Sunday, May 09, 2010

66 Years Ago Today - Grand Uncle Leon Was Shot Down Over Belgium

My Great-Uncle, Leon Panzer joined the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) once he came of age in 1942 and became a Haifax III bomber pilot. Shot down over Belgium, he was captured by the Germans and had quite a harrowing escape.

From: Flyboys on the Ground:
After being shot down on May 9, 1944, Flying Officer Leon Panzer of Toronto was hidden by various Belgian helpers until early August when he and four other evaders were taken to Brussels. Their new host cell turned out to be a “front” run by the enemy, with a resistance traitor funnelling evaders into a trap. Imprisoned in Brussels, Panzer was closely interrogated and accused of being a saboteur because he was wearing civilian clothes when he was captured. Although he was not tortured, he saw many civilian prisoners who had been terribly beaten.


Family oral history holds he was accused of being a saboteur and not eligible for prisoner of war protections as the Gestapo figured out pretty quickly that he was Jewish in addition to being Canadian. Family history also holds that his flight crew quite rightly and bravely stood by him and insisted he be treated as a POW just like them.

On Sept. 1, 1944, Panzer and about 50 other PoWs were put on a train bound for Germany. Allied air attacks had so disrupted the railways that they could not be moved. After two attempts to get out of Brussels, the Germans derailed the train and fled. Panzer and his comrades met British troops on Sept. 4.


Grand Uncle Leon's Mention in dispatches recording can reads as follows: (From G Carruther's 432 RCAF Squadron Website):
PANZER, F/O Leon (J27423) - Mention in Despatches - No.432 Squadron (identified only as "Overseas" in AFRO) - Award effective 14 June 1945 as per London Gazette of that date and AFRO 1478/45 dated 21 September 1945. Home in Toronto; enlisted there 4 May 1942. Trained at No.5 ITS (graduated 6 February 1943) and No.4 AOS (graduated 9 July 1943). DHist file 181.009 D.5557 (RG.24 Vol.20668) has recommendation dated 2 December 1944, indicating he had flown on only one sortie.

Flying Officer Panzer was forced to bale out over enemy territory on returning from a raid over Haine St.Pierre on the night of May 9th, 1944, and displayed outstanding initiative in evading capture for an extended period. On being betrayed, taken prisoner, and treated as a saboteur he conducted himself in a highly commendable manner. For his devotion to duty and unwavering loyalty under adverse circumstances it is recommended this officer be Mentioned in Despatches (Immediate).


Adding to the story is that there was a comic book published about his exploits. The extended family has a copy and when I'm next in Toronto I'm going to see if I can get my hands on it and reproduce it on this blog.

Apparently legend and the comic has it that after the Germans abandoned the train he escaped from it and led his crew into the nearest Belgian city as the Germans were pulling out, becoming the first Allied officer to enter and liberate the city.

7 comments:

John Mellor said...

Aaron
Interesting to read the brave story of your Great Uncle Flying Officer Leon Panzer who was the navigator on Halifax LW-583 QO-L (Leeside Lulu).The aircraft was shot down over Wevelgem in Belgium where three of the crew are buried
F/O T Martin(pilot)
Sgt. K Cannings(Wop/AG)
Sgt. P.Mellor RAF VR Flight Engineer(my father)
F/O Panzer and F/O D D'Andrea(bomb aimer) evaded capture whilst Sgts Cantlon(Mid-upper gunner) and McCartney(Rear gunner) were taken prisoner.
There is a memorial erected by the people of Wevelgem, in honour of those who gave their lives, on the actual crash site.
I have a letter written by your Great Uncle's sister ,maybe your Grandmother or Great Aunt Anne P Goldenberg (December 1944) to my mother describing your Great Uncle's experiences.

Aaron said...

Very interesting indeed thank you for the additional information, and my condolences for your loss on that night.

Anne Goldenberg would likely have been my Great Aunt, as I've never met her.

I'd love to see a copy of the letter.

John Mellor said...

Aaron

I'll send a copy by E-Mail if you forward your details

Aaron said...

Thanks, and sorry for the delay. Email address is located under about me it is: shekelblog@yahoo.com

TSINCT said...

Anne Goldenberg was my mother. I have just spoken on the phone with Leon Panzer's wife, Bayla, who is my aunt. My mother was Leon's sister. I was not aware of this letter, but Aunt Bayla is going to send it to me. What a fascinating story all in all- what happened then and the follow-up now.

Eric said...

Aaron,

Thank you for this great post about my wife's great uncle. It's a great family story!

On behalf of my wife, Joanna Née Speisman, and my mother-in-law Leila Speisman (née Panzer), thanks again and be well.

Michael Stavsky
Toronto

Aaron said...

Michael:

You're very welcome, and it really is quite the story and I enjoyed recounting it here very much.

All the best,

Aaron