Article published in the journal "Heidebloemke Genk " (volume 48 - No. 5 - October 1 - 1989)
INTRODUCTIONEveryone knows the cross in the heath of Boxbergheide, nowadays put together with the memorial, established 40 years ago in the Boxbergstraat, near the school. At first it was a simple wooden cross but already in 1943 it was replaced by a concrete cross on the three war graves: it became the first RAF-memorial in the province of Limburg.
In Limburg only, 139 RAF airmen lost their lives, of whom 127 were British, 45 Canadians, 14 Australians, 3 New Zealanders, 3 South Africans and 1 Belgian. This number will probably be higher because during the occupation, over a long period, the German Luftwaffe collected the bodies of the casualties to investigate and afterwards buried them at the military airfield of St.-Truiden (Brustem). After the war, they were excavated by the UK Recognition Department and transferred to several cemeteries, so that all the bomber crashes in Limburg can be traced. Thanks to a small group of friends and to a close cooperation with the school of Boxbergheide, a memorial tribute at the concrete cross and later at the memorial is held annually to keep the commemoration alive; meanwhile it has become a tradition.
CHAPTER I - August 31, 1941 - THE WELLINGTONAfter many years of research, the historical account of this aircraft and its crew has become a part of the Genk history.
First of all, one must bear in mind that, during the war, Boxbergheide was a barren plain with just a few houses. Now, let's follow this aircraft from the start ...
After the battle of self-preservation of Britain, from mid 1941 on, the Royal Air Force was more and more used to liberate all occupied territories and to reduce any pressure on Britain.
The target of the night flight on August 31 – September1, 1941 was Cologne:
108 planes participated. As usual, various squadrons provided the planes for a large raid like this. The 3rd Bomber Group supplied 45 Wellingtons, 39 Hampdens,
7 Halifaxes, 6 Manchesters and 6 Sterlings. Their main purpose was to destroy railway junctions. Five other Manchesters accompanied them as a support to destroy searchlights. On this campaign, 3 Hampdens, l Manchester and l Wellington (in Boxbergheide) were lost . A German fighter shot another Wellington above England.
As usual, with every flight three tasks had been given: first, the target, then, as an
alternate object, a second target and third, if disturbed or hindered by other causes, any target that could be bombed.
The weather was bad over Cologne so that only 68 planes could bomb the main
target. The German army command reported: "Some bombs and one victim." (1)
For the 101st Squadron, the briefing under the command of Wing Commander DR
Biggs took place at 17.30 p.m. (UK time) on the basis of Oakington (Cambridge-shire).
The crewmembers of nine Wellingtons received all information concerning the target: weather conditions, tasks, obstacles and the "good luck" wish. Seven aircrafts took off, two served as backup to maintain the global number in any case and all were equipped with a bomb load.
"Our" Vickers-Wellington type Mk I c, bearing the number "R 1703 - J" got a load of incendiary bombs: three heavy bombs of 500 Ibs and one of 250 Ibs.
Until October 1945 the British built 11,461 of this type of Wellington bombers.
The crew consisted of six men under the command of the 1st pilot P/O Ashton, second pilot was Sgt Wood and further the Sgts Hutton Lane, Redden and Walburton (Redden and Wood were Canadians). Four of the seven bombers had cameras on board, but not so the R. 1703.
On the way back to England, they all had to deal with German night fighters and the FLAK belts around Maastricht and Genk were also very active that night.
A burning point approached Genk from the south-east (from the district of Langerlo); it was a burning aircraft flying over De Maten (natural parc of Genk) and trying to stay on its western course. Thanks to the wicker work of the fuselage, this aircraft could endure a lot and stay much longer in the air, even when badly damaged. But then it fell down like a burning torch, exploded when it hit the ground and ended in a lake of fire. The wreck kept burning for hours. There must already have been a fraction or an explosion in the air because a large piece of a wing fell down near the house of Roger Thijs in the Congostraat and one of the engines fell next to the piggery of Jan Bollen who was living then at the railroad crossing, now Landwaartslaan. The engine almost hit the man.
Two hours after the take off, three crew members of the R. 1703 plane died on Genk soil, far from their families (Sunday August 31, at 22.15 h German time and Septem-ber 1, at 00.15 GMT). They were shot by a German night fighter and not, as believed, by FLAK. (2)
The question will always remain whether the three airmen had been hurt or whether they had already been killed by bullets . It is a fact that thanks to the skills of the first pilot ASHTON, three members of the crew had been able to jump out of the plane with their parachutes.
The German Wehrmacht was quickly on the spot and kept guard. Already in the morning, three coffins were supplied to bury the three victims next to the wreck in the heather. After the fire and explosion little more than scattered debris remained of the bomber.
First the graves were lined with stones and other white stones formed a cross. Regularly, the graves were deliberately destroyed, mainly by members of the Hitler Jugend of Winterslag – Cité (another district of Genk). But there were always people, especially young ones, who restored the graves. And then, suddenly, there was a wooden cross ... We don't know who had the courage to put it there. Almost all the inhabitants around have been interviewed, but everything points at two men of Polish origin and living in Winterslag; they were veterans of the Polish army, namely Joseph GLOWACHI and his brother-in law- Antoine PLOCINNIK.
According to testimonials, the cross beam was in the shape of an airplane propeller and the wood was flamed by burning oil. Regularly, there were fresh flowers on the graves. We know who did it: it was Miss Jeanne DRIES who raided her home garden and the flower garden of Mrs. Leonie DECOSEMAECKER-THOELEN, a shopkeeper in the Winterslagstraat.
The wooden cross was regularly taken away and thrown in the heather but suddenly there stood a concrete cross with the year term "1943" instead of the wooden cross which, once again, had disappeared.
Why "1943"? This new cross was secretly made by three workmen from the "Regiewerken" (management control) at the coalmine of Winterslag. It's the same model as the crosses on the graves of Russian prisoners of war. One should not forget that the country was still occupied by nazi Germany and that it wasn't easy to transport such a concrete cross. And yet, on a dark autumn evening in 1943, between 22:00 and 23:00 p.m., the new cross was firmly placed as a lasting memory. Mr. and Mrs. François BEELEN - he was chief of the Regiewerken" at Winterslag coalmine, and Mr. Pierre REIS, an office clerk at the same mine, and his wife were the people who had the courage to perform such an act.
Even during the war, Miss Daisy GIELEN (working in the printing office in Winterslag) wrote to the Belgian Red Cross to call attention to this event and to try to know the names of the fallen airmen. And she succeeded! After the liberation, she kept in touch with her contact persons and received the relatives at the graves.
A mother of one of the fallen airmen took heather sprigs back to England with the comment: "SPRIGS OF HEATHER FED BY THE BLOOD OF MY BOY".
ASHTON, Pilot Offr. (Pilot) JOHN FREDERICK, 67051. R.A.F. (V.R.), 101 Sqdn. 1st September, 1941. Age 22. Son of Edgar Arthur and Frances Mary Ashton; husband of Dora Ashton (born Weiss), of Tunstall, Kent. Coll. grave 11.
LANE, Sgt. (ObS.) ERNEST RAYMOND VERDUN, 1152881.R.A.F. (V.R.), 101 Sqdn. 1st September, 1941. Age 25. Son of Ernest Harry and Frances Clara Lane, of Slough, Buckinghamshirc. Coll. grave 11.
REDDEN, Sgt. (W. Op./Air Gnr.) JOHN BERNARD, R/65221. R.C.A.F. 101 (R.A.F.) Sqdn. 1st September, 1941. Age 20. Son of Bernard Morton Redden and Ellen Beatrice Redden. Coll. grave 11.
ASHTON, Pilot Officer, 22 years old, was married to Dora Weiss and lived in Turnstall, Kent (G.B.).
LANE, Observer, 25 years old was unmarried. He lived with his parents in Slough, Buckinghamshire (G.B.).
REDDEN, Wireless Operator - air gunner, 20 years old, was a Canadian who flew with a R.A.F.-Sqdn. In 1970 his mother lived in Middleton/Nova Scotia (Canada).
After the liberation, the bodies were exhumed by the British excavation service and transferred to a collective grave on the British Military Cemetery at Schaffen near Diest (collective grave No 11)
CHAPTER II - THE THREE WHO ESCAPEDAll three landed safely. Where? That's is almost impossible to find out after 48 years, despite several indications.
tHE STORY OF Sgt Leonard Walburton
He landed safely somewhere in a wooded area and started immediately to bury his parachute when suddenly some curious Flemish people on their bikes turned up. They wanted his parachute and then they took the airman to a place nearby where Sgt Hutton had landed.
The airmen asked the road to the west and set off. They crossed a railway track and passed a cabin (a hideout shelter?) in which people were talking. They went through a small village or town center where they saw some German soldiers but they passed them without difficulty and even exchanged a "Gute Nacht"
They slept in a potato field behind a hedge until daylight. They were awoken by the voices of two German soldiers on the other side of the hedge; they were carrying jars and went to a farm for milk. When the situation looked safe, they got up and looked around. It was most amazing to them that at the end of the field, they saw a farmhouse on which façade was written "Vive le RAF" (I can't hardly believe that this was possible in our country; Walburton may confuse with a farm in France.)
Both WALBURTON and HUTTON, decided to go and knock on the backdoor of the farmhouse. They acquainted themselves and were very warmly treated. The farmer's wife gave them some milk to drink while her little daughter was curiously looking at them. The little girl gave WALBURTON a scapular, a small piece of textile sewn with a piece of a relic of a saint in it. He still wears it in his wallet: "It is my lucky charm!"
The farmer took them to the barn where they both fell asleep. They were awakened by two young girls (women couriers). They brought them civilian clothes and two bicycles. After about 3 km of cycling, WALBURTON guesses, they were taken to a house in Hasselt, where they were questioned by a gentleman who spoke English quite well. WALBURTON was welcomed by COLARIS, who kept a drugstore in the Diesterstraat 11 in Hasselt; he offered the Englishman shelter in his house during 14 days or so. (WALBURTON is still is in touch with the daughter of Colaris.) It was COLARIS who transferred him to Brussels by train where he stayed on different addresses until about December.
WALBURTON quotes: "They were true patriots of the Belgian Resistance, and in Brussels or in the environment, I stayed one or two days, once or twice a fortnight. The Belgian Resistance was amazing and I will remain grateful to them forever. It is sad however that so many had to die on this 'job', but they will never be forgotten. Only after a few days he saw Jack HUTTON back. The Comète line provided a safe haven in Brussels and took care of their transit through France and Spain. In 1946 WALBURTON returned to the family COLARIS in Hasselt and also visited the crash site in Genk.
CHAPTER III - THE CEREMONIES AND MEMORIALSAlready on November 11, 1948, the district of Boxbergheide started the annual celebration at the concrete cross together with the school children. In 1968, the Rev. Pastor BOONEN, the first priest of the district, contacted the local associations to collect money to establish a simple but dignified memorial.On October 25, 1969, the first major celebration took place, as a part of the British Week in Genk. Many British representatives, a delegation of the military airfield of Kleine Brogel (25 km N-E of Genk), many associations and the local people took part in it.
Afterwards, at a cafe table, a new organization was created by the local butcher Jean LOIX (†), François BEELEN and the Englishman Albert TAYLOR. TAYLOR was a veteran of WW II of the British Eighth Army who served in North Africa under the command of Field Marshal Montgomery and he was also present at the invasion of 1944 here in our region. While staying in Genk with his military department, he met Marie-Jose MEERMANS in Winterslag and married her after the war. Meanwhile, I want to emphasize this, Albert TAYLOR has personally been awarded by the Queen with the MBE (Member of the British Empire) for his great commitment to the case of fallen British nationals.
Of course the organization could fall back on the preparations and contacts of Miss
Daisy GIELEN (†1969) and of Rev. Pastor BOONEN. We gratefully mention here the workers who were there from the beginning : Louis BEERDEN, Louis BEEKEN, Florent IVEN and Cheslaw MACHOFKA and perhaps there are a few others who we may involuntarily forget at this moment. The final birth of OCHB (Oprichtend Comité Heidekruisje Boxbergheide - Founding Committee Heather Cross Boxbergheide) was in January 1970 under the first President Jean LOIX, first secretary Rev. Brother - Director Lucien BOS and under the protection of the governor of the province of Limburg, Louis ROPPE and with Mayor Gerard BIJNENS as Honorary Chairman.
The first great meeting of the OCHB, on which all persons and authorities involved were invited, took place in the community house of Boxbergheide "De Schalm", on May 8, 1970. Thanks to the Rev. Pastor Boonen and to the goodwill of the diocese of Liège, the organization obtained for free the area in the Boxbergstraat on which the memorial would be established, a few meters from the crash site.
The Genk sculptor R. Mailleux was asked to draw a sketch:. he came with a plan for a sober memorial, but still with lots of charisma. It would be built in rubble measuring 6.80 m x 2.20 m. For the foundation and the wall itself, 12.80 m³ of concrete was required. Since everything had to be done in quite a short time, the municipal services of Genk supported the project with materials and help for the construction and the plantings.
Many volunteers from the neighborhood gave a helping hand.
The inauguration took place on September 27, 1970 in the presence of many British and Belgian personalities. The first Regiment Caribiniers Cyclists of Spich took part, having accepted the patronage the day before. On this simple, yet impressing wall, the names of the three deceased airmen are marked forever.
And the following text has been added:
THIS MEMORIAL IS TO BE A PERMANENT REMINDER FOR THOSE OF THE R.A.F. WHO GAVE THEIR LIVES ON LIMBURG SOIL
Fortunately, we kept the concrete cross and placed it in front. On the back there is still the date "1943", but on the front now the date of "31/08/1941" is shown.
Since 1969, each year in September, the 101st Sqdn (101 SQUADRON ASSOCIATION in the lap of BOMBER COMMAND ASS.), now brothers in arms, participate with several military and civilian associations in the commemoration.
These airmen are not only honoured in Genk; on November 1, 1987, a memorial was inaugurated in Diest near the one of the Resistance on the Weerstandsplein (Resis-tance Square). It bears the names of 39 airmen who were buried in Diest. At the Military Cemetery of Schaffen rest 20 airmen, 15 are British, four Canadian and l Australian. In London a plaque commemorates the 2383 soldiers who safely returned thanks to the escape lines. It represents a wounded airman amidst the beams of four searchlights, helped safely down the road by a man and a woman.
Author: Lucien Bogers.
Translation: Jan Zoons
1. The Bomber Command War Diaries (M. Middlebrook & C. Everitt)
2. Sergeant LA Walburton
3. Richard Peet, Schaffen.
4. Information from the OCHB Genk, the Ministry of Defense, Londen and APBB, Brussels