Timing, as they say in life, is everything.
It was nighttime and the sky was the colour of coal.
All onboard were alert, panicky, scared even.
In the most vulnerable position, at the back of the aircraft, rear gunner William Sturbridge was alone.
A cold wind whistled around the glass dome that entombed him. He felt chilled to the marrow of his bones.
They moved ever closer to the target.
William was separated from the rest of the crew by a long, narrow crawl space. His only verbal connection to them was through the intercom.
He gripped the control of his gun a little tighter and readied himself, up front the pilot steadied the plane over it’s target.
At that moment it suddenly became very bright, the noise was incredible, Antiaircraft guns.
They exploded with such force that the plane shuddered.
As the bomber’s dark hulking mass made a wide sweeping turn towards England, enemy fighters attacked like a pride of hungry lions finding a stranded elephant in the savannah.
Most bullets missed their intended targets. A few rippled through the thin skin of the plane but missed its vital organs.
Then there came a sound much larger and more sinister than all the others combined. It shook the plane with aggressive violence.
William was thrown forward against the glass with such force that he broke his nose. He felt the warm blood run down his face.
When he picked himself up he checked himself over. Had he suffered any other injuries? Had he broken any other bones?
He seemed fine.
The plane did not.
He heard voices shouting. Then the noise was broken by an eerie silence. The attacked had stopped, the aggressors had retreated, but it was far from over.
He tried the intercom but it was broken. A bullet must have ripped through the wire.
Although he was not supposed to leave his post the wind was soon unbearable.
As he negotiated himself along the rear section of the plane towards the front he struggled against the wind’s force. It seemed to grow in intensity with every inch he moved forward.
Moments later it became clear why. The cockpit of the plane including the pilot and co-pilot was gone. Blown off. There were no other crew members aboard.
What now? What should he do?
As he perched on the edge of the bomb doors his feet were blown about like leaves in a stiff breeze, an impenetrable darkness revealed itself below.
He thought about life. Its meaning. Or lack of meaning.
Its brevity. He was only twenty years of age.
Seconds passed. He imagined the various scenarios of his impending fate.
Not surviving the jump.
Surviving the jump but landing in West Germany.
Surviving the jump but landing in enemy occupied France.
Ditching in the freezing cold North Sea and eventually drowning.
It was hard to decide on which was the most favourable, the one thing he was certain off was not staying in the plane.
And with that; he jumped.
As the earth accelerated towards him, the first piece of good news was that he was over land. Thank God.
He landed with a thud in what appeared to be a field.
He hurried himself to cut his parachute lines, and to gather the canopy up and then he dug a shallow grave and covered everything up with the loose earth.
Where was he? Was he still in Germany? Could the plane have travelled far enough for him to be in France.
It was hard to tell, there was little to go on. As he crept delicately along the edge of the field he scanned all around for clues, but there was nothing.
Gradually his eyes began to adjust to the low light and he could make out a road leading ahead into the distance.
It was empty but as his eye followed it as far as it could, he noticed something brighter than anything else.
He inched forward cautiously towards it. It grew a bit brighter. What was it? Perhaps a guard post? He didn’t know.
After about ten minutes of painstakingly slow progress he could eventually see more of the object. It was a light and it appeared to be illuminating a board or a sign.
He paused a moment to catch his breath. Steady his nerves, the movement stopped. He crawled a little closer.
By squinting hard he could just make out the sign.
It read ‘The George & The Dragon’.
He had jumped at just the right moment to have landed in the corner of a field in the Kent countryside nearby the closest pub to the English coast.
He entered the pub, ordered a pint and said to the barman “You’ll never guess what just happened to me….”
As he sat in the corner of the pub enjoying his ale he thought about his day.
What had he really learnt? What would this experience remind him of for the rest of his life? It was easy: The importance of timing.
The above is based on a true account of a WW2 veteran who served in bomber command as a rear gunner and was stationed on an airbase in North Norfolk, England. His name has been changed for the purpose of this story.