The ten pilots of the Glider Pilot Regiment were told very little other than there was a special operation in the pipeline and that we were going to fly the Waco glider. ‘Ours was not to reason why.’ A few of the glider crews had flown the Waco in Sicily and all had flown them before. Nevertheless training commenced at once with up to six flights a day. By the time the operation got underway 84 training flight had been made.
In the morning of 4 August 1944, the Brigadier and ten jeeps crewed by French SAS (Special Air Service) drove into camp at Tarrant Rushton. These were Frenchmen who had escaped to England and had trained as special forces. Each jeep had a crew of three SAS parachutists and twin Vickers K machine guns, one mounted on the bonnet and another on the rear. They also carried explosives, sten guns and a PIAT anti-tank gun.
At the briefing the glider crews learnt that they were to fly the SAS into southern Brittany where they would cause disruption behind the German lines as the Americans, who were some 170 miles away, advanced up the peninsula. Take-off was 2000 hrs and the landing was to be at dusk on a small field surrounded by orchards at St. Helena, some ten miles or so from the town of Auray. During the mission briefing the glidermen were shown aerial photographs of the landing area and were told to watch for a small lake and then for a small fire which the Maquis (French Resistance) would light on or near the landing zone. They would escorted by 32 clipped wing Spitfires who shortly before reaching Brittany, would fly off to Brest where there was a squadron of Focke-Wolfe fighters to be kept on the ground.
Takeoff and the flight out over the Isle of Wight was uneventful. As the Channel Islands came into view the Spits arrived and took up position, circling 8 to port, 8 to starboard, 8 ahead and 8 above. The sky and sea were brilliant blue and they felt very secure and protected. As the coast of France appeared off the port wing, the tough looking SAS started to cheer and cry seeing their beloved homeland again.
They approached the coast of Brittany at 800 feet descended to 200 feet to avoid radar. At this point the Spits waggled their wings and left. They flew across Brittany over wooded countryside, fields and small villages but saw no signs of Jerry.
People in the villages were waving flags and towels as they passed overhead. As dusk came the gliders approached the LZ (landing zone); a farm building could be seen blazing fiercely at the edge of the field. It was learned later that the Gestapo had been there shortly before.
One of the pilots remembers that after,
… a quick touch down in the gathering gloom and a cloud of dust, armed figures could be seen walking towards us from the hedgerows. They were the local Maquis and our welcoming party. After many French kisses and ‘Vive l’Angleterres’ the jeeps disembarked and our transport, two very old small trucks, drove into the field. Somewhere around 2300 hrs we set off in convoy along dusty lanes, through villages, avoiding main roads, with many stops at junctions where members of the Maquis were stationed. In the early hours we arrived at an inlet near the coast where the jeeps left us and drove off into the night.
The tide was out and as our destination lay on the other side, we were taken into some nearby fishing cottages to await its return. Our hosts plied us with red wine and strong French cigarettes and eventually sleep overtook us. We were awakened at dawn to find the tide was high and the boats afloat.
We were rowed across the water to some isolated farm building on the seashore, HQ of the local Maquis. Home was a loft of new hay. Meals consisted of rye bread, tinned fish from a nearby cannery, red wine and cider and an occasional egg. One morning a very skinny bullock was led into the farm yard, slaughtered by hitting it on the head with back of an axe and cutting its throat. Beef supplemented the meals from then on.
During the days that followed the SAS in their jeeps came and went and were pleased to let us know that the Germans had put out posters offering 20,000 francs for our capture, dead or alive. One morning a member of the local Gestapo was brought in who, they said, had been responsible for atrocities in that area. That night he was stripped naked, hung upside down in a pigsty and for a time used as a punch bag before the hair on his testicles and body was burnt off with a cigarette lighter. A Frenchman with a sharp knife carved the cross of Loraine on his chest, cut him down and then took the skin off the bottom of his feet. The Gestapo man was then made to walk up and down the pigsty saluting a Maquis at each end until he collapsed, only to be revived by a boot. The following morning he was gone.
Young French ladies who had been more than friendly with the Germans were brought in, sat on a chair in the farm yard and given back to front haircuts and shaved bald. Kept in the barn, we were asked to guard them but not to fraternize—as if we would.
News came in that the Americans had reached Auray and we drove over there to a right royal welcome from the French population as we were the only British in the area. Americans were everywhere and one, rather portly built, with no rank visible, asked where we had come from and what we were doing in his sector. His aid-de-camps seemed surprised that we did not recognize General Patton.
From there we went on to Vannes and spent the night with an American company. In the morning we helped to escort German prisoners to Rennes, where we found our way to the Hotel-de-Paris, British intelligence HQ. There we were given a slap-up meal in a dining room laid out as in peace time. An interesting night was spent in the town in a carnival atmosphere. On the next day we went to Rennes aerodrome and flew in a Dakota back to Netheravon—almost a non-event!
A glider co-pilot remembers that as he and his pilot approached the LZ,
… we saw the small lake that had been identified in the mission briefing and shortly afterward saw the fire, likely the same farm-building fire seen by others on the mission. It was a long narrow field slightly larger than a football field, with a tree, where several Wacos had already landed.
Unlike the Horsa, the Waco had no flaps but a lift spoiler, which, when operated from a lever in the pilot’s cabin, would break the lifting surface of the upper wing, causing the aircraft to descend at a somewhat steeper angle, though maintaining the same gliding angle. As we came in I noticed several trees between us and the gliders which had already landed. As we made our final turn, Harry, the glider pilot, decided to land on the far side of the lone tree beyond the gliders. At the last minute he decided that we wouldn’t quite make it and if we were going to land this side of the tree we would have to lose height very quickly which meant that we would have to use the spoiler.
Harry yelled, “Spoiler” and I pulled the lever back. Seconds later, Kapow!
I was knocked senseless as the aircraft, more or less, dove into the tree. When I regained consciousness, I found myself lying on my back, possibly on a makeshift stretcher of some kind with a bandage of some kind round my head. The moon was high in the sky and I heard muttered voices close by as I drifted in and out of consciousness.
After a while we were carried to a cottage near the field but someone decided that this house was unsafe because of the close proximity of German soldiers. I was carried to another cottage about a mile away where I was attended to by a woman and a seven year old daughter, both of whom were fearful of a German raid.
Any glider pilot who was captured could expect to be taken to a prisoner of war camp. On the other hand, as far as the Germans were concerned, anyone who aided or gave shelter to members of the Resistance or Maquisards, was a terrorist and a saboteur, who, under an order from General Von Falkenhorst, could expect to be shot immediately.
During the next two to three weeks, Harry and I were hidden in various places eventually ending up in a small hospital in the town of Auray on the coast of Brittany. The building that housed the hospital was actually a convent that had been converted to serve the wounded, all the nurses, nuns. Medical supplies and medications were scarce as the Germans had commandeered almost everything. The nuns were cheerful and solicitous, but I have no idea whether they had received any medical training.
One day, to our surprise, a young British officer, in the uniform of the British Parachute Regiment and wearing the maroon beret, came into our ward. He was surprised to find that two British glider pilots were so far behind enemy lines and promised to get us back to the UK.
The next day we were put in an ambulance and driven to the airport at Vannes, which was already under control by the Maquis, loaded onto a DC-3 and flown to Down Ampney.