My last combat By R.J.L. Laumans
At the time, I had logged 48 operations against the enemy, initially I was on 74 Squadron (Tiger Squadron) of the RAF and then to 350 that everyone knows. The reason for the change was that 74 Squadron left to fight in the Middle-East, and in North Africa, and that the Belgian authorities in London wished to keep the Belgian pilots in Great Britain, for further landing operations on the continent . We were two, P/O Etienne Winterbeek and I to make the transfer from 74 Squadron to 350 (Belgian) Squadron.
After having passed through Atcham and Warmwell with 350, we arrived at Debden where were already based two famous Squadrons which had distinguished themselves in the Battle of Britain: 111 Squadron (or Triple One) and 71 Squadron, the famous Eagle Squadron made up of Americans. Our Squadron flew almost daily against the enemy, making incursions in France and in Belgium.
We were equipped with Spitfire Mk Vb (two guns of 20mm and four machine-guns Browning 303). We lost our first pilots, in particular on 23 May 1942 at the time of a famous dog-fight in the area of St. Omer, where Louis Peeters bailed out and Etienne Winterbeek was killed. I had a "Dog Fight" with an Fw-190, which I believed to have shot down. But after viewing the film of the "cine-gun", the claim was downgraded to an Fw-190 damaged, even after many pieces had been blown off of the fuselage of the Focke-Wulf, but nobody saw the plane crash. The long fight against this Fw-190 brought me above Boulogne, and I did not have enough fuel to reach Debden. So I landed at Tangmere and when I phoned to 350, the C.O. told me that I am already marked "Missing". I still make several flights during the following days then the 1st June 1942 arrives!
According to the book "Spitfire Mark V in action" by the English author Peter Caygill, the RAF wants to test the true value of the Fw-190 on this day and makes take off several "Wings" of Spitfires, including the Debden Wing of 65, 71, 111 and 350 (Belgian) Squadrons. Unfortunately the Luftwaffe has a similar intention and uses I and III./JG26, a frightening force composed of experienced pilots. To quote Peter Caygill we read: "The actions that had already been fought in the skies over France had shown the Fw-190 to be a formidable adversary, but the level of predominance that it was capable of achieving was underlined during the operations that were carried out on the first two days in June 1942."
350 Squadron, formed this day of three Flights, was led by the C.O., Squadron Leader Desiré Guillaume. My flight was led by Fl/Lt Yvan Du Monceau de Bergendael and I had as my wingman Sgt Georges Livyns (82 Prom). The others were André Plisnier, Xavier Menu, François Venesoen, Fernand Boute, Jean Ester, Henri Picard, Raymond Schrobiltgen and José Hansez (also 82 Prom). Ester was going to be killed in the Sabena accident from Gander after the war and Picard will be assassinated by Gestapo in Germany at the time of "The Great Escape" from Stalag-Luft 3.
65 Squadron flew at 20,000 feet, 111 at 22,000 feet, 71 Squadron at 23,000 feet and 350 Squadron "Top-cover" at 25,000 feet. Conditions of the flight were very good, good weather, and no clouds. We escort "Hurricanes bombers" which attacked a target close to Bruges (Circus 178). Close Protection of the bombers was performed by the Spitfires Vb of Hornchurch and Biggin Hill.
The Germans, led by Major Gerhard Schöpfel, waited until the RAF formation was on the way home again and once approaching Blankenberge, the attack, when it was started, was timed to perfection and delivered with devastating effect: German sections attacked each Squadron of Spitfires. Being "Top-cover", we were one of the first engaged.
Quickly "Blue Section" was separated from the Squadron. George Livyns was killed close to Blankenberge. I pursued an FW-190, which disengaged after an attack against another Spitfire, at this moment it was alone. As General M. Donnet and the Colonel L. Branders wrote in their book "Ils en étaient” on page 39, I quote: P/O Sprague, an American of 71 (Eagle) Squadron confirmed the victory of Duke Du Monceau. Laumans, Livyns and Hansez are missing. Laumans was seen attacking an Fw-190 above Ostend flying towards the east.
For information, here are extracts from the "Combat Report" of Du Monceau:
"During Circus 178, the Squadron (350) was at 25,000 feet and about twenty Fw-190's attacked from above. Blue section (Du Monceau) was heavily engaged and became separated from the rest of the squadron. Blue 2 came back alone, Blue 3 (Laumans) and Livyns Blue 4 were missing. ... 350 engaged in vicinity of Ostend 1-6-42 (12.52h to 14.30h). Blue section leader (F/Lt Du Monceau) states returning from the sweep He saw a Spitfire attacked by an Fw-190. The Spit pilot bailed out and Blue 3 (F/O Laumans) gave chase to the attacking FW flying back in the direction of France and that was the last seen of him. F/O Laumans is presumed lost due to enemy action ".
A Letter addressed by the "Duke" Du Monceau to Colonel Wouters at 107 Eaton Square in London describes the toughness of the fights:
« ... At the time of a sweep above Bruges, we have lost 3 pilots, without knowing too much about what happened to them, other than that they are missing. To my knowledge it was the hardest sweep to which I have ever taken part: Germans reacting violently contrary with their normal practice. ... F/Lt Du Monceau: 1 Fw-190 destroyed (confirmed by 71 (Eagle) Squadron)... »
I caught up on this plane, but at the same time four other Fw-190’s joined us. I immediately disengaged, carrying out a steep turn in extreme cases from the grey veil. It was the only operation where the Spit V still had the advantage on the 190: In tight turns with 5G, there was an advantage to be left there. Then they were nothing any more but four. I reached the first on which I fired, I cannot confirm it, but it had disappeared. As they had gathered, I tried a frontal attack. One risk, a collision, but as I was certain to die in this combat it was the best solution. But it was also time to regain England and it was a succession of engagements. Between each one, I managed to regain a few kilometres towards the West until the moment when it was again necessary to face my pursuers. But I gradually lost altitude. Finally we were above the sea, already far away from the coast. During one of these engagements another Focke-Wulf had given up: they were nothing any more but three.
After approximately twenty minutes of combat, and of many turns, I was very tired. But another Fw-190 is presented in front of me. The occasion was too beautiful. I place myself in position for shooting and before I can fire my weapons (I do not know if any ammunition still remained), my plane receives the heavy shooting of both other Focke-Wulf’s, which had placed them behind me. It was the tactics of the "Decoy". The cannon shells tear into my two wings, and are also flattened on the armoured shielding on my back. Two to three seconds later, a shell enters the left side of the fuselage, crosses the instrument panel, destroying several instruments, and will explode in the gasoline tank between the cockpit and the engine. As I did not have much gasoline left, the mixture of air and gasoline was to be very explosive. In very little time my plane was prey to the flames. I had little time left to abandon the Spit. Some moments earlier I had thrown a glance at the altimeter: 900 feet (regulated with the QFF at Debden). I released the cockpit, detached the harness of the plane, and had taken off my helmet. That took too much time to disconnect the radio lead and oxygen. Then I rocked the plane onto its back. I am left half out of the cockpit, but my parachute remained hung on the back. The plane "was not trimmed" for inverted flight and I could not reach the stick any more. I gave a kick on the stick thus creating negative "G" and that projected me out of the plane. I pulled the ripcord for the parachute which fortunately was spread normally. No, I was not to die this day!
While going down towards the sea, relatively calm, I see a Focke-Wulf, probably that which shot me down, make a turn and to fly towards me. Then I was afraid by seeing this large radial engine growing bigger with sight of my eye. I was persuaded that the pilot was going to open fire and to kill his adversary. But abruptly the pilot gave a blow of the rudder pedals because I sighted the plane to skid on the right and the Fw-190 passed to a side of me creating some movements. And I saw my adversary distinctly turning his head towards me and to greet me (military salute) at the moment of its passage. I suppose that it recognized the honesty of the combat and that I had not been an easy adversary to cut down. Who said that the "Knights of the sky” don’t exist any more?
Now I know with certainty that its pilot was one of the two which you see in the photograph below. Indeed, it is thanks to Mr Jean-Louis Roba, a Lawyer in Charleroi, who obtained this photograph of Hauptmann Priller and Lt Aistleitner. Maître Roba also sent me a text from German files (Combat Reports). It seems that Priller shot down a Spitfire of 350 (Belgian) Squadron and Aistleitner two others (or the reverse). As the Squadron lost three planes in this rodeo, that completes the account. Thus at the date and time of this operation, my adversary was Hauptmann Priller or Lt Aistleitner. Lt Aistleitner was killed in aerial combat on 14 January 1944 against P47 Thunderbolts of the 4th Fighter Group, USAAF, whilst Priller survived the war.
Josef Priller (right) explaining a dogfight to his wingman Lt.
The moment had now disappeared and all that remained now was for a sea landing to be carried out. One had heard about pilots who drowned while jumping above the water and where the parachute fell on them. I did not want that to happen to me. I did not have much time since I had jumped around 900 feet. Also when approaching the surface of the water, I have released by hand the central buckle of the parachute straps, whilst with the other I clutched onto the cords. When the strap fell I clutched the cords with two hands and when I estimated to be about ten metres above the water I released myself. Indeed the parachute not having any more weight to be supported left in the wind, whilst I made a fall free of a few metres. But, nevertheless, I descended rather deeply into the water having undoubtedly badly misjudged the height. As soon as I was in the water I have actuated the inflation of the life jacket, named "Mae-West", and went up on the surface. It was fortunate that I had this Mae-West because with my flying-boots filled with water and wet clothing it would have been difficult to swim. However, the adventure was not finished: it was necessary to release the dinghy (lifeboat), to deploy it and inflate it. Whenever one of us had ever been involved with a parachute jump, with the Squadron, we had even had a demonstration of folding and unfolding of the dinghy. In spite of all this, in water up to the neck, with waves which broke above my head, it was not easy. One does what is necessary, and soon the dinghy hung in the water until I find the inflation bottle, remove the pin and turn on the operating tap. It is with great pleasure when I saw the dinghy inflating, taking form and leaving the water. Obviously it moved much while passing from one wave to another. To climb up on board was even more difficult. Lastly, it was done.
At the beginning I wasn’t done too much of it. I saw the cliffs of Dover, white under the sun. And I thought of Vera Lynn (There'll be blue birds over; the white cliffs of Dover; etc...). All the old ones know this song of hope. And I thought that it would be only a question time before "the Air-Sea-Rescue" comes to fish me out. I had neither food nor drinks on board, and time soon seemed long to me. In the evening I hear the noise of a Merlin. I thought that a Spitfire approached but the noise remained localised, but far away, at the same time. That had to be high-speed motorboats of the Air-Sea-Rescue which were also equipped with Merlin engines, the same one as a Spitfire. But the boat did not approach sufficiently close so that I could see it, and thus I had my first night at sea. What a cruise!
In the morning of the second day the cliffs of Dover had disappeared, and I could have been in the middle of the Pacific. When I turn my head around 360 degrees I saw only water. I did not have too much thirst yet. The second day was interminable, I trailed my block of fluorescent at the end of a cord and thus I left a greenish trail in my wake. From that it is obvious that I am headed towards the east.
Came the second night and with it passage of a depression: much wind and the waves higher and higher. During the night the dinghy was turned over three times. The first time it was not too difficult to get back on board. The second time it was more difficult, and the last time with hollows of two to three metres, I managed to turn it over but I did not have any more energy to get up on board. I remained hanging, my arms around the side and when the sea was calmed, I then attempted to get up on board.
Now I was hungry and thirsty, but a misfortune against good heart was necessary to make. During the third day, I saw some North Sea seals passing and gradually, in looking towards the east, I saw the Belgian and French coasts approaching. I saw the cranes of Dunkirk on the right and a pier on the left. It should be Nieuport. During the day I was brought closer to Nieuport and I saw the few villas of Coxyde and La Panne. Then in the afternoon a boat of the Kriegsmarine approached me. At this stage I did not care about the nationality of those who came to take me onboard, to me it was equal. All that I wanted was to drink. The sailors hoisted me on board because I did not have any more energy myself and, once on the bridge, I collapsed. One of the sailors gave me some water to drink and the high-speed motorboat returned to Nieuport and landed in front of the old city. One brought me to the front of a house where the local Commander had his office. He wore the uniform of the Kriegsmarine and on the sleeve the badge of his rank had: two broad stripes and one thin. In the Royal Navy that corresponds to the rank of Lieutenant-Commander and with the RAF, Squadron-Leader. He spoke to me in English. In the RAF we do not wear a flight-suit, and we were equipped with the "Battle dress" blue-grey. I expected that this sailor would question me, but he said to me that his service had already warned the Luftwaffe based at Coxyde. While waiting, he proposed a meal for me which I accepted with joy, and which his orderly went to seek. While I ate, sitting at the table in his office, he posed to me questions about hotels and "pubs" in London, Southampton and in Liverpool... In accordance with the Geneva Convention I answered him saying: "You allow that I also put a question?” Astonished, he answers me: “Yes”. I ask him then why he poses to me all these questions concerning the hotels? And he gives me this confusing answer: “It is because I spent five years as a bridge officer in the "British Merchant Navy" and these are places that the crew visited. Moreover, it pleases me so much to speak again in English!”
Then people of the Luftwaffe arrived to take me along to Coxyde. It was poignant when we passed on the Route Royale (Royale Road) in front of the villa "Copélia" that my parents rented in the Thirties and where I spent the Augusts of my adolescence. It still exists.
At the aerodrome the Officer of the Guard, seeing me ill, called in the Army Medical Officer who notes that I had a 39° fever. He led me to the infirmary where I remained for three days and where they quickly helped me back on my feet again. After this time, I was taken along by car to the station of Furnes and, from there, we travelled by train to Brussels.
Two soldiers armed with machine-guns surrounded me and the Feldwebel in charge of the escort informed me (in German) that with the least suspect gesture, the guards and himself would use their weapons.
In Brussels where the junction did not exist at that time, I was led in a military car from the Gare du Midi to the Gare du Nord for taking a train from there to Frankfort. My heart tightened in traversing the Boulevard Adolphe Max without the possibility of escaping.
In Frankfort my destination was the "Dulag-Luft", a camp of selection and interrogation. Each prisoner was in cell of two metres out of three or a little more. There was a mattress, a small table and two chairs. In a corner, a kind of old radiator. I was locked up there, without food, for several hours before the arrival of an Abwehr officer. He spoke better English than me. Initially he presented me with papers to be filled in which asked for more than the required name and rank. He required to know which Squadron I belonged to and which type of plane that I flew. That is to say that it was so that the Red Cross can inform the families. I have only given my rank and number. He immediately said to me that I was Belgian, and that I flew with 350 Squadron; which I denied. But it is difficult to let nothing appear on my face. After an hour, during which he always repeated the same questions, he leaves, without giving me anything to eat, and I realise that the old radiator heats up excessively. After a certain time, the temperature in this very small cell is so high that I start to strip off. When I arrive at my nightshirt, the "radiator" changes into a refrigerator and the temperature goes down quickly towards zero degrees. This goes on alternately for several hours until the arrival of the interrogator, when the temperature is again a comfortable 20°. Always the same questions. They ask me how is "Major" Guillaume. He does not employ the term "Squadron Leader". Guillaume was a Major with the Aéronautique Militaire Belge in 1940, and at the Squadron one called him Major rather than Squadron-Leader. How did he know that? And to ask for news of "Duke" Du Monceau de Bergendael and Captain Boussa, the other Flight Commander.
I always answered that I did not know these people there and that it was too an error as the RAF it does not have "Major". After his departure, again the important change of temperatures all through the night to disturb my sleep. On the morning of second day one is really softened up and I always give the same answer: "Flying Officer Laumans 67088". And always that ironic smile of the Hauptmann. I must say that he never raised the tone of his voice nor raised his hand to me. I thought of my buddies who had been shot down before me and those which had died. Mainly about Louis Peeters, with whom I had got on with very well, and who had been shot down on 23 May and I believed dead.
However, on the evening of the second day my famous Hauptmann says to me that he is certain that I am Belgian and a pilot of 350 Squadron, although I do not want to admit it. We know that at 350 you have old aircraft and that there is no military secret to reveal it. That’s why we are going to send you to Stalag-Luft 3 in Silesia, the camp of the Royal Air Force, where you will be able to find your friend Louis Peeters. Then in the weak state which I was, it came out as a bullet, without being able to hold my words. I said: "What! He’s alive?" He simply looked me with the underhand glance of a poker player: “You come to acknowledge!... O.K. Mister Laumans, off you go...”
And, once again, in a train with a quota of 30 to 40 prisoners whom they had gathered, we left for Sagan, Stalag-Luft III. Among these prisoners there was another Belgian: Jose Muller, an aviator in 1940 (I believe). And we were sent to where another adventure started. Because, for us, the war was not finished, and it was necessary to continue the fight in another manner. In Sagan, together, we have carried out and made a success of the "The Great Escape". Unfortunately 50 officers paid with their life for this adventure. That story, I told it a few years ago in a trimestrial bulletin. Please refer to it.
(Translated from an Article from the Association of Vieilles Tiges)