This time, however, they had been betrayed and as their parachutes drifted earthwards into Occupied France, Gestapo and Waffen SS men were waiting in the field.
Via radio contact furnished by the Special Operations Executive (SOE) they were due to link up with French resistance fighters for the mission, codenamed Toby 3. What they didn’t know as the Stirling bomber carried them towards their drop zone near the hamlet of La Ferté-alais, south of Paris, was that Sturmbannführer Hans Kieffer, head of the Paris Gestapo, had been using captured SOE radio equipment and agents against the Allies. For a year, his men had been engaged in a “Funkspiel” (radio game) to fool SOE. The Germans flashed the agreed signal to the unsuspecting British pilot, sending the SAS team into their hands. As Pat Garstin hit the ground, a civilian ran from woods, crying ‘Vive la France!’ As he got close enough to whisper a warning, there was a burst of gunfire. Vaculik, landing third, returned fire before heading for the trees. When a German voice ordered him to drop his gun, Vaculik turned on his heels and, under fire, dived into the corn. Zigzagging, his foot caught on something half-hidden and he went sprawling. It was SAS trooper Howard Lutton and, from his injuries, he wasn’t long for the world.
As Garstin followed the Frenchman into the woods, German troops seized him. With nothing to lose, he wrestled free, yelling for his men to make a break for it. Two bullets struck him in the neck, two more in the arm, and a fifth tore into his shoulder. Grievously wounded, he fell to the ground. Second in command Lieutenant John Wiehe joined another trooper, Paddy Barker, but as they crept towards cover a volley of shots cut them down.
Wiehe, hit in his shoulder, thigh and the base of his back, instantly lost the power of his legs. Barker, bleeding profusely from the thigh, fell too.Troopers Norman and Morrison, who had landed in the wood, rushed to Wiehe’s aid but he ordered them to stay hidden and try to escape.
Trooper Herbert Castelow, a former brick-maker from Stockton-on-Tees, was the last to land, even deeper in the woods. He hid his parachute and hunkered down. In the field, Vaculik was overpowered and beaten unconscious. As he came to, he realised seven SABU-70 raiders had been captured: Corporal Howard Lutton, Lieutenant Wiehe, Paddy Barker and Sergeant Thomas Varey, all injured, plus himself and troopers Billy Young and Joe Walker. A handful of Gestapo officers emerged from the trees with Thomas “Ginger” Jones and then a blood-soaked Captain Garstin. The nine SAS men were bundled into a truck an and driven to Paris.
At Hôpital La Pitié Salpêtrière, Lutton was pronounced dead. Garstin, Wiehe and Barker were in little better shape. For Wiehe, paralysed and in agony, the questioning began almost immediately, with a Gestapo officer interrogating him for hours, hitting him around the face and threatening to have the three bullets he had received removed without an anaesthetic.
The uninjured SAS men, plus those whose injuries were not crippling, were taken to the Gestapo Gestapo’s Paris headquarters at 84 Avenue Foch. Exhausted, hungry and demoralised, the five captives were locked in one cell, Vaculik – French in origin – begging the others to maintain his cover story that he was a French Canadian.
Gestapo boss Kieffer was keen to know if a new “Funkspiel” was possible, using the captured SAS men. But with both of the patrol’s officers, Garstin and Wiehe, hospitalised, he decided to concentrate first on breaking the suspected Frenchman. Vaculik was marched to a room where Gestapo inquisitor Schnur, the man who had captured him, awaited. After Vaculik’s beating, it was the turn of the others.
On their second day, Vaculik was pushed into a room where two baths were filled with water, one steaming hot, the other ice cold. Vaculik was dumped in the scalding water, forced under until he felt as if he were going to drown. When he was on the verge of blacking out, the men dragged him out, and shoved him into the ice-cold bath. The hellish process continued until Vaculik lost consciousness. He was woken by the guard: Midnight. Interrogation time. The session went on until he lost all sense of night and day. The torture became more inventive and agonising as Schnur kept warning Vaculik to talk or be killed.
Meanwhile, troopers Norman and Morrison had skirted around La Ferté-Alais, crept through the darkened streets of Bouray-sur-Juine and crossed the River Juine heading for the Normandy beachheads. Trooper Castelow – later awarded the Military Medal – had crept along the banks of the River Essonne to the village of Vertle-Petit, where he joined the Resistance.
Meanwhile, the SAS prisoners were moved to solitary confinement in a Gestapo detention centre in the US ambassador’s former residence at 3 Place des États Unis. The rooms had one wooden bed, a mattress, a bucket and iron bars on the windows. Vaculik removed the toughened steel mainspring from his watch and used it to cut the bars. It was tough going but, after two hours, he’d managed to sever the first, disguising the cut with chewed black bread.
By day five he had 12 bars cut, but an SS sergeant on a routine inspection found his handiwork. After another beating, the room was searched but neither the dismantled watch nor hidden spring were found.
Every evening the prisoners had their uniforms taken to deter escape, but Vaculik worked through the night in his underclothes, a bolster decoy placed under his bedsheets. Turning his attention to a locked cupboard in his room, by the eighth day he had picked the lock and, using only a nail, began to tunnel through the wall.
On day nine, the prisoners received a boost as Paddy Barker’s voice through the corridor. Not only was he back from the hospital but Garstin was on the mend, and soon to join them, Barker yelled. Encouraged, Vaculk pressed on, timing his digging to the sentry’s rounds.
But suddenly his cell door was flung open and four SS men rushed inside. He was coshed, collapsing unconscious at the bottom of the cupboard. He came round in the darkness of the cellar along with Ginger Jones, who had been caught trying to climb up the chimney.
They were in dire need of better news. It came from Captain Garstin, who despite his injuries, was taken to 84 Avenue Foch for questioning. He returned with news that Wiehe had survived. He also said the Gestapo commander Kieffer had promised to swap them for British-held German agents.
It was now the end of July. Though the captives could not know it, Norman and Morrison had reached Saint Chéron, southwest of Paris, where they were fed, clothed and protected by locals. Castelow, dressed as a gendarme, had started cycling towards Normandy but when his bike was stolen, he swore in English and was captured, then sent to Verdun to be interrogated and tortured.
Back in Paris, Kieffer finally received instructions about the troublesome SAS captives: “The Führer and Supreme Commander of the Wehrmacht has ordered that the men of the enemy Commando, which collaborated with the French Resistance movement, are to be shot…They are to be shot in civilian clothes.”
The Gestapo knew none of the SAS captives had faced any kind of trial. No charges had been prepared, no prosecution appointed, no defence lawyers hired. Which was why Hitler’s “law” was about to be carried out in strictest secrecy.
First published in the Sunday Express in October 2020.