In earlier pages of "The War Illustrated" (Vol. 2 p.p. 574, 581, 631, and 654) reference has been made to the magnificent feat of an R.A.F. Bomber Squadron which blew up the bridges at Maastricht – a feat which evoked the message "Messieurs, je vous remercie" (Thank you, gentlemen) from General Georges. Now we record the story broadcast by a sergeant observer who was one of the two survivors of the action.
The two bridges at Maastricht should have been blown up on the night of May 11, but for some unknown reason they were left standing. It was absolutely necessary that the bridges should be destroyed, for they were the only route open to the enemy.
One Squadron Leader asked for volunteers, and there is no need for me to say that not a single one of us hesitated. I wasn't present at the actual time, but when I arrived my pilot told me he had put my name down, and I'm glad he did.
Maastricht was about 100 miles away from our aerodrome, but from the preparations we made for the journey you might have thought we were off for a journey across miles of uncharted land. We are thorough about all our routes, of course, but the vital importance of this raid made us even more careful. It was absolutely essential that we should not waste any time in finding the bridges, and it was absolutely essential that they should be destroyed.
Five aircraft set out on the task. One flight of three were detailed to destroy the larger bridge, and the other two aircraft – in one of which I was the observer – had the smaller bridge to deal with. We were given a fighter escort of three aircraft, which cheered us up quite a lot, but unfortunately we were not to have their company for long. When we were about 20 miles from the target 30 Messerschmitts tried to intercept us, but we continued on our course while the three fighters went into the attack. The odds were ten to one, but even so several of those Messerschmitts were brought down.
So we arrived near Maastricht. All the company we had was more enemy fighters and heavier anti-aircraft fire. The Messerschmitts attacked us from the rear. The first I knew about it was when our rear gunner shouted to me, "Enemy fighters on our tail – look out, Taffy!" Our pilot turned and took evasive action, while the gunner shot one of them down. That seemed to frighten the others, for they soon sheered off. The barrage was terrific – the worst I have ever struck – and as we neared our target we saw the flight of three bombers, now returning home, caught in the thick of the enemy's fire. All three were lost.
The big bridge looked badly knocked about and was sagging in the middle. It had been hit by the bombs dropped by the three bombers ahead of us. When we delivered our attack we were about 6,000 feet up. We dived down to 2,000 – one aircraft close behind the other, and dropped our load. Looking down, we saw that our bridge now matched the other. It sagged in the middle, and its iron girders were sticking out all over the place. Immediately after we had dropped our bombs we turned for home, but the barrage was there waiting for us. It was even worse than before, and it was not long before our aircraft began to show signs of damage. Soon the rear gunner shouted, "They have got our tanks!" and as it looked as if the machine was going up in fire, the pilot gave orders to abandon aircraft.
The rear gunner jumped first. We saw nothing of him after that, though we hope he is all right. Then I jumped. The pilot remained with his machine and managed to bring it down safely.
When I jumped we were near Liége, and on the way down I saw I was going straight for the River Meuse, so I pulled my rigging cord on one side and altered direction to make sure of falling somewhere in the town. But as I came near the ground I saw a reception committee waiting for me. Hundreds of people were dashing about from one street to another and all were pointing at me. As I got nearer I realized that the mob was angry; they were shouting and waving their firsts. I then began to wonder whether the river wouldn't be safer after all, but by that time it was too late to change my mind.
I landed in a small cottage back garden, and before I had had time to disentangle myself from my gear the crowd rushed into the next-door garden and dragged me over the fence, shouting "Sale Boche" – that means "Dirty German" – and other insulting remarks. I shouted back "Je suis anglais", but either they didn't believe me or didn't understand my French.
Soon they had dragged me into the street where there were hundreds of people waiting. Men and women held my arms and an angry old man got ready to shoot me. Again I shouted "Anglais! Anglais!" and I am glad to say somebody must have thought it just possible that I was telling the truth, for the old man was prevailed upon to hand me over to the police. On the way to the police-station, burly women tried to hit me; and then suddenly, out of the blue, I was spoken to in English by a Belgian woman who offered to act as my interpreter. I was grateful to her. She persuaded the police to send me to the Commandant of Liége Fortress. He believed my story, offered me hospitality, gave me a bicycle and a map, and put me on the road to Namur. So after an adventurous journey, I arrived in England.