Stanley Booker

RAF Halifax Bomber officer who was shot down and captured just before D-Day, and was briefly imprisoned at Buchenwald concentration camp.

Stanley Booker

RAF Halifax Bomber officer who was shot down and captured just before D-Day, and was briefly imprisoned at Buchenwald concentration camp.

Stanley Booker served as an officer in the RAF. He flew Halifax Bombers, until being shot down three days before D-Day. After being taken in by the French Resistance, Stanley was betrayed by a Gestapo agent, and captured interrogated in Paris and transported to a concentration camp. His harrowing experience led to a lifelong campaign for recognition of the Allied Airmen and SOE agents who were tortured and incarcerated in the camps.

Eventually moved to a POW camp by the Luftwaffe, Stanley was held as a hostage by Russian troops on VE Day, who wanted to secure the release of Russian defectors back to them after the war.

Stanley's war 

Stanley Booker joined the RAF as an apprentice and was 17 when war broke out. He was first sent to work at a new RAF station in Worksop as a Clerk and was transferred 18 months later to train as air crew.

He was taken to Lord’s Cricket Ground in London to take part in drills and moved to Brighton to be allocated his role as a navigator, before being sent to Wales to train in aircraft.

“I did all my flying training in North Wales, came out top and got commissioned, and then sent off into Bomber Command, in Abingdon.

“In the meantime, my good lady had passed her nursing exams and she was in Yorkshire, so when it came to choosing whether I wanted to be on Lancaster or Halifax bombers, I chose Halifax because they were based on a station just outside York.

“It was just about 3 months before D-Day. They took all the Halifaxs out of Bomber Command and said, 'Let the rest of the Bomber Command do the heavy bombing in Germany. We want you to do the softening up of the railway lines, so that when the invasion comes, there is as much disruption as possible’. We started at the German border, and every railway line, marshalling yard, assembly line, were bombed regularly, night after night, for 3 months, from March until June. We had a softer war, in the sense that our targets weren't defended, and we didn't have to fly so far.”


Shot down

The night of 3 June, three days before D-Day, Stanley was sent on a bombing mission to France, from RAF Melbourne. However, he was soon met by the German Air Force.

“The German Air Force congregated, thinking our Halifaxs were the mainstream. Our 105 Halifaxs got suddenly thumped on by 60 German night fighters, and before we knew where they were, 18 were shot down in as many minutes.

“We were the second in the queue. Our gunners saw them coming and started firing, and they shot back, and my pilot was killed.

“The wireless operator sat beside me in the front got up and was holding the wheel. The aircraft was blazing, and the engine was on fire. The escape hatch was right under my desk. You had to lift the lid up to get out, with no light to see, as the aircraft was coming down.

“We managed to bail out at about 1,000 feet and landed on the edge of a wood. I was standing watching the aircraft going above thinking, another hour and half, they'd be sitting down to their breakfast.

“I saw this old chap in the field. I damaged my knee, so I knew I couldn't walk too far. I went up to him and I said, in my best schoolboy French, that I was an English officer and could he help me? He put his arms around me and gave me a great big kiss. I was like, 'Oh my god.' He said, 'My son is over in England with General de Gaulle. When's the invasion?' They hadn't told me when the invasion was, but it was pretty obvious it was going to be in a matter of weeks, because of the targets we were bombing so I said, 'Well, soon.'

“He took me to an area in the valley and pointed to a chateau which belonged to an English woman. I thought ‘it’s too good to be true!’."

At 1 o’clock in the morning Stanley went to the woman (a widow) for refuge, injured and skin taken from the side of his face where the parachute opened. He was asked questions to prove his identity. She took him in and the French resistance came later to check Stanley was who he said he was. He was then issued a false French identity card.

“That was 3 June. Three mornings later, I was woken up at 7 o'clock in the morning with Madame, and the maid, with this tray and this big bottle of champagne and 3 glasses to celebrate the invasions that had started. I, a very modest gentleman was holding my blanket up to my chest, because I didn't have pyjamas, drinking champagne, thinking, 'What's my wife thinking? She's thinking I'm dead, and there I am drinking champagne with a French widow.'”

Capture

A plan was devised by the resistance and SOE (Special Operations Executive) to get Stanley back to Britain, going via the usual route to Paris and then Spain, to be eventually picked up by the British embassy taken to Gibraltar and flown to England.

Unbeknownst to the French resistance and Stanley, the Gestapo had infiltrated the escape network. Stanley was betrayed by a Belgian man called Jacques Desoubrie.

“After D-Day I stayed with Madame Oriel and Madame Le Fèvre at the Chateau, and I was suddenly told I would be moved along the resistance line to Paris. A gentleman in a Citroen car pulled up outside. The French knew, but we were unaware that this car was a Gestapo car, as they had requisitioned the production line and that model.

“Madame then told me the man planned to take us to be picked up by a Lysander aircraft and taken back to Britain that night. That he was a member of the SOE. None of us knew it was a trap, and that he was a double agent.”

Stanley was taken by the man to Paris and held in a brothel for two days, where he was tricked into revealing information about Britain to prove his identity to a man masquerading as a member of the resistance. He did not reveal any military information, it was the local knowledge that the Germans planned to use to frighten people during interrogation, as a way of showing how sophisticated their intelligence was.

On the third day, Stanley was interrogated and tortured by the Gestapo.

“They gave us a very severe beating up, and my trouble was that the gentleman had left us this envelope to give to the pilot. Information, I didn't know what it was. It was of interest to the Gestapo. I got three very, very nasty beatings up, and was knocked unconscious the last time, and woke up lying naked on the floor and handcuffed, not in a very nice condition.”


Buchenwald Concentration Camp

Stanley was moved to Fresnes, a large prison in Paris in July, where many French resistance were also held, until there was a large enough group to transfer to concentration camps.

“The place was absolutely brimming. There were 3,000 prisoners in there. There were 4 of us to a cell. Most of the time, we were with French prisoners.

“On 16th August we were shipped off. The French prisoners were taken first, and so it was only when we were moved downstairs ready to be taken to the railway station that we found there were 200 of us Brits left. We hadn’t had a shave in a month, we all had long hair by that point. We looked like Robinson Crusoe. It was horrible. We all got together downstairs and suddenly found, 'Crikey, it's him. It's him.' You found crew members that had been tucked into other sides of the prison.

“We were shunted along and packed into these cattle trucks and endured a five-day journey to Buchenwald. It was only then that we found that the people in the truck next to us had gotten the floorboards up, and some of them got out through the floor and got back to Paris. They got there on 28 August, and it had been liberated 3 weeks. They were able to give our MI9 people there, the details of us on the train and where we were going to.

“The Germans then all knew we were in the concentration camp. Our British people also knew that. But they never told our families. They were just told “we're sorry. Your husband must now be presumed dead.'” But all the time, we were sitting and wallowing in the camp.

“There were 84,000 people packed into an area that was designed for 9,000. I was in a waterless hut, a great big building. 1,000 people packed in there, lying on 4 shelves. You only had the clothes you stood up in, which was not very much. You had no shoes. No sanitation. No running water. That side of things was grim.

“We survived on a bowl of nettle soup and one piece of black bread. Every morning and night you would have to stand for a couple of hours while they counted all the prisoners. If it didn't come right the first time, they would do it all over again.

“When they came to our little block, they would just whack us and bash us as they went past. They used to point out to the crematorium and say, 'The only way you'll go home is up through the chimney in the smoke.' That happened week after week after week. It preyed on your mind. You never got rid of that.”


POW Camp

Thanks to the efforts of the Communist underground and SOE captives word was smuggled out to Luftwaffe officials that Allied Airmen were being kept illegally (against the Geneva convention), at Buchenwald. The German Air Force, Luftwaffe, secured the release of men from the hands of the Gestapo. The men were then transferred to Stalag Luft III at Sagan, Poland, this time as official Prisoners of War.

“When you saw the film, 'The Great Escape,' that was based on Stalag Luft III where we dug the tunnels to get out.

“The Germans notified the Red Cross we were there, and we were able fill in our first letter home, which arrived in England a week before Christmas.

“The air ministry said 'Now your husband is a prisoner of war. His pay will be resumed less third of the money, which will be paid in local currency for welfare.' Well, there wasn't any welfare. We were in a prison camp. And also, 'Your husband did not pay his mess bill before he was shot down.' There was a bill of £3.07 outstanding. My family never received any more correspondence until we got liberated.

“After Christmas in the prison camp, the Russians were getting pretty close. The Germans marched us all on the road headed to different camps. There were more than 10,000 prisoners at Sagan. Most Americans were marched westwards. They eventually got picked up by the Americans. The rest of the air force moved northwest via Hamburg and were eventually picked up by our paratroopers. The remainder of us, just a couple of 100, went northwards, and we got ‘liberated’ or overrun by the Russians. Then the war finished, and they hung onto us for five weeks as political refugees.”


VE Day

On 7th May 1945, Germany surrendered, and official celebrations of Victory in Europe were marked on 8th May 1945, where documentation of surrender was finalised. But Stanley could not celebrate, as he was still held captive, by the Russian Army.

“I was taken to Luckenwalde, which was an old army barracks occupied by the Russians. On VE day, the Russians didn’t take a blind bit of notice, it was just another day.

“They ‘liberated’ us on 21 April, but where we tore down parts of the fence, immediately they filled it again and put guards back in the watchtower, and they kept us there.

“In Austria, when the war finished, there were 100s of Russians who had been taken prisoner, and transferred their allegiance to the Germans, and worked in the Germany army. They were rounded up at the end of the war, and the Russians wanted to deal with them themselves. They hung onto us as hostages, until they did an exchange.

“When Germany surrendered in May, the Americans sent through lorries to take back their American troops, but the Russian’s sent the lorries away empty. We had a clandestine radio that we were listening to. We had orders from General Eisenhower, who was still in command, that we were not under any circumstances to try to break out. There were so many German’s wandering around that a Russian wouldn't know one from one of us. We had to stay together as a unit, and we would be protected. We stayed on and we stayed on and we stayed on. Somebody came out and took all our details and went back. They never told our families that we were there.

“We were in the camp, and all we knew about was what we heard on the radio. There was no celebration, no commemoration, no shaking hands with the Russians. To them, they were impartial. We were all just anxious to get home. We didn't make a fuss about it. When you've been away from home, you're just counting the days.

“Everybody else had been home and liberated weeks beforehand. There we were, still a party of about 2,000, including 10 of the original 38 RAF from Buchenwald.

“When we did go home, we were amongst all the others, considered normal POWs. The Government failed to recognise that we went through what we did.”

VJ Day

On Victory over Japan Day, Stanley was back in the UK. He chose not to mark the occasion.

“When we came home from the Luckenwalde, I was sent on 8 weeks holiday. When that expired, there were still so many air crew spare that there was nowhere for us to go, so they gave us another 8 weeks leave.

"During that time, when the Japanese war stopped, they started bringing the Japanese prisoners of war home, who had had a terrible time. We had it bad, but they kept the poor souls hanging around in Singapore for god knows how long, put them on troop ships, got them to Southampton, and gave them a railway warrant and said, 'Make your way home'. It was absolutely appalling, after the deprivations they went through. They didn't have Red Cross parcels sent to them, and letters from home and things like that. They just suffered and suffered. What we had in Buchenwald was absolutely nothing compared to them.

“VJ day didn't really mean anything. It just happened. We were happy, and people at home were happy to bring their soldiers home. But it didn't really have any real impact at all.”

Letters

After Stanley sent his letter home in December 1944, he received no communication from home, and his family heard no more from him. Three months after the war, hundreds of letters for England were uncovered on a railway wagon and eventually sent to their rightful recipients.

“She wrote and wrote and wrote. Bless her heart. She kept a copy of her letters to me.

“When I read my first letter home, it was very difficult. I was away from late November 1943, shot down in the beginning of June, spent all of those months in the camp.

“The German Air Force said, quite frankly, 'Look, we have to censor your letter. Say what you like, but you can't say anything about your concentration camp'. They made it quite clear and we understood that. All I could say was, 'Dear love, love, love, love, love. The last 6 months have been rather adventurous. I have a lot to tell you when I get home. Unfortunately, Sandy and Snooky were killed. Will you send £1 to the standard practice?’ (If you parachuted out, you always sent £1 to the parachute section to people that packed your parachute). I went on to say, 'There's now so many weeks since I've been down. So many months pain. We should have £635'. Reading that, it's so mercenary.

“When I got back my good lady asked me ‘Those widows in France. How old were they?'. I said, '82'. She said, 'Are you sure?'. Then we went back and stayed with them for a fortnight and were made so welcome, that she soon realised I was telling the truth!”

Post-war

After the war ended, Stanley remained in the RAF and fought to keep his commissioned officer status, which the military tried to revoke as he did not attend officer school.

He worked as a spy, moving to Germany with his family, where he saved thousands of people in the Berlin airlift and worked on intelligence operations during the Cold War. Though unable to discuss his work, he was awarded an MBE by the Queen for his services to the country.

Stanley’s wartime experience affected him deeply and affects him to this day. His medical record did not account what had happened to him, despite needing 11 operations as a result from the torture inflicted by the Gestapo. He was also scarred mentally by what he went through.

“I had this post-traumatic stress, I didn't know what it was in those days, but I was troubled in my dreams. The other lads were the same. Because of that, you were treated as antisocial.

“In those days, once a week, you had a dining-in night and got all of your best bib and tucker, and said your graces and drank a lot of wine that you didn't want, and made a fool of yourself afterwards. That left me cold. I didn't have interest to go. But in the service, you don't get progress unless you're seen. No matter how good a pilot you are, if you don't do your social engagements, you're passed over.

“For many years, I was a senior flight lieutenant in the RAF. My compensatory reports they wrote every year on my progress all had the same thing. ‘This officer will not accept his social duties.’ Pure and simple, once I got into trousers, I would go to pieces. Sitting there boozing up when you're not used to it, so I didn't go. That's it. They didn't like it. But I was a damn good navigator.

“Even to this day, when out shopping, if there's a queue, I will go to pieces. I have to get out. Anything to do with discipline. Being shouted at, anything like that.”

Stanley has long worked to remember the troops sent to Buchenwald. He instated a memorial at the site of the concentration camp and campaigned the Government to officially recognise that they were there. He also petitioned and worked with Margaret Thatcher to ensure British representation at the site and is now hoping to receive compensation and back pay from his wages which were cut when he was in the camp and a prisoner of war.