Conquest-Hospital Radio interview with Jack Newton


Conquest-Hospital Radio interview with Jack Newton


Jack Newton joined the RAF in 1938. He trained as an air gunner and was posted to 12 Squadron at RAF Binbrook. Just before midnight on the 5th of August 1941 Jack and his crew set off for Cologne. They were attacked by a night fighter. One engine was on fire and they were losing height. They jettisoned everything they could but were still losing height. When they thought they were finally going to have to abandon the aircraft they saw a cathedral to their side which they discovered later was Antwerp Cathedral. Jack looked out and saw concrete and alerted the pilot. The concrete was Antwerp’s Deurne Airport which was now an active station of the Luftwaffe. The pilot landed the aircraft on the runway and knowing that time was limited they managed to set fire to the aircraft before making their escape. The crew split up and Jack was accompanied by the skipper and wireless operator. They were spotted by a Belgian while they were hiding and he organised what would be the start of their escape through the Comète Line.

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Temporal Coverage




00:32:42 audio recording

Conforms To


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Other: Hello. And how nice it is to have our guest this evening and our guest this evening is Jack Newton. And I don’t know if you’re like me but often if I go to a bus station or a railway station or even an airport you look at all those masses of people walking about and you think to yourself I wonder who you are or what your name is or what you do. Or I wonder where you’re going. Perhaps I’m just nosey, I don’t know. And I had this feeling a little earlier when I went down into Reception to meet Jack because Jack was chatting to his lady wife and people were milling about but I don’t suppose any of them in their wildest dreams would have thought to themselves, sitting on that seat is one of the bravest men that you will ever meet and a man who has faced death and got away with it. Because Jack was an airman and he was, “escaped”, I should say, I think that’s the word because the Germans never caught him. But Jack will tell you his story himself. And, hello Jack.
JN: Hello.
Other: And thank you very much for coming in because yours is some story isn’t it? Because you start off before the war, don’t you? Flying aircraft.
JN: Yes. I started in 1938 as a Voluntary Reserve pilot but I was unfortunate or maybe lucky I never made pilot. I crashed an aircraft and I was taken off and I was a pilot no longer. They didn’t give you much option in those days but when war came along I was still recruited as a sergeant pilot. And people were looking at me and thinking well he must be darned good. He’s got three tapes up and the war hasn’t started yet. But during the second week I had another letter to say that I have now been sort of confirmed in the rank of AC2 which was the lowest form of airman in the Royal Air Force. And the only way to get back into aircrew was to do the job that nobody seemed to want to do. It was in a position where the Germans always had a go first. And that was what we used to call the rear gunner or a Tail-End Charlie. So I became a rear gunner and I started flying on Boulton on Paul Defiants as a night fighter squadron. Also on Fairey Battles out of France and also, eventually, on to Bomber Command on a Wellington Mark 2 from 12 Squadron.
Other: Now, we go back when you was a rear gunner because the rear gunner his actual service wasn’t very long, was it? They always said that they got killed the quickest of all of them. But we’re going back. What are we now? 1940 – 1939 – 1940?
JN: 19 — I joined the Reserve in 1938. I was conscripted into the Royal Air Force proper on the 3rd of September ‘39. And I joined an operational Squadron of Wellingtons in March of 1940.
Other: Now, on the night of the 5th of August now that wasn’t your first flight over Germany was it? Or —
JN: No. I had done a few trips before that on Wellingtons. I’d also done quite a number of operational sorties on night fighters. On Boulton and Paul Defiants. And a few leaflet raids on Fairey Battles which 12 Squadron were equipped when they left France.
Other: Now, on that night which must have imprinted itself on your memory what sort of night was it?
JN: When we took off it was about 11:30, quarter to twelve. Nearly midnight on the 5th of August, which was bank holiday ‘41. A normal night. A few clouds but by the time we left the Squadron and were over the North Sea approaching the target area it was what they called a real bomber’s night. It was a full moon.
Other: Now, you were off to Cologne weren’t you?
JN: The first primary target as they called it in those days was Cologne. We either could go Cologne or to Aachen. Aachen was the secondary target and this was the Michelin Tyre Company. And it so happened that with the speed we were attaining and the height we were at and the weather conditions this more or less dictated to the pilot that it should be Aachen. Or as the bomb aimer used to say, walking up and down the fuselage, ‘This is not Aachen. This is amen.’ And Aachen was the German name for Aix la Chapelle which was just over the borders between Belgium and Germany.
Other: And you know when you see these things on the films and that you see these young chaps laughing and shouting and all hyped up. You must have been very scared. Or were you actually hyped up and raring to go?
JN: Not really. We were doing a job. We were doing it for the love of our country. Although we put on a pretty brave face that you know here today and gone tomorrow and I think the, in those days, in 1941, the reasonable expectancy of life was about four trips. Well, I was lucky. I did more than four trips. But we just took it in our stride. We joined the Air Force to fly and this is what we did and we were happy to do it but there were moments when butterflies in your stomach really took over.
Other: And Jack, you took off on that night from where?
JN: We took off from 12 Squadron which was situated just outside Grimsby. At a Squadron called Binbrook.
Other: And how long would it have taken you to get over to Cologne?
JN: To Cologne would have taken about two and a half to three hours. But we reached the secondary target at Aachen in about two hours.
Other: Now, I’m going to let you take over this story because in actual fact it is, it is so true that it’s almost unreal isn’t it? Because there you are flying a lovely, I suppose you could see everything quite nicely. But were they shooting at you?
JN: There was a considerable amount of flak as you approached the French coast along a direct line from Binbrook or Grimsby down to the French coast. There was the normal flak but being on a Wellington Mark 2 we attained a pretty good height of about fifteen thousand feet and it didn’t seem to affect us at that height. It was a fairly light night and it appeared to be getting brighter as the hours wore on and it was a full bomber’s moon by the time we reached the target. Turned around. Successfully dropped our bombs and returned. But over the target I looked up and I saw some stars and I thought well can they be stars? They seemed to be sort of moving about pretty oddly. And in those days they had certain Messerschmitt night fighter squadrons which had a couple of searchlights on their wing tips and when these were coned at about thirty yards they gave the actual pinpoint for them, the Huns to press the buttons and they were on target for a rear turret or a part of a British aircraft. Well, these things, these stars were looming about and apparently one of them must have been a night fighter because suddenly the starboard engine, there was a ginormous great crunch and I looked away to the right and the starboard engine was on fire. So we’d been hit either by cannon shells or by flak. At that time we were at about twelve thousand feet leaving the target. The engines wouldn’t keep us up. We were losing height. We were throwing out things we didn’t need. Odd magazines, odd flares, odd bottles and things we collected. We were chucking out bottles over the target because with the stoppers out or the corks out, very large champagne bottles which we used to pinch from the Officer’s Mess. When they were thrown out they seemed to whistle like a five hundred pound bomb as they were descending. We chucked everything out that we didn’t need but we were losing height and by the time we were reaching the coast we could see the coast coming up which was the Belgian coast. There was this awful warning, ‘Get ready. Bale out.’ Well, I was up in the front turret when I realised that baling out wasn’t on because we were approaching a cathedral and the cathedral was on the starboard side. And unbeknown to us it was Antwerp Cathedral. And then we all realised after having received the message to bale out that the dinghy was behind the starboard engine and this was the engine that was on fire so when we pulled the rope to get the dinghy out there had have been nothing on the end of the rope but just molten rubber. But being up front, rotating turret and firing everything I had left in the ammunition pans I suddenly realised below us was concrete. I yelled out to the skipper, ‘Left, left, Skipper. Concrete.’ And in a marvellous rate four turn to the left he managed to turn the aircraft around, lined himself on the number one runway and we landed successfully. This was actually number one runway of Antwerp Deurne Airport which was fully operational with Dornier 217s and Messerschmitt fighters being assembled on the southern perimeter. The aircraft rumbled to a halt. Fire was on the starboard side approaching the leading edge of the wing. We all got out, pulled our parachutes, fired off four Verey cartridges, set fire to the aircraft and then decided to beat the hell out of it towards the perimeter defences. We all had leather suits on. We climbed the wire. All managed to get over. Three went one way. Three went the other. I was with the Skipper and the wireless op and we walked for a couple of hours until it started breaking daylight. This was about half past three on the 6th of August ’41 and we made for a field, got down behind a hedge and decided to sleep. We slept for about an hour. Still in full flying kit. We kept everything on. It was cold. And the wireless operator “Titch” Copley, he was a real small titch too, about four foot nothing suddenly stood up, stretched his arms and he was seen by a Belgian worker on a bicycle who was cycling on the way to his office or whatever. And he leant his bike up against the hedge, came back and said, ‘Are you English airmen?’ We said, ‘Yes’, he said, ‘Did you land up the road there?’ Up the road was about nine miles away so we’d covered nine miles quite happily in the small hours of the morning. And he said, ‘Stay where you are’ in perfect English. We thought this is funny. This is a reception committee. This is the way to do it. ‘And I’ll come back and help you later in the day’. Around about late evening. So he came back with a friend. Led us to a farmhouse. We stayed in the farmhouse overnight and the next morning there was food and clothes. We were kitted out and fed quite well. One or two questions asked. What aircraft we were flying. Who we were. What Squadron it was. So we had to say one or two things and not answer other questions. And we were led off to different houses. I didn’t see the Skipper or the wireless operator again. I was led on to very many farmhouses. Various people. And during the ensuing few months I was in Belgium and Holland and France I stayed with roughly forty different families. I eventually met the leader of escape line, Comète, which was an Andrée de Jongh. She was the leader of the Resistance movement escape line. One of the first escape lines and the most favourable one. The best one to join in Europe. And she personally led me from Brussels right the way down to Spain which meant crossing the Somme together, getting a train from Paris to Bordeaux which took fourteen hours. I had civilian clothes. I had false papers. I had a good photograph on my false identity card which she had obtained. We got out at Bordeaux and we took a train to Bayonne and then we walked from Bayonne, Biarritz, St John de Luz, Anglet, and then we were at the base of the Pyrenees. Here was the last safe house in France which was lived in and looked after by a Madam De Greef who also got the George Medal after the war for helping members. And also the leader of the Basque smuggling group. A chap by the name of Florentino.
Other: Jack, when you were because you make it sound so easy. But when you was on a train you must have been checked over by Germans. And surely there must have been times when you thought this is it.
JN: Quite, quite a number of times. The, we were in different compartments. There was myself and a Polish chappie. A Basque guide actually on the train from Paris to Bordeaux and Andrée de Jongh the leader of the escape line Comète. We were in particular separate compartments. I just was dressed with a black beret, a grey overcoat. I had a French paper and a bag of oranges and apparently people didn’t like other people eating oranges in compartments. They just kept well away from them. This was one of the things I was told to do. Eat and suck and make a lot of noise sucking oranges [chuckling].
Other: And what did, you spoke French?
JN: I only had schoolboy French. If a German had spoken to me —
Other: Yes.
JN: I’d have most likely got away with it. But most of the Germans who were patrolling the carriages —
Other: Yes.
JN: And asking for papers never spoke. They just came in and said, ‘Papieren’. You gave them the papers, they looked at it, they clipped your ticket and there was a Frenchman by the side looking at the ticket. He clipped it. Gave it to you back. They never spoke at all.
Other: Really?
JN: I had a, I had sideboards, I had a black moustache which I’ve still got. Getting a bit grey now. And I looked, possibly, a typical Frenchman. A bit scruffy, black beret on, a scarf, a dirty old coat, smelling a bit. Terrible bag of rotting sort of orange peels in the bag on the floor. They didn’t seem to want to know me at all.
Other: And when you went from one house to another did you, were there, did you meet other escapees?
JN: No. I never met anybody else at all. The person I met was always a stranger I’d never met before. I didn’t know his name. I knew him by either Paul, Jean, Pierre, Robert and never knew anything at all about them. Saw them once and never saw them again.
Other: Because they were incredibly brave because they would have shot the whole family wouldn’t they there?
JN: They were. There were notices up on the walls that if anybody had any information about any Frenchman, Belgian or Dutchman helping any RAF personnel they would immediately be shot and they were given, any information and they were given the equivalent of five hundred pounds.
Other: Really? Now, you’ve got, you’ve got right to the Pyrenees. Now, the job is to get over, isn’t it?
JN: Well, that was in the worst part of the year. That was in December 1941. It was cold. It was wet. It was snowing. It was slippery. They gave us four pairs of rope soled sandals which were called les espadrilles. We had a little bag which we tied on our back. There was a tin of British bully beef which they’d evacuated from the Dunkirk area. There was a bottle of whisky which was either John Haig or Vat 69. We each had a bottle of that. They had all these stores which they’d dug up that the Germans hadn’t got hold of, and all these stores were ferreted down the escape line for the likes of people getting over the Pyrenees. The Basque smugglers were smuggling nylon stockings and towards the back end of the year they were even smuggling perambulators. French built perambulators loaded with cognac and brandy, silk stockings, silk clothing, underwear. They were literally pushing perambulators up the Pyrenees, taking them over the top, over the bridge into Spain and selling them and coming back to pick up more perambulators loaded with brandy and what have you.
Other: And of course by now it’s 19 — what? Still 1941.
JN: This was still 1941.
Other: Yes. And Germany was doing very well, weren’t they?
JN: They were.
Other: Yes.
JN: They were exceptionally, exceptionally getting on with what they had to, what they had to do. And getting into Spain. If you were caught in Spain the Spaniards had their own concentration camp which was known as Miranda del Ebro and they could either put you in there, intern you just like the Germans would have done if they’d caught you, put you in one of their sort of concentration camps or POW camps. Or they could sling you back into France and hand you back to the Germans. So it was kept very, very quiet. If you get into Spain without being caught the Diplomatic Service or the British Foreign Office would take you by a car from wherever you were picked up to wherever you had to go. In my case it was from the Consulate St Sebastien in an old Daimler car with drawn blinds and an armed guard in the front took me down to Madrid. I was offloaded at the British Embassy and met Sir Samuel Hoare, the British Ambassador. I stayed there in the chapel which they called their internment camp in the Embassy grounds for three days. I was interrogated and then sent from Madrid down, again in a car with drawn blinds, to La Linea. Had diplomatic, it was a diplomatic car so there was no stopping. They just waved you through La Linea and then you were in Gibraltar.
Other: And of course we must remember, this hadn’t been done before had it?
JN: No. No.
Other: You couldn’t have had a trial run.
JN: No.
Other: So really you were, you were the guinea pigs weren’t you?
JN: Well —
Other: Well, you were.
JN: Well, I was lucky. I was, I have the honour of being the first British airman to be sort of used on that escape line and I was the first evader to have used it in 1941. One or two soldiers had got through the same route but they were not led by Andrée de Jongh. They just managed to get over themselves. They were from the British Expeditionary Force left behind at Dunkirk and just couldn’t get out by boat back to UK.
JN: Now, you actually got, you went over the Pyrenees. Now, where, where did you get the plane home? To put it, put it simply.
Other: Well, the ways of getting back from if you were lucky enough to have got to Gibraltar. Gibraltar was an RAF unit. They had two Squadrons of Short Sunderland Flying Boats. 200 and 202 Squadron. And you just waited there either for a tramp steamer back or a frigate, destroyer. I was fortunate enough, or unfortunate for the rear gunner of a Short Sunderland Flying Boat who’d come back from South Africa, had been shot at by a Focke Wulf Condor over the particular Atlantic and they’d killed the rear gunner. And there was two whacking great holes in the turret where a cannon shell had got him right through the head. They just hose piped the turret out, patched up the two holes and asking for a volunteer to go back as the gunner to the UK. So I said, ‘Yes, please’. So with a black beret on, part of my uniform I’d kept under my civilian disguise clothes, a pair of flying boots and a pair of woollen gloves I came back from Gibraltar to Pembroke Dock after doing a square search in the Bay of Biscay for submarines. And that took nearly sixteen and a half hours before we landed at Pembroke Dock. Having arrived at Pembroke Dock on the 13th of January ’42 I was interrogated again, given a pound note, a railway warrant and a packet of cheese sandwiches and told to go to St Marylebone Station to be interrogated by MI9. And that’s what happened. I got to Baker Street. I was handed over to MI9 and eventually managed to contact my wife and my family to let them know that I was back from the dead.
Other: Because you were missing, presumed killed I suppose, actually.
JN: Yes. She’d received. She’d been on the Squadron that weekend it happened to me. They saw me go. Waved me off. She came out the next morning to wave all the crews back but only six of the seven got back. My wife then sort of phoned the Squadron and was told that, ‘Well, he might be in the North Sea in a dinghy rowing back or they could have landed somewhere for petrol. I suggest you go home.’ She was home for five hours and then received the dreaded telegram, “Missing. Believed killed in action”.
Other: And it’s interesting actually when we were chatting before we went on air is that I asked you did you fly back and keep bombing again? And you told me that once you had escaped like that you weren’t allowed back over Germany or the place where you had escaped from. That was because if you had got caught they could have got all the secrets out of you.
JN: That is correct. They would have known that I’d been there before with a crew on a Wellington and the crew of a Wellington was normally six. They’d caught five of them so what had happened to the other one?
Other: Did you, I know you told me you were you went to the Middle East, wasn’t it?
JN: You had the option of not flying. You couldn’t fly over the same front again but you had the option of not flying at all or going on another Command which in my case appeared to be Transport Command in the Far East. Which I didn’t really like the sound of. Having only been married a couple of months beforehand I had been enough trouble to my wife. I’d always been a constant worry to her and I wanted that worry to stop. A Belgian had come through and had recommended that I would make a good operative on other sorts of duties. And after my Air Force I came out of uniform, went into civvies and let us say I joined Special Duties which I cannot say much about. That is the essence of another story.
Other: Yes. Of course, it’s like all incredibly brave people you always make it sound so easy and just as if it was sort of walking down to Tesco’s. But your colleagues in the aircraft here. Did you meet them again? Have you had like a reunion?
JN: Yes. I was fortunate enough to be able to go back after the war. I had to go back to Belgium to pay my respects at the various little village graveyards that have been made. The tombstones. I had to go back with an RAF band. Play the Last Post. And I was in uniform and I had to salute each grave in turn. I did this in quite a number of various places in Belgium. I then went to one place where I’d been looked after by a Belgian farmer, a [Monsieur Wagemans] whom, I met his son for the first time two years ago at the same farmhouse where I’d been sort of looked after. Who took me out to the shed under which our flying kit, my flying kit and one or two other bits and bobs had been buried and these were dug up and I managed to get them ferreted back to Tilbury. And my flying kit or part of it is now in the Bomber Command Museum at Hendon.
Other: Really. Incredible.
JN: One or two other bits and bobs I managed to hand over to the Skipper and also the wireless operator. They all came back eventually but the navigator had received a hell of a beating up in Stalag Luft or Dulag Luft 3 and he came back and unfortunately he committed suicide. His wife came down to the kitchen one morning and he’d tried out the gas oven and I’m afraid he committed suicide. He just couldn’t cope anymore. But the rest of the crew, I’m remaining with the wireless operator. The rest of the crew I’m afraid are no longer with us. The Skipper died about five years ago and I always phoned him up on the 5th of August ’41. He was always very grateful for a little talk. And he always respected that and said what a faithful friend I’d been and the best front gunner he’d ever had.
Other: Really?
JN: I was only a front gunner for that one night. The rest of the time I’d been a Tail-End Charlie. But I always remember that.
Other: Of course, I should also say that in Wellington Ward in our hospital here you’ll see a lovely watercolour picture which Jack presented to the ward. And it is of the Wellington coming down on fire and it’s Antwerp Cathedral and there’s a, as you say a bomber’s moon and there’s searchlights and I suppose every time you see that it brings a lump to your throat.
JN: It really does.
Other: Yes.
JN: Not only sort of that but always in remembrance and I think I’ve put on the plaque on the wall there that I hoped future generations will realise just what a little country like the Belgians did for the likes of the Royal Air Force.
Other: What did, you know you’ve had experiences which thank God I should say that not many of us will ever have. But what has that taught you? Has it taught you anything about life? Are you a religious man?
JN: I’m a, I wouldn’t say that I go to church every Sunday but I’m a very God-fearing man and I can never understand why fate has decreed that I should have been so lucky. Why the number thirteen always popped up. Why I was always lucky to get away with illnesses. To get away with my life. I never thought I’d ever reach the ripe old age of twenty years of age but I have.
Other: But Jack I’m going to just be rude and butt in because you did tell us, I’m ever so pleased you just said this, you’ve jolted my memory because you told me that everyone had a lucky mascot. Some had a rabbit’s paw, some had a horseshoe or whatever it is but you had always thirteen. Now, tell us Jack. Why thirteen?
JN: I had a badge which was an embroidered badge which a friend had embroidered and on the badge it was in the form of a red heart about three and a half to four inches deep. It had the initials M&J for Mary and Jack. It had an arrow through it with a lucky number thirteen. It had a black cat. It had a broken mirror and a ladder against a wall under which you never walked. Thirteen has always been my lucky number. And the night that the accident happened or the episode happened it was a rather cold night so the Sidcot flying suit that I normally wore on which this badge was stitched to the pocket was left behind and we wore a leather suit. The rest of the crew said that if I’d have been wearing my lucky Sidcot with my badge on it we would not have got shot down. So it was all my fault we got shot down that evening. But the lucky number thirteen always popped up because I joined a flying school before the war in 1938 which was number 13 Elementary and Reserve Flying Training School at Maidenhead. I was born in a house, number 13 Lancaster Mews in Hampstead. My wife was born on the 13th of May. I crossed from Holland into Belgium on the 13th of September. I got over the Pyrenees down to Spain and I arrived home ex-Gibraltar to Pembroke Dock in Wales on the 13th of January. And the first house that I ever had, a brand new house at Finnegan Drive at Orpington was as it was then known as plot number eleven. But when the numbers were allocated by the council it suddenly appeared that it was number thirteen. So that is why thirteen has always been my lucky number.
Other: Well, Jack as I say I’ve, it has been a great honour to chat to you and perhaps I hope later on we’ll be able to meet again and hear some more about the escape because it, it must have, we’ve missed out such a lot because it must have been a bit hairy especially at that time of year to go over the Pyrenees. But thank you Jack very much indeed for coming in. We very much appreciate it. And as I say if you want to see this lovely picture which Jack presented to the Wellington Ward go down because its down in the Wellington Ward and you can now say that you do know all the story. Jack Newton, thank you very much indeed.
JN: Thank you. I feel very honoured.


“Conquest-Hospital Radio interview with Jack Newton,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed December 6, 2023,

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