Book Review: Perilous Moon
by Stuart Nimmo
Casemate Publishers, 2012
To the virtually numberless books on World War II, Stuart Nimmo adds a volume that’s not quite like anything else: the story of his father and the Nazi air ace who shot him out of the sky over Occupied France.
The near-fatal encounter happened on the night of 10 April 1944, when RAF bomber pilot Neil Nimmo and his crew were fired on by a Luftwaffe nightfighter pilot named Helmut Bergmann. Nimmo’s plane was Bergmann’s sixth victim in less than an hour (he’d go on to claim a seventh that same night); the RAF crew bailed out, and Neil Nimmo found himself on the ground, alone in enemy territory.
What follows – Neil Nimmo’s adventures and close calls in the French countryside as he made his way to Paris – is the story most WWII family-historians would have been content to tell. As a gripping tale of a decent young man living by his wits and the bravery of the French resistance fighters who take him in, that story, as Stuart Nimmo says, “beat Biggles or Dan Dare any day.”
But what makes Perilous Moon so special, so ultimately wrenching (our author warns that “this may not make for comfortable reading at times”), is that it goes far beyond that comforting narrative: this is the story of two young men, not one. With remarkable industry (and more objectivity than most sons of the so-called ‘Greatest Generation’ might be able to muster), Stuart Nimmo has researched the life of Helmut Bergmann, the Nazi ace who was only 24 when he shot down
Stuart’s father. The book’s chapters alternate between excerpts from Neil Nimmo’s first-hand reminiscences of his adventures and Stuart Nimmo’s careful reconstruction of Bergmann’s life from his birth in Westphalia in 1920 to his death – in combat, in the sky – in 1944.
Neil Nimmo’s chapters display that curious mixture of jocularity and reflection common to so many informal memoirs by WWII combatants, whose stories were told and re-told and burnished to perfection as the decades piled on. One such story, about a famished spider with whom Nimmo shared cramped quarters while living in Souplicourt with resistance fighter Jeanne Marguery will do stand-in duty for the majority:
I found that I wasn’t alone in my cupboard. By the dusty gloom of a small rippled glass skylight I found that a large, hairy, and painfully thin spider was already in residence and seemed to be eyeing me up. I found her outlook on life interesting, particularly when, rather optimistically I thought, she started to spin a large web under the shelf stacked with tins and old screws, rusty washers and so on, across to the doorframe. It was beautifully done and I admired her considerable dexterity. Once she’d finished it and fussed around a bit, she just sat in the corner under the shelf and waited, watching me. We stared each other out for hours on end. Once in a while, she would ease out a leg and give her trap a silent twang, plucking it so that it shimmered invitingly. I could almost her her smacking her lips. As there was no other obvious prey about I guessed that the invitation to dinner was for me, or possibly Jean Marguery of course!
But as rattling good as these chapters are, it’s the alternating chapters, on Bergmann, that truly captivate. The spectacle that unfolds in those chapters – of a fresh-faced young man irretrievably mind-washed by barbarism – is darkly mesmerizing, especially since Stuart Nimmo, in an obvious but crushing move, opens his book with side-by-side shots of both Neil and Helmut as innocent little boys. Little Neil is wearing the Highlander kit of his Scottish ancestors; little Helmut, beaming cheerfully, is wearing precocious aviator goggles – they are clay, entirely at the mercy of the societies that will shape them. They could easily have played together; at that age, they have only their innate qualities in common, the foremost being a bravery that would never desert either of them.
But what follows for Bergmann is an indoctrination so remorseless it probably never occurred to him not to embrace it. Stuart Nimmo here presents black-and-white photos of handsome young Helmut at every stage of his meteoric career – Feldwebel, Hauptman, Staffelkapitan – a living recruitment poster, getting signed photos from Hermann Goring and racking up an impressive record of kills. “It is not for Neil’s children to forgive,” Stuart Nimmo writes, pointing out that at least his father survived Bergmann’s aerial skill, “that gift belongs to the many victims’ families.”
It’s possible that some of those victims’ families would take a measure of comfort from the convincing case the author makes that Bergmann might have been accidentally shot down by friendly fire in an over-crowded sky on 7 August 1944, but there isn’t any gloating in Perilous Moon. At every opportunity, Stuart Nimmo underscores that what happened to Helmut Bergmann, that smiling little boy in aviator goggles, was a tragedy in its own right. That remarkable, stubborn granting of shared humanity is the core of this unforgettable book, which deserves in your WWII library, no matter how crowded that library is.