Library Reference Number: 014
Harry Fisher - Caterpillar Club and RAF Escaping Society - Part Two
Having walked through the Pyrenees escape route for 10 days, we were hungry and exhausted, and no match for the German soldiers who captured us on the Spanish border. We then spent 75 days in what appeared as a nightmare prison. 250 grams of stale black bread and two bowls of weak cabbage soup per day, with 'always the threat to shoot.' With the Allies pushing South after D Day, the Germans suddenly decided to evacuate the prison in a frantic hurry, leaving us in our cells. We were freed by the Maquis who broke down our cell doors on August 19th 1944.
By that time, I had lost about three stone in weight, and helped myself to food, still hot on the stove, left by the fleeing Germans. It was indeed fortunate I had stopped to have some food, as the first of my fellow-prisoners who had dashed outside, were machine-gunned down by passing Germans who were themselves evacuating the city. Many fellow-prisoners were killed or wounded, and having seen what was happening, some of us managed to hide behind stone pillars, with bullets flying around us.
French Forces of the Interior (Maquis) took charge of the town, as there were no Allied forces close by. However, Germans were being cut off from that part of France, hence the reason for their evacuation in sudden panic. I was with the Maquis until September 3rd 1944, and was expected to accompany them on some of their missions to blow up bridges, railway-lines etc. An aircrew member like me (?) who could never hit anything with a rifle at the best of times!
At one point, we were driven through the streets of Toulouse in an open truck by the Maquis who were shouting 'Anglais et Americains' while the people lined the streets cheering and shouting. Allied troops had still not arrived in the Toulouse area, the Maquis were in full control, and I had been given a 'Pass' by the F.F.I. stating I was a British Officer liaising with the Maquis. At this time, we witnessed what happened to traitors, or females who had collaborated with Germans; they were stripped to the waist, had heads shaved, paraded through the streets and humiliated.
On September 3rd, we were taken into the countryside to a site used by RAF Special Duties aircraft who had delivered arms & supplies to the Maquis, and even landed on improvised runways if need be. On this night, a Hudson landed with the help of only a few flares, and with engines still running ready for a quick get-away, boxes and crates were hurriedly chucked out. To the utter amazement of the crew, I scurried quickly across the grass towards the plane. "Where the hell have you come from?" was all they could utter. One minute later before being spotted, we were taking off across the field.
On the flight back, I can still remember being astounded by the sheer mass of shipping we could just see in the dawn light across the English Channel. Massive quantities of supplies were still being ferried across to France 3 months after D Day. On landing back in U.K., I was taken to London for interrogation, given back-pay and leave, then sent to a Rehabilitation Unit near Nairn. As I had never been classified as a P.O.W. the only news my mother had received was that I was 'missing.' I still have the telegrams to that effect. I qualified for membership of the Caterpillar Club; also for membership of the RAF Escaping Society founded in 1945.
This Society was wound-up after 50 years in 1995, and went out in a blaze of glory. We were feted in Paris in June 1955, and before laying up our Continental Standard at the British Embassy, we even managed a short parade up the Champs-Elysees to the Arc de Triomphe led by military bands in full regalia. The final highlight was a banquet at the RAF College, Cranwell, attended by the Chief of Staff in September 1955. This was followed on the next day (Sunday) by laying up of the UK Standard at Lincoln Cathedral. This act was regarded as the closing of the final chapter.
On my return to UK in September 1944, I became an active aircrew member again, but according to RAF policy, I was not sent on flying operations over the area where I had been previously shot down. It struck me later, the extent to which indoctrination had been applied over the previous 11 years under Nazism. When captured in the Pyrenees, one of the first questions asked was "Are you Jewish?" This question from ordinary German soldiers who considered this to be of paramount importance. I shudder to think of the consequences if the answer had been "Yes!" but it did illustrate the powerful influence exerted by the Nazi regime.
Of the five aircrew who got out of that burning aircraft (the pilot and mid-upper gunner were killed) - there are only two of us still alive. The other survivor lives in Nottingham. The rear gunner had hidden in Northern France until rescued by Americans. The Flight Engineer (now deceased) had shared my experience from Paris onwards.