When I blogged about Jack Pearce in 2019, the only thing missing from the tale of how he baled out of 550 Squadron Lancaster ND733 BQ-J with crewmates Tony Crilley and Eddie Yaternick, was the original verbatim account of Jack himself. I’d sourced a scruffy photocopy of the story several years ago but never got round to transcribing it.
It was written post-war for his works periodical “The Chaucer Press Review” at printers Clays Ltd of Bungay, and published in more than one episode. It is reproduced here word for word, and is all the more remarkable for the colour it brings. This is the first time it’s been seen in digital format, and there really is nothing for me to add. These events took place between the evening of May 3rd and June 24th 1944, the Mailly Raid, and begin at RAF North Killingholme in Lincolnshire:
“SEE YOU AT BREAKFAST!”:
With this remark crews were leaving the mess after the “ops. meal” and were about to attend briefing regarding the “target for to-night”.
The idea never occurred to me that it would be some time before I sat down once more to a good English breakfast. Why, our crew was now, in official terms, an experienced one, having taken part in a number of operations with that squadron.
The target that night was not what we considered difficult: a Jerry armoured division training centre”. “A piece of cake,” Jumbo, our wireless operator, remarked. Well, target was reached with little opposition as far as we were concerned and Pathfinders were already busy with their marking. This method, with which all are now familiar, consisted of dropping red flares, or target indicators, as we called them, around the area to be “flattened out”.
On this particular night marking was first to be inspected by the controller, who was going togive us the O.K. to bomb by wireless telephone. If the markings were not, in his opinion, accurate enough, the Pathfinder would mark again, and so on until he was satisfied. Meanwhile, some fifteen miles east of target we were to circle around until the order was given. This point was marked by “chandeliers”, flares which burned in the air. We circled these for some fifteen minutes, passing remarks to one another not at all complimentary to the controller: “We don’t mind waiting”; “After a gong, chum”, and the like, until the calm voice reached us over the radio with, “Hello, main force, you may bomb now!”
Down we went and unloaded an assortment of ironmongery for Adolf’s Wehrmacht to share among themselves; and with a lighter aircraft and lighter hearts we turned for home.
But Jerry had taken advantage of our delay in bombing and his fighters were lurking around. A nasty little 410 sneaked underneath us and ripped our belly with a burst of cannon fire, but no vital hit was registered, and we continued on our course. Five minutes later our adversary returned, and gave us another burst. I caught a glimpse of him as he “broke away” beneath the starboard wing and was able to give him a short burst from the mid-upper turret, in which I was flying that night for a change. Whether I hit him at all I never knew, for the Skipper’s voice came very calmly and precisely over the inter-comm.: “Abandon aircraft by parachute.”
It struck me how perfectly he gave the exact, laid-down instructions, but “Lofty” never panicked. “O.K., Skip, going out!” came the voices of the crew in the correct rotation.
I scrambled from the turret. Nasty red flames and black smoke filled the fuselage. It was hot and choking. I paused for a second, and the thought came to me, “Well, this is the end”, but at once I forgot it and scrambled to get my ‘chute, which was stowed slightly forward of theturret. I decided to make my way to the rear door, as it looked pretty hopeless to attempt to leave by the escape hatch, which is situated in the bomb-aimer’s position. On reaching the rear door I found Jumbo already there, and between us we managed to open it. Apparently it had been jammed by wreckage. A rush of cool fresh air came in and I stood back for Jumbo to go out, but he motioned me forward, so I gingerly slipped off the step into space.
Our height at the time of the attack was approximately 8000 feet and, therefore, there was no difficulty regarding oxygen. My first sensation was like that of the steeplejack, who called his mate to the top of the tall chimney on which they were working and remarked, “Ain’t it quiet up here?” Yes, after the roar of the aircraft’s engines the stillness was almost painful, and I merely seemed to sway this way and the other, as the wind caught up the ‘chute, and no pulling sensation was apparent.
Another thing I noticed was that I had no recollection of pulling the rip cord. The handle to which it was attached was still in my hand. It seemed a long time before I caught a glimpse of the ground, which I no sooner saw than it rose to meet me with remarkable swiftness. I came in contact with it with a gentle bump. Sitting up and looking round I observed I had landed right by the side of the road and my ‘chute was entangled in the telegraph wires. There was no time to be lost; I was in enemy territory and a most unwelcome reception committee might arrive any moment.
By the side of the road was a ditch and into this I dumped my helmet, gloves and outer flying suit; then, disentangling my chute from the wires, I added it to the collection; over one hundred pounds’ worth of good flying kit and, as I found later to my great dismay, twenty Players cigarettes which were in my flying suit pocket. I took a quick look round for other members of my crew, nobody. There was nothing for it now but to put the greatest distance between that spot and myself in the shortest time, so away I went as fast as my flying boots, very unsuitable for hiking, would allow. After walking a short distance, I arrived at a small village and decided to go straight through rather than attempt to make a détour. I was endeavouring to travel roughly south-west, checking my bearings by a small compass which I had removed from my escape kit.
The time was now around 2 a.m. and everything in the village was quiet, except for the occasional barking of a dog. I paused at the village fountain – an ornate affair with water continually gushing from a lion’s mouth – to wash the blood from a nasty cut on my face and fill my rubber water-bottle. Then I hurried on towards open country. Later,I disposed of my inner electrical flying suit in a disused well. It was almost dawn when I came on a wayside railway station and a goods train apparently waiting for the “all-clear” signal. On the spur of the moment, I decided to attempt to board it, and so try to get well clear of the district. I started to run, but when I had almost reached the train the whistle blew with that curious note peculiar to continental trains, and it moved slowly away. Perhaps it was just as well, I reflected, for it might be going the wrong way! As I crossed the track I heard a shout from the station, but didn’t stop to argue. It was now almost dawn and the birds were twittering and the cuckoo could be clearly heard. I wondered if I was not more the cuckoo, alone in an enemy country but with high hopes of getting home.
For the past hour I had been looking for a hay-stack in which to hide and rest myself until nightfall, but I saw never a sign of one, so, deciding it was unsafe to travel farther, I betook myself to a small wood and prepared for rest. First, I checked over my escape kit: compass, Horlick’s tablets, chewing-gum, adhesive plaster, glucose, chloride tablets, and needle and thread. Why a needle and thread, I wondered? As if to give me the answer, my braces, for some unknown reason, suddenly parted, so before turning in I made the necessary repairs, blessing him or her whose forethought had caused their inclusion in the kit. Then, after checking my position on my map and deciding on my future course, I covered myself with dry bracken, and slept.
Thus my first and subsequent days passed, and things became rather desperate. I had blisters on my feet of uncomfortable size, and I was badly in need of a shave, not to mention being decidedly hungry.
Early one morning I came across a stretch of countryside freshly covered with British propaganda leaflets and saw an old labourer pick one up and, after a quick look round, put it in his pocket. “It’s likely”, I thought, “he is on our side”, so, emerging from cover, I spoke in my best school-boy French to him.
To my great relief, he was on our side, and after leading me to cover he asked me various questions to try to prove my true identity. These I answered as best as I could without disclosing “official secrets”, but not the least convincing to him was the tattoo-marks on my arms, souvenirs of my previous service in the Far East. At this point a young lad, – probably the old man’s son, arrived, bringing his breakfast, which the old man gave to me; needless to say, I gratefully accepted it. Meanwhile, the old man was excitedly talking to the boy, who went away and returned later with a young man, who said that although he was not an active member of the “underground” movement he was in sympathy with it, and that he would contact them for me. The boy had brought some dungaree overalls, which he gave me to put on over my uniform. I was told to remain in hiding and left alone once more. My next visitor was a lady, astonishingly, an English lady, who told me she had been born in London and had married a Frenchman during the last war. It was grand to talk in my mother tongue once more. She told me some interesting things, chiefly that in the nearby village where she lived was stationed a detachment of the S.S. Guards, and that six of them were billeted at her house. Also, a nearby farm, which we could see across the fields, was used as the officers’ mess. I had thought of going there a few hours before!
The young man returned and spoke to her, and she translated to me, saying that I was to remain hidden until the evening, when a man would pass my hiding-place who would be carrying a cross-cut saw on his shoulder. I was to follow him. A long day passed and evening came at last, and with it the man with the cross-cut saw. I followed at a respectable distance, and round a bend came on the English lady, standing almost hidden by the trees. She waved, and disappeared. Following my leader, we came out in a lane, where waiting for us was another man with a horse and cart loaded with empty boxes. I climbed in and was hidden beneath the boxes and then we rumbled away down the uneven road, passing through the village in which the S.S. Guards were billeted, and on to the next village.
Before we entered it I was invited to emerge from my hiding place and sit up in the cart,and to my surprise I received quite a welcome from the villagers, who evidently knew that I was coming.
I was taken to a farmhouse and given more food, surrounded by a crowd of eager French people all asking questions: “When were we going to invade?” and so on.
Soon, my host cleared the house and gave me a drink tasting some-thing like whisky. Then he suggested I should get some sleep, which was easy! About 11.30 p.m. I was awakened and told that I was to be taken to the next village, but before I left I was to have supper with the oldest inhabitant, a dear old lady. This meal too was eaten to the accompaniment of endless questions.
At last we set off-myself and two young Frenchmen. The next village was about three miles distant and upon arriving there I was taken to a house where, after the seemingly inevitable wine, I went to sleep in a real bed. I slept until around ten in the morning, when the lady of the house awakened me with breakfast–bread and milk.
Neighbours began to drift in and soon my bed was surrounded by yet another questioning throng. Some of them had brought me articles of clothing. My visitors withdrew at last, and I dressed myself in my “civvies”, which consisted of trousers, real “drain-pipe” type, exposing about six inches of ankle, a white shirt, a pair of white socks and a well-worn pair of patent shoes several sizes too large. Later in my travels I acquired a beret. A young Frenchman who spoke some English then arrived and gave me to understand he was taking me to Paris immediately, so with the good wishes of my new friends we set off together.
J. G. P.
‘See You at Breakfast !” (continued)
THE FIRST EPISODE IN THE ACCOUNT OF MY EXPERIENCES AFTER MY parachute descent ended when I was about to set off for Paris accompanied by a young Frenchman who spoke some English. Well, off we went after many warm handclasps, good wishes and urgent requests for me to tell the British “to come soon”, and to send them arms.
The railway station was about four miles away and, of course, we had to walk (no buses available!). My friend produced a packet of cigarettes and a box of matches, which he gave me a very welcome present, I assure you.
We had almost arrived at our destination when we overtook a gentleman carrying under his arm one of those long loaves of bread peculiar to France. He apparently was well known to my friend, and at his invitation we adjourned to his house for lunch. It was not a sumptuous meal – eggs, fried in oil, and vegetables, with large portions of the aforementioned loaf, and wine, of which my tumbler never seemed empty, a kind of whisky, followed by champagne! Our genial host, suddenly remembering that the staple British beverage was tea, insisted on making me some, in spite of my assurance that I had surely drunk enough for one day. We chatted for a short time, then, after a drop of his special wine (one for the road!), he clamped a small black beret on my head and bade us adieu.
The station was only a short distance away, so my guide gave me my instructions: after obtaining my ticket and passing it on to me, we would split up, and I was to follow him at a distance and do as he did. I had a French newspaper to get behind and prevent my being too closely scrutinised by fellow travellers; also, it would by my appearing deeply interested in it, prevent me being drawn into conversation.
The train duly arrived, an hour or so late, I understood, but that was usual; and I installed myself in the compartment next to my guide’s. After a seemingly endless journey, although lasting only about two hours, the train steamed into Paris. As casually as I could, I followed in the wake of my guide. By the time we reached the barrier most of the passengers had passed through, and my friend presented his ticket to the collector. I followed suit. Then came a dreadful moment. My friend was sharply called back by the collector. I learnt later it was something to do with the date of his ticket.
Thus I was left alone, and rather bewildered. It seemed that the whole German Army, Navy and Air Force were stationed together on the station. Squads of them in full kit were being marched on and off different platforms. I took up a position near the platform I had left, and after lighting up one of my precious cigarettes, with, I admit, a trembling hand, I waited for my friend to reappear.
Suddenly I observed a huge German officer, such as can be seen portrayed in the films, marching straight towards me. I really did sweat then. When, however, about only three paces away from me he smartly “about-turned” and marched off in the opposite direction. I breathed again!
But then, after about thirty paces, came another smart “about turn”,and again he came straight towards me, eyes fixed on me. But again three paces away came the “about turn”; and so it continued–a kind of sentry-go drill. It occurred to me later that he was awaiting the arrival of a train and this was his way of passing the time.
At last my friend reappeared and, allowing him to pass me without any sign of recognition, i, as casually as possible, sauntered after him. He made his way to the station buffet, and sat down at one of the small tables near the door. Seeing me enter, he sprang from his seat and, clasping my hard, addressed me rapidly in French. I didn’t understand a word, but got the idea that I was supposed to be an old friend, whom he had thus unexpectedly met. He ordered wine and bread-rolls, faintly smeared with something like jam, for which he had to surrender coupons. Later, he told me these were printed in England. We had now, he said, to take the underground railway to another main-line station and proceed from there to a small village some twenty miles the other side of Paris. Most of us are familiar with the rush hours on the London underground. In Paris it was infinitely worse. Civilians and German service men and women were all in one seething, writhing mass. I saw one German soldier in full kit neatly tripped by two Frenchmen, his equipment flying in all directions, and cheerfully tramped on by the crowd. Such little incidents I found to be fairly common.
We reached our destination at last and just had time to scramble aboard the local train. Since we were now old friends”, my guide and myself sat side by side, he making most of the conversation in French, with an occasional remark to me in English in an undertone.
The journey lasted about an hour and a half, and upon alighting from the train we found a gentleman awaiting us who, ignoring me, chattered away to my friend. Imagine my surprise when, after leaving the station, he addressed me in English and told me that he was British, but had resided in France for many years! In the main streets of the small town we spoke little, but once in the suburbs he asked me about my adventures. I replied as evasively as I could, for the strict training I had been given made me naturally a little suspicious. But Monsieur was all right. I found out later that he had been imprisoned three times on suspicion of being a member of the Resistance movement. He was an insignificant-looking little chap, but as brave as a lion.
In due time we came to the outskirts of the town and to a large, old-fashioned house. We walked past twice before going up the steps,and after B– had knocked, giving, I thought, a signal, we entered, and passed into a brightly lighted room. Here about a dozen people, both men and women, were gathered. I received quite a hearty welcome, with much of the hand-shaking the French seem so fond of.
Then followed a very stiff interrogation, for it appeared that more than one German had tried to pass himself off as an English aviator and so discover the leaders of the movement. This business I suppose lasted about two hours, after which I went home with B- His house was not far away and was a very large old rambling place. He introduced me to the other members of his family and after meal took me to my room and gave me instructions as to how I should make my escape, and where to remain in hiding should we have a surprise visit from “Jerry”. I remained with him some days, and was very surprised to see the documents and maps relating to German troop movements, petrol and ammunition dumps that were daily being sent to England. It was also arranged for a doctor to visit me to examine me for any injuries I might have received whilst on my travels. My heels, which were very blistered, had been receiving attention from the ladies of the house and I was now feeling much better.
Arrangements, meanwhile, were being made for me to move to a safer area, and one evening after dinner I was introduced to a fine old gentleman who, I understood, had at one time been an officer in the French Army. I was told that he would take me to his house and thatI would remain there until further arrangements were made for me to start the journey back to England.
This gentleman, whom I will refer to now as Monsieur P lived only a few miles away. He spoke a little English, and I by now could make myself fairly well understood, so we soon became good friends. At dusk we set off for his home and on arrival I was introduced to his wife and son, SS was a fine, hefty lad about my own age, and we had many good times together. I soon settled in my new home and the daily routine: breakfast about eight, consisting of a large bowl of coffee, of a decidedly acorny flavour, and bread; lunch around midday, of vegetables, and dinner at eight in the evening, the main meal of the day, which consisted of soup, vegetables and anything they could get from the black market, and, of course, the inevitable wine! The meat ration was drawn every month in one lot, so as to make something like a decent joint. Even then it was far less than the normal British ration. I was thankful for it, all the same.
After a few days “close confinement”, I ventured out into the garden with S—- and helped him to chop wood for the fires. Coal was unobtainable and the gas was only on at a low pressure for a short time each day. Electricity did not come on until eight in the evening, when we would listen to the BBC news, with the set well turned down! As the days passed I got bolder and we would go to the café in the village, which was well patronised by the German Air Force personnel who were stationed in the district. Many of the villagers had been introduced to me and would greet me with sly nods and winks, raising their glasses in my direction. One night a German airman in rather an intoxicated condition was attempting to converse with me in French.
I tried to talk to him in German, which he thought a huge joke, though I saw nothing funny in the situation. I felt awfully hot round the collar!
Thus the time passed and while boating on the river one day with S- I was suddenly recalled to the house, where a lady was awaiting me. She informed me that all was settled and that in the morning I must return to Paris to start my long journey homeward. I left early in the morning, after much hand-shaking, and with gratitude in my heart for all that had been done for me and the risks that they had taken on my behalf. S-accompanied me back to Monsieur B—‘s house and, after wishing me luck, he returned home. J.G.P
‘See You at Breakfast !” (continued)
PARIS AGAIN. TAKING LEAVE OF MY FRIENDS, WITH MANY HANDSHAKES and promises to return after the war was over, I set off to the station, riding on the pillion of a very diminutive motor-cycle, skilfully piloted by a young man whom I knew to be a very active member of the “Organisation”.S., who had left earlier, was awaiting us there and had got the tickets. He told me that he was to accompany me on the first part of the journey in order to introduce me to the person who was to take me to the Chief” for final instructions as to my homeward route.
We broke our journey at a small wayside station and went to a café in the village, where we were apparently expected. S—- ordered coffee and while waiting to be served, a lady entered whom I vaguely remembered having seen before. It transpired that she was the wife of the local Resistance leader. It was she who was to be my guide. We returned to the station and here I took leave of S, wio, I am sure, felt the parting as keenly as I did, for we had become very attached to each other.
On our arrival at Paris we made our way to a small public garden, and sat down among the office-workers who had come there for the lunch-hour break. Soon, a young fellow sat down beside us and entered into conversation with my companion, who then, after wishing me luck, left us together. With my new friend I left the gardens in rather a bewildered state: things changed so rapidly!
Together, we strolled through the streets, chatting in broken English. Suddenly he stopped, shook hands with me, and strode off in the opposite direction. As he left another young man stepped from a shop doorway and fell into step with me.
It was he who took me to the home of the Resistance leader, where we had lunch, and I received my French identity card, complete with new name and supposed occupation. After all these formalities were completed I went sight-seeing with my host, visiting, among other famous places, Notre Dame, joining in with a group of young German airmen in a conducted tour of the building. We returned home, and I was advised to rest awhile before dinner.
Immediately after our meal we were on the move again, this time to what appeared to me to be a school-room of some kind. There to my amazement were gathered seven American and five British airmen!
We briefly introduced ourselves and then listened attentively to the orders given us. We were presented with tickets to Toulouse and a most welcome gift–a small packet of tobacco and cigarette papers. Wewere told to leave the building in ones and twos and to make our own way to the railway station. We had two guides who we were told to follow, keeping a respectable distance behind them. No difficulty was encountered in reaching the station … but the train! it was more crowded than the August Bank holiday trains returning from Yarmouth!
Somehow we managed to scramble in and wedge ourselves in among the mass of humanity in the corridors. Two hours later the train set off twenty-two hours of travelling lay ahead of us, during which we had the doubtful pleasure of meeting the R.A.F. and seeing for ourselves the efficacy of their bombing!
On arrival at Toulouse we were to continue by local train to a small town some thirty miles south-west, but because we arrived very late, we missed the last train. However, we decided that it would be unwise to remain in Toulouse, and so we boarded a local train going our way, so travelling as far as we could, finishing the night on a small way-side station. Never did thirteen men seem such a crowd! No matter how we tried to split up, we all seemed to come together in a huddle again.
After what seemed an endless night, we caught the early morning train and arrived at our destination after a short journey. We left the station and entered a nearby park which had been previously described to us. There we were supposed to make contact again with the Organisation.
“Just walk around”, we had been told, and someone will be looking out for you.” We did walk around-from 7a.m. until 5p.m.-feeling more conspicuous every hour, with our unshaven faces and oddly-fitting clothes: and of course we were extremely hungry. The guide who had accompanied us then left us to try to find out what had gone wrong. After about two hours he returned, and told us to follow him, keeping our distance and in ones and twos. We left the park at intervals and trudged wearily along the road leading from the town for a mile or so, just keeping in sight of one another. A message passed down to us told that we were to leave the road and enter a gateway. We did so and found ourselves in a farmyard, through which we hurried, into the wooded slopes beyond, until we reached a farm-house almost in ruins. These were to be, for the next ten days, our quarters.
A nearby spring gave us water and our food was sent from the farm below. It consisted of one meal per day, mainly composed of haricot beans, an occasional bottle of wine, but very little bread. Usually we received this late in the evening. We made a communal bed of hay in the only habitable room and passed our time in swapping tales of the adventures we had met with.
Some of them made my tale seem very tame indeed. One American had been almost a year in enemy territory! Occasionally, we were visited by an American lady living in the town, who brought us cigarettes.
It was she who gave us our moving orders. We were to leave the farm, some in the evening and others at intervals during the next day, and meet at the local bus station. She would be in the crowd to point out the bus we were to take. I was one of the last to leave the farm, and, after a careful survey to make sure that no traces of our occupation remained, left with a young navigator with whom I had become rather friendly.
A large crowd was gathered at the bus station, and we could pick out here and there the members of our party. Tickets for our journey were given us, as well as the name of our clestination. Our American friend stood near the bus to indicate it was the one to take. Entering the already crowded vehicle, we set off on the next stage of our journey home.
Apart from the rather uncomfortable heat, the ride was fairly un- eventful, except that temporarily losing my balance when the bus swerved I missed the strap and grabbed the hair-net of a lady sitting in front of me. She was understandably annoyed and I was very embarrassed, but I dared not apologise because of my limited French.
When we arrived at our destination the bus conductor, who was in on the secret, opened the emergency exit at the rear of the bus and motioned us to get out that way. “Round the corner”, he whispered as we passed, so round the corner we went, and there found an elderly man awaiting us who hurried us off down a lane and pushed us behind a hedge. A few minutes later two cars drew up and we were bundled into them and were away in a flash. We travelled at high speed for some twenty miles; we had no time to ask questions, but could only hope for the best.
A stop was made close to a small wood. There we left the cars and took cover to await the guides, who, we were told, would come for us when darkness fell. The cars drove off and we were again alone.
In the distance could be seen the peaks of the Pyrenees outlined against the evening sky. It proved to be a long wait, and our impatience to be on the move did not make the time go any faster. We were, also, hungry again, and we dared not smoke in case it should attract unwelcome attention.
At last the guide arrived. He was a lad aged about sixteen. We followed him in single file across the fields for some miles, then, telling us to stop and rest, he left us, warning us to remain silent.
We had only been settled a few moments, however, when the next guide arrived to take over. He was an older man, Spanish, I thought. He never spoke, but just motioned us to follow him. The path was now growing steeper and our guide set a fast pace. At times we had almost to trot to keep up with him. No further halt was made throughout the night, and at dawn we arrived at a rough stone building high on the mountain-side.
These stone huts, I learned, were used by the shepherds who grazed their flocks on the mountain-side. The guide left us to rest, and although by now we were exceedingly hungry we soon slept.
Late in the afternoon he returned with another guide, who told us we were to join with a party of French refugees. Later, they arrived, a party of thirteen, including three women and two elderly men. The refugees had an assortment of baggage with them, and we decided to share these out among us to relieve them and keep the pace up, although,owing to the elderly men, it was bound to be slow. I was allotted a large gladstone bag. What was in it I never knew, but it soon came to be known as the “Crown Jewels”. My navigator friend shared this burden with me, each of us carrying it for roughly half an hour. One of the refugees, a tall Frenchman, who was accompanied by his wife and daughter, carried nothing. We understood he was in poor health, but he did have a bottle of cognac, a few drops of which he gave each of us on lumps of sugar. He was promptly nicknamed “Coneyack” by one of the Americans.
We travelled on through the night, along steep mountain paths, and in the darkness we could sometimes hear the roar of a mountain stream. Towards dawn it came on to rain, and our guide hurried us on until we reached another of those stone mountain huts, where he again left us.
We were now soaked to the skin and my socks were worn completely out. Before attempting to rest we made such repairs to our clothing as was possible. Sleep in our condition was impossible. We just sat waiting to move on again. During the afternoon, however, we were visited by a gentleman who lived in the vicinity. He had been sent by the guide. He offered for sale a few thin biscuits, which were eagerly exchanged by the refugees for a pair of shoes. We had no shoes to spare; in fact I had scarcely any shoes at all. However, we managed to purchase one hard-boiled egg for two hundred francs. One hard-boiled egg among thirteen hungry men! It was divided by a young pilot officer, watched by thirteen pairs of eager eyes.
Early in the evening we left our hide-out. It was still raining heavily. We had a new guide, a short, rather fat little man almost enveloped in a large black cape, an excellent camouflage against the dark rocks. We struggled along the steep path, slipping and sliding, grabbing hold of anything that would help to pull us along. It was now definitely colder and a keen wind added to the discomfort. At times the track appeared almost vertical. The women and old men of the refugee party were feeling the strain, and we had almost to carry the old men along. The oldest man asked us to leave him behind, but, of course, we could not do that, and we struggled on as best we could.
“Coneyack’s” bottle was now empty, and the “Crown Jewels” seemed to weigh a ton, but we had reshuffled the baggage, and I now had two to share my burden with.
The new help was “Thunderbolt”, an American pilot whom we had nicknamed after the aircraft he flew.
Only a short stop was made during the next day, as we were now in a dangerous area, and it was thought best to push on and get clear. About midnight we almost ran into a German patrol. Some of our party said they heard them talking. We hid among the rocks until they had passed. Then on again. Early in the morning our guide informed us we were now in Spanish territory. We all cheered, and with renewed effort pushed on to the limit of our endurance. Unfortunately, the “Crown Jewels” had been lost during the night. Thunderbolt had dropped them over a precipice, whether by accident or design we shall never know; but none of the carriers was sorry. I am sure, however, that the bag did contain something valuable, for the owner offered a large sum of money to the guide to go back and recover it. He refused. Possibly he may have thought to recover the bag at his leisure, but for all we know it is still somewhere in the mountains.
Snowdrops were now frequently met with and an icy wind tore through our tattered, sodden clothing, but we were winning through. Early the next morning one of the Spanish frontier guard mountain patrols caught up with us and arrested us for illegal entry into Spain.After rounding us up, they marched us off to a small village on the mountain-sicle. The gaol was not large enough to hold us all, so we were ordered into the courtyard and then each called up to be searched.
Towards evening we were sent to another village and were lodged for the night in the loft of a large stable. It was very cold and our clothing was still damp and rather uncomfortable, but we huddled together for warmth and tried to sleep. At about ten o’clock two of the guards entered bearing a large saucepan of boiled potatoes, our first meal on Spanish soil. The women members of the party had been lodged in a small hotel, as well as one of the old men. We remained in the loft until the next afternoon, when we were sent to the nearest town, and lodged in the gaol. Here we remained until released through the intervention of the British consul.
While further proof of our identity was being sought we were interned at a hotel in a nearby village: “Hotel Continental” we called it, for there were French, German, Dutch, American, and British all there together. We were allowed out of the hotel only for a distance of two hundred yards, either up or down the main street.
As a change from boiled potatoes, our diet was now wholly of beans– boiled, fried, and pickled. Having, however, been supplied with a little money by the Consul, we were able to supplement our food by frequent visits to a café just within bounds.
It was during our stay here that we heard of the “D”-clay invasion, which we celebrated to the best of our ability. After a few days we left our French friends, and went as guests of the Spanish Air Force to another hotel some distance away. We had, by the way, now been fitted out with respectable clothing, and we were all feeling much better in health and spirits. Our stay there was rather short, however, and before very long we were sent to the British Embassy at Madrid.
I was very pleased to see the Union Jack flying from the building and to know that I was almost on British soil again. We got a great welcome from the Ambassador and his staff, and we received new clothing and toilet necessities. A short interrogation took place, we were given money and cigarettes (the money was placed to our accounts: I was £26 ras. in debt when I got home!), and then we were sent to a very nice hotel. We really had quite a good time for the next few days, attending, among other things, a bull-fight, which was most exciting. We concluded our short holiday by having dinner, followed by a dance at the Embassy. All the staff turned out to see us leave for Gibraltar by the night mail, and they gave us a great send-off.
It was late in the afternoon of the following day when we arrived at Gibraltar, and we received a cordial welcome from the Commanding Officer and the Intelligence Officer. The latter relieved us of all souvenirs, identity cards, and the like which we had collected on our travels (incidentally, I had all mine returned to me after the end of the war), and, after a short address on “careless talk”, etc., left us to amuse ourselves.
The next evening we flew home to England once more, this time in a “York”. We had a most comfortable journey, and landed just after dawn in the West of England at a Transport Command R.A.F. station, in good time for that very belated English breakfast!” J.G.P
The original blog “Jack Pearce and the freedom trail” can be viewed at the following URL: https://farmboysandpioneers.wordpress.com/2019/01/29/jack-pearce-and-the-freedom-trail/
Again, all thanks go to the Pearce family for access to the materials they hold.
Dave Cole, March 2021