Saints and Sinners.
The story of Ronald Arthur Walker R.A.F.V.R, D.F.C. is as remarkable as it is sad and shows the difference between good and evil. Ronald Walker volunteered for aircraft training on his 18th birthday, on the 9th of October 1940 he received his pilot's wings exactly two years later at Craig Field, Alabama USA.
A shy unassuming young man, a fellow school pupil described him as a pleasant boy always smiling. He was working as a trainee junior inspector at Leyland before the war and in all likelihood would have spent his working life there, but for a certain Adolph Hitler.
I'm grateful to Agnes Walker, his sister in law who has given me unfettered access to family papers in preparing this article, whilst she never knew him, her late husband Alan was 14 years younger than his brother, and she is fiercely proud of his memory as was Alan, his parents, Horace and Ethel and his sister Dorothy, as the story unfolds you will see that this pride is not unfounded.
Ronald was by all accounts an outstanding pilot greatly respected by his crew, so much so that he and they were chosen as Pathfinders. Ronald made his first operational flight as a Pathfinder on the 5th of January 1944. The bravest of the brave their mission was to locate and mark targets with flares increasing the accuracy of the main bomber force.
By 1944 the success or failure of a raid now depended overwhelmingly on the Pathfinder's marker placement. The cost of human lives was grievous. At least 3,727 Pathfinders were killed on operations by the end of hostilities. The forming of The Pathfinder Force (PFF) was not without controversy. Initially the brainchild of Group Captain Bufton, it was opposed by no less than Bomber Command Arthur " Bomber " Harris, who thought that an elite force would breed rivalry and jealousy and have an effect on morale.
Harris was forced to accept the idea following the intervention of Chief of air staff, Air Chief Marshal Portal, and Prime Minister Winston Churchill. I include this paragraph to underline how important PPF was to the war effort, even reaching the desk of the Prime Minister.
The PPF crews were granted a step up in rank such were the dangers they faced. Harris was proved wrong about the effect on morale; the badge allowed to be worn on their uniforms was a genuinely sought-after achievement. The crews were admired for their steadfastness and bravery by all servicemen from home and abroad. No 8 Group PFF flew a total of 50,490 individual sorties against some 3,440 targets.
Ronald Walker's plane was shot down at approximately half past midnight on June the 22nd 1944, with seven crew aboard, six of whom perished. Ronald told Dutch resistance he didn’t remember leaving the aircraft and must have been unconscious during his fall. After waking up on the ground he found his only injuries were bruises on his back and right leg. His wristwatch was still working. It was 5 am and he struggled to believe that less than 12 hours earlier he had been eating a meal in the Officers’ Mess at Coningsby and now he was alone and vulnerable in an enemy-occupied country.
Ronald was able to evade capture for several weeks thanks to the brave members of the Dutch resistance. What was to follow was brutal and cruel, beyond belief.
Ronnie after several moves from safe house to safe house eventually finished up in the home of Coba Pulskens, known by everyone as Aunt Coba, she would pay with her life for helping. Aunt Coba was a single woman aged 60, who had already defied the occupying Germans by hiding Jews and Allied airmen in her home.
When it was explained the need to bring two airmen to her at Tilburg while on their journey to Belgium, she immediately agreed to help. In fact, she was already sheltering a Canadian Airman Roy Carter.
Ronald and Jack Nott, an Australian who were to be her new' lodgers '. The three of them were sharing a meal when a group of seven Germans arrived, Michael Rotschopf, had knocked on the door of Aunt Coba’s house; as she opened the door, Rotschopf immediately pushed her aside and rushed inside carrying his machine gun. Coba followed him and saw the three frightened airmen being backed out of the house through the kitchen with their hands raised.
Aunt Coba didn’t go any further because other Germans were now coming in through her front door. When the airmen entered the backyard, even though they were unarmed and had their hands up in surrender, Rotschopf who had now been joined by other members of his group lined them up against a wall and mowed them down with machine gun fire. None of the badly wounded men died instantly and, despite his grievous injuries, one of them made a hopeless but instinctive bid to escape back into the house. Rotschopf simply turned and shot him dead as he staggered into the kitchen.
Some reports say that the man who was shot dead as he staggered into the house was the Australian Jack Nott. However, others believe that it was the Canadian, Roy Carter. It is unlikely that anyone will ever be able to confirm the poor man’s identity beyond any doubt, whoever it was that died in the kitchen, after shooting him dead the killer then turned his attention back to the two men who lay dying in the back yard. He kicked them both and their groans confirmed they were still clinging to life. Rotschopf calmly reloaded his machine gun and finished them both off with another burst.
The man in charge of the German group, Hans Harders, told his colleague Roesener to inform the Dutch police in Tilburg that three airmen had been shot while trying to escape and that they should recover and bury their bodies. Then Harders asked Aunt Coba for a sheet to cover the bodies.
In an extraordinarily brave act of defiance, the old lady produced a neatly folded Dutch flag which she had kept hidden ready for the eagerly awaited liberation and laid it over the bodies. Later that day the three bodies were moved to the town’s St Elizabeth’s Hospital, where any evidence that could be found about their identities was taken.
It was noted that collectively, the three men had been shot more than 100 times. On July 12, the hospital’s records show that: “Three English pilots ( a mistake as to nationalities ) died from gunshot wounds” and that their bodies were taken in coffins to Vught Concentration Camp, which was known to have a crematorium. The coffins are recorded as being returned empty to the hospital.
Brave Aunt Coba was also sent to the Vught camp where she spent a significant amount of time in solitary confinement. Later, when the Allied armies were advancing towards the camp she was transported to the dreaded Ravensbruck Concentration Camp in northern Germany. Aunt Coba died in its gas chambers in February 1945 aged 61; one of around 90,000 women to be murdered there.
Alas, she and the three fliers have no known grave. I think it's safe to assume that the Germans wanted the bodies of the three brave airmen cremated to cover up their wretched crime, bodies can give evidence, ashes can't!
When news of Aunt Coba's death reached the by-then liberated Tilburg, her friends hoisted the flag that had covered the airmen's bodies to half-mast at her house. There is a memorial to her bravery in the town and she is remembered on the anniversary of her death every year.
Back in 1982 Ron Low, a former RAF officer asked Jan van den Driesschen:, a member of the Dutch resistance “What happened to the flag? it was discovered that the flag had survived and was with a relative of Coba Pulskens, who agreed that the flag should go to the UK to form part of a memorial. Ron Low, representing the 83 Squadron Association, invited Dorothy Walker, sister of the murdered Ronald Walker, to travel to Holland to receive the flag and bring it back to England.
Ron Low and Dorothy Walker made the journey to Tilburg for what became a very special and emotional occasion. Jan van den Driesschen recalls: “I don’t think I will ever be able to put into words that very emotional moment when Dorothy held the flag in her hands for the first time. Even now, so many years after the event took place, I still feel tears burning in my eyes”.
In consultation with Dorothy Walker and her brother Alan, it was agreed that the flag and a plaque recalling the heroism of Jecoba Pulskens should be placed in the Airman's Chapel at St. Michael's Church, Coningsby Lincolnshire.
On May 8 1983 the ceremony took place in the presence of members of the families of all three airmen and representatives of the Pulskens family.
The Walker family lived at 16 Thickness Avenue Beech Hill and that was where he spent his last Christmas. After Holy Communion at St Anne's Church, Beech Hill, the family celebrated as a traditional Christmas as was possible given the deprivation of wartime Britain, the usual parlour games played, I imagine no one mentioned the dangers Ronnie was to face after his leave, their mood no doubt lifted by the fact that the tide of the war was now running in the Allies favour.
Although they could never have imagined the horror that would ensue for their brave son and brother. Christmases for the Walker family would never again be the same.
In June of 1946 the Waker family travelled to London to receive from King George VI at Buckingham Palace Ronald's Distinguished Flying Cross, they must have felt overwhelming pride and sorrow.
The Walker Family
It would be moving and proper if the flag could one day hang in St Anne's Church for a brief time, Christmas would seem an apt time because on his last Christmas, he worshiped there or on the anniversary of his death Ronnie as the family referred to him was an outstanding and brave pilot who was worthy of the accolade Hero, as were people who helped him in occupied Holland in particular Bas van de Aaist and Aunt Coba.
Bas and the Walker family formed a friendship that lasts till this day, Bas and his family have visited Wigan and the Walkers have made the journey to Tilburg. I'm told the Dutch guests loved our town, with a special love of Mesnes Park!
Justice was seen to be done. In 1948 the seven members of the German group responsible for the three murders were charged with committing a war crime and four of them, Cremer, Roesener, Rotschopf and Schwanz were subsequently sentenced to be hanged in September of that year. To date, I have been unable to ascertain whether those sentences were actually carried out.
The subtitle of this is article 'Saints and Sinners' may seem simplistic but I think the Dutch resistance were without doubt the saints, and the sinners equally without doubt were the Gestapo. However much they claim to have been brainwashed, to kill in cold blood men who were surrendering, is by any standards was a war crime.
Whilst most reasonable people will agree that the murderers, for that, is what they were, should face justice, they too had families who like the families of the 3 airmen they shot in cold blood will forever mourn their deaths. It has been said many times and no less true that ' War is a nasty business ' Most wars in history could and should have been avoided, there are however times when evil hast to be confronted, Nazism was such an evil.
A man from Wigan who volunteered on his 18th birthday along with countless others from our country and from all across the globe who died in defence of freedom in the carnage of WW2 must never be forgotten.
On many War Memorials it is written THE BLOOD OF HEROES, IS THE SEED OF FREEDOM, how these words ring true when you read of men and women like Jacoba Coba, Ronnie Walker, and his comrades. We must ensure that this 'Seed ' is nurtured and never wasted, we forget their sacrifice at our peril!