Library Reference Number: 013
Harry Fisher - Caterpillar Club and RAF Escaping Society - Part One
I was a Wireless Operator with No. 218 (Gold Coast) Squadron, 3 Group, Bomber Command, flying from RAF Station, Woolfox Lodge in Rutland. On the night of 22nd April 1944, we took off at 22.02 hours in a Stirling III 'M' EH942, Pilot S/Ldr. Poulter. Our target was locomotive sheds and marshalling yards at Laon in Northern France. After what we had been through during earlier operations over Germany in 1943, this was not considered to be one of the more difficult of operations. How wrong this turned out to be, as the following account shows .....
After successfully bombing our target, we were attacked by enemy aircraft. Both the port inner & outer engines were ablaze and we had lost altitude to about 10,000 feet. There was no way we were going to make it back to base and the order was given to bale out. I made my way to the forward escape hatch only to find it open, and the Navigator and Bomb Aimer had already gone. I looked up at our Pilot S/L Poulter and received a tap on the shoulder indicating to me that it was time to go! I naturally thought the Pilot would be following me but he was either too badly injured or lost control of the aircraft. He went down with the plane. The injured Mid-Upper Gunner also died in the crashed plane, and the five other members of the crew, including myself, parachuted into France to meet differing fates. For me, it was the start of an incident-packed attempt to reach neutral territory - and one that almost succeeded while trying to recall details of pre-operational training on how to deal with such events. I had landed at midnight, in a field near the village of Vic-sur-Aisne, situated between Compiegne and Soissons. After hiding my parachute and Mae West in tall grass, I followed the railway line for almost two kilometres to a farmhouse but the family were too frightened to let me in. However, the young couple at the next farmhouse answered my door-knocking and kept me overnight. The following morning, they made contact with Allied sympathisers at another farm, where I discovered our Bomb Aimer was already being given shelter. For ten days, we hid in a mushroom cave and food was brought to us at this hide-out.
We were then taken by farm cart, hidden under straw, to the house of a Resistance Leader in Vic-sur-Aisne where we were vigorously interrogated. From there, we were moved to another farm in a village named Morsain, where we were hidden for a further few days. Plans were made to get us into occupied Paris so we could be guided to safety by the French Underground.
Dressed in civilian clothes, we were accompanied to Paris by the farmer's wife. She took us to her mother's home, then we were moved to a nurse's house. Staying there for about a fortnight, we passed some of the time by listening to BBC broadcasts at a nearby clinic. On 25th May 1944, armed with bogus identity cards supplied by the Underground - mine stated I was 75% disabled and unable to speak (I only had schoolboy French) we were taken by a girl from the Underground Movement, along with a few others, on a 27 hour train journey to Toulouse. Included in this group was my Flight Engineer who turned up in Paris, having arrived via a different route within a similar elaborate network.
We were always very careful to keep our distance from the guide. If we were suspected and caught, she would hopefully keep walking and evade capture. There was nothing more she could have done for us in any case by hanging around and there was always some chance for us to attempt escape in the future. It was understood that if caught, she would be tortured to extract information before being eventually shot - the grim fact being, that no amount of torture would yield useful information to the enemy because each guide had only very limited information sufficient for the immediate task in hand. Each contact was very much an individual cell who did not know the identity of the next Underground member in the chain leading to freedom. Arriving without incident at Toulouse, we changed trains heading for Pau near Lourdes, close to the Spanish frontier. Although arriving after the official curfew time, our luck held. I was issued with a pass by the German guard at the exit, to enable me to get from the station to my place of residence. From the railway station, we were taken to an Underground Movement house in Pau. Several others had successfully made it to this point and we travelled by car up into the mountains where Basque guides were expected to take over. Basque guides were not always the most reliable and there were now a fairly large numbers of people including a Jewish group, all attempting to cross the Pyrenees in their bid to escape. It was early June, yet we were so high (about 8,000 feet), we reached the snow-line.
Eventually we travelled into a valley where the guides pointed in the direction of the Spanish frontier. There was still a considerable distance to go but the guides indicated they were about to return to the pick-up point and therefore we were now on our own.
We spent that night alone in the open without the guides. Next morning, we discovered that, without guides, the large group had split into smaller groups. The following morning, as a member of one of the small groups, we headed towards what we thought was the Spanish border. Too late! In our weary and tired condition we had failed to notice the German soldiers, although only 200 or 300 yards away, until they started to fire at us. We were hungry and exhausted having been in the mountains for 10 days and we didn't stand a chance. Four of us were captured and I think it was on Spanish territory. The four included myself, ourFlight Engineer, a bomber pilot from Portsmouth, and an American from Pasadena, California. Our Bomb Aimer was some way behind our small group and managed to evade the Germans. He later made it into Spain and returned to the U.K. by way of Gibraltar.
The four of us were taken back by three German soldiers to a small mountain village where we were interrogated.
We were lying in the cell where we had been placed when the door opened and an immaculately dressed German Officer, jackboots and all, walked in. In perfect English, he asked, "Who is the 'English' officer here?" As no one else moved, I rose to my feet and said "I am" only to be told, "Stand to attention when you speak to a German Officer!"
We were then taken to a room for interrogation. I was asked questions such as "Where was your base?" Which type of aircraft were you flying and where was your target? Where were you shot down and who helped you?"
Predictably, my replies were, "I can not give you that information" and quoting the Geneva Convention on the requirement to give only number, rank and name. The others gave the same answers. I then heard the lines that were to be caricatured many times in the future but were extremely threatening and sinister given the situation of airmen being captured in civilian clothes. I quote verbatim, "Huh! So you won't talk, well it is not my job but we have ways and means of making you talk!" We were threatened with torture and the firing squad but we never revealed any details of the people who had helped us. From the mountain village, we were then taken back to Pau, and as I subsequently found out later, spent some time in Gestapo headquarters. Curiously enough, during our short spell there, we were given the best meal in all the time we spent in German hands. Mind you, that wasn't saying very much. From Pau, we were taken under escort by train to a civilian prison in Toulouse. During the train journey, another incident of note occurred. We were in a compartment by ourselves with armed German guards when the door opened and a Luftwaffe Officer came in. He looked at us and said in English, "Who are you?"
At this point, the German soldiers were obviously unhappy but as he was an officer, they were limited in what they could do or say. On being told we were R.A.F. airmen who had been shot down he replied, "I thought perhaps you were". He took out a pack of cigarettes, gave us a cigarette each, and said "Good Luck!" before leaving. Had we witnessed an example of the special bond between flying types?