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


  1. Wow, fantastic 'stories' they always say the truth is better than fiction. Again, brave men and women.

  2. More snippets of risky train journeys in this sharp snapshot by Keith which was as engaging as ever. I shall now tell the story of the train which never arrived in Germany thanks to the Comete line.
    St. Gilles, the main prison in Brussels, kept more than 1,000 prisoners of war. The German commander of Belgium, SS Gen. Richard Jungclaus, ordered the prisoners be sent to Germany. On Sept. 1, 1944, the Gestapo crammed a line of 20 cattle cars, later dubbed the Nazi Ghost Train, with hundreds of Belgian prisoners of war, captured Allied airmen, and other enemies of the Nazi cause. The train was bound for camps in Germany. In fact, the train never got far beyond the Brussels rail station.
    At first, engine trouble and unorganized rail employees caused the train not to move from the station. When the assistant stationmaster arrived at the station that morning, he discovered what was happening and ordered that the train be stopped. A rail worker conveyed a message to the captured airmen packed into one of the cattle cars that they would not be heading to Germany, but they would be freed. Switches were disconnected. A train engineer, who was working for the resistance, threw himself off the train. The oil pump was ripped out. The water supply was sabotaged. Train tracks were destroyed by explosives. Railway workers did everything in their power to ensure that the train did not make it to Germany. The train did not get far. The train was diverted to another town overnight after the Germans were convinced by railworkers that the engine needed more water. As the train sat still in Muizen for two days, diplomats from neutral countries became involved and pleaded with the SS General to return the train to Brussels. He refused. After the neutral nations threatened that German hospital trains carrying wounded German soldiers would be destroyed, Jungclaus finally gave in and sent the train to Brussels. The train returned to Brussels Grande Ile Station to find out many hours later that Brussels had been liberated by the British. The train's doors were cautiously forced open, releasing civilian prisoners first, following the airmen, who disappeared into the city, free from the Germans.
    “Perseverance is not a long race; it is many short races one after the other.”
    (Walter Elliot.)
    Saddle-up for the next post as we take to our bicycles to continue evasion………

  3. Thanks for your reply Helen. Interesting that you have picked up on 'The Ghost Train.' It is a fascinating sequence of events that escalated because of the Allied push across Belgium. With liberation of Brussels only days away the railway workers and resistance rallied to try and stop the operation. Comete's direct involvement was probably only as far as having prisoners on the train, but they would have had contacts in the right circles. Looking down the prisoner list on the train I see operator Henri Maca's name there.

    Links are below to two very detailed accounts