|Bob Milton - The Man Who Stayed Behind by Cyril Ayris|
|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,
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.
‘We kept together and with the help of French civilians who paid for our railway tickets made our way via
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 .
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 France Vienne.
A few days later the men were reunited and travelled together to Lussac-les-Chateaux where they caught a train for
‘Here we were arrested at the railway station as we had no papers. We were sent to St Hippolyte du Fort near
for internment on 13 April 1941.’ * Nimes
* They were initially sent to
and then transferred to St Hippolyte. Fort St Jean
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
*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
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. Nimes
At the end of October Worby, Campbell, Parkinson, Milton and two others struck out to cross the
from Ax-les-Thermes. The terrain and conditions were too severe for the party
and they were forced to return to .
A further attempt was made in mid-November before winter really set in, but Nimes Milton was arrested at 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. Nimes
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.
‘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
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.’
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
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. forest of Teillay
Post D-Day, with Allied forces moving through
and escapers now had another direction to make for in their quest for freedom. France
Free To Fight Again - Alan Cooper
Grateful thanks to Keith Janes for additional facts and information. A visit to http://www.conscript-heroes.com is highly recommended.
Further Reading – Robert Milton The Man Who Stayed Behind. A biography as told to Cyril Ayris