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The Wellington gunner with fifth man’s luck

Posted in Historical articles, History, World War 2 on Tuesday, 30 April 2013

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This edited article about World War Two originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 236 published on 23 July 1966.

Sgt J Newton, picture, image, illustration

Sergeant Newton did not look back, but kept running until he could run no more

Lying alert and tense in the undergrowth, the young sergeant air-gunner peered out cautiously at the small suspension bridge across the River Bidasoa, which forms part of the French-Spanish Border.

The bridge was deserted, except for a lone sentry on the Spanish side. The French side, for some reason, was left unguarded.

The fugitive was Sergeant (later Flt.-Lt.) J. Newton. As he weighed his chances of escaping across that frontier bridge, he boosted his own morale with the thought that, in spite of some anxious moments, his luck had held so far.

Months had passed since the Wellington bomber, of which he had been front gunner, had made a forced landing on an enemy-occupied airfield at Antwerp-Deurne, after being badly shot up over Aachen.

“Burn and beat it!” was the rule in such emergencies. Newton now vividly recalled that mad scramble after they had set the shattered bomber ablaze with Verey pistols. His first cartridge had flashed back in his face. As they all dashed away in different directions, their skipper’s, “Good luck, chaps,” ringing in their ears, Newton had been half blinded and in agony.

For two days he was on the run without treatment for a burned eye; then he found refuge in a doctor’s house, not 15 miles from the target he had helped to bomb.

Five secret escape organisations were then helping shot-down Allied airmen. One had contacted Newton, giving him a fierce grilling to make sure he was not an enemy agent in British uniform. Satisfied, they moved him to a nurse’s house in Brussels.

He was locked in an attic and warned to keep quiet. Surprise searches were frequent, but his hiding place proved safe. He endured his “prison” for weeks, tormented by boredom and raging toothache.

“You must see a dentist,” his half-Spanish nurse said one day. “You are dark and could pass for a Spaniard. Grow a moustache. I’ll get a beret.”

Newton grew sideboards as well as a moustache, and, while waiting, learned a few parrot phrases in Spanish from the nurse. He was to pose as her nephew.

He would never forget his four nerve-wracking visits to that dentist, and the helpless feeling he had while walking through streets thronged with soldiers and military police. Yet he survived.

These, and similar memories of his journey through Belgium and France, escorted by a daring underground worker, Andrée de Jongh, raced through his mind as he lay and stared at the frontier bridge . . .

Now he was on his own. He was armed with faked identification papers, but had been warned not to display them unless cornered. He was to make his own way to Bilbao, where a new escort would be waiting.

But first there was the Bidasoa to be crossed, which was why he now lay hidden while studying the bridge and its surroundings. He looked across at a small guardroom, some 15 yards to the left of the bridge where he had seen the sentry changed every two hours.

Now while waiting for darkness, he memorize details of the terrain to the right, where a inviting road led away from the river.

A quick dash across the bridge, shortly before a change of sentry, seemed his best hope of getting into Spain. He counted on the fellow being jaded after his two-hour stretch; it might be possible to take him by surprise.

Darkness came at last, and he started preparations by ridding his canvas carry-all of anything that might clink or rattle. This gave him an idea. His last meal had been some unheated soup, gulped straight from the tin. This he now retrieved, put some stones in the bottom and plugged them with his handkerchief.

Suddenly he was startled by a movement across the bridge and the sound of a clicking rifle bolt. He strained his ears and thought he could detect the tread of someone advancing on the bridge.

He flattened himself, silent and breathless. He imagined the sentry to be staring in his direction, and expected to hear a shouted challenge. But none came, and the footsteps retreated to the Spanish shore.

After an interval, Newton began to crawl from his hiding place. He reached the bridge and crept on, keeping close to the left-hand side to gain such cover as stanchions and cables offered. He moved onwards, inch by inch, until he guessed he must be midway – at the point where the cables dipped to their lowest line.

The shore ahead was blacked out, save for a faint pencil of light issuing from the guardroom. He could just make out the shadowy outline of the pacing sentry.

Quietly, he now removed his handkerchief from the tin, leaving the stones loose; then he pressed down the jagged lid. He watched till the sentry was moving away from the bridge, then got slowly to his feet. Grabbing the tin firmly in his right hand, he hurled it with all his force towards the shore. The “loaded” tin fell with a resounding clatter on the galvanized iron roof of the guard hut.

The din set all the dogs in the area barking. There was a flash of light as the hut door was flung open and men streamed out, shouting to the sentry who was racing towards the scene of the uproar.

But Newton did not wait to find out what happened next. Taking advantage of the diversion, he raced across the rest of the bridge and dashed straight for the road he had memorized as the most likely way of escape.

The clamour of the dogs and the shouts of the puzzled guards wholly masked the sound of his running feet. He did not look back, but kept on down the dark road till his wind gave out and he could run no more.

He sought cover and listened anxiously; but there were no sounds of pursuit. Rested, he pressed on. The district seemed deserted, so he spent a watchful night in a ruined water-tower, dozing fitfully at intervals. He was off again at the first hint of dawn.

Somehow, using his limited Spanish, he got to Bilbao, met his new guide and, with some other R.A.F. men who had made a similar rendezvous, was taken to Madrid.

In the sanctuary of the British Embassy, he learned that all the other members of the crew of the Wellington had been made prisoners of war. He alone had got through.

“Fifth man’s luck!” said someone, congratulating him.

Then his luck all but ran out. Boarding a Sunderland flying-boat at Gibraltar, en route for England, Sergeant Newton slipped and pitched into the harbour and, weighed down with new, homegoing kit, was very nearly drowned!

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