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In interviews and also published or unpublished accounts, there is often a single common theme stringing the sequence of events together on the journey; recollections around food in vivid detail.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


  1. We can't imagine being hungry all the time and having to eat varied and assorted foods. So many people helped to get the serviceman back and were so very brave in doing so.

  2. Again nicely detailed post by Keith regarding strange foods which were on the evaders’ reluctant menu and their thoughts of home amongst the grandeur of their meal at the Embassy. Back in Britain, there were also some strange meals on the dinner
    table as Anne Addison recalls…… “Tea tablets were used to make the tea look stronger; babies' dried milk or 'National' milk was added if it could be obtained; and saccharine was used as a sweetener. Some even resorted to using honey or jam. What a concoction - but we drank it. Bread was heavy and a dull grey colour, but it, too, was rationed - so we ate it. Sweets were devised from a mixture of dried milk and peppermint essence with a little sugar or icing sugar if available. Grated carrots replaced fruit in a Christmas or birthday cake, while a substitute almond paste was made from ground rice or semolina mixed with a little icing sugar and almond essence. Dried egg powder was used as a raising agent, and this same dried egg could be reconstituted and fried, yielding a dull, yellow, rubbery-like apology for the light and fluffy real thing - but there was nothing else, so we ate it. Bean pies and lentil rissoles provided protein to eke out our meagre meat ration, and the horse-meat shop, which previously had sold its products only for dogs, now bore a notice on some of its joints occasionally, 'Fit for Human Consumption'. This horse-meat was not rationed, but it did have to be queued for and sure enough eventually it appeared on our table. It had to be cooked for a long time and even then it was still tough. Nevertheless, it did not get thrown out. In complete contrast, one highlight for me was the coming of spam from America. It was an oasis in our desert of mediocrity; an elixir in our sea of austerity. It seems to me that it was meatier, juicier, and much tastier than it is now. (Tricks of memory again, no doubt.) We ate it in sandwiches; we ate it fried with chips; cold with salad; chopped in spam-and-egg pies, until, of course, it ceased to provide the variety we longed for, but I never tired of it.”
    In France the memory of the brave allies who strove to provide food and sanctuary is honoured in the following way.La Chemin de la Liberté-meaning a tough walk to freedom. Every year a group of hikers from all over the world meet up in the town of Saint Girons, the capital of the Couserans region of the Ariège, in order to hike over the Pyrenees into Spain. Hundreds of men and women took this route during the Second World War. And this is why most of the group come-many had relations who escaped the Nazis by using this route and they walk to commemorate the bravery of these soldiers and resistance fighters and of the local, mountain people who led them safely along the route and provided them with shelter and food. There were a number of escape routes through France during World War Two but the Comete Line, the Pat O'Leary Line and the Marie Claire Line were the most famous. The high mountain route into Spain was carefully chosen as it avoided all official checkpoints. Between 1940 & 1944, there were 33,000 successful escapes along the entire length of the Pyrenean chain and 782 escaped over the mountain peaks of the Ariège. During the war several escape trails were established near St Girons and other towns and villages surrounding it like Foix, Tarascon, Aulus-Les-Bains, Massat, Castillon, Seix & Sentein all had invisible mountain routes towards the Spanish frontier. Hence, each year, a guide leads a group along the trail to commemorate those who made it and those who did not.
    ‘Do not follow where the path may lead.
    Go, instead, where there is no path and leave a trail.’
    - Ralph Waldo Emerson

  3. I have some small experience of the Pyreneans' welcoming nature and willingness to help us as a nation. My cousin was married in the Pyrenees quite a while ago and as my parents and I passed on foot some elderly women sitting outside their homes ourselves dressed in full wedding-guest regalia they smiled and enthusiastically waved to us shouting 'Welcome to the English!'This touched me as I had half-expected some gentle barracking.When we entered the small Church at Bazus-Aure we found that the floor had been covered in red rose petals.At that point I reached for a tissue.What good people I thought and cetainly they have always been so when we look at the way they helped in WW2 as documented so well in these posts by Keith.We look forward to reading on and learning much.....