The Escape of Flying Officer Tom Wingham, RAF

Tom Wingham, together with the other members of the crew of their Halifax II bomber, belonging to No. 102 (Ceylon) squadron, had just returned from a bombing trip to Germany, when they were told to report to Boscombe Down to test the latest Halifax bomber – the Halifax III prototype. They still had three more trips to do before they completed their tour but they had been selected for this job because they were the most experienced crew in the group. This was a welcome relief to the crew as the losses within the squadron were mounting with each mission and the odds of survival were quickly diminishing.

The development tests were scheduled to last for about five weeks but problems with the aircraft resulted in the five weeks turning into five months. On their return to their home base of Pocklington in Yorkshire, they discovered that they had been ‘screened’, which meant that the three trips needed to complete their tour had been deemed to be done. The crew was then split up and Tom Wingham chose to go to RAF Rufforth, just outside York, as a bombing instructor with the Heavy Conversion Unit.

By March 1944, Tom Wingham was becoming restless and although his job as an instructor was important, he wanted to get back into the war. His opportunity came when a drinking companion, Fgt-Off Jim Lewis, a navigator who was part of a crew that was being reformed, asked him if he was interested in joining them. Tom Wingham jumped at the chance and together with two gunners, WO John Rowe and F/Sgt Harry Poole, both instructors from RAF Driffield, they made up the crew. The rest of the crew consisted of pilot Sqn Ldr Stan Somerscales and wireless operator Fgt-Off Jack Reavill.

On the 20 April 1944, the crew took over a brand-new Halifax that had been delivered just two days previously by an ATA pilot. She maintained that it was one of the best Halifax bombers she had ever flown. The crew took it on an air test to ensure everything worked as it should and declared it fit for operations. On 21 April the crew carried out two raids on railway yards in France and Belgium and then was stood down for another crew to take the bomber on a raid to Dusseldorf. The second crew was led by the CO of No.76 Squadron, Hank Iverson, but Group HQ ordered him and his crew to stand down as they had completed their quota of trips for that month. Stan Somerscales and his crew were taken off ‘stand down’ and given the green light to take part in the raid.

At 10.36 p.m. on 22 April the big Halifax bomber once again lifted off the runway at Home-on-Spalding Moor (Yorkshire), together with other bombers, and headed south towards northern France. As they passed over Liége Tom Wingham settled himself down in the prone position to carry out checks on his bombsight. Minutes later there was a muffled thud and the aircraft shook slightly. Over the intercom came shouts of, ‘What was that?’ Then F/Sgt Harry Poole in the mid-upper gun turret shouted, ‘The wing’s on fire!’ They discovered some time later that they had been attacked by a Me. 110 nightfighter flown by Fähnrich Rudolph Frank, one of the Luftwaffe’s top night-fighter aces with forty-five victories to his credit, using an upward-firing cannon called a Schräge Musik.

Within seconds Stan Somserscale ordered the crew to bale out as he knew there was no way of saving the aircraft. Tom Wingham immediately jettisoned the bomb load to make it easier for the pilot to maintain control and then clipping on his parachute, moved his seat from over the escape hatch. Being a new aircraft the hatch was extremely tight and it took the combined efforts of himself and Jim Lewis to force it open. All the time the flames were creeping along the wing and into the fuselage. As he watched Jim Lewis drop out, Tom looked back along the fuselage, which by now was enveloped in smoke and flames, and saw Jack Reavill about to leave by one on the other hatches. Sitting on the edge of the hatch, Tom dropped out and as he pulled the ripcord of his parachute he saw the burning aircraft plunging towards the ground. He discovered later that the aircraft crashed between Maastricht and Aachen.

Tom Wingham remembered nothing after pulling the ripcord until he came to in the middle of a field. He lay there for a while trying to collect his thoughts, and then his back and legs started to become extremely painful as he struggled to his feet. Hitting the ground like a sack of potatoes whilst unconscious hadn’t helped his situation. He glanced down at his watch and was aware that he was having great difficulty in focusing. His jaw was also very swollen and tender. He realised later that he was suffering from concussion probably brought about by the heavy metal parachute clips hitting him on either side of the jaw as his parachute opened. Gathering up his parachute and harness, he rolled it into as tight a bundle as possible then struggled across the field and hid it under the hedgerow.

Looking up at the stars Tom managed to fix a position and headed in a south-westerly direction. Reaching a small river he waded across then decided to settle down for the night. In the morning the sun spread a warm feeling through his aching and bruised body but his vision was still out of focus which was causing him some concern. He decided that it would be safer to travel at night and so rested beside the river until dusk. With the gathering darkness he started off, not knowing where he was headed for or indeed what country he was in. He had in fact crossed the Dutch–Belgian border during the night and was now in Belgium. The walking had helped ease the pains in his back and legs. Stumbling on through the darkness he came upon a village and although he could hear voices he could not identify their nationality, so decided to skirt the village and continue in a south-westerly direction.

His vision was still giving him cause for worry and the only way he could work out his course was to lie flat on his back, identify the North Star and line up his body to the south-west. This of course was conditional on clear nights, but on the second day he was caught out in the open during a violent thunderstorm and within minutes was soaked through to the skin in a torrential downpour. In addition to this he could hear the sound of engines as bombers flew overhead on their way to targets in Germany. Then suddenly he heard the sound of gunfire and minutes later saw a burning Lancaster bomber hit the ground and explode just a mile or two from where he was standing.

Tom realised that he was in dire need of help and decided to trudge back to the village he had skirted earlier and make his way to the church. He found the church deserted so decided to wait in the undergrowth until the dawn came. Then he saw movement and watched as a woman emerged from a cottage. She opened a pen full of sheep and proceeded to drive them towards a field close to where Tom was hiding. Taking a chance, he stepped out and explained to the woman in a mixture of gestures and sign language that he was the member of an RAF bomber crew that had been shot down and had parachuted into a field. The communication proved to be difficult but then the realisation of what he was trying to say became apparent to the woman and she quickly ushered him into the cottage.

On entering the cottage he was confronted by three men – the woman’s husband and their two sons. After managing to explain to them that he was a downed RAF airman they helped him take off his wet clothes. Meanwhile one of the sons had disappeared and had gone across the street to another cottage where he knew there was a Dutch policeman, Herman Ankoné, who had been visiting some friends in the village. Unwittingly, the woman Tom had approached for help was known locally as the worst gossip in the area and so the policeman, knowing this, was wary of offering his help. However, they had approached him and by doing so had compromised themselves, so he decided to check Tom out in case he had been a German ‘plant’.

Entering the cottage, the policeman barked out a number of commands in German and getting no response from Tom, proceeded to verify that he was who he said he was. Tom was initially shaken but after realising that the man was not German but in fact Dutch, he relaxed. Again the language barrier was causing problems, so the policeman indicated using sign language and pencil and paper that an English-speaking policeman would come later that evening.

At 9 a.m. a tall policeman in uniform entered the cottage and began to interrogate Tom until he was satisfied that Tom was indeed an RAF airman. Introducing himself as Sgt Vermullen, the policeman told Tom that he and all the other officers in the district just over the border were members of the local Dutch Resistance.

After being given fresh clothes and a meal, Tom was taken to another house in the village where he was instructed to wait until he was collected by other police officers that evening. Promptly at 6 p.m., three Dutch police officers, including Sgt Vermullen and officer Ankoné, arrived to take him over the border into Holland. He was taken to a farmhouse close to the border and introduced to Richard Linckens and his wife Cisca. The couple were members of the Resistance who helped escaping and evading allied airmen and had aided more than forty since the beginning of the war. In order to allay any suspicions from the German border guards, the couple maintained a very friendly relationship with them and on numerous occasions entertained the guards in one room, whilst in another room allied airmen were enjoying a meal. During the two days Tom Wingham stayed there he remembers having supper with Cisca, whilst her husband was having coffee in the next room with some of the German border guards!

On the evening of the second day, the three Dutch policemen arrived to escort him to another safe house in a village called Slenaken. On the way the group ran into a patrol of German border guards and Tom had to jump out of the vehicle and hide in an orchard until they had passed. The group resumed their journey and for the next three days and nights Tom Wingham stayed at the home of Sgt Vermullen in the company of his wife and three children.

Again this aid and hospitality was extended willingly despite the risk that families might pay for it with their lives if they were discovered. Then after the third day, a guide turned up to take him to another safe house. After saying farewell and thanking his hosts, Tom Wingham and the guide set off on a two-hour trek through pitch-black woodland to an isolated farmhouse over the border in Belgium. The farmer and his wife welcomed him but were nervous about him being there. They emphasised the point to the guide that it could only be for one night. The next morning he was told that another guide would come to collect him after lunch but lunchtime came and went, with the farmer and his wife becoming increasingly agitated. Then a message came to say that it would be the following day before he could be collected. Despite Tom feeling a sense of embarrassment at being foisted on the couple, he had no choice but to stay put until the following day.

Just after lunch the following day, the farmer gave Tom an old bicycle and he was taken to a lane some distance from the farm. There he was told to wait until his guide arrived to take him to his next point of contact. After about thirty minutes a woman and a young girl, Madame Coomans and her daughter Mady, suddenly appeared on bicycles and stopped beside him. Once again there was a problem with language but Madam Coomans, the mother, spoke a few words of English and managed to explain to Tom what was going to happen. The mother and daughter would cycle in front with at least a 50yd gap between each of the bikes. In the event of the mother being stopped by a German patrol, the daughter would turn around and cycle back towards Tom. He in turn would turn around and take the next turning off the road. The daughter Mady would catch up and overtake him and then lead him on to safety.

Still suffering from concussion, Tom set off behind the two women, all the time having great difficulty in focussing. Fortunately everything went smoothly and just before dark they reached the small town of Wandre. They parked their bicycles at the rear of the home of the parish priest, before entering the Manse. Here they were warmly welcomed and the priest’s housekeeper provided them with a hot meal. The priest, who spoke good English, explained to Tom what was going to happen next. He was to go and stay the night at the home of Mme Coomans and the next day he was to travel with a guide to Brussels to join up with a group of evaders who were going down the escape line to Spain.

The following morning he was woken to be told that he was too late to join the others in Brussels. Due to a directive from London to the escape line organisers to suspend all movement of airmen, he was to stay with the Coomans. This created a major problem, because Mme Coomans’ husband had no knowledge of his wife’s Resistance activities. Nevertheless, Tom Wingham moved into the small house and lived there for the next seven weeks without Monsieur Coomans’ knowledge as he went to work as a miner blissfully unaware of who was living in the spare room upstairs.

Madame Coomans’ husband worked a regular 2-10 p.m. shift, so she set out her husband’s timetable for Tom Wingham:

8 a.m. – Got up and had breakfast.

10 a.m. – Went to local estaminet (bar) to play cards with friends.

12.30 p.m. – Returned home for dinner.

1.25 p.m. – Departed for work at the mine.

10.20 p.m. – Returned from work.

11 p.m. – Went to bed.

In between all these times Tom Wingam was allowed out of his room, but never allowed to leave the house – not even to use the outside toilet. The stairs from downstairs led directly into the first bedroom, there was no landing, whilst the door to the second bedroom was at the foot of the bed in the main bedroom.

During the day, visitors, in the shape of the local priest, a member of the escape committee from Liége and sometimes the paymaster for the Resistance, would occasionally visit to see if he needed anything and to pay Mme Coomans for Tom Wingham’s food. Tom was constantly concerned about what would happen if M Coomans ever found out that he was in the house. He was told that he would probably just tell him to leave, as he was neither for nor against the Germans and equally he was neither for nor against the English.

As the days turned into weeks the arrival of June heralded the beginning of summer and Tom longed to be able to walk in the warm sunshine. Then on 6 June news came through of the D-Day landings and the retreat of the German army. Two weeks later Tom Wingham’s world almost collapsed around him when he heard a sudden screeching of tyres and the slamming of car doors outside the house. There came a hammering on the doors and shouts in German for the doors to be opened. He had been betrayed to the Gestapo.

Tom had been listening to the BBC on the radio at the time, so switching it off and changing the dial settings, he raced upstairs with the intention of escaping through a window at the back of the house and into the woods. As he went to open the shutter, he saw a leather-coated figure at the back trying to force open a window in the back. Now desperate, he raced downstairs and into the cellar, frantically looking for a place to hide. It took a few moments for his eyes to become accustomed to the darkness and it became obvious that there was nowhere to hide. The cellar was cluttered with old boxes and the usual items found in a cellar. Upstairs he heard the Gestapo searching the rooms. Suddenly he spied a tiny alcove behind the stairs that led to the cellar, surrounded by old crates. The alcove, which was about 4ft high and just 18in wide, was his only hope and so he somehow squeezed in and pulled the crates around him.

He heard heavy footsteps pounding down the wooden staircase into the cellar. Barely daring to breathe, his heart was beating so loudly that he thought the Germans must have been able to hear it. The two Gestapo men stopped and struck matches to enable them to peer into the inky blackness. Fortunately for Tom they had not thought to bring torches with them and after a few moments, including a time when they moved close to the crates behind which he was hiding, they left. Tom remained crouched whilst he heard them banging around upstairs and then he heard car doors slamming shut followed by an engine starting, and the scream of tyres as they sped away.

He waited for almost an hour before emerging from the cellar just to ensure that they had gone. He discovered later that the Gestapo had gone to the mine, picked up M Coomans and taken him to their headquarters in Liége for questioning. After many hours of questioning the Gestapo realised that he knew nothing of his wife’s involvement with the Resistance, which of course he didn’t, and released him. M. Coomans returned home in the early hours of the morning, not knowing that Tom was still in the house.

That evening Tom slipped out of the back door and made his way through the dense wood to the Manse at the other end of the village and explained what had happened to the priest. He was then passed on to another Resistance group, who took him to a small terraced house in the village where he stayed with an elderly widower who lived alone. Once again Tom found himself confined to the house, not even being allowed to use the outside toilet.

The reason for this was because one of the attached houses was the home of members of the Belgian Nazis (Rexist Party), and one of their sons was away fighting with the Waffen SS. Their bedroom window overlooked the widower’s outside toilet and it was too dangerous for Tom to even consider stepping outside in case they spotted him.

After one week some members of the Resistance came and took him to a farm a couple of miles outside the town. The farmer named M. Schoofs, his wife, a son called Pascal and two daughters made Tom very welcome and he quickly became integrated as part of the family. This was a complete change for Tom, in as much as he could walk freely around the farm and help in the fields picking fruit. It also gave him a chance to repay their hospitality in a small way and not feel completely obliged, although this had never been suggested or hinted at by any of the people who had helped him.

For the next few weeks Tom enjoyed the open-air life, only interrupted by the odd raid by the Gestapo. They almost always made their raids either first thing in the morning or in the evenings. When it was suspected that they were in the area, Tom would get up early in the morning and go to the bottom of one of the fields and hide, and do the same thing again in the evening.

One evening one of the Resistance members called and asked him if he was prepared to join up with an RAF pilot and steal a German plane from a local airfield and fly it back to England. Tom immediately jumped at the chance but the town priest suggested that he be allowed to check on the validity of such a daring proposal. The priest returned saying that it was indeed a genuine proposal and arrangements were put into place to take Tom to Liége to await final instructions. He was taken into the town and placed in the care of an elderly couple in their third-floor apartment.

After two days of waiting and hearing nothing, it was soon realised that the whole project was a non-starter. Increasing German patrols and searches by the Gestapo in the town made the old couple extremely nervous. The Resistance was contacted and arrangements were made to take him back to the farm. Early one evening a member of the Resistance, a Belgian Intelligence agent, arrived with two bicycles and the two men set off to cycle back to the village of Wandre. They had just left the outskirts of Liége when another cyclist, a German soldier, joined them. He accompanied them almost all the way to Wandre before leaving them.

Just a mile from the farm, the two men stopped and parted and Tom walked the rest of the way, whilst the Belgian took the other bicycle back to Liége.

Towards the end of August there were a growing number of German soldiers retreating from the advancing allies. Then suddenly the farm was surrounded by German troops camping out in the fields, hedgerows or anywhere else they could. The officer in charge then told Madame Schoofs that he was taking over part of the farmhouse and making it his headquarters. He told her that their barns would be commandeered as billets for his men. Taking M Schoofs to one side, Tom suggested that he should leave so as not to cause problems for the family in the event of him being discovered. But because of the situation, and the reduction in the level of danger, the couple decided that Tom should play the part of a deaf Flemish mute, as it might arouse suspicion if he suddenly left.

That lunchtime the family, including some of the workers from the fields, sat down in the kitchen to enjoy a rather sumptuous roast lunch of veal. At one point the whole family, with the exception of Tom, left the table to harangue a bunch of dejected, straggling soldiers as they trudged their weary way through the farmyard. As they did so, Tom, still at the lunch table, looked up to see two German soldiers looking longingly at the pile of food on the table.

Tom’s chair was situated close to the door leading into what was becoming the German officer’s control room and suddenly it was pushed ajar violently and Tom was almost thrown to the floor. The German officer’s head peered around the door shouting out commands. On receiving no response he shouted even louder, Tom had to play the part of a deaf mute all the time. At this point Mme Schoofs, on hearing the commotion, stormed into the kitchen and started to berate the officer about how she felt a German officer should behave and how she did not want dirty Boche boots soiling her Belgian kitchen floor. For a moment there was silence, then the officer muttered something and quietly shut the door and locked it.

Word started to come through that retreating bands of Waffen SS troops were killing young Belgian men indiscriminately, so it was decided that Tom Wingham should be moved to a safer location. The problem was how to get him past the German troops now surrounding and even camped within the farm itself. Within the hour Pascal told Tom to get ready to move and so Tom Wingham prepared himself for one of the most nerve-racking moments since he had bailed out of his aircraft. Pascal came in to fetch him and the two men walked out into the farmyard. Waiting in the middle of the farmyard was a very fat peasant woman of around thirty-five years of age holding a battered pushchair. With her was a young child aged between two and three years old, who was playing with some of the German soldiers.

The woman glanced at Tom and then shouted for the child to come to her or Papa wouldn’t push her in the chair. Tom was stunned for the moment as he realised that he had just been ‘married’ off, and dressed in ill-fitting pinstripe trousers and a black jacket, he tottered off with the woman, followed by goodbyes and laughter from the Schoofs family and totally bemused looks from the German soldiers lounging around.

The couple made their way back to Wandre, where members of the Resistance were waiting. After saying goodbye and giving grateful thanks to his ‘bride’ of a few hours, Tom Wingham was placed in a safe house.

Two days later an American tank column entered the village and Tom was able to arrange passage to Paris where he met up with his navigator. The two men returned to England on 16 September.

Tom Wingham returned to operational flying, this time on Mosquitoes with No. 105 squadron. He completed four more missions including, on the night of 2 May 1945, being in one of the last four aircraft of Bomber Command to bomb Germany.

It cannot be emphasised enough the dangers that the men, women and children placed themselves in to help allied soldiers and airmen to escape the clutches of the German army and Gestapo. The identities of the vast majority of these people will never be known, as after the war they just went back to their normal way of life. The debt owed to these people can never be repaid but should never be forgotten as they helped in their own way to shape the course of history.

No. 102 Squadron RAF

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