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


  1. People were so generous in feeding more mouths when they were suffering from severe rationing. It would be inconcievable to the younger generation these days that there were shortages of food, they are so used to supermarkets being open 24/7 and food available on demand.

  2. Immensely interesting details about the food, and a great extract from your forthcoming book.

  3. I imagine the challenge of putting something on the table was stressful and daunting for all concerned.

    My initial reaction to eating cats and dogs was 'no way!' but as I read on, and thought about it some more, I realise one would get over it quickly. Or starve!

    Its about time we were given a snippet of your upcoming book?

    1. Obtaining extra food carried so many risks Maria. Getting hold of additional supplies was difficult enough, but the whispers and questions that followed these requests could lead to arrest. Extra food coupons were often 'obtained' or forged. A readymade showcase for those looking for anything suspicious to investigate or make trouble with.

      Will be featuring an extract from my book shortly to follow on the back of a relevant post.

  4. Further to the fascinating personal stories documented so well in these posts by Keith- some surrounding information back in ‘Blighty’….. In the years leading up to World War 2 Great Britain had imported seventy five percent of its food a year or about 55 million tonnes a year. In September 1939 at the start of World Second World the shipping that was importing this food supply was being attacked by enemy submarines. These ships were also carrying war materials so the import of food was being lessened both by reduction of food supplies and the amount of space available on the cargo ships.In October 1939 the Government launched 'The Dig for Victory' campaign. People were urged to use gardens and every spare piece of land, such as parks, golf clubs and tennis courts, to grow vegetables. By November 1939 the Phrase Dig for Victory had entered into the public consciousness When the Minister for Agriculture encouraged the project by saying, "Let Dig for Victory be the motto of everybody with a Garden". Even the moat at the Tower of London was used to grow vegetables. Victory gardens were growing their own food in very tight compact spaces as a response to food shortages due to the wartime restrictions on food imports.Rationing in the United Kingdom is the series of food rationing policies put in place by the government of the United Kingdom. At the beginning of World War II, the UK imported 55 million tons of foodstuffs per year (70%), including more than 50% of its meat, 70% of its cheese and sugar, nearly 80% of fruits and about 90% of cereals and fats. Each person would register with their local shops, and was provided with a ration book containing coupons. The shopkeeper was then provided with enough food for his or her registered customers. When purchasing goods, the purchaser had to give the shopkeeper a coupon as well as money. This was the story at home, but as Keith’s posts show things were somewhat harder for those trapped behind enemy lines.As they were forced to eat the most unpleasant of things they were dreaming of other delights……
    By: Lt. Larry Phelan, Stalag Luft III, dedicated to his wife:

    I dream as only captive men can dream
    Of life as lived in days that went before;
    Of scrambled eggs, and shortcakes thick with cream;
    And onion soup and lobster Thermidor;
    Of roast beef and chops and T-bone steaks,
    And turkey breast and golden leg or wing'
    Of sausage, maple syrup, buckwheat cakes,
    And chicken broiled or fried or a la king.
    I dwell on rolls and buns for days and days,
    Hot corn bread, biscuits, Philadelphia scrapple,
    Asparagus in cream or hollandaise,
    And deep-dish pies - mince, huckleberry, apple.
    I long for buttered creamy oyster stew,
    And now and then, my pet, I long for you.

  5. Another thought provoking reply Helen. Britain's rationing was so much easier than the Nazi occupied territories. Its all relative I guess to what is available and what you get used to. Expectations rise or fall. The airmen in some of the books and accounts I have read spend ages wiling away the hours in their safe houses planning imaginary menus or discussing their favourite meals.Lt Larry Phelan would have been dependent on the Red Cross parcels for anything other than the totally inaquate food served up in the POW camp. I suspect in penning this poem he is doing exactly the same as the airmen in hiding.