Hero Herbert Castelow cycles between Michel and Gilbert Leduc in France
A SAS hero hid in plain sight as a mute butcher’s boy in a French village, to evade Nazis who were searching for him after a failed sabotage mission.
Herbert Castelow pretended to be a cousin of butcher Michel Leduc, a French Resistance leader, in Vert-le-Petit, for almost two months in 1944 while waging a solo war behind enemy lines.
German troops visited the butcher’s shop daily to buy their meat ration. But as Herbert did not speak any French or German, he pretended to be mute.
He used a forged French identity card to become Hubert Louis Leboulenger, who was listed as having a severe stammer.
While he worked in the shop by day, he led sabotage and intelligence-gathering missions by night.
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Herbert in uniform
His escape is one of six remarkable true stories featured in SAS Great Escapes Two, by best-selling author Damien Lewis.
Herbert was part of a dozen-strong SAS unit parachuted into France on a moonlit night on July 5, 1944, to blow up Etampes airbase, just south of Paris.
After intercepting radio transmissions, the Nazis had staked out the drop-zone and 11 of the SAS parachutists were captured or killed. Herbert, the 12th man to jump, managed to get away and hid in a forest until he was found by the Resistance.
At 5ft 4ins and weighing less than 10st, he was able to perch on the handlebars of the butchers’ bike underneath a billowing cycle cape worn by Michel to keep off the rain. German troops knew the butcher so did not stop him as he cycled back to the nearby village.
Herbert’s daughter Avril Deehan visited Vert-le-Petit in 1995 to find out more about her father’s time there.
She says: “Michel said it was easier to have his ‘cousin’ helping out in the butcher’s shop rather than trying to hide an SAS man. He was hiding in plain sight.”
Father-of-five Herbert, from Stockton-on-Tees, was on his second mission for the elite unit when they were ambushed.
To carry out deliveries the butcher and a friend had to ride either side of Herbert to stop him cycling on the wrong side of the road. He kept veering to the left, risking exposure.
But by the third week of August his cover was blown when an unknown collaborator denounced him to the Gestapo. Michel was tipped off a few hours before an operation to capture Herbert was planned and fled with his friend, him heading to nearby American forces and Herbert going in the opposite direction to find the nearest British lines.
Daughter Avril at SAS memorial
Before leaving, Herbert took a knife from the butcher’s shop and killed two Gestapo agents based in the village, dumping their
bodies in a boggy lake nearby.
Dressed as a French gendarme he cycled eight miles before taking a break near Etampes airbase. After scouting out the base he returned to find his bike had been stolen.
Without thinking he let out a string of curses in English, which were heard by some German troops.
He faced instant execution as a spy, but a senior German officer took him into custody for questioning at a Gestapo detention centre.
After failing to break him during a week of torture, including being burned with irons and electric shocks to his chest, he was shipped east to Germany and on September 9 arrived in Metz, on the banks of the Moselle river and close to the border. Herbert noticed his
lone SS guard appeared sleepy just before midnight. So he killed him with his bare hands, took his rifle and escaped.
After walking calmly through the heavily garrisoned city he swam across the river to reach American forces and fought with the 5th Reconnaissance Troop, sharing intelligence about the Germans’ positions in Metz.
Herbert was flown from Paris to London in a USAAF warplane on September 21, rather than going by ship.
Damien says: “I’ve never read of one man being flown back on his own. He was either very badly injured and it was a medical evacuation or he had intelligence which they needed to get back to the UK.”
After the war Colonel Blair Mayne, 1 SAS’s commanding officer, gave a speech to the Royal British Legion in which he singled out Herbert’s exploits for praise, despite not naming him.
He described how one of his men had “lived in a butcher’s shop on the top floor…at night, however, he went out and did some sabotage work”.
Damien says: “This is the man who commanded the SAS for most of the war, the man who led hundreds of Britain’s finest warriors into war, yet he singles out Herbert Castelow’s story.”
He adds: “It is an escape story, but actually it’s really a story about Herbert Castelow refusing to stop fighting. I am sure there were times when he could have made his way back to Allied lines, but he chose to stay.”
Avril, who lives in Bainton, Yorkshire, with husband Brian, says her father, who died in 1973 aged 57, when she was 17, rarely spoke about his war experiences.
Herbert was awarded the Military Medal but declined an invitation to receive it personally from King George VI, as he did not feel he deserved the accolade.
He worked in the local steel mill after the war but suffered from PTSD, particularly on moonlit nights when he would scream and thrash in his sleep.
SAS Great Escapes Two by Damien Lewis is out now
Avril, 14 at the time, would go to him with a dampened face cloth. She saw marks on his upper body from the torture.
The grandmother-of-three, 66, was contacted by Michel when he was looking for his friend. She says: “I was incredibly close to my father, but after researching his story I am more proud of him.
“I never realised what an incredibly brave man he was, the way he was tortured by the Gestapo, and he said nothing.”
One of Damien’s previous books, Churchill’s Secret Warriors, has been made into a Guy Ritchie film The Ministry Of Ungentle-manly Warfare, starring Henry Cavill and Alan Ritchson, due out next year.
Avril hopes her father’s story will get the same treatment: “When I tell people my father’s story they always say it is a blockbuster in the making.”
- SAS Great Escapes Two by Damien Lewis (Quercus) from Express Bookshop for £22 at expressbookshop.com or 0203 176 3832. Free UK P&P on online orders over £25