Interview part 1
I entered the Cavalry school and 6 months later, I was a sergeant and everything went quite fast. Then I met a pilot who came every day to eat at the officers’ mess. He was a warrant officer, he was much older than me, he was 45 and I was hardly 18. He said to me : « What the hell are you doing here ? » He called me « manneke », as he was from Brussels. He added : « you should go to the Airforce, that’s much better ! »
So, he convinced me in a few days and one night, I told my father that the day after, I would ask to be transferred to the Airforce. That was quite easy, as the Airforce, as now, belonged to the Army and it’s quite easy to be sent from the Cavalry to the Airforce.
Two months later, I was ordered to go to Wevelgem, on 1 September, on the very day when England and France declared war to Germany. In Belgium, there was what was called the PPR (Pied de Guerre Renforcé= High Level War Preparations) ; there are certainly some abbreviations for it in Dutch too. So, I got to Wevelgem and as I already was an NCO, I was automatically appointed as promotion leader, since I had already led platoons. Everything went quite well, and as you probably already know, in the flying school, we were training on Avro 504 airplanes, which had been designed at the end of WWI .
Hitler and his gang decided to invade Belgium on 1 May 1940. Normally, the flying instructors were to evacuate the planes but on this day, there was an extra airplane but no pilot for it, so the school commander ordered me to fly this plane to Tours, in France. We had to land there and wait for orders, but at the end, we stayed there one day and a half ; the orders were to fly to the north to Caen, in Normandy, as it was the place where decisions were to be taken. So I flew the plane to Carpiquet airfield. All the aircraft were dismantled there and stored in containers, because the headquarters, probably in accordance with the French, had decided that flying training for the future Belgian pilots would be transferred to Morocco, as the planes lacked enough range to fly there. So the trainees and their instructors went by rail to Marseille where they boarded a ship to cross the Mediterranean and, finally, we got to Oujda in Morocco.
We waited there till the French said « war’s over ». The idea was to send the Belgians back to Belgium to be demobilized and, as we say in Brussels dialect « ? 1 ». So, we thought, if we go back to Belgium, we’ll be sent straight to Germany ; we took a train to Casablanca and there, we met the Belgian Consul. Then we met the captain of a British ship whose mission was to ferry British people back to Britain, as the war was over for the French. This boat was there, we asked the captain the permission to get on board , without any passport nor money, as we were stowaways. He agreed and said he’d ask his crew not to see nor hear us. Then he’d allow us to get on the bridge when in the international waters. We got to Gibraltar, then on 5 August 1940, we got to England .
We directly enlisted as volunteers for the RAF.
I got my RAF pilot wings in spring 1941. In June, (exact dates, I cannot remember any more), I was qualified as a fighter pilot and I went to 74 Squadron. That was my first British squadron, the Tiger squadron (after the war, every NATO airforce included a Tiger squadron, the Belgian one is 31 Squadron at Kleine Brogel) But at the beginning, the first Tiger squadron was British and the Americans followed, so I was quite proud to belong to this squadron, as it had played an important part in the Battle of Britain and had scored a lot of victories, but this before I joined the squadron. The Belgian ambassador and the Prime Minister, Mr Pierlot, said : « the Belgian pilots that are in England cannot go abroad, ; we want to keep them because, soon, we’ll land in Europe and we want to have a maximum of Belgian pilots to make Belgium free. »
Then I was transferred from 74 Squadron to 350 Squadron. You already have all these details, don’t you ? In my logbook, I have been credited with 49 sorties (which doesn’t mean 49 fights), it’s to say 49 take-offs to search for the enemy.
Sometimes we met none, sometimes we did and we fought, with some or no results. On 23 May 1942, there was a terrible fight over northern France, near St Omer, and my wingman,who was a man from Antwerp, and a very good friend of mine, Louis Peters, was shot down. I saw his plane going down but didn’t see any parachute ; I thought « he’s dead » ; on this day, I shot down a FW 190 ; I went back with only a few drops of fuel left. I couldn’t get back to my airfield, I had to land on the first airfield near the coast to refuel. This was one of the drawbacks of the Spitfire : it could only fly for 90minutes, then the engine stopped. This period was quite short, as you had first to fly across the Channel, find the enemy, fight and come back ».
And finally, on 1 June, we took off for a sweep, it’s to say 350 Squadron was top cover to protect bombers that came to attack an objective in Belgium. We thought « if they come to destroy an industry in Belgium, it’s certainly because it works for the Germans » and as we were top cover, it’s to say behind, we were the first to be attacked and the bombers were already on their way back to Blankenberge to the UK. 350 Squadron was attacked by over 20 FW, the fighter that had replaced the Messerschmitt (for the civilians, the Messerchmitt was best known, as it was the plane that flew during the Battle of Britain) and in 1941, the Germans produced the FW 190 which was better than the Spitfire V (the numbers indicated the various changes (engines, guns, etc) introduced all along the plane development) ; I personally flew the Spitfire 1, 2 ; numbers 3 and 4 were only prototypes that were never developed and then, there was the famous Spitfire V ,which was much inferior to the FW-190 ; it was slower, its climb rate was inferior, and its armament was lighter. And it was only in late 1942 that the Spitfire IX appeared…
But it was after me, because I had a good friend from Roeselaere, George Lievens, and in the same way as on the 23rd I had seen Louis Peeters being shot down, I also saw George Lievens shot down, no parachute, his plane diving into the sea. I thought « he’s dead » and that’s quite true, his plane and himself are still at the bottom of the North Sea. In the Airforce Museum in Brussels, there’s a tombstone with the words « missing in action at sea » but there’s no coffin in the grave. I’ll go there on 1 Nov. as there’s always a big ceremony with the military band that I always attend.
But let’s come back to our story., I can see the FW shooting down my friend; I was behind the German plane and higher, though my plane was slower on level flight ; if you are higher, you can dive at full speed and your speed increases. So I could get closer to the FW , but it was already turning back to Belgium, to Wevelgem, apparently, as I knew there was a squadron of FW based on the airfield where I learnt flying, but my instinct as a fighter pilot and good luck gave me the opportunity to close on it and to shoot it down. I effectively came quite close and I shot at it and it disappeared. At the same time, I looked upwards, as a fighter pilot’s head seems to be mounted on a swivel to be able to look upwards and rearwards in a fight ( it takes a few minutes to tell it, but it lasts only a few seconds) so I saw 3 FW, as Roeselaere is not far away from Wevelgem.
So I believed I hit the FW : I shot at it, I didn’t see it fall down, I saw no parachute, so I can’t claim a victory. I shot at it, it disapperaed, so I presume the plane or the pilot had been hit, but I was faced with 3 enemies and I thought « Bobby, check your fuel level ; you still have to fly across the sea » and we’d been flying for over an hour and that’s why we had several fights, circling fights, because there was a flying maneuver in which the Spitfire V was better that the FW, it was when we circled vertically, pulling 5G (you can see it on television, when you see astronauts training on rotating cabins ; now F-16 fighter pilots can pull 9G because they wear a pressure suit, but in WW2, we had no pressure suit. And when you pull 5G, it means you body weight is multiplied by 5 ; between 5g and 5.5G, you started to suffer from vision troubles and if you pulled higher Gs, you could faint. But if you did this vertical circle, in a turn and a half, you got behind the FW. That’s what I used to do, shooting a few rounds at a time, because we dindn’t have a lot of them onboard, ; so the 3 FW attacked me without hitting me, I shot at them, there were several small fights, and between each of them, I applied full speed and I finally got over the sea ; the fight had begun at 25,000 feet (you can convert it into metres as there are 3 feet in a metre) and every time I wanted to fly closer to a FW, I had to dive ; finally, we were halfway between Blankenberge and Dover, I could see the cliffs of Dover but the 3 FW were still there and I thought « they won’t let me go unscathed ; they want to get me down before I reach the coast, as they might meet other Spitfires.
At the end, while I was aiming at a FW in front of me, ( you know, now all the sights are electronic, for radar-guided missiles, but, at that time, we still used the old sights, somewhat improved, based on the same principle as in WW1, it’s to say in the windshield, you had circles and you got to aim accurately but to do so, you had to stabilize the plane because in fighting you used to zigzag but to aim, you need to stabilize the aircraft and suddenly, I felt the plane shuddering, it had been hit by the FW that had waited for me to be stabilized to shoot me down. Fortunately, we had an armoured plate behind our back that could stop machine gun bullets but no 20mm rounds. On the Spitfire, you had 2 20mm guns and there were 4 on the FW ; I could hear and feel the bullets crashing on the plate and I made myself as small as possible. After a few seconds, a 20mm round pierced though the side into my fuel tank and exploded and my aircraft became a burning wreck.
So I took to the parachute and jumped out of my plane but I was quite low (under 900 feet, it’s to say less than 300 metres) so I unlocked my harness, flew on my back, to eject from the plane, because the Spitfire cockpit was quite narrow ; I succeeded, I opened my parachute and finally fell into the sea. Fortunately, I had a small dinghy that I could inflate. I spent 63 hours in it at sea, 3 days and 2 nights, moving up and down with the waves, You know, a dinghy is smaller than a child’s inflatable boat ; it’s smaller than the table and you can’t lie in it, just sit down, with your legs extended.
I was picked up by a small boat of the Kriegsmarine, so I became a prisoner. At first, I was taken to Nieuport, I was interrogated but the Navy officer said to me : « You are a prisoner of the Luftwaffe, you don’t interest me. » You know, I was never insulted, as it is sometimes shown in the films, that happened only with SS men or Gestapo officers. I was in contact only with Luftwaffe pilots, and though we were enemies, we felt some respect for each other. Everyone his job, we did what we were trained for, the Germans as well as the Allies. »
I was first sent to Francfort, where there was an interrogation camp. I expected to be treated roughly there, but once again, the German officer who questioned me never yelled at me, never touched me but he already knew that I belonged to 305 Squadron. When flying on operations, we carried no badges ; when they went out in England, the Allies wore the names of their country, but never on operations. But that German officer spoke English better than I did, he certainly spent some time in England before the war broke out, as he spoke with a British accent. I could speak English well, but without any English accent, of course. So he said : « You are a Belgian » and I replied : « Not at all, I’m British, look at me, I’m wearing a British uniform. » He said : « Yes, you have a British uniform because you’re in the RAF, but you come from the Three Five Oh Squadron. » He was a member of the German Intelligence Service ; they gathered information from several sources and they used spies, the Fifth Column, etc. He said : « Oh yes, you do belong to 350 Squadron, you’re a Spitfire pilot and we know it quite well ».So I replied : « I ‘m not authorized to tell you which Squadron I belong to nor which plane I fought on ; all I can tell you is my name and my number, according to the Geneva Convention, and Germany signed it. » It was before Hitler, of course, but Hitler always said that he didn’t care about it.
It lasted for two days. I was kept in a cell, about the quarter of this room, 2m by 3.5m, with a bed, if I can call it a bed, let’s say a cot, with a blanket. But we were in June and the weather wasn’t cold ; there was also a small table and two chairs, that was all. So I stayed there for 48 hours, with nothing to drink nor eat. Fortunately, I didn’t smoke, but for those who did, there was no cigarette and this was a technique to weaken their resistance.
Two days later, he said to me : « you still refuse to admit it, but I do know that Laumans is a flying officer (we know your rank) at the 350, the Belgian Squadron. We also know that the Belgian Squadron doesn’t have the most up-to-date aircraft, so you do not know military secrets. So, you’ll be sent to the Stalag Luft III in Silesia, where you’ll meet your friend Louis Peters ». So it’ll take me two minutes to tell you what followed : I was in a bad shape after those two days (the day before, I had some fever, 39°C), with no drink and no food, and when I heard that I was to meet my friend, who I thought had been killed on the 23rd of May, it took me half a second to utter : « What ? He’s alive ? » And he said : « Mr Laumans, so you admit you belong to 350 Squadron, as Louis Peters. » So I said : « Ok, you win ».
You certainly have heard about the Great Escape ? It took place in this Stalag and I played a part in it.
There was what was called the X Committee, with people who had already escaped and so had some useful experience in this field. They were commanded by a British major, a Squadron leader, who before the war was a barrister and he had already escaped seven times. He was also a Spitfire pilot and he had been shot down in 1941. As the Stalag Luft III didn’t exist then, he’d been interned in other camps, but every time, he’d been captured and he’d been told by the Gestapo that he would be executed if he tried to escape again. He replied that it was forbidden to execute war prisoners but the Gestapo replied that they were fed up with him and finally, he was killed ; he was among the 50 victims of this escape attempt. We worked for ten months to dig a 100-m-long tunnel, ten metres below the ground level, with rails and small wagons. I suppose you’ve seen the film, that is broadcasted sometimes on TV. At the end, you can see Steve Mc Queen riding a motorbike, ; that was Hollywood, the reality was quite different.
But the 1st half of the film, it’s to say the preparation of the escape is 99% accurate. All that happened, the prisoners were in contact with the Germans to get from them some pieces of information in exchange for a cigarette or some chocolate. Of course that couldn’t occur with German officers, but this worked with ordinary soldiers or guards, etc. At first, we asked them to give us some ordinary, unimportant pieces of information but after, we asked for more important details. There were war prisoners we called « the contact men », about 20 of them everywhere in the camp, with one Belgian, Roger De Wever (he wasn’t a friend of the NVA president, of course, but it was the same name). The contact men could speak German very well and their job was to get in the camp everything that was needed, for example maps, special ink to make false identity papers, and even a camera, because we needed photos on the Ausweiss. And when one of the Germans soldiers said : « I agree to bring a map but a camera… can you imagine what would happen if I’m discovered ? » So the man in contact with him said : « Anyway, mate, you’re in a bad situation, because if you refuse, you’ll be betrayed to higher authorities ». And the German soldiers knew what happened in such a case : they were immediately sent to the Russian front.
Of course, here in Sagan (it was the town where the camps were built), it was easy, as they had only 50% chances to come back from the Russian front. And that’s how we could get everything we needed. We dug this tunnel for 10 months, because it was quite long ; I never got digging in it, because it was done by specialists, a very small number of them, but there were many other things to do : get rid of the sand as the ground was mainly made of sand, and not clay ; draw maps, because we had only a few of them, but the X committee had the idea to try to evacuate, if everything went well, 200 prisoners, between dusk and daybreak ; we’d have time enough to send these people through the 100-m-long tunnel, with a bag or a small suitcase. Now, it’s called the Great Escape, because it’s the title of the film, but the escape committee called it « operation 200 », as every military operation has got a particular name.
« Silence » was the motto for the 600 prisoners who worked for it, removing the sand, drawing the maps, plus handmaking 200 civilian suits from uniforms that had to be modified, with no metal buttons, etc. All this took 10 months and when someone volunteered to Big X, that man was ready to escape. But as there were more than 200 volunteers, we drew lots, as in the British lottery. A small group of some 20 lads were guaranteed to go, as they had worked quite a lot for this endeavour, and the others drew lots ; in my barrackroom, which started with 6 people but was then up to 9 people on the night of the 23rd to the 24th March 1944, when the Great Escape took place, there were 4 Belgians (Louis Peters, myself, De Wever and Picard )
And when after drawing lots we came back, he said : « I’ve picked a good number », I replied : « I’ve got a bad one ; I’ve been working for this tunnel for 10months, I wanted to escape and I cannot even try ! ». So, I took a part in the Great Escape but I didn’t escape ! He did escape but 3 days later, he was dead. He was caught at once by the Gestapo and he was shot dead, either with a pistol or a machine gun, as it is shown in the film. And you know that, in spite of the Geneva Convention, 50 officers were murdeed by the Gestapo without being judged, Picquart being among the victims…
The Russians were only some 20 kms away, we could hear the guns and the machine guns, and one evening, around 10 pm, the Germans came in big numbers, the guards armed with the machine guns and shouted : « Ausgehen, ausgehen ! You have only 2 hours to pick up your belongings before we leave the camp for another camp ». We were in winter ; in Silesia in winter, temperatures are below 20°C and snow is over 60cm thick. We were not to be evacuated via the motorways, of course, as they had to be kept free for the Army. So, everyone took his belongings ; in every room, people said : « take your warmest clothes, several pullovers, your uniform and overcoat, socks, etc ». The Germans gave each of us a Red Cross parcel when we left the camp, because they wouldn’t give us anything to eat or drink for 8 days. So we walked along small roads or paths through the countryside, there was thick snow everywhere, with temperatures of minus 20°C. We were underfed, in spite of the Red Cross parcel, but we went on walking, in the Army style : 50 minutes walking, then a 10-minute stop to have some rest. So we walked some 200 kms to get to a rather important town that was called…. I forgot it… Spremberg ( ?), I believe.
We had already stopped in Musko … it wasn’t Moscow… but it was spelled M-U-S-K-O , where we stayed for 3 days. We were lucky as there was a very big state that belonged to a German count (I suppose he was a Nazi, because if he wanted to keep his money, he had to join the Nazi party), he was an aristocrat with a big state and a castle, with many horses and racing cars. So we were parked there and our block was lucky enough to be kept in the horses stables. That was nice as… The count had run away but his servants were still there, the horses in the stables had fresh straw and the stables were heated (the horses were better cared for than the men, you know) so we jumped into the straw, we stayed there 3 days.
Then thaw set in ; it was still cold but when we left Musko, the snow had melted and we walked another 2 days as far as … (I’ve just said that name…it’s recorded anyway). And the Germans told us that from that town we would take trains. We’d walked over 200 kms in very difficult conditions : some people fell along the road but unlike the Jews who were shot dead when they fell, here, there were two or three horse-driven carts from various farms and the people who were ill could be taken onto the carts. In the train, we were packed into cattle wagons, like the Jews, but we were lucky to go West, but the doors were closed. It took us 3 days and 3 nights, because we mainly moved at night ; in the day, we moved to railway sidings, because the RAF and the Americans attacked the trains.
When we got further West than Berlin longitude, there were no longer any attacks by the Russians, but by the English and the Americans and the Belgians too, from the 350. The Germans had allowed us to use some chalk to write « POW » on the wagon roofs, with big white letters on the train. We hoped the aircraft pilots would be intelligent enough not to attack us and effectively, we were not attacked by airplanes. Then we got along side lines, because the main traffic used main lines that had to remain open. So it took us 3 days to get to Bremen. When we noticed that, we thought : « we’ve crossed the Elbe and the Oder, and we are really « at home » in the Allied area, but the war wasn’t over yet, so we were sent to an old, closed down camp, where British sailors had been detained. The camp was so old that the sailors had been evacuated, so the camp was empty and in a very bad condition but they didn’t find another camp for us, so we had to stay there for some weeks, even several months until April. Fortunately, they went on giving us Red Ross parcels. In this camp, we hadn’t the same comfort as in Stalag III , we were much more than 10 in the rooms though not in the same horrible situation as the unfortunate Jews but it was much uncomfortable ! But we had something to eat and in April, the Allies had crossed the Rhine and they were not far away ; the Germans decided to transfer us once again. The camp was between Bremen and Hamburg, and the only country still occupied was Denmark .
But things had changed : it was spring and in 1945, we had an early spring, with a beautiful, hot weather. The trees were covered with flowers, there were vegetables in the fields, etc. When we left the camp, we received 3 parcels (cigarettes, chocolate, etc). While walking, we could stop in farms and for 2 cigarettes, we got 6 eggs from the farmers. We also had soap in the parcels. For years, the Germans washed themselves with some soap ersatz while we had real soap from America, and we could even exchange some soap for a chicken, for example. This march wasn’t difficult because our SPO was no longer Van Dindeiner because after the Great Escape affair, he was arrested and judged but he was fortunate enough not to be executed ; he didn’t even go to jail because of his old age ; he became ill and finally he was sent to hopital.He didn’t die but considering his rank of Ober and what he’d done in WWI (The Nazis had considered he was resposnsible for the Great Escpe) he went to hospital and after the war, he was taken by the British to England to be interrogated on the German aspect, and so, he got safe.
Well, where did I stop ? The mental state between the English and the Germans… Van Dindeiner didn’t command the German side any longer, it was a major who had less authority and our SBO who was a colonel even summoned the German major when he wanted to tell him something….well, at the moment when it was decided to move along, our colonel said : « we have already marched before but it was quite exhausting. You Germans want us to walk at least 20 kms in a day. Here, we’ll follow you as we are forced to, but we’ll walk 5 to 7 kms at the maximum and then we’ll stop » and the German officer said : « Jawohl ». That’s what happened : we walked 5 to 7kms until we found farms with big barns ; in the evening, we prepared some picnics, we bought eggs with our cigarettes and finally, everything was OK. We walked for more than 15 days, because, when you walk 5 to 7 kms a day to go from Hamburg to Lübeck, it takes a long time … We never reached Lübeck because when we were south/south-west of it, we learnt there was a cholera epidemy , or something like that, so our colonel said : « We stop before we get to Lübeck, otherwise all the poor prisoners will be infected and we don’t want to die of cholera. » So the German agreed. We discovered a big business estate, with big sheds, which we made more comfortable with straw , so we stopped there some 15 kms south/south-west to Lübeck.
We stayed there 8 days, at the end of April, and the Germans didn’t decide anymore, they were there and the poor guards from the Volksturm were people between 45 and 50 years old, they had been given a rifle, they were in a very bad physical condition and we, the prisoners, were in a physically better shape… when we walked, sometimes, the prisoner carried the guard’s rifle !!! So you can imagine the atmosphere of this last march.
Without any opposition from the Germans, we had decided to write « British POWs ahead careful ! » and we knew we’d be freed by the Americans and the British in this Northwestern part of Germany. It was Montgomery’s 8th Army, made of British and Canadian soldiers who had liberated Holland. And on the 3rd of May, a British recce team came in a gun carrier, a lieutenant, a sergeant and their driver. They found a board and a prisoner riding a bicycle… In the farms, all the farmers had bikes, so we borrowed them. We had given many things to the farmer of the farm we lived in, so we asked him to borrow his bike and have a ride in the neighbourhood. The Germans were still there but they were quite silent. We had decided to stop there and they had agreed with us. They just asked us not to try to escape to try to join the Allies, as we might be killed. We agreed with them, as it was only a matter of days.
So this prisoner had borrowed a bicycle and he was stopped by the 3 British soldiers. « Don’t shoot, I’m British ! » he shouted. The officer in the carrier said « : You’re a prisoner, arent you ? » « Yes, I am, he replied, and there are several thousands like me a few kms from here ». The British officer asked to be led to the commanding officer. So we could see the cyclist leading the carrier to us. That’s how we were freed and immediately, the old German guards threw their rifles on the ground and shouted : « Kamerad, Kamerad, you’re no longer prisoners, You’re free ! .
© Belgian Voices of the Sky 2013
Yves Van den Brouck
Thanks to :
Michel Calluy – Translation
Bobby Laumans – Story
André Bar – Photos