Friday, 26 July 2013

Priests and the Evaders - Part Three

During World War Two, some priests in occupied Western Europe chose the dangers of escape or intelligence work to fight for the cause, clearly knowing the consequences of discovery or betrayal. 
Many were arrested and deported or executed. When trawling back through information to track the movements and fate of these patriots through prisons and camps; the sparse matter of fact details become instantly striking. Often confined to just arrival, departure and death dates these are illustrative of the organised clinical regime the patriots were fighting against, and the mass dehumanisation process of offenders that the Nazis operated. The men featured in this post are shown only as a gallery of brief illustrations in one tragic aspect of the war. 

Father Vincent Mercier

Father Vincent Mercier was thirty four and involved with the Comete Escape Line. Key operator Michou Dumon headed the Ugeux-Dumon cell in Belgium in 1943 and Father Mercier became active inside a sub-section of this known as ‘Lhoneux.’  Evaders were sheltered in the Putte Kapellen area of Antwerp before being moved south to the main assembly points in Brussels. January 1944 saw Mercier become a victim of the Comete Line’s collapse when he was arrested by the Gestapo, interrogated and tortured. Eventually transported to Theresienstadt concentration camp, Mercier died on 15 May 1945 soon after liberation by the Russians.

Putte Kapellan
Theresienstadt concentration camp  Czecholslovakia

Father Joseph Peeters - Philippe Hamoir Esneux

Father Joseph Peeters had been a priest since April 1920 and a pastor at Comblain-au-Pont in Belgium from 1933. He became involved in a range of resistance activities including moving aircrew evaders, espionage, supplying forged documents and assisting other networks.  Arrested on 1 December 1942 he was imprisoned in St Leonard in Liege until 17 December 1942 and then Saint Gilles Brussels. Sentenced to death by Feldkriegsgericht (German war Court sitting at the Palais de Liège) on 1 June 1943 he was shot at The Citadel of Liege at 6.00am on 31 August 1943.  

Block 24 Citadelle de Liege For Those Condemned to Death - maison de

Commemorative Stained Glass Window at Camblain au Pont

Georges Moussiaux

Pastor of Limont Georges Moussiaux worked in the network ‘Clarence’ which was the largest intelligence gathering operation in Belgium. Other priests were also active in the same organisation, but did not shelter or transport evaders. On 8 July 1942 Moussiaux was arrested and incarcerated at St Leonard prison Liège, then later deported to Bochum. A familiar pattern followed with transfers to further camps and prisons, until he died on 3 May 1945.

Abbé Julien Joseph LePlat 

A member of ‘Group Jam’ Abbé  Julien Joseph LePlat was pastor at Heer sur Meuse and involved in aiding evaders when he was arrested on 7 January 1944. Sent to the horrors of Buchenwald, the priest died on 17 September 1944, six weeks after sustaining wounds in a bombing raid. 

Heer sur Meuse
Abbot Jules Grandjean
Abbot Jules Grandjean was arrested on 15 May 1942 at Willerzie where he been a pastor since 1936. His involvement with moving evaders through a thick forest area on the Franco/Belgian border into the unoccupied zone had been discovered by the Germans. Imprisonment followed in St Gilles for fifteen months, before deportation on 28 August 1943 to Essen and subsequent camps at Munster, Cassel and finally Hamein. At Hamein, he was sentenced to forced labour and transferred to Brieg, Gross - Strelitz, and finally in May 1944 to Gross - Rosen. Grandjean died near Gross-Rosen on February 11, 1945 during the forced March of prisoners to Dora.

Additional Sources 
The US Medal of Freedom Awarded to Belgians for Services During WW2 – Peter Verstraeten

©Keith Morley

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

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

Saturday, 6 July 2013

He Flew Back By Lysander

Sergeant John Tweed - Mrs J Tweed

Sergeant John Tweed took off from RAF Tempsford at 22.35 on 12 May 1943 in an eight man crew on board Halifax BB313 NF-M. Operation Roach which included supplies drops to the French Resistance was another SOE mission for RAF 138 (Special Duties Squadron). Homebound the aircraft was hit by light flak and a fire quickly spread on board. The pilot gave the order to abandon aircraft, and it crash landed in open country south west of Troyes in France before some of the crew could bale out.  
Those left in the aircraft had no time to prepare themselves and were badly thrown around before the aircraft came to a stop. Some were in worse shape than others. Tweed had sprained his ankles, injured a hand and he had a deep gash in his leg. The crew immediately faced the same problems as any airmen making a forced landing in enemy territory. They had to destroy anything of importance inside the aircraft and if physically able, get away from the crash area immediately.

Crashed  Halifax Bomber

Fire continued to burn through the aircraft and Tweed managed to help free the injured from the wreckage. No one had been killed, and it was time for anyone fit enough to leave. He limped slowly across the countryside, every step was agony and progress desperately slow. A nearby field of corn would keep him out of view for the night, but he knew the burning aircraft was still too close. The choices had been made for him. He was in no fit state to go any further.  Searches would begin at first light, so his best chance was to rest up and make a decision then.   
The dawn came. All remained quiet through the morning. Passing foot and occasional motor traffic looked routine. There was no sign of military vehicles arriving, enemy soldiers with dogs or discovery by the locals. Tweed decided to gamble on remaining undiscovered if he stayed put.  His injuries must have been the deciding factor in arriving at this decision. His ankles and leg were not up to walking and an injured man limping painfully about in daylight was a sure way to attract attention.
One thing did occur to him. Although it was not a welcome thought, it might inadvertently help him. Halifax BB313 NF-M carried a crew of eight instead of the usual seven. If the remaining men had been captured, the Germans would be likely to cease search operations in the crash area. Tweed resolved to hide in the field until after dark, then attempt to stand up and find help.   
Once night fell, it became clear that walking even short distances would remain a problem. He would almost certainly be picked up if he wasn’t sheltered quickly. He knew some key choices had to be made, as becoming a POW without doing everything possible to evade was simply not an option.
Tweed chewed a caffeine tablet from his escape kit to give himself a lift and struggled off towards the nearest village which was just visible.  Pommereau merged into the blackout, but there was one house showing a light, so he stayed in the shadows and hobbled towards it. He edged along a wall to a window where the light was showing and heard the call of an ‘Ici Londres’ radio broadcast. Listening to this station was strictly forbidden, as it came from the Free French in London and the news contained coded messages.
A house not properly observing blackout might be a good starting point to seek help, although in the countryside of Southern France, there were isolated lapses which did not automatically signify anti German attitudes. Tweed knocked on the door. Hurried activity followed and the radio went silent. A woman holding a small boy answered and looked straight at the pilot’s wings on his battledress. Tweed had not removed any insignia from his uniform as advised in his evasion training and he was hurried into the room that contained the radio. A group of men sat in silence looking at him.
Monsieur Charton was the husband of the woman answering the door. The couple ran a farm and set about attending to Tweed’s injuries as best they could. The other men left and he was fed before being hidden in a partly derelict farm building used by some of the workers. Madame Charton brought him food twice a day and she altered his RAF battledress to resemble the dress of a local labourer.
The routine remained unchanged until a had week passed, then a villager arrived to ask a series of detailed questions (see last week’s post The Questions). The next day his injuries were treated by the local doctor and Tweed was left to rest up. During this time, the information he had given was thoroughly examined to ensure that he was not a German ‘plant.’ Unknown to Tweed he was right in the middle of the local Goelette Resistance Group who were controlling each move of his shelter, right down to the doctor visiting. Primary or secondary radio contact with London would be a virtual certainty and when Tweed’s identity details were verified via radio, the Resistance would decide on the validity of the rest of the information.
Three further weeks passed before Tweed began his journey. He was moved to a safe house in the town of Troyes where a photograph was taken for his false identity card. That evening further questioning took place. An Englishman arrived (unknown to Tweed, a member of SOE supporting the local Resistance movement) and he drilled down to find out more about Tweed before letting him move on to another safe house for the night. The next afternoon Pierre Malsant, the leader of the Goelette Resistance Group took him to a café in a small village west of Troyes to await the next part of the plan. He stayed in an upstairs room for three weeks apart from being allowed downstairs for a time in the evenings to exercise, courtesy of the café’s owners Monsieur and Madame Bourgeois.


Whilst in hiding, Tweed was visited by a young Frenchman attempting to escape to England. The pair decided they could reach the Pyrenees via Biarritz and the Frenchman would reconnoitre the route. Unfortunately he was arrested by the Geheime Feldpolizei ruling out any further attempts that way.
The Resistance decided to route Tweed via Paris. Although Malsant fronted the operation, it is likely SOE had a hand in the new strategy. French guide Sam Chevalier escorted the airman to the capital and gave Tweed shelter for two days before taking him to the home of Monsieur Henri Boucher and his wife where the airman hid for eight weeks.
For the evader placed in this situation, it paid to remain vigilant, although as per their training, they were expected to follow instructions given to them by the Resistance. It is unlikely that Tweed knew the full extent of who he was involved with the details of what would happen until the last moment. It made sense to work on a ‘need to know’ basis in exactly the same way as the escape lines and other resistance organisations.   
It may have come as no surprise that ‘The Englishman’ Tweed had met in Troyes, turned up at the safe house address. What may have surprised him was the hour deadline to prepare for the next move in his evasion.
‘The Englishman’ took Tweed to a café where the handover to Pierre Piot took place. Piot worked for the Swiss Red Cross which provided an ideal blind for carrying out work helping evaders. He was able to shelter Tweed in his flat in Rue Montmartre for a week before a sudden move instigated by ‘the Englishman’ came early in the morning of 17 September. The pair travelled out of Paris by train and arrived at a country station near Angers and met their contact who advised that ‘the reception’ would be that evening. The two men were escorted to a farm where four other travellers were waiting.

Captain Ben Cowburn - SOE

‘The Englishman’ revealed his identity as Captain Ben Cowburn, leader of the SOE ‘Tinker Circuit’ supporting the Resistance in the Troyes area of France. A rendezvous with an aircraft would take place that night. The group set off just after twelve and waited in a field under cover of darkness.

Lysander - Caz Caswell

At the sound of an aircraft engine, the recognition signal was flashed by torch and a Lysander guided in by two lines of torches. In typical style for this kind of operation, the engine on the aircraft remained running  whilst three passengers got out, messages and parcels were exchanged and three members of the party who had bicycled to the location somehow jammed themselves into rear cockpit which was designed to take one person. As soon as the aircraft became airborne another Lysander came in and Tweed and two others were soon on their way back to RAF Tangmere. It had taken him four months and five days to get home. From the crew of eight in the Halifax, Sergeants W Marshal and J T Hutchinson also managed to evade capture and make it back, the rest became POWs.

Shot Down and On The Run  - Air Commodore Graham Pitchfork
IS9 Files
Bomber Command Losses 1943 - W R Chorley
©Keith Morley

Monday, 1 July 2013

The Questions

Allied evaders in World War Two faced inevitable questioning once they came into contact with the resistance or escape lines. In Holland, Belgium and France, the evader would usually be sheltered and then passed amongst local patriots until the bigger players became involved. Few of the locals spoke much English, and many evaders had little or no knowledge of Dutch, Flemish or French, so initial verbal communication involved little direct questioning.
Anyone helping an Allied serviceman risked everything. The Germans had made the penalties for engaging in this very clear – capital punishment for men and deportation to a concentration camp for women. Other members of the family were also at risk as many were arrested and shipped off, so taking steps at an early stage to establish that the evader was genuine became vital.
The enemy regularly attempted to infiltrate resistance and escape lines at any point. The main lines tended to operate as separate links in one large chain, with only a few main operators knowing more than their link. This was good security practice which helped prevent or slow down mass collapses  after members had been arrested and tortured to reveal information. Because the lines were organised in this way, evaders found themselves still being quizzed at various points in their journey, long after the initial 'test' had been passed. 
Although evacuations by sea (and a few by Lysander aircraft) took place, many evaders moved south west down lines towards Spain and the Pyrenees. Airmen landing in Holland and also their helpers, faced very serious challenges. The Dutch coast was well guarded; constantly shifting sandbanks made navigation difficult, the land was flat and there were few hiding places. Escape by boat was rarely an option.

In March 1942 the Germans also began the ‘Englandspiel’ penetration of Dutch intelligence, which gradually expanded until the majority of intelligence operations in Holland had been compromised. The Abwehr had the upper hand, making large numbers of arrests and slowing the development of other resistance groups.  This had a significant effect on the Dutch Escape Lines. Networks including the Smit-van der Heijden and Dutch Paris Lines were under constant threat of discovery and infiltration.
For the evader, once they had landed in Holland there was little time to locate a hiding place or shelter after reaching the ground. Flat land, straight roads and good observation networks enabled the Germans to close in on parachutists and crash sites very quickly. As the air war intensified; the numbers of RAF and American aircraft in the skies grew. This led to an inevitable increase in Allied airmen baling out of their aircraft. Many were captured, but some managed to go into hiding with the locals.
For obvious reasons the Germans considered it vital that airmen were quickly located. Those who had slipped through the net plus the patriots who aided them had to be tracked down and dealt with. In Holland, the enemy attempted to use moles to infiltrate resistance and Escape lines more than anywhere else. By 1942 the strength of German intelligence there, enabled a greater chance of success and there were less established escape lines operating than in Belgium and France.
The classic mole ploy was to place an English speaking German (often agent or flyer or traitor) dressed in the uniform of an allied airman, somewhere in the area near a crash site. The fake evader would often already have information about the crashed aircraft and the name of a specific member or members of its crew. The latter information came from a captured airman from the aircraft who had given his name, rank and number according to the Geneva Convention and may have unwittingly also revealed additional facts. After the first patriots had assisted the ‘airman’, the next point of referral was usually the local resistance or actual escape line. If the fake could burrow his way in, major damage and a domino effect of arrests and collapse of various links in the network would follow.
The disastrous effect of infiltration by fake airmen was described by Elsie Bell in her diary. She had married a Belgian soldier Georges Maréchal whom she met in London during an air raid in the First World War. Twenty years later in Nazi occupied Brussels, Elsie was operating with the Comete Escape Line.
‘On 18 November 1942 ‘E’* was due at headquarters at 2 pm. Just as we were sitting down to table at midday ‘B’* went to answer a ring at the door. There were two fellows with a guide whom we knew from Namur. The two airmen were introduced as Americans. The guide left and we gave them dinner. They spoke good American English, they were not so sympathetic as the other fellows we’d had. ‘E’ had to rush to get to HQ in time and ‘B’ had left for school, so I was alone in the house.

I spoke a little with them and could not help feeling a little suspicious about them. The taller one in answer to my question said he came from Jersey City, but Jersey he pronounced with a slight foreign accent. I made up my mind to communicate our impressions to the chief on the very next occasion. Then the doorbell rang. I went directly to ask them to be upstairs to be out of the way in case of visitors, but the taller one was coming to meet me and grasped my arm with one hand and with a revolver in the other said ‘Madame, the game is up.’ The other small fellow had opened the door and let in another man of the GFP (Geheime Feld Polizei)
…The two so called Americans were Germans in disguise. They’d succeeded in entering the line at its source and had followed it up to Brussels. Sad to say, one who had worked in our line had turned traitor and so made such a thing possible. Then followed arrest after arrest in Nmaur, Ciney, Brussels etc.’

* ‘E’- young Elsie - Elsie senior’s eighteen year old daughter, also working for Comete

* ‘B’- Robert (Bobby) -  son aged sixteen.

Resistance and Escape Lines had to establish the evader was genuine at a very early stage, so prepared their own questions to test the serviceman (fairly brief questions usually geared to an airman.) Anyone who did not pass was eliminated. Problems could arise when the evader would not disclose military or personal information because of training or his own doubts about the validity of his interrogators.
RAF personnel were instructed in their evasion training to cooperate with the Resistance once they had made contact, but in the early stages of shelter, trust was a difficult call on both sides and obtaining the necessary information from evaders could be a cagey process. American airmen received minimal evasion training until later in the war and many refused to complete local questionnaires.
One strategy around this difficulty was for the Resistance and Escape Lines to ask about general military terms and slang which only genuine English or Americans would know plus questions on current information around the UK.  This could present problems, especially if not targeted in the right way. Comete evader Sergeant George Duffee 78 Squadron RAF was interrogated in 1943 by the local Dutch resistance at gunpoint. He described what happened:

Sgt George Duffee
‘They asked me the sorts of questions that I couldn’t answer – like what’s the latest show in London…I didn’t know, I was based in Yorkshire. ID tags? I left them at home…you can’t believe it now, but they did just actually take people outside and shoot them. So they took a vote. I won by one vote.’ (The vote belonged to a Dutch school teacher he met after 5 days alone on the run) ‘He said let’s give him a chance.’

Not all experiences were the same as Duffee’s. In November 1943, T/Sergeant Ronald Morley of RAAF 467 Squadron was questioned by a member of the Belgian ‘White Army’ in a village south east of Antwerp.
‘I was only just twenty two, and he looked maybe eighteen or nineteen if that. His English was good and he explained why he was asking the questions. He told me about the Boche pretending to be RAF airmen. In the end I gave him my name, rank and number. He had a small notebook and pencil and I could see my name already written at the top. We reached a point where he sat back in the chair and told me he knew what we had been instructed to say, but if they were going to try and help me, we would have to trust each other. He told me his name was ‘Denise’ (I assumed that was a codename), then he began to ask about my aircraft and crew. There were questions about me, my date of birth, where I lived, my parents’ names and my occupation before the war. He even asked me to name a building I had visited in my home city and why. I also got asked what ‘Groupy’ and ‘duff gen’ were.’

The network helping Morley had good radio contact with London (two SOE agents were operating in the area) and where this occurred it clearly influenced the content of the questioning. Some days later after his details had been verified, Morley was told, if they had not checked out he would have been shot and buried in the nearby fields as someone had been a fortnight before.

The RAF and later the Americans dropped in questionnaires to help the resistance and escape lines collect information to establish whether an evader was genuine or not. With good radio links, verification of personal information could be made and where this was not available, judgement calls could be taken based on the rest of the answers given. As the war progressed, the questionnaires were refined, with the Resistance and escape lines making their own additions and English speakers adding in their own ‘catch’ questions, but the threat of imposters was always there and some of the smaller escape operations always remained especially vulnerable.

RAF Questionnaire - Featured in Downed Allied Airmen and Evasion and Evasion of Capture: The Role -. Herman Bodson
The RAF Questionnaires focused much more on factual information. Additional questions could be added by those seeking the information.  

The sheet for Joseph Ashbrook was completed in Holland in 1944. Although meant to cover Allied airmen from Britain and its colonies and America, it leans towards RAF service jargon. There is no request for a date of birth which most questionnaires had. American Ashbrook is unable to answer some of the questions, but there is enough dual content for him to satisfy his interrogators, and any radio contact would verify the identity details. He did not manage to evade and became a POW in Stalag Luft One.

Dutch Questionnaire for  Joseph Ashbrook

Sgt Joseph Ashbrook

In the list of questions on US flyer Sgt Charles Lambert's sheet there is space to add details of the incident around the aircraft and what had happened to the evader since.

Questionnaire for Sgt Charles Lambert

Lambert evaded via the Comete Line (photo for false ID)

Once a line was satisfied as to an evader’s identity, they would move him on, but contacts continued to ask questions, especially when he passed from one link to another on the journey. Australian Bob Kellow a Dambuster from RAF 617 Squadron gave a good example of what happened when he was in Tournhout Belgium with his new guide ‘Lily’ ('Michou' Dumon):

 ‘What is a Wimpey?’ she asked me.

‘A Wellington bomber.’ I replied correctly.

‘Can you name three heavy bombers used by the RAF?’ she asked.

‘Lancaster, Halifax and Stirling.’ I shot back.
She seemed satisfied and went on to inform me that she would be taking me to Brussels via Antwerp the next morning.’
Questions did not end once an evader crossed into Spain. If he made himself known to their Police or was arrested, further questioning would follow from the Spanish Police and then the British authorities. Once at Gibraltar he could look forward to another interview before a full debrief in London with IS9 or MIS- X.

© Keith Morley

Downed Allied Airmen and Evasion of Capture: The Role - Herman Bodson
Ashcroft Questionnaire -  Bruce Bolinger
Ashcroft Photo -
Extract from Elsie Maréchal's diary taken from 'A Quiet Woman's War by kind permission of William Etherington. Grateful thanks to the author. (Recommended read.)
Paths to Freedom  -Bob Kellow