Twenty Years Ago
This article relates to the main World War 2 escape post.
During World War 2, thousands of British Servicemen and women, risked their lives in the name of duty. The RAF launched bombing campaigns on Nazi occupied areas of Europe. Many were successful, some were not.
My Grandfather was aboard a flight which ended in disaster for some of his crew members. It was however, the start of a remarkable story which he recalled some years later when appealing for help to assist a group of ladies who had hid him during his escape from Nazi occupied France.
This is his story, written in 1963.
Twenty years ago this September I was a member of the crew of a Halifax bomber attached to 10 Squadron Bomber Command and stationed near York.
I had returned from leave on the 15th September 1943 and that evening we were sent to bomb a rubber works at Montlucon in Southern France. On crossing the French coast about 1a.m. our aircraft was hit by coastal defences, one of the four engines caught fire, this was quickly put out and we continued on our mission. Twenty minutes later a second engine caught fire and the pilot gave the order to “bale out” this I did.
It was like daylight as I floated down to earth by the light of the “Harvest Moon”. I hit the ground with a thud, gathered my parachute together and on looking round found myself in the midst of a herd of “black and whites”. The aircraft was now burning fiercely some distance away. I made for the cover of some trees, where I hid my parachute and began to walk across the fields in the opposite direction to the blazing aircraft. I continued walking, crossing a stream in case of German tracker dogs, and keeping clear of any roads. It was almost dawn when I hid myself in the middle of a thick hedge, my ankle was badly sprained on landing so I decided to remain hidden until dusk. This gave me ample time to think, from my position it was apparent I was close to a busy road, close to a flock of sheep and close to some women potato picking.
It was almost dark when I emerged from the hedge. I found my ankle very swollen and painful as I hobbled across the fields towards the sheep. In the far corner of the field by the shepherds hut I met my first “French friend”, a boy about 16 who was shortly joined by his father who had brought his son’s supper this he shared with me, as in broken French and with the help of a map which he produced from the hut I explained who I was.
The boy’s father disappeared and returned some time later with another man in a van, who I found out later to be a haulage contractor. He took me to his house, I was given a hot bath, some food and put to bed. I slept for 24 hours.
I stayed here for 10 days, was given civilian clothes, false identity papers and an assurance I was “on the road to escape”, together with the sad news that two of my crew were taken prisoner by the Germans and four were killed in the aircraft. One night my friend drove me to Rouen, I stayed a few days there, and then by train I went to Paris. From Paris to Le Man and Rennes eventually arriving at St. Aubin near Plumelee in North West France. It was here that I stayed hidden with some American aircrew for ten weeks, being looked after by three sisters and their aged mother.
I recently heard through the R.A.F. Escaping Society that the three sisters who have a small farm, and general store in the village were in trouble and at the beginning of September I went back to St. Aubin to see them.
I was shocked to find after twenty years that these gallant ladies holders of an English citation, French and American medals, who were driven from their home by the Germans, had a brother tortured and killed, had a secret radio transmitter in their attic and arms parachuted into their fields during the war, had for the past ten years been persecuted and victimised by the villagers and are now bankrupt and have to leave their farm.
Not only myself but hundreds of allied airmen owe much to the farming people of France. What better place to hide than a barn, a loft, a straw rick with a false middle and extra food for those in the cities who were hiding us on our way back? Our Escape Society is doing all it can to help them.
I left these good people about the 20th December and made my way with a Frenchman who was being sought by the Gestapo by car (which ran off the road at night and was pushed back on by some German soldiers) to a house on the cliffs on the French coast almost opposite Southampton. I was joined here by a British Intelligence Officer who informed me we were awaiting a radio message, a boat would pick us up and we should be in England for our Christmas dinner.
This however was not to be, the radio message was received on Christmas Eve. At midnight we quietly made our way to the beach under the cliff. Shortly afterwards I heard the throb of a motor boat’s engines, my British friend heard them too and by means of the radio telephone which he carried on his back, called the captain and requested him to “cut” his motors. Within seconds the German searchlights came into action across the bay, the guns opened up and with a roar the boat disappeared in a sheet of spray out to sea.
We could do no more than hurry back to the house on the cliff, we had fortunately dug a large hole under the floor boards in the front room as a precaution, but fortunately no search was made.
Within 48 hours I left this house and with help made my way back to Paris and then via Lyon, Toulouse to Perpignan at the foot of the Pyrenees, this journey took five weeks. It took me two days to walk over the Pyrenees into Spain, a short rest and then to Barcelona by cattle truck attached to a goods train to Madrid where I contacted the British Consul. Arrangements were then made for me to get to Gibraltar, and on the night of the 15th February 1944, I left in a Boston aircraft and flew back to England.
My story is not the only “Escape Story”, about 700 British Airmen were helped and our Escape Society of 67 Portland Place, London is continually being called upon to help the people who helped us then. Old age, bad health through the treatment some received in the concentration camps makes it necessary for them to appeal to us. Should the readers of the Farmers Weekly on reading my story wish to make a small contribution for these gallant folk, I am sure all would be most thankful.
W H B Bilton
5 October 1963