RETURN TO THE FOREST OF FRETEVAL
By Martin Hickes
ONE of the last surviving members of a top secret operation during WWII has been invited back to France to mark the 70th anniversary of the event.
Raymond Worrall, 90, from York, spent weeks hiding from the Nazis among a band of downed Allied aircrew living in the ‘Robin Hood’-like conditions in the secret Forest of Freteval in France in the summer of 1944.
Hidden away by members of the French resistance, and dodging Nazi patrols on a daily basis, Ray and his 150 colleagues lived on their wits to evade capture.
Now Ray, who became a barrister after the war, has received a special invite back to France to commemorate the anniversary.
Back in 2006, he penned his memoirs of life in the secret forest in a book, called Escape from France: The Secret Forest of Freteval.
He now lives in a retirement home but is hoping to make the special trip in June.
Back in 1944, the 20-year-old was a flight engineer, piloting his 26th Lancaster bomber mission en route to Stuttgart in Germany, when he was forced to bail out over occupied France.
After evading capture and living on his wits for three days, Ray was taken in by the French Resistance.
He was led to a farm where he found a radio operator from his air crew and a Canadian air gunner from another crew.
All three were led to a wood south of Chartres where he was introduced to more than 150 downed aircrew of all nationalities living in Sherwood Forest-like conditions.
For nearly three summer months, under the very noses of their Nazi occupiers, the "secret" Forest of Freteval became his home of the downed aircrew.
The band of brothers were eventually rescued as part of the clandestine Operation Sherwood, under then MI9 leader and former MP the late Airey Neave. Neave had become head of MI9 after his escape from Colditz in 1942.
For more than 50 years, the secret forest and the lives of the men who lived there was one of the untold stories of WWII.
Ray says: "Having survived the bail out from the Lancaster, I lived off the land and by my wits for three days. "To avoid various German patrols, I fashioned a make-shift disguise – but the give-away was my chewing gum, an Allied trait – spotted by the son of an Allied sympathiser.
"I was introduced to a farmer and his wife who were harbouring escapees – one of whom turned out to be my wireless operator from my crew and a Canadian air gunner who had been shot down a few days earlier.
"That first night they broke open several bottles of stolen German champagne and while I counted my blessings, I had no idea what a surprise lay in store."
Deep in the heart of northern France, close to Chateaudune and Vendome, lies the thick Forest of Freteval and it was here that Raymond and a group of other escapees were led by the French Resistance.
"Once inside the forest we realised we were not alone; there were over 70 scruffy and unshaven looking men wearing ill-fitting clothes, looking like an army of tramps.
"To our surprise, we soon discovered they were Allied airmen who had been brought to the forest since the beginning of May.
"Hitherto, the first line of escape for airmen shot down over the Continent who were subsequently lucky enough to run into the Resistance, was a number of escape lines which eventually led to the Pyrenees.
"As D-day approached, it was realised by both British intelligence and the Resistance that these lines would break down under the weight of pressure from German troops moving in large numbers into northern France, with the result that all roads and rail routes would be closely watched.
"As a result of discussions between MI9 – the then section of British intelligence dealing with escapes – and the Resistance, the idea of hiding the men under the noses of the Germans in woods was conceived, principally by Airey Neave and Baron Jean de Blommaert, a Belgian Resistance leader."
MI9 was haunted by the possible spectre of Allied airmen being massacred by retreating Germans after D Day, so the plan – codename Operation Sherwood, after Robin Hood and his band of followers – was put into operation.
In April 1944, Blommaert parachuted back into France to implement the operation and Raymond found himself to be one of lucky few to be rescued through the plan.
Ray has no doubt that it saved his life.
"The principal problem was to keep order in the forest and to keep men through impatience from making attempts to make a run for it," he says. "The operation was helped by the quality of the local Resistance leader Omer Jubault, a gendarme from Cloyes. These men were risking their lives to save ours, and Jubault had already risked arrest for his help in Resistance matters.
"Taking two foresters into his confidence, he selected a site among the trees well concealed from the road along which German military transports were passing.
"The foliage was thick and would hide all activity, and a spring of pure water ran just at the edge of the forest for washing and bathing needs.
"Two camps were started, mine under the charge of Lucien Boussa, who had his HQ at the local railway station. He visited us daily bringing news on the liberation efforts.
"Life in the forest was boring, rough and dangerous. All 150 men passed their time thanks to fine weather, sunbathing and talking – though at night we had to keep the sound down as voices carry well in summer weather over land.
"There was a well at the edge of the forest from which we had water for our basic needs, though little enough for drinking and even less for washing.
"As a result, for up to three months some lived in the same clothes day and night, and suffered badly with lice. We had some basic provisions thanks to previous local air drops; we made tables and chairs from logs and branches, and through a radio smuggled in, we were able to hear how the Battle for Normandy was progressing.
"We managed to maintain discipline, rising at 6-7am, eating a breakfast of bread and butter – which was also our supper - before making up our beds of straw and parachutes if we had them.
"The small quantities of meat, vegetables, butter and bread we had were supplied by local farmers and a local miller organised the delivery of fresh bread daily by a young girl in a horse-drawn cart. French patriots even risked the local curfew to bring us fish from the local river.
"Oddly, we had plenty of money in our emergency kits, but were unable to spend it! By the end of July, the camp had swelled further, and six of the seven of my old aircrew were brought in. The exception was our gunner who was killed.
By the middle of August 1944, 152 airmen were living in the two camps watching the enemy, who had no idea what lay in the wood, and passed by just a few 100 yards away.
"Sentries were posted at all times and this is where I spent much of my time," says Raymond.
"Around August 10, the band were told the Gestapo had entered the nearby village of Cloyes, and were heading for the forest. There was panic and we all decided to scatter – except the six of our crew who determined to stick together."
All were eventually rescued by an American transport group, after which Airey Neave, who was aware of the plight of the men of the forest, also arrived with help.
From there, Raymond, who later graduated from Leeds University, was returned to Normandy and after a de-brief sent home to the delight of his parents, who presumed him missing in action.
"Later that same evening, it was reported that German patrols were in the forest alerted by our activities. If we had still been there, we would have been shot.”
The 70th commemoration has been organised by the local council and citizens of Villebout and Bellande on June 28-29. Wreaths, military bands and a release of pigeons among other events will take place, as well as talks about the woodland camps.
At least a dozen members of the French resistance associated with the Forest of Freteval were captured by the Nazis and never returned from the concentration camps.
Ray adds: “It’s very uplifting to see that our French colleagues still recall the forest and the remarkable events of 70 years ago. There is absolutely no doubt that were it not for the efforts of the French resistance, I would not be alive today, nor many of the aircrew who shared those days in the forest with me, memories which will live with me forever. We owe them an enormous debt of gratitude and I’m looking forward very much to making the return in the hope of seeing – and walking - into the forest once more – perhaps for the final time.
”It will be an emotional moment because when I enter the forest on June 28, it will be 70 years since I was taken in there on 28 July 1944. I only wish my colleagues were with me.”