Snatched from the Jaws of Death

This is an extract from an appendix to Just A Forgotten Hero that has a brief biography of all the brave patriots, Belgian, French, Basque and some English people who all helped William Richard Griffiths to escape back to Britain in 1942. This is just one of those stories.

Carl Servais

He was born in 1903 in Louvain-la-Neuve. He was a radio operator for the local Resistance group and many Comète Line ‘parcels’ spent some time sheltered in his home on Rue Stevens Delannoy from the early days of 1941. The house still stands today. He was eventually arrested and by the latter half of 1944 he was incarcerated in Saint-Giles prison.

He was still there in September 1944 when the German authorities decided that with the fall of Brussels imminently expected all of the prisoners held in Saint-Giles would be sent to Neuengamme concentration camp in Germany. They arranged for a train to carry the 1370 ‘political prisoners’ (mostly Belgian Resistance members, Escape line helpers and others that the Germans wanted to get rid of) and a further 41 allied prisoners of war. The train of 32 goods wagons and a flat car with an antiaircraft gun and four machine guns bringing up the rear was scheduled to leave Brussels Midi Station early in the morning of Saturday the 2nd of September. This was the now famous ‘Ghost Train’, and things did not quite go entirely as the Germans had expected.

The home of Carl Servais

At 07:30, an hour before the planned departure, the Assistant Station Manager Michel Petit, who was a member of Mouvement National Belge resistance group, had already begun the operation to thwart the German intentions. Several locomotives suddenly became unserviceable, and the rest were recalled to the central depot. Train drivers disappeared, became too ill to work or went off having been injured in ‘accidents’. By 09:15 the depot was asked to provide an engine, which of course happened to be not working, nor was the one requested later as a replacement. The Germans had to send their own engineers to oversee the repairs before they managed to secure a working locomotive. Unfortunately this was sent to a different and remote part of the marshalling yard due to a ‘misunderstanding’.  It was 16:15 before the Germans finally had an engine coupled to the train, and a crew for it. The driver and fireman would have the company of three armed German guards on the footplate at all times to make sure there would be no further delays. The driver insisted on performing a complete brake check before setting off, though in fact he used his stroll down the length of the train to inform the prisoners of the situation and collect the messages that they had managed to post out of the slats in the sides and the open vents in the wagons.

The train finally left eight hours late, but even then it did not get far. Within five minutes it was shunted onto a dead end track at Forest-Midi station while a 72 wagon goods train was assembled on the instructions of the German authorities. This would have normally taken place in the sidings there. However the staff managed to convince the German authorities that the train would be too long for that, so it was necessary to block the main line. After almost an hour the decision was made to send the train back north and in the process of moving the engine to the other end of the train the flatcar with the antiaircraft and machine guns somehow became detached and remained behind. At 17:45 the train arrived at Schaerbeek railway marshalling yard and there were more delays due to signals stuck on stop, but eventually at around 23:00 they reached Mechelen where the driver, Louis Verheggen, needed to replenish the water tanks. As the driver was well aware, the water supply there was not working due to damage caused by recent bombing and they had to divert the train to the very busy station at Muizen. The guards failed to realize that the reason the engine was so low on water after less than 20 kilometres of travel was that the crew had been keeping the water drain valves slightly open the whole time. Their very fine judgement and timing made sure that the train was well setup for some more serious delays. It would not be sent out to return to Mechelen until 05:30 on Sunday morning.

On the way back to Mechelen the wheels of the engine began to slip on the turns. The driver was deliberately mishandling the locomotive and also refrained from using the sand blowers. The railwaymen convinced the guards that the engine was faulty and they would have to send for a second locomotive to get them safely back to a depot for repairs. By 10:15 they had arrived at La Petite Ile station with Gerardy driving this second engine. Meanwhile the fireman, Léon Pochet, had been a little remiss in his duties and the fire on the original engine had died right down and Verheggen managed to make his escape while inspecting the engine to ‘determine the cause of the trouble’ and was briefly out of sight of all three guards. Since Gerady’s engine had been immediately commandeered to haul a train full of German troops fleeing the British advance, which by this time was well into the suburbs of Brussels, the train full of prisoners would be going nowhere in a hurry.

At 10:45 with a suspected faulty locomotive with no steam pressure and no driver the future of the train came under intense discussion involving a Doctor Van Dooren (whose wife was a prisoner in one of the trucks), representatives of the Red Cross and the German officer in charge of the train. By 12:30 it was decided that the ‘political prisoners’ would be released in exchange for a driver. The train would then return to the marshalling yard at Schaerbeek still with the PoWs on board and collect as many German troops as possible and evacuate them to Germany. At Schaerbeek there was a final brilliant example of really skilled railcraft when the train was getting ready to depart. Just as the train was slowly crossing a complex set of points the signalman ‘made a slight error’ in his timing and some cars at the rear of the train were gently derailed, they just happened to be the ones full of PoWs.  Since the Germans in the rest of the train seemed to be very keen to be on their way without further delay, these cars were simply uncoupled and left where they were. The prisoners were finally free to do as they wished. With the sounds of gunfire getting ever closer they chose to wait until daybreak when the liberation of Brussels was complete.

Carl Servais died in 1991.

On a personal note I have to say that I have found the appendices particularly hard to write. Not because the research for them has been difficult, though parts certainly have been, but in so many cases I have been able to find little information about these very courageous people, far too many of whom lost their lives, and even those who survived often paid a truly terrible price for their patriotism. They deserve to be better remembered. This section however I have found quite rewarding. I stand absolutely in awe of the Belgian railwaymen who coolly, calmly and without resorting to arms managed to so completely out manoeuvre the highly trained Waffen SS. I am in no doubt that had the Germans realised what was happening all around them was as a result of subterfuge rather than incompetence many of these brave citizens would have been summarily executed, and the railwaymen knew that too. With a mix of skilled handling (actually mishandling) of the locomotives and signals, deliberate misunderstanding of instructions, feigning illness and staging accidents, and sheer breadth and depth of knowledge of how their railway system worked these couple of dozen civilians rescued over 1400 people who otherwise faced a very short and unpleasant future. I have been able to name a few in this story; I wish that I could properly honour the rest by name too.



Peter Trehearn
December 11, 2021 at 15:47

Fascinating, can’t wait to read the complete story.

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