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WWII veteran remembers Op Exodus on its 70th anniversary

During the Second World War thousands of Allied fighters were held prisoner in camps across Europe. As the war drew to an end there were fears these prisoners of war could be left to starve or fall victim to revenge attacks carried out by their German guards. Operation Exodus, which began 70 years ago on 3 April, was launched to evacuate these men safely in one of the RAF's first humanitarian missions. Veteran Dave Fellowes describes what it was like to take part.

Op Exodus began more than a month before peace was officially agreed between the Allies and Germany.

The mission was supported by airmen from several different squadrons, but primarily featured Bomber Command Lancasters which flew 3586 of the total 6322 sorties.

By the end of hostilities 46,713 POWs had been repatriated. After VE Day on May 8, thousands of men were flown home each day, mainly to airfields in the south of England, before being despatched to reception camps.

Warrant Officer Dave Fellowes flew in Lancasters and was part of two humanitarian missions at the end of the war. As well as Op Exodus, Dave flew in Op Manna when food was dropped over Holland to feed the starving Dutch.

He said: "Before Op Manna came in we did Op Exodus. This was picking up prisoners of war who had been there since Dunkirk and we flew them to a place called Wing in Oxfordshire. We found that to be a pleasant job because we were bringing those poor lads home who had been POWs for four to five years.

"That was really something, to meet those guys, to give them a cigarette. They weren't allowed to smoke in the aeroplane obviously. But they were very, very pleased with all the hospitality we did give them."

By the end of the operation almost 155,000 POWs, including those who were sick and wounded, had been returned to England. The US Air Force also joined the mission which involved Lancasters, Dakotas, Stirling, B-17, B-24 and Halifax aircraft.

Dave FellowesRAF veteran Dave Fellowes

Dave described how the hundreds of aircraft which flew in the mission had to be modified to cater for ferrying their POW cargo. He said: "We did hear on the grapevine some of these lads had brought souvenirs back with them, you know on their trek back from POW camp.

"Twenty-two were allocated to us, their bags and bits and pieces were put up in the bomb bay, held up there with meat skewers. When we opened the door and put that ladder down they got out and most of them kissed the ground, you know, they were so pleased to be back home."

Today the RAF continues to react to humanitarian need, wherever it occurs throughout the world. In 2013, in a mission which mirrored Op Exodus, an RAF C17 aircraft was deployed to South Sudan to extract more than 180 people who were at risk following the escalation of fighting between government troops and rebels.

The RAF Benevolent Fund is here to support the families of personnel who are deployed at short notice with projects like Airplay, which provides youth workers on RAF stations, and welfare and financial services.

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