Thursday, 29 November 2012

The Guides - Part Six


Typical Corridor Coach Encountered by Evaders - Auzeau 2007 & Patrick Baldy

The De Greef family - Left Elvire de Greef  'Tante Go'   Right Janine de Greef

Pilot Officer Bob Kellow

On the Trains (1)

Evaders and escapers were heavily reliant on train travel to cover the long distances necessary to reach freedom. In Germany there were no escape lines or guides, so fugitives using the trains had to rely on their own resource and ingenuity to try for freedom. In the Nazi occupied territories of North Western Europe, escape networks did operate and it was to these that evading and escaping service personnel were often passed. The guide was an essential tool in the trafficking process as the fugitives were moved down the lines. 
Various strategies were adopted by escape lines and their guides around train travel to minimise suspicion, reduce risks and transport their charges to the next point as inconspicuously as possible (See Post The Guides – Part Two.) Any arrests or problems affected the security of the whole line and the lives of its operators.  
Pilot Officer Bob Kellow was waiting at Brussels Gare Midi railway station in 1943 with an RAF evader known as ‘Bill Williams’. The men had been passed train tickets discreetly by their guide and were told to follow two men waiting near the ticket barrier at a distance.

‘The men were moving towards the barrier and we quickly moved up behind them but not too closely. We showed our tickets as we passed through, then followed our guides along the platform. They peered through the windows of each coach searching for an empty compartment and eventually stopped by an open door….We quickly followed them. Looking down the long corridor I saw them move into the standing area at the end of the coach. We followed, found a space next to them and leaned against the wall. As I stood with my back to the wall and my hands behind me I could feel the handle of the door. Then I suddenly felt something else. Something had been pushed through the handle. With a glance at our guide who nodded, I carefully removed the object and found it was two magazines rolled together. I passed one to Bill and we became immediately engrossed in these publications. It mattered that neither of us could understand a single word written in them. At least we had something to do to avoid eye contact and unwanted conversations with other passengers.’
The practice of passing over railway tickets by way of a handshake was sometimes utilised by guides. Other methods were also used to transfer tickets, including outside the station and in cafes,  but sometimes a straightforward process could go wrong as RAF Flying Officer Alfie Martin described in 1943 when he left Paris on the night train for Bordeaux:

‘Not long after we had started, the lady with us looked across, took out her rail ticket, and by signs asked me if I had ours. I shook my head, felt in all my pockets and brought out the seat reservations but no tickets. Then there started a great panic. I went out into the corridor, she followed and I explained that the man had not given them to me. For some time I thought that Doug and I were as good as captured, but the lady went up the train and after some time came down again, passed me in the corridor, went in and sat down. After she had passed I searched my pockets and discovered two tickets, so dangling them in my fingers I went back into the compartment and took my seat. At once she sat up and started talking to me, much to my consternation and she showed me two tickets which she had just purchased from the conductor. I thought that she had slipped the tickets into my pocket as she had passed, but they must have been put there by the man who had showed us on to the train….I had been entirely unaware that they were in my pocket. The conversation was of great interest to the other passengers but did not arouse particular attention. After I had made a few monosyllabic replies, they all sat back and continued their reading.’
This chain of events could easily have led to disaster.

Escape Lines and their guides often had to think carefully and consider all eventualities when changing plans as Pilot Officer Robert Horsley of RAF 50 Squadron discovered in June 1942 while travelling south in France with Comete’s Andrée de Jong. Horsley also had to be ready for some adaptations of his own:
‘At about six in the morning …the train pulled into Bayonne station; Les and I were instructed to stay put and Andrée left with Hal and Jean. After about ten minutes the train pulled out of Bayonne station, there was no sign of Andrée. We immediately suspected the worst….However our fears were soon allayed when Andrée entered with two other ladies, the elder was code named ‘Tante Go’ and the other was her daughter Janine. ‘Tante Go’ told me that they were checking papers very carefully at St Jean de Luz and it would be very unwise for me to have to pass through the checkpoint. They had arranged another method for me to leave the station; again they pointed out that I looked too much like a German and the German checker might think I was a German deserter; how I hated my Germanic looks.
The plan was outlined as follows: I should get off the train and I should go straight into the ‘Pissoir’ on the platform, then exit by the back door, walk across the marshalling yards to a gate, where I would see a man with an Alsatian dog. I should follow him and he would lead me to my hiding place.
Now I have never been inside a French ‘Pissoir’  and in my mind it was like any other English Gentleman’s toilet; imagine my horror when I later discovered that the wall was just above waist high and one urinated whilst saying ‘hallo’ to the rest of the  world.’

Horsley got off the train taking advantage of some raucous behaviour by Spanish soldiers on the platform. He did what he needed to do, then wandered casually out of the toilet and back exit in full view of the passing crowds, made for the opening on to the tracks and walked across them without challenge to the man with the Alsatian dog waiting for him. This was a risky move which paid off as Horsley went on to successfully evade capture.


Paths to Freedom – Bob Kellow

Bale Out. Escaping Occupied France with the Resistance – Alfie Martin

Free to Fight Again – Alan Cooper

Next Week - On the Trains (2)

© Keith Morley


  1. After reading your post Keith, I'm left thinking that these guides must have been incredibly at ease in the train stations, and onboard the trains. It must have almost become second nature to them to operate with such ease...

    1. You are right Maria. I think that the guides had certain inherent qualities which made them able to behave like this. The ones I have met had a quiet modest assurance about them. This would be ideal to blend in with the crowds, watch their 'parcels' (as the evaders were often referred to) and react cooly if there were problems. I think some of them had already resigned themselves to being discovered. Nadine Dumon said that after a while they began to speak of not 'if I am arrested' but 'when I am arrested.'

    2. Gulp! How very can't imagine anything like this going on today.

    3. I agree Maria. Its a different world that we live in today.

  2. It must have been very frightening using the train and once you were on the train there would be nowhere to go if things went wrong.

    1. I agree Sally. The tension for the evaders must have been unbearable if German servicemen sat in the compartments, passengers tried to strike up conversations with them or Gestapo/Geheimefeldpolizei control went through the train checking papers and tickets. For most of the evaders any kind of questioning and it was all over.

  3. More examples of bravery and concentration in close proximity to the enemy in this well-crafted post by Keith.
    Although the main line railways back in the UK undertook the massive evacuation project, they were also called upon to carry thousands of troops around the country as well as millions of tons of goods and munitions, tanks, equipment and petrol. For example, in the build up to the North African campaign in 1942 the railways moved 185,000 men, 20,000 vehicles and 220,000 tonnes of stores. British Railways posters reminded the public that ‘your children’s food depends on the Lines behind the Lines’ and that ‘over half a million railwaymen are maintaining a vital national service.’ Train carriages and railways stations were also ideal sites to display propaganda posters and posters passing on important information relating to the war issued by both the railways themselves and the Government Ministries. For example the slogan ‘Is Your Journey Really Necessary?’ was introduced in 1939 but came to real prominence in 1941 when posters with this message appeared all over the railway network; together with all manner of variations along this theme e.g. ‘Travel Only When You Must’, ‘Coal & Food & Guns Come First’, ‘Tracks Are Filled With War’. Back with our evaders they are keeping vigilant with the help of their guides….
    “It is always wise to look ahead, but difficult to look further than you can see.”
    (Winston Churchill.)

  4. Thanks for your reply Helen. The war certainly wore out and bankrupted the railways in the UK. In Belgium and France the trains were often overcrowded with passengers and service personnel. The trains were frequently subject to change and delay due to Allied bombing and sabotage. This regularly comes out in evader's accounts.