During the spring of 1944, Bomber Command organised a major offensive against railway targets in occupied territory. Belgium had to sustain some severe attacks. Cities like Kortrijk (Courtrai), Hasselt, Haine St. Pierre, Montzen, were severely damaged. The death toll with the civilians was often so high the resistance informed the British authorities the attacks had to stop.
However these attacks were not just milk runs for the bomber crews either. For the German Nachtjagd it was a piece of cake to intercept the bomber stream which was making manoeuvres during the attacks. During 16 attacks on Belgian targets ab 75 bombers were lost.
The university city of Leuven (Louvain) was attacked twice within 48 hours, during which about 160 civilians were killed. During the second attack, five bombers were shot down.
Three of these losses were claimed by the night fighter ace Oberleutnant Martin Drewes of III./NJG 1, who operated from Venlo. His third interception occurred at 01.09 hrs, south of Brussels. The bomber, which turned out to be Halifax LW682 of 426 Squadron (see painting by Caroline De Decker), plunged towards the earth near Geraardsbergen (Grammont). The whole crew of F/Sgt Wilbur Bentz perished. The following day, only the remains of five airmen were recovered and buried at Geraardsbergen. The three others, John Summerhayes (mid upper gunner), Fred Roach (tail gunner) and Wilbur Bentz (pilot) were since then 'missing, presumed killed'.
When we located the crash location at a swamp at Schendelbeke, the idea emerged that we had to recover this aircraft and the remains of the three missing airmen. This led us by coincidence to Jay Hammond, nephew of the pilot and since years working on a study of his uncle's crew. Although the relatives of the missing men agreed that at least something had to be done, the main problem was money. The recovery of tons of aluminium from a bog seemed to be an almost impossible task. During a minor excavation by hand during the dry summer of 1996, we were able to find the receiver in reasonable good condition, various small fragments and an RCAF-button.
Via Flypast magazine we learned about the efforts of Canadian Karl Kjarsgaard to restore the Halifax bomber he found and recovered from a Norwegian lake. The project still goes on at Trenton, where the world's only complete Halifax bomber is to be completed to static condition. The team however was still looking for undercarriage and various parts. Once Karl was informed about the possibility of finding the substantial remains of a Halifax, but in the first place those of three Canadians listed as missing, he started to raise money by his federal government. The Ministry of Veteran's Affairs and Canadian Heritage agreed to finance the project.
Once the papers were signed, BAHA started to organise the dig. With the help of people from Geraardsbergen (who since then became fellow BAHA-members) and the permission of the owner of the ground, we were able to build up a fifty men and women team which was ready to do the job in September 1997.
The site was pumped dry for two weeks, before the team gathered around
the bog where the bomber was supposed to be.
Digging started in the early morning. Soon the first pieces of wreckage of LW682 appeared. Everything was in a rather battered condition, although the metal was still shiny new. This gave our Canadian friends good hopes in finding pieces whic might be useful for their Halifax project in Trenton.
After a few hours digging the work had to be stopped. At a depth of about three meters the first remains were found. It was obvious there were more than two bodies. It took several hours to recover the airmen, who from then on, were not missing anymore. Along the personal effects the watches of Fred Roach and Jack McIntyre were found, together with Fred's lighter and Jacks ring. Later that day the remains of the mid upper turret were found. In his position was still John Summerhayes. Many personal effects apparently had no names on it, like a fountain pen and a wallet with Canadian coins. All these artefacts were put aside for further investigation.
The remains of the bomber were dug up. By the end of that day, after fourteen hours of digging, we had two Bristol Hercules engines, the landing gear with tyre still attached, several .303 machine guns and the very rare .50 mid under gun. 426 Sqn flew several months with this weapon to defend itself against the night fighters attacking from beneath. Other interesting objects were the parachutes (only the nylon one remained intact), the dinghy with beacon, escape sets with money and silk maps, a flare pistol, propeller blades, survival kits etc.
The work continued the next day, when a third engine, the outer one, was located at a depth of about nine meters. A tree had to be cut as it had grown the past twenty years on top of it. Our crane driver really had a fight with the Hercules to get it out.
All the pieces were immediately cleaned with hoses of the fire brigade, enabling us to transport them easier from the crash location to a hangar for storage. The final results of the dig were about seven tons of Halifax bomber.
In Canada, the following weeks preparations were made to bury the three airmen. They were identified as Wilbur Bentz, John Summerhayes and Fred Roach. We wanted to get them buried along the rest of the crew, and we're glad to day that we were able to convince the local authorities to re-organise a bit the military plot on the cemetery of Geraardsbergen.
The burial, with full military honours, took place on Monday the November 10, 1997. The three airmen were escorted by ninety Canadian soldiers, the relatives of six of the eight fallen crew members, the Canadian Minister for Veteran's Affairs, Fred Miflin and many, many spectators. At the moment the coffins were put where they belonged, three Belgian Marchetti SM260's roared over in missing man formation
Nobody had mentioned the older greyish man along the visitor. He did not say a word, but he was seemingly very emotional. He remained anonimous, until he presented himself to the nephew of the pilot, Jay Hammond. The man was Martin Drewes, the former Kommandeur of III./NJG3 and the man who shot LW682 down. He especially came over from Brazil to salute his former ennemies.Several relatives approached him. Doug Summerhayes greeted the man who killed his father in war operations. Fred Roach' sister, Mrs. Marjorie Wise, gave him a hand. Martin Drewes, in German formal style, kissed her hand. "Can I give you a hug ?", Marjorie replied.
A very emotional day ended with a dinner, during which each of the relatives representing a fallen crew member received something their beloved one had in their hands during that final mission. Marjorie got her brother's watch, Mr. Taylor, whose brother Tom was the navigator, took the flight computer, Mrs. McIntyre her brother's watch and ring.
During the recovery, a wallet was found. After careful examination, two tickets were found. One was from Nova Scotia, where the crew sailed off to the war. The other was from Brantford to Simcoe. In that place John Summerhayes lived. He always took in his wallet the ticket with which he went to see his little son Doug, who was one year old one day before his dad was killed. More than half a century later, Doug could take his father's wallet back home. (picture : .50 calibre gun, parachute, prop blade and dinghy at the exhibition)
In November, a Canadian C-130 Hercules landed during the night at Melsbroek, the military airfield of Brussels. The landing gear, propeller blades and other pieces were loaded in the cargo hull. The RCAF-Herc took off in the night. This was the final flight of LW682.
At this moment, those pieces are used for the restoration project at Trenton. The world's only Halifax had again a landing gear. This bomber will be the most fitting memorial, not only for Wilbur Bentz' crew, but for all the other Halifax airmen who gave their best on this type.
This was our main goal: The crew of Halifax LW682 is completed again. They trained together, flew together, fought together, died together. Now they will rest together.
|Landing gear of LW682 being loaded in an RCAF C-130 Hercules at Melsbroek (Hubert Verstraeten)||Handley Page Halifax - LW682 OW-M 426 RCAF Squadron|