|Photos of Squadron Leader Walter Wallington & Flying Officer Robert Clements taken for false Identity Cards|
|Typical Belgian Haystacks|
In the Countryside
Guiding evaders and escapers on foot or by bicycle across the countryside in occupied Europe often occurred during the early part of their journey before the fugitives were filtered into organised escape lines. Because of the distances involved in getting their charges to the safety of a neutral country, the organised lines relied heavily on public transport, but occasions arose where this became too dangerous or the transport was simply not available.
The Comete Escape Line often crossed the Belgian and French/Spanish borders on foot; with bicycles being used from Dax, Bordeaux or St Jean de Luz and then on foot over the Pyrenees. One route briefly operated with the use of a car crossing from Belgium into France where the border post barrier would ‘miraculously’ lift as the car approached. Evaders from other lines also crossed on foot or by bicycle from Holland into Belgium.
Evaders and escapers rarely encountered an established escape line soon after landing, so they relied on patriots or members of the Resistance to help them. Men and women often made on the spot decisions to become involved and help for the first time when evaders appeared without warning. Guiding the evader to a safe place and then finding someone who could help was high risk. The Germans and their sympathisers would already be on alert and searching (in daylight – immediately, at night – immediately if the parachute had been sighted, otherwise first light).
Best practices were often not used, simply because there was insufficient time or the guide, relying on instinct had not fully considered them. They accompanied their charges on foot or by bicycle in daylight and used ordinary roads. Evaders had to be moved quickly despite the associated risks, even if it involved confinement in ‘safe’ open air locations.
Often, civilian clothes could not be obtained immediately and there was no chance of false identity papers. Leaving an evader in the main search area with or without shelter would inevitably lead to complications and travelling at night after curfew could be dangerous, especially if knowledge of the countryside away from the roads was not strong.
Theory and practice could be poles apart, Guides had to think quickly, be ready to improvise and sometimes just chance their luck.
Flying Officer Robert Clements of 57 Squadron RAF approached a farmhouse at night after landing. Having been directed to a barn, he described what happened next in his evasion report:
‘The following morning I was awakened by an armed man, who pointed a revolver at me, at the same time demanding my maps and compasses. I handed these over to him, which seemed to satisfy him that I was genuine…
At 09.00 hrs he returned with two girls. I was taken into the house and closely questioned. After removing the tops of my boots* and my moustache (all young Belgians have removed their moustaches since the occupation as Hitler wears one) I cycled with the two girls to Exel. On the way we passed three squads of Germans and though I was still wearing my battle-dress, they took no notice of me.’
* British and Comonwealth airmen wore flying boots where the top part could be cut off leaving the remaining part as a shoe.
In his book the Comet Connection, American flier Sergeant George Watt described how within a few hours of landing in Belgium his passage across country was initially much more text book:
‘We covered about two kilometres, cutting across fields and ditches and country roads. Whenever we came to a road, my guide would stop, crouch close to the ground, and look up and down in both directions before he let me cross. Once again I marvelled at the caution and skill of the farmer in using the terrain.’
A few hours later having briefly been sheltered in the kitchen of a house and wearing a hastily assembled set of civilian clothes minus a shirt and hat, things took an unexpected turn as Watt walked down a road alongside his guide.
‘Off in the distance ahead of us I thought I heard the persistent sound of water passing over a millwheel. The sound grew louder as we continued walking. Suddenly it wasn’t water over a mill. It was the clatter of horses’ hoofs… They were coming towards us. It’s a cavalry patrol coming back from the search I thought…….I glanced anxiously at the old man……
‘Lets hide here’.
The old man was disturbingly undisturbed. ‘No’ he said. ‘Just remember. Nicht sprechen. Let me do all the talking.’
I thought he was crazy. Why take a chance. But I could not show him I was afraid. Besides, he was leading me, and I knew I would follow him…….Two truck horses were pulling an old World War One army wagon. It had an arch over the top and in the driver’s seat were three German soldiers…..The old man broke into a spirited conversation with me speaking in Flemish. He could have been talking of this year’s crop or the weather, for all I knew. Not only couldn’t I understand the language, but I was not listening to him. I was concentrating on my feet. ‘Keep walking’ I said to myself. ‘Keep putting one foot in front of the other. Don’t run. Don’t turn away. Don’t panic now….look them straight in the eye’
Goddam that moon! It’s always there when you don’t want it. Why is that end man over there looking at me like that? Could he be…? Cut it out you’re getting panicky. He can’t tell you’re no Belgian. Boy am I glad I didn’t get that haircut. I look less GI this way.
‘Guten Abend’ the old man said to them.
I nodded my head in greeting.
‘Guten Abend’ the ‘superman’* said.
It took Watt all of his nerve not to look around then break into a run. He travelled the next four kilometres with his guide to a safe-house in Hamme.
*Earlier term used by the guide for a German.
Squadron Leader Walter Wallington RAF 487 Squadron was a Mosquito pilot and described in his evasion reports how his early ‘guides’ adopted a rather chilly strategy which did not follow typical patterns:
‘I made for some fields and hid in a ditch which a farmer pointed out to me. After half an hour, I decided to find a better hiding place and made my way back along the main road until I came to a haystack. I crawled right into the middle of the haystack and remained there for thirty six hours, while the Germans were making a very thorough search of the neighbourhood. Several times they passed within a few yards of the haystack.
I was eventually discovered by a small boy who brought his father to see me. He provided me with some food and brought a man who could speak a little English. He told me that ‘friends’ had been enquiring about me and offered to get in touch with them for me. He warned me to remain hidden, as there were several German patrols stationed round about.
On 10 October 1943 at 21.00 hours a man came and took me to a village near Oost Eeecloo where I was again hidden in a haystack. I was provided with food and peasants’ clothing and told to remain where I was until called for. I stayed here until 12 October when I was removed to another haystack. This performance was repeated several times until the beginning of November, when the weather became too severe for me to remain out of doors continually and I was allowed to seek shelter in a farmhouse.’
Whilst cycling at a respectable distance behind his guide during the early part of his evasion in France, RAF Sergeant Kenneth Skidmore described what happened as a result of momentarily losing his concentration:.
‘After cycling many miles we arrived at a junction in Pont L’Evique. It was her that my attention was distracted by the sight of a tall, smartly dressed knee booted German , standing to attention. How impressive he looked. During my admiration of his appearance, I had failed to notice which way the cyclist ahead of me had taken and he was now out of sight. There were three roads to choose – but which one?’
British & Commonwealth Evasion Reports
The Comet Connection – George Watt
Follow the Man with the Pitcher – Kenneth Skidmore
© Keith Morley