Archive for March, 2012

A few years ago while working on a book called ‘Airman Missing’, a short biography of RAF evader John Evans (no longer in print!), I became intrigued with those who had helped him evade capture in occupied Belgium.

John, who was originally from Goodwick, Pembrokeshire, evaded the Germans for 114 days after his Halifax was shot down in May 1944.

His helpers included Emile Roiseux and Vincent and Ghislaine Wuyts-Denis, but for the purposes of this article I’d like to concentrate on the Biernaux family of Hasselt. I am currently working on a TV documentary of John’s life (and an expanded version of the book) and am hoping to interview relatives of those who helped John.

John and fellow crew members Doug Lloyd and Bill “Robbie” Robertson were guided from a makeshift camp in a wood to Hasselt by Florent Biernaux on Sunday, May 20, 1944.

I did not realize when writing ‘Airman Missing’ just what a hub of Résistance activity the four-storey townhouse at 16 Boulevard Thonissen, Hasselt, had become.

Since the book came out I have been contacted by fellow researcher Jo Ann Michel, whose uncle, RCAF gunner Walter Mullaney, passed through Hasselt in June 1943.
Jo Ann’s documents include affidavits regarding the Biernaux family’s involvement in clandestine actions, including the production of undercover newspapers.

Florent Biernaux had been born in Hasselt on April 3, 1896, and had served with distinction during the Great War. He had been decorated with the Chevalier de l’Ordre de Leopold II avec glaives and the Croix de Guerre avec palmes. (He would receive another Croix de Guerre as part of a WW2 haul of medals which also included a Médaille de la Résistance, a King’s Medal for Courage in the Cause of Freedom, from Britain, and a Freedom Medal from the Americans.)

Florent’s wife was no less remarkable. Olympe Doby was born at Cambron St Vincent on January 24, 1900. One US document reads: “In addition to shouldering the responsibilities of chief of her group, Madame Biernaux also sheltered an estimated fifty Allied fliers in her own house, where she fed, clothed and cared for them over varying periods of time.

“From her home in the center of Hasselt, surrounded by German occupation forces and police agents, she supervised the multiple tasks of her group, gathering retrieved airmen from the surrounding area and providing them with food, civilian disguises, false papers and circulation permits…

“Disregarding all danger to herself and to her family, who worked closely with her, she inspired her associates by her own courageous acts. Whenever the opportunities for evacuation of aviators involved highly dangerous risks, Madame Biernaux personally conveyed the airmen along German-patrolled roads to Brussels or Liege.”

She led the organisation, it said, for a “year and nine months” until her and her family’s arrest. (She appears to have taken over control of the group following the arrest of its leaders Lucien and Tina Collin in June 1943.)

Her medals included a Croix de Guerre, a Médaille de la Résistance and a Freedom Medal.

The couple had two children. John has no recollection of seeing their daughter, Elaine (born March 1930) but he remembers their son, Raymond (born May 1924).

Raymond was affiliated to the Groupe Hoornaert-Dirix from August 1940 and, although arrested with his parents, was awarded the Chevalier de l’Ordre de Leopold II avec glaives and the Croix de Guerre avec palmes. These awards, sadly, would be made posthumously.

John remembered that food and medicine were in good black-market supply at the Biernaux household and, although the town also seemed “well-stocked” with Germans, some of the dangers came from closer to home.

“The day after we arrived the Americans sent over some Thunderbolt fighters to dive bomb the bridge across the Albert Canal which runs through Hasselt,” said John.
For three days, the men watched the raids from Biernaux’s backyard. On Wednesday, May 25, Florent Biernaux took them by tram to Liège where they waited in a café while Florent went to make a phone call. Fifteen minutes later a man and girl came in. “They talked for a while and then Biernaux told us that we would now go with these new friends. He wished us good luck, said goodbye and left.”

In a letter to John Evans after the war, Florent explained that his family, along with other members of the organisation, including friend Jacques Constant Bertels, had been arrested on August 5, 1944.

Florent was tortured by the Gestapo while, on August 14, Olympe and two other members of the group, Mrs Degueldre and her daughter, were moved to St-Gilles and from there to Ravensbrück. Florent was able to escape on September 2 but his family was to suffer for some time to come.

The three women came home on May 24, 1945. Olympe had lost 45 pounds in weight.

The family already knew that Jacques Bertels had perished in Neuengamme concentration camp, near Hamburg, but, as Florent wrote, “we know nothing of my son”.

He added: “I hope that God will give us back my son Raymond and then we can begin again a new life.”

Sadly, that was not to be the case. Raymond had died in Neuengamme on March 3, 1945. He was 20.

Medals and citations aside, the real testament to the bravery of the Biernaux family was the lives they saved. The family helped around 60 airmen before their arrest.

‘I Fought Them All’, the biography of Irish prizefighting legend, Tom Sharkey, has been shortlisted for a Wishing Shelf Award.

The book is nominated in the adult non-fiction category. The winner is due to be announced in April.

Top major boxing website, Max Boxing, said of the book:  “It emits quality from the first opening crack of the hard cover until its final satisfying closing.”

“Seventy-five per cent of my life I can keep in a normal context. I have to confess that the 25 per cent is my bogey man… It’s the place where I don’t like to linger for long.”

Those were the words of Jim McWade in a Wales This Week film called ‘Living With Dementia’ which was broadcast last year.

The film followed Jim, who suffers with Alzheimer’s Disease, and his wife Maureen, and Peter Oldacre, who was looking after his wife Ann.

The programme was now been shortlisted for a Guild of Health Writers’ award. It is up against three items from BBC network news and a programme from BBC Radio 4 in the Best Broadcast Programme category.

You can read about the making of the programme on the ITV Wales blog and watch the film in two parts here.

“We hear from the guards that one bomb blew up Nagasaki.” Les Spence writes in his diary, August 1945

For more than three years during World War II, Les Spence was a prisoner of the Japanese.

Spence, who would later go on to become president of the Welsh Rugby Union, had been captured in early March 1942 when British forces on Java were forced to surrender.

He would pass through a number of prison camps on Java, be held briefly at Changi,Singapore, and be made to work at a mining camp in Japan.

Throughout the whole time, Les Spence kept a diary, which is published in hardback this week as ‘From Java To Nagasaki’.

The surviving books begin at the start of 1942 with a convoy of ships heading for a destination unknown to those on board.

Les’ writing takes in the surrender of Allied forces on Java, the conditions and life in the camps and the growing death toll.

It shows how the prisoners learned to survive: bargaining for food, playing football and rugby, and maintaining a sense of discipline.

One of the most intense sections covers the prisoners’ journey in the suffocating hold of a so-called ‘hellship’, taking them from Java to Japan via Singapore.

Les wrote in three small books, covering the period right up to November 1945.

On his last entry Les, liberated and transported across the Pacific to the United States, has crossed to New York and boarded the Queen Mary for return to the UK.

There are many incidents which stand out from the diaries. But the fact that Les’ prison camp in Japan was less than 100 miles from Nagasaki when the bomb goes off is fascinating.

The camp slowly discover what has happened and, then, after Japan’s surrender, travel outside the camp to see how Japanese society has broken down under siege and attack.

The prisoners are then transported out of Japan via the docks at Nagasaki. Les records the state of the city as he passes through.

After the war, Les married his sweetheart Babs – with friend and former fellow POW Wilfred Wooller as his best man.

He returned to his love of sport. He was to become chairman of Cardiff Rugby Club and joint secretary of Glamorgan County Cricket Club, and was awarded the MBE.

By the time Les died in 1988, aged 81, he had become one of the leading administrators in Welsh sport. Memorial gates were installed at Cardiff Arms Park in his name.

It had been in perhaps his greatest role, as president of the Welsh Rugby Union, that he had helped take a small step to heal the wounds opened between the UK and Japan during World War II.

In 1973 he had formed a firm friendship with Shiggy Konno, manager of the visiting Japanese rugby side. And two years later he led the Welsh rugby team on a tour of Japan.

As the South Wales Echo reported: “[Les] learned to forgive if not forget the tragedy of war.”

It had been Les Spence’s wish that his diaries were one day published. His family tried to fulfil that wish shortly after his death but when the diaries were entrusted to a third party they were lost.

They were discovered years later in the back drawer in a newspaper office and passed to me.

This month, 70 years after that surrender on Java, they are published in full – with complete notes on the places and names mentioned throughout.

These include people like rugby players Ken Street and Cardiff City footballers Ernie Curtis, Billy James and ‘Jackie’ Pritchard.

Before they even arrived on Java, Les confided to his diary: “It will be no picnic. I am afraid some of us will not see the end of next month.”

What he was to write over the next more than 40 months is a remarkable testament to courage and endurance in the face of hardship and cruelty – and a first-hand account of how to hold onto hope when all seems lost.

South Wales Echo covers the launch of ‘From Java To Nagasaki’

Western Mail covers the launch of ‘From Java To Nagasaki’