Thursday, 15 November 2012

The Guides - Part Four

Paris Street in 1943 - Andre Zucca

Photo of  Pilot Officer Jimmy Elliott Taken for False Identity Card

Comete Operator & Guide Anne Brusselmans

In the Streets

Guides navigated the streets with their evaders to move them to safe houses or catch trams, trains and buses. Another reason was to visit a photography shop or house to have the evaders photographed for their false identity cards.

Pilot Officer Jimmy Elliott (accompanied by another evader) described his arrival in Paris Gare du Nord. Following his guide his guide the famous ‘Michou’ Dumon off the train, events became far from routine:

‘I tried to keep an eye on Michou as she mingled with the crowds leaving the platform, but she was so small that she simply disappeared. With no little relief we cleared the platform, and I spotted her strolling nonchalantly in the concourse obviously waiting for us to catch up. Then came a spell of ‘follow the leader’ with the two of us well spaced out ‘in line astern’ behind her. The game was a trifle confusing to begin with but eventually it was evident that she was trying to discover if she was being ‘tailed.’ We walked about, we doubled back, we went into Metro Stations then came out again, we entered Metro stations and then travelled for two or three stops etc. The game ended when eventually she headed for the street and we saw her approaching a tall blonde woman, whom she had obviously arranged to meet’  See earlier Post ‘Madame Black and Madame Blonde’.
‘We walked on and stood apart about 30 yards away, watching what would develop. I could see from the earnestness of the conversation, that something was amiss. This certainly wasn’t a cheerful chat or an exchange of gossip. Still looking mighty serious they shook hands as they parted, with an indication from Michou that we should now follow the new guide.
Blondie set off along the street with me bringing up the rear but watching very carefully what was happening ahead. She certainly was striding out purposefully at a high rate of knots. Perhaps I was concentrating so much on the elegant carriage of our new guide or maybe I was admiring her legs too much, but then suddenly I was aware of a man having fallen in step beside me. In perfect English I heard him say ‘Just keep on walking. I have a few questions I would like to ask you. Just answer them very quietly.’ He then proceeded to ask me a number of questions mainly of RAF service jargon – which only a genuine RAF type would know……….’

After Elliott had given his answers the man explained that there had been a number of arrests during the night which would mean a change of plan. He told Elliott not to worry, all would be alright and then he disappeared into the crowd leaving Elliott to continue following his guide who was still a safe distance away.
This sequence of events took place in Paris during November 1943 and although the Geheime Feldpolizei had parts of the Comete Escape Line under surveillance at that time*, the organisation bravely continued, and well organised guiding was a feature of this slick sector of the operation. *See The Traitors Part Two – Maurice Grapin

Guides on the lines worked in a relay system and were often just one link in a very big chain. Each concentrated on their own job with little or no knowledge of the links that came before and after. It was safer for the evaders/escapers, the guide’s own protection and the overall security of the line if they knew little about its operation.  Consequently they never got to know the evaders and usually operated under pseudonyms if names were given.

According to Pierre Moreau:
‘to the guide, evaders were sometimes just faces passing each other with no other contact than a silent handshake, but you could always read their thanks  and gratitude in their eyes in the last gaze exchanged before they left.’

As a teenage guide Moreau had to keep cool and think on his feet when escorting several airmen in a coastal region town when he realised one of the group was missing. He left the men in a safe place and backtracked to try and find the missing evader. At a distance he observed the evader examining German tanks on the main street.
The reader one can feel anger rising at the crass stupidity of this act. Moreau could not approach the man as it had become too dangerous. He did record later that it was difficult not to overreact when the evader rejoined the party.

RAF Sergeant Kenneth Skidmore often sought his own Guide to get away from danger. In his book ‘Follow the Man with the Pitcher’ he describes a number of instances during his evasion where his deep Christian faith and regular reference to his pocket bible guided him to make decisions which avoided capture.
Tired, unshaven and dirty after landing, and still in his battledress minus insignia, he had turned off a village street into a lane:   

‘I was startled to see ahead of me, a German soldier – fully armed. Regaining my composure, I continued towards him without changing pace or direction. I spontaneously picked up a piece of wood and began to whistle.
The thought flashed into my mind ‘Go follow the man with the pitcher of water.’ This command was part of the instructions our Lord gave to His disciples for the preparation of the Last Supper, which I had read in St. Luke Chapter 22 whilst hiding in the barn. This is ridiculous I thought. Furthermore where was the man to follow. The only one around was the German soldier, who by this time I deduced was guarding some place ahead.
'Go follow the man with the pitcher of water’ persisted as the thought driving all other thoughts from my mind as I drew nearer to the enemy.

 At that moment into the lane came a horse and cart driven by a man. He stepped out of the cart carrying what looked like a milk-can in his right hand….I paused while he overtook me. I followed behind him. My lead was here. What lay ahead was immaterial. I had been told to follow a man with a pitcher of water and was doing exactly that. The man was carrying a can, a modern counterpart for a liquid container. I had made the promise to be guided by His Word and my mind was clear of doubt or questioning.

The man made straight for the entrance being guarded by the soldier and walked past him without challenge.’

Greetings were exchanged between the two and Kenneth Skidmore followed, doing the same with a polite ‘bonjour' to the soldier. Wearing RAF battledress, he had walked straight into a German encampment.
He describes what happened next:

‘Soldiers were grooming horses and generally going about their tasks whilst my ‘pitcher-carrier’ walked ahead….My confidence was tested when into the scene came a German officer. He appeared to be suspicious about my presence, for he ignored the pitcher carrier and proceeded towards me.
…I looked hard at this smartly dressed field-officer, telepathing through my eyes my every right to be here in this place.….The officer stood still as if transfixed and seemed disarmed by my audacity. Not a word was spoken. I continued to follow my ‘pitcher-carrier.’ This ‘follow my leader’ procedure ended when having passed through the camp and out at the other side my ‘pitcher-carrier’ entered a nearby house. I was no longer impelled to follow, so turning left in the other direction and away from the camp I began to run.’

A few hours later, still alone, Skidmore was walking down the busy street of another village:
‘I failed to notice standing side by side two German soldiers, one of whom appeared to be an officer. They were both smart, alert and were peering around in an inquisitive manner. They began to walk in my direction. I stopped without a thought in my head.
As if from nowhere, a man appeared from one of the houses carrying a bucket. Here thought I, was my second water-carrier….A few more paces along the road and my bucket-carrier entered a house.  Without hesitation before he could close the door, I was inside, though not before glancing back at the two Germans who appeared to have lost interest in my movements.’

Although the occupants were initially completely bewildered at seeing Skidmore standing there, after he had identified himself, the middle aged couple agreed to help.

The nature of these last two events, show that truth is sometimes stranger than fiction.  


An Unusual Day – James M Elliott

Silent Heroes – Sherri Greene Ottis

Follow the Man with the Pitcher – Kenneth Skidmore

Next Week – The Trams

© Keith Morley


  1. People had nerves of steel. Such wonderful stories and it just goes to show that fact is stranger than fiction. I love reading your excerpts.

    1. Thanks Sally. I continue to be amazed at what happened in that 'war within a war' and how often ordinary people did extraordinary things. However, having met many of the helpers, I have also seen certain special inherent qualities that enabled them to carry out this work.

  2. This latest expert post by Keith showed the extreme stress the evaders and guides were under during WW2. Never dropping concentration for an instant whilst traversing the streets.(Apart from the idiot who stopped to admire the German tanks !) Found the part about following the person with the pitcher interesting. People would often in perilous circumstances turn to their faith and advice from the Bible. The holy book would sometimes even itself directly save a soldier or airman’s life. William R. Wilson, a nineteen-year-old youth had a narrow escape from death whilst on duty in the American Army in France. A German sharpshooter fired at him so accurately that he would have been killed had it not been that a Bible in his left breast-pocket arrested the bullet sufficiently to cause only a slight wound. In another case a soldier from Roxbury, Massachussetts, on leaving home for the army, received a pocket-Bible from his sister. In a battle that followed, a bullet entered the Bible, which was in his side-pocket, and saved his life. He felt the shock, and was bruised, but not otherwise injured. Going back further, when Oliver Cromwell entered upon the command of the Parliament's army against Charles I, he ordered all the soldiers to carry a Bible in their pockets.
    “Faith and doubt both are needed - not as antagonists, but working side by side to take us around the unknown curve.” (Lillian Smith.)
    Look forward to the next ‘unknown curve’ as we continue along the escapeline……

  3. Thanks Helen. Fitting quote from Lillian Smith.
    Kenneth Skidmore's faith along with his knowledge and reading of his pocket-Bible helped him make choices which steered him through the ordeal. There is much in religious works to draw on to help a lone evader - but in this instance the first choice made appeared to have placed him in even greater peril and the second one in entering the house of a total stranger could have compromised the whole family as well as himself.