Thursday, 26 April 2012

‘The Little Lady in Black’ and ‘Madame Blonde’

Paris Street Scene - André Zucca  

Unknown Woman in Paris - André Zucca  

Unknown Woman in Paris  - André Zucca  

Arriving at Gare du Nord Paris, evaders in the Comete Escape Line had usually travelled there in two pairs, each with a ‘guide’ and often with neither pair being aware of the other’s presence. The word ‘guide’ creates a misleading image, as Comete guides travelled as if totally separate from their charges. Once on board a train, the guide would position themselves away from the evaders, but remain in sight and close enough to observe and assist if any difficulties arose. If a fellow passenger was trying to strike up a conversation with the evader, the guide could intervene, or they could  take out their ticket and identity documents to warn the evader a check was imminent, then discreetly show which document (s) were being requested if this was necessary.  

From July 1943 to Mid January 1944 evaders followed their guide off the train at Gare du Nord and were often met by a man who introduced himself as ‘The Chief’. As the guides melted away into the night (Paris was under blackout) ‘The Chief’ instructed the evaders to surrender their train tickets at the barrier (often a day when the Comete intelligence had ascertained that tickets and documents for the military services were being checked instead of the public). Each pair of evaders was told to look out for two women who would be waiting separately in the station area on the other side of the ticket barrier. One would be very small and dressed all in black, the other a tall striking blonde. The evaders (usually airmen) were told to stay as a pair, select one of the two women and walk towards them. The woman would then begin to move off at a distance and they should follow her.

RAF Pilot Officer George Ward was travelling with a member of his crew, Flying Officer Geoff Madgett. They were the other pair on the same train as the airman and his travelling companion in my book. George said ‘At the station we were told,  two of us to follow the blond and two of us to follow the small brunette. Geoff and I naturally went for the blonde.’

These women were two of the Heads of Sheltering in Paris and were responsible for the lodging of evaders in safe houses. They worked independently within their own cells and knew nothing of each other’s operation.

Madame Germaine Bajpai (also known as ‘Francoise, ‘Madame Hautfoin’ and by the evaders as ‘Madame Blonde’) was nearly fifty, yet looked like a woman in her thirties.  She had travelled extensively, spoke good English and been married four times, the last to a Hindu. Described by one Comete operator as ‘elegant, spiritual, full of life’ she must have looked a striking figure. One airman wrote of her as ‘tall, slim, blonde and had the deportment of a mannequin…fashionably and attractively dressed, she was, in a word – elegant.’

Madame Fernande Onimus could not have been more opposite in physical appearance. Less than five feet in height and dressed all in black, she was a married woman in her mid forties. Also known as ‘Rosa’ and by the airmen as ‘The Little Lady in Black’/‘Woman in Black’; in addition to being one of the Chiefs of Sheltering, she also hid evaders in her own home. Her daughter Janine recalled that as a nine year old she was told never to talk about the many ‘uncles’ that came to stay at their home.
The Shelter Heads in Paris were responsible for guiding the evaders to a designated safe house, obtaining and delivering cigarettes (to help the evaders through the difficult days of waiting ahead), laundering existing clothing and providing new items when necessary. In addition the evaders would also need money, ration cards, razor, soap etc. The Shelter Heads were then responsible for guiding the evaders within Paris to the rendez-vous before departure, which was usually close to the Gare d’Austerlitz train station. The evaders would be left with their new guide who then took them for a meal in a restaurant before they all boarded the night train to Bordeaux.

Obtaining the goods and commodities for the fugitives whilst in Paris was extremely difficult. Cigarettes were often only available on the Black market at a minimum of 100 Francs a packet. Clothing too was in short supply and with rationing it also had to be bought on the black market. Evaders would frequently need a large scale change of clothing because hats, suits and overcoats were not worn so much in Southern France. Berets, shorter coats and more casual clothing had to be obtained in order to merge into the local population. 

Madame Onimus conducted extensive searches, established a useful network of contacts and managed to build up her own secondary stock of clothing for the evaders in her network. Countless other difficulties existed and it is impossible to fully encapsulate in words the risks that these operators took for the evaders who were complete strangers.

As a result of information extracted under torture, the Gestapo moved in and arrested numerous Comete operatives on 18 January 1944, including the two women involved as Shelter Heads of Paris.

Germaine Bajpai and Fernande Onimus were interrogated, tortured and imprisoned before eventually being sent to Ravensbruck concentration camp for women. Germaine Bajpai died there on 4 February 1945 aged 50. A Comete guide in the camp at the same time who survived said ‘She simply gave up the will to live once she reached the concentration camp.’ 

Fernande Onimus died in the gas chamber some time on 23-24 April 1945 just before the camp was liberated by the Russians. She voluntarily exchanged identities with another inmate and took the place of a mother of a large family who was listed to die that day. An eyewitness account stated that whilst Madame Onimus was waiting in the line of women to enter the gas chamber, she heard a woman complaining about the state of her own shoes. Madame Onimus removed hers and said ‘Take mine; I won’t be needing them.’

Fernande Onimus was directly responsible for the successful escape of more than 100 Allied Airmen through Paris and Germaine Bajpai helped 49.

They risked everything and gave everything.

Additional Sources:
 Le Reseau Comete -  Remy.  Article by Janine Onimus Anderson.  Notes by Michael Moores Le Blanc.

© Keith Morley

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

The Restaurant Larré

 Restaurant Larré -  Cheryl Padgham                                                                                                         

Marthe Mendiara

Cafés and restaurants can be havens for the writer; places of escape where they can sit in a quiet corner to unclutter their mind, start that next chapter, sketch out a short story, or just observe the people that come and go.

Observation is key to the writer; a springboard for plot and character ideas. From July 1943, the observations of Jeanne Marthe Mendiara-Villenave were vital for different reasons. As proprietor of the Restaurant Larré she had to be more aware than most. Located 5 kilometres from Bayonne in the village of Sutar Southern France, this restaurant became an essential shelter for evaders approaching the Pyrenees. It sat on the road to Cambo close to the local school, where timing and security was essential to get the fugitives in without attention being aroused.

The nearby towns of St Jean de Luz, Dax and Bayonne were heavily populated with Germans in addition to the local Gendarmerie, and the area was under close scrutiny. The Pyrenees were guarded and patrolled by German border and ‘Alpine’ Units. All of this barred the way before the hazards of Franco’s Spain had to be faced.

Evaders arriving in Dax and Bayonne on the train (usually a group of four) were given bicycles by their guides and made the journey to the restaurant riding in single file a hundred yards apart, with one guide leading two evaders. The journey from Dax was considerably longer and a stiff physical test. 

Before entering Sutar a guide would check to see if the party were safe to enter the village and arrive at the restaurant, as the latter was regularly frequented by German Officers of the Wehrmacht. A red scarf on the washing line from Marthe Mendiara (as she became known), signified they should wait. It must have been strange for the evaders hiding upstairs, trying to rest before their next ordeal, whilst the sounds of German officers enjoying their wine and food percolated up from below.

Marthe Mendiara’s husband was a POW in Germany so at 37 she had as a good a reason as any to carry on the fight. The restaurant was also used to plan the escape of Comete head Andrée de Jongh from the Villa Chagrin prison in Bayonne.

Most evaders only stayed the one night and were well fed, for some this would be their last proper food for days. Less than twenty four hours later they would be on their way, towards the hazards of travel at night, mountains, rivers, unpredictable weather and the enemy.

© Keith Morley

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

The Journey

        Paris (Andre Zucca) 


  Max Roger & 'Tante Go' with 2 evaders  (Reseau Comete - Col Remy ) 

Evaders and escapers were often faced with huge distances to travel in order to reach safety. If the stark reality of their task had been fully digested many would have quickly given up, but the human instinct to survive is considerable. The evader would immediately see themselves as still free and the thought of captivity in a POW camp was a spur enough to keep going. For the escaper, the instant rush of freedom and desire to flee would have overridden anything else. 

For some fugitives it became necessary after receiving help from patriots to journey away from the natural direction of safety back to key places e.g. Paris and Brussels where they could join an organised escape line. This method of travel is important for writers in the plot and structure of their own writing journeys to keep the reader interested. A journey that goes from a logical A to B with little deviation is unlikely to keep followers on board, and as with the fugitives, if changes of direction are handled with care, the strategy will result in a better journey and end result.    

 Flt Lt Jimmy Kennedy a Canadian in RAF 24 Operational Training Unit baled out of a Whitley with engine trouble on a leaflet drop and had to travel north back to Paris. The distance was not huge, but it must have been a strange sensation to be heading in the wrong direction.

Canadian John Dix landed by parachute in Luxembourg. His chances of getting out were slim and geographically the way out was south west into France towards the Pyrenees or west across to Paris and the hope of help there. But travelling in this direction in occupied territory for any length of time was not feasible. Transport had to be used, which brought with it a new set of problems, scrutiny and searches, correct identity papers, checkpoints and the risk of suspicion from fellow travellers.

With two other members of his crew Dix was eventually hidden by the resistance under sacks of grain in the back of a lorry. They survived checkpoint searches and crossed the frontier on foot into Arlon Belgium. Pursued by the Gestapo they journeyed North West by train back towards Brussels where the train was stopped and searched at Namur. Dix’s two crew members were arrested, but he survived. A man totally unconnected with the airmen had been shot dead outside on the track. The Gestapo were looking for three men, logic and the need to move the train on, meant that the train was released and by the time they realised, Dix had left the station at Brussels and been hidden by the Comete Escape Line.

Dix went on to travel by, tram, train, Metro, bicycle and on foot through France and Spain, eventually reaching Gibraltar. In addition other escapers and evaders used horse and cart, lorry, car, ferry or boat, a few were even taken out under darkness by Lysander aircraft after an agent drop. The airman in my book finished his journey hidden near the anchor chain in the hold of a British freighter transporting bitter oranges from Seville to Gibraltar. He was shut in a tiny space for days with three others.

Writers must make use of whatever ‘transport’ they can when travelling through their story arc, writing that non fiction book or travel piece. Whatever genre, it is, the reading, research, knowledge, listening and learning that they pick up on the journey and utilise is key; along with their core skills packed and ready in suitcases. But they should never forget that even with all of this, it can be the ability to see something and use it in a totally different way that can finally make the difference.

Flt Lt Harold Burton was the first officer to successfully escape from a German POW camp in World War 2 and make a ‘Home Run’. Having got out of Stalag Luft 1 at Barth he reached the coast on 30 May 1941 and discovered a ferry would leave for neutral Sweden at 16.30 hours. It looked impossible to get on board without detection and then he noticed some trucks were being loaded and pulled on to the ferry. He worked out that if he sneaked on the blind side at a specific moment, climbed underneath and hung on to the axle he might get away with it. He did, concealing himself under the truck for the four hour crossing and then disembarking by hanging on to the axle again the same way.  

© Keith Morley


Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Most Secret - MI9, IS9 & MIS-X Reports

Luftwaffe in Paris - Photographed by Andre Zucca for Nazi propaganda magazine 'Signal'

Extract from evasion report of 2nd Lt. Ralph Smith.

Allied evaders and escapers reaching safety in Western Europe were transported back to England for full debrief. Upon arrival they were usually taken under guard to the nearest railway station, placed in a sealed carriage and escorted to London for interrogation. The British Intelligence Agencies MI9 (b) and IS9; and from 1942 the American organisation MIS – X worked closely together on this. Reports were written for each debriefing and since the public release of these documents they have become a vital source for the historian, researcher and writer.

These reports are held in the UK and US National Archives respectively. They contain several Appendices in varying detail around the sequence of events that caused the escaper/evader to be in the position they were, any  information about their journey, the people that helped them (often just descriptions or pseudonyms), observations of military interest and questions around functionality of the various escape aids that they carried.

Whilst this factual information is vital, there is much more that can be read into the reports about the man on the run, his character and state of mind both then and later at the debrief. American transcriptions have a colour and texture about them because the stenographer wrote down what was said as the accounts were given. Although the typed MIS-X summary that quickly followed is useful for making sense of the shorthand in the original manuscript, it does not always contain every detail.

The British IS9 and MI9 reports are more routine and were typed up after the debriefing. Some reports have a brevity about them that indicate narrow recollections, possibly created by fear and apprehension, or a need to press on head down and not be noticed, whilst in others the fragmentation and missing details can indicate a state of mind at the opposite end of the scale.

The MI9 Report of an RAF Flying Officer that crossed the Pyrenees with the airman in my book seemed very brief. He told me, ‘I just wanted to get home. I knew that if I finished this thing in time, they might just let me catch the late train out of London. I could get the last bus in Birmingham that went to the garage. Dad worked there and he didn’t know I was back in England. They let me go and I made it. The garage was in darkness, so I shouted my name three or four times and Dad came running.’

The man who asked questions sometimes got answers or snippets of information from his helpers, but these were not always included in the reports. Many servicemen were told solely the details they needed to know about their current journey for obvious reasons:

American 2nd Lt Ralph Smith reported:

“On 10 November a 37 year old woman – slim 5’5in, dark straight black hair – took us to Paris where we met the head of the organisation – a Belgian. He spoke eight different languages and told us that the Germans had parachuted about 60 agents into different areas and many Frenchmen had been caught aiding them. He said the identifications were too difficult.”

This would have been no surprise to the airman in my book. After being questioned intensely by the Belgian Secret Army in the early part of his evasion and getting his details verified via radio transmission to London, he was congratulated and advised he would have been shot had they have been false. A German infiltrator had been eliminated two weeks before. A vague gesture towards a nearby field was given. Both the airman and a man in the Secret Army who was there at the time told me this, the latter emphasising repeatedly the excellent English that the impostor spoke. Yet none of it appears in the airman’s MI9 Report.

Descriptions of helpers were vital in identifying who was responsible for assisting the servicemen on their journey. As the war turned and liberation came, citations, medals and financial reimbursement for costs in sheltering and assisting evaders/escapers were considered. It was to the MIS – X, MI9 and IS9 reports, along with testimonies of fellow helpers that the allies turned.

Some evaders describe the personnel in very precise detail, others merely ‘a man’ or ‘middle aged man’ or ‘girl’. In the American reports, character terms are sometimes used to label the helpers and fit them in to the narrative. The reader forms an instant picture, a suitable parallel with the writer who uses ‘show not tell’ and minimal description so that the reader fills in gaps themselves.

“2nd Lt John Maiorca describes one of his helpers as ‘Al Capone.’ Sgt Harold Pope refers to guide Max Roger who has a scar along his nose as ‘Scar Face’. Fernande Onimus, a key operator in Paris is described as ‘The little lady in black’, ‘Tiny woman in black,’ ‘Woman under 5 foot, dressed all in black, carrying a shopping bag and wearing a red hat.’ 

Actions often speak louder than words and this also shows in the reports. An American was being stared at intently by two German soldiers at a railway station. He decided to walk by and just glare them out. The Germans broke first and did not stop him. A group of four airmen were yards from the French - Spanish border when shots rang out and they thought the party was surrounded. Their guide gave a signal to run, scatter and lie low once they were over the hill and in to neutral territory. Once they had reassembled it was realised an airman was missing. One of them risked everything and went back. The sick airman had fainted and was lying on the edge of a precipice. He was helped over the hill to freedom.

© Keith Morley