Memories of Melsbroek  

September 1944 – April 1945

Based on account recalled by FJ Seward in 1994

Late in September we left Amiens in a long convoy of lorries (either Bedford 3-ton or Chevrolet 3-ton) for Melsbroek airfield, Brussels. We travelled via Albert, Thiepval, Bapaume, Quivrain and Mons to Brussels. I recognised the Lutyens memorial at Thiepval from drawings (or photographs) I had seen previously. There were a few stops on the way for the personal comfort of the airmen - probably several hundred strong. On one occasion the convoy stopped on a straight road: and all had their backs to the lorries, unusual and unforgettable sight there was left and right. For the journey to Melsbroek I sat in the cab next to the driver, and had a good view of the cheering and waving crowds of the population. Every town and every village seemed to have turned out to greet us. We handed out presents of soap and cigarettes to the well-wishers until our stocks ran out.

Melsbroek had been occupied by the Luftwaffe, who had disguised most of the smaller buildings to look like a typical Belgian village. There were concrete runways and large hangars. One hangar only was used by M Flight. Together with about a hundred airmen another hangar was allocated as our sleeping quarters. The hangar was lofty, had ill-fitting doors and so it was very draughty and the folding doors admitted the rain. We tried to remedy this by nailing roofing felt (which we had pinched) on the inside. Our beds comprised a low wooden frame with boards across. I managed to find two pieces of insulation board, about ¾" thick and used this for additional comfort. I had also obtained an extra blanket, making three in all. We remained at Melsbroek until the spring of 1945; it was very cold there during the winter, and I was glad of the extra blanket. I made up my bed in such a way that every blanket gave three thicknesses, and was draught proof. But it worked. There was intermittent electric light in the hangar - sometimes it worked, other times we went to bed in the dark. The airmen's mess was in an old building, where we had to use mess tins, as there were no plates. The two mess tins were roughly rectangular on plan, one was larger than the other, and so they fitted neatly with one outside the other. After the meal, one washed the mess tins and "cutlery" in a tank of grey-ish water, heated by a fire about it of scrap wood. After washing up came the exercise of drying and cleaning the mess tins for next time. A large piece of old rag was much prized for this purpose.

The whole of 34 Wing arrived at Melsbroek: 140 Squadron with Mosquitos, 16 Squadron, Spitfires, and 69 Squadron, Wellingtons. We were busy by day and by night on PR work, how many thousands of photographs were taken is a number that was never disclosed. We learnt that much effort was made in assessing the rearrangements to German property that were caused by visits from Bomber Command. As well as Bomber Command, who called during the night, the Germans received daytime attention from the 8th Air Force of USA. Served 'em right!

The autumn was fine and sunny; later on there was a lot of rain and the "grass" areas of the airfield became a sea of mud. There was a frosty winter, followed by snow. I don't know what the temperature was, but I remember that the snow "squeaked" underfoot at each footstep. We wore Wellington rubber boots daily for weeks and weeks, some of the men had trouble with their feet, as there was no means of drying the Wellington boots

Melsbroek airfield adjoined a main road, which ran from Brussels to a little town called Haacht. There was a narrow gauge tramway between the towns, and a tram stop just outside the main gate. As a token of gratitude by the Belgian authorities, servicemen in uniform travelled free on the trams. Visits to Brussels by tram were a regular feature of travel, any spare evening, or when awarded a twenty four-hour pass. We all found the city quite fascinating: for the first few weeks everyone seemed to be exploring the place, and exchanging information of what could be obtained or enjoyed. Quite early on I found a small café where hot chocolate was available. One could get a portrait photograph taken in another street, there were very many cafés and restaurants, although the cost was high. I visited the site of the battle of Waterloo, a few miles east, and bought a brass ashtray there. I also attended the opera house on two occasions; I saw Faust by Gounod and the Muette de Portici (also called Masaniello) by Auber. The RAF had opened a Malcolm club for NCOs in an hotel in Brussels. This was quite luxurious, with comfortable reading rooms and a good restaurant. It was very popular as a result. I met a young Belgian called Georges Hanquart who was an undertaker in the city, and had a house over the shop. I used to visit his house for a chat and a drink: his sister was married to a musician and they all lived there. It gave me the opportunity of improving my French.

The latest tram from Brussels to camp was always crowded: sometimes the tram consisted of the tractive tram unit plus two coaches tucked on behind. Even with this arrangement it was crowded: on one occasion I clung on to a vehicle handgrip whilst standing perilously on the step: outside, vulnerable, and jolly cold, but I made it. Sometimes there were additional rations available at the cookhouse after 11.30pm (called 2330 hours in service language). I don't know how the food became available; there were slices of corned beef and of tinned cheese, both of which I liked. It seemed that many airmen did not like either, for there always seemed to be plenty of both. During the early days at Melsbroek one could buy dessert grapes quite cheaply at a gap in the perimeter wire outside the airmen's mess. Jock Shaw, [Cpl. Jim Shaw - J.S.] who was an engine fitter on 140 Squadron, and I used to buy about a pound (un livre) of grapes each day between us.

Henri Strybos at Steenokkerzeel Whilst the food was so much better than at Amiens, there were some facilities, which we lacked, and we missed. There was no organised laundry, and one of the men found a house in Steenockerzeel (the nearest village) where this could be done. The fee was a bar of soap and 20 cigarettes. The soap could be bought in the canteen fairly cheaply. There was a free issue of cigarettes to each airman from time to time, and I made use of these cigarettes for laundry, or as a present. I was surprised how much the locals prized our cigarettes. The house was of modest size, in a terrace, and the occupiers were Edouard and Germaine (surnamed?) [Strybos-Walgraef. - J.S.]. A little party of about four of us used to visit Germaine and Edouard once or twice a week to exchange laundry parcels. They were very short of food  except what they could grow, and we were careful not to eat any of their food. Another item, which we missed, was a bath or shower. There were public baths in Brussels, and once or twice I got a hot bath there on a free day; but when the winter arrived the coke deliveries failed, the place was closed. We were able to get a bath at Edouard's house once or twice. A portable tin bath was brought in from the back yard, placed in front of the fire and filled with hot water. We took turns to bath, and I remember Edouard scrubbing my back. All this was done with great discretion and delicacy; Germaine and her son remaining in a separate room. Germaine was a kind hearted and immensely patriotic woman. There was a large portrait of the late Queen Astrid in her house: the portrait having a diagonal black stripe across a lower corner. She had a consuming hatred of the foul Boche, many of whom had behaved very savagely during their occupation of the country.

Henri Strybos outside his house in Steenokkerzeel


Edouard, Cyrille, Germaine and Henri Strybos-Walgraef with Cpl. Jim Shaw at National Botanic Garden, Brussels 1945

 During the occupation, the Germans had recruited a number of young Belgians to fight against the Communists, who were held up as enemies of civilised Europe. Germaine showed me a memorial card to a young Belgian who was killed in Russia whilst he was in a German Army Unit. The card carried a photograph of the man in uniform, the place of death, and a few details. Germaine claimed to know the man's family - local apparently.

The Mosquitos seemed always to be busy on PR sorties. Occasionally, we had diversions when a US bomber, B-17 or similar, called in for re-fuelling on its way back to England after a daylight outing. On one occasion I recall that the American aircrew seemed so surprised that we gave them the petrol they needed without demanding a receipt. Our standard reply was to the effect that they were on our side. Sometimes they flew in so closely to one another that we were amazed at the risk they were taking: one at the end of the runway, one rolling, and a third about to touch down. Once or twice during the wet weather a B-17 came off the runway into the mud, and it required about five Bedford three-ton trucks, all in four-wheel drive, to tow the aircraft back onto concrete.

The sight of high flying aircraft overhead by day as well as the steady drone of the night shift, reminded us that the war was far from won. At one time we could hear artillery barrages: we were told that it was probably around Antwerp, about 40 miles away. We also saw the launching of many V2 rockets, which would leave a vertical white trail by day; at night it appeared as a bright light, steadily rising in the sky. These horrid things were directed towards London.


Edouard Strybos, Cyrille, Germaine Walgraef, Cpl Jim Shaw and Henri at the National Botanic Garden, Brussels


We lacked hot water for a long time, and finally took steps to remedy this lack. There was a hut on the airfield which, was used as a crew room (i.e, for ground crew when not attending to aircraft) and the Germans had left various items when they left hurriedly. We found a metal drop tank, which all air forces used as an auxiliary fuel tank. The tank was cigar shaped and about five or six feet long. The tank was fixed over a fire in the crew room and a rough flue was formed from the fire. The plumbing was simple. The tank was filled with water, was heated by a wood fire (the firewood pinched from anywhere possible) and was so arranged that hot water would only emerge from the tank if an equivalent amount of cold water was poured in. [This sounds like the sort of scheme that my father would concoct. - J.S.] This system allowed for a storage of hot water combined with it being impossible to drain the tank dry. Thus we had the luxury of hot water for shaving. Prior to a supply of hot water the ground crew resembled out of work pirates.


140 Squadron Ground Crew at Melsbroek 1945

Ground crew hut at Melsbroek 

 Left  to Right:  Cpl John Seward (Airframe), Cpl (Instruments), Cpl Frank Hodge (Electrical), Bill Tawse? (Airframe) , Cpl John Batchelor (Engines), Flt. Sgt. Morris

New Years Day, 1945 started fine and clear. I had been on duty the previous night, and was asleep in my bed when the air raid alarm sounded; it was daylight. There followed a sustained raid on the airfield and the aircraft by fighters of the Luftwaffe. Much enemy machine gun fire, and quite a bit by our defences using Bofors Ack Ack, which was sited in the airfield. It was quickly over, and silence returned. This was the last effective raid, which the Luftwaffe undertook, and the RAF suffered considerable losses of aircraft damaged or destroyed on the ground. Number 140 Squadron lost many Mosquitos - by the evening replacements had arrived from England, and the Squadron was very quickly operational. Number 16 Squadron lost a number of Spitfires. After the war it was stated by Asher Lee, in his book "The German Air Force" that 150 allied aircraft were destroyed on the ground and about 40 in the air. The Luftwaffe employed over 700 fighter and fighter-bomber aircraft in the raids on various airfields. This was New Year's Day.

In the early months of 1945 a group of junior NCOs, myself included, were awarded fresh sleeping accommodation in the village of Steenockerzeel. I think it was just an old junior school. There were windows, electric light, and proper WCs. Washing had to be performed in the open yard behind the school; and I was given the job of making a wooden shelter over the washing bins, with another Corporal we stole some timber from a vacant building over the road, and constructed a weather resisting structure, open on one side only. This worked quite well.

There was a café in the village (a pub in England) where beer was available, and which we frequented occasionally. The young airmen, for we were all young, were quite shocked to find that there was one large room only for male and female customers as toilet facilities. It was disconcerting to a row of airmen, facing a long urinal, to realise that young women were standing a few feet behind them, awaiting an empty WC cubicle. Oh - those foreigners.

About this time I got a pass, probably for eight or nine days, for home leave. A three ton Bedford lorry with a dozen or so airmen in the back and myself in the cab, set off for Blankenburg on the Belgian coast, where we were to stay the night, and go on to Dover in the morning. The lorry stopped outside a cafe (pub) and the ringleader asked me to stay in the cab.

A few minutes latter he returned, and gave me a quantity of Belgian francs, saying that it was my share. I asked "share of what?" He replied: "Blankets, we've flogged a few.". I spent the money on Lancôme perfume for Joan, who was glad to benefit from the illegal act. No conscience?

We left Melsbroek for Eindhoven, Holland in April 1945.

Notes [] and photographs by J. Shaw

34 Wing Second Tactical Air Force
James Shaw III


Page created 17 September 2012