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.