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


  1. Such young people to be involved in such a serious business. I can't imagine it. As a mother i find it difficult to think very brave of them.

  2. I would imagine all emotions would be heightened greatly by the dangerous situations peoople were in. Another very interesting read.

    1. Thanks Sally. You are spot on. Some of the liasons which developed could also be used as a basis for fiction.

  3. Another interesting post from Keith.The training was not any different for male agents than it was for the females. They began like all other military branches, with basic training for two to four weeks in secret locations along the English countryside. They were then put through psychological testing to be sure they would not fold under enemy pressure (this technique was taken from the American OSS). From there, agents went through paramilitary training for 3-5 weeks where they trained in “silent killing” and in the use of various weapons. Some agents also trained to use explosives, survival skills, and parachuting. Others learned to be undercover agents which included being taught to look natural in any setting even while doing unnatural things. They were taught how to react if caught and interrogated along with the coding skills they would need to transmit and receive messages and counter-espionage techniques like the use of propaganda and handling explosives in order to understand what these agents did to save their countries there must be an understanding of who these agents were.
    How the women reacted to the threats of Nazism was, in some cases, entirely unexpected. At the time, women generally worked in the home and rarely worked in factories or munitions plants. It was even less common for women to join the military prior to the war. The social restraints placed on women at that time carried into their choices of occupations. Once women were legally able to join the auxiliary branches of the armed forces, many did. Even though the idea of the military allowing women to participate was a means to free up men for the frontlines, many women joined as a result of what they saw as their own patriotic duties and began training for noncombat positions in each of the branches of the military for both countries. Some women even went beyond the typical expectations placed on them while in the military and stood next to their fellow countrymen behind enemy lines as secret agents.
    “I think I'm a fan of people who were brave, my aunt, my grandmother, those are my heroes.”
    George Eads

  4. Thanks Helen. Some of SOE's best agents were women, and they proved their worth both in training and in the field.

  5. Hi Keith - I just came upon your great escape-line blog and love it. My father was a B-24 pilot and was shot down over Holland the 8th of March 1944. He evaded with help from the Dutch Underground in Rotterdam for 5 months. Eventually, he was put on an escape line, what later became known as the KLM line, into Belgium. Unbeknownst to the Dutch, the line had been compromised at the Dutch/Belgian border and was run by Belgian traitors and German agents. He was led right into the hands of Rene van Muylem (the German agent) in Antwerp, was captured, and spent the rest of the war at Stalag Luft III and Stalag VII A.

    I wrote and published a book about his WWII experiences and if you are interested, I can let you know what the title is. I'd post the title for you right now, but I don't know what your rules are concerning things like that. The book has been very well received.

    Again, great job with your blog and with your research. I know from experience the amazing trails one goes down when digging into the lives and histories of the brave men and women of the Resistance and Underground. Cheers - Jim Keeffe

    1. Good to hear from you Jim and thanks for your kind comments about The Escape Line. Coincidentally, a few weeks ago one of my followers commented on the post about Julian Sale 'He Made It Back Alone'. She often adds other information around E & E. 'Two Gold Coins And A Prayer' was mentioned. It looked interesting , so I did some research and bought your book. It arrived last week!

      I'm working my way through and find it a very comprehensive and enjoyable read. My view has always been that this area of the Second World War is vastly under represented in terms of the overall public awareness. If I can redress some of that, 'The Escape Line' will be worth it.

      The airman in my forthcoming book referred to the whole sphere of escaping and the escape lines as being 'a war within a war.' This is one of the reasons why it is such a fascinating area of study for me. My manuscript is almost edited and complete now, so I guess I am feeling something of what you felt, when the hard work was nearly complete.

      As regards rules for my site, I always quote my sources and have the view that this might help draw attention to specific publications and encourage the reader to seek them out, thus increasing awareness and helping sales (especially the lesser known books and those out of print that are currently 'doing the rounds' on the second hand market.
      I am always happy to chat 'off blog' via e-mail. Comments are not auto so I receive them first. Thanks again. Regards Keith