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Bill Williams RAFVR 576 Sqn

EVADER’S STORY

576 Squadron Williams

On 18th May 1944 my father, Sergeant Walter ‘Bill’ Williams, was posted to 576 squadron at Elsham Wolds. His crew were:

Pilot  F/O Gordon Bain RCAF;

Navigator F/Sgt John Walkty RCAF;

Flight Engineer Sgt Bill Williams;

Air Bomber Sgt John Conway;

Wop Sgt Thomas Mitchell;

Air Gunners Sgt Walter Charnock and Sgt Gordon Humphreys.

After three operations in early June, they were tasked to bomb the road and rail bridge communications at Vire, Normandy. In Lancaster ME811 they took off at 2203 on D Day, 6th June.

The bombers were to go in waves at three-minute intervals, each wave 1000 feet below the last. ME 811 was three minutes early for her rendezvous, so it was necessary to ‘dog-leg’ to waste time and at this point a German fighter pounced and shot them down in flames.

Bill baled out and landed in the middle of a field. He was aware that the Germans would be searching for them, so he crawled into a ditch and buried his parachute, then climbed into a tree and stayed there until dawn. At daylight he saw the searching Germans.

He climbed down and walked across the field away from the soldiers, all the time expected to be challenged or shot. He dived through a hedge onto a road. He followed this for a while, then turned up a side lane and across some fields, where he saw a group of buildings, where two men were working, one of whom he later learned was called Louis Sicot. Using a card of French phrases aircrew were issued with before take-off, he spoke to them, indicating he was RAF. He asked them to hide him, but indicated that if the Germans came, they should pretend to have captured him.

The two men took him to a barn on the farm of Madame Yvonne Boutrois, whose husband was in a German prisoner of war camp, and 2 or 3 other men were brought, one being Louis’ father, Narcisse Sicot.

They were suspicious at first, but when the mid upper gunner, Sgt Walter Charnock, was found nearby, they were convinced of their story. The pilot, F/O Gordon Bain, and the wireless operator, Sgt Thomas Mitchell, were found later, and taken to the farm of Mme Besnier. Sgts Williams and Charnock were moved to a loft in another barn.

They were to stay there for six weeks. Pierre, the young son of Mme Madeleine Prieur a neighbouring farmer, brought food to them in the daytime. The barn was next door to M. Sicot’s farm, where the Germans had a tank repair depot, and some of the Germans were

billeted. M. Sicot would bring the airmen German cigars to make cigarettes with. The local people had a tobacco ration of 1oz per month, and the local cobbler used to bring them his ration.

After about six weeks, word had got round that two English flyers were being hidden, so it was decided to move them. They were taken across fields to a small hut, where a horse and cart were brought and the two men were hidden under a false bottom and crates of chickens loaded on top. They soon found themselves in another barn.

They stayed there a month, living on food given them by a neighbouring farmer, which they cooked over a brick fire. They drank from a nearby spring, and as the farm was off the beaten track, they were able to move outside fairly freely, and help work in the fields. Sometimes they would be invited to the farm for a meal. This was a great occasion, with the children giving a concert for the airmen.

After a close encounter with a German, it was decided that they should be moved again. Louis took them to his parents’ farm, where they spent the night in the basement, in beds for the first time in weeks.

The next day the local Mayor called to say that the Germans were trying to break out of the Falaise gap, and had ordered all civilians out of the area within 24 hours. Anyone who stayed behind would be shot.

During the next few days the whole of Normandy seemed to be on the move, fleeing from the fighting.

Families trudged beside horses pulling carts loaded with all they could hold. Poultry coops were slung underneath, belongings piled high on top. White sheets were draped over all, in an attempt to avert Allied bombs. The two airmen joined up with Yvonne and Madeleine and some farmers, driving cows.

Meanwhile, convoys of Germans were travelling in the opposite direction, attracting British fighters, which dived on the roads, firing as they did so. Time and again the refugees were forced to dive for cover in roadside ditches. They spent the nights in these ditches, brewing coffee and cooking chickens. Fortunately the weather was fine. The people had no idea where they were going; they simply followed the road.

On the third night they came to a village, occupied by Germans, who allowed them to sleep in a barn. Soldiers were guarding horses, which were needed in the retreat. As they moved out next day, the Germans offered bread to the refugees, who contemptuously refused.

Suddenly the village came under fire, and after a while tanks broke through a hedge. To their delight, they saw they were Americans! The two airmen rushed forward, explaining who they were. They were taken to an officer, who accepted their story and fed them.

They then returned to their French companions, loaded with gifts of cigarettes. They bade them an emotional farewell, then walked back to the village. On the way a German sniper fired at them and once again they dived into a ditch. The Americans quickly flushed out the snipers.

After a night’s sleep they were sent to a transit camp for evaders outside Bayeux and given towels, soap, toothbrush and razors. They were delighted to meet up with their skipper and wireless operator, F/O Bain and Sgt Mitchell. Many evaders were waiting to be transported home.

Aircrew and paras were flown in any available aircraft, others went by sea. The two fellow crewmen found places on a Dakota air ambulance, together with a Canadian soldier they had befriended at the transit camp. They were flown to Northolt aerodrome and went by coach to the Marylebone Hotel, which was being used as a transit camp.

Gordon Bain and Thomas Mitchell also found their way home. Gordon Humphreys was killed in the crash and is buried in the town of Chenedolle, 11km from Vire. John Walkty was taken prisoner and was take to Stalag Luft 7 Bankau-Kreulberg. He had a fairly eventful time before he was liberated. The fate of John Conway is not known.

Sheila Savage ( Thanks to Sheila for this item which I used in a newsletter some years ago. It is certainly worthy of a wider readership )

Additional notes by David Fell.

This operation has always been of interest to me as my own uncle, Sgt Eddie Jennings, was killed that night in this raid. He was a member of the crew of F/L Bill Way RCAF of 103 Sqn also at Elsham Wolds

Operations flown by Gordon Bain and crew.

02/06/1944

Calais

Coastal gun batteries

ME811

F/O

GAJ

Bain

RCAF

03/06/1944

Wimereux

Coastal gun batteries

ME811

F/O

GAJ

Bain

RCAF

05/06/1944

St Martin-de-Varreville/Crisbeq

Coastal gun batteries

PB128

F/O

GAJ

Bain

RCAF

06/06/1944

Vire

Railway communications

ME811

F/O

GAJ

Bain

RCAF

This crew were shot down by Hptm Hubert Rauh who was a member Stab II./Nachtjagdgeschwader 4 at the time. I was fortunate to be able to contact Hubert a couple of years before he died and he confirmed that he shot down 2 Lancasters in the same area at that time. Only 3 bombers were shot down on the Vire op. The third was a Lancaster of 460 Sqn flown by P/O Knight which was a flak victim. Hubert’s 2 victims were certainly Bain and Way as the Germans had very few fighters operational that night due to shortage of aviation fuel at the French bases and the almost complete jamming of all the German ground control radars and radio communications in Northern France. This was confirmed by Walter Briegleb and Heinz Rokker. Briegleb flew into Chateaudun from Germany with his unit on the 6th June 44 and was immediately ordered to return to his German base because of the shortage of aviation fuel for operations. Only a handful of German night fighters were airborne that night amongst them was Heinz Rokker who shot down 5 Lancasters in the Caen area an hour or so after Hubert Rauh.

Something else worth mentioning is that it was noted by several vets I have spoken to who were on that raid that Bain’s crew came under tracer fire from the ground as they descended in their parachutes.

Finally a word about the Vire op.

Vire - 6/7th June 1944

The French town of Vire suffered greatly on the 6/7th June 1944. Around 400 of their people were killed in allied bombing on D Day and much of the town destroyed. I always assumed this was due to the 1 Group RAF Bomber Command raid just after midnight on the 6/7th June. However I was puzzled because the official reports by returning crews say Vire was already seen to be burning fiercely before the RAF crews commenced their attack. Further investigation some years later brought the answer.

The American 303rd Bomb Group had attacked Vire in daylight approx 4 hours before the RAF raid. 36 303 Bomb Group crews bombed Vire as “a target of opportunity” at around 20:30 from between 13,000 and 16,000 ft. Clouds prevented observation of the results. It seems likely most of the civilian casualties occurred then.

The 1 Group RAF raid was made from about 3000 to 5000 ft altitude below cloud in good visibility at around 0030. The force came in from the north west roughly following the line of the railway and bombed around the bridges and railway station at the northern edge of the town.

See 303 BG Vire Mission Report below

Target: City area of Vire, France & Bridge at Conde-Sur-Noireau, France. Crews Dispatched: 36 (358BS - 9, 359th - 12, 360th - 8, 427th - 7). Length of Mission: 5 hours, 15 minutes. Bomb Load: 12 x 500 lb M44 & M43 & RDX bombs. Bombing Altitude: 16,300, 14,000 & 13,400 ft. Ammo Fired: 0 rounds

Thirty-three 303rd BG(H) B-17s plus three 305BG PFF aircraft took off between 1730 and 1756 hours to bomb a bridge in Conde-Sur-Noireau, France. B-17G #42-107097 Sweet Melody, 360BS in the 303BG-B Low Group (Lt. Bartholomew), returned early when he was unable to locate the formation. Bombs on Fortress #42-97944 Daddy's Delight, 359BS, in the 303BG-A lead formation (Lt. Sirany), failed to release either mechanically or electrically.

The afternoon formation experienced a beautiful view of the invasion armies landing on the French beaches. They told of fleets of barges, destroyers and battleships streaming across the channel to landing points on the coast, while flashes of gunfire and shell bursts winked through the thick clouds of black smoke that hung over the coastal area. Some gunners reported that the Germans seemed to be using land-fired rockets to oppose landing troops, but the stream of barges did not seem to be held up.

The 303BG-A lead Group dropped 120 500-lb M43 and RDX and 15 500-lb M44 G.P. bombs and the 303BG-B low Group dropped 96 500-lb RDX, 6 1,000-lb M44 and 36 500-lb M43 bombs on the center of the city of Vire, France — a target of opportunity. Bombing was done visually, but clouds prevented observation of the results.

The 303BG-C high Group PFF equipment malfunctioned. They were able to locate a two-aircraft element led by a PFF aircraft and after contacting it, flew formation on it for bombing. The primary target was bombed by PFF releasing 84 500-lb RDX, 6 1,000-lb M43 and 6 500-lb M44 bombs. Bombs hit in an open field. All aircraft returned safely to Molesworth between 2238 and 2330 hours.

More info on this mission at the 303BG website
 

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