Eighty years ago on August 28 1941 twenty one years old Flying Officer Hylton C Winter-Taylor was sitting in a rubber dinghy in the North Atlantic. Being some 400 miles from the nearest land, he was not there on holiday!

A local man, Hylton was the eldest son of William and Germaine Winter-Taylor who lived at Treadaway Hill in Flackwell Heath. His father was a solicitor, with offices in Castle St, High Wycombe

At the outbreak of WW2 Hylton had left the family home, he had two younger brothers and a sister, to join the Royal Air Force. He soon became a Pilot Officer and was posted to Coastal Command, whose most important task during the war was to protect Allied shipping convoys from attacks by German U-boats.

Hylton joined 612 Squadron which was based at Wick in Caithness, Scotland. In early 1941 the squadron was re-equipped with the Armstrong Whitworth Whitley twin-engine bomber, which needed a crew of six. These planes had been modified for long-range operations but there were teething problems with this new aircraft.

Early in September 1941 his parents were first informed that their son was missing “as a result of air operations”. Then they heard that planes looking for them in the days after the disappearance of the aircraft had spotted two empty dinghies in the sea. They must have feared the worst.

However towards the end of September his father heard on “a German wireless service” that he was a prisoner-of-war in Germany. Then a few weeks later in mid-October they received a letter from him telling the full story of what had happened and his remarkable rescue. He ended the letter by stating “Yesterday I played my first game of soccer which I enjoyed very much”!

This is Hylton’s story.

Engine failure

On August 28 1941 Hylton’s Whitley, code-named “W for Willie”, was on patrol in the North Western Approaches. At noon they were about 400 miles west of Cape Wrath when engine failure set-in. They just had time to send out a distress radio signal before having to ditch the plane in the sea. Showing great skill, Hylton managed to do this without the plane breaking-up on impact. The crew had time to launch the two dinghies, three in each, and to lash them together. They then watched as their plane sank into the sea.

Unknown to them the distress signal which had been sent was very weak and the location- details of the plane could not be picked-up. Hylton did know that the nearest ship was three days steaming away, and that the closest aircraft of his squadron would be 200 miles off and making it back to base. All they could do was to wait, and hope for the best.

Rescue, of a sort

After about 6 hours, whilst it was still daylight, the stranded crew of Willie were relieved to be able to just make out what appeared to be a rescue launch several miles away, so they fired a distress-flare. Their relief was short-lived however. As the vessel got closer they could see it was a German U-boat. The hunters were now the hunted!.

They could make out the number U206 and for what seemed like hours the submarine laid-off. Men could be seen in the conning tower and laughter was heard, increasing their fear. It was normal German practice to machine-gun survivors, to rescue them was against all regulations.

Then suddenly the submarine started to speed towards the dinghies and the stranded men thought they were about to be rammed. Then just as suddenly the U-boat turned and came along-side, a line was heaved over, and the six were helped aboard the submarine. As they did so they could see the commander take a photograph of the rescue. Once aboard they were highly relieved to find out that the submariners were prepared to be both humane and friendly, all except one that is.

A bearded man in the uniform of a bosun (whose responsibility is to supervise the crew) was gesturing wildly as he argued with the commander. “Six extra men” he was shouting “six extra for the six weeks of our voyage. These men should be left, if they drown so what. We are at war”! Hylton later found out that the bosun was the only member of the Nazi party on board.

Readers who are watching the latest BBC TV drama series “Vigil” will have some idea of how grim life is aboard a submarine, but on U206 it must have been much, much worse for the British prisoners, and indeed for the crew themselves.

However Hylton and his five colleagues would have two good reasons to be particularly thankful. The first was that despite several times encountering Allied shipping convoys, and thus having to crash-dive in order to avoid depth-charges trying to sink the submarine, none ever came. Just as satisfying, none of the submarine’s torpedoes were ever fired.

One day the Commander, who by now the prisoners knew was Commander Herbert Opitz, received a radio message that another U-boat had sunk an American destroyer in the North Atlantic. As a result all German submarines were ordered to return temporarily to their bases.

Back on dry land

She immediately returned to the vicinity of the German-occupied French harbour of St Nazaire. However before venturing into the harbour Opitz repeatedly took the submarine to periscope height at the harbour-entrance, then crash-dived to lie on the sea-bed with everybody under strict orders for dead-silence.

On September 10, 1941, once satisfied that the harbour was still in German-hands, Opitz took U206 into St Nazaire. A brass-band was waiting to welcome the crew. Hylton and his colleagues received a different kind of welcome, being continually insulted by their guards, then interrogated for hours on end, having to stand at attention throughout.

However once word had got round that they were in town, many of the local French people gathered in the streets outside chanting anti-German slogans. A bayonet-charge by the Germans was necessary to scatter them. This caused the interrogation to be interrupted, during which time a French girl rushed into the room with her arms full of fruit which she gave to the prisoners.

Eventually they were sent to prison camps, with Hylton and his fellow officer separated from the others and taken to Stalag Luft III. Hylton then received a communication from Commander Opitz which included the photographs he had taken of their rescue. Although these copies were confiscated by the prison authorities, they did subsequently appear in a French magazine. Hylton obtained a copy of this and sent it to his father, who had copies made for the families of the other crew-members of the plane Willie.

After the war

All the crew of Willie returned home after the war. Hylton was repatriated in mid-1945 and married Heather M Bishop in Hastings later that year. They came back to live in High Wycombe, where their children were born at The Shrubbery maternity home, before moving to the West Country.


German submarine U206 was the first German submarine to bring British POWs to France. She was posted missing from about November 30 1941. She may have been sunk by a Whitley aircraft of 502 squadron, but more likely was the victim of a minefield laid by the RAF west of St. Nazaire. Forty-six men died, including Herbert Opitz. He was 26.