By The Rev Owain Williams RAFES
Date: 11th September 1944.
Target: Oil refineries, Gelsenkirken, Germany.
Joined main force, and target duly bombed.
The boys of Fighter Command were dealing with the enemy fighters well above us, and we were routed out of the target between two Ack-Ack placements. Unfortunately, they both began to fire and we were badly damaged on the port-side, losing two engines and sustaining severe control damage. The pilot gave us a bearing prior to having to bale out. I went to the rear of the plane, wished the two air gunners a happy landing, then I jumped.
As I descended, I saw the aircraft crash, just missing what I later learned to be a monastery. I yelled at God for not answering my prayers for our safety. He must have smiled, for the rest of the crew were following me down, and my chute canopy prevented me from seeing them. I saw the mid-upper gunner land – almost on top of a lorry-load of German soldiers. He was the only one taken prisoner, and the only casualty was the bomb aimer, with a scratch under his chin! But all this I learned later. The ground was now rushing up towards me – a huge forest – a danger for parachutists. I landed in a ‘well prepared’ small clearing in long grass at the edge of the forest. I had a pocketful of cash, mainly half-crowns – ‘The Gerries are not getting these,’ was my first thought, so I flung them all away, hid my chute in one hedge, and myself in another at right angles to it.
Voices! Which country had I landed in? Was it Germany? Holland? The plane had been veering East when we baled out, and we had just crossed over Venlo on the German border; a recent target. The voices grew louder until the clearing was full of people – men, women, and children, all wearing clogs – it must be Holland. I listened intently to try and define the language, but without success. A man found my parachute and disappeared with it under his arm [Parachute silk was always useful for the ladies!] Thankfully he gave no cry to the enemy to alert them to his find. Next, a young man approached within a few yards of my hiding place. I remained motionless. He failed to see me and they all departed leaving me undetected.
I waited until dusk, then broke into the forest. As darkness began to fall the stars appeared and I sought out the Plough and North Star. I must not go east. I found a path which slowly led eastward. I was about to approach some buildings when lights appeared some distance away; then voices. I ran behind the buildings, through a field, along a hedge, then came to a full stop at the corner of the field. I flattened some of the hedge, sat down, and thanked God for my safety.
Dawn broke and I took out a New Testament which my chapel at home had given to me; I was reminded of St Paul’s hopeful attitude under imprisonment. Then I ate some Horlicks tablets from my escape pack. Whilst enjoying the peace of a sunny summer’s morning, I was interrupted by the sound of a cart, full of people, passing by the hedge then going to harvest the next field. I realised I was near a village for I heard a clock chime and the barking of dogs. I watched the harvesters all day long until they departed.
I waited until near dusk then broke through the hedge onto the track. I came to a cottage and looked through the window. There was a table set with wooden bowls and wooden spoons – where was Goldilocks? No sign of life. I ventured further and came to a farmhouse. I entered the yard and, after a quick prayer, approached the door. I can still feel the blistered paint on my knuckles now, as I did when I knocked tentatively on that door. No answer. I knocked again; and again. Footsteps. The door was opened slightly by a young blonde woman. Oh No! Germany! She looked me up and down. I said, ‘Englishman, parachute.’ (They’d probably never heard of Wales!)
She beckoned me inside. The room was suddenly filled with people. I recognised the man who had picked up my ‘chute. They seemed very friendly. I took out my map from the escape pack, pointed to it, and shrugged my shoulders. They understood and pointed to North Belgium.
I was fed and watered, then the man I had previously recognised produced three sheets of typewritten papers. One in English with numbered questions. One in Flemish, again numbered, and a third in English, numbered. I discovered that by pointing to a question in English, he would look up the corresponding one in Flemish, and return the answer in English. First question: Where are the nearest Germans? Answer: In the school. We communicated at length in this way.
Following my ‘interrogation’ they gave me the best bed in the house whilst the farmer and his wife slept in the loft. Later I discovered the reason for the delay in answering the door – they had been listening to the 9.00pm News from London! [I understood the risks they were taking, because even providing a glass of water to an allied airman could mean instant death. In addition the Germans would sometimes dress in a captured airman’s garb to test the loyalty of the people.] Morning came. I wanted a shave. They produced a blunt razor and a bucket of cold water! A man entered. He spoke English. This time it was for a proper interrogation. Another man joined him. The atmosphere became tense.
I remembered that he day before, out of courtesy, I had accepted a photograph of the family (which I would have discarded later for obvious reasons.) Now, I seemed to sense what they were saying in their native tongue. I took out the photo and handed it back to the mother of the house. The tension vanished. They told me that I would be dressed as a peasant (denim suit plus clogs) and taken to a group of Resistance hiding in a forest 15 miles away.
We set off in pairs. My word, those clogs began to hurt. As we reached the forest, we went down a long fire-break track. At the end of the track a man carrying a rifle, dressed in a sack uniform, German boots and wearing a Belgian tricolour arm band, was waiting. He challenged us, then disappeared into the woods and returned with an officer. ‘Englishman come.’ I followed. We entered a clearing. It was full of Germans plus sack-uniformed men. Betrayed? Then I realised that the Germans were not wearing their boots – they were prisoners, 21 of them. I entered the barn. Barney – the Aussie navigator (he’d been picked up as soon as he had landed) – was there, and filled me in as to the rest of our crew.
They sent me for my uniform and Ric, one of the Belgian officers, decided that flying boots would be too hot for me to wear constantly. He spoke excellent English and said ‘There’s a German dispatch rider who passes on a motor bike at 6 o’clock each night on the main road. His boots should fit you!’ Fortunately, news came through that no action was to be taken until further orders, because of recent reprisals.
We slept away from HQ and returned to the farm for meals. Ric took us with him during his contact with the 2nd Army who were then advancing from the south. One afternoon they decided to overstay lunch and sent for some wine etc. The afternoon pleasantly wore on. The Captain went out to ‘answer the call of nature’. He burst back through the door. Deutch! Deutch! They grabbed their rifles and went out through the opposite door. I thought that they were going out to confront the enemy, so the Lieutenant and I decided we should take them some ammunition. We stood chatting at the door and decided to follow. We didn’t realise that the enemy were approaching the other door, and got away just in time. We found the others and went back into the woods, crossing the track singly, for the Germans were on the track near the farm. There were three officers and six men.
We surrounded the farm. Inside, I discovered later that the Germans who were searching for food, went into the barn and found the navigator’s jacket hidden there hurriedly by the Captain’s little daughter. They confronted the old lady of the house threatening to shoot her. Someone fortuitously let go a shot – I don’t know which side. The Gerries panicked; three were killed, and one of our young lads was seriously wounded. We retreated to the next line of defence and I was handed a German grenade, previously ‘relieved’ from the enemy, as Ric put it.
Suddenly there was a huge explosion. The firing had attracted other Germans from the main road. They had blown up the farm, and we learned that the old lady had been taken away. I was angry, very angry, and asked if there was a way to get her back. No.
Can one imagine a six foot three Aussie from the bush joining me secretly in the forest to pray for the safety of the old dear? She was returned without harm the next day. Then it was time to disperse. All rifles and other arms that could not be concealed were discarded, and the lads were told to return home. The older men had gone to hold a bridge in Turnout on request from our forces.
Six of us reached the village of Vosselaar and hid the first night in a priest’s house. The young priest had frequently come armed to our previous hide-out bearing fruit, etc, and was with us during our confrontation with the enemy. The next night we moved to an empty house across the village. We were dressed in peasant clothes once more, and secretly brought in food under the Germans noses.
Next morning, back in our uniforms, we learned that the Germans were searching the village. I must add here, that the 21 German prisoners and an officer who had also been captured, had been asked by the Belgians to stay put for 24 hours. I was sceptical, but the Belgians were in charge. The men did stay put, but sadly they were surrounded by two German patrols who were seeking us and mistakenly thought that the prisoners were us. The patrols opened fire on them and killed every one.
When the Germans continued their search for us, a vehicle stopped outside our door. It was an empty house, just the place for fugitives. I prayed in a coalhouse – the car moved on. One afternoon a man arrived, still damp from swimming the Albert Canal. We were informed that the Allies were some 15 km away; this diverted us from our original plan to enter Turnout which had been half evacuated by the Germans. The Allies, who had failed to relieve the Arnhem lads via Eindhoven, were now coming our way. [Earlier, we had witnessed that huge armada of aircraft and gliders whilst hiding in the forest from another German search. We had been sheltering together with our rear Gunner, who we had met up with from another hide-out, and discussing the use of our salvaged Browning machine guns from the aircraft and the instruction of the Belgians in their use.]
I was taken to the local butcher’s house on the main street along which our on-coming forces would travel, and asked to stay up through the night waiting for their arrival in order to be sure to hand them plans of the mined roads ahead. I took some ‘Wakey- Wakey’ tablets from my escape kit, and remained alert all night.
Next morning, Sunday, there were cheers and flags – the Allies were coming! I went out into the street. There were no army vehicles – so instead I had to kiss all the children and shake hands with everyone before I rapidly managed to fight my way back into the house for fear of snipers in the village. Then there were more cheers, louder this time. There they were, our lads in column advancing towards us. I hailed the first vehicle. It had a soldier wearing a French helmet on the top. I asked (for I thought it appropriate) ‘Do you speak English?’ Suddenly up popped another head. ‘I hope so man’. I handed him the plans. We had a great celebration. Then I hitch-hiked back to Antwerp, later travelling on to Brussels for interrogation, and home.
As I walked up the road from the local station towards my home, coming towards me I saw a young girl who I had worked with prior to joining the RAF. Her face went ashen – ‘But you’re supposed to be dead!’ I smiled, she’d not seen a ghost.
In conclusion, I must add two things:
First, a more detailed sequence of thoughts while in the damaged aircraft:
We were so badly hit, that amazingly, one thought amongst others dominated my mind, for a fleeting moment. Truly, I was terrified of dying, but I was more terrified of afterwards. ‘I am 19 years old, what have I done to deserve Heaven?’ Fortunately, the answer to this ‘X Factor’ question came later. In St Paul’s words: ‘All our righteousness is as filthy as rags. Only in the cross of Christ comes the answer, He is the Gate to the Heavenly Sheep Fold.’
Secondly, an amazing coincidence, 40 years later:
When the young lad was wounded during the skirmish with the Germans, he lived for a few days, then died of his wounds. I was given an identity card using his name. (We carried the appropriate photographs for Belgium, Holland, and France for such emergencies). The young lad’s name deserves recognition – Louis Jan Schellekens. Forty years later a Belgian visitor went to the Torbay RAF Museum, and noticed that ‘my’ identity card which I had loaned to the museum was somewhat strange. The ‘photo’ [my photo] and name did not match. On his return home, the man reported the fact to the Mayor, who in turn sought the assistance of the Belgian Ambassador in London. The Ambassador resolved the mystery.