The crash of the allied bomber Halifax MZ522 SE-U, 431 Sqdn RCAF, near Zepperen (Sint-Truiden) in the night of April 27th 1944
In the Spring of 1944 the British RAF Bomber Command of the Allied Forces prepared the landing in Normandy by nightbombing railway facilities in Belgium. On Thursday the 27th of April, 144 bombers consisting of 120 Halifaxes, 16 Lancasters and 8 Mosquitos left their airfields. They had to attack the railway yards at Montzen Belgium, only ten kilometers from Aachen, Germany. It promised to be a fairly easy mission. The no. 431 and no. 434 squadrons took off from Croft airbase, near Darlington. Croft-Neasham was one of the most northerly of the Bomber Command airfields. The no. 431 “Iroquois” Canadian squadron came to Croft on December 10th and flew in Halifaxes III since March. The Handley Page Halifax Mark III was a heavy four-engined aircraft, squarer by form than the well known sister design of the Lancaster. The “Halibag” was used for raids on heavily defended target areas on shorter distances with lesser bombload. It was capable of 280 mph at 13,500 feet, carrying 7,000 lbs of bombs over 1,985 miles. The aircraft in this story was supplied at the beginning of March by English Electric Co Ltd from Preston. They build 2.145 of these Halifaxes.
The crew in Croft
With this squadron started in Group 6 at 23.27 hours the Halifax MZ522 SE-U (for “Uncle”) with the crew from the SE-O (for “Oboe”), that needed repair. In April attacks on Gent, Le Bourget, Lens, Dusseldorf and Karlsruhe had taken place. On April 24th aircraft SE-O landed after the Karlsruhe raid with no brakes pressure and finished undamaged in a field at the end of the runway. The next day someone tried to taxi “O” out of the field but having no breaks it ploughed into aircraft “Q” which was testing its engines. Both aircrafts were badly damaged. April 26th brought the raid on Essen with no losses and the next evening the raid on Montzen started. The bomb load came through very late and the job of bombing up was not completed until late in the afternoon. The flight route took the planes over the North Sea and Zeeland. Zero Hour above target was set at 0130 hours and the estimated time of arrival back on the base was 0429 hours. There were three waves of attack, with the 431 squadron in the third wave.
It was the 18th mission of the Hill-crew, so in a while they could enjoy their six months non operational flying. In fact they flew 23 missions starting March 11 1943 but three of them had to be aborted due to engine failures and one due to the rear gunner passing out in his turret probably by oxygen failure. At least three of the raids brought them over Berlin. All the crew were volunteers. Skipper was flight lieutenant and pilot Jack Hill, a radio announcer in civil life, around 26 years old, from Winnipeg. Navigator flying officer John Stoyko, 22 years, was a university student from Regina. Wireless operator was pilot officer Geoffrey Gage from Bath (England). He sat under in the aircraft. Flight engineer was sergeant John “Dusty” Millar, 21 years, from Winnipeg. He enlisted in 1940, trained as an air frame mechanic and went overseas in December 1941 in thirteen days on the French liner Louis Pasteur. After a few months he was accepted for training as a flight engineer at Topcliffe. Millar sat behind the pilot. Bomb aimer was pilot officer Al Donnell from Kingston. Donnell worked for the Railway and was about 21 years old. He sat next to the pilot and had easily access to the glass nose of the aircraft. The guns were manned by flying officer mid-upper gunner Colin Rooks, 21 years, from the Apex Oil Fields in Trinidad (British West Indies) and rear or “tail” gunner pilot officer John J. Leyne, 29 years old, from Vancouver. Student Colin O. Rooks was born on May 31 1924. He enlisted on August 27 1942, joined the RCAF in 1943 and so followed his father Errol’s footsteps, who served in the RAF during World War I.
The mid-under gun position, a novelty, was manned by pilot officer John Morrison, 24 years, from Ottowa, who had just been added to the crew. Two planes of the same squadron that crashed that night were also equipped with this gun position, intended to fight off attacks from underneath by German nightfighters, equipped with “Schrägemusik” or guns in an upward position. The Halifax “Uncle” carried seven 1,000 lb. bombs and eight 500 lb. bombs. The plane seemed to have been equipped with the taildevice Monica III, that warned against approaching German fighters, but as this was not their usual aircraft, the crew was not instructed in it’s use.
Fifteen planes were lost that night. The planes that got back reported a lot of problems above the target. The no. 431 squadron, led by wing commander Newson, lost four planes out of eleven and eighteen out of thirty-one officers were missing. SE-N (skipper Earman) crashed in the north of Genk and two crewmembers died, SE-E (skipper Woodrow) with three crewmembers dead, SE-F (skipper Gilson) with all crewmembers lost and our SE-U (skipper Hill) in the area of Sint-Truiden. 432 squadron lost four planes and 51 squadron lost two planes : MH-O (skipper O’Neill) crashed near Kemexhe, shot down by Flak with five crewmembers dead, MH-Z (skipper Keenan) with all crewmembers but one lost.
The planes from the raid on Montzen fell victim to German night fighters. By mischance there was a commander-meeting at the base of Brustem (Sint-Truiden). Major Joachim Jabs, commander of the “Nachtjagdgeschwader Eins”, had called his four “Gruppe”-commanders . When the alarm went off the visiting commanders took part in the interception. The German ace Schnaufer shot down his first aircraft, a Lancaster, at half past one. The plane crashed near Aubel. A second victim, the 61th air “victory” for Schnaufer, was shot down near Verviers. Joannes Hager shot down two planes east and west of Liège. The third one he pursued was a Lancaster that crashed at 02.20 hours near Webbekom. Seven crewmembers died. The no. 405 “Vancouver” squadron had taken off from Gransden Lod ge. These Lancaster planes acted as pathfinders. Two aircraft with a Master bomber and a deputy-Master bomber carried marker boms. So when the plane with deputy-Master bomber Blenkisop was shot down, it crashed in a red fireball “im raum St.-Trond”. At least three Halifaxes were reported to have been shot down by German fighters, taken off from Sint-Truiden airbase. Particulary the second and/or the last of the bomber-waves was intercepted. Very little flak was encountered, but there was heavy fighter opposition on the return route from Sint-Truiden to half way across the North Sea. Only the eastern part of the railway yards was hit by the bombing. The RAF-bombers still managed to destroy or damage sheds, storage sidings, goods depot, tracks, 19 locomotives and 143 wagons. Unfortunately 66 people were killed in the nearby city of Plombières. On May the 10th the railway yards were back in action.
So the Halifax “Uncle” met with problems. There were no moon or clouds, but it was hazy. The crewmembers saw seven what they believed to be fellow-planes going down. Yet there were no search-lights, tracer, flak bursts or fighter flares. Ten minutes after the target at 15.000 feet, there was a loud “THUMP” and a light sludder. No engins were hit. The starboard wing had three holes in it just in front of the flaps. This pointed to a fighter attack. Green flames went up 10-12 feet in the air from the wing. Probably a petrol tank was hit, but fortunately no explosion occured. The aircraft filled with smoke and sparks, the whole underside was on fire and yellow flames were inside from behind the pilot to the mid under gun position. Flight engineer John Millar was hit in the leg by a fragment that caused a flesh wound. Jack Hill gave the “bail out”-order. Stoyko and Donnell got the forward hatch out by kicking after sticking in the hole in the usual way. The aircraft was then still well under controle. The crew baled out at 13.000 feet in the following order : Stoyko, Donnell, Gage and Millar. Pilot Hill called up his gunners but got no reply. He trimmed up the aircraft and left without snags. When the bale out was given Rooks got his chute and went to the rear hatch. He found it open and the under gunner Morrisson was gone. Rear gunner Leyne was standing by the door. Rooks went out straightaway, feet first and had no trouble leaving. The German nightfighter-pilot Thörl claimed a victory that night at 01.52 hours German time at three kilometers north-east of Sint-Truiden. This should be our Halifax.
The plane sailed on blazing and pilotless, but onder control. It crashed two minutes later on the border between Sint-Truiden and Zepperen, near the convent of Saint-Aloysius by the Melsterbeek, near the field ’t Valleken or Cabeye, in a pasture with some trees. Two men, who were walking about in the church-alley in the night, saw the plane coming down. They heard the parachutists whistle at eachother. An other man, who had to take a leak during a cards-play in a house on the Kasteelstraat, called out his companions : “Come quick, there is a plane on fire”. A neighbour was awakened by the noise and followed events carefully hidden behind a concrete wellhead. His family stayed in the house, praying with fear. When the blazing aircraft came over very low, people thought it would crash on their house. In the Driesstraat someone found on his terrace gasoline and a military map with a red stripe. He burned the map afterwards because he feared the Germans. The last parachutist landed in a pear-tree against a house only a few hundred meters away from the crash site. Different stories are told about the hiding of the crewmembers that landed in Zepperen. According to one story a crewmember broke his leg and was taken to a hospital in the nearby town of Sint-Truiden or to Tongres in a cart by a member of the local resistance. Other witnesses, resistance-members, say some crewmembers stayed hidden in the convent untill they were brought to Liège in a van with a machinegun on the front from the animal destructionfirm Smets-Usé “Fedar” from Sint-Truiden. Father Assumptionist Leonard in ’t Zand was known helping allied airmen to evade. People also say that resistance-men from the region of Oreye came looking for the pilot a few days later.
A report from agent VN/JL/268 A “Jean Bertrand” or Jean Christiaens, dated May 3, speaks of an english Halifax S.E.U. M.Z. 522 shot down near Zepperen. Accordingly to this report the crew baled out and the “Rayol Air Code” from the plane was taken away by a belgian civilian. This information was gathered the day after the crash by his helper VN/LJ/268 A.5 from Brustem, also member of the Intelligence Network Luc-Marc. After the war, in November 5 1945, VN/JL/268 A.5 reported that the Air Force Code A.P. 1927 was taken away by Mrs. Dossin-Jadoul, who lived in the nearby castle “Les Bégards” in front of the convent. People say she also played a role in hiding the crewmembers who landed in Zepperen.
The remains of the Halifax SE-U nearby ‘Les Bégards’
(source : via Wim Boffin Sint-Truiden)
The German “Feldgendarmen” came from Sint-Truiden. They had some trouble to reach the crash site over the Melsterbeek and demanded local people to help. They took notes of the figures on the wreckage. A German truck loaded with coffins drove near but fortunately there was no use for the coffins ! There was a large crowd to visit the crash-site. People were very curious and some even were eager to take away all that could be used such as paded boots. The neighbours made fine clothes out of parachute-textile and fingerrings from the mica cockpits. Some curious boys who later on tried to enter the orchard, were shot at by the German guards. The Germans were very angry when a boy took away a dynamo from the plane. Someone found a cylinder with oxygen written on it. The predominantly black painted aircraft fuselage itself was still in one piece, but badley crushed. It had only gone into the soil for some inches. One of the engines had fallen off the wing and crashed through the concrete of the Kasteelstraat.
Wireless-operator Gage landed in an orchard. As his parachute was draped around a tree he hastened to leave the spot and walked until daylight. Suddenly, when he crossed a road, he was seen by a man. He made him understand that he was RAF and the man pushed him into a ditch. He got the help of the family Budenaers-Jones. Mr. Budenaers was married to a Welsh nurse, so he knew the language very well. The Resistance was asked to look around for the other crewmembers. Son Freddy Budenaers helped to bring them together. Afterwards he got badly wounded in a railway sabotage-operation of the resistance. After the liberation he enlisted as sergeant in the new Belgian Army. Daughter Gladys, 20 years old, did the bycicle-work. With a Jewish girl, Phylis, she searched on bicycle for allied ammunition droppings. The last months of the German occupation she had to hide, just like her brothers. In August 1946 she married Bob Loesch, an American officer, she met while interpreting with the Americans in the Academy in Saffraanberg-Brustem. Jeffrey, the eldest son, was a sergeant in the White Brigade (resistance) and after the liberation was also an interpreter on the airfield. Thanks to senator Vandenberg and the citation the parents received from both the British Air Ministry and from general Eisenhower for their help during the war, the whole family moved to the States.
Millar landed in a field and found a bush under which he hid his parachute. He then started walking and came to the village of Brustem. He hid behind some lumber in a barn overnight. His leg was hurting from getting out of the aircraft, so he knocked on a door and an old lady answered. When he said “RAF” she pulled him in quickly. Another lady came in to the room who knew a priest who could speak Engish, so she went to get him. A girl came in later with two bycicles and she rode ahead to the village of Heers. So at eight o’clock Millar joined with Gage and the day after Donnell, who had landed on the edge of the German nightfighter base at Sint-Truiden, showed up. Leyne got separated from his friends. Morrisson and Stoyko were captured by the Germans. Stoyko had landed on the base itself ! They were all given civilian clothes. With Skipper Jack Hill the three stayed hidden at the Budenaers-house till the invasion in Normandy in the beginning of June.
From here the order of events is not clear, as often the crewmembers purposely obliterated from their mind the identity of their helpers in case of apprehension. Colin Rooks wrote a memory in Gladys’ diary on the 27th of May, as the four others did on the 5th and 6th of June 1944. The crewmembers recall that they rode to a monastery or a school in Waremme, each following the girl on a bycicle. They got a false passport. Donnell acted as the factory-worker Jacques Bastin from Waremme. Gage as the farm-worker Jean Antoine Benoît from Seraing. From Waremme they went by train to Liege. During the night they had to leave the train because the railway had been sabotaged. The airmen had to walk passed Germans repairing the line and continue their journey on another train. It was their first sighting of real Germans. They stayed a few days in Liege. The underground organiser was Joseph Drion, money-changer in the railway-station. He was helped by Jean and Paulette Etienne. The crewmembers even stayed a few days in a ruined castle, probably east of Liege at Micheroux, where a German deserter was also hiding. They stayed for some weeks with the Etienne’s at Kemexhe and seven weeks with the Jonette’s at Crisnée (mid June till end of July). Fernand Jonette-Benoit was the owner of a sugarbeet-refinery. There they got several visits of Gladys Budenaers. She brought English books, for example the Bible, and cakes and cherries. As the men were bored and in doubt (fleeing to France or staying and awaiting the liberation) tension sometimes got high, but Gladys’ visits brightend them up. Some photographs that turned up after the war were taken by the Jonette’s.
Some crewmembers in their hiding place
End of July they split up : Hill-Rooks, Millar-Gage and Donell. One day again they were moved to Liège and there, upstairs in a restaurant, they teamed up with Skipper and Rooks. They there had a marvellous, irresponsable festive evening ! The help of a policeman in Kemexhe, the baker at Crisnée, Albert and his wife Marie, the butcher at Slins and the Brognies at Roclenge, Jeanine Falla-Latour, Boninne-Chapion near Namur, Bigot, Georges Ruymen from Liege-Montagne de Bueren, Joseph Gierden and daughter Germaine is rembered by the crew. The helping of allied pilots was a very dangereous and sometimes deadly act. For example the escape-line in Tongeren was denounced and many helpers ended their lives in German camps. Millar said later on that his war experience with his Belgian helpers gave him a lot more faith in people, although he kept after his evasion the habit of looking in a store window to see wether anyone was following him. It took him years to get out of it.
Our airmen stayed hidden untill the American Army liberated the region in the beginning of September 1944. The day before the arrival of the Americans, the Germans set up six 88s in a field right across from the house where Millar and others were hidden and fired for about fifteen minutes. The following day the Germans, who looked for a place to sleep, slept in their beds, while the Canadians hid all the day in the chicken house. About three o’clock in the afternoon they took off and all of a sudden an American jeep appeared. They ran out and shouted that they were Canadians. The driver stopped and gave them a long hard look, while all the time hanging on to his Tommy gun. The Germans had left with vehicles tied to eachother to save gas. The airmen returned in the United Kingdom on the 15th of September. At the end, Donnell recalled to be in Roclenge-sur-Geer with the family Rousseau-Hardy. He returned to Canada October 31, 1944, by Paris and London.
Rooks told his story in detail in his debriefing. He was long time kept hidden separated from the four in Heers. He broke his leg on touching down. As it was dark, he could not see the approaching ground. He hid his equipment and made off in a south-east direction. After getting as far as he could he hid under a thick hedge until 9 hours, when he knocked at the door of a house and asked for help. He learned that he was in Gelinden. In the afternoon he was taken by an officer of the White Brigade to his house in Jeuk, where he spent a day and he then moved to the castle owned by the countess de Renesse at Berloz near Waremme. He remained there until May 2, during which time his leg was treated by a doctor. This doctor moved him in his car to the house of André Beauduin-Seny in Waremme. His leg was still in a plaster cast. Three weeks later he moved back to the countess and remaind there until he was able to walk again. On about June 5 he went by tram to “Brey” (Braives ?) where he remained five days with a tram conductor. From here he went on bycicle to Crisnée where he met four other crewmembers Hill, Donnell, Gage and Millar. They remained there until about July 27. The head of the organisation and a number of the members were denounced at this time, which meant considerable delay before they could move on. On their next move to Boirs they were split up. Hill stayed with Rooks, while the other three were taken to another house in the vicinity. On August 17 Hill and Rooks went to a convent nearby Roclenge, where they stayed for five days and on August 23 they went to Liege. There they remained until September 8, about which time the Allied troops arrived. Colin Rooks turned up in England after having been missing for five months. He sent a cable to his parents saying “Bad pennies always turn up again. Writing”.
So the story of the Halifax MZ 522 SE-U had a happy ending. For every hundred aircrew who joined heavy-bomber crews in the period 1939-1945 only 24 stayed unharmed and only 1 evaded capture after been shot down. The crew of Halifax “Uncle” got very lucky.
Note : the identification of the downed aircraft was made independently by Alain Rosseels, crash site searcher from Brustem, and later in 1994 by the Remacluskring Zepperen, a local history society. Contacts could be established with four of the surviving crew members (Gage, Donnell, Rooks and Millar) and with Gladys Budenaers.
– Florent-Pierre ISTA, Hannut-Waremme dans la tourmente de la 2e Guerre Mondiale, 3. 1944, (l’Histoire de la région. Préliminaire n°6), s.l., 1990.
– Emerson LAVENDER and Norman SHEFFE, The Evaders. True Stories of Downed Canadian Airmen and Their Helpers in World War II, Toronto-Montreal, 1992.
– Cynrik DE DECKER and Jean-Louis ROBA, Bommenwerpers vs. locomotieven. Het nachtelijk bombardementsoffensief van de Royal Air Force op België maart-juli 1944, s.l. 1992.
– Zepperen in Twee Grote Oorlogen, Remacluskring, Zepperen, 1994.
– BAHA (Belgian Aviation History Association)
– RCAF Bomber Group 6
Versie 14 juli 2020