MEMORIAL TO A BELGIAN PILOT-JUST ONE WHO CAME ACROSS THE
CHANNEL TO HELP US IN OUR HOUR OF NEED
Sunday September 15, 1940 was a day of fierce aerial battles over Kent. Against a numerically superior German Air Force the RAF fought valiantly. By the end of that lovely September day, it was estimated that the Luftwaffe had lost over 183 aircraft whilst the RAF had lost half that number. Inevitably there was loss of life on both sides including a Belgian pilot who was flying a Hurricane with No. 501 (County of Gloucester) Royal Auxiliary Air Force Squadron out of Kenley in Surrey. His name was Albert Emmanuel Alix Dieudonne Jean Ghislain van den Hove d’Erstenrijk. During one of the raids that day his Hurricane (P2760) was attacked with the result that bullets entered the cooling system of the aircraft rendering it uncontrollable. The aircraft fell to the ground with the Merlin engine and propeller falling into the River Stour at Bilting near Canterbury whilst Albert was killed when he attempted to jump from the cockpit just before the impact. Although a local contractor cleared the surface wreckage, for 42 years the Rolls-Royce Merlin engine lay in the bank of the River until a small team of aviation archaeologists recovered it. Led by team leder Steve Vizard, research by the team had revealed that it was the aircraft of Albert d’Erstenrijk. In April 2016 the engine arrived in the workshops of the Medway Aircraft Preservation Society (MAPS) situated on Rochester Airport to undergo a renovation by the volunteer workforce before going on display at the Kent Battle of Britain Museum situated on the former RAF airfield at Hawkinge.
Albert was buried with full military honours in St Stephens Churchyard at Lympne although his body was later exhumed and repatriated to Belgium on October 20, 1949 along with 166 fellow Belgians who had perished in England.
Further research by Lewis Deal MBE of the Medway Aircraft Preservation Society (MAPS) Ltd, Steve Vizard, leader of the recovery team and David Brocklehurst OBE, chairman of the Kent Battle of Britain Museum Trust Ltd, discovered the full story and made contact with Albert’s family resulting in the ceremony today. It is a fitting tribute to all the allied airmen and women who fought over our fair land in our hour of need.
Although MAPS have refurbished several other Merlin engines, the current one is the most historical to date. MAPS spokesman Robin J Brooks said that ‘when renovated this will be a vivid reminder of the great sacrifice that was given by many Belgians to repel an enemy invasion. We must never forget’.
The Rolls-Royce Merlin engine went on display at the Kent Battle of Britain Museum following a memorial service at the museum on Battle of Britain Day, Thursday September 15, 2016 at 12 noon, around the same time that Albert fell to his death. The service was attended by 16 members from Albert’s family from Belgium and France including his two daughters Adrienne and Rosemary who knew little of their father’s life until 2008 when a memorial service at Lympne Church was seen in France by Adrienne’s husband, Philippe.
Robin J Brooks. Publicity director MAPS