Unexpected things happen during times of chaos. There could be an enemy ambush, surprise bombing from the sky, or maybe chemical attacks. But perhaps no one was quite expecting a gigantic snake ready to bite off a military aircraft like what Colonel Remy Van Lierde, a World War II flying ace, claimed to have seen.
Prisoner of War
Not much was known about Van Lierde’s life before joining the war, except that he was born in Overboelare, Belgium, on August 14, 1915.
When he entered the Aviation Militaire Belge or Belgian Military Aviation in September 1935, he was originally trained as an observer. However, on May 1, 1937, he began pilot training and became qualified the year after. The Germans invaded in May 1940, and as a sergeant, Van Lierde made several reconnaissance flights in his Fairey Fox III biplane. He didn’t have much chance of fighting as he was shot down and wounded by flak on May 16, 1940. For the next two weeks, he stayed in the hospital and could not take part in any more fighting. The next thing he knew, Belgium had already surrendered on May 28.
After recovering from his injuries, Van Lierde went to neutral Spain after crossing Nazi-occupied France. He was then arrested for illegally crossing the border. He was taken to different Spanish prisons, including the concentration camp at Miranda de Ebro. For Van Lierde, he could not accept being imprisoned, so he escaped and made it back to England on July 22, 1941.
Expecting a warm welcome when he got to the UK, he was promptly arrested and thrown in the slammer again an interrogation that lasted for six weeks. After British authorities were confident he was not a German spy, he was allowed to join the Royal Air Force (RAF) Volunteer Reserve as England was desperately short of pilots.
Joining the Royal Air Force
Van Lierde was not new to flying, so he had a bit shorter training period. He learned how to fly Spitfires and was assigned to No. 609 Squadron. One of his unforgettable victories was his second one when he was sent on a mission to attack a Luftwaffe airfield in his homeland, at Chievres, west of Belgium. There, he shot down a Junkers Ju 52 transport plane. He was credited for four more kills before the year ended.
Van Lierde was also sent on a bombing mission and was the very first person to drop bombs in the new Hawker Typhoon and he then downed a Heinkel He 111 bomber as he was on his way back to base. For this, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. All in all, he was credited for destroying 250 vehicles and damaging six ships and nine other locomotives. In the air he was credited with 6 victories and one on the ground. As it turned out Britain would have a whole squadron of Belgians flying for them during the war.
Van Lierde did many interesting things throughout his career. He defended Britain from the V-1, an unmanned flying bomb that could be described as the ancestor of cruise missiles. About 10,000 of these flying bombs were launched by the Germans at Britain, causing more than 20,000 casualties, most of which were civilians. Van Lierde managed to shoot down 44 of these V-1s by himself, while nine more were shared with other soldiers. His kill count against these missiles was the second-highest among all the pilots in the war.
After the war, he was directly commissioned to serve in the reconstituted Belgian Air Force as a major in 1946, where he held a number of positions over the years. In 1953, he became the Operations Group of Chiefs of Staff, and he also became an aide to King Leopold III. In 1958, he traveled back to the United Kingdom to test fly a Hawker Hunter, making him the first-ever Belgian to break the sound barrier. Some of these Hawker Hunters were sent to the Belgian Air Force.
One of the most unforgettable tales of Van Lierde was when he went on the British television show called Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World in 1980 and shared how he once encountered a giant snake. According to him, he was flying over the Congo in a helicopter when he saw a snake around 50 feet long with a triangular jaw. He also said he attempted to come closer to the snake, but it raised up around 10 feet, so he backed down, worried that it would attack the helicopter had it been within its striking range. Furthermore, he claimed the giant snake was a dark shade of brown and green and had a white-colored belly. Although the exact measurement was impossible, he said the snake’s head could easily be around 3 feet long and 2 feet wide.
Van Lierde presented proof in the form of a photograph that the other person on board took. It was indeed a large serpent in the picture, although it would be quite impossible that it was as big as he described it. The world’s largest snake, the Giant Anaconda, could only grow around 30 feet. Plus, a snake as huge as that would not be able to support its own weight to rise up ten feet in the air, as he described. That being said, human beings can also grow much larger than their normal size, so anything is possible. The picture does show what is obviously a very large snake.
Perhaps Van Lierde indeed encountered a huge serpent, but he might have overestimated its size, given that he was flying. While this claim was quite questionable, what was not was his courage, patriotism, and skills that he all used to defend Britain and serve his homeland.