British flag added to register of top Flemish heritage


An RAF squadron standard has become the first item related to WW2 on the Flemish heritage list

British standard

A pale blue flag kept in a church in the Limburg village of Gellik has been added to a list of significant cultural and historical objects in Flanders. And while everything on the list is, by definition, special, the flag is a particularly unusual addition.

First of all it is not Flemish, but British, the standard of a Royal Air Force (RAF) squadron that was given to the church in 2008. And second, it is the first object related to the Second World War to appear on the list.

The Topstukken list currently consists of 777 objects deemed to be of special archaeological, historical, cultural, artistic or scientific significance for the Flemish Community. They range from paintings by Peter Paul Rubens to a handwritten manuscript of Willem Elsschot’s novel Kaas, from a register of 19th-century emigrants leaving Antwerp for America to machines designed to industrialise flax processing.

“Normally we classify paintings and sculptures, and sometimes specific objects, like a plane or a train,” says Sabine Taevernier, an art consultant and curator who is vice-president of the committee that oversees the Topstukken list. “And this standard is a very specific object.”

Collective memory

Most RAF squadrons have a standard, which is carried on ceremonial occasions and records the squadron’s battle honours. It is customary to replace the standard every 25 years or so, with the retired standard “laid up” in a church with close links to the squadron, or in St Clement Danes, the London church dedicated to the RAF.

It is very rare for a standard to be given to a church outside the UK, although there are examples in Germany, France, Italy and Guernsey. This already makes the standard given to Gellik church (pictured above) unusual. But its cultural significance for Flanders lies in the story behind the gift.

In May 1940, a Blenheim bomber from RAF XV Squadron was shot down during a raid on the Albert Canal, then the front line between Belgium and the invading Germans. When the plane crashed near Gellik, all three crew members were killed. The villagers buried the bodies on the canal bank.

This was a very specific symbol for that church, and for that community

After the war, the bodies were moved to the Hotton War Cemetery, but the villagers continued to commemorate the incident, and in 1985 built a memorial to the three men outside Sint-Laurentius church. Over the years, representatives of the squadron and relatives of the dead men also attended the commemoration, bringing the squadron standard with them.

When the standard was retired in 2008, the squadron decided it should stay with the village. “The standard is now in the care of the people of Gellik, who have done so much to honour the squadron’s fallen,” said a report of the presentation ceremony in the squadron’s newsletter.

The standard’s role in the collective memory of the community is what counts for the Topstukken list. “For us, this was a very specific symbol for that church, and for that community, recognising what happened there in the Second World War,” says Taevernier.

It is also worth noting that the standard is not itself a relic of the war. RAF squadrons were first awarded standards in 1943, but XV Squadron was not allocated a standard until the 1950s. Gellik has the squadron’s second standard, given to it in 1981.

At present there is nothing else on the Topstukken list that relates to the Second World War. This is not because of a scarcity of suitable objects, but rather due to the way the list works.

Often an object will be proposed by specialists working in a particular museum, collection or archive, so the emphasis to date has been on older objects. Efforts to conserve 20th-century war heritage have focused more on buildings and battlefields, although artefacts from the First World War are starting to appear on the Topstukken list following the centenary in 2014-18.

But the Second World War has not received the same attention. “It would be possible to classify more things from the Second World War, but somebody has to work on them, and that has not happened until now,” Taevernier says. “It’s only recently that we’ve classified objects from after 1945, and the first objects from after 1968 are still being considered.”

The standard is now in the care of the people of Gellik, who have done so much to honour the squadron’s fallen

The bid to put the XV Squadron standard on the list did not come from an expert, but from the community itself. In particular, Gellik was interested in securing the list’s protection in case the status of the village church should change.

“There was a concern that, if the church were to be put to another use, the standard would have to be removed. And the protection of being on the list helps address that,” Taevernier says. "If there is a discussion in future between the municipality and the church, we can get involved and try to bring both parties together.”

Being on the Topstukken list also means that funds can be made available to ensure the standard remains in good condition. This is significant, since the bequest specifies that the standard should stay in Gellik’s church until it crumbles to dust. “That is a tricky condition to deal with, because our focus today is on conservation. So it might take a very long time before that happens!”

Photos: (top) The squadron’s standard © Erfgoedkring Wiosello Gellik, Veldwezelt & Kesselt; (centre) the 2020 commemoration of the fallen soldiers in Gellik, courtesy VOV Gellik