Belfast RAF officer who escaped from occupied France after being shot down

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Flight Lieutenant Tom Maxwell, who served on a Lancaster bomber during the Second World War and evaded capture after being shot down in 1944, making his way from occupied France to Spain, was born in Belfast in June 1924.

He was the only child of John Maxwell, who died in 1937 from the after-effects of having been gassed at the Battle of the Somme in 1916. His mother was Mary, nee Woodburn, and the family were Presbyterian.

Thomas John Maxwell was educated at Mountpottinger School in East Belfast and left school at

age 16 to become a railway clerk. In 1941 at the age of 17, he and a couple of his friends enlisted in the Royal Air Force Reserve, lying about their ages and smoking pipes to give the impression they were older.

Tom Maxwell wanted to be a pilot but he was trained by the RAF as an air navigator and became

an air gunner. He was posted to 622 Squadron at RAF Mildenhall in Sussex and promoted to an Acting Flight Sergeant.

Maxwell was involved in attacks on Berlin and the Frisian Islands and was with a crew attacking Stuttgart on March 15, 1944. The Belfast airman was on his sixth operation and was rear gunner in the turret of the Lancaster when the plane was hit by flak on the way home. The damage led to a fire breaking out and when the Lancaster was east of Rouen in Normandy, the crew were forced to bail out.

Training for the type of scenario had been carried out a year before at a swimming pool in

Brighton, where he had to leap from the highest diving board in his flying suit, holding a flotation device.

However, as is often the case, the theory and practice did not work together when the real

emergency arose. There was no space in his confined rear turret to connect his harness fully to the parachute, so he had to prise the door open and secure the second hook while leaning into the howling wind as streaks of fuel whistled past him; as he was about to clip the hook on, he tumbled from the plane, with the parachute in his left arm.

When he pulled the rip cord and the canopy opened, he had to frantically connect the other hook to his backpack as he was spun around and suffered injury from the harness which was jerking out of control.

He later said that his mind was full of fears of being impaled on a church spire, wrapped around pylons or landing in the middle of a lake and drowning. Luckily he had a soft landing in a field among piles of manure, and was fortunate not to be captured as a German garrison was only 500 metres away.

The remainder of the crew had jumped after him and had a slower descent, but some were

captured. After Maxwell had disengaged from the parachute he navigated into the early hours of the morning using the Pole Star until he found a road sign which informed him that he was near the commune of Bazancourt, 100 miles northeast of Paris.

He was almost captured but had turned his flying jacket inside out as a precaution and was able to walk past a German soldier, exchanging a polite nod. He arrived at a farmhouse and asked in broken French for shelter. For ten days he was hidden by the farmer and his wife, before being taken to Paris, where a gendarme and a priest looked after him.

It was during his stay in the farmhouse that he was responsible for a curious culinary footnote; he introduced the farmer’s wife to what she considered the bizarre idea of fried egg on toast, which he requested one morning. After the Allies landed on D Day, however, Maxwell discovered that she made it for troops and it became so popular in the area that ouef sur pain grille was added to the menu at local cafes in the area.

All Bomber Command crews had sets of ‘passport’ photographs and one of these was used to provide him with a forged identity card in Paris.

Maxwell was next moved to a desolate farm where he joined two US airmen, and the three were

escorted by a young girl to the nearby railway station, where three more Americans and a courier travelled with them to Toulouse and then to Pau, from where they were taken by bus and taxi to the foothills of the Pyrenees. The group merged with a larger group of British and Americans and were taken over the snow-capped mountains into Spain by guides.

The Spanish police arrested them once they had crossed the border and they were under house

arrest for a week. It was a relaxed atmosphere, however, allowing some of the men opportunity to attend, ironically, a performance in Pamplona by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.

Maxwell had been reunited with two other members of his crew at this point and they were all

collected by the British Consul and were taken to Gibraltar, flying back to the United Kingdom on May 22, 1944 and, in Maxwell’s case, re-joining 622 Squadron.

He flew 26 further operations over the next few months out of a sense of duty to lost comrades and in December 1944 was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for “skill, courage and fortitude”.

He was presented with the Legion d’Honneur in 2016 in recognition of services to assist with

French liberation. In May 1945 he was involved in Operation Manna, which was the airdrop of food to the starving Dutch population, and at the end of the war he was serving in India.

After the war, he became a teacher for a period but in 1952 re-joined the RAF as an air traffic controller, serving in Northern Ireland, Germany and Libya.

He retired from the RAF in 1978 and served for ten years with the Sultan of Oman’s Air Force.

During his retirement, he researched the life and work of Pat Rooney, a cartoonist renowned for his caricatures of RAF personnel, including Maxwell in 1945.

He was also a strong supporter of the Bomber Command Association and the Mildenhall Register

and was proud to attend the dedication of the Bomber Command Memorial in Green Park which

commemorates the 55,573 who died while serving in Bomber Command during the Second World

War.

In 1948 he was married to Katherine, nee Tennant, whom he had first met at a bus stop in Belfast two years before. She was a Catholic whose family were from Dublin and Maxwell’s relatives were committed Presbyterians, both families opposing the marriage and none of them attending the ceremony.

Kathleen predeceased him in 2007 and he is survived by his sons Adrian, who is a barrister and

Tim, a doctor of Psychology.