RAF crash landing - 6th April 1944 near Châteauneuf, Charente

Rédigé par Alan dans la rubrique Lieu de mémoire
Photos : Tony

On the night of 5th / 6th April 1944 at 2230 hrs Halifax LL228 took off from its RAF base at Tarrant Rushton in Dorset. There were six crew on board : Frank W. Cleaver, Norman F. Wyatt, Alan B. Matthews, John F. Franklin, Raymond P. Hindle and Donald J. Hoddinott. They were part of RAF Squadron 644 and their Special Operations Executive mission that evening was to fly down towards Bordeaux and drop off supplies, arms and ammunition to the maquis in the Charente Maritime. Unable to complete their mission due to no contact signal received from the drop zone, the pilot Flight Lieutenant Cleaver took the decision to turn back and return home.

As they flew over Cognac aerodrome they were hit by enemy fire. Flight Sergeant Hoddinott returned fire but the starboard inner engine had been hit and was on fire and the starboard outer engine stopped. At 1500 feet and unable to extinguish the fire, the order was given to bale out. The pilot decided to remain at his controls to allow his crew members to parachute from the plane. Four members of the crew jumped successfully but Flt. Sgt. Hoddinott was the last to jump and parachuting too low was fatally injured. He was taken to a nearby hospital but later that day he died. The Germans thought that he was an American airman and was subsequently buried in the cemetery at Champigneul. After the war his identity and English nationality were confirmed and his body was moved to the Choloy War Cemetery, Meurthe-et-Moselle in north-eastern France (CWGC reference number: FR 857) - Plot No. 1, Row G, Grave No. 7
There is a memorial stèle erected in his honour and located by the side of the D84 in the small hamlet of Fontaury, 1 km south west of Châteauneuf-sur-Charente. Each year on the Saturday closest to the 6th April many locals, members of his family and representatives of the RAF Association Sud-Ouest Branch pay homage to his sacrifice. This year (2017) the ceremony will be held at 10 am on 16th April.

Memorial stèle erected in honour of Donald Hoddinott

Flt. Lt. Cleaver remained with the plane, laden with explosives and ammunition, and crash landed in a field near Châteauneuf. The aircraft was still on fire and he was able to scramble clear of the wreckage. He made his way south south east heading towards the demarcation line. On the 7th April he had reached the outskirts of Blanzac in the Charente. He decided to try his luck and ask for help at a farmhouse. After a little persuasion he managed to convince its occupants that he was a British pilot. Their son had been conscripted to work in Germany (service travail obligitoire) so were sympathetic. They fed him, gave him a bed for the night and in the morning gave him civilian clothes.

Later that afternoon he left the farm and headed towards Montmoreau, crossed the river Jude and the railway line and then rested in nearby woods until 2 am in the morning. He continued on to Aubeterre and on to Parcoul which was full of Germans, he walked through quickly and was not stopped. A few days later he had made it over the demarcation line and picked up a train for Bergerac. He continued down to Auch about 50 miles from the Pyrenées. On the 13th April he was resting on a road between Tachoires and Simorre when two gendarmes on bicycles approached him and asked to see his papers. He was searched and his RAF identity card was found. This pleased the gendarmes and they introduced themselves to him as his friend and members of the local Resistance. 

He was taken to a farmhouse where six members of the Toulouse Résistance were based. He was then kept at a safe house run by Fran
çoise Dissard in the centre of Toulouse and when it became possible he was guided over the Pyrenées, through Spain and down to Gibraltar where he was flown back to England on the 16th June. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross on 3rd August 1944 but was tragically killed in a flying accident in 1953.

Sgt Raymond Hindle and Flt. Sgt. John Franklin came down on the outskirts of Châteauneuf and with the help of locals managed to cross over 100 miles down to Périgueux in the Dordogne. They were helped by a local priest and eventually made it down to the Pyrenées. With the help of the Pat O'Leary escape line they made it over into Spain, down to Gibraltar and were flown back to England on 6th June 1944. After their successful escape they both returned to their flying duties.

Pilot Officer Norman Wyatt evaded capture for a short time but was caught by the Germans. He was sent to the P.O.W. camp Stalag Luft 1 Barth-Vogelsang in Germany which was liberated by the advancing Russians in the spring of 1945.

Sgt. Alan Matthews baled out successfully at 1000 ft but unfortunately landed in the middle of the River Charente, not good news for someone who couldn't swim. He managed to get to the river bank, the closest village being Vibrac, not far from Châteauneuf. It was 2.30 in the morning, he was soaking wet and so cold that he decided to knock on the door of the first house he came to. His luck was in, the occupants, Monsieur Raze and his daughter Marinette Vignaud welcomed him with open arms. Monsieur Raze, who was involved with the local R
ésistance, gave him a new set of clothes, but because the Germans were making house to house searches in the area they took him to hide in a nearby wood. Worried that Matthews might be confused as to what was going on, Monsieur Raze brought over to him a local teacher who could speak English to explain he would soon be taken to a safer place. To prove that he was English the teacher asked him to repeat a tongue twister "She sells seashells upon the sea shore". He replied back but went one further "She sells seashells upon the sea shore and the shells she sells are seashells, I'm sure".

Soon after, Alan was picked up by Charles Roger, he hid him in the back of his van and took him to his house. On the way the van was stopped by a German patrol but luckily did not find Alan in the back of the van. Later that day Charles Roger took Alan over to the nearest maquis unit (later part of the maquis Bir Hacheim) set up at Armelle Farm near Douvesse, a small village between Bouteville and St. Même-les-Parrières. The farm was owned by Fernand Tatou, who also owned the nearby château d'Anqueville. It was situated on the edge of a wood and only accessible by minor roads which were easy to keep under surveillance and defend if necessary. That night Alan and some of the group returned to the crashed Halifax and unloaded as many arms and ammunition that they could. The group was lead by René Valentin "Riquet" and alongside him Alex Barreau. Amongst the group was an American Army Captain known only as "Joe" who had been sent over to France by the SOE.

Plaque on a wall at the Armelle farm

Alan spent a week at St. Même, staying with Léon Giraudon, the baker in the village and part of the local résistance and then rejoined the group at the farm at Armelle. Madame Vignaud, whose family had looked after Alan that first night, came by the farm three weeks later with his RAF uniform, cleaned and ironed. During the five months with the maquis at Armelle he would from time to time proudly wear his uniform. The group lacked arms and concentrated their time on the occasional skirmish and sabotage, but towards the end of August they were involved in an out and out combat with the Germans.

Early in the morning of 29th August, Léon Giraudon left for his round delivering bread. On his way to the farm at Armelle he passed two German soldiers, he had not noticed that they were SS. As he slowly drove past them they said 'Good morning'. He asked them where they were going and they replied that they were walking up to the château d'Anqueville. Léon offered them a lift, they accepted and got in the back of the van amongst the loaves.

Instead of driving to the château he drove into the courtyard of the farm at Armelle. The back doors of the van were opened and the two German soldiers got the shock of their lives to find they were in the company of the résistance. During the morning, what had started out as a prank against the Germans, became a little more serious as the Germans garrisoned at Cognac began to realise that the two SS soldiers had not returned. The German Commander sent out patrols to the area where the two soldiers had been heading out to. 

At 11 o'clock around 300 Germans arrived at Douvesse in lorries and ransacked some of the houses. They then make their way up to the château. It is searched but only four women and two children are found there. At the same time the résistance from the farm had laid two tree trunks across the road barring the route back. When the Germans realised this they lined the six occupants of the château against a wall and left a few men to guard them, the rest headed towards the barricade. There were four résistants behind the barricade and another four hiding behind bushes at the side of the road. As the Germans came within fifty metres of the barricade the maquis opened fire killing five officers in the lead car and destroying the lorry following immediately behind it. The remaining Germans leapt from their vehicles but came under heavy fire from the barricade and also now from other members of the group, of which Alan Matthews was part of, that were positioned in a nearby wood. 

The maquis, severely outnumbered, did not take the opportunity to withdraw and eventually the SS began to encircle the barricade killing two of them and wounded two others. Another résistant, Georges Buisson, had been wounded and hid in a nearby field. The Germans tracked him down and he was shot. Around forty German soldiers had been killed or wounded in the combat, one of their wounded, heavily bleeding from the neck was taken on a stretcher to the château. On seeing the four women and two children still lined up against a wall he grabbed a machine gun from one of his comrades and mad with rage was about to gun them down. Fortunately he did not have the strength to aim and fire and fell back dead.

Back at the barricade, the SS tied the two wounded résistants, Pauillac and Nivet, that they had taken prisoner to one of their lorries. They drove off and dragged them along the road for fifteen kilometres. At the end of their ordeal their clothes had pretty much been ripped off but they were still alive and suffering from horrific injuries. The Germans bayoneted them and inflicted barbaric injuries until they both died. Their bodies were found two days later and buried at Jarnac. The remainder of the maquis d'Armelle dispersed into the woods of Saint Preuil at Font-qui-Bouille.

In 1946 a monument was erected 
in memory to the five résistants killed at the crossroads where the combat had taken place. Each year on the Sunday closest to the 29th August at 10.30 a ceremony is held in their honour.

In memory of the combat at Douvesse

A few days after the combat the Germans were pushed out of the area and nearby Angoulême and Cognac were liberated by the maquis. The maquis d'Armelle took part in the liberation of Châteauneuf and Jarnac and integrated into the maquis Bir Hacheim participating in all the combats leading to the liberation of Royan and La Rochelle in 1945 as part of the 6 R.I.

Alan Matthews had been promised months earlier by Joe, the American in the group, that he would arrange for his return to England. With the Germans now out of the immediate area, Alan, along with six other British and American airmen waited at a nearby airfield. A Hudson landed, dropped off supplies, picked up the airmen and then returned them safely back to England. Four hours later Alan was in London and soon after resumed his role with the RAF. After the war he chose the quiet life and worked as a decorator. He later retired in Southampton.

In 1981 a memorial ceremony was held close to Châteauneuf-sur-Charente for Sergeant Donald Hoddinott who had died due to injuries sustained after parachuting from the plane. Alan Matthews attended the ceremony and from that year on visited the Charente each year to take part in ceremonies and keep in contact with his comrades in the maquis. In 1992 he was awarded the Résistance Medal which was presented to him in the presence of his family and comrades at Douvesse.

Liens en français :

Maquis d'Armelle : combat de Douvesse le 29 août 1944 (lien)

Châteauneuf : en souvenir de l'aviateur anglais Donald Hoddinott tombé au champ d'honneur le 6 avril 1944 (lien)