Friday, 17 August 2012

The Food - Part Three

Paris 1943 - André Zucca

Paris 1943  André Zucca

As evaders and escapers reached the main towns/cities and were hidden in safe houses, it could become a matter of pure luck as to the kind of accommodation and food they were given. Times were difficult; obtaining extra food was a constant problem and risk.

A few of the patriots who sheltered fugitives had more robust finances, which opened the door  to useful ‘food’ contacts and access to the higher end of the Black Market. The others battled on and continually managed to serve up meals with very little to work with. American flyer Art Horning and other airmen noted the versatility of their hosts serving just potatoes prepared so many different ways, fried, boiled, wedged and roasted.  

In their evasion reports, the servicemen rarely specified any detail around their food once they had reached the point of receiving help and shelter, confining the references to having a meal, visiting a café/restaurant or noting any circumstances when they were not fed for a specific length of time (evaders crossing the Pyrenees via the longer routes were subject to this.)

In interviews and also published or unpublished accounts, there is often a single common theme stringing the sequence of events together on the journey; recollections around food in vivid detail. Given what airmen had been used to at home this is not surprising, but the magnificent efforts of those who sheltered the men on the run should not be underestimated. 

Evaders in safe houses in Paris during 1943 give good examples of the contrasting fortunes.  American airman Sergeant George Watt recounted how he stayed with fellow American Flyer ‘Tennessee’ Johnson in the Vanves suburb of Paris.

‘Food was likewise scarce. There was much less than we had in Belgium. Our main staples were potatoes, bread, small quantities of vegetables and very little meat or fowl. For dessert there was sometimes apples or cheese…our hosts had so little to work with and were marvellous cooks… but we were hungry all of the time.’ 

American, Sergeant Harold Pope was staying in another Paris safe house at the same time.

‘I lived mostly off string beans. One day this guy came in with a sack on his back, it was fresh meat – I hadn’t eaten horsemeat before. It was good – there’s nothing wrong with it its cleaner than pork, it’s sweet and stringy.’

One airman reported staying in a house where the woman with scabs all over her face, constantly complained of not being paid enough money to cover her costs and served up poor food. Another remained in a flat for 16 days in the most primitive of conditions.

Others fared better, with Jimmy Elliot recalling in his unpublished memoirs how he stayed with Dambuster Flying Officer ‘Johnny’ Johnson and American 2nd Lt Donald Mills at 11 Rue Descombes with Odile Hochpied who they called 'Mammy' because she was like a mother to the airmen sheltered there.

‘Mammy’s son Robert and his wife Fernande also lived in the house… Robert was a chef in a Paris restaurant…frequently Robert would bring home food from the restaurant kitchen, greatly appreciated by the three of us. We seemed to be perpetually hungry.’

In his safe house, RAF Pilot Officer Dennis Hornsey described a special dinner of oysters and champagne prepared for the chief of the escape organisation (who did not arrive.) The day to day reality is captured.

‘Madame had the hardest task for she had to find food for us and run her home. Our food was all obtained from the black market in which the Germans themselves had a big financial interest. Every day she would do the round of shops to obtain under-the-counter goods. This in itself was a risk since there was the danger someone would wonder why she required so much extra food. Yet never once were our rations cut low. By our standards the food was inadequate, but compared with what the average Frenchman had we lived like kings.’

American Airman John Justice (see last weeks post) described yet another food steeplechase with fellow US evader Carl Spicer one Sunday dinnertime in their Paris hideout.

‘… it started with several dozen oysters on the half shell which Carl could not swallow and I didn’t care for as they had come from the Seine river and tasted and smelled like sewage. The main course was served and it consisted of approx four dozen snails. This was the last straw for Carl and needless to say I had to make up for his failure to appreciate what they were doing for us.’

In the Comete Escape Line, during one period in 1943 evaders were taken to a café or restaurant for a meal immediately before their long train journeys south to Bordeaux and beyond. 

Dennis Hornsey describes his.

‘The meal in the restaurant before catching the night train to Bordeaux was Vienna cutlets, cabbage and potatoes preceded by soup.’

On the train south, some guides carried sandwiches for the journey as it would be nine hours before changing trains at Bordeaux. Others did not and were unable to position themselves directly with their charges because of the risks involved. The airman in my book kept a piece of bread and cheese in his pocket after being handed it wrapped in paper before he left his safe house in Paris. He had his meal at the restaurant and finally ate it around 9.00am the next day. 

Once they left the train, evaders journeying towards the Pyrenees often travelled long distances by bicycle to the Café Larre in Sutar (a village south of Bayonne (see ‘The Safe Houses’ post.) Jimmy Elliott describes cycling with three other airmen, a girl cyclist and two guides and taking a refreshment stop along the gruelling ride.

‘Having started out at 08.30 hours all of us welcomed the break which was taken in the early afternoon.’ (The airmen were taken to a spot not visible from the road and away from any farmhouses.) ‘Out of the panniers on her bike the girl produced enough food and wine to provide a substantial ‘ploughman’s lunch.’ 

Australian Bob Kellow experienced a similar break, although alcohol free with ‘lime cordial.’

Other airmen describe ‘bread baguettes cheese and wine.’ This rest and refuel became vital for the exhausted evaders riding on heavy basic bicycles and struggling to keep pace with their guides. Some had taken little or no food and drink since leaving Paris.   

Once they reached the Café Larre the evaders were well fed. Many mention the excellent meal they enjoyed. Jimmy Elliott was so exhausted he remembered little about it except somehow finding his way to where the beds were and falling instantly asleep until the next morning. Alfie Martin had potato omelette, green peas, fried eels, wine then coffee and cigarettes afterwards.

The next day the airmen would begin their journey on foot across the Pyrenees, and for those taking the longer routes, this would be their last proper meal for days.

Some evaders and escapers who reached neutral Spain via organised escape lines were taken by car to the British Consulate in San Sebastian (prearranged pick up.) Dennis Hornsey had a breakfast of ‘bananas, oranges, tangerines, grapes, fried egg, fried bread, coffee and cream.’ which he never forgot. To the dirty, exhausted and hungry fugitives, this must have been a special moment, as many would not have seen the fruit for years.

The hospitality continued as the evaders were driven in a diplomatic car to the British Embassy in Madrid. They were often ushered through the back entrance to be welcomed in for ‘drinks,’ and some were introduced to Lady and Sir Samuel Hoare, the British Ambassador to Spain. Numerous evaders and escapers highlight how well they were looked after in the Embassy and also on escorted visits around Madrid.

Jimmy Elliott arrived on 24 th December and was immediately invited to a Christmas Eve Ball at the Embassy by an RAF Group Captain who had clearly been assigned to look after the new guests. After a ‘clean up’ the evaders were presented with ‘ lucky bags of jackets, trousers, shoes, shirts, ties and socks’ to find suitable attire which fitted.

The Group Captain advised ‘If I was in your position, I would feel like a big celebration tonight. There will be lots of free drink at this Ball, and I put all of you on your honour not to denigrate your flying badge, RAF or USAAF in front of so many important foreign diplomats.’ He added. ‘My flat is only five minutes walk from here, and I promise all of you that after the Ball finishes at 01.00 hours you will have a party well worth waiting for.’ Elliott later says ‘ He was an honourable, honest and hospitable man.’  

After an exceptional meal the four evaders went to the Ball, were introduced formally by rank and name as they entered, met Sir Samuel Hoare and mingled with guests. The contrast to what they had been through must have seemed unreal. 
Elliott said that the Christmas Day meal was traditional and exceptional.

…‘the chef had really excelled himself. Although we ate in an adjacent room which doubled as a games room …all the tables and walls had been decorated with tinsel and holly. Undoubtedly the ladies of the Embassy staff had come up with this brilliant idea, which all of us really appreciated.’

It would be easy to ask what more could they want at that moment?  Elliott sums up the shift in priorities.

‘The meal was a cheerful affair, with the Americans as ever, competing with their compatriots in the slickest smartest repartee. Unfortunately the latter part of the day was somewhat of an anti-climax, for I think, most of our thoughts were back home, with our families.’
Their thoughts must also have returned to the helpers and guides who made the journey possible. The men, women and children left behind to face the daily diet of deprivation and danger and to risk their lives for complete strangers.

Within days the evaders were back in England and the Americans subsequently  returned to the USA.


Unpublished Memoirs   - John Justice

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

The Comet Connection – George Watt

The Pilot Walked Home – Dennis Hornsey

Unpublished Memoirs ‘An Unusual Day’ – Jimmy Elliott

© Keith Morley

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

The Food - Part Two


Black Bread

French Farm During WW2

Maurice Bricout - 'The Border Policeman'

Evaders in North Western Europe during World War 2 encountered a diverse range of experiences around food and meals once they reached their first shelter. The difficulties faced were generic to all escape networks in that part of the world.  

The overall picture for patriots trying to feed evaders looked bleak. The range and volume of food available was often in short supply in the occupied countries; especially in the cities. Helpers trying to satisfy young men’s appetites often had to resort to creativity, subterfuge and the black market. British and Commonwealth servicemen initially coped better than their American counterparts as the former were used to rationing, but most Americans dug in and played their part once they knew the stakes.

The patriots did the best with what they had, and fared better in the countryside than the cities, where supplies were often non-existent without going into the Black Market. The Germans were effectively taking away 70% of local pre war food production for use by the Reich, which left occupied Europe with the remaining 30%. At one stage half of the farmers were POWs which further reduced production. Farmers and the locals put aside what they could to help others (some of it on the Black Market), but despite this the harsh reality meant that the occupied territories were left living on 20-50% of their pre-war production. In the cities people were starving whilst still having to work or be deported to forced labour in Germany. This situation worsened as the war progressed, so for the initial helpers and escape lines, feeding an evader created a stiff set of challenges. 

Yvonne de Ridder Files, resistance operator and escape line helper lived in Brussels at the time. She noted during 1943 that food was becoming scarcer by the day. There was little around apart from the basic diet of beans which continued to be rationed by the month and rutabagas which were available at times. The two together caused a disastrous effect on the digestive system, which became blatantly apparent especially on public transport.

The rationed bread bore little resemblance to the real thing. A heavy gluey grey substance stuck together inside a hard crust. Monthly ration coupons were available for a variety of items, but there was never anything to use them on. Any dogs and cats that roamed the streets quickly disappeared.  The black market thrived, although foodstuffs were still scarce and most of what could be obtained via this method went to the airmen. Times were desperate, but the Belgians got on with it, determined to stick it out and wait for the invasion they always believed would come. 

In the country areas the shortage was often not so acute. German inspectors still took their quota from farms and small holdings, but discreet amounts of produce disappeared before the officials arrived or became ‘relocated around the farm.’ Families who had some degree of self-sufficiency fared better than others. Alfie Martin (see last week’s post) stayed on a small farm about 2 miles west of Sains du Nord in France for six weeks during the early part of his evasion. The family had no arable land, although they kept a dozen cows, two horses and a few hens and pigs. They grew their own vegetables on a small plot of land and along with what milk etc. they were left with, it was enough to keep them going.  Martin described how he got good plain food and how it punctuated the running of the farm.

8.30 am Breakfast  – coffee, black bread, butter, a white creamy soft cheese, black treacle, sometimes a boiled egg.

12.30 pm Another meal – large bowl of vegetable soup followed by bread with no butter. A large dish of potatoes with leeks or turnips with sometimes a small piece of meat possibly ham or some kind of minced meat which had a sauce spread over it made from the cream of milk. Cider accompanied this meal followed by ersatz coffee.

8.30pm Last meal of the day after work ended and the cows milked - Warm bread and milk or soup with bread butter treacle and coffee. There was wine on Sunday with midday meal.

Martin could not go out, so did jobs inside the farmhouse such as peeling potatoes and scraping carrots, washing dishes and helping at the separator after milking. He was lucky, as was American First Lieutenant John Justice, who also fared better than most in the early stages of his evasion. His experiences, written in unpublished memoirs give a snapshot into the routine and running of a Dutch home which sheltered and fed an evader in a small town. They also illustrate how suitable employment for a helper, whilst raising the risk stakes did also create ‘inside’ opportunities to enhance sheltering operations.

‘It turned out to be the home of the Chief of Police in the City of Barnveld……I was given a bedroom in the attic which was to be my home for thirty days. The daily routine was every morning about seven O’ clock I would go downstairs , wash and have breakfast. The breakfast each day consisted of a choice of three types of bread, cheese and ersatz coffee. The father and daughter would go to work and I would return to the attic. Mid morning the wife would bring my tea and cookies. At noon I would come down again for lunch . The lunch each day consisted of a small roast, potatoes and either blumcol, vitchecol or arroiecol (cauliflower, red cabbage, or white cabbage.) The next day lunch would be the same, except we would finish the roast having it cold. I then returned to my attic room and in the mid-afternoon was served tea and cookies. The evening meal was always the same as the breakfast meal and I was allowed to stay downstairs until bedtime, unless they had visitors from the underground…. An explanation of why we had meat each day was that the daughter worked in the ration office for the city and could get extra coupons.’

Justice explained the reasons for the long stay.

‘I was told that I had been detained there for that period of time because the Germans had maintained checkpoints in an attempt to capture me. After the checkpoints were closed, they were taking me on my way.’ 

RAF Pilot Officer Dennis Hornsey (see last weeks post) stayed in a safe house on the outside of Louvain and noted how it was possible to obtain butter now and again, but milk was very scare and meat unobtainable. His main meal consisted of dried peas and beans soaked before cooking, fried potatoes, soup and black bread and cakes. Large quantities of fat were used in the cooking and the majority of the food was fried or stewed in fat, even green vegetables if they could be obtained. This experience was more typical for evaders, although Hornsey’s fortunes changed briefly once he crossed the border into France, staying for a few hours in a small chateau with a count, countess and a very rare bottle of apricot brandy.

Most helpers did everything they could for their charges, especially if the latter were only staying briefly. This is illustrated by Maurice Bricout, identified by many airmen as ‘the border policeman’ on account of his uniform. Bricout was in fact a customs officer on the Belgium/France border. Accompanied by  Belgian guides he took evaders over the frontier at night to his ‘farmhouse’ in the French village of Bachy. Evaders stayed there until they left very early the next morning to continue their journey.

American flyer George Watt described what happened to him after he had followed the ‘Border Policeman’ across the fields into France with a group of fellow evaders.

‘We came to a large farmhouse. The guides went in first, then beckoned us to follow. Inside the kitchen there were five or six people – one woman, three or four men and a twelve year old boy….Food and wine appeared. They toasted us, we toasted them. We drank to the death of Hitler, we laughed and ate and the wine flowed freely. We got pleasantly high.’

RAF Flying Officer George Ward was also there that night and described ‘quite a party, with good food and wine.’

A few weeks later John Justice was probably at the same place.  

‘We stayed the night in the farmhouse. The ‘farm family’ were so called smugglers….One of the smuggled items was butter and the farmer had a cooler full. For our meal that night we are French fried potatoes cooked in pure butter.’  

This must have been a welcome change for Justice and another American evader Second Lieutenant Carl Spicer from their recent meal adventures in the ‘safe’houses of Brussels.

Justice and Spicer had been moved urgently to the fourth floor attic of a safe house above a bar owned by a resistance operator ‘Cyprien’and his wife. Cyprien worked days as a policeman and used this as a ‘front’ for his other activities.

There was just enough room for a double bed in the attic room and nothing else. It was a corner building with the bar on the ground floor, the kitchen and bath behind it, with the second and third floors being the living quarters for Cyprien, wife and young daughter. Justice describes a meal they had there:

‘One noon we had steaks and that evening when we were downstairs having drinks I was talking with Cyprien and Carl was talking with his wife. They were unable to communicate, so Cyprien and I were brought into the conversation. The wife had been asking Carl how he liked his steak at noon. She was asking him how he liked his horsemeat. Carl excused himself and went to the bathroom. I think he tried to throw up what he had eaten more than nine hours before.’

It didn’t stop there as things were about to hot up in the bar and kitchen.

‘In performing some of his duties, and because of the intense secrecy, some members of the Underground felt that Cyprien was pro- Nazi. On our last evening in their home we had retired to our loft when suddenly a huge explosion occurred. There were fire trucks, police vehicles and lights all around in the street….we were scared. We put on our clothes and lay on the bed awaiting what might happen. About two hours later we heard footsteps on the stairs and a knock on the door. They told us that homemade bombs had been thrown into the bar; no one had been hurt because Cyprien and his family had retired to their upstairs quarters. It was after curfew and they knew there would be further investigation so they instructed Carl to follow the other policeman at a distance of fifty feet and I was to follow Cyprien at the same distance. We walked through town approximately four or five miles to another home where a relative of Cyprien lived. We stayed there that night.’

The two airmen were moved the next day a few blocks away to a family in an apartment. Justice described what happened one evening:

‘One night for dinner we had hamburger ‘a la American’ which sure sounded good to Carl and I. But to our surprise it was raw hamburger patties mixed with onion, spices and an egg. Again, poor Carl Spicer just could not eat.’

Unpublished Memoirs   - John Justice
Bale Out! Escaping Occupied France With the Resistance – Alfie Martin
The Comet Connection – George Watt
The Quest For Freedom – Yvonne de Ridder Files
Downed Allied Airmen and Evasion of Capture – Herman Bodson
Next Week The Food Part 3 – From oysters and green beans in the safe houses of Paris to hunger in the Pyrenees and Christmas dinner in Madrid.

© Keith Morley