|Rev Donald Caskie|
The Reverend Donald Caskie had been Minister of a Scottish Kirk in Paris, since leaving St Andrews Gretna in 1935 and was well known there for expressing anti-Nazi sentiments from the pulpit. In May 1940 he made hasty preparations to leave his church. France lay on the verge of capitulation and the British Expeditionary Force was in ruins on the beaches of Dunkirk. After making one last visit to the aged members of his congregation who could not escape with him, Caskie joined the columns of refugees and personnel travelling south away from the advancing German Army. It was a slow and dangerous journey with the haphazard columns being exposed to regular attack by Stuka dive bombers and shelling. France was slipping to defeat and the French government relocated to Bordeaux on 10 June to avoid capture. In the chaos of war Caskie found himself amongst a diverse band of humanity including:
French, Polish, Belgian and Dutch troops who had avoided capture in their own battles against the Nazis.
Convicts who had escaped from bombed prisons or been left behind when the guards deserted before the arrival of the enemy.
Frenchmen trying to stay one step ahead of the invader by avoiding the inevitable German forced labour drafts to mines, factories and farms
Men and women who knew they would be on the Nazis Wanted list.
Jews desperate to escape the Occupied and Vichy Zones of France.
British troops separated from their units during the mass retreat to Dunkirk.
Each harboured their own threads of hope, ranging from climbing the Pyrenees into neutral Spain or getting a boat out of Marseille, to making for North Africa, the Middle East or the Americas.
Caskie eventually arrived in the densely populated back streets of Marseille, before the French-German Armistice had been signed. The place was disorganised, politically in limbo and a world away from the life around escape and evasion which would develop as the war progressed. The unfolding Marseille situation would be key in forming the shape of escape and evasion in the town and the very earliest seeds of the Pat O’Leary Escape line.
The old port was a cosmopolitan place with different quarters and cultures from its international trade. Displaced British servicemen had arrived there by hitching on trains and trekking south across country. The remnants of the British Expeditionary Force were trickling in for months after Dunkirk. Men without documents or ration cards, struggling into the town weary and hungry. The early arrivals still found refreshment at the main railway station Gare St Charles, where a government funded canteen operated for a while, being manned continuously by Red Cross volunteers.
Some servicemen had obtained second hand civilian clothes on their journey and walked the streets, relying on charity and hiding at night to sleep rough. It was a difficult time because anti-British feeling ran high in some quarters. The evacuation at Dunkirk had gone ahead and the French felt betrayed by the British. In the days before the Armistice whilst France was still fighting, the radio and press news were fortunately unreliable which added to the confusion, making it easier for the soldiers to be absorbed into the Marseille back streets.
Apart from the humanitarian angle of aiding the soldiers, Caskie spotted amongst the chaos that with increasing numbers of men arriving with no one to feed or organise them, it would be only a matter of time before the French surrender came and they would be picked up, imprisoned or sent to POW camps under the new regime.
He mustered support from the experienced Mr Dean a British Consul in Nice and approached the local police to see what could be done about the problem of the number of stranded British ‘nationals.’ (Although the Armistice had been signed by this time, British civilian nationals were still allowed to leave France.) The local police were in the very early stages of trying to cope with a new Vichy government, plus the Malice (paramilitary body of Fascist Frenchmen.) The traditional Gendarme had already been relegated to more menial work such as traffic duties/ minor offences and they faced a totally different style of policing. Unsure of their ground, the police referred Caskie to the Special Branch who with similar difficulties tried to sidestep the issue by offering to arrange his passage home. He refused as there was important work to be done.
It was therefore carefully suggested by the authorities that Caskie might wish to reopen the old Seamen’s Mission building in Marseille at 46, Rue de Forbin. This was on the proviso that his activities would be watched closely, no military personnel would be hiding there and he could expect raids on the premises with no prior warning.
|Seamens Mission Marseille - C Long|
Caskie took up the challenge and when he arrived to take possession of the Mission, three sailors were already waiting outside. The word must already have spread via the underground networks of town and the American Consul who under international law had taken on responsibility for British affairs after the Armistice.
The sailors helped him put up a notice above his door ‘NOW OPEN TO BRITISH CIVILIANS AND SEAMEN ONLY’ and the Mission was operational by mid-July 1940. The priest hired beds and blankets with what money he possessed and simply opened the place up, welcoming his visitors in a straightforward Christian way. Those who were fit enough he set to work helping to clean the rest of the building, the men received care and food and also had visits from a Doctor (Rodachani see later). Caskie managed to obtain English reading material, packs of cards, dart boards and even billiard tables. It soon became a destination for evaders, initially in civilian clothes, then others began arriving still in their uniform.
By the time Caskie was operational, the old fort of Saint Jean in Marseille had been utilised by the Vichy administration as a temporary prison to hold officers and men from all three British services. Officers were allowed out ‘on parole’ and providing they returned to the fort weekly when ration cards were issued, they were free to move around outside the prison. Consequently it was common to see commissioned ranks in uniform walking around the town, and many lodged there, selling or negotiating deals with their ration cards as food was scarce.
|Fort Saint Jean - J P Dalbera|
The fort was not designed as a prison and escape attempts soon began. In the town, Captain Freddie Fitch (working with Lt William Sillar ) had already taken charge of escape and evasion matters there. He was active in organising and getting men across the Pyrenees to Spain where they could make for Gibraltar. Details around Caskie’s initial involvement in any escape operation (ad hoc or otherwise) are sketchy and most of the source material comes from Caskie himself. In the author’s view, there must have been some early contact between him and Fitch, either directly or indirectly through third parties in order for the evaders in the Mission to be able to move on with some sort of plan after their stay.
The Mission was an ideal place to the fugitives. It had a tough construction with robust fittings and good washing facilities. The need for the occupants inside to reduce movement and camouflage any sound became unnecessary, the frequent use of the lavatory/pulling of bath plugs was not a problem as in many safe houses. There was no need to conceal the increase in refuse either. The big difficulties were:
Security of the Mission - Best Described as Low
Little attempt seems to have been made externally to conceal activities. When a knock at the door came, Caskie would check up and down the street and usher the callers in.
Obtaining Civilian Clothes and Documentation for Evaders
These were acquired from various sources including the Arab quarter of Marseille, British civilians and other locals. The effect of the new Vichy authority was being felt already, raising pro-British sympathies again amongst some areas of the population. Caskie’s role as a priest also appealed to charitable instincts. He tried to keep a bank of surplus clothes in the Mission, hiding them under piles of coal in the basement.
The American Consul acting under international law became responsible for dealing with British affairs after the Armistice. Replacing ‘lost’ identity documents was one of his duties.
Hiding Evaders Who Were Still in Uniform and Without Appropriate Documentation
Evaders in uniform and with no appropriate documentation were briefed where to hide in the Mission should a visit or raid by the authorities occur. A series of concealed places existed, under floorboards, behind cleverly disguised doors or alcoves/false walls , all of which could be made available immediately.
Lack of Food
There were constant shortages and most evaders had no ration cards. Those who did, went to food queues. Caskie went out at 4.00am daily. He gradually built up a good relationship with the Greek and Cypriot merchants of the Vieux port.
Disposal of Uniforms
The uniforms were parcelled and weighted, then taken out at night to the docks area and carefully lowered into the deeper water where the ship came and went. This created more wash and movement.
The Vichy Observations of Arrivals and Departures and the Raids
The French authorities were watching the mission and initially appeared to do nothing. They began to carry out regular raids most mornings around 6.00am and it has been suggested that if further unscheduled searches were to take place, the Mission often knew in advance. As time went on the operation tightened, but one theory was that the French were convinced because of the blatantly obvious nature of the operation that it was a cover for something much bigger, so they held off, as the raids never produced anything.
|Captain Ian Garrow|
In October 1940 Captain Ian Garrow a ‘South African born Scotsman’ arrived at the Saint Jean fort. He had been a POW at Monferran-Savès near L'Isle-Jourdain and was soon on parole in Marseille building up his own experience and contacts. When Captain Fitch made his own move for Spain in December 1940, a good framework for escape and evasion was in already in place with Captains Leslie Wilkins, Charles Murchie and Ian Garrow continuing the work. These men began to work with a Canadian civilian Tom Kenny and a number of local Marseille residents including Louis Nouveau and Dr Georges Rodocanachi (visited the Mission to treat the men staying there) who operated their own safe houses. Donald Caskie had built up a liaison with these players and continued his vital role of running the Mission until his eventual arrest in April 1942.
Safe Houses Are Dangerous - Helen Long
Thanks to Keith Janes for information and a fresh look on Garrow, Fitch and the early days etc. For a full account and recommended reading visit: