George Duffee
Chapter 1 - Arrival on Squadron - 22 June 1943
I remember well the day - one always does when it is the day of return from leave. I had travelled standing in the corridor of an overcrowded train puffing its way from Kings Cross, London, to York and arriving an hour late. How glorious a week's leave really is and how despondent a soul can be when it is ended. But, this was going to be different, for instead of returning to a Training Unit, I was joining an Operational Bomber Squadron - 78 Squadron based at Breighton in Yorkshire.
After doing the many things one does on arrival at a new station, I approached the Flight Commanders office. To me, the new arrival, the Flight Commander was all I imagined an operational pilot to be - merry, wide-awake looking, brown eyes that spoke of friendliness - a rather roguish-looking moustache above a pair of half-smiling lips. He wore a greasy looking battledress decorated with the ribbons of the D.S.O. and the D.F.C. His dilapidated hat, which I espied thrown in the corner of the office, would have disgraced any parade.
''Well young man!'' he said, ''You will get the opportunity of seeing your first German target tonight!'' I stammered my thanks and retreated to my untidy Nissen hut, there to subdue my excitement and write a letter to my mother, assuring her that I had survived the journey north. Tonight I would see my first enemy target! Visions of bomb scarred London crowded into my mind - visions of my own damaged home, and in my boyish heart, a vehement savagery was born. ''They'' would come to know the suffering that ''They'' had inflicted upon London, Coventry, Rotterdam and Warsaw.
Many things were happening about the aerodrome - huge petrol bowsers were racing out to the aircraft dispersal points, followed by the slow moving tractors pulling miniature train loads of bombs. Air gunners were busily engaged cleaning their beloved guns and wiping the specks of oil from the perspex of their turrets. Armourers stood by supervising the loading of the bombs, while ground crews checked the engines, fuselage and undercarriage of their aircraft, their Halifax bomber. As I hurried to the Briefing Room, the sun was already setting in a cloudless sky.
The Briefing Room was a large Nissen hut in which there were many map covered tables and a huge map of Europe showing the enemy defences, his fighter zones and his searchlight belts occupied half of one of the walls. Soon the air-crews began to drift in - some happy - some gloomy, some visibly nervous and others outwardly calm. They separated themselves into crews and awaited the arrival of the Briefing Officers. Quickly they settled down and the room became full of cigarette smoke and snatches of conversation drifted to my ears - ''The one last night - she was a real popsy'' – etc.
I was to fly as second pilot to a Flight Lieutenant Knight who had completed I think sixteen operational trips. The dreary matter-of-fact voice of the Meteorological Officer came to me '' - very little cloud, slight industrial haze over the target area, moon rises soon after midnight''. The Tactics Officer ''You can expect fighter interception here, heavy flak here, and balloon barrage here'', and the Navigation Officer calling out the speeds and heights at which we were to fly followed by the Wing Commander's final ''Good luck chaps''. I stood by the table occupied by the crew with whom I was to fly and listened to their final preparations. All I was conscious of was the thin red line on the Navigators chart leading to Mulheim in the heart of the strongly defended Ruhr Valley. In the locker room it was the same - I kept wondering what it was really going to be like - trying to anticipate everything. ''Dash it!'' I had forgotten to unpack my flying helmet. There was very little time to spare so I borrowed the first bicycle I could lay my hands on and peddled furiously back to my Nissen hut, returning just in tine to board the crew bus. In the locker room there had been much teasing, a little bickering and I confess a little swearing, but now everyone sat fairly quietly on the bus, swathed in their heavy flying suits and bedecked with many-coloured scarves. On our way out to the aircraft we waved a solemn mocking farewell to the Waafs on their way to their mess for supper.
Thirty tons of Halifax and bomb load raced along the runway and was carried gently upwards into the clear sky of a June night.
Chapter 2 - Shot Down
And so we winged our way eastwards - eastwards to destroy the enemy's war potential, his marshalling yards and his oil refineries. In the gathering darkness I could make out the silhouettes of many other bombers forming a long stream, with their twinkling navigation lights and their dimly lit cockpits.
The first stars began to show in the northern sky as we crossed the east coast. Soon, one by one, those secure friendly navigation lights began to vanish as they were switched off and it seemed as though we were now alone in the night sky with the lights of England fading fast behind us. One did not feel the impulse to speak in an outbound bomber except for the odd perfunctory word. If one was possessed of any imagination foolish thoughts began to enter one's mind. Thoughts turned to the fast receding friendly coast, whilst eyes peered forth into the darkness of the North Sea, where beyond lay the enemy held coast.
Little was said, only the occasional comments of the navigator and the bomb-aimer discussing the accuracy of a radar fix and the cheery voice of the skipper enquiring after the comfort of the rear gunner. Apart from these few words all was silent. How very much alone a man felt at night above the North Sea. The darkness seemed all embracing and one had the feeling of being suspended in mid-air; for there was no sensation of speed.
I peeped across at the skipper, only his eyes were visible under his helmet and above his oxygen mask. He glanced alternately ahead and down to his many instruments. I began peering ahead again anxious and a little excited to see the first signs of the enemy reception. I saw nothing except the multitude of stars like bright jewels glittering in the dark sky - I felt at all times a sense of utter seclusion, imagining rather than feeling the other aircraft flying either side of us.
Occasionally we felt the comforting ''bump'' as another aircraft passed ahead of us; always a good sign. ''What was the time?" - ''What was the date?'' I uncovered my luminous watch and saw that it was 11.15 p.m. and of course the day of my return from leave the 22nd June 1943. ''Was it only this morning that I had kissed my mother - farewell?'' It must have been so - but how strange it was to be 14,000 feet over the North Sea so soon. That was a shocking journey I had had - standing in a smoke-filled corridor for several hours. Still there was a war on, someone had said. Yes there was a war on and we were roaring eastwards to add our small contribution to the Allied victory.
Nothing ahead, only darkness. Darkness and one's own thoughts are cold comfort, another hour passed, an hour that seemed like ten hours. ''Fifty miles to the coast'' - the navigator's voice came coolly over the intercom. I peered ahead again to see strong beams of light brightening the dark sky and small bursts of light showed momentarily below and above them. ''They'' are ready for us, I mused. Nearer and nearer to those searching fingers of light. Brighter and brighter the night sky became, until the whole sky was a panorama of different coloured bursts of light flak and the piercing white beams of the searchlights. There was no sense of seclusion now! - only the exhilarating thrill of being the hunted. Unhurriedly it seemed, those thin fingers of light waved below for ever searching. ''There will be a little activity as you cross the coast'' - I remembered the Wing Commander saying. ''But after that it will be fairly quiet.'" There was no sense of impending danger as we twisted and weaved inland. As suddenly as we had entered the defended zone we found ourselves in the quiet sky above central Holland. Zero hour over the target was 1 a.m. - it was now 12.15 a.m.
The enemy had been well warned of our arrival and had put his fighters in the air between the coast and the target. This was evident from the many bursts of air to air tracer and an aircraft exploding way off to our port. There was little time to think of the fate of the poor devils, for at that moment we ourselves were subjected to an accurate burst of flak, delivered no doubt from a mobile battery – at least one we had not been forewarned about. I had lost a little of my excitement and sat there rather in the nature of a pupil, trying to learn everything from the one experience.
All was quiet again as we flew further inland. ''Hope some of those fellows managed to get out'' I thought to myself - my God - what an end, just to be snuffed out like that. It was then that it all impressed me as a huge game. I was young enough to believe that. A huge grim game with death to the vanquished! This was what I had enlisted for - just to have a crack at the Hun. Soon I would be over my first German target, dropping real bombs on real factories and real marshalling yards. That I may kill some civilians left me unmoved, for I was young and not squeamish. Whether it was morally right or wrong will always be the subject of controversy but speeding towards the target there was little time to think of it. What would it be like? The old excitement gripped me again for anticipation had got the better of me. Another uneventful half-hour slipped by. There was a tenseness now in the crew made evident by the clipped speech of the navigator giving corrections to the course and the rather dramatic voice of the rear gunner.
And then at last I saw it. It was ahead of the aircraft about 20 miles away I estimated - the conflagration of the burning town casting a red glow seen from many miles away. That and the multitude of weaving searchlights combined to make it as bright as day. I could see the many bursts of flak forming a barrage over the target. Fighter flares added their brilliance to the scene and still it seemed like a game. ''They'' must try to keep you away and you must try to get there and of course back again. Nearer and nearer we flew and I began to pick out other aircraft converging on the target.
The Skipper thought it prudent to commence a slight weave for we were entering the outer defences. ''Everyone keep a good look out'' he said. The air was becoming turbulent with the slipstream of countless aircraft as we flew through the spent clouds of smoke left by the exploding shells. Nearer and nearer we flew until it seemed we were hovering over the target. Then we were in the thick of it. There was no excitement now - just the tenseness of determination and purpose. The air became rough with bursting shells and weaving aircraft. I could hear the quiet ''crup! crup!'' as the shells burst close. It was more brilliant than day and I could see the enemy fighters flying above ready to pounce on the unwary bomber. Then dead ahead of us a bomber sustained a direct hit and exploded, showering our aircraft with fragments. Nearer and nearer we crawled to the bright green target indicators, burning 18,000 feet below us. Several large fires had taken hold in the industrial part of the town. It was an inferno of burning shells bursts in the sky, weaving aircraft and searchlight beams jerkily moving above a target already badly mauled. ''All set'' came the bomb-aimers voice from the nose of the aircraft. ''Right'' snapped back the skipper - ''soon be there''. So this was it. Sitting up there, hardly seeming to move and looking out at the angry bursts of flak with their dirty red centres and the white beams of light trying to hold us to be shot at by the hovering squadrons of fighters, I became conscious of a feeling of fear which I angrily dismissed. ''Bomb doors open'' - the bomb-aimers voice was friendly and comforting, imparting confidence in the crew. ''Bomb doors open'' repeated the pilot. ''The devils'' I thought - ''they know the direction of our approach and have plastered the whole area with a seemingly impenetrable barrage of bursting shells''. The aircraft rocked violently. ''Steady'' came the cool voice. ''Keep a good look out above'' - said the pilot. ''Left - left - left'' directed the bomb-aimer, followed by the drawn out ''s-t-e-a-d-y''. It was now too bright to look outside the aircraft. ''Blast those searchlights - why couldn't there have been a little cloud'' I said to myself! ''Steady'' came that voice again. ''Almost there'' - Another minute that seemed to last an hour and then the relief of hearing ''Bombs gone - bomb doors closed''.
''They'' seemed determined that we shouldn't get away so easily and the barrage intensified. The aircraft rocked violently as we twisted and turned through the searchlights. The flak became more spasmodic and the searchlights fewer as we approached the boundary of the defences. Half the job was over - I thought as we turned for home. Little did I know - as we flew westwards with the friendly darkness embracing us. I hadn't noticed before but now I could see the full moon rising high in the night sky. Ten minutes later it happened! The time was about 1.20 a.m. Suddenly - as suddenly as when an electric light is switched on in a room, three searchlights clamped their illuminating beams on to us. The pilot immediately executed a violent weaving manoeuvre, trying to shake off these menacing fingers - but they clung tenaciously to us, while we waited for the accompanying burst of flak. None came. No matter how swiftly we turned, those beams held us – but still no flak. Our chance came as they lost us momentarily and we did a violent turn into the apex of the beam, and were through in an instant into the darker sky. "Nice work skipper" congratulated the rear gunner. Nothing more was said for at that instant a long burst of cannon and machine gun fire raked the starboard wing engines causing them to burst into flames. The position looked grim. The fire could not be subdued and we were spiraling earthwards. "Abandon aircraft" came the now tense voice of the pilot and we all hastened to obey. The aircraft seemed to plunge into a steeper dive and I was thrown violently into the nose. With clawing hands I managed to clip my parachute to my harness, but when I tried to get up I found I couldn't do it, for the force of gravity was pinning me to the floor of the aircraft, which was now plunging at a sickening speed earthwards. Down, down - I couldn't move - I tried but it was quite impossible. I looked up to the cockpit. The pilot was there with his parachute already clipped to his harness and vainly trying to control the sickening dive. It was no use, I resigned myself to my fate and in an instant my mind was filled with thoughts of home, my mother, my childhood and of my old headmaster. In those fleeting moments I seemed to re-live my whole life - and then what after? Soon I would know. The roar had increased to a high pitched shriek as the whole aircraft vibrated and suddenly it shuddered terribly. Momentarily I had lost my senses and thought we had hit the ground and that I was still alive. But no - I tried again to get up but couldn't. I waited - then thought - "Why should I wait to die - when I had only just begun to live?" "Why should I just sit there in resignation?" "Try man" - an inner voice said. "Try; try!" I puffed and strained and struggled to get my knees over the escape hatch and felt the cool blast of air blowing in from the outside. This must have revived me a little and I gathered all my strength and leaned and pushed forwards and downwards. Suddenly all was silent and I was tumbling earthwards ...
Chapter 3 - First Contact
Tumbling - downwards! The silence! - fumbling for the rip-cord. Only the silence - no sensation - rip-cord - rip-cord. Then the slight jerk arresting my downward travel - smoothness; a feeling of floating, gently swaying; a feeling of relief. I breathed my thankfulness to God. The white canopy above me, the unknown below me. Was it all a bad dream? What was I doing hanging suspended in the air gently swaying? Still the silence, - then a ringing in my ears, and as if to break my dream, the violent explosion as the aircraft hit the ground not three miles away. My left glove slipped from my hand and fluttered down into the darkness. Then I consciously discarded the other one as being of no further use. It was all a bad dream and I would wake up in the comfort of my bed. Was it though? I insisted it was - I passionately wanted to believe it was - but with the first glimpse of the bluish moon bathed ground I knew that it wasn't a dream. Nearer and nearer, lower and lower - gently sinking. What was I to do when I hit? - ah yes – the quick release box. I hit the ground heavily and crumpled, the white canopy settled about me. There I lay and again the feeling of being in a dream came to me. This was the soil of England and I was safe. I must do nothing, just lie awhile and think. Noise of aircraft flying high above. Aircraft? - yes that was it - I had been shot down and had baled out - but - it wasn't me, - I was secure in my bed - this was just a flight of my all too vivid imagination. The soil was real! and I could feel the hard lumps of potatoes. Real, real soil and real potatoes and a real parachute now stretched out startlingly white against the dark ground. Real! - ''understand man'' this was no dream, this was happening. What was I to do? "Where was I? What time was it? My watch - where was my watch - I clawed up earth covered potatoes but no watch. Thirty-eight dollars I had paid for it during my training in America. I must find my watch. I became obsessed with the idea - more potatoes but no watch; I must think - I must get away - The strong impulse to get up and run came to me. Slowly normality returned and I began to think more clearly. I heard the soft murmur of aircraft flying high above. I had the feeling that if I stood up, someone would shoot me. Slowly I began to pull on the silk cords of the parachute, bunching it up about me. Still no sudden ringing shot, that would end my life. I thought that I must bury the parachute so I began scooping out a hollow in the soft moist earth and pushed it down into the hole. I lay down again listening - nothing except the faint hum of the aircraft flying away in the distance.
Slowly, inch by inch I began crawling to the comparative safety of the shadowy hedge at the side of the field. It seemed as if many eyes were watching my every move - eyes that were laughing at my futile efforts to escape - eyes that were waiting to sight along a rifle. Reaching the comforting shadows I stood up and looked around me. My parachute and harness had effectively been buried. The dark blue reefer I was wearing I had put over my battledress - effecting a disguise. I felt for my emergency food box and felt the smooth surface of the celluloid casing in my pocket. Now I must walk to put as much distance between myself and the scene of the crash for in the morning I knew that a thorough search would be made covering a radius of ten to fifteen miles. I wondered which way to go and decided to walk westwards for a while and then north-westwards. According to my rough calculation, I was very close to the Dutch-German border, on the Dutch side, I couldn't be sure, hence my decision to strike out westwards.
The bright light of morning found me resting behind the hedge bordering a cornfield. I must have dropped off to sleep for a while, for the sun was fairly high in the sky. The happenings of the previous night came to me in startling clarity. The line of tracer and cannon fire, the aircraft burning and my fight to get out and then falling through space. I remembered the loss of my watch and the potatoes, how I had half-walked and half-run along the narrow dirt paths and across moon bathed fields incurring the displeasure of a farm dog as I skirted round a farm house. I continued to rest there with the bright blue sky above, the rich golden corn on one side and the thick green hedge on the other. ''Life could be much worse'' I mused. I wondered what happened to the rest of the crew - I had seen nothing of them.
All day I stayed there, watching the birds, the swaying corn, the timid field mice and the many ants drawing along pieces of straw. I thought of home and what my family were doing now and did they already know what happened to me. I thought of my friends on the squadron and whether they had missed me yet. I decided to eat nothing that first day and just recline in the sun, storing up my energy for further walking in the night.
I dozed and thought about the happy days I had spent in America during my training and wondered if it would all be wasted and I would soon be thrown into a prison camp. There was no point in thinking torturing thoughts so I just relaxed and waited for darkness. Darkness came and with it an urge to move further westwards. Silently and cautiously I made my way to the road. All was clear so I strode westwards, my flying boots making little noise on the loose earth. I passed sleepy isolated farmhouses through dark menacing woods, over trickling rivulets and across short turfed fields, always with the idea of putting as much distance between myself and any subsequent search party. Every so often I would stop and listen. It was impossible to estimate distance for I changed direction many times. A burning curiosity possessed me but I resisted the temptation to look through the crack of a heavily curtained window of a farmhouse. Light was already beginning to show in the eastern sky and soon the sun would rise heralding another day. Before I went into hiding again I had to find water. I found a stream and dipped my rubber water bag into it. The water was dirty and stinking. I put in a double dose of purifying tablets and with this dripping treasure I sought my second hiding place. Why not another cornfield I thought - and searched for half an hour before I found a convenient spot between a high hedge and the tall corn. The sun rose, warming the earth and the early morning mist swirled around me as I sat down and thought that they would know at home now, there would have been the cold unemotional telegram ... and much crying. I was exhausted, aching in every limb, too tired to eat, so I sipped from my water bag - nauseated by the smell. Then I dropped off to sleep.
I slept soundly and peacefully, undisturbed by dreams and awoke to an unusual sound I could not recognize. Sitting up I peeped through the tiniest part of the hedge and saw two cyclists corning along the road. I was attracted firstly by the fact that both cycles were without tyres - hence the unusual sound and secondly they wore wooden shoes.
Wooden shoes and windmills - that was about all I knew of Holland. That they were Dutch farm labourers I had no doubt and the fact that I was in Holland was extremely pleasant. Another gorgeous summer's day - I was quite enjoying it I decided. Feeling in my emergency food pack I extracted a few horlicks tablets and began to suck them, one at a time. They were very sustaining. Then another drink of the stinking water, followed by the 'sweet' of the meal, a bar of full milk chocolate. It was delicious after the many plain bars of chocolate I had eaten in the past. I then began to chew thoughtfully on a piece of gum. Lying back hands behind my head I began picking out the morning noises. Far away I could hear a train racing along the rails; a lorry changing gear; the mooing of a cow and the faint rush of the wind blowing through the corn. The mist cleared, morning gave way to the warmer noon, noon gave way to the cooler evening and 'ere long the sun glowed red in the west.
And the night came, and with it I must travel further westwards into central Holland. More isolated farmhouses, more barking dogs. Skirting villages and keeping to the shadows. Hiding like a common fugitive and always listening, walking and listening, walking and listening all night long. The bright stars above, the cold light of the moon lighting my way along the narrow footpaths, across the fields and parallel to the main road. The feeling of being followed obsessed me as I pushed on faster. Only the melancholy hoot of an owl and then silence. Hour followed hour, always walking. Exhaustion sent me in search of another hiding place and I found one in the form of a dried up ditch floored with weeds. I slept away the hour before daybreak.
In an instant I was fully awake, heart pounding as a rifle shot still echoed in the woods behind me. I lay very still hardly daring to breathe, my heart still pounding like a hammer. The search party had followed me and were even then searching the wood. behind where I lay, the more nervous one shooting at the least thing believing me to be armed. I peeped cautiously above the level of the road and there not twenty yards away was a German soldier armed with a rifle guarding a camouflaged lorry. One of the invincible ‘Master Race'. He didn't look it. Old, forty I would say; greying hair beneath his cap; gaunt face, a thin neck set upon round shoulders. I must wait quietly until they tired of the search. His comrades, there were five of them, continued their search of the wood and the surrounding countryside. There was another shot. I could hear the soft crunch of their boots as they strolled about. They shouted across to each other as all the time I lay there hardly daring to draw breath. I lay there so still and quiet that a field mouse ran on to my chest, stayed awhile looking at me and then ran down my leg and vanished into the ditch. It was towards six o'clock I estimated before the six of them gathered round the lorry. They had all passed the prime of their years and were not particularly happy looking. There was much nodding of heads and before long they boarded the lorry and made off westwards. I relaxed, my heartbeat returned to normal. I waited yet again for the night.
The first stars began appearing before I left that unforgettable ditch and walked stealthily parallel to the road and westwards. The walking, the lack of adequate food and the excitement of the day made me decide to seek help from one of the numerous farmhouses I passed. Approaching one without the inevitable barking dog I peeped behind the curtain. There in a sparsely furnished room sat a woman sewing and a man eating. No- one else. I would go in and announce my identify. Presuming it more polite if I knocked - I did so, I knocked three short and one long tap on the door. I tried to anticipate their startled look across at each other. Were they expecting visitors? The door was opened by the man. He said something I did not understand so I walked in closing the door behind me. "I am a British pilot'' I said, remembering the phrase from my phrase card. Instantly he was nervous, suspicious. Raising my blue reefer I showed him my flying badge. He slowly uttered the letters R-A-F. He understood, went to his wife and said something. They continued to stare at me nervously. With much difficulty and by using my phrase card again I made known to them that I wanted civilian clothes and shoes, offering my battle dress and flying boots in return. Rummaging in an outer room, the wife produced a pair of old brown trousers, a tattered coat and well worn wooden shoes. She placed these before me. Nothing was said. With no show of embarassment I changed out of my uniform and boots which they accepted. Dressed once more in their old clothes and wooden shoes I uttered my warmest thanks, shook the man by the hand and as quickly as I had entered, departed leaving them to their surprise, their incredulity and their nervousness.
I decided to put a few miles between myself and that friendly farm-house before resting for the remainder of the night. I saw no-one and thought that a haystack would be as good a place to hide as any and there were plenty around. Finding one with a roof over the top, I climbed up, lay down and slept.
I awoke in the morning to the sound of children's voices. The time I estimated to be about 8.50 a.m. From my position on top of the haystack I could see a small group of unaccompanied children, books in hand, making their way along a narrow road towards a small village a quarter of a mile away. Brushing the hay from my hair and clothes I decided to walk behind the children into the village, there to seek further help.
Children, I knew are instinctively inquisitive, but these were so busy chasing each other, they had no eyes for the shock-haired, unshaven, rather tired-looking individual following them. We passed a German soldier. I say we because in such a situation as this I hoped I would be presumed to be either the big brother seeing the children off to school, or else a casual farm-labourer on an errand to the village. The soldier took little notice and so we came into the village of Berlicum where the children disappeared into the school and I ... where? I decided to make a bold move and entered a cafe opposite the school.
Except for a middle aged woman the cafe was deserted. At first she took no notice of me, assuming I was just passing through – then ''What do you want?'' she said. I did not trust myself to speak, but instead made signs that I would like something to eat and drink. At this she was puzzled and suspicious but nevertheless extended a glass of water. She seemed kind and only a little frightened and having drunk the water I produced my phrase card (a useful thing this) and asked her if she spoke English. My pronunciation of Dutch was bad and I repeated it several times. No - she did not speak English but she would fetch the school teacher from the school who did. She left the shop and vanished into the school. Should I stay - I thought - would she bring back a school teacher or would she bring the police? She re-appeared accompanied by a scholarly looking young man (Martin der Kinderen).
"Good morning" he said in good English. His quiet manner, his friendly smile and his good English made me decide to tell him all of the story thus far. He listened patiently, without comment. "How am I to be certain that you are an English pilot?" he said. At this I produced the remnants of my escape-kit - maps, rubber water bag. A few horlicks tablets and a small compass. "No identity discs? No photographs? he asked. I said I had forgotten these in the hurry and excitement of returning from leave and mentally cursed myself for a stupid ass. I also produced chewing gum wrappers and chocolate paper which I had kept, purposely not throwing them away - thus leaving a trail. He spoke to the woman in rapid Dutch, looked across at me, smiled and said in English "Yes I believe you and shall help you".
I was overjoyed at gaining help so soon. He went on to say that I would be hidden on a nearby farm and would wait there until it was safe for me to proceed on my journey. Somehow even then I knew, that by some miraculous chance I had made contact with one of the many wonderful underground organizations in occupied Holland.
Martin den Kinderen told me (after I met him again after the war); that during my interrogation at pistol point, the general opinion was that I should be taken outside and shot. I was in civilian clothes with no identity discs, and could not immediately prove myself. Many of the escape organisations had been decimated by the infiltration of ‘bogus' pilots (or informers); and they would not take any chances. However the good news (for me) was that Martin found me a ‘safe house' while my identity was being checked. My interrogators had taken a vote on whether to take me outside and shoot me. I survived by one vote !
Chapter 4 - Holland
Weeks passed. Weeks of waiting, weeks of tension. For one week I stayed and worked on the farm, sleeping at night in the barn and having my meals in the fields. I welcomed the work for it kept me from thinking too much. When I thought of home, the sorrow, the anxiety, I became depressed and impatient of waiting. After the week of fresh air and hard work I was moved to the confinement of a house in the village of Rosmalen (M. and Mme Volman).
Waiting there became an ordeal. Little exercise, no English literature, and a house full of children who must not know I was there. During the day wasn't too bad because the children were at school and I could move about the house but the evenings were torturous. The children would be downstairs and I would be lying on the bed in the spare room upstairs, keeping as quiet as humanly possible. All the time I was there the children only saw me once, when it was explained to them that I was a distant uncle who was a little 'wrong' in the head. Each night I would hear them say their prayers in the next room, before going to bed. Then I would breathe as quietly as I could and lie quite still until I thought they were asleep and then I would relax slightly. In those many hours of exasperating waiting I began making notes of the thoughts drifting through my mind. Weird, fantastic thoughts, some of them, I picked up the threads of religion, what I believed in and why. I even tried in my elementary way, to diagnose the cause of war, the rights and wrongs of bombing. Long weary hours they were and I began to indulge in day dreams of being whisked off the next night and flown back to England. I cut my own hair, for bringing a barber to the house would have aroused suspicion. The result was ghastly! Food was scarce. The Germans had fleeced the country of most of its dairy produce and vegetables and most of the cattle, leaving the people in dire straights. The house I stayed in was occupied by a middle-aged couple who hated the Germans with a venom that astounded me. Afterwards I learned many things that to my mind justified such a venomous hate. That dear couple became afraid for the children's sake so I was moved to another house in the same village, where I stayed for a further ten days. Ten dreary monotonous days and nights - yes I was safe for the time being but would I ever get back to England? The monotony was broken occasionally by passing regiments of German soldiers – always singing their marching song ''We sail against England''. It was good - the singing, but right then I would have given anything for a good old ''Bless 'em all''!
Then one day a stranger called, announcing himself simply as a 'friend'. He provided me with a false identity card and a little money, then said I was to follow him. It was as simple as abrupt as that. Being glad to get away from the confinement of the house, I raised no objection and followed him. Following him on a borrowed bicycle fifty yards behind we rode into the town of Hertogenbosch. Leaving our bicycles in the bicycle shed we entered the railway station. My heart sank when I observed German Military Policeman at the ticket barrier checking travellers' identity cards. Our tickets fortunately had been purchased previously. After showing his identity card the guide vanished through the barrier. Clutching my ticket I stepped up to the barrier offering my ticket to be clipped. The German policeman eyed me ''Identity card''; he said. I produced it and waited while he perused it. Would he notice any flaw? Would he pull out his pistol and arrest me? I did not know what to think, but just stood there transfixed. The seconds hung ominously. He gave me back the card and I passed through the barrier, quivering a little, but thankful that this first encounter has been successful. There was my guide waiting for me, and we took our seats in the train en route for Nymegan in eastern Holland. The train journey; the strange faces, the strange scenery; pretending to read a newspaper, pretending to be asleep, always avoiding conversation. The ticket barrier at the other end of the journey - the same tension, those same ominous moments and then the happy moment of passing through into the street. Then the ride in a tram with German soldiers on the platform. Many of those green and field grey uniforms. I was getting quite used to them and not feeling quite so nervous.
I was to stay in a room at the back of a chemists shop and wait there before continuing on my journey. It was there I met a young Dutch agricultural student, who because he did not want to go to Germany to work, was forced to go into hiding. He must have been about my own age, 19 years. We got along very well together and we talked of how little I knew about Holland and how little he knew about England. I was sorry to leave there, but it was unwise to stay too long, for the Gestapo had a nasty habit of coming around periodically searching to see if a radio was installed in the house, and in this particular house there was. So I was moved to a monastery two miles into the country and about three miles from the German frontier. How ironic it was to think of all those many miles I walked at night - I was back again nearer to the German frontier, than I was before. But with a big difference, for now I had organized help.
Life in the monastery was anything but dull. Ample exercise was to be had In the spacious grounds surrounding the monastery. Many of the monks spoke a little English and one of them played the violin beautifully. On a clear day it was possible to see the industrial haze hanging like a cloud over the Ruhr valley, and on a clear night one could the flak barrage, the searchlights and the glow of fires.
Soon the stranger came again and I left the monastery, following him on a bicycle as previously, back to the railway station at Nymegan. Leaving our bicycles in a shed outside the station, we entered the station and went through the ordeal of showing our identity cards before being permitted to go through the barrier. There were a few minutes to wait before the arrival of the train, so rather than walk up and down the platform I stood well back from the line, in the shadows. A minute afterwards I was sorry. A German soldier approached me and asked politely, on which platform the 12.07 p.m. would arrive. From my meagre knowledge of Dutch acquired at the monastery I managed to answer ''Platform eight''. He walked away apparently satisfied, but then turned to look at me, but by then I had developed a very keen interest in my pro-German magazine. On the train the same magazine stood me in very good stead for at the sight of a pro-German magazine no-one wished to speak to me. After looking through the magazine, scanning each page as if I were actually reading it and sometimes allowing a smile to play about my lips, I pretended to sleep.
Stopping at an intermediate station I was obliged to offer my seat to a woman. Again I developed a very keen interest in the magazine, never allowing my eyes to leave its pages. And so we, the guide was in the next compartment, arrived at the town of Tilburg in south west Holland. I was to meet a Dutch policeman at the station and had already been furnished with a description of him. Seeing him I shook him by the hand and greeted him like a long-lost friend. The guide had quietly slipped away, giving me no opportunity to thank him. Then followed a long, rather hectic, motorcycle ride along broad highways, through quiet lanes and along narrow dirt paths, finally arriving at a wood three miles from the Dutch-Belgian border.
Leaving the motorcycle hidden in the fringe of the wood we followed a narrow path leading to the more dense part of the wood in which was hidden a small shelter made of pieces of tin, old coats, branches of trees and one or two old sacks. Hiding in the shelter were six people, a Jew and five Dutch students. The Jew had escaped from a nearby concentration camp, the students had resisted going to Germany to work in labour camps. In spite of their rather primitive surroundings and the apparent lack of facilities they looked healthy and clean-shaven. They crawled out from the shelter one by one and shook me by the hand saying they were glad to have me with them. The policeman waved farewell and soon we heard the sound of his motor cycle fading in the distance.
I was to stay there three days, before walking across the frontier. Many hours were spent talking of England, of Holland and of the Germans. They were bitter and their hatred reached almost to the point of fanaticism. Food consisted mainly of oats and fresh milk, bread and occasionally cucumber. My knowledge of the Dutch language increased enormously and soon I was able to carry on a reasonable conversation. At night we would all sit round in the warmth of the shelter talking or reading ourselves to sleep. We were seven people whom the war had thrown together in unusual surroundings, now lying huddled beneath old coats and blankets. By a coincidence one of the students knew the student I had stayed with in Nijmegan, so I was able to provide him with some useful information. The three days passed slowly and on the morning of the fourth day a young man came dressed in the green uniform of a forester (Franz). His arrival was preceded by the sound of his motorcycle. He was to show me to a lightly guarded part of the frontier and pass me across to a waiting Belgian who would accompany me to Brussels. Bidding our ''Goodbye's'' and ''Good Luck's'' to the Jew and the five students we rode off along the narrow dirt road bordering the wood. Well ahead of us was another guide acting as our observer, warning us of any danger. It was well that he was ahead of us for we came upon two German soldiers resting by the roadside. He engaged them in conversation and offered them cigarettes and we were able to pass nearer the frontier without being stopped. We rode to within a mile of the frontier, dismounted, then pushed the motorcycle through fields and behind hedges, arriving at last behind a hedge beside a road. A few minutes later several German guards marched past. We had timed it to a nicety. Hearing their footsteps fade in the distance we dashed quickly through the hedge and across the road, vanishing behind the hedge on the other side.
The forester turned to me and said ''You are now in Belgium''.
Chapter 5 - Belgium
So in that hurried dash across the road I had crossed from Holland into Belgium. It had been easier than I had expected. In my imagination I had envisaged a frontier heavily guarded by soldiers who would shoot at the slightest provocation. But no - only a few unobservant Germans who had passed by, chatting amicably amongst themselves.
We, the guide and I, were to make our way to a house within a mile of the frontier and contact an agent (Karst Smit) who was to accompany me as far as Brussels. Pushing the motorcycle on to a quiet portion of the road we soon covered the distance to the house. The agent I found was a Dutchman who had done the journey from the house to Brussels more than fifty times, each time accompanying either an allied aviator or a Dutchman escaping to England to join forces with the Free Netherlands Army. He was confident and assured me that all would be well.
We set off confident of little interference from the Germans. The motorcycle took us to the small town of Turnhout and from there we were to go by electric tram to Antwerp. On the tram, which was a little less private than a train compartment, I could relax and watch the fields of rich golden corn go sailing past, and the occasional platoon of German infantry. Sitting there as I did, I might well have been on holiday. My clothes were reasonably tidy, I had fed reasonably well and my face was tanned by the recent exposure to the warm summer sun. About me sat old men and old women, young farm labourers and young lasses. One could see in their faces the tiredness, the look of silent passive resistance, born of the long occupation by the Hun. One could see the light of defiance shining in their eyes at the very mention of or sight of the hated Hun. In my stay in Holland I had come to know that no one said ''Thank you'' to the Germans. I had seen with my own eyes adults and young children burning the tunics of the German soldiers with the butt end of cigarettes and obstructing them at every possible opportunity. I had come to know of the savage cruelty of the ''German Green Police'' in Holland, and of the acts of torture that were perpetrated in the crowded Jewish concentration camp near Hertogenbosch.
My fellow travellers talked openly of the coming ''Second Front'', of their faith in it's success and the final destruction of the Nazi war machine. These were the people of a nation that had twice in a quarter of a century been violated by a powerful, relentless enemy. Such thoughts came to me as we rattled along the rails to Antwerp.
At a small village the tram was boarded to crowded capacity by people - mostly housewives and young people, going into Antwerp. As we had decided to alight before the centre of the town, we relinquished our seats and took our stand on the platform. The tram left the village and proceeded on its journey. Suddenly it jolted to a stop and several German Military Police boarded. "Probably going into Antwerp" I thought "for a little pleasure". Then I looked at them again and realized they were not riding as passengers but were even now checking identity cards. I also realized with horror that I had nothing with which to identify myself and, dressed as a civilian, I might possibly be charged as a spy. I glanced across the platform at my companion (Kass Smit) who did not look comfortable either, for his identity card was not a particularly good forgery. "What were we to do"? The tram was already moving at a fast pace and the Germans would surely see us if we jumped off. "We can't stay here and be caught so easily - we must try something'' I thought. Just for a moment the policemen were occupied with a crowd of animated housewives, loudly protesting at the inconvenience. One had said, with an expressive shrug of her shoulders ''British parachutist indeed!" We saw our opportunity and much to the surprise of our fellow platform travellers, leapt from the tram on to the roadway, just managing to keep our feet. ''Had we been observed?'' We waited without turning round, to hear the squeal of brakes, the gutteral voices and then perhaps a pistol shot. But none came. We turned then and saw the tram was already half a mile away. We walked to the nearest cafe and celebrated our good fortune by drinking lemonade. The remainder of the journey to Brussels was without incident. We boarded another tram, alighted a little way from the centre of Antwerp, walked to the railway station and were soon seated on a train speeding towards Brussels. It was strange to find that whereas in Holland there was a German control at the railway station, there was no such control in northern Belgium.
During my time in Brussels I stayed in many different places. A fish shop (Maurice Speliaert) the apartment of a Professor (M et Mme Rene Pirart) the house of a Belgian Intelligence Officer, another apartment (Mme Ann Brusselman) and also the house of an old woman whose husband had been murdered by the Germans for distributing banned newspapers. They were all brave and kind people who made me as comfortable as they possibly could. I was able to wander pretty well as I chose about Brussels seeing the Germans who were on leave drinking the best wine in the smartest cafe and making advances to the unresponsive Belgian girls. I saw the changing of the guard at Military Administrative buildings, the heel clicking, the damnable arrogance of the occupying forces. The German soldiers with cameras taking photographs of the Palace of Justice and the tomb of the 'Unknown Soldier'. German soldiers queuing outside a cinema to see German films. I was tempted to see one myself called ''Stuka!'' but did not.
Speaking with the people with whom I stayed I heard many lamentable stories of loved ones suffering in concentration camps and others who were beyond suffering. I heard of the wandering ''White Brigade'' bands committing acts of sabotage and killing Germans. Mr Churchill broadcast about great things which would happen when the leaves began to fall and I saw the young children going about the streets shaking the trees and making the leaves fall in mid-summer.
It was in Brussels that I met Edward Bridge, a Canadian air gunner who had been shot down some weeks previously after a raid on Aachen. After the trying times and the confinement I was glad to be able to talk to another flyer. I was destined to travel with him all the way down through France, through Spain to Gibraltar. We passed many hours discussing the glorious time we would have when we finally arrived in London. ''When we arrive in London'' - Oh; beautiful thought. Then there was petite Lily (Dumont, now Michou Ugeux), a small good looking girl who quite regularly walked through the streets of Brussels guiding British and American aviators. There were many such as she, unselfish, brave, risking their homes, their very lives to help people who to them were utter strangers. Such a spirit was not acquired. I felt it must have been bred in them. At night as I lay awake I could hear the murmur of high flying bombers, and the guns of Brussels opening up on those who were a little off course. Those were strange nights and sometimes I would wake up not knowing where I was and trying to make out the familiar objects of my own bedroom at home.
Soon the time came for Edward and I to move on. We were furnished with false identity cards and were to be accompanied by a guide (Lily Dumont) from Brussels to Tournai and from there by local train to the small frontier town of Rumes. It was a bleak dismal morning as we walked to the railway station in Brussels. There was a drizzle of rain and crowds of workers going to and fro. Two young healthy looking men cringing beneath the shelter of an umbrella may normally attract attention and an occasional comment, but as we stood outside the station waiting for the guide to purchase the tickets we attracted little attention. Edward and I travelled in the same compartment. To see his serious looking face buried in an open newspaper (German controlled) and to see his eyes wander from left to right of the page and back again was amusing, for he had confessed to me that he could make neither head nor tail of any of it. Along the way the war was much in evidence. Bomb-craters beside the rails, a derelict locomotive bullet scarred and the continual stopping and starting of the train due to fighter intrusion.
There we were sitting there as large as life jogging along towards Tournai and reading German sponsored newspapers as if we had been doing it every day.
There was an hour or so to wait at Tournai for the local train to Rumes So we left the station and in the cool shade of a cafe, slaked our thirst. The absence of German soldiers surprised us and afforded us some relaxation. There had been a few about the station but they had taken little notice of us. The journey from Tournai to Rumes, just two miles from the frontier, was uneventful.
What would it be like crossing from Belgium into France? Would it be as easy and as simple as from Holland into Belgium? We walked along the quiet sunlit lanes less than a mile from the border. We met a few farm labourers and passed them with a polite ''Bonjour''. ''Surely they must know'' I thought, for what else would three strangers be doing so near to the frontier. Perhaps it was a usual occurrence, but I thought not, for travelling without a permit was a serious offence. They must have known, I decided and obviously they said nothing.
A French customs official (Maurice Bricout) strongly pro-British and passionately anti-Vichy was to meet us on the Belgian side and escort us to his house just over on the other side. We were a little late, but he was there waiting at the appointed place, perspiring somewhat in his dark blue uniform. He was very friendly and greeted us warmly. "'Follow me, my friends'' he said and led us along paths and across fields until we came to a large green field. He turned to us and said ''Gentlemen, on the other side of that field is France and soon you will be eating your first meal in France, prepared by my wife (Rachel Bricout) he added. ''Come follow me'' he said and we strode quickly across the field and arrived at the house of our friend the customs official.
Chapter 6 - France
It had all seemed so simple, so easily accomplished that one was left wondering whether the enemy knew anything at all of the smooth working organisation of the underground, of the many underground movements, from those helping Allied personnel, to those actively resisting the enemy. They knew alright, through the efficiency of the Gestapo and very many innocent lives were taken in reprisal.
The customs official was talking ''You will go to Paris'' he said. ''And there at the station somebody will be waiting for you, you must go with him''. Paris! I was to go to Paris. I had never been there before but had always wanted to go and see the boulevard cafes, the Champs Elysee and the Bastille. Strange that I should now get my wish when France was overrun by the Germans.
Edward and I had our first taste of red wine and both agreed that it was bitter but thought it would be impolite to refuse it. Having suitably eaten we bade our 'adieus' to the customs official and his wife and left them at the gate smiling and waving to us. These wonderful people who were risking their lives for me. I would never know their names or address. I met them and left them but I knew in my heart that I would never forget them. (Strictly forbidden to write down names and addresses)
Our companion, an Englishman who had lived in France for many years had helped to organize this part of the route down to Spain. As we strolled along the lane beneath the trees we spoke quietly in English telling him of England during the war, the London shows, the feeling of the people and joined with him in silent prayer for the success of the coming ''Second Front''. We arrived in the village and awaited the arrival of the 'bus that was to take us to Lille where we were to catch a train for Paris. Identity cards were given to us and I found myself the possessor of a flowery French name, though it was easily pronounceable fortunately, and the profession of an architect. Berets had also been given to us by the customs official and as we waited there for the bus, we looked, I hoped, passable Frenchmen. The bus arrived. It was crowded and we were obliged to stand all the way on the long journey to Lille. On the bus was a continual hubbub of rapid French, much too rapid for my elementary grasp of the language, but I felt neither uncomfortable nor strange for I felt I was among friends. My beret was cocked at the correct angle and in my pocket was evidence of my French nationality and a permit to travel to my relatives in Paris.
At Lille station we were obliged to show our identity cards and hand our permits to a German official before being allowed onto the platform. The railway station scene was much the same as an English one. There were the crowds of people, the children looking at the engine, the hiss of steam, the soldiers struggling with their kit, only in this case they wore either field grey or green uniforms and not the familiar khaki; the porter hurrying along closing the carriage doors and the guard looking at his watch and holding a green flag. We managed to find seats and Edward and I once more fell into the routine of reading, looking out of the window and sleeping. Our companion sat in the next compartment. The compartment on the other side of us was reserved for German soldiers going to Paris to spend their leave. All was ready and soon we were speeding away from Lille towards Paris. Paris in the late summer of 1943 under the heel of the invader - what would it be like? How had the Parisiennes reacted to the occupation, would there still be the gaiety that had been the magnet for tourists? No - I found it to be as if a cloak had settled over its streets, casting shadows, shadows over people's minds, blank expressions on their faces and dullness in their eyes. I found an extensive thriving Black Market, where one could, if one had the money, live as luxuriously as in pre-war days. I found cafes full and streets crowded with German soldiers, their advances towards the women meeting with little success. I found a people passionately longing to be free, to enjoy life, to see their children adequately fed; to see their dull shadowed eyes light again with laughter. But there was no laughter, only a dull apathy, a longing for the Second Front, confident of it's success, and then revenge. Vengeance was in their hearts, but they must wait; except for those who actively resisted the Germans, members of the Underground, proud fearless men and women, ready to die for their beloved France. Perplexed, yes they were, by the surrender, but willing to carry the fight underground. Such people were Robert and his wife Georgette.
Edward and I had been introduced to them soon after our arrival in Paris. Robert had accompanied us from the dark station to his home, one of the many flats in a poor quarter of Paris. They already had one guest, an American pilot who had been shot down in the vicinity of Paris. He was from Georgia, big and friendly and very much at home. We stayed in Paris for ten days. Ten days of eating food off the Black Market at an exorbitant price. Days of listening to Robert playing his accordion with a dreamy look on his face and a cigarette drooping from his lips. There was a radio and during the day and in the evenings we sat huddled round it straining our ears to hear the news in English.
During some of the evenings Robert and I would walk the streets, saying nothing to each other, but conscious of the bond of friendship that had sprung between us. There were card games played and impromptu lessons in English and French. During the sixth day there was a daylight air raid. The sirens were sounded, people flocked to doors and windows, policemen ran about blowing whistles and soon American bombers appeared overhead, dodging the puffs of flak and beating off the fighter aircraft. People were ushered indoors, but that only increased the number of faces at the windows, and the volume of cheering when what was thought to be a German plane was shot down. Soon the sky was filled with noise, the confused pattern of vapour trails, the sound of cannon fire and the answering lighter note of machine-gun fire. Parachutes could be seen, and a crippled American bomber falling behind the main formation and being attacked by three Hun fighters.
It was soon over and people again flocked into the streets and collected in groups. The target, I found out later, was the aerodrome in the vicinity of Paris, factories and marshalling yards. Many Frenchmen had been killed and yet there we were sheltering beneath the roof of one of them, so that one day we could get back and help to fight.
When one is waiting, time always seems to pass at half it's usual speed. Ten days seemed like ten weeks, Edward, Bob the American and I spent many hours talking over just what we were going to do when we did finally get back to England. We planned a celebration of our re-union in London and cut cards to see which one would pay for the food, the entertainment, the taxis and the incidentals! I was to pay for the food, Edward, the entertainment and Bob the taxis and incidentals.
I had travelled thus far with little trouble, but could it last? The people in the south of France we had heard, were less pro-British and more pro-Vichy - how would they treat us?
The next part of the journey can be described as luxurious. Edward and I were to travel with a middle-aged woman as our guide and were to catch the overnight train from Paris to Bordeaux, for which a special permit was necessary. Reservations on the train had already been made. During our stay in Paris we had memorized the details of our identity cards and business, just in case anything went wrong. We bade our farewells to Robert and his wife and Bob and said we would see them soon. We walked to the railway station in the gathering darkness.
Police were at the barrier and our identity cards were demanded for perusal. All was in order and we took our seats, which fortunately were corner seats. Our guide as usual was in the next compartment. The crowd in our compartment, rather like the English, sat in stolid silence. We tried to sleep but were afraid to, lest we talked in our sleep or on waking uttered something in English before our senses were fully alert. So we sat huddled in our corner seats, pretending to be asleep until the light of dawn showed in the sky. With the dawn came the conversation. An oldish fellow, red-faced and wearing a beret asked me if I had slept well. I said ''Oui, merci monsieur'' and then became very interested in the passing countryside. At seven in the morning we arrived at Bordeaux. Another guide was waiting there for us. He had been described to us, but we were not to acknowledge recognition, but just follow him doing as he did. He was a young man of about twenty-eight, bright eyed and alert looking and we found him waiting for us. He saw us and proceeded to change to another platform where a local train was waiting to take us further south to the small town off Dax, about twenty miles north of the Spanish frontier. Smiling our goodbyes to our previous guide we followed the new one and soon we were seated in the train. All went very smoothly. The day was warm, the compartment crowded as we puffed slowly southwards through country-side little marked by war. We passed gangs of coloured P.O.Ws who were building a railway line and doing forestry work. The train stopped at many intermediate stations but no-one boarded or alighted from our compartment. Edward pretended to be asleep in the corner. The other occupants looked to me as though they might be farm labourers except for two young fellows in the other corner who seemed to eye me with some curiosity. There was something about them that made me decide that they were not Frenchmen, the tilt of their berets, their silence and their nervousness. Possibly Edward and I looked the same to them. I hadn't thought of that. They left the train with us at Dax and waited about as we did, and walked outside the station as we did! They must be two more of the boys crossing into Spain and this guide was to accompany the four of us. From the bicycle shed outside the station we took bicycles that had been left there for us. We set off following the guide through the streets of Dax, the guide ahead then the other two and Edward and I bringing up the rear. The advent of five young strangers to the town brought few curious glances and soon we were cycling along the quiet country lanes, with golden corn in the fields either side. We cycled for about an hour and a half with roughly a half mile distance between us and the other two and the guide a further half mile ahead. We came to a bridge by which stood a German sentry. He looked at the guide as he passed over the bridge, then looked at the other two. Surely he would stop us and we would be forced to use our elementary French. As we approached the bridge we kept our eyes on the road ahead, not daring to look at the sentry. As we passed him I could just see him out of the corner of my eye and though he looked surprised he did not stop us.
We were very warm and a little exhausted, having had little opportunity in the past for exercise and were relieved to see the two ahead turn onto a road leading to a wood. Hiding our bicycles we gathered together in a thick part of the wood. Sandwiches were produced and a bottle of tea and we sat down and got acquainted. Harry was a navigator from London who had been shot down four weeks previously following a raid on Dortmund. Bill was a Canadian pilot who had run into a balloon barrage over Aachen six weeks previously. The guide explained that we were to cycle to St Jean de Luz and stay there one night before crossing the Pyrenees into Spain. He also said that he would be coming with us. When we had rested we retrieved our hidden bicycles, made our way on to the road again and continued our journey, Edward and I in the rear as before. Rounding a bend in the road we came to a small pretty village. The guide and the other two rode through and disappeared around another bend in the road. Edward and I were about to follow them when a gendarme came rushing out from the verge of the road and shouted "Halt!" We halted, whilst the others had passed safely through. He approached us, his hand conveniently near the holster containing: his revolver. Edward's face had paled, my heart sank and I silently cursed our ill-luck, having travelled thus far, to be caught almost at the end of the journey.
"What are you doing here?" he demanded. Edward looked to me to be spokesman and I answered "We are on a holiday". From the way he looked at me and following my elementary rendering of French I knew that he did not believe me. "Your identity cards" he demanded. We produced them and then he wanted to know what we were doing so far away from our address in the northern part of France. "We are on a cycling holiday" I repeated patting my bicycle. "Are you Germans?" he asked next for it was obvious that we were not Frenchmen. What was I to answer? Should I say that we were Germans in the hope that he was pro-German and say that we were deserting to Spain, or should I risk telling him the truth? "Yes we are Germans" I said "Deserting to Spain." "You must come with me" he said in an authoritative voice. We were sufficiently near him to stop him using his pistol and having travelled thus far, we were certainly not going with him. Edward and I silently agreed on this point. What could I lose if now I told him the truth! If he still insisted that we go with him then we must dispose of him. I extended my arm to touch his shoulder and said in French, "We are English pilots" and I added an enthusiastic "Vive la France". I then offered him my hand. He took it and shook it warmly. "Then you are crossing to Spain?" he asked and I said we were. We wanted to leave him there and then, for the others must have been miles away and soon it would be dark. He was overjoyed and his dark face was wreathed in smiles. "Come" he said "You must drink with me". We both made some show of protest, but allowed him to usher us to his home, the police house, and to be introduced to his friends. The wine was brought out and a hasty toast was made "To France - to England" and "To the success of the war". Explaining that we could stay no longer and with a final "Vive la France" we left them and disappeared around the bend at the end of the village. What next? Surely the others must soon find out that we were not following them and would come back looking for us. We decided to go no further, but to wait by the roadside, in the hope that they would come back for us or failing that to wait for nightfall and then start climbing the Pyrenees, the dark silhouettes of which we could see about five miles away. We waited, the sun was already sinking in the western sky. They must have missed us and we would have to go on alone. Then we saw the guide pedaling slowly back in the opposite direction searching for us. Edward called to him quietly from the roadside. The guide stopped and then came over to us. ''I thought you two had been caught'' he said. We described our little experience to him and enquired of the other two. They had been hidden in an inn (the Larre restaurant in Anglet) about three miles further on where we were all to spend the night and in the early morning to cycle to St Jean de Luz. We found them at the inn, fed and refreshed and in a merry mood. They were overjoyed to see us and congratulated us on our good luck.
Before it was light next morning we were up and away along a quiet narrow road through St Jean de Luz to Ciboure arriving there to the safety of a friendly house before the town had awakened. From the window we could see the sea and the coastal defences and many German soldiers. At the house we met yet another pilot, a South African (James Allison) who had made a forced landing in Northern France, only three weeks previously.
It was not safe to have so many of us staying there so that night we were to cross the Pyrenees, with an expert guide who was to call for us as soon as it was dark. Most of that day we spent resting for we were tired after our cycle ride and wanted to store energy for the night's walk. The mountain guide (Florentino) came and brought with him several pairs of canvas shoes that would make little noise whilst we were walking. He asked us to empty our pockets of any French money that we might have, for if we were caught in Spain we could be legally charged with currency smuggling and it de difficult for the British Consul to get us out of prison. All was ready and collecting in the doorway we bade our hostess (Catalina Aguirre) goodbye and our previous guide (Jean-Francois Nothomb) who had travelled with us from Bordeaux, came with us to visit the British authorities in San Sebastian.
The night was dark and there was drizzle in the air. It became difficult to see the man in front of me. There were seven of us and we held hands, helping each other up the slopes of the foothills. For hours we struggled upwards, along narrow paths, known only to a few, across fast flowing streams that soaked us to the skin. Little was said as we struggled onwards hour after hour. The drizzle ceased, the clouds rolled away and we were able to see the majestic silhouette of the mountains against the starry sky. There were both German and Spanish patrols in the mountains and it was common knowledge that if one was caught by the Spanish guards, even though on the Spanish side of the frontier, one would be handed back to the German guards. Up and up treading in the footstep of the man in front, not knowing what was on either side, except the all-embracing darkness. A stream we had to cross, which was normally shallow and sluggish had swollen to a fast flowing river (the Bidassoa) much too dangerous to walk across. There was nothing for it but to use the bridge which was guarded.
A light was showing in the hut at the end of the narrow suspension bridge spanning the river. At intervals of two minutes we crept silently across, very slowly so as not to start the bridge swaying. Those were anxious moments waiting until it was my turn to cross over. All were safely over and we proceeded on our way. Another heavy downpour of rain, again soaking our clothes which had dried through our exertions. At one point we seemed almost to climb vertically and only managed to keep going by clutching small bushes that cut our hands and scratched our legs and faces. Soon we were half-walking, half stumbling downwards and suddenly below us, miles below it seemed, shone the lights of Spain, that meant to us Freedom! A few more minutes and we had crossed from the territory of France into the territory of Spain. But we were not safe yet. There would be Spanish guards to dodge and already it was getting light.
Chapter 7 - Spain and Freedom
Our troubles were by no means over for the Spaniards had a nasty habit of clamping people into filthy, lice-ridden jails, there to rot until the formalities had been completed. We most certainly did not look like Spaniards, being predominantly fair. We supped and breakfasted in a house shown to us by our guide, washed our tortured feet and surveyed our many scratches. The Canadian pilot's feet were blistered and bleeding but he assured us it was worth it. The crossing had taken fourteen hours of continuous walking.
The British Consulate in San Sebastian had been forewarned of our arrival and arranged for an embassy car to take us direct to Madrid driving through the night. This proved to be the most dangerous part of our long journey for the Spanish driver lolled sleepily over the steering wheel and it was only by our constant prodding and unmelodious singing that we managed to keep his eyes from closing. As it was we narrowly missed several trees and quite a few cows in the road.
In Madrid there was a regular community of aviators who had either evaded or had escaped from prisoner-of-war camps. Our stay in the luxury of Madrid was however short and after a day we were driven down to the port of Seville in the south west part of Spain.
We were to pose as the drunken members of the crew of a Dutch ship bound for Gibraltar. The seaman who was to show us the way, we met in a disreputable bar, sipping whisky. Judging by the brightness of his eyes and the unsteadiness of his voice, he seemed to have carried the pose to extremes. We followed his example, imitating his roll and joining in singing lusty sea-shanties, passing; along the quayside, up the gangplank, past the Spanish dock police and onto the ship. Before being allowed to leave port the ship was subjected to a thorough search, but by then we were safely hidden in the hold. Food was plentiful, books were available and though we were on the ship for four days before it sailed the time passed fairly quickly. Course was set southwards and in a day we had sailed through the Straits of Gibraltar, could see ''The Rock'' and knew that at last we were safe.
After dropping anchor in Gibraltar harbour we were taken ashore and driven to the airport. In our tattered clothes and with our manly growth of beards we approached the Wing Commander in charge of flying and explained our position to him and our desire to get back to England. He arranged uniforms, toilet articles for us and seats on the aircraft leaving for England the following night. That gave us a day to go shopping and we bought as many bananas as we could carry and a few pairs of silk stockings from our advance of pay which we had received. The next night found us seated in the darkened fuselage of a Dakota, over the Bay of Biscay flying northwards to England and freedom.
I arrived home on the 12th October 1943 having been away for nearly four months. It was with deep sorrow on my return I learned of the fate that had befallen the rest of the crew. Five members had been killed and two had been taken prisoner. After a short spell of leave I was asked to tour R.A.F. stations to talk to aircrews about escape and evasion and to assure them that if they had the misfortune to be shot down, there were many courageous members of the Resistance within Occupied Europe waiting to help them.
Subsequently I returned to my old Squadron and completed a further 39 operations, always remembering with gratitude those brave and wonderful people whose help had enabled me to return and to continue the fight.
F/Lt George Duffee DFC - India - 1946
Post Script
In 1947, I returned to Brussels with my wife and again stayed with Professor and Mme Pirart and through them met Andrée de Jongh and her friend Germaine, a fellow survivor of Ravensbruck. We continued to visit our Comete helpers in Brussels every year, together with other members of the Royal Air Forces Escaping Society, until it was disbanded in 1995.
In 1951, this time with our son Tim, we returned to St Jean de Luz and stayed at Kattalin Aguirre's house in Cibourre and in 1955, I was once again walking over the Pyrennees with Florentino. We still visit St Jean de Luz to this day and together with Lily Dumont's sister Nadine, lay wreaths on the graves of Kattalin and Florentino whilst the younger members of our families walk over the Pyrennees together.
In 1955, my young brother-in-law visited the Netherlands on a student exchange and called in to see Martin der Kinderen, my first contact in occupied Holland. He was treated to a ride on the same bicycle which had been lent to me and returned with a message that we should visit Martin. This was the beginning of a lifelong friendship which culminated in Martin celebrating his 80th birthday with us in Spain. This year, his daughter Uus joined us for the Escape Lines Memorial Society annual reunion dinner in York.
Captain George Duffee - Aberaeron - 2013