A story of phlegmatic courage, by an allied airman who had crashed behind
enemy lines, and of the French resistance who risked torture and death to help him to evade capture
Butch Baker became a well-known and much-liked Foxearth resident who contributed greatly to the community; affable, good-humoured and generous. He had joined the Royal Air Force at the beginning of the W.W. II. And retired in May 1965. He then joined the Home Office police department and rose to the rank of Assistant Under Secretary of State and retired in 1978 when he moved to Foxearth (High View). He was employed by the Cabinet Office for a few years as an adviser to Margaret Thatcher.
During the late war, about two thousand members of the Royal Air Force and Allied Air Forces, after being shot down in North West Europe, got back to their own lines and were able to rejoin their units. With very few exceptions they were able to get back because there were very many energetic helpers who gaily risked a slow and nasty death. It was interesting to note that the Frenchmen who ran these risks retained their native ebullience and lightness of heart far better than their more prudent fellows.
My arrival in France, as a result of bullet in the radiator, was in the forenoon of June 23rd 1944.
There were of course other members of the Allied Forces in France by this date but they were outside Caen in organised parties, while I was near Arras by myself and not very organised either. I landed my aircraft, a Mustang, in a field and as I was unstrapping myself I saw a small figure about a quarter of a mile away waving most vigorously. As I panted up to him he was standing at the edge of a few acres of wheat, he turned and walked through this at what was I suppose was a gentle saunter. On hands and knees beside him and going as hard as I could, I was just able to keep up with him. After travelling what seemed an immense distance, I suppose about two hundred yards, we arrived at the other side of the wheat. My small guide and I here met Raoule, an older and bigger man and the two of them built a stook of corn over me, I was glad of the rest. Some sightseeing women turned up but were headed off by being told that I had disappeared in the opposite direction with the Germans in hot pursuit.
After a much too short a pause the stook was removed and my guide and I set of again, walking upright this time.
As a gesture of disguise I wore my helpers jacket and he stuffed mine into the top of his trousers. It was as well we met no Germans then. I had at that time a long moustache and I am a good average size, or more all round. My guide’s blue cotton jacket was the tightest garment I had ever worn. He looked odd too, with a shameful bundle in front of him. Luckily the only people we met before reaching cover were the sightseeing women, picking peas. We ignored them loftily and they were in no doubt who I was but got on with their work and pretended they had not seen us.
This helper of mine was a Russian P.O.W. of about seventeen years old. Up to his capacity of his French and mine, we discussed war aims. His opening statement was “Hitler caput, hien “? And he drew his finger across his throat, while making that rude noise between a hawk and a spit which universally signifies the slitting of throats. I assented. He then said “Himmler caput, hein”?. In this way we disposed of all the Nazi leaders and I then Laval and Petain in for good measure so that the conversation would not be altogether one sided. My guide also asked me if I would be so very kind as to give him my revolver. I was completely unable to convince him I did not have one and finished up feeling most guilty about it.
We entered a village gingerly by back ways and my friend then hid me in a deep ditch while he went away to report to Raoule. They came back together and I then said goodbye to the young Russian. It was considered if he was compromised; and in case someone should chatter and give him away, he must not know my whereabouts, the whatever the Germans might do to him he could not give me away. This was explained in the boy’s presence and he agreed with remarkable cheerfulness. He survived the war, by the way.
Within forty five minutes of my arrival in France I was eating hard boiled eggs and drinking beer. Then the Germans arrived in the village and we all began the grim of game of hunt the thimble. As each place was searched I was moved in their tracks. Without a doubt most of the villagers knew I was there as they courteously showed the Germans round, the villagers spoke up and banged doors so that their progress was clearly audible.
When the Germans left I held court in a barn and some of the women I had met out in the morning came to be properly introduced. As the tension relaxed I got a short attack of uncontrollable shivering. My visitors inquired if I was cold. I explained I was perfectly warm and would soon stop shaking. My French was not up to explaining why I could not keep still.
My chief helpers in this village were the young Russian, Raoul, who was a Parisian Communist rusticating and an elderly widow and her spinster daughter.
It was explained to me that night with regret that the normal escape route was not open as all the professionals were languishing in gaol. They also apologised for the fact that the French railway system was out of action as well. I assured them that I was the one to apologise as the Royal Air Force was to blame, not the French nation.
After we had finished apologising to one another I was offered the only alternatives within their resources.
I could either work on a farm in the neighbourhood or I could join the Maquis. I said I was supposed to escape.
I fully realised they could not help me very much in this but if they could produce some sort of identity card for me I would walk by myself. We agreed on this and then I shaved of my moustache, put on some civilian clothes they gave me and returned to a barn to sleep.
I had to wait a day for my indentity card and I spent the day, midsummer day, hiding in the middle of a field of colza beans. It was a hot long day from dawn to dusk and I got quite thirsty. M y only drink was a little brandy which did not help. I had asked for something to read and assured them that something in French would be very suitable. But they must have thought my ability to read French was all in my imagination so they scoured the village and found a treasured copy of the “Leader” of March, 1940. As I lay in my field I read it through several times. Mercifully I have forgotten most of it, but one bit I shall never forget. There was an article on the King and Queen in wartime and one sentence read “If there are no guests to luncheon the King drinks draught beer with his mid-day meal”, I had visions of rows of pints of foaming Bass in silver tankards. This was my most uncomfortable day, so I cannot be said to have suffered any great hardships.
My helpers fixed me up with a lift in a lorry to Amiens and I began to walk from there.
The first day I walked for thirteen hours and slept in a barn. My map was on a scale of two and a half million to one and in what I thought was a long walk I seemed to have covered no distance at all. My feet were sore too, I thought I would see if there was a good alternative to walking. There were a number of lorries on the road and after some walking next morning I saw one with no one in the front with beside the driver. At this time this seemed desirable so I hailed the lorry and got into the cabin. After only a mile or two we turned off the main road and then we turned up a cart track. I saw a German sentry ahead and realised that we were going into a V.1 site. I left the lorry hastily and decided that it was quicker on foot.
I walked for three days in all and ended up halfway between Rouen and Caen. I had to stop then, partly to enquire how to go about the next bit , but chiefly to give my feet a chance, Rouen during an air raid and was greatly cheered up when the local anti aircraft guns opened up briskly and engaged some M.E.109’s who were pretending that they had engaged a large force of B.17’s.
On one occasion a German officer stopped his car by me, got out and spoke to me. Through a daze I realized he was asking me the way somewhere. Fortunately my face was covered with dirt and bristles so its changes of colour were not noticeable. I quickly said I was a stranger myself to these parts. An innocent looking Frenchman was passing on his bicycle so I pointed to him and said he might know. He must also have been doing something nefarious as he just about fell off his bicycle when I pointed at him. Of course he might have caught sight of my dirty face.
It took me a long time to find a place of rest as I got several refusals, each of which meant doing another five miles before asking again. Eventually I found what I was looking for and rested for a few days in the village of Bourg Achard. While resting I was asked if I would take the job of radio operator for an intelligence organisation. I said I would if they could check with London that it was in order for me to do this job. It was explained to me that quite apart from any desire on my part to refer this matter to the Air Ministry, the organisation would carefully check with London that I was who I claimed to be, as an important agent in Paris had recently engaged a radio operator without checking his credentials with sufficient care. The radio operator had been supplied by the Gestapo and the agent was in Fresnes.
My references were satisfactory and I was moved, on a bicycle this time, to our headquarters. These were near Evreux and entailed a long journey away from the front, at least it was a long journey if you went on foot one way and back by bicycle
For the next two months I was kept reasonably busy. My original employment was as a radio operator. I soon undertook the task of interrogating all professed aircrew to test their genuineness. By the end of the time I was a sort of cipher officer, chief of staff (the rest of the staff was the typist,) second in command and general factotum.
My position can be fairly accurately assessed by the fact that I kept the stocks of ration cards for every rationed commodity, but I did not handle the cash, which had been very kindly printed, I believe by Messrs De La Rue.
My master had quite a large parish but he had lost control of more distant potions of it. The battle had cut him off from his left flank and cutting of the Seine bridge made it very difficult to get information across the river. However, an enormous amount of information came in, of which the most urgent and most reliable was sent by radio while the remainder went by bag.
I always enjoyed my days spent in preparing our dispatch for the carrier as I was a keen smoker at the time and I was always given unlimited cigarettes while the job was in hand.
The vacancy to which I was, as it were, posted, had occurred because my predecessor used to make long transmissions and one of them was still incomplete when the Germans arrived. My own resolve was to keep the whole thing down to twenty minutes or so was greatly strengthened when, after my second and third transmission, my guide nearly collided with the detection van. My guide had a stolen German aircraft accumulator, quite unconcealed, tied to his bicycle with a piece of string. I had the radio in the rucksack on my back. After this disconcerting experience I used to dismantle and hide the set at once after a transmission and leave in an innocent and leisurely fashion. My guide and I recovered from our shock quite quickly but the radio suffered a severe nervous strain. On the next two transmissions it quavered with an uncertain note and then gave up altogether.
Our home and our headquarters was a middle sized house with about six bedrooms in the country near Evreux.
The house was in the grounds of a rural factory and was ideal for our purposes. The factory gave good cover for our many visitors and the extensive grounds meant that it would have needed a good number of troops to surround the place efficiently. Our landlord was the Woks Manager of this factory and was such a good collaborator that when he got arrested, which had happened twice, the local German company commander had him released at once because he was such a good fellow and definitely on the right side. My master was a tough Breton who had narrowly escaped capture several times and whose wife and daughter were in German prisons. He had been doing the same job since 1940 and was understandably jumpy and short tempered. His diversion was to fish for trout while wearing red pyjamas. The trout were disconcerted by this disregard of the niceties of fishing and all refused to take his fly.
When the wireless set gave out it had to be taken to Paris, as there was nowhere near where it could be put right. I said I would go along too so that I could learn something about the inside. Our journey took place on the fifteenth of July and we set out on bicycles at five in the morning. The significance of this date and the time is that we had gone to bed at half past two after celebrating the fourteenth of July with too much to eat and drink.
We began unsteadily and about nine, I had to help my master with our energy tablets from the remains of my escape kit. The tablet worked and my master kept going until five next morning with no further apparent fatigue.
We got to Paris after seven hours and had a very good lunch and did what we had come to do. We set off back about five in the afternoon. As there was no public transport except a very few buses and Metro trains we were on our bicycles most of the time we were in Paris. On the way back it was my turn to feel tired. I had been told that energy tablets were no good if there was any alcohol in the system, so I sweated it out before taking the pill. When I did the result was the opposite of what I hoped for. I would dearly loved to have thrown myself down beside the road and go to sleep but with the threat of extinction and torture my master kept me going. We struggled on as far as Mantes and passed the bridge just as twenty four Thunderbolts arrived and proceeded to bomb the bridge.
By the time the second aircraft began it’s dive my master and I were at the bottom of a deep and comfortable ditch, well filled with nettles. No great damage was done to the bridge but several bombs fell very close to us. My lassitude was cured completely and for the next two hours I cycled vigorously with no feelings of fatigue.
After our return from Paris we went through a time of greatly increased Gestapo activity. We expected a round up to take place and made plans to move. The Gestapo activity suddenly ceased as far as we were concerned and our move was cancelled. The reason, although we did not know it at the time, was the plot against Hitler’s life.
A few nights later, on the very night we had expected the round up to take place, there was a moment when we thought we might have been over confident. At three in the morning there was a tremendous hammering on our front door, I was half way down the stairs with my bedside grenade in my hand (I kept a grenade by my bed as I did not wish to be taken alive) and my master was getting out of the back window when we discovered that the knocking was one of our couriers reporting back from a trip. We told him to be quieter next time, we told him several times and quite clearly.
A little after this I met, in the course of business, a man who a shoe factory in Elbewt on the Seine. The bridge at Elbewt had been bombed and was down but there was only a short break in the bridge and every night the Germans made a temporary repair and brought troops over it in single file. Before morning the repair was undone again. I reported this fact and suggested further bombs. However to return to the shoes, mine were getting worn out and I asked the owner of the shoe factory if he could make me a pair. He said nothing could be easier and made a note of my size in shoes. Unfortunately, French lasts are very much narrower than English ones and when the shoes came I was quite unable to get them on. I sent them back with a thousand apologies for having such ill formed feet, I was told to draw the outlines of my feet on paper and a special cast would be made.
I did the drawings and sent them off, I am sure that a splendid pair of shoes would have resulted except for the fact that while I was waiting, the bombing I asked for took place. The bridge was not touched but the shoe factory was knocked for six.
We had a large number of airmen hidden in our area, most were many miles from our house but there was a Canadian officer named David in a farm only ten miles away. From time to time I used to visit the farm, sometimes to make a radio transmission, sometimes to make black market purchases and sometimes to just talk English for a change. David’s French was very rudimentary when he arrived and although it improved greatly as the weeks went by he had to translate to himself before saying anything in French. This little pause before each statement gave to his lightest utterance an air of importance and he conversed in short formal speeches.
David shared a long room in the loft with the farmer’s two unmarried sons and it was the daily chore of the farmer’s daughter in law to make these beds and tidy the room. One day when I was visiting the farm, she must have dodged the task, as I was talking to her David saw us and crossed the farmyard to speak to her. As he approached you could almost see the speech being formulated in his brain, he stopped, made a little bow and then after his customary pause, said in his very best French “Madame my bed awaits you”
When the success of General Patton’s breakthrough was assured, we received instructions to pass through the lines and report to the 21st Army Group with certain information. We set off on cycles one day towards the end of August zigzagging from contact to contact. I woke up on the second morning with quite severe sunstroke.
The remedy for this was Calvados. I took my first dose at five in the morning and it certainly was effective. The drawback was that each dose wore off quicker than the one before. Fortunately for me we reached our goal for the day by about two o’ clock and I took no further part in the afternoon’s deliberations but tried to sleep. I got up at dinner time and either the sunstroke or the Calvados was wreaking it’s revenge on me. We were in a farm and the farmer’s wife, in our honour, had killed a duck and made a rich stew with red wine. I caused the utmost alarm by being unable to touch this delicate dish, however I did not miss it altogether as they saved a portion and warmed it up for my breakfast. I am proud to say that although still far from strong I ate up with expressions of delight.
That night we got as far as the German front line itself, where we stayed in the house of in a very poor farmer. My master also found a man who said he knew all the farmers who would be our contacts and who would be willing to guide us. None of us however had ever crossed the lines before and we were rather in the position of a man who arrives at the edge of the water before remembering that he does not know how to swim.
We had survived all out interrogations so far by sticking to one very simple story. We were always on our way to the very next village to rescue a relative of mine whom we would take further back until the gallant Germans pushed the beastly British into the sea. This was the sort of story the Germans wished to be true and they always swallowed it, even those who looked most brutal.
However this story was now no good as there were no more villages in front except those held by the other side and not even the most gullible German was likely to swallow any variation on our old story.
We also felt that creeping about on hands and knees was not a good idea. There is no really convincing innocent reason for creeping about in civilian clothes midway between the opposing forces. It was necessary also to avoid a search as we had a large quantity of most incriminating papers fastened to the back of our calves. After discarding several unprofitable courses we hit on one that seemed more hopeful. We heard that a rich farmer lived midway between the opposing lines and that he owned a bull. We therefore decided to borrow a cow, ( literally) as a cover plan and take it to the bull. We armed ourselves with sticks and set off feeling slightly hilarious. The farmer was much more afraid of losing his cow than meeting the Germans and he came along too, however he did not like the idea very much and was noticeably unhilarious. Although we were not going to skulk behind trees, we could not use the road which was guarded and mined so we travelled by as direct route as we could, getting through hedges and ditches mostly by forcing our way. The farmer got more and more nervous until he became a liability since he could not have stood any degree of interrogation, however he would not part with his cow so we ditched them both and carried on without them. By luck, and it was luck, we did not meet any patrols before reaching the safety of the farm. From there we went under better guidance from farm to farm for the rest of the way. We had at least one drink at every farm, often two or three. Hospitality is quite unanswerable when your host says “you must come back and have another drink as a German patrol is just coming down the road.” We reached our own lines in very good spirits, this was a very fitting end really because during the whole of my stay, from the time I landed until crossing the line, I drank water exactly twice.