way towards the ground. Towards you.
This gives you a bit of insight into the four main characters in the novel. They all have their own backstories and personal conflicts not necessarily detailed above. I hope that when I am finished, they will become as real to you as they are to me.