HIS WATCH HAD STOPPED
A true account by Tom Scotland
Summer heat beat down on rows of tents surrounded by grey-green groves of olive trees at Stornara air base in southern Italy. A figure appeared with khaki shirt and shorts wet from perspiration. The Australian pilot walked down towards the airfield where fitters were repairing his Pathfinder Halifax bomber. His squadron was due to lead a RAF bombing force against enemy targets that night and he needed to check his plane.
He looked up to a formation of US B24s flying nearby. 456th Bomb Group was returning from air battles in the north and circled the airbase in preparation for landing. A sudden rising scream of motors couldn't prepare him for what followed. A B24 was rushing headlong downward. Pieces of it, the tail gun turret fell in the distance. "Was the gunner still inside?" he wondered with a shudder as his eyes followed the screaming B24. It hit the ground and disintegrated into a ball of flame and a terrifying pall of black smoke rocketed into the sky. Then a crushing noise and force of air compressed, rocked his body. The bombs had gone off.
There had been a collision. A second B24 was dropping, inexorably, cruelly, towards a tent encampment on the airbase. Its punishing explosion sent another tumbling, rolling mass of black smoke skywards.
Fire swept through dry grass and flames raced towards a wide area of neatly stored bombs, flares and Pathfinder target markers. Fire seemed to be everywhere and the Australian visualised the exploding hell if it all erupted. RAF vehicles arrived and men rushed towards the flames.
As he had done in far-off bushfires in Australia, the Australian grasped green leaved branches from a nearby tree. He rushed along a narrow footpad thrashing urgently at flaming grass and burning wooden frames which supported the bombs. He thought of his own fiery crash the previous Christmas. One engine had been on fire. He had parachuted his crew then crash-landed the Halifax behind houses. It had become a raging inferno of exploding fuel and ammunition. Fire - there was always fire.
But what was that?
Amid burnt and blackened ground around the Australian, something grotesque, spider-like, distorted, lay smouldering with smoke rising from it. Fixed in sitting position, arms outstretched, a body portrayed last moments of terror in the exploding B24. With outer crust burnt and black it lay, no longer human.
Pausing, the Australian saw something else. On bare, unburnt soil near his feet, strangely preserved amongst the surrounding chaos, a forearm lay, neatly severed from its human support. Pink flesh, hairs clearly visible, fingers gently curved, and on the wrist, a watch. But the watch had stopped, motionless, registering the time of the B24's impact with the ground. Momentarily, the Australian stood riveted, staring, while around him men were shouting and pandemonium reigned. The arm represented a young man's life, now gone. But, to where? A cap, amazingly undamaged, sat nearby and identified the arm as that of a 456th Bomb Group pilot.
At ten o'clock that evening, the sun was setting as the Australian and his crew flew their RAF Halifax towards the east. The Pathfinders were leading the RAF bombers in attack on faraway Rumanian oil facilities. They were out to cut-off vital oil supplies, which fuelled Hitler's vast war machine. As they flew, gunfire filled the night sky with exploding shells. Flames gushed from a nearby aircraft and the glow revealed the familiar outline of a Pathfinder Halifax. It fell in a sweeping arc, with fire streaming behind it, a funeral pyre in the darkness. Later, as returning crews gathered for debriefing after their attack, his friend Claude, and his crew, were among those missing.
A morning sun was well up in the sky by the time the Australian dropped into his waiting bed. But sleep evaded him. He reconstructed the last twenty-four hours and thought of the fiery end for Claude and his crew. He thought of those others who now lay `out there', in a lonely foreign land. He wondered, `How many arms would there be, with watches that had stopped and life that had departed?' Eternity loomed before him threateningly but he felt too tired to think. Pictures of his air battles over the target during the night filled his mind and then he saw again that arm, strangely preserved from fire, and on it, the watch that had stopped.