Joseph Thomas Pack, 1942. This picture was taken to make passes and was hidden in a bottle under the ground to conceal it from the Gestapo.
- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Andree de Jongh, Mdme Raymonde Coache, Maurice Cullignon, George Steinhauer
- Location of story:
- Maastricht, Belgium, Paris, France; San Sebastian and Gibraltar
- Background to story:
- Royal Air Force
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 01 November 2004
Joe Pack, Bomber Pilot: My Escape Through Belgium and France
This story was submitted to the People's War site by Viv Foulds of Egerton Telecottage on behalf of Joe Pack and has been added to the site with his permission. The author fully understands the site's terms and conditions
In September 1939 life was going on as usual in our small village of Egerton in the Weald of Kent but for several weeks we had been aware of lots of activity in the air. Hurricanes and Spitfires were flying in formation or having dogfights with one another high above us, over the Weald.
In 1940, the weekend that our soldiers were brought back from Dunkirk, my friends and I cycled to the main road between Dover and London to witness an endless line of coaches brought from all parts of the South of England, filled with dispirited soldiers. Some were only partly clothed. There was no joy on their faces. They were dazed and dejected after their escape from Dunkirk and were still living the terror they had experienced during the past few days. Yes the war had arrived—proper.
One or two of the lads from the village had been called up. I was aged about 20 and although my age group had yet not been called up, I felt guilty about still being out of uniform. When I told my mother that I intended to volunteer as aircrew in the RAF she took it well, as I had expected. The following day I drove to a Recruiting Office in Chatham to volunteer for the RAF. I felt a little foolish volunteering as aircrew as the RAF had suffered severe losses at the time.
Ten days after “signing on “I travelled to RAF Cardington. This was my last day in my own “civi” clothes for several years. After drill training in the huge hangers there -which had once held the ill-fated R 100 balloon- our squad was moved to Blackpool to continue drilling. This usually at the end of the pier - which gave the holidaymakers something to interest them as the usual Blackpool attractions had long since closed down.
From Blackpool we transferred to Emmanuel College at Cambridge even though many of the students were still in residence. We stayed in the comfortable quarters of the college and ate in the dining hall served by the College retainers. We felt quite important.
After experiencing the joys of Cambridgeshire, we were sent for a few weeks further training as pilots at Babbacombe in Devon. So far being in the RAF had been most enjoyable and I looked forward to flying an aeroplane for the first time! Most of the lads on our course were posted to Canada for their Elementary Flying Training.
My RAF friend and were posted to Luton for training to fly the Miles Magisters Trainers , a single engined solo plane. We found ourselves joined to a course of New Zealand Fleet Airmen volunteers. Not being sailors, we were excused all kinds of drills and unpleasant duties. So one day I found myself taking to the air for the first time in my life in the rear of a Magister trainer with my instructor in the front seat. After a week or so of shouting and bullying from my instructor and 8 hours instruction, I was able to fly solo.
On one occasion I was sent up to practice "looping the loop "as part of my solo training. It was a bumpy day and I felt a little sick so I flew out of sight of the airdrome and did a few steep turns to waste time, but did not practice any loops. On landing at base I taxied to dispersal and attempted to unfasten my straps. To my horror I found the chute I had been sitting on (which formed part of my seat)] was not attached to me and I was not strapped in the aircraft! My loops were never good. I would invariably hang on to my straps at the top of the loop: I nearly became a corpse on that day!!
After that I moved from Luton to Briggs Norton to convert to twin engined Oxfords trainers. This time I was flying at night as well as during the day. I found Oxfords easy to handle and went solo night and day after a few hours instruction. From there I transferred to an operational training unit in Kinloss in Scotland and converted to antiquated Whitley bombers, a twin engined aircraft with a huge wing span area. After a month or so, 12 months after joining the RAF, I was posted to an operational squadron N35 flying Halifaxes at Linton on Ouse in Yorkshire.
Learning to fly a four engined bomber was very different from the previous planes I had flown, but I was soon taking off and landing the Halifax without too many problems. Flying at night was rather more difficult. The instructor who sat in the 2nd pilots seat was on "rest" after completing a tour of Operation which took 30 trips at that time. Some rest!!
I was eventually teamed up as 2nd pilot with Sergeant George Steinhauer, a Canadian. Although most of the Canadian aircrew was commissioned, George was quite sure he could not get a commission because of his German surname - and it seems he was right.
Our first operational trip on date was to attack German battle ships, which had sheltered in Brest. We flew down from Linton on Ouse, Yorkshire over a darkened England, climbing slowly with full petrol and bomb load, and crossed our coast at a "safe "point, clear of our coastal defences. We crossed the French coast at about 12000 feet, and all was quiet as we set course for Brest. Within 10 minutes of our ETA to arrive at Brest, the skies ahead suddenly lit up with searchlights and enemy shells. The first of our aircraft had arrived ahead of us. Still some miles from the target area ,we slowly nosed our way into the medley of bursting shells and searchlights which were. trying to home in on us with the enemy radar.
It was a relief to hear the words, "bomb doors open” over the intercom as the bomb aimer guided us onto the target and later "bombs gone” when the aircraft lifted vertically haying shed its load. Turning slowly onto a course for our return, peace eventually reigned again as we scanned the skies for enemy night fighters.
On the night of January 6/7 1942, we flew to Brest with 35 Squadron in Bomber Command to attack the German battleship Scharnhorst, a potential menace to shipping in the Atlantic. There was a large concentration of Ack Ack guns in the target area and the coloured shells joined together. It was weird, they would come up in an almost leisurely fashion, yet they were obviously lethal - we called them “Flaming Onions”‘.
Two days later we were back again. This time our plane was be hit with shrapnel. With one engine out of action we landed at Abingdon, returning to Linton on Ouse the following day. Later we bombed Hamburg, Keil and Wilhelmshaven, followed by a daylight trip, again in search of the elusive Scharnhorst which had cheekily slipped into the English Channel during bad weather. This was my last trip with George Steinhauer. He flew up to Kinloss, with a new 2nd pilot, to attack the Scharnhorst, which had gone into Trondheim. More than half the squadron was lost that night. George and his crew did not return.
During the following weeks and months we attacked Essen and Cologne (several times) the Renault works at Paris, St .Nazaire, Bremen and Emden . The trip to Cologne on March 13 was less than comfortable. We were shot up badly over the target area, lost an engine, iced up on the return journey and crossed over Dunkirk at 1500 feet. We landed at Manston without an air speed indicator. Although we lost an engine on several occasions, it was sometimes due to overheating , i.e. glycol leaks .We regarded ourselves , as a crew ,as reasonably lucky , we were still around - until the night of June 8/9 at Essen
We had got ourselves boxed in with searchlights and Ack Ack . Diving, climbing and, turning steeply would not free us. I could smell cordite and hear the sound of exploding shells. It was all very unpleasant. We eventually cleared the Ruhr at 21,000 ft. No-one saw the fighter which shot us down. Within seconds it seemed there was a large burning hole where my instrument panel had been. The plane was on fire and four of the crew were killed.
A little later I was swinging across the skies on my parachute, like a huge pendulum. 20 to 30 minutes later I hit the ground. I expected to be immediately arrested, but there was complete silence. I discovered later that I had landed to the west of Aachen .
I did the only thing which occurred to me, I hid my parachute, took a bead on the North Star and ran as fast as I could in a South-westerly direction. Come the dawn, I hid in a wood sleeping most of the time. The following night I continued my progress. By dawn I was near a village and very wet as it had been raining.
Two Dutch workmen discovered me. I found I was on the border between Germany and Holland. With the help of these men I was able to avoid the border guards and, discard my uniform and flying boots, exchanging them for rough civilian clothes. I was passed from one patriot to another by foot, bicycles and train.
After several days I arrived at Maastricht. It was a bit of a shock to find the town full of the German military. A young man took me by tram to the Cathedral at Liege, handed me a rosary and left me kneeling down. I was soon joined by a man who interrogated me in broken English for a while. Later he met me outside in the street and took me to visit his friends, the butcher, the baker, and others. On being introduced they produced a bottle of cognac and toasted one another . In my tipsy state we boarded a tram together with a bunch of German soldiers and I pushed them to make room for me, without a care in the world!
After hiding in a room about 10'x 8' for about 14 days my contact collected me and I traveled by train to Louvaine . This man, I was told later, was the Chief of Police at Louvaine -Maurice Cullignon. He was caught and shot later.
After the train journey to Louvaine — which had its moments - I was taken to Brussels by tram. Brussels was full of armed troops. Occasionally I would see a man or woman with the yellow Star of David stitched to their backs. I know now that this was to distinguish Jews for transporting to the extermination camps of Poland.
That night I was taken to the gatehouse serving the entrance to the Palace of Justice. The family living there was employed to open and close the large metal gates for the German limousines with swastika pennants which drove in and out of the Palace. That night the family invited friends to a party at the gatehouse in my honour - I seemed to be the only one present worried for their safety. They photographed me and days afterwards produced a passport and work pass. Before the year was out the couple and their three teenaged children disappeared. Only the mother appeared again - after the war.
A secretary for the Germans at the Palace took me to her home in the country - she would smuggle out copies of her typing to the Resistance—how she hated her employers!!! Her husband was a racehorse trainer and had 6 or 8 loose boxes where I hid with his horses. He was very frightened (can you blame him?) but after 2 or 3 days he moved me into his house.
After a fortnight or so I returned to Brussels, and then travelled back to Louvaine with two other airmen. There we boarded a crowded train heading for Paris, accompanied by a Belgian girl. Arriving at the station in Brussels, we were lucky not to be taken off the train At the French border the passengers thinned out. German officers searched everything and everyone .Our girl was in tears, but passed us off to the officials as deaf mutes.
Fifteen hours after boarding the train, standing in crowded corridors, we arrived at the Gare du Nord in Paris. On leaving the train we split up. There were military personnel everywhere. At the barriers German soldiers going on leave would show their credentials and salute with the word “Heil”! I crept through on the other side. As I crossed the road outside the station I was confronted by a German officer with yellow lapels. He didn't say a word .I put my hands up , he searched me and my bundle of clothes, razor etc , dumped them on the road , and then left me. I had been searched by the Gestapo!!!
I spent 2 or 3 weeks hiding in the outskirts of Paris, spending most of the time with a wonderful French couple. There were two Scottish soldiers hiding with me. The wife would take the 3 of us on to the Metro to Paris. On Bastille Day, 14th July, even though it was strictly forbidden by the Germans, we displayed blue, white and red ribbons in our buttonholes and Madame wore her national scarf. On another occasion she took us to see the German Ack Ack gun, positioned over one of the Seine bridges. A few weeks previously the same gun had been firing at us as we bombed the Renault works.
Madame Raymonde Coache was taken by the Gestapo early in 1943 - her husband Rene -escaped to England. They are now both deceased. Raymonde survived two concentration camps and lived with her daughter in the Seine area of Paris , in the flat where she hid us Her exploits were acknowledged by both Governments - the medals she has she referred to as her 'souvenirs ' .
The events leading to our eventual train journey South are too detailed to enumerate. The masterminding of our eventual escape was all due to a young Belgian girl, the famous Andree de Jongh. She and her father (who was later caught and shot) together with her sister, laid the foundations for many Allied airmen to escape, via the ' Comete line '. She was awarded the George medal by the British, after the war. Her own Government made her a Countess. She survived the war and lived in Brussels.
At the Gare d' Austerlitz, after having bribed the railway officials, we occupied the compartment of a carriage reserved for German officers and collaborators. There were 8 of us: Andree de Jongh , a lady and her 2 daughters from Biarritz, and four of us British. Whenever our compartment door was opened, for one reason or another the girl would talk across us, we would say “Oui”, or “Non” according to a slight nod or shake of the head given by either of the girls -there was always a German in the corridor.
On arriving at Biarritz station there was panic. Several of the 'safe' houses had been visited by the Gestapo. We took a local train to St Jean de Luz. Here we hid in a café. The following night Florentino, the Basque guide who was to take us over the Pyrenees, was blind drunk. He was paid £100 for each person he 'delivered safely' Over the next 15 or so exhausting and grueling hours we crossed the swiftly flowing Biddassoa river and climbed the mountains in rope soled espadrilles. We arrived at about 10 the following morning at a farm in the Spanish Pyrenees where we lay on the floor and drank goat's milk. A further 10 miles walk took us to the outskirts of San Sebastian where there were plenty of Germans -on leave I suppose.
After couple of nights at San Sebastian, we made a rendezvous with a British Embassy car in which we drove to Madrid. We stayed in wooden huts in the Embassy grounds with about 60 others of various nationalities, until it was decided that we would either be taking the train to Gibraltar or going to a Spanish prison. I was fortunate and took the train to Gibraltar. Walking over the causeway, seeing British soldiers and hearing British voices, was an experience I never really expected to happen.
After a couple of days there, the R.A.F. got me into a uniform again; I flew circuits for the experience in both a Sunderland and a Catalina. Then the Gibraltar authorities, in their wisdom, got me a passage in a destroyer, which was detailed with 2 others to guard a large slow convoy, travelling at 5 knots . We had to sail out into the Atlantic before going north to (hopefully) avoid subs. We only had one scare and dashed around the convoy at 30 knots throwing off depth charges from the sides. However nothing was sighted - who would be a sailor!!?
It was many days before we arrived at Londonderry, just 3 months after I had left Yorkshire. It was a Sunday morning when I arrived at Euston and the Air Ministry was closed so I took a train to Charing in Kent and got a lift to Egerton , my home village .
My knock at the front door was answered by my mother. She had received a telegram from the Air Ministry the previous day —“Missing, believed killed on active Service”. Even after all these years I can still shed a tear to think of that meeting.
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