Friday, 17 May 2013

Evasion and the Animals

Art Horning - Photo For False ID 

Elton Kevil - Photo For False ID

Evaders and escapers came to depend on their helpers and guides during the journey, but there are personal accounts and memoirs which show that animals could also play a key role.
For the fugitive making his way south towards the Pyrenees, sitting around in safe houses with little or no exercise did not prepare them for the gruelling journey ahead over the mountains. Treacherous terrain, adverse weather, unrelenting spells of hiking and climbing in inadequate clothing and footwear all tested physical resolve to the limit. Some evaders may not have fully recovered from wounds or injuries, and despite the valiant efforts and sacrifices of helpers who sheltered and fed the men, food shortages often meant a thin diet.  
In November and early December 1943, B-17G Navigator Art Horning was holed up with another US airman (Elton Kevil) at 92, Rue de Locht in the Schaerbeek district of Brussels. Their hosts were Monsieur and Madame DeBerghes, a middle class French couple in their early forties. Horning describes the daily set up:
‘We naturally were not allowed to go outside or even go to the windows to look out. We knew this for our own good. We did have the run of the house, however most of the time we just sat. I smoked cigarettes and we listened to the radio which was played very softly.’
A sedentary routine was not helpful, so Horning fell into a strategy to help his fitness.
‘My daily exercise consisted of chasing a cat all over the house. Madame DeBerghes owned a Siamese cat which early on, started to play war games with me. I cannot remember when or why it started but I do remember the cat getting in the first licks by raking my ankles from under the sofa as I sat there. It happened more than once and I declared war. While alone during the day our war went on until the day I left the DeBerghes. With broom in hand, I went to the war front daily and chased the cat up the stairs, down the stairs, into the kitchen, under the sofa and other furniture and while I got in a few licks, the cat stalked me as well. Occasionally, when I walked down the stairs, the cat would lie in wait on a higher flight of stairs and try to rake my face through the spindles of the bannister as I descended.
Never was a truce declared even when in the evening the cat would purr in the lap of Madame – keeping one eye on me and daring me to make a move while she was in home port. If Madame had known of the war, I am sure both the cat and I would have found ourselves out in the street.’
Horning’s fitness was to play a vital part during his crossing into Spain. On Christmas Eve 1943, he was one of a party which attempted to wade across the fast flowing Bidassoa river into Spain. American evader James Burch and key Comete operator Antoine d’Ursel (Jacques Cartier) were swept away and drowned. 
RAF Sergeant Jon Dix reported a remarkable incident after he left the train with his guide near the Belgian/French border.
‘There were strict controls at all rail and road border crossings and to avoid those they would get off the train at the last station before reaching the frontier. It was getting dark when they left the train and they then walked for about three miles across country to a farm. On entering the farm he was surprised to be introduced to two American airmen who would be joining him for the journey to Paris. Their hosts were an older farm couple and the man briefed them on what would happen next. After a meal they would be taken across the frontier to another farm on the French side. The three evaders would remain there until daylight and be collected by two girls who would take them into the town of Lille, where they would all catch the train for Paris.’
Rumes Railway Station (left) Where Dix Probably Left the Train
Dix noticed how tense the hosts were - border crossings in this area were extremely dangerous. He chatted with the two Americans over the meal and at around twenty two hundred hours their host came into the living room with a man and an Alsatian dog. The evaders were carefully briefed on the next stage of their journey.
The men listened intently, with translations being necessary in parts. Those who could speak the language must have questioned their knowledge of French, as the content of the brief sounded too farfetched to be true, as Dix described:
‘None of the people at the farm would be with them on their walk across the frontier into France...the dog would be their guide. They were told not to touch the dog or try and make friends with him…the dog was fully trained to take them to the farm on the French side, he had made the journey many times before.’
Their host explained, it was simply too dangerous for any of them to travel in person with the three evaders. Instructions must be carried out to the letter, as Dix explained:
‘They were to follow the dog closely without talking to him or talking amongst themselves. The dog would have a piece of white cloth attached to his collar so that they could follow him in the dark. They were to keep close behind him and if the dog sensed anything unusual en route he would flatten himself down into grass. If this happened they were to scatter as quietly as possible and hide in the fields and hedgerows. If it was a false alarm the dog would come and find them to continue the journey. The dog would lead them into a farm yard on the French side and bark at the back door. The French farmer would take them inside and send the dog back to their starting point.’
'Cocquette' -  Probable Identity Of  The Dog 
The dog was on a leash when it was brought around to all three of the men to let him smell them. The evaders were reminded that on no account were they to touch or talk to him. Dix made an interesting observation:
‘He did not seem to be very friendly, his tail did not wag as most dogs would have done, it was held tightly between his legs. He was on duty and under instructions and knew it.’
The dog was taken out of the room and the farmer explained that the distance to the farmhouse on the other side of the border was only a few miles, but the journey would take up to two hours as the trail through fields and woods was especially winding and narrow in places.  The route had clearly been chosen to maximise the chances of making it into France without detection. The airmen were warned that the animal would go under fences, and if this happened they were to climb over them. As this route passed into France without any marked frontier, no visible signs would exist that the party had passed into France.  
An hour before midnight the three evaders were taken out into the yard and followed the dog away from the farmhouse.  Dix took up the story:
‘It was a dark but clear night, with stars shining brightly and just enough glow in the sky to see faint outlines of trees and buildings. The dog loped slowly along with three rather scared airmen in tow. Once their eyes became accustomed to the dark it was not difficult to follow their leader and the track was not hard to follow either. They kept their eyes glued to the dog ahead in case it flattened itself in the grass.’
There were no problems until one of the Americans stumbled over one of the fences and fired off a string of choice language. The dog seemed unfazed by this and waited whilst the evader dusted himself down before continuing on without distraction.
‘After around two hours travel the men were led through some orchards into the backyard of a farm with the dog’ approaching ‘and  barking at the back door. Almost immediately a man appeared with a lantern and shone it in their faces. He motioned them inside, gave the dog a few words of instruction and their ‘guide’ turned and disappeared into the darkness.’
The identity of the dog has never been completely verified, but it is likely to have been ‘Cocquette’, belonging to Maurice Bricout (The Border Policeman see posts Sept-Oct 2012). Whoever the dog belonged to, he was part of an amazing story.
In The Footsteps Of A Flying Boot - Art Horning
Come Walk With Me - John Dix 
©Keith Morley


  1. What an amazing dog. I wonder how on earth they trained him. Love the story about the siamese cat.

  2. Thanks Sally. I hope to see 'Monique' again (guide who worked with The Border Policeman Maurice Bricout) later this year and I will ask her about 'Cocquette.' He used to bark when she approached the back of the farmhouse through the fields with the evaders. She would always call his name once and then he quietened down.

  3. How amazing, I wonder if it was a wide spread thing, teaching animals to do things to assist during the war? I seem to recall something about it from school. My memory is a little hazy, it was a few years ago!

  4. Thanks Maria. There are a number of instances where animals were trained during the war for clandestine tasks. I will be running another post on the topic this week as it has proved popular.

  5. Enjoyed another engaging post by Keith, there are many examples of how animals have helped our allies and ourselves during the wars. To this end a monument to them has been erected in London called ‘The Animals In War Memorial’. This monument is a powerful and moving tribute to all the animals that served, suffered and died alongside the British, Commonwealth and Allied forces in the wars and conflicts of the 20th century.
    The PDSA Dickin Medal - recognised as the animals' Victoria Cross - was named after Maria Dickin, the founder of the PDSA, formerly known as the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA).
    Between 1943 and 1949, 54 animals received the medal, including 32 pigeons, 18 dogs and 3 horses. Here are just a few examples.

    Simon, the ship's cat aboard HMS Amethyst during the Yangtze Incident of 1949, was awarded a posthumous PDSA Dickin Medal for his devotion to duty despite suffering terrible injuries when the British warship was shelled by the Chinese Communist forces. During the 101 days HMS Amethyst was held captive on the Yangtze River, Simon devoted his time to catching the rats that threatened the crew's dwindling rations.

    GI Joe, Pigeon ¬ USA43SC6390, was awarded the PDSA Dickin medal in August 1946. The citation reads: “This bird is credited with making the most outstanding flight by a USA Army Pigeon in World War II. Making the 20 mile flight from British 10th Army HQ, in the same number of minutes, it brought a message which arrived just in time to save the lives of at least 100 Allied soldiers from being bombed by their own planes.”

    Rob, a¬ Collie (War Dog No. 471/332 Special Air Service) was awarded the PDSA Dickin medal on 22nd January 1945. Citation: “Took part in landings during North African Campaign with an Infantry unit and later served with a Special Air Unit in Italy as patrol and guard on small detachments lying-up in enemy territory. His presence with these parties saved many of them from discovery and subsequent capture or destruction. Rob made over 20 parachute descents.”

    Upstart ¬ was a police horse awarded the PDSA Dickin medal on 11th April 1947. The citation reads: “While on patrol duty in Bethnal Green a flying bomb exploded within 75 yards, showering both horse and rider with broken glass and debris. Upstart was completely unperturbed and remained quietly on duty with his rider controlling traffic, etc., until the incident had been dealt with.”
    There are many other examples of animal bravery, service and devotion during the wars and we await the next installment here from Keith.
    “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others……” George Orwell from his novel, ‘Animal Farm’.

    1. Thanks Helen. All amazing stories which stand as amazing testament to our friends.

  6. Thanks Cris. 'Cocquette' is my favourite story around evaders being taken across the borders in WW2.