War can throw up many stories, from the desperately tragic to the incongruously happy. It’s a rare one that combines these options, you’d imagine, but here’s an example. It also carries a baffling mystery and an astonishing coincidence….
The central character was Squadron Leader Bob Bailey, later to become my father-in-law. He was a night fighter pilot and was flying a Mosquito of 456 Squadron over Eastern Holland in May 1944 when he destroyed an ME110. His Irish luck expired when the wreckage raced back and hit him head-on, knocking out his port engine. He turned for home but within minutes his remaining engine overheated and it too burst into flames.
Signalling his navigator to jump for it, Bob bailed out as his blazing Mossie spiralled earthwards. His ‘chute opened with seconds to spare and he found himself, bleeding heavily from a facial cut, near a village he later identified as Renswoude.
Following the golden rule for such an eventuality, Bob attempted to gather in his parachute. But in a strong wind it had blown over a ditch that was some ten feet wide and had become entangled in a barbed wire fence on the other side. It was a hopeless task.
Spotting a light in a nearby building, he stumbled across fields and eventually reached what appeared to be a farmhouse. He knew that not all Dutch folk were sympathetic but he had to take a chance. He knocked on the door, using the Morse code for the V sign. Moments later he heard whispering and the door was opened by a lady. She took one look at his bloody face, then saw the RAF wings on his battledress blouse and quickly pulled him inside.
She was bathing his injured face but not a word had been exchanged for several minutes when a boy of about fourteen walked in, his face alight with excitement. He was the only local who could speak English, it transpired, and he asked Bob what he wanted to do.
To hide up for a few days, until the heat of the search wears off, was the answer. The youngster replied that he had a hiding place on his father’s nearby farm, made ready for the day an RAF pilot might need it.
The pact was signed with handshakes and thanks all round and thus Bob spent several weeks hidden in a haystack. The space inside was of shoulder width, with head clearance to sit up, and about six feet long. It was equipped with an oil lantern and two English language books: the Holy Bible and Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat.
Some weeks later the partisans escorted Bob on to the first leg of the escape route, to Antwerp and on to England. But he was betrayed along the line and spent the rest of the war in Stalag Luft 3. He endured the Long Walk, the evacuation that many PoW’s knew as the Nazis panicked at the Russian advance, but eventually was repatriated.
A few days after VE Day he boarded a train for the village of Burscough in Lancashire for an ecstatic reunion with his wife Jean and their new-born son. That’s when he learned of a baffling mystery.
Bob had been reported as missing, presumed killed in action, and Jean feared the worst. But one day in the village street she had met a gypsy lady selling lucky heather. Jean obliged and the lady told her: “Don’t worry. Your husband is alive and well. He wasn’t hurt, only a cut on his face.”
Bob carried the scar from that cut, sustained in his escape from his burning Mosquito, for the rest of his days…..
The story now switches to Australia where Bob had migrated with his family in 1964. By 1973 I had met and married Christine, his daughter, and we lived in Sydney where I worked as a journalist after migrating in 1963.
Bob and Jean lived in Melbourne and came to visit us for Christmas 1974, flying north with Ansett Airlines for which Bob was employed as Superintendent, Central Crewing. En route, Jean was leafing through the airline’s in-flight magazine when she read a story about an RAF Meteor jet arriving at the Mildura Air Museum, near Melbourne. It carried a photograph of the aircraft, its number, WD-767, clearly visible.
“Robert,” she asked, incredulously, “isn’t that your old aircraft?”
And so it proved to be, from the days when Bob was C.O. of 141 Night Fighter Squadron based at RAF Coltishall, Norfolk, in 1952-53.
Upon his return to Melbourne, Bob ‘phoned the editor of the in-flight magazine to enlighten him. Naturally, the editor was thrilled to learn of this significant follow-up to the article. He had Bob driven to Mildura to see his old “kite” and a photograph was duly taken of him sitting in the cockpit, grinning and holding a glass of champers.
Soon afterwards, this photograph appeared in The Age, Melbourne’s major newspaper, with a resume of the story. And equally soon afterwards came a telephone call to The Age from a young Dutch farmer who now lived in Victoria with the electrifying message that: “This is the RAF pilot I hid in our haystack in the war!”
It was indeed Kees Lagerwey, the young boy who had helped care for Bob on that fateful night and for several weeks. Like Topsy, the story grew from there as the newspaper organised a memorable reunion for the two. Later, Bob and Jean were taken to meet the other members of the Lagerwey family and it was here that the final passage of this remarkable story began to emerge.
Bob asked Karl what had become of his parachute; had it been hidden before the Germans came searching? Karl re-assured him; it had been quickly rescued from the barbed wire fence and given to his mother who promptly cut it into pieces as a prelude to hiding it.
Soon after the war, Mother Lagerwey converted the silken fragments to more practical use, as underwear for the ladies of the family and clothing for the children. Several pieces became a wedding dress for her daughter, Karl’s sister, while others became dresses for the smaller children of the family.
One of these was presented to Bob and Jean as a memento to treasure. Later, when we all returned to England, the little dress was used as a christening gown for Bob’s three grandsons, including our own two boys…..
Remnants of the parachute that had saved Bob’s life had completed an epic journey around the world to signal the loving start to other lives. It is now safely stored in the home of Bob’s son, also Robert, born in 1944 while his father was in Stalag Luft 3.
The story came full circle three years ago after Christine, my dear wife, died tragically in hospital of the effects of chemotherapy treatment.
Christine had spent most of her adult life, professionally and in retirement, helping the vulnerable and the needy. As a tribute to her father, this included the RAF Association in Rutland for which she was the honorary Welfare Officer.
In addition to the two families, her funeral at Peterborough Crematorium attracted people from all over the country, loving friends of many years’ standing, and former colleagues, plus a large number of those she had helped in various ways. One of them, a wartime fighter pilot, was close to tears when he told me: “I came to honour the memory of a wonderful lady. She was my guardian angel..”
The 150-strong procession was led into church by the standard bearer of the RAF Association, a beautiful tribute to the remarkable daughter of one of the unsung heroes of the Royal Air Force. May they both rest in peace.
To complete the roll call: Bob Bailey died of the effects of MS in Southport, Lancashire, on New Year’s Eve, 1999; Jean Bailey, now 95, lives in Oakham, Rutland; John White, Bob’s navigator, also survived the war but died as a passenger in the South African Airways Comet air crash in 1954; Gordon Moran, Jean Bailey’s brother, flew more than 30 missions as a rear gunner on Lancasters. He lived to be 88 and died in Perth, Australia; Barry Ward, the author, served with 23 Squadron, RAF Regiment, 2nd TAF, Germany, 1951-53. He too now lives in Oakham.
For a postscript to this story see: https://www.campaigntoendloneliness.org/blog/grief-opens-door-loneliness-barrys-story