Cities that have been at war bear all sorts of scars. Some are unavoidable and easily spotted – a gap, like a missing tooth, in a row of houses, for example. Some have been hidden away. Some remain, perhaps a little out of sight, their causes forgotten. Occasionally, such scars bear testimony to extraordinary events. Such is the case of the brickwork above the house at 153 Boulevard August Reyers, Schaerbeek, as seen in the photograph below. Few would think of looking up at that roof and fewer still would think of looking at the brickwork joint, and those who did look would probably think ‘attic extension’ and then forget about it. In fact, the brickwork bears testimony to one of the stranger events in the Second World War; the day a Spitfire landed on a Brussels roof top.
In 1939, Brussels had one main airport, at Haren, or Evere. The new NATO headquarters building now stands on much of the land it used to occupy. The small civilian airfield had been considerably upgraded by the occupying Imperial German Air Service in 1914. During the 1920s, the Belgian Air Force used the airfield, but it was also used for international civilian flights and gradually became Brussel’s international airport. In May 1940, the occupying Luftwaffe expanded the airport, building new hangars and runways. But the suburbs were already encroaching inexorably on Haren, and so the Luftwaffe also built a new airfield a little further out, at nearby Melsbroek, which would later become today’s Zaventem airport. In September 1944, with the Haren/Evere area liberated, the original airport was designated by the advancing Allies as ‘Advanced Landing Ground B 56 Evere’, and several fighter squadrons moved in, including Royal Canadian Air Force (fighter) squadron 403.
On 3 February 1945, Flight Officer Ronald Morden ‘Tedge’ Tegerdine, originally hailing from Oakland, California, took off in his Supermarine Spitfire L.F.XVI SM483 on an armed reconnaissance mission. He was a mere two or three hundred feet up in the air when his engine cut out. As a contemporary (Air Ace ‘Johnnie’ Johnson, also based at Evere) described it, Tegerdine was ‘too low to bail out, and since he was over a densely built-up area, he tried to stretch his glide to a small patch of open ground.’ However, the Spitfire was rapidly losing height and speed and risked stalling into a nose dive. A turn was impossible. By now, as a contemporary newspaper reported, ‘he was at rooftop level, flying along behind a row of old houses. His left wing clipped off several chimney pots.
Next loomed a sloping attic roof, and the wing ploughed right into the slanting brick wall on one side and through the brick wall on the other side, with bricks, slates and rafters exploding in every direction.’ The Spitfire spun around and what remained of it ended up on the roof of N° 153 Boulevard August Reyers. The tail end dropped behind the houses. The heavy engine tore loose and buried itself in the masonry. Gloriously, the wings remained tenuously attached to the fuselage. ‘Tedge’, the slightly dazed pilot, climbed out of the cockpit and slid down the wing, ‘to be received by startled Belgian civilians who had scrambled up their attic stairs to find the entire rear half of the top storey sliced away.’ Some attic extension!
As the extraordinary photographs show, Tegerdine had had a very lucky escape. By the time his fellow pilots returned from their mission, he was back at the Evere airbase, wrapped in blankets but clearly none the worse for his adventure. Noted for the sang froid he had displayed through this episode (including cutting off his Spitfire’s fuel supply to diminish the risk of a fire), Tegerdine’s war soon came to an end. On 22 February ‘Tedge’ was shot down over enemy territory and parachuted out of his stricken craft. He survived shots fired at him as he descended. On the ground, though he dodged further shots, he was finally shot through his left lung, the bullet narrowly missing his heart, and hospitalised. He remained a prisoner of war until liberated by a British Airborne unit towards the end of the war in Europe.
Should you be wandering along Boulevard August Reyers and come to the corner with Avenue de Roodebeek, take a look up and you’ll see, above and behind the distinctive corner façade of 153 Boulevard August Reyers, the altered brickwork where a Spitfire once landed on a Brussels roof top.