A Journey into the Unknown
P/O William George Dennstedt RCAF (2404) was the navigator of 433 Squadron Halifax LV840 when it was shot down near Aachen on a raid to Dusseldorf the night of 22/23 April 1944. Bill wrote the story 'A Journey into the Unknown' in the late 1980s for the benefit of his family and friends. In March 2011, his daughter Darlene contacted me and Christopher Long to see if we could add anything to the part about his evasion from Germany. This is an extract from her revised version.
We had no warning. The heavy ammunition ripped into the port wing and the left side of the fuselage. We lost the port inner engine first and it became apparent that we were on fire. Joe [Bourgeault], Jake [Miller] and I had been hit by shell fragments and in seconds it was obvious that we were on fire, the heat and the odours from the burning fuel nauseating. We were losing control so Joe gave the order to bail out. I put on my chute, lifted up the escape hatch which was directly beneath my table and dropped through to safety. Jim [Guignion] and Jake were already in line waiting to go.
After the tremendous jerk as the chute opened, the first sensation was of intense cold and the feeling of swinging, circularly to begin with, then to and fro, pendulum style. In the dark sky our burning machine, much lower now, resembled a shooting star. I do not recall landing because I was knocked out on impact.
Much later, I woke to find myself suspended in a spruce tree. My clothing was badly ripped, my face, one leg and back were all terribly scratched and I was bleeding from the nose and a facial wound. My first thought was that I was alive! Next, came the thought of those dreadful telegrams going out to Mildred [his wife] and the family with the words 'Missing after Air Operations'.
There were many voices and gruff voices of command, as search activity had already begun in the area, looking for downed airmen. When it became quiet, I released the harness and scrambled down. Upon reaching the ground my legs folded and I thought of the shell particles which had hit my left knee, but soon a tingling sensation developed in my feet and lower limbs and I realized that I was not seriously injured, that my legs had just gone to sleep as a result of the circulation loss from being suspended in the harness for so long. It was then that I made the dreadful discovery that my step-in flying boots had come off when the chute opened. I was in Germany without boots!
By this time the sky had cleared and I glanced up to the stars to get a bearing. I thought of my predicament, being well within Germany, without footwear and looking to the stars for guidance. The meaning of the Air Force motto, 'Per Ardua ad Astra', interpreted as 'Through Adversity to the Stars', came to me and with a silent prayer, I set out on what was to be an unforgettable journey into the unknown.
It was vitally important that I get as far as possible from the point of landing before daylight. The enemy needed to intercept any fallen airmen because they were considered to be a valuable source of information and, as well, they didn't want allied airmen wandering about the countryside observing what was going on and relaying information back to England.
With compass in hand, I travelled about five kilometers in a westerly direction towards the Belgium border and as daylight appeared on the eastern horizon I searched for a suitable hideout. Where a small gully ran parallel to a creek bed, I crawled into a narrow space. There was little chance of being seen here unless patrols were searching with dogs.
I spent an uncomfortable hour before the sun got through, then opened up the escape kit and took stock of its contents - a few chocolate bars, soup concentrate, Halazone tablets to purify water, a rubber bottle, matches, compass, maps of the area over which the crew had been operating, a French/English dictionary, a pocket flashlight, a pocket knife and Benzedrine tablets, a drug used to give an added shot of energy and endurance if needed. Upon studying a map, I realized that the aircraft had gone down in the bush country just south of Aachen.
My thoughts went to the other crew members. Much later in September, I learned that Joe (WO2 John Arthur Bourgeault) had been unable to get out of the Halifax, Jim had broken a hip in a rough landing, Jake had walked a good distance before being captured in Luxembourg while the others had been apprehended and taken prisoner that night. The squadron lost three crews, one quarter of the aircraft in action on that operation, the highest loss ever recorded for the unit, twenty-one men.
Before setting out that night, I took stock of my situation. Two pairs of socks were already worn through so I turned them over to walk on the upper portions. As well, I rationed out the food supplies to last at least four days. My greatest fear was the cold, damp conditions.
Striking out as daylight was fading, I came to a road and proceeding cautiously, I chose to follow a railroad which intercepted at that point, rather than approaching a village. Examining a sign at a railroad crossing, I read 'Verboten', a word meaning 'Forbidden', and remembered that during the crews' intelligence and escape training, an escaped airmen had warned us of walking along German railroads.
Regardless, I followed the railroad until I had to go into the bush because the pebbles along the tracks were blistering my feet. Again it started to rain, the mud adding kilograms to my socks, and by this time my energy was failing. While I still had the strength to look, I found a shelter where woodcutters gathered small branches, storing them in shelters with a roof and three walls. When the sky cleared the next day, dry bundles of branches wicked the moisture from my wet clothes and for the first time I felt warm and dry.
The next night, I continued in a westerly direction. My socks, by this time, were woollen rags which I had fastened to my feet with bands cut from the wood bundles the day before. Sometimes a bush would pull one of the socks from my feet, so progress was slow. What a feeling when I heard the rumble of allied bomber engines going out or returning from a mission! I envisioned the trucks picking up the crews and the rum, coffee and fellowship over the post-operative meal. As dawn approached, I crawled into a pile of logs. Still unable to start a fire or find a container in which to make soup, I was eating the soup concentrate. What I feared most was beginning to take place. The wet conditions and lack of nourishment were having an effect on not only my physical condition but on my morale as well.
Believing it to be safe and leaving the shelter, I went to replenish the drinking bottle. As I approached the stream, an elderly woman was leading two calves to the water. Neither of us spoke, but unable to retrace my steps, I continued on my way, quite a spectacle with my bearded, bruised face, badly torn flying suit and padded feet caked with mud. Realizing she would go home and report my presence to the authorities, I took a few Benzedrine tablets and left the area. Through the night as energy failed, I swallowed other tablets, many more than was recommended.
As daylight approached, I found a hiding place amongst spruce boughs and crawled in. There was no-one around because of the rain and cold and I realized that I was reaching the end of my endurance, losing track of time.
From then until reaching a point near the Belgium border, I do not recall much of what took place. I walked at intervals throughout the day and night, sleeping fitfully when stopped. It is a wonder I survived that period without being captured. Approaching a settlement near the border, I stopped and waited for daylight in order to reconnoitre and pick a safe route past the village.
I crept to the edge of the woods, realizing that it was a border crossing complete with guard houses at either end of a bridge. A well-travelled road led to the centre of the village while a narrow footpath to the left was I thought the safest route to bypass the village and gain entry to Belgium. I took stock of my supplies and considered my chances. The food was gone, a few Halazone tablets were left and I had one Benzedrine tablet left which I planned to use to gather courage to cross over. The jute bags I had found in one of the wood shelters and wrapped around my feet were in tatters. My feet were blistered, bruised and very sore. It was not possible to go far considering the circumstances.
When darkness fell, wearing badly worn boots that I had scrounged at a garbage dump, made supple with water from a creek at the back of the village and a piece of wire to hold the sole to the top to the right boot, I concluded that the guard shelters were not occupied. I crept cautiously across the bridge to a path beyond, when out of the darkness a large form wearing a dark uniform loomed ahead. The huge man grasped me by the left arm, speaking in an unfamiliar language. Realizing I would not be able to bluff my way through this situation I chose to mumble the words I had rehearsed, 'Aviateur Canadienne, tomber dans Allemagne et partir Belge'. Holding my arm for what seemed an eternity, he pointed to a safer route around the village. He extended his hand in a genuine Belgian handclaft (sic) and spoke, 'Bon Chance' as he turned to go.
The excitement of getting away from Germany seemed to spur me on to greater efforts for a while. I travelled down a narrow gravel road and the going was good until the old boots began to hurt my feet badly. After finding a shelter for the daylight hours, I discovered that my left foot was so badly swollen that the boot would not come off. That night every step was pure agony. The sole of the right foot had come loose, the wire holding it, lost. As I walked it was necessary to take a high step with that foot and give it a forward flip so the sole would be in position for the next step.
I had not eaten in two days and was becoming weak. Somehow I had lost the compass and, as the clouds obscured the stars, I was unable to determine direction. Continuing on my way and after wandering around for some time, arriving back at the same place, I realized I was hopelessly lost. Fumbling with cold hands, attempting to remove a concealed compass in the form of two buttons from my battle dress, I was certain that I had reached my limit. I had no choice but to give up and ask for help.
Finding a barn, I crept in to a calf stall and immediately fell asleep. I was awakened to the sound of voices and the clatter of milk pails. Rising on my crippled feet and using the side of the calf pen for support, I made my way to where the cows were being milked. I had rehearsed the words I would use to identify myself, 'Aviateur Canadienne. J'ai famme et fatigue'. I needn't have worried. A man and a boy took me by the arms and assisted me to the kitchen.
They laid me on a couch, removed my wet clothing and covered me with a warm blanket. The father carefully cut my left boot off while the mother began washing and dressing my feet. A little girl, who appeared to be about twelve years old, expertly washed my bruised face, removing the scabs. Soon I was in dry clothing and after a meal of boiled milk and bread was put to bed in a warm room.
That evening, I was gently awakened and given another meal of milk and bread, a pair of bedroom slippers and taken around the yard for exercise. My benefactors, being allied sympathizers and courageous people, were providing help to an airman when needed. Communication was difficult but I gathered that someone who spoke English would come the following day.
I awoke somewhat refreshed but still with very sore feet. I was aware of the terrible chance that these good people were taking in harbouring a Canadian and decided to carry on at the first opportunity. I was supplied with civilian clothes and bedroom slipper-boots. These people concealed me in the loft of the barn until darkness when the man who could speak English arrived.
His English was no better than my French, but emphasizing the word dangerous, pronounced in the French manner, I believed he was attempting to convince my friends to turn me in for their own safety. Later that night however, a young man arrived with an extra bicycle and after graciously and profusely thanking my hosts, I was instructed to follow my guide at a distance to the nearby town of Virviers. Again, I slept in a barn on the outskirts of the town with the instruction to crawl under the hay if anyone came along. There was more bread and milk to eat and even hot soup with minute traces of meat among the vegetables. Two days later, a man came who spoke English informed me that I would be leaving soon for the city of Liege where I would be sheltered temporarily with people who were associated with the Belgium resistance movement.
After riding our bicycles to the outskirts of the city, we continued on foot. This time I was told to watch and wait for my guide to light a cigarette and throw the empty box on the street in front of the house I was to go in. We arrived and as I reached for the door knocker, the door opened.
The father and son were away, involved in some work for the resistance. The mother was left in charge of the home with a daughter whose husband had been caught and taken to Germany as forced labour. He had not been heard of since. This was yet another situation showing the conditions in the occupied countries and how the people had suffered. Once again I was hiding in the home of a Belgian family who with courage and dedication risked their lives to be of service to downed allied aircrew. I was fully aware that if adults were caught harbouring allied forces' personnel there would be terrible reprisals including being shot on the spot, while family members would be taken to Germany to work as forced labour.
The following day an officer with the resistance movement came to give me advice on my options. Questioning me in order to trip me up if I was not genuine, he ascertained that I was an allied airman and not an enemy impersonator trying to access the escape chain. Satisfied, he asked for my identity photo which had been made up in England.
An alarming incident took place a few days later as I was waiting for my identity card to be returned. I was horrified when during a ladies' meeting I heard references to the aviateur Canadienne. As the women left the home, the door to the room in which I was hiding opened and each of the ladies looked in as they filed past. I learned later that the women at the meeting were all members of the resistance but I spent an uncomfortable night and vowed to leave as soon as my identity card was returned.
One evening while I was in this home a man with three pairs of boots, all old but in good condition, arrived. One pair was determined to be suitable. What a relief to have good footwear again! A few days later the intelligence officer returned with my 'Carte d'Identitie' and 'Carte de Travailler'. The cards identified me as Louis Georges, a deaf mute distillery worker and were stamped with an official German stamp. These did not give me much confidence but I was eager to leave my benefactor's home, so the following night I was escorted to the edge of the city and was on my way.
My first spot of trouble arrived shortly when I met a German army convoy with dozens of vehicles. I concealed myself in a ditch and found that I was outside the range of the trucks' lights. A problem was that the ditch had a few centimeters of water and once again I was soaked, the food I'd been given, damp. I spent the next day in a haystack but while I slept, mice found the food and ate most of it. What was left was filthy so had to be thrown away. I was right back to where I had been earlier, cold and hungry. It was a discouraging beginning to what I had hoped would be a safe journey through Belgium to a village in France where I had the code name of a member of the escape chain.
At the beginning of the next night's travel, I approached an isolated farm home to ask for food. I was given two pieces of black bread but as I greedily ate, I overheard a man on a telephone calling the gendarmes (police). Grabbing the loaf of bread, I hurriedly left the home.
The following day I came down over a hill right into the town of Rochefort. I had no choice but to move on through the town even if it was broad daylight, trying to look natural and walk as though I were a local doing business. My clothes were good enough and similar to those worn by the locals so no-one seemed to notice me. I met several German soldiers on the street and at one point had to step aside as a number of soldiers spilled noisily from a pub.
I was past the main business part of the town when an older man passed me, riding his bicycle, looking at me intently. After stopping further down the road and repairing his bicycle chain, he turned and rode back towards me studying me more closely. This time as he passed he spoke in perfect English, 'Follow me'. I followed! On the other side of a hill, at a bush on the edge of the town, he took a footpath into the woods. He told me that he had recognized me as an allied serviceman by the manner I walked, extending my arms straight forward compared to European soldiers who swing their arms with elbows bent and forearm turning in front.
He told me to remain where I was and that shortly someone would arrive with food. Indeed, two young boys arrived carrying a bottle of beer and a huge meat sandwich. The first meat I had eaten since leaving England!
My new friend, Charles Lismonde, was an interpreter with the local resistance movement. I became indebted to this man who had spent time, prior to the war, working in England. Upon taking me to a home in the nearby town of Buissonville for a few days, he searched for a more suitable placement because he was aware of my feelings of being hidden in a home where the owners were taking such a terrible chance of being discovered.
After a few days in this home, Charlie came back and took me to a rough corrugated iron shelter in the spruce woods near the village of Aye. I was joined by an American and the following day by another Canadian. We got along well in the beginning and Charlie supplied us with food he could scrounge. Dissension began when the other two developed the attitude that the Belgians owed us for having come to their country. They became demanding of Charlie and when they discovered that he could not meet their many wants, decided to go back to the road. I was pleased to see them go because it was obvious that there would be trouble if they remained. Later, I learned that the men had been captured and interned in a P.O.W. camp for the duration of the war.
Charlie came once a week with what food he was able to spare or scrounge. He said I should only light a fire late at night and only in the shelter. He brought me what English books he could find and also a few French readers. These books helped me to pass the time and I was even able to learn enough French to speak at an elementary level with him. Each time Charlie came he brought to me news of the war, news he was receiving from a well concealed radio. It was interesting to compare B.B.C. versions with that which the Germans were using as a propaganda measure. According to Charlie, allied breakthroughs on either the Russian or Italian fronts were described as temporary setbacks and attacks on German cities and industrial areas were considered nuisance raids. A German advance was heralded as the beginning of the end to the war.
By this time I was a loner and believed that it was safer for me to make my own decisions. I had plenty of patience, a trait one had to have in order to stay at large, although it was difficult to keep a positive state of mind and to not become despondent. Years earlier I had read a book about a prisoner who had kept himself sane by imagining being engaged in his own farming operation. His farm was laid out, horses named and neighbours each having distinct personalities, were imagined. I used my own brand of fantasy in a similar way and found it to be a big help. Each time I became discouraged, all I had to do was slip back into my farm activities to find relief. I also learned the true meaning of the word hope and what a powerful force and ally it could be. A person without benefit of hope was already gone.
One day Charlie came, excitedly reporting that Allied troops had landed on the coast of France. I had visions of a rapid drive inland and that within weeks our armies would be approaching. How disappointed I was when a week later he brought newspapers showing just a small narrow strip on the coast occupied by the allied forces. It would be many weeks before they would break out and start the drive inland.
Around this time, a health problem arose. I was experiencing abdominal pain and was unable to keep food down. As if that was not enough, two boys came with a message from Charlie telling me to get out of the area as it was being searched. The boys guided me to a spot further back in the Ardennes where I was to wait until receiving word from Charlie. One of the boys returned to my hiding spot with two bottles of beer, the only medicine available. I eagerly drank, had a good sleep and woke later to find the pain gone. What a doctor and what medicine!
I was on my own now. Charlie did not return. My shelter was located in an area I knew no-one would ever discover and finding a few pieces of corrugated iron and fastening two at the top and the third at the rear, I was dry. I had to depend on my own resources for food, stealing from gardens and fields. The grain crops had a bit of substance in the heads by now and wild berries were beginning to bear fruit. As the field crops ripened, the farmers put on guards in the early part of the night to keep out the hungry people from the villages. After harvest, women were allowed to come into the fields to pick up fallen crops, and I could see them walking across the fields in rows, carrying bags. It was difficult for me to imagine their poverty and need.
Following a few weeks on my own I met a group of four Belgian Army men who asked me to join them in their sabotage work, blowing small rail bridges and reporting on German activities in the area. My duties were mainly helping with the cooking, standing guard at the camp and helping to carry equipment. Later, we were joined by several other Belgians and one night our camp was raided by an enemy patrol. There was no time to avoid a battle and in the darkness a few grenades were thrown. I spent the rest of that night and the next day concealed in a haystack without food. I cautiously returned to the camp site to find our equipment and tent in a terrible mess but there was no sign of casualties. I never saw the Belgians again.
I met an escaped Russian soldier a short time later whose English was as limited as my Russian. Conversing in our limited French, we decided to live together and share what food we could steal. This too was a short arrangement, as one night there was small arms rifle fire nearby and when he left I was alone again to move my shelter further into the bush.
Having lived my life where spruce trees were native and grew abundantly, where summer night breezes played music and all nature seemed content, the sounds coming to my shelter in the dense forests of the Ardennes were vastly different. To me, these winds told of a continent at war, terrible fear and uncertainty, of bloodshed and death.
For four months I had lived mostly in isolation, alone and removed from normal life and activity, and I devoted unlimited time to meditating about spiritual matters. One night as I crept close to a favourite garden waiting for darkness to fall, I heard laughter coming from inside the house and a few numbers of modern music and folk songs being played on a piano, then a piece of classical music with which I was not familiar. Neighbours and friends had gathered together to escape the horrors of war, to enjoy themselves. How I envied them and would have given anything to be a part of their companionship!
By mid-August, the Allies were being successful in driving the faltering forces of the Third Reich back to their own land. The Canadian and British forces were heading up the coast in the direction of Holland, the U.S. Second Army had landed in southern France and with recently organized French forces were headed for the Rhine, the Russians on the eastern front had succeeded in driving the enemy from their homeland as they headed for Berlin and the U.S. Twelfth Army was making good progress en-route to the area of Belgium where I was located. In the near future there was a chance I'd meet the advancing armies.
Belgian resistance authorities, on the advice of the high command in England, started to round up evading allied airmen and as the lone Canadian I found myself in a group of sixteen English, American, Australian and New Zealand evaders. I was the only one in civilian clothes and this was a liability to me because if I was captured, I would have been accused of acting as a spy. I kept my 'dog tags' hidden in a shoe hoping they would be adequate to prove my identity. This was still a dangerous time however and within a few days of being together, one of our group, an Australian, was killed in a confrontation with a German patrol.
The Germans were having difficulty retreating with their heavy equipment. Most tanks trailed great columns of black smoke and many vehicles were abandoned when engines burned out and were beyond repair. It was with much pleasure from our concealed position in the hills that we watched the invincible army of the Third Reich fleeing for the safety of their own border.
In our last confrontation with the enemy, after someone had tipped the Germans of our presence in an old barn, a few of us were still asleep when the alarm sounded early in the morning. Hurriedly, we scrambled into our clothes and left the barn. Oh, if we had only been able to keep our weapons when the resistance authorities had rounded us up! I was not one of the first to leave the barn, having stopped to tie my shoes, but was possibly one of the first through the hedge, after running up the hill and down the other side to reach the woods. By the time the first of us had got to the hedge, the enemy had reached the top of the hill and were firing once more so we lost a few men at this point, four being captured and one killed on the way to the woods.
As was my usual practice, I headed out on my own again, seeking shelter in a huge patch of ferns. I did not think that the patrol would follow us into the woods because they had enough problems of their own but I remember thinking that there could be one more battle and I hoped this to be the last.
By mid-morning [2 September] all was quiet in the woods when I heard footsteps walking past my hiding spot and someone blowing a whistle. I crept out to see a civilian holding a white flag and, as two of my group joined him, I made myself known. The man was a member of the resistance and had been detailed by the Americans to locate our group and lead us to safety. It was all over!
In a small town the Americans had taken over, we were provided with food and beer by the local people and briefly interrogated. The celebration went on all day and as there was no transportation we were contained in a classroom until the following morning. Well rested and bathed, I was given an American battle dress complete with tin hat and I realized that it felt good to be in uniform again. After breakfast, we were told that there was room for one person to go to Paris in the cab of a truck loaded with enemy soldiers and my group insisted that because I had been in Europe longer than the others that I should be the first to go.
I had been given a Paris address where allied evaders needed to report and be documented before proceeding to England and alone, once again, all I wanted to do was return to England and send telegrams home. At the airport, I met a couple of R.A.F. officers who agreed to take me with them to London.
Upon arriving in London on September 9th, nearly five months since my departure, I exchanged my money to sterling and was able to travel to town with an officer who was picking up a high ranking official. It was a brief procedure to be documented and after having been given a room, a meal, a bath and new battle dress I set out to the nearest pub to celebrate my return.