Found loosely inserted in his book Winged Hours this account by Group Captain F.C. “Griff” Griffiths (1913-1996) of his time in France with the Maquis and his attempts after the war to trace members of the French Resistance who had helped him escape. In April 1943, Frank Griffiths, then a Squadron Leader, was posted to No. 138 Special Duty Squadron to take part in SOE ‘drops’ taking men and supplies to resistance organisations in occupied Europe. On the night of the 14/15 August 1943 his Halifax aircraft serial JD180 was brought down when flying low over Annecy (near the French/Swiss border) by small arms fire from an Italian Alpini corporal. He was one of two survivors and escaped his Italian captors and was subsequently sheltered by the Maquis and eventually escaped over the border to Switzerland, returning to England around Christmas 1943. The problem with tracing his brave saviours after the war was that none of them had used their real names…
One of the sad things about Escaping/Evading experiences is that to protect our helpers we did not wish to know their real names or to remember addresses. We thus failed to make contact with many of them after the war.
For over 43 years I endeavoured to trace a helper with whom I had formed a strong rapport. All I knew of him was that his name was “Antoine” (obviously a nom de guerre) and that his French was difficult to understand because he was a Catalan.
A t 1530 hours on Wednesday 27th October 1943 Antoine had collected Joe Nanos, a Flying Fortress Gunner, and me from a seat in a park in Perpignan announcing that we had a long walk in front of us and that we had better get started.
Ten hours later we collapsed in the hayloft of what appeared to be a small, very remote farm in the foothills of the Pyrenees somewhere South West of Perpignan.
This was the start of three nights walking and scrambling in pitch darkness with four different guides all equally difficult to understand and all related to each other.
I was determined to contact them after the war and the first opportunity came on the 6th July 1945 when I was flying a Dakota from Gibraltar to Istres near Marseilles. I grasped the chance to carry out a search in the foothills of the Pyrenees “South West of Perpignan”.
Apart from a very rough distance from the city all I had to go on was a distinctive sharp pointed hill which overlooked this farm and in 1943 could be seen through the cracks of the hayloft door. We were warned not to go outside as the Germans surveyed the valley from the top of this hill. We left as darkness enveloped that area not he next night.
My reconnaissance, carried out at a respectable height was useless. The area seemed too highly populated and there was no pointed hill.
Twelve more years went by in September 1957 I wangled a “Duty Visit” to the French Parachute School at Pau. I mentioned my problem to one of the French pilots in the bar. I wish I hadn’t for within an hour I found myself flying a few millimetres above the ground in a Nordatlas looking for the sharply pointed hill. Apart from being thoroughly frightened I gained nothing from this flight.
So the years rolled by and we come to 1986; 43 years since I met Antoine. Antoine after a full career in the Armee de l’Air is retired in the equivalent rank of Warrant Officer and now lives with his Provincial wife, 16 hives of bees and a truffle hound in Salon en Provence. Always homesick for his beloved Pyrenees he decides to attend the dedication of a memorial at Tarascon (Ariege) to commemorate the guides and escapers who lost their lives in the Pyrenees during the war.
Antoine fortunately knew my name. As a rule the guides did not wish to know or remember the names of anyone whom they helped over the mountains for obvious reasons.
But I had given a small English/French dictionary I had bought in Switzerland to his schoolboy cousin before setting off on the second night’s march. My name was in the dictionary. Also he remembered my “sympathy” for the Catalan problem for I had explained to him that we had the same problem in Wales being subservient to the English and in fact I was a mercenary flying for the British! Somewhat far fetched I agree but it helped him to remember me and so at Tarascon he sought out our Secretary, Mrs Elizabeth Harrison and asked if there was an evadee called “Griffiths”. After 43 years the contact was made.
And this resulted in my being taken over our route from Ceret in France to Boadella in Spain in June 1987, almost 44 years since the original journey. This time the journey was mainly by car for with the introduction for the bulldozer and Spain having joined the European Community, the journey, which once entailed three nights of exhausting walking and scrambling, will shortly be merely a matter of a couple of hours by car. And, at the same time, this move of Spain has spoilt the Catalans main source of income – smuggling which has been going on for hundreds of years!
I was however till eager to find our starting point, the remote farm overlooked by the Germans observation post on the pointed hilltop. I sensed that Antoine did not relish my raising the subject. Finally on the last day of our tour within two kilometres of Ceret, a town of 4000 inhabitants, we dropped down en escarpment on an almost vertical track and there, to the South, was the pointed hill and, hidden in the bend of the river, the farm, “Les Pouillades”, almost the same as it wass 44 years ago. Under the trees in front of the farmhouse on this gorgeous sunny day was spread an enormous “picnique” with all the now grey-haired guides and their wives and families to greet us!
Why did it take 43 and three quarter years to find Les Pouillade? Moving stealthily by night with no moon and avoiding all roads and tracks I had the impression that we were in deep “Indian Country” whereas in fact Les Pouillades was in a well inhabited area but no other building could be seen from this shangri-la encircled by the heavily forested bend in the river.
And the sharply pointed hill? It is still there and it is still a German Observation post. A retired couple from Munster have converted a barn near the top into a summer chalet!
F. C. Griffiths
7th July 1987.
This account may have been placed in some copies of the book. It is xeroxed and signed by Frank Griffiths. There was a long obituary of him in The Daily Telegraph 30/3/1996 detailing a quietly distinguished and important (in aviation) life.