Allied airmen capture and evasion in South West France : August / September 1944

Posted by Alan in Les Alliés

I was recently sent three photographs by the author and historian Bernard Ballanger. The photos had been taken at the beginning of September 1944 in the city of Angoulême in the Charente.

One of the photos shows several Allied airmen and hospital workers standing outside of a hospital building in the heart of Angoulême, the other two photos were taken on 2nd September 1944 at the home of the Fougère family situated just over the road from the Hospital. The family had helped the airmen in the few days that they were kept in Angoulême by bringing in food and translating for them.

Photo taken in the beginning of September 1944 outside of the Hospital, rue de Beaulieu, Angoulême
The four airmen in the front row are : Bob Genno, William Gray, Fred Stearn and Sandy Sandvic

The airmen, 21 in total, had been taken prisoner in the previous two months by the Germans, who were now trying to flee the area as the Résistance were moving in on them.
On 28th August the Germans dropped off the airmen at the hospital forcing the officials there to put them in a guarded military ward. However later that day two officers from the local Résistance arrived and took charge of them.

Photo taken 2nd September 1944 in the garden of the Fougère's family home.
Allied airmen and members of the Fougère family and friends.

The 21 airmen were made up of British, American and a Canadian who had been taken prisoner after their planes had made crashed landings or after parachuting out before their planes had crashed.

Photo taken in the back garden of the Fougère's family home
Standing second to the left of the group in the dark striped suit : M. Pierre Fougère
Group kneeling or sitting : X, Bob Genno, X, X, Fred Stearn, Jimmie Sanderson, Pat Hart, X, Sandy Sandvic, X

I have been working alongside Bernard Ballanger for the past few months piecing together the stories of the 21 airmen and 19 other Allied airmen who returned to England on two US Dakota planes, one piloted by Lt Col Dickerson, the other Maj Saunders, organised by the 492nd BG on the 3rd September 1944 as part of the Carpetbagger mission "Gunner". Nearly all of the men were downed airmen, some had been taken prisoner, some had been looked after by French families and some had joined the local Résistance and participated in liberating the local area including Angoulême.

All of their stories will be published here soon but in the meantime I would like to tell the story of 7 of the 21 men held at the hospital in Angoulême. It is the story of the crew of a Lancaster that took off on 13th August 1944 from RAF Skellingthorpe in Lincolnshire, home of the 50th squadron. 

Many thanks to Rosemary Antwis, wife to one of the crew Peter Antwis, for sharing with us their story. 

The crew :

Sgt Peter Antwis - Navigator
F/Sgt W Gray (Jock) - Bombardier
Sgt J (Pat) Hart - Flight Engineer
F/Sgt Peter (Joe) Lorimer - Pilot
Sgt James (Jimmy) Sanderson - Rear Gunner
Sgt Gunnar (Sandy) Sandvik - Mid Upper Gunner (RCAF)
Sgt Fred (Freddie) Stearn - Wireless Operator

Mission : Bomb submarine docks at Bordeaux (33) 

Sunday 13th August 1944

This was the crew's first mission and expected to be quite straight forward flying as part of 20 planes with most of the flight over the sea. Peter Lorimer's Lancaster took off at 1600 hours and after an hour were at full height and at the fighter rendezvous point at the Lizard in Cornwall and on time. Peter Antwis informed the Pilot that he could not see any fighters.

The Lancaster crossed the Channel over to Brest and then out over the Atlantic sea due south heading to the mouth of the Gironde. At 19.45 they turned inland keeping a keen eye out for any Luftwaffe activity, especially as they would be flying quite close to the German held air base at Merignac. Peter Antwis stood up in the astro dome and could see the black smoke from flak bursting in a thin layer of cloud in the sky ahead. They dropped below the cloud and continued on target.

Avro Lancaster Mk.1
Suddenly they found themselves in the middle of the black balls of smoke bursting with fierce red flashes. As four shells burst just in front of them the Lancaster shook, panels in the plane began to split and the pilot's window had shattered. Jock Gray, the bomb aimer shouted "bombs gone". There followed four more explosions and the inboard engine burst into flames. The Lancaster banked away from the target. The bombs however had not been released over the target. It would mean they would have to go round again. The hurried load up of the bombs before take off had evidently caused problems.

The fire in one of the engines had fizzled out. Pat Hart, the flight engineer, was going through his emergency procedures. There was now a howling gale blowing straight through from one end of the fuselage to the other and it stank of petrol and glycol. Peter Lorimer, the pilot was struggling trying to control the Lancaster and Bill Gray, the bomb aimer came up from the nose compartment, his face covered in blood.

In the book Bomber Crew by James Taylor and Martin Davidson, where survivors of bomber command tell their own story, Fred Stearn speaks how the pilot, Peter Lorimer "Joe" wanted to take the stricken plane out over the sea to try to drop the bombs out there rather than over the French. With two engines on fire and with the controls shot away this was not possible.

He gave the order to abandon the aircraft. They were flying straight up the Gironde and now over the flak barges. One by one the crew baled out of the plane and Peter Lorimer remained struggling with the controls. Peter Antwis could see woodland below and the Lancaster twisting and turning with smoke and flames trailing behind it. He could see that the crew had all parachuted except for Peter Lorimer. About a mile away he saw the plane crash into some trees and seemed to explode. There were Germans on the ground below who started to shoot up at them. He landed in some trees away from the Germans near a beach close to the light house at La Coubre and could see the gear left by Fred Stearn. He buried this and his own in the holes of a rabbit warren and pulled off the sergeant stripes and pocket buttons off of his jacket to make it look less like a uniform.

With his compass he decided to head inland away from the open beach. His leg had been injured and he tied some field dressing over the mess and hoped for the best. He could see in the distance smoke from where the Lancaster had crashed. As he started to walk away he came across some posts with notices on them. He was horrified to read ACHTUNG MINEN above a black skull on a red background. He could see some Germans about a kilometre away, there was a lot of shouting and shooting so he laid flat and hid presuming they were after somebody else.

As soon as he stood back up he was spotted by the Germans who pointed their rifles at him and started shouting to come towards them. He was in the middle of a mine field and they weren't prepared to come in to get him. He stayed where he was until one of the Germans shot his pistol in his direction and realised if he didn't move towards them he would be shot. Each time he hesitated the German shot near him again.

As Fred Antwis came within reach of the German he was hit on the side of the head with his fist and with the butt of his pistol. The other Germans joined in and he was kicked and shoved along a track to a small shed. He was thrown inside and until dark could hear a lot of activity outside. He fell asleep and awoke at dawn kicking the door trying to gain some attention. A German soldier opened the door and armed with a rifle guarded him for the next few days.

All the crew that had parachuted out were picked up by the Germans that first day. Peter Lorimer had stayed at the controls of the plane and miraculously survived the crash landing into trees at La Coubre 20 kms north along the coast from Royan. Dazed and having trouble standing Peter Lorimer quickly composed himself and left the crash site. He knew the Germans were nearby as he had seen them as the plane came down but he did not know that he was in a mine field. He headed north east trying to keep under the cover of trees and scrub and heading away from the German patrol. After half an hour he came to a barbed wire fence and once over noticed the white painted sign displaying a skull in red and achtung above the skull and minen below.

He had not been seriously injured during the crash. He had a gash on his knee, a sore chest and a large amount of skin was off his right temple. He rested for a while and decided to press on north east once it was dark. The night sky was clear and he made his way through a forest and came across the labyrinth of waterways just after La Tremblade. He waded through and swam where necessary to cross hoping that if any Germans were following him with dogs this would put them off his scent. On the other side he continued along some small lanes trying to avoid passing any houses. As dawn approached he began to feel exposed so when he came across a haystack in a field he decided to crawl in making sure he was covered and fell asleep from exhaustion.

Day two : August 14th

He woke about mid morning, it was very hot and he had a raging thirst and a screaming headache. He made his way to the nearest wood, headed to its densest part and laid low for the day.

Peter Antwis, who had been taken prisoner the previous day was washing at an outside tap in the compound he was being held in when one of his crew Fred Stearn was brought in. They ignored each other and sat on the ground to eat breakfast - two slices of bread, a spoonful of cherry jam and a mug of brown liquid, supposedly coffee. Jock Gray, Pat Hart, Jimmy Sanderson and Gunnar Sandvic were then brought in. They all looked very much the worse for wear. They huddled together like a council of war trying to decide what to do next and wondering what had happened to the "skipper" Peter Lorimer. No one had seen him parachute out so he was presumed dead. The Germans were not happy as the Lancaster and  the seven tons of bombs jammed on board had demolished most of their anti aircraft site.

At midday the captured crew were loaded onto a truck and driven out of the camp. After a journey of a couple of hours they drove into the town of Cognac, herded into the town jail which resembled a fortress, taken up some stairs and into a huge empty dormitory. The Germans locked them in and it appeared they then left to go into town. The crew spent an uncomfortable night sharing two mattresses, no blankets and a sink with two taps but no running water. To add to their woes the resident rat population scurried around them all night.

Day three : August 15th

Peter Lorimer was still on the run. That night he came across a small village which set off a chorus of barking dogs. He tried to pass through without being noticed but was beginning to lose his sense of direction and didn't want to end up back at the water he'd crossed earlier. As dawn approached he came across a farm with a tank of water and on finding the hay shed full of hay decided to to hide there for a while ignoring the risks.

He woke in the afternoon to the sound of the farmer raking out some hay from the shed. When he was sure he was alone he climbed out of the hay to the surprise of the middle aged farmer. He explained in the little French he knew that he was an RAF pilot and the farmer indicated that he should stay in the shed. The farmer went into the house and returned with his wife with a parcel of food, some bread and some hard boiled eggs. They then indicated that he leave immediately obviously nervous and pointed in the direction to a line of trees leading to a wood. He reached the wood and sheltered until dark eating the food they had given him.

That same morning the crew being held at the jail in Cognac awoke and were given bread, cherry jam and a bucket of "coffee". From the windows they could see people in the street below. During the day they were allowed to exercise in the jail courtyard and given some potato soup and bread for an evening meal then locked up for the rest of the night.

Day four : August 16th

The following morning they were given no breakfast and were packed on to a lorry and spent the next few hours on busy roads and narrow country lanes. The lorry was a gazogene and had to stop frequently to have its gas boiler stoked up. On one of the roads they came under attack by a British fighter plane and they all had to dive into a ditch for cover. They were heading mainly south and certainly not east to Germany. All the crew were worried that having had no contact with the Red Cross to register themselves as prisoners of war the Germans could have 'disposed' of them if it became too risky to hang on to them.

Late in the afternoon they crossed a river several times over well guarded bridges and entered into a built up area with bomb damage everywhere. It was Bordeaux and they were taken to a large prison in the city. Driven through the gate, they were dumped in the courtyard and then some prison guards threw them into two cells and left for the night.

Peter Lorimer had tried to continue south east and sheltered in the day due to rain. He could see in the distance a large town which he later found out to be the heavily defended Royan. That evening was darker than previous nights due to cloud cover and thirst and hunger were beginning to affect him. As dusk fell he was walking along a road when he noticed two girls ahead. He approached them and explained in what French he could that he was an allied airman and hungry. The girls did not want to help him and moved off quickly. Worried that they may report him he turned north quickly and kept going until it was too dark to see.

Day five : August 17th

At dawn Peter Lorimer set off again and made progress by walking along the side of a road and hiding quickly if he saw or heard anyone coming. At one point he realised that he had walked into a village. Even though it was not quite light he saw in the distance two men standing by the road and he could not be sure that they had not seen him so did not want to take the risk of running off in case they were the enemy. He continued walking hoping that there might be a lane he could turn off. Fortunately there was but it didn't lead anywhere so he had to climb a wall at the back of a house, pass a few more houses and then into a field and over a creek and walked quickly away north east.

It was getting light and full daylight be time he could find cover, rest for the day and drink a little of the water he had obtained from the creek.

Meanwhile back at the prison in Bordeaux the crew had found themselves in a pretty desperate place. All meals were bread, margarine substitute and jam and coffee. In with them were some German Navy prisoners. Peter Antwis asked for medical treatment which was refused. He was given some cigarettes and a German Bible instead. Some American airmen were brought in who had been caught at a railway station. 

Some of the men started playing cards which interested the German guards. While they weren't looking Peter went walkabout and climbed over a wall and found himself in an exercise yard. Not being able to get over the perimeter wall he made his way back to where the rest of the crew were. The guards were looking for him and on finding him shouted and pushed him. He demanded that he and the others saw a doctor to look at their wounds but it fell on deaf ears and they were all shoved into the cells and the doors slammed behind them. The lights were switched off and the rats and cockroaches returned.

Day 6 : August 18th

The Allied prisoners were woken at dawn hearing shouts of RAUS...RAUS...RAUS... (GET OUT !). Six German Navy personnel who were also locked up in cells were taken out, their wrists and ankles in chains and led down to the courtyard that Peter Antwis had come across the day before. Shots were heard, then silence. The Germans seamen were not seen again.

The prisoners were given breakfast and an issue of cigarettes. Locked up for the day until roll call where again they asked to see a doctor. No result.

Peter Lorimer, still on the run, had decided that it was time to try to approach some French civilians to get help and food. He decided to follow what he had been taught in evasion training and try to find a church and contact the priest or parson.

As he moved off from where he'd been resting he was approached by a young man and his girlfriend named Paul and Paulette. They did not seem too surprised to come across him and he found out that he had been spotted the evening before. The couple took him to a house in a small town he had passed before and was at last having his first proper meal in a long time.

Peter tried to converse in French, a language he thought he had learnt at school, but no one understood him. In the end they were able to communicate by writing things down. They showed him how to leave the area if the Germans turned up at the door and then he was taken to another house where he would sleep.

Day 7 : August 19th

In the morning he was given a new suit. He later found out that it was Paul's suit and the one in which he was to be married. Peter Lorimer was then introduced to M. Gildas Gueran, who had with him two bicycles. He told Peter to follow him but to keep well behind in case he was pulled over by Germans. If this happened, he was to say that he had stolen the bike and the clothes and knew no one in the area. Peter followed him down the road and all was going well until the chain came off and was caught in the back wheel. Two Germans further down the road had seen this and laughed. M. Gueran had no choice but to continue walking, Peter meanwhile thought that his time was up and he would be soon on the way to a German prisoner of war camp.

He kept is cool, messed around with the chain a bit and got it back on the sprockets. The Germans walked passed on the other side of the road and made a few jokey remarks but continued to walk by. Peter got the bike going again and carried on until he found Mr Gueran in a side lane further up. Peter followed him and then saw him leave his bike outside a house and go in. Peter followed.

This was M. and Mme. Gueran's home and they had two daughters Gilda and Hélène. The house was in a terrace with a sitting room at the front and a bedroom downstairs which Peter was given. The family slept upstairs. Peter would stay at this house for a few weeks.

Back at the jail in Bordeaux the airmen were told to pack up as they were going to be moved. The men kicked up a fuss as they hadn't been given any breakfast. While the commotion was ensuing Peter Antwis dived into an office in search of the things the guard had stripped from them. In a large old wooden desk he found his watch and ring and many other things belonging to the others. They were loaded into a prison bus. There were 14 of them now.

Day 8 : August 20th

Their bus took a fairly short journey from Bordeaux to the Luftwaffe base at Merignac where they were handed over to a sergeant in the Medical Centre. They were given showers and food, the same as before but more of it and better cooked. They were then taken into the Luftwaffe Mess where they were told to fill out some forms for the Red Cross. There were dozens of questions but they just filled out their Number, Rank and names. They were then taken to a large dormitory for the rest of the night.

Day 9 : August 21st

In the morning they were called out on parade as the Luftwaffe Medical Officer was back on duty. All the men were checked over but the Officer would not touch any of the wounds or burns. Everything he said was in German and he would not speak English or French so no one could understand what he was saying.

The men just hung around all day doing nothing. They were able to see some very large planes and it looked as though some of the Germans were being shipped out.

Day 9, 10 and the following few days : August 22nd to 25th

The men remained at the prison for a few days and Peter Antwis and Freddie Stearn were determined to try to escape somehow. Then, they were loaded on to trucks accompanied by a large escort of Luftwaffe personnel and left Merignac. There were several lorries in the convoy and they seemed to be heading roughly north east, possibly for Germany but making slow progress. The size of the convoy was catching the attention of the Résistance who occasionally attacked them. During each of the attacks the men were kept in the lorries and guarded at all time. One evening they camped in a forest near Châteauneuf and after supper the German guards had a bit of a sing song. One of their favourites seemed to be a sad song about Lili Marlene. The scene was quite bizarre with Germans soldiers and a motley crew of evaders of many nationalities around a camp fire. One of the guards confided with Peter Antwis that he had worked in a hotel in Brighton before the war and went on to say he would be happy to help him and Freddie escape.

Peter wrote in the guard's pay book that he should be treated well if he was captured as he had helped them escape. Once everyone was asleep Peter Antwis and Freddie Stearn sneaked past this guard and made a run for it into the vineyards. It was about 2 o'clock in the morning, pitch dark and they ran away from the lorries, through the vines and out onto a road.

They rested for a while to get their bearings and then there was suddenly the sound of shots, whistles blowing and dogs barking. Peter lost touch with Freddie and walked straight into two gendarmes. Within minutes he was wearing handcuffs, roughed up a bit and shoved back in one of the lorries. Freddie was soon captured too.

Day 13 : August 26th

That day the German convoy with the prisoners, now 21 in number, tried to make headway but were continually harassed by the Résistance and occasionally shot at by RAF fighters from the air. It seemed as if they were to meet their end at the hands of the Allies ! The Germans requisitioned a farm house surrounded by vineyards. As there was no food the prisoners picked and ate some of the small green but sweet grapes. Peter Antwis had his handcuffs taken off and all the prisoners were locked in a barn. They were plagued throughout the night by rats.

During this week Peter Lorimer had been looked after by the Gueran family at their house in
Saujon. Since the crash Peter had had a pretty rough headache and was beginning to notice a persistent whistling in his left ear, something he would have to live with for the rest of his life. As a precaution he was shown a back route from the house along to the cemetery with the idea of moving a slab to hide in a grave if necessary. Fortunately this was not needed. That week the local parson came to the house to meet Peter and although a little hard to follow at times he spoke in English to him. He was told that the Germans were all around and had one of their headquarters in a building across the road. He was warned not to leave the house unless in an emergency and out through the back and down to the cemetery.

Peter did venture out one evening and was taken several blocks away to meet the headmaster of a local school who spoke pretty good English. He had been involved in helping evaders to get down to the Pyrenees and over into Spain but it had become nigh on impossible since D day he said. His advice was to sit it out and move out once the Germans had left the area. Peter Lorimer was pleased that he didn't take his advice as the area to the south and south west of Saujon remained occupied by the Germans until May 1945.

Paul and Paulette called in a number of times and many evenings were spent enjoying a drink in the front room which was only 30 metres from the Germans over the road. Paul had been in the French Navy and had been forced to work at the German submarine base at La Rochelle. He and several others had escaped and managed to walk to Saujon. Peter realised that the Germans would have been more interested in finding him than himself.

One afternoon someone arrived at the house to warn them that the Germans were conducting searches in the town. Peter legged it out the back down to the cemetery and hid amongst some debris and discarded boxes outside of the cemetery walls. Once the light faded he was retrieved by the Guerans.

Day 14 : August 27th

The prisoners being held by the Germans at the requisitioned farmhouse were given no breakfast. Peter Antwis and Freddie Stearn asked if they could go out for a pee. While they were outside they picked a handful of nettles and rubbed them over their bodies to get a serious nettle rash. Their bodies came out in great white and red blotches almost immediately. They hammered on the door for the guard and made him look at their angry looking blotches making as much fuss as possible. The German officer was quite baffled when Peter shouted "Rubelle" at him. He did not know the German for it but it was the correct French. Some of the other prisoners caught on to the idea and surreptitiously gave themselves the treatment. The longer the Germans did nothing the more the spots appeared. The men hoped that they would become a hindrance to the plan to head back to Germany. Peter nodded to Freddie to start having a funny turn. He staggered about and fainted a couple of times. The Americans then joined in, "It's the pox" they told the nervous looking guards.

Within minutes the Germans were shouting Raus, Raus, Raus ! and the prisoners were loaded onto the lorries which drove off into Angoulême thirty minutes away. The Germans took them to a hospital in the centre of town, rue de Beaulieu. There followed a furious row in the entrance of the hospital. The officials of the hospital did not want to take any more patients, especially ones as infectious as the prisoners were supposed to be. The German Officer would not take no for an answer, he unclipped his revolver and shouted to the prisoners to get off the lorries and into the hospital. The hospital chief came out of his office and the German Officer wielding his pistol persuaded him to sign a receipt for the 21 prisoners. The German lorries drove off and the prisoners had become military patients.

Day 15 : August 28th

They were booked into the military wards and allocated beds but later in the day were moved through a long dark corridor and into a large, dark and dingy ward reserved for infectious isolation cases. A German Medical Officer came by later but was told that the men had all left on a later convoy. Two Maquis officers then took charge of them. Peter Antwis asked them to report their presence to London as they would still be listed as missing, he asked too that all the other Allied prisoners that had joined them at Merginac were reported too.

The men stayed at the hospital and had several visitors included three students from the Lycée who had been given the task of supervising their movements and act as couriers for them. Peter's was a young lady called Christianne Perrier who's father was moved into the ward with them. He was a train driver who had been badly wounded in a battle between the Germans and Maquis saboteurs.

Peter, Freddie and Jimmy Sanderson were sent out with the three courriers to various houses in the town with instructions to bring into the hospital any other British and American evaders.

Day 16 : August 29th

Peter's courrier Christianne turned up with news that she had to escort him on a special journey to collect some badly needed money to help pay for the 21 Allied prisoners to get back to England. Special arrangements had been made with London to make some money available but it had to be collected in Paris. Some of the guys had some escape money left but no where near enough for a van or lorry and the petrol for the journey.

Day 17 : August 30th

At 6am Peter and Christianne mingled with the early morning workers at Angoulême railway station and bought tickets for Paris. They had 'introduction cards' to deliver to the 'safe house' located at 16, rue Belhomme in the 18th arrondissement of Paris, specially written postcards. Peter also had an identity card saying that we was a railway inspector and had used his special photo from his escape kit. Christianne was posing as his assistant. During the uneventful but nerve racking journey their documents were inspected and stamped several times. They arrived at Paris and alighted into the crowds of the recently liberated city.

That evening they called at the 'safe house' which was situated at the bottom of the steps leading up to Sacré Coeur. They delivered the cards and collected a small leather handbag stuffed with bank notes. Christianne collected some letters and cards to take back to her family. That night they stayed in rooms above a café called 'le chapeau Rouge'.

Day 18 : August 31st

Up early and boarding an early morning train for the return to Angoulême, Peter and Christianne were among German soldiers also on the train probably trying to get back to Germany ahead of the advancing Allied troops.
They arrived back at Angoulême where most of the Germans had left but fighting continued in the town between the Résistance (Brigade Rac and other local groups) and the remaining German troops until late in the evening when the town was liberated. Peter and Christianne got back to the hospital and were met by the others, relieved and happy to see them back safely along with the money needed.

Day 19 : September 1st

With the town now liberated a local Maquis Commander called a meeting to make arrangements for the liberated prisoner's departure. They were told to get ready and move when called. The men took part in celebrations in the town and paraded outside the hospital at noon. The Allied airmen paraded up to the Town Hall and were invited to a Liberation lunch. 

Day 20 and 21 : September 2nd and 3rd

The Fougère family who lived over the road from the hospital and had brought in food and translated for them threw a party to say goodbye to the British, American and Canadian airmen who had been kept at the hospital. After the war the family would remain in contact with some of the men. Peter Antwis and Freddie Stearn returned to Angoulême to visit them and say thanks in 1995 accompanied by their families and Peter Lorimer, the Australian pilot who at this point was still trapped in occupied France and being looked after by the Gueran family in Saujon.

Christianne took her father home from hospital and Peter Antwis went along to help meeting the rest of their family. He then walked back to the hospital to collect his few belongings and with all the other guys boarded a truck to leave Angoulême for a small aerodrome at Feytiat 10 km south east from Limoges. A Red Cross worker called Daniel, who had looked after the men, went along with them as far as Rochechouart where he lived.

That evening the men arrived at the aerodrome which was controlled now by the Resistance. They were divided into small groups and joined twenty or so other Allied airmen, some who had been hiding in France for more than nine months. After midnight smoke markers and torches were set up for the landing strip. At 1am a twin engine plane could be heard and the landing lights were lit to aid the plane land, a USAAF Dakota, Carpetbagger mission "Gunner". The plane landed and dropped off SOE agents and supplies then prepared for take off. Some, but not all of the men, boarded the plane.

At 2am sounds of a second plane could be heard. This time Peter Antwis and his group were told to get ready. As soon as the Dakota landed the men crowded to get aboard but first helped unload dozen of boxes of ammunition, medical supplies, radio kits, three bicycles and half a dozen suitcases. There were 24 in Peter's group who were each given a bottle of Bordeaux as they boarded the plane.

It was nearly three weeks since Peter and his crew had left their RAF base at Skellingthorpe in Lincolnshire. All the crew were there bar the pilot Peter Lorimer, at this point the men did not know whether or not he had survived the crash landing at La Coubre. Flying at 8000 feet Peter Antwis recalls that it was bitterly cold and in complete darkness. They landed at 0620 at Harrington USAAF air base, they were given breakfast in the Officer's mess, "Yankee style" he describes it - Ice cream, fresh oranges, bacon, eggs, sausages and coffee which bared no resemblance to what they had drunk while captured in France.

That evening they were taken to the Interrogation unit in London, kept in seperate cells and not offered clean clothes, baths or medical attention.

September 4th

Interrogation continued and they were given forms to sign to say that would speak to no one about their experiences. They were issued with a rail warrant, emergency ration cards and five shillings. They were told to report to the nearest Rail Transportation Officer and go home.

September 5th

Peter Antwis returned home and was met by his father at Johnston railway station in Pembrokeshire. It was to be 49 years before Peter would be in contact again with the pilot Peter Lorimer and hear the story of how he survived the crash at La Coubre.

September 13th

Peter Lorimer and the Gueran family learnt that the town of Saujon had been liberated by the Brigade Rac, Maquis from the Dordogne-Nord and now part of the F.F.I. (Forces Françaises de l'Intérieur) and that the Germans had left the town. Celebrations were short lived as they then learnt that the Germans were trying to take back the town. They returned, ransacked part of the town and then left to their stronghold around Royan. Before the Germans returned, Peter Lorimer and the Gueran family fearing reprisals joined a small group of people who left Saujon to get to a liberated area. The next morning they came into contact with the F.F.I. and Peter and the Gueran family parted company.

La Brigade Rac on the outskirts of Saujon - mid September 1944

Peter went with the F.F.I. in the direction of Cognac and stayed with them at a large farmhouse. In the morning they drove on to a village where a black Citroën then took Peter into Cognac, liberated by the Brigade Rac on 1st September. He was interviewed by a local F.F.I. Commander, answering lots of questions on his mission, the crash and where and with whom he had been looked after. He was then issued with a pass and handed over to Robert Martell and taken to his house in Cognac.

Peter was shown round the distillery and told how the dates had been swapped over on old and new casks so when the Germans arrived none of the old cognac was taken. Peter would then spend two days with another family, M. and Mme d'Angeac vineyard owners just outside of Cognac.

September 22nd

Peter Lorimer was picked up again by the F.F.I. in the same black Citroën as before and taken into Angoulême where he stayed at the Hotel de Bordeaux, 236 - 238 Rue de Bordeaux and awaited transport either to Limoges or north. 

Peter spent several days in Angoulême awaiting news of his transportation. One evening in a local bar he had heard a supposed member of the F.T.P., a predominately communist group of the Résistance, say that after they had finished with the Germans they would then start on the British. Peter decided that it was time to leave, so the next morning he settled his hotel bill and left.

As he made his way out of Angoulême he noticed a van with its engine running and the driver no where to be seen so he jumped in and headed out of the city north. He did not get far as at the first major road intersection he was stopped by American soldiers. He explained his story and showed them his pass obtained at Cognac and answered lots of questions regarding German positions near Royan. He was offered a lift up to Paris and arrived there a few days later.

He contacted an R.A.F. reception there but they did not offer too much help, just an address for a hotel and a token for a taxi. The next morning he was picked up by a Jeep and taken to the nearest R.A.F. HQ for de-briefing. They were keen to hear what had happened to the Lancaster and if there were any problems with the controls that he could report.

He was given a pass and the address of a Hostel and with help from the Salvation Army acquired some pyjamas, a razor, some soap and a comb. He was still dressed in the same clothes he had been given back in Saujon.

The next morning he reported to Kodak House, the HQ of the R.A.A.F. (Royal Australian Air Force) where he was issued with a new uniform and given some money so he was able to send telegrams back to Australia telling his family that he was okay.

After a medical Peter Lorimer returned to England where he was told that he could not fly operations again with his crew as they had been captured and if captured again would be shot as spies. As it turned out he was not able to fly operations again due to the damage to his ear that he received during the crash landing. He was then posted back to Australia. He arrived there in early January 1945 and resumed flying later on in June. Unfortunately it was not long before he realised the whistling in his ear made it impossible to hear the Radio Operator and he was finally discharged in October 1945.

Photo taken in April 1995 in the garden of the Fougère home.
From left to right : Bill Gray's daughter Anne and her husband, Peter Antwis and his daughter Laura, Fred Stearn

In April 1995 Peter Antwis, Fred Stearn and Peter Lorimer were invited over to France to take part in many ceremonies celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Liberation of Royan. They came over with their families and visited the Fougère family at Angoulême, the museum of La Poche de Royan and the town of Saujon where they were each given the Medal of the Town, presented by the Mayor. After their visit to the museum they were part of a banquet attended by 120 people. The ceremonies were organised by Phillipe Lelaurain and Bernard Ballanger. M. Ballanger has kindly sent the colour photos below taken during the Allied airmen's visit.

Photo taken on April 15th 1995
M. Georges-Henri Dubois, the Mayor of Saujon presenting the Medal of the Town to Fred Stearn

The Mayor of Saujon presenting the Medal of the Town to Peter Antwis

The Mayor of Saujon presenting the Medal of the Town to Peter Lorimer

Photo taken on April 15th 1995 at the lunch organised by Philippe Lelaurain and Bernard Ballanger.
From left to right :
Peter Antwis, Fred Stearn and Peter Lorimer

Photo taken on 18th April 1995 at the château Otard de Cognac, from left to right :
Philippe Lelaurain, Francis Anderson "Andy", Robert Wilcox "Peck", Peter Lorimer, Fred Stearn and Bernard Ballanger
I am very grateful to Rosemary Antwis, Bernard Ballanger and Phillipe Fougère, Pierre Fougère's grandson for all their help with this article. 

Peter Antwis was instrumental in the research and funding of a new war memorial in his home village of St Dogmaels in Pembrokeshire, Wales, inaugurated in 2014 (link)