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Main planner :
Jean Bordes,
Etienne Doléac

Setting :
Jean Bordes,
Antoine Fontanet

Wiht contribution of A.N.A.C.R.
President :
Gilbert Arguinart
Copyright to A.N.A.C.R.

Crash of the RAF Halifax on the night of July 13/14 1944 at the Pic du Douly (Haut-Nistos, Sacoué)

The RAF’s Bomber Command was one of the most powerful and efficient weapons of the second world war.

The Halifax was one of the aircraft that was used to do long range night bombing missions. It is less know by the French since only two groups the “Tunisie” and “Guyenne” were the only ones flying this aircraft that was stationed in the Yorkshire and was made up of 2 squadrons of 11 aircraft each and entirely crewed by French volunteers who executed several missions from June 1944 to April 1945. During these missions 18,500 tons of bombs were dropped on major enemy industrial centers. Each crew was composed of 7 men: 1 Pilot, I Navigator, 1 Mechanic, 1 Bombardier, 1 Radio Operator, 1 top and 1 rear gunner.  Ground crews were almost always French volunteers.

The Halifax carried 4 tons of bombs, flew at 7,000 meters altitude at an average speed of 500 Km/h. Of all the bombing raids that were done the longest lasted 8 and a half  hours. Night flying attrition rate was quite high. As it was 80% who at first composed a group at the end of 1944 were shot down, of which 50% were killed or declared missing in action. A crew’s operational tour was for 30 missions, that number grew as the war drew to a close. Sadly enough, very few crews ever reached that number. Statistics show that the general average was 23 misions, one can therefore say that crews that went beyond that number of missions were condemned men.  

Raymond Rouillard, top gunner , 37 missions in 219 hours of combat flying.


RAF 624 SD (Special Duties) Squadron

The Black Squadron

Halifax bomber the main workhorse of RAF 624 SD


RAF 624 (SD) was stood up on 7th September 1943 and disbanded on 30 November, 1945. Its missions were to drop propaganda leaflets, to give air support and transport SOE/OSS agents behind enemy lines in occupied Europe. RAF 624 (SD) also gathered intelligence during its flights.  Ground crews, airmen and officers of the Squadron came from other active service, reserve and OTU(Operational Training Units) RAF units,  many foreign nationals served in the unit: Commonwealth Australians, NZ, Canadians, French and some Poles.

Squadron Operational History:  RAF 624 (SD) is the direct descendent of 1575(SD) Flight that was first stood up at RAF Tempsford on 28 May 1943. 4 Halifax and 2 Lockheed Ventura’s were given over to No 1575 Flight (which became RAF 624 SD)

Barely 7 days later, it was deployed to Maison Blanche (Algeria), in the MTO (Mediterranean Theatre of Operations) for SD operations over France, Corsica and Sardinia. On 13th June the squadron started doing missions over Corsica, simultaneously the maritime section moved to Blida (40 miles south of Algiers) and until September continued Special Duties missions throughout Sardinia and the Italian peninsula. They were also moved to Tunisia (Protville) for operations over Yugoslavia. To extend their operational radius to Czechoslovakia they were also deployed to Malta. On 21st November 1943, the squadron was deployed to Brindisi in southern Italy as an element of 334 (SD) Wing Mediterranean Allied Air Force for operations in the Balkans and over northern Italy.  During January 1944, 93 missions were carried out and 72.5% of these were successful. During 1944, it's believed that some of the missions done by the squadron involved a number of paratroop missions for the USAAF and the insertion of OSS Operational Groups over Southern France.


OSS/SOE Joe and Jane suiting up prior to their insertion behind the lines


Blida airfield

Blida airfield and buildings


Wing Commander Stanbury

It is often said that a unit is a carbon copy of its Commanding Officer and RAF 624 (SD) was no exception to this rule. Wing Commander Stanbury was a man in his middle or late twenties. If age was calculated by the responsibility on one’s shoulders and experience, then Stanbury was a very old man. At this young age he was weighed down by responsibilities that were normally shouldered by officers at least twenty years his elders and who had acquired wisdom and maturity with long years of experience. War brings out the worse and best in youth barely out of school and makes of them men who are rapidly in the limelight through their outstanding achievements under stress-filled war time experience. Stanbury, to his credit, trained his aircrews to fly four-engine bombers during moonless nights as low and nearly as fast as day time fighter-bombers… Stanbury, with a few short years of combat experience did not need to be ambitious to climb up the steps of promotion, facing events and necessity like he did, it rapidly and steadily provided him with the competence that was needed to move him up the chain of command.


Wing Commander Stanbury


Qualification to serve in RAF 624 SD and dangers of flight


SD Squadrons used mainly converted bombers and flew missions at night at very low altitudes that ranged from 200 to 500 feet over DZ’s which were 3,000 to 5,000 feet below the surrounding mountain tops. DZ’s were located wherever possible and in areas the least susceptible to be discovered by the enemy, which means in fact very rough terrain to fly over during the day and of course highly dangerous (suicidal is a better adjective) at night. To ensure accurate delivery of equipment and personnel Wing Commander Stanbury would have his new crews practice parachuting stores at low level in the garden of his private quarters at first during the day and at night as they became more proficient.

The Squadron operated in very difficult conditions, aircrews, aircraft and ground personnel were few and logistics was always a big problem. The reason for this was simply that Bomber Command’s first priority was strategic bombing and SOE missions were the second priority. Yet, SD Squadron aircrews were second to none.

MTO (Mediterranean Theatre of Operations) flight navigation was much more difficult than over the ETO( European Theatre of Operations). To reach France or Force 133 (SOE Balkans operations area) from North Africa, meant crossing the Mediterranean at low altitude on instruments ( normally 100 meters over wave tops)for at least 400 to 500 miles. Once they had reached the coast they would then climb to 10,000 feet to avoid flak. Once inland they would once again come down to a low altitude (at anything from 100 meters to 150 meters altitude) and this for at least 200 to 300 miles to reach their designated 1 to 3 DZ’s where drops were to be executed. Navigators were the only ones who knew exactly where the DZ’s were. Roughly 20 to 40 minutes into a flight inland crews started looking for DZ markings (rows of lights on DZ’s who were laid out in the shape of letters) or Aldis lamp signals.



Halifax paratrooper exit cones or Joe holes  

Rare picture of a Halifax paradrop

A container in Halifax bomb bay

Halifax bomb bay layout of containers

The maximum speed for a drop was more or less 110 mph and a maximum altitude of no more than 700 feet (400- 500 feet was the average drop altitude). 110 mph being very close to the stall speed of a Halifax , this kind of flying could be considered more like “gliding” than powered flight. The second the bundles were released from the aircraft’s modified bomb bay the engines were pushed to full power to clear the treetops. Since this was done over hilly or rough terrain at night it left little margin for error flying much lower than the surrounding hills as they were. “Recovering” normal speed and altitude after a drop was quite an “adrenaline rush”; where all the crew added quite a few grey hairs and in the process of turning blue from holding their breath. Going from a low altitude glide to the sheer power surge of 4 powerful engines sunk the aircrews in their seats with the additional G force. It was a very uncomfortable experience one could compare to being kicked in the stomach and at the same time having one’s back slammed into a brick wall by an angry Tennessee mule.   In many cases low flying Halifax’s added some of the local foliage, branches and telephone wires to their wings or underbelly. In the worse case scenario hitting all of the above or a hill ended their mission in a huge fireball with no survivors since aircraft reservoirs were still half full of aviation fuel (for the return flight).

These converted bombers also executed very dangerous “propaganda leaflet drops” called “Nickel missions” at night at extremely low altitudes over anti-aircraft protected cities. 

There were few accidents but even the most experienced could not avoid crashing into trees or slamming into a steep mountain. Nevertheless, most accidents were due to navigational errors. Navigators in RAF 624 SD did not have H.2.S. ( radar) but did everything via pinpoint and astrocompasses. Good navigation therefore depended heavily on the compass expertise of navigators.



Radar H.2.S

The H2S radar system was used by many British bombers from 1943 onwards. It identified targets on the ground for night all-weather bombing missions. The first models of the transmitter/receiver equipment were known as the TR3159 (H2S Mk I/ASV VIB) or TR3191 (H2S Mk II).

Radar monitor
The last adaptation of the H2S had a reduced wavelength. In the beginning it was at 3 cm and in the end 1.5 cm Rain could be detected with the 1.5 cm wavelength. In1943, the H2S radar was used for the first time for navigation purposes by RAF bombers. It was also the first ground mapping radar to be used in combat. At first it was used on Stirling and Halifax bombers for navigational mapping and night bombing.


Radar at the rear underbelly of a Halifax

Radar monitor



Pierre Laval (left) and Hitler (right)







A normal day would have crews do their pre-flight planning in the afternoon and have their “flying meals” at 1900H , the final briefing being 19:45 and take-offs at anywhere from 2100 to 22:00H  Missions were planned so aircraft were never behind the lines at dawn and were back at Blida by at least 07:00H. 
Aircraft did not launch out of Blida in waves but they left like lone wolves one by one at different times, in different directions and they flew at different altitudes to avoid German fighter intercept or AAA fire. Each crew was briefed independently and for the obvious secrecy reasons never knew anything about the missions of other aircraft in the squadron. This meant that if an aircrew was captured it could not reveal anything on the other missions that were executed on that night. If an aircraft “pranged” and did not return nobody knew if night fighters got them or exactly what happened to them since they all flew as “lone wolves”.

Needless to say, bombers crews were more accustomed to flying thousands of feet over mountains than being night time barnstormers. In RAF SD squadrons low level night flying transport and parachuting of SOE agents, OSS OG teams, ammunition to resistance units, not to mention Nickel missions was a special military science at which they were the Grand Masters. SD unit log books were very brief on these very dangerous flights. Mission descriptions were terse, you could not find much more on flight log books than the date, type of aircraft, duration of night flights, the number of successful or unsuccessful drops at coded landings or drops zones….. all this was stamped with the word SECRET.

On February 16 1943 Pierre Laval the French Quisling decreed the Service Obligatoire du Travail more commonly known by its acronym STO (Forced deportation to Germany of French labourers for work in factories and labour camps as slaves). With this decree 200,000 young Frenchmen dodged STO service of these 50,000 joined the Maquis on the spot, 35,000 crossed the Pyrenees to Spain and joined the Free French Forces, the rest (115,000) hid in cities and farms. The 50,000 that joined the Maquis (Résistance) needed weapons, instructors (SOE agents) and radios and that is when the RAF’s SD Squadrons came in. By June 1944 the total number of Résistance fighters in France alone was roughly 350,000, of these 100,000 had serviceable weapons. Only 10,000 had ammunition for more than one day of fighting. The French Résistance in fact contributed to the war effort (i.e. the Allied invasion of Normandy) by gathering intelligence, instilling a climate of fear and insecurity and sabotage that resulted in the isolation Normandy from France.  With all RAF SD Squadron resources in the UK or in the MTO stretched to the limit (lack of aircrews and aircraft), what RAF SD Squadrons achieved by making do with the little it had from February 1943 to late December 1944 can only be described as “achieving the impossible with precious little”. This resulted in bridges being blown, convoys attacked, trains derailed, Nazi troops were ambushed, communications were disrupted (and much more). The Resistance groups in occupied Europe forced the Germans to divert front line troops from battle areas and the Atlantic wall to police and guard duties in occupied nations all this thanks to the RAF’s SD Squadrons. This weakening of German defences in turn saved the lives thousands of Allied troops not only on D-Day but during the battle of France, in Belgium, in Holland, and also on the Russian front in addition to the Balkans and Greece. They not only parachuted SOE agents behind the lines and did Nickel missions but dropped badly needed arms, supplies and explosives to Résistance fighters all over Europe thereby “Setting Europe ablaze” as Churchill ordered SOE to do. On 5th September 1944 the Squadron was reduced in size and on 24th September 1944, RAF 624 SD Squadron was disbanded. Today, RAF 4624 Squadron out of RAFB Brize Norton carries forwards the traditions and battle honours of RAF 624 SD.


The OSS in WW2 ….. Edward Hymoff
Special Duties ….Hector Nichols
The Secret Squadrons …. Robert Jackson
D-Day “The battle for Normandy” …. Anthony Beevor
Camp X …. Canada Lynn Hodgson
RAF 624 SD association   


A four engine RAF Halifax crashed on the Pic du Douly on the night of July 13/14 1944, at 1,400 meters altitude in the Haut Nistos in the Commune of Sacoué. It came from Blida Algeria. It was crewed by 7 men who all perished in this disaster. Its mission was to parachute weapons, munitions and equipment to the Maquis of Nistos –Esparros. This crew took enormous risks to execute its night mission in the Piedmont of the Pyrénées occupied by the Germans.
Navigational equipment then was not what they are today. This kind of night time flying required highlt trained crews. To succeed, visual contact with the ground was necessary.

Crewmen pictured in front of their aircraft at Blida (Algeria)

Crewmen pictured in front of a LANCASTER


René Rumeau, 15 years old.

On July 17 1944, his oncle François Rumeau asked him to run down to the village and warn the primary school teacher Mr. Lucien Rumeau of the discovery of the aircraft at the Clos du Douly. 


Picture showing the debris of the aircraft, it was pillaged by scrap merchants that used mules to carry down the materials. The forest hasn’t grown yet, one can clearly see the gaping hole through the trees that the aircraft made a few seconds before it crashed on the mountain.



On July 13 at around 23:00 H, fog set in and thwart the mission and it may be the root cause of the disaster.

It’s on the afternoon of July 17, that the aircraft was discovered by François Rumeau and Pierre Seube of Nistos. René Rumeau a young shepherd boy that was nearby was told by them to go and warn Mr.Lucien Rumeau, the country school teacher in the Haut Nistos, the latter being in contact with the Résistance.

The next day on July 18, a group made out of Lucien Rumeau, Mr. Esteve, Mr. Mousis and Mr. Courby and a detachment of the Louis Nasare group  of the Réssitance leave the village at dawn.  It then links up with an other group composed of Mr. Nogues of Seich, François Bracali, Alexandre Seube, Alphonse and Michel Bracali, Jean Rumeau and our young fifteen years old shepherd boy René Rumeau.

They reached the crash site after a 3 hour climb. It took an entire day to gather clues, dog tags and jewelry so as to identify the bodies and proceed with the burial. This was a hard task for the young men of the Résistance and the inhabitants of Nistos. One by one the bodies were laid in the weapons containers and then deposited in the graves. Once the burial was done, Mr. Esteves then ordered the young Résistance fighters to present arms, this was then followed by a minute of silence.

The grim reality of war was once again to be confronted, the Germans can strike at any time, all that occurred had to remain secret. The Résistance fighters of the Maquis know that they can trust the villagers of Nistos and the Arize. A few days after the burial, it is by the dozens that the inhabitants have climbed up to pay their respects and flower the graves. The authorities were informed by an official report of the Gendarmerie of Loures Barousse of September 4, nothing will be done about it.

It is the English, the inhabitants and the ex- Résistance fighters who will for the next 46 years care and maintain this grave site as if these men were their very own sons. At each anniversary of the crash the graves are flowered by the English and the inhabitants. Throughout the years the huge carcass of the aircraft will progressively be dismembered and taken away.

Cemetery Sunday July 30 1944

Many inhabitants came to flower the graves on Sunday July 30 1944

The 1st fence done around the cemetery in August 1944. The picture was taken in 1945, Paul Rumeau is sitting on the fence and his sister Janine Rumeau is in front of him. Both are the children of the junior high school teacher Mr. Rumeau

The first fence was destroyed by the weather, a second one was built. The cement stakes were brought up with a sled pulled by two cows, the trip up took 4 h 30. The peope who participated in the building of the fence were Joseph Rumeau, Pierre Campan, Jean-Marie Maupomé. Are also on this picture of 1951 : the British father of one of the crewmen, Roland Estève, the daughter of this British father, Mr. Noguès ( mayor of Seich) Pierrot Estève, M. Estève (one of those responsible for the parachute drop of July 1944), Mme Estève

Ceremony of Sunday August 13, 1954

This ceremony will remain and has been the most important one ever held amongst all those that have been organized .
It was prepared by the veterans of the Résistance of the Hautes Pyrenees, the entire population of the valleys and with Mr. Rumeau and the veterans of the 3201.

On the morning of August 13,1954 literally hundreds of the inhabitants of the region undertook the long climb towards the cemetery via the Nistos valley and Arize valley.
Many families from England came and were accompanied by many of their Royal Air Force friends.
Some of the participants took more than 4 hours to reach the cemetery, others arrived when the ceremony was well underway.

The ceremony started at 1400H with splendid weather.
45 paratroopers of the French 35ème RAP (35th Airborne Artillery Regiment) commanded by a lieutenant gave the salute and military honors. First, there was the unveiling of a copper plaque that was offered by all the inhabitants of Nistos. It is shown here below, and it was sealed to the rock that still exists today. The plaque reads “In this spot rests 7 British and Canadian airmen we invite you the passerby to take time to remember them”.
The last roll call was made by a British national and by Mr. Jean Bordes , a  veteran of the 3201.
For the first time a priest was present to bless the fallen.
This very moving ceremony was without speeches and in front of  a large crowd and flowered graves.


Unveiling of the plaque offered by the inhabitants.
August 13 1953 ceremony marking the 10th anniversary
of the death of the 7 British and Canadian airmen

Coming over of Commander Thomas and of his groupe - June 1st 1986 ceremony                

Have come over from England, in a bus, a British group has stayed over in Nistos from Saturday May 31st to Saturday may 7th 1986.
Among them was Mr. George Walsh, brother of James Edward Walsh, mechanical  Sargent who is buried at the Douly cemetery since July 18th 1944.
Commander Thomas who led the RAF group had with him a group of apprentices from the RAF Technical School.

Accompanied by Mr. Xavier Rumeau the mayor of Nistos, by marcel Soubiran a former fighter of the 3201, by jean Recurt and a dozen inhabitants of the valley , the apprentices , Commander Thomas came up to the cemetery on June 1st 1986. It is Didier Castéran who guided them up through the Arize valley.

A ceremony then took place. Taps was played with a trumpet. It was played by Commander Thomas in the fog filled area, it was a very moving moment.
In the following days the members of the group improved the area. They will mark out the cemetery with flat rocks and make a stone alley leading to the stele. In addition, they will gather in one spot all the remains of the aircraft.
2 small bronze plaques on a wooden tablet remain as silent witnesses to the coming over of Commander Thomas and his group.


Arrival of Commander Thomas at the cemetery
on Sunday June 1st 1986, accompanied by
Mr. Xavier Rumeau, Mayor of Nistos and Mr. Soubiran veteran of the 3201.
On the right  Mr. Castéran served as guide for this group by passing by the Arize valley .

Group of young apprentices of the RAF’s Technical School. They came by bus from Great Britain. They stayed at Nistos from Saturday May 31 to Saturday June 7 1986.

Cemetery Summer 1990

7 sharp vertical stones at the head of each body on July 18 1944 are still in place,  the domes don’t exist anymore

Aeronautical Museum of Luchon

Located on Luchon’s airfield, the Musée Aéronautique is open Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays from 1500H to 1800H from April to October. It was created in 1991 by M. Léon Elissalde after he had salvaged downed aircraft parts in the Central Pyrenees during WW2.
This Museum covers aeronautical history from 1934 to the advent of the Concorde, it is above all an homage to all the airmen who have died while trying to liberate France.
Aircraft parts on display have deep historical significance, especially that of the 2 German Dornier 217 who on June 12 1944 collided and crashed on Mount Sieut while hunting down the Résistance or of a Blida, Algeria based Halifax II who on July 14 1944 came to re-supply the same Résistance unit and crashed on the Pic du Douly in the upper Nistos Valley (Sacoué). A cemetery at the foot of that same mountain was renovated in July 1994 by 30 former Résistance fighters and friends of the Résistance of the Hautes-Pyrénées they were also helped out by 8 members of the S.F. of the Comminges.                  
One can also see the four « Bristol Hercules » engines that equipped a Halifax III that crashed on Mount Vallier (Ariège) in July 1945.

An area of the Museum is dedicated to post-war avionics and has for example a Rolls-Royce jet engine, some turbo engines for helicopters or L.M.T.’s and flight simulators of the 50’s and 60’s; it also has on display many flight instruments. 
Guided tours are done by two former French Air Force mechanics that will be more than happy to tell you the stories of aircrews that had “the right stuff” and will reveal to you all the secrets of aeronautical mechanics.