|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In interviews and also published or unpublished accounts, there is often a single common theme stringing the sequence of events together on the journey; recollections around food in vivid detail.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
during 1943 give good examples of the
contrasting fortunes. American airman
Sergeant George Watt recounted how he stayed with fellow American Flyer ‘ Paris Tennessee’ Johnson in the Vanves suburb of . Paris
‘Food was likewise scarce. There was much less than we had in
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.’ Belgium
American, Sergeant Harold Pope was staying in another
safe house at the
same time. Paris
‘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
restaurant…frequently Robert would bring home food from the restaurant kitchen,
greatly appreciated by the three of us. We seemed to be perpetually hungry.’ Paris
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
evader Carl Spicer one Sunday dinnertime in their hideout. Paris
‘… 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
and beyond. Bordeaux
Dennis Hornsey describes his.
‘The meal in the restaurant before catching the night train to
cutlets, cabbage and potatoes preceded by soup.’ Vienna
On the train south, some guides carried sandwiches for the journey as it would be nine hours before changing trains at
. 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. Bordeaux
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
ee ‘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. Bayonne (s
‘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
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 (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. San
The hospitality continued as the evaders were driven in a diplomatic car to the British Embassy in
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 Madrid .
Numerous evaders and escapers highlight how well they were looked after in the
Embassy and also on escorted visits around Spain . 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
with the Resistance – Alfie
The Comet Connection – George Watt
The Pilot Walked Home – Dennis Hornsey
Unpublished Memoirs ‘An Unusual Day’ – Jimmy Elliott
© Keith Morley