Flt Sgt D J Hoad’s Epic Journey

On 24/25 February 1944 there was another raid on the MAN diesel factory at Augsburg. Sgt D J Hoad was the Bomb Aimer on Fg Off Bartlett’s crew. They got airborne from RAF Dunholme Lodge as one of 44 (Rhodesia) Squadron’s fourteen Lancasters participating in the raid. The following account of what happened that day is a remarkable story , told in Flt Sgt Hoad’s own words.

We were briefed for a night attack on Augsburg. En route to France all had gone so well that the navigator had unusually been able to report “Dead on course, dead on time.” He had hardly finished speaking when the WOp reported a contact on his small radar and immediately we entered a corkscrew port. Bartlett had just completed the manoeuvre when I saw tracer flashing by and heard a devil of a noise accompanied by the smell of burnt powder. Within a very short time the skipper announced that he couldn’t hold it and that we would have to jump - “Bale out, bale out.” In accordance with the drill, as Bomb Aimer I was first to reply and then, removing the front hatch, I left and consequently don’t know too much about the subsequent events in the aircraft.

I turned over and over, not aware of any sensation of opening, then my parachute did open and I seemed to hang there, in the cold dark night, for a hell of a time. I thought to myself ‘I have had the war and the war has had me’. Suddenly I was in a field, uninjured apart from a twisted toe and a graze on the right side of my face, where the parachute had caught as it opened. Evidently I had missed the last bus home but the question was what to do now? The answer seemed simple - make for Spain. The difficulty was that I was in northern France, half way between Laon and Rheims, and Spain was a long way off. I gathered up my arachute and started walking, navigating by the Pole Star.

After some hours I came across a hovel and lay down to rest in some straw. At dawn I moved off and almost immediately was nearly run over by a bike. The cyclist, recognising me for what I was, took out his lunch of bread and cheese, broke it in half and shared it with me, for which I was more than grateful. He bade me good luck and left while I continued on, eventually passing through a village. At the end I saw a face at a window and made my way there. I was immediately taken in, given something to eat and some eau de vie, but directed on towards a wood because there were Germans living in the chateau at the other end of the village and it wasn't safe. Some two or three miles further on I topped a rise to find myself looking down onto a second village nestling in a hollow. It turned out to be St Tomas par Corbeny, halfway between Rheims and Laon. I paused and surveyed the scene for some time. After about three quarters of an hour, a figure carrying a saw across his shoulders came out of the back door of one of the houses and made towards my hill. I moved across to intercept. As soon as he saw me standing there in my flying kit he realised the situation. Noticing my injuries, he bade me go home with him where 1 was well-received by his family, given a good meal and put to bed. Leon Mascre was a farmer who lived with his wife and 3 children, a son about 19 and two daughters about 8 and 6 in two rooms of a former worker's cottage. It looked out onto a rectangle. Adjacent was the farmhouse commandeered for use by Dutch and Belgian workers, while German soldiers occupied the building opposite.

I stayed there some six weeks. We all slept together in the bedroom and lived in the other. Naturally I could not venture into the open and was provided with a night bucket, which Madame would empty into the privy across the yard. Nevertheless there were one or two ring twittering moments. On one occasion the daughter came in to say that a German soldier was on his way and I had just managed to dive into the bedroom when he arrived. Madame gave him some coffee while he explained that he wouldn't be calling for his daily eggs since they all had to go out looking for the crew of a downed British Bomber. Little did he know that one of them was but a wall thickness away! Another time when the family was entertaining some guests, I was hidden behind a wardrobe slanted across a corner of the bedroom. After some time I heard the door open and then the sound of my bucket in use. I simply could not overcome my curiosity and peeped out to see a French Madame completely unaware that she was sharing one of her most private moments with a young sergeant in the Royal Air Force. On a third occasion the local mayor suddenly put in an appearance. I hadn't been able to get to the bedroom and stood hidden behind a cabinet in the main room while he conducted his business. Apparently the Germans were about to conduct a search for undeclared wheat and he had come to warn the Mascres. The date was known and before dawn I was provisioned with food and locked in an outhouse for the day. I very much admired the French with whom 1 came into contact and grew to love them. They took terrible risks on my behalf. Food was short even on the farm where it was supplemented by the odd chicken, rabbit, snails or frogs.

It became apparent that the Mascres weren't having too much luck in contacting the Underground and l decided to move, principally to get out of their way. So 1 persuaded the old man to take me to Paris. We travelled by train but while Mascre was getting a newspaper or something, I stood on the platform dressed in my white sweater, now dyed pink, my service trousers, now dyed black, wearing my torn-down escape shoes and an old coat. Nearby stood a German Officer who suddenly moved across and walked round me then returned. 1 nearly died on the spot.

In Paris we stayed in a small flat in Port de Vilas belonging to one of his sons, Pierre. Then came a knock at the door and a lady said, 'Je cherche Jack', (I am looking for Jack), which really frightened us all. The Underground evidently had known everything about me for some time and told us to return to Rheims. There we were met by a detective of police, who I was told to follow at a discrete ten yards or so into the Cathedral Square where we entered a small café situated in the corner and continued through into a back room. There some ten or s
o people were already gathered as if for a party and they really made a fuss of me. Champers flowed readily and I was, constantly asked about the start of the second front - as if I would know in any case. Later, we were on the move, again, spaced some 10 - 20 yards behind a courier and taken to the butcher’s shop of Marcel Gouran in the Avenue Jean Jayrees,. He treated me as one of the family and after a couple of days took me out on a bicycle to a nearby German airfield which would now be Rheims airport. I dutifully noted what was going on in the event that the information might prove useful when (if) 1 returned to the UK.

We returned from one such outing to see German military policemen lounging in the area, nicknamed 'Bulldogs’ on account of the silver plaque they wore round their necks. This certainly made me feel very nervous. Shortly afterwards the call came, ‘Allez, the Germans are coming'. Without ado we were out across the courtyard and entered a row of houses. Inside we mounted some stairs, entered the lofts and made our way through a series of lofts and attics before descending into a side street and then ran. Boy was I scared. We came to a house and there we stayed well after curfew. Then, still after curfew, the owner collected his horse and carriage and took us via the back streets to a gate in a wall. There I stayed in a flat with two brothers and a wife. I shared a bed with one of the brothers, each sleeping with a ready-packed haversack and a loaded revolver on the table.

Next day I was taken to a café. Later, a wood-burning Citroen drove up and, to my alarm, a gendarme beckoned me to go with him; I was assured all would be well. In all there were four of us and on the road to Rethel we encountered a German road block, Tooting his horn he slowed but didn't stop and the police saluted as we sailed through. En route they showed me a gun emplacement. We went on to the village of Bourgogne and stopped at the café de la Gare where the proprietor was Erhard Govan. Again I was made most welcome with Champagne. The food was good and I am sure Erhard was well up in the Resistance. The many weeks I stayed there were more than eventful.

Erhard had a1922 Citroen van which he ran on petrol, paraffin, paint thinners or anything else that that would burn and frequently took me with him to visit his friends. Sometimes I was introduced as an RAF airman, on other occasions I was the deaf and dumb relative of his wife's brother from Brittany. I must have been good in this role for once, to Erhard’s delight, as I stood smoking, a young German soldier stood looking at me and commented how sad it was for such a fine young man to be half dopy.

One evening, while Madame was preparing supper, I was sat in the back room of the café tinkering with the piano, playing the Cuckoo Waltz, when a German airman at the bar asked about the music. Madame said, 'Oh it's my daughter, she should be in bed', and promptly came back, I shot out into the yard, which was fortunate because shortly afterwards the airman himself came through. As I gazed in through the shutters watching that young German sitting with his backside on the table drinking the coffee that Madame had offered him, l was so reminded of Joe Swingler, our mid-upper who was killed. He had his hat in the epaulette, whereas Joe would have his stuck in his belt.

Again at breakfast, a French gendarme came in and I was, as usual, introduced as deaf and dumb, but he looked unconvinced. Later, while I was playing with the kids I saw him surreptitiously take out his whistle and put it to his lips. I thought here comes a test, and made sure that, when he blew it, I didn't react. It all passed off without comment. Some while later I was in bed having coffee when Madame brought the same man in. He laughed, produced a bottle of Champagne and said, “I know who you are”. He too wanted to know about the Second Front.

On another occasion I was drinking at a cafe cum brewery in the village of Bassancourt when I saw a number of tanks. I commented and was told that there was a repair depot nearby. Subsequently, on my return to UK, I mentioned this in my debrief and was very satisfied at a later date to hear on the wireless a report that a force of Mosquitos had attacked Bassancourt. I often wonder whether this was the result of my report. While walking around wartime France with M. Mascre, I quickly adapted to the idea that, were I in England, I wouldn’t expect to see escaped German airmen walking around as bold as brass. The thought gave me a lot of confidence. It was quite exciting to be abroad for the first time, new sights, new smells and new tastes.

At one stage I was taken to a caretaker’s apartment at a local drill hall and introduced to a man who claimed to be an American flyer. Johnny Cassalis was genuine and had been knocked about quite a bit. He had a broken bone and three separate wounds in his arm. In due course, the Resistance had him treated at a hospital, even moving him into an empty private ward during his recovery. Evidently, still groggy when he came round, he rang the bell for service. Fortunately, someone in the know and very quick-witted, commented that it must be a joke because that room is empty.

Later, we were joined by two more Americans, both fighter pilots. We were assured that we would get off to Spain. The four of us lived quite well until there came a panic. A cyclist arrived to say that Johnny’s former hideout had been raided. Split into two groups, Johnny and I were taken into the forest to a woodman’s cottage and stayed there until the excitement had died down. Whilst there we did some rabitting and one day we saw a wild boar. I set a snare, fixing it firmly between to pine trees. That didn’t work because the boar simply avoided the area I had been in. However, one day I caught a stag and butchered it with a carving knife. We fed well on fried heart and liver and, since it was now all clear, we were able to return to Erhard Govans where we had a feast on garlic roast venison for it was Ascension Day.

By now plans were afoot to start us on our way to Spain. After several disappointments when guides failed to show up, we made our way by rail to Paris. We set off in Erhard’s Citroen towards Rheims station when there came an air raid warning. Nothing was allowed to move during an air raid so we stood on the road watching two formations of Fortresses come over. The leader shot out a Verey cartridge, then came a noise like 50 express trains at speed. It was their bombs coming down. The thirty or so Fortresses had released the lot in one go. While we lay in the gutter, protected only by the houses and listening to the sound of shattering glass, the station was well and truly hit. It was a good job that we hadn’t got there. Shortly after, along came another formation and we made our way into a yard for a bit of shelter. We lay there as the bombs fell and discovered that we were in the cave of a champagne store. Erhard Govans was quickly up and took us into the office where we had a drink and were to leave with at least a bottle each. For my part, the war was beginning to look not too bad at all!

Our plans had to be changed. We split up and went to a café to await events. A half-covered van was acquired and we were hidden under a tarpaulin while the driver and the courier sat in the front, each with a loaded revolver in their laps. They took us up over the hills to Epernay where we took a train and the guide accompanied us to Paris. There we were taken to the house of a French policeman, Gabe Boyer, where we were joined by two Aussies, three more Americans and an RAF chap, making our party up to ten. Gabe was a real character and was decorated after the war by the British, French and American Governments. We stayed the weekend and then were taken early one morning to a hospital just around the corner from the Gare Austerlitz, which was the terminus serving west and southwest France. There we waited for new travellers and guides. We had been provided with travel papers way back in Bourgonne: I was Van Heflin, a Dutch worker returning to work after visiting my sick mother in Holland. Now we received our tickets and entered the train a 6 am.

Although departure was not until 7 am, it was already standing room only. We were to travel thus until 4 pm the next day. Our companions were German servicemen, Luftwaffe, Army and mostly Navy travelling to the west coast. Johnny Casallis was still very weak. Earlier, following instructions from the doc over the phone, I had helped to remove his cast. We had sawed and cut our way through the plaster but, at the sight of his unhealed wounds, I had to retire temporarily and throw up. At one stage, one fellow vacated his seat, presumably to visit the wash room or stretch his legs and Johnny Casallis sat down. When the fellow came back, there was one heck of a row and, bearing in mind that we had little or no French and there was a corridor full of Germans, I quickly hustled Johnny out, feeling more than a little scared.

We detrained at Toulouse at around 4 pm the next day but, in the absence of the expected guides, we stood around in small groups on the platform for some considerable time. We must have been a funny looking mixture of well dressed and scruffy men. Eventually, to our alarm and bearing in mind that this was May and very warm, two leather-coated men, dressed in the fashion of Hollywood-style Gestapo agents, made their way towards us. One of the Americans made off along the platform and down the track. The two men were our contacts and they divided us into small parties and took us to spend the night in safe houses.

The following Wednesday afternoon we took the train to Montauban where we met four Frenchmen on the run from the Jerries. There were as yet no guides and we spent an anxious time hiding in the bushes not far from the station.

Eventually, complete with a guide, we set off for the Pyrenees. We stopped for the night on top of one of the foothills. Below we could see a village and our guide made his way down and collected the American who had fled at Toulouse. On Thursday morning we really started walking along a valley, up over the hills and for what seemed a long way. At night, quietly walking on the grass, we made our way through a village. Neither a soul nor light was seen but I think that every dog in the south of France was barking. We had just rounded a bend when a bright light, which we took to be a searchlight, flicked on and swept the road. Fortunately, we were just out of sight and dived frantically into a field to the right from where we began a steady ascent, climbing up through beech trees and reaching the top around noon the following day. That night we slept in a hut where I lost my lighter.

The next day we continued en route through a glade full of wild lupins. It was a beautiful sight. Eventually we passed around the shoulder of the Peak du Midi, about 6000 feet up. By this time we were wading through snow that was knee deep even though it was May. Then we came to a water trough and knew that we were in Spain, for the lettering on the side said ‘Anno’ 1932. Shortly afterwards, the guide pointed to a village nestling in a valley and then departed.

That Sunday morning, after having been travelling since Thursday with very little to eat other that some bread and jam and a knuckle of ham, we descended into the village. There we made our way to a café for we still had some of our French currency from our escape kits. While sat there, in came a member of the Garda Civila who looked rather like a figure from the music halls but was very pleasant. He addressed us in French and bade us finish our coffee before going along to see the sergeant. After interrogation, they put us in a hotel for a couple of days before moving us to Viella and on by lorry to Sort. From there we went by bus to Lerrida, well into Spain.

We were put into prison tor making' an illegal entry into the country. Fortunately, the British representative got us out late on a Saturday night, took us to a local shop where we were kitted out in civvies and then put us in a hotel for a few days. While there we heard news of the Second Front. Next we went down to a spa and then came a representative of the British Ambassador, Sir Samuel Hoare, who moved us to a hotel in Madrid. While there we were given the option of a move to Gibraltar either by train or by lorry. We opted for the lorry and, after an overnight stop at Sevilla, we arrived in Gibraltar the second night. The third night I was on a Dakota back to the UK.

As for the rest of my crew, 1 understand Ronny Scot, the WOP, was hidden in an open grave in the snow, caught pneumonia, recovered and went forward as an interpreter with the Americans. Ernie Bartlett, the skipper, managed to get to Switzerland somewhere near Lolmar and then, when the Americans entered the South of France, he came back into France and returned via the Mediterranean, The navigator, Sturgess, was injured, as was Middleton, the flight engineer. Both had broken bones and became POWs.