“All ready?” Massoud, our maquis guide, enquired in his heavy accent. The Gauloise stuck to his upper lip as he spoke. His last cigarette for a while as he wouldn’t be able to smoke on the mountain on account of the glow of his cigarette. The four of us nodded – Mme Rocher, her daughter Emilie, Jim and I. As instructed, we’d dressed in dark but warm clothes, although I knew Massoud disapproved of my, by now, rather battered flying jacket fearing it would give us away even though I’d taken the RAF insignia off it.
“It will be cold in the mountains after dark, yet it is spring,” Mme Bonnifant, declared in her halting English. “Good luck. Please come back soon and help rid us of the Bosche. Look after Reggie,” she whispered to me.
She and her son, Louis, had been Reggie’s and my “hostess” for the last week or two (I forget exactly how many days) since we arrived in Bagneres de Luchon concealed in the back of a Citroen TUB van behind a load of farm supplies and a couple of cages of chickens who had insisted on looking at us in a rather off-putting way. Since then we’d spent most of our time in Mme Bonnifant’s attic with the occasional walk in the village after dark, which allowed Reggie to stretch his knee. But Madame had been so hospitable to us and arranged a couple of visits from a neighbouring doctor to try and treat Reggie’s knee. He could no more resolve the issue than could the medecin in Cognac but, again, he’d tried.
“We will,” I answered and then, being British we went to shake hands, but she hugged us and wished us “Bon Voyage”. Then she kissed the Rochers, whispering quiet words of encouragement.
Turning to Massoud she said urgently, “Tell Jean-Pierre to take care…. Tell him I love him and ache for his return. And Louis is well but misses his father so.” Massoud nodded. As we filed out, I saw Mme Rocher turn away, shoulders shaking, a handkerchief at her eyes.
We started out moving quietly through the village with its drawn curtains, the lamps and occasional electric light glowing. Soon we reached the start of the path up the mountain.
The moon climbed higher in the sky illuminating clouds that drifted past on a gentle westerly wind and providing some – but fortunately not too much – illumination as we climbed steadily.
I spent the time thinking of the two month journey to get here from La Rochelle where my Wellington had been hit by flak during a raid on the dockyards. I thought of my crew. I know Reggie, the co-pilot, and Ross, the front gunner, bailed out with my navigator Jim and I but where they landed I don’t know. Jim and I had landed close together and were lucky the Resistance had picked us up fairly quickly. The others, well…. the plane had broken up in flames very quickly…… I tried not to think. But I worried about Jim. He’d been injured when flak hit the plane on the starboard side at the back of the cockpit and sustained shrapnel wounds to his thigh and knee. I and other volunteers had nursed him on our way south to the Spanish border.
We’d been taken to a farm near Surgeres where we’d slept in a barn, which considering it was March, hadn’t been too cold, and the farmer and his wife had looked after us very well. We’d stayed there a couple of days until the Resistance had organised a lift on a truck going to St Jean d’Angely and then via the route departementale to Cognac. We’d been hidden behind a load of farm supplies which was brilliant for me but was hell for Jim with his knee bent up. Doctor Bertrand in Bergerac, where we stopped on our journey, had managed to extract some, but not all, the shrapnel and he had only limited pain relief to offer. I and a maquisard had held Jim down through the worst when he screamed to the point where Dr. Bertrand had stuffed a cloth in Reggie’s mouth.
“Necessary for all of as I don’t want to attract attention from anyone else,” he explained with a kindly shrug. “Excusez, but our supplies are limited and local anaesthetic is not really good for this. We do our best. He needs proper attention from a surgeon rather than a humble local medecin like me. There are still bits of shrapnel around the knee. The constant travel is not good for him but I suppose needs must as it would be the worse for him – for both of you – if you were in a prisoner camp.”
Jim hadn’t been fit to travel for a good few days after that and even then travelling scrunched up in the backs of lorries for hours on end didn’t help the wound. Fortunately we’d had time to rest a bit in Mme Bonnifant’s loft which was comfortable though a bit hot during the day when, of course, we had to lie low and be most careful.
Massoud had a lantern but preferred not to use it unless forced to for fear of being seen by a German patrol. At first the path was fairly easy but got steeper. Jim began to struggle, his knee having been injured by a piece of shrapnel when we bailed out. But Jim was a dour Scot and hated to complain.
After an hour or more, Jim began to struggle and I lent him my shoulder to lean on although it wasn’t easy as the path steepened and sometimes our boots slipped on loose rock. I heard Jim breathing hard as he hauled his injured leg up the mountainside so as to keep pace with the rest of us.
Then about two hours into our climb, Massoud made noiseless gestures urging us to get down and disperse quietly into the undergrowth on either side of the path. We heard voices ahead of us talking in German. I heard the crunch of their boots on the mountain rocks.
I nestled into the cold, damp undergrowth wishing it would just swallow me up. Then, I was grateful to my leather flying jacket and was glad I had insisted on keeping it for the last few months despite being told it could be a giveaway. I was vaguely warm lying on the cold earth amongst the ferns and other vegetation which I hoped wouldn’t become my grave, far from home and loved ones.
I thought about the journey to get here not far from the Spanish border and relative freedom and I prayed it would not end now. I wasn’t particularly religious but then I really felt in need of protection from somewhere, I knew not from where. And I thought about Jim lying over to my right, struggling to stay both dead still and silent with the pain in his knee. I also thought of Mme Rocher and her daughter. Her husband Henri had to flee to Spain before he was betrayed on account of his resistance work. Eighteen months they’d been apart, sustained by covert letters, and they were aching so much to see him.
I began to feel real fear as one of the Germans was now ten feet away, smoking, his face briefly illuminated as he dragged on the cigarette, sub-machine gun nestled in his arms. I lay still my heart pounding, willing myself into utter stone cold silence. I thought about taking Fritzi out. I felt for the knife in my pocket and I reckoned I could, but I knew there were some of his colleagues close-by, so not a good idea. Fritzi movesd away and gestured to his colleague to move on. After fifteen minutes or so Massoud silently appeared checking the lie of the land and then gathered us with silent gestures. As I took Jim’s weight on my shoulder again my thoughts softened as I thought that perhaps Fritzi and his colleagues didn’t want this war either, to be here anymore than I or the rest of us poor bastards did, but just had to put up with orders.
“You know, I could have killed that wee German bastard,” Jim hissed in my ear, “throttled the life out of him.”
“I know, Jim. I thought the same – I’ve got a knife in my pocket and I did think….and then weighed up there were two of them. But now I’m thinking perhaps he’s young, hates being here and wants to be home in Germany. Probably has a mother or a girlfriend worrying…. Just think Janet and your family will be worrying about what’s happened to you and whether you’re alive.”
“Aye, I know. You’re right.”
We tramped onwards and upwards. Jim was now limping badly and in pain and, despite his “stiff upper lip” couldn’t help but moan though he was a tough little fighter, I knew that having flown over twenty missions with him over France and Germany. I sensed the Rochers were struggling too but they battled on. I knew how desperate Madame and her daughter were to be reunited with Henri.
I eventually felt more optimistic as the path levelled out and nearing the border, the sun starts to rise and the first rays begin to warm us. Eventually we began to descend and there down the slope were the welcoming party with blankets and warming drinks and food. The Rochers rushed to meet Henri who was standing slightly apart and embraced with the grateful sobbing of Madame and her daughter echoing to the skies. Jim was wrapped in a blanket and taken, with a cheery wave to me, to lie down in the back of the waiting van. Massoud sat on the grass with a fellow Frenchman, who I took to be Jean-Pierre Bonnifant, and his Spanish colleagues drinking brandy and eating pastries, chatting away in the local dialect. I watched him and reflected on the courage of the maquisards who risked their lives for people like me nearly every day of the week.
I sipped my drink, feeling the brandy starting to warm me, munched on a pastry and looked back up to the brightening sky and the flank of the mountain, greening as the spring sunshine lit up the land and the flowers. I thought of home and now I started to think of Susie, my fiancee of all of three days when I left on the mission to La Rochelle, although I hoped she was still my fiancee as she might not know whether I was alive or dead after these last few months. If she still wanted me when I got home, I needed go with her and choose an engagement ring which we never had time to do before I left on the raid.
After a while, Massoud came over to me.
“Excusez,” he said, “but we need to move down the valley as the Bosche sometimes come over the border to look for prisoners fleeing.”
I nodded and moved to the van, where Jim was half asleep in the back.
“We are going to take you to a village called Viella and then Spanish colleagues will take you and your colleague on to Lerida and then Barcelona. We should be able to get you on a ship to Gibraltar within a few weeks. Also, my colleagues might be able to get a surgeon to look at your friend’s knee.”
I reflect on all this now as I’m in bed with Susie. She’s asleep lying on my chest. I have got a few weeks leave for the marriage and the honeymoon. Reggie and I, made it back via Gibraltar courtesy of the Royal Navy who also managed to sort out Reggie’s knee though he wasn’t passed fit to fly again. But he managed to make it to my wedding as an usher.