Who was George ?
My interest in this story began in November 2005 when I received a request from Elizabeth Harrison looking for information for a former RAFES member. Bill Knaggs was asking about a radio operator in France who had sent Bill's details to London in late June 1944. Bill had been an evader who made it as far as an unknown hamlet on the banks of the Seine near Rouen where he met this operator, known to him only as 'George'. Thirty years later Bill received a message from a family friend of Maurice Buckmaster saying that although they had not had any personal contact, their paths had crossed. From this Bill deduced that the radio message had been received by SOE. Bill wanted to know if there was any way of tracing 'George' through Elizabeth's RAFES contacts.
It is not known whether Bill's radio operator friend was really named George (or Georges) since most SOE radio operators were known as 'George' and numbered sequentially - Edward Zeff was known as 'Georges 53' for example, and Marcel Clech as 'Georges 60'. I believe this was in tribute to Georges Bégué, the first agent parachuted into France the night of 5/6 May 1941.
Flight Sergeant William B Knaggs was the bomb-aimer of 106 Squadron Lancaster LL975, sent to bomb a V1 rocket site at Pommeréval (south-east of Dieppe) the night of 24/25 June 1944. The aircraft was shot down by a night-fighter and only Bill and fellow Scot, Flight Engineer F/Sgt Bill McPhail (soon taken POW but later to escape in Poland and get back via Odessa in 1945) survived. Bill wrote a short book about his evasion, published in 2001 and entitled "The Easy Trip", dedicated to his crew and helpers.
The title of Bill's book comes from a comment made by the Squadron Intelligence (sic) Officer during their briefing for the raid - 22 crews were shot down that night in a series of raids on the rocket sites of northern France.
The first six days of Bill's evasion were spent walking at night on a southerly compass bearing and spending the daylight hours in hiding. Because of this Bill had no way of knowing exactly where he was at any one time, and the name of the hamlet where he was helped so much was still a complete mystery to him when he came to write his book.
Bill is able to recount all subsequent details - it was 30 June when he met the English speaking 'George', a local Resistance leader, who later confirmed he had radioed Bill's details to London. Two days later Bill was driven into Rouen disguised as a foreign worker for the Todt Organisation where he joined a group of Todt men being driven to Paris for the weekend, complete with Wehrmacht escort. In Paris he was met by other Resistance members who sheltered him for several days before moving him to nearby Ermont. He stayed at Ermont until Paris was liberated on 25 August.
Publication of the book should have been closure for Bill and his wartime evasion but whilst on holiday in Norway in 2004, Bill met Henri and Catherine Plisson, a French couple who wanted to hear more about Bill's adventures. At the end of the holiday Bill returned home and thought no more until he received a letter from France inviting him to come over and see if the Plissons could help retrace his route.
Bill's visit that June began with him visiting the St Severs Cemetery Extension in Rouen to lay poppy sprays on the graves of his five crewmen who died that night in 1944. Two gunners from the aircraft, Arthur Clarke and Bill Beutel, had originally been buried at Bully cemetery by local villagers close to where their bodies had been found in a cornfield, but their bodies were moved to St Severs in 1947. The pilot Stan Wright, navigator Hughie Smith and wireless operator Les McGregor had been buried by the Germans at Esclavelles but also moved by the Commonwealth Graves Commission in 1947. Next day Bill was taken into the Foret d'Eawy where a memorial, immaculately maintained by local school children, had been erected in memory of aircrew killed in the area. Then he went to the actual crash site of LL975 where a forest ranger proceeded to sweep the area with a metal detector. Pieces of the aircraft and personal belongings were easily unearthed but it was such a poignant occasion that the hunt was soon abandoned and the site left in peace.
On the third day of Bill's visit, the search for his wartime escape route began. Henri and Catherine had been busy with their research and contacted several villages prior to Bill's visit. The investigation began at St Martin where the mayor, M Hubert Lefevre, led them south by car, stopping at various points to see if anything jogged Bill's memory. On reaching the river Varenne, Bill recounted how he had swum across that night in 1944. It turned out that there was only one place where the river was wide enough to require swimming, and Bill had found it - a few yards either way and he could probably have jumped across. From this reference point it was fairly easy to find his next check-point, an isolated farmhouse where Bill was given his first hot meal in France. Sadly the owners of the farm had been quite old in 1944, and as the property had changed hands several times since, there was little point in calling on the present inhabitants.
Next day Bill was flown over the search area by Henri in his own three-seater aircraft - a great experience for Bill but not very helpful as far as the search was concerned. Wednesday was spent in Pontoise, north of Paris, with Bill's two surviving helpers, Pierre Galy and Jean Collin - they had been with Bill at Ermont for the last seven weeks of Bill's evasion. The final two days were spent visiting the D-Day beaches, and Henri and Catherine's home in Paris.
After Bill's return to the UK, the Plissons continued their research with help from the mayor of Bully, his son-in-law Christophe Carpentier and Cristian Legay, an authority on V1 launch sites. It was Christophe who placed newspaper articles requesting information and so found the second of the farmhouses where Bill had been helped, the Cannesson family home of Morégots at Bellencombre. Bill's presence there in 1944 was confirmed by a neighbour Mme Lemoine, who was just twelve years old at the time.
The following year Bill was invited back once more to see the latest results of Catherine and Henri's continuing research and he arrived at Charles de Gaulle airport exactly sixty-one years after his first landing in France. Next day Bill went to Bully for a memorial service in the Foret d'Eawy for his two gunners, held at the crash site of Belgian 609 Squadron Typhoon pilot Robert Rolandt, just a short distance from the remains of Bill's aircraft. The annual ceremony had been delayed this year to allow Bill's attendance. At the service Bill was introduced to Jeannine and Robert Cannesson, children of the family that sheltered him at Bellencombre, gave him food, a haversack and civilian clothes. In exchange all Bill could give them was his flying helmet - which the then fifteen year old Robert kept and used after the war when riding his motorcycle.
After the service, Bill was taken to the village hall at Bully where, to his complete surprise, there was an exhibition of everything the mayor's wife could find in connection with Bill's 'Easy Trip' in 1944. Andrée Ferrand has filled seven panels with details of the V1 site at Pommeravel, photographs and records of Bill and his crew, and the results of the Plisson's extensive research - people traced and their contributions. In attendance were three local mayors, local government officials, representatives of the police, Forest Wardens and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, and former helpers Pierre Galy and Jean Collin who had made the long trip from Paris for this special day.
Bill made notes of his trips for the Tay British Aircrew Association, of which Bill was the President. I have used copies of those notes together with Bill's book to put this piece together - which is mostly a précis of Bill's own words. It is published here, with Bill's permission, because I believe that maintaining such contacts across the Channel are important reminders to present and future generations of the bravery that so many civilians in the Occupied Countries displayed during the War. Such bravery is too often unrecognised or forgotten. It is also intended as a tribute to the generosity that so many present day French men and women show those of us seeking news from those dark times - as a recipient of such generosity myself when researching my own father's story, I am forever indebted to such people.
William B Knaggs died January 2008