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



  1. Enjoyed this latest post by Keith, look forward to the next. Here is another serial escapee. Brigadier Jock Hamilton-Baillie was due to start at Cambridge University at the beginning of the war, he instead joined the Royal Engineers and was sent straight to France, where he was soon captured during the retreat to Dunkirk. He made his first two escape attempts at holding camps in France, then was sent to a more secure facility in the Czech republic - from which he promptly escaped by cutting his way through barbed wire and climbing down a cliff. Yards from the safety of Switzerland he was recaptured by German soldiers, who then sent him to a prison camp in the Fatherland. There, he helped craft five scaling ladders using timber from the huts, and joined a mass break-out which led to three prisoners returning to England. Hamilton-Baillie, however, was soon caught in the forest, and was sent to another German camp, Eichstatt - where in his most famous escape he was the engineer of a long tunnel, beginning under a lavatory floor and complete with an air supply, which enabled 63 men to escape in June 1943.Sadly all were recaptured, and he was sent to Colditz, where he alternated between plotting escape and acting in prison plays, and was nicknamed 'the theatre girl' by guards. He died in 2001 aged 84.So another tale of survival against the odds. Clearly a ‘trooper’ in theatre parlance.
    “No evil dooms us hopelessly except the evil we love, and desire to continue in, and make no effort to escape from.”
    George Eliot

    1. Thanks for your comments Helen. Hamilton- Bailliee is an interesting figure that I'll be looking at in a future post. Hardly surprising, that he finished up in Colditz.So near, yet so far when he got to the Swiss border.

  2. When they 'lay low' during the daytime in the woods, do they sleep? How do they overcome boredom whilst waiting for night to carry on travelling?

  3. A good question Sally. Most of the servicemen had received some sort of basic evasion training, although this often amounted to nothing more than general instruction in a 'classroom.' Evaders/escapers would try to conceal themselves as best as possible in undergrowth and shelter in wooded areas and rest/sleep during the day. The latter was difficult in the colder months and sometimes impossible, and inevitably there was a lot of 'thinking' time. Most of them would have weighed up the situation I guess - I'm still alive and I'm still free and not a POW.After that (if they were evaders) it would be to organise and use the contents of their Escape Kit sparingly (very early post on the kit), try to plan the next part of their journey from the map contained in the box and often look for an isolated farmhouse nearby that they could initially watch before taking a chance and trying to get help.

    It must have been a tricky time as regards rest because they always had an ear listening out for possible discovery, so it was often only a half sleep. All very well if you had your Escape Kit, the airman in my book lost his whilst jumping out of his aircraft. Escapers might have some limited concentrated rations they had saved/been given by the camp escape committee and a map. They would rest as little as possible in the first few days, so as to get as far away from the camp as possible.
    Hiding out in woods and forests for evaders must have led to a lot of self examination as the hours passed. Inevitable thoughts of what had happened to their crew mates, what was happening at home and just how far they were away from there must have played on their minds. I think the boredom thing would be initially lost in more stark realities for the initial period. After a while, I guess it would start to wear them down, although by then, they had often been captured, obtained help or sometimes met up with one of their crew.