Friday, 3 May 2013

He Made It Back Alone - Part One

Flt Lt Julian Sale (third left back row) With His Crew & Ground Crew - RAFES

Arnhem- Nijmegan Railway Bridge (before war damage)

Dutch Bicycle in 1941

On the night of 12/13 May 1943, 35 Squadron were detailed to attack Duisberg and at 00.23 hours Halifax ‘DT801 TL – A’ took off at 22.00 from RAF Graveley,near Cambridge . In the Pilot’s seat and skipper of the aircraft was Canadian Flt Lt Julian Sale RCAF, the remainder of the crew were five British and another Canadian. The aircraft had crossed the Zuyder Zee and was approaching the turning point to head on south towards the target when Oberleutnant August Geiger attacked in a night fighter. Almost immediately Sale gave the order to ‘abandon the badly damaged aircraft. As Pilot he would be the last to exit, but there was an explosion and Sale was blown through the dingy escape hatch which he had removed. clear but managed to open his parachute, landing in the top of a pine tree near to the Dutch town of Haaksbergen.(Sale states it was in the vicinity of Oldenzaal in his report)
He was about to begin an epic journey to freedom, with only the help of local patriots and no organised escape line. Reported in a matter of fact way and often underplayed, the style of his Evasion Report is typical of so many other servicemen at the time.
The Allied airman attempting to travel from Holland to Spain in 1943 without linking in with some form of organised escape network would almost certainly have been arrested or captured. Whilst luck played a part in Julian Sale’s evasion, there is no doubting the special qualities of this man. Reading between the lines of his Evasion Report, it is likely that his observation, sound judgement, clear planning and instinct to survive were major factors in his success. These were further illustrated later in the citation in 1944 for a bar to his DSO for ‘great courage and determination, setting an example of the highest order.
Once he had disentangled himself from the string he unclipped his parachute harness and carefully climbed down to the ground. It was too difficult to try and disentangle his chute from the tree, so Sale put both socks on to the foot which had no boot and called out for his fellow gunner for about an hour. He then made the only decision he could under the circumstances – get away from the initial landing point before dawn. He had sustained a bruised leg and was missing one of his flying boots.Searches would already be imminent in the area where the aircraft had crashed or parachutes had been sighted. At first light, the Germans would carry out full sweeps. (aircraft crashed 02.00 at Buurse Overijessel, a village close to the Dutch border with Germany. 2 of the crew killed, 4 taken prisoner)
Sale had seen some of his crew exit the aircraft through the forward escape hatch before the explosion, so was hopeful they might have survived. He attempted to cover up his Mae West (lifejacket) at the bottom of the tree but was initially forced to make adjustments to his footwear before striking out. He doubled up socks on the foot which had no boot and began walking in a north westerly direction by the stars. Although he may have drifted over into Germany or been close to its border with occupied Holland, he would head north west as per his training, guided by the stars.
As first light came up he hid in some bushes between two farms trying to get his bearings. There was a stream where he could fill his water bottle, so he lay low, trying to decide if the farms were German or Dutch.   It was unsafe to make himself visible, so he remained under cover for the rest of the day until darkness, when he set off again at 23.00 hours in a westerly direction keeping to minor small tracks and back lanes and covering around 20 miles.. At this early point in the journey, Sale had encountered nothing unusual for an evader who was still free. German soldiers and police had been avoided and no approaches to houses or farms had been made yet.
The evader’s first choice of where and who to approach for help was crucial, as it could shape the path of a future journey or result in capture. Sale had covered another 20 miles with his strange combination of footwear, but his feet were beginning to deteriorate.  He kept going by drinking milk from his water bottle which he had filled up from a churn, and chewing Horlicks tablets from the escape kit carried in his jacket. As the light faded on 14 May he decided he had walked far enough to have crossed the border into Holland. After checking the immediate area, Sale approached a farmer for food and assistance with his footwear.
The Journey Through Holland
The farmer understands who Sale is. He is prepared to give him food, and some clogs to wear, but will not shelter him because of the risk of discovery by the Germans and the consequences. Sale is sent on his way with food, a pair of clogs and basic directions to Arnhem.
By now it is night and he follows his evasion training, taking minor roads. Rather than skirting around some villages he chooses to sneak through by taking off his clogs to avoid making a noise. There is another reason - his feet are blistered, their condition is deteriorating and his RAF trousers are almost falling to pieces.
As per his training, he finds a place to hide and rests throughout the day, setting off again once it is dark. The clogs are eventually abandoned and Sale decides that he must seek help again. He needs suitable footwear and apart from the food the Dutch farmer gave him, he has been living only on the emergency rations from his escape kit. On 16 May he spots another farmhouse on the edge of the village of Linde. As dawn comes up, he monitors the place, and then decides it is safe to approach. By now at least 40 miles have been covered since landing.
Sale knocks the door at the back of the farmhouse to minimise the risk of being seen. He is in luck. The family are friendly but afraid of discovery. They give Sale a change of clothes, socks and shoes. Through a family friend who visits the farm, the Canadian learns of arrests in the area due to locals assisting evading aircrew and is advised to give himself up. The situation is dangerous, so it is decided to hide him in the attic overnight where there is a bed, feed him and provide a map to aid his navigation. He leaves the following evening, with a large scale road map.
Travel is still risky, as despite having a reasonable set of civilian clothes, Sale has no identity papers. If the local police or Germans stop him, arrest is a virtual certainty. If he continues to journey at night after curfew, discovery is less likely providing he keeps off the main routes and avoids towns and large villages. The practicalities around following this strategy are clear. Whilst lessening the risk of capture, distances travelled will be greatly reduced, navigation more difficult and a need for further assistance will soon be required. Sale has a huge number of miles to go before reaching the Pyrenees and then Spain. This route is the only real option open to him.
The road map is a constant reminder of just how far he has to travel. Sale decides to continue his journey on foot by day and take more major roads. His plan is to bypass Arnhem to the north and make for Oosterbeek where a suitable point to cross the Neder Rijn can be located. This leg of the journey passes with little incident, apart from him stopping to help a German Officer push his car which has broken down. He reaches the Arnhem- Nijmegan railway bridge, and as daylight begins to fade he decides that it is unguarded. The river is only about a hundred yards across, so Sale makes his move and starts to walk on to the bridge. This is his first mistake, as a sentry shouts a challenge, then fires at him as he turns and runs away down the riverbank.
The sentry does not give chase and he manages to hide until it is fully dark. No soldiers arrive to begin a search, so he breaks cover and tries to find a boat to cross the river. This is unsuccessful. He has little choice but to strip off his clothes, bundle them in his overcoat, secure this to a plank of wood and propel the plank across the river – an ingenious way of getting across and keeping his clothes separate.
By morning he reaches the River Waal at Druten. He meets a Dutch boy who speaks a little English and tells him there are no checks or controls on the ferry. Sale manages to swap a British half-crown with the boy for a few cents which is enough for his fare across the river.
There is no way of avoiding the River Maas which has to be negotiated next. Sale reaches this point later in the day and a group of workmen help him across on a private industrial railway. It is not clear how he keeps successfully getting help without incident, as he speaks no Dutch, having only a basic knowledge of French. There are clearly skills in weighing up situations and having an instinct in knowing who and when to approach.
He decides to select another isolated house to ask for assistance. A schoolteacher, who lives there and speaks a little English, agrees to help him. He gives Sale a meal and some new socks before the journey continues.
The following day he must have thought his luck has finally run out as he walks through a small village. A Dutch policeman stops him and requests his papers. Sale tries to explain in basic French why he has no documents. The policeman cuts him off and replies knowingly in broken French that ‘he is a Frenchman going home from Germany.’ The pair shake hands on it and the policeman wishes him luck.
Evaders were advised in their training to look for priests as they were seen as someone who might give shelter or aid. In St Oedenrode, Sale knocks on the door of a house which he thinks may belong to a priest. He is mistaken. There is no man of the cloth, only three elderly ladies, who invite him in for food. He stays there for two nights and is given a new pair of boots, three days food, a map and a bicycle. The ladies also outline a safe location where he can cross the Dutch/Belgian border.
Into Belgium
The border is reached on 22 May at 3.00pm and approaches are made to a Dutch family in an attempt to find out if this section of the border is patrolled by guards. They advise it is clear to cross at this point, so Sale heads south west on his bicycle into Belgium towards Antwerp. Two Belgian policemen stop him very quickly, as his bicycle still has the blue Dutch plaque on it. Each bicycle must carry an appropriate licence plaque and there is no Belgian one visible. He identifies himself as an evading Canadian airman as there is little point in trying anything else. In that region of Belgium the predominant language is Flemish. It is not clear whether he addresses the policemen in English or French. Either way, they manage to understand him and turn out to be friendly towards the Allies. Their advice is to ditch the bicycle as there is no Belgian licence plaque, but Sale manages to create a passable copy from an old cigarette packet. At least it might prevent him from being routinely stopped.
He presses on, cycling in a southerly direction, keeping well to the east of Antwerp and Brussels, passing through Louvain and Charleroi, before hiding for the night having cycled 100 miles in the day. Incredibly he is not stopped or questioned and has still not made contact with the resistance or an organised escape line. The next day he searches for a remote house and the prospect of information about crossing into France. Once again he tries his luck and the farmer is friendly, agreeing to escort him over the border at a safe point away from a control point.
Eleven days after being shot down on the Dutch/ German border he has reached France having walked and cycled nearly 200 miles, some of it without shoes. All Sale has to do now is cover at least another 500 miles, cross the Pyrenees mountains on foot and then plan a further strategy once in Fascist Spain.

Continued next week

Bomber Command Losses Of The Second World War 1943 – W R Chorley  

MI9 Evasion Report

Shot Down And On The Run – Air Commodore Graham Pitchfork (recommended read)





  1. You say reports were underplayed - I 've been thinking about that...
    I would imagine, after living with danger for so long, it becomes the norm, and those brave souls became immune to thinking about it in the way we do when reading these heroic tales.

    Thank goodness they existed.

    Another interesting post - thank you.

  2. Thanks Maria. I agree. I guess the other aspect about the MI9 debriefs which ultimately made up the reports, is that they would have been classed as military intelligence and conducted in a formal way, with the stenographer being a complete stranger. The evaders would have stuck to the questions asked and the facts, hence the tone of the reports. For me personally, it is in the books and memoirs written later where the underplaying really comes into its own. So many accounts are told with that 'reserve and matter of factness' of the era.

  3. Underplayed as in 'he stops to help a German officer push his car which has broken down.' Blistered feet, language barriers, moving at night covering 200 miles by foot and bicycle and still has 500 miles to go. I'm in awe of these people.

  4. This was another engaging post well-told by Keith. Sale has been through so much and kept his integrity and nerve, with still another 500 miles to go over the Pyrenees with its rough terrain. ‘Two Gold Coins and a Prayer’ is the recollection of Lt. Col. James H. Keefe Jr., USAF (Ret.) Another tale of astonishing escape.
    Disaster struck on March 8, 1944, when Lieutenant James Keefe was forced to bail out of his B-24 bomber over Papendrecht, Holland. With the help of some truly remarkable individuals involved in the Dutch Resistance, James was able to survive undetected for five months in the occupied land. This was a most unusual feat, as one of the top priorities for the Nazis was to capture pilots who had been forced to bail out. Part of this was to break up the Resistance, and part of it was simply the glory of catching these “fly-boys” who were responsible for so much damage from the air.Initially, Lieutenant Keefe was being smuggled between various safe houses, and getting falsified papers together - towards the eventual goal of getting him to England. One of the keys to blending in was to not have any unusual items on one’s person.One of the most dangerous things Lieutenant Keefe had in his possession were English pound notes. These would have given him away immediately had they been discovered, so a kindly member of the Resistance by the name of J.J. van Dongen traded him the notes for two Dutch gold coins, of approximately the same value. Unbelievably, Mr. Keefe still has those coins, and a picture of them is reproduced in the book. Throughout his ordeal, which involved eventually being captured and imprisoned as a POW, (and much more) James was able to somehow hide these two coins and eventually bring them all the way back home to Seattle, WA.That feat alone is hard to believe. After a traitor set him up, and he was taken into custody, the Nazis strip-searched him numerous times. Yet he still managed to somehow hang on to those coins throughout the entire ordeal.The term “ordeal” does not even do justice to the conditions he describes having lived through as a prisoner of war. It was not just that the camp was horrible, (although it definitely was), but there were so many other indignities. Disease, lack of food, forced marches for untold kilometers in the snow - just about the worst of everything one can imagine.What makes Two Gold Coins And A Prayer so remarkable, besides the story itself, is just how much detail it contains. Not only in the nearly day by day accounts of what went on, but in so many of the documents James was able to somehow acquire and keep for all these years. We look forward to following Sale throughout the rest of his epic journey to freedom and hope that his poor feet eventually find home.
    “Do the difficult things while they are easy and do the great things while they are small. A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.”
    (Lao Tzu.)

  5. Thanks for your reply Helen. I haven't read Keefe's account and will be putting that right.