Day Trip to Belgium

Day Trip to Belgium

On June 8, sixty five years after flying innumerable missions over Europe with Fighter, Coastal and Bomber Commands Jack Toombs (236 Squadron in the Battle) finally set foot on continental Europe. His visit was another consequence of the invention of the internet, here’s how it came about.

The Monument website shows the names of the Battle of Britain aircrew of all nationalities that will be commemorated and this has attracted much correspondence and discussion. Some weeks ago we were contacted by the family of Arthur Albert Leopold van Waeyenberghe, a Belgian pilot with 236 Squadron in the Battle. His name was incorrectly spelled on the list and we rapidly put this right. Further exchanges ensued as the family in Belgium had heard nothing from Arthur following his escape to England in June 1940. He was killed in 1941 and after the war his personal effects were returned to the family.

We had often heard Jack mention that he was van Waeyenberghe’s gunner on all his Battle missions and communicated this to the family. They were overjoyed as they immediately recognised the name Toombs as it appeared in Arthur’s logbook so many times. So keen were they to have first-hand information on Arthur’s time in England that the next step was to arrange a visit by Jack. Society Chairman Gerry Burke rose at 2am on the 8th to collect Jack and RV’d with me at 5am, the three of us headed for Folkestone and Eurotunnel. Incredibly this was Jack’s first non-flying trip across the Channel. From Calais we headed North to the town of Wenduine, past Ostend, where the family owned a cafĂ©/bar. Before Jack has exited the car the extended family had issued forth and greeted him as a long-lost friend, this would set the tone for our visit with overwhelming hospitality and friendliness. Our hosts all spoke English except for Arthur’s brother Ghisleen and as the day drew on even he dredged up long forgotten phrases from his time as a mascot of a Royal Engineers tank repair workshop set up near his home in 1944.

The family had been sent a report of the investigation into Arthur’s loss, he was flying from Aldergrove in Northern Ireland in a two-Blenheim formation in very poor visibility. No radio transmission was made, the flight just disappeared with no wreckage found on land or sea, the conclusion was a mid-air collision over the sea between the two aircraft. Arthur is of course remembered on the Runnymede Memorial but following Belgian practice has a “memorial grave” at the Air Force plot in Brussels Town Cemetery.

Ghisleen is an official of the Belgian equivalent of the British Legion and had obtained clearance to present Jack with a medal issued to returning veterans to commemorate the Liberation. Jack was visibly moved, this enhanced by Ghisleen’s resemblance to his older brother. To our intense embarrassment Gerry and myself were also presented with a similar boxed token of the Liberation.

click on images to enlarge

Jack after his medal award, pictured with Arthur’s younger brother Ghisleen

Jack flanked by Ghisleen and Arthur’s ,sister Christine in the family owned Cafe/Bar

From the personal effects returned after the war, a sketch of Arthur, signed “George Belford (?)1940”

After an excellent lunch of local specialities we issued forth for our return journey, laden with gifts of locally produced beer. We cannot thank Hugo, Annemie, Ghisleen, Christine and the many other family members enough for making us so welcome, it was obvious that they had also gained much satisfaction from meeting a friend of Arthur.

 

(Sadly Jack Toombs passed away on 11th December 2006)

Edward McManus