The morning of Wednesday the 30th of April 1941 began like any other day at RAF Christchurch. That was until 11:15 am, when a distant buzzing sound in the distance caught the attention of those on the ground.
An unfamiliar aircraft was seen approaching the airfield at a low angle. As it came into focus, the ground staff could see a grey biplane with what appeared to be two passengers, one of whom was waving a white scarf.
More worrying was the unmistakeable sight of a swastika on the biplane’s tail.
The occupants onboard were Denys Boudard and Jean Hébert. The two daring Frenchmen had managed to steal an aircraft from a German occupied French airfield, right from under the noses of the Luftwaffe.
This is their story.
Boudard and Hébert hatch a plan
Denys Boudard (born 1919) and Jean Hébert (born 1920) would first meet as teenagers whilst taking flying lessons at the Cormelles-le-Royal flying club in Caen, Normandy.
When war broke out in September 1939, they volunteered for the French Air Force. They ended up together in Algeria until they were demobilised in June 1940 after the defeat of France. Both returned to Caen, where they started to devise a plan to escape to England to join the Free French Air Force (FAFL).
Denys Boudard would later say:
“We only had one thing in mind, to get the hell out of France. Why not by plane? And, if in addition, we could steal one from the Germans, even better.”
Having agreed on the ambitious plan, the pair decided to monitor airfields in the northern region of France. An opportunity would present itself ten months later.
“We looked for airfields. As it was impossible to break into those of Bernay and Evreux, we fell back on Caen-Carpiquet air base.”
Caen-Carpiquet had been captured by the Luftwaffe in June 1940 and would serve as a rear base during the Battle of Britain, with an average of four missions a day being launched over the Channel.
It was a very active airfield. The risks when attempting to enter, let alone stealing an aircraft would be high.
The two men rented a room in Verson, a commune on the southern perimeter of the airfield, where they stayed for four days. After watching the comings and goings, they decided they would enter the airfield from this side, as it had the least visible German activity.
They had observed that a grey German biplane with Luftwaffe and swastika markings would leave every morning at 11am, then return in the afternoon. It was as regular as clockwork.
The aircraft in question was a two-seater Bücker Bü 131 Jungmann. It had two cockpits with dual controls, as it was designed as training aircraft for a novice pilot and instructor. It was renowned for its outstanding handling characteristics when compared to similar aircraft and was exceptionally sturdy and agile.
It would be the ideal escape aircraft for two relatively novice flyers.
Having also noticed that the airfield mechanics and workmen would dress in black overalls, the enterprising pair bought similar clothing at the Saint-Pierre market on April the 27th. They dyed the clothing a similar black colour using a basin lent to them by their landlady.
The plan was to dress and appear to be French workmen employed on general ground duties at the airfield.
Stealing the Bücker Bü 131 Jungmann
The morning of Wednesday the 30th of April 1941, Denys Boudard and Jean Hébert, dressed in their new black overalls, entered the airfield by a path which led to the hangar where the Bücker Jungmann biplane (Military code GD-EG, serial number 4477) was parked up.
Denys Boudard would later recount:
“That day it was raining. We had dyed our suits black so as not to stand out too much. A mechanic was working on the plane we had spotted, but he barely looked at us.”
Carrying brooms, the pair walked nonchalantly over to the aircraft, examined the controls, and worked out how to start it.
Hébert jumped in first, whilst Boudard swung the propeller to start the aircraft up before jumping into the secondary cockpit.
“Jean took the controls. It was a dual-control aircraft. We had tossed a coin. Jean won the take-off and I had won the landing.”
When they saw the route was clear, and with no interference from any German personnel, they taxied the Bücker Jungmann out of the hangar, and in a few seconds were airborne.
Whilst over Caen train station, Hébert signalled to a friend by a railroad that everything had gone well and that he could take the letters he had been entrusted to the pair’s parents.
They headed out in the general direction of England.
Escaping Caen-Carpiquet airfield and France
There are conflicting reports on how simple the journey over the English Channel was.
One report says the pair escaped attention from German fighter planes. However, it’s unlikely the Bücker Jungmann was engaged by the Luftwaffe as the biplane’s top speed was 114 mph, compared to the 426 mph of a Messerschmitt 109.
I have to assume that no attempt was made to catch them, and the escape from Caen-Carpiquet went without a hitch.
Flying into England and RAF Christchurch
Boudard and Hébert flew the Bücker Jungmann over the Channel at a very low level and finally caught sight of the English coastline.
They came in over Bournemouth at which point they triggered a warning siren. One account says that two RAF aircraft patrolled above them but did not manage to spot them. It’s believed they managed to escape detection for so long due the low altitude they were flying at. Had they been seen by the RAF, there’s no doubt they would have been shot out of the sky.
By chance they set their sights on RAF Christchurch, seeing large open fields on which to land the stolen German biplane.
Under the dumbfounded gaze of airfield workers, the Bücker Jungmann, swastikas and all, started to descend. Jean Hébert was seen waving a white scarf, as he’d won the coin toss for the take-off, and Denys Boudard was now attempting the landing.
As you can imagine, both were praying they didn’t come under gunfire.
They landed smoothly, and rather predictably were greeted at gunpoint by shocked British soldiers. Understandably, the British took a dim view of an aircraft bearing the swastika landing on Christchurch airfield.
After a tense exchange (and some photo opportunities), Boudard and Hébert were taken to London where they joined the Free French Air Force (FAFL). They were then posted to Camberley to complete their flight training and learn English.
A personal account from the English side
Frank Griffiths was a pilot working for the Special Duty Flight at Christchurch at the time. In his 1986 book, “Angel Visits – From Biplane to Jet” he recalled the incident. Here are some excerpts from his account of the day.
“The air raid warning sounded and pilots leapt into the fighters and waited for instructions from Worth Matravers, which had the radar picture of what was going on. I was in a Spitfire waiting for orders to start when I was amazed to see a small biplane with full German markings come flying in over.”
“Was this the start of the invasion? If so, why had there been no shooting? The plane had landed straight over the top of an AA post which hadn’t fired a shot. What on earth was going on? Then a swarm of 24 RAF fighter aircraft flew overhead, obviously to deal with the invader.”
“One of the airfield defence soldiers advanced stolidly on the intruder with fixed bayonet and rifle at the ready. A man in the rear cockpit raised both his hands… The invasion had surrendered.”
He then went on to explain what happened once it was clear it was two Frenchmen and not Germans who had landed in Christchurch.
“Questioned about what they meant to do if attacked by fighters, they said they had brought a piece of white cloth with them to wave in the air! Never surely has fortune so favoured the brave as when these two young men trundled unmolested through the entire defence of the English coast.”
“The two adventurers were taken to London for interrogation leaving the Bucker with us. We repainted it, replacing crosses and swastikas with RAF roundels and for a whole day took turns to fly it. It was a delightful aircraft and a beauty for aerobatics. Then came an order from Air Ministry to send it to London, where it was to be put on show. So, we had to paint back the crosses and swastikas and send it away by road.”
After their escape
After a campaign in the Middle East with the FAFL, Jean Hébert would return to England. He was killed in June 1943 when shot down in error by two Spitfires. He had been flying a Miles Master aircraft and was possibly mistaken for a German Stuka.
Denys Boudard would go on to join the RAF as a Flight Sergeant. In 1944 he became the first French airman to land at the recaptured Caen-Carpiquet airfield, the very same airfield he had stolen the Bucker Jungmann from 3 years earlier.
Boudard died in Caen in October 2005 aged 85.
Boudard and Hébert will always be known as having pulled off one of the most daring stunts of the Second World War.
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Credits & references
Angel Visits – From Biplane to Jet by Frank Griffiths in 1986.
Postscript: British records record the event as having happened on the 30th of April 1941, French accounts online state 29th April.