Friday, 19 July 2013

Priests and the Evaders - Part Two

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

Lt Francis Harkins
Keeping records of flyers names for administrative purposes was a highly risky business, as not only did the helper put themselves at risk, but they also could endanger the airmen they had assisted. The Abbé used an interesting method of concealing the details of these specific airmen. Light switches at the time had screw top lids (see below). When turned over, the internal side of the top was covered with an insulation material that formed a ring. He wrote on the surface of the material, turned it over to face inwards, so that if the top was unscrewed the writing would still not be visible. It survived the war undiscovered. Note the names below.
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.

Grateful thanks to Philippe Connart & Eduoard Reniere for links and information on the priests

US File and MIS – X Report for Beauvais

POW Liberation Report – James Bruce
US & RAF Evasion Reports


  1. I wonder if these brave people realised how brave they were being at the time. I admire all they did during those harsh times.

    1. I don't think they did Sally. When faced with an occupying power like the Nazis, some patriots could not sit still and accept what was happening.

  2. Another interesting post from Keith about this time Priests who paid the ultimate price for helping the Alllies,look forward the next....
    There follows a story of someone who gave the Nazis the runaround.
    Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, a tall (6ft 2ins) humourous-looking Irish man from Kerry had tousled hair that stood up like a brush’s bristles, eyes which twinkled through his thin-rimmed glasses and a fixed cherubic smile.
    O’Flaherty made it his practice to stand on the steps of St Peter’s every evening, overlooking the great square in his black and red Monsignor’s robes, reading - or seeming to read - his breviary. People would come up to talk and keep him informed of escaped prisoners who needed hiding places.
    Having served in the Vatican since the Twenties, he had contacts and friends in high places throughout Rome. Furthermore, the Vatican’s neutral territory included not only the rambling warren of St Peter’s but 150 other properties, monasteries, convents and religious houses scattered through the city. All possible hidey-holes.
    O’Flaherty also had a valuable friend and neighbour in the British envoy to the Vatican, Sir D’Arcy Osborne, who gave the Rome Escape Line enormous help with funds channelled from the Foreign Office and a loan raised from the Vatican bank.
    The Escape Line’s first customer was a British sailor called Albert Penny who put on workman’s overalls and rode a bike through St Peter’s Square, round the fountains and into the garden of the Vatican.
    It seems to have been that easy. The Swiss guards were no obstacle. The Vatican policeman who stopped Penny was a sympathiser who directed him to the British Ambassador’s flat, where Sir D’Arcy’s butler, John May, was one of the organisers of the Escape Line. He was the first not of hundreds but of thousands of escaped POWs of various nationalities who received the hospitality of Monsignor O’Flaherty and his circle.
    By the time Rome was liberated there were nearly 4,000 escapees secretly billeted through the city, many of them in private houses of sympathisers. They cost some £10,000 a month to feed. A white line was painted on the roads encircling the Vatican. Beyond that line the Gestapo ruled under the command of SS Lt Colonel Herbert Kappler. Kappler knew well of O’Flaherty’s Escape Line and regarded him as a major enemy. The two of them fought a cat-and-mouse game around Rome. The priest was under constant observation on the steps of St Peter’s, as were his visitors, mail and telephone calls. There were even attempts to kidnap him. Once, Kappler got a tip off that O’Flaherty was at the Palazzo with Prince Doria, one of his biggest financial contributors. As the Gestapo arrived, O’Flaherty disappeared down the stairs to the cellars. Luckily the winter coal delivery was in progress. The priest emerged from the building smeared with black dust and carrying a coal sack, which contained his Monsignor’s robes. Two hours later the Prince rang him at the Vatican to say: ‘Colonel Kappler has been here for two hours. He is a very angry man.’
    Sometimes O’Flaherty ventured boldly into the streets to keep a rendezvous with escapees. He often took spare priest’s robes to disguise them as he brought them back to the Vatican.
    Kappler ordered raids to be made on Vatican properties - but somehow the Escape Line usually got advance notice and no one was found. An attempt to infiltrate the Georgian College of the Vatican with bogus priests was quickly rumbled.
    Kappler managed to make things difficult for the escapees, but never seriously damaged the operation. Nor did he catch O’Flaherty, despite offering a 30,000 lire reward for information leading to his arrest.
    Rome was liberated on June 4, 1944, by the Fifth Army. On the steps of St Peter’s, the Monsignor stood waiting for General Mark Clark, its commander. ‘Welcome to Rome!’ he said. ‘Is there anything I can do for you?’The whole story was made into a film starring Gregory Peck called ‘The Scarlet and the Black’.

    ‘War does not determine who is right - only who is left.’
    Bertrand Russell

    1. Thanks Helen. I have yet to look at this character in detail. Do have a trawl through info on The Roman Ratlines starting with Bishop Alois Hudalth was involved in helping wanted Nazi war criminals to escape the Allies. Odessa is in there too.

  3. Fascinating stuff, Keith and so beautifully illustrated with the photos.

  4. Thanks Liz. Such a fascinating story. I have Robert Beauvais' file in connection with his US Medal of Freedom Bronze palm and it makes interesting reading.