Northern Ireland

Amazing war story of modest hero Alfie

RAF man Alfie Martin parachuted out of a burning aircraft during World War II
Image caption RAF man Alfie Martin parachuted out of a burning aircraft during World War II

"I heard whizz-whizz-whizz... the sounds of bullets hitting the fuselage.

"A few minutes later the pilot came on: 'Bail out, Bail out'."

The memories of 90-year-old Alfie Martin were so vivid that I saw the wartime scenes playing out in my mind's eye.

He lived in extraordinary times - but his story is particularly remarkable.

After parachuting out of a burning plane, the RAF airman was spirited out of Nazi-occupied France by the French Resistance.

He was keen to stress to me, though, that he wasn't telling the tale to boast.

Rather, he wanted to speak about his experiences to pay tribute to the members of the Resistance who saved his life, and to support veterans' charities.

Emotional

After landing near the French-Belgian border, he wandered between fields for a few days.

Then, a boy minding a cow came across him.

"Wonder of wonders," Alfie recounted, "he saluted."

He still found it emotional, 67 years on.

"It did a great deal for my morale," he explained, "because I was feeling pretty miserable."

He still receives Christmas cards from the boy who found him.

Image caption Alfie Martin heard the bullets ripping through the fuselage of his aircraft

The boy's family pointed him in the right direction.

Alfie was put up in a farmhouse for six weeks while the Resistance made plans for his escape.

Members of the underground movement transported him by train through Paris to the Pyrenees.

Then, guided by a Basque people-smuggler, he and other Allied escapees hiked over the mountains and waded across a river to San Sebastian in Spain.

There, he wasn't allowed out of the safe house because he was having problems with his disguise.

He had to dye his hair from red to black and the dye was running out.

"I wasn't a very attractive Spaniard," he joked.

But the last leg of the escape was about to begin.

In San Sebastian, he was picked up by the British Consul and flown home from Gibraltar.

Sadly, at least three of the Resistance members who helped him to safety did not survive the war.

"Anyone who helped you was subject to death. And there were notices to that effect," he reminded me sombrely.

"I hope my memories give people some idea of what life was like for us - the great hardships, but also the great joys we had together and the great pride we take in it all."

The second part of 'Alfie's War' will be broadcast on BBC Newsline on Thursday 11 November.

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