On 5 May 1942, S/Ldr František Fajtl DFC participated in the ill-fated Circus 157 over Northern France. During this mission he was shot down and his account of his successful evasion and return to England is:
The weather was beautiful at RAF Hornchurch on 5th May 1942.
Immediately after lunch we left for briefing. I was in a hurry to take my seat in my favourite chair. However, “my chair” had already been occupied by a member of No 64 Squadron and I was too embarrassed to tell him that “my chair” was my lucky charm. I sat elsewhere and lost my good mood. A little while later the Intelligence Officer arrived and unveiled the cover over the blackboard.
“Hell, Lille again!” I heard someone behind me.
Half way across the Channel I remembered “my chair” but chased away my thoughts hoping that our sweep will end well and I devoted my attention to my flying. I lead No 122 Squadron as it C.O.
The Boston’s had dropped their bombs and turned towards England. A few minutes later we were attacked by German fighters and in the ensuing melée I was hit. I dived to escape my pursuers. When I levelled off, very low over the ground, I found out that my Spitfive was on fire somewhere underneath and that smoke was entering the cabin. To top my bad luck the engine stalled. I had to land straight ahead and without delay. Fate was on my side ‘though in the shape of a flat field into which my aircraft ploughed with its undercarriage up. The soft, humid spring soil extinguished the fire. I left mg cockpit quickly and run away from my expiring comrade aimlessly. Fortunately, I ran in the southern direction, After about 200 yards I came across an old woman working in the field with a teenage boy.
“Are the Germans anywhere around?” I asked. “Over there” the woman said pointing towards a big building in the direction from which I was coming. It was obvious that I fell in the midst of the “Atlantic Wall” and sat down practically into the lap of the enemy. I was aghast but I did not lose my head. I began to think and act quickly. Our intelligence officers in England advised to get as far as possible from our crashed aircraft and never to enter the nearest inhabited place.
I took heed of that. It was invaluable advice. I ran far into the fields and lay down in a shallow ditch. I let my body take a rest but forced my brain to go on working. “Find something better” it told me. I avoided a village and started searching the terrain until I found a stream. I sank into the water on my back and left only my nose protruding on the surface so that I would not suffocate. That probably saved my life as the search party which included sniffer dogs lost my trail.
I remained so until dusk. Darkness, an excellent cover, allowed me to leave my unpleasant bath in icy-cold water, and I climbed onto the dry bank. I observed the countryside and realised that I was surrounded by troops who, from time from one to, flashed their torches from one to another. Beside that I heard the Germans clearly searching the nearby village. The dogs barked late into the night.
From the bank of the stream I had a good view and started crawling between the two nearest guards. I succeeded in getting through gap and went on crawling until I reached safety. Then I got up and walked normally. Towards the morning I found a lonely farm. I was thankful that my misfortune was beginning to change for the better, and I was hopes that my luck would not leave me. I stepped into a cow-shed to get dry and warm.
It worked. I was not refused shelter. The farmer offered me a bed for the night, gave me food and changed my uniform for a farmworker’s civilian clothes. I asked for a hoe and set off with it across fields for Paris.
At night I slept in barns mostly but also in clean beds in houses of brave Frenchmen and old Polish settlers. On my march I stupidly tore off blisters of my feet thinking that this would relieve my pain but instead my feet swell and changed colour to blue. Once, to make my journey easier, I stole a bicycle left in the ditch by the roadside. As soon as I mounted it I heard a cry from two boys who set to pursue me. It was not difficult to catch me as of the two bikes I took the worse one with a punctured rear tyre. I apologised and revealed to them my Odyssey, trying to convince them that I was not a professional thief. I told them that I was even allowed theft by my superiors. “After the war the King of England will repay your loss with interest”. I asked the frightened boys not to betray me. “I want to escape from the Germans and I will go on fighting against them, also to liberate France”. They were obviously decent boys and probably complied with my wishes.
I reached Paris after eight days and I found a safe shelter and excellent help for 16 days from a family of Czech settlers named Formánek. “Auntie” nursed me and treated my feet, fed me well and supplied me with money for my further journey. In accordance with a Czech saying that the darkest spot is straight under the lamp, “Uncle” Victor found marvellous help right in the headquarters of the French Secret Police which “officially” collaborated with the German occupants. A brave Inspector Rossi, a Corsican, supplied me with a false Identity Card and took me by train from Paris as far as the border with the unoccupied France. After that I had to fend for myself. I felt that I nearly won as all I had to do was to get through “Free” France where there was no Gestapo and no Wehrmacht.
It was not as easy as I imagined. On the train journey via, Vichy, which I unfortunately chose, there were constant checks as there were fears of assassination of Marechal Petain. I stood in the corridor all the way, dozing off standing up, but I was apprehensive. When the sleuths appeared I disappeared into the toilet but did not look myself in. An old trick but it worked.
Difficulties arose from time to time. Once, proceeding on foot on a road, I noticed a policeman. From a fair distance I saw that he was stopping all pedestrians but allowed motorcars and other vehicles through, I waited patiently for my chance. It did come. A cart was pulled by a strong horse up the hill. Two men sat in it. I asked them if I could get a ride, complaining about my feet. They agreed and took me with then. I noticed that the reins hung loosely over the side of the cart without anyone holding them. That suited me. I got up, took the reins into my hands and turned my back on the policeman. I got through safely.
In one inn, I was refused breakfast for which I was ready to pay. One young man did not take me in his car when I begged a lift. An RC priest, coming from the mass, refused to advise me where to find a shelter in the village, and in another a farmer chased me away when I asked him for a place to sleep.
Nevertheless, there were more of those brave ones willing to help. I remember fondly a Mr Vitek, a Pole. He let me stay in his place, gave me food and offered valuable informations. Also a French lawyer sprang to help. He offered me a place in his car, although it was already full with four members of his family. He took me as far as Montluçon where he helped me to buy a trainn ticket to Montpellier. The nicest experience awaited me in Béziers. There a pretty young student, Marlene, warned me against the police, bought me a train ticket to Argeles sur Mer, and acted as if she were my sister on the platform which was crawling with gendarmes and policemen carrying big pistols slung from their shoulders. Had it not been for Marlene’s presence I would have surely become the centre of their interest. I was quite dirty, badly shaven and all crumpled. I also like to remember my crossing the Pyrenees. I found and excellent place of rest with the family of a charcoal burner deep in the mountains. They accepted me with friendliness, they fed me and supplied food and drink for my trek through the mountains, and especially gave me “golden” advice how to avoid border guards, mountain guards and the “sharp boys” directly on the ridge – the border with Spain.
The last sector of my escapade in France I completed with cuts and bruises which I suffered in falls from rocks and by struggling through dry and prickly bushes on my way through the rough country. When I descended into Spain I was arrested by two soldiers who pointed their guns at me. I raised my hands and in the international manner I announced “Prisonero de la guerra Britanica”. From their grimaces and talking I gathered that they did not believe me; I could not have been an Englishman because I had brown eyes and all Englishmen had blue eyes! I left them with their belief, lay down beside them and fell fast asleep.
I followed other British comrades in three flea infested prisons and then into a concentration camp called Miranda de Ebro, and I found out that their blue eyes did not help them either.
The British Military Attaché got me out out of the camp and took me to Madrid as a free citizen again, and from there I was sent with a large group of co-sufferers to Gibraltar. The crossing of the border into the free world was emotional experience never to be forgotten.
On 20th August, my thirtieth birthday, I returned from the British fortress to England. That was the culmination of three and half months of involuntary wandering accompanied by enormous amount of luck, most precious help and understanding from brave strangers, and my determination to return to my own.
After a rest I took off again and flew over the area where the enemy humiliated me. I found again my niche in the ring in the sky where, with my comrades, we were again hitting the enemy as he deserved it.