Lt Gen Baron Michel 'Mike' Gilbert Libert Marie Donnet
Born April 1st 1917 Died July 31st 2013 Age 96.
Lt Gen Donnet, made a dramatic escape from his native Belgium in 1941 then served in the RAF throughout the war as a fighter pilot. He later held senior appointments in the Belgian Air Force and in Nato.
After the German invasion of his homeland, Donnet had been held in captivity in Germany for seven months. Then he and his Belgian squadron colleagues were released and returned to Brussels. Donnet and a friend, Leon Divoy, were determined to carry on the fight and made plans to escape to Britain. They and two other patriots discovered an old Stampe SV-4b biplane (similar to a Tiger Moth) in a hangar in the grounds of a heavily guarded German depot. It was intact but needed considerable attention to make it airworthy.
For three months, the four men cycled 20 miles at night to the hangar, replacing missing parts and manufacturing others before refitting them to the aircraft under the noses of the Germans. They also managed to acquire enough fuel for the aircraft by purchasing it on the black market from a Luftwaffe mechanic.
Left: The Stampe SV-4b biplane in which Donnet made his escape
After a couple of false starts (due to the unsuspecting Germans changing the locks to the hangar and the engine failing to start) Donnet and Divoy crept into the hangar on the night of July 4/5 1941 in their Belgian Air Force uniforms, wheeled out the aircraft, started the engine and took off for England.
With virtually no aircraft instruments, they climbed to 10,000ft and crossed the English Channel, intending to land in Kent. Steering by the Pole Star they eventually crossed the English coast, and, with their meagre supply of fuel running out, landed in a field to discover that they were near Clacton in Essex.
Among those who met them at the local police station was the immigration officer from Harwich. Like Donnet, the vintage aircraft was pressed into RAF service for the duration of the war.
Michel ‘Mike’ Gilbert Libert Marie Donnet was born in London, where his Belgian parents had married in 1914. On the outbreak of war Michel’s father signed up with the Belgian engineer corps. At the conclusion of the conflict the family returned to Brussels, where Michel was educated at the College St Michel before joining the Aviation Militaire Belge in 1938 and training as a pilot.
He joined the 9th Squadron at Bierset flying the outdated Renard R 31 aircraft. Following the German invasion of the Low Countries on May 10 1940, Donnet flew reconnaissance missions in support of the retreating armies until he was captured on June 1 following the capitulation of Belgium.
After his arrival in England he was commissioned in the RAFVR and trained on Spitfires before joining No 64 Squadron in November 1941. His first success came in March 1942 when he damaged two Focke Wulf 190s over Ostend. A few days later his aircraft collided with another Spitfire and he was forced to bail out. His friend Divoy was shot down to spend the rest of the war as a PoW. (see Aircrew Remembered notes)
On July 30 Donnet shot down a FW 190 over St Omer and in the space of a few days damaged three more. He was awarded the Belgian Croix de Guerre. After completing 100 operations, many over enemy territory at low level, attacking trains, armed ships and gun posts, he was awarded the DFC for his ‘great courage and devotion to duty’. During the celebrations that followed, 17 of his friends piled into a single taxi and headed for London.
In February Donnet shot down a FW 190 over Dunkirk and a month later he was given command of No 64 and the squadron was used to escort bomber forces and Beaufighter formations attacking enemy convoys off the Dutch coast. After a period as a fighter instructor, Donnet was given command of 350 Squadron, the first all-Belgian squadron to be formed in the RAF.
On D-Day, Donnet led his squadron providing cover over the beachhead. He was in action against the V1 flying bombs and the retreating German forces when he shot down another FW 190. The day after learning that Belgium had been liberated he led a formation of 12 Spitfires over Brussels in celebration. He provided cover for the Arnhem operation and, on promotion to wing commander in October, took command of the Hawkinge Wing of Spitfires, escorting bomber formations.
In February 1945 Donnet commanded the Bentwaters Wing flying the long-range Mustang. During the Allied airborne landings on the River Rhine, Donnet led his squadrons to attack trains and road convoys being used to support the beleaguered German forces. On March 22 he led the squadron to provide an escort for a force of Mosquitos carrying out a pinpoint attack on the Gestapo HQ in Copenhagen. Then, on May 6 he escorted a formation of Beaufighters seeking out German naval units in the Skaggerak. It was his 375th and final operation.
After attending the RAF Staff College, Donnet returned to Belgium to reorganise the Air Force there. Later he was head of the fighter force when he flew the Meteor jet, and in December 1952 he was named the Senior Air Staff Officer of the 83rd (Anglo-Belgian) Tactical Group. In August 1959 he was appointed Deputy Co-ordinator of the Air Defence of Central Europe at Shape headquarters at Fontainebleau, before taking up an appointment as Chief of Staff of Nato’s Second Allied Tactical Air Force, with its headquarters in Germany and with squadrons from the RAF and the air forces of the Netherlands, Belgium and West Germany assigned.
After a senior appointment as the Deputy to the Belgian Chief of Air Staff, Donnet returned to Nato to chair the Air Defence Ground Environment Committee, which was addressing the upgrade of the radar early warning and reporting system in the Nato Central Region. In 1970 he was appointed Belgium’s Defence Attaché in London and two years later he became the Belgian Military Representative of the Nato Military Committee. He retired in July 1975 having flown over 5,000 hours.
He was appointed a Companion of the Royal Victorian Order and, in Belgium, a Grand Officer of the Order of the Crown. The French Government appointed him a Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur.
He wrote several books including Flight to Freedom (1974), an account of his escape and wartime experiences.
Mike Donnet married Jacqueline “Kiki” Gautier. They had one son and four daughters.
Aircrew Remembered notes: F/O. Divoy abandoned his Spitfire Vb BM191 on 4th April 1942 and taken P..o.W.
Reprinted with the kind permission of the Daily Telegraph obituaries column.
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Article prepared by Barry Howard of the Spixworthonian Language School.