Monday, 31 December 2012

The Guides - Part Nine

Le Chemin de la Liberté

Le Chemin de la Liberté

Andrée De Jongh (Dédée)
Baron Jean-François Nothomb (Franco)

My apologies for the late post – have not been able to sit and type at the PC due to RSI.
In the Mountains

For many evaders and escapers in Holland, Belgium and France, the natural barrier of the Pyrenees Mountains had to be crossed before travelling through ‘neutral’ Spain to Gibraltar. Few evading service personnel walked over without guides, and the organised escape lines relied on them totally.

Initially the main evasion route used by the Pat O'Leary Line centred on the Mediterranean coast at Marseilles, and escape by sea, but many other evaders helped by that network were subsequently filtered down through middle France to Agen and Toulouse, then on to the central Pyrenees and the starting point of Le Chemin de la Liberté route at Saint Girons in Ariège.  This difficult high mountain route had been carefully chosen to minimise travel near official checkpoints and reduce the risk of encountering German patrols. No climbers today would tackle parts of the journey without appropriate clothing, shoes and equipment, and most would avoid crossing in the winter. Evaders and escapers travelled over the route with their guides at all times of the year, often through the night and with no suitable clothing or equipment.  
In 1941 and 1942, the Comete Escape Line concentrated on the Atlantic coast area south of  Bayonne, with guides and evaders making a sixteen hour journey at night over the mountains from Urrugne (near Saint Jean de Luz), crossing  the Bidassoa River and then walking to Oiartzun where the evaders were taken on to San Sebastian.. This route became extremely dangerous because of its regular use, so alternative passages had to be found. From July 1943 to January 1944, the evaders left the Café Larre in Sutar (just south of Bayonne) with their guides and journeyed over the mountains into Spain via the established Saint Jean de Luz route or two new eastern passages known as ‘Larressore’ and ‘Souraide.’ These were all gruelling journeys with the latter two sometimes taking up to five days where variations to the route occurred.

Andrée De Jongh (Dédée) and Florentino Goicoechea the famous  Basque guide, led evaders over the Saint Jean de Luz passage until the former was arrested in Urrugne on 15th January 1943.  The route continued with Jean-François Nothomb (‘Franco’) becoming the main guide into Spain for the whole of Comete’s Southern Section. This included Larressore and Souraide once they were opened. As with Florentino on the Saint Jean de Luz passage, these longer routes also included carefully selected Basque guides. 

Herbert Spiller crossed at night via Saint Jean de Luz in 1942 with Dédée and Florentino. The terrain was steep and treacherous with the evaders  struggling to see in the dark and keep up with their guides’ zig-zag routes . Constant vigilance was essential. The party often stopped to hide and wait for enemy patrols and smugglers to pass. 
When they reached the fast flowing freezing waters of the River Bidassoa, which formed the natural border with Spain, Spiller described what happened next:

‘Dédée explained how we would cross. Trousers would be removed and the legs tied in a knot behind our necks. The loose ends of the trousers would serve as a handhold for the person behind, enabling the column to enter the water as a connected whole. Occasionally a small searchlight operated by the frontier guards was shone down river to detect smugglers crossing the water. If and when the command was given we must stop and bend as low as we could against the water but under no circumstances were we to look towards the light.’
Spiller had a further problem as he began to remove his trousers.

‘Dédée gave a gasp of horror as I revealed my white silk long johns and told me in no uncertain terms to take them off with my trousers and to tie both garments around my neck. It would not matter in the water, but emerging on the other side of the river I would be presenting a very white target for any guard on the alert.’
There was no time for modesty and he had to remove the underwear.

Apart from being spotted by the Spanish frontier guards, the river crossing was in itself hazardous. Spiller described how so much depended on the strength of Florentino after he had tied a length of rope around the base of one of the riverside trees:
‘We watched Florentino descend into the swirling water. The giant Basque pushed himself into the fast moving current to the extent of his rope and then turned to face us, holding the rope taut….One by one we entered the water holding on to the rope for dear life. Florentino was well up to his waist…The water was icy cold and already the current was pushing against my legs making moving forward a slow process. By the time the column had reached Florentino, the water was up to my chest and I was fighting to keep my balance. Florentino turned round and Dédée linked up with him as we each took hold of the trouser legs around the neck of the man ahead of us.
We began to move forward slowly, Florentino had let go of the rope and we were at the mercy of the river as the column swayed to and fro in the rushing torrent.’

Spiller and his group eventually made it safely across, but disaster struck American flyer Art Horning’s party when he crossed the river at a similar point. Florentino was absent that night with a high fever, a replacement guide was in charge and the river roared through again. An American evader and top Comete operative were swept away and drowned. (More on that incident in a future post.) 

On the Larressore routes, airmen reported long spells on the gruelling journey without food from their guides or shelterers. USAAF Sergeant Harold Pope reported that his party had nothing to eat for the first forty eight hours and First Lieutenant John Justice said regarding two stages of his journey over the mountains:
‘We came to a very small cabin way up in the hills and went inside. The four of us sat to one side, the man who lived in the cabin, the two guides, and two other Spaniards sat and talked and talked, ate bread and cheese, drank wine and offered us absolutely nothing. We tried to ask for food, but these people were mercenaries and mean and refused to feed us. We asked to go to bed. They took us into an adjoining building where the chickens were sleeping and told us to sleep on the floor.’
Later on in his crossing, Justice reported:
‘We walked mostly at night, staying in barns and eating sugar beets and fodder which we found in the barns.’

RAF Sergeant Kenneth Skidmore tackled le Chemin de la Liberte with another RAF evader, four American flyers and various guides. Parts of the four day trek were virtual mountaineering and sometimes the group fought their way through waist deep snow with no specialist clothing or shoes. Some of Skidmore’s experiences were typical of fugitives travelling on that route. He noted that the evaders carried between them:
‘two haversacks containing two cooked rabbits, two bottles of cognac and four bottles of cheap red wine. Surprisingly no water.’  He recorded what happened as the group continued to climb:

‘Conversation diminished as we went on. Every breath was needed to keep going as we continued to climb. We were short of more than breath. Climbing skill was absent as was safety equipment. Ropes would have been a considerable advantage. The culmination of these combined problems was that we lost our rabbits and bottles of wine during one of our many falls. This catastrophe left us with two bottles of cognac. After all the exertion we desperately needed nourishment. If only we had made sure that the supplies obtained for us by the first two guides, had included water instead of this useless cognac. Our present guides had come prepared with a skin bottle of water each, but this was sufficient only for themselves. My diary entry continued “We walked for twelve hours all through the night, climbing seven thousand feet high.” ’
One of the Americans (Pitner) eventually collapsed and was unable go on. Skidmore watched what happened:

‘Our leader anxious to press on said that we must get beyond a certain point because there were patrols who kept to a routine. We must pass this point at a certain time, he insisted. He appeared to be indicating that there was only one thing to do – leave Pitner behind. Under no circumstances would we tolerate or accept this. If he did not go, then we stayed. Without hesitation, he picked up the motionless Pitner and began to carry him over his shoulder. I was completely staggered at the sight of this feat. A man of such small stature able to lift, and carry through the snow, more than his own body weight.’


Ticket to Freedom – Herbert Spiller

Unpublished Memoirs – John Justice

USAAF Evader Report – Harold Pope

Follow the Man With the Pitcher – Kenneth Skidmore

© Keith Morley


Friday, 14 December 2012

The Guides - Part Eight

French Bicycle

Dutch Courier

Evaders on Bicycles - 'Last Best Hope'

In occupied Western Europe, guides were often reliant on bicycles to move their charges in the early and latter stages of an evasion. Before escapers and evaders were filtered into organised escape lines they often travelled via this method aided by ordinary patriots or the Resistance.   

RAF Navigator Richard Pape hid in a barn in Holland with one of his crew. They waited for the Resistance to move them to a safer location.

Pape described in his own colourful style how their contact arrived and the pair were given detailed instructions around the next part of their journey, which involved travelling by bicycle. It is illustrative of how the Resistance operated in circumstances like this to avoid attracting suspicion and detection.

The contact gave warnings about in the event of their capture, the importance of sticking to a story about travelling through Holland together without any outside help, by stealing clothes and bicycles and not remembering place names. The contact left them, instructing that they ‘should leave in about two minutes.’ Pape and his fellow crewman ‘Jock’ collected bicycles from the arranged point and pedalled without a guide for about ten minutes before a chiming bicycle bell behind them warned that they were being overtaken. A man matching the description they had been given passed by. Barge cap, black jacket, light blue trousers and half his rear mudguard painted yellow. They followed the cyclist at a distance through heavy German military traffic and backstreets to a rendezvous near a bridge where they tailed a key Resistance operator on foot for about an hour before receiving instructions for the next part of their journey. The two RAF men were arrested a few days later by the Gestapo at a safe house in the suburbs of Leyden.

RAF Sgt James Bruce and American flyer S/Sgt Alfred Buinicky were on bicycles following their guides in the Pyrenees ( two other airmen were cycling ahead in the other pairing -  RAF Flight Sgt John Grout and USAAF S/Sgt Lloyd Frazer) and nearing the Spanish border when disaster struck. Bruce described what happened:
‘The arrangements were one guide, followed by Flight Sergeant Grout and an American at 100 yards, another guide and then 100 yards to S/Sgt Buinicky and myself. If anything dangerous was in front, the guide would wave his beret and we had to get off our bikes and scatter. At approx. 17.00hours two Germans passed us going in the same direction as us on a motor bike and side car and seemed to take no notice of us. However at a bend in the road we saw the Germans turning back and the guide waved at us to disperse. S/Sgt Buinicky and myself turned our bikes around and cycled back up the road we came as we couldn’t get into the fields because of 12 foot barbed wire fences along the road. Before we could reach a suitable point to get into the fields the Germans were on us, held us up and asked for our papers. I had passports etc. and showed them (their French was very bad so I managed to talk to them without (I think) them realising I was not French.) They were frontier guards recently moved from the Turkish frontier to the Franco-Spanish frontier. They asked me my name on the passports, where and when I was born etc and as I had memorised them I was able to answer them. S/Sgt Buinicky however was unable to answer their questions as he could not speak French and we were taken to their headquarters for interrogation.’

Airmen following the same route as Bruce and his party on the Comete Escape Line would most likely have cycled around 50 kilometres from Dax railway station on basic bicycles with their guides to reach an overnight stop at the Café Larre just south of Bayonne. They would then leave the next day on bicycles before crossing the mountains on foot.  
For the guides operating this stretch, meticulous organisation and execution of the operation was vital. Expert knowledge of the area was essential in order to take remote back lanes and tracks to avoid roadblocks and checks. The coastal zone required personnel to carry special papers giving them permission to be there.

Additionally, once the party had reached the point of crossing the mountains by foot, the bicycles had to be hidden, collected and transported back to their original point of pick up without suspicion, before the next group of evaders arrived. Also repairs and servicing of the machines was often necessary. (Later post will cover this operation)  The guides had to be aware of this and also how to obtain another bicycle if breakdowns occurred.

Pilot Officer Jimmy Elliott described what happened on his bicycle journey:
‘In the blackout was quite difficult at times to keep in touch with each other, but we seemed to be making reasonable progress. Suddenly there was a loud metallic crack, which was accompanied by a very well-known four letter American oath. Quickly we gathered round to discover that John’s bicycle chain had snapped. For a moment Max hesitated, then dumped the bike over a fence into a garden. With the American on his crossbar, we continued on our way.’

Alfie Martin’s chain also broke and his fellow evader got a puncture. Their guide went back to town to bring another bicycle and also mend the puncture.

One immediate question that evaders were asked was ‘Can you ride a bicycle?’ Some evaders found this a strange request, as at that time every serviceman would have learned to ride a bicycle usually during their childhood or youth. The reality was different:
Jimmy Elliott reported what happened when Flying Officer Norman Fairfax was handed his bicycle:

 ‘ But I can’t ride a bike!’ In unison his fellow travellers replied “Well now’s your bl***dy time to learn”’ …After 10 minutes he went ‘solo’ and despite a few minor prangs, he managed to keep up with the party.’ Fairfax admitted that it had been just desperation really’  

Things did not always work out so easily as Pilot Officer Bob Kellow described:

‘The guide looked worried when told one of the men couldn’t ride a bicycle.
“Won’t you try?” He asked with concern.

The young man made an attempt to balance on the machine, but fell off each time the guide tried to push the machine. It was hopeless; he simply had no sense of balance. I felt sorry for him, but I felt even sorrier for our male and female guides. They had schedules to meet and were responsible for all of us, but couldn’t think how to surmount the problem.’

The male guide decided in the end to wait for the next train for St Jean de Luz which is virtually on the border of Spain and accompany the man who could not ride the bicycle. It was too dangerous for the whole party to go because of checks (hence the use of bicycles in the first place). Taking enen one evader through the ticket barrier at St Jean de Luz was risky. The rest of the group would accompany the female guides on the bicycles as planned.

A more impromptu instance of improvisation occurred when one American evader was riding a bicycle shortly after being shown and suddenly veered across the road crashing into some cycling German soldiers. The guide went straight into action, shouting at the evader in French for being a drunken fool and warning he could be arrested for doing that. The Germans laughed and both parties moved on.


Boldness Be My Friend – Richard Pape

Liberation Reports - National Archives

An Unusual Day – James M Elliott

Paths to Freedom – Bob Kellow

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


Next Week – In the Mountains

© Keith Morley


Thursday, 6 December 2012

The Guides - Part Seven

Amanda Stassart - 'Diane'
Art Horning - False ID Photo

Arlon Station Belgium where John Dix Boarded the Train

On the Trains (2)

Guides had to be vigilant, resourceful and reliable under pressure, but they were only human. In many cases those operating in organised escape lines were not directly involved in formal resistance activities such as sabotage and had chosen this area of work as a nonviolent way of fighting the enemy.

Amanda Stassart (‘Diane’) had to call on all of her ingenuity whilst escorting American flyer Art Horning on the train after it had left Lille for Paris. Horning had a problem, as he had no identity card. His Belgian papers and money had been exchanged at a small farmhouse near the town of Beaumont on the French border. He had received French money, but no new card.

Shortly after leaving Lille, two German guards began working their way down the carriage checking ‘cartes d’identitie.’ Just before the guards reached Horning’s compartment, ‘Diane’ slipped on to his lap, put her arms around his neck and hugged him in an obvious manner. Horning takes up the story:

‘She really put herself in a precarious position. If caught – who knew what the penalty would be? But she knew the German mind because the guard examined the ‘cartes’ of the other passengers and made an unkind remark about the way the French behaved in public. But he did not bother us and her ploy worked. The other passengers wondered I am sure, but we embraced all the way into the Gare Nord in Paris…’

Sometimes the guides could do little about what happened around them, relying solely on a mixture of ad lib and pure luck. Pat O’ Leary was escorting two RAF evaders to Paris by train and found himself drawn into a bizarre sequence of events. As the three men had not eaten during the last twenty four hours, O’Leary decided to take them to the restaurant car for a meal. The only seats available were at a table with two German soldiers, so he led the airmen there and ordered beers. 

One of the airmen was clearly very anxious in the soldiers’ presence and knocked his drink over. It poured across the table into the Germans’ laps and they jumped up cursing and trying to mop up the mess. The frightened and flustered airman began to laugh. O’Leary’s stomach must have done somersaults; he began to try and apologise but the Germans began laughing too – soon he was joining in with the waiter and other diners. Incredibly nothing further happened and everyone settled down. The meal passed off without further incident and the Germans and evaders exchanged smiles. The account does not mention what O’Leary said to the soldiers. It must have been incredibly convincing or maybe the soldiers had just learned they had avoided a posting to the eastern front.

Events did not always work in favour of the evader. A German policeman stopped an evader on a train, indicating that the airman should follow him. A second airman noticed that one of his party was moving away with someone. Instinctively he followed as then did four others. The guide watched this from a traditional safe distance, powerless to anything as it was too dangerous to intervene. All the evaders were arrested. 

It is difficult to comprehend what must have been going through RAF Airman John Dix’s mind in 1943 on a train from Arlon Belgium to Brussels with his guide ‘Nicole’ and two other evaders. Dix had already managed to slip out of Luxembourg and unknown to him, moments before the train was due to leave Arlon the Gestapo had received a telephone tip off from a young boy travelling in the same party with another operator known as ‘Hubert.’

The train gradually slowed and made an unscheduled stop at Namur. No one was allowed to leave. The platform was deserted apart from two lines of armed German soldiers standing at ease about twenty feet apart on both sides of the train. ‘Nicole’ was certain that they had been betrayed and she whispered to Dix that they no longer knew each other and he would be on his own. (Often standard procedure in instances such as this)

Three key incidents occurred that Dix would look back on as contributing to him avoiding capture. The first was a man totally unconnected with the evaders or their guide making a run from the train across the tracks and being shot dead, the second was a quick capture of the other two evaders seated in the same carriage when they were unable to answer any of the Gestapo’s questions after presenting their identity papers.

The third incident resulted from Dix obeying instructions from ‘Nicole’ after she had met ‘Hubert’ in the area between carriages for advice. Dix discreetly disposed of souvenirs he was carrying in his pockets out of the carriage window once the train had cleared Namur. (Both the captured evaders carried incriminating items) Further searches were made on the train soon after it continued its journey.  

There was a limit to what some guides could cope with. Dix described what happened after his fellow evaders had been captured and taken off the train on to the platform.

‘For the third time the Gestapo returned to their carriage and ‘Nicole’ heard them talking. They were saying that they now had two of them and now had to find the third airman and the girl. They came down through the whole train once more…He prayed mostly that the Germans would not search the whole train again…  Nicole was sitting with her eyes closed and her hands were grasping the arms of her seat so tightly that her knuckles were white. Dixie does not remember doing something which ‘Nicole’ told him about some years later. Evidently she was shaking so badly that he had to hold her knees very tightly between his own to try and settle her down. He knows now that he had been trying to control a young girl who was having a nervous breakdown.’

Dix and ‘Nicole’ reached Brussels. He continued with his evasion, but she was unable to return to Luxembourg as it was too dangerous. After a spell of ill health in Brussels she was forced to flee to neutral Switzerland. ‘Hubert’ was eventually arrested and shot. The guides had risked and given everything.     

In the Footsteps of a Flying Boot  - Art Horning

Silent Heroes – Sherri Greene Ottis

Come Walk With Me – An Odyssey of World War Two – Unpublished Memoirs John Dix

Next week – On the Bicycles


© Keith Morley