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Review: Perilous Moon: Occupied France, 1944 - The End Game

The barely credible story of German air-ace Helmut Bergmann's murderous but triumphant 46 minutes of ice-cold attacking genius against a wave of RAF bombers two nights after Easter, 1944 sounds as though it should have been dismissed as the kind of fiction found in a schoolboy comic. But it isn't.
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The barely credible story of German air-ace Helmut Bergmann's murderous but triumphant 46 minutes of ice-cold attacking genius against a wave of RAF bombers two nights after Easter, 1944 sounds as though it should have been dismissed as the kind of fiction found in a schoolboy comic. But as the Paris-based documentary producer/cameraman Stuart Nimmo recounts in Perilous Moon: Occupied France, 1944 - The End Game, one of the seven Lancaster bombers from RAF Bomber Command that Bergmann's Messerschmitt shot down in that ruthless burst of destruction was being piloted by his Flight-Lieutenant father Neil -- victim number six.

After shooting down a total of 16 enemy aircraft in 1942, Bergmann had had no further success for four months. He was hungry for a kill. But even he could have had no idea how his luck was about to change -- with devastating results.

Bergmann's shooting spree, which killed 38 Lancaster crew members, started at 02:20 am, when "Bergmann struck with his twin nose cannon, raking the Lancaster from 100 metres away, and the first Lancaster of the night was destroyed." There were no survivors among the crew of seven. Then, writes Nimmo, Bergmann "got stuck in". Lancaster number two was lost, again with no survivors. A third bomber was soon destroyed too - this time with just one survivor. But no-one survived in Bergmann's fourth kill - at 02.43. He saw his fifth and sixth victims at the same time - just seven minutes later, and barely half an hour since his first strike. Having crippled the fifth (which later crashed, killing the pilot and two of the crew) Bergmann moved in on the next Lancaster -- "a massive black silhouette against the clear night sky" -- being piloted by Neil Nimmo.

"I saw the Lancaster..." the German would write the next morning. "The pilot was taking evasive action, weaving about, maybe avoiding searchlights. I started firing at 02.52 a.m. from about 100m below and into the fuselage and the right wing, which promptly caught fire. The burning Lancaster was trapped by the searchlights. At 02.54 I saw it burning on the ground."

Even now, it wasn't quite over. Low on fuel, Bergmann headed for home - but suddenly saw another Lancaster, this time flying alone. He and his crew couldn't resist one more burst of deadly canon fire. Once again, the pilot -- and almost all the crew -- perished. There was only one survivor. Bergmann's orgy of violence was finally over.

The detail in the book, including scores of photos and maps, is remarkable. Apart from lengthy interviews with his father, Nimmo stumbled across another rich vein of material.

And insights into how the Luftwaffe night-fighter ace managed to pull off such a lethal frenzy of destruction.

"Quite by chance I came across a page with an internet link to a German website that didn't mean a thing to me" says Nimmo, who in spite of his father's involvement has attempted to tell the story from a neutral perspective, favouring neither the British, Germans or French.

"To my absolute amazement I found it was a recent and unexplained link to a Helmut Weitz, a Hamburg military antiquarian. And there it all was, a researcher's dream, all of Helmut Bergmann's original Third Reich, Luftwaffe and personal papers and photograph albums for sale at 30,000 Euros!

"This was a monumental find for my research. I had known that Bergmann's collection existed somewhere, but had had no idea of where to start looking for it and this unexpected find was key to my book's very existence.

"I wrote to Weitz and told him I couldn't buy the collection -- but that I would give my eye teeth to see it. His immediate and very generous offer was that I should visit Hamburg and copy anything I needed. Such high-profile papers are highly collectable and could disappear again at any moment -- which they did shortly afterwards. I rushed off to Germany and to Herr Weitz's gallery, arriving with a scanner under one arm and my laptop, notebook and a camera under the other. On climbing the stairs and entering the military gallery, it was to find an Aladdin's cave of fearsome looking Nazi uniforms, SS caps, daggers and so on.

"As I was obviously British I drew some very odd looks. I was in awe and some shock when Helmut Weitz and his assistants produced three milk crates full of Bergmann's Luftwaffe papers, awards, personal letters, WWII mementos and several personal photograph albums stuffed full of amazing photographs. And there were Helmut Bergmann's flight diagrams and reports about that very night when he shot down those seven Lancasters -- even the original paperwork typed by Bergmann about how he shot my own father down...

"So here I was, 11 years after my father's death, handling these original documents containing long searched for answers to impossible questions. It was a very strange experience indeed. Everything dovetailed with my father's story. It was the mirror image of this terrifying night. I now had everything I needed to tell the story from both sides. In all my years of television production I had never had quite such a Eureka moment!"

Ironically, the much decorated Bergmann was killed with his crew when they were shot down less than four months later over the Cherbourg peninsula. Neil Nimmo, the only pilot to survive among the seven shot down, had bailed out with the rest of his crew, and survived, dying in 1992. What a story he had to tell. And what a story his son Stuart has written.

Perilous Moon: Occupied France, 1944 - The End Game is published by Casemate in the UK at £22.50 and $34.95 in the USA.

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