Force: Royal Canadian Air Force
Unit: 432 Squadron
Robbie Banks was the son of First World War veteran George E. Banks, from Flesherton, Ontario. He enlisted and was selected for the Air Crew, and was trained as an air-gunner at Camp Borden. In the spring of 1943 he shipped off to England for more training. He eventually started flying on a MKV1 Lancaster, the one of the best heavy bombers at the time.
One night, in the month of June, his aircraft was attacked by a German Junker on what was supposed to be an easy voyage. Many in his crew were killed and Robbie had to jump out of the aircraft as it spiralled towards the ground.
One of the other crewmen survived, two others were captured and three were dead. Robbie and the other crewman walked for three days, despite Robbie’s leg being badly broken. Robbie and his friend found safe haven with a French family who eventually connected them with a member of the French underground. As their escape was being planned the organization was discovered and made escaping difficult.
The two men were passed off from resistance member to resistance member until they found safe haven in a secret camp in the Freteval Forest. The camp was eventually liberated by American soldiers and Robbie returned to England where he was interrogated about his disappearance. He was cleared and sent back to Canada on leave where he was given a great celebration.
The family insists that Robbie was injured in the same location his father was injured in the First World War. Robbie’s mother also remembered dreaming that her son had been injured, on the exact night of the crash, but also dreamed weeks later that he was safe and would come home. Robbie and his wife June settled in Sarnia, Ontario.
FOLLOWING IS AN ARTICLE WRITTEN BY ROD'S NEPHEW BOB BANKS - ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN "AIRFORCE REVUE MAGAZINE" VOLUME 37, # 3 - IT IS REPRINTED HERE WITH PERMISSION OF THE AUTHOR:
Escaping Capture in the Fréteval Forest - 1944
By LCol (ret) Robert Banks, CF, CD
Pilot, flight surgeon, nephew
In September 2006, Mr. Melvyn Wheatley discovered an old French banknote in the attic of his house in Derby, England. The banknote was special because both sides were filled with signatures. Other similar notes had turned up from time to time – some in France – and all associated with a group of Allied airmen who were shot down over occupied Europe but evaded capture. One of the signatures on the left lower corner, faded but still readable, is that of Rod Banks (RCAF).
Robert Haxton Banks, or “Rod” as he preferred, was a long way from his home in Flesherton Ontario when he signed the note. The year was 1944 and he was south of Paris, behind enemy lines but close to the advancing American 3rd Army. Along with other Allied airmen, he had successfully evaded capture by hiding in the Fréteval Forest. This feat resulted from the efforts and courage of the French Resistance and people, including the farmers, bakers, a doctor, a barber and many others who fed, hid, and transported them while keeping their secrets despite the presence of the German Army.
Rod, the son of the village postmaster, was 18 years old and working as a clerk at Duncan’s Hardware when he followed his brothers by enlisting in the RCAF. After the usual preliminaries that included basic training and garrison duties, Rod proceeded to No.2 Advanced Ground Gunnery Training School in Trenton, graduating in May 1943. He received his Air Gunners’ wings and promotion to Sergeant at MacDonald, Manitoba three months later. After a short period of leave, Rod embarked overseas, arriving in Britain in mid-September to join No.24 Operational Training Unit. He converted to the Handley Page Halifax Mark III heavy bomber and joined 432 Squadron at East Moor in North Yorkshire. He began night ops as a tail-gunner on March 2, 1944.
By early May, Rod had flown 12 missions with his crew led by Pilot Officer Stanley Hawkins. Bombing priorities had recently changed. In anticipation of the coming D-Day invasion, Allied bomber squadrons were targeting German supply lines, especially railroads. On May 8, 432 Squadron received orders to bomb the railway yards at Haine St. Pierre in western Belgium. Shortly before takeoff, Pilot Officer Hawkins and the crew learned that they would not be flying their usual aircraft, but rather Halifax LW594. Swallowing this unwelcome news, the crew completed ground checks and were airborne at 2230 hours with a full bomb load.
After a transit of several hours, the crew located the target, dropped bombs and turned for home. Also flying that night in his Messerschmitt Bf 110 was Luftwaffe Captain Heinz-Wolfgang Schnaufer. Captain Schnaufer was about to score number 62 of a total of 121 victories, the highest of any night fighter. Scrambled from Leeuwarden, Holland, he approached Halifax LW594 from below as they came off target, shooting out both port engines which proceeded to burn. The crew deployed the fire extinguishers but when that did not work, flight engineer Flight Sergeant Harry Ibbotson advised Pilot Officer Hawkins to dive in a last ditch effort to extinguish the flames. Pilot Officer Hawkins started down, and then gave the order to abandon the aircraft.
Sitting far in the rear of LW594, his guns still hot from the action, Rod needed no encouragement to leave. He turned the turret, opened the doors, snapped on his parachute and moved to exit. Part way out, he found himself hung up with his left boot jammed under the hydraulic reservoir. Unable to free it, and very conscious of the rapid movements of the tail and diminishing altitude, he began to work his foot out of the trapped boot. Finally, his strained foot popped free, he fell away and immediately pulled the rip cord ring. After a confused jumble of canopy and one swing in the parachute, he struck the ground.
Despite a badly injured leg, and back pain, Rod managed to get onto his feet and started stowing his parachute and flight gear in a ditch. Looking around in the dark, he soon found another member of the crew, Sergeant Gordon Hand, the mid-upper gunner and the only RAF member of the crew. Unable to communicate with a nearby farmer, and finding no one else around, they moved quickly out of the area believing (correctly) that German patrols would soon reach the site.
They walked south through the remaining darkness, crossing into France. By daybreak they found themselves in a small swamp near Jeumont where they spent the day hiding. At night, they began to move again until they located a farm and made contact. The woman inside greeted them warmly, fed them, and supplied them with civilian clothing and shoes, a plus for Rod who was walking on an injured leg and without his boot. The woman’s daughter moved them to her home for a day. She then instructed them to go to a hotel in Maubeuge where assistance could be found. Finding Maubeuge full of Germans, and by now dressed in civvies, they opted to bypass the town. They found shelter with another family.
They continued walking south using small lanes and roads until they reached Conde-en-Brie where they were stopped by two French gendarmes. Noting their rudimentary French language skills, the gendarmes asked the airmen for their identity papers. When they were unable to produce papers, the gendarmes advised them that they would have to go to the police station, and to follow them. . . “if they wished.” On that note, the airmen elected to proceed to the police station where they were greeted and provided with food, drink, money and every respect.
Continuing south on foot, they spent one notable night inside a haystack. Years later, Rod described being hidden in an attic and lying flat all day on another occassion. Able to see through a small window, they witnessed executions of French civilians in the street who died for aiding the Resistance. Arriving at Villenaude, they met a lorry driver who offered them a lift. Learning that they were Allied airmen, he drove them to his home and contacted the local Resistance group. A car was sent for them. As they were leaving Villenauxe, the car was stopped by two SS men who were checking papers. The driver of the car took his time, and made a great show of producing his papers which satisfied the SS men enough that they did not check the papers of the two very other quiet men.
The local Resistance group then passed them along to an escape organization located at Provins. Provided with directions and means of transport, Rod and Gordon rode their bicycles to Paris. By May 31 they had made their way to the Paris apartment of Philippe and Virginia d'Albert-Lake, where they would receive identity papers before continuing the journey south.
Philippe and Virginia d'Albert-Lake had been in the business of assisting and transporting evading Allied airmen since 1943. Virginia was a young American with a friendly and outgoing personality who had remained in occupied France to be with her French husband. The couple soon became important players in the operation of the “Comete’ line of escape. Working with MI9 agents and the Resistance, they hid evading airmen in their apartment or country home while obtaining false identity papers and arranging train transportation south to Spain.
However, with the Allied bombing of the railroads it was becoming difficult to transport airmen by train. A new plan was developed in London. Instead of moving the evading airman to Spain, they would be hidden in French forests and then liberated as the Allies advanced through France. One area selected for this purpose was a heavily wooded tract near Chateaudun, which is still referred to as the “Foret de Fréteval, ” or the Freteval Forest.
Work on the forest camp began in May 1944. Working in deep, untracked forest, arrangements were soon made for food, shelter (tents), water, security, communications, waste and medical needs using clandestine means and under the noses of the Germans. All depended on the French Resistance and the vital support of the nearby villages. The camp was planned to open on D-day.
In Paris, Rod and Gordon shared the apartment with four American airmen who were headed in a different direction. The Americans would be among the last package of “five” who were transported to Spain under Comete. Rod and Gordon would be among the first airmen to enter the Freteval Forest. On receiving their identity papers, which in Rod’s case were those of a French student who was deaf and mute, and their travel papers, they headed for the train station. On the way their car was stopped by the SS. After a thorough check of their papers, they were allowed to pass.
While the railways still functioned, Allied airmen traveling to Fréteval usually took the train south to the Chateaudun station where they were met by local guides. They then walked or rode horse drawn carts or bicycles after dark while carrying pitchforks as if they were farm workers. Rod and Gordon arrived early, before the camp was ready, and were hidden at the home of Jacques René.
On D-Day, the camp opened. Rod and Gordon were moved into the camp three days later joining about thirty other Allied airmen. Camp life was tightly organized. Nobody was allowed into the forest except the doctor and local barber. Tents were made from tarpaulins, sheeting, and other materials and had to be camouflaged with cut tree foliage changed daily. The local villagers and farmers delivered live animals and produce, and bread was supplied by bakers. Duty rosters were prepared for fishing, cooking, and lookout duty. Parachute drops were arranged. However, with little else to do, much of the time was spent reading or sunbathing. Camp photos show that a radio was present and the airmen were able to follow the progress of the advancing Allied forces. The Resistance patrolled the perimeter.
Airmen continued to arrive. By mid-June there were 15 tents and cooking was done using charcoal to eliminate smoke. It became necessary to construct a second camp in a different location. Rod and Gordon volunteered to help build Camp 2, which was located 9 kilometers away, still deep within the forest. Although the German soldiers regularly fired machine gun rounds into the forest, they never attempted to penetrate it. They may have had other priorities.
Increased air activities brought increased numbers of evading Allied airmen needing transportation south. With the destruction of the railroads, other means had to be tried. Taking great risk, a group led by Virginia, consisting of over a dozen English and American airmen, was enroute in a horse and covered cart when three German policemen stopped them. One detected Virginia’s American-accented French and she and an American airman next to her were promptly arrested. Fortunately, the cart had remained behind with the other airmen hidden inside. Virginia was then taken to the Gestapo in Chateaudun. In her pocket was a list of French Resistance contact names. After weeks of interrogation, she was sent to the concentration camp in Ravensbrück.
On the August 12, the camp was liberated by a force organized by MI9. By August 12, 152 airmen had been successfully hidden in the Fréteval Forest, 36 of them Canadians. This was accomplished without a casualty and close to a road frequently used by the German Army. Although the local villagers lived under the constant threat of execution, none gave up their secrets. After being transported by bus to Bayeux, Rod and Gordon flew to Northolt, England on August 18, 1944.
As he said many years later, Rod’s first thoughts when he returned to England were of his crew and family. Although it would be many months before he would know all the facts, he learned that Pilot Officer Stanley Hawkins, flight engineer Flight Sergeant Harry Ibbotson, and radio/gunner Flying Officer William Parkinson, had remained with the aircraft and were killed when it crashed near the village of Grand-Reng, Belgium. They were buried in the Gosselies Communal Cemetery. Navigator Flying Officer Alvin Raetzel and bomb aimer Sergeant M.B. O'Leary were captured and made prisoners of war.
Rod was commissioned a Pilot Officer on 1 September 1944 and Mentioned in Dispatches on 14 June 1945. Soon after his return to Canada on September 30, 1944, he was met at Union Station in Toronto by his parents. Reported as “missing”, his mother knew that he had survived and said so to many villagers. As they drove north along Highway 10, his father made frequent stops to use public telephones. Rod learned the reason for the calls when the village fire truck stopped them outside of Flesherton. Boosting him up on top of the truck, Rod rode into the village “to a hero’s welcome and one of the most boisterous celebrations the village has ever seen.”
After the war ended the following year, Philippe learned that his wife Virginia had survived the concentration camp in Ravensbrück. When she left the camp she weighed only 34 kilograms. He also learned that she had not given up the list of contacts in her pocket. Rather, she had torn the paper up and swallowed it. When confronted by a German officer, she admitted it directly. A French national heroine, she was awarded the Legion of Honor, the Croix de Guerre, the Liberation Medal of Freedom and the Maltese Cross (from the Veterans of Foreign Wars post, France). She has been credited with saving the lives of over 60 Allied airmen.
Today, the Freteval Forest remains a dense tangle of mature woodland seemingly impenetrable, except where there are trails. Finding the trails is a challenge unless you have the assistance of a local guide, perhaps the grandson of a Resistance fighter. Surrounding the forest for kilometers is undulating farm land of the French countryside, beautiful and peaceful in the summer. The people are friendly and helpful, and very proud of the roles played by their families in preserving the lives of Allied airmen that were entrusted to them.
Each year, former members of the Resistance and their friends and families gather at a monument that is placed on the edge of the forest very close to the site of the western lookout. The monument is simple and made in the shape of the tail of a Lancaster bomber. The gathering honors the sacrifices and courage of the French Resistance and people and the Allied airmen who stayed in the forest, many of who returned to operations and gave their lives in later battles.
Judy Barrett Litoff. An American Heroine in the French Resistance: The Diary and Memoir of Virginia D’Albert-Lake. Fordham University Press, New York, 2008.
Alan W. Cooper. Free to Fight Again: RAF Escapes and Evasions 1940-1945. Pen and Sword Aviation, South Yorkshire, 2009.
Photo 1: This French banknote was discovered by Mr. Melvyn Wheatley in the attic of his house in Derby, England. The signatures are those of some of the Allied airmen hidden in the Freteval Forest in 1944. The signature of Rod Banks (RCAF) is found on the lower left. (Source: Royal Air Force Escaping Society: www.rafinfo.org.uk/rafescape.).
Photo 2: Sergeant Rod Banks and his mother Jean Haxton Banks in front of the family home in Flesherton, Ontario in 1943 prior to going overseas (Source – author).
Photo 3: 432 Squadron Mark III Halifax aircraft land at East Moor (Glen Carruthers; www.anglefire.com).
Photo 4: Virginia d’Albert-Lake and her son Jean Patrick taken 1946/7 (Source Mrs. Paula Bolter: www.rafinfo.org.uk/rafescape/.).
Photo 5: Chateaudun station as it is today. Many Allied airman enroute to refuge in the Freteval Forest were met here by members of the Resistance. After destruction of the railways, other means became necessary (Source – author).
Photo 6: Sergeant Gordon Hand is shown at meal time at Camp 2 in the Freteval Forest in 1944. (Source Gordon Hand: www.rafinfo.org.uk/rafescape/ ).
Photo 7: Pilot Officer Rod Banks poses for a quick photo after his return to Flesherton in 1944 (Source – author).
Photo 8a: William Banks, the grand-nephew of Rod Banks, stands next to the Freteval monument in June 2013 (Source – author).
8b. The inscription on the monument (Source – author).