Children of a World War Two airman made an emotional trip to the Dutch village where their father bailed out exactly 72 years ago.
Three children of Lewes-born Sgt Les Woollard retraced their father’s footsteps to the frontier village of Den Ham. They were welcomed by the very family who hid their father from the occupying German Wehrmacht for 12 days in September 1943.
Jean Bull and her brothers Alan and Adrian Woollard were overwhelmed by the bravery of the Schutmaats - the Dutch farming family who hid Sgt Woollard in a hay stack and pig sty.
Sgt Woollard had joined the famous Dambusters crew for an important mission to bomb the Dortmund-Ems Canal. He was added as an extra crew member for the mission, code named ‘Operation Garlic’.
It was an extremely difficult and dangerous mission requiring the attacking force to fly at 100ft for the whole mission. During the attack, Knight’s Lancaster scalped some tree tops causing two engines to fail.
Knight was given permission to jettison his bomb and abort the mission. He and the crew knew they could not return back to England in their doomed aircraft. As Knight fought to keep his plane in the air, he gave the order for his crew to save themselves.
All seven crew members bailed out – not knowing whether they would be landing in Germany or occupied Holland. Knight even managed to steer the Lancaster away from the village, avoiding further loss of life.
“Les Knight’s supreme bravery and personal sacrifice will never be forgotten in our village, “ said Dirk Schutmaat through an interpreter.
“When this strange man arrived at our farm early in the morning, we sent for our older brother Hendrik Jan, who was in the local resistance group. We felt it was our duty to care for Les Woollard.
“Back then, I was only a youngster and could not speak any English. I had to communicate with him by using my hands and feet.
“Nothing has changed. History is repeating itself. I am now using my hands and feet again communicating with his children.”
The Woollard siblings were welcomed by a gathering of the Schutmaat family: Derk, now 86, his brother Bertus, 89, sister Gerrie and their children. Hendrik Jan, died recently aged 91.
It was Gerrie’s mother Toos who had first contact with the scared and thirsty airman.
Gerrie said: “He approached my mother asking for a drink. My late mother was milking our cows at the time. Les had first approached our neighbours’ farm but did not trust it. He saw my mother and carefully approached her. She was shocked and called Dirk, who later called our other brother Hendrik Jan.
“We hid him straight away. It was extremely dangerous. We did not expect anything like this to happen.”
Sgt Woollard gave Toos Schutmaat a silk scarf with the map of Europe printed on it. This, along with Sgt Woollard’s RAF uniform, was buried by the family until after the war.
A local doctor gave Woollard a suit to wear for his escape and he wore a sign on his front with the words ‘Dutch, Deaf and Dumb’.
Woollard came face-to-face with German soldiers while walking to the pick-up point but managed to make it home via France, Spain and Gibraltar in time for the birth of his eldest daughter. Sgt Woollard had nine children and died aged 57.
During the meeting with the Schutmaat family, three of the Woollard siblings, travelling with partners Dave, Cara and Anita, were told one jaw dropping story after another.
They visited the crash site of the Lancaster bomber piloted by Les Knight, who sacrificed his life to save his seven-man crew, and by doing so also averted further disaster by steering his doomed aircraft away from the Dutch village. A cross was placed at his memorial stone on behalf of the siblings.
The Woollards are planning to return next year in early May to celebrate the Dutch Remembrance Day followed by Liberation Day.
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