Thursday, 25 October 2012

The Guides - Part One

Dedee de Jong
'Pat O' Leary'

'Nadine' and 'Michou' Dumon

This is the first in a series of posts on the subject of guides or ‘convoyeurs’ as they were known in Belgium and France. In Post 3 and 4 the reality of travel in this way will be illustrated by actual events from reports and diaries. Theory and practice were sometimes poles apart.  

Evaders travelling in organised escape lines relied totally on guides to get from one destination to another. Many evaders followed their couriers through the streets, rode on trams, trains and bicycles, walked across fields and hiked over mountains. Some were taken in cars or trucks. Many guides did not know each other for obvious reasons and very little contact took place between the guide and their charges whilst on the move or in public, unless deemed essential.

Each escape line had its own methodology and strategy as the guides were often in great danger, but there were generic rules to follow in order to minimise risks. ‘A Guide’s Guide’ was obviously never produced but had it been written, the text might have contained pointers along the lines below:

In the Countryside

If travelling on foot across the land, make sure you know your route exactly. (Guides will have been well briefed and many selected because of their local knowledge) This will often involve using predetermined remote paths and tracks. Keep away from roads and stay close to hedges, making good use of trees and cover. The edges of woods are best for your range of vision and keeping noise to a minimum. Avoid walking in the centre of fields and on the skyline. The majority of foot travel in the countryside will be at night.

Make sure you stay close enough to your charges for them to be able to see you in the dark. If there are two guides, good practice is for one to travel at the back of the party or reconnoitre ahead to check for potential danger.

 (Although links in the Comete escape chain operated with no knowledge of the preceding or succeeding parts, best practices will have been steered by Head of Section or experienced operators. Often the ratio of one guide to two evaders was used.)

In the Streets

Be certain as to exactly what you have to do and when. Walk no closer than fifty metres from your charges. (Evaders will usually have been briefed regarding what to do and the gap to their guide was often longer) Give no indication that you are travelling together. Check that your charge(s) is still following, but this  must be done discreetly e.g. look in a shop window; tie up a shoelace, light a cigarette if you have one, take any action that will camouflage a glance behind.

Be vigilant and always ready for the unexpected. Ensure that you are not being followed, vary your route and watch out for Razzias (street shut offs and searches.) If there is danger of capture and no other alternatives exist, as a last resort you may have to leave your charge to their own devices. (Some evaders were told this when being briefed)

If the handover to another guide contains a signal or action, be sure that your charge can see it.  (Evaders would usually be ready for this)

Remember that the men in your care will rely totally upon you. Until you deliver them they are your responsibility.


Next week: On trams, trains, bicycles and across the mountains – ‘A Guide’s Guide.’

© Keith Morley






Friday, 12 October 2012

Maurice Bricout - 'The Border Policeman' Part Three

False Papers for Albert Mattens as 'Jean Jacques'

The French village of Bachy

Yvon Michiels

After the liberation of Belgium, Holland and France, the Allies began to look at making awards to patriots who had helped evaders, in the form of citations, medals and reimbursement of expenses. 

On 13 March 1945 the French Forces of the Interior (Resistance Section W. O. O.F.A.C.M) issued a certification letter that Maurice Bricout had worked for their organisation from October 1943 and had ceased active service since 30 November 1944.  Preceding working for them they said he had been involved with another resistance group and French partisans.  It commended him for his work. In a further report from the O.F.A.C.M, Bricout states that in 1940 he helped several Allied soldiers hide before rejoining their unit and also a Polish officer. He adds that in April 1943 he liaised with resistance groups and worked with Eugene Dallendre to create an escape passage for pilots who had been shot down in occupied territory and used his home as a place of shelter for them on their way back to England. He also helped in the creation of two other escape routes and the evasion of more than 300 airmen with proof of this. There are also some references to actual sabotage operations he alleged he took part in.

The ‘Military Intelligence Service, United States Forces European Theatre’ were responsible for making the awards and reimbursement of expenses. In the case of escape lines, this would involve collecting written evidence in the form of testimonies and statements from escape and resistance operators and direct references to the person in evaders’ debriefing reports.

This was not a straightforward process.  Few operators kept written evidence for obvious reasons, but those that did were able to provide vital information. In the Comete Escape Line some evaders wrote ‘thank you’ notes before they left to cross into Spain. In the case of one Belgian resistance operator, evaders wrote letters of appreciation complete with their name and address in his a pocket book which he then carried around with him!  

In the escape lines, helpers often did not disclose their real names, giving an alias, codename or nothing at all. For the evader it was often easier to forget or not ask. If they were captured and interrogated, the less they knew the better.

Maurice Bricout wrote a number of long letters to the authorities around his work with evaders and the resistance. He also referred to the unsuccessful claim for some material assistance to reset up his home after it was sacked by the Gestapo. The numbers of evaders allegedly helped vary on the documents he completed.  He mentions 80 American pilots being helped in the line, then 65 aviators being sheltered; the statement to O.F.A.C.M says 300 with proof. On his initial questionnaire for helpers, only two evaders names are noted: Charles Elwell and Charles Carlson.

The file tells the story of how difficult the process for award and reimbursement could be.  On 4 September 1945 Major John White Awards Section summarises on a document.

‘Elwell and Carson say that M. Bricout helped them. They are not specific about what he did for them. 

According to the report of Yvon Michiels this gentleman with his brother Albert helped Comete in the frontier passage at Rumes. M. Soetemondt’  (fellow operator Lille section –also customs) ‘ states in his detailed report on the Comete crossings that he started working with Albert Bricout and later did considerable work with Maurice Bricout . He says that Maurice Bricout has done the greater part of work. M. Bricout is mentioned by Odile de Vasselot.’  (guide – Rumes to Paris)  Emilien Vifquin mentions him in connection with Elwell and Carlson.

There seems to be no indication of whether M Bricout was or was not paid for his activities. Apparently his losses are due entirely to pillage for which we have no responsibility.’

On 9 November 1945 Bricout visited the authorities in person about a Lt Sarant’s refusal to reimburse him for expenses he and his wife incurred in their work with the aviators.  He reported that he had been promised the money and burst into a tirade against the ingratitude of the Allies, swearing that he did not care about the money, but was upset that he had had no recognition for the great services rendered to the Allied cause. He stated that he was the most active member of the Comete line besides working for two other networks. He advised that the authorities had paid several other people he knew who were not deportees and who had not done as much work as he had. He himself had barely escaped arrest and his wife had taken his place. Bricout said he would put an article in the papers about the ingratitude of the Allies to the French sacrifice.

The Allies must have investigated the matter further as in July 1946 documents show that an attestation had been received ‘in glowing terms’ from main operator Albert Mattens (‘Jean-Jacques’) ( Bricout Post 1)  and that they have ‘complete confirmation of all work that the above has done.’

Bricout’s ‘Work Sheet’ for his ‘Expenses and Deportation Case’ shows in addition to claims already made references to three other evaders’ reports; they mention a French policeman, or staying at the home of a policeman for one night. The sheet also mentions Bricout’s  work on the creation of a second evasion Line. No British and Commonwealth evasion reports are noted or appear to have been considered, despite a number of clear references being  made in them to a French or border policeman. There is also a summary of how  he helped to create a new passage line through which it was alleged more than 300 aviators were convoyed.

Along with his wife, Bricout was eventually awarded The US Medal of Freedom with Bronze Palm. On the final document, the note includes a reference to Mme Elvire de Greef ‘Tante Go’ (one of the main Comete operators).

‘In view of the above we propose that a payment of 10,000 francs be made to Mme Bricout for imprisonment and expenses. Final settlement. On Mme de Greef’s advice this payment should be made definitely to Mme Bricout for her imprisonment, as M. Bricout , as a member of the Comet Line has made a statement that he does not wish to be paid for expenses.’   

The Allies were treading a difficult path with awards and expenses. Working with claims, allegations, corroboration, difficulties around facts and the political sensitivity of the time; reaching appropriate decisions was a potential minefield. Maurice Bricout’s claims around the number of evaders that he helped and the strength of his involvement in other lines alongside the Bachy to Rumes route contain a number of inconsistencies. This may have been what was behind Lt Sarant’s initial refusal to pay expenses. Weighty testimonies around Bricout’s activities from some key players helped shift the balance back towards him. But there is a suggestion of ill feeling amongst some Comete operators who saw these claims as showing off and forgetting fellow friends, who had worked for the same cause, took the same risks and then withdrew into the background preferring not to publicise their roles. 

In the author’s view, Maurice Bricout operated successfully from July to December 1943 on the Rumes to Bachy escape passage, taking similar risks as others in escorting evaders over the fields and sheltering them at his home overnight. After the arrest of ‘Jean Jacques’ in January 1944 he continued to help several other airmen. Bricout is also likely to have had an input on other lines along that stretch of the border whilst working with ‘Jean Jacques’ and Henri Soutemondt in the planning stages, his knowledge of the border being useful. The level of involvement in those lines after that would be best described as minimal.  The number of evaders he actually helped is thought to be considerably less than the 300 alleged and more in line with the 65 noted on the later document. The former figure is far too high even if it was directly attributable to the lines.

Some sympathy lies with Bricout as he had almost lost his home, narrowly avoided the Gestapo and seen his wife imprisoned and return from there in very poor health. This must have been difficult when he knew of others that had received recognition and compensation, and when across the liberated countries, people were suddenly emerging to allege helping the cause, when they had done little or nothing. 

Unfortunately he went about lodging his claim in the wrong way, but at conclusion the final award to Bricout and his wife may have reflected at an appropriate level the valuable work that they both did.  

No post next week as it is the Annual Comete Reunion in Brussels. I will be back in a fortnight.

Sources – NARA file for Maurice Bricout

© Keith Morley

Friday, 5 October 2012

Maurice Bricout - 'The Border Policeman' Part Two

The Customs Control Point in 2011 - Keith Morley

Maurice Bricout's House in 2011 - Keith Morley

Evader USAAF Charles Carlson pictured in the winter of 1943 with frontier guide Henriette Hanotte 'Monique' (left) and Raymonde HO√čL (right). The latter operated in Comete with her sister Nellie. The evaders changed identity papers and money from Belgian to French at their home on the edge of Rumes before the border crossing. - 'Monique' Hanotte

Maurice Bricout was also described by Anne Jacobson Robertson in her book ‘The Road Home’ as wearing the uniform of the French artillery, yet in November 1943 F/O Robert Clements RAF 57 Squadron said in his evasion report:

‘We got off (the train) and walked across the border being guided by a Belgian Policeman who was very proud of the fact that he wore RAF battle dress.’

One of the guides in that sector, Odile de Vasselot recounted that:

 ‘Maurice Bricout arrived superb to see in his Customs Officer uniform.’ 

Despite conflicting information, Lieutenant Bricout is likely to have worn the uniform of a Customs Officer, or on rare occasions donned civilian clothes.  (see also last week’s post)

Working for the Germans as a Customs Officer, Bricout would have been able to use his inside knowledge of border activities to help the Comete Escape Line decide when and how to traffic the evaders out of the town of Rumes, over fields, past one of the Customs control points and on to his farmhouse in Bachy.

Evader reports indicate that Bricout did not always lead them over the border himself. On occasions the airmen followed their guides (usually one guide to two evaders), arriving at Bricout’s home via the back garden and farmhouse rear door. They would all stay in the kitchen and upon arrival, his wife Rachel would take over, ensuring that the evaders and their guides were given food and drink. Maurice and their son Rene would help in the traditional style of French hosts and the airmen reported their experiences favourably.  

P/O George Ward said

 ‘A few of us were there; I seem to remember there was quite a party.’

George Watt described in his book The Comet Connection how he was one of four escapees with a woman and a man as their guides. They came to a large farmhouse; the guides went in first before beckoning the evaders inside a large kitchen. Half a dozen people were already there; a woman, three or four men and a twelve year old boy. Food and wine appeared and there were toasts to the evaders, their guides, the Resistance and the death of Hitler. They laughed and ate, the wine flowed freely and everyone got pleasantly high.

Evaders and their guides would stay in the farmhouse kitchen for most of the night. There were no sleeping arrangements, as the house was not equipped to support these numbers. Enough time existed after the meal for a catnap before the guides left with their charges around 4.00am, each airman being given a baguette in greaseproof paper. The party moved across fields to Cysoing railway station where they boarded the early workmen’s train to Lille and subsequently caught the afternoon train to Paris.

The Comete Escape Line operated this route from August 1943 until the end of December. In early January 1944 the line collapsed again as the Abewehr and Gestapo moved in. Many key operators and helpers were arrested. Comete was decimated and would never fully recover, although it did bravely regroup. 

Maurice Bricout alleged that he continued to shelter and pass on various evaders to nearby houses as late as 27 July 1944, providing meat and butter for them costing 2,000 francs a month. On 10 July his house had been searched by the Gestapo and he disappeared afterwards to join the Maquis. On 27 July Bricout returned to the house to pick up some linen. The Gestapo were waiting. He managed to jump out of a back window and escape to the woods but his wife Rachel was arrested. The Gestapo completely ransacked and robbed the house, leaving nothing. Despite being tortured, Rachel never revealed information about her activities, the Organisation or Bricout’s whereabouts, and he never gave himself up. She was liberated in very poor health on 3 September 1944 by the Allies from the prison infirmary after the Germans had abandoned it in retreat.

 In claims to the Allies for compensation and reimbursement of expenses in connection with his work, Bricout alleged he had worked with ‘Jean Jacques’ in setting up a number of the six lines in that sector, had assisted soldiers to evade capture in 1940, guided or provided shelter/ food for over 300 evaders during 1943 and part of 1944 and had been left with nothing.

On 26 December 1946 Maurice Bricout was rightly awarded the US Medal of Freedom with Bronze Palm ‘for exceptionally meritorious achievement which aided the United States in the prosecution of the war against the enemy in Continental Europe from April 1943 to September 1944.’ A fitting reward in the author’s view, but that was only one side of the story.

Next week the final part. Why were there doubts expressed by the Allies around some of Bricout’s claims? Why in the US files did Lieutenant Sarant of the US Forces European Theatre of Operations give instructions that no compensatory payments were to be made to Bricout?   

© Keith Morley