First published in the Mail on Sunday on 18 October 2020.
Handcuffed and led into the woods at dawn, two SAS men prepared to die… What followed was one of the most breathtaking episodes of the entire war, writes LORD ASHCROFT.
It was approaching dawn on August 9, 1944 and the seven prisoners of war caught operating behind enemy lines in German-occupied France thought they knew their fate.
After weeks of imprisonment, including brutal interrogation at the hands of the Gestapo, their end was near.
German SS men, armed with automatic weapons, led the seven SAS men, all of whom were in handcuffs, from a lorry to a clearing some 100 yards into a wood.
‘Are we going to be shot?’ asked Corporal Jean Dupontel, one of the prisoners.
‘Of course you’re going to be shot. What do you think this is, a picnic?’ said one of the guards, with a snigger.
Dupontel, who was dark-haired and slightly built, had spent the previous three years serving in the British Armed Forces.
Now he had been weakened by torture and a lack of food. He was also so scared that his knees began to tremble and he half fell to the ground but the butts of several SS rifles propelled him forwards.
As Dupontel was lined up to be shot, his thoughts turned to his younger brother, Antoine, whom he had not seen for five years but who he knew was fighting with the French Resistance.
Then, as he listened to the birdsong, he thought of his parents, who lived in a tiny house in Brittany.
‘God help me,’ he whispered under his breath. ‘I’m too young. I don’t want to be shot down like a dog under these trees.’
As the men prepared to be executed, Dupontel glanced at his best friend Corporal Thomas ‘Ginger’ Jones, short and stocky, who was the last man in the line.
An SS captain read out a statement, first in German, before one of his sergeants translated it into English: ‘Having been tried and found guilty before a court martial of collaborating with French terrorists and in this way endangering the security of the German Army, you have been sentenced to death by shooting.’
What happened next was astonishing and led to one of the most remarkable stories of the entire 1939-45 war.
Moments earlier, Dupontel had managed to work his right hand free from the handcuffs but he kept his arms in front of him to pretend that they were still restricted.
As the group of SS soldiers raised their weapons to fire, Dupontel let out a roar like a wild beast and rushed forward, breaking through a gap between one of the German officers and a civilian who was watching the execution.
In the darkness, he raced forwards and as one of the SS soldiers opened fire, he fell to the ground – not shot because, in fact, he had tripped on the root of a tree. He picked himself up and ran through trees, brambles and foliage as bullets whistled by his head and body.
‘Dear God, help me,’ he shouted. But at the edge of the forest he came to a tall, thick hedge.
He could hear the Germans were on his heels and so he launched himself, arms first, through the top of the hedge, briefly remembering what he had been taught at his commando training course in Inverness, Scotland.
Landing with a roll forwards, he glanced at a surprised horse standing close by, picked himself up and, once again, ran for his life towards another wood.
Eventually, Dupontel was free – alone in the French countryside just over two months after the D-Day landings.
Dressed in civilian clothing, he was also limping from a badly swollen right ankle that he had injured as he frantically made his escape.
Out of desperation, he sought help from French villagers, some 40 miles north of Paris, hoping that they would take pity on him and not turn him over to their German masters.
He was in luck: he was befriended by a French butcher who had a cousin in the Maquis, the French Resistance.
As he prised off the second handcuff, his thoughts turned to his six comrades who he imagined had been shot and buried in the wood. Distraught and frightened as he sheltered in a farmhouse, the slightest noise made him jump.
Soon Dupontel linked up with the butcher’s cousin and his Resistance friends. And days later, as his ankle began to heal, his new friend told him that three miles away villagers had found a man who didn’t speak any French but who was gesturing for help.
At first, Dupontel feared it was a trap, but he agreed to accompany the Frenchman to see the stranger. The two men slipped into a house and listened to the stranger talking in English.
The voice coming from the kitchen was unmistakable to Dupontel: it was Ginger Jones, so he entered the room. The two friends stared at each other as if they had both seen a ghost, then they shook hands and hugged each other warmly.
‘Is it really you, old man?’ Jones said. ‘It can’t be. I was sure you were dead.’ Dupontel told Jones he had been equally sure that he was dead.
As the excitement calmed down, Jones explained that in the commotion caused by Dupontel’s dash for freedom, he too had raced away from his position at the end of the line before tripping and falling.
‘Bullets hit the ground around where I was lying.
‘I was afraid to move. I knew that my only chance now was to pretend to be dead. I heard someone come up to me and my heart almost stopped beating… I was astonished at still being alive,’ Jones recalled. When the execution squad left, Jones had picked himself off the ground and counted the five dead bodies of his comrades.
Then he made his way up a hill and eventually came to a village where he, too, was befriended by locals.
Jones thanked his friend for saving his life. ‘If you hadn’t distracted their attention by shouting and making a break for it, I’d have had it with the others,’ he said.
As the Allied forces closed in on Paris and its nearby countryside, Dupontel and Jones decided to stay and fight with the Resistance. They were pleased to discover that their new friends were well armed.
Their first mission was to ambush a German staff car that the Resistance had observed passing by each day, and which never had a motorcycle escort. Five men, including an SS colonel, were captured. They were ordered to dig their own graves and later shot, though not by Dupontel or Jones.
On another occasion, Dupontel found six enemy soldiers beating up a young Frenchman, dragging the boy’s mother by her hair and stealing their horses. With another Resistance fighter, he shot the SS men dead.
By this point in the war, the Germans were retreating and it was not long before the area where Dupontel and Jones had been in hiding was liberated by advancing American troops.
‘You guys certainly did a pretty swell job,’ said one US officer, after hearing of the bravery with which the men and their Resistance allies had fought off a German tank.
Soon Dupontel and Jones, both aged 30, were heading back to London, hitching a lift in a flat-bottomed landing craft on its way back to England across the Channel.
Both survived the war, Dupontel was reunited with his family, and they both gave evidence at a war crimes trial in the German city of Wuppertal in February 1947.
Some of the German troops responsible for torturing the two men and killing their colleagues during their captivity were found guilty by the court and executed by hanging.
I have been able to tell this remarkable, true story because of help from a Mail on Sunday reader, Roger Mason, who contacted me after reading my account in this paper of the bravery of the ‘Parachuting Padre’, the Rev Fraser McLuskey, who went behind enemy lines in France with the SAS in 1944.
Mr Mason put me in touch with Ginger Jones’s daughter and also referred me to a little-known memoir, Air Commando, written by Serge Vaculik shortly after the war and which was published in 1954.
Serge Vaculik was, in fact, Jean Dupontel’s real name. His family were Czech, but when he fought with the British he was advised to change his name in case he was captured: his Gestapo interrogators would probably have given him a harder time if they knew he was Czech, not French.
Neither Vaculik nor Jones was decorated at the time for bravery, which seems an injustice, given their gallantry.
Many years later they were awarded the French Croix de Guerre and a war memorial was erected in France for the five comrades who had been executed in 1944. Their bodies were exhumed and buried in a military ceremony at Beauvais.
Glenys Atherton, Ginger Jones’s daughter, told me that she was proud of her father’s actions more than 75 years ago. ‘He was an incredible man,’ she said.
Glenys was born in 1946, the year after the war ended, but she remembers being six or seven years old when Serge Vaculik came to her family home in Wigan to run through the events of 1944 with her father, who by then was a coal miner.
‘They corroborated their stories before Serge’s book was published,’ she explained.
In Vaculik’s book, he refers to his comrades as being commandos or parachutists and he does not mention the Special Air Service: this is because the regiment was then, in its early days, still so secretive.
In fact, all the captured men were from 1 SAS commanded by the legendary Lieutenant Colonel Blair ‘Paddy’ Mayne.
They had been taken prisoner after a firefight during only their second mission behind enemy lines, working with the French Resistance to carry out hit-and-run attacks on German targets.
‘When my younger brother Norman and I were children, our father didn’t speak much about the war, but when we grew up he did talk to us about what he had done. He spoke about how he had survived the firing squad,’ said Glenys, 73, a retired teaching assistant, who lives in Saddleworth, near Manchester.
After her father’s death, she and her husband, David, went to retrace his steps in northern France and found the villages where the two men had been befriended, speaking to a female member of the Maquis who had met her father in 1944.
Ginger Jones died in Oldham Hospital, Lancashire, on December 6, 1990, aged 76. He had been ill in hospital for three months and then contracted pneumonia.
Ginger had shown a sense of humour in hospital even when he was in great pain. During his stay, doctors informed him that they would have to amputate one of his legs above the knee.
He replied: ‘Well then, give me a pair of headphones so that I can’t hear you – and get on with it!’
Later he asked if he could keep the leg and mount it in a glass case, explaining: ‘You see I scored nine goals with that leg in a match, playing schoolboy centre-forward in Wigan!’
There is, however, one remarkable final twist to this wartime story that relates to Ginger’s death.
Mrs Atherton said: ‘Soon after I got back from the hospital, a representative from the SAS rang me, having learnt of my father’s death. He asked me if there was anything he could do to help, and I asked him to contact Serge Vaculik to let him know my father had died.
‘A few days later, the man rang me back and told me that Serge had died too – within a few hours of my father. I couldn’t believe it.’
Incredibly, the two men who had been due to die together in August 1944 had, in fact, died at almost the same time 46 years later in December 1990.
In Pegasus, the magazine for the Parachute Regiment and airborne forces, their obituaries appeared on opposite pages. Brothers in arms to the very end.