Friday, 23 November 2012

The Guides - Part Five

Belgian 'Streetcar'

USAAF Robert Grimes
Ernest Van Moorleghem - one of the five guides for John Justice

Alphonse Escrinier - another of the five guides for John Justice

On the Trams

Evader’s accounts of tram travel in occupied North Western Europe primarily centred on Brussels, Antwerp plus its approaches and Holland. ‘Streetcars’ as the American airmen called them were often used in moving evaders from one safe house to another, taking them to another location for questioning or to have their photograph taken for false papers. In some reports evaders used the tram with their guides and then walked back to their safe house for exercise to help build up strength or recover after injury/wounding. If certain protocols were followed, risks could be minimised, (see The Guides Part One), but trams were still dangerous places where the unexpected might happen and things could go wrong.  

First Lieutenant John Justice had to have his wits about him when being taken across Brussels in late 1943. He had been sheltered for his first night in the city, but had to move on the next afternoon:

‘The young lady explained that it was too dangerous for me to stay there. She gave me instructions that I was to follow her down the street. She would stop and talk to someone and I was to follow that person onto a streetcar. Later someone would get on the streetcar and speak to the man I was following. I was then to follow this new contact. During the streetcar ride, my contact changed five times and when the last contact spoke to no one and got off the streetcar I followed him. He went into a building and I followed.’ 

Australian airman Pilot Officer Bob Kellow of 617 Squadron who had taken part in the famous Dams Raid four months before baling out of his aircraft, described events on a long tram journey through the countryside to Antwerp. With ‘Michou’ Dumon (also k/a ‘Lily’) and a mystery man known as ‘The Chief’ as his guides, Kellow had good reason to be apprehensive. He had no identity card and a decision had been made by his two guides to risk travelling. It was a Sunday and just after 6.00am. The operators had decided to take a chance because of the early morning and day of the week, but there were precautions necessary after he had boarded the tram as Kellow described:

‘I took a window seat and Lily took the seat opposite. I didn’t look at her because I was more interested in what the man was doing. He was still standing on the platform earnestly engaged in talking to the conductor. The latter looked at me curiously, then gave an understanding nod to our male companion. I assumed the man trusted the conductor and had told him who his two passengers were. This assumption was correct as Lily later confirmed it….Several times I looked round the car and saw the conductor staring at me, but when our eyes met he turned away. I also noticed that whenever we approached a stopping point, he would lean out of one side of the car and peer ahead, then do the same out of the other side. Lily later told me he was watching to see if there was a ‘Checker’, usually a German or German collaborator who checked tickets. If a ‘Checker’ had any doubt he could ask for identity papers. Lily also told me that had the conductor seen one of these men, he would have signalled us to leave the tram at the next stop, with us exiting on the side opposite to the one the ‘Checker’ was standing on.’

In Kellow’s account, there is an absence of German soldiers and enemy personnel boarding and leaving the tram as they frequently did during normal hours. This was certainly factored into the decision to move him on that day and at that moment. It is doubtful whether the conductor would have adopted the ‘lookout’ strategy in such an obvious manner at any other time.

However well planned travel on trams was, certain events could still put the fugitives in danger. American Flyer Art Horning was travelling on a tram in Brussels when it stopped for an air raid siren and everyone including several German officers got out onto the street which seemed to be the standard procedure. A dogfight was taking place in the skies overhead between German and American aircraft. Two of the German planes were hit and retreated with the Americans in pursuit.

The occupants of the tram began to scream and clap as the Germans retreated. The officers stared and looked menacing, but the Belgians continued to talk about the action. Horning got back on the tram and continued his journey, but events could have taken a more sinister turn as they did with injured American flyer Robert Grimes. He was being sheltered in Brussels recovering from a wound in his leg and with curfew approaching got on a tram with his guide ‘Michou’ Dumon.

A platoon of German soldiers surrounded the tram and ordered everyone off for an identity check. A number of men in plainclothes stood back in the shadows. Checks like this were often carried out at random, but in this instance Grimes felt that the soldiers were looking for something specific. Checks were intended to catch men dodging the forced labour draft, Resistance personnel, evaders and anyone whose papers were not in order.

The passengers were lined up with hands raised and three soldiers worked their way down the line checking papers and searching them. As Grimes stood waiting he palmed a piece of incriminating evidence into the crook of his raised right thumb and index finger and hoped that it would not be seen in the dark. He always carried his ‘lucky’ fragment of bullet that had lodged itself in his leg and had been surgically removed by a doctor in Brussels. Grimes handed over his papers and was searched without incident. 


Unpublished Memoirs – John Justice

Paths to Freedom – Bob Kellow

In the Footsteps of a Flying Boot – Art Horning

The Freedom Line – Peter Eisner

© Keith Morley


  1. A very interesting post again, Keith. I love reading about the brave men and women.

  2. Another interesting post from Keith with further examples of heroism and tense situations. Such a diverse selection of individual stories and circumstances. Another example is told by Jenny Ford on behalf of Mrs. Jozefina Eastham nee Vedts. “Sometimes the Germans would stop and search the trams, taking off several people and marching them away, you never knew whose turn it would be next. At another time the Germans would not let the tram leave Brussels, then I had to go and stay with one of my sisters who at that time lived in the city, but of course there was no way of letting my parents know that I was safe. A very worrying time for them. The other regular occurrence was, on all public transport, especially trains and trams, the Germans, Officers in particular, reserved a "first class area" for themselves, so obviously the rest of the carriage was very crowded, you had to be careful not to attract attention to yourself, particularly as a girl travelling alone. It was easy to find yourself being propositioned and was very difficult and dangerous to refuse their unwanted attentions. One time I was in such a position, but fortunately a young man from my village saw my predicament and came to my aid, making out that he had been to find me a seat in another area.” These experiences were useful although traumatic.

    ‘You know more of a road by having traveled it than by all the conjectures and descriptions in the world.’
    (William Hazlitt.)

    Next post on the escapeline leaves in half an hour ‘all aboard!’