Ted Peterson’s Evasion and Escape

Background

During World War II, one of the Nazi’s greatest offensive strengths was the U-boat. The Nazi’s used the U-boat to great affect early in the war by destroying U.S. ships providing necessary supplies to England. Once the U.S. entered the war, the U-boats were a devastating force for allied Navies who were attempting to fight the Nazi occupation of North Africa. The U-boat wolf packs were repaired, maintained, and supplied by bases along the western coast of France. One of these bases was located at St. Nazaire, France, which had bunker-like pens the submarines could access without surfacing. The allies attempted to destroy these bases throughout the war, with Britain executing a commando raid at St. Nazaire in 1942. All attempts by the allies to destroy the submarine pens of the base at St. Nazaire were unsuccessful.

Ted Peterson

Ted Peterson was born in 1919 and grew up in the small town of Bountiful, Utah, in the mountains Northeast of Salt Lake City. Ted was born into family of 14 who were all deeply religious and members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They lived on a 120-acre farm which provided their livelihood. They raised cows, pigs and chickens and farmed the land. The land provided most of what they needed and they were self-sufficient.


Ted learned early that he didn’t want to be a farmer as a profession, but hoped to obtain a bachelor’s degree, which no one in his family had ever done. He enrolled in the University of Utah in 1940 and began attending college. One day in 1941 while working near Salt Lake City, Ted saw six B-17s flying in formation to Honolulu. He was awe-struck by the sight but did not think at the time that he would ever fly a B-17. After Pearl Harbor was bombed and the U.S. entered the war, Ted left the University of Utah and entered the U.S. Army Air Corps as an aviation cadet. After completing his flight training, Ted was made a 1st Lieutenant and assigned as the pilot of a B-17 crew.

After the U.S entered the war, the Allies had a new weapon to use against the Axis powers—namely the B-17 bomber, also called the “Flying Fortress.” The B-17 was different from the British bombers in that it could fly at altitudes of 25,000 feet and was equipped with the Norden Bomb Sight, which was accurate at that high altitude. Flying at 25,000 feet kept the B-17 further from anti-aircraft fire and enemy fighter aircraft which weren’t initially as effective at that altitude. This enabled the Allies to use British bombers for night-time raids and the B-17s for day-time raids.

A B-17 has a crew of 10. With the exception of the Pilot and Copilot, all of the other crewmen operate a machine gun—hence when the B-17 was named the “Flying Fortress.” In April 1943, Ted was assigned to the 379th Bomber Group (526th Bomber Squadron, 8th Air Force) and flew to England with replacement planes and crew. He was stationed in Kimbolton, England and assigned B-17 42-29878 “Lady Godiva.” In the weeks following being assigned to the “Lady Godiva,” Ted and his crew performed training exercises in the bomber and were involved as the diversionary force in a few bombing runs, but they had never carried or dropped any bombs during those runs.

In May 1943, the Allies planned a bombing raid on the submarine pens at St. Nazaire using the 170th Bomber Group (and other bomber groups). The bombers were loaded with bombs that had time-delayed fuses and steel-tipped cones. The goal was for the bombs to penetrate the thick concrete of the submarine pens before detonating, in the hope of causing as much damage to the pens as possible, if not destroy them completely. The raid was set for May 29, 1943 with the bombs to be dropped at 5:00 pm. This was to be the first mission of the “Lady Godiva’s” first mission to carry and drop bombs.

The morning of May 29th was spent by the crew checking the plane and preparing for the evening bombing run. The right waist gunner assigned to the crew was injured and had to be replaced by a “guest gunner.” Below are the positions of a B-17 crew and the names of the crew of the “Lady Godiva” on May 29, 1943:

 

Pilot 1st Lieutenant  Ted Peterson
Co-pilot 2nd Lieutenant Jack Bourn
Navigator/Cheek Turret Gunner 2nd Lieutenant Woodrow Moore
Bombardier/Chin Turret Gunner 2nd Lieutenant Warren Rosacker
Engineer/Top Turret Gunner Technical Sergeant Maynard Spencer
Radio Operator/Radio Compartment Gunner Technical Sergeant John Scott
Tail Gunner Staff Sergeant Gideon Brown
Ball Turret Gunner Staff Sergeant William Blubaugh
Right Waist Gunner Sergeant William Ayres
Left Waist Gunner Staff Sergeant Paul Cribelar

The Bomb Run

 

The plan for the raid was for the bomber force to fly from Britain, south into France. At a certain point in the flight plan, a diversionary group of bombers would break off of the main group and travel farther East into France. The main body would continue South and eventually turn westward toward St Nazaire. After dropping the bombs on the objective, the bomber group would turn north toward Britain once they were out at sea.

 

As the planes flew in formation over the objective, they began experiencing anti-aircraft fire. Ted recalled, “I was flying on the left wing of the squadron commander and his airplane was hit right in the midsection. Pieces of the airplane blew out into the sky. A second or two later, a burst occurred right beside me and blew a hole as big as a bathtub in the wing of the airplane.” Despite the damage to the wing, the plane could still fly and the “Lady Godiva” dropped its bombs on the target. However, the anti-aircraft burst had damaged several of the engines and soon the plane was flying on only one engine, severely disabled and vulnerable to enemy fighters.

The original flight plan had called for the bomber group to fly on the west (seaward) side of the Brest peninsula and then North back to England. As the “Lady Godiva” could not keep in formation with the other bombers of the group, the group tried as best it could to keep the German fighters at bay and away from the crippled “Lady Godiva.” Ted knew the plan would not be able to make the return flight to England, so he deviated from the original flight plan and flew north over the Brest Peninsula. Before they reached the ocean on the northern side of the peninsula, Ted decided to have his crew bail out of the plane over land rather than chance ditching the plane in the water, so he gave the bail out command.

The personnel in the front of the aircraft heard the initial bail-out order and promptly left the plane. Initially, Copilot Jack Bourn could not find his parachute. The pilot and copilot did not wear their parachutes during flight since they were front-mounted chutes and would inhibit the pilot’s ability to pull back on the yoke. The parachutes were stowed in a compartment behind the seats, but Bourn couldn’t locate his when the bail out order was given. Ted gave Born his parachute and Bourn left the aircraft. After a frantic search, Ted quickly located the lost parachute under flight clothes that the crew had discarded prior to bailing out. He strapped on the parachute and was getting ready to leave the plane when he looked back and saw some of the crew in the rear of the plane still at their stations. The crew in the rear of the plane had not heard the bail out order because the communication equipment had been damaged during the fight.

 

Ted maneuvered to the middle of the plane and had to traverse the still open bomb bay to get to the crewmen. He found the crew tending to the Radio Operator, John Scott, who had received a wound in the back from a burst of flak (anti-aircraft fire). After dressing the wound, they helped Scott bail out through the bomb bay and everyone else left the aircraft. One of the waist gunners was afraid to bail out and kept freezing in the doorway. As the commander of the aircraft, Ted couldn’t leave anyone behind, so he eventually put his foot in the man’s back as he hesitated in the doorway and pushed him out, then Ted finally jumped out of the plane.

 

Because he had left the plane at such a low altitude, the ride to the ground was short and ted landed in the middle of a field with his parachute tangling in a short oak tree.

The Oaktree Resistance

On March 20, 1943, Britain’s intelligence organization tasked with helping downed allied pilots and Prisoners of War evade or escape capture from the Germans (MI9), parachuted two operatives onto the Brest Peninsula of France—Val Williams and Ray Labrosse. Their objective was to establish a resistance group to help helping downed pilots in the Brittany region of France. The original plan was the help downed pilots escape by boat across the English Channel, but after several failed attempts, the plan was changed to help downed pilots cross the Pyrenes into Spain and evacuate with help from the British consulate in Spain. Williams and Labrosse quickly contacted locals and organized a group to help downed pilots called Oaktree.

 

Before Ted landed in the field, the locals of Plourhan and Saint Quay-Portrieux had watched the damaged B-17 roar across the sky trailed by German fighters. They had watched as the crew bailed out of the plane and could see their white parachutes in the sky, but so could the Germans. Because Ted had bailed out so late, he landed in a field on the outskirts of Saint Quay-Portrieux, which is right on the ocean. He was immediately greeted by Henri Poulouin, whose field he had landed in and other locals, some who were associated with Oaktree. Henri and another young man, Pierre Moreau, quickly led Ted a mile away to a ravine to hide him from searching Germans. They indicated that they would return in approximately two hours at 8:00 pm.

 

Ted didn’t speak any French and did was anxious as to whether he could trust the young men who had helped him. He had little choice but to wait or strike out on his own. He decided to wait and kneeled down in the ravine to offer a prayer of thanks to God for saving him and for sending what appeared to be help.

 

Later that evening, at 8:00 pm, the two young men returned with famer’s clothing and a pitchfork. Ted dressed in the new clothes and the boys escorted him to another location, where he spent the night under an apple tree. Early that night, Ray Labrosse, using the codename Paul, visited Ted and explained to him in English that he and the Oaktree group would help him as best they could escape from occupied France. As Ted spent his first night in France under the apple tree, around midnight, he heard someone moving toward him. He tensed up thinking he had been discovered, but was surprised to see a little boy crawl out of the field and present him with a white handkerchief and a rose. The boy promptly curled up next to Ted and fell asleep under the apple tree. Ted kept that handkerchief and rose his entire life.

 

The next day, Ted was moved to a safehouse in Saint Quay-Portrieux where he met other downed aviators. Among them were John Scott, the Radio Operator and Bill Ayres, the right Waist Gunner, from the crew of the “Lady Godiva.” The Oaktree resistance group arranged for the airmen to have photographs taken so they could forge official travel documents which would enable the airmen to appear as French citizens and travel to Paris, and eventually to Spain. On the first train from Saint Quay-Portrieux to Saint Brieuc, Ted was seated next to a German soldier. At the Paris train station, one of the airmen was stopped by a German soldier, but upon showing his papers, was dismissed.

 

In Paris, Ted and the other airmen were again sent from safe house to safehouse, frequently on the move to keep from discovery. During this time, they did not know what was going on behind the scenes or the next step in their journey. The language barrier prevented them from understanding those trying to help them. On the other hand, the rescuers often didn’t have definite information or plans to pass on to the airmen. The French resistance was constantly trying to keep one step ahead of the Gestapo and members of the resistance were often questioned, arrested, and sometimes killed. Each time a resistance member was questioned or arrested, the operation would change for the new circumstances. They also didn’t want to provide too much information to the airmen in the event of their capture. The less the airmen knew, the less they could divulge during interrogation if captured. The lack of information and plans was frustrating for the military men who thrived on planning and action. To cope, they tried to focus on exercise and preparation for their eventual exfiltration through Spain.

 

In July 1943, the resistance had lodged Ted, John Scott, and Bill Ayres at a Tuberculosis treatment center in Paris. Ayres had apparently had enough of the uncertainty and anxiety and on July 4, 1943, decided to set out on his own. Without telling Ted or John Scott, he left the sanitorium to make his own escape. When they found Ayres missing, Ted and John Scott immediately informed the resistance and were moved to a new location. Ayres was captured and spent the rest of the war in a German Prisoner of War camp.

Over the Mountains

On July 20, 1943, LaBrasse gathered Ted and John Scott and they met up with three other downed airmen. U.S. Staff Sergeant Roy Martin (B-17 Ball Turret Gunner) who had been shot down over Lorient on May 17, 1943 and Royal Air Force (RAF) Airmen Sergeant William Hughes (flight engineer) and Sergeant Alfred Mansford (bombardier), both from a Halifax Bomber shot down near Lorraine on March 8, 1943. All five were put on a train South to Foix and met a Basque guide who led them through the Pyrenees mountains.

 

The journey through the Pyrenees was grueling. The 5 airmen were ill equipped to travel through the mountains and were provided no food or water during the journey. Even though they were making the trek in late July, they had to trek through snow much of the time. After a few days of walking, Mansford told the group his leg muscles were hurting and he couldn’t continue. He told the group to continue without him and the guide said he would send someone back to pick him up. Ted estimated that they walked for six days until they arrived in Andorra.

 

Once they had crossed the border, they still had to walk for five days to Manresa, Spain so they could take a train to Barcelona. Ted remembers this second part of the journey to Spain being harder than the first because their shoes were worn out. In Barcelona, the airmen were taken to the British Consulate where they received food and paperwork to travel to Gibraltar. On August 16, 1943, Ted (and John Scott) boarded a British Air Force airplane and arrived back in England. Ted was only the 69th airman to be exfiltrated from occupied France during World War II. Martin and Hughes both made it to Gibraltar and arrived in England on August 21, 2943. Mansford eventually arrived in Barcelona and was exfiltrated back to Britain (through Gibraltar) on September 1, 1943.

 

Upon his return to England, Ted was tasked with providing training to allied air servicemen regarding how to evade capture and work with resistance groups. As with other downed servicemen, he did not fly in the same theater where he was shot down for fear that he could reveal information regarding the resistance efforts if he were shot down again and captured. Ted returned to the U.S. in late 1943 where he reunited with his wife, and they eventually started a family. In the 1980s, Ted reunited with Henri Poulouin and Pierre Moreau in France. The B-17 “Lady Godiva” was located off the coast of St. Quay-Portieux and one of the propellers was salvaged and used in a monument erected to the Oaktree Resistance. Ted spent many years returning to France on May 29 to commemorate his rescue by the Oaktree Line.

 

In all, approximately 5,000 downed airmen were rescued by resistance groups in Western Europe during Nazi occupation. These groups helped the airmen evade or escape the Germans until they could be exfiltrated to Allied countries or reunited with Allied units.