Johan Faber – The Solitary Pilot
I’m going to tell you something unbelievable. It’s an old story, already almost forgotten. Even here, where the consequences are still visible to everyone. The city shines as never before, but it is a modern sheen, the sheen of money and appearance.
I’m talking about Operation Gomorra.
The first attack was on 23 July 1943, the last in the night of 2 to 3 August. There were more than 40,000 deaths: grandparents, fathers and mothers, children.
Everyone always talks about Dresden. Dresden, the pearl on the Elbe, a radiant beacon of culture, wiped off the map in a single night. But who remembers Operation Gomorra?
The bombing went on for eleven nights. Each time they thought it was over, the air raid sirens screamed again, rapidly followed by the ominous rumble of Bomber Command and the US Air Force.
Down below in the shelters it was as if an infantry of giants in close-packed ranks were marching over the city, wave after wave. It was never-ending, and even when it ended it continued to reverberate. It went on right through to today. There are still elderly eyes that saw it, half-deaf ears that heard it.
The British seemed to be specialists in terror from the sky. They intentionally selected the most densely populated districts, where they would strike the most victims. First they blew off the roofs with special aerial mines, followed by incendiary bombs that whipped up a firestorm.
When it was over, Hamburg no longer existed. It was simply gone. And the strange thing was that the population, or what remained of it, instantly adjusted to the circumstances. People did not go around wailing and tearing their hair out, nor foaming at the mouth, nor rending their clothes from their bodies. They scratched around in the rubble, in search of what was still usable. An old frying pan, children’s clothes, a bucket – the most everyday objects could save a life.
In the city that no longer existed, life went on. Babies were born, people died. Children played. Couples made love, married, argued. There was laughter, there was music, people danced. In no time the inconceivable, the total destruction of everything you took for granted, had once again become everyday.
His name is Faber. That’s the only thing I know. Faber – he didn’t mention a first name. Perhaps it is his first name.
He called five days ago. Asked in broken German whether it was me. The silence after the question sounded more uneasy than I meant it to. I received several of them, that kind of phone call, earlier on. But in recent years it’s gone very quiet.
Yes, I said in the end.
Faber switched to English. He was Dutch. Referred to himself as a ‘researcher’. Worked for something scientific. He was interested in my story. It was now so and so many years ago. Could we talk. Man to man.
I named my price. He named his price. We agreed a price and a time. Friday, half past eleven. At the bottom of the steps in the big hall of the Hauptbahnhof. And that was that.
The weather was good. At least, it wasn’t bad, because I’d certainly have remembered that. And if it had bucketed down with rain for two weeks, I would never have got started on my adventure. But the weather was good and remained good, and everything I’m going to tell you about it is the honest truth.
For most people the weather is in essence a nondescript phenomenon. Sun, rain, snow, what does it matter? You still have to work, study, do the shopping, put the rubbish out.
In the air it’s different. Bad weather is the end of it. You remain grounded like a simple hobby pilot, because the Visual Flight Rules prescribe a minimum visibility of 1500 metres. What you really have to watch out for is worsening weather. It’s happened to me a couple of times, often surprisingly shortly after take-off into a crystal clear sky, that I suddenly found myself in a seething storm, and all those times it flashed through my mind that I really was done for this time. The strange thing was that the idea immediately calmed me. I didn’t start to cry with anguish, I didn’t beat with my fists on the instrument panel in raging panic. I simply followed the
protocol, got the shaking, trembling coffin under control and landed it safely on the ground.
Although I was by far the youngest member of Aeroclub Hamburg and in fact had only clocked up fifty flying hours, in that short time I had built up a reputation as a good, disciplined pilot. The fact that I was a quiet boy without a shred of bravura must have contributed to that. It didn’t occur to me to attempt stunts with my plane for a change of pace; I listened to the instructor and followed procedures obediently.
I knew many new pilots who pushed the boundaries, boys who constantly took too little notice of weather forecasts. If in doubt, into the air. Then turning figures of eight over their homes or tricks like that. It seemed to be part of the job, but I didn’t join in. Not because I lacked the courage, but because I thought it was so childish.
I dreamed big.
Of course there’s always that first step. The barrier of starting out. Preparation, training, studying routes, checking frequencies, mapping out radio beacons, thinking through different scenarios, that’s all easy enough. But in the moment of truth you forget everything. You see yourself in a blinding light, trembling like a six-year-old on the high diving board, having just pocketed your first swimming certificate. As soon as you stand there and peer into the depths, wobbling with nerves, you’re one hundred percent sure you’ve made the biggest mistake of your life. But there’s no way back; the steep steps are full, the children behind you starting to murmur impatiently.
You think, no. No, no, no.
Then you jump.
It was spring 1987. I was eighteen. No one asked questions when I chartered the Cessna 172 for three weeks.
Strong wind sweeps past the gables. The familiar portrait of dawn: grey faces, hasty footsteps. The elderly office workers, the hastily made-up career women, teachers, engineers, shop staff… I walk against the current, touch a shoulder, a rucksack, a stranger’s hand brushes mine.
The hopelessly ruined teeth of the city have been impeccably renovated. Colossal office buildings reflect the grey sky, giant apartment blocks parade conceitedly alongside the restored churches. The old town hall is still there, the traffic rumbles along broad streets, the port is a stomping machine of industriousness. The war is disappearing under new layers of soot, new memories. But it’s still there, you can be sure.
When I look up, at the filthy, putrid sky, I cannot help thinking how it must have been. Not here, below, in the shelters, but up there.
I know the city not just on ground level, but also from the sky. I’ve seen the new Hamburg from above often enough, the Hamburg of weathered glass, dingy concrete, screeching steel. When I look down on the stone geometry of streets and squares, I’m sometimes captivated by a deep longing. With my hand I draw an imaginary control stick towards me, the underbelly of the aircraft opens, and there they go, my little treasures, my children, they tumble straight down, soon growing smaller, until I can no longer see them. I wait and continue to watch, as I skilfully steer my plane through the flak-poisoned airspace, until the moment when the bombs reach the ground in a feast of fire and smoke. Whooping and singing I draw a flaming trail through the city, and I feel the blast waves swell from beneath.
Oh, how magnificent! Oh, how fantastic!
The pleasure of destruction must be universal. Like the urge to reproduce. Culture has its charm, but in time civility and neighbourliness leave a person utterly fed up. Then you need to put a stone through a windowpane, set a house on fire, cut an irreplaceable painting to ribbons, reduce a city to ash.
I’ve read a bit about Bomber Command. They were very young, the pilots, and no cowards either, because the bombing flights were perilous undertakings. The Luftwaffe was practically wiped out in the final years of the war, but the anti-aircraft defences continued to shoot back to the last.
Perhaps there are still a couple of pilots alive. Shaky old grey men with sunken eyes. You wouldn’t give them a second look as they shuffled through the streets of Hamburg to survey their legacy, so to speak.
Sample translated by Anna Asbury