War escape across the Pyrenees

A war escape

Thanks for sharing this article:

A war escape in WW2

The breathtaking story of a daring escape from Occupied France

Contents

(clickable)

Foreword

War escape across the Pyrenees
Chalky, 2nd from left, with other 485 Squadron pilots and Sir William Jordan

This article tells the breathtaking story of a daring war escape from occupied France. Flight Sergeant Chalky White crossed France, from north to south, after he was shot down over Normandy on 22 August 1943.

He found himself in a foreign country, whose language he did not speak, and which was occupied by the Germans. He had only the uniform he stood up in, a set of escape maps of Europe, and two compasses. A further danger was the fact that he was of part Jewish descent – and looked it.

Caught by the Germans within half an hour of crash landing, an hour later he had knocked out his armed guard and escaped. He walked, took trains, was helped by French, and made his way to Vichy France without any formal assistance from the French Resistance.

A French passeur (people smuggler) helped Chalky cross the Pyrenees. Chalky was wearing rope sandals and was involved in a gun battle with the Germans. Deserted by the passeur in Catalonia, he reached the British consulate in Barcelona and eventually returned to Britain via Gibraltar.

My article is based on the book “Pilot on the Run” by Errol Brathwaite.

We have created a trek following in Chalky’s footsteps across the Pyrenees. You can find the trip details here.

This article is quite long. You might prefer to dip in and out of it over several days. Links in blue brackets take you to the relevant place in the footnotes.

War escape across the Pyrenees

During this war escape, Chalky White followed the trail on the map, from Normandy to Gibraltar. With permission of Random House New Zealand.

Chalky before the war

War escape across the Pyrenees
Chalky in the cockpit of a Spitfire 5b. With permission of the RNZAF

Chalky White was the nickname of Leslie Samuel McQueen White, and the name he preferred.

He was born in New Zealand on May 24th 1917, and was 26 when his plane was shot down over Normandy.

Before World War 2 he worked as a sheep shearer. When the war broke out in September 1939, Chalky was shearing in Australia. He promptly volunteered for the RNZAF (Royal New Zealand Air Force).

He trained as a pilot in Canada and was then sent to England, where he joined the Spitfire 485 Squadron. Its members were all from New Zealand, but the squadron was under the command of the Royal Air Force (RAF).

22 August 1943: a fateful Sunday

That day, Chalky and his squadron took off at 18:10 from the Biggin Hill airfield, in Kent. They were part of operation “Ramrod 212”, a group of 43 Spitfires belonging to four squadrons heading to Normandy. [1]

Their mission was to escort 36 Martin B-26 Marauder bombers, which had the German airfield at Beaumont-le-Roger as their target.

War escape across the Pyrenees
Normandy. Map of the area where the operation was carried out on 22-8-1943. With permission of aircrewremembered

After the group had passed  over the Channel, flying at 20,000 feet above Le Havre, 40-50 German Focke-Wulf FW 190 fighters surrounded them.  Shortly after, another 15-20 more FW 190 joined the fight.

The RAF lost six Spitfires; the Luftwaffe lost two FW 190. Despite the significant loss, the mission was accomplished: all 36 Marauder bombers made it back  to the Biggin Hill airfield. [2]

Chalky was hit but he could keep flying. However, his radio no longer worked and the cooling system had been hit: the temperature needle went off the gauge.

He decided against trying to get back to Kent and opted to land the Spitfire in a paddock next to Bolbec, near Le Havre.

What was going on with the other pilots? Who were they? Find out more here: [3]

The capture

Chalky during the WW2
Chalky during WW2

Chalky survived the emergency landing. He left his parachute, gun and survival jacket in the Spitfire. Half an hour later he was captured by the Germans in Bolbec and taken to a farm.

Chalky was questioned for a while, and then most of the Germans left. One stayed behind to keep an eye on him. Chalky offered him tobacco, and then hit him when he approached and escaped.

It was still light. Chalky hid in a barrel full of disgusting liquid for two hours while the Germans looked desperately for him. The Germans passed by the barrel many times but none of them suspected the barrel was his hiding place.

When it got dark Chalky escaped the farm.

First day of the war escape

War escape across the Pyrenees
Bolbec liberation is remembered on September 1st

After running for a while, Chalky found himself alone in the middle of nowhere and stopped to ponder. He realized he had no detailed map of the area, although he had a compass. So he decided he would first head to Paris, then to Vichy France – the zone to the south run by a collaborationist French government.

Chalky thought it was unoccupied but he was wrong; it had been occupied by Germans in November 1942. Then his plan was to cross the Pyrenees and make his way through Spain to Gibraltar in the south. Chalky walked for eight hours before falling deeply asleep on a great pile of unthreshed wheat sheaves.

When he woke up at 7am he was hungry. His feet were hurting almost unbearably because he was wearing pilot’s shoes,  with soft soles that were very comfortable for flying a fighter plane but  ill-suited for a hike across the countryside. He could not find a new pair of shoes for weeks so his painful feet were a torture for some time.

Farms in Normandy involved in this war escape

War escape across the Pyrenees
A Norman farm

Chalky stopped at a farm to ask for food. The householders offered him milk, half a dozen eggs and bread, and took all the insignias off his uniform jacket. However, they encouraged him to leave the house as soon as possible. French farmers were afraid of German retaliation at the time.

It was his first meeting with French people, and Chalky had discovered not being able to speak French was going to be a handicap when trying to evade capture during his war escape.

Before sunset Chalky asked again for food in another farm. This time he was invited to have dinner, accompanied by Normandy cider. He spent that night in a wood nearby.

Second day of the war escape

War escape across the Pyrenees
Chalky, 1st from right. With permission of the RNZAF

Chalky visited another farm in the morning, where he also got something to eat, but was again asked  to leave promptly. The farmers asked him to come back for dinner in the evening, but stay hidden in the woods during the day.

That night it poured with rain. Chalky returned to the wood after a plentiful dinner, getting soaked through until he found an  abandoned car to sleep in.

Third day of the war escape

War escape across the Pyrenees
A Norman farm today

The first word Chalky would say when he met French farmers in the countryside was “RAF”. Then he would show them the wings he carried in his pocket. Both messages always worked; the French people he met always understood Chalky was an Englishman who had escaped from the Germans.

The next morning the rain was still pouring down.  Chalky was desperately hungry. He kept walking, and came to a new farm where a boy gave him bread, cheese, eggs, and a cap he wore for weeks.

The rain had stopped by the time he left there.  At his next stop, the farmer offered him food and let him shave, a pleasure for a man who had been on the run for three days.

The château in Touffreville-la-Corbeline: the first important meeting

War escape across the Pyrenees
Chalky visited the Duhamels after France was liberated

That afternoon Chalky reached a château in the countryside.

Chalky was warmly welcomed by the householders, Madame et Monsieur Duhamel, a couple who spoke English. That pleased Chalky, who hadn’t even heard French before his war escape.

The Duhamels warned Chalky that half of the house was occupied by the Germans, so he would have to stay overnight in a small house nearby with Monsieur Godefroi, who worked for the Duhamels.

That was a luxurious evening for Chalky: he had dinner with the Godefrois and their children, he had a bath, and he had his own room.

But the Duhamels could not find him new shoes. Chalky’s feet (size 11) were much bigger than sizes available at that time in France.  Chalky would have to continue wearing his flying shoes for a long time.

The Duhamels begged Chalky to wait and give them time  to contact a French network which would help him flee France, but he refused to stay longer. He was always in a hurry to return to England and continue fighting.

Goodbye to the château – Fifth day of the war escape

War escape across the Pyrenees
A château today in Touffreville-la-Corbeline

Chalky left  in the morning. The Duhamels advised him to head northward, to Yvetot, because the area to the south was full of Germans. Yvetot had a railway station where he would be able to take a train to Paris.

Before he left Madame Duhamel begged him again with tears on her cheeks to stay another night in the château.

But he was determined to leave. The Duhamels gave him an identity card giving his new name as L. Blanc, and money, wheat ration coupons and food.

A friend  of the Duhamels accompanied Chalky to the road to Yvetot.

Yvetot

War escape across the Pyrenees
Yvetot in WW2

Once on the road, Chalky came across a French boy riding a bike, who warned him two German lorries were waiting for him after the next bend. It seemed a French collaborator had informed the Germans about him.

Chalky stepped off the road and hid. The boy returned  with food, cigarettes, matches, an English-French dictionary and the Yvetot train schedule.

The boy drew a map for Chalky and warned him that the fact that his ID card was not stamped would cause him problems. The adulthood and intelligence of the boy surprised Chalky. The boy left Chalky at 10:30, and he made his way to the station for the 15:30 train.

He arrived 10 minutes beforehand, bought a ticket, but then discovered the train had already left. The Germans had altered French train schedules to match German time. A French gendarme would explain that later to Chalky in Paris. Meanwhile, the next train to Paris was not until 10:30 the following day.

To Paris by train

War escape across the Pyrenees

Chalky spent the night in Yvetot station.  Once on the train, there was a nasty surprise. The ticket collector, accompanied by Gestapo, got on at a later stop.

Chalky quickly left his carriage and went to the next one, trying to get to the toilet so he could hide.

The way was crowded, but Chalky managed to get through while showing his wings and repeating “Gestapo, Gestapo”. The French crowd understood that he was English, a fugitive and needed help. He got to the toilet and locked himself in.

When the ticket collector and the Gestapo reached the platform the crowd staged a monumental row, with loud shouting and quarrelling. The ticket collector and the Gestapo hurried past to the next car; the plan had worked. A tip of the châpeau to the French crowd.

Two hours later the train reached St. Lazare station, in Paris.

Paris. The first important milestone in this war escape

War escape across the Pyrenees
Paris

During WW2 Germans were pejoratively called Huns by the English, and les Boches by the French.

Chalky realised that Paris was much hotter than Normandy. The city centre was full of Germans.

He took the metro to the outskirts, where he found empty streets. There was nowhere to ask for help, so he decided to take a bus back to the city centre and get on the metro again. Later Chalky remembered some of the stations he passed: Rambuteau, Goncourt, Pyrénées, Jourdain and Places de Fêtes, where he got off because the car was nearly empty.

He went into the Les Lilas shopping centre and found a café, where he sat down at a table already occupied by two French people to mislead anyone who might have followed him. The two paid him no attention.

Eventually Chalky showed them his RAF wings and they called the owner of the café. She asked Chalky to wait while she looked for help. It was a stressful moment, because he did not know if the woman was going to betray him. He decided to wait.

Five minutes later the woman returned with a French gendarme. Again Chalky wondered if he should stay or leave. The gendarme asked Chalky to follow him. Both left the café through the back door. The reward for betraying an ally was 5000 francs, a significant amount of money in those days.

The gendarme took Chalky to his home, where he introduced him to his wife and children. Chalky ate a large meal, and then they gave him an up-to-date train schedule. The gendarme’s wife took Chalky to a hotel in the Paris suburbs. The hotel owner showed Chalky to a room in the most tucked-away part of the building.

Paris II

War escape across the Pyrenees
Paris

Next morning she woke him, and  asked him to leave after breakfast.

In the  dining room he was surrounded by all the clients of the hotel, who were beautiful, attractive women. While he ate they peppered him with questions.

Eventually he realized he was actually in a brothel. Before he left,  the owner gave him a few pieces of advice for him to succeed in his war escape:

  • Which train to take and from which station (Austerlitz).
  • She told him, or he misremembered later, that between occupied and free France there was a border policed by the Germans. Actually by that time both sides of the border were occupied.
  • The best place to cross “the border” was near Bourges (in the Cher département), where Chalky should get off the train and continue on foot.
  • Once on the other side, Chalky should walk as far as possible before taking a new train. For instance, to Issoudun (in the Indre département)

Austerlitz – Au revoir Paris

Pilot's escape from France in WW2
Austerlitz railway station

When Chalky arrived at Austerlitz station, a staff member asked him for his identity card. He let him enter even though the card was not stamped.

Chalky then bought a ticket without saying a word. However, the woman at the desk said, “Good luck Anglais”.

Before getting on the train, he came across another control point. This time the man was not a member of the railway staff. Chalky just said “Anglais”, and the man let him pass without saying a word.

The French people Chalky met at the station were certainly not following the orders of their occupiers. It was another stroke of luck on Chalky’s road to freedom.

Bourges

War escape across the Pyrenees
Bourges

Chalky pretended to read a French newspaper while in the train to avoid conversation.

When he realized the ticket collector was heading to his carriage, he feared he could be accompanied by the Gestapo, so he rushed to the toilet again. This time there were no Gestapo on the train, but the ticket collector knocked loudly on the toilet door.

Eventually Chalky opened the door, handed over the ticket and was surprised when the ticket collector apologised for disturbing him.

Chalky got off the train in Bourges, a town of 60,000 citizens at the time. The border between the two zones of France, which followed the Cher River between Bourges and Tours, was 8km to the south.

Bourges was full of Germans. Chalky took a tram to the outskirts of the city. Many German soldiers got on but, fortunately, none of them noticed him.

Marmagne I – The teenagers who volunteered for Chalky’s war escape

War escape across the Pyrenees
The border between “free” and occupied France in WW2. Marmagne is 9km eastward from Sainte-Thorette. When Chalky was escaping, so-called free France was no longer free

Chalky was very nervous because he did not have much time to look for a place to stay overnight before the curfew started. He walked west to Marmagne, a small village 8km from Bourges, very close to the “border”.

During his walk Chalky asked some French people he passed for help, but they avoided him. They did not want to get involved in a war escape.

Once in Marmagne, Chalky met three teenagers, two boys and a girl. The four headed to the girl’s home. The mother opened the door but shut it immediately when she saw Chalky. Eventually, the girl and his brother – one of the boys – convinced their mother to let them into the house.

The mother was terrified of German retaliation. The teenagers decided to take Chalky to a farm outside Marmagne. The “border” was 1km from the farm, though Chalky did not know that at the time.

When they reached the farm where Chalky would spend the night sleeping hidden in the straw, one of the boys told Chalky: “Now we are going home. Somebody will bring you food. If anybody comes in and doesn’t knock on the door, stay hidden and don’t move”. Half an hour later the teenagers returned with food and wine.

Marmagne II – The businessman

War escape across the Pyrenees
Marmagne today

The next morning Chalky was woken by the sound of the door opening. Nobody had knocked so he stayed hidden. He saw a man in a suit coming into the stable. The Gestapo? It can’t be, he thought, otherwise the suit would be cleaner and better ironed.

The new arrival was the owner of the farm, who spoke English. He took Chalky to his home in Marmagne, where Chalky had a meal and a bath.

He showed Chalky a map and advised him to take a train in Reuilly to Toulouse, the same route the owner of the brothel had suggested to him in Paris. Once in Toulouse, he would have to take another train to Carcassone.

Marmagne is about 20km from Reuilly. The man bought Chalky the ticket to Toulouse and gave him a new civilian jacket. But he could not find new shoes for Chalky, nor a stamp for his identity card.

He hated the Germans because they had subjugated the French. He asked Chalky how many Germans he had shot down so far. “Two,” Chalky responded.

Chalky discovered after the war this man’s name was Tissier. At the time he didn’t ask for the names of those who helped him, and apart from the Duhamels, nobody volunteered them.

Tissier took Chalky back to the stable to wait until he could get him help to reach Reuilly, and asked him to pick cauliflower so no Germans would suspect him if they came past the farm. Tissier was commited to helping Chalky with his war escape.

Three hours later he  returned to the stable with a guide, who was on a bicycle and had another one for Chalky. The two rode on isolated dirt roads in the countryside until they reached Reuilly.

Reuilly – “At last, free France”, thought Chalky

War escape across the Pyrenees
Reuilly railway station

Chalky breathed a sigh of relief when he arrived at Reuilly: he couldn’t see any Germans, although this part of France had been occupied by Germans since November 1942.

He thought his war escape had finished.

He arrived at the railway station 20 minutes before the train to Toulouse was due to leave, but then had to wait for more than two hours because the train line had been sabotaged. Chalky had begun to hate French railway stations.

The train stopped at Limoges at 3am. Everyone got off  to stretch their legs.

The train was then split in two: part of the train continued to Toulouse, and the rest went to Bordeaux. Chalky had fallen asleep in the station when the Toulouse carriages left. Once again he had to wait for a long time until a new train arrived.

On the way to Toulouse

War escape across the Pyrenees
Limoges railway station today

Three German soldiers got on the train to identify passengers. This time Chalky couldn’t reach the toilet, so he pretended to be deeply asleep. He snored loudly and held the ticket prominently between his fingers.

When the ticket collector and the German soldiers reached his car, the ticket collector nudged his shoulder repeatedly to ask for his identity card. Eventually one of the German soldiers said,  “Come on, he will be identified in Toulouse”. War escapes were common at that time.

Nevertheless, they stamped Chalky’s ticket, put it in the pocket of his jacket and left the car. Again his stratagems to avoid capture had been successful.

Toulouse. The second important milestone in this war escape

War escape across the Pyrenees
Market in the Capitole square in Toulouse

Chalky reached Toulouse in the afternoon. Fortunately there were no police controls in the station.

He walked to the outskirts of the city and started to visit houses asking for help. He was offered a meal in one of them. In another, he was informed about a farm where he could spend the night.

Chalky walked 2km to reach the farm. The owner was very nervous about the unexpected “visit”. Chalky spent the night in the barn sleeping on a pile of straw.

The farmer asked Chalky to leave at sunrise because he did not want the Germans to discover that he was involved in a war escape.

By train to Carcassone

War escape across the Pyrenees
The Cité de Carcassone

Early in the morning Chalky returned to Toulouse and took a train to Carcassone at 4pm. There were Germans in the train but because of the experience he had gained over the previous few days, he did not panic. Also, he felt more confident because of his new civilian clothes. On the other hand, his non-French face could not be changed.

Chalky did not want to take a tram from the city centre to the outskirts of Carcassone, so eventually he decided to get off the train in Pezens, which was a wise decision as we will see later.

Carcassone had been transformed into a German “bunker”. Its location and walls made the Cité de Carcassone the perfect place to establish German headquarters. The Wehrmacht had even kicked out the citizens of the Cité.

Pezens

War escape across the Pyrenees
Vineyards in Pezens

Pezens is in the Aude département, 9km from Carcassone.

After leaving the station, Chalky crossed the village and started to walk through vineyards. He arrived at a house where there were workers resting. He guessed it was harvest time. Chalky showed them his RAF wings.

One of the workers asked Chalky to wait, and then left.

Chalky and the other workers remained in a tense silence. After half an hour, the worker returned with another person in a Citröen.

The newcomer was a smuggler and passeur, a Frenchman who helped Allies and Jews to cross the Pyrenees into Spain. Chalky would spend more than a week with him. As with others he met on his war escape, Chalky did not ask for his name, so I will refer to him as “the guide”.

The guide drove Chalky in his Citröen. The workers smiled at Chalky for the first time when they said goodbye. Until then, they had remained silent.

First interview

War escape across the Pyrenees
Chalky, 2nd from left, with other New Zealanders pilots. With permission of the RNZAF

The guide took Chalky to an isolated farm. There were other men drinking wine in the kitchen.

The guide started to interview Chalky while playing with his gun. At that time passeurs needed to make sure the person who they were going to help, and for whom they would risk their lives, was not “working” for the Germans.

Chalky had to answer many questions: where he had been shot, his squadron number, where he was born. However, the guide ascertained that Chalky was a true Ally thanks to one question: “what’s your weight?” Chalky answered using “stones” instead of “pounds”. Germans would never have trained a mole to use “stones”.

Chalky asked the guide for food and a pair of shoes, and told him he wanted to reach Catalonia. For the first time the guide told Chalky he was a member of a clandestine war escape network.

The network could help Chalky as long as he was willing to hide out for a week in a farm in Arfons, in the Tarn département.

Chalky and the guide arrived at the new farm by car at sunset.

The farm in Arfons. A break in this war escape

War escape from France in WW2
A farm in Arfons today

Chalky spent a week on this farm. The householders were a French family who fortunately spoke English. They warmly welcomed Chalky. Two Jewish girls were also hiding at the farm.

Hanni, one of the girls, explained to Chalky that her parents and grand-parents had disappeared, and asked Chalky if he could visit a friend of hers living in England and tell her she was safe in France.

Chalky promised to do it when back in England so he memorised the address and name of Hanni’s friend. Writing down the information on a notebook would be too dangerous if Chalky were captured.

Chalky’s daily tasks were milling corn and milking cows. He also took care of his damaged feet in his free time.

The control post in Formiguères: the point of no return for this war escape

War escape from France in WW2
Camporells lakes. Beautiful are in the Capcir region, quite close to Formiguères

One day the guide arrived at the farm to pick up Chalky. They drove back to the farm where Chalky had been interviewed. The guide’s friends were still there.

Chalky was given a gun – an automatic MAS-35 – and a triangular packet. When Chalky asked about the contents of the packet nobody answered.

Chalky and the guide started a long trip by car. They passed Arzens, Cepte, Limoux, Quillan – already in the Pyrenees – and Formiguères.

During a break the guide explained to Chalky that the Germans had created a “prohibited area” around the Pyrenees to prevent escapees from crossing them and reaching Spain.

Anyone wanting to enter the prohibited area needed a document of safe passage. The guide had one, but Chalky’s identity card was not stamped.

10km south of Formiguères, on the road to Mont-Louis, there was a German control post which guarded access to the prohibited area. The guide knew one of the wardens. If that warden was present, they would be able to pass. Otherwise, they would have to use their guns to get through. The last piece of advice for Chalky was “Load and keep your MAS-35 ready”.

The guide had never met the German warden in the control post. The guide got out the car and started an argument with the German, with both men shouting and swearing in French.

Chalky could not understand a word but realised the situation had become life-threatening and they had reached the point of no return, so he shot three times at the German and killed him.

Mont-Louis, in the Conflent

War escape from France in WW2
Mont-Louis

Chalky and the guide fled the control post. The other German guards came out of the building and shot at the Fiat without success.

Chalky was dazed. He had never shot a man at such close range. The guide reprimanded Chalky for not shooting earlier.

After a while they took a dirt road to a wooded area where they hid the car. They continued on foot across the mountains until they could see Mont-Louis below. From then on, the war escape would be on foot.

Instead of his flying boots, Chalky now wore espadrilles which someone had made for him at the farm in Arfons.  [4]

They stayed in the mountains for two hours, until sunset. They wanted to cross the Têt River which surrounded Mont-Louis to the north. Unfortunately, there was a German soldier on the bridge, but they were eventually able to cross the river in a place without a bridge.

At that moment, only one road and a railway line were between them and the wild Pyrenees. If they could overcome those obstacles, there would be no more villages before reaching the border.

Chalky and the guide managed to cross the road, but the railway line was full of Germans looking for them.

The potato fields

War escape from France in WW2
Chalky, second from left, with his squadron mates. With permission of the RNZAF

Chalky and the guide tried to climb the scree by the railway line, but stones rolled down the slopes and the Germans realised they were there.

The Germans fired their Schmeissers, and the guide shot back. Chalky and his guide were under cover of darkness. Then shots were fired from the road they had just crossed. Chalky and the guide were surrounded. The war escape was about to finish.

They rushed through nearby potato fields to escape, but Chalky had to stop because of the unbearable pain in his feet. Suddenly he realised he had lost his guide. After what felt to Chalky like an eternity, the guide took his arm and asked him to follow him.

The guide asked Chalky to hand over the mysterious triangular packet. The moon was full and there was too much light to escape from the potato fields. They decided to stay still until there was enough cloud cover and they were able to cross the train tracks.

The Pyrenees – The shepherd and his cottage

Pilot's escape from France in WW2

Chalky and the guide climbed the first steep slopes of the wild Pyrenees in darkness, while the Germans were still searching for them at the railway line. The ascent was sheer torture for Chalky’s feet because he was still wearing his espadrilles. [4]

They stopped only once to sleep and eat. The guide wanted to reach the closest point to the border before sunrise. They slept just an hour each on rotating shift. Then, the guide gave the mysterious packet back to Chalky.

Later on, they could hear a dog barking. They got closer and saw it was huge but chained to a stone cottage. Suddenly the owner, a tall and burly man, came out of the cottage and shouted, “Who’s there?”

Finally, the guide came out and introduced himself. He told the man they were going to Spain.

The man was a shepherd. He invited them in and introduced them to his wife. Since it was nearly sunrise the shepherd advised them to stay in the cottage for the day and then continue up to the border after sunset. In the meantime, he and his flock would graze around the valley.

If he saw any German patrols he would play his trumpet which his wife could hear from miles away. If that happened, Chalky and the guide should leave the cottage immediately. That was the plan.

Chalky and the guide had breakfast with wine in the cottage.

The Pyrenees – First border crossing

Pilot's escape from France in WW2

Before the shepherd left, Chalky asked him where the sheep were, because they were nowhere to be seen. The shepherd played his trumpet and the sheep appeared around them from far away.

Chalky and the guide slept in the cottage for one hour and then ate again.

A while after the shepherd left they heard the sound of his trumpet.  His wife told them, “Leave, the Germans are coming.”

From then on the terrain was more difficult: it was rocky, with lots of scree and narrow paths. Chalky’s feet started to bleed. The guide pointed out the border, at the highest peak of the mountains where they were headed. To Chalky’s surprise, there were Germans patrolling near the border.

Night fell. Chalky had never been so tired in his life. Only his desire to escape kept him going.

They crossed the border at midnight. The guide told Chalky some lights that could be seen in the distance were in Andorra, although I think the guide was mistaken.

When they had descended about 90m on the Catalan side of the mountain the guide decided it was time to have a break and sleep, because it was a dark night and the terrain was treacherous.

The great disappointment of this war escape

Freedom trail Pyrenees trek

The slope was so steep that Chalky and the guide had to sleep leaning against a tree to avoid rolling down.

They continued their walk down at sunrise, until they found some pagesos (Catalan farmers). The guide struck up a conversation with them in Spanish. They told him that Setcases was 30km away to the east. In Setcases a “contact” was waiting to pick up the mysterious triangular packet from the guide.

The guide explained to Chalky that they had crossed the border too far to the west, and they needed to head back east. Continuing through the south side of the Pyrenees would be three or more days of walking. The best thing to do was go back to France and walk through the north side of the Pyrenees, always remaining close to the border. Once they reached Setcases they would cross the border again. This option would take “only” two more days. [5]

What a shock for Chalky, who already felt like he had escaped.

Second and final border crossing

Pilot's escape from France in WW2
The border

They walked up back the same path to the border and headed eastward once they reached the French side, sticking close to the border. They did not stop for the whole day and spent the night under open skies.

On the following day, Chalky realised three weeks of war escape had passed since his Spitfire had been shot down. It was 13th September 1943. During the last two days the guide looked faded and hardly spoke.

The second day of walking in the French Pyrenees after the disappointment of having to cross back over the border was easier: the higher part of the mountains is less steep and more rounded. There are fewer rocks and more meadows.

Eventually they crossed the border next to Coll d’Ares (Ares pass), where a road linked, and still links, Catalonia with the Vallespir. There was a Spanish control post in the pass which they bypassed by leaving the road.

Some hours later they reached Setcases[6]

Setcases – Goodbye to the guide

Freedom trail Pyrenees trek
Setcases

Chalky and the guide crossed the village. Only some old men took notice of them. They reached a farm which was outside of the village and surrounded by olive trees.

From the way the guide and the owners talked to each other, Chalky guessed they were close friends. The mistake crossing the border meant they arrived two days late, and the guide’s “contact” had already left before Chalky and the guide arrived.

The guide had to leave immediately to reach his “contact” before he arrived in Barcelona.

The priest in Setcases lent his bicycle to the guide. Chalky wanted to accompany him but was told that without a bike he would not be able to keep up. Nevertheless, the guide promised Chalky he would visit the British consulate in Barcelona and ask them to pick him up from Setcases.

Chalky gave the mysterious packet back to the guide and left the farm before sunset. They never met again.

Setcases – An endless wait

Pilot's escape from France in WW2
Sunset in Setcases

Chalky felt lonely and sad after the guide’s departure. The householders did not speak English so communication was nearly impossible. However, they were very welcoming and offered him a good supper.

The following day, Chalky got bored as he waited all day long for the arrival of the consulate car.

In the evening Chalky was sure it would arrive on the following day, so his war escape was about to finish.

The next day, around 15:45 Chalky saw car and a lorry full of soldiers approaching the farm. Chalky wanted to escape the farm but the woman told him not to be scared, and that the vehicles were going to Setcases and not to the farm.

Chalky understood from the woman the vehicles carried militiamen who were looking for refugees captured by the Guardia Civil in Setcases. Chalky wondered if the refugees may be Jewish people fleeing from France.

Sunset arrived, but the long-awaited car from the consulate had not appeared. He decided to leave the next day.

Ter River valley

Pilot's escape from France in WW2
Sant Joan de les Abadesses and its medieval bridge over the Ter River

Chalky said goodbye to the householders after breakfast and started to walk on the road which links Camprodón with Setcases[7]

In 1943 this road was not paved. In the years immediately following the Spanish civil war, the unsealed roads of the Pyrenees were only used by the pagesos (peasants) of nearby villages, and so they were practically empty.

Chalky started to feel happier because he had succeeded in escaping from France. He alternated running and walking, even though he still wore espadrilles. [4]

Later on, a boy driving a cart overtook him. Chalky asked him for a lift but the boy refused.

Soon after, torrential rain began to fall and Chalky took shelter under a tree. When the rain stopped, he continued walking.

Chalky reached Sant Joan de les Abadesses at sunset. [7]

He decided  to bivouac by the river, without going in to the village.

Ripoll. The on foot war escape ends.

Pilot's escape from France in WW2
Santa Maria de Ripoll monastery

The following morning Chalky re-joined the road 1km after Sant Joan de les Abadesses. He reached Ripoll at midday but stayed out of the village to avoid Spanish police.

He spent some time by the Ter River, soaking his painful feet. Afterwards, a man approached and gave him a pack of cigarettes without saying a word. He then asked someone with a cart to pick Chalky up.

Chalky crossed Ripoll inside the cart, without raising any suspicion.

The road was paved on the other side of Ripoll. He hitchhiked for a while until a lorry picked him up in the late afternoon. The three men in the lorry did not speak English but could be understood. Chalky remembered they constantly repeated Franco es puerco (Franco is a pig, in Spanish).

El Swiss couple

Pilot's escape from France in WW2
A Catalan masia

The lorry left the main road to Barcelona, drove on secondary roads and stopped in an impressive masia (farm). The three men in the lorry worked for the farm’s owner, a Swiss man who spoke perfect English and had important business in Spain.

Chalky knew he was somewhere between Ripoll and Barcelona but had no idea where exactly.

The Swiss man introduced Chalky to his wife, and offered him beer and whisky. Then Chalky had a bath and slept for two hours.

In the meantime, the Swiss couple washed Chalky’s clothes. They had dinner altogether and Chalky was told they were friends of the British vice-consul in Barcelona.

That night the Swiss man drove to Barcelona. He was keen to help Chalky with his war escape.

The British consulate in Barcelona: the end of Chalky’s war escape

Pilot's escape from France in WW2
The Sagrada Familia. Barcelona

The Swiss man came back the following morning accompanied by a car from the British consulate.

The drive to Barcelona was like a dream for Chalky. When he rode in the diplomatic car, everyone greeted him with a smile. He no longer had anything to fear. Now, at last, he was saved.

But the arrival at the British consulate would be another great disappointment for Chalky. The welcome was cold, and he was locked into a small room with a bed and bars on the windows.

An hour later, they interrogated him. Chalky explained many times which unit he belonged to, how his plane was shot down, and so on. The trick questions did not trip him up.

After the interview, they admitted that the French guide showed up at the consulate some days before and told them about Chalky, a New Zealand pilot waiting for help in Setcases. The British consulate did not send a car because they had a policy of not trusting anyone they did not know.

The interviewer said it would have been impossible to cross France without help and without speaking French, German, or Spanish. He suspected Chalky might be a mole working for the Germans. They kept him locked in the room.

Chalky was desperate. After everything he had been through, he was locked in a room where he would stay for a week. Eventually the British consulate contacted the RAF in England and Chalky was then released.

The British embassy in Madrid

Pilot's escape from France in WW2
Madrid

Chalky was taken by diplomatic car to the British Embassy in Madrid. He was still wearing his espadrilles. [4]

The same day, other British pilots who had also escaped from France arrived at the embassy, but they had been helped the whole way by French networks of war escape. [8]

For all the pilots the welcome was dull and cold. Chalky met with annoyed and bored officials who were strangers to the reality of the war.

The meals were horrible. Chalky asked for some size 11 shoes but was told it was impossible. Using the money given to him by the Swiss businessman, Chalky had an employee of the embassy buy him some shoes, a shirt and some items for the other pilots.

Eventually, Chalky lost his temper and walked into the Group Captain’s office without an appointment. Chalky scolded the Captain for nearly everything: food, shoes, welcome. He threatened to inform the Captain’s direct supervisors after his return to England.

Chalky stayed in the embassy for 10 boring, annoying days, which were quite unbearable for a man of action such as Chalky.

Gibraltar – Lucky until the end

Pilot's escape from France in WW2
Gibraltar

Chalky and the other pilots reached Gibraltar by train.

The Liberator bomber which was going to take them to England was ready to take off. However, they were forced to get off the plane at the last minute because a group of VIPs needed to fly to England, and they took precedence.

Chalky and his friends stood on the runway with a bitter sense of disappointment, rage and helplessness.

However, one minute after taking off, the plane crashed into the sea. Chalky did not think there could be any survivors. Once again, luck was on his side.

Chalky’s mother

Pilot's escape from France in WW2
Chalky’s fighter after the crash landing. That picture was published in “Flugsport”, a flying German magazine, which did not say Chalky had survived and escaped

While Chalky was making his war escape, who was waiting for him in New Zealand? His mother, of course, who we had all forgotten.

On August 25 1943 Chalky’s mother received her first communication from the British army. It was a telegram which said her son had disappeared during a mission, and that a new letter was coming soon with further details.

Some days later the letter arrived. It encouraged his mother to stay strong and promised to keep her posted about any news, but said little else about Chalky’s situation.

One month after Chalky’s disappearance, the Air Department sent a new letter. Chalky’s mother read that letter hundreds of times, hoping she would see her son again one day.

When Chalky reached Gibraltar, his mother was informed that he was still alive, putting an end to her agonising wait. Chalky and his mother would meet again in November 1945.

The return to England

Pilot's escape from France in WW2
H.S. Tucker congratulates Chalky after his (Chalky’s) return to England. With permission of the RNZAF

Eventually Chalky returned to England on another Liberator bomber. He was interrogated once again, this time by the British intelligence agency, MI6.

He participated in some further flying missions, but was soon informed that he could not remain in combat. The Geneva Convention stipulated that combatants who had been in a prison camp could not continue fighting. The English are well-known for following the rules to the letter.

Desperate, Chalky argued that he had never been in a prison camp, but all attempts to convince the RAF were unsuccessful.

He spent the rest of the war teaching other pilots how to escape from an enemy-occupied country.

After the end of WW2, Chalky returned home to New Zealand in November 1945. He married Lorna and had a daughter, Mary. Eventually he owned a huge farm: when Errol Brathwaite wrote the book Chalky was about 67 and the farm had 12,000 sheep and 1,000 cows.

Chalky died in Te Puia Springs, New Zealand, on 23 July 1988, aged 71. According to Errol, Chalky was always a happy man, with a great sense of humour.

Chalky was awarded a DFC (Distinguished Flying Cross UK).

The freedom trail Pyrenees trek

We have created a trek following in Chalky’s footsteps across the Pyrenees. You can find the trip details here.

Farewell

I hope you have enjoyed this story..

I would appreciate it if you could write a comment at the end of the article, or share it on social media.

If you want more information about any topic covered by this article, please do not hesitate to contact me through the CONTACT form on this post. I will be pleased to help you.

Bibliography

Consulted sources:

– Pilot on the run. Book by Errol Brathwaite.

– Errol Martyn, with whom I have exchanged emails. Errol wrote a three-volume work titled For your tomorrow: a record of New Zealanders who have died while serving with the RNZAF and allied air services since 1915.

– The National Archives (www. gov.uk). Where I got information about the squadrons involved in the attack on 22 August 1943.

– Wikipedia. The page which talks about the RNZAF 485 Squadron.

– The website aircrewremembered.com

[1] – Squadrons involved in the operation on 22 August 1943

According to the sources I consulted, four squadrons were involved:

No. 485

Chalky was a pilot of this squadron, which was part of the New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF), although it was commanded by the RAF during WW2.

13 Spitfires were involved in the operation, although Errol Brathwaite mentioned a smaller number in his book.

Spitfires took off at 18:10 and return to the airfield between 19:10 and 19:50

No. 66

Composed of eight Spitfire.

The Spitfires took off at 17:55. They joined the other Spitfires and bombers in the sky. Thery returned to the airfield at 19:50.

No. 341

Composed of 12 Spitfires

They took off at 18:10. All came back to the base at 19:50, except one which had to return earlier because of engine trouble.

No. 165

Composed of 11 Spitfires.

They took off at 17:50 and joined the other fighters in the sky. All came back to the base between 18:05 and 19:55, two with mechanical problems.

[2] – Losses during the attack

I have found many contradictions about this issue. The squadron 165 war report says eight Spitfires and a Marauder bomber were lost during the attack, as well as nine German fighters.

Errol Brathwaite says in his book that Allies lost six Spitfires (four from Chalky’s squadron, the No. 485) and no bomber. Errol also says Germans lost two fighters: one pilot parachuted and the other died because his fighter got into flames before he could jump.

The 485 squadron wrongly reported three Spitfires were lost, while they were four. The pilot M.G. Sutherland never came back to the base.

Finally, the 66 squadron reported two of its Spitfires failed to return.

[3] – Which Allied pilots were shot down?

Escuadrón 485

– Chalky White, the star of this story.

– M.G. Sutherland. New Zealander. He suffered capture after parachuting. He had a leg cut off in the Rouen hospital. Nevertheless, he escaped and was captured again. He died on 12 August 2001, aged 87.

– John Donald Rae. New Zealander. Germans captured him and sent him to the Stalag Luft Sagan prison camp like M.G. Sutherland. John escaped many times from the camps but was always captured. He died on 19 December 2008, aged 88.

– Fraser Dudley Clark. New Zealander. He died when his plane crashed in Vatteville-la-Rue. He was 21 and had 556 hours of flight experience and 68 flight operations.

Squadron 66

– William Furniss-Roe. He avoided capture and escaped from France through the Pyrenees. He came back to England, was shot down again in January 1944 and, for the second time, he evaded capture. He died on 5 April 1990

– Arthur Henry Hill. Australian, died when his Spitfire crashed near Bernay.

[4] Espadrilles

Espadrilles is the name in Occitan of espardenyes, in Catalan, or alpargatas in Spanish. Espadrilles has also been accepted as a French word.

Espadrilles are casual, usually flat, but sometimes high-heeled shoes. They usually have a canvas or cotton fabric upper and a flexible sole made of esparto rope. To learn more click here (Wikipedia article).

[5] – First crossing of the border

If the pagesos were right about the distance between where they were and Setcases, my guess is that Chalky and the guide crossed the border at some point above Toses, a tiny village in the Ripollès Catalan district.

The guide might have also exaggerated the distance to convince Chalky to return to France and walk on the French side of the Pyrenees, which was better known to the guide.

[6] Coll d’Ares – Setcases

Chalky told  Errol Brathwaite it took them three hours to reach Setcases from Ares pass. This is impossible; a fit person would need at least five-six hours.

These inaccuracies are unsurprising, given that Chalky was retelling the story to Errol 40 years after it occurred.

What is certain is that the French guide took the wrong path. Walking on the main crest line in the Pyrenees, at north of Setcases he did not descend but instead continued eastwards to Coll d’Ares. This mistake cost him valuable time, because he was not able to deliver the packet to the person waiting for him in Setcases.

[7] – Setcases – Sant Joan de les Abadesses

Errol Brathwaite did not mention in his book that Chalky passed by Vilallonga de Ter, Llanars, Camprodon and Sant Pau de Seguries, villages between Setcases and Sant Joan de les Abadesses.

It is likely that Chalky had forgotten this by the time he was being interviewed by Errol.

[8] – Resistance networks in France during WW2

There were several. The most studied network has been Pat O’Leary. A key figure in this network was Francisco Ponzan Vidal, a Spanish man who was assassinated by Germans before the end of the war.

Other networks that should be mentioned are:

Comète, from Belgium, which mainly operated in the Basque Country

Wi-Wi, specialized in passing military documentation

Sabot

Maurice

Buckmaster


Thanks for sharing this article:

Founder of TrekPyrenees and Mountain Guide, Miguel has a diploma in Computer Sciences and MBA. Passionate about mountains and about meeting and leading people, he loves photography, languages, Romanesque architecture and wine. There are many magnificent hidden spots in the Pyrenees and the other mountains of Catalonia that are hard to discover on your own. Miguel loves finding them and then showing them to visitors.

8 Comments
  • Peter Olver
    16 November, 2020 at 10:04 pm

    What a fantastic story and great research, Miguel ! All the best.

  • Jeffrey Shutak
    17 November, 2020 at 1:15 pm

    A wonderful story. Once I started reading it at six a.m. USA time I could not put it down. Thank you very much for posting the story and I would love to return an do this trek

  • Barry Smeaton
    17 November, 2020 at 1:53 pm

    That is such a fascinating and emotional story, Miguel, and so thoroughly researched. The trek is a really good idea and we wish you well with its promotion.
    Your business must have been sorely affected by the pandemic and we hope we are all back to normal soon.
    With very best wishes and affectionate memories of our time together.
    Barry and Vicky

  • David Young
    24 November, 2020 at 6:04 pm

    Many thanks Miguel for such a fascinating, inspiring and well-researched article. I have very fond memories of snowshoeing with you in 2018; the Pyrenees are so spectacular and I loved the local wine and cheeses. You deserve great success with the special trek following Chalkie’s route so I wish you all the best.

Post a Comment