Friday, 10 May 2013

He Made It Back Alone - Part Two

Flt Lt Julian Sale had defied the odds in reaching occupied France by 22 May 1943 without any direct help from the Resistance or Escape Lines (see last week’s post.) Securing aid and shelter from patriots had sometimes been assisted by his basic knowledge of French, along with a careful scrutiny and judgement around specific situations. Any reader of his Evasion Report should not be fooled by the matter of fact narrative and apparent string of good fortune and friendly faces – Sale was a resourceful and shrewd operator.  

After crossing the Belgian border at Esschen at 15.00 on 22 May, Sale is stopped by two Belgian Customs officials who wave him on. He is then halted by two Belgian policemen who ask for his papers. Sale tells them who he is and the policemen advise him not to keep his bicycle as it has no Belgian licence plaque on it.  

He decides to head south for Spain, keeping to the east of Paris with a plan to cycle through the day; then seek food and shelter at night. Statistically, most evaders still free after travelling this kind of distance would be in the hands of an escape or resistance organisation. The training airmen received on evading capture recommended they attempt to make contact with these organisations as soon as possible. Sale hopes that a suitable opportunity will still arise and he continues to travel alone, cycling through the day, carefully selecting isolated farms at night to watch and subsequently approach. He usually manages to obtain food and shelter, often in barns.     
The bicycle given to him by the elderly ladies in Holland is showing serious signs of wear. There is only one pedal operational and punctures are becoming a problem. Following the encounter with the Belgian policemen, he has used more coloured card and tin to try and replicate the various local licence plaques on the bicycle. Travelling south through Laon, Chateau-Thierry, Sens and Bourges he keeps a sharp look out for the police and soldiers, but eventually ends up having to push his bicycle after struggling for two days. He manages to get repairs to the bicycle frame and the punctures in his tyres mended.


The next step is to get into the Zone Zud (South Zone) formerly Vichy France. Since November 1942 after the Allied Landings in North Africa, the German Army has occupied much of the area with the Italians looking after the eastern sector. The demarcation line between north and south zones is still patrolled and is a major problem for the evader. A few miles south of Bourge Sale weighs up the options and decides to approach a local farmer. The man knows a point where there are no guards and Sale crosses via the bridge.
Demarcation Line Bourge 1940

He continues to head south, covering huge distances on the bicycle and avoiding checks. Castres is reached on 1 June; then the small town of Revel the following day. Since crossing into Northern France from Belgium, Sale has covered over 500 miles, and the Pyrenees are close. All he has to do now is travel to the foot of the mountains through an area where frequent checks are made on personnel by the police and military via patrols and roadblocks. He must avoid being stopped, as in addition to a main identity card and ausweis work permit, special authorisation documents are also required to travel in this area. Sale has no papers of any sort. Once at the foot of the Pyrenees, in this section of the mountains he may have to climb up at least 9,000- 15,000 feet with no proper clothing or footwear, avoid the German Alpine patrols, cross the border, dodging the Spanish Guardia Civile and their prisons and try to reach a British Consul somewhere.
It is hardly surprising that he elects to hide on local farms for nearly three weeks to arrange his next move. In the first few days after arriving at Revel, he meets a young Frenchman who has already attempted to get into Switzerland, but failed as the border was too well guarded. The two men decide to team up and attempt a crossing of the Pyrenees. On 21 June they travel to Toulouse, finally leaving Sale’s trusty bicycle behind. He does not say how they manage to get train tickets from Toulouse to Carcassone or from there to Quillan. Looking at how Sale has operated in the past, it is likely that the young Frenchman fronts the operation, having a fluent command of the language, knowing the system and possibly having some documents.  
At Quillan, they take a bus and ride the 15 miles to Belcaire in the foothills of the Pyrenees, electing to stay in a small hotel. Discreet enquiries lead them to a guide who is already scheduled to cross the mountains with a party of six. They approach him and he agrees to take Sale and the Frenchman.
The group leave early on 24 June but the guide becomes lost and the party are forced to stay overnight in the open. The following morning they continue climbing and by mid-afternoon the group is only two miles from the border with Andorra. The guide refuses to go any further. The terrain is especially difficult and it has been selected as a route because of its difficult access for German patrols and border guards. Sale and the Frenchman continue alone crossing a 7,000 foot mountain with large snowdrifts despite it being June. They cross the frontier late on 25th June and stay overnight in a shepherd’s hut before making the short journey into the Andorran town of Camillo at first light the next morning.   


In Camillo they manage to make contact with a man who passes them on to a Spanish smuggler who agrees to take them to Barcelona. Crossing the closely guarded Spanish frontier will be difficult and dangerous, but the smuggler knows his routes. He takes them by car back to the border where they join up with more smugglers and Sale plus the Frenchman cross the mountains with them at night.
It takes ten days of difficult gruelling descent and rough shelter to reach the town of Manresa. Their guide goes on ahead and makes contact with the British Consulate from Barcelona, who arrives on 7 July to take the two men to the Consulate. They stay there until arrangements are made to travel to Gibraltar.

Gibraltar 1942

Julian Sale left Gibraltar on 5 August 1943 just short of three months after he landed near the German- Dutch border. He had walked and cycled over 800 miles and only towards the end of the journey did he take three short train and bus journeys. All of this was without any involvement with the escape lines. It is a truly great solo evasion of the Second World War. By 2 September he was back with his squadron and later that month was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) for his achievements. The citation included:
‘ His unconquerable spirit of determination, great gallantry and fortitude have set an example beyond praise.’
A further endorsement of this amazing man is contained in the citation for the bar to his DSO. The London Gazette recorded the recommendation on 1 February 1944:
‘One night in December 1943, this officer was pilot of an aircraft detailed to attack a target in Germany. Although heavy clouds prevailed over the target, Squadron Leader Sale displayed great persistence and made five runs over the area before releasing his bombs. The return flight was safely accomplished but whilst over base at a height of 1,500 feet some stores exploded and flames broke out near the rear turret and the underside of one of the wings of the aircraft quickly became filled with smoke and fumes, and fire spread rapidly. The danger of the tanks exploding was soon apparent. Coolly Squadron Leader Sale turned away from the airfield, regained height and ordered his crew to leave by parachute. By this time he could hardly see the instruments as the smoke in the cockpit was so dense. As he was just about to leave the aircraft himself, Squadron Leader Sale saw standing beside him a member of the crew who had been unable to leave as his parachute was badly damaged and unusable. Squadron Leader Sale therefore decided to attempt to land the burning aircraft and succeeded. In so doing the floor of the fuselage, some equipment and some stores were blazing as he and his comrade got cleared. When they were a bare 200 yards away, the aircraft exploded. In circumstances of great danger Squadron Leader Sale displayed great courage and determination, setting an example of the highest order.’
The awards did not stop there, as he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) on 19 June 1944 and this was reported in the London Gazette on 27 June 1944 in recognition of flying 51 sorties (305 operational hours).

Tragically he did not live to learn of the DFC award.  During a bomber attack on Leipzig his Halifax aircraft was shot down by a German night fighter. Sale who was badly wounded when his parachute failed to open properly, died in captivity as a Prisoner of War on 20 March 1944.
He was one of the Greats.
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. Greatly enjoyed the final part of this remarkable story of Sale, well constructed as ever by Keith. The latter paragraph was especially sad considering Sale died as a POW after injuries sustained after he had been shot down again. I would have thought that after his epic and quite unbelievable escape he would have not ventured out ever again to fly but I expect that due to his very nature that was never an option for him. What I also appreciate with ‘The escapeline’ is the fact that it brings to mass public attention the lesser known heroes and heroines of WW2 and celebrates them quite rightly. We are left wondering how these amazing feats of human endurance have hitherto never seen the light of day. But here they are in all their patriotic glory thanks to this blog. What a hero Sale was in the true sense of the word and a monumental inspiration to us all.
    “We shall draw from the heart of suffering itself the means of inspiration and survival.”
    (Winston Churchill.)

  2. Thanks for your comments Helen. I often think that because the evaders were debriefed in a military situation, it was matter of fact and thus naturally underplayed. The MI9 & MIS-X reports got filed away under embargo and become forgotten, until released. This is one of the main reasons why I run The Escape Line and pitch it at the level I do. Outside of 'The Great Escape' escape & evasion is still a vastly under publicised area of the war. I hope in some small way that I can change that.

    It is said that Julian Sale took his own life in captivity because of the pain from his injuries. As I cannot substantiate that tragic fact, I didn't feel I should include it in the post to this amazing man - it would be an even sadder end.
    Your comment about him returning to Ops after his evasion is an interesting one. At that time, had he have been helped by an organised escape line or identifiable area of the Resistance, then he would have been unlikely to return to Ops unless he had an overwhelming desire to do it and he knew the right people. It was not general policy at that time of the war to return airmen from Bomber Command to Ops because of their knowledge of the 'lines'. Fighter Command adopted a different stance for some reason.