Friday, 29 March 2013

The Journey Ahead

Colditz Castle

Cafe in Paris During Occupation
Paris Restaurant 1943 - Andre Zucca

The Escape Line is now twelve months old. A blog which began around writing and talk of escape and evasion in World War Two quickly grew into something far bigger.

Away from the text books and historians, the personal experience of war at the sharp end has always fascinated me. Diaries, eyewitness accounts, debriefing reports and recorded interviews, draw the reader close to the individuals and what they went through. These sources of reference presented an opportunity to share what happened to Allied escapers and evaders and their helpers in a more personal way. The real experience often tells us more than any overview.  

The fugitives and those involved in any form of help became embroiled in a unique part of the overall conflict. They were drawn into ‘a war within the war’ as they battled against traitors and enemy attempts to smash the escape organisations. The Escape Line will always strive to include the kind of personal account and content which concentrates on the human story.   
Many thanks to everyone who has visited and read my posts over the last year - please do keep returning, as you have done in your thousands.  I will continue to blog weekly on Thursday or Friday.

In no specific order here is a selection of posts planned for the next 12 months:

Women and the Evaders

RAF Escapers from a Nazi Concentration Camp

The Wooden Horse


Other Escape Lines

The Clergy and the Evaders

The Quickest Evader

The First One to Cross

Cafés, Restaurants and Cinemas

Escape by Lysander

Escape and evasion in Scandinavia, the Mediterranean, Middle East and South East Asia

The Late Arrivals Club

In the Jungle

MI9, IS9 and MIS – X

Gestapo, Geheime Feldpolizei amd Abwehr

Thanks again

Keith M

Next Week – Women and the Evaders

© Keith Morley



Friday, 22 March 2013

The Last Five Over

RAF Pilot Officer Len Barnes - False ID Photo
RAF Sergeant Ron Emeny - False ID Photo

USAAF Lt Colonel Thomas Hubbard - False ID Photo
USAAF Major Donald Willis - False ID Photo

Thanks note from Barnes - Pierre Elhorga's Notebook
Thanks note from Emeny - Pierre Elhorga's Notebook

Thanks note from Willis - Pierre Elhorga's notebook
Thanks note from Hubbard  - Pierre Elhorga's notebook


Thanks note from Cornett - Pierre Elhorga's notebook

On 4 June 1944, the last five evaders to cross the Pyrenees via the Comete Escape Line began the final leg of their journey close to the mountains. USAAF airmen Lt Colonel Thomas Hubbard, Major Donald Willis and Second Lieutenant Jack Cornett were already acquainted with RAF Pilot Officer Len Barnes and Sergeant Ron Emeny from Paris. They had travelled down to Bayonne ‘separately’ with their guides in the usual Comete style and had cycled through the hills to the Café Larre run by Martha Mendiara (see prev post on Café Larre), arriving just before nightfall.

Hubbard was a P47 Thunderbolt pilot with the nickname ‘Speed’. This character stamped him, as despite the risks involved, he had refused to surrender his Colt 45 pistol to Comete and still carried the weapon. Cornett flew the same make of aircraft whilst Willis, also a fighter pilot was on Lockheed Lightings.

Len Barnes and Ron Emeny were aircrew on separate RAF Lancasters. Both men had experienced tricky journeys to reach the Café Larre. Barnes the pilot was the only survivor of his crew to still be at large, whilst Emeny a gunner had also ridden his luck to reach this point.

The evaders had recorded their thanks in the notebook of Comete guide operator Pierre Elhorga. In the early morning of 4th June the five evaders left on bicycles with their conyoyer, travelling to a wood where they hid for the rest of the day to wait for a Basque guide to collect them for the journey to the Spanish border. This area near the frontier was extremely dangerous and frequented by German patrols, hence the guides using remote back lanes and tracks.

As darkness approached, a short and stocky man brought them bread, cheese and milk. He only spoke Spanish, but Donald Willis was able to understand and translate the guide’s instructions to the others. His knowledge of the language had come from working around the Mexican border.

The journey became a relentless slog with the airmen struggling to cope with the pace and testing route which the guide was taking in order to avoid detection by German patrols. For the evaders, weeks and months on the run, sometimes with inadequate food had already begun to tell. Rest breaks meant more time in the danger area and the airmen sometimes had to beg for the group to stop.

After five hours of walking, they arrived at a river (a tributary of the Nivelle) forming the border between France and Spain. The guide stepped into the icy water, with the evaders struggling to keep up and retain their balance on the slippery rocks. Once out of the river, the party struggled on with another guide until 4:00 in the morning. It was essential to clear the immediate area as Spanish patrols were operational and the danger of arrest, imprisonment and being handed over to the Germans was a real threat.

Eventually the party was forced to stop as the evaders were unable to continue. After a stop and drink they struggled on, arriving just after sunrise at an old sheep shed where the guide left them for the day, with instructions to rest and he would return at dusk that night. Without food or drink, the airmen fell asleep exhausted.

The guide returned as promised and they left. Hubbard had developed badly blistered feet and was soon in agony with every step. Fortunately, Willis administered a last injection of morphine from his escape kit and they were able to continue. Just as the airmen reached a point where they were unable to carry on, two men came into view and waved them forward to follow. A few minutes later they reached an isolated farm where they were able to rest for the night in a barn.
The following morning, events took a more sinister turn. Willis overheard the agitated farmer telling his daughter not to speak to the airmen, or tell them exactly where they were. This was immediately relayed to the others and Barnes made the decision despite the physical state of the group to leave immediately. He quickly led the way out followed by the others and they later learned that one of the men who had led them to the house had been to the police. They were to have been arrested and returned to the Germans in France for a reward of a sack of grain for each airman.
The evaders had no map or knowledge of their current whereabouts. Willis had never surrendered his compass, so the group decided to move in a southerly direction. They soon arrived at a road, which they tracked seeking cover when necessary so as not to risk attention. After walking for another two days with no food and only water from troughs and streams the evaders decided they must finally ask for help.
So many accounts of evader’s journeys via the Larressore or Souraide routes over the Pyrenees show long periods without food or water, huge distances walked and minimal shelter being taken in rough stone sheep sheds or barns. They were dangerous times over inhospitable terrain. Despite most of these men being young, it is difficult to imagine how they kept going.
Willis and the other evaders passed through the foot hills near Oricain and spotted an isolated farm. They had to take a chance and make themselves known. The plan was to get food in exchange for French money, with Willis the only Spanish speaker doing the talking. They approached the farm and he knocked the door.
The farmer, startled by the five scruffy men in front of him, would not feed them and directed the party towards Pamplona, ​​a town lying a few miles below. He recommended they go to the police.
In the early afternoon of the 8 June, the men arrived in the town. No one had challenged them and they reached a park before collapsing with exhaustion. This was hardly surprising, as they have travelled around 100 km over the 5 days.

The last throw of the dice was to somehow try and contact the nearest British or American Consulate before they were finally arrested and imprisoned by the Spanish. Willis would try to reach the town Post Office, convince the clerk that a telephone call to the Consulate was imperative and persuade them to let him use the phone.
He managed to locate the Post Office and Willis succeeded in convincing the suspicious employee to allow him to make the call. The British Consulate in San Sebastian took the details but advised that they would be arrested immediately as the Police were sure to be notified. Leaving the Post Office, Willis noticed a Spanish Police Officer and two of his men ahead. It was over, and he knew it. The Policemen instantly spotted him and he told them where the other evaders were. Len Barnes remembered opening his eyes in the sun and staring at a gun barrel pointing at him.

What happened next did not follow the pattern experienced by many evaders picked up in Spain. A picture of dirty jails or camps before eventual release and transfer to the British authorities in Gibraltar would have been a likely scenario, but instead the evaders were taken to clean themselves up, then escorted to a restaurant and given food. The next day, they rested between three good meals and a spa, before being taken by bus to San Sebastian and from there on a short train journey to Irun where stayed in a hotel for a week.

Amazingly in Irun, they ended up only a few kilometres from the border with France and 30km from the Café Larre, where their epic journey began. After a week’s stay in a hotel and fresh clothes from an English family, the group were ready to move. Willis, Hubbard and Cornett were collected by a US representative from their Consulate in Madrid and then put on a train to Gibraltar. Hubbard and Willis flew to England on 28 June 1944 and Cornett followed on two days later. Barnes and Emeny spent one night in Sarragosa, five days in Alhama and two days in Madrid, before arriving at Gibraltar on 23 June. They were flown from Gibraltar on 24 June arriving at Whitechurch) on June 25 where they were debriefed the same day.

The last journey from Bayonne into Spain via the Comete Escape Line passed like many before; with exhaustion, lack of food, cold, inhospitable terrain and fear of capture testing the strength and spirit of the evaders. Events did take a more variant turn for the final five men whilst they were in Spanish custody and the days spent in Gibraltar must have mirrored the experiences of many previous evaders who had reached safety. A decision had already been made to abandon the Comete route to Spain due to the planned destruction of the French railway network before D-Day. Instead agents were ordered by London to create holding camps in remote areas and collect rescued airmen until they could be liberated by the advancing Allied armies. Evaders were to be assembled in camps in the Belgian Ardennes and around Châteaudun in France. This was also a political decision to try and prevent the death or incarceration of helpers and lodgers, and where possible avoid the key assembly point cities of Brussels and Paris where so many enemy infiltrations had already occurred. Comete agents were later brought under the umbrella of the new Marathon Network which covered the camps.

MI9& MIS-X Files

Thursday, 14 March 2013

They Got Away Twice - Part Three

Bill Furniss-Roe - Free to Fight Again by Alan Cooper


Perpignon Railway Station During German Occupation

Flying Officer Bill Furniss-Roe was flying escort to Allied bombers for RAF 66 Squadron on 22 August 1943 when his Spitfire came under fire from enemy fighters. He managed to shoot one down before his own aircraft was hit and he was forced to crash-land in Normandy.
Furniss-Roe saw Germans coming up the road to begin the search for him, so under cover of a hedge he managed to run into a wood and hide until dark. This would be the start of two amazing ‘back to back’ journeys through occupied France and over the Pyrenees, separated in between by only a matter of weeks.

After dark he began to search the wood and located a small cottage. Taking a chance he knocked on the door and identified himself. For many evaders this was often a pivotal point which decided their fate. Some were given away to the Germans or local Police, others were sent on their way with or without a meal because of the risks around helping Allied servicemen. The penalties were severe and often resulted in execution, imprisonment or despatch to a concentration camp. Measures were also taken against the families. Some patriots did help. A man invited Furniss-Roe into a small room where several children and a woman eyed him with a mixture of surprise and apprehension. He was given some potato soup and Calvados – an interesting combination which must have matched the heat from his burning aircraft.
The man was not in the Resistance, but he knew someone who might be able to help. The risks were too great to keep the airman in the cottage, so the man took him back into the woods to a thick clump of bushes where he was given food and a bottle of wine to hide out with until the following night when the man would return.
Bill Furniss-Rowe was a logical and cunning thinker. After the man had left, he decided, to move over to another concentration of bushes around fifty yards away. This might give him an extra move in seeing who came back. The night was cold, he cat napped and drifted off to sleep intermittently before being awoken by something moving loudly in the undergrowth. Two woodcutters were working amongst the trees and he could not change his location without risking being seen. The decision to remain hidden went well, until he spotted several Germans in a line abreast moving through the trees and clearly looking for him. The soldiers passed close by but saw nothing. Around midday the woodcutters left and he waited amongst the clammy heat and flies for the man to come back after dark. Around dusk two men with bicycles returned to his original hiding place. He watched for a few moments, recognised the man from the cottage and made a final scan around to ensure they were alone before breaking cover.

The second man confirmed he was in the Resistance and issued instructions for Furniss-Rowe to follow him about fifty yards behind on the second bicycle. If the man was stopped for any reason Bill was to ride past, say nothing and show no signs of recognition. He was given an old mackintosh to wear and the pair set off passing several groups of German soldiers who did not stop them.
The destination was the Resistance man’s house, six kilometres away from the woods. Furniss-Rowe hid in the cellar for a few days whilst false identity documents were prepared. His papers showed him as a deaf mute (a strategy often used by escape organisations until the enemy became wise to it). Travelling with a guide he was taken to Paris by train and followed twenty or thirty yards behind as they walked through the city streets until he reached a bar where he was greeted inside by Mme Fabre, a large and variable woman of around sixty years. The bizarre scene that followed defied most of the usual rules of escape and evasion, as she openly introduced him to her son Georges, (who worked in the resistance and was employed at the Renault factory) and then to everyone else in the bar. Although the area of Clichy was renowned for its blanket anti German stance, this was a risky strategy.
Georges looked a typical caricature for the Resistance, with his slim figure and dark straight hair. It was easy to picture the man in his mid twenties with a beret, sub machine gun and cigarette sticking from the corner of his mouth.
Furniss-Roe’s stay in Paris had similarities to a few other evaders, but in general the string of cavalier events which took place were unusual. He stayed almost a month in the capital and during that time was shown the sights of Paris by Georges as if he was a tourist. Photos were even taken beside German soldiers and he celebrated his twentieth birthday in the bar with Mme Fabre and a party of around 5fifty people.
The next part of the journey (now accompanied by an Australian evader) took him by train to Perpignan, ready for an assault on the Pyrenees. The two men followed their guide out of the station to a small house and spent the evening and next day there. A hunched woman in her seventies looked after them and provided a large dinner, wine and brandy. The following evening they were hidden in the back of an old wood burning lorry and driven about 30 miles to a field where they joined up with around 20 to 30 Dutch and French people trying to escape the Germans.
Up to this point, events seemed frighteningly simple when compared to some accounts, but the situation was to become more difficult. Three guides were to take them on a gruelling journey in the cold across the Pyrenees mountains. The winter weather was beginning to close in and Furniss-Roe described what happened:
‘We had to go over the highest parts to keep away from German patrols – food was provided and shelter in huts. My most memorable meal was a delightful soup – tasty and hot – until I went back for more and saw the meat content was a pair of sheep’s lungs with lights attached, but I still enjoyed the second bowlful. It was incredibly cold – several had very bad frostbite and were left to make do as well as they could. I slipped on an ice patch into a very thorny bush which made my legs bleed badly- which soon became infected.’
He managed to make it to Spain, but was picked up and imprisoned in Pamplona:
‘My legs were very bad by this time and I could hardly walk. Nobody seemed to know how I could contact the British Consul and nobody seemed very interested. One guard was very covetous of my Omega watch so I managed, with help from the Spanish prisoners to tell him I would give him the case of the watch now and if he would contact the British Consul for me and the works when he came to see me. Two days later the British Consul came out and I parted with the rest of the watch. It took about another week for the consul to get the charge of entering Spain illegally against me waived and to get my release. I was then taken to a nursing home where I spent about three weeks whilst my legs healed. I was then put into a hotel in Pamplona where I stayed for about two weeks.’
Following this, Furniss-Roe was taken by coach to Madrid:
‘…about thirty of us who I had not met before, were taken by coach…and via a very drunken day at Williams and Humbert Bodega at Xerez ,then on to Gibraltar.’
He stayed about a week in Gibraltar before being flown back to the UK.

After interrogation, and a month’s leave, he was back on his Squadron. Shortly afterwards, on 25th January 1944 while on a Ramrod mission over France, the engine of his Spitfire failed and he force landed 15 miles east of Le Treport. As the aircraft bounced and crashed to a stop, he must have cursed his unbelievable bad luck. German’s from a nearby flak battery quickly surrounded him at gun point. He was led away and locked in a wooden hut near to the battery. After being given food and water, a German officer began to interrogate him in English. No information apart from name rank and number was given, so Furniss-Roe was left in the hut and advised he would be taken to a POW camp the following day. 
At this point the escaper’s mind begins to work overtime, assessing the inside of his ‘prison’, assimilating information of what he sees and can remember about the outside. Furniss-Roe noticed the window frame in the hut was rotten and once all was quiet he picked at the whole of the rotten frame with a knife left from his meal. Once it was dark he managed to remove the whole frame, climb out and slip away into the camp containing the flak battery. 

At moments like this, the escaper needs luck to get his next break. Even in the dark, it would have been more likely for Furniss-Roe to encounter a guard or simply be spotted and apprehended. He described events:
‘I heard a lorry. I watched and saw it was stopping at huts to collect refuse. I went carefully towards it and saw it was driven by a Frenchman with one helper. I waited until their backs were turned then went under the lorry. When the lorry started up I found a foothold for my feet and hung on. After two or three more stops the lorry drove out of camp with me underneath. After about 200 yards we stopped at a crossroads where I dropped off and they went without me. It was about 4.00 am so I went to into a field and found a good hiding place for the next day.

After dawn I did not hear or see anybody until about 11am.when much to my surprise a Frenchman came straight up to me and asked if I was English. There was no point in arguing so I said yes. He told me he was delighted as they had been looking for me since yesterday, after the crash. He…whistled and a cart with two horses came galloping up the road. When it reached us I was pushed into a load of hay and we ambled gently along. I was taken to a house and put in a cellar with an American Colonel Leon Blythe, who had been there for a couple of weeks.’
Once again luck played its part in keeping the men free as Furniss-Roe recounted:
‘We spent about a week there awaiting identity cards and civilian clothes, after which we were put on a train to Paris. During this journey a German soldier got into our carriage and said ‘Guten Morgen.’ To my horror Leon answered him saying ‘Good Morning’ –whether the German thought he was speaking bad German …I don’t know – but no further conversation ensued. At Paris a guide took us to a very expensive flat in the exclusive Bois de Bologne area, where Leon and I stayed in the attic for about two weeks.’
The war was swinging in favour of the Allies and although D –Day had not arrived, there was a growing confidence and anticipation amongst the Resistance. This might explain what happened to Furniss- Rowe next, when he assumed a role and location that the author sees as being totally out of kilter for the usual escape and evasion practice in Paris at the time:
‘During this time and the subsequent four weeks we were in a hotel. I was engaged in interviewing personnel who claimed to be British but about whom the Resistance were worried might be German infiltrators into the Resistance network. The hotel was incredible. There must have been 100 Allied personnel there.’

He then travelled south and this time things ran smoother:
‘… some 40 of us walked across the Pyrenees to Andorra. On arrival we were taken to a nice hotel by somebody from the British Embassy in Madrid, then after two or three days sightseeing we were taken by coach to Madrid, then the usual drunken spree at Williams and Humbert ’ * (see first evasion.) ‘and then down to Gibraltar and flight home.’
He arrived back in the UK on 10 April 1943 and fittingly worked for a while with escape and evasion organisation MI9.
Bill Furniss-Roe’s almost unique two journeys read in places like a holiday jaunt, but this was never true. He clearly had a large slice of good fortune along the way, but there are clues in the sequence of events which suggest sometimes he made his own luck. Sections of the journeys may have been portrayed with a smiling simplicity, but the author’s view is one of the experiences being far more dark and dangerous than recounted. The fact that he achieved what he did in such a short space of time against overwhelming odds is testament to his skills, but also to those on whom  he depended to reach freedom.   
Free to Fight Again - Alan Cooper  
Further reading  - Believed Safe  Bill Furniss Roe

© Keith Morley

Friday, 8 March 2013

They Got Away Twice - Part Two

Bob Milton -  The Man Who Stayed Behind by Cyril Ayris

Lockheed Hudson

Fort de la Revere

Flt Lt Bob Milton was another airman who managed to get away twice. There were similarities with Sergeant John Mott (see last week’s post) except that Milton was a double escaper rather than evading capture once, then escaping from POW captivity on the second occasion.
In the late evening of 31 March 1941 Milton serving with RAF 220 Squadron Coastal Command took off in his Hudson aircraft for a patrol off Brest. Caught in an electrical storm, the aircraft had to make a forced landing in the early hours of 1 April way off course from its patrol area.

Milton and his crew landed near Maille, a country village in an area of predominantly small settlements, fields and pasture. The Bay of Biscay lay 30 miles due west, La Rochelle was a further ten south of that and to the east of the crashed aircraft, the nearest town was Poitiers a good 60 miles away.

The priority for the crew was to destroy the aircraft’s ‘IFF’ (identification friend or foe signalling device), burn their papers and charts, then destroy the aircraft. Milton, Sgt S J Houghton (second pilot), Sgt J Burridge (wireless operator) and Sgt R E Griffiths (rear gunner) managed the first two tasks but they were unable to carry out the final one.   
The incident had created much attention and villagers quickly rushed to help before any German intervention came. Milton describes in his MI9 report hat happened next:
‘We kept together and with the help of French civilians who paid for our railway tickets made our way via Limoges to Marseille.’

The reality was not as simple. Local patriots had bought the four airmen railway tickets to Poitiers and then made arrangements to have them taken south to cross the demarcation line into Vichy France. A decision was made to separate the group into two pairs for obvious reasons. Milton and Griffiths sheltered at St George, and Houghton and Burridge at le Vigeant, near l'Isle Jourdain on the river Vienne.

A few days later the men were reunited and travelled together to Lussac-les-Chateaux where they caught a train for Limoges and on to Marseille. At Marseille their luck ran out as Milton described:

‘Here we were arrested at the railway station as we had no papers. We were sent to St Hippolyte du Fort near Nimes for internment on 13 April 1941.’ *
* They were initially sent to Fort St Jean, and then transferred to St Hippolyte.
The fort held other allied internees and Milton immediately set about attempting to escape. Two unsuccessful efforts were made, as he described:
‘In July 1941 I attempted to escape with Lieutenant’ Winwick ‘Hewit by sawing through the bars of a window, but we were recaptured immediately by the guards. On 7 October 1941*, accompanied by Lieutenant’ Richard ‘Parkinson, I escaped again but was recaptured at Nimes on 17 November 1941.’
*Date also given as 10 October
It must have been encouraging, yet frustrating for Milton as he had seen all three of his fellow crew members escape from the fort before him; the last being Sergeant Burridge on 16 August 1941. The journey Milton took after escaping on 7 October was far more eventful than his report suggested. He travelled to Nimes with Parkinson and the two fugitives stayed in the safe house of Gaston Negre on Rue Poste de France. Two evaders were already hiding out there. Sgts Jack Worby and Gordon Campbell were RAF airmen from a Wellington of 101 Squadron which had been shot down on 10/11 September on the way back from a raid on Turin.

At the end of October Worby, Campbell, Parkinson, Milton and two others struck out to cross the Pyrenees from Ax-les-Thermes. The terrain and conditions were too severe for the party and they were forced to return to Nimes. A further attempt was made in mid-November before winter really set in, but Milton was arrested at Nimes station and taken back to St Hippolyte. The rest of the party managed to reach the British Consulate in Barcelona with the help of their guides.  

Even Milton’s resilient character must have been tested by this, but with other escapes having taken place from St Hippolyte, he surely felt optimistic about making further attempts. Whilst the fort may not have been easy to break away from, it was not a purpose built Stalag POW camp and once out of captivity, the dangers of moving through Vichy France could be considered separately.
On 17 March 1942 Milton had to reassess his escape plans because he was transferred with the rest of the internees to Fort de la Rivere at La Turbie, which was positioned in the hills above Nice. Following a breakout by five airmen on 23 August 1942, Milton and the remaining officers were moved again, this time to Fort de la Duchere at Lyon where they stayed for five weeks before being sent on to Camp de Chambaran, west of Grenoble on 2 October 1942. Here they joined the remaining two hundred NCOs and lower ranks from Fort de la Rivere who had already been taken to Chambaran a few days earlier.
Two big events occurred in early November 1942 which may have accelerated Milton’s escape strategy and contributed to events that took place within the fort. On the 8th the Allies entered North Africa and four days later the Germans walked into Southern France.
Milton described how he made his escape:
‘On the evening of 16 November 1942 I again escaped with Lieutenant Hewitt. We had secured the co-operation of a French lieutenant and a French sergeant. From them we obtained the badges and stripes necessary to convert our clothes into passable imitations of French uniforms. Accompanied by the sergeant we walked past the guard and out of the camp, where we were met by the lieutenant who took us to a house nearby. Here we got civilian clothes, forged identity cards and false demobilisation papers. We stayed in the house for a few days when our host then arranged for us to be taken to the railway station at St Marcellin in the Commandant’s own car, driven by an army chauffeur. We caught a through train to Marseille, arriving there on 22 November 1942. After some time we met a British officer Captain Cooper and made contact with an organisation which arranged our subsequent journey for us. On 29 December 1942 I arrived in Madrid. On 15 January 1943 I arrived in Gibraltar.’
The ‘Captain Cooper’ was SOE agent Dick Cooper who made the contact with ‘the Organisation.’ Pat O’Leary (see previous posts) took the escapers into the mountains before handing them over to a Spanish guide.

Five days after D-Day, Milton (now with 65 Squadron flying a Mustang fighter) baled out after being shot down by an Me109. His experience this time involved the SS and was totally different:
‘I landed in the Orne River in the southern outskirts of Caen and there disposed of my parachute and Mae West…I took out my revolver, cocked it and waited to see how many Germans were coming after me. A minute later 20 to 30 Germans came running up on foot, so I threw my revolver, knife and ammunition belt into the river and was taken prisoner. All of them crowded around and started yelling at me, one of them in broken English, ‘What kind of plane?’ When I did not answer, he started bashing me around, and his comrades followed suit.’

'Milton was taken to SS Headquarters and came in for some rough treatment when he refused to give more than his name rank and number. Eventually having been knocked unconscious he was taken to a nearby schoolhouse which had been converted to a prison and was run by the SS. Around twenty Allied servicemen were in there, some of them badly wounded. The Germans refused them any medical aid or food until Milton answered their questions. He refused to do this. After dark a French doctor was brought to dress the men’s wounds.
The men were marched out the next day and after 24 hours joined a column of 350 Canadian prisoners. Events reached a crisis point as Milton recounted in his MI9 report:
‘During the march, two Canadian officers escaped and the Germans threatened to shoot ten out of twelve officers that remained if anyone else tried to get away. One of the Canadian men who could speak German, overheard a discussion as to whether they should shoot us then and there just for good measure.’

After being put in a prison in Rennes from 15 June to 6 July the prisoners were moved to the local goods yard and packed into cattle trucks:

‘…40 men or 25 officers to a truck …We started off that night towards Redon as that was the only line open and as soon as the train started we started to cut our way through the front of the truck with a penknife and hacksaws from Escape Kits.’ (Four men)
This process became too risky because of the amount of noise and the possibility of being discovered when the train stopped. The engine had also been switched to the other end of the train, making the hole they were working on more easily visible.
The next evening on the journey to Nantes, Milton got a lucky break:
‘We discovered a rotten board on the inside of the car near the right hand door and using the bench as a lever, we managed to pull one plank out of the side of the truck and open the latch on the outside of the door after removing the mass of wire that held it in place. ..Finally we decided to take a chance, and when the train slowed down to about 15 mph, we opened the door wide, and I jumped first. As soon as we hit the ground, we lay flat on our faces and rolled in as close to the wheels as we could in order to avoid being seen and machine gunned by the guards on the trucks behind us. No one saw us, and the train continued on its way taking with it the other members of our car who were going to jump out at three minute intervals.’
He walked across country at night with the other three men, lying low in woods during the daytime until they reached the forest of Teillay. The group decided to hole up there and await the American advance, making themselves a rough shelter. Two locals fed and looked after them for a fortnight until an advance reconnaissance patrol of the 8th Infantry Division arrived.  
Post D-Day, with Allied forces moving through France, evaders and escapers now had another direction to make for in their quest for freedom.
Free To Fight Again -  Alan Cooper

MI9 Reports

Grateful thanks to Keith Janes for additional facts and information.  A visit to  is highly recommended.

Further Reading – Robert Milton The Man Who Stayed Behind. A biography as told to Cyril Ayris


Friday, 1 March 2013

They Got Away Twice - Part One


Lysander Painted Black for Night Camouflage 

Ziri - Formerly in Yugoslavia

When an airman in World War Two abandoned his aircraft over or in occupied Europe, he faced odds of up to one hundred to one against reaching home by evading capture or subsequently escaping from a Prisoner of War Camp. When set against the numbers of airmen who were lost in action or became POW’s, it is remarkable that a very small number managed the feat twice.

In December 1940,  Sergeant John Mott (first name Arnold) was the pilot of a Whitley bomber from RAF 78 Squadron which took off from Dishforth to bomb the dockyard at Lorient Brittany. He was forced to jump from the burning aircraft, landing on the North West edge of Lanvallon. The rest of the crew baled out, but all were captured apart from the rear gunner Sgt A J McMillan.
Mott was able to hide and lie low before initially receiving assistance from a chain of helpers. In early January 1941, he was taken to the home of Monsieur and Madame Delavigne in Nantes, Brittany who managed to shelter him up until September of the same year. In mid August Sgt Macmillan had arrived and been located in a safe house with a Madame Flavet and her family. In late September, security in the network was compromised and arrests were made by the Gestapo. Amongst those taken were Madame Flavet and her family and Macmillan and Mott’s convoyer Monsieur Hevin. The latter was executed just under a month later. Once the cellhad been penetrated, Mott was shuttled around a series of safe houses by the Delavignes, whilst a plan was formed to get him out. 
Madame Delavigne recalled:

‘The leader of the organisation Claude Lamirault (MI6 agent) was to ensure the escape of the two airmen. Unfortunately the Flavet family and MacMillan were arrested. Having been informed immediately and not knowing the leaders address, we decided to do all we could to save Mott’
For a price, the Delavignes negotiated a passage for Mott into the unoccupied Vichy zone of France. He would be accompanied by an agent codenamed ‘Rips’ operating in the area and vaguely known to them through the trafficking of letters into the Vichy area. On 26 September, Mott and the agent left Nantes on bicycles and taking the fast train to Bordeaux arrived at an address of a Pole called Selk. Mott was helped to reach Toulouse on 4 October and he recalled what happened next:

‘On the 12th I crossed over the frontier of Spain. Once there I kept walking to the British Consul who passed me on the Embassy in Madrid. On 14 November 1941, I arrived in Gibraltar and left in a Sunderland flying boat on 13 December, arriving at Pembroke Dock on the 14th.’
The Delavigne family were arrested on 5 March 1942. After a spell in a Bordeaux civil prison which took the life of their nephew, they were finally released in July 1943. To continue sheltering evaders after arrest and imprisonment was almost suicidal, but Monsieur and Madame Delavigne started up where they left off. Their luck ran out in January 1944. Monsieur eventually died of exhaustion in Camp No 1 at Gouzen in January 1945 and Madame after a succession of prisons was liberated at Mauthausen concentration camp by the International Red Cross on 22 April 1945 weighing only four and half stone. 
John Mott had attained the rank of Flight Lieutenant with RAF 161 Special Duties Squadron when on the night of 28/29 May 1942 he was involved with a second Lysander aircraft in a double operation around delivery and pick up of agents from France. He was delivering Alex Nitelet, scheduled to be the Pat O’Leary Escape Line’s new operator. The aircraft landed at Chateauroux, but became bogged down and failed to take off.
Mott was captured and held in various French prisons until being transferred to Italian Prisoner of War Gavi Camp No 5. In September 1943 after the Italian armistice the Germans made plans to transfer the prisoners in the camp by train to Austria. Housed in cattle wagons the opportunity for escape presented itself to the men. During the journey Mott managed to cut a hole in his wagon near to the buffers, and followed by other officers the men lowered themselves down and dropped off the train. This operation was extremely dangerous as attempts by this method in previous unrelated escapes had sometimes resulted in limbs being severed, escapers falling under the train or being shot by the guards. Mott himself sustained a head injury but managed to get away.
He joined a fellow POW officer who had also escaped and they travelled to Tarcento with other POWs and joined up with some Partisans who took them over the border to Ziri in Yugoslavia. The group came under fierce attack from the Germans and they decided to break away in pairs from the Partisans and try to reach Italy again as they were close to the border. Flight Lieutenant Carmichael who had also escaped from the train travelled south with Mott, and the pair crossed the border reaching Calla in the extreme north of the country.
By this point the weather was too bad for any sustained travel, so they took refuge and did not set out again until 3 December 1943. The plan was to travel south, then cut across to the east coast of Italy and sail a boat out of the country. Allied sympathisers gave them shelter as they travelled and a Lance Corporal who Mott does not name joined them, the three men were given false identity papers and with the help of an Italian officer who took them by train, they reached Bologna.
The journey must have been a difficult experience as the party had to try and obtain financial help in order to secure a small boat. The country was in turmoil at this time, and looking beyond the sketchy narrative of events in parts, numbers of Allied POWs who had escaped from captivity were clearly trying to make their way out of Italy.
Mott and the other escapers reached the eastern town of Fermo six kms from the Adriatic coast and subsequently managed to secure a boat. They were joined by more escapers and the ‘crew’ set sail on ‘The Pitch and Toss’ (as they named the vessel) on 17 March 1944, reaching the initial safety of an RAF radio direction finder station at Ponte Della Penna on 19 March 1944. Mott had beaten the odds for a second time.   


Free to Fight Again - Alan Cooper