Short Stirling EF366 Local eyewitnesses
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.