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







  1. Interesting stuff Keith...a strange sort of teamwork that had to be followed to the letter.

    Looking forward to part 2

  2. Thanks Maria. It must have been very strange to have to follow someone that you didn't know, sometimes without having a clue where you were going. Following guides has some interesting twists and turns which I will cover in later posts.

  3. Trusting strangers on both sides must be a leap of faith and to think all this was done without the help of today's modern communication methods. I look forward, as always, to reading your next post.

  4. Thanks Sally. I agree. The evaders had little choice but to do as they were told, rely on their instincts and hope that it all came right. The guides and helpers were risking everything for them, although as per the earlier posts on the traitors, all was sometimes not as it seemed.

  5. Enjoyed this latest post again Keith and the shorter, faster pace.Will follow with interest. We are now amongst the leaders and the led. It was indeed a highly charged atmosphere on both sides as the stakes were high if things went wrong and arrests made. They had to keep close but not too close and sometimes as was stated here they had to abandon their charges in an emergency situation. The escape line had civilian couriers, safe house keepers and mountain guides to escort the escapees across the frontier. In addition, radio operators were sent out from Britain to keep the escape line in contact with London. However, not all those who worked for the escape lines were volunteers. In many cases, the mountain guides were paid – sometimes 10 000 to 20 000 francs per man or woman – for a guarantee of safe passage. The following is the ideal scenario.
    “A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.”
    Lao Tzu

  6. An interesting summary Helen and a fitting quotation. Most of the operators were patriots and some of the mountain guides had political motivations, but as you say some of them were clearly in it for the money.