Saturday, 13 July 2013

Priests and the Evaders – Part One

Herbert Spiller
Spiller - Photo for false ID
During the Second World War, a number of priests in occupied Europe became involved with escape and evasion. Some were active in the escape lines, whilst others gave ad hoc help to Allied airmen and army personnel on the run.

Escape lectures given to servicemen highlighted men of the cloth as being potential sources of shelter and aid. Traitors such as Jacques Desoubrie (see posts on The Traitors) also sought out the priests for different reasons. The priest could be an ideal starting point for a traitor to discover information on an escape line, or begin a strategy of infiltration as a ‘helper.’
The natural focus of a church and pastoral duties could bring priests into contact with evaders, escape line operators and also the Resistance. The clergy were taking a terrible risk becoming involved. Some paid the ultimate price for their bravery in sheltering and assisting evaders, but equally others were not sympathetic to the Allied cause. The facts and human stories around priests and evaders make interesting reading, especially those in Belgium and France. In the first of a series of posts, the evasion of RAF Warrant Officer Herbert Spiller in late 1942 illustrates how an airman might attempt to seek assistance from the clergy and how they could help or betray an evader.
Tired, hungry and struggling with chest and back pain caused on landing after parachuting from his Halifax aircraft, Spiller had managed to reach the edge of the town of St Dizier. The place was full of Germans and he needed the sanctuary of a church to attempt to get help:
‘Half running, I went through an alley…and a few yards away saw a large church standing back a little from the road past it. Brushing past a number of people who managed to get in my way as I frantically made for a refuge, I eventually stood catching my breath before the heavy wooden door of the church….The door swung open quickly and quietly to disclose the backs of several German soldiers who turned inquisitively, curious as to the reason for the door opening.

In a fraction of a second I decided to bluff it out, to have moved backwards would, I think, have been fatal to my chances. I moved forward and they parted to let me through into part of the entrance way which still had a few standing places. I knew sufficient about the Catholic faith to cross myself immediately and lowered my head a little to keep anonymity. The church was full to bursting…’

Spiller had walked in near to the end of a service. Priest, officials and a choir soon began a procession around the church towards the main entrance where he was standing. He described the next sequence of events:

Eglise St Martin de Gigny St Dizier

‘I am completely at a loss to describe what came over me at that point; probably some innate prehistoric instinct for survival. Whatever it was, it prompted me to push my way through the rows of people to the front and as the last of the choir boys passed before me I joined the procession behind them. No one made any sound of dissent or disapproval and I continued to follow with bowed head. No doubt I was the subject of conversation between worshippers as they left the church…All I knew was that I was desperate and that the situation had called for desperate measures.’
He followed the procession through the transept into a room filled with lockers. The choirboys were discarding their cassocks, and in their high spirits neither the priest nor the boys noticed he was there. He takes up the story again:
‘In fact it wasn’t until a number of the boys had left that I was able to touch the priest’s arm and draw him aside. He looked doubtful and apprehensive and taken aback that there was someone other than the procession in the room. He looked even worse when I trotted out my parrot phrase in a hoarse whisper:

‘Je suis an aviateur Anglais. Je  suis tombé par parachute près de Ligny-en-Barrois. J’ai besoin d’assistance.’

Placing his hand over my mouth his eyes entreated for silence, but he saw also my poor physical appearance and with grave care led me by the arm to a long wooden bench. Quickly he was amongst the remaining choirboys cajoling and good-naturedly pushing them from the room. Fixing me eventually with a penetrating gaze he came towards me bubbling over with rapid French phrases obviously asking me what in heaven’s name I was doing there.’
The priest realised that Spiller was injured and in trouble, so he made sure the airman wouldn’t faint and fall over and fetched water. After a while he helped him to his feet, up a flight of stairs and down a long corridor:
‘The priest pointed at one of the doors leading off. ‘Monsieur L’ Abbé’  he explained, but it wasn’t until the door had opened to reveal an aged and venerable priest sitting in an armchair that I understood the term. This must be the chief, I thought.

The priest sat me on a side chair and went over to have a deep and agitated conversation with the Abbé’, who then rose and came towards me.

‘Good evening my son.’ His warm with a heavy French inflexion, trickled into my ears and he picked up my hands and held them with tenderness. ‘I speak some English’, he said. Can I help you?’
The Abbé’ and the priest (Father Pascal) did help Spiller that night. He was assisted in bathing, then dressing in pyjamas. After a meal, a doctor friend arrived to diagnose and strap up a cracked rib. These were dangerous times as the Abbé explained to Spiller:
‘He made it quite clear that I must leave the church the next morning, they were running grave risks in harbouring me, and ran equally as large risks if I were to be caught in due course and made to tell who had given me assistance. They did, however, want to make perfectly sure that I was capable of making my own way and that I had sufficient clothing and food for the immediate future.’
The next morning he was given breakfast and food in a cardboard box with string and a flat bottle of cold coffee for the journey. The Abbé explained that all the workmen used them and he would blend in:
‘Now’ the Abbé said. ‘You go to Gare de l ‘Est (Paris) from St Dizier. You must have a return ticket….Father Pascal will go with you to the station.’

I nodded and looked at my chronometer, just after 4am or maybe 5am in this part of France. The Abbé smiled back. ‘Now go’ he commanded  ‘God be with you.’
St Dizier Railway Station
Father Pascal left Spiller outside St Dizier railways station after making sure that the train was running and reminding him to ask for ‘Aller et retour.’ (return ticket to avoid suspicion. Spiller had a good supply of French notes in his airman’s money wallet.) It was likely that these priests had no previous involvement with any organised escape line or evaders. They were reacting as many did to an unexpected situation. Circumstances such as this sometimes led to further involvement in escape line work.
Gare de L'Est  1940

Once he arrived in Paris, Spiller’s strategy was very basic. Head for the Eiffel Tower and then on to the district of Montparnasse on the other side of the River Seine as it was away from the administrative centre of Paris and had a reputation of being friendly to foreigners. This indirectly triggered what happened next:
‘…I had a good distance to go yet…Feeling a little tired I kept an eye out for a church which I could enter and rest for a while.’
He found one.  ‘an imposing church, high towered like a cathedral with a huge wooden door open as if beckoning people to mount the stone steps to worship.’’

He sat in one of the pews in the huge church. There was a row of confessionals with low doors and heavy blue curtains, a few people were praying silently. He decided to try and seek assistance by ‘confessing his sins’ and entered the first confessional box. A flap opened in the wooden wall and after the priest had spoken, Spiller identified himself in his rehearsed French as an RAF flyer and asked for help, but he felt something was wrong:
‘He was very distant in his manner and in some strange way aroused my suspicion. I didn’t like the situation I was in, especially when he made reference to ‘L’Ambassade Brittanique’. ‘Restez la’ the priest said and disappeared from sight out of a back door.’
Spiller decided to leave the church and made his way to a side door which was open. Without being conspicuous, from here he could see any new arrivals in the square and if they were making for the church.
‘I saw a large open car drawing up at the far end of the church and two men in long raincoats and soft hats getting out. It was too much of a coincidence.’
He left, taking a series of turns off the backstreets to get away.

What must have passed through the young man’s mind? He would continue his strategy of trying to reach Montparnasse - and what then? As he walked the streets, it seemed a vague hope. The abject loneliness, fear, hunger, thirst and fatigue would chip away at his morale. He managed to get some rest and shelter in a cinema, and later in isolation on the edge of a park ate the food given to him by the Abbé in St Dizier.

Exhaustion began to overtake him and after crossing the River Seine he began to doubt whether he would find a resting place before dark:
‘ I tried a few more left turns and right turns…as if in answer to my doubts or was it a prayer, I walked into the Square de Felix Faure and saw the little church in its centre. I stood and looked at it and hung my head for a moment. There was little point in going on. This was where I was going to have to trust to luck. The door of the church was closed but not locked and I raised the latch and quietly entered. …I decided to search for a priest and walked the length of the church without success. Someone came through the main door, prompting me to sit in the front pew and wait. I bent myself as if in prayer and kept my eyes half open so that I could see what was happening….I felt an overpowering desire to relax and rest. The mental picture of the inside of the church slipped away and I disappeared into a dark void.’  

Eglise Saint-Jean-Baptiste de Grenelle where Spiller got help 

Spiller felt a gentle rocking which brought him to. A priest was bending over him and the airman began to recite his parrot phrases again. The priest placed a hand over his mouth for a moment, and then helped him up, motioning towards the side door.
In the quiet of the vestry Abbé Dufour introduced himself and began to ask questions in English. He wanted to know everything about the journey, sometimes interjecting for more simple explanations. After providing a meal on a tray the Abbe said:
‘Help yourself. I will be back later with some friends of mine. He noticed my questioning frown and added, it’s alright. They are not police.’
When he returned later with Jules and Marcel (not likely to be their real names), they were introduced as members of an organisation who might be able to help. Military questions followed (see last week’s post The Questionnaires) Spiller was into an escape line.

In next week’s post – The names, faces and some hard facts about the priests.

Ticket To Freedom – H J Spiller (recommended read)

IS9 Evasion Report

 ©Keith Morley


  1. Were churches supposed to be a place to seek help?

    1. Yes Sally, but only from the angle that they might contain a priest who was sympathetic and could shelter them get help, or at least send them on their way without calling the Geheime -Feldpolizei or Gestapo. Spillers experiences mirror both ends of the scale. I thought it was a good human story to start the series of posts. Ironically the traitors also homed in on some clergy because of how evaders and other patriots fleeing the Nazis would view the priests. Great place to find escape activity and worm your way into a line. Next week the focus will be on actual priests, what they did to help the Allies and one in particular who caused the virtual collapse of Comete in 1943 before it recovered again.

  2. Really enjoyed this piece again by Keith-Spiller's bravery and instincts serving him well....we did fear for him several times. Yes Churches/Cathedrals were supposed to be places of sanctuary. We recall Quasimodo's shout of same when he was chased by the bullies due to his deformity. Generally they were places to find help but alas being inside Canterbury Cathedral did not help Thomas A'Beckett much. The priests in WW2 were taking a mortal gamble when they decided to help stranded airmen/soldiers and so their help and kindness is all the more touching and impressive.Spiller was lucky but he did have to evade one trap. It is said that 'God helps those who help themselves....' and certainly Spiller did that and was consequently amongst an escapeline. In War there is good and evil at work as witnessed here.Look forward to the next post.
    “Those who seek consolation in existing churches often pay for their peace of mind with a tacit agreement to ignore a great deal of what is known about the way the world works.”
    (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.)

  3. Thanks Helen. I do like 'Ticket to Freedom' which was used as a main source for the post. Its a good starting point. Very interesting quote from Csikszentmihalyi.