A la découverte du passé - Le sergent James Burton  par Victor Schutters


A la découverte du passé

En tant que petit-fils de résistant, je fus contacté dans le courant de l’année 2004 par Walter Verstraeten, un écrivain belge, passionné par l’histoire de William Grosvenor, un aviateur américain qui s’est échoué sur le sol belge durant la seconde guerre mondiale et qui fut successivement pris en charge par le réseau EVA et par la ligne d’évasion Comète. Lors de notre rencontre, Walter Verstraeten me remit des documents d’archives parmi lesquels il y avait une liste de vingt et un aviateurs qui furent aidés par mon grand-père. Ce fut pour moi le point de départ de recherches qui à mon plus grand étonnement allaient me permettre de retrouver la trace de quelques aviateurs et résistants que mon grand-père avait côtoyé pendant la guerre. Mon grand-père, Victor Schutters, était membre du réseau Comète. Il s’occupait principalement de véhiculer les aviateurs et de les approvisionner en nourriture.


Le sergent James Burton était l’un d’eux. Il était de nationalité anglaise et appartenait au 10ème escadron, 4th BG, de la RAF. Alors qu’il était opérateur radio à bord d’un bombardier Halifax, son avion fut abattu par un chasseur allemand le 1er mai 1944. James Burton parvint à sauter en parachute et tomba à Eppegem tandis que les sept  autres membres de l’équipage trouvèrent la mort. Grâce à l’aide de John Clinch, un autre passionné d’histoire, j’ai eu l’occasion de prendre contact avec Christina Burton, la veuve de James. Lors d’un échange de correspondance avec Christina et sa fille Jill, j’ai eu le privilège de recevoir une coupure de presse issue d’un journal britannique paru le 23 septembre 1944. L’article en question relate ce qu’a vécu James Burton pendant son séjour forcé en Belgique. Il témoigne non seulement des stratagèmes utilisés par la résistance pour éviter la capture des aviateurs mais aussi de l’audace et de la détermination dont ont fait preuve de fervents patriotes. Plus de soixante ans après les faits, voici l’article de presse qui m’a été envoyé.



  Dans un questionnaire auquel mon grand-père a répondu après la guerre, il a mentionné que parmi les résistants avec lesquels il travaillait, il y avait une certaine Mademoiselle Nélis qui habitait à Waterloo. Les documents que j’ai pu obtenir grâce à l’aide de deux autres internautes, Régis Decobeck et Michael LeBlanc, m’ont appris que cette Mademoiselle Nélis était infirmière et que James Burton avait été conduit chez elle avec Lestor Hutchinson, un aviateur américain. Ils y furent amenés par la Comtesse Elisabeth de Limburg Stirum, fille du Prince Albert de Ligne. Mademoiselle Dinah Nélis s’occupait en effet des aviateurs avec son frère Marc. Ils avaient respectivement vingt-sept et vingt-quatre ans en 1944. Pour avoir caché un soldat anglais en juillet 1940, leur père fut arrêté en novembre 1941. Il en sera de même pour leur mère en janvier 1943. En dépit de leur jeune âge, cela n’aura pas empêché Dinah et Marc de s’occuper de l’hébergement de quatre aviateurs américains, d’un aviateur canadien et d’un aviateur britannique. Malheureusement, leurs parents ne reviendront jamais des camps de concentration où ils avaient été déportés. Leur père, Emile Nélis, mourut à Sonnenburg en juin 1944 à l’âge de 57 ans et leur mère, Zélia Nélis, à Ravensbrück en mai 1945 à l’âge de 56 ans.


© Comète Kinship Belgium 2006





Traduction de l'article en français (cliquer ici)




By posing as deaf and dumb gardener, and with forged identity card, and papers in his possession to back up his bluff, James Burton, a Fife airman, mixed with the Nazis in Belgium for over four months without being detected.


They passed him in the street daily, they camped in the grounds of the house where he was in hiding, they even stopped him once and inspected his identity card.

But they did not once suspect he was one of the flyers from a shot-down plane for whom they were searching.

Thanks to one of the bravest women he has ever met, a Belgian nurse, he was well looked after, and was none the worse of his experience when the Allies swift advance enabled him to resume his real identity  and to return to his mother’s home, in River Terrace, Guarbridge, where hopes of his safety were fast diminishing as the days passed without news of him.

Jim’s adventure began when the plane on which he was a wireless operator was  shot down as he was returning from his 17th bombing expedition. A kindly fate guided his parachute into the gardens of a big house, the owner of which demonstrated his patriotism by hiding the tell-tale parachute as soon as he spotted it.


 Helped immediately

“I was hiding in some nearby bushes” Jim told the “People’s Journal”, and I guessed it would be safe enough to show myself. And I was right.

The man was a leader of the underground movement, and he soon had things moving for my safety. He gave me a bit of civilian clothing, and send for a man who took my photograph. Soon after I was handed an identity card and forged papers to “prove” that I was a respectable citizen.

Their underground movement must have been well organized to do what they did, and I can assure you I felt very thankful to the kindly wind that had blown me into this man’s garden”.

Jim dived into the pocket of the American Army uniform with which he had been issued when it was possible for him to discard his “gardening togs” with safety, and produced the forged identity card which he is retaining as a souvenir.

This bore that he was Theodore Frix, that he was a gardener to trade, and that he was deaf and dumb. A head and shoulders photograph no bigger than a postage stamp was attached.



“The deaf and dumb part was, of course, essential”, he said.” If I had opened my mouth it would have been a complete give-away. But it’s not so easy to play the part. Just try . 


“If anyone had though of asking me a question in English I might have given myself away. But as no one talked in a language I could understand, and as I had no desire to speak, it made things easier, and I soon gained enough confidence to venture into Brussels.”


Mixed with Germans

“I stayed there for three weeks, modelling my behavior on the Belgians. I reckoned it would be fatal to try avoiding the Germans. It might be noticed and lead to awkward questions. So I just passed by them as if I hadn’t a care in the world, but my heart was in my mouth all the time. Maybe if I had tried to talk I wouldn’t have been able!

But one day I almost ventured to far. I walked right into one of the regular check-ups on identity cards before I knew it was in progress. To have turned back would have begged disaster, so I decided to face it out, and it took me all my time not to show my relief when my card was handed back after examination without question.

Later, well outside the capital, I had to go into hiding as it would have been dangerous to walk about. The Germans were seizing every fit person they saw and sending them to work in Germany.

The woman who gave me refuge, a nurse, was one of the bravest women I know.

She knew full well the risks she was running.

Her mother and father were sent to a concentration camp for helping a British soldier in 1940. She does not know to this day what has happened to them, but the uncertainty of their fate, which worried her, did not deter her from giving shelter to anyone on the run from the Nazis.

There were already a Canadian, an American, and her brother, a member of the Belgian forces who had escaped from captivity in Germany, in hiding in the house when I arrived.

A special wall had been built in the cellar and we went behind this when any unwelcome visitors arrived.

But through the remnants of the Nazis who were routed at Falaise camped  in the orchard for a time we were little troubled, thanks to the nurse.”


“She didn’t give two hoots for the Huns. When they came near the house to pinch the plums she used to go outside and tell them to get to blazes out of it. And they did. I’ll never forget her. She was wonderful.”


“We remained in hiding till the town was liberated, or at least until we thought it has been liberated. But when we went out to celebrate we found we were a bit too previous.

The advancing forces had swept past the town and the Germans were still about.

A Tiger tank came in and cut short the celebrations by shooting seven of the civilian police in cold blood and afterwards mutilating them so that they would not be recognized.

But soon after they were on the run, and it was funny to see them go. Some were on bikes which had neither tyre nor inner tube, some were driving old ramshackle carts.

But most of them had to walk, and we had to laugh at those in the carts, for they were in too big a hurry to save their own skins to bother stopping to give a lift to those on foot”.

Jim, who is 21 and who worked in the paper mills before he was called up, said that the joy of the Belgians at being liberated was terrific, their patriotism before that abnormal, and they hatred of the Nazis intense.

“The brother of the nurse who sheltered me grabbed a gun as soon as the town was freed and was off fighting the Germans again” he said, “and his spirit is typical of everyone I met. There was no risk they wouldn’t run to put one across the Nazis, and I’m sorry to say that many paid for their patriotism with their lives.

A solicitor who was trying to get me through Normandy as a German worker was shot the very next day after interviewing me. They certainly are a wonderful people”.