|St Thomas Aquinas - Paris|
In last week’s post, RAF Warrant Officer Herbert Spiller’s account illustrated one man’s experiences of the vital part which priests could play in aiding Allied evaders and escapers. It is easy to move on with the evader and forget what faced the men left behind, who had risked everything. The hard facts around priests who were discovered and arrested put things into perspective.
Abbé Robert Beauvais of St Thomas Aquinas Church Paris was a key operator in the Comete Escape Line from November 1942- March 1944. Awarded the US Medal of Freedom (Bronze Palm) his citation of 16 October 1946 read:‘He distinguished himself by his great courage, determination and intelligence in the performance of hazardous missions. Until his arrest and subsequent deportation to Germany, he assisted directly in the evasion of twenty six Allied Airmen and through his outstanding devotion to the Allied cause contributed materially to the success of the war effort, meriting the esteem and gratitude of the United Nations.’
The American MIS – X Report in connection with the award is self-explanatory:
‘Abbé Beauvais, although already active in general resistance work, began his evasion activity in November 1942. He was hiding an Allied flyer in his home and in his efforts to find a safe means by which to evacuate him, came into contact with the Comete network. From this time until his arrest 15 months later, he devoted all of his time to the dangerous task of repatriating fallen airmen.
In the beginning, Abbé Beauvais’ chief activity was sheltering evaders whom he had received from various key workers in the organisation. He hid the men in his home for varying lengths of time, providing them with food, civilian clothing and false identity papers. When escaping fliers were brought to him, he in his turn gave them to the leaders of the group for escort to the Spanish frontier. His apartment was one of the principle letter-boxes in Paris for the organisation, and was often chosen for the important meetings of the leaders of the line.
Abbé Beauvais’ activity became more and more extensive as he participated in all of the branches of clandestine escape work. In January 1944, after the arrest of the line, Comete was completely disorganised. Despite this severe blow, L’ Abbé Beauvais decided to create a new network which ould continue to aid Allied evaders. In order to do this, it was necessary for him to set up a totally different group of agents and helpers for he feared that the Gestapo might have knowledge of former members. He appointed convoyers, made new contacts for forged identity papers and made arrangements with important French resistance movements so that evaders would be recuperated and sent to him.
In March 1944 he had grouped approximately 50 escapers in Paris, and since an attempt at evacuation through the beaches in Brittany had failed, was about to undertake their repatriation through Spain. However the group had been penetrated by an enemy counter-evasion agent and he was betrayed to the Gestapo. Abbé Beauvais was arrested and interned in Fresnes until August 1944 when he was deported to Buchenwald and subsequently Dachau. After suffering great privations and harsh treatment he was repatriated to France in May 1945.’Beauvais’ mother Marguerite and his sister Renee were also involved with him in aiding Allied airmen. They were arrested and deported to Germany, where they died in captivity in January and April 1945 respectively.
S/Sgt Alfred Buinicky was a ball turret gunner in a B17 Flying Fortress from 358 Bomber Squadron on a mission to Amiens/Gilsy, France when the aircraft was shot down on 31 August 1943. He reached Paris and was sheltered in Abbé Beauvais’ apartment along with American flyers Lieutenants Francis Harkins and Andrew Lindsay, plus RAF Flt Lieutenant Ian Covington.
|Buinicky and crew. He is 4th left Back Row|
|Lt Andrew Lindsay recovering from facial burns - 303bg|
Harkins successfully crossed the Pyrenees on 18 September 1943, whilst on 24 November 1943 Buinicky along with RAF Flt Sgt James Bruce was arrested almost at the French/Spanish border. The two men were stopped by German soldiers; Bruce’s French was not very good, although it was better than the Germans, who had been recently stationed on the Turkish border. Buinicky spoke no French, so was unable to answer any of their questions. Lindsay and Covington were later in evading, as they did not cross the mountains until 6 January 1944.
Father Hendrikus ‘Henri’ Van Oostayen codename ‘Parrain’ worked with main operator Aline ‘Michou’ Dumon on the Comete Line. He was a Jesuit and former colonial missionary teacher at St John Berchmans College in Brussels. Under constant risk, he continued operating in 1943 and 1944, despite the line being breached on a number of occasions, and was also reported to have been involved in the concealment of Jews in Brussels. The Gestapo arrested him on 25 July 1944 and he was interrogated and tortured before being sent to Mauthausen, Oranienberg and then Bergen-Belsen where he died on April 19, 1945, just a few days before the Allies liberated the concentration camp.
|Abbé Georges Goffinet|
Abbé Georges Goffinet was another priest who took a non- violent path of resistance against the Nazis. Born on 15 December 1905 he was proactive from a young age, becoming involved in the JOC "Jeunesses Ouvrières Chrétiennes" (Christian Workers' Youth) and the "Oeuvres Sociales" (Social Works). Ordained as a priest in 1931, his last post was pastor in the Belgian village of Musson, close to the border with France.
|Musson Village- Goffinet's church in the background|
Goffinet began to move evaders and unfortunately on one operation came into contact with the traitor Prosper Dezitter (see earlier post on ‘The Traitors.’) This resulted in his arrest on 30 July 1943 at a hotel whilst escorting a party of airmen. He was imprisoned in Fort Du Hâ on August 11, 1943 and a succession of prisons and camps followed. In November 1943 he was transferred to the St. Leonard prison in Liege, (where his brother saw him last on March 8, 1944) and then deported to labour camps Gross Strelitz (lime quarry) on 16 May 1944 and Gros Rosen on 10 October 1944. It is difficult to fully comprehend how Goffinet must have felt at that point after fourteen months of captivity and harsh conditions, knowing the end was not yet in sight and he faced the prospect of being worked into the ground on minimal rations. His faith, courage and conviction must have sustained him, and he would have tried to help others - the war would take time to do the rest.As the Allies advanced across Europe on both fronts in 1945, he was put on transport to Dora for four days along with other prisoners to avoid the Russians. This would have been by train with captives crammed into cattle wagons. Further moves followed as the prisoners were regularly herded away from the American advance. On 13 April 1945 with the retreat still on, SS soldiers gunned down Goffinet and around twenty other prisoners and burned the bodies. It was a tragic end.
For most evaders, capture resulted in a POW camp and treatment under the Geneva Convention. For the priests who became involved in resistance and escape line work, discovery and arrest meant imprisonment, interrogation, torture and deportation to a concentration or labour camp, where many died.
Sources:Grateful thanks to Philippe Connart & Eduoard Reniere for links and information on the priests
US File and MIS – X Report for Beauvais303rdbg.com
POW Liberation Report – James BruceUS & RAF Evasion Reports