Their wounded leader, Captain Pat Garstin, stared, aghast: “My God, they’re going to shoot us!” Prods and yells from the SS truck driver Fritz Hildemann got him moving as they were shoved into the glade. In the distance, a church clock chimed five times. It was time. The executioners readied their weapons, SS Hauptsturmführer Richard Schnur producing a piece of paper from his pocket.
“So you were right after all,” Garstin whispered to his comrade Serge “Frenchy”Vaculik, Vaculik and Thomas “Ginger” Jones, two of the seven SAS men facing execution in Noailles Woods, had feared the worst the previous afternoon when their Gestapo gaolers had given them soap, towels and razors and demanded their uniforms.
They were told they were being swapped for German captives in neutral Switzerland and that their uniforms were “to be laundered”. But when they refused to change, they were stripped at gunpoint of all military identity. Dressed in ill-fitting civilian clothes, their hands cuffed, the captives were herded onto a truck in the dead of night. It was August 9, 1944, five weeks after the 12-man SAS unit, codenamed SABU-70, had dropped into France by parachute on a daring sabotage mission.
But they had been betrayed, and a mix of Gestapo and Waffen SS were waiting. One man, Howard Lutton, was killed outright, while three escaped. The patrol’s second in command, Lieutenant John Wiehe, was so grievously injured he couldn’t be moved from hospital. But for the remaining seven men, their fate seemed inescapable.
Under his breath, Garstin hissed: “I’ll distract them … On my signal, be ready to make a run for it.” Everyone knew what the badly wounded SAS war hero intended. He would stand firm and take the fire, so the others could run.
Schnur began to read from the paper in German, as his Lieutenant Alfred von Kapri translated: “On the orders of the Führer, having been tried and found guilty of collaborating with French terrorists and endangering the security of the German Anny, you have been sentenced to death by shooting.”
Suddenly Garstin signalled – NOW. On one side, Vaculik leapt like a coiled spring, with a deep animal yell, Jones doing the same on the other. Bursting through the armed cordon, Vaculik made a few yards before his foot caught in a root and he went sprawling. Moments later bullets hammered past his head. Jones likewise broke away but lost his balance and fell. Most likely, that is what saved him, for a burst of fire tore across his fallen form.
Schnur hadn’t made a great executioner. As the first of the prisoners had broken free he’d fumbled to get the death sentence paper back into his pocket, which prevented him from opening fire. By the time he’d readied his weapon, more of the captives had taken to their heels. Panicking, Schnur yelled at his men to give chase. If any got away, he dreaded to think what might happen once Berlin was informed. A short distance through the trees, Vaculik charged onwards, tearing through brambles and with branches whipping his face, From the volley of shots behind he feared his comrades had been executed. He was driven on by a blind fury gripped by the desire to survive so he could “bring back the story, and see the murder of my comrades avenged”.
“Ginger” Jones, meanwhile, lay where he’d fallen, “not daring to move …. Would I feel anything when they walked up to shoot me? It was useless trying to get up … if I’d tried I would have been riddled.” Moments later boots thundered past, angry curses ringing through the trees. “After a while, I raised my head from the ground. I could see a matter of 50 yards from me two of the Jerries seemed to be searching. “l couldn’t hear any movement near me, so I got up slowly and moved towards a tree … and got behind it for some cover.”
Jones slipped out of his handcuffs and dashed through the woodland until he all but passed out in a thicket. A short distance away, Vaculik was still being hunted. Despite the weeks of torture and a sta1vation diet, he would recall: “I never ran so fast in my life and the fear of death urged me on.” Bursting into open farmland, he was met by a tall, thick hedge. He was “caught like a poor beast in a trap”. With superhuman effort, he launched himself at the massive barrier, worming his way over and vaulting down the far side. He took to his heels as bullets zipped and snarled through the hedge, racing across the open field to distant woodland.
Back at the botched execution site the SS men spread out in line abreast until SS Obersturmführer Otto Ilgenfritz spotted a figure behind a pile of wood. He broke cover and began to run but Ilgenfritz gunned him down. The dead man was carried back to the clearing. Now there were five corpses, where by rights there should have been seven. Against all odds, two men had got clean away. One, Jones, was lying low in the woods and would not break cover until nightfall. The other, Vaculik, was stumbling exhaustedly into a French village, desperately seeking refuge. The SS killers headed back to Paris, dreading the wrath of Berlin. But fortune was to come to their rescue. Just ten days later the battle for Paris would begin and the Gestapo and SS murderers would be burning their files and fleeing towards Germany.
Vaculik managed to contact sympathetic locals in the nearby town of Bresles. Better still, a week later he was reunited with Jones, who had been sheltered by a woodsman. Meanwhile, news of SABU-70’s betrayal was filtering back to SAS Headquarters in Britain. On August 15th, two of the three SAS men who had escaped the initial ambush, troopers Norman and Morrison, made it to safety and boarded a ship for Britain. In response to their news of the patrol’s grim fate, Lieutenant Colonel Paddy Mayne, commander of 1st SAS, charged SAS veterans Captain Mike Sadler and Major Harry Poat to leave for France immediately to investigate.
Back in Bresles, Vaculik and Jones were readying the French Resistance to hit the Germans from behind when Arne1ican forces assaulted the town. On September 6, having vanquished the enemy, Vaculik and Jones made an emotional return to the site of their would-be executions, finding spent bullet casings and their comrades’ unmarked grave. The Gestapo had been careful not to use their names in front of the SAS men and had covered their tracks. But when Sadler and Poat arrived, they exhumed the bodies which were re-buried with full military honours.
Returning to Britain, the investigation gathered pace – Vaculik and Jones giving evidence to a London inquity into the Noailles Woods shooting. The court concluded the killing “was in violation of the well-recognised laws and usages of war and the terms of the Geneva convention…and was murder”.
Jones and Vaculik would return to SAS operations in September 1944, first to help airborne troops besieged by enemy forces during the failed Operation Market Garden, and later in Belgium. Vaculik would end up being wounded by a German sniper near Bremen, and spent VE Day in hospital. But Jones would fight to the bitter end.
After a period cooperating with the Resistance, Trooper Castelow, one of the three SAS who had escaped the original Gestapo ambush, had been captured by the enemy. Finding himself locked in a room with a single SS guard, Castelow managed to kill the man, steal his rifle, and swim across the wide River Moselle to meet advancing US forces.
The terribly injured Lieutenant Wiehe was found alive by US troops liberating Paris and flown home, though he would spend the rest of his shortened life in a wheelchair. Yet the identities of the Gestapo and SS men responsible for the massacre remained unknown.
Then in January 1945, a breakthrough: captured SOE agent Captain John Starr emerged from the shadows. He had spent 11 months at 84 Avenue Foch, the Gestapo’s Paris headquarters, and was either an outstanding SOE double agent or a stand-out traitor. Either way, he knew the Gestapo’s Paris operations inside out by the time he was dispatched to Mauthausen concentration camp, for “final disposal”.
Starr miraculously survived. And in his interrogations back in Britain, he delivered chapter and verse on the Noaillcs Wood killers. Now it only required a team to hunt down the suspects. It was time for the SAS to look after its own.
In May 1945, SAS Colonel Brian Franks set up an SAS War Crimes Investigations Team (WCJT), led by Major Eric “Bill” Barkworth, to discover the extent of Nazi atrocities against captured British special forces. By the autumn, Barkworth knew Sturmbannführer Hans Kieffer, head of the Gestapo in Paris, had orchestrated murders in which SAS men had been forced into civilian clothing. But in September, the SAS was summarily disbanded and with it the work of the WCJT, Colonel Franks was having none of it: the WCIT “went dark”, becoming the Secret Hunters, a unit that officially did not exist.
The key breakthrough came when one of Kieffer’s henchmen, Karl Haug, who had escaped with him to the Bavarian ski resort of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, made the error of returning to northwest Germany to visit his wife and children. Arrested, he confessed all and a string of SS and Gestapo men were seized and put on trial. The accused argued they were only following Hitler’s orders on pain of death but they failed to convince. Nearly three years after the murder of the SABU-70 raiders, their killers finally faced justice.
Kieffer, Schnur and Haug would be hanged, Others would be jailed for life, Yet Jones and Vaculik, who had given evidence, felt no sense of resolution. Their “proud and bitter memories” would remain for life.
First published in the Daily Express in October 2020.