10. The Strange Survival of Flight Sergeant Nicholas Alkemade
A gallows humor joke often told by parachutists is that it is not the falling from high up that kills you. It is the sudden stop at the end that does you in. The preceding is a good rule of thumb, but like most rules, it has some exceptions. One such was RAF Flight Sergeant Nicholas Stephen Alkemade (1922 – 1987), who on the night of March 24th, 1944, was serving as a rear gunner in an Avro Lancaster heavy bomber.
Alkemade’s Lancaster, part of No. 115 Squadron RAF, was returning from a nighttime raid that had bombed Berlin when it was attacked by a Ju 88 night fighter. The attack set Alkemade’s bomber aflame, and it began to spiral out of control. Unfortunately, his parachute was burned in the fire. With the flames licking towards him, Alkemade jumped out of the bomber, preferring to die by impact rather than get burned to death. He fell 18,000 feet to the ground, but as seen below, by some strange twist of fate, he survived.
9. Falling Three Miles to the Ground – and Living to Tell the Tale
Flight Sergeant Nicholas Alkemade should have died when he jumped without a parachute out of his burning bomber, three miles above ground. However, somebody was watching out for him. Alkemade fell into a stand of pine trees, then onto soft snow covering the ground. Trees and snow broke and cushioned his fall. He discovered that he was alive, that he could move his arms and legs, that nothing was broken, and that the only injury he suffered was a strained leg.
Alkemade was captured, and the Gestapo interrogated him. They disbelieved his claims, until they found and investigated his bomber’s wreckage. He spent the rest of the war in a POW camp, where his survival story made him a celebrity. After the war, Alkemade made a living in the chemical industry, and was featured on Just Amazing, a British TV series about people who pulled off extraordinary feats of daring or survived against incredible odds. Strange as it sounds, others managed to survive falling from even greater heights without a parachute.
8. Equally Strange Was the Tale of Alan Magee, Who Fell 22,000 Feet Without a Parachute and Survived
Immediately after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, Alan Eugene Magee (1919 – 2003) joined the United States Army Air Forces. He was trained in aerial gunnery, became a B-17 ball turret gunner, and was sent to the Eighth Air Force in Britain. He joined the crew of a Flying Fortress nicknamed Snap! Crackle! Pop! that was part of the 303rd Bomb Group’s 360th Bomb Squadron. Magee’s seventh mission, on January 3rd, 1943, was a daylight raid against Saint-Nazaire in France. It ended with him falling over 22,000 feet from his B-17, without a parachute.
While bombing U-boat pens, Alan Magee’s ball turret took a flak hit that made it inoperative. He got out of the turret, and discovered that the flak hit had also shredded his parachute. Before he had time to contemplate the implications, another flak hit destroyed the B-17’s right-wing, started an uncontrollable fire, and set the plane spinning towards earth. While crawling towards the plane’s front, Magee blacked out from lack of oxygen. Unconscious, he fell out of the burning bomber. As with the miraculously strange survival of Nicholas Alkemade, Alan Magee also lived to tell the tale.
7. Alan Magee’s Was Not the Highest Fall Without a Parachute Survived During WWII
Alan Magee plummeted for four miles without a parachute. He crashed through the glass roof of Saint-Nazaire’s train station, which shattered and absorbed some of the impact, then slammed into the station’s floor. He was injured, but alive. Magee’s fall left him a bloody mess. In addition to 28 shrapnel wounds that he had taken while still in his B-17, he sustained damage to his lung, kidney, nose, and eye, had several broken bones, plus a nearly severed right arm. Nonetheless, he had miraculously survived.
Magee spent the rest of the war in a POW camp, until he was liberated in 1945. In 1993, on the 50th anniversary of his fall, Saint-Nazaire erected a monument in honor of Magee and the crew of Snap! Crackle! Pop! As seen above, British airman Nicholas Alkemade survived a fall without a parachute from 18,000 feet, and American airman Alan Magee survived one from 22,000 feet. Soviet airman Ivan Mikhailovich Chisov (1916 – 1986) topped both records by surviving a fall without a parachute from 23,000 feet.
6. The Strange Survival of Ivan Chisov Who Fell 23,000 Feet Without a Parachute, Suffered Serious Injuries, Then Went Back to Fighting the Nazis Three Months Later
In January, 1942, Red Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Ivan Chisov was serving as a navigator in an Ilyushin Il-4 bomber, when it was jumped by German fighters. The bomber was wrecked and spun out of control, so Chisov bailed out at a height of 23,000 feet. He had a parachute, but fearing that the nearby German fighters would shoot him, he decided to refrain from opening it until he got close to the ground. However, lack of oxygen in the thin air so high up caused him to blackout. Unconscious, he continued all the way down without deploying his parachute.
Chisov plummeted 23,000 feet from his stricken Il-4, before hitting the ground at an estimated 120 to 150 miles per hour. Luckily, he hit the edge of a snowy ravine, whose snow absorbed and dissipated enough impact energy to keep him alive. Chisov bounced from the ravine’s edge and slid, rolled, and plowed his way to the bottom. He suffered spinal injuries and a broken pelvis, but lived. Chisov underwent surgery, and spent a month hospitalized in critical care. He was a tough Russian, however, and three months after his dramatic fall, Chisov was back in the air, flying more bombing missions against the Nazis.
5. The Need to Overcome German Defenses at D-Day Taxed Allied Planners and Weapons Designers
In 1944, as the Western Allies geared up to invade France, the formidable German defenses on the landing beaches and how to overcome them was front and center in the minds of planners and weapons designers. The British came up with an innovative – as it turned out farcically innovative weapon to clear expected obstacles ahead of the D-Day landings: The Great Panjandrum. The strange device consisted of a large drum stuffed with a ton of explosives, and affixed to rocket-propelled wheels.
The idea was to ignite the rockets from a platform at sea, and the angled rockets affixed to the wheels would cause them to rotate rapidly. That rapid rotation would launch the contraption at targets and obstacles on shore, blowing them up and clearing the way for follow-on troops who would land hot on the Great Panjandrum’s heels. That was how it was supposed to work in theory. In practice, the device turned out to be one of the most cartoonishly farcical weapons ever developed.
The Great Panjandrum was supposed to be developed in secrecy in order to spring it as a surprise on the Germans. However, testing was conducted on a popular beach, so huge crowds gathered to gawk at the strange device. The design’s flaws emerged at the first trial run in 1943. When the rockets were ignited and the device was launched, it made its way up the beach before rockets on one of the wheels malfunctioned, causing the Great Panjandrum to careen wildly off course. The problem persisted in additional trials: it was impossible to get the rockets on both sides to ignite simultaneously or to keep firing simultaneously.
After weeks of troubleshooting, the developers returned to the beach, this time with a third wheel affixed to the device to increase its stability. That test proved more embarrassing yet, as the device hurtled toward the beach, only to double back and turn back to sea towards the launching craft. In the meantime, some of the rockets had detached from the Great Panjandrum’s wheels to launch themselves at the observers on the beach, whistling over their heads or exploding underwater nearby.
3. An Innovative Weapon Straight Out of Looney Tunes
The Great Panjandrum’s designers returned to the drawing board to work out the bugs. When they figured that they finally had it under control, they conducted a final demonstration in front of a gathering of admirals and generals. As described in a BBC documentary: “At first all went well. Panjandrum rolled into the sea and began to head for the shore, the Brass Hats watching through binoculars from the top of a pebble ridge […] Then a clamp gave: first one, then two more rockets broke free: Panjandrum began to lurch ominously. It hit a line of small craters in the sand and began to turn to starboard, careering towards Klemantaski, who, viewing events through a telescopic lens, misjudged the distance and continued filming.
Hearing the approaching roar he looked up from his viewfinder to see Panjandrum, shedding live rockets in all directions, heading straight for him. As he ran for his life, he glimpsed the assembled admirals and generals diving for cover behind the pebble ridge into barbed-wire entanglements. Panjandrum was now heading back to the sea but crashed on to the sand where it disintegrated in violent explosions, rockets tearing across the beach at great speed.” Unsurprisingly, the project was immediately scrapped over safety concerns.
2. The Most Farcical Battle in the History of Warfare?
Among all the strange events in the history of war, few are more strange than the Battle of Karansebes, which took place in 1788. The battle – to the extent that it could be called that – was a farcical debacle in which an army killed up to 10,000 of its own ranks, routed itself, and scattered in panicked flight without an enemy present. It occurred during the Austro-Turkish War of 1787-1791, and was fought between an Austrian army of 100,000, and itself.
Austria ruled a diverse multiethnic empire, and its army was correspondingly diverse and multiethnic. Units were drawn from various ethnic groups, most of whom could not understand each others’ languages. During the night of September 21-22, 1788, Austrian hussars crossed a river to scout for the enemy. According to Webster’s Dictionary, the word hussar stems from the Hungarian huszár, which in turn originates from the medieval Serbian Husar, meaning brigand. They found no Turks, but found some Gypsies who sold them schnapps. Soon, the hussars were uproariously drunk. Back in the camp, the Austrian commander grew worried by the hussars taking so long to return. So he sent some infantry across the river to check. It was the start of a farcical chain of events that would end in disaster.
1. The Strange Battle That Was Fought – and Lost – Without an Enemy in Sight
The infantry found the missing hussars and demanded a share of their schnapps. The hussars refused, resulting in a brawl that escalated into an exchange of gunfire. During the fight, an infantryman pranked the hussars by shouting “Turci! Turci!” (“Turks! Turks!”). That caused the drunken hussars to flee in terror. However, they were accompanied in their panicked flight by many infantrymen, unaware that the alarm was a trick by a comrade. Across the river, the Austrian camp stirred uneasily at the sounds of distant gunfire and screams. When the panicked hussars and infantry neared the camp, shouting “Turci! Turci!“, they were challenged by sentries who shouted “Halt! Halt!”
That was misheard by non-German speaking soldiers as “Allah! Allah!” In the confusion, an artillery officer thought that the camp was under attack, and ordered his cannons to open fire. As startled and confused soldiers woke up to the sounds of combat, some began firing wildly. Within minutes, the panic and wild firing spread had engulfed the camp. Soon, entire regiments were firing volleys at each other, before the entire army dissolved and scattered in panicked flight. The Turks arrived two days later and captured the Austrian camp, where they found 10,000 dead and wounded.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading