Saturday, 5 May 2012

Safe Houses

'Tante Go' Villa 

31, Ave Val d'Or Brussels (safe house run by members of the Maca family)  

Safe places to shelter became vital havens for the evader/escaper as they moved through Europe during World War 2. It could be an apartment, a house in the city, a farm building or even above a shop or restaurant.

In the early stages of their journey the fugitives were often hidden in attics, barns, farms, upstairs rooms or any creative place that could be found. Even once the evader was into an escape line, unusual locations were still utilised. RAAF Pilot Officer Bob Kellow was sheltered in an abbey in Belgium, RAF Flying Officer Jimmy Elliott hid overnight behind a curtained off partition in the room of a French masseuse in Paris.  

Safe houses could be places where an evader simply knocked on the door of a farmhouse, asked for help and was subsequently hidden there or at another location until links with patriots who could help were established. Sometimes the safe house was purely an overnight stop before the evader had to move on.

In organised escape lines the safe houses were carefully selected locations where evaders could be temporarily hidden whilst their false identity papers were made up and fresh clothes provided. The organisation could make plans for moving the evader to an assembly point or arranging collection from the safe house before moving them on.

Journeys to safety meant crossing borders between different countries. Evaders and escapers in Western Europe usually made for Gibraltar via Spain unless they were part of a coastal pick up in Southern France which was comparatively rare as the war progressed. The escape organisations used specific towns or cities as main assembly points, so located suitable safe houses there. In The Netherlands, The Hague and Amsterdam were used, in Belgium it was Antwerp, Liege and Brussels and in France there were various places including the main ones of Paris, Lyon and Marseilles. 

The forged papers, identity cards and travel documents for the next stage of an evader’s journey were often given to them whilst they waited in or visited a safe house. These places were used as a last stop before a border crossing.

When an evader arrived at a safe house, he was often questioned at varying levels as to his identity, despite the organisation having carried this out at previous locations. For security reasons, most links in the chain of an escape line only had knowledge of their own operation, and regular attempts at infiltration were made by German Intelligence to plant fake airmen and hope they would be absorbed into the line.  

The most secure safe houses were those which were private residences of a single person or family without children. It was considered preferable if no children were present, as the risk of compromise by careless talk or accidentally letting a small fact slip out could lead to the ultimate domino collapse of a whole escape network. However, in evader’s reports it is clear that children were present in some locations.

The ‘Tante Go’ villa in Anglet was a final and vital safe house in the Comete Escape Line. Located in the Basque area of South West France it sat in easy distance from the town of St Jean- de- Luz and the crossing of the Pyrenees that would follow. At the end of a cul de sac the villa was set back from the lane and ideally secluded.  Run by Madame Elvire de Greef and her family, ‘Tante Go’ villa became a safe house where evaders rested before meeting their new guides. ‘Tante Go’ was a nickname  Madame de Greef had attracted from having called her dog ‘Gogo’. Although in 1943 alternative escape routes had to be found, ‘Tante Go’ villa remained in operation until 1944. After the war Madame Elvire de Greef was awarded the US Medal of Freedom gold palms (Grade 1) for her work in helping hundreds of evaders pass through.

As writers we need our own safe houses; those places of refuge where we can hide from the outside and lose ourselves in other worlds. The safe house is a cornerstone of any writing journey and can be in an attic, spare bedroom, study, summerhouse or that quiet corner of the garden in summer. The possibilities are considerable and like the escape lines the writer may sometimes have to make creative use of places in order to secure that shelter. Fortunately more public locations are also available; in that favourite cafĂ©, local library or park. There is excuse for not being able to write somewhere – and no escape.

Additional sources: Downed Airmen and Evasion of Capture: The Role.  Herman Bodson

© Keith Morley