Monday, 15 March 2010

Sgt Maurice Garlick (RAF) escapes the Gestapo

In March 1944, Harris - head of RAF Bomber Command - was ordered to take the full strength of Bomber Command off Germany and instead direct it to France. The proposed D-Day landings that would take the Allied armies into Europe by way of Normandy were only a few weeks away. The high command deemed it necessary to use the heavy bombers to prepare the way.

The move was not without controversy. The targets Harris was asked to hit were primarily rail junctions, road bridges and road junctions with garrison camps and ammunition dumps as secondary targets. Most of these objectives were in or near French towns, meaning that stray bombs would kill French civilians. Harris argued that while specialist squadrons, such as 617 Dambusters, could hit such targets, the majority of his force were not trained in precision bombing and would most likely inflict massive collateral damage and, perhaps, miss what they were aiming at as well. Harris preferred to send his heavy bombers against only those targets that lay outside French towns, and keep the bulk of his force pounding at German industry. He argued that destroying German tank factories was just as effective as halting their progress to Normandy by blowing up bridges.

Churchill, Portal and others recognised that Harris had a point. Unfortunately they did not have enough low-level medium bombers flown by crews with precision bombing training to do the job instead. Harris was overruled.

In the following weeks Harris sent his bombers again and again to France. They totally destroyed 60% of targets they were given, and put another 30% out of action for varying lengths of time. It was a fantastic achievement, but Harris had been proved sadly right in one respect. His main force was not accurate enough to avoid heavy civilian casualties. Bombing the rail depot at Lille caused 456 French deaths and the attack on a target at Ghent killed 482 Belgians. Elsewhere the totals were lower, but no less damaging to morale among both Harris’s crews and the civilians awaiting liberation from German rule.

One such raid was the attack on 3 May on a panzer depot near the village of Mailly-le-Camp. The raid proved to be a disaster for the RAF after signalling failures meant the message from the master bomber to begin the attack were not picked up by the main force. As a result the bombers were left circling over France longer than they should have been, allowing night fighters to concentrate and shoot down 42 bombers. Among those brought down was Lancaster of 12 Squadron flying out of Wickenby. the navigator was a 31 year old Londoner named Maurice Garlick, who landed with burned legs in a field near Romilly.

Garlick was able only to crawl, it took him two days to reach the cover of a small wood about two miles from where he landed and three days more to reach a farmhouse he could see beyond the trees. The farmer and his daughter dressed his wounds, gave him food and drink but refused to let him stay for fear of German reprisals. By 14 May he had run out of food so he knocked at another farm, near Bucy. Garlick had by luck arrived at the house of Charles Decreon, the head of the local Resistance Group.

Garlick was given medical aid and a bed to rest in. On 29 May he was joined by his crewmate Paddy O’Hara and a few days later by John Crighton, also from the downed crew. One day in July the Gestapo arrived to carry out a random search of the farm. The three fugitives fled to nearby woods, escaping just minutes before their hiding place was searched. On 10 August they left Decreon’s house to join an active Resistance group in the densely wooded Forest d’Othe. Arms were dropped to the group by the RAF and soon the three downed airmen were joining the band of Frenchmen in attacking German outposts and patrols.

On 2 September an American armoured column arrived in the forest to drive the Germans from the area. The three RAF men were quickly sent off back to newly-liberated Paris and thence to Britain. Back at Wickenby they met their pilot, Peter Maxwell who had walked to Spain with the aid of the Resistance. All four men survived the war.

This is an extract from Heroes of Bomber Command Lincolnshire by Rupert Matthews.

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