It was fifteen minutes past midnight on a cold Monday morning, September 7th 1943, a young airman hangs, suspended by his snagged parachute three stories up on the side of a building in a small German forest village. Down below him, a group of angry locals begin to gather. They had all heard the stricken aircraft coming down and crashing in the neighbouring village, but this was an unexpected bonus – catching an enemy airman like this presented the perfect opportunity for retribution.
The small village of Hauenstein lay only 50 kilometres from tonight’s target and the people of this small village had been watching the flashes and hearing the explosions clearly. Hundreds of aircraft were passing over the twin cities of Mannheim-Ludwigshaven before making their turns towards home.
New Zealander, Neil Treacher was badly wounded and bleeding, his parachute caught firmly on the top edge of the white concrete building suspending him three floors high and right onto the sharp corner. Two men were pointing rifles and shouting at him as more villagers began to gather. All he could do was face them quietly with his hands up. He was an easy target and, as the crowd grew and the angry shouts intensified, Neil accepted his fate, knowing that he was very likely about to die.
Tote den hund! Kill the dog! People were arguing over whether to shoot him now or make it a slower, more humiliating death. Older people and children watched on.
Through the darkness, Neil saw a man in uniform approaching with his pistol drawn, he caught his breath. “Stand back – this British Terror-Flyer is my prisoner and will be interrogated by the authorities – there will be no killing”, said the village policeman.
“Find Alfons Rohner”, the policeman then called out.
Alfons Rohner was already on his way, he had seen the airman’s descent from his living room window and knew he had to get there fast.
Alfons had been back in Hauestein for a month recuperating from his own injuries after being shot down in a dogfight over the Russian front. Alfons was a fighter ace and well respected by the villagers as one of it’s sons – The Policeman was right to call for him.
Helmut Andelfinger, a boy of 12 had also heard the sound of the stricken bomber as it came down and looked with sleepy eyes from his bedroom window. Before his mother could tell him to stay inside, he was dressed and out the front door. Minutes later, he joined others at the foot of the building and stared up in fascination at the sight of the unfortunate airman. The building was the Hauenstein Shoe factory – in a village of tinkers producing jackboots for the German Army.
Helmut studied this “terror flyer” and the fear on his face. He hoped that Herr Rohner would arrive quickly.
Despite increasing hostilities of the war, there still existed a code of conduct between airmen and luckily for Neil, Alfons was an honourable man. He would do what he could to ensure this prisoner was treated fairly.
Alfons arrived wearing his Luftwaffe tunic and carrying a Luger pistol, he eased past several angry onlookers to join the policeman at the base of the building. Just as he was about to call for a ladder, Alfons spotted two firemen hurriedly approaching carrying their long, extension ladder. The Policeman turned back to face the crowd of angry onlookers, but keeping his pistol pointing downward at his side.
Alfons looked up at the airman, as the ladder arrived. Neil’s uniform was ripped and blackened from fire. He was blood stained from a bullet wound, the tracer round still burning hot, deep in the back of his thigh. Neil was told to keep both hands high in the air “Hande Hocke” which he did while watching the top of the ladder slowly rising up alongside him.
The shouting died down to a hush when the crowd saw that Alfons himself would climb the ladder and approach the airman.
With his hands in the air and a hunting rifle still trained on the airman, Alfons knew he was safe to start his climb. The firemen held the ladder firmly as the German officer climbed the rungs slowly until he was just below Neil. “You are now my prisoner”, Alfons called out in awkward English “follow my orders and I’ll keep you safe.” Neil nodded in agreement, feeling very relieved that he might, at least for now, stay alive.
Alfons climbed further until they were almost level. He could see that Neil was caught awkwardly and in pain. His right arm was tangled tightly in the parachute cords and his left leg limp and bleeding. Alfons removed a knife from his belt and swung the airman around so that he could grab the ladder below him. He cut through the cords and Neil clung to the ladder until at last he felt his weight on the ladder rung. “Climb down slowly” called out the policeman, now with his pistol raised.
Neil gingerly climbed down using all the strength left in his arms and one good leg – slowly and agonizingly down before collapsing onto the cold concrete of enemy territory.
Once the policeman had searched his new prisoner and was satisfied that he carried no weapon, Alfons came forward and assisted Neil to his feet. Then, to the surprise of the crowd, hoisted the airman awkwardly up onto his back, slowly turned and began to make his way towards the village centre.
The policeman and villagers followed.