ACHEL 22 june 1943
The crash of a Stirling bomber in "Het Ven" ...
On Friday 21/4/2017, the song "Captain and 366", was officially launched in F/O Meiklejohn's home town in Australia, at the RAAF base Wagga Wagga.
Song writer Scott Cochrane of band Bitter Shoosh was told the incredible story about the last flight of EF366 by the pilot's Nephew - Stuart Meiklejohn.
Scott was so taken by the story that he penned this touching song, honouring the Man who saved so many lives on that night in June 1943.
On the night of June 21 to 22 1943, the four-engine Stirling bomber EF-366, which had taken off at 00:07 hrs in Oakington and belonged to the 7th Squadron, was shot down. It crashed at about 01:35 hrs in the hamlet "Het Ven" at Hamont-Achel.
Stirling N3635, het eerste productietoestel.
The Stirling EF-366, which belonged to a group that points the bombers to their targets, had to mark a turning point to the south-east of Eindhoven to lead the main body of the bombers to Krefeld.
Soon after having completed this first mission, the crew was engaged in combat with two German night fighters, who had seen the Stirling's shadow above the beacons. At 11,000 feet the aircraft was so badly damaged that the pilot gave the order to bail out. The centrifugal force of the plane was so strong that the crew could hardly move.
The seven crew members of the Stirling EF366 were:
- Pilot Bruce Meiklejohn from Australia, 21 years of age
- Navigator Charles Redwood from New Zealand, 31 years of age
- Board engineer Bill Cole from the United Kingdom, 23 years of age
- Bomb aimer Frank Hugo from the United Kingdom, 19 years of age
- Radio operator Leslie Ellingham from the United Kingdom, 21 years of age
- Mid-upper gunner Jack Kilfoyle from the United Kingdom, 19 years of age
- Rear gunner Edgar Brown from New Zealand, 26 years of age
The pilot, Flying Officer Robert Bruce Meiklejohn, stayed at the controls until he knew all had escaped. When the plane came down in a screaming dive and fell towards the centre of the village Achel, he still managed to nose up the plane just before striking the ground, as several eye-witnesses have testified. The sky was clear and there was a full moon that night. Thus not only five crew members, but also an important number of villagers at the centre of Achel, owe their lives to pilot Robert Bruce Meiklejohn. He was to pay the ultimate price, dying on that night, as did one other crew member, navigator Flying Officer C.H.D. Redwood.
The Stirling plane was shot down by Hauptmann Siegfried Wandam, who himself was shot down and died with Bordfunker Fw. Schöpke in his Messerschmitt Bf 110 only a few weeks later, on July 4, 1943. The surviving five crew members of the Stirling EF-366 later wound up in prisoner-of-war camps. Two of them, Mr. Frank Hugo and Mr. Bill Cole, stayed with the Spelters family at Haspershoven Overpelt for 10 days, before the resistance movement tried to help them escape.
(This information is based on the research results procured by Mr. Peter Loncke from Lommel, Belgium)
F.l.t.r. on the photo: navigator Charles Redwood (R.N.Z.A.F.), bomb aimer Frank Hugo (R.A.F.), wireless operatorL. Ellingham (R.A.F.), pilot Robert Bruce Meiklejohn (R.A.A.F), middle upper gunner Jack Kilfoyle (R.A.F.), flight engineer Bill Cole (R.A.F.). E. A. Brown, the 7th crew member, is not on this photo.
Saturday 11th September 1999, Mr. W. E. Cole, who was a flight engineer on the Stirling EF-366, honoured Hamont-Achel with a visit and received the freedom of the city. He was guided through the local museum at Het Simonshuis. It was on Mr. Cole's 23rd birthday that war hero Robert Bruce Meiklejohn captained his last plane, giving his own life at the age of 21, to ensure that his crew mates and numerous villagers survived.
Memorial plaque and ceremony
On Saturday 17th June 2000 in the afternoon a memorial plaque for the two killed airmen, F/O Robert Bruce Meiklejohn and F/O Charles Redwood, was unveiled and blessed at the chapel of the hamlet De Witteberg at Hamont-Achel.
The ceremony at the chapel of the hamlet De Witteberg at Achel on Saturday 17th June 2000
The ceremony was attended by the families from Australia and New Zealand, by Mr. Bill Cole, by Mr. Brook Barrington from the New Zealand Embassy, by a delegation of the 7th Squadron from Odiham, by a delegation from the Belgian Air Force from Kleine-Brogel, by countless eye-witnesses from during the war and by many patriotic associations and heritage societies. During the ceremony the 7th Squadron made a flypast with a Chinook-helicopter.
In the morning there had been a reception for the families in the town hall, during which the freedom of the town was posthumously awarded to the two killed airmen.
Anna Redwood from New Zealand, Max Meiklejohn (brother of the pilot) from Australia and mayor Henri Meeuwissen (r)
Bruce Meikljohn en Charles Redwood - Heverlee War Cemetery
Visit Les Ellingham
From 22nd to 24th Juni 2001, Mr. Les Ellingham visited Hamont-Achel. He was the radio-operator on the Stirling EF-366.
In the Grevenbroek Museum, he was shown his old radio receiver.
During his visit, he met again several citizens who had helped him on the escape route, like Mrs. Thérésia Verhoeven and Mr. Henri Claessen from Neerpelt and the family of the Justice of the Peace from Neerpelt.
Mr. Les Ellingham was also awarded the Freedom of the town.
Les Ellingham with his old radio receiver.
The German crew
Hptm Siegfried Wandam
Hptm Wandam shot down an died with his Bordfunker Fw. Schöpke
Hptm Siegfried WANDAM
deutscher Soldaten Friedhof Lommel
Feldw Alfred SCHÖPKE
deutscher Soldaten Friedhof Lommel
+ 04 juli 1943 HOEPERTINGEN (St Truiden)
Pilot Bruce MEIKLEJOHN
Navigator Charles REDWOOD
Reargunner Edgar BROWN
Bomb aimer Frank HUGO
Mid-uppergunner Jack KILFOYLE
Radop operator Leslie ELLINGHAM
Board engineer Bill COLE
Pilot Robert Bruce Meiklejohn was born on the 26 of October 1921 in Wagga-Wagga, New South Wales in Australia. He was the oldest son of Robert-George and Lily Meiklejohn. His father was a farmer. The family consisted of 4 sons and 3 daughters. One brother served with the landforce, another fulfilled his duty in the navy.
Flying Officer Bruce Meiklejohn was not married, and enrolled on the 9th of November 1940 in the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF). He received his first honours in 1942. During the night of the fatal crash, 21 to 22 June 1943, Pilot Meiklejohn was in command of the 7 crew members. Bill Cole (Flight Technician in the EF366) commended his pilot as a man of “character and a leader” during his visit on the 11 of September 1999 in Hamont-Achel.
After the crash on Tuesday 22 of June at 01.35 the whole crew was announced “missing in action”. The Germans buried Pilot Meiklejohn and navigator Redwood in Brustem (Sint Truiden). After the war the heroes were moved to their current resting-place at the military cemetery at Heverlee (Leuven). The graves carry the codes 8 k1 en 8 k2.
In his place of birth, Wagga Wagga there is a chapel with a remembrance plate for the war hero Flying Officer Robert Meiklejohn. It reads: A tribute to F/O Robert Bruce Meiklejohn, RAAF, K.I.A (killed in action) Belgium 22/6/1943.
Peter Meiklejohn, youngest brother of Bruce, received via Peter Loncke how and where his oldest brother died during WOII. Peter Loncke also mailed a piece of the crashed Stirling EF366 to Peter Meiklejohn. On Saturday 1 May 1999 the Australian “Daily Advertiser” published an article, with the title “World War II relic helps Riverina couple piece together family history”.
Charles Redwood was born at Woodville on the 3rd October, 1911 and received his secondary education at Woodville District High School, and the Sacred Heart College, Auckland.
He gained his matriculation at the latter school, and later studied at Enting’s Commercial College, Wellington, for his Accountant’s Professional Examination, and at Harle’s Tutorial College, Wellington, for the course required for Australasian Cost Accountant’s Society. At the time of his application for enlistment in the RNZAF on the 7th November 1940, he had completed fourteen subjects of his Bachelor of Commerce Degree, and was employed by the Government Audit Office as audit inspector for the West Coast District and stationed at Greymouth. The sports in which he was actively interested included football, swimming and tennis. He was a member of his 1st XV at College, also the Victoria University Senior 1st XV.
Flying Officer Redwood was enlisted on the 17th August, 1941, at the Initial Training Wing, Levin. On the 10th January1942, he was posted to No. 2 Elementary Flying Training School, New Plymouth to undergo his elementary flying training. This was terminated, and he was posted to Rongotai on the 4th February and remustered to air observer under training. On successfully completing his initial training at the Initial Training Wing Rotorua, he embarked for Canada on the 27th april, 1942, to continue his training under the Empire Air Training Scheme.
F/O Redwood arrived in Canada on the 18th May, 1942, and on the 25th of the same month was posted to No. 5 Air Observers’ School, Winnipeg, Manitoba, where – on the 11th September, 1942 – he was awarded the air observer’s badge and promoted to the rank of Sergeant. This was superseded by his commissioning as Pilot Officer with effect from the same date. He was promoted to the rank of Flying Officer on the 11th March, 1943. On the 21st September, 1942, he proceeded to No. 1 “Y” Depot, Halifax, Nova Scotia, for embarkation to the United Kingdom.
F/O Redwood arrived at No. 3 Personnel Reception Centre, Brighton, on the 8th October, 1942, and shortly afterwards was posted to No. 11 Operational Training Unit, Westcott, Buckinghamshire. He crewed up there and completed his training as air observer on Wellington bomber aircraft, before proceeding – on the 29th January, 1943, - to No. 1657 Conversion Unit, Stradichall, Suffolk, for conversion to Stirling bomber aircraft.
He was posted on the 12th March, 1943, to No. 218 (Gold Coast) Squadron at Downham Market, Norfolk, and from this base, as navigator of Stirling bomber aircraft took part in seven operational flights, the targets including Kiel, Stuttgart, and Mannheim, in Germany and minelaying off the Frisian Islands, Denmark, and off St. Nazaire and Bayonne, France.
On the 20th April, 1943, he was posted to No. 7 Squadron, Oakington, Cambridgeshire, and with this squadron took part in a further seven operational flights, the targets including Bocholt, Rheine, Bochum, Wuppertal, Münster and Krefeld, in Germany and Le Creusot, in France.
On the night of the 21/22nd June, 1943, F/O Redwood was navigator of a Stirling bomber aircraft which took off from Oakington for the purpose of bombing Krefeld, in Germany. The aircraft failed to return to its base and all the members of the crew, including F/O Redwood, were posted as missing. This was his 14th operational flight. In consequence of a report received through the International Red Cross Committee that F/O Redwood was buried at St. Trond, in Belgium, he was later reclassified to missing, believed killed in action. In due course his death was presumed to have occurred on the 22nd June, 1943.
On the cessation of hostilities his body was reinterred in the Louvain-Heverlee British Cemetery.
The only other RNZAF member of the crew of the aircraft was Sergeant E. Brown of Greymouth, who was taken prisoner of war.
My recalls of that night are not to clear, and have deminished over the years. But I remember clearly the moments from the start of the combat with the German night fighter until I evacuated the aircraft from the bomb aimers panel in the nose.
Before that both of our gunners had reported the sighting of the Luftwaffe plane our mid-upper gunner reported having seen two. This might have been an impression made in the confusion of the fight. The official German report refers to only one fighter being involved, and I think that might be correct.
I don't know how long the combat lasted, but from the first exchange, I had time to leave my position at the engineers panel, to join the Skipper and sit with him in the second pilot's seat. Both of our gunners were repeatedly in action and the fighter made repeated attacks without causing us serious damage. Our altitude was just under 12.000 feet when I joined the pilot.
Shortly after we were attacked from the rear, and the Stirling went out of control. There was no fire but we lost both rudder and tail plane control and the aircraft and the aircraft went into an almost vertical nose dive, and the skipper gave the order to bale out. I had time in pitch darkness to make my way back to the engineers panel, where my parachute was stowed. I clipped it on and passed the navigator's table, down the steps to the bomb-aimer position and exited the aircraft. The bomb aimer having already left.
Although I cannot be positive I am sure that the navigator had been injured or killed during one of the exchanges. He would certainly have got out before me if he had been able.
I made an uneventful descent, the parachute working as it should and came to earth within a kilometer or two to the west of the village of Neerpelt (near Hamont-Achel, Belgium). I landed at the side of a small river or perhaps it was an canal. Above me at the top of a fairly steep slope there was a wooden area. Some big trees and a good amount of ground covering small bushes. I hid my parachute and harness there and rested for a while trying to calm my bewildered thoughts. The night was quiet. I didn't hear any sound of the aeroplane crashing, nor of the bombs exploding; which is surprising considering the short distance from my landing to the site of the crash at Achel (Belgium).
After some time there, I decided to try to find out where I was. I didn't know for sure where I was. It could have been Belgium, or Holland or I thought perhaps we had crossed the German border, and I was among the enemy. Anyway I decided to leave the sanctuary of the wood and try to find some habitation, and perhaps help.
By pure chance, I walked in an easterly direction. I don't know for how long or how far, but after passing some houses in complete darkness. I heard someone or something approching me from the opposite direction. I hid in the edge at the side of the road while the somebody was Frank Hugo, who I know you have met. After some joyful greeting we decided to return to the woods where I had been earlier to be at least out of sight for a while.
Early next morning looking down from our vantage point up the slope we saw two men walking along the water side. They were the Spelter brothers from Overpelt, who suggested we laid down for the rest of the day and they would return that evening. This they did with some food and the offer that they would help us get away from the area where we knew the Germans would be searching for us.
The rest of the story you may know.
From Overpelt we went to Hasselt, from Hasselt to Liege, from Liege to various safe places en-route to Brussels. Brussels to Paris where we were caught by the Gestapo.
Followed an unpleasant stay in the prison Freénes not far from Paris, and eventually being declared prisoners of war and taken into Germany to spend the rest of the war at Stalag IVB, and returning home in the early summer of 1945.
Tanglewood 29 June 1999.
Bill Cole passed away on 3th August 2006
|Lesley, 28 August 2008||17 june 2013|
Nota: op vrijdag 22, zaterdag 23 en zondag 24 juni 2001 bracht de 78-jarige Leslie Ellingham uit Cheshire (Engeland) en zijn 22 jaar jongere broer, John, een bezoek aan Hamont-Achel. De werkgroep Raf-memorial Hamont-Achel bracht de Britse gasten naar de crashplaats in het Ven, het stadhuis voor een ontvangst en receptie (Leslie Ellingham kreeg zoals Bill Cole het ereburgerschap aangeboden), de plechtigheid aan de gedenkplaat van kapel op de Witteberg en een bezoek aan de twee overleden bemanningsleden op het Britse militaire kerkhof in Heverlee (Leuven).
Les Ellingham (92) passed away on 21st August 2014 - Celebration of life for Leslie Ellingham
Eyewitness account of Jack Kilfoyle by his daughter Joan Georgeson::
My dad did not speak much about his experiences during the war, none of the family recall him saying very much about that time, unless he was asked he did not say very much. I feel he did not want to recall too much about the crash because he had lost friends and maybe the memories were to upsetting, we really don't know
He may have spoken together with Les Ellingham who had had the same experiences as he. Les and himself were members of the Caterpillar Club which was made up of men who had had to parachute out of planes during the war. The name derives from the caterpillar which spins silk and the parachutes as you will know were made from silk during the war.( They also made lovely curtains as the people from your local town know).
He said that the German doctor who treated his ankle in the camp had done his best for him at the time in reparing the damge that had been done when he was shot down.
When I was younger I asked him did he not try to escape from the camp, and he said he would not have got very far because of his anlke injury.
I think I remember him saying he was in the camp that had the tunnel under the wooden horse, but I cannot be absolutely sure about this. He also said he was one of the men who took dirt and soil away from the tunnel in bags in his trouser legs, and dispersed it into the small gardens that the prisoners were allowed to keep in the camp grounds.
Missing in action
He told me that when the Germans knew that the war was coming to an end, they moved a lot of prioners to other camps, and that they were made to walk to the other camp which happened to be in Poland. I think the march was very hard for the men and my dad was one of those men. Before he joined the RAF, he served as a young man in the local home guard. After the war he worked as a metallurgist for about four years, and then he joined the police force in November 1949, he gained the rank of sergeant in the plain clothes CID before he retired in February 1975. After he left the police force he went to work for a local building company as a security officer, he worked for them until he retired from work for good, at we think about the age of 64. he was 68 when he died in1992. He did not have many hobbies as such. He enjoyed going to the football match occasionally and he like to have a drink and a chat with his freinds and colleagues. In later life he enjoyed working in his garden.
2 August 2004
Wellington (New-Zeeland) - April 2003
Een toevallige ontmoeting op een uitvaartplechtigheid in Nieuw-Zeeland heeft de werkgroep RAF-memorial Hamont-Achel in contact gebracht met de familie van bemanningslid Edgar Brown. Sergeant Brown was de staartschutter die zwaar gewond werd na zijn sprong uit de bommenwerper. Hij landde in het Sijskesbroek.
De werkgroep vroeg enkele maanden voor de herdenkingsplechtigheid aan Tony Redwood of hij nog eens een poging wilde ondernemen om Edgar Brown of naaste familie op te sporen. Van Edgar Brown hadden we geen informatie. Zou hij nog in leven zijn?
Tony Redwood vertelt: «Soms is er echt toeval mee gemoeid om iets gerealiseerd te krijgen. Ik wist niet hoe ik eraan moest beginnen en vroeg me af of de Returned Servicemen’s Association mij kon helpen in mijn zoektocht. Een ontmoeting met een oudere man op een begrafenis bracht de oplossing. De man vernam dat ik Redwood heette en vroeg of ik familiebanden had met navigator Charles Redwood. Ik antwoordde dat Charles Redwood mijn oom was.
Mijn gesprekspartner maakte duidelijk dat hij Edgar Brown kende. Ik was aangenaam verrast dit te horen. De man gaf me het telefoonnummer van Bill Brown, de zoon van Edgard Brown. Met Bill had ik een lang telefoongesprek en ik vertelde hem dat we enkele jaren geleden veel moeite hebben gedaan om zijn vader op te sporen. In mijn enthousiasme ben ik tijdens het telefoongesprek ongetwijfeld veel vergeten te vragen. Het voornaamste was dat we Edgar Brown hadden gevonden.
Het was zeer goed nieuws om te vernemen dat Edgar Brown nog leeft. Hij woonde zelfs de laatste “ANZAC-service” (nvdr: oorlogsherdenking in Nieuw-Zeeland) bij. Edgar Brown verblijft in een rusthuis in Dunedin in het zuidelijke deel van Nieuw-Zeeland. Ik was blij verrast te vernemen dat zoon Bill Brown maar ook kleinzoon Andrew Brown (woonachtig in Engeland) de 60ste herdenkingsplechtigheid in Achel bijwonen.»
Bill Brown: «In Achel kregen vele vragen over vader een antwoord»
Achel - 19 juni 2003
Bill Brown en zoon Andrew hebben nooit kunnen vermoeden dat hun ontmoeting met de werkgroep RAF-memorial Hamont-Achel zoveel informatie zou opleveren. «Sterker nog,» zegt Bill Brown, «waar ik al 35 jaar naar op zoek ben, wordt hier in één klap duidelijk gemaakt. Tot aan ons bezoek aan Achel wisten we niet wat vader heeft meegemaakt nadat hij uit de bommenwerper is gesprongen. In ons land is zoal weinig informatie te verkrijgen over de lotgevallen van Nieuw-Zeelanders in de Tweede Wereldoorlog.
Voor ons kwam daar nog bij dat vader zich totaal niets kan herinneren vanaf het ogenblik dat hij uit het vliegtuig was gesprongen totdat hij weer bij zijn positieven kwam in het militair ziekenhuis. Het “zwarte gat” in zijn geheugen hebben we kunnen invullen.
Vader kon ons wel vertellen dat hij na het commando “bail out” van piloot Meiklejohn nog vlug zijn parachute kon grijpen en aangespen. Blijkbaar was de parachute niet goed aangegespt want toen vader aan de hendel trok om hem te openen, sloeg de parachute met volle geweld tegen zijn kin. Zeg maar dat hij totaal groggy was. Hij draagt er nog altijd een litteken van. Vader weet niet dat hij zeer hard is neergekomen (nvdr: in het Sijskesbroek), dat hij zwaargewond was en dat zijn gebroken benen diep in het weiland staken. Hij herinnert zich evenmin dat buurtbewoners hem uitgespit hebben, dat hij op een boerenkar naar het treinstation in Achel-Statie is gebracht en nadien naar het militair ziekenhuis in Leopoldsburg, dat toen in Duitse handen was.
Het was ons ook onbekend dat er in Achel een gedenkplaat was aangebracht aan de kapel voor de gesneuvelde bemanningsleden. Met de videobanden van de inhuldigingsplechtigheid in 2000, het bezoek van Leslie Ellingham in 2001 en niet te vergeten met de Engelstalige uitgave van de brochure over de crash van de Stirling in 1943, hadden we in Nieuw-Zeeland 10 dagen nodig om uit te klaren wat vader heeft meegemaakt in WO II.»
Edgar Brown is op 06 april 2009 in een rusthuis te DUNEDIN (New Zealand) overleden. Hij werd 93 jaar.
This is a transcription of the original journal written by Frank Hugo after the war, it is in it’s original form, the only addition being the photographs.
Barry Hugo (nephew to Frank Hugo)
Here is my own story – not a very exciting one! I cannot recall all the dates and do not know the names of all who helped me. Deliberately, I tried not to know too much about any of them and later, when held by the Gestapo, tried hard to forget all details in case I should be made to tell. However, for what it’s worth, here is my story.
My aircraft, a Stirling bomber of No.7 Squadron, Pathfinder Force was, on the night of June 20/21 1943, detailed with two others to mark a turning point south-east of Eindhoven, for the guidance of the main force bombers who were attacking Krefeld. The Stirling bomber was not well suited to this task because in the summer months it could only gain about 12,000 feet. and the markers ignited barometrically at 10,000 feet. thus silhouetting us as we flew over them, enabling German fighters to attack
We were set on by three J.U.88 fighters, which damaged us on each run until my pilot (I was a Navigator Bombardier) ordered us to abandon the aircraft. The escape hatch was badly damaged and I had great trouble in opening it and, when I did jump out, found that my parachute was not properly fixed. However, it did eventually open but I swung and spun on the end of a solitary strap until I hit the ground.
After burying my ‘chute near an irrigation ditch, I followed a dirt road, being frightened by cows and horses which I imagined to be Germans, until I heard excited voices – one of which had a Birmingham accent. I had found the Flight Engineer, Bill Cole. He had hurt himself on his parachute harness and could not walk well. He had been found by some Dutch people, but they seemed rather frightened and there were young children about, so we decided to move away Southwards.
I think we must have been almost on the border north of Lommel. We kept to the brush near the road, which seemed to run roughly North/South and just before light were challenged by a Dutch Policeman (?) wearing a light green uniform but we managed to escape from him. It is difficult t know whether or not he was hostile but he seemed not friendly.
We passed through some tightly planted pine trees and came into an area of sand dunes and bushes where we laid up, for by then it had become very light. I would estimate that we had walked about 20 Kms,. And Bill was in some discomfort. We slept most of the day, which was very warm, I remember. We had Horlicks tablets and condensed milk from our escape kits but no water and dare not look for any.
We were unable to move far that night because of Bill’s injuries but did find a canal and water, which we purified in the rubber bags from our ‘Pandora boxes’.
Early that next morning we passed through a village – a foolish act but we had not the energy to go around it. I think now that it was Achel. Again we lay up, this time for the day and most of the night and early next morning saw a man fishing by a canal. We decided that I should ask him for help while Bill kept hidden, since I could run away if he seemed unwilling to help.
This was Mathieu Spelters – the best chance meeting of my life. He could only speak Flemish and I had only schoolboy French but he made me understand that he would help me.
We went first, I think to Josef’s house but we were reluctant to stay there because of the young children, one a newborn baby. Then Mathieu took us to his wonderful mother, even then an old lady, who welcomed us without question, fed us and tucked us up into the most comfortable feather bed I have ever known. She showed no fear, even calling us to the window to see German soldiers passing the old house. As I remember, there were no other houses in Haspershoven then.
We stayed in Overpelt (I’m sure we call it Neerpelt for many years after the war) for several days. Mutti, as we called Vrouw Spelters, gave us our courage back and Bill got fit again. Then a Francis Peeters came and we left with him for Hasselt where I understood that we were to go to a safe house in a Barber’s Shop. We were dressed in old clothes, keeping only our identification discs, our silk maps and compasses, my pistol and the French, Dutch and Belgian currency from our Pandora’s escape boxes. We had offered the money to Mutti but she had refused it. She gave me a rosary to wear.
When we reached Hasselt we were met at the station by an agitated man who whispered to Francis who hurried us back on to the same train, He later explained that the safe house had been raided by the Germans. I understood that several R.A.F. men had been killed in the fight. We went on to Liege and went first to a café owned by Louis Collette-Bucken who took us to his home where we met his lovely wife, Jeanne. We stayed there for a few nights and then Bill and I were separated.
I went to stay with four maiden ladies in what I now know was 38 did Avenue de Luxenbourg. These were the Deschance sisters Josephine, Hermine, Maria and ?
They were quite indomitable – especially Josephine, the eldest, who was nicknamed “La Generale”.
I remember one incident when Francis took us to have photographs taken for identity cards. Bill Accidentally knocked over some lamps in the studio and the lady berated him in French – I protested that he was “Flamande” and could not understand, where upon she switched to Flemish. Fortunately, Francis came back at that time and soothed her.
He then took us to a café and we waited there for the photographs to be developed. He left us with some drinks while he went to fetch them, not wanting to upset the lady again.
Two young ladies of doubtful virtue then came and sat with us and began asking who we were. Francis had not prepared us for this and after mumbling something about being Swedish sailors, one of the girls whispered to the other and then went to the barman. He came over and said “You are English airmen, are you not?”. There seemed little point in denying it and soon everybody in the bar – about 10 people –knew! He searched under the bar and found an old record of “Carry me back to dear old Blighty”, a first war song, put it on the gramophone and everyone was dancing around and singing. All this while Germans passed by outside!!
When Francis returned he was not unduly frightened but suggested that we moved to the back room where we had a happy party for several hours.
I stayed with the Deschance sisters for about ten days but Bill was taken elsewhere. We met many of the Liegois who were active in the underground but I remember mainly Louis and Jeanne Collett - Bucken, who lived up on St. Martin. Jeanne was very beautiful and so was her sister, Lisette. They would show complete disregard for fear – all the girls would wear painted brooches with a church on a hill (for Churchill) or red, white and blue swallows and the words “We shall return” in Flemish or French.
Lisette had a little dog, which she called RAF and she would call it loudly in the street. Lisette would entice German soldiers into dark alleys where some of the men of the group would kill them, take any useful papers or weapons, and drop the bodies in the Meuse. I believe that her association was misunderstood by her neighbours who were not in the group and they thought she was a collaborator.
One of their main jobs was to help anyone who wanted to go underground by supplying false papers, ration stamps etc. I believe that they used to rob Post Offices – not meeting much resistance from co-operative staff.
I remember that we were “interrogated” before we were accepted. Only our names, rank and numbers were asked for but we had to answer questions about the last film we had seen in England (Strangely enough, my last visit to the cinema had been to see a film called “Squadron Leader X” about a Belgian escape line!), about any public houses we cared to describe and our schools.
Presumably these were checked by radio – I did discover, after the war, that M19, the branch of Military Intelligence which dealt with escape lines in Occupied Europe, knew that e were with the underground movement at that time.
Of course, we knew only Christian names at the time – or nicknames – I discovered the full names only after the war. Bill and I realised that we were not very useful to the underground – indeed, because of our lack of training in ground warfare we were a liability. We therefore asked Francis if he could get us into an escape line. I now know that we were the first of many airmen to be helped by Mutti Spelters and there are was no link with a “line” established at that time.
We were taken to Brussels where, after a complicated system of meetings, we were passed on to a man known as the “Captain”, easily identified by having two fingers missing. I now know that we were really prisoners from that moment!
The false safe houses in avenue A.J.Slegers
We were taken to a luxury flat not far from the Avenue de la Loi and were joined by several Belgians and another R.A.F. man, F/Sergeant Jack Smith DFI. We knew of him because he had been shot down from our previous squadron, 218, based in Downham Market, Norfolk.
One of the Belgians was a lady Doctor whose husband had been killed serving with the underground and another was an agent who said he had travelled on this line before – but not when it was controlled by the Captain.
We were all worried by the luxury and apparent carelessness of this arrangement – but the Captain would say “Don’t worry, Churchill is paying!” The two Belgians were very worried but opportunities for talking without being overheard were very limited.
The Captain had a beautiful “secretary” who claimed to be South American – we nicknamed her Dolores. No other names were exchanged between any of us.
I learned later that the “Captain” was Prosper de Zitter, a traitor who had infiltrated the underground and with an English deserter from Dunkirk, a Sergeant William Cole (No relation of my engineer!) was responsible for many captures and death of Belgian patriots. I believe that de Zitter hung himself while awaiting trial after the war and that Cole was killed in a gun battle in Paris just after it was liberated.
At this time I had a Belgian identity card showing me as Jean-Henri Pierre Yamotte, a baker from Liege. My French would never have been good enough to back up my cover story but I had passed several street checks by ordinary soldiers.
The Traitor Prosper De Zitter
I know now, of course, that we were virtually prisoners from the moment we were taken over by de Zitter. We were suspicious but, alas, it all seemed so easy and we were told that we could be in Spain in a few weeks.
Our next move was to Paris. Bill Coles, F/Sgt Smith, the Belgian doctor, the agent and I were taken by a courier by train. We sat singly and I pretended to sleep most of the way. We had been told to shift seats from time to time and I often found myself sitting with German soldiers. The check at the border was not very severe – of course, we were probably being watched although I believe that the courier himself was genuine and not part of the scheme.
The precautions eased my mind after the carelessness shown at de Zitter’s house in Brussells.
When we arrived in Paris our courier passed us over and we didn’t see him again. We spent the night at what seemed to be a small hotel and were able to talk together. The two Belgians were a little happier with the arrangements but were still not firmly convinced that all was well.
The next day we were separated and went t different houses, Bill and I were taken by a man who spoke excellent English. We had a surprisingly good meal, which made us suspicious again and then he began praising the RAF and saying how wonderful it was that we could bomb through clouds. We realised that, not only was he trying to interrogate us but that the line of talk seemed to load always to the Pathfinder Force’s role. We played “dumb” and said that we didn’t know how it was done and we only bombed markers that were already there when we arrived on target.
After the war I learned that German Intelligence knew the names of Pathfinder personnel soon after they joined the Force. This would not be difficult since we wore distinctive badges.
We returned to the original house that night, very worried and managed to have a few words alone with the others.
F/Sgt. Smith had not been questioned at all and had just spent the day with a French couple in a house, not far away. The Belgian lady doctor was worried – she had not been questioned, even subtly, she thought – but the man she had been with had claimed to be a Parisian and she had trained in Paris and knew that he was not a Parisian.
We decided to leave matters for one more day and then make up our individual minds what to do. Bill and I thought that if we were with a bad lot, they would be watching us and so, leaving from the centre of Paris would be impossible. If we were to go it would have to be on the next stage of the journey, by train to Biarritz.
If we were to be split up again we would each decide for ourselves and take any opportunity. We were another day in Paris and our suspicions were eased – there was no more questioning – I think now that “they” realised that we were all suspicious.
We left early one morning for the station and Jack Smith and I were carrying a basket between us, with bread and cheese etc. for a meal on the train. As we passed the , two young men in civilian clothes came up to us. I think I had been aware of them just a split second before – I can’t remember what actually happened to the others, we were about 20 yards apart.
They spoke in French and said, “You are English spies and you are under arrest”.
I remember blurting out my name, rank and number – then had a pistol put in my ear and was hustled around the corner to a coach.
Once inside the coach, which seemed to be armour plated, I was handcuffed to the seat. The others were brought in – the agent was bleeding from the head – and we were driven off to what I now know was Fresnes.
The courier was taken behind a curtain – and as someone came through a little later I saw him laughing and smoking with the prison guards.
Incredible as it might seem, we had not so far been searched other than for arms.. I still had my false identity card, which I thought might be able to be traced back to Francis. I said to Bill who was sitting opposite me, “I’m worried about the cards”.
The German soldier guarding us shouted for me to be silent and I motioned towards the toilet door, which was nearby, and, surprisingly, he nodded assent. Of course, there was no way out but I tore up the card and flushed it down the toilet pan. Not all of it would disappear but I dare not stay too long.
When I came out Bill asked if he could go and was allowed to – but when he came out, a German civilian (Gestapo?) came through the curtain and made a terrific row, shouting at Bill and at the guard, who looked terrified.
Shortly after this we were taken down to a basement where there were individual “cells” about the size of telephone kiosks with narrow ledge seats about a metre from the floor. The tops about four metres up, were of strong wire mesh and there was little or no light coming through. The floors were unspeakably filthy and the whole place stank of urine and vomit.
I was terrified but did not know then that we were to stay cooped up like that for over 48 hours. Our “Belongings” were placed outside – mine were a belt, Mutti’s rosary, a packet of cigarettes (I didn’t smoke but had been offered them in Brussels and had kept them for Bill – a heavy smoker), my RAF wristwatch, from which I had filed all the distinguishing marks, and a cheap wallet with some French and Belgian currency.
The door opened twice; once to give us some potatoes soup – which I couldn’t eat and another, obviously unofficial, time when the guard opened the door and offered me one of the cigarettes.
I discovered later that he was an Austrian, he wore an Edelweiss flower badge in his cap, and we were to see him several times. He was often able to give us a kindly word. This time, I think he just wanted a cigarette himself. I took ome and motioned for him to have the rest. I took a draw on the cigarette when he closed the door – thinking that it might “steady my nerves” – but it just made me violently sick, adding to the filth on the floor.
It was impossible for me to sit on the ledge seat for long, even with my feet wedged against the door and, eventually I had to give in and sit on the floor.
I don’t remember much of that time, I think I slept a lot. I do remember that there was a lot of crying and moaning, doors opening and closing and voices, mainly French, calling out. I tried to call to the others of my party but could not contact any of them.
When I was taken out for my first interrogation I can remember feeling very ashamed and degraded. My clothes, not smart to begin with, were now filthy and I was very dirty myself. To be taken into a clean office and questioned, at first in French and then, as it became obvious that my schoolboy French was not good enough, in excellent English by a clean shaven, smartly dressed man, was an unpleasant experience.
I expected to be hurt but there was no ill treatment at all at this time. He said that he regretted that I had been treated like this but that it was my fault for consorting with “criminals”. I said that I understood that it was a soldier’s duty to escape. He countered this by saying that he had no proof that I was an airman as I had claimed and what proof could I offer?
He then gave me a form to complete starting with my name, rank and number – but then going into detail of aircraft, targets, bomb load, other crew members, squadron, training, equipment etc.
I explained that I could not give more than my name, rank and number, and he said that I could prove that I was RAF by answering the rest of the questionnaire because only RAF personnel would know these things.
I refused and was taken, not back to the “kiosk” but to a quite large cell, at a “sous-terre” level but I could see the sky through the window, which was just at outside ground level.
This cell was comparatively luxurious. It had a wooden chair chained to the wall and a lavatory bowl in the corner. Above this was a tap through which a trickle of water would come – not enough to flush the toilet but enough to drink from and have some sort of wash. My clothes were taken away and I was given some stiff canvas trousers and a calico shirt.
I was to remain in solitary confinement for over a month, spoken to only when interrogated. I had Mutti’s rosary returned to me but nothing else. Food came twice a day – bread and coffee (?) in the morning and soup in the afternoon. The cell was verminous with every kind of bug and insect and I was soon covered in bites and had scabies.
The interrogations did not happen every day – nor at the same time. Sometimes I was taken out at night. Usually they took the same line as before – telling me that I could “prove” that I was an airman by giving details, which of course, I was not allowed to give.
Strangely, they did not often ask about my time with the underground but since they knew everything from Brussels on I suppose there was no need. They did not know where I had been before Brussels, I guessed, because one of their tactics was to tell me some detail, of RAF life, for instance, and then say, “You see! We know all about you really. We just want you to confirm it”.
Never once did they try this with Liege or Overpelt / Nerrpelt and so I thought that they couldn’t know. I told them that I had deliberately not known any names of people or places and refused to say how long I had been down.
There were different interrogators for the RAF details and for the “evading capture” questions. The latter were sometimes rough – especially when I was tired and became rude to them. I was usually handcuffed and was beaten, but only with fists. I was, of course very frightened being only nineteen – but was far more frightened of giving in to them, I think. Anyhow it was never as bad as I thought it would be.
Once they told me that Bill was to be shot and that I was next. They let me hear rifle shots and then stood me against a wall in the cellar-like place with armed guards behind me. The guards looked so sorry for me and they didn’t shoot and so, after ten minutes or so, I began to think that it was all a bluff.
At first, I don’t think I thought anything, but just tried to stop from crying. I managed until they took me back to my cell and then cried like a baby! I was fairly sure that they had not shot Bill. Another encouraging sign was that they did seem, in the RAF interrogations, to ask Pathfinder Force questions and I convinced myself that they knew I was RAF.
This comfortable though was not to last long. I was sure that my particular friend in the crew, the wireless operator “Duke” Lesley Ellingham, had been killed in the aircraft. He had not answered the last two checks, which the pilot had made on the intercom and all the others had.
What I didn’t know was that he had been “off” intercom trying to jam the radio directions given to the German fighters.
Well, after almost a month of this solitary confinement and interrogation, I was taken out one day and as we were going down the corridor I saw guards bringing another filthy individual towards me. I recognised first the blue and white scarf that Duke always wore, He was not at that time in prison dress like me and when I was sure it was he I shouted “Dukie” and ran forward. I was tripped with a rifle and then beaten unconscious with rifle butts.
I learned later that Duke had not recognised me – not surprisingly! I had not washed or shaved for over a month and my clothes were unusual, to say the least.
I had one more interrogation after that – (I came round in my cell and was left alone for that day) – which took the usual line of “R.A.F.” questioning. Then, about a week later, the interrogator said that they really did believe that I was RAF but since I was caught in civilian, carrying a pistol and in company with known agents, I would be considered a “franc tireur” and subject to the death penalty – of course, if I “co-operated” he would speak up for me, etc. etc.
This was a bad turn of events and it frightened me badly. I was having bad headaches at this time and had fainted a few times. I did not learn until some time after the war that I had hairline fractures of each temple from the beating with the rifle butts.
I remember very little about how I spent my time, I think I must have slept a great deal. I tried some exercise but could not do anything strenuous for long. I used to imagine that I was walking at home and tried to remember each landmark on a certain route.
I know that I talked to myself a great deal, arguing with myself that it was silly to be killed for the little information I had – but always reached the same conclusion: I could have been killed many times on raids and so would “lose” nothing now if I was killed and nothing could be worse than living and knowing that I had given in to these people.
I had little worry about the “underground” side of it since I really knew nothing except a few Christian names. Deliberately, I had never noticed addresses and the interrogator seemed to accept this, although he would ask leading questions sometimes, fortunately always about places and names which meant nothing to me.
I had been keeping a record of time by scratching on the wall each soup time with the metal soup bowl – but I must have missed several days and then stopped doing it so I don’t know exactly how long I spent there.
Then came the day when I was taken out of the prison cell in a van. We went to a large building in Paris which I now know was 84 Avenue Foch. Again my hopes rose when I saw firstly, Bill Coles and then, that there were many German Officers in uniform. It felt somehow safer dealing with the Wehrmacht rather than the Gestapo, although there were plenty of black uniforms about.
Once more my hopes were soon dashed – I was introduced to my ‘councel’, a French speaking lawyer who was, I was told, going to ‘defend’ me. I was asked no questions by the lawyer, nor later, by the ‘Tribunal’ of Wehrmacht Officers.
A statement was read out in German – I recognised my name Herr Hugo Frank alias Jean-Henri Pierre Yamotte. (They always interpolated my Christian and Surname which made everything grotesque since, even when interrogating me roughly, they would use my Christian name! But very little else.)
There was some discussion between a Frenchman and my ‘counsel’ – that I claimed to be an escaping RAF aircrew member who would not co-operate in order to prove my claim – that I had been wearing civilian clothes, carrying a pistol and not wearing identification discs (The Captain had advised us not to wear these) – that I had a false ration card and was travelling with ‘wanted’ Belgium agents.
Another point, which kept coming up in my interrogation, was made much of – that I claimed to be a Lutheran (Methodist) but was wearing a Rosary, with a St. Christopher disc. This disc was given to me by a little girl friend when I was ten years old! I had worn it on an Identity wristlet but had put it on Mutti’s Rosary and thrown the wristlet away.
My ‘counsel’ said only one thing in my favour – that every soldier should try to escape, surely a German airman would do the same? The tribunal obviously didn’t consider me much of a soldier – unshaven, unwashed, flea and bug bitten, a festering scratch on one side of my face where I had been hit by someone wearing a ring and one eye still closed from the beating. Dressed in that ridiculous canvas suit I looked anything but a gallant escaper!
The tribunal officers seemed not to talk to each other and the whole thing was over in minutes, then, in poor English, my ‘counsel’ told me that I had been condemned to death. It was all such a farce that it did not upset me very much. I saw Bill again but could not talk to him, and there were two other prisoners waiting.
I was taken back to Fresnes and put in a different cell. After a while a new interrogator came in to see me. He said that he was sorry about the sentence of death, but what did I think would happen to a German caught in London under the same circumstances?
I said that I thought he would be allowed to speak for himself and allowed to clean himself up in order to feel some self respect.
He said that I was a criminal and had broken International Laws and was not entitled to self-respect. I had been stupidly stubborn and I would die for it and nobody would know how I died or where my body was. I would be a name on a War Memorial and nothing else. They didn’t need any information that a boy like me could tell them – they just wanted to help me prove my story.
I had learned not to lose my temper during questioning but I felt so low, so dirty against this clean, smartly dressed man, that I swore at him, the whole German race and Hitler, then I spit in his face. He kicked me quite carefully in the knee and stomach and then left me.
The next day I had no food at all, I was taken out of the cell and thought it would be another ‘fake’ execution – or hoped it anyway. I could not believe it when I was taken to the top floor of a block, to Cell 484, and put in with Bill and the two prisoners I had seen at the Avenue Foch.
I spoke to Bill – but it was hard after so long in solitary. He too, had been sentenced to death, but whispered that he did not believe it. I told him about the fake execution and about seeing Duke.
The other two stayed in the diagonally opposite corner, talking to each other, but not to us. We decided not to talk to them because we thought they were possibly ‘stool pigeons’. We had been warned that this might be tried after a long period of solitary. The idea being that we would be eager to talk and the cell would have hidden microphones.
They were much cleaner than us and had different prison clothes. We didn’t talk to them for two days and then agreed that as long as we were careful what we said, it wouldn’t matter. We told them our names and they said, with some hesitation, they they were Joe Edgeley from Norfolk and Stan Maxwell from London. They didn’t trust us either – but with our marked regional accents – Bill’s Birmingham and my Cornish, we agreed that we were unlikely English speaking Germans.
Nevertheless, we kept well away from service subjects and details of our evasion. This was blissful, we talked about sports, played word games, made imaginary menus and life was much better. We took it in turns to sleep on the bed – it wasn’t comfortable but there seemed fewer bugs than on the floor.
None of us were taken for interrogation and each day brought a surprise. One day we had tattered English books from the old English library in Paris, one was Shakespeare’s Hamlet and the other a collection of articles and poems – ‘A Weekend Companion’ it was called.
We also received French newspapers to use as toilet paper – the toilet pan in the corner of the cell worked no better than that in the solitary cell – and with four of us using it in a hot summer, it was the worse feature.
We spent a lot of time washing – without soap – and got reasonably clean. A big surprise was a parcel from the French Red Cross with extra bread, some biscuits, some cheese and a pot of jam – and a tube of toothpaste!
This last was used to colour a draughts set (checkers) which we made from tearing up the plain end papers of one of the books.
We also learned to talk to the cell above and below us, through the hot air duct which was high on the wall. We were told that an English officer, a relative of Churchill, was in the prison and so were several other Britons. This was, of course, Peter Churchill, no relative of Winston at all – who had been captured with Odette Sansom, who was also in the women’s section of Fresnes. The Germans believed he was a relative of the Prime Minister and treated him fairly well, intending to use him as a hostage.
On two wonderful occasions we went out in the exercise pens – just open air cells with a balcony above and armed guards watching us. Peter Churchill shouted out on one occasion, “ Any English Boys here?” and we called back to him. He told us who he was, “Captain Peter Churchill”, and to keep our spirits up. We said we were condemned to death and he said not to worry, because almost everybody in the block was. The gusrds didn’t seem to worry about the French men calling to each other – but we were soon stopped by having a gun pointed at us.
We did hear shooting on several occasions and the whole block would bang their doors and sing “La Marseillaise” – we took these to be executions and were very quiet afterwards even though Joe and Stan said they had not been condemned to death.
A fifth man was put in with us – he was in rough civilian clothes. He said he was called Larry and was an American with the Canadian Air Force. None of us trusted him and we were very careful – it made life miserable.
He soon got very bad scabies and scratched himself until he bled copiously. We asked for a doctor – never imagining that we would get one – but a medical orderly did come and gave him some salve. It did no good and after a few days he was taken out and we didn’t see him again – I think he was a ‘plant’. Most of the Germans who spoke English had American accents.
Either the food was better or we had got used to it and we would wait eagerly to hear the trolley’s, which ran on rails, coming along the balcony. We began to hope again, especially when the Austrian Guard told us that Scicily had been invaded.
One day when trying to contact someone through the hot air vents we found that the cell below had an RAF man. He had been shot down and captured just outside Paris and was in uniform and regarded as a Prisoner of War.
He was visited three times a day by Luftwaffe Officers, who brought him food and tobacco, he was soon to be taken to a prison camp. We got him to memorise our names, ranks and numbers and even brought tobacco up through the vent on a thread pulled from a blanket.
He was not allowed matches but could ask for a light – whenever possible he sent a lighted cigarette end up, on a hook made from a book staple. Only Bill and Stan smoked – rolling cigarettes from newspaper, but Joe and I could enjoy watching them.
This lasted only three days but we felt that we had a link with the outside world. He promised to tell about us as soon as he reached a proper prison camp. It was a great let down when he left but the boys managed to finish tobacco by sharing it with our Austrian friend in exchange for a light each day after the soup time.
One incredible event was when Bill, coming back from our second exercise time, (which absolutely exhausted us, climbing up to the top floor) saw the works of the toilet flushing system outside the door. He motioned to “Edelweise” as we called the Austrian, that the flush could be made to work but it needed something to bend a piece of wire – and Edelweise let Bill use his pistol!
I don’t think we realised until several minutes afterwards, being too eager to see if the toilet would flush (it did) - then we looked at each other in amazement and rolled on the floor laughing. It was probably not loaded – even if it had been we could not have gotten out of that prison!
We had discussed what we would do if we were sure they meant to shoot us – but it was mostly bravado about pushing some of them over the rail of the balcony to the floor about 60 feet below. The thing was that we never really believed that the death sentence was true.
About a week after the RAF man had left the cell below us our door was opened and two Luftwaffe Officers stood there. One said, “Which is Flight Sergeant Hugo?” I could not speak – it was the first time my rank had been used – and my proper surname! I stood up and then he read all our names from a piece of paper and said, “I regret your treatment, you will come with us”.
We were taken downstairs to another cell where there was a middle aged man in a Group Captain’s battledress. We introduced ourselves and then told him our story from the capture on. He had been shot down flying as a passenger and had been in Fresnes only a week. After about an hour we were given a large bowl of quite good potato soup and some bread and acorn coffee – but no spoons! The Group Captain and I shared my toothbrush handle and the others used bread and fingers!
We were taken to a railway station with four guards – and again I felt so ashamed, for although we had been given our clothes back in which we were captured, we had still not had soap for eight weeks!
The Group Captain was taken away by car by the two Luftwaffe Officers and we went by train in a reserved carriage to Frankfurt an Main.
It took a long time and I don’t remember much about it – except that we had quite good food twice, bread and sausage and coffee and an apple cake. The other treat was to wash, for there was a putty like soap in the toilet.
At Frankfurt Station we were pushed about and spat upon by angry civilians who had been told we were 2Murder Bombers” – and the guards who had seemed quite friendly during the journey, did little to protect us.
We were taken to a reception camp outside Frankfurt and spent the night in solitary confinement again. Breakfast next morning was good, coffee bread and jam and up went my spirits again. We were in the countryside and I could look out through the window – and the bed had been comfortable.
At mid-day I was taken outside to a Luftwaffe Officer who sat at a table in the open air. He stood up when he saw me and said, in a Manchester accent, “Oh! Lad, what has happened to you?” I said that I was sure that he knew that I had been a Gestapo prisoner and he made apologetic remarks but said that now I was with the Luftwaffe I would be treated properly. There would be some formalities here and then I would go to the proper RAF dispersal camp, Dulag Luft, and be with my comrades.
Then he gave me the same form, which I had seen so many times in Fresnes – asking the permitted name, rank and Number – and then going on to all the other ‘forbidden’ details. My heart sank again and I told him that after all I had put up with in the last two months, I was not going to fill this nonsense in now.
He said that I could not go to the proper camp, not be a prisoner of war until I did. He showed me a Red Cross parcel and clean uniform, letters forms and Englisg soap and said that my family could not be told of my survival until I completed this form.
I said that they probably thought that I was dead anyway and then, with as much dignity as I could muster, demanded that I see the British Officer in charge Dulag Luft. He laughed at me and said that no British Officer would want to see a scarecrow like me.
I was taken back to my cell – ‘room’ would be a better name, for it was comfortable with bunk beds, a table and two chairs. The window was barred but I could look out and see farm machinery moving on a road, only about 50 metres away.
The collection of buildings was rather like a holiday camp except for the barbed wire fence and the occasional armed guard.
My lunch, a good soup, sausages and bread, with coffee, was brought to me and I had been told to knock and call if I wanted to go to the toilet – I was able to wash there too, but had to dry myself on my shirt!
The next day the performance was repeated but when I refused he said, “never mind, I think we know enough about you to fill in the details”. I went back to the cell to find a Canadian Warrant Officer in uniform. I thought he must be another ‘stool pidgeon’ and didn’t talk to him.
That evening I fainted again and came round to find that the Warrant Officer had called a medical orderly and was talking to him in English. I didn’t trust him however – and didn’t see him again after the next day when I was taken out, stripped to my underwear and marched down through two villages to the main camp.
The Feld Webel who took me had a ridiculously small pistol pointed at my back all the time. I was laughed and jeered at by anyone we met – not surprisingly for I must have looked very foolish – certainly not a ‘Knight of the Air!’
My reception at Dulag Luft was like a dream – a shower, shave, new clothes (a mixture of RAF and USA uniform ) a good meal, medical treatment from a British Medical Officer and dozens of RAF prisoners – most in the uniform in which they had been shot down.
Bill and Duke were there and Joe Edgely and Stan Maxwell. I learned that the rear gunner and mid upper gunner had been through earlier after a spell in hospital.
There were rumours about the Senior British Officer and his Staff – who did seem to have a life of luxury.
We spent about ten days there – longer than most, because the British Medical Officer would not pronounce us fit. Then, one day, we were paraded with the rest of the prisoners of war and marched to a railway siding.
No reserved carriage this time! More than 100 of us were herded into two cattle trucks of the ‘Quarante homes nuit chevaux’ type and the doors were locked. We were to stay there for four days, sometimes travelling, sometimes waiting in sidings, and the doors were opened about twice a day.
There was hardly room to sit and the only toilet facility was a cut-down oil drum in one corner. The floor was covered in cement dust and soon my smart new issue of uniform was stiff woth a mixture of sweat, urine and cement. We took it in turns to be near the oil drum and all tried hard not to have to use it. After the luxury of the Dulagluft Camp it was like hell again.
We arrived at last at Muhlberg – a small town on the east bank of the Elbe, north of Dresden. Here we were separated by a roll-call and those of us who had not been caught in uniform and two, who had given some trouble on capture, were stood to one side – there were fifteen of us.
The rest were marched away and we waited for a truck, which then took us to a concentration camp called Jacobstahl. There seemed to be very few other prisoners there and our hearts sank when we saw how they looked – cadaverous, silent and with shaven heads.
We were taken to a large shed where two Russians, with a pedal-operated shearing machine, took off all our hair – we were then showered and paraded naked past other Russian prisoners who dabbed at us with brushes soaked in creosote.
Our clothes were placed in ovens and baked as part of this de-lousing operation, which completed the ruin of my newly issued clothes.
We were then locked in a large hut with accommodation for several hundred but which was empty except for us. Here we were to stay for two weeks, of which I remember very little.
One flight sergeant who had been caught in uniform after being shot in the back with a shotgun, became very ill. His wounds had almost healed when we left Frankfurt but the spare dressings which we had been given had now been used up and again we were back to having no soap once we had used what we had carried with us.
We tore up shirts to make dressings and shouted for medical help each time our food – potatoes or turnips in their skins in a wooden bucket, and bread – was brought. He became worse and died after about a week, the minor wound becoming a festering sore, which left his ribs, and backbone exposed.
I was ill with dysentery soon after and know little about what happened, apparently after the Flight Sergeant had died, a medical orderly did come each day. Those of us with wounds were treated and those of us with dysentery were given charcoal granules.
One of the dysentery cases died, then one day – I had been more or less unconscious for two days and so know only of what I was told afterwards – the boys heard British voices and sounds of huts being demolished. Apparently, hordes of prisoners from Italian prison camps had been evacuated to Germany ahead of our advancing armies and some had come to Muhlberg to Stalag 1VB, which was where the rest of our party had gone.
These prisoners had been brought over to take down the huts to be re-built at Muhlberg to accommodate this new rush of prisoners. They had been, for the most part, prisoners for several years – Crete and Tobruk casualties. The boys shouted to them – we were still locked in the barracks – and told them as much as they could before guards came in to order their silence.
When the “Italian” prisoners returned to 1VB they told the British Senior Officer who, in turn, told the Swiss Red Cross Officials who were visiting German camps to see how this influx of prisoners from Italian prison camps were being received.
Within days we were brought over to Muhlberg although I knew nothing about it until I recovered to find myself being looked after in a makeshift ‘hospital’ by a sergeant of the Royal Army Medical Corps. Red Cross parcels had been speeded to the camp and we had all kinds of ‘luxuries’. There were about 1,500 British prisoners – and French, Russian and Dutch prisoners.
P.O.W Camp Stalag 1VB - Muhlberg
This was a transit camp for prisoners to be sent on to working camps but army sergeants and above, and all RAF prisoners, were considered too great a risk for working parties and they remained in a special compound.
We were able to write letters home and just before Christmas I received my first letter telling me that my father had died, the day after hearing that I was alive. I had been posted ‘Missing’ then ‘Missing presumed dead’. My parents had received letters regretting my death from the Palace and the Squadron and from our own Member of Parliament, but my father, very ill and in hospital, had refused to believe it. Apparently the news of my safety reached them through the RAF after my arrival at Dulag Luft.
Since we were on the official list of Prisoners Of War from that time, the Swiss authorities had been able to get us into the proper prison camp. With experienced senior Army men some of whom had been prisoners since the fall of Crete, and with Red Cross protection the life as a P.O.W seemed wonderful.
The memories of Fresnes and Jacobstahl still haunted me – but made me appreciate the comparative luxury of 1VB. There were still hard times, but the main punishment was solitary confinement in a fairly comfortable ‘straffe-lager’ and this seemed, at times, a desirable relief from the crowded camp with it’s complete lack of privacy.
Our first suicide was a man who had been through Fresnes and could not shake off the terror - he was always silent except for his nightmares and one night he hung himself in the washroom.
I won’t try to tell about the eighteen months before our release by Russian Cossacks – it would be a tale of deep despair followed by high hopes which were then often dashed soon after, abortive escape attempts, comparative luxury followed by the aching hunger of Winter and Spring 1844/45 when I went down to 101 lbs. In weight (46 Kgs), of kindness and comradeship and senseless brutality, courage and despair.
The Russians held us ‘prisoner’ for five weeks after liberating the camp and we saw much terrible brutality then, but I was always able to count my blessings – nothing was going to be as bad as Fresnes and Jacobstahl.
I reached home on the 3rd June to find letters from Matthieu Spelters and Francis Peeters to whom I had given my address. I have kept in touch with them and visited whenever possible – never often enough! Francis Peeters died in Antwerp some ten years ago and one by one old age has claimed many of my other friends.
My story, as I warned, is not a brilliant one. I regret not having been able to reach home, return to operational flying and so justify the terrible risks taken by the brave Belgians who helped me. The hardships I suffered were nothing, for instance, when compared to the horror experienced by Jeanne Collette-Bucken in Breendonk and Ravensbruck.
I wish I could find a practical way to express my thanks and undying love for your Country and it’s courageous people.
( Footnote: Frank named his first child, Jeanne Francis in commemoration of Jeanne Colette-Bucken and Francis Peeters. And it was to this daughter that he entrusted these memoirs. )
Priest Adriaan Claassen (born 1916)
An evening, same as usual the roaring of the aircraft and then the rattle of heavy machine fire. I stepped out of my frontdoor and on the horizon in the northeast, I saw a vague silhouette of a large aircraft. The silhouette was on fire.
It then went very fast. In a sea of flames the large black cross plunged with a deafening scream straight down towards the centre of Achel. At a height of about 400m the burning cross suddenly swerved off to the west, it was as if the pilot was trying to avoid Achel Centre. I stood on my toes to see where the aircraft would crash. I was immediately pushed to the ground by the enormous pressure wave. Doors from houses and stables flew open.
The Parish church had no glass in the windows and the door was opened. The former Herringstraat (now Schutterijstraat) looked heavily shelled. Most houses were roofless. About 270 homes had heavy to light damage. Some roofs had been ripped of in one piece. Damage costs came then to between 20.000 and 150.000 Bfr. Luckily, no one from Achel was wounded, There were rumours that there were broken windows as far away as Overpelt.
The aircraft had bored into the ground by the pond in the Ven. at the same time a noticed a German nighthunter was going down in the area of the monastery. Early in the morning the interested crowd were chased away by Wehrmacht soldiers. They angrily slashed bicycle tyres with bayonets.The sounds of whistles and gentle calling of the remaining aircraft crew came from the fields. People said that the resistance had managed to get some of the men on the train to Neerpelt of Lille.
A few heavenly injured men rode on an open farmerswagon towards Achel-Statie. People had to dig the men out of the ground because the parachutes had apparently not fully opened. One of the men carried a paternoster around his neck, which struck symphaty with the farmers, the German Soldiers guiding the airmen cursed them. The German pilot that crashed near the “Achelse Kluis” was also taken to Achel Statie, when he saw the injured English men he saluted.
Note: Research by Peter Loncke indicated that the German Nighthunter was not involved in the airfight with the Stirling bomber.
Jos Van Werde (formerly from Achel):
A Bomber from the allied forces crashed in Achel. Achel was on the flightpath towards the Ruhrarea. The industrial area that contributed to the German war economy. Therefore the German airforce attempted to intercept the allied aircraft, often in vain so it seems, before they could drop there bombs enemy ground. That is how a bomber was shot down on 22 June 1943 in Achel. The crewmen must have had an attempt to get back to base in England.
Many people from Achel saw the burning aircraft losing height. Then there was enormous explosion and a great pressure wave lifted the tiles from the roofs and glass windows were smashed up to hundreds meters away from the crash. Everyone was immediately awake. The aircraft must have been transporting air torpedos. The crash site was in the marshland close to the pond. Known locally as “Papeweierke”.
At this time it was known that the crew managed to escape with the help of parachutes and had got stuck in the marshland. (Sijskesbroek) The occupier was in these conditions very alert and could count on the help of the collaborators. Every second was valuable to start of the evacuation. Farmer Van Hertum helped dig out one of the men that was stuck upto his waist in the marshland.
At the time many curious onlookers arrived of which some tried to give assistance. Like Dr. Louis De Bont, Francois van Meensel, Piet Lauwers and others. When the Germans and collaborators arrived at the scene and tried to locate the missing crew, the situation changed and many onlookers left the area. They were well aware that contact with these people could lead them into difficulties.
As the morning approached the German secured transport of one the crewman, on an open wagon of Farmer Schuurmans and his son Jef, normally used to transport bricks. The guarding of the wagon was entrusted to the collaborators.
The sad procession then set off through the former Haringstraat here the locals showed in an unmistaken manner their symphaty towards the wounded crewman. Some went in an ostentatious manner to the injured man, possibly unaware that it made them look suspect with the collaborators.
The procession stopped, were the guards would allowed, across the house of Willem van Werde, drinks to be offered. The daughters of Thijs van Werde give the man a blanket to protect and cover him for his wet uniform. Rene van Werde spoke to his best ability a few words of French the man replied in equal briefness. He could have been Canadian Other people said the crewman was a New Zealander.
The prisoner of war was taken to Achel Statie, where there was a permanent German guard post. Well known to the opportunist smugglers that stayed there temporarily. Thereafter he was moved to the military camp in Leopoldsburg and we lost track of him.
The crash meant the tragic end of two of the crewmen. Two others had more luck. The resistance managed to get them onto the train in Sint-Huibrechts-Lille and in Hasselt they were handed over to an organisation dedicated to get them back across the Channel.
Note: Many witness accounts spoke about two crewmen. However three landed by parachute in Achel: Sergeant E.L. Ellingham, Sergeant J. Kilfoyle en W/O E.A. Brown.
Jaak Winters (born 1916)
Due to the deafening noise from the aircraft I went outside that night. I saw a burning aircraft that was flying very low. The howling of the engines was terrifying. I ran quickly inside to shout my brother in law (Gradje Van Otterdijk). On that moment an enormous explosion took place. The lodger (Frans Vandeweyer) was asleep upstairs and got a tremendous fright. The explosion had blown a piece of the roof away and he was looking directly outside. At first he thought that the house was on fire. But actually he was looking out into the great fireball from the crashed aeroplane.
Doctor Louis De Bont (born 1912)
I can still remember very well that Toon Vissers took an injured crewmen on an open wagon to Achel Statie. When they came past my house I went down to the wagon to take a look. In the Station house in Achel Statie the wounded soldier had to put al his belongings on a table. I came to the conclusion that he hat to be Catholic because he hat a paternoster in his pockets.
Paul Cox (born 1923)
I remember the night of the 23 June as of it was yesterday. My parent’s house was in the Bien, it was a farmershouse. That particular night my parents and I were in bed. We were woken by the enormous explosion. The roof of our farmhouse was totally ruined. We had no idea what had happened. My father tolled me to lie down next to the sink were it would be safer. After waiting a while we went outside.
The first thing we heard were the sounds of whistles. We had no idea what that meant. In the meantime the neighbours Schuurmans had also gone outside. Together we headed towards the direction of the whistles. It was in the Sijskesbroek. The marshland area not far from where the aircraft had crashed. During our search we came across a rubber boat, that later I had made to a coat, but it was unwearable because you sweated enormously in it.
There was a marshy area that was behind the close grown Sijskesbroek. It was there that we saw a large white sheet. After a closer look it turned out to be a parachute. In this immediate we found a wounded soldier that was stuck into the ground up to his waist. It happened because his parachute did not open completely and dropped him with great force into the ground.
The wounded men reached with both hands out and asked for help. We had an attempt to lift him out but it was impossible. He had a drinking can on him. I collected some water from the nearby Vliet. He drank it in one gulp. I rummaged around in the wounded mans pockets to find out his identity. I found a number of documents, which indicated he was from New Zealand. We saw the man was bothered about rummaging around in his personal documents. Therefore I immediately put his wallet back in his jacket.
After a while Jan from Bert van Hertum and Jef Schuurmans came towards us. We decided to dig the men out and went back to get a spade. We where only 50 meters away from the men when two Germans appeared pointing guns at us. They searched the New Zealander and found a paternoster. Sarcastically one of the German soldiers said “ Ah, Sir is a Catholic, but me anwhile he goes to murder woman and children in Germany”.
Jef Schuurmans was ordered by the Germans to collect a horse and wagon. Meanwhile we started digging the wounded New Zealander out. Once he was out we saw his crushed feet. The man was in a lot of pain. His chin was also injured.
Once it started to get light the journey with the horse and wagon began towards Achel-Statie. It was there the wounded soldier was taken away to be treated. When the wagon passed in front of the house of Jef Schuurmans, Francois van Meensel jumped onto the wagon and spoke to the soldier in English. Francois stayed onto the wagon until Achel-Statie.
Since then i have been to the crash site in the Papeweierke. From crewmember Bill Cole I learned on the 11 September 1999 that the whistles were used to bring the crewmen together after landing.
Note: The wounded soldier that Paul Cox met in the Sijskesbroek was W/O E.A.Brown. He was with the Royal New Zealand air Force (RNZAF). With the RAF he fought against the German occupier. He was Tail-gunner in the Stirling Bomber.
ACHEL 22 juni 1943
crash of a Stirling-bomber at the hamlet "Het Ven" ...
Fam Van de Kerkhof 't Ven ACHEL
Crash STIRLING EF-366 't Ven ACHEL
Damaged house of the Van de Kerkhof family after the crash
Cap Jack Kilfoyle
Letter written during his undercover to Theresia Verhoeven
Prisoner card Les Ellingham
Wallet Charles Redwood