It was another night raid that Monday
And, as usual, we had frittered the day away
Because when the number of raids
Is approaching the magic number of fifty
And the odds against you reaching this number
Are diminished by each bombing raid,
You set out on a journey more fatalistic than hopeful.
The target was Darmstadt and by this time
We had a good grasp of that part of Europe
Where our nightly raids were concentrated.

In the briefing room we were given
The usual meteorological information –
Cloud formations, wind direction, storm indicators –
Which were routine but essential;
The number of planes involved
And the flying heights to be maintained
Followed next. And, finally, the expected
Enemy defences on the flight and over the target area.

Darmstadt was an insignificant town
In the scale of things – although
If we had bothered to learn more about it,
A Medieval town and of great beauty.
But by this stage of the war it was of little interest,
Wound up as we were to the growing tensions
Of our burgeoning aerial superiority
And the importance of maintaining the impetus
Of continual and relentless bombing raids.
These, our leaders believed, would shorten the war
Which, by this time was certainly swinging our way.
But, on the personal side, it was of little consolation
When we put in the balance our own survival chances.
Then we were told that the main target would be
The Merck Chemical factory but, as always,
We were to press home our attacks and release all our bombs.
Read in that what we may.

As we straggled out on to the tarmac
In the gathering dusk, approaching the dark silhouettes
Framed against the sky with the ground crews waiting,
The routines of all past raids soon settled into our actions.
Taking our places on the plane, cockpit drill, doing those tasks
Necessary for the take-off and the long flight ahead.
The inter-comm checking, ‘Can you hear me Tom…..’?
This concentration is welcome, but when we have nothing to do
We start to think and wait for the
Surprise enemy assault coming out of nowhere
To destroy us before we can destroy something of theirs.

The droning engines, the night sky, the dark earth below;
And it is a weird kind of relief when the guns open up;
Then the fighter planes from local airfields
Harrying us from their patch, then passing us along
To the next defensive fighter group –
A system of defensive boxes developed
And feared by us more than the endless thuds of bursting shells
Sent up from the anti-aircraft gunners on the ground.
And the occasional blinding lights when a searchlight picks us up
As we become the show, like a fly in the microscope.
There is only so much we can do to evade
These multiple and constant threats,
The rest is a sort of statistical luck; forty percent losses at the worst times
Now improved on that, but, even so …….
We all know this but preferred not to think about it;
What we did think about when not absorbed
Was too chaotic to describe; but inter-comm talking was best,
To know the whole crew was sharing in the moment
And we were not alone.
But this was kept to a minimum as needed.

The engines droned on, the dark earth moves beneath us.
We welcome clouds and fear the clarity of the moon.
Time passes as the target draws closer,
The tension ratchets up a notch
And a new routine pattern is taken on.
We know that we will feel more than half safe
Once we have unloaded the bombs and the bomb bays are empty.
The ring of searchlights around Darmstadt
Appear as we start our run in,
The bomb-aimer giving approach directions
To the pilot who holds the craft on a steady course.
‘Left, left, steady…..right, steady.’

Time and place blur as the searchlights find our plane
With a dazzling interior light almost blinding us
And every gun on the ground firing,
But we are too low for them to be really effective.
We are not the first and already fires are raging.
‘Approaching target, steady, steady,’
‘Bombs away.’ There is the usual lurch
And our pilot conscientiously circles the spot
To refine his later reporting.
Some do, some don’t. The instinct is to flee.

The town below is burning widely
Others before us will be followed by others behind us
While some will never reach the target
Or the lucky ones already slipping out of their parachute harnesses.
The eddies of war will reach back home
And mourning loved ones when the messages
Start getting sent out tomorrow.

With our backs to the town, in flames
We are heading home, hopeful, expectant;
Some will sing softly, but never together over the inter-comm,
Tempting fate is too risky a game at these times;
It’s best to remain fatalistic until the wheels
Touch down on terra firma at the ‘drome
So, musing, alert, fearful, waiting
After the night’s work is done,
Another town left in blazing ruin,
We are heading home.

. ll

It had been a good summer
And the Autumn days now fine and bright;
The harvest mostly in and Winter awaited.
The news was not good;
There was the Russian front, North Africa and Italy,
The invasion in Normandy and the nightly bombing raids’
In our town we were not too worried
About the raids, although many refugees
From the bombed towns elsewhere had moved into Darmstadt.
Life went on pretty much the same
As in the earlier war years,
Fewer and fewer young men in the streets,
The rations were being cut
But, being close to the countryside,
We had other access to food.
More Party Officials were around, checking,
Wanting to live as towns-people
But fearful of the many informers watching.
Ours is a Medieval town and of what interest
To the nightly bombers? Only the factory on the outskirts
And who would mount an elaborate bombing raid
On such a meagre target?
So, we slept well in our beds,
There were other things to worry about.

I woke up early on Monday and all was fine –
A slight coolness but the sun would soon warm us up.
Yesterday we had spent with the Grandchildren
In the countryside –
‘I have some goodies saved up, Tomas,’ said Mutti
And so we picniced by the stream, close to the woods.
The smoke from the factory, a kilometre away
Showed that they were working this Sunday.
The nights were drawing in and
We settled down after supper.

When we heard the sound of the enemy bombers,
This was not unusual as the flight path
Of the raiders, flying to industrial and strategic targets
Often came close to Darmstadt.
The sirens had gone as they always did
But this Monday night there were different sounds,
Lower and closer. The guns had opened up
And the searchlights had probed the skies
When the Pathfinders arrived to drop their flares;
I felt a dreadful apprehension quickly followed
By a dismissive reaction. Darmstadt? Never.
The first bombs struck an hour before midnight
And our small town rocked with the impact;
For the next two hours explosion after explosion
Destroyed our town, piece by piece.
I heard screaming and outside the streets were full
Of people wanting to flee without knowing where.
The fires made that decision for them
And soon those that were able
Were streaming into the countryside
Others stayed on to aid the injured
Or free the trapped, or mourn the dead.

From tranquillity to a nightmare inferno
In a moment of time brings together
Survival and sacrifice as our town
Was destroyed under our eyes
And loved-ones died.


Darmstadt, the former Capital of the Grand Duchy of Hesse was bombed to smithereens on the night of September 11/12 1944 by 226 Squadron of Lancaster bombers squadron and 14 Mosquito Pathfinders from 5 Group, RAF.

23 April 2017