In February 2005 I was contacted by Andrew Worby, son of the Sgt J R (Jack) Worby mentioned in the story I had only recently posted about Bob Milton. Andrew had known about his father's adventures and his father's first helper, the teenage Robert Poinsot, who had subsequently written his account of the crew's adventure. Andrew sent me the original French version along with an electronic (and sometimes hilarious) translation, and it is from these that I have edited the following storyline - please bear that in mind when you are reading the account. Sadly Jack, Robert and François van Brock, have now passed on. Andrew's father declined to be interviewed by Alan Cooper but Andrew and his mother have kindly agreed to let me publish this version of Jack's story.
Following the initial publication of this article, I was contacted by New Zealander Christine Hickton. She is the daughter of one of Henry Thomas 'Pat' Hickton's cousins and is still in regular contact with Pat. She showed him the original article and then very kindly sent me his comments - which are now included.
FYI: Channay (click here) is a tiny village south-east of Paris. It is about 50 kms south of Troyes and 12 kms south of les Riceys where P/O Frank Allen's 101 Squadron Wellington IC force-landed returning from a bombing raid on Turin in September 1941.
"The pilot was Micky Allen and he had a moustache like the English comedian Jimmy Edwards, you could see the ends of his moustache sticking past his cheeks from the back of his head!" (Pat Hickton 2005)
The account which follows is a translation of an article published in French by l'Association des Anciens élèves du collège Désiré Nisard, in their Bulletin No 13, of June 1994.
Article by Robert Poinsot
or "the great ramble" of six aviators of the RAF in 1941
On the night of the 10/11 September 1941, towards the end of a quiet holiday with my grandparents in Channey, like many people in the area, I was awoken by the sound of an aeroplane flying very low, circling and making the worrying sound of an aircraft on only one engine. Next morning, everyone was talking about an English plane brought down by the enemy. During the day these rumours were confirmed. A British bomber had made an emergency landing north of Riceys, about two kilometres from the town, on a hill next to the Polisy road. Curious, but also with the secret hope of finding the crew and trying to help them, I left my bicycle and walked towards the crash site.
I was not the only one with this idea and when I got close, I couldn't find the actual place because at least ten kids and adults had trampled the vines looking for signs. There was a pine tree that had been hit by the plane, and marks in the grass, but nothing else to show what had happened, the Germans had removed the wreckage.
I returned to the house, scanning the fields and woods bordering the road to look for anyone who had escaped. We were all sure that the crew had not been captured because if they had then the occupiers would have let everyone know and the countryside would have resounded with their cries of victory. Two days passed without anything new apart from the German vehicles circulating, which confirmed that the crew had not been captured.
On September 13, at about three o'clock in the afternoon, I had just cycled back to my grand-parents house when I saw Paulette Pion, a fourteen year old girl who lived with her parents at the nearby hamlet of Villiers-les-Moines. She asked me to help her father unload some hay from a wagon. I was surprised because these people, who I knew extremely well, and who had a very small farm, usually got by without any external help. Nevertheless I went with my bicycle along with the girl. On the way, she told me that the request for help was only pretext. Actually, six men, said to be English aviators, had caused an uproar in the hamlet because, while following the road in broad daylight, they had crossed the bridge over the (river) Laignes, in sight of everyone.
Then someone had thought of me because I had attended the Collége de Châtillon and so surely knew enough English to be used as interpreter, to make sure that they were not German agitators, and to help decide what could be done for them.
The Pions lived in the middle of the hamlet. In a field behind their house there was an old silo with beets. In this pit, six men in overalls and sheepskin helmets were being restored with large slices of bread and cheese, and all around them a score of people, the whole village, were watching them - and all that just twenty metres from the road where two German soldiers in a motorcycle combination were putting up placards threatening any person helping the crews of "enemy" planes.
The 2/Lieutenant P F Allen 1st pilot, after having presented himself, introduced his companions, five sergeants, to me: J R Christensen, Australian, 2nd pilot R W Saxton, navigator, G Campbell radio-operater/machine gunner, H T Hickton, New Zealander, tail gunner and J R Worby, also radio-operater/machine gunner.
"All Wellington bombers had 6 airmen - two gunners, navigator, pilot, second pilot and wireless operator. They had to have 6 men and 2 pilots because of the distances we travelled to our targets: Berlin 11½ hours, Turin 11½ hours, Keil 10 hours." (Pat Hickton 2005)
I thought my English was quite good, I had good reports from Collége, but I had great difficulty in understanding the story given me by the commander and his crew of their odyssey.
They had left their base at Oakington in Cambridge at 19h 30 on 10 September, in a Wellington C heavy bomber, to bomb Turin. The crew was usually made up of five men but had been increased by the second Australian as a trainee pilot; it was only his second mission after training in Canada. The outward journey was uneventful, the bombing of the target, an ammunition factory in Turin, was successful, without too much Italian DCA (flak). A message of success was sent back to base. It was on the return trip, flying over the French Alps, when suddenly, a silence. The propeller of the right engine had been shot off by flak near Annecy. The pilot decided to try and bring the plane back with one engine, which seemed possible if they could jettison all the excess weight from the aircraft. Then an enemy fighter attacked, fortunately missing its target. The return fire from the bomber's front gunner delayed his return, and perhaps because of the low altitude, the fighter gave up.
"Fire from the Wellington was from the rear gunner not the front gunner, as they all were stripping the plane of excess weight - oxygen bottles, lavatory and all moveable objects. I could not leave the turret to help as I should have as we were going to crash land. Then I saw a bright flash then another and I saw the silhouette of an enemy fighter coming towards us. When I sighted it and gave two short bursts of gunfire from my Browning guns, the fighter disappeared. By then we were coming into land. The pilot landed wheels down and I depressed my gun butts towards the floor. Then I heard the pilot say "Oh shit", and we hit a tall tree plus one partially fallen that our undercarriage hit. The wing ripped off - then silence till I came to in the turret about 9 feet up off the ground." (Pat Hickton 2005)
With the bomber losing more and more height, the commander decided to make an emergency landing. On checking the charts, which suggested some flat ground, one man dumped the fuel, one sent a last message and everyone braced for the landing. The left wing of the plane was torn off by the top of a pine tree, then the plane stopped. Bonheure ! (Happiness/success) Everyone was alive, and only the rear gunner, the youngest of the crew, 19 year old Patrick Hickton, was injured - rather seriously in the face, from knocking his head against his weapon on landing. One man got the first aid box, one disinfected and one applied a bandage to stop the bleeding. The commander decided not to burn the plane so as not to alert the enemy and help finding the crash site and thus compromise their chances of escape. After using a hatchet to destroy the principal secret instruments, the crew took the compass and survival rations of chocolate bars and vitamin tablets.
"We destroyed the secret material and ate the documents. They were made from rice and quite palatable. We kept to the hill and in the morning high up in the bush (sic) we could see the Germans going one way and us the other. There were trucks, motor-bikes and lorries everywhere. We slept the first night in a quarry, then proceeded quietly and slowly south the second day. I could not remember much at this time because of my head wound. From the top of my right eye to half way back to the crown was split open and they had put a shell bandage from the Red Cross box around my head to absorb the blood. We slept in the bush at times near small villages. Then the third day at 3pm we went from the bush to a small cobble and grass road and said, "lets try this village" and we did and were eating their tomatoes when a small girl came and looked at us. She had curly hair and a real baby face, she looked about six years old." (Pat Hickton 2005)
At 2h 30, they headed south through the fields and skirted the wood. Around five in the afternoon they arrived at the hamlet of Vannage between Riceys and Molesme, and approached a house where they were given water and directions to Dijon.
I learnt later that two of the old men who had received them reported their visit to the gendarmes at Riceys, who then had to notify the occupying authorities. A little further on, a farm, a warm reception, something to eat and time to think. After two days walk, Villiers-les-Moines seemed quite different to those in the valley, and without hesitation, the six men had taken the road to the hamlet. Then I arrived, the introductions and explanations. So what happens now? We are relying on you.
It was as if the sky had fallen on me - what was I going to do. I had to be strong but I felt very small in the face of these events which overwhelmed me.
I started with the villagers, asking them to go back to their homes and to keep very quiet. Then Gaston Pion and his wife invited the six airmen and I into their house to continue the conversation away from any eavesdroppers. We had to wait until the enemy searches eased, and then make the right decisions.
It was decided that Gaston Pion would bring the six men through the wood towards Channey that night and take them to a small hut, an old hunting lodge, hidden in the woods, about two kilometres from the village. But it was raining and so instead of going through the woods, they took the road and carefully passed the village. Also, the woods were very thick and the night was so dark that he had to leave the men in an old quarry with the promise to return in the morning.
First thing in the morning, I went back to the wood with Pion's brother-in-law, George Bonte, who lived in an isolated farm at top of the village, and we brought supplies for the men. For three days, these comings and goings with food continued. But these good people started to become bored and pessimistic. We needed to do something. Then I had an idea - Paris was a large city, and where better to hide? Moreover, my father had many relatives who would surely find a solution to this situation that I, being only eighteen years old and inexperienced, was unable to find. I suggested taking two men with me to the capital, assuring them that there was a means of escape, and it was almost true. My father had a friend at Tulle who had been in the Intelligence Service at the end of the first war. Pierre Larenaudie, known as "Uncle Joe", would surely help us.
There was some concern for the risks incurred by the airmen, who were to give up their uniforms to put on civilian clothes, and the danger that I would incur by accompanying them. The commander of the group drew a coin from his pocket and, after drawing lots, indicated that Jack Worby and Gordon Campbell would go with me. We decided to leave the following day, which left us time to find clothes for the two men, and especially shoes, in which, with a quite British naivety, they hid their military badges in order to be able to show that, in the event of capture, they were not spies.
The nearest station for a train to Paris was Nuits-sous-Ravières, about 23 km from Channey, and there was only one way to get there, bicycles. Small complication. Worby had never ridden a bicycle. I must say that I have never known anybody learn to ride a bicycle so quickly!
We arrived early and hid the bicycles in bushes outside village. I went to the station alone to buy three 3rd class tickets for Paris and at last the minute all three of us got on board. The journey passed without too many problems, my two companions pretended to sleep to avoid any conversation which would have betrayed them, but at the Saint-Florentin station a group of passengers started to talk about the bombing by the RAF of a German airfield. I was very sorry that I couldn't join in.
The arrival at my parents house in rue Pigalle brought me back to reality - my mother was very frightened to find me involved in such a dangerous adventure. However, my father immediately telephoned his Tulle friend, who came to visit us next day.
Unfortunately, the avenue was not presented under best the auspices (sic). In 1940 the English had broken all relations with their continental agents and refused to try and regain contact. So we couldn't count on their assistance. "Uncle Joe" thus decided that it was necessary for him to act. From the following day, people came to see my two companions, and to reassure my mother. For my part, I was to return to Channey where, in a few days time, helpers would come and take charge of the other four aviators. That was the plan. Fifteen days later, everyone had left, but the airmens' adventures had only just begun.
After fifteen days with François Van Brock in Paris, Campbell and Worby left with Jacques Dupuis for the south to cross the demarcation line the south of Tours, near La Haye-Descartes and le Grand Presigny (Indre et Loire) then to Limoges and Lyon, then finally to Nimes and the home of a man named [Gaston] Nègre, a notorious gangster (sic) in the black market who also specialized in sheltering people in difficulty. A first attempt at crossing to Spain via Andorre failed in the snow, a second from Perpignan was successful. From Spain, they reached Gibraltar where they were repatriated after a four month (sic) delay.
Meanwhile, on 28 September, four men arrived at Channey including two Postal-Vinay brothers [André and Jacques] whose names I only learnt in 1988. They took Allen, Saxton, Hickton and Christensen separately. They crossed the river Cher near Vierzon [courtesy of Dr Charles Cliquet], and took all four airmen to Nimes, and Gaston Nègre. On 26 October the four crewmen and a Polish RAF pilot named Zulikowski, took the small yellow train which runs from Cerdagne and goes to Villefranche de Conflans (near Perpignan).
In the train, Saxton and Hickton had papers describing them as deaf-mutes for the benefit of any gendarmes who examined them. They are the deaf-mute ones note the gendarme. Yes! Yes! the two men answered in chorus! They are arrested - they will escape and return to England in December 1942.
"We were caught on the train at entrance to the Principality of Andorra whilst being asked by the guard for identity cards, which we produced. They scrutinised them and checked again and again. Then they told us to follow them and pointed their guns so we went to their Gendarmerie where they grilled us for 3½ to 4 hours. They caught us out when they wrote something on paper for us to write the answer. Saxton for his question wrote "no" instead of "non", and I wrote "wee wee" for "oui oui". They said "English"." (Pat Hickton 2005)
In fact Saxton and Hickton were simply unlucky. They were sitting in a compartment near the centre of the train and when the officials reached them they thought the two airmen resembled a pair of recently escaped rapists. They were taken off the train and straight to the gendarmerie whilst the rest of the party, at the back of the train, weren't questioned at all. In the event of arrest, they had been instructed not to say anything for at least three and a half hours so as to give the rest of the party a chance to escape. After several hours interrogation, during which they stuck to their story of being deaf and dumb, the airmen were finally separated and given written questions, which both answered wrongly. Next day they were on their way to St Hippolyte.
Christinsen, Allen and Zulikowski found a guide at Sainte Léocadie (Pyrenées Orientales), close to the Spanish border. They were guided by a farmer who took them to the train for Barcelona where they went to British Consulate. They were taken by train to the Embassy in Madrid and exchanged for a cargo liner of flour delivered to the Spanish government. They were transferred to Gibraltar and returned to the United Kingdom 2 December 1941.
They were the first complete RAF crew to return home before the constitution of any network and without the assistance of the allied services.
I must say that I personally benefitted a great deal from all this. Indeed, with readjusted marks from the oral examination of the first part of the course, I obtained a very good English mark for the session at the end September. I also must say that following this first success, the allied authorities, despite being wary of the French, learned to trust the network which had been built with such difficulty, and many escapers found their way to Channay.
Everything comes to an end, and perhaps I became a little too relaxed, but then I was arrested for the first time by the Germans. I escaped thanks to a very happy combination of circumstances. Arrested a second time in 1944, denounced this time, I owe my freedom to an adjutant of the German army who, after interrogating me all day in impeccable French, brought me back to the house. I met him again some months later, at the Hôtel de Ville at Châtillon among a group of prisoners. He left the group, clicked his heels, and simply said "Hello Sir, our roles are changed". I don't regret this reunion. I never think about it. On the other hand, I do think from time to time, of some English friends who made me an honourable member of the Royal Air Force Escaping Society.
This was the beginning of resistance at Châtillon-sur-Seine. With the exception of the Tupin organization, this resistance depended mainly on individuals. One recovered the weapons, one distributed leaflets, one organized the means of escape. These were the formative years which prepared the ground for the "phenomenon maquis".
It is quite certain that many other humble ('obscures') actions took place but they remain in anonymity, their authors not having considered it useful to report them, which is quite regrettable.
Editor's note: Robert says that these were the first complete crew to be returned to the UK from occupied France - a popular claim at the time and believed to have inspired H E Bates to write his fictional account of a downed crew in his 1944 book "Fair Stood the Wind for France". However, as a researcher, I have to dispute this. I believe the first complete crew to get back were from the 9 Squadron Wellington captained by Sgt Stuart M Parkes which force landed near Miserieux 11 January 1941. The last three crewmen to return, Sgts Lionel R Willis, Ronald Vivian and Reginald W Blaydon left Gibraltar for England on 5 June 1941, more than a year before Hickton and Saxton.
I would also query the idea that Allen's crew weren't aided by any allied services. André Postel-Vinay, Gaston Negre and Charles Cliquet are known for working with (what became known as) the Pat Line - and the organisation was certainly helped by contact with MI9 in London by that time. Bob Saxton and Frank Allen were then sheltered in Marseille by Louis Nouveau in October 1941 and Jack Worby and Gordon Campbell guided from Lyons to Gaston Negre's safehouse in Nimes.
Allen, Christensen, Saxton, Hickton and Josef Zulikowski were sheltered at a Pat safehouse (probably with Andrée Borrel) at Canet Plage in October 1941 and it was almost certainly the Pat organisation that arranged the guide who delivered Allen, Christensen and Zulikowski to the Consulate in Barcelona.
Worby and Campbell's first attempt at crossing the Pyrenees was with Richard Parkinson and Bob Milton, both of whom worked closely with the Pat organisation at St Hippolyte, and their second (successful) crossing was again with Parkinson.
Pat Hickton was one of the five airmen that escaped Fort de la Rivere 23 August 1942 in an operation co-ordinated by the PAO and he was also sheltered by Louis Nouveau. Bob Saxton escaped de la Rivere in the big breakout of 5 September, again organised by Pat. Both men were then brought out from Canet Plage by Seawolf (as was the badly injured André Postel-Vinay following his arrest and subsequent escape in Paris) on the combined Polish and SIS (MI9) Operation Titania of 21 September 1942.