ARTICLES

BREAKOUT at Amiens Prison

TERENCE ROBERTSON May 23 1959
ARTICLES

BREAKOUT at Amiens Prison

TERENCE ROBERTSON May 23 1959

BREAKOUT at Amiens Prison

TERENCE ROBERTSON

“This is a most unusual mission, dedicated not to the destruction of life but to the saving of it.”

AIR MARSHAL SIR BASIL EMBRY, COM M AN DER-IN -C HIE F, SECOND TACTICAL AIR FORCE

NOON, INSIDE, OUTSIDE, IN THE AIR,

Feb. 18, 1944.

300 condemned Resistance leaders, twenty-two guerillas, eighteen RAF Mosquitoes.

Then came the unchronicled quarter-hour of holocaust and heroism that rekindled the fighting spirit of France

In February 1944 two men who never met planned and executed one of the most brilliant, bizarre and tragic jail breaks in history. One was Dominic Ponchardier, a twenty-six-year-old, wild-looking Frenchman, whose unkempt exterior masked stubborn courage and an unshakable faith in Allied victory. The other was Group Captain Pat Pickard, a lithe, tall, blond, blue-eyed Royal Air Force fighter ace.

The plan to rescue three hundred Resistance leaders condemned to die in the fortress prison of Amiens was conceived and nurtured in the imaginative mind of Ponchardier; it was Pick-

ard who volunteered to open the way to freedom by blasting down the prison walls.

Uncompromising destiny enmeshed these two in the autumn of 1943, when the heartbeat of France began to drown in a flood of underground political strife. The smoothly functioning network of active Resistance units, so laboriously spun by the now imprisoned leaders, came under the authority of second-rate opportunists; it split apart, and suffered in power and influence.

Communist groups operating under orders from Moscow defected from the over-all move-

ment to work in fields directly opposed to the aims of those controlled by London. They concentrated on spreading propaganda as damaging to the Western allies as it was to the Nazi overlords.

Morale sank, informers were everywhere. The unscrupulous could live luxuriously on betrayal bounty; on the other hand, recruits for the increasingly hazardous work could be promised at best, death, at the worst, torture.

In that autumn, one organization after another was penetrated by traitors and smashed, each yielding information about others. With

the hands of the Gestapo tightening about its throat, the strength of the entire movement was slowly ebbing.

Some spectacular coup which might destroy the national dread of the all-powerful Gestapo was needed to rekindle the latent passions of France.

Three young Frenchmen had never given UP Ponchardier and his principal lieutenants, Jean Beaurin, a lissome youth not yet twenty, and a reckless adventurer known simply as Pépé,

Trailed by a handful of followers, these

three stalked northern France blowing up bridges, derailing trains, slitting throats and harassing the enemy wherever he was vulnerable. Night duty became a frightening experience for German sentries. Threats to execute ten hostages for every German found dead gave them no protection. Young Beaurin was the train destroyer. On September 22, Beaurin and his men wrecked a Paris-Abbeville express carrying six hundred German troops. The surviving Germans drove off the attacking saboteurs and Beaurin was

captured. Ponchardier

continued on page 38

Breakout at Amiens Prison

continued from page 27

“Which would you ciioose,” asked PoneSiardier,

“certain execution ©r a break lor freedom?”

and Pépé went into hiding in Paris, when they learned of their comrade’s fate — the torture chambers and condemned block of Amiens Prison.

As they began to search for some way of saving Beaurin, Ponchardier recog-

nized that the spectacular coup that would revive the spirit of France lay in the rescue not only of his friend but also of every Resistance leader in the prison.

Then politics cut through the close bonds of friendship. Pépé left Ponchardier

to take over the leadership of a Communist group operating in the same area. He succumbed to propaganda, and the few meetings between the friends were marked by growing antagonism. Pépé agreed reluctantly, however, to help with

the preliminary stages of Ponchardier’s scheme — an impudent, fantastic scheme that was also well-nigh impossible.

On October 5, Ponchardier entertained a spy from England who told him about a new British fighter-bomber. ‘They call it Mosquito. They don’t bomb the U-boat bases from thousands of feet any more. These Mosquitoes come in at nought feet and skip bombs right into the entrances of the U-boat pens.”

Ponchardier looked up in surprise. “As precise as that?”

“Yes. They don’t do it often. I suppose it takes quite a bit of training.”

An idea was already crystallizing in Ponchardier’s nimble mind. If these Mosquitoes could toss bombs into the small entrances to the U-boat pens, surely they could destroy the walls of Amiens prison.

Swiftly he outlined the venture as he saw it, and concluded:

“Next time you are in London, tell them what 1 have in mind. With the right information and timing, a quick raid should do the trick.”

A week later, Ponchardier and Pépé moved into rooms in Amiens overlooking the prison. For several days they took photographs and watched the prison routine through binoculars.

The main buildings were shaped like a gigantic crucifix and surrounded by a courtyard. The outside wall was twentyfive feet high and three feet thick.

“First the wall must be breached.” said Ponchardier. “Then the guardhouse must be destroyed to reduce opposition."

“We might well be pinned down at the wall,” replied Pépé. “The cell blocks should be opened up too.”

Ponchardier was not to be depressed. “Easy. Those Mosquitoes, why, they can skip bombs into the cell blocks just where we want them."

Pépé remained grim. “You don’t have the proof of that yet. And what of our own people? Even if the bombs are placed precisely where planned, .some are bound to be killed.”

“It matters not,” said Ponchardier soberly. “Beaurin and another three hundred are being tortured day and night while under sentence of death. Which would you choose—certain firing squads or a break for freedom?”

After this visit to Amiens, Ponchardier dismissed Pépé with a promise to send for him when the time came for the breakout. He could not have the Communist leader with him when he made his arrangements with London.

His whole group were taken off sabotage and espionage activities and concentrated on gathering the information London would need before even seriously considering Ponchardier’s plan.

He drew detailed diagrams of the prison, gave the positions of all German anti-aircraft batteries for miles around Amiens, and established communication with Beaurin inside the prison.

All this took time, but by January 1944, he had compiled a dossier on the German prison guards which included their habits, hobbies, ages, duties and round-the-clock routines. His men completed a similar report on the Amiens garrison and then Ponchardier got hold of his best document. Through friends in the city council, he traced and acquired the actual blueprints of the prison itself. This vast stock of knowledge was sent

to London by courier and, for the first time, British Military Intelligence placed the plan on a formal footing for urgent attention. Beaurin's time to die might come at any dawn.

But by the end of January, the most Ponchardier had extracted from London was a promise that if the RAF thought the raid feasible, something might be done. Then the Gestapo moved.

Pépé’s chief lieutenant was arrested with eleven more of his group and taken to the prison. Within two days, they had all been shot. Another important member of Pépé’s group was arrested in bed, and on the same night one of Ponchardier’s men was hauled from a café into prison. Worse, Jean Beaurin’s younger brother was arrested and held as a hostage.

Ponchardier viewed the situation with growing alarm and despair. There was still no definite news from London and his men were being arrested, deported to slave - labor camps, and often shot. Still Beaurin and the original three hundred condemned men somehow were spared from the firing squads and they waited tensely for the RAF. Beaurin organized his fellow prisoners into action groups with instructions on what to do once the raid began.

But there came no sign from London.

Meanwhile the RAF, without informing Ponchardier, had flown a series of photographic reconnaissance flights over the prison to check the information already provided. On February 5 a specially trained precision bombing squadron of Mosquitoes, commanded by Pat Pickard, volunteered to carry out the raid. Models of the prison were hastily built on the remote Scottish moors and the pilots made dummy runs until they could see where their bombs must land. A replica of the brick-and-cement outer wall was erected and attacked experimentally with bombs of various sizes.

Ponchardier became frantic when he learned that Beaurin, who had not broken under interrogation, was to be shot with fifty other Resistance leaders on February 20.

On the 12th, Pickard informed the London authorities that his squadron was ready to attempt the mission; and on the next day the scheme was formally approved. The official mind was made up by the capture near Amiens of two British spies w’ho were thrown into the same prison. Like Beaurin, they were to be shot on the 20th.

Ponchardier had passed through despair to bitterness. Britain, the country he expected would aid and support the work he carried on at such great risk and cost, had let him down at the hour of crisis. Then, late in the evening of the 14th, he received a coded radio message saying: “In return for the exceptional services you and your countrymen have rendered the Allied cause, Royal Air Force Mosquitoes have been placed at your disposal and will attack in accordance with your plan at noon 15th.”

Ponchardier’s eyes blazed with joy— and consternation. It would be the 15th tomorrow and he had counted on at least several days’ notice. He had lost contact with Pépé and it would be impossible to co-ordinate the dispersal plans.

Pickard had a good reason for giving so little warning of his intentions. The flood of betrayals in northern France made it possible that he might lead his squadron into a flock of Luftwaffe fighters perched above the prison.

Ponchardier’s problem was to gather sufficient forces to hold the guards at bay while others piled anything up to a thousand escaped prisoners into trucks and drove them to safe hide-outs.

That night it snowed heavily. Tn the

morning Ponchardier and the few men he had been able to muster lurked near the prison, their three elderly trucks hidden nearby. If only Pépé could be found; he had twenty trucks in better condition. Inside the prison, Beaurin got word that the breakout was set for noon. He immediately organized a “shock force” to lead the rush against the guards.

With an hour to go, Ponchardier eontacted one of Pépé’s lieutenants. Pépé. he learned, was in Caen; and despite Ponchardier’s pleadings, the Communist would not provide help until he could

get a confirmation from his chief.

Finally, Ponchardier exploded. “You are a shame on the name of France and the Resistance! I call you a coward!”

Stung to action, the Communist reversed himself and promised ten trucks if Ponchardier would vow that the planes really would come. Ponchardier gave his oath.

At noon more snow came, and that was all—no planes, no bombs.

While Ponchardier waited and looked up at the falling snow in Amiens, the blond giant Pickard gazed at the worsen-

ing visibility over the airfield in Kent and turned to the operations staff: “No good, can’t do it today. Postpone Operation Jericho until the same time tomorrow."

Had the anxious Ponchardier known Pickard, he would also have known that this decision meant the weather was impossible for flying. Pickard had flown more than a hundred missions over enemy territory, commanded a squadron of exiled Czech pilots and recently specialized in secret-service missions, landing agents in occupied territory and bringing out men being hunted by the Gestapo.

By then he had earned the Distinguished Service Order three times, and by the end of the war four more high decorations were to be added.

That afternoon, the Mosquito crews were called to the briefing room for further examination of air photographs of the prison and the blueprints sent across by Ponchardier. Postponement of the operation meant no waste of time. The crews remained at immediate notice and Pickard saw to it that they studied details time and time again.

At dawn on the 16th, Ponchardier looked again at the weather. The snow had stopped, but rain and overcast clouds darkened the sky. Gloomily he set about organizing his men for the second time, but in his heart he knew there was little hope of the planes arriving. Inside the prison and out, men were reluctant to give up even the faintest hope, for the Gestapo changed their minds daily, and no one knew if they would wait until the 20th.

If the commandant woke up with a hangover or had been refused by his woman, there was always a firing squad.

At noon the same men, same faces, gazed at the heavy sky and listened for the sound of engines. Around them the city went about its business with familiar sounds of bustle and traffic. Above, the sky stayed silent.

It was noon in Kent when the squadron's reconnaissance aircraft landed and the pilot reported to Pickard: “Thick as fog over Amiens, sir. Couldn’t see a bloody thing.”

The squadron commander repeated his order to the control staff: “Postpone Jericho again. We’ll have another shot tomorrow.”

In the afternoon, the Air Group Commander, Air Marshal Sir Basil Embry, drove down from London with new orders.

“You must go tomorrow, Pickard, whatever happens. This thing has become pretty urgent. SHAEF headquarters have taken an interest in it and are howling that if we let those poor devils down now, the Allies can expect damn little help during the invasion.”

“I realize that, sir,” replied Pickard. “Matter of fact, I've pretty well decided

to go tomorrow and to hell with the weather.”

“Good. Now I’d like to have a look at the final plan and have a talk with the boys.”

Pickard's plan was fairly simple but it required precision timing by each of the eighteen aircraft taking part. In the tests against dummy brick-and-cement walls of the same dimensions as the real thing, it had been proved that only fivehundred-pound bombs would achieve the object — to avoid the risk of killing prisoners and yet make a large enough breach for a mass escape.

Pickard had split the squadron into three flights of six aircraft each. Flight A was to approach the outer wall at thirty feet, dip to fifteen feet at the moment of releasing their bombs to ensure that they would not bounce, and then skim over the Iwen.y-five-foot wall.

Flight B was to open up the lower end of the cell block forming the stem of the crucifix. This meant flying in at no more than twenty feet and dropping the bombs in the courtyard so that they would skip against the building.

The burden laid upon the young pilots of this flight was the awful knowledge that the slightest overshoot would catapult bombs right through the cell block, killing hundreds of prisoners.

Flight C was to onbit in reserve, ready to take over should either of the other flights fail in their objectives.

Noon was zero hour for a very logical reason. That was the time the guards went to lunch and would be assembled in the barracks; it was also the time when a large number of escaping prisoners could mingle and vanish among the thousands of Amiens workers going out to lunch.

Before leaving the airfield, Sir Basil told the crews: “This is a most unusual mission, dedicated not to the destruction of life but to the saving of it. That should be of some comfort.”

That night the Mosquito crews turned in early, already aware that nothing would prevent Pickard ordering Jericho the next morning. Pickard had chosen this code name for the operation from the Biblical account of the sound of trumpets bringing the walls of Jericho crashing down.

Continued on page 42

“Äs a bell tolled twelve, Beaurin heard the roar of the engines. ‘Listen/ he shouted, ‘they’re here!’ ”

At dawn on the 18th, Ponchardier met the Communist deputy chief for the last time. “1 beg you," he said desperately, "to let your men stand by with mine just this one last day. I cannot tell you why, but. I have a feeling, a powerful feeling, that the planes will come today. I need your men and I need your trucks. What can 1 hope to accomplish with my three old trucks?”

“No. You promised me they would come three days ago. You have been promising the same thing every day. And what happens? Nothing. Pépé would not like to think I was risking his men and our valuable trucks for some pipedream of yours. No. That is the end."

He stalked away and Ponchardier shuffled off angrily to place his twentytwo men in position.

At 11.15 a.m. the weather reports and air reconnaissance cc firmed that the overcast might break in the Amiens area by noon. It was not decisive information as Pickard had already made up his mind to fly. However, it gave the operation a greater chance of success and. feeling more confident, Pickard gave the order: “Scramble!” Five minutes later, they streaked off the ground, form-

cd up behind Pickard, and headed for France at three hundred feet.

Over the Channel they broke through the dirty mist into fine, sunny weather, unexpected by the weathermen, and saw for the first time, high above them, their fighter escort of Typhoons. Pickard dipped down to twenty feet while crossing the water to avoid enemy radar. He took them up again over the French coast and soon they were hedge-hopping inland, passing Amiens on their right to divert attention from their real target.

At 1 1.50, Pickard waggled his wings, banked steeply, and the three flights turned north again, this time on the approach to the prison. Five miles away, they swerved to the main Amiens-Paris road—a wide, dead-straight pointer to the prison, which lay off it to one side. Then it was in sight, precisely as they had been shown on the dummy models.

The leader of Flight A dipped to fifteen feet, below the level of the wall, skipped his bomb and skimmed over the top. The bomb smashed home against the wall, blowing a gap fifteen feet across. Flight A had accomplished its role with one accurate bomb.

Flight B followed in blind through the smoke and dust haze, saw the lower end of the cell block snap into view, and bounced their bombs, fanning upward at the same time to clear the roof. Pickard followed another aircraft in toward the guard barracks, saw it score a direct hit, and whipped out of the way, his aircraft bucking in the blast waves. Two other Mosquitoes of Flight B came in sideways at the block and knocked a gaping hole in the cross of the crucifix as an alternative escape hatch.

Pickard circled above the prison and shouted excitedly into his radio-telephone: “Daddy calling, Daddy calling. Red, red, red.” Immediately, Flight C knew they were not needed and wheeled away to off-load their bombs on the railway marshalling yards.

From high above, a cluster of Luftwaffe fighters seeking trouble dived furiously on the escorting Typhoons, breaking formation as a vast canopy of dog-fights spread over Amiens. One group spiralled on downward at the unsuspecting Mosquitoes.

The elated Pickard, veteran that he was, looked down at the prison when he should have been watching over his shoulders. Two Focke-Wulf 190s closed on his tail with cannons flaming. The trapped Mosquito toppled on one side and fell burning to the ground outside the prison gates.

A few minutes before noon, Jean Beaurin stood at the death-cell window searching the sky. Three more condemned men sat at his feet, stoically resigned to the twili^ their lives.

Beau 3d no' really believe the air-

craft VÁ • come, but he refused to accept ‘ wholly, in the way that

all lúe* • S are about to die cling desperately n Tiadows of hope.

A bell tolled twelve times and, as the deep tones of the last chime died, a roar of aircraft engines filled the sky.

“Listen — they are here," he shouted.

Almost immediately, the four men were thrown to the floor by a violent explosion. Bricks ricocheted like bullets, wounding Beaurin in the head and the left arm. The cell door leaned back drunkenly. The four men attacked it with their feet, kicking frantically in their efforts to escape. Beaurin broke a toe without knowing it before the door col-

lapsed and another bomb hurled them to the floor again.

Then they were out.

They joined streams of prisoners breaking down other doors and crowding at the lower end, where a huge hole opened up the first gate to freedom. By the time Beaurin took charge, more than four hundred prisoners were massed for the breakout.

One bomb had crashed through the wall of the women's block and lay there with the eleven-second fuse ticking quietly. Women raced away from it in all directions, screaming with fear. It exploded, blew a hole in the wall and set fire to the block. Smoke, dust and cordite hung like a pall over the prison, the piteous cries of the dying mingling with the chatter of automatic weapons.

Ponchardier and his twenty-two men were pinning down the survivors from the German guardhouse. Beaurin gave a signal and the yelling mass poured into the courtyard, swamped Ponchardier’s party and streamed through the outer wall into the streets of Amiens.

Fifteen minutes after noon, Operation Jericho finished for the RAF. Harried by the Luftwaffe, the Mosquitoes split up and headed back to England. On the ground, Ponchardier surveyed the prison, surrounded by a penetrating silence.

The last prisoner had gone, the last German guard had died. Only the dust and the wounded remained. Hundreds of escapees had vanished into the labyrinth of back streets, where doors opened and willing hands pulled them into hiding, to provide food and fit them out with civilian clothes.

Within hours, all France would rejoice. Meanwhile the ordinary people of i Amiens threw off fear and set about dispersing the prisoners, the job that Ponchardier had been about to attempt with his twenty-two men. Instead of a hundred helpers from Pépé, he suddenly found thousands from the city itself.

Ponchardier organized a rescue line for the wounded. Although the city garrison would descend on the prison at any moment, his men uncovered the buried, escorted them to safety and brought up two of the old trucks — the third refused to start.

By 12.30 p.m. his work was finished. He loaded fifty prisoners into the trucks and ran for the seclusion of the countryside.

Within an hour, the German army and Gestapo launched one of the most ruthless manhunts in history. Hundreds of people were shot on mere suspicion; more were herded into a temporary camp for interrogation and eventual death. But Jean Beaurin escaped with two hundred and seventy of the three hundred doomed Resistance leaders. Another hundred and eighty prisoners who had taken advantage of the raid were caught and sent to Fresnes Prison in Paris.

Among those to elude wfi my.stapo safely were the two British,; vM whose capture had prompted-tu- »f’s decision to act. j,; :

Ponchardier was conten^ . •'".u'in was free, even Pépé was exc: .; and claimed participation on behalt of his group. Most of all, France was reborn. In the days and weeks that followed, hundreds of young men and women flocked to the underground headquarters of a dozen Resistance groups to offer their services.

And for the first time, SHAEF in London could write into the invasion plans the active co-operation of the Maquis, as the co-ordinated Resistance soon became known.

All this achieved—and at what a price. Pickard died in his plane; another

aircraft was shot down on its way home; Beaurin’s brother and mother, who were being held as hostages, died in the last explosion; and eighty-seven French prisoners were killed by the five-hundredpound be bs.

Tragedy and triumph, the inseparable twins of war, so often depend on little things. And it was a small unknown quantity that played an altogether outof-proportion part in the raid.

Ponchardier’s reports, even the blueprints of the prison, gave the construction as brick and cement. In fact, there

was no cement, only crumbling mortar. Two-hundred-pound bombs would have done the job just as well and reduced the death toll.

No one could have known this. And three had escaped for every one who died.

Ponchardier is a novelist living in Paris today. Also in Paris are a mechanic called Pépé and a hardware dealer known as Jean Beaurin. They meet and they talk without rancor. Politics has long since vanished from their friendship, and now they are bound by the lives and

deaths of those whose destinies they once controlled.

Mention of cement and mortar can still produce a silence between them, yet they are agreed that the trumpets had to sound on February 18th, 1944.

Marking the crashing of the walls for posterity is a grave and monument carved into the rebuilt prison.

It is the grave of Pat Pickard, the pilot who answered their call for help. He is not forgotten by Frenchmen who once a year make a pilgrimage to lay flowers on what they call the shrine of Amiens. ^