27.08.1942 350 Squadron (Belgian), Spitfire Vb BM297, Flt.Lt. Henri Albert Picard, Croix de Guerre
Operation: Circus 208*
Date: 27th August 1942 (Thursday)
Unit: 350 Squadron (Belgian)
Type: Spitfire Vb
Serial No: BM297
Location: English Channel off France
Base: RAF Kenley, Surrey
Pilot: Plt.Off. Henri Albert Picard, Croix de Guerre, 87693 RAFVR Age 26. PoW No: 685**
* Operation Circus: Daytime bomber attacks with fighter escorts against short range targets, to occupy enemy fighters and keep them in the area concerned.
** Stalag Luft 3, Sagan-Silesia, Germany, now Żagań in Poland.
REASON FOR LOSS:
Henri A. Picard was originally an officer in the Belgian Army and had graduated from the Ecole Militaire in 1938. He was amongst the first group of Belgian soldiers to arrive in Great Britain after the tragic events of May 1940. In July that year, he landed in England by way of France and Morocco.
By 1941 he was attached to the Belgian 350 Squadron, which in the Dieppe raid destroyed seven German planes for certain and one probable, and in addition damaged a dozen others. His victories as well as his brilliant general ability won from him the Croix de Guerre with two palms, which he received on the 21st July 1942 during the Belgian National Day ceremonies.
Whilst flying with 350 Squadron (Belgian) on “B” Flight:
Plt.Off. Picard was credited with shooting down and destroying two Fw-190 fighters on the 29th June 1942 during a Circus 195 off Sangatte. A condensed extract from the Combat report reads:
Before a couple of unproductive encounters with e/a Blue 4 returned to base with engine trouble. The flight leader, “Earmark” Blue 1 also had to head home with engine problems. This left Plt.Off. Picard, as Blue 2 flying with Blue 3 to continue with the sortie. He goes on to report:
“I noticed two groups of Fw-190s about 5 to 8 each coming from Dunkirk towards Cap Gris-Nez following the coast. I flew towards them and when I was over them I did a half roll and dived towards them, making for the last one of the formation. I closed up rather rapidly on him with the intention of keeping my fire until I could be at about fifty yards from him. But when I came at a distance of what I suppose is less than 200 yards (150 according to Blue 3), I suddenly stopped gaining on him, so I gave about three or four one second bursts with cannon only. The whole formation was still flying straight and level, then they turned starboard at a moderate rate of turn and I gave one or two deflection bursts and then suddenly I saw a stream of brown smoke behind the last aircraft which started diving. I could not see what happened to it afterwards because we were attacked by a few Fw-190s (I think 4) did a few awkward barrel rolls and eventually had a shot at one e/a and then noticed that my cannon were empty. After this attack I saw a yellow splash into the sea of an aircraft that went in. I made for home when another e/a came behind Blue 3 diving towards us. I warned him on the RT and turned left, Blue 3 seemed not to turn quickly enough and as I did not see him again I thought he was shot down. I called for him on the RT and got no answer. Then I was attacked too from behind and above by two e/a. One of them was quite close to me and I pulled the control column back until I almost stalled and turned over on my back. The attacking e/a passing in front of me at about 30 to 50 yards and I gave it a deflection shot with my machine guns only, I then lost sight of it and a few seconds later I saw a green splash of an aircraft diving in the sea. As I had no news about Blue 3, I thought this was Blue 3 going in the drink. I circled round and gave Mayday on button D, telling that one of the splashes was made by an unfriendly aircraft. The Mayday was acknowledged and Ops asked me my position. But just then I was attacked by another e/a. I turned towards him and he went back. Then I noticed a few Fw-190s above me and I went home losing height and doing plenty of barrel rolls. But soon I was on my own and landed at Manston where I refuelled and met Blue 1 and Blue 4. I then went back home where I met Blue 3 safe and sound, and not shot down in the sea as I thought before. Blue 3 had left me after we were attacked for the second time. He also had seen the two splashes about 4 miles NE of Cap Gris-Nez and about 2 or 3 miles from each other. I claim two Fw-190 destroyed”.
Sgt. L.V. Flohimont confirms seeing the splash made by the first e/a and the second e/a fall into the sea.
Plt.Off. Picard was credited with a shared claim for shooting down and destroying a Fw-190 fighter on the 19th August 1942 during operation “Jubilee” SW of Dieppe. The Combat report reads:
“I was flying on the show “Jubilee” as Coiner Blue 3. Coiner Blue 4 and Coiner Red 3 were flying behind when I saw one Fw-190 flying along the French coast over land and eastwards towards Dieppe. We were at about 5000 feet above and behind the e/a and I went after it. The e/a turned right now flying in the general direction of what I think is Offranville. I started firing at close range and saw one of my cannon shells explode on the port wing of the e/a, after which the e/a flicked to the right and I pulled away to avoid collision. I climbed and delivered a second attack from above and behind and the e/a turned left flying lower and lower, until its port wing hit the ground in a meadow and the e/a turned about and I saw flames coming out of it. I then came back home, where Coiner Red 3, Plt.Off. Plas told me he had scored hits on the same Fw-190. I claim ½ Fw-190 destroyed which crashed, I think, south of Dieppe”.
During a Rhubarb sortie on the 16th August 1942 his aircraft, Spitfire Vb EN796, hit high tension wires near Merville in France, the aircraft suffering damage to a wing tip (category B damage) but he survived.
Operation Rhubarb: Fighter or fighter-bomber sections, at times of low cloud and poor visibility, crossing the English Channel and then dropping below cloud level to search for opportunity targets such as railway locomotives and rolling stock, aircraft on the ground, enemy troops, and vehicles on roads.
In November 1941 the first squadron of Belgian volunteers was formed in Fighter Command. One of its pilots was Plt.Off. Picard, seen here on the wing of his Spitfire at RAF Kenley in July 1942. His aircraft was among a number 'presented' by the Belgian Congo, and bears the name of one of its principal towns.
Shortly afterwards, on the 27th August he was reported missing after an air battle over the Abbeville region. He was part of a fighter escort protecting the rear of the bomber formation with three of his fellow pilots. 20 Fw-190s were seen to attack the bombers and Plt.Off. Picard and two other pilots endeavoured to intercept them. Fierce fighting ensued, in which the enemy was favoured by numbers and by the fact that the sun was in his rear.
The “OKL (Luftwaffe High Command) Fighter Claims for the Reich & Western Front in 1942” records claims for twelve Spitfires on this day in the vicinity Abbeville and the French coast but it has not been possible to determine which German fighter pilot claimed Plt.Off. Picard’s aircraft.
Plt.Off. Picard’s aircraft was hit and he had to bale out over the sea. Although seriously wounded in one leg, he succeeded in seating himself in his dinghy. But his trials were by no means over. He drifted for five days and six nights in his tiny craft, buffeted by two storms and suffering from his wound as well as from hunger and thirst. Finally when he was almost delirious and utterly exhausted, his dinghy was thrown up on the French coast and he fell into German hands.
Only a man endowed with his outstanding physical and mental qualities could have survived such an ordeal. He slowly recovered from his wounds and in his last letter expressed the hope that he would be free to fight again. When he had recovered sufficiently from his injuries he was transferred to Stalag Luft 3 after a customary visit to Dulag Luft Oberursel.
The notification of his promotion to Flt.Lt. has not been found.
Flt.Lt. Picard worked with Flt.Lt Brettell and Flt.Lt. Walenn (Stalag Luft 3’s head of forgery) and produced forged passports, movement orders, railway documentation and all manner of identity papers to move about Germany.
On the night of the escape he travelled in a group of four escapees with Tim Walenn, Romualdas Marcinkus and Gordon Brettell, who were all posing as Lithuanian workers and they managed to reach a train heading towards Danzig (now Gdańsk, Poland) before being captured.
Flt.Lt. Marcinkus was responsible for analysing the German railway schedules that were essential for the mass escape from Stalag Luft 3.
They were captured by the Gestapo near Schneidemühl on the 26th March. The four were taken to Stalag 20b, Marienburg (now named Malbork), and spent the night there, their presence being carefully recorded by an unknown British army Sgt.Maj., who issued them with clothing (battle dress) more suited to being a PoW in the hope of avoiding the possibility of them being charged with espionage. The following day they were handed over to the Danzig Gestapo.
The circumstances surrounding the death of Flt.Lt Brettell were established during the second of two trials which was convened at the Curiohaus, Hamburg on the 28th August 1948.
Of the four charges heard by the court the fourth related solely to a Reinhold Brüchardt who was charged alone with committing a war crime in that he in the vicinity of Groß Trampken (now Trąbki Wielkie), some 15 miles south of Danzig on or about the 27th March 1944, when a member of the Danzig Gestapo, in violation of the laws and usages of war, was concerned in the killing of Flt.Lt. Henri A. Picard, Flt.Lt. Romas Marcinkus, Flt.Lt. Gilbert W. Walenn and Flt.Lt. Edward G. Brettell, all of the Royal Air Force and PoWs.
Brüchardt was a former Kriminalobersekretär (Chief Detective) with the rank of SS-Untersturmführer (2nd.Lt.).
After the reading of the charges the court was adjourned until the 4th October and reconvened on the 11th October 1948 and sat for twelve days.
The court heard, that on the night of the 24th-25th March 1944, 76 officers escaped from the north compound of Stalag Luft 3 which, at that time, held between 1000 and 1500 RAF PoWs. The escape was made by the means of a tunnel. At about 05:00 hrs on the 25th March the 77th PoW was spotted by guards as he emerged from the tunnel.
Very soon after the escape became known, a conference was held at Hitler’s headquarters at Berchtesgaden (also known at the “Eagles Nest”) in Germany, at which a decision was made to shoot more than half of the escapers from Stalag Luft 3. The decision was put into an order by Heinrich Himmler. The order was seen by a witness whose recollection was that it read as follows:
"The increase of escapes by officer prisoners-of-war is a menace to internal security. I am disappointed or indignant about the inefficient security measures, As a deterrent the Führer has ordered that more than half of the escaped officers are to be shot. Therefore I order that Amt V hand over for interrogation to Amt IV more than half of the recaptured officers. After interrogation the officers are to be returned to their original camp and to be shot en route. The shooting will be explained by the fact that the recaptured officers were shot whilst trying to escape or because they offered resistance, so that nothing can be proved later. Amt IV will report the shootings to Amt V giving this reason. In the event of future escapes, my decision will be awaited as to whether the same procedure is to be adopted. Prominent personalities will be excepted. Their names will be reported to me, and my decision will be awaited".
Amt V = Reich Main Security Office (RSHA) Department V = Kriminalpolizei (Criminal Police);
Amt IV = RSHA Department IV = Gestapo.
As a result of this order, 50 of the 73 recaptured PoWs were murdered, 15 of those who were spared were returned to Stalag Luft 3, 6 were sent to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp and 2 Czech officers were imprisoned by the Gestapo in Prague. Of the 50 killed, 29 were killed in the Breslau Police area and 21 were killed in other places in Germany, in occupied France, in occupied Czechoslovakia and in Danzig.
The four named officers were recaptured in the Danzig area on or about the 27th March 1944. Dr. Günther Venediger* was the head of the Danzig Gestapo and had received the order from Himmler sent out from Amt IV in Berlin by top secret teleprint.
*Venediger was apparently a former Oberregierungsrat (Detective Director) holding the rank of SS-Obersturmbannführer (Lt.Col.).
Evidence presented to the court came from Venediger’s driver, whose name was Peter Bontenbroich, and who was a former Kriminalsekretär (Detective inspector). He had received instructions to drive Venediger to some woods near to the village of Groß Trampken early one morning soon after the four officers had been captured. Arriving at the location at about 07:00 hours he found Brüchardt and a parked lorry. Venediger and his driver exited the car after which Venediger and Brüchardt went off into the woods whilst Bontenbroich waited by the car.
After a little time he began to be curious, and he and the driver of the lorry, a man named Piontke, went off into the woods in the direction in which Venediger had gone. As they were walking they heard shots and when they rounded a corner, they saw Venediger and Brüchardt returning, and also saw five other members of the Gestapo from Danzig busy doing something.
The five were identified as Julius Hug, Walter Sasse, Walter Voelz, Roehrer and Asal. At least two of them were identified as members of the Kriminalpolizei (Criminal police) based in Danzig.
Bontenbroich and Piontke returned to their vehicles. A short time later Venediger and Brüchardt appeared and Venediger got back into the car. The other Gestapo officials also returned.
Evidence was also presented from a Willi Reimer who was employed as a driver for the Gestapo and who had been instructed by Brüchardt to drive a lorry to the Groß Trampken woods. Arriving at the location he was met by Brüchardt and witnessed the four bodies being carried and loaded onto his truck by the other Gestapo officials. He then drove to the Gestapo offices in Danzig and parked the lorry in the garage after which he reported to Brüchardt and told him that the lorry was in the garage. Later that day he returned and drove Brüchardt by car to the crematorium. Brüchardt returned about 30 minutes later and was driven back to the Danzig Gestapo offices.
Brüchardt’s testimony to the court claimed that he had been informed by Venediger that four British PoWs who had escaped from Sagan (Stalag Luft 3) had been recaptured and in the process of being returned to their camp had been shot and killed near Groß Trampken whilst trying to escape.
He claimed that Venediger had instructed him to take Hug and Sasse and investigate what had transpired and take the necessary steps for the recovery of the bodies. Upon arriving at the scene he met up with four other unnamed members of the Danzig Kriminalpolizei who were standing near the four bodies.
He claimed to having been informed by one of the officials who was an SS-Sturmscharführer (Sgt.Maj) that the four officers, on the pretext of relieving themselves, took the opportunity to escape into the woods. Warning shots had been fired which were ignored and it was then that the four officers were shot and killed.
The remainder of his testimony did not differ materially from that which had already been presented to the court regarding the recovery and cremation of the four officers.
The court rejected Brüchardt’s version of events and relied on the preponderance of evidence from eyewitness accounts that he was instrumental in the murders and was in fact in charge of the squad that shot the four officers.
Brüchardt was found guilty of the charge and sentenced to death on the 6th November 1948. The death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, upon Britain temporarily suspending the death penalty, and then reduced to 21 years. He was released in 1956.
Dr. Günther Venediger was not before the court to answer for his part in the murder of the four officers. However, he was traced in 1948 and sentenced to 2 years imprisonment in December 1957, for having been an aider and abetter to homicide. The prosecutor had to appeal twice against acquittals before winning this sentence.
It was clear that Hug, Sasse, Voelz, Roehrer and Asal were implicated in the murder of the four officers. However, Hug was not traced, Sasse had escaped from an interment camp, Voelz was not traced but it was believed he had been killed. Roehrer and Asal were never identified.
The four officers were cremated in Danzig, their ashes placed into urns and returned to Stalag Luft 3.
Memorial to “The Fifty” near to Żagań (Courtesy: CSvBibra - Own work, Public Domain)
A memorial plaque for Henri Picard was inaugurated at Beauvechain Airbase on 1st December 1951 during the 10th anniversary celebrations of the 350 (Belgian) Squadron.
(Left courtesy The War Graves Photographic Project). Flt.Lt. Henri Albert Picard. Croix de Guerre. Poznan Old Garrison Cemetery Collective Grave 9.A. Born on the 17th April 1916 in Etterbeek, Brussels, Belgium. NoK details not known.
Researched by Ralph Snape and Traugott Vitz for Aircrew Remembered and dedicated to the relatives of this crew with additional thanks to Traugott for his work on the ‘VitzArchive’. Acknowledgments:350 Squadron for great information.