Seconde Guerre Mondiale
 Soldats allemands emmenant un prisonnier américain


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Escape report Private Robert A. Burks (S/N: 19097942)

Robert A. Burks jumped near Ste Mère L'Eglise on June 6,1944 and was arrested by the SS a few days later. He then managed to escape and was helped by the French.

He joined the Maquis of the Vitré area and inflicted heavy losses to the retreating German troops. After the Germans left Vitré, he ran the city for one week until the arrival of a Civil Affairs detachment.

This surprising story was featured in an article published in the Journal de Vitré on 5 august  2011




"We left England on 5 June and jumped down into Manche around 0130 on the morning of 6 June. This is the only date that I remember until 11 august when I arrived at the Third Army PW enclosure. The intervening period is just a series of days without name or number, filled with nightmares and excitement. The jump was something that I would not like to live through again. As I was falling, I watched the tracers coming up from the ground and wondered when they would hit me. As I looked around, I saw other fellows have their parachutes shot full of holes and then catapult to the ground, or I saw arms, legs and heads blown away in mid-air. When I hit the ground, I landed next to a pair of legs. The rest of my unit was scattered all over the area. I came down near St Martin de Vierville to the east of Ste Mère l’Eglise. The following days were filled with forming small units to harass the Germans, and breaking up and reforming for each particular mission. Towards the end of June, three of us were on a patrol heading toward our own lines. We thought that we had reached them when we ran smack into an SS patrol which captured us. My two companions were Fry and Anderson, both of my own unit. We were captured at Meautis, a little SW of Carentan and taken to the SS Bn HQ.

We stayed only a short time at the HQ and we were then taken to a farmhouse where we were interrogated by a sergeant who spoke very good English. When we refused to talk, we were put into a black room and left without bread and water until we pounded on the door signifying that we were ready to talk. I admit that this treatment broke me because I saw they were going to leave me there to die if I didn’t talk. I pounded on the door and was taken back to the interrogator. All he asked me then was the name of my various unit commanders. Fry and Anderson had also been broken. When I left the farmhouse, there was another prisoner who had already been in solitary for four days without food and water, and I am sure that the SS were going to leave him there till he either talked or died. From this place, we were walked down to St Sébastien de Raids, just outside Périers and then we were taken by truck at night to La Chapelle-sur-Viré. We stayed there only one day and left again by truck for Laval stopping some place north of the city. While we were in the prison camp, they fed us a little soup and bread, and sometimes milk, but during transit, whether walking or riding, there was no provision made for food. Sometimes, the French would hear that we were stopping some place for a rest and they would bring us food, which they gave to us and never to the Germans. Without this we would have starved. The truck convoys moved only at night. In the daytime, they hid under trees. We were never allowed to get out of the trucks, day or night. When we stopped outside Laval, we had been in the trucks for forty eight hours with no food at all. At this point, we got out and the trucks were taken away. The French soon discovered that we were in the vicinity and brought us food, although they had quite a hard time because there were 90 of us. Fry and Anderson were still with me. The date now was probably somewhere around the end of June or the beginning of July.

The next day we were walked through Laval. There were 90 of us and they had 7 guards all on foot. After leaving the city, we walked west heading for Rennes. We were on the road most of the day until we came to a chateau where we stopped to rest. There were a count and countess living there. Anderson spoke French, so the German Sergeant took him up to the chateau to interpret, and I tagged along. The sergeant wanted to get some food. It turned out that an interpreter wasn’t needed because either the count or the countess spoke some German. There was gardener in the room who motioned Anderson and myself to come with him. He took us into another room and said that the count and countess would keep the sergeant occupied. Then he brought out some maps and showed us where we were and the best way to make an escape. He asked us to delay it until we were a considerable distance from the chateau so that suspicion would not fall on the count and countess. We walked on more that day until we came to a barn where we spent the night. Towards dawn, Fry, Anderson and myself slipped out and hid a wood nearby to wait for the prisoners and guards to move on. When the rest of them woke up, a count was taken and it was discovered that we three were missing. The guards lined up the prisoners on the road and said that they would stand there until we reappeared. One of the prisoners must have seen us take off and hid, because he told the Germans where we were and they came and got us and we marched on with them toward Vitré.

Toward the end of the day, we stopped in an orchard to rest. The guards were more tired than we were. They had tried to get the prisoners to carry their MG’s and packs, but we kept dropping them or forgetting them so that the Germans had to go back continually to retrieve them, and they finally ceased trying to make us carry them. We had not been in the orchard very long before some Frenchmen came with food for us. Anderson started talking to one of them, who offered to help us escape. He described a lake in the vicinity to which we should go. Anderson asked him to have as many people come to the orchard filling it up so that the guards could not watch all of us. The man went away and soon came back with about two hundred people who milled all around and quite prevented the guards from seeing what was going on with us. Fry, Anderson and myself had no difficulty in getting away. We mistook our direction and couldn’t find the rendezvous, so we stopped in at a farmhouse and got new directions. It was pretty late by this time, so we decided to spend the night in the woods and look for the lake the next day. The following morning we started off again, and were doing fine until we started to cross a road and ran into 3 Germans who recaptured us. They had a few Frenchmen with them and they were all loading charcoal into a truck and trailer. Since none of us had any weapons, we decided to be very docile until we saw another chance to escape. We helped them load the vehicle. Soon, however, we thought that as it was three against three, we should jump on them and make a break for it, as we might be put under stricter guard when they took us back to the other prisoners. We also assumed that the French who were loading would help us. All at once each of us jumped on each of the three Germans and grappled with them. In the struggle, the other two pairs rolled out of my sight around the other side of the vehicle. I managed to get the upper hand of mine and took his riffle away. I didn’t know how to fire it, because it was on safety or something, so I took it and started to beat him over the head until he collapsed. I don’t know whether I killed him or just knocked him out. In the course of the struggle with him, he had been using his bayonet and drove it into the back of my head and into my right hand. When my opponent ceased to struggle, I stood up and walked around to the other side of the truck. There I saw Fry lying on his back with his eyes shut and one of the Germans sitting on Anderson stabbing him in the back. I nearly went mad; it seemed that everything had conspired to break me. Just before I left home, I had sworn to Anderson’s mother that I would take care of him, and now I stood watching a German stabbing him in the back. I knew the French had helped the Germans. All this went through my mind in a fraction of a second and then I fled from the horror. I ran into a house and hid in the eaves. I heard four rifle shots from the road. Then about ten Germans came into the house and searched it violently but never came to my hiding place. I heard one more shot and they left. Then a Frenchman came to me and said I had to get out at once. I did so and started off towards Vitré, bleeding, miserable and exhausted.

My first rational thought was that I must find someone to dress my wound and feed me and give me a place to rest. I met a girl on the road who agreed to help me. She took me along the road, and when I showed that I thought that was a dangerous place to walk, she said that all the people around were good Frenchmen. I kept expecting Germans to pop out of the hedges and was just about to leave her when we met a man on a bicycle. The girl asked him if he knew a good place to which I could be taken. He said he did and took me with him to a house where they dressed my wound, gave me civilian clothes, and hid my uniform. I was given something to eat, and the man asked if I would like to get in touch with the Maquis. I said I would like to very much. They put me to bed that night and I got a good rest. The next day a man appeared who took me to Vitré, where another took me to Balazé, about three miles north of Vitré. I stayed on a farm there for two days. The man gave me a French pistol and fed me so well that I couldn’t eat all the food. After the two days, another Frenchman came and took me away into a wood where I met four Maquis. I was introduced to them all. In the course of the day, the other members of the band appeared, 11 in all. I asked them about chances of getting back to my own people. They said that it was impossible to get through the German lines and that the Spanish border was closed, so I had better remain with them until the American troops arrived in the area. I agreed.

As is usual among the Maquis, the members of the band all came from the vicinity in which they operated. They need to get food and information from the farmers and the people in the towns. They also worked closely with the gendarmerie. My band worked out of the Vitré area. I spoke a little Spanish and one of the group did also. So communication started in Spanish supplemented by signs and diagrams, and gradually I worked into French, such as that group could understand. The average age was 19. They decided that I should be the operations officer. They had courage such as I have seldom seen, but little sense of security. I nearly had a revolution when I told them they couldn’t smoke while on an operation. I was with them for about a week before anything happened. Then one of our scouts from a nearby village told us that there was a German police car that used a certain route and always stopped at the same place. I decided that we should ambush it. The next day, 8 of us went to the place and found the car. There were four Germans in it. We opened fire and killed them all, and then made off with the car and the weapons that were in it. Then we moved to the Forêt du Pertre and made a bivouac beside a lake. We slept in blankets and made shelters to keep off the rain. We went to farmhouses for our meals. In this forest they had a one-way radio to London. I sent in my name and serial number. We asked London for arms and ammunitions. The next day four more joined the band. A few days later, 24 Stens and 4 Brens were dropped to us by parachute with an ample supply of ammunitions and hand grenades. Soon after this, the roads began to be crowded with German vehicles moving east and south. It looked as though the Americans were beginning their big push and the Germans were being forced to retreat. The roads were packed with them. All movement was at night. During the day, the trucks hid under trees. When they were moving, the trucks were about ½ kilometer apart and going as fast as they could. Most of them were loaded with troops. I split the band into groups of two or three and stationed them at bends in the road. Then as each truck went by, we emptied a clip into the body of each one. I told them not to shoot the driver because then the truck would stop and hold up the rest of our targets. This went on perfectly for many nights. I alone used up four boxes of ammunitions on them. Then one night, a sedan came along and stopped opposite to my position. I think the Germans laid a trap to catch us and stop the wholesale slaughter we were doing on their troops. There was another of our positions a little up the road. They told me afterwards that they didn’t intend to fire on the car because of my instruction to fire only on moving vehicles, but when one of the Germans stepped out of the car they couldn’t contain themselves any longer. They opened fire and killed all the Germans in the car and immediately two large trucks with steel bodies came around the corner. Each truck was towing a small canon, and the men inside were armed with MG’s, mortars and hand grenades. In the face of such strength, we had to leave. We fought our way back to our two cars, and then discovered that one of them wouldn’t start. So as many as possible piled into the other and took off. Myself and the five remaining split into groups of two and made our way safely through the woods back to our camp. By this time, the Germans were thick in the area, and we expected them to find the camp any day and attack it. I had the band construct a defense. One side was protected by the lake. There was only one road leading into the area. I had a lot of MG’s trained on it, and then filled the woods surrounding with booby traps.

Before I had a chance to use this defense, a gendarme came over from Vitré and told me that the first American column had gone through the city. I went into the city with my band to get the Germans from the rear, but when I arrived I discovered that there were neither Germans nor Americans in the place. This must have been about the first part of August. I had spent approximately a month in the woods with the Maquis. When I saw there was no American authority in Vitré, I decided that I ought to stay there until someone appeared. I set up an office and ran the town for eight days. During that time, several CIC and MII teams came into the town, but they left immediately. All the civilians came to me with their problems and I soothed them. I was given the names of all collaborators, and did my best to take care of the refugees. Finally a Civil Affairs detachment arrived, and I turned the town over to them, and asked them how I could go about getting back to my unit. They said they didn’t know. When I told the band that I was leaving, they begged me to stay, and led me to a room where there was laid out on a bed a complete set of new clothes even to the shoes, and an identity card saying that I was born and bred in Vitré and owned property there. I was deeply touched, but I had to say no. I came back through various headquarters eventually landing at this enclosure."







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