Monday, 31 December 2012

The Guides - Part Nine

Le Chemin de la Liberté

Le Chemin de la Liberté

Andrée De Jongh (Dédée)
Baron Jean-François Nothomb (Franco)

My apologies for the late post – have not been able to sit and type at the PC due to RSI.
In the Mountains

For many evaders and escapers in Holland, Belgium and France, the natural barrier of the Pyrenees Mountains had to be crossed before travelling through ‘neutral’ Spain to Gibraltar. Few evading service personnel walked over without guides, and the organised escape lines relied on them totally.

Initially the main evasion route used by the Pat O'Leary Line centred on the Mediterranean coast at Marseilles, and escape by sea, but many other evaders helped by that network were subsequently filtered down through middle France to Agen and Toulouse, then on to the central Pyrenees and the starting point of Le Chemin de la Liberté route at Saint Girons in Ariège.  This difficult high mountain route had been carefully chosen to minimise travel near official checkpoints and reduce the risk of encountering German patrols. No climbers today would tackle parts of the journey without appropriate clothing, shoes and equipment, and most would avoid crossing in the winter. Evaders and escapers travelled over the route with their guides at all times of the year, often through the night and with no suitable clothing or equipment.  
In 1941 and 1942, the Comete Escape Line concentrated on the Atlantic coast area south of  Bayonne, with guides and evaders making a sixteen hour journey at night over the mountains from Urrugne (near Saint Jean de Luz), crossing  the Bidassoa River and then walking to Oiartzun where the evaders were taken on to San Sebastian.. This route became extremely dangerous because of its regular use, so alternative passages had to be found. From July 1943 to January 1944, the evaders left the Café Larre in Sutar (just south of Bayonne) with their guides and journeyed over the mountains into Spain via the established Saint Jean de Luz route or two new eastern passages known as ‘Larressore’ and ‘Souraide.’ These were all gruelling journeys with the latter two sometimes taking up to five days where variations to the route occurred.

Andrée De Jongh (Dédée) and Florentino Goicoechea the famous  Basque guide, led evaders over the Saint Jean de Luz passage until the former was arrested in Urrugne on 15th January 1943.  The route continued with Jean-François Nothomb (‘Franco’) becoming the main guide into Spain for the whole of Comete’s Southern Section. This included Larressore and Souraide once they were opened. As with Florentino on the Saint Jean de Luz passage, these longer routes also included carefully selected Basque guides. 

Herbert Spiller crossed at night via Saint Jean de Luz in 1942 with Dédée and Florentino. The terrain was steep and treacherous with the evaders  struggling to see in the dark and keep up with their guides’ zig-zag routes . Constant vigilance was essential. The party often stopped to hide and wait for enemy patrols and smugglers to pass. 
When they reached the fast flowing freezing waters of the River Bidassoa, which formed the natural border with Spain, Spiller described what happened next:

‘Dédée explained how we would cross. Trousers would be removed and the legs tied in a knot behind our necks. The loose ends of the trousers would serve as a handhold for the person behind, enabling the column to enter the water as a connected whole. Occasionally a small searchlight operated by the frontier guards was shone down river to detect smugglers crossing the water. If and when the command was given we must stop and bend as low as we could against the water but under no circumstances were we to look towards the light.’
Spiller had a further problem as he began to remove his trousers.

‘Dédée gave a gasp of horror as I revealed my white silk long johns and told me in no uncertain terms to take them off with my trousers and to tie both garments around my neck. It would not matter in the water, but emerging on the other side of the river I would be presenting a very white target for any guard on the alert.’
There was no time for modesty and he had to remove the underwear.

Apart from being spotted by the Spanish frontier guards, the river crossing was in itself hazardous. Spiller described how so much depended on the strength of Florentino after he had tied a length of rope around the base of one of the riverside trees:
‘We watched Florentino descend into the swirling water. The giant Basque pushed himself into the fast moving current to the extent of his rope and then turned to face us, holding the rope taut….One by one we entered the water holding on to the rope for dear life. Florentino was well up to his waist…The water was icy cold and already the current was pushing against my legs making moving forward a slow process. By the time the column had reached Florentino, the water was up to my chest and I was fighting to keep my balance. Florentino turned round and Dédée linked up with him as we each took hold of the trouser legs around the neck of the man ahead of us.
We began to move forward slowly, Florentino had let go of the rope and we were at the mercy of the river as the column swayed to and fro in the rushing torrent.’

Spiller and his group eventually made it safely across, but disaster struck American flyer Art Horning’s party when he crossed the river at a similar point. Florentino was absent that night with a high fever, a replacement guide was in charge and the river roared through again. An American evader and top Comete operative were swept away and drowned. (More on that incident in a future post.) 

On the Larressore routes, airmen reported long spells on the gruelling journey without food from their guides or shelterers. USAAF Sergeant Harold Pope reported that his party had nothing to eat for the first forty eight hours and First Lieutenant John Justice said regarding two stages of his journey over the mountains:
‘We came to a very small cabin way up in the hills and went inside. The four of us sat to one side, the man who lived in the cabin, the two guides, and two other Spaniards sat and talked and talked, ate bread and cheese, drank wine and offered us absolutely nothing. We tried to ask for food, but these people were mercenaries and mean and refused to feed us. We asked to go to bed. They took us into an adjoining building where the chickens were sleeping and told us to sleep on the floor.’
Later on in his crossing, Justice reported:
‘We walked mostly at night, staying in barns and eating sugar beets and fodder which we found in the barns.’

RAF Sergeant Kenneth Skidmore tackled le Chemin de la Liberte with another RAF evader, four American flyers and various guides. Parts of the four day trek were virtual mountaineering and sometimes the group fought their way through waist deep snow with no specialist clothing or shoes. Some of Skidmore’s experiences were typical of fugitives travelling on that route. He noted that the evaders carried between them:
‘two haversacks containing two cooked rabbits, two bottles of cognac and four bottles of cheap red wine. Surprisingly no water.’  He recorded what happened as the group continued to climb:

‘Conversation diminished as we went on. Every breath was needed to keep going as we continued to climb. We were short of more than breath. Climbing skill was absent as was safety equipment. Ropes would have been a considerable advantage. The culmination of these combined problems was that we lost our rabbits and bottles of wine during one of our many falls. This catastrophe left us with two bottles of cognac. After all the exertion we desperately needed nourishment. If only we had made sure that the supplies obtained for us by the first two guides, had included water instead of this useless cognac. Our present guides had come prepared with a skin bottle of water each, but this was sufficient only for themselves. My diary entry continued “We walked for twelve hours all through the night, climbing seven thousand feet high.” ’
One of the Americans (Pitner) eventually collapsed and was unable go on. Skidmore watched what happened:

‘Our leader anxious to press on said that we must get beyond a certain point because there were patrols who kept to a routine. We must pass this point at a certain time, he insisted. He appeared to be indicating that there was only one thing to do – leave Pitner behind. Under no circumstances would we tolerate or accept this. If he did not go, then we stayed. Without hesitation, he picked up the motionless Pitner and began to carry him over his shoulder. I was completely staggered at the sight of this feat. A man of such small stature able to lift, and carry through the snow, more than his own body weight.’


Ticket to Freedom – Herbert Spiller

Unpublished Memoirs – John Justice

USAAF Evader Report – Harold Pope

Follow the Man With the Pitcher – Kenneth Skidmore

© Keith Morley


Friday, 14 December 2012

The Guides - Part Eight

French Bicycle

Dutch Courier

Evaders on Bicycles - 'Last Best Hope'

In occupied Western Europe, guides were often reliant on bicycles to move their charges in the early and latter stages of an evasion. Before escapers and evaders were filtered into organised escape lines they often travelled via this method aided by ordinary patriots or the Resistance.   

RAF Navigator Richard Pape hid in a barn in Holland with one of his crew. They waited for the Resistance to move them to a safer location.

Pape described in his own colourful style how their contact arrived and the pair were given detailed instructions around the next part of their journey, which involved travelling by bicycle. It is illustrative of how the Resistance operated in circumstances like this to avoid attracting suspicion and detection.

The contact gave warnings about in the event of their capture, the importance of sticking to a story about travelling through Holland together without any outside help, by stealing clothes and bicycles and not remembering place names. The contact left them, instructing that they ‘should leave in about two minutes.’ Pape and his fellow crewman ‘Jock’ collected bicycles from the arranged point and pedalled without a guide for about ten minutes before a chiming bicycle bell behind them warned that they were being overtaken. A man matching the description they had been given passed by. Barge cap, black jacket, light blue trousers and half his rear mudguard painted yellow. They followed the cyclist at a distance through heavy German military traffic and backstreets to a rendezvous near a bridge where they tailed a key Resistance operator on foot for about an hour before receiving instructions for the next part of their journey. The two RAF men were arrested a few days later by the Gestapo at a safe house in the suburbs of Leyden.

RAF Sgt James Bruce and American flyer S/Sgt Alfred Buinicky were on bicycles following their guides in the Pyrenees ( two other airmen were cycling ahead in the other pairing -  RAF Flight Sgt John Grout and USAAF S/Sgt Lloyd Frazer) and nearing the Spanish border when disaster struck. Bruce described what happened:
‘The arrangements were one guide, followed by Flight Sergeant Grout and an American at 100 yards, another guide and then 100 yards to S/Sgt Buinicky and myself. If anything dangerous was in front, the guide would wave his beret and we had to get off our bikes and scatter. At approx. 17.00hours two Germans passed us going in the same direction as us on a motor bike and side car and seemed to take no notice of us. However at a bend in the road we saw the Germans turning back and the guide waved at us to disperse. S/Sgt Buinicky and myself turned our bikes around and cycled back up the road we came as we couldn’t get into the fields because of 12 foot barbed wire fences along the road. Before we could reach a suitable point to get into the fields the Germans were on us, held us up and asked for our papers. I had passports etc. and showed them (their French was very bad so I managed to talk to them without (I think) them realising I was not French.) They were frontier guards recently moved from the Turkish frontier to the Franco-Spanish frontier. They asked me my name on the passports, where and when I was born etc and as I had memorised them I was able to answer them. S/Sgt Buinicky however was unable to answer their questions as he could not speak French and we were taken to their headquarters for interrogation.’

Airmen following the same route as Bruce and his party on the Comete Escape Line would most likely have cycled around 50 kilometres from Dax railway station on basic bicycles with their guides to reach an overnight stop at the Café Larre just south of Bayonne. They would then leave the next day on bicycles before crossing the mountains on foot.  
For the guides operating this stretch, meticulous organisation and execution of the operation was vital. Expert knowledge of the area was essential in order to take remote back lanes and tracks to avoid roadblocks and checks. The coastal zone required personnel to carry special papers giving them permission to be there.

Additionally, once the party had reached the point of crossing the mountains by foot, the bicycles had to be hidden, collected and transported back to their original point of pick up without suspicion, before the next group of evaders arrived. Also repairs and servicing of the machines was often necessary. (Later post will cover this operation)  The guides had to be aware of this and also how to obtain another bicycle if breakdowns occurred.

Pilot Officer Jimmy Elliott described what happened on his bicycle journey:
‘In the blackout was quite difficult at times to keep in touch with each other, but we seemed to be making reasonable progress. Suddenly there was a loud metallic crack, which was accompanied by a very well-known four letter American oath. Quickly we gathered round to discover that John’s bicycle chain had snapped. For a moment Max hesitated, then dumped the bike over a fence into a garden. With the American on his crossbar, we continued on our way.’

Alfie Martin’s chain also broke and his fellow evader got a puncture. Their guide went back to town to bring another bicycle and also mend the puncture.

One immediate question that evaders were asked was ‘Can you ride a bicycle?’ Some evaders found this a strange request, as at that time every serviceman would have learned to ride a bicycle usually during their childhood or youth. The reality was different:
Jimmy Elliott reported what happened when Flying Officer Norman Fairfax was handed his bicycle:

 ‘ But I can’t ride a bike!’ In unison his fellow travellers replied “Well now’s your bl***dy time to learn”’ …After 10 minutes he went ‘solo’ and despite a few minor prangs, he managed to keep up with the party.’ Fairfax admitted that it had been just desperation really’  

Things did not always work out so easily as Pilot Officer Bob Kellow described:

‘The guide looked worried when told one of the men couldn’t ride a bicycle.
“Won’t you try?” He asked with concern.

The young man made an attempt to balance on the machine, but fell off each time the guide tried to push the machine. It was hopeless; he simply had no sense of balance. I felt sorry for him, but I felt even sorrier for our male and female guides. They had schedules to meet and were responsible for all of us, but couldn’t think how to surmount the problem.’

The male guide decided in the end to wait for the next train for St Jean de Luz which is virtually on the border of Spain and accompany the man who could not ride the bicycle. It was too dangerous for the whole party to go because of checks (hence the use of bicycles in the first place). Taking enen one evader through the ticket barrier at St Jean de Luz was risky. The rest of the group would accompany the female guides on the bicycles as planned.

A more impromptu instance of improvisation occurred when one American evader was riding a bicycle shortly after being shown and suddenly veered across the road crashing into some cycling German soldiers. The guide went straight into action, shouting at the evader in French for being a drunken fool and warning he could be arrested for doing that. The Germans laughed and both parties moved on.


Boldness Be My Friend – Richard Pape

Liberation Reports - National Archives

An Unusual Day – James M Elliott

Paths to Freedom – Bob Kellow

Bale Out. Escaping Occupied France with the Resistance – Alfie Martin


Next Week – In the Mountains

© Keith Morley


Thursday, 6 December 2012

The Guides - Part Seven

Amanda Stassart - 'Diane'
Art Horning - False ID Photo

Arlon Station Belgium where John Dix Boarded the Train

On the Trains (2)

Guides had to be vigilant, resourceful and reliable under pressure, but they were only human. In many cases those operating in organised escape lines were not directly involved in formal resistance activities such as sabotage and had chosen this area of work as a nonviolent way of fighting the enemy.

Amanda Stassart (‘Diane’) had to call on all of her ingenuity whilst escorting American flyer Art Horning on the train after it had left Lille for Paris. Horning had a problem, as he had no identity card. His Belgian papers and money had been exchanged at a small farmhouse near the town of Beaumont on the French border. He had received French money, but no new card.

Shortly after leaving Lille, two German guards began working their way down the carriage checking ‘cartes d’identitie.’ Just before the guards reached Horning’s compartment, ‘Diane’ slipped on to his lap, put her arms around his neck and hugged him in an obvious manner. Horning takes up the story:

‘She really put herself in a precarious position. If caught – who knew what the penalty would be? But she knew the German mind because the guard examined the ‘cartes’ of the other passengers and made an unkind remark about the way the French behaved in public. But he did not bother us and her ploy worked. The other passengers wondered I am sure, but we embraced all the way into the Gare Nord in Paris…’

Sometimes the guides could do little about what happened around them, relying solely on a mixture of ad lib and pure luck. Pat O’ Leary was escorting two RAF evaders to Paris by train and found himself drawn into a bizarre sequence of events. As the three men had not eaten during the last twenty four hours, O’Leary decided to take them to the restaurant car for a meal. The only seats available were at a table with two German soldiers, so he led the airmen there and ordered beers. 

One of the airmen was clearly very anxious in the soldiers’ presence and knocked his drink over. It poured across the table into the Germans’ laps and they jumped up cursing and trying to mop up the mess. The frightened and flustered airman began to laugh. O’Leary’s stomach must have done somersaults; he began to try and apologise but the Germans began laughing too – soon he was joining in with the waiter and other diners. Incredibly nothing further happened and everyone settled down. The meal passed off without further incident and the Germans and evaders exchanged smiles. The account does not mention what O’Leary said to the soldiers. It must have been incredibly convincing or maybe the soldiers had just learned they had avoided a posting to the eastern front.

Events did not always work in favour of the evader. A German policeman stopped an evader on a train, indicating that the airman should follow him. A second airman noticed that one of his party was moving away with someone. Instinctively he followed as then did four others. The guide watched this from a traditional safe distance, powerless to anything as it was too dangerous to intervene. All the evaders were arrested. 

It is difficult to comprehend what must have been going through RAF Airman John Dix’s mind in 1943 on a train from Arlon Belgium to Brussels with his guide ‘Nicole’ and two other evaders. Dix had already managed to slip out of Luxembourg and unknown to him, moments before the train was due to leave Arlon the Gestapo had received a telephone tip off from a young boy travelling in the same party with another operator known as ‘Hubert.’

The train gradually slowed and made an unscheduled stop at Namur. No one was allowed to leave. The platform was deserted apart from two lines of armed German soldiers standing at ease about twenty feet apart on both sides of the train. ‘Nicole’ was certain that they had been betrayed and she whispered to Dix that they no longer knew each other and he would be on his own. (Often standard procedure in instances such as this)

Three key incidents occurred that Dix would look back on as contributing to him avoiding capture. The first was a man totally unconnected with the evaders or their guide making a run from the train across the tracks and being shot dead, the second was a quick capture of the other two evaders seated in the same carriage when they were unable to answer any of the Gestapo’s questions after presenting their identity papers.

The third incident resulted from Dix obeying instructions from ‘Nicole’ after she had met ‘Hubert’ in the area between carriages for advice. Dix discreetly disposed of souvenirs he was carrying in his pockets out of the carriage window once the train had cleared Namur. (Both the captured evaders carried incriminating items) Further searches were made on the train soon after it continued its journey.  

There was a limit to what some guides could cope with. Dix described what happened after his fellow evaders had been captured and taken off the train on to the platform.

‘For the third time the Gestapo returned to their carriage and ‘Nicole’ heard them talking. They were saying that they now had two of them and now had to find the third airman and the girl. They came down through the whole train once more…He prayed mostly that the Germans would not search the whole train again…  Nicole was sitting with her eyes closed and her hands were grasping the arms of her seat so tightly that her knuckles were white. Dixie does not remember doing something which ‘Nicole’ told him about some years later. Evidently she was shaking so badly that he had to hold her knees very tightly between his own to try and settle her down. He knows now that he had been trying to control a young girl who was having a nervous breakdown.’

Dix and ‘Nicole’ reached Brussels. He continued with his evasion, but she was unable to return to Luxembourg as it was too dangerous. After a spell of ill health in Brussels she was forced to flee to neutral Switzerland. ‘Hubert’ was eventually arrested and shot. The guides had risked and given everything.     

In the Footsteps of a Flying Boot  - Art Horning

Silent Heroes – Sherri Greene Ottis

Come Walk With Me – An Odyssey of World War Two – Unpublished Memoirs John Dix

Next week – On the Bicycles


© Keith Morley

Thursday, 29 November 2012

The Guides - Part Six


Typical Corridor Coach Encountered by Evaders - Auzeau 2007 & Patrick Baldy

The De Greef family - Left Elvire de Greef  'Tante Go'   Right Janine de Greef

Pilot Officer Bob Kellow

On the Trains (1)

Evaders and escapers were heavily reliant on train travel to cover the long distances necessary to reach freedom. In Germany there were no escape lines or guides, so fugitives using the trains had to rely on their own resource and ingenuity to try for freedom. In the Nazi occupied territories of North Western Europe, escape networks did operate and it was to these that evading and escaping service personnel were often passed. The guide was an essential tool in the trafficking process as the fugitives were moved down the lines. 
Various strategies were adopted by escape lines and their guides around train travel to minimise suspicion, reduce risks and transport their charges to the next point as inconspicuously as possible (See Post The Guides – Part Two.) Any arrests or problems affected the security of the whole line and the lives of its operators.  
Pilot Officer Bob Kellow was waiting at Brussels Gare Midi railway station in 1943 with an RAF evader known as ‘Bill Williams’. The men had been passed train tickets discreetly by their guide and were told to follow two men waiting near the ticket barrier at a distance.

‘The men were moving towards the barrier and we quickly moved up behind them but not too closely. We showed our tickets as we passed through, then followed our guides along the platform. They peered through the windows of each coach searching for an empty compartment and eventually stopped by an open door….We quickly followed them. Looking down the long corridor I saw them move into the standing area at the end of the coach. We followed, found a space next to them and leaned against the wall. As I stood with my back to the wall and my hands behind me I could feel the handle of the door. Then I suddenly felt something else. Something had been pushed through the handle. With a glance at our guide who nodded, I carefully removed the object and found it was two magazines rolled together. I passed one to Bill and we became immediately engrossed in these publications. It mattered that neither of us could understand a single word written in them. At least we had something to do to avoid eye contact and unwanted conversations with other passengers.’
The practice of passing over railway tickets by way of a handshake was sometimes utilised by guides. Other methods were also used to transfer tickets, including outside the station and in cafes,  but sometimes a straightforward process could go wrong as RAF Flying Officer Alfie Martin described in 1943 when he left Paris on the night train for Bordeaux:

‘Not long after we had started, the lady with us looked across, took out her rail ticket, and by signs asked me if I had ours. I shook my head, felt in all my pockets and brought out the seat reservations but no tickets. Then there started a great panic. I went out into the corridor, she followed and I explained that the man had not given them to me. For some time I thought that Doug and I were as good as captured, but the lady went up the train and after some time came down again, passed me in the corridor, went in and sat down. After she had passed I searched my pockets and discovered two tickets, so dangling them in my fingers I went back into the compartment and took my seat. At once she sat up and started talking to me, much to my consternation and she showed me two tickets which she had just purchased from the conductor. I thought that she had slipped the tickets into my pocket as she had passed, but they must have been put there by the man who had showed us on to the train….I had been entirely unaware that they were in my pocket. The conversation was of great interest to the other passengers but did not arouse particular attention. After I had made a few monosyllabic replies, they all sat back and continued their reading.’
This chain of events could easily have led to disaster.

Escape Lines and their guides often had to think carefully and consider all eventualities when changing plans as Pilot Officer Robert Horsley of RAF 50 Squadron discovered in June 1942 while travelling south in France with Comete’s Andrée de Jong. Horsley also had to be ready for some adaptations of his own:
‘At about six in the morning …the train pulled into Bayonne station; Les and I were instructed to stay put and Andrée left with Hal and Jean. After about ten minutes the train pulled out of Bayonne station, there was no sign of Andrée. We immediately suspected the worst….However our fears were soon allayed when Andrée entered with two other ladies, the elder was code named ‘Tante Go’ and the other was her daughter Janine. ‘Tante Go’ told me that they were checking papers very carefully at St Jean de Luz and it would be very unwise for me to have to pass through the checkpoint. They had arranged another method for me to leave the station; again they pointed out that I looked too much like a German and the German checker might think I was a German deserter; how I hated my Germanic looks.
The plan was outlined as follows: I should get off the train and I should go straight into the ‘Pissoir’ on the platform, then exit by the back door, walk across the marshalling yards to a gate, where I would see a man with an Alsatian dog. I should follow him and he would lead me to my hiding place.
Now I have never been inside a French ‘Pissoir’  and in my mind it was like any other English Gentleman’s toilet; imagine my horror when I later discovered that the wall was just above waist high and one urinated whilst saying ‘hallo’ to the rest of the  world.’

Horsley got off the train taking advantage of some raucous behaviour by Spanish soldiers on the platform. He did what he needed to do, then wandered casually out of the toilet and back exit in full view of the passing crowds, made for the opening on to the tracks and walked across them without challenge to the man with the Alsatian dog waiting for him. This was a risky move which paid off as Horsley went on to successfully evade capture.


Paths to Freedom – Bob Kellow

Bale Out. Escaping Occupied France with the Resistance – Alfie Martin

Free to Fight Again – Alan Cooper

Next Week - On the Trains (2)

© Keith Morley

Friday, 23 November 2012

The Guides - Part Five

Belgian 'Streetcar'

USAAF Robert Grimes
Ernest Van Moorleghem - one of the five guides for John Justice

Alphonse Escrinier - another of the five guides for John Justice

On the Trams

Evader’s accounts of tram travel in occupied North Western Europe primarily centred on Brussels, Antwerp plus its approaches and Holland. ‘Streetcars’ as the American airmen called them were often used in moving evaders from one safe house to another, taking them to another location for questioning or to have their photograph taken for false papers. In some reports evaders used the tram with their guides and then walked back to their safe house for exercise to help build up strength or recover after injury/wounding. If certain protocols were followed, risks could be minimised, (see The Guides Part One), but trams were still dangerous places where the unexpected might happen and things could go wrong.  

First Lieutenant John Justice had to have his wits about him when being taken across Brussels in late 1943. He had been sheltered for his first night in the city, but had to move on the next afternoon:

‘The young lady explained that it was too dangerous for me to stay there. She gave me instructions that I was to follow her down the street. She would stop and talk to someone and I was to follow that person onto a streetcar. Later someone would get on the streetcar and speak to the man I was following. I was then to follow this new contact. During the streetcar ride, my contact changed five times and when the last contact spoke to no one and got off the streetcar I followed him. He went into a building and I followed.’ 

Australian airman Pilot Officer Bob Kellow of 617 Squadron who had taken part in the famous Dams Raid four months before baling out of his aircraft, described events on a long tram journey through the countryside to Antwerp. With ‘Michou’ Dumon (also k/a ‘Lily’) and a mystery man known as ‘The Chief’ as his guides, Kellow had good reason to be apprehensive. He had no identity card and a decision had been made by his two guides to risk travelling. It was a Sunday and just after 6.00am. The operators had decided to take a chance because of the early morning and day of the week, but there were precautions necessary after he had boarded the tram as Kellow described:

‘I took a window seat and Lily took the seat opposite. I didn’t look at her because I was more interested in what the man was doing. He was still standing on the platform earnestly engaged in talking to the conductor. The latter looked at me curiously, then gave an understanding nod to our male companion. I assumed the man trusted the conductor and had told him who his two passengers were. This assumption was correct as Lily later confirmed it….Several times I looked round the car and saw the conductor staring at me, but when our eyes met he turned away. I also noticed that whenever we approached a stopping point, he would lean out of one side of the car and peer ahead, then do the same out of the other side. Lily later told me he was watching to see if there was a ‘Checker’, usually a German or German collaborator who checked tickets. If a ‘Checker’ had any doubt he could ask for identity papers. Lily also told me that had the conductor seen one of these men, he would have signalled us to leave the tram at the next stop, with us exiting on the side opposite to the one the ‘Checker’ was standing on.’

In Kellow’s account, there is an absence of German soldiers and enemy personnel boarding and leaving the tram as they frequently did during normal hours. This was certainly factored into the decision to move him on that day and at that moment. It is doubtful whether the conductor would have adopted the ‘lookout’ strategy in such an obvious manner at any other time.

However well planned travel on trams was, certain events could still put the fugitives in danger. American Flyer Art Horning was travelling on a tram in Brussels when it stopped for an air raid siren and everyone including several German officers got out onto the street which seemed to be the standard procedure. A dogfight was taking place in the skies overhead between German and American aircraft. Two of the German planes were hit and retreated with the Americans in pursuit.

The occupants of the tram began to scream and clap as the Germans retreated. The officers stared and looked menacing, but the Belgians continued to talk about the action. Horning got back on the tram and continued his journey, but events could have taken a more sinister turn as they did with injured American flyer Robert Grimes. He was being sheltered in Brussels recovering from a wound in his leg and with curfew approaching got on a tram with his guide ‘Michou’ Dumon.

A platoon of German soldiers surrounded the tram and ordered everyone off for an identity check. A number of men in plainclothes stood back in the shadows. Checks like this were often carried out at random, but in this instance Grimes felt that the soldiers were looking for something specific. Checks were intended to catch men dodging the forced labour draft, Resistance personnel, evaders and anyone whose papers were not in order.

The passengers were lined up with hands raised and three soldiers worked their way down the line checking papers and searching them. As Grimes stood waiting he palmed a piece of incriminating evidence into the crook of his raised right thumb and index finger and hoped that it would not be seen in the dark. He always carried his ‘lucky’ fragment of bullet that had lodged itself in his leg and had been surgically removed by a doctor in Brussels. Grimes handed over his papers and was searched without incident. 


Unpublished Memoirs – John Justice

Paths to Freedom – Bob Kellow

In the Footsteps of a Flying Boot – Art Horning

The Freedom Line – Peter Eisner

© Keith Morley

Thursday, 15 November 2012

The Guides - Part Four

Paris Street in 1943 - Andre Zucca

Photo of  Pilot Officer Jimmy Elliott Taken for False Identity Card

Comete Operator & Guide Anne Brusselmans

In the Streets

Guides navigated the streets with their evaders to move them to safe houses or catch trams, trains and buses. Another reason was to visit a photography shop or house to have the evaders photographed for their false identity cards.

Pilot Officer Jimmy Elliott (accompanied by another evader) described his arrival in Paris Gare du Nord. Following his guide his guide the famous ‘Michou’ Dumon off the train, events became far from routine:

‘I tried to keep an eye on Michou as she mingled with the crowds leaving the platform, but she was so small that she simply disappeared. With no little relief we cleared the platform, and I spotted her strolling nonchalantly in the concourse obviously waiting for us to catch up. Then came a spell of ‘follow the leader’ with the two of us well spaced out ‘in line astern’ behind her. The game was a trifle confusing to begin with but eventually it was evident that she was trying to discover if she was being ‘tailed.’ We walked about, we doubled back, we went into Metro Stations then came out again, we entered Metro stations and then travelled for two or three stops etc. The game ended when eventually she headed for the street and we saw her approaching a tall blonde woman, whom she had obviously arranged to meet’  See earlier Post ‘Madame Black and Madame Blonde’.
‘We walked on and stood apart about 30 yards away, watching what would develop. I could see from the earnestness of the conversation, that something was amiss. This certainly wasn’t a cheerful chat or an exchange of gossip. Still looking mighty serious they shook hands as they parted, with an indication from Michou that we should now follow the new guide.
Blondie set off along the street with me bringing up the rear but watching very carefully what was happening ahead. She certainly was striding out purposefully at a high rate of knots. Perhaps I was concentrating so much on the elegant carriage of our new guide or maybe I was admiring her legs too much, but then suddenly I was aware of a man having fallen in step beside me. In perfect English I heard him say ‘Just keep on walking. I have a few questions I would like to ask you. Just answer them very quietly.’ He then proceeded to ask me a number of questions mainly of RAF service jargon – which only a genuine RAF type would know……….’

After Elliott had given his answers the man explained that there had been a number of arrests during the night which would mean a change of plan. He told Elliott not to worry, all would be alright and then he disappeared into the crowd leaving Elliott to continue following his guide who was still a safe distance away.
This sequence of events took place in Paris during November 1943 and although the Geheime Feldpolizei had parts of the Comete Escape Line under surveillance at that time*, the organisation bravely continued, and well organised guiding was a feature of this slick sector of the operation. *See The Traitors Part Two – Maurice Grapin

Guides on the lines worked in a relay system and were often just one link in a very big chain. Each concentrated on their own job with little or no knowledge of the links that came before and after. It was safer for the evaders/escapers, the guide’s own protection and the overall security of the line if they knew little about its operation.  Consequently they never got to know the evaders and usually operated under pseudonyms if names were given.

According to Pierre Moreau:
‘to the guide, evaders were sometimes just faces passing each other with no other contact than a silent handshake, but you could always read their thanks  and gratitude in their eyes in the last gaze exchanged before they left.’

As a teenage guide Moreau had to keep cool and think on his feet when escorting several airmen in a coastal region town when he realised one of the group was missing. He left the men in a safe place and backtracked to try and find the missing evader. At a distance he observed the evader examining German tanks on the main street.
The reader one can feel anger rising at the crass stupidity of this act. Moreau could not approach the man as it had become too dangerous. He did record later that it was difficult not to overreact when the evader rejoined the party.

RAF Sergeant Kenneth Skidmore often sought his own Guide to get away from danger. In his book ‘Follow the Man with the Pitcher’ he describes a number of instances during his evasion where his deep Christian faith and regular reference to his pocket bible guided him to make decisions which avoided capture.
Tired, unshaven and dirty after landing, and still in his battledress minus insignia, he had turned off a village street into a lane:   

‘I was startled to see ahead of me, a German soldier – fully armed. Regaining my composure, I continued towards him without changing pace or direction. I spontaneously picked up a piece of wood and began to whistle.
The thought flashed into my mind ‘Go follow the man with the pitcher of water.’ This command was part of the instructions our Lord gave to His disciples for the preparation of the Last Supper, which I had read in St. Luke Chapter 22 whilst hiding in the barn. This is ridiculous I thought. Furthermore where was the man to follow. The only one around was the German soldier, who by this time I deduced was guarding some place ahead.
'Go follow the man with the pitcher of water’ persisted as the thought driving all other thoughts from my mind as I drew nearer to the enemy.

 At that moment into the lane came a horse and cart driven by a man. He stepped out of the cart carrying what looked like a milk-can in his right hand….I paused while he overtook me. I followed behind him. My lead was here. What lay ahead was immaterial. I had been told to follow a man with a pitcher of water and was doing exactly that. The man was carrying a can, a modern counterpart for a liquid container. I had made the promise to be guided by His Word and my mind was clear of doubt or questioning.

The man made straight for the entrance being guarded by the soldier and walked past him without challenge.’

Greetings were exchanged between the two and Kenneth Skidmore followed, doing the same with a polite ‘bonjour' to the soldier. Wearing RAF battledress, he had walked straight into a German encampment.
He describes what happened next:

‘Soldiers were grooming horses and generally going about their tasks whilst my ‘pitcher-carrier’ walked ahead….My confidence was tested when into the scene came a German officer. He appeared to be suspicious about my presence, for he ignored the pitcher carrier and proceeded towards me.
…I looked hard at this smartly dressed field-officer, telepathing through my eyes my every right to be here in this place.….The officer stood still as if transfixed and seemed disarmed by my audacity. Not a word was spoken. I continued to follow my ‘pitcher-carrier.’ This ‘follow my leader’ procedure ended when having passed through the camp and out at the other side my ‘pitcher-carrier’ entered a nearby house. I was no longer impelled to follow, so turning left in the other direction and away from the camp I began to run.’

A few hours later, still alone, Skidmore was walking down the busy street of another village:
‘I failed to notice standing side by side two German soldiers, one of whom appeared to be an officer. They were both smart, alert and were peering around in an inquisitive manner. They began to walk in my direction. I stopped without a thought in my head.
As if from nowhere, a man appeared from one of the houses carrying a bucket. Here thought I, was my second water-carrier….A few more paces along the road and my bucket-carrier entered a house.  Without hesitation before he could close the door, I was inside, though not before glancing back at the two Germans who appeared to have lost interest in my movements.’

Although the occupants were initially completely bewildered at seeing Skidmore standing there, after he had identified himself, the middle aged couple agreed to help.

The nature of these last two events, show that truth is sometimes stranger than fiction.  


An Unusual Day – James M Elliott

Silent Heroes – Sherri Greene Ottis

Follow the Man with the Pitcher – Kenneth Skidmore

Next Week – The Trams

© Keith Morley

Thursday, 8 November 2012

The Guides - Part Three

Photos of  Squadron Leader Walter Wallington & Flying Officer Robert Clements taken for false Identity Cards

Typical Belgian Haystacks
In the Countryside

Guiding evaders and escapers on foot or by bicycle across the countryside in occupied Europe often occurred during the early part of their journey before the fugitives were filtered into organised escape lines. Because of the distances involved in getting their charges to the safety of a neutral country, the organised lines relied heavily on public transport, but occasions arose where this became too dangerous or the transport was simply not available.

The Comete Escape Line often crossed the Belgian and French/Spanish borders on foot; with bicycles being used from Dax, Bordeaux or St Jean de Luz and then on foot over the Pyrenees. One route briefly operated with the use of a car crossing from Belgium into France where the border post barrier would ‘miraculously’ lift as the car approached. Evaders from other lines also crossed on foot or by bicycle from Holland into Belgium.

Evaders and escapers rarely encountered an established escape line soon after landing, so they relied on patriots or members of the Resistance to help them. Men and women often made on the spot decisions to become involved and help for the first time when evaders appeared without warning. Guiding the evader to a safe place and then finding someone who could help was high risk. The Germans and their sympathisers would already be on alert and searching (in daylight – immediately, at night – immediately if the parachute had been sighted, otherwise first light). 

Best practices were often not used, simply because there was insufficient time or the guide, relying on instinct had not fully considered them. They accompanied their charges on foot or by bicycle in daylight and used ordinary roads. Evaders had to be moved quickly despite the associated risks, even if it involved confinement in ‘safe’ open air locations.

Often, civilian clothes could not be obtained immediately and there was no chance of false identity papers. Leaving an evader in the main search area with or without shelter would inevitably lead to complications and travelling at night after curfew could be dangerous, especially if knowledge of the countryside away from the roads was not strong.

Theory and practice could be poles apart, Guides had to think quickly, be ready to improvise and sometimes just chance their luck.

Flying Officer Robert Clements of 57 Squadron RAF approached a farmhouse at night after landing. Having been directed to a barn, he described what happened next in his evasion report:

‘The following morning I was awakened by an armed man, who pointed a revolver at me, at the same time demanding my maps and compasses. I handed these over to him, which seemed to satisfy him that I was genuine…

At 09.00 hrs he returned with two girls. I was taken into the house and closely questioned. After removing the tops of my boots* and my moustache (all young Belgians have removed their moustaches since the occupation as Hitler wears one) I cycled with the two girls to Exel. On the way we passed three squads of Germans and though I was still wearing my battle-dress, they took no notice of me.’

* British and Comonwealth airmen wore flying boots where the top part could be cut off leaving the remaining part as a shoe.   

In his book the Comet Connection, American flier Sergeant George Watt described how within a few hours of landing in Belgium his passage across country was initially much more text book:

‘We covered about two kilometres, cutting across fields and ditches and country roads. Whenever we came to a road, my guide would stop, crouch close to the ground, and look up and down in both directions before he let me cross. Once again I marvelled at the caution and skill of the farmer in using the terrain.’

A few hours later having briefly been sheltered in the kitchen of a house and wearing a hastily assembled set of civilian clothes minus a shirt and hat, things took an unexpected turn as Watt walked down a road alongside his guide.

‘Off in the distance ahead of us I thought I heard the persistent sound of water passing over a millwheel. The sound grew louder as we continued walking. Suddenly it wasn’t water over a mill. It was the clatter of horses’ hoofs… They were coming towards us. It’s a cavalry patrol coming back from the search I thought…….I glanced anxiously at the old man……

‘Lets hide here’.

The old man was disturbingly undisturbed. ‘No’ he said. ‘Just remember. Nicht sprechen. Let me do all the talking.’

I thought he was crazy. Why take a chance. But I could not show him I was afraid. Besides, he was leading me, and I knew I would follow him…….Two truck horses were pulling an old World War One army wagon. It had an arch over the top and in the driver’s seat were three German soldiers…..The old man broke into a spirited conversation with me speaking in Flemish. He could have been talking of this year’s crop or the weather, for all I knew. Not only couldn’t I understand the language, but I was not listening to him. I was concentrating on my feet. ‘Keep walking’ I said to myself. ‘Keep putting one foot in front of the other. Don’t run. Don’t turn away. Don’t panic now….look them straight in the eye’

Goddam that moon! It’s always there when you don’t want it. Why is that end man over there looking at me like that? Could he be…? Cut it out you’re getting panicky. He can’t tell you’re no Belgian. Boy am I glad I didn’t get that haircut. I look less GI this way. 

‘Guten Abend’ the old man said to them.

I nodded my head in greeting.

‘Guten Abend’ the ‘superman’* said.

It took Watt all of his nerve not to look around then break into a run. He travelled the next four kilometres with his guide to a safe-house in Hamme. 

*Earlier term used by the guide for a German.

Squadron Leader Walter Wallington RAF 487 Squadron was a Mosquito pilot and described in his evasion reports how his early ‘guides’ adopted a rather chilly strategy which did not follow typical patterns:

‘I made for some fields and hid in a ditch which a farmer pointed out to me. After half an hour, I decided to find a better hiding place and made my way back along the main road until I came to a haystack. I crawled right into the middle of the haystack and remained there for thirty six hours, while the Germans were making a very thorough search of the neighbourhood. Several times they passed within a few yards of the haystack.  

I was eventually discovered by a small boy who brought his father to see me. He provided me with some food and brought a man who could speak a little English. He told me that ‘friends’ had been enquiring about me and offered to get in touch with them for me. He warned me to remain hidden, as there were several German patrols stationed round about.

On 10 October 1943 at 21.00 hours a man came and took me to a village near Oost Eeecloo where I was again hidden in a haystack. I was provided with food and peasants’ clothing and told to remain where I was until called for. I stayed here until 12 October when I was removed to another haystack. This performance was repeated several times until the beginning of November, when the weather became too severe for me to remain out of doors continually and I was allowed to seek shelter in a farmhouse.’

Whilst cycling at a respectable distance behind his guide during the early part of his evasion in France, RAF Sergeant Kenneth Skidmore described what happened as a result of momentarily losing his concentration:.

‘After cycling many miles we arrived at a junction in Pont L’Evique. It was her that my attention was distracted by the sight of a tall, smartly dressed knee booted German , standing to attention. How impressive he looked. During my admiration of his appearance, I had failed to notice which way the cyclist ahead of me had taken and he was now out of sight. There were three roads to choose – but which one?’


British & Commonwealth Evasion Reports

The Comet Connection – George Watt

Follow the Man with the Pitcher – Kenneth Skidmore

Next week - In the Streets

© Keith Morley