Quatre avaiteurs américains dans le maquis Bir Hacheim en Charente

Rédigé par Alan dans la rubrique Maquis Bir Hacheim

During the course of mission 171 on the 31st December 1943, numerous bombers of the 8th U.S. Air Force were shot down by the Luftwaffe or by German anti aircraft over France. Eight of these bombers were shot down or crash landed in the Charente and the Charente Maritime, two others close to their border, one in the Gironde, the other in Deux-Sèvres. The latter was a Boeing B17 Flying Fortress under the name "Miss Lead" part of the 326th Squadron of the 92nd Bomb Group based at Poddington Field in England.

After suffering mechanical problems over France it was forced to make a crash landing at 13.15 in a field near "Le Joug" 400 metres north-west of the village La Bataille in the department Deux-Sèvres (79). All ten of its crew members survived the crash landing :

2nd Lt James A. Grumbles
F/O Lloyd C Busboom
2nd Lt Edward F. Neu
2nd Lt Robert G. McGee
Sgt Richard J. Frievalt
S/Sgt Clarence J. Muntzinger
S/Sgt Alex J. Dominski
Sgt Hugh L. Halsell Jr
Sgt Miland F. Bills
Sgt Michael F Cahill jr

Top row from left : Robert G. McGee, Lloyd C. Busboom, James A. Grumbles, and Edward F. Nue
Bottom row from left : Miland F. Bills, Richard J. Frievalt, Clarence J. Muntzinger, Hugh L. Halsell,
Michael F. Cahill jr., and Alex J Dominisky

Before leaving the aircraft its navigator Edward Neu and radio operator Richard Frievalt sabotaged all their equipment. The pilot James Grumbles destroyed all the paperwork and then attempts were made to set the aircraft alight by putting some of their parachutes partially in the fuel tanks and setting them alight. The material did not burn well and with no time to lose the crew left the scene in different directions into the surrounding countryside before a German patrol arrived.

However, the Germans did not come across the aircraft until late in the afternoon leaving time for curious locals to visit the site of the crash and check out the plane.

Of the ten crew members, three were picked up by the Germans, Robert McGee, 
Clarence Muntzinger and Miland Bills. The pilot James Grumbles made for the nearest wood where he came across two of his crew who informed him that all had survived the crash. He hid amongst hedges in the wood until daybreak. He then went from village to village until he was picked up by the local resistance and directed to a train that would take him from Angoulême down to the Pyrenées aided by a lady and her daughter. By the 4th January he was over in to Spain and by the 6th February was back in England.

Lloyd Busboom and Edward Neu stayed together and soon came across Alex Dominski who was as white as a ghost and visably shocked after the crash landing. They tried to convince him that it would be safer to stay with them but he left to set out on his own. Busboom and Neu spent six days on foot trying to get as far away from the crash site as possible and then knocked at the door of a farm for some food and civilian clothes. They were fed and given clothes and continued on foot to a station where they considered boarding a train south but there were too many Germans around.

Richard J. Frievalt

When they asked at another house for help the lady who answered the door told them to hide in her barn. A local resistant leader, Maurice Landre was informed and came to pick them up and got them to a station. With help they managed to get down to the south of France. They were then looked after by the resistance at Campels in the Haute-Garonne. By the end of March they had made it over the pyrenées with some fellow Americans helped by guides. They then made it to Gibraltar and returned back to England on the 27th April 1944.

Abandoning the aircraft Richard Frievalt (this was only his second mission) took cover in the nearest wood and hid until nightfall. Once it was dark he set out on foot through the Charente countryside. He soon came across two of his comrades, Michael Cahill and Clarence Muntzinger. The three of them then set out together passing a few small villages. They arrived at the outskirts of the town Chef-Boutonne and decided at this point to split up and attempt their evasion alone. By the 5th January 1944 Muntzinger arrived totally exhausted at Montbron to the east of Angoul
ême. He was taken in by two Frenchmen, Mr Bruinaud and Mr Gillibert who looked after him for a few days despite there being so many Germans in the area. He was fed and given a set of civilian clothes and given somne money to continue his attempt to reach Spain. Unfortunately he was later picked up by the Germans and ended up in a prisoner of war camp in Germany. 

On the 2nd January 1944 Frievalt and Cahill by chance came across each other again and decided from this point to stay together. They began to be followed by a man on a bike who caught up with them and directed them to an isolated empty house where they could rest safely. During the night they had a visitor who came to collect them and lead them to a farm where the owners, a couple, fed and looked after them for several weeks. They were then visited by a Monsieur Egor who spoke English quite well and even knew a fair bit of american slang. He took them on to another safe house, this time a farm on edge of a river, where, by surprise they found two other members of their crew, Hugh Halsell and Alex Dominiski. 

Dominiski had been spotted on the 1st January in a wood near Couture d'Argençon in the Deux-Sèvres by Marcel Belaire. He passed this info on to Marian Juraszek who went and picked him up that evening and offered him shelter in his home. Knowing a few words of Polish he was able to communicate with Dominiski who was of Polish descent. The next morning he took him over to Saint-Claud in the Charente to stay at a farm owned by Marcel Petit. The same farm that Frievalt and Cahill would be taken to a few days later.

Close by in Chasseneuil-sur-Bonnieure a group of resistants had set up camp in some woods at Fougère in the commune of Cherves-Châtelars, this had been used as a shelter in the last few months of 1943. The group would become the future maquis Bir Hacheim created by André Chabanne, Guy Pascaud and Hélène Nebout. During the winter the shelter at Fougère quickly became pretty uncomfortable due to bad weather. Even though it had been built with a tiled roof the cold and rain managed to get in. It became necessary for a new shelter to be found for this small group.

Nearby in the village of Châtelars there was an old chateau, pretty much in ruins and uninhabited. In December 1943 the resistants camped in the woods at Fougère moved into this manor house and would be able to stay there for a few months without being troubled.

It is probably towards the 20th January 1944 that the four American aviators, Frievalt, Halsell, Dominiski and Cahill were transferred over to the chateau making it about twenty people staying there. On the 5th February they welcomed Colonel Claude Bonnier "Hypothénuse" who had been sent over by De Gaulle a few months earlier to organise all the different resistant groups in Region B (Aquitaine and Charentes). He was welcomed by André Chabanne who presented to him his men. It was during this meeting that Claude Bonnier gave this maquis group the name Bir Hacheim after the celebrated battle in Libya lead by the Forces Françaises Libres. A few days later Bonnier was arrested in Bordeaux and while in a cell awaiting torture and interrogation he committed suicide by swallowing a cyanide pill.

During his visit Bonnier had given one of the American aviators, Richard Frievalt, the title of Corporal and as part of an initiation ceremony was thrown out of a second storey window where down below were his resistance comrades ready to catch him in a blanket and snapped it tight just in time !

The barn at Négret seen from Lafont

Later in February the aviators were moved to a resistant camp close to the village of Négret in the commune of Saint-Claude in Charente. The group comprised of around twenty, mainly young men who had refused to go to Germany as enforced labour. They were soon joined by another fifteen or so young men. For security it was decided that the whole group set up a new camp 
in some outbuildings at a farm at Andourchapt in the commune of Saint-Laurent-de-Céris. The camp was close to woods and only accessed by a single narrow lane after passing through the tiny hameau of Lafont located about 400 yards away.

The group was not well armed and had no military training. They had initially been appointed a leader, a member of the maquis Bir Hacheim but he had been injured during an attack on some Germans. Provisions however were good, a local baker supplied them with bread for free and during the night they would be dropped off with a little meat, some milk and some wine bought from a local farm. There were two families at Négret who kept a close eye on the camp, they were the cousins Alfred and Germain Potevin. Alfred ran a business maintaining public works and Germain ran a sawmill. His two sons Gaston and André were part of the resistance at Andourchapt. Alfred, his wife Hélène and their two daughters Jacqueline and Eléonore all helped to make sure the group camped at Négret were well looked after.

In the early hours of 22nd March the Germans swept through the area around Chasseneuil and cordoned off the town. They arrested and interrogated 127 people from the town including Guy Pascaud, who was deported to Germany, survived the camps and returned to France at the end of the war. In the same reprisals a detachment of Germans and French Miliciens headed out in the direction of Saint-Mary looking for the resistants camped at Endourchapt. That morning they ransacked the village of Négret and interrogated and tortured Vignaud and Dubois two young men involved with the resistance from the village. To put them off the scent they told their interrogators that there was a maquis camp in some woods at Les Carmagnats less than a mile from Négret but the Germans quickly realised that it was just an old disused camp. They returned to Négret and under duress and believing that those camped at Endourchapt would now have had time to flee, the two young men were forced to tell the Germans the location of 
the camp.

In the meantime a young man by the name of Camille Chambaud rode his bike over to the farm building at Endourchapt where the thirty or so resistants and the American aviators were camped. He warned them that the Germans were at Négret and were looking for them. They were not well armed but decided to stay in the barn. After a while Gaston and and André Potevin and three of their comrades decided to leave and head into the adjacent woods. André decided to return to convince the others that they too should leave the barn and head out into the woods for safety.

It was too late, the Germans had started to attack the building and had machine guns posted around the exits. André Potevin and one of the American aviators Alex Dominski tried to escape and were shot dead on the spot. Under fire and surrounded, the others all surrendered. Two of the resistants, Marcel Dumont and Bonnier, decided not to leave the barn with the others and hid out of view from the Germans in the workshop part of the building. By chance the attempt by the Germans to set the building alight was not successful and the two were not found and survived.

Camille Chambaud was arrested at the top of the lane that lead down to the farm. As well as Albert Moreau from Saint Claud and the young man from Négret called Vignaud. Thirty seven of those camped in the farm outbuilding were taken prisoner and lead away to the La Pierre-Levée prison at Poitiers. The resistants were tortured then condemned to death by a German military tribunal and subsequently shot on the 8th May 1944 by a firing squad at Biard close to Poitiers. Apparently still having the strength to sing the Marseillaise as they stood waiting to be shot. The young Vignaud was released due to lack of proof of involvement with the resistance but Albert Moreau was deported and died in a concentration camp. Camille Chambaud, deported also, died on the day that the allies came to liberate the camps.

Gaston Potevin managed to escape through the woods and waited in vain for his brother André to arrive. He would get back to his parents house at Confolens many days later in a very sad state. Presuming that the Germans would come looking for him he went into hiding with the help of Monsieur Gerbaud a farmer at Lessac. As for the others who managed to escape little is 
known as to what happened to them or who in fact they were.

The three American aviators were also taken prisoner along with the resistants but were not executed due their status as American soldiers. They were imprisoned at Poitiers and interrogated. Richard and Hugh remained a few weeks at Poitiers and then were transferred to Fresnes prison near Paris and then on to Germany after the D-Day landings at Normandy. They remained at a camp for allied prisoners until February 1945 and then were moved to a British POW camp towards Hamburg. Richard had been seperated from his crew mates and while being transferred with some other prisoners met with Clarence Muntzinger, one of his crew mates.

As the Russians began to enter Germany from the east the prisoners were moved. While on the move on the 16th April Richard Frievalt and a few other prisoners managed to escape. He was finally picked up by the Americans and then flown back to England. 

Each year on the 22nd March the Amicale de Bir Hacheim organises commemorations at Chasseneuil, Négret and at Endourchapt in memory of those who gave their lives for our freedom. Over the years family members of the American aviators have taken part in the ceremonies.

We are very grateful to Terry Quick, the nephew of Richard Frievalt for his help with the above article. For more information and pictures on the story follow the link to the web page created by Terry in memory to his uncle and his crew. (link)
Many thanks also to Michael Moores LeBlanc in Canada who sent us the valuable information about Clarence Muntzinger from the 'helper' file of Mme Angele Delacroix.

Monument erected at Braconne in memory to the 33 executed at Biard

Recommended reading :

Les deux Charentes sous les bombes (1940 - 1945) by Christian Genet, Jacques Leroux and Bernard Ballanger. Published by La Caillerie - Gémozac in 2008

Le maquis Charentais "Bir Hacheim" 1943 - 1945 by Raymond Troussard. Published in 1996.

Histoires tragiques du maquis by Pierre Louty. Published by Editions de la Veytizou in 2011.

Related posts :

The monuments at Négret and Endourchapt (link)

Commemoration at Chasseneuil 22nd March 2014 (link)

Herbert Brill : an American in the Charente and Dordogne resistance (link)

DVD et tapis de souris du film "Les Saboteurs de l'Ombre et de la Lumière" (lien)