SUNSHINE TO SADNESS

    I felt a twinge of guilt as I smeared the lard on my rusting bike chain. Lard was on ration, but oil and grease being hard to come by left me with little option.

    I pumped away at my treadless well-patched tyres (acquired from our local rubbish tip) trying hard not to notice the numerous cracks and bulges which grew alarmingly with each stroke of the pump. I tightened the strand of wire (substitute for a missing brake rod) and as my back brake blocks had disintegrated some time ago, hoped that the single remaining front blocks would at least help slow me down in an emergency! I then tightened the string holding on my front mudguard and with a sigh of satisfaction, declared to my friend... "I’m ready."

    It was Sunday, April the 8th, 1945. A beautiful sunny spring morning. Birds were singing, buds were bursting & temperatures were rising. We had decided to take a ‘bike-ride’. So, with tyres resembling Python snakes that had swallowed a colony of rabbits, we set off along ‘Cut-throat Lane’, (Coleman Road) towards Evington Village.

    We rattled and clanked our way past ‘Blacky Fields’, scene of many ‘raids’, onto farmers potato clamps to supply requirements for our campfire feasts, and then eventually Shady Lane P.O.W. camp. It was here, only a year before, at the age of twelve, I had the unforgettable experience of tasting my first Wrigley’s Spearmint Chewing Gum. Tents had appeared over night, like Magic Mushroom's... and within these miniature Aladdin’s Caves, Trestle tables groaned under the weight of ‘Camel’ Cigarettes, Chewing Gum, tins of exotic meats and foods we had never seen or tasted before. These ‘Treasures’ were dispensed by ‘Gods’ (who spoke like the ‘Dead End Kids’ and ‘Roy Rogers’ combined) to the hoards of grubby, green-candled nosed, ragged trouser-bottomed ‘Dennis the Menace’ and ‘Just William’ look-a-likes who descended on the camp like locusts... Yes... The Yanks had arrived!

    On to Stoughton Airfield. Scene of many a fascinating hour, watching the Dakotas and gliders taking off and landing in almost round the clock training for D.Day and the Rhine crossing. With the absence of traffic and petrol fumes we were able, above the rattle of our bikes, to take in the fleeting sounds of Family Favourites, hand pushed mowers, cows moo-ing and lambs bleating. Which mingled and blended with the tantalising smell of roasting beef (evidence that the locals and farmers were not restricted to the meat ration.) Newly cut grass, blossoms and farmyard manure all produced a cocktail of sensations, which could only portray a typical peaceful English summer Sunday. The war was coming to an end, rations were easing and it felt good to be alive.

    We arrived at the junction of Station Road and Uppingham Road. Our bicycle inner tubes were porous, as well as being the wrong size, so we decided that we needed to stop for a rest and feed our tyres with a few more ‘rabbits’.

    Looking over the countryside toward Scraptoft, there was a simmering haze covering the rolling green fields and in the distance we heard, then saw, a Lancaster bomber with an accompanying Spitfire tagging behind, droning majestically towards us. We had seen many bombers over the years, but as always, the sight never failed to arouse our interest.

    We turned our attention back to our bikes. A minute or so later the drone of the engines changed abruptly to a high pitched scream. We looked up in alarm and to our horror as we saw the Lancaster in a vertical dive, descending at terrifying speed toward the ground, only a few yards from where we stood. We tried to run, but our legs could not move. We were rooted to the spot. Just when we thought that our end had come, a miracle happened, with engines howling, the plane suddenly began to pull out of its dive, as if trapped inside a giant invisible U-bend of a waste-pipe. The wings bent to breaking point as it swooped over Station Road at tree top height and began a vertical climb over Coles Nurseries. Our fear changed to relief and then to anger and indignation where we found ourselves shouting abuse at the pilot for ‘acting the fool’.
Our anger, however, was short lived, and quickly turned to horror when we witnessed the plane, high over Thurnby Railway Station, turn on it’s back and plunge earthwards once more in another vertical dive. We saw its black silhouette disappear below the horizon of the railway embankment and a split second later a tremendous Orange/Red/Black mushroom of fire clawed its way into the Blue sky, followed by a delayed hollow booming thud.

Our legs came back to life, and with childish visions of heroic rescue of airmen from burning wreckage we sped down Station Road, over the embankment, and ran along the back of gardens where people were standing like statues. I passed a woman with a baby in her arms. Tears were falling from her cheeks.

The site of the crash was covered in a layer of smoke, but as we got nearer we were confronted with an incredible sight. There, in the meadow, stamped as if by a giant’s hand, was a scarred outline of the Lancaster. A large crater was created by the fuselage, with four others made by the engines. Unbelievably, the leading edge of the wings, tip to tip, could be clearly seen, marked purely by scorched but otherwise undamaged grass. The field was strewn with small pieces of debris no larger than the page of a newspaper. Our hopes of rescue vanished as we jumped over the small brook and ran to the edge of the main smoking crater.

As we looked into this pit, ammunition was exploding, sending puffs of ash into the air like a volcano ready to erupt. We were not sure if any bombs were in there, so we retired to a safer distance. It was then that I saw that the local ‘Bobby’ had arrived. He was looking at what I thought was a meaty bone a dog had brought into the field. He had a strange shocked look in his eyes and when he said, "Don’t touch it" the tone of his voice prompted me to look again... With a numbing sense of shock I realised I was looking at what appeared to be a human shoulder blade! I then saw a sock... inside was half a foot... Up to this point it had been as if it was all a dream, but now reality and shock began to filter through my brain and I felt sickened, sad and helpless.

The accompanying Spitfire returned to check the scene… I could clearly see the pilot as he banked his plane to view the smoking craters below. The sound of bells announced the arrival of the fire engine and at this point the ‘Bobby’ asked us to leave.
The day had changed... Sounds of music, animals and mowers were abruptly replaced by the thud and crackle of exploding ammunition, fire bell's and tears. The smells of the countryside had dissolved into an unforgettable stench of burnt fuel and flesh... The summer haze now acrid smoke...

We made our way slowly to Station Road. The woman with the baby was still rooted in the same spot... I found myself thinking of the unfortunate families of the airmen, who were soon to receive those awful, heartless, Buff Telegrams...
...We regret to inform you...

I don’t remember the journey home.




By Terence C. Cartwright
Wigston
1st July 2002








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