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




  1. Enjoyed the latest posting well-written as ever by Keith, and here I recount another episode in Bonaparte’s history
    The moon was well-hidden by a mass of stormclouds as the three French agents stepped from the Royal Navy surfboat which had silently rowed them ashore to the Brittany beach codenamed Bonaparte.
    After a four-hour journey across the English Channel on a Kingswear-based gunboat from the 15th Flotilla, the agents were back on their native soil to carry out a secret mission to gather military intelligence and to help evacuate escaping downed Allied pilots. Throughout the crossing they had never uttered a word about the impending ordeal which could cost them their lives, but as they clambered ashore near the village of Plouha with their suitcases crammed full of clothes, weapons, money and radio transmitters, they briefly exchanged whispers of "Bonne chance" to the three British oarsmen who had brought them - and then disappeared into the blackness.
    It was June, 1944 - just days after D-Day - and an Allied air raid was under way at St Malo 25 miles to the south-east. But as the surfboat turned round and headed back out to sea for the three-quarter-of a-mile "pull" to rendezvous back with the gunboat, the mission suddenly went wrong.
    The gunboat's anchor dragged in the rough -weather, its walkie-talkie link with the surtboat failed to work properly and the two vessels missed each other in the gloom.
    With dawn rapidly approaching, neither could afford to be seen by German look-outs on the cliffs, so the gunboat commander reluctantly gave the order to head the vessel back across the Channel to the safety of the River Dart.
    Its specially quietened engines could still be faintly heard across the water by the crew of the surfboat as their colleagues retreated away and the frustrated rowers knew they had no chance of chasing after their 42-knot "mother" craft - the fastest in the four-strong flotilla.
    Instead they headed back to the beach, where, despite being exhausted, they hid their own weapons and sank the tiny craft by piling it full of rocks. In charge was Guy Hamilton, then the gunboat's first lieutenant and later to become a director of the James Bond films.
    In his efforts to remove all trace of his surfboat he broke a finger while hacking holes into the craft's clinker-planked bottom with a knife.
    The three had just enough energy left to clamber up the cliffs above the beach and hide in the gorse, but the next morning they found themselves right in the middle of a German minefield.
    They gingerly made their way out and, travelling by night, decided to try to make contact with the local Resistance while avoiding German patrols.
    But then up stepped Marie-Therese Le Calvez, who at only 18 was rapidly becoming one of the most influential members of the Resistance in the area.
    She was already a veteran of five missions to get airmen out of the area after meeting them at her local railway station, taking them to safehouses, including her own home, and then later leading them through that cliff-top minefield to meet the returning Kingswear gunboats which she would always greet by wading into the sea with a torch to help guide in their surfboats,
    She and her widowed mother Leonie helped more than 140 American and Canadian airmen, plus a string of escaping agents, and the pair were key members of the "Women of Shelburne". Last words fittingly from Napoleon…

    “True heroism consists in being superior to the ills of life, in whatever shape they may challenge us to combat.”
    (Napoleon Bonaparte.)

  2. Thanks for your reply Helen. This is a good story around one of the Shelburn Ops and you put us in there nicely. Marie-Therese Le Calvez was another of these amazing patriots who helped the Allied cause.

  3. Thank you for sharing this Keith, I've learnt something new. I can't recall being taught anything about this topic before.

  4. Thanks Maria. Shelburn is a line which I enjoyed learning about, especially as its a seaborne evacuation. There is a certain eerie mystique about escaping from an occupied/hostile country to a boat off the coast. As a writer, there is so much to draw from in scenes like that to create the atmosphere. Pre twentieth century writers did this so well in their classics.

    1. The opportunities to write fictional stories are endless. I'd have to be mindful, and respectful you say there is some mystique about it.