Updated: May 2, 2022
Nicholas Stephen Alkemade 10 December 1922 (North Walsham, Norfolk) - 22 June 1987 (Liskeard, Cornwall)
On March 24th 1944 tail gunner Nicholas Stephen Alkemade bailed out of his Lancaster bomber as it started to dive to the ground. What makes his story so special is that he survived the 18,000 feet (5,500m) fall without a parachute.
Nicholas Stephan Alkemade was born on 10th December 1922 in North Walsham, Norfolk to an English mother and Dutch father and worked as a market gardener in Loughborough before the war. He joined the Air-Sea rescue launches in 1940, aged just 21, but craved more excitement so transferred to bomber command and trained as an air gunner. Alkemade joined 115 Squadron based at RAF Witchford, Cambridgeshire. He completed 14 operations on board Avro Lancaster B Mk. II, DS664, A4-K. The plane was christened Werewolf by her crew.
The Lancaster set out from RAF Witchford at 18.48as part of a raid on Berlin on the night of 24th March 1944. The mission was carried out as planned but on the return strong winds forced the planes further south and into the Ruhr aircraft defences.
As the party passed over Schmallenberg they were attacked and a Junkers Ju 88 night fighter, flown by Oberleutnant Heinz Rökker of Nachtjagdgeschwader 6 closed in on Alkemade's plane. The German intercepted the bomber from below and shredded the starboard wing and fuselage, which burst into flames. The flames were blown back into the rear turret which also had all the Perspex completely blown out leaving Alkemade exposed to the cold night air along with the flames. He had sustained a deep gash in his thigh as the Lancaster began to spiral out of control. He attempted to contact his skipper on the intercom to confirm the rear of the plane was in flames but he was cut off by the pilot James Newman stating he couldn't hold her steady much longer and the lads would have to bail.
The rear gunner turret was too cramped a position for the gunner to have a parachute pack on his back so it was stowed in a canister in the rear fuselage to be clipped to the chest harness when needed. Alkemade aligned his turret to the centre position and opened the doors to gain access to the fuselage. He was greeted by an inferno. His parachute was already alight and flames burnt his exposed face and wrists. His rubber oxygen mask immediately started to melt onto his face. He closed the turret doors, trapped as the aircraft fell from the sky. Before he had time to consider his fate the flames breached the turret doors and set the hydraulic fluid on fire. Flames engulfed his clothing.
Alkemade himself recalls the moment:
“I had the choice of staying with the aircraft or jumping out. If I stayed I would be burned to death – my clothes were already well alight and my face and hands burnt, though at the time I scarcely noticed the pain owing to my high state of excitement...I decided to jump and end it all as quick and clean as I could. I rotated the turret to starboard, and, not even bothering to take off my helmet and intercom, did a back flip out into the night. It was very quiet, the only sound being the drumming of aircraft engines in the distance, and no sensation of falling at all. I felt suspended in space. Regrets at not getting home were my chief thoughts, and I did think once that it didn’t seem very strange to be going to die in a few seconds – none of the parade of my past or anything else like that.”
Flight Sergeant Alkemade fell head first toward the ground reaching the tremendous speed of 120mph. At some point, he passed out, possibly as a reaction to the pain of his burning skin. Werewolf exploded in the sky above him.
He opened is eyes some three hours later, lying in the snow in a small pine forest. Stars were still visible in the night sky above him through the hole he had left in the tree canopy. He was in good condition. No broken bones, just some bruising and a twisted knee to add to the cuts and burns to his head and thigh received in the plane. He had lost both his boots in the fall. He slowly detached his parachute harness and started to come to terms with the fact he was alive.
Lighting a cigarette he surveyed his surroundings. The small patch of pine trees had sheltered the snow from the sun, just a few paces away the ground was bare. The flexible branches of the pine trees had slowed his descent enough for the covering of snow to cushion his final fall. If he had fallen a few metres away in any direction he would have been dead. He was unable to walk and desperately cold so blew his whistle which attracted a group of German civilians. He was carried to the local infirmary and then sent on to the hospital in Meschede where they tended his burns and removed significant numbers of wood and Perspex splinters from his body.
The Gestapo interrogated him the next day, demanding to know what had happened to his parachute. They laughed off his fanciful notion that he had not used one, accusing him of being a spy and burying it. Alkemade was insistent and challenged them to locate his harness which would demonstrate his parachute had not been deployed. A search confirmed his story and when his aircraft was examined some twenty miles away, the metal ripcord handle and cable were found still in his stowage canister.
A confirmatory certificate confirming Alkemade's tale was issued and he became some what of a celebrity among the prisoner of war community.
“It has been investigated and corroborated by the German authorities that the claim of Sergeant Alkemade, No. 1431537, is true in all respects, namely, that he has made a descent from 18,000 feet without a parachute and made a safe landing without injuries, the parachute having been on fire in the aircraft. He landed in deep snow among fir trees.
Corroboration witnessed by:
[Signed] Flight Lieut. H.J. Moore (Senior British Officer)
Flight Sergeant R.R. Lamb
Flight Sergeant T.A. Jones
Alkemade was sent to Stalag Luft III in Poland. His story earned him extra cigarettes in return for inscribing prisoners' wartime log books. His diary was a prized possession in which he noted his thoughts and made many sketches. On the night of his leap from the sky the "great escape" was attempted from the prison camp he was sent to. In fact, upon arrival, he was kept in the very room from which they tunnelled out!
He had told his son later in life that they had a duty to attempt to escape. They were always digging tunnels. When the guards uncovered tunnels they would jump down into them to thwart an escape, so the prisoners would dig decoy tunnels and fill them with human waste for the Germans to jump in. By January 1945 the Russian forces were less than 20 kilometres from the camp and the Germans forced the prisoners to evacuate the camp on the night of 27th January, marching the weary men 86 kilometres through the snow to Spremberg before they were loaded onto trains and taken further West. Alkemade was eventually liberated and returned home after the war.
Alkemade was not the only survivor from the Werewolf. Navigator Sgt. John P. Cleary and Wireless Operator St. Geoffrey R. Burwell were both thrown from the bomber when it exploded. Cleary fell to the same wood as Alkemade, nearly lost a leg to frostbite and suffered a collapsed lung. He spent six months on Meschede hospital before being repatriated in an exchange of sick and wounded prisoners in February 1945. Sadly Pilot FS James Arthur Newman, Flight engineer Sgt. Edgar William John Warren, Bomb aimer Sgt. Charles Alfred Hilder and Mid Upper Gun Aimer Sgt. John Joseph McDonough were all killed and buried in Hannover War Cemetery.
Alkemade was discharged from the RAF in 1946 and returned to Loughborough to marry his sweetheart Pearl Belton. He managed to find work in a chemical plant. Unbelievably he cheated death once more when he received an electric shock dislodging his gas mask whilst removing chlorine gas from a pump. He spent 15 minutes exposed to poisonous gas before being rescued, but survived.
His adventures were not over though as he was sprayed with acid from a burst pipe. Showing extraordinary quick thinking he dived head first into a drum of limewash, neutralising the acid. He suffered third degree burns but returned to work. He was then pinned beneath a steel door that fell from its mounting as he walked by, miraculously suffering just minor bruising.
This was enough for him to change his career and he became a furniture salesman, seeking something a little less dangerous. He later appeared on the ITV series "Just Amazing!", a programme with former motorcycle racer Barry Sheene interviewing people who had achieved feats of daring or survival.
115 Squadron are currently based at RAF Wittering. The Squadron HQ is "The Alkemade Building". The vote of the squadron members to honour their squadron hero was unanimous.
Nicholas "Indestructible" Alkemade passed away in June 1987, an unassuming hero.
"Blue skies and tailwinds Flight Seargent!"
A Leicester Mercury interview with Alkemade's son and reproductions of his PoW diary can be found here