Wednesday, 17 August 2022

RAF bomber crash survivor saved by French Resistance

RAF bomber crash survivor saved by French Resistance

THE story of an airman from Henley who survived after his plane was shot down during the Second World War has been revealed by an amateur historian in France.

Bernard Feutry researches aircraft crashes in Avesnois, a small region where 122 airmen lost their lives during the conflict.

Sergeant Robert William Laws, of 32 St Andrew’s Road, was a radio operator with RAF Bomber Command’s 102 squadron.

He had been on a mission to the city of Pilsen, in what is now the Czech Republic, when his Halifax HR663 was shot down over the village of Eppe-Sauvage on the night of April 16/17, 1943 by Wilhelm Herget in a German fighter.

The plane crashed at about 5am and four of the seven-man crew, Sgt Laws, Wallace Lashbrook, Kenneth Bolton and Alfred Martin, were helped back to England by the French Resistance. Douglas Knight and Lawrence Neill were taken prisoner.

The seventh man, Graham George Williams, was killed. He is buried in the cemetery of Maubeuge, the main town, and for the past few years on April 17, his nephew has visited to pray at his grave. Unfortunately, he died earlier this year.

Sgt Laws is said to have landed in a wood where he buried his equipment and walked south to Montbéliard. After two hours of walking, avoiding roads, he stopped during the day in a wood but did not know whether he was in France or Belgium.

On the evening of April 18, he removed the insignia from his battle dress and walked on, eventually arriving at an isolated castle near Taillette.

The guard outside was Polish and Sgt Laws, who spoke fairly good French, explained who he was and was welcomed in to eat and shave.

He was then given another raincoat and the guard told him to continue further south, through the woods, to reach France, where he arrived the next day north of Watigny (Aisne).

Sgt Laws rested in a bombed house before reaching Fligny (Ardennes) at 2pm and continuing on to Auge.

A violent storm broke and he was forced to take refuge under the porch of a farmhouse.

He was invited in by the occupants but when he could not prove his identity they become suspicious and told him to sleep in the barn instead.

One of the neighbours asked Sgt Laws to write down the names of his crew and their landing location and later that night the Resistance came to the farm and said he would be helped. On April 21, the same man returned and told Sgt Laws not to move and to wait.

He remained there until May 4 when he was taken by car to another village where he met Colonel John Whitley.

Their escape from the country was arranged and Laws arrived back in England by plane, landing at Hendon, via Gibraltar and Madrid, where he had the opportunity to watch a bullfight.

Monsieur Feutry is trying to find any relatives of Sgt Laws.

He said: “I am an amateur historian and research plane crashes during the 1939/45 war in my region of Avesnois.

“We had 122 airmen killed in our small region, including 13 after three crashes of planes from 102 Squadron RAF. Many of these rest in our cemeteries.

“I am also looking for the families of the crews and so far have found 24 families in Australia, England, Canada, USA and two in France. With the help of your country’s press, two families have been notified.

“I am looking for the family of Airman Laws as we are planning to hold a ceremony for all airmen killed, rescued and prisoners passing through our area.”

If anyone has any information, please contact the Henley Standard news desk on (04191) 419410 or email news@henleystandard.co.uk

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