Hamont-Achel (pronounced Ham-nt Ahkel) is more than 16,000 kilometres from Wagga but on Saturday the thoughts of many locals will be joined with those in Belgium as the township marks 75 years since a Wagga district local sacrificed his life to save their town.
At the height of World War II on 22 June 1943, 21-year-old Flight Officer Robert Bruce Meiklejohn, affectionately known as Bruce, was the pilot of Stirling Bomber EF-366 which had been bombing over Germany before it was hit by gunfire from Nazi fighter planes over Belgium. Bullets sheared off the tail and knocked out the hydraulics, causing EF-366 to go into an instant dive.
Instead of bailing out with his crew, Bruce stayed at the controls with his feet on the instrument panel in a desperate attempt to pull the stick up to level the plane and direct it away from the town. On board were enough bombs to wipe it off the face of the Earth.
Below, witnesses, including a preacher, saw the bomber nosediving like a burning cross. Just before impact the plane not only levelled out, its wings lifted to miss the town’s church spire before it crashed and exploded a short distance away. The force of the blast was so great it blew out the windows of buildings, but no residents died.
What Robert Bruce Meiklejohn probably didn’t know was that in November 1918 Hamont-Achel had suffered one of the worst train disasters in history when two German munition trains caught fire and exploded along with three German ambulance trains, resulting in the death of more than 1000 people and wiping out much of the town. In light of this, the supreme sacrifice made by the 21-year-old Downside local was even more poignant. Had Bruce jumped when he had the chance, the town may not have recovered.
This week, Bruce’s nephew, Stuart Meiklejohn, and singer-songwriter and Prime7 cameraman, Scott Cochrane, have flown to Belgium for the 75th anniversary.
Scott wrote a song about this incredible event after a conversation with Stuart around a campfire in Downside, where both men live.
“I’d seen the Honour Roll in the Downside Hall and asked Stuart about the story of his relative who made the supreme sacrifice. The story he told had a profound effect on me,” Scott said.
Scott’s song, The Captain and 366, is a powerful ballad in a style reminiscent of Bon Jovi.
“I don’t know about that, but thank you all the same,” Scott said.
At the 75th commemoration on Saturday, Scott will perform an acoustic version of the song with his guitar.
“I’ve got to keep it together when I perform because the emotions will be running high on the day, and after more than a year since I wrote the song, I still get emotional about it,” Scott said.
Endorsed by the Wagga Wagga City Council, Stuart and Scott, who arrived in Netherlands on Tuesday, will deliver a wreath on behalf of the city and a message from Wagga’s Mayor Greg Conkey.
“I’ve never been to Hamont-Achel but my father and other relatives have, and they were basically treated like royalty,” Stuart said.
“There’s a little chapel in the town and outside is a plaque with photographs and names of Officer Redwood, a New Zealand crewman who was badly injured and went down with the plane, and my Uncle Bruce, so they are permanently remembered there.”
Stuart’s visit to Hamont-Achel is just the first part of plans to make sure other war dead are not forgotten.
“We had 100 men from Downside sign up to go to war. Phase two of the 366 project is to retrace the footsteps of these diggers with the help of the Museum of the Riverina and plant some trees in their memory,” Scott said.
On this significant anniversary to commemorate the actions of a local who became a hero, Scott said that making the supreme sacrifice is hard to comprehend.
“Ask yourself could you do it; could you sacrifice your life to save others when you had the chance to get away? Not many people could honestly say yes to that and be as brave and selfless as Bruce Meiklejohn was on that day 75 years ago,” Scott said.
Lest We Forget the heroic actions of Bruce Meiklejohn, and every digger who has served in the Defence Force.