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Winged Chariots -Part 12: The RAF's Debt Of Gratitude

by gmractiondesk

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Don Farrington
Location of story: 
Background to story: 
Royal Air Force
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
10 August 2005

This story was submitted to the People’s War website by Julia Shuvalova on behalf of Mr Don Farrington, and has been added to the site with his permission. The author is fully aware of the terms and conditions of the site.

During the first few months of the 1944 90 Squadron — at first equipped with Stirlings, then Lancasters — was mainly involved with the Special Operations Executive, dropping arms, ammunition, clothing, etc to the Resistance fighters in Europe.

These operations only took place at full moon and were flown at low level to the dropping zones, which would be indicated by a torch flashing a pre-arranged letter in Morse.

On 4 March 1944, after a seven-hour trip from a successful SOE drop at 02:30 hours, I went to bed absolutely shattered, only to be wakened later that morning by our pilot, Flight Lieutenant C V French — known as Frank. There was to be another SOE drop that evening. He had volunteered to take over from another crew who had cried off owing to sickness.

Was this an omen? Then came a second — our aircraft was u/s and we were to transfer to another.

As I sat in the Mess that night, while awaiting the call to go out to the aircraft, I remembered some advice given at a briefing, always carry a copy of the day’s newspapers. If you had to bale out and make contact with the Resistance this would help to prove you were a member of the RAF. At the time the Resistance were losing many men due to betrayal through German infiltration in the guise of RAF aircrew.

After putting a copy of the Daily Express in my pocket I gave the fire in the coke stove a stir to liven it up a little. The whole front collapsed on the stone floor, there was coke and ash everywhere but, fortunately, nothing caught fire.

Was this another sign of things to come? In retrospect, Frank did volunteer for what turned out to be his own death, the fire did happen and I did need and use the newspaper.

We took off at 20.30 hours on a crisp moonlight night for a drooping zone south of Lyons and, after crossing the French coast, the Stirling descended to 1500 feet. It was a beautiful night with almost a full moon and the reflection from the snow on the ground made it feel as though we were flying in daylight.

As we approached our turning point we descended to approximately 500 feet to enable the bomb aimer to confirm our position when, suddenly, the aircraft was enveloped in a blinding light which was quickly followed by more searchlights, and flak began to hit most parts of the aircraft. We had almost got clear when the port engine was hit, and then both port engines caught fire. We gained height from 500 to 800 feet and the bale out order was given.

My everlasting memory is of sitting on the edge of the hatch and looking down at the ground, which seemed to be so near. On leaving I immediately pulled the rip cord. I landed in a potato field which was covered in snow, saving my legs from being broken.

Everyone left the aircraft except for the pilot, who had managed to keep reasonable control, but he had only one option, to try a crash landing. Reports later were that the aircraft disintegrated on hitting a row of trees.

All six crew members owe their lives to this very brave and gallant man. The aircraft crashed in the region of St Hilaire de Gondilly, Cher District of France.

Navigator Flying Officer Harry Yarwood and rear gunner Flight Sergeant Steve Bulmer made contact with the French Resistance, were guided of the Pyrenees and got back to England about June 11.

Canadian bomb aimer Flight Sergeant Murray Hoffberg tried a farm house but they were too afraid to hide him and rang the local gendarmes. He was given rough treatment by the Gestapo and then became a POW.

Flight engineer Joe Cashmore also contacted the Resistance and got to the Swiss border when one of the guides handed him over to the Germans and he, too, became a POW.

Australian mid-upper gunner Flight Sergeant Graham Buchanan was helped by the Resistance and, after awhile with the Maquis, set off on his own to the South of France. When near Marseille he saw an airfield and was surprised to see a Stirling. The invasion had taken place and the RAF were in control. He was back in the UK by September 20.

I made contact with the Resistance after four days of wandering around the French countryside and was passed through safe houses.

During my period of evasion I met Ron Taylor, Tom Foreman and Johnny Allen, from 90 Squadron, and two Americans, Kit and Joe, who had been shot down only a few days before. All were taken to a farm where Joe, Johnny and I stayed, the other three leaving in a van early the next morning.

After breakfast the farmer’s son told us to go into the adjoining fields and come back for lunch — only to approach the farm when we saw him.

On returning from a pleasant morning sunbathing there was no sign of the farmer’s son, so we hid being a hedgerow from which the farm could be seen. There was a car in the farmyard and, after a few minutes, the car door opened and closed but it was not possible to see anyone. The car returned but this time we could not see it at all. However the next thing we saw was someone in German uniform apparently searching. I told Joe and Johnny it would be better to move off right away but Johnny seemed doubtful.

I found a spot with a cleaner view. On the fender of the car was a man I civilian clothes and another in German uniform. Immediately, the three of us left and crossed the adjacent fields to carry on our own period of evasion.

We were later informed that the farmer and our three comrades had been stopped by a German patrol and taken prisoner. The Germans went back to the farm and arrested the farmer’s son.

When the invasion commenced we were moved to a Maquis unit which was controlled by a British agent, Pearl Corniolly. She had taken over from Squadron Leader M Southgate who had been captured by the Gestapo. Pearl — whose code name was Pauline — had the unenviable task of forming a fighting unit from the constant stream of young Frenchmen pouring into the Maquis each day. All were keen to kill German but had no experience of this kind of warfare.

At one point, some young members brought a blindfolded German officer to us and asked whether they should shoot him. We said, ‘Go to Pauline, she is the leader.’

However on June 11th five days after the Normandy landings, the Maquis was surrounded by Germans and after a sustained battle I, along with other RAF escapee, was finally captured. I am glad to say that Peal managed to escape and was able to re-group and fight again.

I recently found out that the farmer, whose name was Monsieur La Cam, died in a concentration camp. There was no news of his son.

This brings me to the great debt of gratitude which RAF evaders owe to all the brave members of the Resistance.

Many of those involved were ordinary families who not only sheltered but fed and clothed us despite their own shortages.

They knew that if they were caught it would mean either being shot or sent to a concentration camp. Many of them, like the farmer, paid the supreme sacrifice.

Pearl survived the war and I have had the pleasure of meeting her again. She was decorated and has featured on ‘This Is Your Life’ TV and in articles.

During my period of evasion I met some wonderful people whose sole aim was to help free their country from the Nazis.

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