The Home Run of Lieutenant James Armstrong USAAF
Escaping from the burning 'Yankee Raider' and from Occupied France, 6 September 1943 to 23 January 1944
During my research into the resistance across France I regularly come across the extraordinary stories of escapers and evaders, together with the remarkable people who assisted them in their journeys to freedom. One of many accounts I have come across is that of James Armstrong, contained in his Escape: An American Airman’s Escape from Hitler’s Fortress Europe, which was privately published in 2000.
At the end of June 1943 the 20-year old Second Lieutenant James Armstrong and the other nine crew members of B-17 Sad Sack II arrived at RAF Grafton-Underwood near Kettering in the English midlands, home of the 546th Squadron of the 384th Bomb Group. The Sad Sack II crew were battle casualty replacements, the Group having suffered the loss of 10 aircraft since beginning operations over occupied Europe a few weeks before, sorties which included raids on Antwerp and Wilhelmshaven. The regular attrition of aircraft and their crews was a distressing feature of the air war: in every bombing raid across Europe, even the most benign, it was unusual for aircraft not to be lost. The men who were part of these crews knew precisely what being ‘lost’ entailed. Each B-17 crew for instance comprised ten men. On average, for every 10 aircraft lost, 55 men died and 45 were taken prisoner, many of them wounded, or (a tiny number in relative terms) evaded capture altogether. The terror of this experience, undertaken by men who knew what they were being asked to face, was unimaginable. When aircraft were brought down, either on fire or no longer flyable, they plummeted many thousands of feet to the ground. Many broke up on their way down. A tiny percentage of men were able to bail out of their stricken aircraft and parachute safely to earth where, for the most part they would be taken prisoner by the enemy and incarcerated as POWs. A tiny fraction of the survivors from these events, which often took place at extreme altitude, managed, with the help of sympathetic people on the ground, often at enormous danger to themselves, to evade capture and return safely to England.
The slow but steady drip-drip of aircraft losses across the 384th Bomb Group demanded regular replacement crews. Twelve more aircraft were to be lost in July 1943. After a respite in August, nine were to be lost in September and a further nine in October. The raw crew of Sad Sack II quickly became veterans, first of so-called ‘milk runs’ over easy targets over the airfields at Abbeville in northern France, and Villacoublay airfield in Paris. Once they were considered sufficiently capable of undertaking more complex missions, all of which involved the aerial coordination of hundreds of aircraft, a longer flight took them on an attack to the aluminium plant at Heroya, Norway, followed by a raid to Hamburg on 25 July 1943, attacks in which, on this and the previous day, when RAF bombers struck the city at night, some 45,400 people are estimated to have been killed. The Hamburg raid was Armstrong’s first encounter with heavy German resistance. Flying over the burning city, the flak response choked the skies, and Luftwaffe Bf109s harried the force as it returned to cross the North Sea. ‘I recollect seeing the German fighters lining out in front and then barrelling through our formation with guns blazing’ he recalled as the bomber formation set course for home. ‘One plane came so close that I could plainly see the pilot and the black cross on the side…’ Nineteen aircraft from the entire force was lost that day, with seven from the 384th. Armstrong was always to regard Hamburg as his baptism of fire.
At the time, crews were required to undertake 25 missions before they would be released to return home, and assigned to other duties. Individuals could, if they wished, volunteer to continue, but before long the minimum requirement was increased to 30 missions, such was the effect of losses. Could he ever achieve this almost mythical number of sorties over Germany? ‘Moans of anguish reverberated throughout the assembled crews’ he recorded when on 12 August they were briefed on a raid into the enemy’s most heavily defended industrial heartland, Gelsenkirchen on the Ruhr. Even though they flew the mission at 31,000 feet, close to the B-17’s ceiling, Armstrong recalled the flak over the target that day ‘was so intense that the bursting shells looked like clouds.’ Five aircraft – 50 men – were lost that day to those innocuous-looking grey puffs of deadly smoke. Another problem the men all suffered from the was cold: at that height the temperature was -55 degrees Fahrenheit. One of his crew, the waist gunner Presciliano Herrera, became a casualty to frostbite.
The only counter to the lack of fighter cover over targets deep in the enemy’s heartland seemed to be close formation flying in their squadron groups, so as to give greater concentrated firepower from the bomber’s combined fifty-calibre machine guns. They practised this skill repeatedly. Armstrong recalled that the constant strain of close formation flying, for hours on end, was ‘the toughest flying circumstances I had ever experienced.’ Every mission reduced their numbers even more, but the biggest blow came when two members of their close-knit crew were called out to support another plane that was short of crew, for a short hop over to le Bourget airfield in Paris on 16 August. The B-17 containing the two Sad Sack II’s ‘borrowed’ aircrew, did not return. Morale nose-dived. It struck them all, amidst the heroic bravado of young men going to war that had sheltered them from the reality of imminent death during their first missions, that in fact they were not immortal. Worse was the realization that they were expendable. At the start, only a month or so before, they ‘were eager to experience the thrill of a mission, to put another completed objective under our belts, to relish the satisfaction of accomplishment, and to scoff at the reality of immortality.’ Now came the shocking realization that they could easily be killed. In their more hopeful moments was the thought that, if the worst didn’t happen, they might become prisoners of war. Armstrong quickly started attending French lessons at Grafton-Underwood, trying hard to marshal his Floridan tones into a semblance of Gallic comprehension. He started to notice that others had begun to prepare bags of escape-related items when they went on missions. He didn’t go this far, but made sure that he wore a warm undershirt, trousers and high-top GI shoes under his flight gear. He also tucked the French phrase sheet into his jacket pocket, just in case.
The briefing on the morning of 17 August 1943 told them their target was the ball bearing factory in the city of Schweinfurt, generating the familiar moans and groans from the assembled crews. This was a big one. In addition to their attack a further force of bombers was due to strike the Messerschmitt factory at Regensburg. After they had dropped their bombs, the 384th would turn around and return to England.
It proved to be one of the toughest air battles of the war. German fighters began harrying the heavy, lumbering bombers as soon as the armada was over Belgium, and continued to do so all the way to, and back from, the target. At one point on the way out a B-17 in the air above Sad Sack II was hit and exploded, only frantic manoeuvring by Armstrong saving his own ship from being caught up in the conflagration. Engulfed in a fireball, the stricken bomber passed them in a twisting, screaming fall to earth. It was on the return leg, again over Belgium, that a Focke-Wulf 190 lined itself up on Sad Sack II, and came at it, head on, guns blazing. A bullet penetrated the cockpit and hit the co-pilot’s leather jacket, while a 20mm round smashed a propeller blade on No2 engine, spraying shrapnel-like debris into the nose of the aircraft. Armstrong feathered the blade to stop it spinning and acting as a drag against the other engines, while the engine itself began to smoke profusely. Despite the nose of the aircraft being peppered with shrapnel holes, the few injuries to the crew were superficial and Armstrong, despite expectations, given the damage to the aircraft, successfully nursed his wounded ship back to base. It was immediately scrapped, and would never fly again. Thirty-six USAAF aircraft did not return from raids over Germany that day, seven of them from the 384th.
Then, on the morning of Monday 6 September the men were awakened early for a new raid on Germany. This time it was to be another ball-bearing plant, in Stuttgart. They hadn’t been there before. Nor had the old Sad Sack II crew flown in their re-assigned aircraft, an old battle-scarred veteran called Yankee Raider with a row of about fifty yellow bombs – each designating a raid over enemy territory – painted on its nose. The whole operation was to be a huge endeavour, with 338 B-17s taking part. The long flight out was largely uneventful, but low clouds over the target forced the aerial armada to make several overflights of the city, the flak increasing in intensity as the aircraft flew in large, vulnerable circles in the enemy sky, using up precious fuel while the lead aircraft sought to find the target. At last their bombs were dropped, and the formation curled slowly back towards home, heading towards France. Strong headwinds forced them to a snail’s pace, a cripplingly slow ground speed of ninety miles per hour. Suddenly, the right inboard number two engine on Yankee Raider shook violently, power decreasing, the whole ship slowing up and falling back from the other aircraft in the formation. The crew could see fuel pouring from the right wing, as dark bursts of flak all the while surrounded the plane. They were at 10,000 feet and falling. Then, as they always did with wounded stragglers, waiting Luftwaffe fighters pounced. ‘Fighter! 6 o’clock high’ came a shout over the intercom. Armstrong immediately banked the plane into the nearest clouds, but it wasn’t enough to avoid being plastered nose to tail with 20mm shells from a Focke-Wulf 190 coming at them fast from above. A large piece of aluminium flapped wildly from the left wing. Although flying level, the aircraft was shuddering and losing power. The aircraft wouldn’t survive much more of this. ‘Prepare to bail out’ Armstrong ordered. A further burst of 20mm fire hit the cockpit, setting the aircraft on fire. His co-pilot and bombardier dropped through the small nose escape hatch. With the fire taking hold, he could feel his hand and face burning. Quickly pulling the escape hatch opening between the seats, Armstrong dropped out of the hole that opened up, holding tightly to the rip cord, and hoping that he wouldn’t get fouled up in the opening. He went through cleanly, felt the rush of fresh air and looked up to see the pure white silk of the parachute floating serenely above him. Looking down, a few moments later he saw the extraordinary sight of Yankee Raider making a perfect pancake landing in a ploughed field below, leaving a cloud of dust behind it. Not long afterwards he hit the ploughed field, twisting his ankle in the process. He needed to get away, quickly. Unbuckling his parachute, he hobbled off towards some nearby woods, discarding equipment as he went. Finding a hiding place in the middle of a patch of briars, crawling in amongst the tearing thorns, Armstrong settled down to wait out any hue and cry. But none seemed to come, and as darkness came he slipped into sleep, secure in his prickly cocoon.
With the arrival of the early late-summer dawn, Armstrong awoke and ventured out, to see whether he could get help. On a track in the nearby woods he bumped into an elderly Frenchman. They communicated after a fashion using his English-French phrase sheet, M. Gaston Viguier showing on his escape map that Armstrong was on the outskirts of the small village of Gamaches-en-Vexin in eastern Normandy, forty-four miles from Paris. The closest town was Éntrépagny, eight miles to the north. Using sign language, M. Viguier motioned Armstrong to go back and hide in the wood. In the days that followed he and his wife brought out a pan of hot food each day and for a week Armstrong hid, the warm days and mild nights not making his enforced camping trip too uncomfortable, except for the one night when it rained. But as the days went by it was clear that, kindly though they were, the Viguiers were not in a position to help him return to England. To find people who could help him do that, he determined to himself that he needed to make his way to Paris.
On the morning of Tuesday 14 September, M.Viguier bid farewell to Armstrong with a handshake as he pointed him on the road to Paris. Still in his leather flight jacket, uniform trousers and high-top GI shoes, although he had pulled off his rank insignia and name badge, he was grateful that at least his burns were healing, and his sprained ankle, though still swollen, was no longer so painful that he was unable to walk. The countryside and villages he walked through were empty of people, which surprised him. It was only at the end of the first day, with the sun setting in the sky, that he came across a lone farm house, where he was shooed away by a scared young farmer’s wife, who nervously gave him bread and water, but then urged him on his way. Sleeping in a nearby wood, early the next morning he resumed his lonely walk. That afternoon an elderly couple gave him a change of clothes, and a satchel which they filled with apples, bread and butter, before also sending him on his way. Soon after he crested a hill and saw the Seine far in front of him. Now dressed less conspicuously, the fact that he was still in considerable danger became apparent when, as he passed through the next town, he tried to buy a drink in an otherwise empty café. When he attempted to get the attention of the waitress, she screamed in alarm and it was only through the intervention of a passer-by that he managed to escape the unwanted commotion. During that day, although he approached three other couples with his trusty phase-sheet, none offered help. He fell exhausted in an apple orchard that night, sleeping once more under the stars.
The following day, Thursday 16 September, he continued his journey to Paris. After about an hours’ walking, near the town of Triel, he spotted a house with neat grounds, and decided once more to try his luck. The well-dressed, stately lady of the house, Mme Raymonde Laurent, after being persuaded that he was indeed an American airman, invited him into the house for breakfast with her husband Alexander and six year old son, Philippe. He was astonished at the sight of the repast – eggs, potatoes, bread and milk: the Laurants clearly did not lack for much, he thought. M. Laurant did not join them, watching him intently from a neighbouring room. Despite Alexandre Laurant’s coolness, it was in this household that his luck changed. Mme Laurant told him that they had an English woman friend, who lived nearby. Their maid had gone to fetch her. Communication would be much easier once she was with them. The tall, slender middle-aged lady who appeared soon afterwards introduced herself as Mrs Annie Price. After he had told her his story, she suggested that he return to her house, a decision that M. Laurant agreed without hesitation. A divorcee, Annie Price’s modest house was home to her and her nineteen year old daughter Eileen, who worked in Paris during the week and returned home each weekend. One of her two sons was a ‘guest labourer’ in Germany, and the other a French soldier in Indo-China. Another Englishman living in Triel would come that evening, she said, to see what could be done to assist him. That night Mr Edward Cotterell, with three other men, closely interrogated Armstrong in Annie Price’s garden. He was under no illusions that if he failed to persuade them that he was a downed airman, rather than a German spy, he would be killed. He seemed to pass the inquisition, however, and in due course the men left. Annie Price let out a sigh of relief, and led him into the house, where she had prepared him a bed. He had been on the run for eleven days, and his new sleeping arrangements were an absolute luxury.
On Sunday September 19 a visitor, Alec Prochiantiz, arrived from Paris, to escort Armstrong into the city. A young doctor, he was part of a resistance network that included Edward Cotterell, his daughter Yvonne and her husband, Jacques Peyron. Now dressed in one of Edward Cotterell’s suits, white shirt and red tie, Armstrong felt himself blend comfortably into the French population, only the new bandages on his hands and the burn on his face marking him out from the ordinary. He saw Alec Pronchiantiz talk briefly to a young couple, whom he later discovered were Yvonne and Jacques Peyron, and together they boarded the train. They arrived safely at Gare St Lazaire and they walked three miles to Dr Pronchiantiz’s apartment, the Peyrons walking a little ahead, alert for danger. Armstrong stayed with Pronchiantiz for three days, before on one afternoon two men, Maurice Cottereau and a man called Georges arrived in an ancient truck powered by a wood-burning engine, to take him to his next hideout. This proved to be the second floor of the Cafe du Moulin Rouge in Drancy – Georges was the bartender – where Armstrong had the uncomfortable experience of sharing a bedroom with Georges and his girlfriend. Two days later, however, he found himself moving to the home of Mme Théodorine Quenot, in whose nearby house at 15 rue Alcide Veillard, Bobigny two other airmen were hidden – Floyd Terry of the USAAF and Vic Matthews of the RAF. A few days later they were joined by a fourth USAAF evader, Andrew Lindsay. Armstrong was to stay with Mme Quenot for four weeks while attempts were made to find available escorts to get the men over the Pyrenees. The men nicknamed Mme Quenot ‘Queenie’: she was indefatigable in her efforts to protect and look after her quests, Armstrong remarking at the quantity and quality of food in hungry Paris that she was able to prepare for them. A local butcher, M. Gaston, provided plentiful supplies of fresh black market meat. She also showed no fear at the prospect of being caught, even though she clearly knew the dangers: posters all over the city promised death to anyone harbouring the enemy. The notices, signed by General von Stupnagel, read:
All males who come to the aid, either directly or indirectly, of the crews of enemy aircraft coming down in parachutes, or having made a forced landing, helps in their escape, hides them, or comes to their aid in any fashion, will be shot on the spot.
Women who render the same help will be sent to concentration camps in Germany.
In addition to looking after evaders, she was keeping her 21-year old son, Raymond, out of the hands of the German roundups of young men to send to Germany for ‘guest labour’. Ray was hiding with M.Gaston.
At long last Armstrong, now with the identity documents presenting him as a 23-year old butcher by the name of Jean Riber, began the rather convoluted journey that would take him from Paris to England. Meeting up at Maurice Cottereau’s café with six other airmen brought in from other safe houses, they toasted the next stage of their escapes with glasses of cognac. Not knowing where they were going, the eight men followed a guide through the metro until they reached Gare Montparnasse, where they were given tickets to the Breton city of Quimper. The long journey across the breadth of northern France ended the following morning at 11 a.m. when the train crawled into its destination. Pretending to be sightseers, Armstrong couldn’t help noticing the large number of Wehrmacht uniforms in the town. The party was led to a church, where a local guide took them to the home of Jacques and Madelaine Mourlet at 9 rue Anastole Le Bas. He was a local wine merchant who, with his wife, had been building up an escape line from Brittany to Falmouth. Ten evaders crowded into the house. That night, over a sumptuous meal cooked by Madelaine Mourlet, they met a man who called himself Fanfan. His real name was Yves Le Henaff. His plan was to take the evaders from the harbour at Douarnenez by fishing boat and rendezvous at sea with a Royal Navy motor torpedo boat. But plans went awry. Jacques Mourlet received a tipoff that the French police were suspicious of the activity at his house, and the evaders had to flee. The warning came just in time. As the police knocked on the front door, ten evaders slipped out a back window into the garden and thence through a gate in the seven-foot rear wall, where they then dispersed, two by two, into the street. Later that evening Jacques, after he had persuade the gendarmes that there was nothing amiss, gathered up his flock and ushered them to an apartment overlooking the city’s prison, home of a Roman Catholic priest, M. Abbé Lozac’hmeur. Here, for the next five days, the ten men crowded into a single room, sharing four beds. All the while Yves Le Henaff was attempting to confirm arrangements with the Royal Navy. But they came to naught. The only option was for the men to return to Paris.
The train drew into Gare Montparnasse mid-morning on 6 November 1943. There, standing on the platform, was Yves Le Henaff. Quickly and without ceremony, he handed off each of the evaders to new helpers. Armstrong and another airman, Robert Streets, were told to follow a confident young man, who led them across the city on the Metro to his tiny garret apartment in the attic of a six-story building at 41 rue Saint-Merri. When they arrived they met two existing occupants, both evaders – Leslie Woollard and a man called Max . Their new helper was Gilbert Virmoux, who spent each day out in Paris hunting for food for his charges. The narrow apartment block, Armstrong discovered, was owned by a middle-aged lady and her husband, who hid a Jewish woman in their home, and were all involved in looking after the hidden evaders. Gilbert recognised that the men suffered from intense boredom, and often took them out individually to walk through the city. On one occasion the four of them went with Gilbert to watch a Spanish film dubbed into French, and on another they visited a nearby bathhouse for a rare wash and scrub with proper soap.
Then, on 12 November they moved again. Gilbert told them that they were going to a site in the country to prepare for an arduous physical task, which they all assumed – although Gilbert didn’t tell them – was the crossing of the Pyrenees in winter. While Gilbert took the others, a guide called Denise and another girl took Armstrong and Sheets to the Chateau de la Fortelle in a beautiful hundred acre estate just to the north of Nesles, outside Paris. After leaving the Metro station following a short 45-minute ride from Paris, they walked for three hours in the darkness to Chateau de la Fortelle, singing the children’s songs Alouette, and Frère Jacques. Neither girl could speak English beyond a few words. For the evaders and their escorts, the songs proved to be a common, emotional currency. The men knew the songs, of course. American soldiers had learned Alouette in France during the Great War, and popularised it at home afterwards. Wandering along in the dark, not knowing what fate had in store for them, every hour behind enemy lines a nerve-wracking bundle of confusion, fear and uncertainty, built on the trauma of aerial combat and their escape by parachute. “What would happen next?” “Where were my fellow crew members?” “Do my family know what has happened to me?” “What will happen to these brave French men and women if they are caught by the Germans?” The opportunity to laugh as they walked along, naming the various parts of the body in schoolboy French, proved to be an unheralded and liberating tonic:
Alouette, gentille alouette,
Alouette, je te plumerai.
Je te plumerai la tête.
Et la tête! Et la tête!
A a a a h!
When they finally reached it, the Chateau de la Fortelle was a revelation. Hidden behind an eight-foot wall the men discovered a chateau in which the Free French Secret Service (the BCRA) were training young men in the art of sabotage and demolition. The two groups of men found time to mix together in the evenings after daily duties and instruction was complete. Here, on French soil, close to the heart of German-occupied Paris, where daily torture and execution was the lot for those who were caught actively opposing the regime, preparations were being made to assault the enemy’s citadel from within. For the evaders, who were here to prepare physically for the immense challenge of crossing the Pyrenees in winter, daily exercise, football, wood chopping for fuel to keep warm was their daily diet until on about 10 December. Armstrong, Fidler, Woollard and Andrew Lindsay returned to Paris to Gilbert Virmoux's flat. Gilbert told them the plan. He and Denise were going to accompany them by train to the Pyrenees, and then take them over the mountains.
The journey by train to Carcassonne began on 11 December, Gilbert Virmoux escorting Armstrong and three others, and Denise escorting another two. Wartime restrictions had reduced the network to a snail’s pace, and they didn’t arrive at their destination, to the sight of six inches of snow on the ground, until two days later. The danger posed by the squad of German soldiers checking identity cards at the station exit was easily seen off by waiting in the toilets until the passengers, and the Germans, had left. But difficulties emerged from the outset. The escape line seemed to have been broken, and the guide Gilbert had expected to meet was not at the station as planned. No amount of searching could find him. Gilbert, who had at least had the benefit of a previous reconnaissance of the journey to the base of the mountains, decided to take the group of eight directly to the town of Quillan, their jumping off point for the climb, by local train. His hope was that they could there locate the man who had agreed to guide them over the mountains. But this search was also to no avail. Without a guide, they couldn’t hope to undertake the journey over the mountains, and every moment in the open offered them the potential of discovery. Gilbert was forced to the difficult decision that there was nothing for it but to trust to chance, and make their slow way back to Carcassonne and from thence to Paris. They did so again successfully avoiding unwanted attention, on a train stuffed full of Wehrmacht soldiers. It took them three days to return. When they arrived back at Gilbert’s apartment, Armstrong collapsed into bed, exhausted from sleeplessness and the tension that arose from the constant fear of discovery.
The organisational and logistical effort to secrete and sustain large numbers of fit young men in the middle of German-occupied France, despite the constant risk of exposure and arrest, was remarkable. Within two days of their return to Gilbert Virmoux’s flat, Armstrong was told that he was being moved on to another safe house. He gave each of the four evaders with him a Christmas card, dated 20 December 1943, writing in the one to Armstrong:: ‘A toi mon cher Jim, bon retour chez toi. Gilbert.’ Escorting the men the next day to a church near Gare Montparnasse, a new group of helpers emerged, as if from nowhere, and Armstrong was handed over to the care of a stout, thirty-five year old woman who waked with him, arm in arm, to her apartment. Her name was Mlle Odette Drappier, a twenty-nine year old accountant, who lived in the 15th Arrondissement at 11 rue Valentin Haüy. She told him that he was her first American evader to stay with her, but the stay proved to be short. On Christmas Eve a young boy came to tell him that he would be leaving by boat, and taking him back to the church where he had been four days before. It looked as though another attempt to leave by boat from Brittany was being planned. What Armstrong was unaware of was that he was now being passed from one escape line to another, this time the Burgundy reseau led by M. Georges Broussine. An escort guided him through the Metro once more to Gare Montparnasse, where he was given a ticket to Quimper. The first stage of the journey was a three hour trip on Christmas Eve to Le Mans. In the waiting area for the train to Quimper he noticed a number of other evaders sitting, also waiting for the train, nonchalantly trying to blend into the pre-Christmas rush. The train to Quimper left at midnight, and arrived at dawn, where it was hitched to a local locomotive and they carried on to the seaside village of Tréboul. Everything seemed remarkably well organised. Two female guides met them at the station and took them through the village to a house where they were given soup and bread. There they were met by a man who appeared to be in charge, who told them that his name was Noel. It was a nom-de-plume for Yves Le Guillou (it was Christmas Day after all). He told them that an attempt was to be made that night to escape from the heavily watched harbour in a local fishing boat – the La Jeanne – and make their way to Falmouth in England. The plan was simple. During the day, when the tide was out, they would walk out to the boat, hide on board, and then, when the tide was in that evening, cast off and drift out to sea. When they were beyond the German defences, they would switch on the engine and make for open water. Armstrong was to learn later that Le Guillou, a good-looking, muscular man, about six feet tall with long black wavy hair, had been a POW in Germany for two years, and made a living by teaching German locally. It proved a good cover, although many local people considered that he must be a collaborator. His wife and sister worked with him in the local resistance group.
That night, as planned, about thirty men (including 14 evaders) gathered in the house where Yves Le Guillou briefed them, before they began the walk down to the bay. A clattering German bicycle patrol of four soldiers was easily avoided, and the men approached the boat as planned. Once more, to Armstrong’s frustration, a message came whispered back: “Return to the house, there’s a problem and we can’t go tonight.” They crept back, in single file, carrying their shoes in their hands, watching out for discovery, to the house. The problem was that someone, unaware of the plan to take the La Jeanne, had inadvertently locked the fuel tank. Le Guillou was not dismayed. “All will spend the rest of the night here” he told them. “At daylight the Frenchmen will return to their homes. I will go to Douarnenez to find hiding places until another boat is found. For the next four days Armstrong and another evader were hidden with Mme Anna Donnard in a flat above a dry goods store on the main street in Douarnenez. It was conspicuous, and Armstrong was fearful that it might to too much so. On New Year’s eve, however, he heard a resounding confirmation of the attitude of the local people when, behind the curtains in the apartment, he watched a noisy crowd of a hundred or so young men and women walking down the street, in violation of the curfew, singing ‘It’s a long way to Tipperary.’ But the hiding place was too precarious, so Yves Le Guillou managed to move them on New Years Day 1944 to stay with Mme Evelyn Malhomme, who live above a pharmacy at 2 rue Jean Bart. A fierce patriot, Mme Malhomme told them that her husband – Maurice – had been interned for two years by the French Government and had now been handed over to the German authorities and was in Buchenwald Concentration Camp, and that her two sons were away fighting with the Free French.
The men were to stay with their French helpers until 20 January, when Mme Malhomme told her two evaders that a new boat had been procured, and that they would be leaving on the morrow. Mme Malhomme had been, Armstrong averred, ‘an angel in disguise.’ She had spent hours everyday seeking out and collecting food that had been gathered for the evaders, cooking tasty meals and doing everything possible to alleviate their boredom. She lived every day without any news of her husband or sons, yet was prepared to sacrifice herself in any venture that assisted those seeking to destroy the enemy. On the morning of 21 January 21, Mme Malhomme took her two charges to another house in the town, where they met other evaders at the home of Mme Telec and her 24-year old daughter, Désirée (‘Yvonne’) Kervarec at 16 rue Jean Bart. The farewells were heartfelt, Mme Malhomme offering her two evaders small gifts, before with a quiet ‘bonne chance’ she left them to walk down to the boat, the ten-ton Breiz-Izel. From then on, apart from the long waiting for the rest of the day, everything went as planned. The boat was cramped, however, and the 31 men on board (14 evaders and 17 French crew and other passengers, most of whom were members of the BCRA or the Burgundy reseau) sat or crouched where they could in the wet hull, waiting nervously to know they were on their way, or the warning shots of the German sentries guarding the harbour.
At about 3.30 a.m. the following day they felt the sea lift the boat upright, and get underway. A shout of ‘thief! thief!’ came suddenly from the concrete jetty in the narrow Tréboul harbour, but it was a local man who, unaware of the plan, thought that the precious fishing boat was being stolen. The alarum did not stop the crew, led by Gabriel Cloarec, who had recently received his call-up papers by the Germans for Service du travail obligatoire (STO) service in Germany, carrying on with their plans. They pushed the boat down the channel with oars, only opening up the petrol engine when the tiny bobbing vessel was off Tristan Island in the bay. When, some hours later, they were all overcome with seasickness, they knew that they had entered the choppy waters of the Atlantic. The day that followed was agony, the tiny boat ploughing through a full throated storm, the bilge pump failing regularly and the men below prostrate with sea sickness. The night that followed was less choppy, however, and on the following day the men were allowed on deck, to savour the fresh air, and to enjoy their first sight of the coast of Britain. From the distance they at last could see the outline of their destination, and a wake showed the approach of a Royal Navy patrol boat, which escorted the tired travellers into the welcoming harbour of Falmouth in Cornwall, 36 hours after they had set out. It was noon on 23 January 1944.
James Armstrong had made a home run.
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 As a guide the 8th Air Force suffered losses of 47,000 men, 26,000 killed (55%) and 21,000 POW (45%). During the war, the 384th Bomb Group were to lose 159 aircraft, and 1,625 crew.
 Henaff was an officer in the French Navy, who joined the Free French Secret Service (BCRA) and was parachuted into France on 14 June 1943. For more than six months he organized the evacuation of people to England. He was captured by the Gestapo on 5 February 1944. Incarcerated and tortured in Rennes for several months, he died on 2 July 1944 in the train taking him to Dachau concentration camp.
 The historian Keith Janes describes Gilbert Virmoux as being associated with the Bordeaux-Loupiac escape network, which began life in August 1943 from the OCM resistance group in and around Lille, specifically to look after airmen downed in northern France
 Eight crew members escaped the aircraft by parachute, one was killed on board and another, amazingly, survived the crash landing. Two others, in addition to Armstrong, evaded successfully, radio operator T/Sgt Walter House and tail-gunner S/Sgt Clifford Hammock, House with Comète and Hammock with the John Carter organisation. The bombardier, 2Lt Wilbert Y.K.Lee, was picked up by friends of Virginia d’Albert Lake.
 A Jew, the 52-year old Maurice Malhomme was arrested on 16 December 1942 in Quimper, and detained at Compiegne internment camp until he was deported to Buchenwald on 14 December 1943 (his camp number was 38,227). He survived his incarceration.
 Mme Telec’s two sons were in England. Her daughter, Yvonne, was a member of the Free French Turquoise reseau in Finisterre. She was arrested in Taulé on 19 April 1944 by the Gestapo, and was subjected to interrogation and torture. Imprisoned at the Jacques Cartier prison in Rennes, she was part of the convoy that left Rennes on 2 August destined for Ravensbrück (her camp number was 62,836). She was liberated at Wöbbelin on 2 May 1945 and died on 25 February 2007.
Bernard, who in the war lived close to Kettering and other airfields. When did the B22 take over from the B19.?