The Airman in the Tower
11 October 2007
The young lady has a reason to hide her face. This photograph was taken in The Netherlands, World War II is raging, and she is a courier in the Dutch underground. The Gestapo shoot such people with little ceremony.
The resistance used women and girls to guide downed allied airmen from one hiding place to another. It was a very dangerous business. The man on the left of the photo is an American airman named Bill Weaks, from South Carolina. The other is an Australian Pilot Officer from a dairy farm near Bombaderry, Kevin Winston McSweeney, my Dad. Just before this photograph was taken, and just a few days past his 20th birthday, he was flying his Lancaster when it was shot down. It was his 18th mission over Germany.
We don’t have the original telegrams from the ministry to my Nana, but we have the telegrams she sent to one of her daughters, Dad’s sister, then living away from home.
KEV MISSING OVER GERMANY
How hard can a four word telegram be to write?
We also have a lovely letter of condolence and encouragement from a WAAF intelligence officer. She obviously thought the world of Kevin and tried to reassure his mum that it would be all right.
Then, two months after the first telegram, Nana had to relay another message.
4 KEVS CREW POW 2 UNKNOWN KILLED NO NEWS KEV
Dad’s aircraft had been attacked by a JU-88 night fighter. The Lancaster was fatally damaged and caught on fire. Dad ordered his crew to jump while he still had control of the aircraft.
The fire took over. Before he could get out himself it reached the 4000 lb “cookie” still left in the bomb bay, just a matter of feet behind him. The bomb exploded. In Dad’s words “everything turned red” and he found himself in free space. Somehow he had survived the explosion with enough conciousness remaining to pull the rip cord of his parachute. It is surmised that the only armour plate used in the Lancaster – which forms the back of the pilot’s seat – protected him from the direct blast of the explosion. The whole front of the aircraft was blown outward, along with Dad.
The burning aircraft lit the surrounding country – a swamp in Germany as it turned out, not too far from the Dutch border. Dad saw two other parachutes as he was descending.
Reaching the ground he took his flight suit off and buried it along with the parachute. Despite all his efforts he could not make contact with any others of the crew, even with those whose parachutes he had seen. Reconciled to being alone he got directions from the Pole Star and walked towards the Dutch border.
As it turned out four of his crew were captured soon after landing, becoming prisoners of war for the duration. Two were killed, and were buried in a forest cemetery in Germany. They were a mix of Australians seconded to the RAF, and Englishmen. They were very close-knit, and the survivors remained life long friends.
Dad reached the Dutch border and by taking note of the border patrol pattern he was able to cross out from Germany in daylight. He eventually came across a Dutch shepherd in a field, but a group of peat diggers nearby started waving and beckoning and so he went over to them instead. He learned that the shepherd was a Nazi sympathiser. The diggers helped remove the insignia from his uniform and gave him directions. He spent three days walking, staying overnight in haysheds and getting food from Dutch farming families happy to help a “British” airman. On one occassion he was stopped by a German soldier on a bicycle, wanting directions. All Dad could do was say “I don’t understand” in English. Neither Dad’s words nor his RAF battle dress aroused the soldier’s suspicion – he just shook his head and rode on.
Later, another man on a bicycle rode past, stopped, turned around and spoke to him in English “Do you need help?”. Dad said “Yes”. The man took him to the home of Johan Meewis, the leader of the local Dutch resistance. Apart from actively prosecuting a guerrilla war against the Nazis he organised the escape of downed pilots, which involved moving them from one place to another accompanied by guides, or “couriers”, with the aim of getting them to one of the established escape routes to England. Anneke, the young girl in the photo, was one of his couriers.
His first hiding place was the mechanism room of the clock tower in Wijhe, a very small Dutch town, where he spent three days while the room below was occupied by German army spotters, making use of one of the few high points in the flat Dutch landscape to look for downed airmen. They were looking in the wrong direction! A local boy, Jan Janssen, son of the local police chief, looked after him while in this cramped room. His father gave him a key to the tower. Each time the army spotters’ watch shift ended Dad crawled out from his cramped hiding place to stretch out in one of the German’s bunks.
It was time to move to another hiding place. Anneke escorted Dad by train to his new location, a small room in an apartment in Amsterdam, which he shared with Bill Weaks, the American. At this time the usual escape routes were blocked, so the two airmen in the photo had to spend almost three weeks cooped up in hiding. Dad was given some silver coins. To relieve the boredom he melted them down and made little models of aeroplanes, about an inch long. Anneke has one to this day as a most precious treasure, and had some photos of it taken for us.
The escape routes started moving again and so it was arranged for Dad to go to a certain house in Brussels. This time his luck ran out. There was no one at home, and a neighbour suggested he go to the local cafe to wait. That neighbour was a French traitor. The Gestapo came to the cafe and took Dad prisoner. He was put in St Gilles prison, now run by the Nazis. It was populated with other allied airmen, common criminals and deserters from the German army. None of the prisoners were treated in accordance with the Geneva Convention.
There was a gruesome routine in this prison. Every morning a shot rang out. That shot signalled the execution of another prisoner. Perhaps it was the Nazis idea of a wake up call. Dad was there for three months. That three months had two lifelong effects: Nightmares and dental problems caused by malnutrition.
By that time the allied advance into Europe was starting to press the Germans, so they decided to transport their prisoners back to the fatherland. A train going to Germany had a mail wagon attached to hold the prisoners. Before it could get far, however, the Dutch resistance attacked the train and while the German guards were busy warding off the attack, Dad and the other prisoners managed to pull up some floor boards and escape from the wagon. It wasn’t too difficult to make contact with the advancing allied army and get a return to England.
A final telegram from Nana to my Aunt, four months after the first one.
KEV IN ENGLAND PERFECTLY FIT
Though he didn’t need to, and it must have distressed his parents, Dad continued with flying – now as a Flight Lieutenant – and formed a new crew, but fortunately the war was over before he needed to fly another combat mission.
It was only a span of a few years but a generation was defined in those years. What intrigues me most is the presence of a spirit in some people that will not bend to evil, while yet similar people in similar circumstances will. The shepherd who would have given Dad to the Nazis, while the peat diggers helped him. The people of the resistance on the one hand, and the collaborators on the other. In ordinary times one would have been hard pressed to tell them apart.
This is a picture of Johannes Meewis, the Dutch underground leader. He went by the codename of Carl. After the war he was honoured by both the British and American governments for the help he gave to downed airmen, such as Dad. We have a copy of the citation from President Eisenhower. Tragically, his health suffered terribly from the stress and sadness of these times, and he died in 1947. He was a hero of the highest order. There were many brave men and women amoungst his colleagues – the “helpers”.
Dad knew none of the real names of the Dutch helpers, nor was he told any addresses, for obvious security reasons. But those helpers knew Dad’s real name and some knew he was from Australia. They heard when he was captured by the Gestapo and, hearing nothing more, feared the worst. But they didn’t forget.
Jan Janssen moved to the Dutch East Indies after the war. He happened to hear a program on Radio Australia about the trials of downed aircrew in Europe, in which Kevin’s name was mentioned, so he wrote to the station seeking to get a contact address. We have the letter sent by Radio Australia. Anneke and others from the Dutch underground obtained Dad’s address through the Red Cross. One of the peat diggers got in contact, as did the father of one of the other helpers.
Perhaps not too surprisingly, until she found Dad’s actual address in 1988, Anneke was under the impression that he was an American, and even tried advertising in the American Air Force magazine (we have a copy of the advert). When I found this out I was reminded of one of Dad’s stories from his trip by train across the US (on the way to England). After talking with a couple of girls in California, who had asked where they were from, Dad heard one note to the other “They speak English well, don’t they?”.
Have a look at the top photo again. Soon after this was taken Anneke saw twelve of her friends rounded up and shot by the Gestapo, in one day. She still has nightmares about those times. When she came to Australia as a guest of the Royal Escaping Society (courtesy of KLM) she stayed at our house for a while and she and Dad stayed up all night talking over those times. Perhaps it was for the best, but Dad was terribly shaken by the retelling of those experiences.
I will finish with an English translation of a poem that Anneke wrote about “Kevin Mac Swaney, American Pilot” – as she thought at the time – a few years after the war, not knowing whether he had survived or not:
“You were the warm sunshine
Which came through the window
The wind which sung through the trees
A song that could only be short.
You were the tender night music
The sky full of stars
The white moonlight on the ground
A melody full of romance.
Your mouth your laughter your eyes
So clear as the sparkling water
You could drink without worry
An arm around my shoulder.
Autum on the silent beach
A wave that broke against the rocks
Your soft voice that speaks of love
Two white shells on the sand.
You were the yellow flower field
The summer that quickly ends
And spreads into Autumn nights.
You were my happiness in sorrow
My underground love song.”