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


  1. What heroic acts from these men, and a great amount of luck too. Enjoyed reading Keith.

  2. Another great post, Keith.

  3. Agreed, another epic posting by Keith-our airman in this must have thought his time was up several times but as you say he was intelligent and a keen thinker who obviously contributed to his own success but with a giant slice of good luck.He certainly wasn't someone who lacked courage. Those who did allow fear to take over were labelled with 'LMF' or 'Lack of Moral Fibre'.Some people had enough fibre for everyone.Many were not so lucky and were lost.
    'What passing bells for these who die as cattle....?'
    Looking forward to the next post as the blog will be one year old and thousands are now reading and learning as we travel along the escapeline together.