The Pit & the Pilot
Woodhorn Colliery Museum, Northumberland
The Pit and the Pilot
I’m an unlikely curator of Woodhorn Colliery Museum in Northumberland. Why? Because I started my career as a pilot in the Luftwaffe flying Junkers Ju 88s on bombing missions over northern England in 1941. That all changed on December 21st and, you might say, my career took a radical change of direction. I’m getting on a bit now, of course, but I plan to be here a spell yet.
A group of primary school children approached him from across the atrium, chattering noisily, a mess of coats and bags still damp from the persistent drizzle outside. Their teacher busied herself rounding up stragglers and hushing the louder ones.
“What were a’ll them white bird things, miss?” one pig-tailed girl was asking.
“Shh, Robert! Sorry, Rebecca, those birds on the wall outside are a tribute to the ninety-eight miners who lost their lives working at this pit.”
This seemed to settle much of the clamor, so the German finally spoke up in a quiet, but authoritative voice. “I bet you kids didn’t know that during World War II this colliery was bombed and I was one of the pilots responsible.” His accent was a strange mix of German/Geordie. He still had a tendency to pronounce a W as a V, but YOU came out as YEE and NO as NEE.
The excited chatter resumed, but the teacher interrupted. “Kids, the northern coal mines were bombed throughout a large part of the Second World War. Woodhorn was bombed several times and on one occasion a bomb destroyed the fan engine room – that’s one of the brick buildings outside which we’ll take a look at later.”
I remember that night like it was yesterday, the German thought. Hurt poor Burt, the old engineman. It was the night of his career change. There was the low growl of the rotor blades over the rushing wind, blackness punctuated by shades of grey. He felt the familiar tremor in his hand as he released his HE load. Seconds later, a brilliant orange fireball stretched up into the night sky, illuminating the pit head winding gear briefly. Then came the rattle of anti aircraft fire (the 310 Coastal Battery, if he remembered rightly) and, at first, a splintering and then an all mighty wrench, followed quickly by a gut-churning drop.
“The German plane was shot down, but by some miracle its engine was recovered intact only a couple of miles away.”
My engine, he thought. A moment of terror, like a dream of falling from a tall building then an almighty impact. Somehow, as wings, tail and fuselage disintegrated around him, he was thrown free. He remembered standing up in a freshly ploughed field and brushing himself down. No breaks, no burns; not a mark on him. “Wunder.” Had been the only word he had managed. He had only known a few phrases of broken English back then, let alone the Geordie slang he now felt perfectly at home with.
The German felt that he should elaborate, but he couldn’t muster the courage somehow. The teacher continued. “They were so clever that they managed to use the German aircraft engine to run the pit fans so that the miners had air to breathe while working underground.”
“So the Germans saved the miners, like, miss?” one young lad with bright red cheeks and a mop of ash blonde hair asked.
The young woman smiled. “Sort of, Kyle. They were trying to bomb them, but by accident they also helped them by providing the aircraft engine. That German engine continued to run the fans for many years.”
“With my help,” the German added finally. He felt a little foolish for his words sounded hollow and conceited, to him at least. Some of the kids seemed to be finally taking notice and he smiled at a couple of Ooos and Ahhs.
Crouching down to be at eye level with her protégés, the teacher gathered the children around her and in a hushed tone said, “There’s even an old legend that the pilot himself watched over his engine until the pit closed in 1981.”
“What happened to ‘im?”
The German sighed as the teacher said, “His body was never recovered from the crashed plane, pet.”
A lot more Ooos and Ahhs from the wide-eyed crowd. Then the teacher stood up and clapped her hands. “Right, kids, let’s start with the exhibitions upstairs then we can go back in time with the ‘Coal Town’ experience. If you’re all really good we can also go see the German engine outside.”
“It’s still here?” Kyle asked with wide-eyed wonderment.
“Oh yes, pet. The museum got the permission of the German government to put it on show. Now chop-chop!”
With that, the group headed towards the wide rising ramp which led to the upper floor, chitchatting noisily amongst themselves once more. The German watched them leave. The sadness had returned, like it always did when he remembered.
Soon the visitors would be gone and the museum would fall silent once more. The lights would snap off one by one and the doors would be locked, leaving the German alone again. Here, at Woodhorn, he would remain until the museum no longer had a use for his engine and then he could take to the sky one last time.
His marras would be proud.
The German engine is a work of fiction, but the 21st December 1941 bombings are historical fact.