Six Days in September
It was the first day of September 1941. After an early morning breakfast with friends at Lillers, three men and two women took the train to Bethune - they had a ten o'clock appointment with the mysterious British officer they had only met once before. The train was crowded with German troops but they were used to that. Monday was market day at Bethune and the streets were crowded as they waited in the station café until the officer and two other men joined them. Together they walked onto the platform to meet the train from Lille that would take the men to Abbeville. The women had mixed feelings as they waved good-bye. Helene and Yvonne were glad to see their men were finally on their way home but they would miss them terribly.
Already on the train were four men who had been in France for less than a fortnight. Three of them had come from England, only seeing France briefly from the cockpits of their fighter aircraft. They flew RAMROD missions escorting the bombers to Lille and Chocques or SWEEP flights looking for trouble with the Me109s from Abbeville until each one found more trouble than he could handle. The fourth man had come from Germany. As they travelled across the gently rolling French countryside the two groups were quietly introduced to one another and soon discovered that although they were all dressed as French civilians only two of them were actually French - four of the men were English, one was a Scot, two were Polish and one Czech.
The Scotsman and two of the Englishmen were soldiers who had been living in the heavily militarised zone interdite of northern France for more than a year. They all understood and spoke the language reasonably well and were used to the local customs and conventions. All three had encountered enemy troops many times before and were confident of passing as locals to any Germans they met, although still aware they would be recognised as foreign by any French official who questioned them.
Pte Arthur Fraser was a twenty-five year old Cameron Highlander from Inverness who had been captured with his unit at St Valery-en-Caux in June the previous year. The prisoners were formed into columns and marched across France towards Belgium and Germany. His column was approaching Bethune ten days later and had just reached Divion, where crowds of French lined the road offering food and drink to the tired soldiers, when he dropped out of the ranks at a blind corner and changed into a pair of overalls given to him earlier by a civilian. He was quickly led away to the nearby town of Auchel and sheltered for the night. Within a couple of days he was moved to the MacLeod family home at nearby St Pierre-les-Auchel that was to become a temporary refuge for many allied evaders and where Arthur lived for the next fourteen months. The MacLeods were a Scotsman, Mackay (a veteran of Vimy Ridge and now a naturalised Frenchman known locally as Jacques L'Anglais) and his French wife Fernande with their three children including the eldest Helene, then aged 20. Being obviously older than Helene, Arthur stayed at the house as an illegitimate son with Fernande's maiden name of Bossuge, a story that the whole neighbourhood adopted with some amusement.
Mackay and Fernande MacLeod were arrested in May 1942 and condemned to death, later commuted to life in prison. Mackay died in Diez-Lahn concentration camp near Frankfurt in July 1944. Fernande spent the rest of the war in prison until liberated by the Americans in May 1945. In 1960 Mackay was posthumously awarded the Médaille Militaire and the Croix de Guerre. Fernande was also awarded the Médaille Militaire and made Chevalier de la Légion D'Honneur. Helene was arrested along with her parents and sent to prison for a year. She served her sentence in France before returning to work with the Resistance.
Pte Peter Janes was a twenty-two year old grocers assistant from Esher, Surrey who had been batman to Captain Alex Thomson, commander of A Company in the 2/6 East Surreys. He had been in the army less than six months when he too was captured at St Valery-en-Caux. His headquarters company had been pulling back from their defensive positions near Aumale after an attack that saw two of his officers wounded. Pte Janes had the choice of either joining his one remaining officer or continuing with an adjoining French unit. He chose the French on the grounds that he believed they would have better food. While Lt John Naylor led a small group of men south to be evacuated via Le Mans and St Malo back to England, the French went west towards the coast and St Valery. Peter Janes was marching in the same column as Arthur Fraser and he also escaped at the little village of Divion on 23 June when he was pulled from the line by two French girls, seventeen year old Mathilde Bodlet and her cousin Solange Devise, who handed him a pair of trousers and a shirt to put over his uniform. They took him to a nearby house where he was given endless cups of coffee while a young man shaved away his ten days of beard, but not his new moustache, before the girls walked him across the fields to Mathilde's home in Colonne Ricouart, on the outskirts of Auchel. Mathilde's father Alfred was a miner and he lived with his wife Emma and their children Mathilde, Solange and young Alfred at number 100, the first house on the right of rue d'Alsace Lorraine as you approach from Divion. Peter Janes stayed with them until 24 July when he was moved to Auchel proper and the house of Emma's parents and sister Yvonne.
Yvonne François was also arrested in 1942 and spent the rest of the war in prison. It is believed that she and the MacLeods were betrayed by an English soldier who had taken part in an aborted escape attempt with Arthur Fraser the previous May and then stayed behind when the others left for Spain in September.
Cpl Fred Wilkinson was with his Royal Engineers unit at Les Attaques outside Calais when the German offensive reached their position on 23 May. He evaded capture and found shelter at nearby Campagne les Guines until 19 September when the ORGANISATION moved him to Auchel where he shared the François home with Peter Janes. At first the two soldiers got on well but soon their relationship became strained and by the time they left for Spain the two men were hardly talking to one another.
The third Englishman was F/Lt Denis Crowley-Milling, a young 610 Squadron Spitfire pilot shot down over St Omer just ten days earlier. He had been rescued by the local ORGANISATION and taken to a succession of homes including that of Paulette Gaston (wife of Roger Gaston, later a radio operator for the Pat Line) at Wicquinghem, Norbert Fillerin at Renty and Désiré Didry at St Omer [where he met Alex Nitelet, a wounded Belgian fighter pilot who was brought down the Line a few weeks later and returned to France the following year as radio operator for Pat O'Leary] before being hidden at Madeleine Deram's house where Paul Cole lived in rue Bernadette, near the station at La Madeleine, on the outskirts of Lille.
Sadly almost all of Crowley-Milling's known helpers were later arrested by the Germans for their work with the Organisation - Désiré Didry was executed with the Abbé Pierre Carpentier at Dortmund, and the others sent to concentration camps in Germany, which they survived.
One of the Poles was twenty-five year old Sgt Adolf Pietrasiak and the Czech was twenty-three year old Sgt Rudolf Ptacek. They were both Spitfire pilots, Pietrasiak with 308 Squadron and Ptacek with 222 Czech Squadron, both shot down on the evening of 19 August on the same CIRCUS 82 mission over the Pas de Calais and both rescued by the ORGANISATION that brought them to La Madeleine where they met Crowley-Milling. They were hidden a few streets away in the flat above Jeannine Voglimacci's beauty salon on the rue de Tourenne. Pietrasiak was known as "Archie" and Ptacek became "John Love" for the rest of the journey.
The other Pole was a young cadet called Henryk Stachura (renamed "George Brown") who had escaped from a prison camp in Germany. Whether he was an airman as was assumed at the time or soldier is not clear but Arthur Fraser met him again after the war at Fort William near Inverness with an army unit. Stachura had also been collected by the ORGANISATION and taken to the beauty salon at La Madeleine. One of the Frenchmen was nineteen year old Roland Hector Lepers, one of the ORGANISATION's regular couriers from Lille to Marseille, and the other was an anonymous passeur who left the party at Paris. The fourth Englishman was in charge of the group. He was tall and thin with reddish hair and a small moustache and looked the caricature of a typical Englishman abroad. He liked to tell the French he was an officer in the British Secret Service, and this was how he first introduced himself to the soldiers, but in fact he was a thirty-five year old ex-sergeant in the Royal Engineers named Harold Cole, known to the ORGANISATION as "Paul".
From the station at Abbeville the men walked across the crowded city in pairs, trying to maintain hundred yard intervals as instructed, to St Gilles. A small terrace house next to the big bomb-damaged church was home to twenty-nine year old Abbé Pierre Carpentier. He provided them with new identity cards (complete with photographs the men had brought themselves) and passes for them to cross the Somme and out of the zone rouge. The passes had been issued to local people and loaned to the party for the crossing. Peter Janes was somewhat dismayed to find his Ausweiss and new identity was that of Carpentier himself and since he did not resemble the bearded priest, nor any other clergyman, in the least, he decided to use his own identity card instead. This was of course equally false, acquired a year earlier and made out in the name of Pierre Bertinchon. The Ausweiss was simply a printed card with a nazi eagle and signature of the local Kommandant. Fortunately the German sentry guarding the river bridge failed to notice the different names and he passed across quite easily. This border was the first major hurdle to be crossed and Cole cocked his automatic pistol before venturing onto the bridge to leave the zone interdite.
The Abbé Pierre Louis Joseph Carpentier (1912-1943) was a key agent of the Pat O'Leary Line and he prepared identity cards using his own printing press at his home at 13 place du Cimitiere Saint-Gilles. Believed to have been betrayed by Cole, the Abbé and his widowed mother Julia were arrested at their home on 8 December 1941. Mme Carpentier was released the following April but the Abbé was beheaded at Dortmund on 30 June 1943 along with nine other Pat Line personnel including Bruce Dowding, Protais Dubois (who the soldiers knew) and Désiré Didry. Today the Place Abbé Pierre Carpentier in front of his church at St Gilles is dedicated to his memory.
From Abbeville the party took the four o'clock train to the Gard du Nord in Paris and then almost got separated on the crowded Metro where they were jammed between German soldiers. This was not such a problem for the soldiers who were used to the presence of enemy troops but must have been particularly traumatic for the pilots - especially young Crowley-Milling who was certainly not enjoying himself. They finally arrived at Les Halles and stayed the night at the Hotel Flamel where Peter Janes made a last brief entry in his diary. Actually the hotel was more like a brothel with each room having mirrored walls and ceiling allowing one to "lay and see yourself fucked in forty-one different positions" as Roland Lepers so quaintly put it. They went out to dinner at the Chope de Pont Neuf that night and on their return were approached by three young women with obvious intentions. The aptly named John Love (Ptacek) was the only one to accept an invitation and this so upset his room-mate that Crowley-Milling moved down the hall to share Cole's room.
Next morning they were up before dawn for breakfast at a café where the staff obviously knew what they were and so provided them with the luxury of real coffee. Then it was off to catch the train to Tours, close to the demarcation line. They found the station full of German troops, the usual Army of Occupation but also Gestapo and Death's Head SS men as well as dozens of Military Police plus a few from the Luftwaffe, and even sailors and submariners. After lunch at a café near the station they boarded a little local train but finding it full of German troops, and deciding that more discretion should be used this close to the border, got off again and waited for the later seven o'clock one. They rode just a few stops east to St Martin-le-Beau where the men, all (except Cole) aged between twenty and thirty and all carrying suitcases, studiously ignored one another as they got off at the tiny country station and filed solemnly across the tracks and onto the only footpath that led away from the town and down to the river Cher. They must have looked quite ridiculous and eventually a gendarme stopped Arthur and accused him of being British. It was obvious he knew who they were and where they were going but he simply shook their hands and wished them well. The men then had to wait for darkness before meeting their Portuguese guide and crossing over the river and into the unoccupied zone by way of the precarious repairs of an earlier bombed out bridge. Then it was a long night's march to Loches, some twenty-five kilometres away. They arrived just before dawn, several of them now suffering quite badly, especially Pietrasiak who had already hurt his ankle when his plane had crashed, but they managed to board a train for Chateauroux where some of the men took the opportunity to send postcards to their families before catching another for Toulouse and then the crowded midnight train to Marseille. It was on this part of the journey that the men's personalities started to show through. Rudolf Ptacek, the big Czech pilot proved to be the life and soul of the party whilst Roland Lepers was quite a comic as well, although he did worry the escapers from time to time by practicing his English at inopportune moments. Cole entertained them with (presumably fictitious) stories of his life before the war but said very little about his work in France. Crowley-Milling was the most reserved and he must have had a miserable and frightening time, constantly travelling with German troops and surrounded by people whose language he couldn't understand. The fact that he was the only officer in a party whose leader was an overconfident East End spiv with the most atrocious French accent couldn't have helped.
They arrived at the Gare St Charles in Marseille just after dawn, walked through the barriers after only a superficial check of their identity cards and passed the day shopping to replace some of the things they had somehow managed to lose at Tours. They also got their hair cut and went to the cinema before meeting their contact that evening. They probably met their contact at one of the many cafés along the Canabière - perhaps even the famous Petit Poucet - after which Cole and Lepers left them to return to Lille. They were divided into two parties for the night with Peter Janes, Arthur Fraser, Rudolf Ptacek and Henryk Stachura spending the night in Louis Nouveau's luxurious fifth floor apartment overlooking the harbour at 28a Quai de Rive Neuve [As he knew there was no chance of him getting the precious diaries he had kept since coming to France safely through Spain, Peter Janes took this opportunity to seal them in an envelope, write his address in England on the front and leave them with Louis Nouveau for safe keeping. I like to think it may have been this that prompted Louis to begin recording visitors to his home in his famous volume 44 of Voltaire. After his own miraculous return from Buchenwald in 1945, Louis posted the diaries back to Peter Janes in England] whilst Crowley-Milling, Fred Wilkinson and Adolf Pietrasiak stayed in the big second floor apartment of Dr Georges Rodocanachi at 21 rue de Brignoles [The Rodocanachi apartment was headquarters for the ORGANISATION in Marseille at that time and home to both Ian Garrow and the newly arrived Pat O'Leary although it seems neither were present that night].
Pietrasiak stayed on with Dr Rodocanachi who treated his injured ankle until he was able to join another group that crossed into Andorra the following month but the rest of the party were up at five o'clock next morning. As they left Louis Nouveau asked them to look out for his son "Peter Bedard" at the Miranda del Ebro concentration camp in Spain, their most likely next stop once across the border [Jean-Pierre Nouveau was travelling on French Canadian papers in that name]. This was the first time any of the men had heard of Miranda and they paid little heed in their confident expectation of soon reaching safe territory. A new guide, known simply as Jacques, accompanied them on the train to Perpignan and during the long trip, on hearing American English being spoken in the next compartment, they soon gave up their pretence of being deaf mutes and starting chatting in a wide variety of languages. At Perpignan they were taken to a garage where they handed over their identity cards and most of their money in exchange for 1,200 Spanish pesetas and a ride to the little village of Banyuls-dels-Aspres, at the foot of the Pyrenees. They spent the night and all next day at the only hotel before their mountain guide appeared to lead them through Laroque-des-Albères to cross the Pyrenees that night.
It was just six days since they had left the Pas de Calais.
Details taken from the diaries of Peter Janes, conversations and a memoir from Arthur and Helene Fraser, from "Turncoat" and "Safe Houses are Dangerous" as well as confirmation from official files at the National Archives and personal visits to the Pas de Calais, Abbeville, St Martin-le-Beau and the Pyrenees.