Hero pilot’s medals under the hammer

MEDALS won in a boy’s-own story of wartime heroism are up for sale in an auction this weekend.

Richard Vincent, war medals

MEDALS won in a boy’s-own story of wartime heroism are up for sale in an auction this weekend.

Bomber pilot John Topham survived crash-landing in France before being rescued by the Resistance and buried alive to survive capture by the Gestapo.

Flt-Lt Topham was freed from his grave and was then forced to shoot dead an SS officer – who then took the pilot’s place in the tomb.

The details of his remarkable wartime story emerged as his Distinguished Flying Cross, other medals and memorabilia were put up for auction by Newcastle specialist medals and coins firm Corbitts at the Swallow Hotel in Gateshead from 11am on Saturday.

The collection is expected to fetch more than £2,000. Flt-Lt Topham, who was living in Bedlington in Northumberland when he enlisted, was a Lancaster bomber pilot with 514 squadron.

He was attacking a German flying bomb site in Normandy in August, 1944, when his Lancaster was crippled after being struck by a bomb from a higher-flying aircraft.

Flt-Lt Topham skillfully crash-landed the bomber near the town of Beaumont, suffering a broken leg, and was found by members of the French resistance.

He was hidden in a schoolhouse where he spent two months, but as the Germans prepared to occupy the building he was smuggled into the home of a M Duval.

With SS troops conducting house-to-house searches, the 6ft 2in pilot was hidden in a four-foot deep grave dug in the back garden.

He was given a length of rubber tubing through which he could breathe and the grave was decked with flowers. SS officers, who were told that the burial was that of a British pilot who had been shot down and killed, saluted the grave.

Flt-Lt Topham was told he would only have to spend half an hour in the grave while the search went on.

But the Germans posted two sentries nearby and he was entombed for 36 hours before he could be freed. Corbitts managing director David McMonagle said: “He had no way of knowing if Mr Duval had been arrested or shot and if he would be left in the grave.”

But Flt-Lt Topham’s ordeal was not over. As he recovered in the house, an SS officer was seen to return.

The pilot refused to go back into the grave and was instead given a loaded pistol. As the German entered the room, Flt-Lt Topham shot him dead and he was buried in the garden grave.

The pilot was later liberated by advancing Allied forces.

The citation for his DFC comments on the “amazing hardships” endured by Flt-Lt Topham, who had flown on 26 sorties before coming down in France.

He returned to his pre-war job as a constable with Newcastle police, before rejoining the RAF transport command.

He eventually settled in Chapel House in Newcastle, but was killed in 1975 aged 58 after being knocked down by a lorry in Stanhope Street.

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