This article was written by Derek Richardson and is reproduced here courtesy of the author with a few notes in square brackets that I've added for the benefit of visitors to this site
by Derek Richardson
Lancaster III No LM337 EA-V of 49 Squadron Bomber Command RAF was hit by flak returning from bombing Milan on the night of 15-16 August 1943. Five of the crew lost their lives but Sergeant C H Witheridge (navigator) and Sergeant S J V Philo (bomb-aimer) baled out, landing uninjured near the small town of Verneuil-sur-Avre (Eure) in northern France around 0245 hours on the morning of 16 August. The two survivors went their separate ways [Sgt Witheridge was brought out by the Belgian Comète escape line]
20 year old Stanley Philo from Barking in Essex, who spoke no French, headed south on foot, reaching the village of Senonches (Eure-et-Loir) the next day. Here he was befriended by the Helleux family - themselves refugees from La Garenne-Colombes near Paris - who looked after him for five days. They knew of no escape organisation but during those five days they found him some civilian clothing and, using a photograph which Philo himself was able to supply, obtained a forged identity card bearing the words "sourd-muet" (deaf and dumb). Monsieur Helleux also procured forged ration cards for bread and meat and a map of the railway route between there and the Pyrenees on which he had marked all the places that were considered dangerous. Finally, Madame Helleux provided Stanley with enough food to last him for the five days they thought it would take him to reach the frontier.
It did not work out like that, however. Philo left Senonches on 23 August and arrived four days later at a village about 5 kilometres north of Azay-le-Ferron (Indre) where he was put in contact with an escape organisation. They kept him there for eight weeks, but eventually he and three other escapers [Sgt Piotr Bakalarski (shot down off the Danish coast after a raid on Hamburg in July 1942) and Sgt Witold Raginis (shot down off Brest in August 1942) both 300 Sqn, and a New Zealander known as Geoffrey Marston who had been captured on Crete]. All three had escaped (separately) from Stalag VIII-B (Lamsdorf) in Poland] and two guides completed their journey to the Pyrenees and began the difficult ascent. Tragically, Geoffrey Marston (who was much older than the others) collapsed and died on the climb and they had to leave his body in the shelter of some rocks. The rest entered Andorra on 26 October 1943. Philo spent the next five days in hospital in the town of Andorra being treated for frostbite, after which the British Embassy in Madrid organised his passage to Gibraltar. He was repatriated by air to Lyneham on 16 November, three months to the day after the start of his misadventure.
[Thanks to Oliver Clutton-Brock, we now know that 'Geoffrey Marston' was in fact Dvr Frederick Geoffrey Williamson RNZASC and that he died, just two days before his thirty-ninth birthday, near the Pic de Rulhe. In 2008, I attendeded a short ceremony that remembered Dvr Williamson, along with three US airmen who also died in the Pyrenees that same day, by placing crosses on the Andorran border in their memory.]
But that is not the whole story. Madame Helleux, realising how distressed Stanley's mother must have felt on being informed that her son's aircraft was lost, decided to try to contact her by letter and pass on the news that her boy was still alive. Now, there was of course no postal service between France and Britain except prisoner-of-war mail through the International Red Cross. Nevertheless, Madame Helleux sought to multiply her chances of success by writing several such letters and posting them in different places in the hope that one of them might get through. Miraculously, one of them did. This is what it said:
Le 26 août 1943. Votre fils se trouvait sur la route X le lundi 23 août. Il était en bon santé, sain et sauf. Il se dirigeait vers X sur le chemin du retour avec des provisions pour quelques jours. J'ai l'espoir que cette lettre arrivera à destination car c'est pour assurer une mère sur le sort de son fils que j'envoi cette lettre.
Translation: 26 August 1943. Your son was on the road to X on Monday 23 August. He was in good health, safe and sound. He was headed towards X on his return journey with provisions for a few days. I hope this letter reaches its destination for it is to reassure a mother about the fate of her son that I am sending this letter.
The envelope containing this letter was addressed to Mistress Stanley Philo, 90 Wedderburn Road, Barking, Essex, Angleterre, was stamped at the correct foreign letter rate of 4 francs and was postmarked COURBEVOIE SEINE 27 AOUT 43. It was opened and resealed by both German and British censors. On both sides of the letter there are conspicuous vertical blue bands about 6 mm wide. These show where the German censor applied a chemical which would have detected the presence of anything written in invisible ink. Of course, the German censor should never have passed this letter for transmission in view of its revealing contents. We can only guess that he was touched by the sentiment of the final sentence and routed the letter through Red Cross channels.
After his return, Sergeant Philo joined 196 Squadron, Bomber Command. 1319259 W/O Stanley James Verse Philo was killed in action on 3 April 1945.
· W R Chorley, R.A.F. Bomber Command Losses of the Second World War, Volume 4, Aircraft and Crew Losses, 1943
· Public Record Office (now National Archives) WO 208/3316 Report M.I.9/S/P.G.(-)1580. (Philo escape report.)
· Claude Jamet, "L'extraordinaire et mystérieuse odyssée d'une lettre à travers les lignes" in L'Echo de la Timbrologie no.1672, Amiens, February 1995. [A photocopy of this article, in which the censored envelope and the letter itself are illustrated, is held by the editor]
Following the initial posting of this article, I received a fuller version of Stanley Philo's story, firstly from Andrew Worby, son of evader Jack Worby (Jack's wife Kay was a friend of Stan's and still is a friend of Stan's sister Joan) and then from Stan Philo's nephew, Tony Harris. Rather than the usual MI9 debrief, this is in the form of a Statement. Tony also sent me the covering letter that the Air Ministry sent to Stan's mother in July 1945 which contains further details of Stan's helpers. I have used this information to add the following detail to Stan's escape story.
Although Stan [as Marcel Bernard] cycled the first few kilometres from Senonches, he then walked some 200 kms from Champrond-en-Gatine to Azay-le-Ferron in five days - passing the (later to become famous) Foret de Freteval on his second day and Blois the next.
According to the covering letter, Stan was then sheltered at (or near) Azay, by M Generchon at the Chateau la Bousee, by the Postmaster at Azay and by a Mme Shields, widow of an American. Then there was Marie-Claire at the Hotel de France in Russec (sic). This was Mary Lindell, the English born comtesse de Milleville, and her Marie-Claire escape organisation based at Ruffec. She is well known for helping Major James Windsor-Lewis in 1940, and most famously, Major Blondie Haslar and Marine Bill Sparks, sole survivors of the Operation Frankton 'Cockleshell Heroes' canoe raid on Bordeaux in December 1942. We already know of several other evaders that Marie-Claire helped and now we can add Driver Frederick Geoffrey Williamson RNZASC and RAF Sergeants Stanley Philo, Bakalarski and Raginis to that list.