Sixty years ago, more than 150 downed Allied pilots lived in Robin Hood-like conditions in a French forest to evade their Nazi pursuers. Martin Hickes meets one of the few survivors of Operation Sherwood.
WHILE tales of bravery during the Second World War have become the stuff of novels and Hollywood legend, few have heard of Yorkshire's Raymond Worrall.
Back in 1944, the 20-year-old was just another flight engineer, piloting his 26th Lancaster bomber mission en route to Stuttgart in Germany, when it was hit by flak and he was forced to bail out over occupied France.
After evading capture and living on his wits for three days, Raymond, now over 80, from Wetherby, was taken in by the French Resistance and led to a wood south of Chartres where he was introduced to more than 100 downed aircrew of all nationalities living in Sherwood Forest-like conditions.
For three summer months, under the very noses of their Nazi occupiers, the "secret" Forest of Freteval became his home, until the band of brothers were eventually rescued as part of the clandestine Operation Sherwood, under then MI9 leader and former MP the late Airey Neave.
"The silence which had to be respected after the war (as was the case with many secret operations) and the modesty of many members of the Resistance in the Loire region prevented the retelling of this unique feat," says Raymond, who was attached to the 44 Rhodesian Lancaster Bomber Squadron. "Apart from the articles in local French newspapers from time to time, the story has never been told."
Wanting to redress the balance, Raymond has now committed his memories to paper in Escape from France which chronicles the remarkable efforts of both the French Resistance,who kept the whereabouts and existence of the Allied inhabitants of the forest a closely-guarded secret and his fellow soldiers who often had nothing more than a parachute for cover.
"Having survived the bail out from the Lancaster, I lived off the land and by my wits for three days," he says. "In the hope of evading various German patrols I fashioned a make-shift disguise – but the give away was me chewing gum, an Allied trait – spotted by the son of an Allied sympathiser.
"I was introduced to a farmer and his wife who were harbouring escapees – one of whom turned out to be my wireless operator from my crew and a Canadian air gunner who had been shot down a few days earlier.
"That first night they broke open several bottles of stolen German champagne and while I counted my blessings, I had no idea what a surprise lay in store."
Deep in the heart of northern France, close to Chateaudune and Vendome, lies the thick Forest of Freteval and it was here that Raymond and a group of other escapees were led by the French Resistance.
"Once inside the forest we realised we were not alone; there were over 70 scruffy and unshaven looking men wearing ill-fitting clothes, looking like an army of tramps," Raymond recalls.
"To our surprise, we soon discovered they were Allied airmen who had been brought to the forest since the beginning of May.
"Hitherto, the first line of escape for airmen shot down over the Continent who were subsequently lucky enough to run into the Resistance, was a number of escape lines which eventually led to the Pyrenees.
"As D-day approached, it was realised by both British intelligence and the Resistance that these lines would break down under the weight of pressure from German troops moving in large numbers into northern France, with the result that all roads and rail routes would be closely watched.
"As a result of discussions between MI9 – the then section of British intelligence dealing with escapes – and the Resistance, the idea of hiding the men under the noses of the Germans in woods was conceived, principally by Airey Neave and Baron Jean de Blommaert, a Belgian Resistance leader."
MI9 was haunted by the possible spectre of Allied airmen being massacred by retreating Germans after D Day, so the plan – codename Operation Sherwood, after Robin Hood and his band of followers – was put into operation.
In April 1944, Blommaert parachuted back into France to implement the operation and Raymond found himself to be one of lucky few to be rescued through the plan.
He has no doubt that it saved his life.
"The principal problem was to keep order in the forest and to keep men through impatience from making attempts to make a run for it," he says. "The operation was helped by the quality of the local Resistance leader Omer Jubault, a gendarme from Cloyes. These men were risking their lives to save ours, and Jubault had already risked arrest for his help in Resistance matters.
"Taking two foresters into his confidence, he selected a site among the trees well concealed from the road along which German military transports were passing.
"The foliage was thick and would hide all activity, and a spring of pure water ran just at the edge of the forest for washing and bathing needs.
"Two camps were started, mine under the charge of Lucien Boussa, who had his HQ at the local railway station. He visited us daily bringing news on the liberation efforts.
"Life in the forest was boring, rough and dangerous. All 150 men passed their time thanks to fine weather, sunbathing and talking – though at night we had to keep the sound down as voices carry well in summer weather over land.
"There was a well at the edge of the forest which allowed us to shave with basic provisions, though little enough for drinking and even less for washing.
"As a result, for up to three months some lived in the same clothes day and night, and suffered badly with lice. We had some basic provisions thanks to previous local air drops; we made tables and chairs from logs and branches, and through a radio smuggled in, we were able to hear how the Battle for Normandy was progressing.
"We managed to maintain discipline, rising at 6-7am, eating a breakfast of bread and butter, before making up our beds of straw and parachutes if we had them.
"The small quantities of meat, vegetables, butter and bread we had were supplied by local farmers and a local miller organised the delivery of fresh bread daily by a young girl in a horse-drawn cart. French patriots even risked the local curfew to bring us fish from the local river.
"Oddly, we had plenty of money in our emergency kits, but were unable to spend it! By the end of July, the camp had swelled further, and I was astounded to find six of the seven of my old aircrew – the exception was our gunner who was killed – were now forest residents."
By the middle of August 1944, 152 airmen were living in the two camps watching the enemy, who had no idea what lay in the wood, and passed by just a few 100 yards away.
"Sentries were posted at all times and this is where I spent much of my time," says Raymond. "Around August 10, the band were told the Gestapo had entered the nearby village of Cloyes, and were heading for the forest. There was panic and we all decided to scatter – except us six aircrew who determined to stick together."
The six were eventually rescued by an American transport group, ahead of Airey Neave, who was aware of the plight of the men of the forest. From there, Raymond, who later graduated from Leeds University and became a barrister, was returned to Normandy and after a de-brief sent home to the delight of his parents, who presumed him missing in action.
"Later that same evening, it was reported that German patrols were in the forest alerted by our activities. If we had still been there, we would have been shot. And so ended our remarkable episode in the Forest of Freteval."
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