Richard A. Copley at his home in Milton, Ontario, 2010.Richard A. Copley
M. Emile Witmeur of the Belgian Underground. He and his comrades in the Beaver-Baton Escape Group assisted W/O Richard A. Copley and his crewmates after they were forced down in Belgium during a bombing raid on August 5/6, 1941.Richard A. Copley
W/O Richard A. Copley's official photograph taken upon his return to England after nearly four years in German prisoner of war camps, April 26, 1945. The photo was taken at RAF Cosford in Shropshire.Richard A. Copley
A reunion of Royal Air Force veterans and members of the Belgian Resistance who aided them. Richard A. Copley (on the centre right, smoking a cigarette) stands behind Betty Barlen, soon to become his wife. Emile Witmeur (on the centre left) stands behind his wife Jeanne Vereecke Witmeur. S/Ldr. Roy Langlois, W/O Copley's pilot, stands between the two men.Richard A. Copley
Official Luftwaffe photo of Wellington MK II W5421 PHG, "G for George", from No. 12 Squadron, RAF - W/O Richard A. Copley's plane - which force-landed at German-occupied Duerne Airfield, Antwerp, Belgium, and was destroyed by its escaping crew on August 5/6, 1941.Richard A. Copley
"I went back to Belgium many times on invitation of the Belgian people who treated us like heroes, and they were the heroes."
News came, we were being reequipped, Fairey Battles [light bomber] were obsolete before the war started and now we were going to be equipped with [Vickers] Wellingtons [long-range medium bomber]. That’s a six member crew and twin engines, and more long distance flying. So we did that for a few weeks of training, training, and then we got onto operations. I was given the position of radio operator, front gunner, whatever, on the squadron leader’s plane, and we did a number of operations. We finally did get a crew: a North Irishman second pilot, a northern England navigator and New Zealander rear gunner, and an English front gunner. I was radio op [operator].
We went down in Antwerp. We were free then in Belgium, had to change into civvies [civilian clothes] to two months before the Germans picked us up. And that’s the end of my flying career. We landed on a German-occupied aerodrome [airfield] at Deurne, DEURNE, which is still active today, I believe. Beautiful moonlight night and we got out of the plane, expecting to be surrounded by Germans, but nothing. We got out, we walked a short distance to the fence, which was a barbed wire fence, about six feet, seven feet high and stood. And it suddenly occurred to us that the plane was intact, apart from engine trouble; and so the front gunner and I went back and as the signals officer, I had a Verey pistol [flare gun] clipped to the roof of the plane and access to Verey cartridges. I got the gun down and we took half a dozen cartridges; and I got out, fired a shot at the port engine and it didn’t do a thing. It just richocheted all over. And then we got back in the plane and fired shots inside, and then suddenly realized that the whole plane was on fire. We got out in a hurry and ran to the hedge, and the plane was burning beautifully.
It suddenly occurred to us, when the Germans stand up, we could see them silhouetted against the flames, and we thought, we shouldn’t be hanging around here, we should get out. We climbed the fence and split into two groups of three. The second pilot, observer and rear gunner went one way. Roy Langlois, the pilot, myself, and the front gunner went another way. We walked as far as we could at night. I always used to, with the experience I had, I always used to carry a full thermos flask of hot coffee and 50 cigarettes. And we’d soon attacked all that until we were out of coffee; and it got to dawn in the morning, we were thirsty and tired. There was a farm on the side of the road, very lovely farming country all around there, and I had Langlois, his name is French, he could speak French, but terrible accent. And I learned French in school, just school boy stuff. And I said, with my empty flask, I said, I’ll go across to that farm and see if I can get a flask of milk.
They hid in the ditch and I started walking down the road, still in our flying kit, of course, and a man was coming towards me on a cycle. And as he drew left with me, he said, you English? And I said, yes. He cycled on, turned around and came back; and he said, follow me and when I stop for a moment, go in the gate that’s there, and hide. It was harvest time and all the grain was stacked. So I went to there. I said, there’s two more there. He said, get them and follow me, but don’t get close to me and don’t say anything. He cycled off and when he stopped, just for a moment, we went in through a five-barred gate and we each hid under the stacked corn, which was ripening for thrashing. I suppose.
The German aircraft from the airfield where we had burned out the plane, was circling overhead. I suppose they were training or whatever, I don’t know. And after a while, a man came through and he was whistling “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary;” and he said, a young lady will come through and drop you some food. He said, later this evening, I’ll come walking back, whistling; he said, don’t speak to me, don’t get too close, follow me. And this happened. The young lady came and dropped some food for us, bread and cheese, and something to drink. At dark, we followed the man to a farmhouse, a fair little way and got in there, slept in the hay loft; and the next morning, they took all our flying clothes, including uniforms and they brought us civilian clothes.
A lot of these people were wonderful, wonderful people and many, many, many of them died. The man that went in the [Stalag Luft 3] Sagan with us, he was badly beaten and he went to Buchenwald [concentration camp], I think it was; and he didn’t last very long. So my wife and I went back to Belgium many times on invitation of the Belgian people who treated us like heroes, and they were the heroes. But we made many, many friends, but we did hear of an awful lot of tragedy. Many, many people that we had known had been shot and destroyed, lists of them. And this does hurt.