Canadian airman Bill Robertson’s return to the crash site in Hasselt made national news in Belgium.
See the full clip here: Bill Robertson
Canadian airman Bill Robertson’s return to the crash site in Hasselt made national news in Belgium.
See the full clip here: Bill Robertson
A Pembrokeshire airman, who was shot down over Belgium during World War 2, has enjoyed an emotional reunion with a former member of his crew.
Pilot John Evans, who was born in Goodwick, was visited by his former bomb aimer, Bill Robertson, who travelled from Canada for the meeting.
The two men are the last of the crew of a Halifax bomber which was set alight by a German night-fighter on the night of May 12/13, 1944.
They had been taking part on a raid on the railway marshalling yards at Hasselt.
The whole crew parachuted to safety. Both John and Bill were able to make contact with the local resistance.
“We were kept together for a while, then taken to separate safe houses and did not know anything about each other until after the war,” said John, who is now 95.
Many of the people who helped John and Bill were later arrested by the Gestapo. Both met up with those who survived after the war.
“The people who helped us took the most tremendous risks,” said Bill, 93. “For themselves and for their families.”
Both men were hidden until September 1944 when they were liberated by the advancing American forces.
On saying goodbye to John, Bill said: “This may be the last time we see each other. But, who knows, we didn’t think we would have this meeting.”
The men met in Calverton, near Nottingham, where John now lives near his daughter, Judy.
He still has a number of relatives in Pembrokeshire, including his brother-in-law Tom Morris, a retired police sergeant from Cardigan Road, Haverfordwest, and his niece Georgina Youngs, of Fishguard.
On his trip to Europe, Bill also met John’s brother, Doug, who lives in Surrey and was himself a bomber pilot during World War 2.
Bill then travelled to Hasselt where local historians have laid a memorial stone where the men’s Halifax bomber crashed.
* The book ‘Airman Missing’ which told John’s story is currently out of print but is planned for it to be released as an e-book later this year.
Just found a wonderful memory of Cardiff’s historic win at the Twickenham Sevens in the spring of 1939 in an article from Wales Online.
The team featured Les Spence and Wilf Wooller who three years later would be captured by the Japanese in Java.
Les kept a secret diary (of which a lot more here: https://greglewisinfo.wordpress.com/tag/from-java-to-nagasaki/) in the camp and on April 25, 1942 he wrote:
“No working party today. Very hot. Played chess and bridge most of the day. Passed a very pleasant hour with Wilf reminiscing on our past exploits. Three years ago today we were playing 7s at Twickenham.” (‘From Java To Nagasaki’, Magic Rat Books)
In the Wales Online article from 2011, 91-year-old Graham Hale recalled how Cardiff were the only Welsh-based club to lift the trophy.
“Only our captain, Wilf Wooller, had ever played in Sevens before as it was not played in Wales and it appears he was in the Sale side that had won in 1936,” said Graham. “I was a centre then and with Wilf at outside-half, we had Gwyn Porter outside me and Willie Davies, the brother of the Wales prop Cliff, playing scrum-half, though he was really an outside-half.
“Willie was a splendid player but turned professional soon afterwards. In the forwards were Selby Davies, Evan Jones and Les Spence, while Wilf dropped the Wales forward ‘Wendy’ Davis, as Wilf said he was too slow.
“Selby, ‘Wendy’ and I had all been at Cardiff High School.
“We had a small practice and the next day (April 22, 1939) we caught the train to Twickenham.
“We had never seen a Sevens match and watched the first one from the grandstand, the ground was full.
“We opened against the good St Mary’s Hospital side and the referee said we had two minutes left and we were losing 6-0.
“We ran down field and I was clear, but for some reason I stopped and dropped a goal.
“It was four points then and a try was three.
“It was the only drop goal I ever attempted!
“From the kick-off we got the ball and when I received it, I was again clear and scored to make it 7-6. I don’t think we attempted the conversion.”
Cardiff then beat the Met Police 5-3 and Birkenhead Park 8-5 in the semi-final.
The BBC broadcast had broken down and those in the Cardiff club were resigned to the team losing.
However, Cardiff met London Scottish in the final.
“Wilf was always loud off the pitch, but quiet on it,” added Mr Hale.
“He sat with me watching the Scotland fly-half Logie Bruce Lockhart run rings round their opponents.
“He said that if I got Lockhart low, he would take him and the ball high.
“We did and won 11-6.
“We caught the train home with Wilf running down the platform as it was going.
“We got in the club that night and nobody knew we had won the splendid Kinross Arber Trophy.
“It was a great day to remember.”
Like Les and Wilf, Graham joined the army during the war and became a POW in North Africa.
A D-Day Commando, filter room girl and RAF evader feature in ‘Welsh Heroes of World War 2’ which is now available to watch on-line.
The three programmes take Ted Owens, Eileen Younghusband and John Evans on emotional trips down memory lane to revisit their WW2 experiences.
The series ends with RAF evader John Evans, who spent four months on the run in Occupied Belgium, paying tribute to the Resistance heroes who helped him.
And, in an historic moment, he meets up with one of the Luftwaffe aces whose job it was to shot RAF bombers down.
UPDATE: Received a message from Dr Rolf Ebhardt, the Luftwaffe nightfighter ace, who features in ‘Welsh Heroes of World War 2: Airman on the Run’. Rolf came to the UK to meet the programme’s main character, John Evans.
Have viewed the film, Rolf says: “I was impressed about the marvellous outcome of the interview. So the two old men are still “going strong” (at least more or less!).
I am glad I could represent the former enemy in a dignified manner to your countrymen,which in turn helps for good relations between our two nations, to come together also in future in friendship.”
I filmed a long interview with Rolf, which has never been shown anywhere: this was his first TV appearance. We are now working on plans for another documentary.
A veteran of 41 Commando has made an emotional return to the beaches of Normandy.
Ted Owens, aged 88 and from Pembroke Dock, Wales, returned to the spot at which he had been wounded during the landings as part of filming for an upcoming television programme.
Ted also made an astonishing visit to a town in the Netherlands where civilians paid a terrible price – not only at the hands of the Germans but of the British too.
“It was an amazing trip into the past for me,” said Ted. “I was able to walk near Sword Beach where I landed and was wounded.
“We also went to the Walcheren Islands where I took part in a commando landing exactly 68 years ago this November.
“I spoke to many local people there. That was very moving indeed.”
Ted’s trip was filmed for the first in a special three-part series, titled ‘Welsh Heroes of World War 2’, which will be broadcast on ITV Wales on Thursday, November 1.
Ted attended a special service at Bayeux War Cemetery and was invited to the village of Maizet, along with other Welsh veterans.
Maizet holds a service every year to honour the Welsh soldiers who liberated the village in 1944.
From France, Ted travelled to Westkapelle, a town in the Dutch Walcheren islands, which were the scene of a crucial battle late in 1944.
Ahead of the invasion by troops, including Ted, the RAF bombed dykes to flood the island and weaken the German defences.
In Westkapelle, Ted met people who remember the destruction that the bombing caused.
* Watch WELSH HEROES OF WORLD WAR 2: D-DAY COMMANDO online now. D-DAY COMMANDO
In early 1942 a courageous band of Welshmen found themselves fighting side by side against the all-conquering Japanese army.
The men, who had joined up to provide air defences for Cardiff, Newport and Barry, had been sent to the Far East as the Japanese bore down on Britain’s “impregnable fortress” at Singapore.
But the battle-hardened Japanese swept through the jungles, mountains and mangrove swamps of the Malay Peninsula and took Singapore in seven days.
So, instead, the men of the 77th Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment were diverted to Java (now part of Indonesia).
Many of the 77th were sportsmen. A large number of the pre-war Cardiff RFC team were among its ranks. There were Glamorgan cricketers and footballers too, including a veteran of Cardiff City’s 1927 FA Cup winning team.
Like all sports people, they’d sometimes had to chase lost causes – but not like this one.
They were forced to put down their guns and begin more than three and a half years of captivity.
The focus of attention on prisoners in the Far East is understandably often drawn to the Thai-Burma ‘Death’ Railway, built by the forced labour of prisoners of war.
But many prisoners captured on Java were sent to Japan and some found themselves in a camp not far from the city of Nagasaki.
They would eventually, after years of hardship, witness the unleashing of a new weapon by the Americans, the plutonium bomb.
Among them was Les Spence, who had captained Cardiff RFC in 1936-37 and would go on to be a president of the WRU during the 1970s.
A keen observer of human nature, Spence – who was promoted from sergeant to sergeant major soon after his arrival in Java – decided to keep a secret diary, which has now been published as a hardback book, “From Java To Nagasaki”.
Spence’s 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.
The 77th had trained to fight the Germans in the deserts of the Middle East but the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, meant they were diverted to the Far East.
Their troopship, part of a large convoy, arrived in Batavia (now Jakarta) on Java on February 3, 1942.
Before they even arrived on Java, Spence 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 writes for the next few years is a remarkable testament to courage and endurance in the face of hardship and cruelty – and a firsthand account of how to hold on to hope when all seems lost.
The 77th’s defence of Java got off to a terrible start as the army tried to move many of them by train to defend the east of the island.
Les Spence writes:
“February 4/February 5, 1942
We left by train for Surabaya at 6.30am, all in wonderful spirit… We stopped at our last station at 11pm and on leaving we sang Cwm Rhondda. Then at 3am in the morning a terrible catastrophe befell us.
A head-on collision with a goods train loaded with bombs and petrol. It was terrible. I found poor old Ken dead. Jimmy Boxall, Stoodley, and Capt McMillan. Some had terrible injuries and I do not think they will live.”
The troop train had crashed into an ammunition train. Around thirty members of the 77th were killed and nearly one hundred injured. The cause of the crash remains unknown, although some suggest a signalman loyal to the Japanese might have been responsible.
The “poor old Ken” referred to by Spence was Battery Sergeant Major Ken Street, a well-known Welsh rugby forward. He had played alongside Spence and Wilf Wooller, an officer in the 77th, for Cardiff Rugby Club.
For several days the remaining men of the 77th tried to defend Java. But for both British and Dutch forces on the island, the situation was hopeless.
“March 8, 1942
A day that will live in my memory. The Dutch army surrendered and we were left with the baby. We were ordered to fight on but later on the order was countermanded… I never thought I would live to see this day out.”
The following day, Spence noted: “We’ve surrendered after being on this island for six weeks… So the war is over as far as we are concerned. Just prisoners of war.”
But surrender was to be just the start of Spence’s story.
For the first 18 months Spence and his comrades were kept in two prison camps on Java. Spence keeps a daily account of how they coped with their new life and with the ever-present fear of death from starvation or disease.
He noted on May 28, 1942:
“Another death occurred today. It’s very, very serious this dysentery. I think we are in for a very rough time and many good people will die with this disease. I pray to God that I will come out safely.”
Spence makes regular notes in his diary about news received from outside, which he codenames ‘ice cream’. It’s unclear but the news may have come via an illicit radio.
“June 8, 1942
Ice-cream good but must not be too optimistic. Long argument re what we should do to Germany after the war. I think we should spilt the country up and put a government in charge of the state. I think we will be here at least another 12 months.”
The sportsmen in the camp quickly got round to organising rugby ‘internationals’ and a football ‘league’.
“July 2, 1942
Played soccer for the camp and beat number 3 camp 4-0. I did not enjoy the game. I lost my gold identity disc. Am feeling very despondent. I do hope I will find it.”
Also playing these strange games behind the wire fence in Java were Welsh international Ernie Curtis, who had been the youngest member of Cardiff City’s 1927 FA Cup winning side; former Cardiff City and Wales centre half Billy James and Cardiff City goalkeeper John ‘Jackie’ Pritchard.
Perhaps the most dominant player, according to the diaries, was Lieutenant Wilfred Wooller. Wooller was one of Wales’ greatest all-round sportsmen. Before the war he had not only captained Wales at rugby, he had played cricket for Glamorgan, briefly played up front for Cardiff City and represented his country at squash.
After the war, he went on to captain Glamorgan to its first County Championship and to become a test selector for England. He would also become a distinguished writer and broadcaster.
Spence and Wooller were to spend a lot of time talking about the old days. At one point in his journal Spence remembers April 22, 1939, a “big day in the history of Cardiff Rugby Club”, when they had been in the team which won the Middlesex Sevens at Twickenham.
Remembrance of good times past would be important to the prisoners. After all, they had no idea when they might get out, if they got out at all. “I look back on my past life and deplore the time I’ve wasted,” Spence wrote in October 1942, while also wondering if his girlfriend, Babs, was well. He wished he had proposed before he left and feared he had now left it too late.
In September 1943 Spence and some members of the 77th were loaded into the hold of a ship called the Ussuri Maru. After brief stops in Singapore and Formosa they arrived in Japan a month later.
For the next two years Japan would be Spence’s home. He and other members of the 77th were housed in what the Japanese designated Camp 8 Kamo near the village of Inatsuki or Inatsukimachi, in Kyushu, Southern Japan.
Stanley Roberts, of Barry, was in the same camp. He remembers the huts there were “the low-weather boarded type with felted roofs and raised floors of ‘tatami’ straw matting… Partitions divided the huts into separate rooms, housing four, six or eight men, depending on size, and each was lit by a single light bulb.”
This was a coal mining camp producing fuel for the Japanese war machine. The prisoners were forced to work in the mine.
“January 17, 1944
I narrowly escape death today when I was carrying a girder, struck by trucks and all came off line just in front of me. Severely shaken. I thank God for being still alive.”
Others were not so lucky.
Terrible tragedy this evening. Rabinovitch fell down shaft, instantly killed. Very popular fellow. Cast gloom over camp.”
Liberation for the prisoners came following the dropping of the plutonium bomb on Nagasaki, a city less than 100 miles from Spence’s camp.
“We had rather exciting morning, going down [the air-raid shelter] no fewer than four times,” he writes on August 9, 1945. “We saw no planes.”
Only four planes flew on the raid that destroyed Nagasaki, and the camp did not understand what had happened at first. The Japanese guards were in a state of confusion for days.
“We hear from the guards that one bomb blew up Nagasaki,” Spence wrote. “The huge cloud we saw must have been big oil wells catching fire. We must now take over the camp.”
On August 18, 1945, Spence’s diary marks his 1259th day as a POW. But it is more than a month before he leaves Camp 8.
“September 21, 1945
We left camp today… I left at 8am in charge of 215 English. The whole village turned out to see us off. I was the last man to leave the camp and the first to come in. We had uneventful train journey to Nagasaki and then we saw the result of the atomic bomb. It was simply astounding, nothing left standing for miles, everything flat and burnt out.”
The prisoners were taken by sea to San Francisco. They then travelled east by train and boarded the Queen Mary in New York on November 13, 1945.
As the luxury liner began its trip to Southampton, the soldiers received a distribution of letters from home.
And with that Spence made the final entry in his diary: “I received five letters. Pleased to see that Babs is still waiting. I hope that she will accept my proposal. Lovely day, beautiful sunshine.”
After the war, Les married Babs. His friend and former fellow POW Wilfred Wooller was his best man.
As well as running the family china and glassware firm, Les returned to his love of sport.
He was to become chairman of Cardiff Rugby Club and joint secretary of Glamorgan County Cricket Club.
By the time he died in 1988, aged 81, Les Spence 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.”
* ‘From Java To Nagasaki’ is published by Magic Rat Books (www.magicrat.co.uk) and is priced £16.99.
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.