Saturday, 6 July 2013

He Flew Back By Lysander

Sergeant John Tweed - Mrs J Tweed

Sergeant John Tweed took off from RAF Tempsford at 22.35 on 12 May 1943 in an eight man crew on board Halifax BB313 NF-M. Operation Roach which included supplies drops to the French Resistance was another SOE mission for RAF 138 (Special Duties Squadron). Homebound the aircraft was hit by light flak and a fire quickly spread on board. The pilot gave the order to abandon aircraft, and it crash landed in open country south west of Troyes in France before some of the crew could bale out.  
Those left in the aircraft had no time to prepare themselves and were badly thrown around before the aircraft came to a stop. Some were in worse shape than others. Tweed had sprained his ankles, injured a hand and he had a deep gash in his leg. The crew immediately faced the same problems as any airmen making a forced landing in enemy territory. They had to destroy anything of importance inside the aircraft and if physically able, get away from the crash area immediately.

Crashed  Halifax Bomber

Fire continued to burn through the aircraft and Tweed managed to help free the injured from the wreckage. No one had been killed, and it was time for anyone fit enough to leave. He limped slowly across the countryside, every step was agony and progress desperately slow. A nearby field of corn would keep him out of view for the night, but he knew the burning aircraft was still too close. The choices had been made for him. He was in no fit state to go any further.  Searches would begin at first light, so his best chance was to rest up and make a decision then.   
The dawn came. All remained quiet through the morning. Passing foot and occasional motor traffic looked routine. There was no sign of military vehicles arriving, enemy soldiers with dogs or discovery by the locals. Tweed decided to gamble on remaining undiscovered if he stayed put.  His injuries must have been the deciding factor in arriving at this decision. His ankles and leg were not up to walking and an injured man limping painfully about in daylight was a sure way to attract attention.
One thing did occur to him. Although it was not a welcome thought, it might inadvertently help him. Halifax BB313 NF-M carried a crew of eight instead of the usual seven. If the remaining men had been captured, the Germans would be likely to cease search operations in the crash area. Tweed resolved to hide in the field until after dark, then attempt to stand up and find help.   
Once night fell, it became clear that walking even short distances would remain a problem. He would almost certainly be picked up if he wasn’t sheltered quickly. He knew some key choices had to be made, as becoming a POW without doing everything possible to evade was simply not an option.
Tweed chewed a caffeine tablet from his escape kit to give himself a lift and struggled off towards the nearest village which was just visible.  Pommereau merged into the blackout, but there was one house showing a light, so he stayed in the shadows and hobbled towards it. He edged along a wall to a window where the light was showing and heard the call of an ‘Ici Londres’ radio broadcast. Listening to this station was strictly forbidden, as it came from the Free French in London and the news contained coded messages.
A house not properly observing blackout might be a good starting point to seek help, although in the countryside of Southern France, there were isolated lapses which did not automatically signify anti German attitudes. Tweed knocked on the door. Hurried activity followed and the radio went silent. A woman holding a small boy answered and looked straight at the pilot’s wings on his battledress. Tweed had not removed any insignia from his uniform as advised in his evasion training and he was hurried into the room that contained the radio. A group of men sat in silence looking at him.
Monsieur Charton was the husband of the woman answering the door. The couple ran a farm and set about attending to Tweed’s injuries as best they could. The other men left and he was fed before being hidden in a partly derelict farm building used by some of the workers. Madame Charton brought him food twice a day and she altered his RAF battledress to resemble the dress of a local labourer.
The routine remained unchanged until a had week passed, then a villager arrived to ask a series of detailed questions (see last week’s post The Questions). The next day his injuries were treated by the local doctor and Tweed was left to rest up. During this time, the information he had given was thoroughly examined to ensure that he was not a German ‘plant.’ Unknown to Tweed he was right in the middle of the local Goelette Resistance Group who were controlling each move of his shelter, right down to the doctor visiting. Primary or secondary radio contact with London would be a virtual certainty and when Tweed’s identity details were verified via radio, the Resistance would decide on the validity of the rest of the information.
Three further weeks passed before Tweed began his journey. He was moved to a safe house in the town of Troyes where a photograph was taken for his false identity card. That evening further questioning took place. An Englishman arrived (unknown to Tweed, a member of SOE supporting the local Resistance movement) and he drilled down to find out more about Tweed before letting him move on to another safe house for the night. The next afternoon Pierre Malsant, the leader of the Goelette Resistance Group took him to a café in a small village west of Troyes to await the next part of the plan. He stayed in an upstairs room for three weeks apart from being allowed downstairs for a time in the evenings to exercise, courtesy of the café’s owners Monsieur and Madame Bourgeois.


Whilst in hiding, Tweed was visited by a young Frenchman attempting to escape to England. The pair decided they could reach the Pyrenees via Biarritz and the Frenchman would reconnoitre the route. Unfortunately he was arrested by the Geheime Feldpolizei ruling out any further attempts that way.
The Resistance decided to route Tweed via Paris. Although Malsant fronted the operation, it is likely SOE had a hand in the new strategy. French guide Sam Chevalier escorted the airman to the capital and gave Tweed shelter for two days before taking him to the home of Monsieur Henri Boucher and his wife where the airman hid for eight weeks.
For the evader placed in this situation, it paid to remain vigilant, although as per their training, they were expected to follow instructions given to them by the Resistance. It is unlikely that Tweed knew the full extent of who he was involved with the details of what would happen until the last moment. It made sense to work on a ‘need to know’ basis in exactly the same way as the escape lines and other resistance organisations.   
It may have come as no surprise that ‘The Englishman’ Tweed had met in Troyes, turned up at the safe house address. What may have surprised him was the hour deadline to prepare for the next move in his evasion.
‘The Englishman’ took Tweed to a café where the handover to Pierre Piot took place. Piot worked for the Swiss Red Cross which provided an ideal blind for carrying out work helping evaders. He was able to shelter Tweed in his flat in Rue Montmartre for a week before a sudden move instigated by ‘the Englishman’ came early in the morning of 17 September. The pair travelled out of Paris by train and arrived at a country station near Angers and met their contact who advised that ‘the reception’ would be that evening. The two men were escorted to a farm where four other travellers were waiting.

Captain Ben Cowburn - SOE

‘The Englishman’ revealed his identity as Captain Ben Cowburn, leader of the SOE ‘Tinker Circuit’ supporting the Resistance in the Troyes area of France. A rendezvous with an aircraft would take place that night. The group set off just after twelve and waited in a field under cover of darkness.

Lysander - Caz Caswell

At the sound of an aircraft engine, the recognition signal was flashed by torch and a Lysander guided in by two lines of torches. In typical style for this kind of operation, the engine on the aircraft remained running  whilst three passengers got out, messages and parcels were exchanged and three members of the party who had bicycled to the location somehow jammed themselves into rear cockpit which was designed to take one person. As soon as the aircraft became airborne another Lysander came in and Tweed and two others were soon on their way back to RAF Tangmere. It had taken him four months and five days to get home. From the crew of eight in the Halifax, Sergeants W Marshal and J T Hutchinson also managed to evade capture and make it back, the rest became POWs.

Shot Down and On The Run  - Air Commodore Graham Pitchfork
IS9 Files
Bomber Command Losses 1943 - W R Chorley
©Keith Morley


  1. An interesting story Keith, it strikes me your blog has evolved into in gold mine of information for anyone with an interest in escape, or escapees during WW2.

    It's a fabulous resource, and I'll certainly point anyone I know looking for help with this area of our history towards 'The Escape Line' as it is invaluable, I haven't found another blog like it on the subject.

    Keep up the good work.

    1. Great stuff Keith. A unique story told in an interesting way that
      many followers will enjoy.

    2. Thanks for your thoughts both and many thanks Maria for pointing anyone who is interested towards the blog.
      I try to mix the human stories with purely factual ones, and its always a worthwhile challenge to pull in the stories which fall into specific themes. The sources quoted which I've used for research in the posts are a useful further avenue for readers if they want to drill down more.

  2. As ever, the post made for interesting reading from Keith. As someone who has sprained the same ankle twice-I admired Tweed struggling along and walking with his injuries and his escape was a lesson in bravery and patience under extreme stress. Now follows a potted history of the aircraft which sped him to safety. The Lysander cooperation and liaison aircraft were the response to the British Air Ministry's Specification A.39/34 of 1934. Equipped with automatic wing slats and slotted flaps, the design was rather advanced. The design won the contract in Sep 1936. They entered service in Jun 1938, mainly used for artillery spotting and message dropping. During the Battle of France in 1940, a squadron of Lysander aircraft was used as light bombers, suffering high loss rate by German fighters. After the fall of France, most Lysander aircraft were withdrawn from combat units and served mainly in liaison and air-sea rescue roles. In Aug 1941, Squadron No. 138 RAF was formed with several Lysander aircraft, among others, to maintain contact with French Resistance cells; Squadron No. 138 conducted supply drops, delivered and retrieved agents, and rescued downed pilots sheltered by the French. Because of they were able to operate on small open fields, Lysander aircraft performed admirably.
    The Free French, Finland, Ireland, Egypt, the United States and several other nations operated Lysander aircraft. Egyptian Lysander aircraft, which operated against Israel during the War of Independence in 1948, were the last to see active service.
    During the production life of the design, 1,786 were built, which includes 225 aircraft licence-built in Canada. They carried many to freedom in WW2.
    ‘Freedom is the sure possession of those alone who have the courage to defend it.’

  3. Concerning the fate of Halifax BB313 from RAF TEMPSFORD.
    Some years ago, in the early 1980's I was privileged to meet the now late Sgt - Flt/Lt. W. MARSHAL DFC DFM. Your article here states that his SOE Halifax was flying so low that nobody was able to bale out.
    This is actually incorrect as Sgt 'Pop' Marshal and his fellow evader F/O J.Hutchinson managed, at about 700 feet, to abandon the aircraft.
    Bill Marshal was the proud owner of a correctly engraved Caterpillar Club gold pin brooch ( with red eyes ) which he was wearing when I first met him. I can well remember him telling me how he had 'only just made it' and how he had pulled the rip cord on his chest chute so quickly upon leaving the aircraft that the deploying chute hit him right in the face and dazed him. He described the landing as 'very hard'. His co-evader Hutchinson had, because of the low altitude of their escape, landed on the other side of the large field in which the Halifax crashed and the two men pretty much remained together throughout their time with the resistance and escape lines. His story is told with great clarity in a post war paperback book called " THE VITAL SPOT " a copy of which I have if anyone should need reference to its contents. I can also clearly remember many many details of his evasion including his still 'pained' complaints about the rope sandals he was given to wear during what was the classically gruelling journey across the Pyrenees mountains on his way into Spain. Bill had also retained his forged Identity Card given him by his helpers. He had also ( lethally ) kept and secreted about his person, a pencil notebook with the names of all the places he had passed through during his evasion. He remarked to me that it was only when he got back to England that he realised that if the resistance had found this he would likely have been shot. He was a wonderful chap.

  4. Many thanks for your comments around Sgt Marshal. It will have been a privilege for you to have met him, as it has been for me, with so many other veterans from that amazing generation. I wrote the post from John Tweed's perspective and clearly Marshal and Hutchinson managed to bale out of the aircraft before it crashed. I've made an initial change to the post, but it's made me curious for more detail. When I next visit the National Archives, I will locate the IS9 files for the men and also the report by them on the loss of the aircraft. (there is usually one or more if they successfully evaded separately.) The reports were completed from interviews with the men once they reached the UK, so will have been fresh at the time. Happy to let you know any additional info I find out, if its of interest. The book sounds interesting and one I was not aware of. Would be interested to know the author to see if I can trace a copy.

  5. My grandfather, Alfred Prieur, participated in the recovery of 2 others aviators W. Marshall and JT HUTCHINSON in the forest of Lancy on Friday, June 11th, 1943 and Saturday, June 12th. It is my grandfather who drove the car from the village of Thorigny sur Oreuse to SENS (Departement of YONNE 89). He hid the 2 aviators in his house in 1 rue de la République in downtown of SENS. It was his garage (he was a mechanic) and his house on the first floor. My grandfather had created a movement of resistance in Sens in 1940. He was arrested October 13th, 1943 then deported in the end of January, 1944 to the camp of Buckenwald and Dora. He was been released by the russian troups near Parchim in the Est of Germany. He died in 1985 82-year-old. My father and me let us try to find the families of the aviators whom my grandfather helped in 1943. We want to write the history of this period and my grandfather. If somebody could contact me for information. Thanks in advance. (Please reply on this thread - administrator will forward)