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Obituary: War hero who eluded Nazis and got back home after being shot down over France

 

Tom Maxwell flew many sorties during the Second World War and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross
Tom Maxwell flew many sorties during the Second World War and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross
Alf McCreary

By Alf McCreary

Tom Maxwell was an RAF hero who was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Legion d'honneur for his bravery in the Second World War.

His remarkable life has been recalled following his death at the age of 94.

Born in Belfast on June 19, 1924, Thomas John Maxwell was the only child of John and Mary Maxwell.

He was just 13 when his father died from the after-effects of gassing at the Battle of the Somme some two decades earlier.

Maxwell was educated at Mountpottinger School, and left at 16 to become a railway clerk.

In 1941 he and a number of friends joined the RAF Volunteer Reserve. They lied about their ages and smoked pipes to make them seem older.

Maxwell's ambition was to be a pilot, but the RAF trained him as an air navigator, and he was eventually given the role of air gunner. While posted to No 622 Squadron based at RAF Mildenhall in Suffolk he was promoted to acting flight sergeant.

Still in his late teens, he was a rear-gunner in Lancaster bombers and had completed several sorties to Germany, including targeting Berlin and the Frisian Islands, before flying on his sixth operation to bomb Stuttgart on March 15, 1944.

On the way back from a successful mission his Lancaster was badly damaged by enemy flak over Rouen in France and the crew was forced to abandon the aircraft.

Five who baled out were soon captured but Maxwell, despite great difficulty in handling his parachute, landed safely in a field with piles of manure.

Around 1.30am he found himself navigating the country terrain and, aided by the stars, he arrived at the small settlement of Bazancourt, about 100 miles north-east of Paris.

He had a near escape when he encountered a German soldier, but turned his flying jacket inside-out as a disguise, and walked past the enemy with a brief nod.

He found shelter with a courageous French family in a remote farm and was well looked after. He was later supplied with a false identity card and taken to Paris, where he went to the home of a priest who had other false identity cards hidden in a piano.

He then followed a well-known but hazardous French Resistance escape route, travelling south by train. Two other American escapees were caught by police in Toulouse but Maxwell arrived in Pau and stayed in a safe house.

Later he and 11 other RAF men were led on foot through the Pyrenees. They arrived unscathed in Spain where they were held by police and taken to Pamplona, where Maxwell was reunited with two of his crew.

They completed their escape via Gibraltar and flew back to Bristol on May 22, just over two months after they had baled out.

On his return to active service Maxwell searched out the Women's Auxiliary Air Force girl who had packed his parachute and thanked her for saving his life.

He flew another 26 missions, because of his strong sense of duty to lost comrades. He was awarded the DFC in 1945 for his "skill, courage and fortitude" and commissioned Flight-Lieutenant. In May 1945 he took part in an air drop of food to the starving population in the Netherlands, and later served in India before leaving the RAF.

Back home he met his future wife Katherine Tennant at a bus-stop in Belfast in 1946 and they married two years later.

She was from a Catholic family in Dublin, and Tom's relatives were staunch Presbyterians. No one from either family attended the wedding, which was witnessed by strangers from a nearby pub.

After the war Maxwell became a teacher, but in 1952 he returned to the RAF, where he worked in air traffic control serving in Northern Ireland, Germany and Libya.

He retired from the RAF in 1978 and then worked for 10 years with the Sultan of Oman's Air Force.

He was a strong supporter of the Bomber Command Association and attended the commemoration of the Bomber Command Memorial in Green Park, London. In 2016 he received the Legion d'honneur from the French Government in recognition of his war service in the liberation of that country.

Tom Maxwell, who died on March 22, was predeceased by his wife in 2007. He is survived by his sons Adrian, a barrister, and Tim, a psychologist.

Belfast Telegraph

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