The Paratrooper hacked his way to freedom

The following article appeared in a magazine in the late 1980’s.


All they had was a blunt knife – but it opened the way to freedom for a young paratrooper and his five comrades as they sped towards Germany in a prisoner-of-war train. As the French train, crammed with 400 prisoners of war, ground slowly but relentlessly through the night towards the German frontier only 90 miles away, five British paratroopers and an American soldier in turn hacked and sawed desperately with a blunt knife at the wooden floor of their battened-down cattle truck. Inch by inch they forced the knife through the thick boards, prising them up and bending them back until they split, leaving a jagged hole just large enough for a man to get through. Quickly, as the train reduced speed uphill, one of the paratroopers dropped through the hole and flattened himself in the centre of the track. The other five followed rapidly, hugging the ground as the waggons rumbled over them. As the train disappeared over the hill the six men scrambled to their feet and made for some high ground where they could hide and watch for German patrols sent to search for them. One of the men who took part in this remarkable escape - all got safely back to their units - was Private Douglas Baines, of 12th (Yorkshire) Battalion, The Parachute Regiment, who had been captured after eluding the Germans for six weeks in Normandy in 1944. After his escape he joined the French Maquis, was liberated by the Americans and later took part in the airborne assault across the Rhine.


Private Baines’ adventures began when, in the early hours of D-Day, 6 June, 1944, he parachuted into a canal behind the German lines in the swampy countryside near Cabourg, several miles from his Battalion rendezvous. He soon met an officer and three other men of his own Battalion and with them tried to find a way out through the knee-deep marshes.

But, by daylight, when they had almost reached Varaville, the paratroopers were still bogged down and had to take refuge in a barn to avoid German patrols. That night they again tried to break out but were baulked by a huge German minefield littered with dead cattle and had to return to their hiding place.

They were awakened next morning by a Frenchman who told them that they were completely surrounded by strong German forces and that he could take them by canoe along the River Dives to a safer village just outside Cabourg. Somewhat hesitantly, the fugitives agreed, but they need not have worried for the Frenchman was a Resistance man who, during the next few days, brought in 15 more paratroopers who had been cut off.

On the night of 14 June the 20 paratroopers made one more attempt to link up with British troops in Varaville, but were unable to penetrate the enemy cordon and were forced to return to their hide-out. By now they were without food so they killed a cow and stole potatoes from nearby farms, sharing the ‘loot’ between them.

The next night, 13 of the party set off along the coast towards the landing beaches and did not return and on 16 June the other seven, including Private Baines, made their way inland towards Caen, crossing the heavily-guarded Cabourg Road without being detected.

But now, the seven were worse off than before, for they soon ran into even swampier ground and were bombed, shelled and mortared by both sides. For a fortnight, hiding in a farm by day, they tried to escape the German ring but there was no way out and the men were growing weaker. They ran out of food again and then found some supplies dropped by the Royal Air Force but these kept them going for only a few days.

Now, almost at the end of their tether, weak from lack of food and exposure and covered in swamp mud, Private Baines and a Private Peacock of 7th Battalion, The Parachute Regiment, decided to make a break for safety along the coast road - but ran straight into a German patrol and were captured. After being closely interrogated for 24 hours, the two paratroopers were sent to a temporary camp at Dozule (where their daily ration was one cup of ersatz coffee and a slice of black bread), from there to Alencon and later - on 10 August - to Chartres.

Two days later, with 400 other British and French prisoners, Private Baines was taken to Paris by bus and put aboard a special train bound for Germany, but at Rennes, where the railway system had been badly damaged by the Royal Air Force and French saboteurs, the prisoners were taken off and sent to Chalons.

Here, Baines met a Private Ruff, also of 12th Battalion, who told him that the Germans had the day before shot a French regimental sergeant-major as a warning to would be escapers. Baines, knowing what his fate as a paratrooper was likely to be when he arrived in Germany, decided there and then that he would escape somehow during the train journey to Germany and prayed that his captors would not find the knife he had hidden in his battledress and which had escaped detection when he had been searched in Normandy.

He told his plan to Ruff, four other British paratroopers and an American private, all of whom agreed to attempt the escape with him, and when the train finally left the six men set to work on the floor of the box car.

It was a heart-breaking task for the knife was blunt and at first made little impression on the boards, and the men had to work in the dark. But, gradually, splinter by splinter, the wood was hacked away and on the night of 23 August the six men slid beneath the moving train.

Although the escape went undetected by the Germans, it quickly became known to the local inhabitants and early next morning, to the astonishment of Baines and his comrades, a Frenchman arrived at their hiding place with civilian clothes, food and cigarettes and told them that they were near Bar le Duc, about 90 miles from the German border.

Later that day the party split up, Baines, the American and two other paratroopers being escorted to La Vincourt, a village on the Meuse, where they stayed for five days in the house of the son of a local official who, with the help of other villagers, provided them with complete civilian outfits.

On the fifth day, a Frenchman arrived, bringing with him four old rifles, and told the escapers that he was the local Maquis leader and needed them to help fight the Germans. To their astonishment, because they had not seen him before, he said he had carefully checked all their identities and was satisfied they were not Nazi spies!

The Frenchman took the four soldiers with him to the nearby village of Haironville, lodging them in different houses in case of a sudden German attack, and two days later they joined the main Maquis camp at Stainville.

But Baines did not go into action with the Maquis for, on 31 August, American tanks arrived on the scene and he and his comrades were sent back to Haironville and from there returned to Bayeux where they re-joined 6th Airborne Division.

Private Baines later fought in the Ardennes and in March, 1945, volunteered to take part in the airborne assault across the Rhine, this time ' going into action by glider. As the glider came into land it was hit head on by a German 88 shell and Baines was severely wounded in the left leg, which later had to be amputated.

Today, Douglas Baines, the man who cut his way to freedom, is a clerk at a spinning mill in Yorkshire.

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