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Freteval Forest

Over a hundred allied airmen were hidden in Forêt de Fréteval in 1944. The camp was set up on May 20, 1944 and was liberated by American troops on August 13, 1944. Captain William M Davis (S/N: O-789887) transited through this camp and his escape report provides us with a interesting insight.


"I was shot down on 7 July while on a mission to bomb targets of opportunity in the Loire region and to the north. We had buzzed four trains already that day and were about 20 miles NW of Orleans when a lot of flak unexpectedly came up from a fifth train I was attacking. They bracketed my cockpit and I was sprayed with fragments of explosive bullets. The right engine was shot away and the ship began to burn. I got away as fast as I could, hedgehopping and looking for a good place to crash land.

I came down in a plowed field and by luck was only slightly hurt although it was a rough landing. I took off for the woods as soon as I could get rid of my chute. There were some farmers at the other side of the field, gesticulating and coming towards me, but I remembered having been briefed not to ask help from a group of Frenchmen, so I decided to get away. All of this time, the rest of my squadron was flying overhead, giving me top cover.

After I had been hiding in the woods about an hour and had buried my flying suit and gloves, a young Frenchman found me. I told him I wanted civilian clothes and he went off, promising to return with them in half an hour. After 1 ½ hours he had not come back and it was getting darker, so I took off. I found another hiding place in the woods a mile away, and stayed there all that night.
Early next morning I started off again, walking west. I contacted a farmer soon after and got some food at this house. He gave me civilian clothes and offered to take me to the Resistance. The local chief took care of me for the next 4 days. I was moved every day, staying in some new barn or field, where Resistance members would bring me food. Their security seemed very good, though often they talked a lot. I was fed well and the Frenchmen told me they had sent a message to London and that I had been identified as a result.

These people were well organized. They had plenty of Sten guns and ammunition, and a British radio. There had been several parachute operations in that region (near Chateaudun). I was told that a big camp for evaders and escapers had been established near where I was, and that I would be taken to it when one of the men in charge had come to see me.

On the 15th, an agent came to the farm where I was staying with some Belgians, and told me to come with him. We walked most of the way to the camp near Chateaudun. Only the Resistance chief knows anything definite about the camp.

Discipline did not seem very good and there was a lot of bitching going on. The ranking British officers tried hard but did not seem to be able to control the men. A lot of them were drunk every night on Calvados or Cognac, and several wandered off to the farms and towns around the Foret de Freteval. The head agent made too many impossible promises. I do not think he had ever done such a work before, and he did not understand the psychology of a bunch of men living together under these conditions at all. In this part of the camp nobody did any work if they could help it. In the other part where I was later transferred and where most of the Americans were, there was a better spirit. They had built a miniature golf course and their camp had a lot more conveniences.

After 3 or 4 days I was moved to this other “American” part of the camp, and as senior officer was in charge of it until we left on 13 august. Previously it had been run by Lt Di Betta and a Belgian agent whom we all knew as John – no last name was ever given, but his radio signal was OEB. John was really good. If anyone deserves credit for the success of the whole scheme, it is he. He held the men together for the 9 weeks by the force of his example and by the unusual understanding of their needs and characters. He lived with them throughout, unlike the other Belgian agent who supplied us with money. I hope he is suitably rewarded.

At one point, an American gunner named Craig developed appendicitis while in the camp. John the Belgian took him to a French doctor who worked for the Resistance, who arranged to have him admitted to a hospital as a Frenchman. John walked 15 miles in the rain to arrange this deal.

He was quite fearless, and used to go out to investigate when any Germans were nearby. Once he was picked up by the Germans, but bluffed his way out by pretending to be a Belgian worker from a nearby town. He helped maintain security – no easy job, as the Germans had an ammunition dump only 400 yards away. Jean Crequet also did a good job in keeping us supplied with food and he acted as liaison officer between the two parts of the camp.

Towards the end of the time we were there, another agent called Louis appeared. He worked with John, but may possibly have been hiding out himself. He made contacts for us with the French around the camp, and told us he had been instructed to have us all go to the Brest Peninsula for evacuation.

Lt Wiseman and a man called Salomon (known as the Greek) left the camp before we were found by the American forces. They expected to go to Switzerland, but are probably with the Maquis somewhere in Savoie by now.

The Germans knew that a lot of people were hiding in the forest but thought they were all Maquis or Frenchmen trying to keep out of labor draft. The Maquis themselves did not know what went on, in most cases. When a parachute operation took place and supplies for us and arms for the Maquis were dropped, the Germans captured most of the stuff, but I think they thought it was for the Maquis.

While we were in the camp, a man wandered into the forest one day and was picked up by our guards. He turned out to be a Russian or Georgian who had deserted from the German army. We had to keep him a prisoner for fear he might tell too much. He spoke little French and no language any of us could talk. His name was Killadze. He was turned over to the CIC at the PWE where we were interrogated by I.S.9 (WEA). I think he is harmless and hope he is well treated.

When the American attack in Normandy began, the Germans ceased to trouble us anyway. We had news every day from London and began to hope for release soon. The men were under great tension and some of them could not wait. We had to guard the camp area and prevent anyone from leaving it. It was hard to get exercise and we could not speak loudly. Our diet was poor and not very varied. Altogether, it was a relief when the chief agent from the other camp came on 12 August to tell us that US units were at Le Mans, and that we would be contacted soon and taken out. We packed up and waited, but it was not until the following evening about 1700 that a reconnaissance troop from the 818th TD Bn reached us with their armored cars. We were taken to the 5th Division HQ, and thence to Le Mans, where we saw Major Neave and others responsible for this operation.

Besides stressing how good John the Belgian was, I would like to say that I think our whole group was given far too much publicity and fanfare at the 5th Division. The PRO was allowed to have us photographed with the insignia of the camp, which was embroidered on chute silk. If there are to be any more camp like this one, less noise about it all would be a better policy."



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