Belgian Remy Van Lierde was a hero of the Second World War. After Belgium was overrun by the Nazis in 1940, Van Lierde ended up in Britain and joined the Royal Air Force to fight Hitler. And all told, he was to have an extremely distinguished war, with numerous kills to his name. Later in life, though, the airman was to make a truly extraordinary sighting in the remote Belgian Congo.
Van Lierde was born in 1915 in the town of Overboelare in western Belgium, about 25 miles from the capital, Brussels. He joined the Aviation Militaire Belge, the Belgian air force, in 1935, starting out as an observer. He must have shown some aptitude, however, as he was admitted to pilot training a couple of years later, in 1937, before becoming a pilot in 1938.
Van Lierde did not have to wait long for active service, either. World War II erupted in Europe in 1939; and although Belgium was initially neutral, Hitler’s fast-moving troops overran the country in May 1940. So it was that Van Lierde, now a sergeant, flew recon missions over the German advance in an old-fashioned Fairey Fox III biplane.
Perhaps inevitably, then, considering the age of his aircraft, Van Lierde was shot down and taken captive by the Germans. Unaccountably, the Germans didn’t put him in a prisoner of war camp, though. And once he’d recovered from his wounds, he began, in September 1940, to make his way through occupied France.
Traveling south through the country, Van Lierde eventually reached neutral Spain. However, the fascist Spanish authorities arrested him as an illegal alien and threw him in prison. He therefore spent time in a number of locations in the country – and these included the Miranda de Ebro concentration camp in northern Spain.
But Van Lierde was not a man to give up easily, and he actually succeeded in escaping captivity. Finally, then, he managed to reach England in July 1941. That said, he arrived in a blitzed London which had been badly damaged by the Luftwaffe’s bombing campaign. And yet his arrival heralded a new chapter in his life.
After Van Lierde’s bona fides had been confirmed by British military intelligence – they decided that the Belgian was indeed not a spy – he was able to join the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve in September 1941. This led to a three-month training spell at RAF Hawarden in Wales. Then, in January 1942, Van Lierde would join No. 609 Squadron as a pilot officer.
And Van Lierde proved to be rather good at his new job. For example, during a mission in June 1942, the airman managed to damage a German Dornier bomber that was flying over the coastal town of Skegness. He was subsequently promoted to the rank of flying officer. In January 1943, meanwhile, while flying a Typhoon, Van Lierde shot down a Messerschmitt fighter plane.
Van Lierde even brought down a Junkers transport plane while he was flying on a raid on a Belgian air base that was in use by the Germans. And in an incredible coincidence, this feat was witnessed not only by townsfolk but also by Van Lierde’s wife. Indeed, following the war, she is said to have shown him parts from the destroyed plane that had fallen in the couple’s garden.
Meanwhile, Van Lierde continued on with his war, destroying a series of German aircraft, including a Junkers Ju 88 heavy fighter, a Messerschmitt and an HE 111 bomber. Ultimately, in fact, he would manage to shoot down six airborne planes and destroy a seventh on the ground. And he was promoted yet again, this time ascending to the rank of flight lieutenant.
What’s more, the seasoned flying ace was made a squadron leader in 1944 – and he had a very important mission on which to embark. Leading No. 164 Squadron, Van Lierde was to play a crucial role in fighting the V-1 flying bombs. The Germans were using these long-range missiles, launched from secret bases on the continent, in an attempt to crush British resistance.
These lethal bombs caused huge amounts of death and destruction across the U.K. – especially in London. It was fortunate, then, that Van Lierde managed to singlehandedly shoot down no fewer than 44 of the dangerous devices. That made him the pilot with the second-highest tally of V-1 downings during the entire war.
Then, in August 1945, and with the war in Europe over, Van Lierde took command of a squadron of Belgian pilots flying Spitfires. This formation became part of the Belgian Air Force in 1946. Meanwhile, he continued his career as a senior officer in the Belgian Air Force and eventually rose to become a major. In 1958, furthermore, he flew a Hawker Hunter jet beyond the speed of sound, making him one of the first Belgians to achieve this feat.
After his spell as a fighter pilot dueling with the Luftwaffe, however, you might think that Van Lierde would have spent the rest of his days at a more sedate pace. But not a bit of it. Indeed, arguably the most extraordinary episode of his highly eventful life was yet to come.
That moment came while Van Lierde was in the Belgian Congo in 1959, at a time when the country was months away from independence. On his way back from a mission, he was flying a helicopter over Katanga province at a low altitude of about 500 feet. It was here, moreover, that he spotted something astonishing.
What he saw, in fact, was what seemed to be a gigantic snake. And in 1980 Van Lierde would recall his experience while on the British TV show Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World, bringing the story of the sighting to a wider audience as a result.
Speaking on the show, Van Lierde said that the huge snake reared its head ten feet into the air, as if to attack the aircraft. The pilot then apparently maneuvered the helicopter to get a better view and to allow a crew member to take photographs of the snake.
Van Lierde added that he believed the snake was around 50 feet long; and he guessed that its head was two feet wide and three feet long. He additionally described the beast as possessing dark brown and green coloring on its upper parts and a pale white underside.
Van Lierde’s estimation of the snake’s size was later challenged, though. In 1962, for instance, one Charles Hapgood would send the photos of the snake for analysis to Captain Lorenzo W. Burroughs of the 8th Reconnaissance Technical Squadron. In his letter, Hapgood noted that there were two termite hills visible in the photographs. And taking these as indicators of scale, he reasoned that the snake was in fact some 200 feet long.
So, was the snake that Van Lierde had seen a prehistoric throwback? Maybe it was a Titanoboa – extinct for 58 million years and thought to have been over 40 feet long. Then again, it could be that the photos – the only evidence that Van Lierde ever offered of the creature – are simply of a normal-sized serpent. Well, perhaps one way to survive a long, hard war is to develop a wickedly mischievous sense of humor…