Helping Allied airmen in the war

July 1940 – May 1941: Battle of Britain between the German and British air forces, which ends in victory for the latter.
7th December 1941: the United States enters the war.
17th August 1942: first mission of the B-17 bombers of the 8th Air Force (USAAF) in Western Europe over Rouen.

From the beginning of the war, the British, and later the Americans, were aware of the decisive role of their fighter pilots and bomber crews. They were few in number, their training was long and costly and many were taken prisoner or died on missions. Downed airmen were isolated in territories controlled by the Third Reich and had to be recovered as soon as possible.

Those whom the Allies referred to as helpers played an essential role in this recovery. These were men and women who spontaneously agreed to assist them by providing information, food, clothing, false papers or accommodation. This reception was not without risk, as it was punishable by deportation or the death penalty if discovered by the occupiers. Other helpers were organised into specialised networks dedicated solely to the escape of airmen, such as the Françoise network, directed from Toulouse by Marie-Françoise Dissart, who smuggled more than 700 British and American airmen to Spain. This network was particularly well represented in the Dordogne through the presence in Lunas of Françoise’s number two, Jean-Henri Bregi, and in Périgueux of René and Andrée Lamy, who were entirely involved in welcoming the pilots, with their three children Claude (eleven years old), Marie-Louise (ten years old) and Annick (nine years old), all of whom were recognised as full-fledged helpers by the aviators and then by the American authorities.

Several airmen passed through the Double Forest and the Mussidanais during their long and dangerous journey of several weeks, or even months, towards the Pyrenees: we can mention Nelson Campbell, Robert Martin, David Donovan and Joel MacPherson. They were helped in particular by Joseph Lavignac at Saint-Etienne-de-Puycorbier, Jean-Hadrien Joly at Saint-André-de-Double, Jean Drebetz at Issac, and Henri Borzeix, who was then the leader of the Double maquis.

Indeed, most of the pilots often spent a more or less long time in the maquis. Joel MacPherson’s case is rare, as he spent three months there, from February to May 1944, following the crash of his P-47 Thunderbolt fighter at Rouillac (Charente) on 31 January 1944. His first contact with the maquis was at Fénage, at La Roche-Chalais, on 7 February. His journey was punctuated by many adventures, including an arrest by the Guard, a paramilitary unit of the Vichy regime, the onset of a false appendicitis attack which ended in a real operation during an aborted liberation attempt organised by the Resistance, as well as an escape from the German barracks in Périgueux before joining the maquisards of the Double again. MacPherson finally managed to cross into Spain on 18 June 1944 and then to reach England on 31 July.

As for Lieutenant David Donovan, he spent much less time in the maquis. His P-51 Mustang fighter was shot down on 8 June 1944 at Monboyer, near Chalais (Charente). On 12 June he joined the maquisards of the Double, who were stationed at the Château de Colombat, in Saint-Etienne-de-Puycorbier, where he stayed for about ten days. He was then taken in charge by a young girl from the Françoise network who escorted him to Toulouse, then he reached England on 6 September after having transited through Italy.

22,000 French helpers who helped about 9,500 Allied soldiers and airmen to reach England are listed in the United States, but there are certainly many more. They were quickly recognised by the Allies after the war, but the story of these brave men and women is still unknown in France.

American Lieutenant David Donovan aboard his P-51 Mustang named Mary-Joyce in 1944.

Jean-Hadrien Joly, helper at Saint-André-de-Double.

Diploma sent to Henri Borzeix by the American government for his help in the escape of American airmen including Joel MacPherson.

Fake identity card of Joel MacPherson made by Jean-Henri Bregi in Lunas in March 1944.

David Donovan with young helpers Claude, Marie-Louisse and Annick Lamy in Toulouse in June 1944.