The Airman in the Tower – my experience

Shortly after my grandfather, Australian Pilot Kevin Winston McSweeney, passed away in 2007, my uncle put into words a short but harrowing period of his life as a bomber pilot during World War II.

Kevin, pictured centre.
Kevin, pictured centre.

Not long after his 20th birthday, on his 18th mission over Germany, Kevin’s Lancaster was substantially damaged by a German JU-88. Kevin ordered his men to bail. Two were killed, the other four taken as prisoners of war. Kevin stayed on, essentially sitting atop a bomb, until the fire in his cockpit was too intense to handle.

He parachuted to ground in northern Germany.

He fled towards Holland.

Back home, his whereabouts was unknown.

My uncle takes up the story:

Dad reached the Dutch border and by taking note of the border patrol pattern he was able to cross out from Germany in daylight.  He eventually came across a Dutch shepherd in a field, but a group of peat diggers nearby started waving and beckoning and so he went over to them instead.  He learned that the shepherd was a Nazi sympathiser.  The diggers helped remove the insignia from his uniform and gave him directions.  He spent three days walking, staying overnight in hay-sheds and getting food from Dutch farming families happy to help a “British” airman.  On one occasion he was stopped by a German soldier on a bicycle, wanting directions.  All Dad could do was say “I don’t understand” in English.   Neither Dad’s words nor his RAF battle dress aroused the soldier’s suspicion – he just shook his head and rode on.

Later, another man on a bicycle rode past, stopped, turned around and spoke to him in English “Do you need help?”.  Dad said “Yes”.  The man took him to the home of Johan Meewis, the leader of the local Dutch resistance.   Apart from actively prosecuting a guerrilla war against the Nazis he organised the escape of downed pilots, which involved moving them from one place to another accompanied by guides, or “couriers”, with the aim of getting them to one of the established escape routes to England.  Anneke, the young girl in the photo, was one of his couriers.

His first hiding place was the mechanism room of the clock tower in Wijhe, a very small Dutch town, where he spent three days while the room below was occupied by German army spotters, making use of one of the few high points in the flat Dutch landscape to look for downed airmen.  They were looking in the wrong direction!  A local boy, Jan Janssen, son of the local police chief, looked after him while in this cramped room.  His father gave him a key to the tower.  Each time the army spotters’ watch shift ended Dad crawled out from his cramped hiding place to stretch out in one of the German’s bunks.

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Fast forward to 2014: four days past my 40th birthday.

Having flown from London to Amsterdam I took some time to enjoy the sights of Holland’s famous city – its canals, its architecture, the red light district, its beer and the hundreds upon thousands of bicycles. But if I was going to visit The Netherlands I was never going to visit The Hague.

I was always going to visit Wijhe.

A normal trip to Wijhe from Amsterdam by train would require a trip to Zwolle followed by a change of trains for a few stops to the tiny village. As I was to find out, Dutch trains can be a tad unpredictable, and for me fallen trees on the train line meant I’d need to take a few extra trains.

Heading to a church on a Sunday, I was hopeful it would be open when I arrived but the extra train meant an extra hour was added to my trip.

I disembarked at Wijhe train station and took a pleasant stroll through the village to the church.

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At this point in my big European trip I’d reveled in the sights and smells and sounds of Istanbul, gazed from my shoe box of a room at the Eiffel Tower at night,  drunk in the opera at Arena di Verona on my 40th birthday, and was yet to battle gypsies in Milan, have a near death experience in Griante and strum guitar at a bar in Varenna.

Thanks to my mother emailing me a photo of the church, and the wonders of Google Maps, I was able to pinpoint the exact location of the church in Wijhe some months prior. After disembarking the train, it was like I had lived there all my life.

When I got there though, I knocked on every door, peered through every window, and rattled every chain I could find. All to no avail. The church was shut. Locked. Impenetrable.

So I decided to take a few photos as a keepsake whilst imagining Kevin’s world back then, cooped up above the clock, and then head on back to Amsterdam.

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I wondered how much Wijhe had changed in 70 years. Were the streets the same? Had my grandfather’s shoes trod on this very turf? If he had stepped but for a second or two in either direction my mere existence would never have eventuated?

I wasn’t quite ready to leave Wijhe just yet. It had only gone 11am and I figured, despite the early hour, it was well into the night back home and drink or two was definitely on the cards. All the better for the fact there was a pub right next door, apparently open for business.

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I still wasn’t completely au fait with Dutch beers and ordered the local – The Netherlands’ much nicer equivalent to VB.

The publican seemed a little nonplussed, which I put down to some foreigner lobbing in at his bar at 11am demanding a beer until I noticed he had his own half-drunk glass on the bar. I later found out his back was very sore and he had to change the barrel in order to pour my beer.

I took a look around my new local, Café ‘t Praothuus Wijhe, and liked what I saw.

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After a few sips of my beer, the publican asked me if I was German. I replied I had travelled all the way from Australia to visit the church next door. He asked why and I explained. With much animated excitement, and in rapid fire Dutch, he spoke to his wife, the only words I understood being “Australian Parachutist”.

He produced a pamphlet for about the church, and despite not knowing a word of Dutch I managed to locate the paragraphs about Kevin, and my new friend had fired up his laptop looking for a phone number of the church tour guide.

Wijhe has a population of around 5,000 people. It is tiny. During World War II the Dutch resistance provided a safe haven for one downed airman, and one alone.

Kevin Winston McSweeney.

His story is something of a legend in the village, and the appearance of his grandson was almost a miracle. The tour guide was summoned, post haste.

He arrived by bicycle, of course, but quickly departed back home to second his daughter, a doctor fluent in seven languages, to act as translator. Together they turned up, a bicycle apiece, and the church was opened.

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The doorway to the clock tower
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Stairs leading to the clock tower door
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Church entrance

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Unfortunately it turned out the church didn’t own the watch tower, the council did due to its height and its ability to act as a post to protect the village.

We sat at a table and discussed Kevin’s story which is included in tours of the church which is over 900 years old. Surprisingly much of the story that had been passed down from decade to decade over the past 70 years was quite accurate.

I went back to the Café ‘t Praothuus for one last beer a minor celebrity. Each passing villager was made aware of my celebrity status by the publican and I could’ve had a drunk for free the rest of the day. He even asked if I’d like to meet his daughter, a lawyer who works in Amsterdam, much to his wife’s chagrin.

And then it was time to go. Back along the sleepy, picturesque streets of Wijhe to the train station and back on to Amsterdam.


2 thoughts on “The Airman in the Tower – my experience”

  1. That’s fantastic, Hugh! It must have been quite a shock for the people of Wijhe to see the grandson of the Australian Parachutist standing there!


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