When Don Winterford died last year I lost one of my closest friends.
We first met in July 1944 in the North Compound of Stalag Luft 3, Sagan, in German occupied Poland. I remember him so well.
Physically Don did not change one bit in the years I knew him. He was always thin and this made him look taller than he was. We had arrived at the Camp within a few days of one another and as newcomers we had much in common. Some of our time was spent “bashing the circuit” as we called it, walking round and round the perimeter of the campsite. During our walks I learned the story of Don’s RAF career to date.
Trained as an engineer in civilian life, he joined the RAF as an aircraft mechanic in 1942. Soon after he qualified he volunteered for training as a Flight Engineer and was accepted. After training he eventually began operations as Flight Engineer on a Lancaster Squadron.
About halfway through his operational tour while on a bombing mission attacking railway marshalling yards near Brussels, a night fighter shot them up. The Lancaster went out of control and the crew were ordered to bale out. The pilot did not get out but Don and two others baled out successfully. It was a pitch-black night with no moon. Don remembered how, after a struggle in an aircraft corkscrewing down with a fire in the mid-section, he managed to find the exit hatch and throw himself free. Having no idea of height above the ground, he pulled the ripcord on his parachute almost immediately on leaving the aircraft. He recalled that he did not seem to be falling for more than a few minutes when, without warning, he hit the ground hard. Tumbling over down a slope he clambered to his feet and having released the parachute harness walked a few yards in the black night. He tripped over something solid and groping down, his hands touched cold metal. He was standing in the middle of a railway track. The slope he had fallen down was a railway embankment.
Dragging his ‘chute behind him – he did not know quite why he did so – he clambered back up and with his bundled ‘chute under his arm he began to grope his way across the field at the top. Suddenly, a blinding light shone into his eyes and a voice shouted a command; he had run into a German army patrol. Dropping the parachute, he raised his arms. Instantly, as if he had made a threatening move, a shot rang out and a bullet from a German soldier’s rifle struck him on the right side of his chest, just clipping his collar-bone. Being at such a short range the bullet went straight through, leaving a rather ugly wound on the way out. He lost consciousness and fell to the ground.
It seemed that the Germans believed him to be dead because some time later – Don had no idea for how long – he regained consciousness and found himself to be alone. He struggled to his feet, staggered into the darkness falling over obstacles before he found himself on a path. A few minutes later as he made his way down the track once again a bright light shone onto his face; it was another Wehrmacht patrol. He must have presented a very sorry sight and, thankfully, the members of this patrol far from wanting to kill him made every effort to aid him. A ladder or hurdle was improvised as a stretcher and they took him to their base. Once there an Ambulance was arranged to take him to a hospital in Brussels.
From this point on, his luck seemed to change for a very caring Belgian doctor and a team of nurses, in time, bought him back to health. His right lung, which had been damaged by the bullet, healed and was finally able to function again. A combination of care, first-class nursing and good food restored him to working order. Once he was declared fit again, he was handed over by the hospital to the German Luftwaffe and following a very cursory interrogation was sent to Sagan where we first met.
Don was naturally interested to learn how I had become a POW and I was able to tell him of the kind of photo/reconnaissance operations I had been doing as a member of II (AC) Sqn and related accounts of flying the P.51 Mustang; he was most envious. He told me that just prior to being shot down he had applied to retrain as a pilot.
“I promise you, Ivor”, I remember him saying, “when we get home and if I train as a pilot I am going to get myself posted to II (AC) Sqn”. At that stage it didn’t seem very likely.
At Sagan we spent a lot of time together. We told one another much about our lives, our families and many personal things including an exchange of home addresses and telephone numbers.
When the crunch came at the camp in January 1945, we were ordered by the Germans to evacuate at about two hours notice. Don and I became separated and were not together during the ensuing march.
We both experience much before freedom and repatriation back to England came about but a few weeks after our return I had a call from Don and as a result he came to my home. I remember how my Mother liked him as soon as they met.
It must have been another three years before we next met. I was attending a Squadron Reunion in London and when I walked in it was to be greeted by Flight Lieutenant Don Winterford wearing his Pilot’s wings. He had made good his word to become a pilot on II (AC) Squadron. That was our own very personal reunion.
We met several times after that momentous occasion but at long intervals and mostly at II (AC) Sqn reunions.
I was with him just a few days before he died in Chichester Hospital. He was unfailingly cheerful up to the end. I miss him!
Dated - July 2008
Info: II (AC) Sqn Association
P/O Winterford landed on a railway line, drew fire from a German patrol, was shot through the shoulder at point blank range after giving himself, was robbed of his cigarettes and escape kit, and left for dead. Later was found by another German patrol and taken to hospital.
Info: Retro - Rixansart:
Roger MELOTTE: "A British bomber crashed in the woods near Avenue Marie Monseu. The mayor Evrard had asked me to go stand near the wreckage as a guard before the Germans came for the leftovers. The Germans came with coffins, believing that there were deaths on the plane. Two airmen were able to jump from the plane. There was one who had fallen near us in the meadow and the other felt near the railway. He was trying to escape, the Germans fired and he was hit. The Germans came to our house to have a scale and two men to transport the injured to the Motteu café at Avenue de Merode. My father, Emile, left with Syben Guillaume, who lived near our house. The airman was wounded just above the heart. "
"William had asked for a cigarette to the Germans, but they would not give him. We had to calm him because William wanted to hit them. "
"The injured man was taken by ambulance to a clinic, but the doctor Laermans from Rixensart, saw him, told us later that he would not survive his injuries. We never heard from him. "