Thursday, 27 September 2012

Maurice Bricout - 'The Border Policeman' Part One

Maurice Bricout
Photographs For False Identity Cards
George Watt 

Hank Johnson
Edward Johnson

By the middle of 1943 it was no longer possible for the Comete Escape Line to traffic evaders directly to Paris over the Belgium/France border. German control had increased significantly on the trains and border points. Unless the evaders spoke fluent French and were well briefed with information to accompany their false papers they stood little chance of making it through to Paris.


Comete had also been significantly damaged in June by the arrests of key players. New tactics had to be adopted quickly and a plan implemented; evaders were still filtering their way into the line via Holland and Belgium. Main operators Jean-Francois Nothcomb (‘Franco’), Yvon Michiels (‘Jean Serment’) and Antoine d'Ursel (‘Jacques Cartier’) met at Orval on July 15 1943 to discuss the problem.


‘Jean Serment’ took on the responsibility of finding someone to formulate other routes and means of crossing the border into France. Only one suitable alternative was currently known, which was a passage via the village of Sivry, and this was utilised on foot.


Twenty four year old Albert Mattens (‘Jean-Jacques’) (already known to another major Comete operator Jules Dricout) was recruited to find, organise and oversee the implementation plus operation of the new routes. Variation would reduce the risk of arousing suspicion and discovery and if a route was found by the enemy the others could still be used.


The Belgian border town of Rumes became a starting point for one of the six passages. Evaders were escorted on foot under cover of darkness across the border to the sleepy French village of Bachy. Maurice Bricout was a 36 years old Customs Officer living and working in the Bachy area. He had returned to the job from serving in the French artillery after France had surrendered and its army had been demobilised.   


‘Jean Jacques’ had met Maurice and his brother Albert through his own work in Belgian customs. Albert became instrumental in the Sivry-Sars-Pottery route whilst Maurice operated via Rumes-Bachy.


These were dangerous times and the trafficking of evaders required careful structure and planning. Each route had its own system of convoying, which was varied when circumstances dictated.


On the Rumes to Bachy crossings, evaders arrived at Rumes railway station and were usually led to a rendezvous point where they would be met by new guides. They would be taken to a house on the edge of the village and there exchange their Belgian identity documents and money for French equivalents.


Sometimes the initial contact with their new guides was at the end of the station platform as George Watt describes in his book the ‘Comet Connection:


Watt got off the train at Rumes with his guide and another escapee. The ride from Brussels to the French border had taken about an hour and the two fugitives were led to the end of the platform where they stepped into a shadow behind a large structure. Waiting there was Hank ‘Tennessee’ Johnson the Flight Engineer in Watt’s B17 aircraft.


Johnson describes in his debriefing report what happened after Watt’s guide from the train left them:


‘Two girls and a man took us to a house where our Belgian money was changed into French and where we were given French identity papers. A short stocky man took us with the two girls to a French policeman’s house.’


Numerous evading airmen describe either being led into France by a French Policeman or Border Policeman or being taken to his house. The assumption with certain evaders that Bricout was a Policeman occurred because of the similarity (particularly in the darkness) between the uniform of the Customs officer and French Policeman.


Bricout did not always wear his uniform though as RAF Dambuster Edward Johnson observed in his report.


‘We were given new Identity Cards and handed in all our Belgian money. We were escorted by a Border Policeman in civilian clothing and stayed the night at the Policeman’s house.’ be continued next week.


The Comet Connection - George Watt

Comet - Cecile Joan

Network Comet - Remy

US Archives Evaders Reports

National Archives Kew Evader Report

© Keith Morley

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Blackout and Occultation


Enforcing Blackout Regulations

Occultation Instructions

Evaders and escapers on the run in Nazi occupied Europe were no strangers to the blackout that was in force there. Most servicemen would have been stationed at some point in Britain or an Allied territory where it was already operational.

Aircrew were used to flying over a dark unlit Europe at night. Only the lights of neutral countries such as Spain, Portugal and Switzerland shone out of the void. Escapers and evaders often described seeing the twinkling lights of Spain with a sense of magic behind the words. It must have been a special experience for exhausted men to finally see tangible evidence that their journey was nearly over.

Once those travelling through Spain reached Gibraltar, they would have encountered a British held port where there was no blackout. With the Rock being stuck at the end of neutral Spain which had its lights unrestricted, throwing up a hundred per cent blackout would have served very little purpose especially with night bombing attacks highly unlikely.  

The man on the run in occupied territories would often travel at night. In the towns and cities, he moved around under cover of darkness before curfew and in the countryside it was better to journey after dark, then rest up and hide during the day. (A major difference from Britain was the introduction of curfew during the dark hours. Times and length varied depending on the location and state of civil unrest or resistance activity.)    

Occultation, as it was termed in France and Belgium came into effect almost immediately those countries fell to the Nazis, and like Britain, lights were shielded or extinguished at night. An extract from the May 24 1940 proclamation by Brussels Burgomaster Van De Meulebroeck relating to an occultation order is self explanatory:
"At nightfall, the lights in all houses and living quarters must be completely occulted.

Vehicles in movement must also be occulted; the light slit of the headlights may not be larger than 1cm in height and 8 cm in width. Infringers will be severely punished."
Specially occulted yellow lights were placed on top of some sign-posts in order to facilitate traffic in darkness, and window occultation material was used to cover windows and glass. Trams, buses and trains all had their sources of light shielded via shields, masks or blinds.
Families and businesses in the occupied territories often made up their own structures for covering windows and doors after dark so that light did not leak out, just as they did in Britain. Wooden frames with dark material stretched across became common, and these would fit on to the window. Outer shutters were closed where they existed and thick curtains lined with light resistant fabric were also used instead of or in addition to the main covering. A major difference existed in the colour of material or covering used for keeping light from showing out from of buildings. In Britain, whilst similar methods were utilised to cover windows and doors, black was the standard colour. In Belgium and France this was associated with bad luck and death, so a dark navy became the prevalent colour.
Edouard Reniére recounted his experience of blackout as a boy in Brussels:

‘I remember the decalcomania my parents applied on the glass panes of our apartment in Brussels. These were thin decorated plastic sheets with one side to be moistened before applying to the glass.’
The main result in villages, towns and cities were communities relying largely on moonlight or any dregs of natural light left, although evaders in Paris in 1943 reported the existence in some places of faint shielded street lighting lit by small blue glim bulbs.

The evader and escaper would often travel at night. In towns and cities, they moved around under cover of darkness before curfew and in the countryside it was less risky to get about after dark then rest up and hide during the day. RAF evader Alfie Martin reported an unusual incident in the darkness when he was taken at 4.00am to catch an early train in Lille. He said it was still dark and there were only a few people about. Of these some were searching the streets with torches. Bewildered by their behaviour he quickly realised that they were collecting cigarette ends. 

Thanks to Edouard Reniére for information and memories on occultation

Bale Out Escaping Occupied France with the Resistance – Alfie Martin 

© Keith Morley


Thursday, 13 September 2012

‘I Know Because I Was There’

German Checkpoint - Occupied France

From the Escape Kit

Escape Map

German Checkpoint

The Escape Line is now 6 months and 20 posts old. That time has passed in an instant for me. The written and verbal comments I receive on and off line are greatly appreciated and hundreds of you read the posts every week. Please continue to let me know what you think of them. I always welcome any feedback or discussion and look forward to hearing your views and stories.


This ‘war within a war’ makes fascinating reading and learning, but it is still in my view a vastly underrepresented area of that conflict in terms of public awareness. In Britain, of the generations outside the war years many know about ‘The Great Escape’ because it is on TV almost every Christmas, some may recall the story and film of the Wooden Horse, but the work around the actual escape lines often passes through unnoticed.


The reverence shown to the Allied fallen of both World Wars is second to none in the European countries formerly under German occupation. Additionally in Britain and its Commonwealth the focus on sacrifices made has been sharpened amongst the modern generations since the conflicts in the Falklands, Gulf War, Iraq 2 and Afghanistan. It is to these generations that we also look to keep the memories of both World Wars alive in the future.


The various World War 2 Escape Organisations and researchers dedicated to Allied commemoration, kinship, history and help to others are all doing amazing work (some excellent factual links below). Their membership and involvement often has a personal or family connection to a patriot or escaper/evader who was involved in an escape line or the resistance. It is right and proper that this should be so, but as the protagonists who took part in the actual events pass into history, it is also vital that those outside of this sphere are also drawn in to learn more of what happened in the escape lines so they are also ready to pass the information and memories on to the next generation.


Recently I took a step back to look at the tone and pathway taken on the blog since my early posts. Factual themes have overtaken the specific threads signposted to writing, which I interspersed into my early initial posts, but I intend to bring the latter back from time to time. As blog posts are different to web sites in their length, depth and focus, a more ‘bite sized’ brevity will always remain the target, giving the reader a taste of the subject. The Escape Line still remains on this course. Towards the safety of a neutral country or Allied lines. 


The title for today’s post stuck in my mind when I first thought about the pitch and tone I initially wanted for The Escape Line. ‘I Know Because I Was There’ is synonymous with the Welsh entertainer Max Boyce as he was present at many memorable matches where the Welsh rugby union team triumphed in their glory years, and he used it in his act. It was a strange analogy to sit with a blog which was about to focus on escape and evasion, but there is no substitute for personally experiencing and witnessing events at first hand and then recording them from the heart.


Whilst the connection here is made purely on the human side rather than from any rugby subject matter, ‘I know because I was there’ made an impression on me when I was young. I was not a rugby union fan and England were not in great shape at the time, but I never forgot what Max Boyce said, and as my interest in World War Two grew,  I began to read diaries, memoirs, eyewitness accounts, personal reminiscences and listen to audio recordings of men, women and children who were there at the time. I wanted to get close, so accompanied by film footage, pictures and visiting the locations this is still the best way. It is also a good angle from which the new reader/listener can look in. They are straight on the front line with the narrator and are ideally placed to see things as they really were, before making a choice as to whether to delve deeper or not. This is often the hook that generates further interest and with this in mind the shape of The Escape Line developed.


I hope that the extracts  from documents, unpublished memoirs, interviews and the paraphrased short pieces from books that I include spark an interest and encourage readers to seek out more information, or even find the book for a full account.


My own book is nearing completion, which brings the usual commitments and tasks on final edit/ submissions. Consequently for a few weeks some of the posts may be a little shorter, but will still retain the same style. I intend to blog weekly every Thursday or Friday from now on.


Do stay in The Escape Line with the patriots and their charges; they fought for what they believed in and they fought for our freedom.


The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of others.