The first successful escapers from Saint Hippolyte-du-Fort -
an RAF bomber crew who returned home from France in 1941
This article first posted 03 July 2020
Just before midnight on 11 January 1941, a Wellington bomber was force-landed in Vichy France, the crew were arrested and sent to the newly established French internment camp at Saint Hippolyte-du-Fort. Ten days after their arrival at Saint-Hippolyte, Lt Richard Parkinson (611) delivered the entire six-man crew to Captain Charles Murchie (681) and Sgt Harry Clayton RAF (701) at the Hotel Touring in Marseille.
Sgt Stuart Martin Parkeshouse Parkes (346) was the pilot of 9 Sqn Wellington R1244, on an operation to Turin on the night of 11-12 January 1941, when the starboard engine failed, and wireless operator Sgt Harold William Bratley (351) sent out an SOS, requesting a course for Manston, the nearest aerodrome in England. Parkes was flying on one engine and losing altitude, and about 50 minutes later, they were down to between 4,000 and 5,000 feet, and with 3,000 foot hills ahead of them, Parkes told his crew to bale out if they wished. None did, and Parkes landed the bomber wheels-up in a field near Misérieux, about 25 kms north of Lyon.
Nobody was hurt in the landing, and Bradley sent a last message back to their No 3 Group HQ “Crash landed, all safe, carrying out usual procedure, cheerio”. They then blew up the IFF set (Identification Friend or Foe), burned all the secret documents, and set fire to the aircraft. The rest of the crew were navigator Sgt Leslie Dennis Goldingay (349), second pilot Sgt Lionel Richard Willis (712), rear gunner Sgt Ronald Vivian (713) and second W/T operator and air gunner, Sgt Reginald Willam Blaydon (714).
The crew were wearing their winter flying clothes, and had no food, and after the local curé opted not help them, decided to find the nearest police station. They saw a sign for Villefranche (which is the other side of the river Saône) and walked in that direction (west) but met a poilu (a French infantry soldier) who was going to Trévoux who told them there was no police station at Villefranche, so they went with him, south to Trévoux instead, arriving there at about four in the morning. They slept in the police station for a couple of hours, and then had coffee and bread (which the airmen paid for in French money from their escape kits). Later that morning, the commandant of the aerodrome at Amberieux, Marcel Genistat, came to see them, and he took Parkes back to Misérieux in his car to see the burnt out remains of his aircraft, before returning him to the police station and buying him lunch. Later that day, he took the whole crew to Amberieux, where they had dinner, listed to the six o'clock BBC news, and stayed the night.
Next day, the commandant took them to Aix-en-Provence in the aerodrome bus, explaining that he would have to hand them over to the military authorities. They stopped off on the way to have dinner in a hotel at Montelemar, and got into Aix late that evening, where they stayed in the barracks, occupied at the time by Saint-Cyr Cadet school, which had been evacuated from Paris. Two days later, on 15 January, the six British airmen were taken to Saint Hippolyte-du-Fort.
At the camp, they met Lt Richard Parkinson (611) who told them that he had been informed by telephone that some people in Marseille wanted the crew back in England, and so early one morning (26 Jan) while it was still dark, they left the camp by climbing over the back gate. They made their way to the railway station but were caught by the local police and returned to the camp. Apparently, the commandant was annoyed, saying that if they must escape, then would they please do so in the afternoon when they would be allowed out of the camp anyway. Which is precisely what they did at noon that same day, avoiding the town this time and walking to the village of Sauve, where there was another station, and taking a train to Nimes, then Tarascon and so to Marseille – Parkinson buying their tickets because as an officer, he had a pass that allowed him to go to Marseille anyway.
On their arrival in Marseille (assume late that evening) there was a control, with everyone having to show their papers before leaving the station. None of the airmen had papers of any sort, so they went into the buffet for coffee, and then left though the kitchen and into the rear of the station yard. Parkinson led them to the Hotel Touring, where they met Charles Murchie, and then they all went to a flat near the harbour where they stayed with what Parkes describes as a “sort of gangster person, who walked about with a revolver”.
The Wellington crew were sent off in separate parties, Willis, Blaydon and Vivien going first, leaving Marseille on about 7 February for Perpignan with Richard Parkinson, Bdsmn G A Barrett (276) (11-year army regular serving with 2 Bn Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry who they name in their combined report as Pte Adams) and a young Belgian named Alexander Halot. They stayed in Perpignan for four days waiting for the snow to clear before two Spaniards took them by taxi for Bourg-Madame. While the taxi stopped at a customs post along the way, the evaders, Halot and their guides detoured around on foot but were spotted by gendarmes as they were about to get back in the vehicle. The driver was arrested but the others managed to get away. The two Spaniards left that night, and in the morning, the rest tried again, walking to Saillagouse, where a French farmer guided them back towards Bourg-Madame but this time they were caught. After a night at Bourg-Madame (where all their money was confiscated), they were taken (on 10 Feb) in handcuffs to Perpignan. They spent two more nights in jail at the police station before being handed over to the Guarde Mobile, who took them to the military barracks, and two days later, returned them to Saint Hippolyte.
Willis, Blaydon and Vivien tried again on 1 March, leaving Saint Hippolyte with Sgt V T M'Farlane RAF (715). Another British officer (either John Linklater or Winwick Hewit) took them to Nimes on an official permit, and put them in touch with a Frenchman who took them to Port-Vendres, on the Mediterranean coast, just short of the Spanish border. At Port-Vendres, due to some “financial difficulties” they were not able to secure the services of a guide, so they returned to Nimes, where they met the British officer from the Fort. He had been to Marseille in the meantime, and he gave them 3,000 francs, and sent them to Perpignan. On the way, Blaydon was arrested in the waiting room at Narbonne station and returned to Saint Hippolyte but Willis and Vivian continued to Perpignan, sleeping overnight at the home of a guide but having to spend each day hanging about in cafés. After four days, two guides came from Port-Vendres, and after some “difficulty about their payment”, agreed to take them across the Pyrenees. They left Port-Vendres at about one o'clock on the morning of 9 March, walking for twelve hours to a farmhouse near Llansa in Spain, where they were able to eat and rest. At two o'clock the following morning, the farmer's young son took them Llansa station and put them on a train for Barcelona. As they were approaching Figueras, a plain-clothes official came through the train asking for papers, and the three airmen were arrested. They were held in prison at Barcelona from 10 to 22 March, and then transferred via Lerida and Saragossa (Zaragoza), to Miranda de Ebro, where they were interned from 25 March until 7 May.
Blaydon says that he made his third escape from Saint Hippolyte on 2 April, when he, Cpl H Surridge (365), Pte E J Small (372) and a Cpl Frost climbed over a wall. A British officer took them to Tarbes and Montpellier but when they failed to find the help they expected, went to Perpignan instead, and then Argeles. They stayed overnight in a café before spending the following day in the woods until a guide appeared that evening and took them to Figueras, which they reached on about 7 April. Their guide said he couldn't buy them train tickets as they had no papers, so they jumped a passenger train but were arrested about half an hour later and returned to Figueras. Blaydon was passed over to the military authorities two days later, and transferred to a military fort in the town where he was interrogated by a German in civilian clothes. Blaydon was then sent via Cervera to Barcelona, and three weeks later, to Miranda de Ebro. He was liberated from Miranda on 27 May, and travelled home with Willis and Vivian. They left Gibraltar by sea for Gourock on 5 June 1941 on board the aircraft carrier HMS Argus (which was returning to the UK after delivering three Fulmars and a batch of Hurricanes to the Rock). For some reason, Willis, Vivian and Blaydon weren't interviewed by MI9 until 29 April 1942.
Note that neither Surridge or Small mention Blaydon (or Cpl Frost). Surridge simply says that he left Saint Hippolyte on 11 April, followed route supplied by two officers at Saint Hippolyte, and was arrested at Figueras before transfer to Miranda. Small says that he and Surridge left Saint Hippolyte on 13 April on instructions from Winwick Hewit and Richard Parkinson, who took charge of them as far as Perpignan before returning to the Fort. He gives no details of their arrest, simply saying that after some weeks of detention, they were released and repatriated. They both left Gibraltar by sea for Glasgow on 4 July 1941.
After three weeks in Marseille, Parkes and Goldingay left for Spain (on about 15 February). Parkes reports that an army sergeant in plain clothes was working with Captain Murchie (this was obviously Harry Clayton), and that Murchie gave them train tickets from Marseille to Banyuls-sur-Mer, changing at Narbonne. They actually left the train at Collioure, where they were due to meet a man at a café in the square – he would recognise them by the copy of a Swiss newspaper they were instructed to carry. This man then took them along the coast road through Port-Vendres to Banyuls. They spent two nights in a hotel at Banyuls, where the arrangements were very comfortable and paid for in advance. On the third day, a guide arrived, and they left at eight-thirty that evening to cross the Pyrenees. Their guide was a carrying a sack that the airmen hoped contained food but at the border, he handed the sack over to another man, and it turned out that the sack contained contraband tobacco. The first smuggler then turned back, and the second man said he wanted money in advance but the airmen told him he would be paid on their arrival at the Consulate. They were led down the mountain to a house, where the man went in, telling the others to go on and that he would catch with them but they never saw him again.
Murchie had told them that if anything went wrong, they were to contact a man called Joseph, concierge at the Hotel Paris in Figueras. They managed to get a lift in a lorry to Figueras, where they went to the Hotel Paris, arriving there at about three-thirty in the afternoon. They found Joseph immediately, and he told them that the Vice-Consul had just arrived in town, that he was going to meet him and would tell him about the airmen. Later, Parkes and Goldingay met the Vice-Consul, Mr Whitfield, and he gave them 50 pesetas each, and bought them railway tickets to Barcelona. He said there was a train that night, and another next morning but he couldn't tell them which was the least likely to have guards. They decided to take the train that night, and boarded the last carriage, reasoning this was the best place to spot an inspector coming, and then found the person they were sitting next to was a detective who immediately asked for their papers. They showed papers they had been given by the American Consul in Marseille, and the detective told them to wait for him on the platform when the train reached Barcelona. They seem to have ignored this his instructions, changing their clothes before arrival, and leaving the station separately before meeting up again and making their way to the British Consulate. They were put in a hotel where no papers were asked for, or questions asked, and returned to the Consulate next morning. They were given new clothes but before new papers could be arranged, the Spanish police telephoned and asked for them to be taken to the police station. Apparently the Consul had no option but to take them there, and Parkes and Goldingay spent the next three weeks in prisons at Lerida and Saragossa, and then another three weeks at Miranda before being released and taken to Madrid, where they met their wireless operator Bratley and his travelling companion Sgt Easton, who had “got through to Madrid without being captured”. They arrived at Gibraltar on 1 April but then waited five and a half weeks until 9 May when they left by sea for Liverpool on board the converted liner, SS Monach of Bermuda.
Harold Bratley was the last of the six-man crew of Wellington R1244 to leave Marseille. After Parkes and Goldingay left the city on about 15 February, Bratley stayed with some army men – including a Sgt P G Bell (who apparently remained in Marseille after Bratley left), Cpl B Bell (412), Gnrs F Castle (310), C F Watkins (316) and E F Smeed (317) - and Sgt G H Easton RAF (445).
The party of ten men who left Marseille on 22 February 1941 to be taken across the Pyrenees was led by L/Sgt James K Bell (308), and the other men who crossed with him and Bratley were Pte A F D Harper (302), L/Cpl A Gardner (312) and a Merchant Navy Third Engineer named Logan. Bratley says that the total number in the party was 12, and that a Spanish guide came and took them by train to Perpignan, where they arrived at 1530 hrs. They left in two taxis at 1930 hrs for Laroque-des-Albères, where they met another guide and walked in single file up the mountains. At about 1630 hrs on 24 February, they reached La Jonquera, where they they rested for a few hours before walking a further 18 kms to Vilamalla, where their guide bought them train tickets and took them to Barcelona.
Bratley was taken ill “with something like dysentry”, and Easton had sprained an ankle on the crossing, so they stayed behind when the rest of the party went by early morning train to Madrid. The two airmen were taken to hospital for three days, and then spent a night at Cmdr Dorchy's house (Capt Paul G H Dorchy, “Press Attache” - British Vice-Consul at Barcelona) before Dorchy's chauffeur put them on a train for Madrid. Bratley reports that the train was crowded and they were never asked for papers. They met Parkes and Goldingay in Madrid, and travelled together to Gibraltar, with Bratley (but not Easton) leaving by sea for Liverpool with them.