Third Time Unlucky

Having joined the Air Training Corps (ATC) in 1941, I volunteered for the RAF in the summer of 1942, being called up in the December of that year.
On arrival at Padgate for enrolment, I was given an aircrew selection test and, being a fitter in ‘civvi street’, was destined to be trained as flight engineer (a requirement for four-engine bombers).
After doing my basic training at Blackpool, I was posted to St Athans, S Wales and then, six months later, and by now promoted to sergeant, I went to Croft Spa for 6 weeks to train on Halifaxes before being posted to the No 431 RCAF squadron at Tholthorp, near York, being ready for operations after some weeks of practical training by early November, 1943. Incidentally, as losses were relatively high (estimated at 25%) our replacements were already on the squadron before we had even started operating!
Our first sortie was over Ludvigshaven and Manheim, and nearly saw us come to grief. Having lost our way to the target and by-passed it by 20 miles, we dropped our bombs on some unknown place and turned for home completely off track and overdue. We crossed the English Channel with just one hour’s fuel left and, having sent out a ‘MAYDAY’ distress call, we were instructed to head for Abingdon, Oxfordshire. We made it and then flew back to our base at Tholthorp next morning.
Our second sortie was the big one – Berlin – all station personnel were there to see us off. The trip was a complete success; we were spot on target, on time, on track and without a hitch.
Now for the third and last. We were briefed for Frankfurt as a spoof for the Lancasters going to Berlin – the date was 25th November, 1943. I remember after the briefing we had time to spare so we went to the NAAFI to watch an old film, not being permitted to leave the station. Take off was 2200hrs and the journey to the target was uneventful although we saw plenty of flak but we were well above it.
Having arrived on time and dropped our bombs on target we turned for home. We must have been flying for about 2 hours when I noticed a barrage of flak straight ahead and above us. According to our navigator we were well off track, about 60 miles south of the route. Suddenly there was an almighty crash as AA shells exploded all around us. We kept going without any deviation and assessed the damage – two tanks on the port wing were holed and all the fuel gone. As the flight engineer I transferred fuel from the starboard wing tank to feed the port engine but as I did so I noticed a small lick of flame coming from a small hole in the port wing. The skipper dived to extinguish the fire but to no avail. We flew on for about another 15 minutes but then the port engine suddenly burst into flames. I immediately clipped on my parachute and yelled over the intercom to bale out – it should have been left to the Skipper to give the instruction!
I quickly made for the front exit to find the other three crew members struggling with the hatch door, trying to jettison it. We finally managed and after seeing the other three vanish out of the hole in quick time, I sat on the edge of the exit, held on to the rip cord handle and jumped. I must have blacked out – I came to looking at an enormous plume of silk above – all was deadly silence. Again I must have blacked out because next thing I was aware of was alighting on top of a house – I slid off the roof into the garden – it was 4am, 26th November, 1943.
Relieved at having escaped certain death, I knocked at the door of the house and disturbed a dog. I turned and ran, crossing a nearby railway line then into open farmland – oh, it was great to be alive, even though my fate was in the lap of the gods. I subsequently learned the place was Romilly, 60 miles south-east of Paris.
I must have walked for about 20 minutes, tearing off my stripes and beret and pressing them into the soft earth beneath my feet. I found a small mound in the middle of a field, lay down and went fast asleep from nervous exhaustion until dawn broke.
As part of our training on evasion I wasted no time in disposing of incriminating items, my ‘Mae West’ life jacket, the tops of my flying boots which I had to cut away but didn’t do a very good job of, cutting well into one shoe making it very hard to walk. I hid them in a fox hole and covered it with leaves.
Keeping clear of open ground, I made my way along hedgerows to a small hamlet in the near distance. On my way I came across a farmer working in the fields and declared to him who I was. He seemed very nervous and told me to hide. He left the scene in a hurry and came back from the farmhouse with a bottle of cider and a chunk of bread, indicating that was his final gesture and got back to his work.
I continued to skirt the hedgerows until I arrived in the village and found a quiet lane. I knocked on a door and a woman answered – she had two small children and looked frightened so I left and tried my luck further on. This time they took me in and led me to the outhouse where they brought me coffee and bread – I spent the rest of the day lying on some straw and dosing on and off.
As it got dark, a man of farming stock, about 50 years old, came and told me to come with him. As we travelled over many fields my depleted shoe began to give me trouble and I was soon hobbling along. About an hour later we arrived at another small hamlet and my guide led me to a cottage where he handed me over and quickly left.
I was to spend that night in a hayloft – two educated men who spoke English came to see me and asked what I had in mind for evasion. We had been briefed that if we could get to Paris we had a better chance of contacting the ‘underground’ organisation, so it was agreed that I should go there on the next available train which would be the next day, Saturday 27th November, 1943. Before I left I was given a suit of clothes, leaving my service dress with them - a ticket was bought for me and I was soon on the train to Paris.
On the way I saw many German troops getting on and off trains at various stations. Some Frenchmen tried to converse with me so, not knowing the language, I pretended to be deaf and dumb – it worked!
It must have taken 2-3 hours to arrive at the capital, (I had no watch as I had left it in the aircraft) and I walked out of the station without any hitch. As briefed, I made my way to the poor district of the city, walked into a small, dingy café, and declared myself. They ushered me into a back room and gave me more coffee and bread. After a while, maybe an hour, two plain-clothed police (French of course) came to check me out – they were worried I might be an impostor. I then left with a gendarme who took me to his small flat, there to stay for three days and nights. André went each day on duty and left me in the room all day – I read and slept most of the time.
A woman came with a meal at midday and I got by with bread and coffee for morning and evening. On the fourth day I was then passed on to Gabby, a senior officer in the force, and stayed with him and his family for 10 days or more. I didn’t leave the flat but was made very comfortable, all amenities available. Gabby negotiated further moves and handed me over to a business man and his family. There I met an American officer evader – he had been a Fortress navigator and had been shot down on a raid on the Renault Works outside Paris.
After a few days we left Paris for a small suburb in the north and stayed at an old house belonging to a wine merchant. They must have had about 10 of us, mostly Americans, an Australian who had lost his eye and had been treated in a French hospital without being exposed, a Polish Spitfire pilot, and myself.
We had very makeshift accommodation, slept three to a bed, ate in the cellar, but did well under the circumstances. After a week or so we were told that we would return to Paris and arrangements would be made for all of us to pass on to another part of the organisation for the next stage of our evading.
We left the suburb by bus and then took the Metro, our guides and ten evaders all together. I thought at the time how casual and careless, I don’t know how they passed us off, we must have aroused quite a bit of curiosity to the public.
We arrived at a sort of market square and were told to wait there. Our guides left us and another one took over, well-dressed and city type. After waiting about for maybe 20 minutes or so, there was a sudden commotion and from all sides Gestapo types with drawn pistols closed in. They were shouting and telling us to get our hands up, then they put us up against a wall. What a shock, as much as was felt when being shot down – I really thought we’d had it.
They moved along the line, asking us each our nationality. They struck the Polish pilot in the face and we never saw or heard of him again.
A huge black police van, with separate compartments, arrived and we were bundled in and taken to Gestapo Headquarters in the Avenue Foch. There, after initial registration, name, rank, age and number, we left for Frenses Prison on the outskirts of Paris. We were put four to a cell to await our fate. I still thought we would be executed having been caught in civilian clothing.
After two days we were moved from the ground floor to the first floor, slightly better conditions but the anxiety was great, with a feeling of numbness and drained of any morale. We were on starvation rations; acorn coffee, one pint of skilly and two slices of black bread per day – we felt very hungry all the time and our stomachs were very sore. It must have been nearly a week before we were summoned for interrogation.
I was asked many questions and told many lies in an effort to protect those who had helped me. For instance, I said that I had been in only one house in Paris but it was, in fact, four. I said that it took only an hour for me to reach Paris from the place where I boarded the train – it actually took me over three hours. How I got away with it I’ll never know.
We all came to the conclusion that having been so readily tolerated we must have been in a phoney organisation and merely collected together and handed over to the Germans. We never did find out, even when I was interviewed by Peter Churchill at MI5 after repatriation in June 1945.
The Gestapo official in Frenses Prison asked me if I knew I would be caught, which was pretty suspect. Anyhow, it was a great relief to me, and I’m sure to all the others, when he informed us that we would be going to a POW camp in Germany.
After a few days, having spent my first Christmas in captivity, we were put on the overnight trip to Frankfurt Dulag Luft for more interrogation and, worst of all, a week or so in solitary confinement.
To conclude this story I will let you read the words of a poem handed to me by a friend to whom I related my experience:

‘Fire raged through the Halifax, Will said, “Let’s go!”
Chutes were opened swiftly and down I sailed below.
Loyal hearts were good and true and passed him down the line,
But treachery was evident, Will knew the sign.
To Dulag Luft he went, there to gravitate
With stoic chums of that ilk, his miseries were great,
But others were in worse degree whose sorrows he deplore,
For Geneva had not covered them so they suffered more.’

All my further experiences during the year and a half I spent in Stalag IV B after being processed through Dulag Luft are described in a book entitled ‘A Piece of Cake’ written by Geoff Taylor who was captive in the same camp.

Eng. W H Bennett – age 76
( Born in Park Street, Skelton Green )

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