Thursday


Mystery of death in the cards...


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A s Taffy Roberts succinctly put it, "It's not the best Christmas I've had but it could have been a hell of a lot worse" and most of the men of the RAF Bomber Command on the remote windswept airstrip on the Belgium-German border during that bleak December of 1944 felt the same way.

The war seemed to have passed them by. Since September, Allied forces had been relentlessly sweeping towards Berlin. The last German offensive had failed and Station 430 (supplies) had little to do but wait for calls to provide support which never came, and supply routine supply missions.

It didn't worry anyone. In the past few years of war, the men on Station 430 had seen all the action they had needed. There were just over 40 men on the station to fly and service a handful of Lancaster Liberators. Most were RAF personnel, augmented by a few Americans and half a dozen members of the Polish Air Force.

On Christmas Eve, about 20 men sat around the coke stove in the tin shed which doubled as a canteen and mess, listening to a BBC Forces broadcast, thinking about the past and speculating on the future.

"I wonder if we'll be here this time next year," someone said. "You'd better ask Johnny," another airman replied. "They say he's a wizard with the cards. Eventually, "Johnny", Polish Air Force Lt Jan Motyke, was persuaded to spread out a deck of cards on an old door propped on piles of bricks which did duty as a table, and tell his comrades what the future foretold.

But what began as a light-hearted party-trick among bored and lonely men far from home became what has been regarded as a classic psychic experience and one which the men who witnessed it just 70 years ago never forgot.

One of the men who was there later recalled: "As soon as Johnny spread out the cards he looked disturbed and said to a pilot named Bill Parsons who was sitting next to him: 'I don't think we should go on with this.'

"But by now the chaps were getting interested and quite a few from other parts of the hut had gathered round. The Christmas drink ration had been distributed and things were getting a bit merry.

"No one took the thing seriously. They just thought they were going to see a card-trick of some sort, but Johnny was deadly serious. Whatever we said, he refused to go on and gathered up the cards amid light-hearted protests.

"Then someone started to play the piano and the incident was soon forgotten — but not by all of us. Some of us sitting near Johnny had seen the look on his face and wondered just what he had seen in the cards. Personally it worried me and I'm not a superstitious chap."

Christmas or not, the business of war went on and later that night Pilot Officer Neil Harris found himself in the company of Lt Motyke and three mechanics supervising the fuelling of three Lancasters to be used the next day on a supplies drop to troops on the banks of the Rhine south of Cologne.

It was a routine run which took the planes over a section of enemy territory, but little opposition was expected. There was no German heavy armament in that position and all the planes usually had to contend with was a little half-hearted flak.

Harris was to remember that Johnny Motyke took special care to examine the fuel systems of the three planes although this was usually not part of the job of the officer in charge. "He took so long that I asked if something was wrong and he replied that he just wanted to make sure everything was ok for his own peace of mind.

"He was usually a pretty happy-go-lucky fellow but that night he seemed rather depressed. I assumed it was just that he was feeling sad about being away from home at Christmas like the rest of us were."

The following morning, Christmas Day, ground personnel were up early to get the Lancasters away. The pilots, Taffy Roberts, Neil Harris and Johnny Motyka, reported to the CO's office for a routine briefing from Group Captain Leslie Field.

Afterwards, Motyka lagged behind the others and when they had left he asked the CO if he would take custody of a letter, only to be opened  by a senior officer if anything happened to him. Thinking it was a message to his wife or other family members, Field agreed, saying: "Cheer up, Johnny. This isn't like you.
Nothing will happen today — the trip's just a doddle. You'll all be back for Christmas dinner."

But they weren't. Christmas Day at Station 430 was a sad and subdued meal.

Twelve places were empty, never to be filled, and two Lancasters lay blazing in German-occupied territory. The crew led by Johnny Motyka and Taffy Roberts never came back, Neil Harris, who limped back with a blazing starboard engine, reported a surprise swoop by German fighters.

In the presence of his senior officers Group Captain Field opened the letter Johnny Motyka had left. Part of it read: "I saw the flames of death in the cards last night. I felt it would have been frivolous of me to report the matter officially and I have satisfied myself that the aircraft involved in today's operation were totally airworthy. If anything happens it must be coincidence."

But was it? Seventy years later the spectre of death in the cards remains a classic and tragic mystery of war.

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