It just so happened that the 22 May 1944 was the day of an important religious event held annually in France, when families and close friends celebrated their children's ﬁrst communion. Besides the communion, it usually included a party with a large meal, much wine and jolliﬁcations that continue well into the night. Even though it was wartime, a party was still underway by early evening as Zenon was deciding how he should abandon his stricken plane high above. At that precise moment one of the guests named Michel Salmon, decided to stretch his legs outside and as he did so a noise made him look skywards towards an aircraft in trouble trailing smoke and falling rapidly to earth. Close to it was the pilot that had just taken to his parachute and was dangling beneath it while swinging from side to side in an attempt to avoid bullets being fired by German soldiers some distance away. Within the next second or two the plane had crashed not too far away from where the pilot was likely to land thought Michel. With his strong connections with the wartime underground movement in France he realised at once that there was every chance of him reaching the pilot before the Germans could if h had some means of transport. Looking around he spotted a ladies bicycle leaning against the side of the house, grabbed it and sped at brake neck speed towards where he imagined the pilot would land.
He was not wrong and after ﬁnally struggling to pedal across a beat ﬁeld arrived breathless to find Zenon in a collapsed state cuddling his parachute after his heavy landing.
If Zenon had been shot down on any other day, then he most likely would have been taken prisoner and the rest of his life would have been extremely different.
Whisked from under the German Noses
Zenon sat severely winded from his hard landing in this field somewhere in France with no idea of exactly where he was. His first task was to bundle up his parachute in his arms that he did still sitting on the ground to recover from the shock of his hazardous descent and heavy landing, glad to still be in one piece despite being shot at on the way down. Before he could think what to do next the young paleface man with his lady's bicycle was standing over him breathing heavily in his race to reach him first. Zenon’s first words were in very broken French, "Englais. Englais. To confirm this he immediately pulled his identity disc from around his neck, it gave his name as Charly Armiger and not Zenon Bartkowiak. The young man knew that the Germans were not averse to dropping one of their own personnel in RAF uniform to ﬁnd out who would help them. He also knew that many loyal French men and women had been caught in that way and along with their families were not seen again. Having established that he really was a RAF pilot, the young man felt him all over to ensure that he had no broken bones and could stand up to make a rapid getaway. Meanwhile many children had followed the young man across the field and were standing to watch what was going on. Some obviously knew the young man as they called him Michel, so Charly at least then knew his ﬁrst name.
Michel of course also knew Zenon’s adopted first name by which he would continue to be known by everybody that he came into contact in France for the rest of his life.
Michel removed his blouse-like coat and signalled to Charly to put it on. All that Charly wanted at this point was to know where the Germans were? Michel indicated they were in the opposite direction to where he was hurriedly trying to take him towards some bushes at the side of the ﬁeld. After passing into the next field full of rape, almost at the double, they descended into a shallow ravine known locally as "Le fonds de la noix", or "The bottom of the nut". Here they had to pause for a while as Charly was completely out of breath from the pace Michel had insisted they should move at. During the short stop, Charly took his knife out to out off the tops of his ﬂying boots to appear that he was wearing ordinary shoes. After burying the tops under bushes with presumably his parachute nearby, they hurried still farther for about one and a half kilometres. This gave the impression they were making towards the woods that Charly had seen on his way down. But Michel changed direction several times, once to divert the children who persisted in following them, once because he took a wrong turning and the last time to turn away from the woods towards the village of Camblain Chéitelain. Shortly after, they came across a farmer's pitchfork beside the path and Michel quick mindedly gave it to Charly and told him how to carry it. This was to give the impression to anyone who saw them of two farm labourers returning home from a hard days work in the fields, as it was after all, well into the evening by then. Every German searching for the downed pilot would have obviously imagined he would head for the woods and no doubt the children conﬁrmed this when questioned, as none would consider them foolish enough to head for the village. In any case it was only the last 60 metres or so that they were visible to others where they had to cross a single track railway line and pass through a cemetery before they arrived in some ones back garden where Michel was known to frequent.
The First Hiding Place
Inside the house was an elderly man sitting at a table in the kitchen eating who became very concerned when he realised what Michel had done. Angry words were exchanged and Charly thought his liberty had come to an immediate end. He had no idea what happened after this as he passed out, partly from the pain he had experienced in the landing and no doubt partly from shock that now set in. When he eventually came too an elderly lady had joined the group and a heated discussion was taking place. While this was in full ﬂow and totally incoherent to Charly, he instinctively reached into his pocket to take out an English cigarette that he lit up. This brought the conversation to an abrupt halt. Michel immediately rushed over in panic, ripped the cigarette from Charly’s mouth, removed the packet from his hand and threw both into the fire. He rapidly explained that such cigarettes had a most distinctive smell compared to normal French-made cigarettes that others could easily recognise including Germans. Charly learned later that the two elderly residents who were in effect Michel's adopted parents, were angry mainly because he had not retrieved the parachute. When this was later found, the number of bullet holes were counted before pieces of the silk canopy were shared among the villagers. It was found to be 44! It was a wonder the canopy had not split apart before he had reached the ground, after all that was one of the purposes of the Gemian gunners because it was an easier target than trying to hit the pilot swinging beneath. Both were of course not allowed under the Geneva Convention. This might have caused him to descend faster than normal and why it made his impact with the ground that much heavier.
The foreign currency that Charly carried on all ﬂights over enemy territory was also given to his rescuers for safe keeping. It included British, French, Belgian and Spanish notes issued to gain possible aid to escape. His stomach was still not right for he vomited badly after drinking a most welcome cup of coffee. Nevertheless he had to be found a safe house for the night and he was asked if he could ride a bicycle. After donning other French workers clothing given by the elderly man, the two of them rode across to the other side of the village to Michel‘s own house where he spent the ﬁrst night.
Before doing so, Michel started to cook them a meal. He had obtained some ham from the black market and wanted to fry chips to go with it but as the fire had not been lit for some time the kitchen soon became full of smoke. Despite Michel’s persistence Charly recalled that the meal was however not very tasty partly because he was still suffering from his heavy landing and partly from the effects of delayed shock.
The German Search
The Germans arrived in three armed motorcycle sidecars to the spot where Charly had landed some 15 minutes previously. They vigorously searched the immediate area and the nearby woods for several days before deciding to widen the search to include the village, as they had no clues as to where the fallen pilot might be hiding. Michel a widower, was at the time courting a nearby widowed school teacher named Genevieve who had two young girls named Paule and Jacqueline who were to become the eyes and ears for Charly. suspecting that the Germans would start to search the village, Michel hid Charley in the local cemetery in a vault where bodies were held before burial. He was first taken there in the dark so he had no idea who he was sharing his hiding place with until it was daylight. Michel stayed with him during the first night there but had to depart around 4.30 am before dawn so as not to be spotted during curfew hours returning to his own house before reporting for work at the local coal mine. Charly recalled later how scared he was when left alone especially when he realised there were two bodies alongside him in the vault awaiting burial. One had a well- made suit on that he estimated would fit him perfectly but he was too nervous to take advantage of it.
Later that afternoon Michel appeared looking very dirty and grimy from his shift at the mine to say that he would go home to wash and return later with some food. This he did with two slices of fresh bread and cheese as miners received increased rations from those of ordinary workers. Alas, Charly’s stomach had not yet settled enough for him to enjoy it, but he did rejoice to have company once again.
When not working at the pit during an afternoon, Michel worked with a very pretty hairdresser named MM Raymonde Lavin in the house of her aunt named Marguerite. This aunt, who was the half sister of Raymonde’s mother, had adopted her after her 20 year old son had died in a motor cycle accident.
Knowing Raymonde well and that she spoke fairly good English, Michel wanted to share his secret about Charly with her. He opened the conversation talking about the “umbrella”, meaning parachute.
He went on to tell her that he had the other end at his house and asked if she would come along to speak with him. This she agreed to. She had learned her English during the 1939/40 stay of RAF officers who visited her Aunt's Cafe next to the hair saloon where she worked. (They were thought to have been based on the airfield at Bethune/Labuissiere.)
At last Charly could converse with Michel with some understanding via Raymonde whom he became very attached to. They would meet at different locations mainly after the curfew hour of 7 pm.
Raymonde would use her bicycle and not be too concerned to be out after the curfew hour as many German ofﬁcers used her saloon and knew her well. A pretty young lady with a sick aunt that she was supposedly visiting seemed to be accepted by those who stopped her. At these meetings the three of them would arrange where Charly would be hidden with always a reserve and an emergency location in mind. Also if possible to have the two young girls playing nearby to act as a look out for whenever Germans were around. If Germans were in the vicinity they would sing certain songs in the street to warn Charly who, if it became dangerous, he would make his way to the next arranged hideout. On one occasion they sang extremely loudly and it became too late for him to move quickly as the Germans were close by making a house to house search so he had to make for the emergency hiding place. This was at the bottom of a garden close to a shed containing goats and rabbits where there was a deep well with a heavy hinged grill on top. Below the grill was a pipe used to pump the water up. Luckily the pipe had a collar every so often, presumably a joint, so he could place his feet on them and clasp the pipe with both hands. The two German soldiers who searched the property he had been hiding in decided to enjoy a cigarette at the bottom of the garden so came to the well to do so. Before leaving one decided to relieve himself so urinated down the well much to Char|y’s discomfort! He could not of course utter a sound, but once again he had been saved.
The Need For A Move
After a while, Michel became anxious because several villagers were talking discreetly between themselves about the RAF pilot that Michel had saved. He became frightened that someone would overhear this type of concern, so he decided that Charly should be hidden from then on, away from the village. He was also concerned about the number of people who knew in detail of what he had been up to and what might happen if the Germans decided to question them.
Michel with his knowledge of various resistance groups knew they had their own special methods so he arranged a meeting through a woman with two men from Arras in a hairdresser’s shop called “Serge”. They worked with a group who specialised in helping RAF crews to return to England. A third man arrived late, he being a Gendarme made Charly somewhat worried mainly because of the uniform so he asked to see his papers. Not only did the Gendarme produce them, but he also handed Charly the gun from his holster. Michel assured him that it would be alright, but Zenon decided to stay with Michel and the three men returned to Arras. It was only when they had driven away did Charly realise that he still had the gun.
Raymonde had a friend of Scottish descent whose father named McLeod had been caught hiding a British soldier. He also had a radio transmitter and had acted for the intelligence service. He was taken to East Prussia where he died. The mother was taken to a Polish prison camp but survived the war. They had a son and two daughters who all worked in the mines and lived at St Pierre les Auchel. The eldest daughter was taken to the Gestapo prison at Loos and severely tortured in order to ﬁnd out if others were involved. Eventually she was released with photos of her ordeal that she was ordered to show her sister who they said would endure similar punishment if any of the family were caught hiding wanted individuals. Charly was to be hidden by the elder sister and he was to be taken there by Michel in daylight. By this time Charly was sure that he would be stopped due to the frightful looking clothes he was wearing. Also if stopped wearing civilian clothes he knew he would automatically be shot as a spy.
Despite these worries the two of them set off next day towards St Pierre. Michel walked a few steps in front of Charly following on behind, using a stick, complete with beret and a hand-made cigarette dangling from one corner of his mouth. At one point they rounded a bend in the path alongside a wheat field and to their utter amazement and horror they were confronted by a patrol of about 14 or 16 well-disciplined German soldiers. Michel walked straight on without batting an eyelid, so Zenon followed with a stern glare on his face and the high-tension danger was over in seconds. Eventually
they arrived in front of a block of terraced houses where many grim looking men and women were talking. They had obviously just come from a shift at the mine. After lingering among the group for a while, the two entered one of the houses and was immediately met by a pleasant rather plumb girl.
"Hello Charly" she said, ''I'm pleased to meet you." "I'm a good friend of Raymonde, we went to school together. So don't be afraid you're in safe hands and you'll spend a few days in this house."
She then went on to explain with some authority "that he could not leave the house and had to stay in the loft at all times. Unfortunately the loft had no windows and the only light was a 15 watt, 110 volt bulb, but she did provide a bucket, a small wash basin with the minimum of water and a tiny amount of miners‘ soap that reminded Charly of a piece of stone covered in glass paper. However she promised to visit him every day. She went on to say "that tomorrow everyone must be out on the main road to greet Field Marshall Rommel as he passes on his way to the Normandy front (therfore it most likely was after D-Day, 6 June 1944). However, a man will fetch you called "79" to have your photograph taken for your identity card to be prepared. Tomorrow will be the best day as all German soldiers as well as the Gestapo will be engaged in providing security for the Field Marshall.
Mr 79 duly appeared and they marched off together trying to give the impression they were in deep conversation but Charly had no idea what he was talking about. The photo was quickly taken and they returned while all the crowds were still on the street. He recalled how pleased he was to return to the house to use the bucket! Several days later Mr 79 arrived with Zenon's identity card. The stamp on the photo was made from a raw potato skin and to Charly he thought that it looked far from the real thing. He had been given the name of Charles Leblanc, born somewhere in Bretagne. 79 obviously noted Charly’s dissatisfaction because a few days later he was given another. Charly’s name this time was Charles Lebrun. Although the standard of the card was better than the ﬁrst,
Charly thought the stamp was still very poor and it would never pass German inspection.
79 also became concerned about Char|y’s shoes that on close inspection could be seen to be cut down. He said he knew of someone in a village about 8 km away who could provide a pair but would not do so unless he actually met the person. it was raining hard, so 79 suggested they should make the journey walking across fields as it was less dangerous. Charly quickly agreed if for no other reason than to be out of the loft breathing fresh air. Eventually they arrived at a small shop that sold almost anything one wanted. The man inside looked Charly over very carefully, went away and came back with an almost brand new pair of working shoes that ﬁtted perfectly. There was no conversation whatsoever between all three and the exchange took place in just a few minutes before they were on their way back.
Charly later said that 79 was a pleasant man around 60 years of age who he later was told had been shot dead on 18‘ September 1944 close to the spot where both had crossed the road to have his photograph taken. He was buried locally and Charly often visited his grave after the war.
Yet Another Move
Charly lost track of how long he had to stay in the loft before he was introduced by his lady host to the wife of a butcher whose husband had been taken prisoner. They had had a shop where the wife was allowed to sell meat once a week under German control. She also had a 14 year old son who was learning to play the violin, an instrument that Charly could play. At once Charly offered to teach the young boy and it was arranged that he would visit their house to do so. However the house was extremely close to several V1 launch sites and the mother and son moved away to sleep elsewhere for a while so Charly had the house all to himself at night. One launch site was so close that he could observe all that was going on. Here he lived almost in luxury, for every lesson he gave, the mother would provide a slice of liver or pork. He would cook these at night when alone and had the run of the house as it was supposedly empty. He watched with the aid of the owner's field glasses each V1 take off whilst listening to BBC London. This allowed him to follow the allies advance through northern
France with the aid of his silk escape map that he still carried and wondered how long it would be before the allies reached him.
Back to Camblain Chatelain
It was not long however before the RAF located the nearby launch site and came to bomb it almost nightly. Then the USAAF heavy daylight bombers took over and Charly’s hiding place became extremely dangerous. When Michel heard of this he quickly came to visit Charly and insisted that he return to his village. Michel at this time was becoming heavily engaged in various sabotage activities so Charly often helped in dynamiting railway lines and bridges to delay their use by trains taking supplies to the front.
And yet more Moves.
Michel could therefore not look after Zenon as he wanted to and he had to find others that could. He found a most remarkable women named Berthe. Her husband was a shoemaker who owned a modern shop in Marles-les-Mines. She had hidden two British soldiers since 1940 so was well experienced in looking after servicemen. She spoke English with authority and appeared to fear no one. The first thing she said to Charly was "you're going to have a hot bath, I'm sure you have never had one since you came to this country on a visit?" Charly could not believe his luck.
Later he was looked after by a baker/butcher M Stephan Krawczyk in the same area. He understood Polish so it was a natural place for Charly to stay. His host was an active member of the resistance and as he was ordered to provide the Germans with bread and meat he was able to study and locate the defence positions being set up to delay the Allies advance, as well as the V1 launching sites at Ferfay. These were not far from the German airﬁeld at Rely that used the road from Arras to Boulogne as its runway. It was also known as La Chausse Brunehaut. In this way he used his German pass to good advantage and often took Charly along to help him. During these trips, Charly acted as if he was a deaf and dumb employee of M Krawczyk to avoid notice.
On 2 September 1944 the British Army XXX Corps was sweeping quickly into the area and Michel hurried over by bicycle to collect Charly to meet the advancing British troops and to inform them of the German positions that were set up and waiting to ambush them. He met the troops somewhere between Pernes en Artois and Camblain, but some of their maps were incorrect as the British troops thought they had reached Marles les Mines. At ﬁrst they did not want to stop but when Charly explained who he was and what he knew the ofﬁcer in charge allowed him to mark his maps to avoid falling into the German trap.
The results of this prior knowledge was 6 German soldiers killed including the local commanding officer and some 9 wounded. Charly helped to transport the wounded to hospital by removing doors from local houses to use as stretchers and place them on various armoured vehicles.
At long last Zenon’s days of Hiding were over.
The following day, Charly was required to report at British headquarters set up at Ferfay where later a reception was given in his name. He was then sent on an assignment with an intelligence officer to prepare for the arrival of RAF aircraft at Vitry en Artois airﬁeld, located between Arras and Douai.
However on their way from Camblain to Arras they were stopped by sappers at Ranchicourt and the mission returned to Rely (now Bruay Labuissiere) near Bethune.
On 4 September 1944, Charly was ﬂown out of the airfield at Vitry to RAF Hendon north of London to return to his Squadron, a free man and to be known once again as Zenon Bartkowiak.
Before leaving this important part of Zenon’s life it is considered necessary to place on record the influential part that Michel played in it.
Michel Salmon was called up for military service in 1940 but was captured by the Germans as they advanced into France but he managed to escape only to ﬁnd himself in the evacuation of the retreating armies at Dunkirk. After being taken on board a ship and being repeatedly bombed he arrived at Hull on the east coast of England. When the authorities realised he was French they sent him to Southampton on the south coast and placed him on a boat to Le Havre that was not yet occupied by the Germans. His liberty did not last long as yet again he was arrested by the Germans.
This time he was taken to Calais to help build various defences, but once again he escaped.
However he was picked up before he could reach his home village and forced to work on other large defence projects. During one of the many air raids on the building of these defences when most were panicking, he managed to escape once more and before he could be apprehended reached home and immediately volunteered to work in the nearby mine. The Germans desperately needed miners at the time so they did not remove him. Furthermore miners had more liberty than many other French workers and as already mentioned, received additional food rations.
Michel's wartime occupation suited his lifestyle admirably. He had sufﬁcient liberty to help in Raymonde's hairdressing saloon and carry out missions for the resistance. Often he would be asked by residents of other villages to colour certain
peoples‘ hair to change their appearance. He obviously realised what he was doing but did not ask questions.
From that moment onwards in the early evening of 22 May 1944, the two of them would become like “War Brothers” as Zenon later said, though neither could visualise this at the time.
Introduction - Overview
Chapter 1 - Early years and escape from Poland
Chapter 2 - Zenon joins the RAF
Chapter 3 - A life changing flight
Chapter 4 - In hiding
Chapter 5 - Return to England and his squadron
Chapter 6 - Discharge and marriage
Chapter 7 - Life in France
Return to England and 303 Squadron