467 Postblog LXXXII: Phil Smith’s evasion

Phil Smith spent a little over a week attempting to walk to Switzerland. He walked mostly at night, hiding during the day in either fields or farmers’ barns. In the early morning two days after his aeroplane crashed, Phil made it to a town called Orchies (some eleven miles south of Lezennes as the crow flies), but he was running out of food and still had no boots. He knew he now needed to seek help from local civilians. An elderly woman he approached could be of no direct assistance but pointed him towards a farmhouse not far away, whose inhabitants provided food but asked that he hide in the fields during the day and come back after dark. This he did and, after being well fed he was shown to a hayloft where he could sleep for the night.

I did not volunteer to leave and the next 24 hours followed the same pattern.[1]

After a few days hiding in the hayloft in Orchies, his shelterers told Phil that, as a German garrison was about to be billeted in the area it was too dangerous for him to stay. They gave Phil food, drink, an old pair of sandshoes and a hessian sack for a blanket and sent him on his way. In turn Phil wrote his Australian address on the back of one of the spare passport photos carried by aircrew on operations and left it with the family.

For the next few hours Phil avoided roads, walking cross-country to minimise the chances of encountering people. But it was hard going with a number of drains – mostly dry but some not – to be crossed. So when he stumbled onto a road going in roughly the right direction later in the night, Phil abandoned his cross-country policy. Following the road, he passed several small cemeteries which he thought probably contained graves from the Great War.

I saw a faint light in the distance at the side of the road. I assumed it to be a guard post and approached the area with the utmost caution. However my caution was quite unnecessary as the light turned out to be a glow-worm, the only one I saw in my night walking.

Phil kept walking by night and hiding by day. At one stage he saw a Spitfire making several low passes nearby. “I had fantasies of being seen and picked up and flown home which made me feel a little homesick,” he would later write. Apart from an incident where he was asked for the time by a group of young men and responded with the British Double Summer Time to which his watch was still set, the most dangerous encounter he had occurred when crossing a bridge one night over a large canal, possibly the Canal de la Sensee a few miles north of Cambrai. Exhausted after about a week on foot he was trudging slowly on when, about half-way across, he was challenged from a guard post which he had just passed without noticing.

I did not understand what was said but was able to respond immediately with a tired “bon soir’ and walked slowly on with no hesitation. The guard must have taken me for a drunk as he took no action…

The timeline in his Recollections document is somewhat vague but it was probably around 19 or 20 May when Phil walked through Cambrai itself and, seven or eight miles further east, came to the small village of Caudry. Just after that he could see some big farming establishments in a settlement called Audencourt and he decided to hide for the approaching day in one of the big sheds.

So ended my attempt to walk across France.

The Allied invasion of the Continent was imminent and, because it was considered too dangerous for Phil to continue on his own because of his lack of fluency in French, for the next three and a half months he was looked after by locals:

With the absolute need for secrecy, hiding in the small town of Caudry was, in some aspects, like being in prison. However, in all other ways I was cared for as a member of a husband and wife family.

 

This post is part of a series called 467 Postblog, posted in real time to mark the 70th anniversary of the crew of B for Baker while they were on operational service with 467 Squadron at RAF Waddington, Lincolnshire. See this link for an in-depth explanation of the series, and this one for full citations of sources used throughout it. © 2014 Adam Purcell

Sources:

[1] Quote, and most of the detail in this section, comes from Phil Smith’s Recollections of 1939-1945 War typescript.

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