In March 2015, Paul Foster emailed to tell me that his father, Sgt H Foster, had written an article for his Regimental Chronicle about his escape from France – did I know of him? I said that I did but would welcome any further details. Paul then sent me the text of the story and a few days later, Harry's grand-son, Mark Pugh in Maryland, sent me a scan of the original (but undated) article from the South Lancashire Regimental Chronicle. I have used the original text and added some additional detail from my own research.
Escape - by Sergeant Henry Foster
This page posted 03 Apr 2015
May 10th 1940 … What a lovely summer's day and me about to board the ship for 10 days leave in Blighty. As I was going up the gangway I heard someone say that the Germans had broken through. I thought, “Well, what of it … we have had rather a ‘cushy' six months and it was bound to happen sooner or later.”
I would have been shocked and crestfallen had I have known how soon for me it was going to start. Sunning myself on the deck, life felt just grand, and everyone aboard was in high spirits, as apart from the beautiful day we had a stock of choice French wines in our packs. I lay back and daydreamed at the prospect of sleeping in my own bed at home again, after beds on the floors of factories, stables, cow byres, and so on.
Towards noon that day we were passing the Isle of Wight, when to our consternation and wonder, the ship turned completely around and commenced to make a beeline for the coast of France. Our escorting destroyer swerved to port, and the single aircraft above went straight on for home.
Everyone on board commenced talking all at once. The know-alls said we were being chased by a submarine, or we were making for another port such as Dover, Plymouth, etc. Nearly every port in Britain was mentioned before we realized we were heading for the French coast. It was pitiful to see the expressions on the people's faces, and I don't suppose mine was different to the others. I actually saw the nurses crying with disappointment, and I had a sickening feeling in the pit of my stomach. Little did I then realize then that within a few months my wife was to be informed that her allowance was to cease from a certain date and she would then be entitled to another form of ‘allowance'.
Eventually we arrived at Cherbourg in the late afternoon of the same day and were met by a host of ‘brass hats' and officials. They certainly showed their sympathy for us, and to my reckoning, they did everything possible to make us forget our setback. We were marched into a large building that had been laid out like a huge café, and were feted extremely well. I thought it was all part of the plan to make us forget. After we had made good use of the ‘spread', we were marched back again to the trains that were waiting at the platforms to return us to our destinations. Before we reached them however, a good many of us, including myself, went to ‘work' on the liberal amount of wines we nearly had taken home. However, when I eventually reached my destination, I was my old self again, and am of the opinion that it is common to all British soldiers to forget the past quickly, especially if it has been against them. Back at base everyone was marching about making preparations for heavens knows where. I fell in with ‘gusto‘ ... but after two weeks of this the boredom returned. You see, I happened to be one of the party whose job it was to assist in getting someone else off, but my chance never appeared to come. It did come near the end of May, and we were all quickly put into formations and dumped in horse boxes (they do have them on French trains). It seemed to me that we were going up and down France for days without ever getting off the train. Actually it was two and a half days and we had the odd stop at sidings where a couple of French soldiers would open our box and shove in a couple of urns of black coffee. We had plenty of rations ourselves. The box would be opened again, the urns taken out, and we just had to wait until the box was locked again. Eventually, we insisted on getting out to have a leg stretch.
On arrival at our destination we at once made preparations to defend crossroads and erect roadblocks round a given area. This lasted for two days. We were then given orders to pack up and move to Forges, about thirty kilometres away. As we had to march with all our kit, we were very glad when we arrived.
Again, we were destined for more roadblocks and mine laying. I do believe we laid more mines there than any other place in the war. We had to lay them for a good area in the fields surrounding the crossroads, but it happened that the farmers also wanted to use the fields, that with the result that as fast as we put them in, a farmer would come along with his cart and we had to take them out again. It became so obvious where the mines were that I was sure a blind man could step over them in the dark. Days crept on and things were happening elsewhere of which we had no knowledge. Then things began to happen around us. Late one afternoon our ration truck stopped outside the shed we were using as a cookhouse. Two German planes came low over us and dropped a couple of bombs which fell plumb in the centre of a field where our mine dump was. Fortunately, the bombs fell wide and the most we had was a little shaking. We were left alone for a couple of days, and then in an evening of early June, a large convoy of retiring French troops passed through us. They were a sorry sight and looked as though they had been on the move for several days. They gave us to understand that the Jerries were close behind them.
About 2300 hours that night, we were told to pack up and make for La Haye (La-Haye-en-Lyons). We were informed that it was a considerable distance away, and as we had no transport, we were to get there by the quickest and best means, taking as much ammunition and rations as we could.
On the line of march, other sections and platoons began to join in. They consisted of almost every unit of the British Army and it appeared to me as though all the troops in the Forges-les-Eaux area were to join in the march so that all would arrive at the same place at the same time.
About 0730 hours, it was reported that a number of tanks had been seen in side roads along the line of march, and as no orders had been given regarding them we continued the march. A lot of people would be alive now if more notice had been taken of the ‘rumoured' tanks. Presently we came to a large farm which obviously had been earmarked as a resting place. We were allotted stables, barns, etc., as quarters, and as we had been on the march for a considerable number of hours, I don't suppose anyone would have minded if they had been lying on broken bottles so long as they could lay down. It seemed as though I had just closed my eyes when hell let loose. Screaming bullets appeared to be everywhere, and I made a dash for the door, falling and stumbling over men and kit. In the rush, I got jammed in the doorway with men who were bleeding. When I eventually got into the yard, the sight I saw almost made me feel sick. Men were lying on the ground, some twisting and turning in agony. Others were pouring out of the stables or wherever they had been sleeping, nearly all of them wounded. Those who were unharmed, like myself, went to ground at once behind what solid cover we could find. From behind cover we saw a number of light tanks racing around the outside of the farm firing their guns into all the building as they passed them. Those who have served in France know that most of the French farm outbuildings are thin and mostly made of mud and waddle. We surmised, and I believe quite correctly, that the tanks which were seen on the side roads had been tracking us and waiting for an opening. When it was known that we had bedded down and had sufficient time to get to sleep, the tanks had approached as silently as they could and commenced their attack. One tank singled out one building, and at a given signal had opened fire with every weapon at it's disposal. The tanks then moved off, racing round the farm and firing into every building as they passed.
This was the scene as I saw it from my position, and looking back it puts me in mind of the Wild West days when the Red Indians circled the settlers wagons. Those who were able managed to gather a couple of rifles and two Bren guns which were near to a corporal of the Loyals and myself. The corporal managed to crawl over to where he said he knew there was a anti-tank gun. He was right, but unfortunately we were unable to use the gun as two dead bodies, a sorry sight, were lying across it. We were able to get back to a party which was firing after the tanks, which had now started to move across country … not that the fire from our few weapons was very effective. There is no doubt that the Boche had run out of ammunition. Having posted two lookouts to give us warning of the return of the enemy, we all went back to see what we could do for the wounded and others. We did what we could and suddenly the lookouts shouted that the enemy was returning. I thought then that if the normal precautions had been taken the previous night, all the slaughter might have been avoided.
We hastily made the wounded who were unable to walk as comfortable as we could and then went to the open fields. For cover we used dead cattle, hedgerows and whatever we could find until we were about 400 yards from the farm. I prayed that the Germans were humane enough to give our men in the farm medical attention. As we were a mixed party from the Base Details, I did not know any of them very well and never saw them again.
From our positions in the field we saw that the enemy had occupied the farm and we remained at the ‘ready' in case the Germans came to look for survivors. He appeared however to be quite satisfied with his job of work. From our place of hiding we noticed that all transport on the road was German.
We now had time to look around and find out how many of us were left. Besides myself, there were two officers, one corporal, one lance-corporal and 23 privates, and at this time none of us knew one another. We looked a weary, dirty and shaken a lot as one could ever wish to meet on that sunny morning. We decided there was little we could do for the moment as the area was dominated by the enemy, especially the roads. On checking our weapons and ammunition we found that we had two pistols, 19 rifles and about 150 rounds of .303. We lay in the ditch all that day, hungry and thirsty, as all our ratiuons had been left at the farm. We decided to wait for nightfall to effect our escape. While debating what we were going to do, we heard a volley fired in our direction, and at once came to the conclusion that we had been spotted. We at once got into firing positions and to what cover the ground would afford and prepared to try and stop whatever was coming for us. To our amazement one of our own men came running from the direction of the farm. He fell about 100 yards from us and began to crawl towards us, and we saw at once that he was one of the 23 privates we had already checked in. The first words he spoke were to say that he had been shot; this I was very doubtful about as he showed no signs of having been wounded. He looked frightened and on being asked where he was shot he turned around and sure enough there was the neatest little hole you could ever wish to clap your eyes on beneath the collar of his B.D. jacket. That was all we required for the moment as our attention was directed towards the enemy in case he had been followed. As he hadn't, we posted two sentries to keep watch and got to work on the man who had been shot. We used his field dressing thinking it was a miracle that he had managed to reach us. Knowing that he should have been with us in the field, we asked him why on earth he had gone back to the farm. He replied that he had seen a water pump this side of the farm, and knowing that he would be refused permission to go out and get water, he took it into his own hands to crawl back. Having got to the pump, he filled his water bottle and was about to turn away when shots rang out. Knowing he had been hit, he dropped the water bottle and ran in our direction.
Although we felt sorry for him we gave him a piece of our mind in true soldiers' language, as his action might have been the cause of us all being shot up. What had been done, however had been done … no good crying over spilt milk (or water), but for the rest of the day we were on the alert and kept a good lookout. There was plenty of activity at the farm; cars were coming and going all the time, and I expect that some of them were taking our wounded away. It was a boiling hot day and as we waited for nightfall, I thought what a pity it was that the man hadn't succeeded in bringing some water.
About 2230 hours we decided it was dark enough to make our getaway. We marched all night feeling very hungry and thirsty, and as dawn was breaking we spotted, as we rightly thought, a farm worker on his way to work. He was most surprised to see us and having stopped him, we managed to get out of him that most of France was occupied and that all the Channel ports were closed. He gave us to understand that all British troops had left France and that if he was caught speaking to us he would have his head cut off, judging by the number of times he passed his hand across his throat. We decided that we must continue heading south and little did I realize that it was going to take me a couple of years to get there.
Hunger soon got the better of us and we decided to ask for food at the first farm we came to. The first one we saw appeared to be very quiet as we looked down on it from where we were, and two of us decided to go down and try out our French. Having in mind the incident of the water bottle, we crept cautiously towards what seemed to be the back door. Lucky for us we took precautions, for as soon as we were going to cross the open space to the door, it began to open and we saw plainly the backs of two green-grey uniforms. We went to ground at once as we could neither advance nor retreat, but we managed to notice that they were speaking to another German inside. I was beginning to get a touch of cramp and I thought the Boche would never stop talking, but just as I was about to move my position owing to the pain, the Boche left and went across to a large closed-in shed. This gave us an opportunity to move into a better place of cover, but we had to stay there in case the Germans returned. Presently we heard a motor-cycle starting up and out of the shed came a motor-cycle combination and went off. We quickly decided that there would be no food for us at that place, so we crawled back to the others very disappointed. They knew what had happened as they could look down on the farm. We began to move away, but did not get very far when we had to go to ground again, for there were about 10 enemy cars of all descriptions turning into the farmyard. From now on we had to be most cautious wherever we were going to ask in future.
We commenced crawling and walking whenever we could until we came to the next farm. This happened after a couple of hours, and we were fortunate in getting some information from a woman. She said the place was not occupied by Germans and would go and ask for food for us. We were beginning to get tired of waiting, when lo and behold, she came back with her apron full of eggs, cheese and loaves of bread. Thankful as we were for it, it was far from enough to go around, even by sharing an uncooked egg among four of us. The food situation was going to be our bogey, as we knew we would never get sufficient food at any farmhouse to feed a party the strength of a platoon.
As the place was ‘alive' with Germans we decided to break up into small groups and try and get out of the country as quickly as we could. This was the answer to the all important point of food and movement. By this time the man who had been shot in the neck was looking very grim, so before we broke up we asked him if he was willing to take his chance or would he rather wish we find someone who could take care of him. I am sure lots of French people would only have been too glad to look after him. He decided to take his chance, and whatever party he was with would look out for medical attention for him. We then broke up into small parties, letting each man select his own party so that he could be with his pals. That being settled, we decided to leave in two hour intervals, each party being instructed to keep going south. My party, the third, moved off at 1800 hours.
Here, I may mention that I have very little recollection of the names of places and dates, as all our time was taken up by walking, walking, walking, foraging for food and smoking anything from chopped hay to green leaves.
Accounts vary slightly but this was on about 16 June 1940 and the party consisted of 2/Lt B R Fairclough (446) 2/Lt A G Duff (later to die at Gibraltar) Pte A Westwell (DetW) Pte S A Jones (1004) Pte H Southern (393) and Pte Place.
If anyone ever tells you that eating raw potatoes is tasty, have them locked up in a tinned food store without a tin opener. We found that evening was always the best time to ask for food at farmhouses, as the soup pot was nearly always boiling, and we usually finished up in a barn with a couple of blankets wrapped round us, which was much better than sleeping in the open. On the other hand, we did not receive hospitality all the time, and although we felt rather sore about it, on looking back I can understand the fear of those French people who did not help us, as we were wearing our uniforms and carrying rifles. They told us that the Germans had issued orders that any civilian harbouring or assisting British soldiers would be executed. To those that did help us I have nothing but admiration for their courage and humanity.
This sort of existence went on for longer than I care to remember, and after perhaps two weeks we came to the River Seine not far from Le Havre. Here, for me, was one of the most unhappy events of the journey. The bridges over the river had been destroyed and the river itself was strewn with wreckage, black oil and dead fish. We looked in vain for some kind of craft that would take us across, and at last we came to the conclusion that the only way was to make a raft; this was easier said than done. We came to a garage which, though sadly neglected, looked as though it would provide just the things we needed. There were two swinging doors 12 feet by 6 feet and a quantity of oil drums. The garage was in rather an awkward place, being situated on the road which ran parallel to the river and being used extensively by German transport. We decided it would not take long to make our raft, and posted one man to keep watch from a crack in the river wall; this gave him a good view of the road and he could warn us of approaching traffic by giving a whistle.
We made the raft and decided to lay up until dark, and hoped that our luck would hold out. Evening came and we prepared to move our raft, no easy task with the weight and the continual warning whistle of our lookout. At times he whistled so frequently that we thought he was trying to be funny, but the stream of transport convinced us of his caution. We had difficulty in finding sufficient binding material for our raft and had to use rifle slings, old rope, rag, or anything else that we could find. Finally, after a lot of swearing and with great trepidation we moved the raft to the river at about 2230 hours. It was the funniest raft you ever saw, and because of the weight it was most awkward to carry. I often wonder what would have happened had a car passed during our passage across the road, especially when the raft nearly fell to pieces. Just as we were about to launch it, two oil drums fell off and we lost a valuable hour in making repairs. At last all was ready, and we stripped naked , wrapping our rifles and clothing in gas-capes, to be placed on the raft. Of the party of six only two could swim, and it was arranged that these two would enter the water and guide the raft across the 120 yards of river, while the remainder were to get aboard and paddle across with their hands. We pushed the raft out until we were up to our chest in water, and struggled on one at a time. By this time we were covered in thick black oil. There was a good moon and we could see quite plainly, but suddenly when we were about 40 yards out the raft gave a sudden drop of about three feet and all our belongings were washed away. It was galling to see the floating downstream. The load having been lightened the raft rose until it was only about one foot under the water. The moon suddenly went behind a cloud, and as we had little confidence in our raft, we paddled like hell to reach the opposite bank. It was now quite dark and our raft was being carried off course. Suddenly it gave an alarming drop and the right rear end seemed to go right under. We were now almost completely covered in oil, and during this nightmare journey the whole of my past floated before me. After a very frightening, and what appeared to be an endless time, we reached the bank and crawled up the oily, slippery rocks, cut and bleeding in several places. Then to our horror, we found that one man was missing; no one knew how as we had heard no cries for help. We took a chance and called out his name several times but received no answer. Pte Place (South Lancashire Regiment) is reported as drowned in this incident.
The moon came out, and seeing an object in the water we thought it was our lost comrade, but it turned out to be one of our oil drums which had broken away, and having awaited awhile we commenced to take stock of ourselves. We were as motley a crowd as you would wish to see and looked like savages in war-paint. We removed some of the oil as best we could with grass and decided to trek across country until we came to a farm. This was no easy task over broken country and our feet became badly cut.
We eventually reached a farmhouse and knocked … nothing happened. We knocked again and still nothing happened. Then curtains were cautiously drawn aside and a woman's face appeared at the window. She looked at us with horror in her eyes and gave a most piercing scream. She continued screaming and ran out of the house and up the road. I was horrified … but then what would you have done had you seen five naked men, covered in black oil, standing at your door in a lonely place at 4 o'clock in the morning?
In desperation we stood our ground awaiting results. Presently the woman returned with about ten men, carrying all sorts of implements as weapons. One of us managed to stammer out who we were and how we came to be in the condition they had found us. They had a good look at us, raising their lanterns to our faces, and after a lot of nodding and waving of hands they believed us. We were then hustled into a hay shed where buckets of hot water and rags were brought. After removing most of the oil, and looking a little cleaner, we were told to bury ourselves in the hay to keep us warm and dry. We all fell fast asleep until about noon, when three men came in carrying trays of food and jugs of coffee, for which we were most grateful. We were then supplied with old clothes, including women's skirts, to cover our nakedness. A large fire had been made in the farmyard and more hot water was provided. One of the Frenchmen offered to shave us with an open razor, to which we readily agreed, but if you have never seen a Frenchman wielding an open razor you have missed something.
I shall never forget the kindness of these people. We remained at the farm for four days, and having been given more respectable clothes, food and tobacco, together with information as to the location of the Germans, we said our ‘goodbyes' and were on our way. From there I commenced my future dressed like a French 'hobo' with a pair of bedroom slippers on my feet.
We decided to make for Unoccupied France, and then commenced the weary journey. Day after day, week after week, sleeping anywhere, but mostly in the open, and eating when and how we could. We began to get tired of it all and became less cautious, with the result that we had a few near ‘misses' of walking into German check points. On one occasion we walked out of a hedge into the road slap-bang into the path of three enemy lorries, which had stopped. I thought 'this is it' as we walked past them, when one of the drivers poked his head out of the cab and asked the way to the village. He received an answer but he must have been looking for that village when the Armistice was signed.
Here, we decided that our party was too large for safety and decided that the only way to reach the demarcation line together was to do it in leap-frog fashion, except where we decided to stay for the night or share our food. During our journey footwear became a major problem. In some places we managed to get sabots, old boots and shoes, all either too large or too small for us; sometimes our feet were wrapped in sacking. During the leap-frog, two of our party (Duff and Westwell) became lost (though I must record that we met them again months later), thus reducing us to three (sic – their MI9 reports say four) .
Shortly afterwards we met a man and a boy working in a field (near Manthelon, Indre-et-Loire) and as we knew we were close to the demarcation line, we whistled them over to us. We asked the man how far the line was, and to our surprise it was not more than forty yards. The line consisted of a narrow track running between two farms. We were told that it was constantly patrolled, and as we were talking, six Germans rode along the track on bicycles with their rifles slung over their backs, riding two abreast. We went to ground immediately, much to the amazement of the man and boy, until we explained who we were. We were given more information about the patrols and how they worked. It appeared there were four kinds … bicycle, foot, motorcycle and a small car, and all passed by the farm at twenty minute or half hour intervals. We thanked the man and crawled up to within ten yards of the ‘line' behind cover, and at the same time making sure that if we got over we would have cover on the other side.
It was about 1600 hours on a hot afternoon (on 2 August) when our chance came. We let two patrols go by, including two motorcycles, and having gauged the time in between patrols, we crawled as quickly as we could to the 'line' and then rolled ourselves across it. We were so delighted in being in Unoccupied France that we would not take any chances and kept on crawling until our hands and knees were sore. We still could not believe our luck, and only ventured to stand after about a mile. Coming to a farmhouse we asked the farmer if we were really in Unoccupied France. He replied that we were but did not know how long it would be before the whole country was occupied. We were elated and came out into the open with all fear of being taken prisoners left behind.
Jauntily we went to the village police station and reported that we were British soldiers. The Gendarmes were surprised and delighted to know we had managed to cross the line, but gave us a shock when we were informed that it was their duty to detain us; this was the order of the German Commissioners in each town and village. We blarneyed how we had helped to beat the Germans on their account, but this only made things worse. The next step was to be incarcerated in a military camp (at Agde) for a few months, and although we were treated well, we were never allowed out.
We had no chance to escape and (on 18 October) were sent to Fort St Jean at Marseilles, which I believe was a recruiting depot for the Foreign Legion. What a surprise when we arrived there to find about three hundred other British soldiers, dressed in all kinds of civilian clothes. Here, we also met our former two comrades, whose experiences since they had left us were quite thrilling. At Marseilles, which appeared to be the collection centre for British troops that had crossed the line, we were placed on parole. Much of our time was spent in getting information on how to escape, and hours at the docks looking for a chance to smuggle aboard one of the boats. I would like to mention that in Marseilles there was a British Seaman's Club run by the Rev. Caskie of the Church of Scotland. He did wonders for those three hundred or so British soldiers in the way of food, clothing, money and letting relatives know they were safe.
After four months at Marseilles we were still no nearer to escape, although some must have managed it judging by the absentees from roll call. At this time our parole was cancelled, gates were locked and sentries placed around the Fort.
At roll call one morning (8 January 1941) we were warned to pack our belongings and parade again. Wild rumours flew through the Fort that we were to be handed over to the Germans, etc., etc., and after a lot of disturbance we were marched to the station escorted by police and troops. On arrival at our destination, St. Hippolyte du Fort, we found that the place had been prepared for us as a kind of prison; all windows had been barred and sentries placed everywhere. Our first thought was of escape, no easy task, but we managed to dig tunnels, which were never completed as in every case they were discovered, usually through careless talk.
This was my first taste of a French prison, and I did not intend to stay there one minute longer than was necessary. (In May 1941) four of us managed to saw through the bars of a window three stories up and reached the ground by the aid of a rope, but the fourth man got down too quickly burning both his hands and breaking an ankle. As he could not move we had to leave him, but his yell drew the attention of the sentries. Three of us made a dash for it and hid about a mile from the Fort in a field. It was breaking dawn, and the railway station being a quarter of a mile away, we decided to go there after waiting a further hour, in the hope of jumping a train. On entering the station, we were pounced on by six Gendarmes and escorted back to our prison. Result: 28 days solitary confinement on the barest of rations, with an hour's exercise a day. Most of the time was spent in delousing ourselves and when our sentence was finished, we were not in the best of condition. The man who had broken his ankle, we were told, had been taken to a military hospital. During our stay at St. Hippolyte du Fort, I do not think that anyone got away, as the place was too well guarded after our abortive attempt. (I'm not sure why Harry wrote that as more than hundred and fifty men successfully escaped from St Hippolyte in all … )
Occasionally, to break the boredom, one or two of the R.A.F. would be brought in, when we received the latest news from home. One of those brought in was Captain Whitney Straight, the American racing motorist, who became our Camp C.O. He did a lot for us and both our food and washing conditions improved. (When Sqn Ldr Whitney Straight (787) arrived at Saint Hippolyte on 9 August 1941, the camp commandant advised him to adopt the rank of an army captain to avoid the attentions of the German Military Control Commission, and so he was known as Captain Willard (his second name) RASC)
Twice while we were there the German Commission was present at our roll call. I am sure the reason they did not visit us more often was on account of the catcalls, boos and other rude noises which greeted them.
Our next move (on 17 March 1942) was to Fort-de-la-Revere near Nice, a very nice place indeed to spend a holiday, but not the way we were spending it. As soon as we crossed the moat, up went the drawbridge, and when we entered the building the iron gates were locked behind us. It looked as though every place had been made escape proof. We had been at this Fort about three months and were getting quite a few R.A.F. in; by this time they totalled about twenty-six.
Captain Whitney Straight decided that we should commence to dig a tunnel under the moat, and if it was successful those most vital to the Nation should escape first, meaning of course, the R.A.F., as the raids on Germany had just commenced. This agreed, we commenced to draw lots for our places.; mine was eighty-three. Work commenced with a will, and after a fortnight the tunnel was ready and all was set. One Saturday afternoon (5 September 1942) the chance came, and one by one the men set off. Fifty-one had disappeared when a prowling sentry noticed that the R.A.F. room was empty and gave the alarm. The remainder of us were at once rounded up and paraded on the Fort square and counted. All outlying sentries were alerted and shots were heard. Fourteen men were brought back, one of whom had been shot in the face, and for a week or so men were being brought back in one's and two's. The number that did actually escape was twenty-three, so the digging of our tunnel had not been in vain. For almost a month after this we were nearly starved, and the food that we did get was unfit to eat. The men who had been brought back were treated rather rough and detained in another part of the Fort. About this time the Red Cross parcels commenced to arrive, and if ever there is a cause which is worth support, it certainly is the Red Cross. The French cut our rations off entirely, with the exception of a little bread and some undrinkable coffee. Everyone stuffed themselves with bully beef, sardines, etc., but like most things, the novelty wore off and after a while we treated the parcels as a matter of routine.
Our next move (on 22 September 1942) was to a ‘Stalag-de-luxe', a ‘smasher' complete with electric charged fencing, searchlights, M.G. posts, police dogs, and all the rest of the paraphernalia. I have forgotten the name of the camp (Chambaran) but it was near Lyons. I was not there very long, and I believe it was the last French camp before the prisoners were transferred to Germany.
On 8 November 1942, the Allies launched Operation Torch, the invasion of North Africa. Three days later, in response to Torch, the Germans took over southern (previously Vichy) France. Colonel Georges Mailraison was military chief for Isere and he realised that the men at Chambaran would soon be under the control of the Germans and that some men would be at serious risk of their lives if they fell into German hands. Having a certain sympathy for the British, Colonel Mailraison decided to allow those particular men to escape …
On 27 November 1942, nine prisoners escaped from Chambaran. Four of them were SOE agents, one an MI9 radio operator, two were commandos from Dieppe, and the two senior NCOs - one who claimed to have killed a German soldier in an earlier escape, and Harry.
I became very friendly with a French sergeant who used to escort the refuse cart around the camp and inspect each bin before it left the camp. He spoke English quite well, and had little time for the French Army and none at all for the Germans. His wish was to join the Free French in Britain, and in the following weeks I suggested to him the chances of escape through Spain and on to Gibraltar, provided we could get out of the camp. At Gibraltar I would be a good passport for him.
At last, after a few days, he agreed to smuggle me out of the camp in a refuse bin, and I was sworn to secrecy. We arranged that I should be hanging about the lavatory about 0900 hours, and when he and the driver went inside I was to hop into the cart, get inside of the middle bin with the lid turned upside down, and when he came to the gate he would look in all the bins in the usual manner. I was then to be taken to the rubbish tip about a mile away where some clothes had been hidden in an old shack.
For four mornings I was at the rendezvous, but nothing happened as there was always someone about. On the fifth morning my chance came. With a lump in my throat and a hollow feeling inside me, I concealed myself in the bin. It felt like sitting in a barrel of gunpowder, and I fully expected someone to give the alarm, but nothing happened. After what appeared to be hours the cart began to move. It had been arranged that if I was discovered in the camp I was to take all the blame, but outside the responsibility became the sergeant's.
At last the cart stopped at the gate, and I wondered if the sergeant would ‘crack' at the last moment. Each lid was lifted and the bin inspected, and at last mine was raised and put back much quicker than the remainder. More talking and at last we moved off; my journey had really begun. At last we came to the tip, the lid was taken off the bin and I was lifted out by the shoulders. It took me some minutes before I could straighten myself, and much to my surprise when I looked round, I found that it was the driver and not the sergeant who had lifted me out. He had been let into the secret, unbeknowns to me, after our final plans had been made, and had it not been for his wife and children he would have joined us. I dressed in the old clothes which he had provided , and after many ‘Bon Voyages' and ‘Bon Chance' we got away. He was a good friend indeed.
Our plan - Harry escaped with Sgt Wilfred H Allen (1128) - was to go to Marseilles and then as near as possible to the Pyrenees. We had a few hundred francs between us, and my friend was to make all the purchases and do the talking. If I was spoken to, I was to plead deafness. At Grenoble we had our first shock. The train stopped and into our compartment stepped two German N.C.O's. who sat opposite us. Before the train started two German officers came along the corridor looking into all the carriages. When they came to ours, they looked inside, spoke to one another and approached the two German N.C.O's. One of them showed a paper, which appeared to satisfy the officer, who in turn spoke to his companion. Both then resumed their walk along the corridor.
Harry's MI9 report (1188) says that he went to Marseille with F/O Nitelet, Sgt Allen, a Frenchman called Nardin and an officer called Captain Greer. Previously an RAF evader, Alex Nitelet had returned to France as radio operator for Pat O'Leary and been captured – Greer was SOE agent Denis Rake.
Sgt Allen says in the Appendix C to his MI9 report that while he was in Marseille, Nitelet obtained some money and false identity cards for the party. He also says that a Frenchman called Nardin went to Perpignan to arrange for their reception there and that it was a Commandant Fety (sic) who arranged their guide to Spain.
Denis Rake says in his 1968 book ‘Rake's Progress' that he travelled with two British soldiers (he names them as Foster and Hall) and that just before leaving the camp, a French officer had given him the address of a doctor in Marseille – this was Dr Georges Rodocanachi at 21 rue Roux de Brignoles. After a night in Marseille, Rake says that he and the two NCOs took a train to Perpignan where they met the local gendarmerie chief, Commandant Feti (sic).
Our next encounter with the Germans was at the exit at Marseilles station. As we had some time to wait for a train to Perpignan, we decided to leave the station and have a meal. At the barrier were two Germans with the ticket collector checking the papers of different men. We quickly did a smart about turn and went to the buffet, but even there it was none too safe, as at any moment a Gendarme might come along and ask for papers. My companion did have certain papers, but I think they were army, and he possessed nothing to show he was on leave or duty in Marseilles. For myself, most of the time was spent hiding in the toilet. Later we managed to board a train for Montpellier, and received shock number three. Two Gendarmes got into the train to check papers, but for some reason only the women's papers were checked. I must have shown the look of despair in my face when they entered the carriage, one from either end, and I heaved a sigh of relief when they disappeared.
It was late in the afternoon when we arrived in Montpellier, and as the train for the Pyrenees was not due to leave until 2300 hours, we decided to have a meal at the café just outside the station. We sat facing the door, and were no sooner in than a German officer entered, clicked his heels, gave the Nazi salute, said something which I could not understand and went to the counter. He stayed there drinking and looking about, but no one took the slightest notice of him. We remained in the café until our train was almost due, and on arrival at the platform my friend discovered that the train for the Pyrenees was always searched and everyone was stopped at the destination. If you had no papers, you had a sporting chance of jumping off the train when it was held up by the signals about a mile from it's final halt. This was good news indeed, and it only remained to see if the train was searched before the signals were reached.
Having reached so far we took the chance, and having waited until almost every other passenger had entered the train, we got into a carriage with the least number of people in it and sat by the door. We were on edge in case the train was searched, but luck was with us, and at the signal stop we went through the carriage door like greased lightening, into the dark. We hadn't a clue where we were, but appeared to be on an open plain, and in the distance tipping the skyline we saw the Pyrenees.
Sgt Allen says that from Perpignan, they took a train to Villafranche (Villefranche-de-Conflent) then the light mountain railway to Saillagousse. They were met there by a guide to whom they paid 500 francs each.
We reached the foothills at dawn and as there appeared to be no other way of getting over the mountains, we commenced to look for tracks or something that would give us a lead. Some of the tracks we found only brought us to the place from where we started. We managed to follow more tracks to a considerable height, only to find that they petered out. We were now feeling very tired, and had still a considerable height to climb, so we lay down and slept for three hours. We awoke feeling very cold and stiff, and commenced to climb all over the place with one object in mind; to get over the top of the summit which seemed so high and so far away.
After climbing for a further two hours we came across an old man and a dog, and as soon as he saw us he knew all the answers as to where we were making for, etc., etc. He said that he would guide us the remainder of the way if we had sufficient French or Spanish money to pay for his services. Readily we agreed and offered him all we had, about 900 francs. He wasn't particularly pleased with this and asked if we had any watches, jewelry or other valuables. Finding we hadn't, he said that he would guide us part of the way only. We agreed, as the French money would have been no use to us in any case. Our guide certainly knew the way, and for two hours we progressed, weaving in and out of rocks with the snow up to our knees. True to his word, the guide stopped and said he was going no further, but if we kept on we hadn't very far to go to the Spanish border. It was now bitterly cold and the gale that was blowing made standing difficult. Bidding us 'adieu', our guide pointed out the direction we should take and told us to keep a particular piece of mountain in sight. When he told us this, the particular piece of mountain didn't appear very far away, but to reach it we found that we had to trek miles across jagged rocks and a snow covered plain. After many hours and many narrow escapes through slipping, feeling utterly worn out and as hungry as could be, we reached the peak. Although so tired, we looked down on the other side and were delighted to see that our journey would be down, down all the way, with perhaps two or three miles of flat and climb in between. We sat and rested for a considerable while, afraid to go to sleep, and then re-commenced our journey. We slid and slipped until at last we came to the bracken and grass, and the going became easier.
Both Harry and Sgt Allen say in their MI9 reports that after crossing the border (on 7 December) they split into two parties with Harry and Greer (Denis Rake) giving Allen and Nardin a half hour start as they set off for Barcelona.
At last we saw lights in the distance and knew they were in Spain. We found that the lights came from a couple of scattered houses, and reaching them we knocked on the doors to ask for food and to verify that we were really in Spain. Despite continual knocking and banging, no one would open the door to us, and to this day I have never discovered the reason, unless it is an old Spanish custom not to open your door after dark.
We continued our journey for about four miles until we came to a village (Campdevanol) , and by the names over some of the shops we knew we were well in Spain. We were so delighted that our luck had held, that we did not notice a car which had drawn up beside us and a man in some kind of uniform peered out at us and went on. He had been the only living soul we had met so far. The next two persons we met were two Spanish policemen, unmistakable in their tricorns, who were laying in wait for us, having been warned by the gentleman in the car. Their was plenty of chatter on their part and only amazement on ours. Without ceremony we were escorted to the local gaol (at Ripoll) where there were more policemen in all manner of undress and sleeping on all kinds of furniture. More chatter and at last a girl of about fifteen years of age who could speak English arrived. She acted as our interpreter, and having explained who we were, we were searched and everything except our clothes, taken from us.
Allen and Nardin walked all the way to Ripoll and after waiting in vain for Harry and Rake, caught a train for Barcelona. They were arrested on the train and sent to Vic for interrogation and then on to the Model prison in Barcelona. Later held at Irun, Allen was released on 26 February and sent to Madrid. He left next day for Gibraltar and sailed for England on 11 March 1943.
We were then taken to a house at the other end of the village, where the policeman had to shout loudly at the bedroom window before the door was opened by a man, who let us in. There was plenty of talking between the man and the police, and eventually we were given a room upstairs which contained two nice beds. We were told to take all our clothes off and get into bed. We needed no second bidding as such an order was a pleasure indeed. A decent meal was brought to us, but we noticed to our consternation that when the man came to take away the dishes he also took our clothes and locked the door. We thought the treatment rather peculiar; first the police search you and take what they can, then you are taken to a man who gives you a room, provides you a bed and a meal, then in return takes away all your clothes and locks you in.
With a shrug of the shoulders we decided it was just another old Spanish custom, but it was no such thing as we soon found out. The following morning our clothes were returned, breakfast was provided and we were told to wash and dress. Then in walked two policemen, who promptly placed handcuffs on us, took us in a car to the railway station where we boarded a train, and away we went with our escort.
I believe we went to Saragona (Gerona on 12 December) , where we were clapped in gaol and our particulars taken. Taken to a room we were told to strip, our clothes were again taken away and we were given a blanket. A barber then arrived, and wherever nature had placed hair on a man that barber removed it. By the time he had finished we were as bald as a new born babe. Our clothes, which had the appearance of having been cooked, were returning to us steaming hot, and we were taken to a long, narrow room which contained about twenty or so men. These were political prisoners, who were squatted on what looked like civilian bedding. There were no bedsteads and each prisoner had his food parcel beside him. The room also contained some French, Poles, Jews, etc., but like us, they had not been provided with any bedding.
About 2200 hours a list of names was called out, ours included, and we were provided with two blankets each. We were told that they had been provided by the British Consul at Barcelona. The door of our room was then locked, and as night wore on the stench became unbearable. The only ventilation was by a small window and woe betide anyone who dared put his face to it to snatch a breath of air.
In the morning men came around with buckets of black coffee, and a piece of black bread for each man; if you had no container for your coffee you received none. About 1000 hours the following morning we were all sent into the compound for a walk around the walls after we had been paraded to sing the Spanish National Anthem and give the Fascist salute. At 1100 hours we returned to our rooms, where we remained in the ‘stench' until 1000 hours the following morning. By this time there were about 500 men in the prison, and at exercise was the only time you saw anyone else other than the occupants of your own room.
After about ten days (on 16 December) wondering how long we were likely to remain in this particular prison, we were paraded and a list of names was read out, ours included. About seventy of us were then paired off and handcuffed to one another, then a long chain was passed through the handcuffs and secured at either end of the line. In this way we were marched through the town to some cattle trucks which were in the station. I had lost almost all sense of shame by this time and the ordeal did not affect me a great deal. We entrained in the trucks and had no idea what our destination was to be. We were soon to find out! The name: Campo de Concentracion, Miranda de Ebro, Burgos; the most unhealthiest place I believe that anyone has been in. The inhabitants belonged to nearly every nationality under the sun, and all claimed British descent.
Here, we were herded into whatever nationality group you belonged to, or to whatever group the Spaniards thought you should belong to. Living conditions were terrible; the wooden buildings were falling to pieces and patched with canvas, the food was inedible and you had to make the best of practically nothing. The guards shared our treatment, but with the arrival of the Red Cross parcels from the British Consul at Barcelona, we were better off than they were.
There were many amusing incidents to relieve our lot. Stealing was rife and if you washed your shirt and vest, hung the vest to dry, it would vanish while you were picking up the shirt. The only safe way to keep your clothes was to wear them and sleep in them. If you failed to give the Fascist salute on morning roll call, you were marched to the barber's shop where the clippers were run over your head in hot-cross bun fashion. If the barber was very busy he would cut a path in your hair from ear to ear. Every Friday the British Consul visited the camp and took the particulars of new arrivals.
I was at Burgos for about six months when I was released (on 16 April 1943) with about fifteen others. We were taken to the British Embassy at Madrid, where we were provided with clothes, boots and pocket money. We were then accommodated in the Hotel Mediania where we lived in luxury for three weeks. It gave us the opportunity of seeing Madrid and attending a bull-fight; the latter I liked very much and would see one more often if I had the opportunity. Life in Madrid was a good ending to our wanderings and escapades, but all good things have to come to an end. For me, the best thing of all was to come; the reunion with my wife and children.
From Madrid we went to Gibraltar, the goal we had been making for for so long, and on arrival my French friend, who had shared so much with me, was detained. After one day at Gibraltar (25 April) we embarked for Britain, and two days later at sea our convoy was attacked by enemy aircraft. There was plenty of excitement and near misses, but no damage was done. We continued our journey uneventfully until we reached a Scottish port, but that was English enough for me. My journey home had taken three years, but I must confess that luck and a healthy constitution had been on my side.
"It has taken two years to obtain this story from Sergeant H. Foster, which he has told in such a modest and straightforward way. It ranks high as an outstanding example of what courage and determination can do in the face of heavy odds." Editor: The South Lancashire Regiment.
Sgt Foster was retired from the British Army, last being assigned to the Peninsula Barracks in Warrington, Lancashire (now Cheshire). Upon his military retirement, he worked for R.O.F. Risley, Cheshire. Harry Foster died in a accident on his way to work in 1967.
Some details taken from Derek Richardson's excellent 2004 book ‘Detachment W' about the British military internees who were held in France until the end of 1942.