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Stuart Leslie | Ashes to Belgium

Updated: Jan 7

Report of the internment in Belgium of the ashes of the late Stuart Leslie, Air Canada Flight Dispatcher, and WWII RCAF Halifax bomber pilot.

Flemish Newspaper of 3 May 2019 translated by Google with emendations by Richard Dunn, Willem Stronck, and Myles Leslie.


Lone Crash Survivor Reunited with his Crew

Stuart Mackenzie Leslie was reunited with his war mates after 75 years. Their plane was shot from the air over Oudenaarde, Belgium on the 2nd of May 1944. The Canadian pilot was the only one to survive, eventually turning 94. On the 2nd of May 2019, and according to his last wishes, his ashes were buried next to the graves of his six crew members.

The seven airmen in their twenties, six Canadians and one Englishman departed on May 1st, 1944 from Yorkshire, England, becoming part of a 136 aircraft-strong bombing group. Their D-Day preparatory mission: railway junctions at Bergen-Valenciennes, France and Bergen-Tournai railways in Saint Ghislain, Belgium. A defective compass saw Stuart’s aircraft separated from the group, arriving late and alone at the target. On their way home they became a “bird for the cat.” A German night fighter hit one of the starboard engines and a port engine of his aircraft. The aircraft exploded over a field behind the Van Tieghem farm near Oudenaarde. Leslie landed with his parachute in a field 300 meters further on. The flight engineer Elliott, air gunners Vipond, Baldry, and McCann, bomb-aimer Hawke and navigator Webster did not survive the crash. Having sustained an eye injury during the explosion, he remained fit enough to travel. He followed the Scheldt river towards the small village of Kerkhove, seeking shelter in a farmer’s field. “My father was hiding in a haystack and, after his emergency rations ran out, he approached the farmer, Maurice de Clercq,” says Leslie’s youngest son Myles. “Imagine! Suddenly, a young man crawls from under the hay in your farm. You don't understand him, because you don't speak a word of English. What do you do? Others might have turned him away, or turned him in to the German garrison, but not Maurice. Maurice gave my father a bed and took him to the chateau of the Van Wassenhove family where they spoke English."

Hiding in a haystack

A last drink for a departed father; flowers for his six crew members. While grandson Nick (30) plays “Amazing Grace” on the bagpipes, Myles (46) and Scott (64) lay their father's ashes in their final resting place. Not in Canada, where Stuart Mackenzie Leslie lived for most of his life, but at the cemetery in Oudenaarde. His name is now displayed between his six wartime mates: Flying Officer Robert Webster, Flying Officer John Hawke, Warrant Officer Garnet McCann, Sergeant George Elliott of the Royal Air Force, Pilot Officer George Vipond and Sergeant Earl Baldry. Stuart Leslie always wanted to be buried among the six other crew members of "his" aircraft, a Handley Page four-engine Halifax bomber.


The Van Wassenhoves gave Stuart shelter, cared for his eye, and through resistance contacts procured him a fake passport. “For three months at the Van Wassenhove chateau, and then on his escape voyage, my father pretended to be a Flemish student who had been hit so hard on the head that he could not speak.” As son Scott continues. “The plan was first to go by bike to Brussels, then by car to Namur, eventually driving to the Pyrenees and a hike into neutral Spain.” Eventually arrested during the escape attempt, he was handed first to the Luftwaffe, and then claimed by the Gestapo as a saboteur and terrorist. Loaded on a train for a concentration camp, Stuart and many others managed to escape thanks to the efforts of Belgian resistors, and was in Brussels as it was liberated in September 1944.

Returning to Canada, Stuart visited the families of his five Canadian crew members. “He was sitting in their living rooms,” explains Myles, “telling them what had happened the night of the 2nd of May, when he had been in command. Did he visit the families then, and return over and over again to the graves in Oudenaarde out of guilt for the fact that he survived and they had not? Did he want to pay his respect because they had given their all? Did he want to show them a life well lived? I think so."

Five centimeters

Since then, the Leslie family have made many crossing to Belgium: to the de Clercqs; to the Van Wassenhoves; and to Kerkhove, the village that never betrayed him. A first time in 1964, and now, 55 years later, one last time. Stuart Leslie is buried next to his six friends, in the end, at ninety-four-years old. “Returning was his last wish. The circle is closed,” say sons Myles and Scott.

However, burying their father’s ashes in Belgium presented some difficulties. The graves of the other six crew are the property of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, an organization based in the UK. “And because my father did not die during the war, we could not get permission to bury within the CWG land. Thanks to the local Military Officers' Association, and some members of the Oudenaarde city council, we managed to inter the ashes five centimeters outside of the War Graves boundary. Now, his ashes are buried there, and that is the most important result.”

Two sons, three grandsons, a granddaughter and daughters-in-law brought Stuart Leslie to his final resting place “In fact, it's not hard for him to be here, so far from home.” says Myles. “We would not have been here without the help of the Belgians. My father would not have lived without the Belgians. Without the de Clercq family, I would never have met my wife Sofie. I met her at the wedding party of Maurice's granddaughter, to which we also were invited. These folk have always been family, and Belgium is as much a “home” for us as is Canada.”


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