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



  1. Enjoyed the last two posts-the stories as always well told by Keith- Here follows just one story of a female SOE worker. From 1943 to 1945 Margaret Pawley was one of a group of pioneering women recruited by the Special Operations Executive for intelligence-gathering work overseas. To the outside world she was a member of the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY), a women's corps created in 1907 to drive ambulances. But FANY also served as a cover as none of them could drive ! From her secret communications base in Italy Margaret's job was to intercept radio messages from the Germans. She would then give a situation report on enemy activity, in her office, at eight o'clock sharp. People sat on benches and she would point out on a map where the Germans were. Born in Germany to British parents – her father was the High Commissioner from 1929 to 1930 in the part of Germany occupied by the Allies – Margaret was fluent in German, and very close to her German governess, but in no doubt about where her loyalties lay. The family moved to Kent when Margaret was eight; she was 17 when war broke out. Brought up with high standards of duty, she regarded the war as an episode of very bad behaviour. So, aged 21, she joined the men and women of various uniforms and nationalities going in and out of an anonymous-looking building in Baker Street: the Inter-Services Research Bureau was, in fact, the Special Operations Executive headquarters, where Margaret was offered a job through her father's contacts (he'd worked as an intelligence officer during the First World War). Ten days later she was on a plane to Cairo –In June 1944 she was posted to Bari, and then to Siena, where she stayed until the end of the war. FANY intelligence workers wore a strict uniform: khaki drill skirt and bush jacket, hair above collar length, no sling handbags (FANYs had to carry leather briefcases), and silk stockings off-duty instead of the standard-issue lisle variety. Conditions were often basic – in Mola di Bari, a small coastal town south of Bari, Margaret lodged near the harbour that nearly always had a pretty bad smell of rotting fish and endured boils, ringworm, athlete's foot and jaundice (which involved a stint in hospital). In November 1944 Margaret was made an officer, and in February 1945 she joined No 1 Special Force at Siena. But there were still some things a woman was not allowed to do. Her dream was to parachute into enemy territory, but they said no. Just because she was female. They said that if she got injured there would be no one to do her job, but they just didn't want her to do it.
    “I am sure that if the mothers of various nations could meet, there would be no more wars.”
    E. M. Forster

    1. Thanks Helen. SOE is a subject all on its own, but evaders and escapers sometimes found themselves fleeing with agents who were also using the escape lines.

  2. Another interesting post Keith...everyone had a part to play in helping the escapees. Bringing women into the mix must have caused all sorts of anxieties for everyone I expect.

  3. Certainly compromises and temptations sometimes Maria. Most of the time it passed off without incident, but it must have been difficult for young men and women thrown together like that. Can play havoc with the emotions.

    1. Definitely agree with you, and again very hard to imagine the situations people found themselves in, during the war.