Len Barnes' story
2803 Allied airmen were helped to escape or evade capture via the help of resistance groups,including the Comete Line. Amongst the last group of five to cross the Pryrenees into Spain was my father, P/O Len Barnes RAF of 630 Squadron . This is his story.
Lancaster bombers of 630 Squadron, number 5 group were being prepared for a mission to Germany. The date was 15th March. (The ides of March had not been a lucky day for Julius Caesar and were to prove equally unlucky for Len)
One of the pilots awaiting information about the nights target was Len Barnes, who had recently celebrated his 24th birthday. That nights target was to be Stuttgart. For Len the flight preparation was off to a bad start. When he prepared himself in the cockpit ready for the flight he put the little teddy bear ,which his fiancee,Merville, had given him ,on the compass. Perhaps it would bring him luck. But as soon as he started the engines the little bear fell to the floor because of the vibration. Len felt that this was a bad omen. Unbeknowns to Len, back in London,Merville had had a similar experience the morning of 17th March. She had pinned the RAF wings brooch that he had given to her on her lapel. As she bent forward the brooch fell to the ground. The clasp was still done up!! Merville wondered too if this was a bad omen..
Shortly after 18:00 Lancaster LE-P ND530 took off from East Kirkby. Along with the many other bombers (around 900) they made their way to Stuttgart. Bomb aimer Gregg took over the command from Len. Stealthily he took them to their target. Although the Germans had tried to obscure the target by using artificial mist this had not proved to be a defence against the British bombers.
After dropping their bombs on the target Len pulled Peter sharply away from the city. A relieved crew of 7 started their journey back to East Kirkby. They were not to know that a Junkers 88 was spying on them. As
the night fighter opened fire a shudder went through the Lancaster . which caught fire almost immediately.
Inside the Lanc was a state of true carnage. The mid upper gunner(Sgt James OverholtRCAF) was by now lying on the rest bed, his oxygen supply to the turret having been cut off . The hydraulics had been destroyed and the plane was now a 'sitting duck'.The fighter attacked for a second time from behind. Sgt Thomas Fox ,cooped up in the rear gun turret died in a hail of shrapnel. As the plane was attacked again from underneath Sgt Overholt was killed.
The situation was hopeless, both starboard engines were ablaze, and Len gave the order to bail out. Gregg,(front gunner/bomb aimer) Plowman(wireless operator),Walker(engineer) and Geisler( navigator) jumped one after the other from P for Peter,facing an uncertain future. Only Len Barnes stayed behind in the burning wreck..
Ensuring that his crew had left the aircraft, Len prepared to make his own escape. However the plane lurched to one side and he missed the escape hatch, knocking himself out in the process. The next thing he remembered was falling through the air with an unopened parachute,his scarf tapping him gently on his cheek. He pulled his rip cord and floated to the ground., landing in a farmers field obscured by a small wood. He found himself close to Dravegny in the department of Aisne.After landing, Len buried his parachute. One of his eyes was very swollen .He lit a cigarette and began his journey to freedom.
Len buried his parachute ,Mae West and the tops of his flying boots. He set off in a South Westerly direction and after about a mile found another parachute hanging in a tree. ( This he discovered later belonged to Sgt Ken Walker who also evaded capture) Len dragged it clear and buried it.but forgot to look for the name on the 'chute.
A short while later he arrived in the village of Arcis le Ponsard. He bathed his swollen eye in the drinking trough but made a hasty getaway as a dog started barking. Len continued across the fields to Cohan and came to a farm. He watched the farmer cross the yard and go into the house, and then slipped into the barn and hid under the hay.It was about 5:30A.M.
A few hours later, after some rest, he crept out to look at his maps. As he was doing this he realised he was being watched. He declared himself to the farmer and asked for help.The farmer indicated to Len to stay there and returned a short while later with some bread and wine and a cloth to bath the pilot's eye.
Later in the afternoon Len was visited by a young girl who spoke English. She questioned him closely to ensure that he was not a German infiltrator as had happened before. She asked him to wait for signals and under no circumstances was he to leave his hiding place. As it grew dark Len was approached by a middle aged Frenchman. He kitted Len out with an overcoat, beret and ….a bottle of whisky. The man ( an ex -French army captain) escorted Len to what was to be his next hiding place, Ferme le Reraye, home of Pierre Martin. Len stayed here for a further 10 days, on a diet of red wine and french bread. Whilst here he was taken back to see the remains of P-Peter. One can only imagine his emotions at seeing the burnt out wreck.. The two gunners who had lost their lives had been buried in the churchyard at St Gilles. The villagers had stolen the bodies from the Germans in order to give the airmen a decent burial under cover of darkness at midnight.
Len had been kept close to the crash site in the hope that the enemy would widen their search but there was news that they were recovering their search ground. It was time to move on. Late in the evening of the 25th of March Len was escorted to the village cemetary at Nesles . Here he was left to hide amongst the grave stones in the dark for hours until further contact was made.
Around midnight he heard a noise, followed by a voice whispering "Tommy,tommy" . "Here" he answered. From out of the darkness a few men appeared,armed with Stenguns.These men were members of the Maquis, led by 'Grand Leon Coigne'.Leon indicated to Len to follow them. The youngest of his escorts was probably about 15 years old.Whilst walking in silence down the small country lane, the men in front suddenly dived into a ditch. The rest,including Len followed suit and stayed there waiting silently until a small German patrol had passed by.To attack would have been too risky and if a German had been shot the Boche would not have hesitated to shoot a few villagers in revenge.So they waited until the danger had passed and continued walking to Fere-en Tardenois where Leon lived.
On the bank of the river Orque, which flowed through Fere-en-Tardenois, was a house named La Cabane. This was the home of Leon and Madeleine (Mimi) Coigne. Here they lived with their daughter Christiane (14yrs) and their son Jean (11yrs) At the outbreak of war Leon was a sailor with the french marines. He was taken prisoner with his mates and escaped twice ,returning home to his old job as a plumber at the factory next to his home. Every thing seemed as it was before. But at night Leon was a different person. As a member of the Maquis he led his 10 man strong Base Organisation Aereinne through the fields and waited for British aircraft to drop weapons and explosives. These were then used to execute sabotage actions, blowing up railways bridges and telephone poles. After these nocturnal excursions Leon would return home as if nothing had happened..
Only a trusted few knew of his nocturnal existence, that he was in communication with London with a secret radio hidden in the next village of Arcy- Saint -Restitue. Initially Leon had little trust in the young man in his care. He had had a bad experience whilst sheltering two Americans previously. He confessed years later that if Len had done something he didn't like he would have had no hesitation in killing him and throwing his body into the fast flowing river Orque.
Pilot Officer Barnes was a totally different person. He was sheltered by the Coigne family for six weeks. During this time he had few demands,spending most of his day sitting in a chair in the corner of the room where he could not be seen by the outside world.He helped in the household and kept the houserules of the Coigne family.
He was even taken for a trip to the village barbers under cover of darkness. At one point it seemed as if his whereabouts had been given away,albeit unintentionally by the Coigne's 11 year old son,Jean. As young boys do, Jean boasted to a friend that he could now speak English. His friend said "Go on then." To which Jean replied "Yes" and "No"!!!Fortunately his friend took the matter no further. Christiane also played her own part in the workings of the resistance. At the age of 14 she would cycle through the village carrying messages tucked into her socks.
As far as Leon was concerned the unassuming Englishman could stay for as long as necessary but in the night of 8/9th May 1944 Len Barnes stay at La Cabane ended.Leon was going on a sabotage mission with the Maquis. Len offered to go with him .Perhaps he could be of some help.Leon refused as every outsider however wellmeaning would be a hinderance. Around midnight Len and Mimi heard the dry explosions of guns and the rattling of machine guns in the distance. They did not know what was happening but when Leon did not return home that night they feared the worst.
The following morning Christine heard what had happened.Leons group had successfully collected the 'drop' but had been ambushed by the Germans. Leon had thrown himself to the ground at the first shot and rolled into a ditch making his getaway. Ten others were not so lucky. The majority of them dying in Neuengamme.Leon in the meantime had disappeared. News reached Mimi that her husband was hiding in a disused factory chimney. The Germans had searched the building but had failed to find Leon,who was to remain in the damp chimney for more than a week. Christiane had the risky job of taking food and water to her father. When the commotion had died down Leon left Fere-en Tardenois and continued his resistance work with another group.
Len Barnes could not stay at La Cabane any longer,it was too risky.Before leaving Mimi,Christiane and Jean,Len wrote his name and address on a piece of paper and gave Christiane his distress whistle. Both of these items were placed in a jar and buried in the garden.
A new hiding place was found for Len in the village, in the mansion of the rich Les Guillier family. Mme Pinard, a member of the resistance,had the difficult task of approaching the Coigne family and taking 'their'Englishman away. She led him through the village to a large mansion,which hidden in the woods and down a long track was occupied by Mme Les Guillier. Already staying at Chalet des Bruyeres was another British airmen,a Scotsman by the name of Bill Jacks.Mme Les Guillier began to find it very stressful,looking after two fleeing pilots in the house.Mme Pinard consoled her saying"Cherie,if you get shot for one pilot, just one more doesn't make any difference!!".
Jacks and Len were to remain at the Chalet des Bruyeres for just over a week. They then found that they were to be moved onto Paris. The journey to Paris went without any major problems apart from the fact that Bill only just escaped capture. On the train he bumped into a German guard. Without thinking he said "So sorry, Old Chum" Barnes heard this with baited breath. Fortunately the guard did not realise he had just heard English being spoken and snarled at them to be more careful.At about 11P.M. the two airmen arrived at the Gare de l'Est in Paris. The guide from Fere-en Tardenois had disappeared and they were now in the hands of another guide who took them to a house near the Trocadero, possibly the home of a French doctor. After two days Jacks was moved on. He left behind his gold cufflinks which had been a twenty first birthday present from his mother. Len picked up the cufflinks intending to return them to Bill further down the line. (He wore them to every reunion in the hope of meeting him again after the war as he knew that Bill had returned safely.At the time of my own twentyfirst birthday I wrote to the BBC programme 'Hotline' and they were able to reunite Bill and my father albeit on the phone as Bill had emigrated to Australia!As luck would have it one of my work colleagues was due to visit relatives in Perth and was able to deliver the cufflinks to their rightful owner 40 years later!)
After Bill left , Len was transferred to another apartment. This address was 1 bis,Rue Vanneau and belonged to Virginia and Phillipe d'Albert-Lake..Here Len was to meet a further twenty or so allied airmen, Including the four others who were to accompany him on the remainder of his journey. Virginia was American and had married Phillipe in the 1930s. She was to be later caught by the Germans and spend the rest of the war in Ravensbruck. Phillipe managed to escape not knowing if his wife was dead or alive until they were reunited after the war.
It was impossible to keep the airmen cooped up indefinitely so they were permitted to go out in pairs if it was felt safe enough. Not knowing the 'occupiers' rules Len unwittingly walked underneath the Eiffel Tower happily taking in the sights. He was approached aggressively by a German soldier wielding a bayonet and sent on his way.
Len's 'escape comrades' were Sgt Ronald 'Curly' Emeny RAF, Lieutenant Colonel Thomas 'Speedy' Hubbard, Major Donald Willis and Lieutenant Jack Cornett, the last three being American. Their journey to cross the border, though successful had its own dangers. Whilst on the train from Paris to Biarritz Len was approached by a German officer as they stood in the corridor. Fortunately Len realised that the soldier wanted a light for his cigarette so he obliged without having to say a word..
As they crossed the Pyrenees at the time of the D-Day landings one would think that they could have breathed a sigh of relief when they knew that they were in Spain but this was not so. They still remained very close to the Spanish/French border and Len was not happy that they had been following the river upstream instead of towards the coast. Something was not right! The mother of the children in the house was in heated discussion with them .Jack Cornett, who in his past had smuggled contraband across the Mexican border, was able to understand the Spanish being spoken. The children were being told not to tell the airmen where they were or to let them leave. That was it. Len decided it was time to go. He told the others of his descision. To Sgt Emeny he said he would not order him to go with him . Like the others he must make up his own mind. So Len left,….and the others follwed suite to the frantic cries of the Basque woman and the children . This was to prove to have been a wise choice. They later discovered that they were due to have been handed back to the Germans…The reward?? A sack of corn for each airman!!!
The five of them walked further into Spain, to safer territory. Len remembered waking up after a rest in the sun to the sight of a gun barrel as they were 'arrested' by Spanish police. They were transferred to the care of the British Consul and Len was flown back to England from Gibraltar on 20th /03 1944.
In October 45 Len and Merville were married and he returned to his job as a printer for Glyn Mills & co bank having disbanded 630 Squadron as adjutant. He became a founder member of the RAF Escaping Society, but still wondered about those incredibly brave people who had aided him in his escape.
Twenty three years to the day (i.e. 15/03/1967) that ND530 was shot down Len receved a letter in the post .The letter showed a French postmark and as Len did not know anybody in France ,this intrigued him.He could not have prepared himself for what he was about to discover. The family with whom he had stayed at Fere- en -Tardenois,La famille Coigne, had dug up the jam jar in the garden and tried to make contact with Len. However unbeknowns to them.two weeks after returning to England the family home in Upper North St Poplar had been bombed out and the Barnes family had moved. Undeterred the Coignes had tracked 'their Englishman' down through a French programme called 'Rendezvous des Souvenirs'. This letter was for an invitation for my parents to got to France and for Len to be reunited with the Coigne family.
Whilst wating in a small French restaurant in the town of Fere- en Tardenois my father kept saying to my Mum. "They've got the wrong bloke Merv. I don't recognise any of it!!" But of course He had only ever seen it in darkness,just going out on one occasion to the barbers. His fears were dispelled as he walked down the long track towards La Cabane, accompanied by Marina Gray, a French television presenter. The curtains twitched and then Leon and Mimi appeared.There are no words to describe the emotions felt that day.!!Just imagine it and then multiply it tenfold!!
After the television crews had disappeared Len and the Coignes began the rekindling of the already strong bond between them. Len was taken to the crash site and spoke to eye witnesses of the crash. They told of how they could hear the plane struggling and the flames reaching double the length of the body of the aircraft. And then the explosion. This explained how Len had been blown clear, to fall through the air. At this point one villager shot into her house and took a knife to a cushion. As she ripped off the cover she handed the contents to my father….his pilots seat! In deed the villagers had used what they could from the plane,making sure that anything that would be helpful to the Germans had 'disappeared!'
One such person was the village grave digger who used the propeller blades to sharpen his lawnmower. He was adamant that he had buried the pilot and it turned out that one of the crew had been wrongly identified as P'O Len Barnes. It transpired that the three members of the crew who had been captured identified Jim Overholts body as that of my father by virtue of his boots. Len wore a particular type of flying boot that could be cut down to look like civilian shoes should the need arise. He was the only member of the crew to wear them. However it was later discovered that Jim had been to the stores that morning and had been issued with an identical pair of boots.Both Jim Overholt and Thomas 'Freddy' Fox are buried in the village cemetary at St Gilles. They are cared for beautifully by the villagers even sixty years on.
The bond that exists between our two families is unbreakable and my own daughter is named Madeleine after Mme Coigne. We took our son and daughter to Fere for a holiday last year. Although my father died in 1988 I know he would be so proud that the friend ship started over sixty years ago continues. And through this research I have made contact with Sgt Malcolm Gregg's son. And so a new friendship begins.