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



  1. Who would have thought that something as simple as learning to ride a bike cold effectively mean the difference between life and death!

    The dilemma faced by those guides when they came across the man who couldn't balance on his bicycle must have been very frightening.

    Good post Keith

  2. Thanks Maria. The guides often had to think on their feet to tackle a specific travel/ papers problem or deflect attention away from the evaders. They were so measured and calm externally and many had learned to act out the part, as one sign of insecurity or hesitation could be the end of things.

  3. Another informative post by Keith as ever. Here follows an edited account of Walter Scott’s D-Day experience with his bike taken from a piece called ‘bicycles and bandages’.
    “ Beside me was a collapsible bicycle, its panniers full of medical supplies. I hated bikes (that’s another story) and told my superiors so, but they did not believe me. On the evening of June 5th. 1944, we sailed under cover of darkness. Our craft was a small boat with one tank. Our Field Ambulance was split up, with the 150 men spread all over the 223 Infantry Brigade 3rd Division. We were to be held in reserve. We slowly moved ahead. I noticed one or two sunken craft and then my first sight of France and Sword beach. It was about 10.30 am. The front of the boat went down and I walked out with my bike onto dry land I had to get my bike up to my unit’s meeting place on the promenade. The bike proved horribly awkward. Eventually it packed up altogether and fell over, blocking the progress of the tank which was disembarking behind me. The Beachmaster exploded — his language consisted of F…. s and B.… s. But getting out of the tank’s way meant crossing the blue tapes which marked the cleared path through a minefield, and I was not having that! He wanted his tank off; I wanted my life. Then a tank chappie (bless all tank men) jumped down, picked up the bike and threw it — and me — on top of the tank. So we drove up to the promenade. Meanwhile the war carried on: dog-fights above us, shelling around us, and small arms fire at the bike. My colleagues set about trying to repair the bike - which was now immobile with one wheel seized up completely - but each had a different solution. Suddenly there was a “whoosh” and instantly we all dropped to the ground. A couple of seconds or so later, we sheepishly rose — the “shell” had been the sound of somebody letting a tyre down. At the same time the call came to move off — which my comrades had to do, leaving me with a bike with one wheel now separated from it. I didn’t hang about but put the packs of medical supplies on my back, and lifting up the bike on one wheel, joined the convoy — who, as they passed me struggling along, must have thought the wheel had been shot off. Their comments showed they had not lost their sense of humour. But lo and behold, another tank gave me (and my bike) a lift and life was a lot easier — for a while.
    Very glad I’d memorised the maps, I arrived at the spot where our ‘B’ Company was to set up an Advance Dressing Station. The map folk had done a marvellous job, everything accurate. I decided that enough was enough so I dumped the bike and, carrying the medical supplies, proceeded to our HQ. I went to report to the C.O. “Where’s the bike?” the Major asked — and on hearing my reply, snapped: “You’re on a court martial!” “Don’t be daft!” I replied — then froze, having visions of being shot. But he never mentioned it again, and I certainly didn’t.” From the distance of time this was stated about D-Day.
    "Normandy is marked by the landings. It is inscribed in people's hearts, in memories, in stone, in rebuilding, in memorial plaques, in street names, everywhere." (The Rev. Rene-Denis Lemaigre, priest of Lisieux.)