- Second World War (1939-45)
- Air Force
Join Michael Veitch and discover the extraordinary story of young Australian airman Barney Greatrex. Shot down during his 20th mission over occupied France and rescued by the resistance, Barney seized the opportunity to continue fighting.
Barney Greatrex: From Bomber Command to the French Resistance – the stirring story of an Australian Hero is available through Hachette Australia.
Voiceover: Welcome to the Shrine of Remembrance podcast, recorded live at our talks and events. This episode features writer and broadcaster Michael Veitch discussing the extraordinary life of the young Australian airman Barney Greatrex, who joined the Resistance after his plane was shot down over occupied France. There was a little technology glitch during this talk which meant that the visuals accompanying the talk stopped working halfway through, it didn't affect the audio recording which is why we are still releasing it but you will hear it mentioned a few times. Michael did an absolutely wonderful job of continuing this talk unabated and we really hope that you enjoy hearing more about this extraordinary story of Barney. So for now, over to Michael.
Michael Veitch: Thank you very much and lovely to be here in this wonderful, wonderful asset that the Shrine now has, this beautiful auditorium. As Leonie said my passion for this has been a lifelong obsession, many in my family have actually said this over the years. Previous to this work that I've done here on this story I’m about to illustrate, indeed it was a series of interviews with airmen who had not told their story before, but it was every chapter was a different gentleman that I managed to meet many who'd done extraordinary service and had an extraordinary story to tell. This story was the first long-form story I tackled and it is indeed an extraordinary one and again a completely hidden one, as we know so many of the stories that the men of the Second World War particularly or of all wars perhaps experienced were hidden from us until much much later in their lives, until a nosey parker like me came along and winkled it out of them. But it is indeed a remarkable tale and I'll get straight into it and look if you don’t mind I'm actually going to read just the couple of pages of the prologue from the book itself, because it does set the scene and I'll go back to the context afterwards.
Barney Greatrex could bear the tension no longer, wincing through the cigarette haze he once again took in the handful of faces that surrounded him in the small wooden hut buried deep in the French forest. Hard swarthy Gallic faces outwardly calm but long inured to explosions of sudden brutal violence. Even then, Barney had noted their expressions hardly changed.
Pale sunshine pushed its way feebly through the small grubby window, cutting shards of watery light through the permanent fog of smoke and stale sweat. Barney swallowed, his knee fidgeted a raw sense of dread washed over him, the stranger sat among them to orbiting indistinguishable from the others. Like them he talked quickly, gesturing forcibly with his hands, smiling even, offering up an occasional brittle joke, but he was not one of them and everyone knew it.
It was his eyes that gave him away thought Barney, darting from face to face from moment to moment, preparing for what? A sudden bolt from this bare little room that threatened to suddenly close in on him. Where though could he run, outside was nothing but trees, these endless woods besiege them like a gloomy army and the hard men of the Marquis knew their every meandering path and every dank hiding hole, in any case reflected Barney he'd probably never even make it to the front door.
Careful not to catch his eye Barney studied the stranger's face, like the others it was aged far beyond his 35 or so years but he was almost sure it was still unsuspecting. He risked another glance. How, he thought, could he tolerate this atmosphere? This grinning pall of false cordiality that dangled like a noose in front of him? Barney sent his eyes to the ceiling then to the floor. For how many weeks had these flimsy walls served as his home as well as his prison? How many weeks had these faces been his closest companions as well as his jailers? And when was it that he first counted himself among their number?
He strained to pick up the conversation humming around him. His French though a little better now could barely glean the gist of it. The only thing of which he was certain was that no one was saying what they thought. With an almost involuntary spasm Barney shoved back on the thin wooden chair scraping it noisily over the bare floorboards, unused to the young blonde Australian airmen doing anything very much besides sitting quietly and observing, the others glanced up for a moment then lost interest.
Barney excused himself and went to the door. Outside the air, though fresh, brought little relief. Wandering a short distance from the hut he picked up an axe and began to chop wood. The rounds of pine still too green to burn exploded satisfyingly under his blade blocking out momentarily the sound of the voices inside the hut.
The irony of the scene was not lost on him. Like the man with the yellow skin and the darting eyes, Barney too was a stranger thrust into an alien world of danger and uncertainty over which he had no control whatsoever. A month earlier he had watched the south coast of England passing below him through the perspex astrodome of the great black Lancaster Bomber. The familiar outline of Beachy Head dissolving into a wintry evening haze, less than three hours later came the frenzied few seconds that he had long dreaded but long expected. The punctuated conversation over the aircraft's intercom as the night fighter stalked closer. 900 yards skipper, 800 the voice of Reg, the now dead wireless operators still rang in his ears. Then the sickening tear of cannon shells splitting metal, the sudden fire and those surreal moments as the doomed aircraft gripped him in its centrifugal death spin.
The miracle of his escape. The shock of a freezing black wind. The parachute blooming white above his head in the night sky. The snow. Then, the almost unbearable realisation that out of his crew of seven he alone was now alive.
A few days later cold, hungry and exhausted he had emerged from another forest much like this one to take the biggest gamble of his life, opening the back door of a small house in a tiny mountain village and stepping inside. The middle-aged Frenchman who met him stood frozen to the spot as if encountering a ghost.
That was a slightly longer reading than I meant but it does sum up the situation that this very ordinary young man, as all the young men of the Second World Wars generation basically were, finding themselves in utterly extraordinary situations.
Barney Greatrex was a Sydney boy from a well-to-do family. This is him as a child, a handsome sweet looking boy as all warriors were at one stage. We tend to forget that even those of our enemies were often sweet little boys at one stage. Grew up in Sydney and as his generation was that picked to fight the dreadful struggle of the Second World War, his father who had been in the Great War was an Englishman and he didn't actually want him to join up at all and like many of the young men whose fathers had been in the Great War he said: look join the Air Force, it’s the safest way to be. Because in the First World War, it possibly was. Having experienced the carnage of the trenches and seeing those RAF and Royal Australian Air Corps people flying above the trenches they thought that's the life for me.
Well of course in the Second World War, particularly in the great moor of Bomber Command the situation was reversed and as many of you probably know to survive the mandatory tour of 30 operations in Bomber Command over Europe, the survival rate was often one in three at best at various times in the war. Barney though did want to fly, oddly enough when he joined up and went to basic training. Put his name down on the list and the inevitable interview came. ‘Well what do you want to be son?’, and everybody said, ‘I want to be a fighter pilot’ to the exhausted sort of admin officer going, ‘yes, oh well we don't really have many jobs for fighter pilots most of you are going to be in bomber crews’. But Barney said, ‘I want to be a bomb aimer’, which made the admin nearly drop his drop his pen, ‘why is that?’ He said,
Well, I’ve just been looking at a copy of flight magazine and this new Lancaster Bomber's come out and the escape hatch is right where I work directly underneath me.
And he said, ‘you sound like a sensible lad’, so he was fast-tracked.
He was fast-tracked, he did not even have to try out to be a pilot because he didn't want to be one. So he actually went into Bomber Command quite early. He did a little bit of training here in Victoria. He was an air gunner as well I think, He was down at, um, Evan's Head—I’ve forgotten where it was—where was the bombing and where the fairy battles flew up near Nambucca Heads? Somewhere around that the bombing and gunnery school he had to train for as well. When he was overseas he ended up beginning his operations at the end of 1914. Have I done something wrong?
Leigh Gilburt: No, its just we've dropped the image.
Michael Veitch: What do I have to do?
Leigh Gilburt: I’ll fix this.
Michael Veitch: He joined Bomber Command, he joined 61 Squadron, which was a RAF (Royal Air Force) squadron. Of course, many of you know many thousands of Australians were dispersed through the squadrons of the Royal Air Force and many of course flew in designated—I think the four or five designated correct me if i'm wrong—Bomber Command Squadrons that were uniquely Australian that were formed during the Second World War as well.
Barney joined 61 squadron just in time to begin one of the most dubious and controversial aspects of the air war of the Second World War the so-called Battle of Berlin. Not the battle of Berlin that happened in 1945 with the Russians, but this was the RAF’s. This was Bomber Harris’s attempt to shirk off his growing critics—of which there were many—who despite his earlier claims to have been able to finish the war quickly he decided, he said to Churchill, ‘Look you give me a free hand to attack the German capital and I will be able to do it.’ Of course it didn't work as we now know, it cost him a thousand Lancaster Bomber crews to actually do so and basically it was a terrible situation for all concerned.
Barney began his tour at in one of the first raids of the Berlin campaign and just the experience of it itself was extraordinary. I mean, to actually begin operations in a European winter, at the beginning of a European winter, play extremely long flights of 12–13 hours—sometimes more depending on the weather to Berlin which is on the eastern part of Germany, much closer to Poland than France say—where temperatures were absolutely freezing absolutely freezing, to touch bare metal was absolutely died any part of it. To use the loo, you virtually couldn't use the loo. Your urine froze virtually as soon as it came out of you. Men literally had terrible skin damage because their buttocks got caught on the frozen seat of the loo, I mean awful things.
The Germans knew that it was one of the most audacious campaigns in aviation military history because there weren't even any diversions on the Berlin range. They just went straight there and straight back. It was almost like a dare.
So, Barney's first few trips, or almost or his logbook is basically Berlin night after night after night, a couple here and a couple there. He had some wonderful recollections of actually flying. One of the most dramatic occurred on one of his later trips. I'll just read what happened to that one. This is after that they dropped their bombs over the target at night in sub-zero temperatures, of course. Barney of course being the Bomb Aimer, he’s a fella that sat on his stomach with the what they call the tit in his hand saying, ‘left, left, steady, left, left’ and he was more or less verbally guiding the aircraft. The Americans, I learned recently, the bomber had to actually physically guided the aircraft with a little toggle that they had. But the RAF had to actually communicate it verbally to the pilot just behind him and he adjusted the aircraft very slightly for the target as he looked through the side.
Barney jammed the little button in his right hand and the Lancaster lurched upwards. Bombs gone. Stand by for the photo flash. Every man froze in the aircraft as Barney counted down the seconds watching the blinks and flashes of more anti-aircraft fire erupting from the ground. ‘Come on, come on’ he willed.
What they had to do to confirm the bombing, they had to drop a flare and take a picture of it and that was another 30 seconds they had to stay hanging over the target flying straight and level. If they didn't get that picture they'd often have to do that trip again. It wasn't counted for them.
Then suddenly in his headphones the urgent voice of Allen his mid-upper turret, Lancaster right on top of a skip, ‘turn to port now’. With his excellent all-round viewer high atop the aircraft's backbone, Allen's value as a lookout was worth as much as the two browning machine guns he operated in his gloved hands. Even when formations of Lancaster's were perfectly coordinated, their assigned heights for the few deadly minutes over the target mid-air collisions were frequent. This night with a formation buffeted and out of order at the end of a long flight to Berlin it was particularly perilous.
Allen peering into the night sky, rotating his turret constantly over the target area and trying not to look at the fires below to preserve his night vision was probably a little stung by the 88 millimetre shell exploding at the front of the aircraft.
Yes a minute before that they had a near miss.
As usual skipper Wally had done a quick roll call over the intercom. ‘Navigator, okay. Skip, wireless operator, okay. Skip.’ and so on but the flash had spoiled Allen’s ability to cut through the wintry gloom. Seconds later in his peripheral vision he sensed rather than saw the weak moon suddenly vanish followed by the great black shape of a Lancaster oblivious to what was underneath descending towards them almost directly overhead. So close was the other aircraft that Allen could see the dull glow of the motor's exhaust stubs and even make out the pilot's face barely illuminated by the soft green light of his instrument panel. ‘Port, skipper, port!’ shouted Alan dropping all pretence at staying calm. Wally the pilot instinctively hit his right rudder bar hard and turned the wheel over. The speed of his response undoubtedly saved both aircraft and their crews but a second later a ghastly metal-tearing crash reverberated through the aircraft and then suddenly the noise of the engine seemed to drop away.
‘Jesus!’ shouted someone over the intercom. As much as he tried to slide under the Lancaster, Wally’s quick manoeuvre couldn't prevent the port wing of the adjacent bomber slamming into the starboard wing of his own. Barney could barely bring himself to peer through the small window above his bomb position. Sparks were cascading between the two wings which for a moment appeared to be locked together shining metal hacked by the spinning props of their two starboard engines hung in shreds from the leading edge of the other Lancaster's wing.
With another terrible lurch and a sound like a metallic roaring the great black aircraft slid away into the night. Barney could just make out the now frantic expression on the face of the neighbouring pilot and the red letter codes of the side of on the side of his fuselage PO denoting four six seven squadron—an all Australian unit based at Waddington in Lincolnshire. ‘Another bloody Aussie,’ thought Barney. For the briefest of seconds he pondered whether he might know the man and what he might say to him regarding his careless flying if he ever happened to meet him.
That was one of the most dramatic aspects of Barney's tour and it was common to. I mean, you can imagine what it was like. All right for us today with satellite navigation and all sorts of things like that but these aircraft were basically told loosely to fly off by yourself, turn up somewhere over the target all together and drop your bombs simultaneously, I mean it's a wonder that many, many more aerial collisions in Bomber Command didn't happen during the Second World War. I’m sure many actually more did than were accounted for officially that is.
Well of course, the most and why we’re here is Barney’s war took a very, very different turn a few weeks later when as was alluded to in that first preface there, he was shot down by a Night Fighter. Not, oddly enough, on an attack to Berlin, but on a trip to Augsburg which he had to fly over the Voge Mountains and to the big German industrial city in the sort of central west of Germany. He was shot down but we have actually in the research managed to pinpoint the German pilot that flew a Messerschmitt 110 that night. He was an experienced pilot and he wrote quite extensively about his view of the kill and it was, apparently, a kind of a gloomy, hazy kind of night. There was a strong moon and a kind of a foggy sky illuminated the aircraft quite clearly and he could follow it for quite a while before firing at it and the aircraft caught fire.
Barney’s escape in itself—and that was the subject of some interest at the end of the story because no one quite knew how he could get out of the aircraft—the aircraft went into a centrifugal spin and for which the RAF did not think it was possible for a human body to actually open the hatch and slide out. But Barney somehow managed to do so bailing out just in time pulling his cord and coming down somewhere amongst pine trees in the middle of a forest and having no idea where he was of course. He knew that the aircraft had crashed because he could see it a half a kilometre away on fire. He followed his nose through the forest and saw his aircraft burning, a couple of bombs had gone off on his approach and he knew pretty much well that there were no survivors around and he was the only one.
So then this young man just sort of considered his options and what do you do? He stared walking. It's amazing how much they were not trained for this either. They were given, from what I understand, they were given one afternoon's lecture in training as to what to do if you’re shot down. They had interesting things they were equipped with. Things like on one of their tunics they had a little compass that was screwed into one of their service buttons which they could tell where they were. They had things like—and an airmen gave one to me just before he died I'm just so honoured to receive it—one of the maps, these beautiful exquisite silk maps. It could compress into the size of a matchbox but opened up to something like that of the area over which they were flying. They were given little photographs of themselves in civilian clothes.
(Is this, is this not working, I’ll just try it again.)
Leigh Gilburt: No it's it's not working.
Michael Veitch: Oh that's a shame because there is a picture of him in civilian clothes. But basically, his parachute training was one jump from basically on top of a ladder which was done at the base into a sand pit and I remember asking another bomber, ‘yes oh well you know they didn’t really expect us to survive so what was the point in training us’ and those were his words. But basically it was jumping off a kind of a wooden stepladder like you know 10 feet high or something into a sand pit and that was your parachute training. So the first jump Barney Greatrex did was the one he had to do in earnest to save his life.
He started wandering around, he didn't know where he was. Didn't know if he was in France or Germany. He assumed he was somewhere close to both countries. In fact, where he'd actually come down was in Alsace Lorraine and the much contested area of the of the French German border, which the successive wars have always been slogging since the 1300’s have been fighting over Alsace Lorraine. Which is why, I think, it has two names like that. And in 1940, Germany after the invasion they annexed his part. So it was officially German territory and he walked westward so he assumed. He saw some bombers going back the next night and he just basically followed them as they're obviously heading west back towards home. So I’ll follow them, and a night later he came to a kind of a barbed wire fence where there was a kind of empty pill box and he crossed that and what he was doing he was actually crossing over from Germany into France.
He then was high in the mountains. He was getting hungry. He was extremely wet and miserable and uncomfortable so he decided to take a gamble. Remember the instructions drummed into him in training as well as in the occasional escape and evasion lecture he chose just to make his appearance and seek help. To further add to his discomfort his feet and legs were now soaking as he had misjudged the little stream he had crossed which was nearly up to his waist. This is in February, sorry I should say it's in February 1944.
Approaching the first house in the street he drew a breath and walked up to the front door to make the most important decision of his life. If these people were German sympathisers and—he was told France was riddled with them—he could be in the hands of the Gestapo within hours. He paused, thinking better of things, Barney went around to the back. He knocked twice loudly and waited. Nobody came to the door. He then tried the second house which was also empty. Feeling his sails very much deflating he began to wonder if the village was deserted as no sign of light could be seen anywhere. Only the very last house in the street revealed a chink of light from the back door falling on the snow. This time he didn’t even knock and just pushed it open carefully. He found himself standing in an empty kitchen under an electric light, feeling most unsure of what to do. Now he banged several times with his hand on a heavy oak table. A door opened and in walked a very sturdy, very French-looking middle-aged man wearing a waistcoat and a bushy moustache (so something out of Allo Allo hello isn't it really). He stopped, frozen and looked him up and down as if seeing an apparition. Barney tried to glean the nature of the expression on the man's face. Quickly he pulled out the scarf and began to point. The scarf also had some phrases on it that, ‘ I am an Australian airman etc.’ Suddenly the Frenchman smiled broadly. Seconds later, however, he disappeared back behind the door and closed it. Barney heard voices. He later reflected, ‘I knew that my fate perhaps my life depended on what was going on behind that door.’
After a seemingly interminable period during which Barney considered simply walking off and heading back to the forest, the door opened and in walked the Frenchman now accompanied by a woman Barney assumed to be his wife then another much older woman appeared followed by another and finally a grandfatherly figure with an identical moustache to Barney's host but pure white. Barney wondered how many more individuals could be secreted into this tiny house. They each examined him in open mouth silence, finally one of the old women approached him, put her arms around his neck and kissed him on both cheeks. This apparently broke the ice and all of them came to hug him or shake his hand. From somewhere bread appeared along with cheese, coffee and wine. Barney sat down to eat with gusto it was unquestionably the best meal of his life.
Barney’s gamble he thought might just pay off. And so began this, and this was about this was in February 1944, so began this extraordinary ordeal in which Barney. Unlike most or many—I've never actually quite worked out the numbers of Allied airmen who were shot down that weren't actually captured, and that was by far most—and there was only a tiny percentage that were on the run they were usually sort of put through the rattle. Some hid through the entire duration of the war. They just sort of hid in barns and things and found a local and who took care of them. Many were, of course, secreted back through Spain which was very, very risky for all concerned. Back to the Allies, back to England. They could never fly again by the way. They were not permitted to go back in the air because they could give too much away if they‘d been shot down again.
But Barney was incorporated into the Resistance. He spoke not a word of French. He learned on the go. He was a clever boy he was very academic so he was highly intelligent. He was given a Resistance number. He was given a rank, he was given a unit and he was something of a celebrity for many, many months. And he then became embroiled in the quite bizarre internal politics of the French Resistance.
I talk about the French Resistance quite a lot in the book because learning about how undoubtedly brave, undoubtedly unspeakably brave, and terrifically courageous the French Resistance were, they were a very, very fractured organisation. France, remember, had collapsed to the shock of the world even though their army was as strong as the Germans and the Germans rolled in in May 1940. Nobody thought what was going to happen was what actually happened. Numerically speaking, France was roughly on a parity with Germany and yet they went through it like a dose of salts. They did in six weeks what they couldn't do for four years twenty years earlier. Many historians now agree, France of 1940 simply had reflected France in the past ten years: one of the most fractured, bitterly divided, polarised socially, economically and politically countries certainly in Europe.
Whereas Germany, well you have to admit it, was pretty united in the middle of the ghastly reign of the Third Reich. France, however, had something like 37 literally changes of government in seven years. It was quite chaotic and its society and its military reflected that. Its resistance movement, that did not spring up overnight in France. It took a long time to get going and there was no one single resistance movement for several years. It was all based on social strata politics. There was the left resistance, there was the right resistance, there was de Gaulle's resistance, there was the trade unions resistance, there was the communist parties resistance which ended up doing most of the dirty work, and then there was the remnants of the French Army that had been so humiliated in 1940. And they all detested one another and the Allies knew this and that's why they, in one of the most underrated meetings, one of the most important meetings I think of the whole Second World War held in a flat right near in an apartment in the seventh arrondissement right next to Notre Dame Cathedral about 200 meters from the local Gestapo headquarters, one of the chief resistance leaders in London was parachuted in and forced these people to come to a meeting about six months before D-Day. They had never met each other. They all hated each other and he said,
Look you must work together or else assistance from us will not be forthcoming and we mean it. And you need our assistance because if you try and tackle the Germans on your own you won't survive.
And it worked of course. That was, oh who was the famous the famous French resistance figure who was then murdered by Klaus Barbie in Leon a few months later? Because he was caught just after that meeting, his name was… Jean Moulin! One of the great heroes of the French Resistance. A true hero, and that was the meeting that he organised and that became the one solid resistance movement that coalesced around all these other ones that were hitherto very, very fractured and it kind of worked.
Now some of the assistance I alluded to, and I’m not digressing too much because Barney Greatrex where he was was in one of the most interesting parts of France because his turn came quite a way after D-Day, as you know Normandy happened. Normandy's up in the northwest, he's in the Northeast on the Voge mountains very, very steep mountains near the town of Nancy and places like that beautiful. beautiful country. The war hadn't really come to it very much and the occupation had been pretty benign for the people of this part of France.
But that was all to change very, very drastically and about the time that the Barney Greatrex showed up and was given his ticket and given his number and given his rank in his local cell of the French Resistance. For the first few months he, basically, was told to hide. The winter was only really just beginning and he was basically told that there was nothing they could do so they were basically told to hide. They were getting more and more people because the Germans had instigated the forced, the OSI, the forced repatriation of all young men from 18 to 50 to go and work in Germany. And of course it was the most stupidest thing the Germans could do because it basically gave an entire generation of willing young men who did not want to go to Germany and be slave workers because they knew what happened to them and they joined the resistance often having had no interest in doing so before.
But for the first few months in the forests of the Voge mountains in little huts like I described in the introduction to the book, that's what Barney actually had to do. He was taken in by several families. He was trained. He was moved about a bit because as the thaw came more and more people came into their part of the forest where they were training and hiding out. But basically driving each other mad in these little series of huts waiting for their call from London to get going. And that's what happened a few days after D-Day. And of course, they all thought that their part of France would be liberated in a couple of days. Of course that didn't happen as we know, and they were caught in the longest offensive. And there's a reason why it became so interesting later on, because their part of France was sort of a long way from Normandy and also a long way from the other invasions of France which was the Champagne Campaign as they called it. The British and Americans coming up from the south of France which, I think they landed, I think in was it late July or something. Military historians, the room can correct me on this, coming up from the south so they’re a long way from both. And they kept thinking that they were about to be liberated and that their call to action would come and they had to wait quite a long while.
But what was happening is that part of the assistance promise to the French wasn't just airdrops—of which there were many—it was actually advice and small military units. One of these was code named the Jebra Operations. And Barney became part of one of these. Now the Jebra operations began just after D-Day. They were three or four-man teams of highly trained individuals speaking fluent French. Usually, officers had been seconded from the commandos or special forces such as they were during the Second World War and they were given a local speaker and their job was to be parachuted in to liaise with these sort of nascent groups of French Resistance and to give them some kind of training and some kind of purpose because they're all just basically civilians armed with sten machine guns who'd had a bit of training but they all thought they were soldiers. But, basically, they weren't and tragically that accounted for much when the Germans came to clobber them as they did on many occasions and they suffered huge amounts of casualties.
The Jebra operations began soon after D-Day and on one of the drops where they were, Barney and his platoon of Marquis (the Marquis basically is the word to encompass the kind of active armed resistance armed wing of the French resistance and they modelled themselves roughly along military lines, you know from regiments to platoons to companies etc., etc.) and Barney was in his own company geographically located they were expecting a drop and indeed did get one of the drops in their designated drop zone. They had a little radio to communicate with London the codes came out, go to your special designated place a sterling bomber will come and you light the fire at this hour when you hear the engines and sure enough a couple of parachutes came down and then they got arms and cash. A lot of cash. They were given and all sorts of things with which they could fight the Germans.
This night, however, the aircraft did another couple of circles and they all went, oh why is it hanging around and then out of the gloom these three great big tall men emerged looking quite magnificent, armed to the teeth and one of them was a fabulous figure of Lieutenant Colonel Prendergast who had been chosen to lead this particular three-man Jebra operation in this part of France. Prendergast was a terrific fellow by all accounts he was one of the closest things to a real-life James Bond I’ve ever come across. He was devastatingly handsome, he'd run the LRDG, the Long-Range Desert Group, a few years before behind the German lines in North Africa, harassing the Germans, free-wheeling crazy bearded raiding parties that just were told to make as much mayhem as you can in your fast trucks and blow things up and then get the hell out of here. So he's ideally suited to this. So, he emerged out from the gloom and made himself known and told them that, ‘well, I'm your official instructor and things are going to get moving quite significantly because we hear that the Germans are now moving into this area to make a very strong stand so we have to be very active.’
Despairing at the lack of English speakers around him—even though his French wasn't bad—he then encountered this young, blonde airman called Barney Greatrex who introduced himself and became a vital part of this unit of resistance. Barney became a very efficient runner. He now knew the mountains or at least knew the people that knew the mountains because Colonel Prendergast's job was going to be very, very difficult. He was geographically hemmed in by deep ravines down in between roads and highways all controlled by the Germans. They were very close to the German border and the Germans were now pushing into this area because they realised what was happening. The allies are coming from the north and now from the south and they thought that a stand would be made here with the protection of the mountains to protect, to push into the soft sort of middle industrial cities of central Germany and they wanted to prevent that.
So then Barney got involved in a series of—I hesitate to call them battles—they were large skirmishes and there was a lot of kind of chaos involved. There was a lot of bloodletting involved. There was a lot of tragedy involved in that still he found that various members of the Marquis didn't speak to each other because they came from different factions, so the communication wasn't good.
Then one afternoon he was told by Prendergast ‘look we need to actually travel from here. We have to leave our assembled army unit, our assembled marker unit, and get an overview of this situation geographically'. And so he became a scout and they moved from one mountain to another. There was an amazing part of the story where Barney's looking across, having travelled all day down and up crossing a road and waiting for the Germans to be looking the other way and managing to get across this road and climbing up a mountain again, then looking back at the plateau that they’ve been camping on for the last few weeks, training and waiting for their time to come and then going to sleep and then witnessing at dawn a German attack on the position across from these mountains where they had been the previous day. It's a bizarre image and remember seeing the flash of German hand grenades and the sound of the reverberations booming across the valley and then feeling absolutely helpless to do anything about it as the Germans had come up in the night and were starting to attack them.
This was one of the big dispersals of this area of the French Resistance in this part of France. From then on Barney was witness to the various units breaking up and reforming again. A kind of almost tragic/comic aspect of this was that they'd been told when Prendergast arrived via radio they’ve been given advice from London constantly and the advice from London was well look you'll be linking up with the Seventh Army (Patton’s army) and they've been given the radio coordinates for the seventh army and contact them by radio because when they push up you'll be incorporated into them and you'll be vital because you'll know the roads you'll know the lay of the land you’ll know German deployments and strengths on a very sort of individual basis. So for weeks they were radioing. They were trying to send messages, having to keep moving because the German radio direction finding equipment was extremely good and they kept moving around and getting no response from this unit of the American forces that they were told would be joining up with them until finally they get this bizarre message from a kind of disgruntled American radio operator saying,
Why are you contacting us? We're nowhere near. You're supposed to be in contact with the other army coming up from the south.
So they've been given, by London, completely the wrong information and the wrong radio frequencies of the people they were supposed to be contacting and then finally they changed the frequencies and contacted them and they said,
Where have you been? We’ve been trying to contact you for weeks and weeks and weeks.
These sorts of things cost lives. All wars have their shares of incompetence but this is the one which really kind of astounds me.
Barney was then sort of on the run after this big attack. Many of his comrades had been killed. He was witness to some terrible scenes. He went back and hid for several weeks with a family that he formed bonds with for the rest of his life in a town called La Bresse—which is now a beautiful mountain village high up in the mountains—and he formed lifelong friends with the youngest and the eldest son of the Mujell family who at great personal risk, unimaginable personal risk for themselves, held onto him for weeks, creating a secret passage through a doorway and then under the stairs they carved out a room for him. All at great risk to himself. And occasionally he would ask him,
Why are you doing this? Why are you taking such a risk?
They all would be shot or taken to a concentration camp, the whole family and probably anyone who knows his family, would suffer the same treatment.
Well we're doing it because your country has never been occupied and invaded and defiled like ours has so you can’t imagine what it feels like. And for you to come from the other side of the world and risk your life for us, we are utterly humbled by it.
And he’s never forgotten that and when I spoke to Barney about it he still drew a tear, as a 96 year old man, still drew a tear at that realisation of what his presence in this part of the world doing. What he meant to these people and the trauma that they were suffering with their country being occupied by this unspeakable regime in the middle of the 1940s.
But from then on when they all had to move. So began the last part of the story which is this bizarre odyssey—and it’s truly bizarre because the Germans knew that the Allies were coming, the Americans did start to arrive and they could see the Americans the tank formations of the Sherman tanks and the big long Tom Guns lobbing shells over to where they were in the mountains because they were in the middle of the German lines. So what they decided to do was to kind of try and move quietly through from the rear, through the German line and hope not to get seen and then get incorporated with the outlying units of the Americans Army.
Because the Germans were indeed planning a big battle and it was this, indeed, that became one of the big last battles of 1944 and it's a dreadful nasty siege in awful weather in the Voge Mountains of this part of France which took place in October 1944. It's a campaign that's been largely forgotten about. There were many, many casualties and the Germans as usual committed particular atrocities, particularly on this town of La Bresse. The town was basically wiped off the face of the earth. It was considered a resistance strong-hold so the Germans did what they usually did. They basically raised it to the ground. The Mujell family—although they all survived, incredibly lucky to have survived—they wrote to Barney after the war and I’ve seen the letter translated and it's a tragic story of what happened to this beautiful town.
Barney had gone by then but this is what happened to these people that loved him so much. Barney therefore was sort of handballed through a series of safe houses, abandoned houses, abandoned farms. There’s occasions where they were so close to the Germans they hid in barns. One morning, he and Prendergast, the American colonel major that was with them in this unit and a couple of other stragglers from the resistance they picked up, they were half embedded in hay in this leaky old barn. Gradually at night making their way further and further west towards where they thought the Americans were coming, gradually basically going down a vast mountain range and trying to link up with them. Excuse me, Barney told me once he woke up one morning at dawn and just heard sort of these gruffled voices quite close by and his blood froze and there was a kind of a wooden slatted wall you could see like wooden slats and you could see through slats and they're all half buried in the hay and he looked up and he could see the field grey tunics of German soldiers basically a few feet away. The clanking as they lent their mouths or rifles up against it and were sitting down. He knew that if he got up too quickly that he’d be shot. He tried to look around slowly and he caught the eye of Prendergast who'd seen the same thing and then he saw a couple of helmets sort of peeking through the slats and looking away. Again, then another looking through and he remembers locking eyes with the German soldier with his helmet on. I think he said his helmet was on because he remembers hearing his helmet clanking against the wooden barn. This is the detail this man remembered after 70 years. He remembers hearing the wooden, the metal peak of the German's helmet clanking against the wooden walls. He tried to peer through to see what was going on, this all happened in seconds mind you and suddenly a shout went up because Prendergast said ‘ahrggh!’ Or something like that and they all got up and then the Germans they could hear rifles as they pulled bolts back to actually to put it around up the spout to have a battle and Barney knew certain for a fact that he was about to die. Then what happened apparently is that the big American colonel who was a big fellow had a Thompson machine gun strapped to him and he moved forward and then there was a great crash of wood which was very noisy and that startled everyone because he moved forward and then unbeknownst to them on this floorboard it was all rotten so the American crashed through taking half a floor with him but it made just the amount of noise to startle the Germans so much that they all bolted as one and cleared off, pull their rifles. I could last see these German backs disappearing into the forest. He hadn't told anybody this for 70 years until I winkled it out of him, it was extraordinary. That was getting towards the end of the ordeal. A few days later at dawn they managed to pick their way through another couple of people that were quite terrified. They could see at one stage a shell flying up from the American guns, flying up towards them to hit the German positions behind them and hopefully not hit them.
One morning they were actually caught in an American barrage and they were covered in dirt because the shells were coming so close to them. However he managed to pick his way down through the lines and at dawn one morning, perhaps the riskiest morning, was when they had to actually approach from the wrong side for an American unit who were told to shoot anything coming towards them. So they said,
We've got to be careful because they're going to want to shoot us. We look like a ragtag outfit. We’re filthy and exhausted. God knows what we look like.
But luckily they got through that and their day of liberation came to these astonished Americans who said, ‘well where the hell have you been?’ Then they actually felt they were doing some good work because then they were taken to the American forward positions. They could give all these deployments and said,
Right, there's a gun. There's a tank there, There's an ambulance thing there.
And so, he actually felt that his value was, even though he didn't do very much fighting, he felt that his contribution to the war was quite substantial in this little part of it.
He then simply became another number and was spirited eventually back to England. He had an extraordinary… Actually getting back to England was an interesting story. He was given a chip by an American Colonel saying this man has assisted us, he's an Australian airman he's long lost his uniform and he had to just find his way back to England. He was given a chip to take off from a Ford RAF air base. As he sat in the busy waiting area, aircraft and air crew came and went. Barney cut a somewhat forlorn figure: skinny and exhausted barely fitting the rough RAF blue uniform he'd been obliged to exchange for his American car key that the Americans had given him when they found him. Every few minutes the roar of Spitfires and Dakotas added to the bustle of the active wartime airport. In his hand Barney held an official letter written by an American Major outlining his status and allowing his passage back to England. Exactly which flight he was expected to be on however was something no one seemed to know or particularly care about. After several hours of being thus ignored his mind went back to the days of with the Mujels and he wondered exactly what they were doing at that moment as he sat away from any danger except perhaps of being bored to death by the inscrutable passage of RAF protocol. Suddenly his reverie was interrupted by the arrival of three men with a great deal of gold braid on their hats, filled with purpose as they strode in Barney's direction towards the tarmac. Barney's military training suddenly compelled him to do something he'd not done in a very long time: stand and salute. Getting to his feet he raised his right hand to his temple as the men passed the leading officer returned his salute and then to Barney's surprise slowed down turned around and came towards him. ‘What are you doing here pilot officer?’ he asked. When Barney began to answer he was struck by the man's demeanour, stocky in his fifties perhaps with a short sandy coloured moustache and without doubt the hardest pair of blue eyes he had ever seen. With a jolt Barney realised he was standing in front of no lesser figure than Air Chief Marshall Sir Arthur Travers ‘Bomber’ Harris the head of Bomber Command itself one of the most powerful figures of World War II and in a very real sense Barney's former boss.
‘Well Sir I'm trying to get back to England actually.’ Barney managed to stammer out with relative coherency and upon further questioning, he gave a brief outline of where he had been for the last eight months since being shot down. Harris adopting the slightly puzzled look that many who had listened to the story seem to assume asked to see his orders. ‘Well,’ he began as he glanced at the signature on the form, ‘I can take you to Northhold if that will help up to you we leave in five minutes.’
So the morning of 13th of October 1944, 7 months and 18 days since being shot down in a dark and freezing forest, Barney sat in the almost surreal surroundings of a specially fitted RAF Dakota next to one of the most powerful men of the war. The scene he remembered was unlike that of any aircraft he had ever sat in: soft and generous. The hour-and-a-half flight was smooth and uneventful and a waiter in a white jacket brought her drinks tray around, Harris had a gin and tonic, Barney politely refused.
And that was more or less the end of Barney's amazing ordeal and as I said at the beginning one of those stories that has been kept in the minds of these remarkable veterans, tragically almost to the end of their life until an interested party comes and gets it out of them for us to appreciate exactly the sort of thing, the sort of life-upending and traumatic experience.
Barney Greatrex came back to Australia. Had a very difficult readjustment back to war. He'd acquired an appalling stammer that plagued him for the rest of his life. He was unable to have children, something he really wanted to do, and it was something to do with what happened to him during the war. He didn’t go into details but he carried the legacy of the war. Even though we can get an amazing story out it, and I got the main story out of him, for the rest of his life—and I think we should all remember that even though this was a brief couple of years even really boiling down to a few extraordinary months of a man's life —they carried it with them for many, many more years. And that's his story. Thank you for listening to me. Thank you very much. If by chance you want to want to buy a copy of the book come and hold me afterwards. We'll see what we can do. If there are any questions or anything?
Leonie Pratt: Absolutely, first please again a warm thank you to Michael for a wonderful presentation. We do have a moment for questions. I’d probably like to just start Michael, with your opportunity to actually meet Barney and how he reacted to you even trying to uh as you say recall this story out of him?
Michael Veitch: He was like many of the fellows. He was reluctant and bewildered. He was very old, he was very old you know. As many of us get to at this age, he couldn't remember last Tuesday but he could remember a meal he ate in 1941. So that was good, it took a while for there’s… in all the fellows I’ve interviewed and I probably interviewed a couple of hundred now over the course of the books, there's a lot of trust involved. They have to be certain that your interest is genuine and as I found with all these fellows starting at the beginning of their life, honouring what had happened before their life is very important because otherwise it always seems a bit voyeuristic. Like those sort of, ‘tell us what you did in the war’.
Well you know often they didn't want to be defined by what they did in the war and they felt a bit affronted by that so often I would ask them about their life. His early life was interesting too growing up in Sydney and what his parents had done but it took him a while to open up. But then what also happens, they go to places that they never expected to go to and to places that had actually been buried away to the extent that they’d forgotten about even them themselves. I think it was quite traumatic for him to go through it. He'd written something about it, limited to a short 30-page précis of it, very kind of narrative not much into the feeling. Wo I had to winkle out the kind of emotion of it and he was reluctant to do that for obvious reasons. But I was able to glean just enough to put a coherent story together about it but yeah it's hard work doing that for him and me. Anything else? yes sir? Congratulations on your display by the way.
Neil Sharkey: Thank you, that was a tremendous talk and beautifully told from the excerpts that you read out the book, what was it about Barney’s story that made you think of all of the remarkable men that you've met and I've read your books and I'm sure many people here have and you know I mean there's no shortage of tremendously interesting stories, what was it about this one that made you decide to go into the long form?
Michael Veitch: I think his association with the resistance and becoming so embroiled with the intricacies of a European nation at war; the internecine nature of its politics and its struggle. Most Australians airmen in Bomber Command simply didn't really come face to face with that, what was happening on the ground part from what they were trying to blow up. But Barney came down and he became involved in the kind of chaotic forest of French politics in a sense and he understood or eventually got to understood and he had to translate to these English and American officers,
Look the story is here that these guys are Commies and these guys love this de Gaulle guy and he hates the Commies so they hate each other and they're not sharing ammunition, so you’ve got to get them to share.
One platoon had bazookas. One platoon that didn't talk to another platoon of the resistance on the same airfield had got the canisters that came down with the bazookas on the other side of the field the parachute come down with the ammunition for the bazookas and they wouldn't share it. The instructions for the bazookas, I remember, were all in English too. Only the army could do something silly as that. So nobody knew how to use it except Barney and he got both together both sides, were instructing them how to actually use these really powerful weapons and he demonstrated them… That, he remembered telling me in the book, he actually,
Oh they're actually starting to talk to each other because they had to use this weapon I was telling him how to do it.
So yes but his, I think, his experience with you know the intricacies of another country really made it stand out for me. Thanks anything? Anyone else?
Jean McAuslan:Thanks Michael, that was fantastic and we’re none poorer than having any images because you were very good at creating those. Now what was in general the reaction to the British ultimatum, saying we can’t, we can't support you if you don't fight together to the resistance?
Michael Veitch: Oh they buckled under, from what I understand. Look, the history of the French Resistance during the Second World War is so complex and it's all letters. There's the FTI that became the big one that was a union of all the other ones. But they had to actually submit to their pre-war prejudices and did form when they were needed and when they were called out, mainly after D-Day they actually had to put aside their differences and John Moulin in this meeting this very important meeting, I think in March or something 1940 no a little bit earlier I can't remember when it actually was, actually did give them this ultimatum and there were letters from de Gaulle and Churchill and Eisenhower saying,
We need you people. When we come we're going to need you and if you don’t stop fighting each other you're going to be useless to us and you're going to be useless to your own country as well.
Many people actually say that the healing of the French Resistance was the beginning of the healing of France, the healing of France post-war. I'm not a historian of France by any means but I know a little bit about this time and France did emerge from the Second World War with a remarkable cohesion that nobody expected because it had been a basket case in the 1930s. The depression had hit France very hard. There were a lot of Nazis in France. There were a lot of people who welcomed the Germans and a huge amount of anti-semitism in France. Coco Chanel apparently was one of the biggest right-wing sympathisers and thought the Germans were great for waltzing in there. But after the war they say it came together as a modern European nation, as bizarrely enough did Germany eventually. Go figure. And that was the beginning of the healing. Anything else?
Audience Member: Did he eventually get back to his unit? How was he received by his unit and what did they make of his adventures because he would have been just listed as missing and probably they would have got some notification back that he was still alive but…
Michael Veitch: I do have some of the pictures of some of the telegrams that his family kept. And of course his parents went through this dread first—I’ll get to the squadron later—but his parents went through this dreadful ordeal. His mother getting that telegram, ‘your son is missing as a result of their activities on February 22 1944 and we don't know what happened to him.’ And then he was missing assumed killed, and then it was only I think, yes it was only when he got back to England. Because even though he was in radio contact they didn't let him, they England, know that he was still alive but soon as he got back to England the telegrams came and yes your son has been found, and you can imagine how his parents would of reacted, getting to hear that your son is alive and well and well it was astonishing.
The squadron, No. 61 Squadron based at Sieist, and I think they were we said by the time Barney got back there, there was nobody he recognized. They'd all either finished their tour or they'd all been killed. I mean the loss rate was terrible on 61 Squadron. They were just an ordinary front line squadron and half of the fellows didn't come back—perhaps a third at this stage of the war—and there are a few phone conversations he had with the adjutant who welcomed him back saying oh it's so great to talk to somebody I remember, because all there are not many people that you'd recognise here. I think he went back to pick up some kit but he was felt like a stranger there.
Audience Member: What do you think kept him going during the war? Was there someone at home?
Michael Veitch: No no, he didn't have a sweetheart or anything like that, I think.
Audience Member: A sense of duty maybe?
Michael Veitch: Yes it's hard, he never thought he was himself a hero just simply lucky. He had a kind of a very cursory and rather miserable debriefing in White Hall when he got back and that's when the controversy of his escape came out and I go into this in the story because when he kept saying, ‘I got out of the escape hatch’, they kept bringing more and more senior RF officers into the interrogation rooms and,
Can you explain how you did that? Because we don't think that's possible.
He had to physically demonstrate it but they kind of didn't believe him. But because it's just simply a door that you slip through because the aircraft was in a spin the centrifugal force was pushing him back against the wall of the nose and how could you lift up this thing but he managed to do it and he squeezed himself and suddenly he was falling. But they didn't quite believe him and you know he was one of these sort of toffee group captains and he'd gone from Warrant Officer to a Flying Officer but they wouldn't address him as his new rank. They kept calling him Warrant Officer and that it kind of annoyed him. So typically English, snooty behaviour towards the Australians at its worst perhaps.
His family, he’s very close to his family but I think it's the French that really kept him going and that realisation that they were so appreciative of him being there I think that was a huge tonic for him being there and he went back a couple of times and was fated as a hero in front of these French villages. The television crews came—and I've seen pictures—it’s obviously an amazing emotional experience that was in the late 80s when he was still relatively fit, and it was a really profound experience for him. Because all the villagers have been told of this young airman that came during the war and we sheltered him and he came from the other side of the world, and it’s like today as you fellows probably know much more about World War One than I do, the history about, you know, Villers Bretonneux, and they’re still revered over there for what we did I guess, it’s pretty amazing. If I tell you what if people from Luxembourg had come to Australia to fight for us would be pretty bloody appreciative too so I think that’s basically what it was. Anybody else, yes madam?
Audience Member: From reading your book I've got the impression that he lived the rest of his life with a bit of guilt…
Michael Veitch: Survivors guilt most certainly, terrible survivors guilt I think Barney had, why me? And then there’s no answer for it and it's often a question that many of the veterans who are sole survivors, it haunts them this totally unanswerable question. I mean luck just doesn't cut it really. I mean, we all want to know more than that I think but there is no other answer in many cases and it was simply that he was in the right part of the plane at the right time. But very much he was very close to his crew, the pilot is really tragic, the pilot was a Canadian called Walter Einerson who had already lost his brother—shot down over the north sea on a gardening they called it, they were laying sea mines and he just never came back. This was Barney's I should say 20th trip of his 30-trip tour so he's getting towards the end. He had a glimpse that he might make it. He never thought he was going to get through from 1 to 20 you thought, I'm a goner no way I'm getting back from this. You hit 20 and you go hmmm maybe? But Walter Einerson because he had volunteered for a second tour this was his last trip on your second tour you only had to do 20 not 30 and this, the pilot Walter Einerson DFM, the man who piloted the aircraft through that dreadful collision a few months earlier was killed on his last trip and he always felt terrible about that, so yes big survivor guilt, absolutely. Yes sir?
Audience Member: Do you have any idea how many airmen actually parachuted into France and how many made an escape, let's say down to Spain or wherever?
Michael Veitch: I believe it's in the several thousands and I mean less than ten thousand. I think bomber Command had oh roughly numbers 150,000 trained air crew. It was something like that 50,000 of which were killed over the course of the Second World War. So it's not many numbers at all, and many got caught. Virtually the only rat line was down through over the Pyrenees and then through neutral Spain and I said before they couldn’t fly again having done that.
Occasionally some were picked up in a Westland Lysander flying little light plane that ducked over the channel and landed in the field and picked up a couple and drew them back that way but most, I believe, were taken down through the rat lines of the resistance. But yes, only less than ten thousand and very, very few of these and that’s why it's a good story is because he was one of the very few that wasn’t picked up by the Germans, wasn't captured and wasn't spirited back to the United Kingdom so he has a very special category. I don't know how many more. I've met one other bloke, I've interviewed him who had a similar experience and he hung out with the resistance a bit but he didn't want to tell me his story he was very traumatised by the whole ordeal even as a man in his early 90s.
Leonie Pratt: Thank you I know we could go probably for another hour but we will have to bring it to a close, as Michael had mentioned if you want details on where his book is available from you can go and talk to him at the conclusion of this, also as mentioned Neil Sharkey curator here at the Shrine, his most recent special exhibition Resistance: Australians in the European Underground 1939–45 is currently on display in our Second World War Gallery and very much worth a visit if you're interested in this topic and learning more stories of Victorians who served and had experiences with the resistance. [Please note, this exhibition is no longer on display.]
Michael Veitch: If I could just add to that, Neil's work is so fine at this institution. Ladies and gentlemen, his bomber command exhibition a year or so ago was the most wonderfully curated exhibition on that enormous topic I’ve ever seen, so well done to you, Neil.
Leonie Pratt: And again my sincere apologies to Michael and our deficient AV. But again, we thank you for your illuminating talk and obviously the detailed research and time that's gone into your book and we wish you all the best of success with it and thank you for sharing your stories today.
Outro: Thank you for listening to the Shrines podcast and for your ongoing support of our public programs. Michael's book, Barney Greatrex: From Bomber Command to the French Resistance, the stirring story of an Australian hero, is available for purchase online through Hachette Australia.
You can discover more extraordinary stories like Barney's in our special exhibition, Resistance: Australians and the European Underground, which is on display daily at the Shrine of Remembrance from 10am with last entry at 4:30pm. This exhibition will be here until July 2019, so if you haven't already I strongly encourage you to come in soon to do so. Our autumn 2019 program series is now open for bookings. Follow the links in this episode show notes to check out our thought-provoking range of topics, we hope to see you here for one of our upcoming talks. Thank you once again for joining us for another episode of the Shrine of Remembrance podcast.
Reviewed 05 July 2021