Stan Hawken Avoids Capture in France in the Forties

Stan Hawken, wireless-air gunner in RAAF.

Stanley Hawken’s schooling was over at the insistence of his father after he gained his Merit Certificate at fourteen years of age. Times were hard and jobs scarce. Nevertheless, Stan left his home near Koondrook after a few months working on his father’s farm to take any labouring job he could find; cutting dry box timber, loading railway trucks, milking cows, felling logs, picking fruit, tunnelling and laying drains. It was the 1930s and the time of the Great Depression. There were no social services in those days so as Stan said, if you didn’t work you didn’t have any money and if you didn’t have any money you didn’t eat.

It was after enlisting in the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) in 1941 that Stan Hawken’s life dramatically changed. As he commented, his air force career broadened his horizons and provided better prospects for improving himself when he returned to civilian life. Nevertheless, because of his lack of educational qualifications he had to argue strongly before an interview panel that he was a suitable candidate for air crew training. He must have done it well because he was successful. After extensive training at various air bases in Australia he qualified as a wireless air gunner and was posted to England.

Following a six week journey starting in Sydney, crossing the Pacific in an American troop ship, a train journey across the American continent in a Pullman train coach with all amenities including porters to look after personal comforts, an idyllic stay in Boston, New England, an uneventful voyage across the Atlantic in the Queen Elizabeth which was transporting more than 18,000 American soldiers in cramped conditions, and a train trip from Glasgow Scotland , Stan Hawken arrived in Brighton on the south coast of England. There further training began.

It was at several English bases that the work began to fit the Australian and other volunteers for operational flying. European climatic conditions were very much different from those experienced in Australia and it took a great deal of adjustment by individuals to cope. This adjustment was in addition to what crews needed to do to accommodate to pressures experienced in action.

Stan Hawken joined the crew of P-Peter. As well as Stan the team was made up of two Australians, two Londoners, a Scotsman and a Rhodesian. Stan said the crew worked hard to improve their performance but when the opportunities presented themselves, ‘played hard’. Although he insisted, drinking was completely out on any day they were rostered for flying.

P-Peter was part of 630 Squadron formed on November 19, 1943 and part of Bomber Command. The squadron exclusively flew Lancaster Bombers from Lincolnshire and by the end of the war had flown 2453 sorties and lost 59 aircraft with an additional 11 destroyed in crashes. The first action raid of P-Peter was to a military camp in Belgium at Bourg-Leopold where success would have significantly disrupted the German war effort.

On arrival P-Peter found the target covered by thick cloud so eventually the attack was aborted thus averting the possibility of collision amongst the 190 Lancasters and eleven Mosquito bombers included in the raid. Later sorties had great military success although the threat of attack from German fighter planes and flack from anti aircraft guns persisted.

Stan Hawken and his fellow crew members had made fifteen trips, were half way to achieving the goal of surviving a ‘tour’ of thirty trips when they were rostered to join an attack on Revigny, a railway marshalling yard 225 kilometres east of Paris, on July 19, 1944. On this occasion the luck of P-Peter ran out. Of a force of 115 aircraft, 21 were lost during 5 ½ hour’s flying time. P-Peter was one.

Stan Hawken recalled they ran into a hornets’ nest of German fighters. The enemy had guessed their intended target and were waiting. The danger was increased when Bomber Command ordered the attacking force to delay their bombing run by five minutes. During this delay his plane was struck by a short burst of bullets. But it was enough to cripple the aircraft. The two inboard engines burst into flames and were burning out of control when the order was given to ‘bale out’. Later Stan learned that four of the crew had failed to escape the crippled aircraft and died when the plane exploded. However, he and two gunners parachuted successfully to the ground.

On landing in a small forest Hawken crashed into a tree knocking himself out. After gaining consciousness, disposing of his chute, walking some distance, moving around a village to avoid detection, getting a few hours sleep in a wood and observing a farm house for some time, he approached the occupier and asked for help. A small boy summoned the village school teacher, Jean Vidal, who took Stan back to his house where his wife provided the first food Stan had had in two days; chicken soup, chicken and vegetables finished off with steamed pudding; a veritable feast in food starved France.

Stan Hawken reunited with Resistance fighters Jean and Margot Vidal in 1977. Courtesy Leader Collection.

Jean Vidal was the leader of the local resistance and had previously assisted three American airmen escape occupied France back to England via Spain. The resistance groups throughout France collected information, helped young men escape to England to join the armed forces there, established escape routes for shot down airmen and committed acts of sabotage to disrupt enemy lines of communication. Through their radio network they maintained links with England, arranging supplies of arms and explosives.

There were Frenchmen who thought and acted differently from Vidal. Some men were dispirited by the speed of the Nazis advance into France, and their patriotism was shaken. Some weakened under pressure and betrayed neighbours to the occupying forces. Some betrayed compatriots for gain. Others were unhappy with the bombing of French towns by Allied airmen, often killing French civilians, so their reception to downed flyers could be cold and unfriendly. This increased the risk that Vidal and others took in helping allied airmen. This threat also extended to members of their families. So secrecy was very important. Hawken was required to stay in his room for sixteen hours a day and only emerge at night for a walk, a meal and conversation. Even Vidal’s children were not told of his presence for fear they might unintentionally reveal this fact to school friends who could spread the information to unsympathetic ears with dire consequences to all involved.

The Vidals’ house in Saint Vrain. Stan Hawken’s room was on far right. Courtesy Leader Collection.

It was not long before Stan agreed to join a sabotage raid on a rail line to disrupt supplies to the German army fighting in the Normandy area where the Allies had landed on June 6, 1944. The plan was to blow up the main line in a deep cutting between Dizier and Blesme Haussignment. There it was expected the explosion would create the most damage and the greatest number of problems for crews assigned to clear the debris. Stan’s role was to act as a sentry who kept a lookout for anyone who might approach. He had no part in placing the gelignite.

Stan and Jean Vidal rendezvoused with others at the target at about one o’clock in the morning. Without knowledge of the train timetable the saboteurs waited, with two men placing the charge while others took up their allotted positions. About an hour later a train was heard, the fuse was lit and the conspirators took off. There was one mighty explosion with debris being thrown everywhere. The enterprise was rated a success with the line being blocked for a few hours at least. The Germans conducted searches in adjacent villages to where the attack occurred attempting to find the culprits, but as far as Hawken knew without success.

Shortly after the attack on the train Hawken was told that he had been chosen to be a passenger on a light aircraft that was being brought in to fly several people to England. Escape to Switzerland was impossible because of the well guarded border and to go over the Pyrenees and across the Spanish border, meant moving through a concentration of German troops, so a plane flight was the best option. Unfortunately the planned escape failed because one link in the chain of contacts failed to arrive due to his earlier arrest by the Gestapo. So it was back to the Vidals’s house and a further wait.

The Germans moved troops into the village of St Urain so it was no longer safe for Stan to remain with the Vidals. He was advised to seek the help of the Maquis. A group was present about two or three kilometres away and it was to them that Stan Hawken turned despite the reservations Jean Vidal and other resistance fighters had about the Maquis.

Jean and his fellow resistance members had suspicions about the trustworthiness of the Maquis. The group to whom Stan turned were led by a twenty-five-year-old English speaking Belgian, and consisted mainly of young men ranging in age from fifteen to late twenties who were either avoiding being caught and sent to labour camps in Germany or who had escaped from there. Generally they were more interested in using their guns to protect themselves and obtaining the necessities of life rather than attempting to frustrate the actions of the occupying Germans. Survival for them was paramount!

The camp of the Maquis was very primitive. Individuals slept on the ground in their clothes. While there was water for drinking and cooking very little was available for washing the body and clothes. Personal hygiene was not a priority. Local farmers provided food but if the source failed they took it wherever it was found, sometimes at the point of a gun.

After a short stay with Maquis group and a measure of hostility from a few members Stan moved on to join two American pilots who were sheltering in a forest. Although short of food the trio decided to remain where they were, waiting for the spearhead of the Allied attack to reach them. There they were joined by four other flyers attempting to evade capture by the Germans which further exacerbated their food problem.

As the Allies came closer and the prospect of liberation became more real, the French became more and more excited. Hiding in bushes outside the village of Cheminon, Stan Hawken and Jack Rhiner, his American colleague, first saw the advance guard of the American army in jeeps and light tanks. Realising the significance of the event they joined the members of the local community in an highly emotional welcome to the liberators. Then they quickly returned to their comrades in the forest to announce the great news before returning to the village where the soldiers plied them with food and cigarettes. Stan and Jack stayed with the advancing troops while waiting for an opportunity to join a transport moving back from the fighting front. It was during this time that they came across the bodies of approximately fifty men, women and children who had been shot by the retreating Germans in retaliation for actions by the Maquis some distance away. It was carnage of the worst kind, wrote Stan.

After hitching several rides in military transports Stan reached Paris ten days after is liberation. There, not unexpectedly, failing to find a RAF presence, he reported to the American headquarters as a scruffy character who contrasted with other people dressed in immaculate uniforms. After establishing his identity and experiencing a debriefing he was provided with a room in a luxury hotel where he took the opportunity to take a hot bath, his first since leaving England.

Stan Hawken wearing an American helmet soon after the liberation of Paris, 1945. Courtesy Leader Collection.

Unofficially taking the opportunity to look around the city and celebrate a little, Stan’s departure for England was delayed. He wasn’t unduly concerned about this action as the events over the previous weeks had taught him to take very day as it came. Moreover, seeing how the Americans operated he felt confident that he would have no difficulty in finding a ride. After two days of carousing in Paris, Stan took a place on a plane transporting army personnel back to England. Due to electrical storms, Stan wrote, they had a very bumpy and unpleasant ride back to Hendon with the smell of vomit adding to the discomfort of the passengers who were packed in like sardines. It was his first flight after being shot down so he experienced some nervousness which was heightened by his lack of a parachute. His arrival on English soil was most welcome if for no other reason than being able to leave the plane and breath fresh air.

After being issued with a new uniform, underclothes and kit, interviewed by intelligence officers and asked to write a resume of his movements from the time he baled out over France until meeting up with the American forces, Stan was given leave until October 2, 1944. He took the opportunity to visit his squadron and call in to see the lady who did his washing and ironing. She was shocked when she saw him because he had been reported as being dead. To add to the embarrassment her husband was wearing some of Stan’s items to work that day. Stan told her not to worry as he had been issued with new clothing so her husband was welcomed to the old stuff.

It was the practice when an airman was declared missing over Europe to hold all his personal belongings in a central depository at Hammersmith. There they were held for six months and if unclaimed were sent off to next of kin. On going to claim his, Stan was disappointed to discover that someone had removed his collection of beer bottle labels!

When looking back on the few months when he was posted to Bomber Command until he was de-briefed by British intelligence and able to resume ‘normal’ life, Stan Hawken realised he had been extremely lucky. He had experienced a range of emotions from troughs of despair and depression to peaks of optimism and anticipation. He had witnessed the effects of a foreign occupation on a people, some of whom were willing to risk their lives and those of their families for the cause of freedom while others had been less than loyal to their country. This experience, he claimed, led him to want to make some contribution to the welfare of his own community when back in Australia. This he did in a variety of ways including becoming a councillor in the City of Mordialloc and serving as mayor on two separate occasions.

Stan Hawken, 1988. Courtesy Leader Collection.

27 June 2018
World War II
  • Stanley A Hawken, Missing Presumed Dead, Hill of Content, 1989.
Article reference:

© 2021 Kingston Local History | Website by Weave

Aboriginal Flag

City of Kingston acknowledges the Kulin Nation as the custodians of the land on which the municipality is a part and pays respect to their Elders, past and present. Council is a member of the Inter Council Aboriginal Consultative Committee (ICACC).