Friday, 19 April 2013

The Shelburn Line

'Bonaparte' Beach

MGB 503 in Dartmouth harbour - Dartmouth Museum

Raymond Labrosse - False ID

MGB 502 - Various

Sketch of Paul Campinchi - Paris Sector

Collecting evaders, SAS teams, French agents, and other civilians from a mined beach on the Brittany coast was a daunting prospect, especially with the highest tidal rise in Europe. The sea could deviate by as much as forty feet in a short time, and the coastline was guarded by the enemy and German E- Boats.
A section of Brittany beach codenamed ‘Bonaparte’ was targeted for personnel to be evacuated from Nazi occupied France by boat and the Shelburn Escape Line completed its first successful operation on the night of 28/29 January 1944. The Royal Navy’s 15th Motor Gun Boat Flotilla (MGBs 502 & 503) were used for the tasks,  and missions would always be carried out during a period of the month when no moon was guaranteed.  The special naval unit established in 1942 and based at the port of Dartmouth, had become familiar with clandestine work, so was a logical choice. The powerful Gun Boats had quiet motors, carried modifications to cut down noise in other areas, and with a top speed of 35 knots took at least 25 personnel including the crew. A Channel crossing could be made in less than 4 hours.
These were dangerous operations, with both seaborne and land based actions requiring accurate intelligence, secrecy, meticulous planning and preparation. For the Navy, bad weather could also be a deciding factor with hidden rocks and powerful currents. The difficult coastline tested their skills, as the high rising tide and danger of being spotted by the enemy added to the risks.
The formation of the Shelburn Line had grown out of a failed attempt in early 1943 to organise an escape network in France which culminated in seaborne evacuations (‘Oaktree.’) The Pat O’Leary Line had managed this method successfully but was overworked, and MI9’s Airey Neave and Jimmy Langley felt a similiar operation could be achieved on a bigger scale via ‘Oaktree.’
The other Escape Lines continued to carry out valuable work in getting evaders/escapers over the Pyrenees and through Spain to Gibraltar, but they were feeling both the strain of numbers and effects of enemy infiltration. Additionally, the length of time and distance involved before the airmen reached Britain, when set against comparative time/costs in training of pilots and crew was seen as an opportunity for ‘Oaktree’ to take some weight off the existing lines and increase the count of airmen returning to Britain and operational duty quickly.        

Vladimir Bouryschkine had been a member of the Pat O’ Leary line until his position had been ‘burned’ in 1942, forcing him to be picked up by boat and taken to Britain. He volunteered to return as head of the new ‘Oaktree’ line with French Canadian Raymond Labrosse who would be his wireless man. After a series of delays in trying to land the men in France by Lysander aircraft, they finally parachuted in 'blind' on 20 March 1943. The mission was beset with difficulties from the start. Both radios and one of their fold up bicycles were damaged in landing and neither man was initially able to contact London.
The plan to hook up with the Pat O’Leary line and use it as a base of operations from which to establish the ‘Oaktree’ network did not fully materialise. The line had already been infiltrated by traitor Roger Le Neveau and the men were hampered by a continuing lack of proper radio contact. They pressed on and Bouryschkine went to Paris, where safe houses and feeding the airmen would be arranged, before subsequently taking the evaders on to Brittany. He linked up with Paris man Paul Campinchi (‘Francois’) who agreed to take control of operations in the city.  Bouryschkine then returned to Brittany to organise the network there. With a failed attempt to arrange a coastal pick up, the evaders already waiting in the line were transferred to a group taking fugitives over the Pyrenees. It was this change which indirectly caused Bouryschkine’s arrest on a train at Dax with four evaders and a local organiser. Had he not become involved in that route, he would not have been operating in the area.  The group had lost its leader and when Labrosse learned of the arrest he was forced to escape over the Pyrenees to Spain with some evaders via the Burgundy escape network.
Once back in Britain, Labrosse convinced MI9 that with a properly organised network, and some changes to the setup, evacuations could still be successfully made via Brittany. He was confident that although a large part of the Pat O’Leary Line had been wrecked by Le Neveau’s treachery, the Paris section under Campinchi and some areas which Bouryschkine and Labrosse had worked on, had a good framework to develop, and they had retained enough security to function reliably.
MI9 responded by appointing French Canadian Sgt Major Lucien Dumais as head of the new operation.  Dumais had been captured at the Dieppe raid, escaped from a POW train and used the Pat O’Leary Line to return to England. His forceful drive, attention to detail, organisation and efficiency made him perfect for the role. He was flown in to France by Lysander with Labrosse to set up Shelburn on the night of 16/17 November 1943.
The men worked fast. By December 1943, Shelburn was ready to go. Safe houses were organised in Paris and Brittany, couriers with good local knowledge awaited orders and a beach codenamed 'Bonaparte' was selected at Anse Cochat. MI9 were informed that the line was operational.  
The evaders were spread across Paris and waited in their safe houses until a date for a rendezvous was near. The men were then guided down to the coastal area of Plouha and Guingamp. This was dangerous as special documents were required to travel in the region and the strategy used around the numbers of evaders being moved at any one time was unlike other escape lines. Once off the Paris train the men travelling together sometimes reached well into double figures. They were known to journey in a lorry posing as foreign workers involved in the maintenance or construction of coastal defences in the area.
The evaders waited in their safe houses until confirmation of the rendezvous was received via the ‘Ici Londres’ BBC ‘messages service to ‘our friends in France’. Once the message ‘Bonjour tout le monde a la Maison d’Alphonse’ was heard, the evaders were given food for their journey and then guided to the cliffs where they would hide whilst the guide checked the route and then the beach for mines. If mines were located the guide would mark them with a white handkerchief or cloth. Once the surf boat(s) from the MGB was sighted, the guide would signal the evaders to descend along the cliff path, avoiding the marked mines. On his way back to the cliffs, the guide would collect the handkerchiefs after he had made sure the men were safely aboard.
Although Shelburn did not operate for as long as some of the established escape lines, it was successful. From 29/30 January 1944 to 23/24 July 1944, over 119 evaders (mostly American) plus other escaping personnel were evacuated and taken to England.


Silent Heroes - Sherri Greene Otis
MI9 & MIS X Files
ELMS - visit recommended - visit recommended, especially footage of MGBs involved in Shelburn



Friday, 12 April 2013

Women and the Evaders Part Two

Herbert Spiller
Restaurant in Paris

John Dix

Jimmy Elliott may have ‘missed the boat’ or had a narrow escape, depending on which way events at the studio flat in Paris were interpreted (see last week’s post), but there was no doubting what was on offer to one American evader in France during 1944 when his guide took him to a safe address where he was left with a woman named Louise for the day. She followed him around the room making attempts to ensure his stay would be more than comfortable. Despite the language barrier the airman managed to engineer a course of action where refreshments and broken conversation became the only things on offer. As he reported afterwards - his evasion situation was difficult enough without any further complications.
In 1942 Warrant Officer Herbert Spiller was taken to a Paris flat by operator Marguerite who had collected him from a church. Spiller had gone to the church with the intention of seeking help and fallen asleep exhausted in one of the pews. Priest Abbe Dufour had taken him into hiding. The flat belonged to Marguerite’s parents and Spiller described the journey from the church to the flat:
‘ I felt Marguerite’s arm slip behind mine as she endeavoured to make it look as if we were more than passing strollers, and I mentally gave her full marks for her astuteness. She was by no means timorous, and as we looked at each other and smiled, I could see that her face had lost its sadness and had gained a certain air of defiance as if she was enjoying the moment of deception in front of the Germans.’
It is easy to understand how an evader and their helper living together in hiding could find themselves drawn to each other. Spiller sounds a note of caution around this:
‘I remember thinking that she was extremely brave taking me into her flat without a great deal of  assurance that I wouldn’t do her any harm or try to force myself upon her. I reflected though on the fact that if I had tried to do so my life would have been a little more at risk than it was at that moment. The thought of being pursued by her friends who had questioned me was chilling to say the least and I made a mental pledge to be a good boy at all times.’
This pledge could have been severely tested one night in the flat during an Allied air raid on Paris:
‘The evenings were better, with a good fire going and some happy hours teaching each other our mother tongues. It was cosy and innocent and I came to look forward to her return.’ (at night) In other circumstances it could, I suppose have led to an indiscretion, but the overshadowing presence of propriety and the possible repercussions…prevented me from losing my head. Although it very nearly happened one night hen I was shaken from sleep by the sound of gunfire in the distance, and the reverberation of bombs.

I slipped into the salon and drew the curtains to see several searchlight cones, heavy flak and the distant ground flashes of bombs. The din was deafening and as I watched dumbfounded I felt a touch on my shoulder. It was Marguerite in her dressing gown looking like a startled rabbit and shaking visibly. I naturally pulled her towards me and we clung together during the whole of the raid, until the noise had died down and her trembling had ceased.

I kissed her forehead and said ‘Are you alright? The RAF have no manners.

She gave me a wan smile. Yes I hope they did well’

It was an affectionate moment when things could have got out of hand, but it passed and Marguerite said ‘How about coffee?’ It was so incongruous, we burst out laughing as we let go of each other.’
Sometimes relationships developed further. Flying Officer Gordon Carter was a Canadian operating as a navigator in 35 Squadron. At 18.20 hours on 13 February 1943 his Halifax aircraft took off from Graveley, Huntingdonshie to mark and bomb the U-Boat base at Lorient. Carter’s life was to change dramatically when his aircraft was hit and he baled out.
During his evasion, he took the night train to Paris from Brittany in the custody of Georges Jouanjean who was a member of the Brittany resistance group.  Their contact had already been arrested by the Gestapo, but fortunately the flat was no longer under surveillance as the arrest had been made a few days previous. They returned to Brittany, and Carter stayed with Georges’ aunt in Carhaix. After a short time he was passed on to Georges’ elder sister Lucette who lived in Soursin. In order to make the bicycle ride between the two places less conspicuous, Georges asked his younger sister Jannine to accompany them. Carter takes up the story:
‘This she did and was impressed by the fact – as she still is today (I married her in 1945) that I cycled at her speed and repaired her chain while her brother was racing on ahead. Jannine and I spent a happy fortnight or so in Soursin.’     
Carter moved on to successfully evade, returning to France in 1945 after the war.
Secret Service operator Donald Darling worked from Gibraltar for substantial spells during the war. He was responsible for setting up and maintaining a network of agents and escape routes through France and Spain. Numerous evaders who reached Gibraltar were questioned by him. An interesting similarity showed up with some of the men as he described:
‘Evaders passing along another Line described being visited by a ‘cabaret artiste’ who called at their hide-out houses and flats, to ‘entertain them.’ Over the months I saw at least eight identical souvenir photographs of this lady wearing a pearl necklace and high heeled shoes, who otherwise had posed in the nude. We called her ‘The Fair Charmer’ and she was decorated after the War by the British Government for ‘Services to the RAF.’
One evasion which could translate to the silver screen is that of RAF Sergeant John Dix who was reported missing from an operational sortie against Nuremburg on the night of 27/28th August 1943. He began his evasion from occupied Luxembourg eventually making it through to Gibraltar via Belgium, France and Spain via the Comete Escape Line.
In the early stage of his evasion his guide had a marked effect on Dix:  
‘About eight thirty, footsteps on the stairs, a tap on the door and in walked a dream followed by his host. The girl was beautiful, in her twenties, dark hair and wearing a flowered print dress. Dixie’s heart skipped a beat when she introduced herself as ‘Nicole’, took his hands and kissed him on both cheeks. He felt weak at the knees and did not know what to do next, he just held on to her hands and stared. His host was laughing at his obvious surprise, tears came into his eyes, tears of relief, as most of the tension of the past day or so seemed to drain away. She spoke almost perfect English. Dixie did not remember much about the next half hour; they were both laughing and talking as fast as they could go.’
‘Nicole’ was to guide Dix through some of the most dangerous journeys and near misses. Putting her own fear and safety aside, she risked everything to do her job before finally  leaving him in Brussels. For Dix he would continue his evasion south. As the pair were both being hunted by the Gestapo, Nicole was unable to return home to Luxembourg and had to remain in Brussels. The danger eventually became too great and after a spell of illness she was forced to flee to neutral Switzerland.  
A rare lighter moment between the couple occurred earlier in Dix’s evasion, on his birthday. Ever the gentleman, he behaved appropriately:
‘When Nicole returned she explained that it was too late for her to return to ….it was past curfew hours and she did not have a permit to be out after dark in this area. She would have to leave early in the morning to return to work and in the meantime would be staying the night with him. Dixie was stumped for words! He looked at the bed, just about big enough for one so being a gentleman he stuttered and stammered that she could have the bed and that he would sleep on one of the chairs.

She laughed, blew out the candle told him to get undressed and into bed and that she would sleep on top of the sheet and for him to behave himself. When she realised he was hesitating she said ‘Hurry up don’t be foolish, I am very tired, so please hurry and get into bed, so that I can get undressed.’
The temperature that night was between eighty and ninety degrees. Hardly surprising, and Dix slept inside the sheets and Nicole on the outside. He reported that:
‘He did not sleep a wink that night. The heat, small bed, champagne and brandy, the dangerous situation, a beautiful girl lying naked and asleep beside him was very powerful stay awake medicine.’
MI9 and USAAF files

Silent Heroes – Sherri Greene Otis

Ticket To Freedom- Herbert Spiller

Free to Fight Again – Alan Cooper

Secret Sunday – Donald Darling

Come Walk With Me – John Dix Unpublished Memoirs


Friday, 5 April 2013

Women and the Evaders Part One

Jimmy Elliott - Photo For False ID
Montmartre 1940
Irina Demick - The Longest Day
German Soldiers on Steps to Sacre Coeur 1940

Women were often a key part of escape lines, acting as couriers, guides, plus running safe houses where evaders were sheltered, fed, and also nursed if they had injuries.

Files and personal accounts show that young girls; especially those in their late teens were excellent cover to ‘guide’ men on trams, trains and around the streets of town/cities. Sometimes the strategies around evaders walking separate from their convoyers were changed in favour of the girl and man linking arms to masquerade as a couple. The looks and body language shown in public to pass this off were rarely a problem for either party.

Evader Paul Kenney stepped off a train unsure of what to expect since he had been left by his previous helper one stop earlier. A young girl ran to him, threw her arms around his neck and gave him a big kiss. Kenney had never seen her before, but found it was very easy to join in the act, since he ‘was genuinely very happy and relieved to see her.’

Guide Amanda Stassart used the ‘courting couple’ routine in railway carriages when on the Paris to Bordeaux train with evaders, to avoid the wrong kind of passenger entering the compartment.

RAF Flying Officer Jimmy Elliott reached Paris via the Comete Escape Line. As he followed his guide from Gare du Nord, the young Scotsman’s perceptions of escape and evasion were about to be changed. 

‘Blondie set off along the street, with me bringing up the rear, but watching very carefully what was happening up ahead. She certainly was striding out purposefully at a high rate of knots. Perhaps I was concentrating so much on the elegant carriage of our new guide, or maybe I was admiring her legs too much, but the suddenly I was aware of a man having fallen in step beside me. In perfect English, I heard him say ‘Just keep walking, I have a few questions I would like to ask you, just answer them very quietly. He then proceeded to ask me a number of questions, mainly of RAF Service jargon – which only a genuine RAF type would know.

On our way to my temporary lodgings, I was able to take stock of this striking woman, who was at this moment my guardian angel. She was tall, slim, blonde and had the deportment of a mannequin. Typical of many Parisienne women even in wartime she was very fashionably and attractively dressed.  She was in a word – Elegant. Her age could have been anything between 35 and 50 years…’ 

Elliott was taken to temporary accommodation for the night (fireman’s flat at the fire station); a strategy he considered likely as a result of the ‘arrests’ which the man who walked alongside him earlier had mentioned. Madame Blonde gave him her code name of ‘Charmaine’ and when she arrived the next morning and he expected to be taken to a more permanent safe house before moving on from Paris. She advised she would take him to a studio in Montmartre where he was to remain for three or four days. Elliott’s mind was focused on the reason for this rather than anticipation of what awaited him there. He put it down to the recent ‘arrests.’ She must have made him wonder what path events might take, when he learned she had been married to a Frenchman, an American and an Englishman in that order, and with a smile and a wink she had said ‘You will be well looked after – Madame’s husband is in a labour camp – in Germany.’

Elliott said of Madame Charmaine:

‘I was much impressed by her idiomatic English and said so. Small wonder that her English was so fluent, if at times somewhat ‘barrack-room.’

Whilst her looks may have been something to admire, Elliott began to feel uneasy:

‘I met her more often than any of the other guides I was to meet on my journey. On every occasion, I couldn’t rid myself of the horrible feeling that whereas a successful resistance worker or agent should be able to merge into the background and become anonymous, she certainly did not meet those requirements. For that reason, I thought she just had to be in constant danger of arrest. Charmaine was so conspicuous that men could be seen turning in the street to admire her as she passed by.’ 

Once at the studio Charmaine explained that ‘Madame’ could not speak English and covered the ‘arrangements’ which had to be followed exactly,  to avoid discovery. These included a shared toilet on the landing which had to be rapidly accessed and vacated only when the coast was clear and if Madame went out, the advice given was not to answer the door, keep quiet and cross his fingers.

Elliott could understand a little of what his new host said if she spoke ‘lentement.’ He would subsequently have to dredge up long forgotten areas of his schoolboy French during his brief time there. In the light of Charmaine’s comments he began to anxiously look around the room:

‘The studio was a pretty spacious room and of course everything was open-plan. My great predicament was that I could only see one three quarter size bed. However in a corner of the room was a tiny curtained-off area, which I took to be where the artist’s models would change. If this didn’t contain a bed it promised to be an interesting night.’    

Behind the curtain Madame revealed a single bed and for the four nights Elliot slept there. During each evening he was wined and dined with Madame’s excellent cooking (probably obtained via the Black-Market), but he noticed that as the night progressed,  she always yawned on time and insisted on retiring to bed as early as 21.30 hours. When he asked the following morning if she slept well, he was always told that she did not.

On the second evening Madame advised Elliot that a visiting masseuse would be arriving at 09.00 the following morning for her, and he may wish to remain behind the curtain until the session was over. He decided to do this:

‘The sound of flesh, especially female flesh being massaged and pummelled can lead to disturbing feelings in the male of the species. However in the best interests of the security of the Comet Escape Line, and my own freedom I succeeded in sublimating them!’

 On day four when Charmaine came to collect Elliott, things became clearer:

‘I can clearly remember Charmaine and I leaving the somewhat broken down apartment block, turning left and walking down the hill towards the nearest Metro station. With a roguish twinkle in her eye she suddenly stopped and asked.

‘Did you have a good time Jimmy?’

‘Oh yes the food was really excellent, so was the wine and there were plenty of
English books to read as well.’ 

With a puzzled look she went on. ‘Yes - but did you enjoy yourself? You know what I mean.’ Seeing my embarrassment she shook her head in disbelief with the comment.

‘You – You English Gentlemen.’

Elliott went on to leave Paris and successfully evade. He never saw Charmaine again. (See earlier Post ‘The Little Lady in Black and Madame Blonde’)

When men and women found themselves cooped up together under the same roof, human chemistry sometimes intervened. One escape line reported an American airman had fallen in love with a girl living in the house where he was concealed, and he refused to continue his journey. In late 1943 a less savoury incident occurred at a house in Brussels as later relayed by USAAF B17 Bombardier and Second Lieutenant Joseph Milton.*

Milton had arrived at the apartment of Madame Yvette Beersel* who had been sheltering US flyer Alvis Williams* for some time, as he had a bad flak wound on his foot. Beersel was a nurse at a nearby hospital and had been tending the injury.

Milton quickly realised that she had been looking after more than the Williams injury, as it was obvious the pair had become involved. An uncomfortable situation developed, especially with Milton being an officer and having to witness inappropriate and risky behaviour. Williams initially slept on one of the couches for appearances sake, but this did not last long and he moved back into Yvette’s bedroom.

The relationship came to the attention of the escape line and key operator Gaston Mattys (Service EVA) visited the apartment to tell Williams to break it off. An unpleasant scene occurred as Williams told him to ‘F*** off.’

Soon afterwards, Milton continued the rest of his evasion journey with Williams  and during their Pyrenees crossing the latter spoke of marrying Yvette after the war, but with some reticence as he felt she was better educated than him. Williams did not marry her and it is not known whether the pair had any contact again.

During the early stages of their mountain crossing, Milton had to deal with another tricky situation. The party of four evaders were staying overnight in the loft of a barn at a Basque farmhouse. The farm family's daughter and her younger sister brought them food the next day.  The older girl was very physically developed and Wade Kentley* a B17 waist gunner began making advances towards her. Milton was the only officer in the group and had a responsibility to keep the men focused on their goal. Fortunately he spoke Spanish and asked the younger girl how old her sister was.  "Fifteen," she answered.  Kentley was told in no uncertain terms to stop that behaviour or suffer the consequences.

Later in the crossing Kentley decided he could not continue and wanted to give himself up to the Spanish. Their guide at that point was a 12-year old Basque boy and he told Milton that if Kentley did that, the Guardia Civil would use dogs and follow their footprints in the snow to catch up with the rest of the group, arrest them, and turn them over to the Germans.  Milton told Kentley that he would break his leg if he tried it.  That was the end of the matter.
*Not their real names


One of Those Days – Unpublished Manuscript - James M Elliott 

MI9 and USAAF files

Silent Heroes – Sherri Greene Otis

Thanks to Bruce Bolinger for information on Milton