10/11.1944 No. 10 Squadron Halifax III LV858 ZA-J Fl/Lt. W.G. Barnes DFC
Date: 10/11th April 1944 (Tuesday/Wednesday)
Unit: No. 10 Squadron
Type: Halifax III
Base: RAF Melbourne, Yorkshire
Location: Berzy-Le-Sec, France
Pilot: Fl/Lt. William George Barnes DFC. 135727 RAFVR Age 23. Killed
Fl/Eng: Sgt. Thomas Albert Crossman 1324526 RAFVR PoW No: 3541 Camp: Stalag Kopernikus (357) Thorn, Poland.
Nav: Sgt. G. Mathews 1651820 RAFVR PoW No: 3540 Camp: Stalag Kopernikus (357) Thorn, Poland.
Air/Bmr: P/O. Maurice Stacy Steel DFC. 160836 RAFVR - Evaded capture
W/Op/Air/Gnr: F/O. E.L.R. Pottier 127007 RAFVR PoW No: 4496 Camp: Stalag Luft Bankau-Kreuzburg (Klucsbork, Poland) (L7)
Air/Gnr: Fl/Lt. John Harold Coller MiD. DSO. DFC. 115590 RAFVR - Evaded capture
Air/Gnr: P/O. A. William Alliston DFC. 161623 RAFVR - Evaded capture
Air/Gnr: Sgt. Gordon Charles Howell 1851966 RAFVR Age 19. Killed
REASON FOR LOSS:
Took off at 21:05 hrs from RAF Melbourne to attack the rail yards and other installations at Tergnier. 157 Halifaxes and 10 pathfinder Mosquitoes from 4 group took part in this operation. The raid was a success with the target seriously damaged.
This came at a cost to the allies losing some 10 aircraft with the loss of 57 aircrew being killed and a further 8 being made PoW, 6 crew members evaded capture and returned to serve.
Halifax LV858 was intercepted and shot down at 00:01 hrs. by Hptm. Kurt Fladrich (1) of 9./NJG4. Combat took place at 3.500 mtrs. and the aircraft crashed Berzy-Le-Sec, France.
P/O. Steel evaded via Spain and Gibraltar using the ‘Burgundy Line’ - arrived back in the UK on the 21st June 1944 - received DFC 27th March 1945.
Fl/Lt. John Harold Coller liberated in Paris August 1944 - arrived via the B.14 airstrip in Banville on 31st August 1944 - received Mid 08th June 1944, DSO 05th December 1944 and the DFC 09th February 1943.
P/O. A.W. Alliston evaded via Spain and Gibraltar using the ‘Burgundy Line’ - arrived back in the UK 21st June 1944 - received DFC 23rd March 1944.
Left: Fl/Lt. John Harold Coller DFC
John Coller DFC. describes the event in his own words:
'The German radar and Fighter Defences had improved considerably since our last disastrous encounter over the Dutch coast homeward bound, when we were shot down at night on fire into the sea by a twin-engined Messerschmitt. You did not even contemplate parachuting into the sea at night, unless the fire threatened to roast you, because your chances of recovery from the water under those conditions were nil. We were not equipped with individual personal well equipped life-rafts as are today’s fighter pilots.
This story involves an entirely different set of circumstances, aside from the fact that we were again hit by fighter cannon and set on fire, with the inevitable fall to earth one way or another. We were on our bombing run to cripple the railroad marshalling yards at Laon in northern France when the attack took place. Suddenly, we were turned into a flaming torch, and every one of the crew knew we had little chance of surviving this situation.
“Abandon aircraft; bail out; bail out!” came the call from the captain as the flames lit up the cabin and the plane started its shallow dive down into enemy territory. We had the “snap-on” type of parachute, which was normally carried under a seat so as not to impede movement about the aircraft under normal flight conditions. Having secured my chute, I moved from my radio station forward and found the navigator and bombardier struggling with the escape hatch in the forward cabin floor. We still had some light in the cabin, which was a blessing.
When you bail out of an airplane, assuming you already have properly snapped your chute into place, the remaining vital procedure is to ensure you have your hand on the rip cord in order to open the chute as soon as you’re free of the aircraft.. Orientation while falling through the air in the dark under considerable stress is not easy, unless you make a habit of bailing out, which none of us had.
Peter, the navigator, was prepared to go first, but the hatch was small and he needed both hands to lower himself through the opening. We were waiting for a while for him to cut free and drop, but he didn’t. We could clearly see the fingers of his left hand still gripping the edge of the hatch. He had frozen in fear, and no one else could escape the burning aircraft until he let go. After what seemed to be an interminable delay, I decided to do something. I gently pried his fingers off the hatch edge with my boot, and he was gone. Joe, the bombardier, was next and he wasted no time. Burning fuel was streaming down the fuselage as I threw myself down that escape hatch with my right hand clutching the rip cord as I went. Probably not a moment too soon. I apparently fell free of the aircraft just in time, because no one else escaped after my exit, and I strongly suspect that the wing separated, making movement extremely difficult in a twisting vertical dive. (This theory was born out much later when we examined the crash site and found the right wing hundreds of yards away from the main wreckage and probably explained why the skipper never had a chance of escaping the twisting wreckage as it fell to earth.)
It’s anyone’s guess what happened next, because I was knocked unconscious and did not wake up until I found myself lying across the main Soissons-Paris railroad tracks with the sound of bloodhounds barking and German soldiers yelling at each other as they searched in the dark for our crew in the French countryside. My battle-dress, as we called them, was ripped open from shoulder to ankle. I had a severe concussion and black eyes for 3 weeks. I was bruised but alive, and the first thing we had been trained to do was to hide the parachute immediately.
In moving off the railway embankment which was about 20 feet high, I tripped on the signal wires which followed the tracks from the signal control box, and rolled down the steep slope until I came to rest at the bottom. Moments later there was the sound of soldiers, running toward the spot that I had just left, presumably alerted by the sound of the signal wires. It was quite dark at the time; but looking up I could easily make out their silhouettes as I lay still and waited. Later, gathering up my chute as fast as I could, because it would have been a dead give-away of my position, I moved on, looking for a place to stuff the chute into. A nearby rabbit hole in a bank provided the perfect hiding place, and I started out looking for a place to conceal myself till I could figure out my next move.
Typical of some of the French farmland structures, the 10 foot high wall, about 200 feet long, running alongside the railroad tracks, was part of a square security perimeter with a huge wrought iron gate on the opposite side leading to the interior. I still remember the large advertising sign painted on the wall facing the railroad; the single word “Rapheal,” promoting some kind of wine. The 10’ high wrought iron gate was padlocked, so I climbed over it and found myself in a farm yard with stalls and barns full of bales of straw and hay. The chickens made a sort of sleepy cluck and the animals greeted me with a grunt or two. A horse snorted and stomped a hoof in the ground as I went by. I climbed up on top of the hay in a nearby barn, then burrowed down between the bales to hide and get some rest. I fell asleep.
The rats which were helping themselves to the rations in my pants pockets and emergency pack, woke me up. While I really didn’t mind sharing, I did not sleep too well after that, but I did climb back up on top of the stack of hay.
When morning came, I woke to the crowing of a rooster, and the happy sound of children playing in the sun-drenched yard below me and the hustle and bustle of people going about their business. I decided to wait till dusk before making contact with the occupants to give myself a chance of escape, should they prove unfriendly.
How ironic to hear all those happy sounds on a beautiful sunny day in France, only to be reminded very quickly that I was a fugitive in a foreign land occupied by German soldiers, who would undoubtedly ship me off to some Stalag if I were lucky enough to survive.
Evening came and I climbed down from my hideout to approach the farmhouse door. This would be my first human contact since finding myself in this position, and of course I had no idea what to expect. To give the occupants their due, I was a grim spectacle indeed. Bloody face and black eyes, with totally ripped and torn battle-dress falling off my body, this was really some hello! They were forced labourers from Poland and scared to death of the Germans who had already searched their nearby property. Whatever French I was able to use to explain my predicament was lost on them, and their reaction was simply to turn the dog loose and slam the door in my face. Luckily for me, the dog was more bark than bite, and a relatively small but noisy animal. I felt that with all the commotion, and the wish not to attract attention, the wise move would be to retreat to the gate, which I was obliged to climb over again, since they had no intention of helping me by opening it.
It was getting pretty dark after this experience, and I started back to the railroad track and headed west, wondering what the next encounter might bring. The wildest schemes entered my mind as I trudged along the tracks. I would somehow find my way to the coast, by heading north, then steal a row-boat and proceed across the Channel to safety. A more ambitious plan would be to find an airport, commandeer a small airplane at night, and fly home. Pretty wild, but this was a situation demanding aggressive thinking, no matter how crazy!
My thoughts were interrupted by the sound of running water, and this made me realise I was thirsty and had no water supply. As I approached the source of the sound, it was only to find myself in the middle of a German barracks of some sort, and the running water was their open air shower and bath. I filled up my water bottle and immediately heard the footsteps of approaching soldiers. I ducked under a bush close to the pathway as they went by within a few feet. “Gute Nacht” I was able to detect after a brief conversation and decided this might not be the friendliest place to hang out.
After returning to the railroad, I followed the tracks till I heard an unmistakable cough a few feet ahead of me. “Was that a cow, or worse yet., was it a soldier on guard at the entrance to a tunnel?” It was so dark that I could not tell immediately, but could it possibly be a cow in a tunnel? That did not seem too probable. Discretion being the better part of valor, being unarmed and reluctant to having a barrel of a gun jammed into my face, I decided to retrace my steps along the tracks.
After about 30 minutes, I happened to notice a light in a small house well off the railroad. Curiosity beckoned! After all, the French were once our Allies, weren’t they? and we had all been briefed about the feats of the brave “Resistance”, so I decided to go and investigate.
I knocked on the door and after a few seconds a woman stuck her head out of an upper window. “Qui va la?” she inquired. I quickly explained in my sort of French that I was an English airman in trouble and that I needed help. “Un Moment!’ was her reply which I understood to mean wait a minute, as her head disappeared. Seconds later the door opened and I was invited inside. A mother and her 3 beautiful teen-age daughters greeted me with open arms and tried to make me comfortable. Two of the girls started to sew up my ripped battle dress, while another offered me coffee and food. These displaced souls, forced to work on the French farms by the Germans, recognised that we were trying to help them return to their homeland and showed not only joy, but remarkable courage in the face of cruel retribution on the part of the occupying forces.
I had not been long enough away from the food served in the officers’ mess 36 hours before to appreciate the generosity of these impoverished people. Their coffee was made from roasted oats, black as soot, and tasted worse than that. Their bread was as black as the coffee and the sausage they offered me was so bad that I could not touch it. But this was their best offering, and I was ashamed that I could not show greater appreciation for their bravery and generosity. You see the Germans had inspected their little house a short while before my arrival, and still they took me in and tried to help me. I asked if I could stay a while and get a little sleep. “Yes, of course, you can sleep with the pigs if you don’t mind, because in the house is too dangerous.” I said “great and thank you,” expecting to end up in a muddy pigsty outside in back with a sack over me. Not so, they took me to a back room where they kept their baby porkers, and I was happy to lie down in the company of these little snoring piglets and fell asleep right away.
But that was not to be for long. After an hour or so, some one came in to the back room to wake me up, beaming and announcing, ”Your friends are here!” I thought “You’re kidding, how could that possibly be?” When you take into account that people bailing out of an airplane flying at 180 miles per hour tend to hit the ground at intervals of considerable distance, that, coupled with the fact that I had wandered all over the place during the past 24 hours or so, and who knows where they had been during that time, the very thought that we should rendezvous at this little lonely farmhouse some distance from the railroad track is hard to comprehend. So there stood Peter and Joe. They looked in better shape than I did.
Our brave newly-found friends advised us that heading north would take us into heavy concentrations of German Army activity, so we decided to go south towards Chateau Thiery, down a road which they directed us to. We knew the risk they were taking by helping us and did not want to endanger them further. So we decided to get going before the sun came up and before the German Army started to roll down the roads in the area. We strolled through the French countryside like the 3 fugitives we were, entering ghostly deserted villages, destroyed in World War 1, and never rebuilt. Occasionally, along the route we would come across an old rusty machine gun placement at the edge of the road, also a relic of that terrible war that took place before we were born.
We did not know who might be watching, us and I suggested we make a bit of a noise pretending to be drunken German soldiers for the benefit of prying eyes, rather than sneaking along in fear of our lives. We even tried singing, but that was a mistake! My two comrades were trying to walk in fleece lined flying boots, which is almost impossible, whereas I was fortunate enough to have regular walking boots. Long ago I had felt sure that one day this sort of thing was going to happen to me, so I was better prepared. Those poor guys threw away those flying boots very soon and wrapped their feet in cloth rather than suffer the discomfort of those fleece lined boots which were never designed for walking any distance.
Amazingly, since leaving our benefactors back down the road, we had not come across a single soul throughout our journey. We continued on our southerly route, not really knowing what to expect as we trudged along. As dawn approached we were in open country, and I saw what appeared to be a derelict, unoccupied farmhouse, well off the highway. We expected the German troops to be active along that road in daylight pretty soon, so we approached the house cautiously and entered. It was empty all right and we rested a while as we checked our surroundings.
A few hours later a huge noisy tractor appeared, working the very large field nearby. It appeared to us that harrowing was taking place, at least that’s what we called it in England--breaking up the large sod after ploughing, preparing for sowing new crops.
It was not generally known in England at the time, that due to the severe shortage of fuel on the continent, and the Germans’ desperate need for gasoline for the war effort, a specially prepared charcoal was used as fuel for high performance equipment like farm tractors. Regular trucks used chopped up raw wood which, when heated in a special cylindrical furnace attached to the side of the vehicle produced the gas to run the engine. And we think we have fuel problems!
I decided, after some discussion with my crew members, to approach this fellow on the tractor, since my French was a lot better than theirs and we would not want to be misunderstood and maybe scare the fellow off.
To our surprise and relief he got the picture right away and welcomed us. He said he had “Resistance” connections and ushered us into a clearing in the nearby woods saying that he would return soon with friends to make arrangements for our return to England. It sounded too good to be true, and as later events unfolded, it proved to be so. We were so relieved to have found someone to help us, and with such a positive attitude our hopes rose. He returned 2 hours later with a few Frenchmen from his village, and some slices of pork, which we barbecued and we all socialised for a while as best we could under the circumstances, feeling better all the time.
They were going to get us aboard a British Westland Lysander aircraft, often used for covert operations in France, and back to England in a matter of days . We were hopeful, but even we thought that was a bit wild, although it was clear that the fields were so large that a small aircraft would have no trouble landing and taking off, if the pilot could find the place. They decided it would be best if we stayed in the farmhouse for a few days; and if one of us would find his way to their farm about a mile or so away after dark, they would try to provide food. Well, I volunteered of course to be the “mail man”, and after the first accompanied run across the field, which was huge, I mastered the task following the stars for my bearing, and navigated the food trip pretty well for several nights. I could hear the German soldiers working on telephone lines in the village, yelling at each other as I approached my destination.
Food was food and for a day or so we were happy to eat anything. A bucket of boiled leeks was about the best they could provide after the first two days and we soon all developed diarrhoea. Trouble was, a day or two turned into a week, and the girls in the village were fraternising with the German soldiers and running off at the mouth. One day a group of soldiers in a “jeep-like” vehicle left the highway near our refuge and approached our hide out. We saw them coming and barely had time to gather what little gear we had and hide in the attic. There was a ladder to the attic which we pulled up after us, leaving little indication that anyone could have hidden up there and hoped they would not carry their inspection too far. We were lucky that time. It was very close! We informed our benefactors and they realised something had to be done before catastrophe struck. The Germans had ways of extracting information from prisoners, and I think it finally dawned on them that we were too much of a liability to keep this game up for long. If we were caught we might luck out and go to a Stalag if the Germans believed that we were truly English airmen. On the other hand our helpers stood a good chance of being shot or at the very least end up in political prison for the duration, where treatment was sometimes worse than what we, the enemy prisoners, might suffer. Worse than that, if a single German soldier was shot by a member of the “Resistance”, 20 political prisoners were lined up at the wall at Compiegne Prison outside Paris and shot as a reprisal! As a result of all this, we were advised to forget about the quick return to England dream and they would find us a safer refuge somewhere, somehow. We understood! Shortly after, we were moved to a secret hideout in the village as arrangements were made to transfer us to another location, even farther away.
We bid these courageous Frenchmen a grateful goodbye. After all, they were the first people to offer help at their own risk and things came close to turning out very badly for all of us because of security leaks in a local pub.
Our new refuge from the Germans was a small farm house owned by a Monsieur Dupuis and his wife who lived on a hill high above the town of Soissons which commanded a great view of that town. These wonderful people accepted the responsibility of caring for us till an avenue of escape turned up. At this point it was decided to hold me back as a radio operator for the “Resistance” and arrangements were made to move my two countrymen through Spain back to England. It was a long, scary and tortuous journey across the Pyrenees Mountains and involved some time in a Spanish jail before they were finally put on a boat for England by the “Underground”.
Back in Soissons I helped herd the cows and engaged in wood cutting and other chores to help out. A formation of Mustang aircraft visited us one day and tried to knock out the bridge over the river Aisne in nearby downtown, without success, I’m sorry to say. They followed up the next day, but results were mixed. The Germans had that bridge operational within three days.
Another surprise, while we were working in a nearby field, a large formation of B-17’s flew over us on a bombing run to the railroad marshalling yards at Laon, our initial target.
It was an impressive sight. They did not appear to be above 15,000 feet and there was little opposition from anti-aircraft fire. Suddenly I saw the reason; an enemy plane was fast approaching the formation from behind and released a rocket at the American planes from a mile astern. I watched the trail of the rocket as it approached and appeared to explode with a very loud bang in the heart of the formation, but not one plane faltered at that time as the bombing run continued towards the target. We heard the incredible swooshing sound as the bombs were all released at once and shook the ground around us as they exploded on target. There was no way of telling how many of those aircraft might have been hit and, due to fuel leaks, never made it back to base in England. This was the first and only time I ever saw a rocket attack on an aircraft formation.
Monsieur Dupuis was a really courageous man, and his contempt and hate for the Germans made him so reckless that he paid with his life at the concentration camp at Dachau after he was arrested in a Gestapo raid on the farmhouse where I narrowly escaped capture. Several weeks after I arrived, we were visited by a German spy presenting himself as a member of the “Resistance” from Algiers. To this stranger, I was just a “cow hand” and was the first one he spoke to. He did not detect my accent but asked to speak to my host about accepting some munitions for storage for a secret project, and also asked if he could bring some Canadian airmen to stay with us for a while, since they had recently been shot down up north. Of course, Mr Dupuis agreed and that was the decision which did him in. I had successfully fooled several German officers with my borderline French. On one occasion, a German convoy approached me as I was herding some cows down the narrow country road effectively blocking the convoy. Another time an officer called to me most politely and asked where he could buy some “benzine” and would I kindly direct him where he could find an open gas station. Of course, I obliged and I truly believe I got away with it because the German’s French was so much worse than mine. I just pointed downtown and he took off apparently satisfied.
It was the very night after the confrontation with the German spy that the raid by the Gestapo on our farmhouse took place. We were having late dinner when Rex their dog suddenly uttered the most blood curdling howl. Like something we had never heard him do before! Mrs Dupuis knew immediately what was going on. “Les Allmands” she cried out before anyone else had figured it out. Jean (that’s me) “allez” she said pointing to the back door. She knew only too well I must not get caught! I had burned my service tags on their request long ago; so if caught, after interrogation, I would be shot as a spy, and they would be shot for harbouring me. I was gone in a second and, after climbing a steel ladder, buried myself in the bushes behind the house up against a fence, high over the courtyard.
As the German soldiers surrounded the house and nearby buildings, I could clearly hear the front door being battered in. A red parachute flare flooded the whole area with light. A young soldier took up a position on the other side of the fence from me, barely 5 feet away, facing the open field with a sub-machine gun in his hand. I was jammed so tightly into the bushes up against the fence that I was sure a twig would snap and give me away. I could hear my heart pounding so loudly in my chest and wondered why he couldn’t hear it too. Cries of the poor old grandparents, in their 80’s, came from the upper bedroom. “Quelle Misere;” Quelle Misere” was all I could hear as the Germans took every one away to the local prison for interrogation. Then almost as suddenly as they had come they were gone, and silence prevailed over the house and surrounding area except for Louis.
Louis was the farm hand who worked for the Dupuis. Poor guy, he did not have all his marbles and was in a panic as he climbed into my position and over the fence into the open field, where the soldier had stood just minutes before, and disappeared into the woods. If he had pulled that move a few moments before, all would have been lost. The soldier would have turned and gunned us down. I had no choice but to take to the woods myself for a few days, keeping an eye on the house from a hill above. It’s surprising what you can observe from a vantage point as you watch the place where you have lived comfortably for some time. In the wee morning hours a young neighbouring boy moved into the Dupuis’ yard to steal eggs from their hen house, barely a day after they were arrested and carted away by he Germans.
I wasn’t too keen on eating bugs, and I could not find enough fruit or nuts to live on. If I had caught a mouse I’m pretty sure I wasn’t hungry enough to eat it, but on the second day after watching for intruders, I decided to re-visit the house in search of food. I went cautiously, not knowing if the Germans had set a trap, throwing a stone in various directions before proceeding inside, to be sure I was alone. I took some bread and fruit and a drink of some sort from the kitchen before returning to the hill above the house, keeping watch in case the soldiers came back.
Now Monsieur de Brossard a close friend of the Dupuis’, was also a very courageous man. Soon after our arrival he had taken us to the crash site of our aircraft at Berzy le Sec, a small village outside Soissons. A touring car full of German officers arrived to take a look as we were there and we retreated gracefully as they approached. They did not bother us. He had also taken us to the graves of our crewmen who perished in the crash. “An unknown English airman” was the only inscription on the wooden cross to mark their passing.
We were the only survivors out of a crew of six. The others failed to get out in time for the chutes to open. The skipper went down with the plane, then some of the bombs exploded forming a large crater and made a real mess of things.
I made contact with a trusted neighbour, advising de Brossard of my plight and arranging a rendezvous the very next day.
The Dupuis family was gone, and I had no idea when, if ever, any of them might be allowed to return. There was in fact no other person to whom I could turn to get me out of a tough situation. He came through. Bless him. What a hero! He made arrangements to drive me to Paris in his truck along with a load of potatoes, not under the potatoes, but in the cab alongside him. That took a whole lot of courage! In a beret I looked pretty much like a Frenchman, and he had a knack for handling the German guards at the check points. The biggest danger lay in the fact I looked too young not to have been conscripted into some sort of national labor program for the good of the Reich. My forged papers were displayed as I feinted sleep and we got away with it. I was delivered to a way-point in Paris and later moved in to a hotel suite with a countess and her nephew on Avenue Hoche within 200 yards of the Arc de Triomphe at the Etoile.
The brutal suppression of the citizens was evident as armoured personnel carriers and tanks patrolled the streets. At one point a shot was heard on our street from a nearby building, and the troops moved a tank into position opposite the suspected apartment. Starting at the top of the structure they fired shells into every level till they reached the ground and totally demolished the building. It was not uncommon to see bodies lying in the streets for hours till a truck would come by to dispose of them. We could clearly hear the guns of the approaching Allied armies day and night as they encircled the city, and of course the excitement was beyond description.
Probably the most emotional sight that a patriotic Frenchman, in particular a Parisian, could ever experience in those crucial days, was the sudden unfurling of the largest “Tricoleur” that any one had ever seen. This national emblem of La France was displayed at the critical period while Paris was being liberated from the enemy. I was fortunate enough to witness this amazing sight, and it could be seen for 360 degrees around the Arc de Triomphe along every avenue leading out from the “Etoile”. The flag fluttered out in the breeze, as we all watched, released by the pompier (firemen) of Paris from the top of the famous Monument, reaching all the way to within 6 feet of the ground. The crowds, suddenly aware of this momentous occasion, started to move out into the streets by the thousands, and proceeded to go wild with joy. It was from this hotel that I watched the liberation of Paris by the Allied Forces led by General Le-Clere who was given the honour by the Allied generals. General De Gaulle, who had spent most of the War in England, paraded up the Champs Elysees the next day among tumultuous throngs of Parisiennes.
Michel, the nephew of the countess, took me on a bicycle tour of parts of Paris. It was not uncommon to see truck loads of bodies spilling blood, being transported through city. To give you an idea of the intense hatred the French had for the Germans, and who could blame them, I describe the following.
Michel decided to bring his camera and used up a whole film on the body of one German soldier lying in the street after an incident that I witnessed. This struck me as a little extreme, but then, England had not been occupied by enemy troops in the past 800 years or more, whereas France had been occupied by this same brutal enemy twice within the past 25 years..
It was at the Etoile, the center piece of which is the Arc-de-Triomphe. Enormous crowds had gathered in the streets as the capitulation of the remaining German forces in the city became apparent. There was pandemonium as shots were fired from a building about 100 yards away from where we were standing. The Moroccan troops marching through the city in a sort of victory march suddenly fell to the ground and started shooting back. As their bullets hit the building, puffs of smoke and dust shot out, giving the impression that others were firing back at them, and so it went on for 10 minutes or so in a near panic as people milled about, until an officer figured out what was happening and called a halt to the shooting. Children ran to and fro, not understanding what was going on, and some came very close to being killed in the barrage of fire. The noise was horrendous!
A few minutes later a platoon of German prisoners escorted by a few French troops approached us from our left. They were beaten, ragged dejected and unkempt and some of the spectators spat upon them as they marched by. Some called insults; others objected to that behavior and called for calm. “They are beaten, leave them alone.” one called out, only to be shouted down by the rowdy crowd who wanted blood. I noticed that one of the marching prisoners was carrying a napkin of some type, and it stood out as the only clean thing on him, arousing my curiosity. Hardly a moment had gone by when I realised what it was for. It was a flame grenade, a signal to the prisoners to disperse and run for freedom. It was directed at one of the guards who was suddenly smothered in flames, trying to tear off his uniform as the rest of the guards fell to the ground and started shooting at an angle upwards so as to avoid hitting nearby spectators who crowded the kerbside.. The plate glass store windows shattered behind us showering us with debris, as some of the bullets found their mark! How quick, how deadly, how tragic! Eleven prisoners lay motionless at our feet in their cold grey uniforms as a desperate bid for freedom failed. Not a sound, not a single twitch, hardly a drop of blood, but they were all dead. The rest of the squad ran in all directions hoping to escape into nearby buildings, up alleys, any where that the soldiers could not fire at them because of the crowds. But, not so fast, they were run down and captured by the troops and lined up against a wall as they were caught.
A priest became involved, realising that they were going to be shot, pleading for their lives. But this was not the time or the place. French memories of German atrocities were too vivid! Undoubtedly they were well aware that they would be shot if they tried to escape. Shots rang out and it was the end for those who were unfortunate enough to be captured, but they probably already had a pretty good idea of what would have happened to them anyway at the hands of the French in these highly emotional times. It should not be a mystery to anyone why the French hated the Germans so, after two occupations and brutal treatment of political prisoners among many other atrocities.
The next day, I was able to contact the Allied Representative for missing soldiers and airmen and after a thorough de-briefing and security check, was put on a list for repatriation. We left within a short period of time in an open truck in pouring rain which never let up throughout the whole 10 hour journey from Paris to an airport near Caen, in the extreme north-west where a plane was to take us home to England. The devastation at St Lo and Caen which had changed hands several times during the battles of the invasion, not to mention the heavy bombing raids which preceded the action there, was beyond description.
The trip was not without problems, however, because there were pockets of hold-out German troops who did not know the war had passed them by and still posed a threat to us as we rolled along unarmed in stormy weather. But who cared about the weather. We were going home finally. The Allied forces made every effort to help us avoid the pockets of enemy troops, and we finally arrived at our destination without more than a scare or two. A Dakota (DC 3) took us from Caen to a field in England, and we were finally home.
My parents were shocked, surprised, and very happy to see me, because I had been missing for a very long time, and they had all but given up hope. After a rest period I returned to my base at Melbourne, Yorkshire, where I was promoted to Flight Commander ‘A’ Flight 10 Squadron, with the rank of Acting Squadron Leader and continued operations once more. But the moment of glory was short-lived due to an incident which ended my flying career in the Air Force forever, but saved my life and kept me out of the War for the duration. In a most rare occasion, a German fighter plane followed the aircraft with my crew aboard on it’s return flight from a bombing mission, and shot it down over the base where it was supposed to land. This was such an unlikely feat because our I.F.F. system usually separated our planes from those of the enemy, but somehow the German pilot was able to stay so close that the radar blip of our plane concealed his, and he remained undetected till he took action. It should be added here that our fighters intercepted the intruder and shot him down as he crossed our coast trying to return to Germany.
But I was not on that mission. I was in hospital with a badly smashed up leg due to an accident on base which kept me in and out of hospital for 2 years. By then, the war was over and I returned to civilian life rather than take a desk job in the Air Force, after all the thrills of active duty as an aircrew member!
Yes, I had many exciting moments in the Royal Air Force in World War 2, and many narrow escapes which remain vividly in my mind; but with amazing luck I’m still here, after 55 years, and able to tell this and other stories to my grand children.
John Harold Coller
Appendage: It might be as well to mention, with reference to the critical moments before leaving the aircraft, that it was practically impossible to parachute from a stricken plane once a wing had separated from the fuselage, causing a violent spiral motion and centrifugal force as the plane would fall vertically, overtaking and killing any crew member who might be in it’s path, once the chute had deployed. We had cannon shells and fire weakening the right wing spar which could have let go any moment, and eventually did.
If I had hesitated in taking the necessary action to get the navigator to break free of the hatch rim, there most likely would have been no survivors from that incident. Fortunately all three of us in the nose of the aircraft survived, but the skipper and the rest of the crew never had a chance."
Statement made by F/O. Alliston (submitted to us in December 2015 by Danny Crossman):
"I was the fifth to bale out, leaving the pilot and the engineer still in the aircraft. From information I received later, I believe that the pilot was able to bale out successfully, but that the engineer was killed when the aircraft crashed.
I landed on the edge of a ploughed field SW of Berzy-Le-Sec. I buried my parachute and harness, and I tore my Mae West into strips with which to bind my foot, for I had lost one of my flying boots in my descent. I had decided to rest for a few minutes, for I was considerably shaken ut I saw a horse and cart making for the aircraft about a quarter of a mile away. I moved off immediately and walked south over the fields. I eventually came to a wood and decided to lie up for a while. While I was resting here I saw a figure coming towards me. I did not think that I could be seen at that distance and lay quite still until he had come right up to me. I was very relieved when I saw it was F/O. Steel who had seen me from some distance away and had recognised my uniform".
(1) Hptm. Kurt Fladrich shot down LV858 making this his ninth kill, he shot down another Halifax this night, that of 640 squadron LW441 flown by Fl/Sgt. Robert Axton who was killed along with his 6 other crew members. Hptm. Kurt Fladrich survived the war with 15 kills.
Fl/Lt. William George Barnes DFC. Birmingham Crematorium. Block F. Grave 43. Son of Mr. and Mrs. F.A. Barnes, of Harborne, Birmingham, England.
Sgt. Gordon Charles Howell. London Cemetery, Longueval, France. Plot 13. Row E. Grave 33. Son of Herbert Charles and Lavinia Howell, of Plymouth, nephew of Mr. P. Waldron, of Plymouth, England.
Researched with information supplied by the relatives of Sgt. John Coller. Also from further details submitted by Danny Crossman in December 2015. With thanks also to Richard Maddox for pointing out a typo in November 2017.