On board were 13 passengers. Eleven were Royal Air Force (RAF) men expecting that they could finally reach home. That dawn of 26 march 1941 should be the last moments from one operation that involved diplomacy, secret services, people with no name and a planning… in the Portuguese way: few resources, but lots of good will.
It had begun one month before. The night from 14 to 15 February turned the country upside down. A violent cyclone destroyed cultures, houses, ships and many other things. More than one hundred persons died and the wounded largely surpassed half thousand…
It was one the biggest natural tragedies that hit the country in the last century.
Caught by this phenomenon was also one Sunderland aircraft from the RAF, destined to Africa.
They had started just before midnight near Plymouth, expecting weak winds. About five in the morning the aircraft was being violently shacked. “The navigator, Jack Banfield, decided to measure the wind velocity and we could not believe the readings that showed wind speeds above 90 miles per hour”, explained Roy Booth, one of the crewmembers in 2001 in a interview to Neil Owen, involved in telling the stories of the men and aircraft that went through Oban - his hometown – during WWII.
There where winds that sometimes blew at more than 150 miles per hour and it was impossible to stay airborne. They had to land also because flying against the wind they had almost finished the gas reserves.
A fast look at the maps showed that Portugal was the nearest place they could reach.
“The waves were 30 feet high and the pilot “Shorty” Evison made a real miracle landing the plane. We thought that the best he would achieve would be a landfall before the inevitable crash in the weather conditions”, explained Roy Booth that had a vivid image from the pilot’s face after the landing, when he “emerged from the cockpit, tears streaming from his face from the nervous tension”.
The big mess
The aircraft beached approximately midday, but they would not receive any help the rest of the day or during the night, because of the storm that was tearing the country apart. Only on the next morning they would be taken to Setúbal.
They were the first allied crew to land in Portugal. The “Laws of War”, although not very clear, suggested the possibility that they could be interned for the duration of the war. It seems although that the Portuguese authorities were never very interested in that.
Several British documents assure that they were lightly guarded. It was almost one invitation to evasion, but it found many obstacles on the way. The letters changed between several british services show a puzzling scenario.
The secret services proposed a rescue operation using the fact that the crew – already in Figueira da Foz – was lightly guarded. They would be transported by car to one of the ships that patrolled the Portuguese coast.
They even suggest that the operation should take place in the Algarve, a more deserted area when we talk about boat traffic.
The British Embassy in Lisbon does not disagree, but does not want to know anything about the operation. They fear the reaction of Salazar – Portuguese ruler and also a fascist – and the implications in the relationship with the Portuguese government. If they know nothing they would not need to lie latter.
The Foreign Office does not want any operation to take place. They don’t even want to make a official request to free them. It would open a precedent that could be used latter in other neutral countries by the enemy.
There is also a note pointing out that it was not advisable to involve any national in the operation, but it would be a Portuguese officer to take care of everything.
A help request
Major António Dias Leite, from the Portuguese Aeronáutica Militar (army air arm), was known to be one enthusiast “of the allied cause”, so he was not surprised to receive one invitation from the British Embassy for a cocktail. Between the persons at the party was someone he knew from somewhere, but he could not locate where.
That man went over and talked to him. It was Squadron Leader Lombard, commander of 95 Squadron, to wish the Sunderland belonged, and one of the internees himself, as he had been a passenger on the flight.
They had met in 1938 in one RAF advanced instructor course in the United Kingdom. Lombard asked him to find a way out.
A German crew from a FW200 that had landed in Alentejo had already escaped through the Spanish border. That was not a solution for them as Spain was not a friend of the british.
Dias Leite understood the problem but he explained him that he couldn’t do much. He was just a Major in the Aeronáutica Militar. They talked a little, but nothing further was discussed. A few days later he was contacted again by Embassy people. He decided to try something…
In a four page document, preserved by the family of Dias Leite, he recount’s some of the details. He contacted “Someone” (the capital letter is so in the original) to explain the problem. It was certainly “Someone” high ranked in the government, because he got a green light for the operation under some rules: the authorities would look to the other side, but if something went wrong the Major had to assume all responsibilities.
Dias Leite agreed. He contacted some friends that had boats and they prepared a plan. One of the British ships based in Gibraltar would guarantee a “rendezvous” with the Portuguese.
Some days before the date the airmen escaped from Figueira da Foz to Aveiro. In his interview Roy Booth reports a car chase and shootings conducted by local Gestapo members.
António Dias Leite on the other hand assures that everything went as planned and the men arrived in groups to the house of a friendly doctor, Augusto da Cunha.
“My uncle warned my mother and my grandmother that some British airmen would arrive, but that nobody could know about it. My grandmother was appalled when he told her that the Germans would cut our throats if this became public”, explains Olinda Couceiro laughing, niece from the house owner.
Olinda Couceira remembers many stories related with the presence of those men in the house, especially the fact that fear was always present. “The backer started to make questions, because suddenly we were buying bread for more eleven persons, and there was also someone playing the piano”.
On the evening of the 25 March the group went to Leixões and during the night they jumped into the tugboat. Besides the eleven RAF men, Dias Leite and Augusto da Cunha were also on board.
Around four in the morning one British ship enlighten himself right in front of the tugboat. The first “escape” – a word used many times in documents and newspapers of the time – had taken place.
There was still time for a glass of Port Wine. One unlucky bottle fell into the floor and broke itself. A “big loss” everybody agreed, although the times they were living.
This route would be used by dozens of other airmen in the following years. Dias Leite assures that about 300 “escaped” this way.
The daughter, Maria Leite, still keeps some objects the airmen left behind as thank you gifts. Dias Leite also met one of those men latter when, after the war, the Queen of England visited Portugal.
(I thank the cooperation of Neil Owen, Maria Dias Leite and Olinda Couceiro)