The Big Party
Perhaps the largest party the northern ORGANISATION ever took to Marseille was a mixed group of thirteen airmen and soldiers who left the Pas de Calais in October 1941. They were escorted by Harold 'Paul' Cole, Roland Lepers and Madeleine Damerment to Paris where they were joined by Suzanne Warenghem.
Although accounts only describe the third courier as "a friend of Roland's", this was Roland's fiancée Madeleine Damerment. She had also accompanied Lepers and Cole on their previous trip to Marseille (which took Dvr Strachan mentioned below). After the arrests of Cole and so many others in the north in December 1941, Roland and Mlle Damerment left Lille. They crossed the Pyrenees in separate parties, organised by the Ponzan-Vidal organisation, in March 1942 and met up again in London.
P/O Alexandre E J G Nitelet (613) was a pilot in the Belgian Air Force before the war but joined the RAF in the summer of 1940. On 9 August 1941, Alex was flying 609 Squadron Spitfire W3254 on a bomber escort mission known as Circus 68 over the Pas de Calais. He claimed one Me109 before he became one of eight Spitfires lost on that mission. He was shot down by the 109 of Karl Borris of 6/JG 26 and crash-landed near the little village of Renty. Alex was badly injured in the crash when his aircraft overturned, suffering head injuries that led to the loss of his right eye but he was at least fortunate in landing so close to the home of one of the local ORGANISATION's most active members. Norbert Fillerin quickly arranged for Alex to see Dr Guy Delpierre from nearby Fauquembergues who treated Nitelet for more than six weeks until he was sufficiently recovered to be moved to Lille and then on to Burbure to join the group being assembled there for the long journey south. Click here for more details about Alex Nitelet.
S/Ldr Harry E Bufton (610) was pilot of 9 Squadron Wellington W5703 and returning from a raid on Cologne when the engines failed. In the early hours of the morning of 27 August 1941, the six man crew baled out over Catillon, south-east of Cambrai in northern France. Bufton walked to the first house in Catillon where he was given food and an overcoat and then met a farmer who directed him to the barn where he found fellow crew-member Sgt Bill Crampton. When Sgt William F Crampton (627) landed he used his button compass to start him in the right direction to look for his companions. He found a man who pointed him towards the farm where Sgt J T Stickles, Sgt S R Murray and Sgt D A Wright were hiding but before he could reach them he was diverted to the barn where he met Bufton - they later learnt that the other three men were captured that day. Bufton and Crampton stayed hidden in the barn until evening when the farmer took them a few miles south to another farm near Guise where they were hidden in a duck-shooting hut for ten days. Then they were moved to Caudry and finally to a house in Beauvois-en-Cambresis, south-east of Cambrai, where they were hidden for two weeks while the ORGANISATION were contacted. On 21 September, the two men were taken to a café at Tourcoing and then to Hem for another two weeks. Finally they were taken on to La Madeleine where they found the last member of their crew still at liberty, Ken Read. Sgt Kenneth B Read (626) landed near Landrecies, a little further north than the others. After several hours walking he met a Belgian who hid him in his house in a nearby village where he learnt that three of his fellow crewmen had been captured. Next day he walked north to Orsinval where he was befriended by a baker who hid him for the next six weeks while the ORGANISATION was contacted. After a trip to Lille for new clothing and an identity card, he was reunited with Bufton and Crampton and the three men taken to Burbure where they were to be hidden for the next three weeks.
On 20 September 1941, Flying Officer R G A (George) Barclay (606) was shot down by fighters whilst escorting Blenheim bombers back from a Saturday afternoon diversionary raid on Hazebrouck. He landed his 611 Squadron Spitfire W3816 wheels-up in a field near Buysscheure, north-east of St Omer, and started running. After turning down the offer of work at a nearby farm but accepting a coat and trousers, he continued on to Nordpeene where Madame Ourse gave him a glass of wine, a pair of overalls and some boots in exchange for his uniform. Madame's young daughter then took him to Maurice Ghorice's home at Cassel where the twenty-one year old airman spent his first night in occupied France. Next morning Maurice left early for Lille to contact the ORGANISATION while Barclay stayed in bed until his return that evening. On the Monday morning, Maurice and Barclay walked into bomb-damaged Hazebrouck and took the train to Lille.
Much of the detail about Barclay comes from his diary as reproduced in "Fighter Pilot" and here the editor Humphrey Wynn inserts a note about an incident on Hazebrouck station which is told in yet more detail in A J Evans book "Escape and Evasion". Johnny Evans is best known for his 1921 book "The Escaping Club" but in 1940 he joined MI9 as a liaison officer and I assume he used this opportunity to interview Barclay personally on his return to England.
The rendezvous was in a church and their contact took the photograph that Barclay had brought from England to complete the identity card she produced later that day before Barclay was taken to stay in a house nearby. On Wednesday, Barclay was moved again, this time to stay with Madeleine Deram [arrested with Cole 15 December 41] and her son at Avenue Bernadette in La Madeleine and that afternoon he met her friend Fernand Salingue for the first time. On the Friday, Fernand returned to take him to his home in the country at Burbure, a tiny village on the outskirts of Lillers [although now separated by a motorway] and just a couple of miles north of Auchel, where his wife Elisa cooked them eggs and chips for supper.
George Barclay stayed with the Salingue family at Burbure for two weeks. He spent most of his time in the house reading or playing with their son Jean but he also went cycling with Fernand and Jean to visit their relatives and even had a drink in the local bar. They also had many visitors and one night held a party with seven of the men who were to accompany him on his journey south. The day after the party Paul Cole arrived. Click here for more details about Harold 'Paul' Cole.
At a quarter to four in the afternoon of 21 September 1941, and just forty minutes after taking off from his base at Kenley in Surrey, Sgt Patrick H Bell (628) found himself hanging from a parachute more than a mile above the Pas de Calais. He had been flying his 602 Squadron Spitfire AB780 as fighter escort on a CIRCUS mission to bomb Bethune when he was shot down by an Me109F. He landed close to a farm at the tiny village of Wicquinghem and was immediately taken into the farmhouse and given civilian clothes. Next day, he was taken to Norbert Fillerin's farm at nearby Renty and Dr Delpierre called to treat the wounds he sustained from the Messerschmitt's cannon fire. This is when Bell first met Alex Nitelet, still recovering from his head injuries. Some weeks later the two men were moved to Burbure.
P/O Oscar H Coen (612) was an American 71 (Eagle) Squadron pilot from Chicago. On 20 October 1941, he was flying a two ship low-level RHUBARB flight in Spitfire AB827 looking for "targets of opportunity" over Calais. He was hit by the debris from a train he had just attacked and forced to bale out a few miles south of the town. He hurt both ankles in the landing but still managed to walk about three miles before finding someone to help him. He had his ankles bandaged and was given food, some clothes, a bicycle and directions to an address in Lumbres, about 16 kms south-east of St Omer, where he was hidden for four days until the ORGANISATION collected him and took him to Lillers.
Several years after I first posted this account, I read the 2005 book 'Aircraft Down' by Philip D Caine. Caine interviewed Oscar Coen many years after the war and his (very well written) version of events is slightly different to mine. One thing that immediately leapt out at me was the inclusion of Suzanne Wharenghem's comments on Paul Cole - I believe these were actually the opinions of Madeleine Damerment, who isn't mentioned in the book. He also says that after Marseille, Coen was taken to Nimes for several days before crossing the Pyrenees - which I don't dispute but have no knowledge of.
L/Bdr Edward W Dimes (RHA) (662) Gnr John 'Jack' H Clapham (RHA) (678) and Dvr J Strachan (RASC) (661) were captured at St Valery-en-Caux and like most of the prisoners, marched across the country towards Belgium and the POW camps of Germany. It took nearly two and half weeks for the column to pass Bethune and an area that Strachan knew well from having been stationed there for six months during the 'phoney war'. Next day, as they approached the little village of Fourens-en-Weppes, north of La Bassée and just 10 kms from their next overnight stop at Lille, the three men slipped out of the long marching line. Clapham was helped by a French girl who took him to the barn where Dimes and Strachan were hiding. Once the column had passed, the owner of barn came over to give them clothes and money and treat them to a meal in the local café where they were sheltered for the night. In the morning they were taken to the neighbouring village of Wicres and again given food and shelter for the night. Next day, Clapham made for Calais while Dimes and Strachan headed for the coast at Gravelines where they hoped to find transport across the Channel - many early escapers had similar ideas but soon found that escape by sea was virtually impossible. After this disappointment the two men returned inland to more familiar territory at Laventie where they were sheltered in an old pillbox and supplied with food each day by the local farmer. They stayed at Laventie for three weeks before trying to reach the coast once more but by then German security was much stricter and they were forced to return inland again, this time to St Omer where they hid in a garden shed until brought into the family home and moved to the attic at the end of July. Clapham arrived at St Omer in August and soon met a man in a café who arranged for him to stay on a nearby farm for six months where the owner's uncle had an English friend (but naturalised French) who contacted the ORGANISATION for him. In February 1941, the Englishman also arranged for Clapham to move to another farm near his own home just north of St Omer at St Martin-au-Laert. In late July, the ORGANISATION took Strachan to Burbure to join another group being taken south while Dimes stayed at the house in St Omer for another month before the ORGANISATION took him and Clapham to Lillers. All three men were sheltered in a variety of houses in Burbure and neighbouring Lillers while the two escape parties were being assembled.
Pte Archie Neill (677) Pte Andrew Pow (689) and Pte Joseph Ross (690) were all Gordon Highlanders captured at St Valery-en-Caux and they escaped their line of march together at Templeuve, just over the Belgian border west of Tournai on 30 June [for some reason Ross and Pow's combined MI9 report says Robert Reid also escaped with them but this is wrong]. They hid on a farm for the rest of the day where the occupants gave them food and civilian clothes, then left for the French border that evening. They were helped across the frontier to Cysoing by two French gendarmes and sheltered with a variety of families, including one at Louvil just south of Cysoing, which they shared with Pte James Smith (later a PAO courier) for a couple of months from August, until settling at Auchy, east of Bethune. Finally the ORGANISATION was contacted and in October 1941 they went to Lille to meet Paul Cole who agreed to help them escape. Two days later they were sent to Lillers, given new identity cards and taken to Burbure.
Spr Robert Reid (693) and his 171 Tunnelling Company of Royal Engineers had been sent to Boulogne just four days before the German attack on the town in May 1940. He and several other men managed to get away in the confusion and he and Spr W Harper went to Marquise, north of Boulogne, where they were joined by Gnr E A Hooper (522) who had been captured naked whilst trying to swim from Calais and subsequently escaped a line of march. The three men found civilian clothes in an abandoned farmhouse and made their way to Le Wast, about 12 kms east of Boulogne, where they were sheltered in a barn until winter when they moved into the farmhouse. In May 1941, a man from the ORGANISATION took them first to Auchel, where they stayed the weekend, and then to Corbie on the river Somme to cross the border from the zone interdite into occupied France. They went to the station café where they met Pte Arthur Fraser (653) and another soldier named George Pearson, who had also been brought there by the ORGANISATION. At ten-thirty that evening they tried to board a goods train beside the railway bridge but they were spotted by a German officer. Fraser and Reid ran back into the café and through the bar to the front door where there were about a dozen German soldiers. Fraser got away in the confusion but Reid was arrested and questioned next day in front of the German Kommandant by a French civilian who told the Kommandant that Reid was French. After his release the next morning Reid and two Belgians from the party crossed the Somme by boat and went to Paris then on to Poitiers. They were unable to find a guide to take them across the demarcation line to Vichy France so Reid, still with one of the Belgians, returned to Corbie once more where he was arrested again trying to cross back into the zone interdite, but soon released when the Belgian claimed to be working for the Germans. Reid then returned to Auchel until August when he was taken to Burbure.
Hooper and Harper were also caught but also released after questioning - it may be assumed that the anonymous French translator was responsible for their release as well. The two men later crossed the line elsewhere and made their way south. Hooper crossed the Pyrenees to Spain with a group of civilians the following month but Harper was detained in the ZNO and in 1942 sent to Camp 73 in Italy with the other internees from Chambaran. Arthur Fraser and George Pearson escaped safely that night and returned to their respective helpers' homes at St Pierre and Auchel. Fraser joined another party, which included my father, and crossed into Spain that September. Pearson remained in hiding until his arrest the following year.
As already mentioned, Lillers and Burbure are very close to one another and seem interchangeable when escapers are describing where they were sheltered. Lillers is a small town with rail links to Hazebrouck and Bethune whilst Burbure is small village linked to it and other nearby villages by quiet country lanes - one can cycle from Burbure through Lozinghem or Rimbert St Pierre to Auchel and Marles-les-Mines in a few minutes. Along with Lille and St Omer, the Auchel area was a major centre of ORGANISATION activity throughout the war and during the first two years literally hundreds of British servicemen were hidden with families there.
On 10 October, Fernand Salingue came home from Lille with the Wellington crewmen Henry Bufton, Bill Crampton and Ken Read. Barclay and Henry Bufton knew each other from their training days and were naturely pleased to meet up again. That evening they were joined by fighter pilots Alex Nitelet and Patrick Bell and soldiers Ed Dimes and Joseph Clapham for a dinner party. [Fernand (as quoted by Wynn) says there were fifteen soldiers and pilots at this party but I am unable to confirm the the identities of any extra guests.] The day after the dinner Paul Cole arrived with the news that their leaving date of 22 October had been postponed and Alex Nitelet took this opportunity to go and visit his mother in Brussels. A few days later Barclay and Bufton moved to Joseph Fardel's home near Lillers.
Only Neill and Clapham's MI9 report actually names all thirteen men as having travelled together. The story from Burbure to Marseille is pieced together from "Fighter Pilot" with corroborative evidence from individual reports and other sources.
The actual day the party left Burbure and Lillers is not clear as each man's report has different dates but it would seem logical to assume they would follow the pattern of the previous two parties and leave on the Monday, in which case they left on 27 October. Joseph Fardel took Barclay and Henry Bufton on bicycles to Marles-les-Mines to catch the train for Abbeville and they met the rest of the party already on board. The other men went from Lillers station to Bethune where they probably met their three guides on the train from Lille. The party went to Abbeville where the Abbé Pierre Carpentier provided them with passes to cross the Somme and out of the zone interdite before they caught the afternoon train for Paris. In Paris, the party were joined by Suzanne Warenghem, one of the Line's young women couriers with a fascinating story of her own. She arranged for some of the men to spend the night in the apartments of Vladimir de Fligue and Fernand Holbeck at 12 rue de Quatre Fages, and the others at the Hotel Flamel on rue Nicholas Flamel. From Paris they took the train to Tours. The men would have been spread throughout the crowded train with the four guides keeping an eye on each small group. From the station at St Pierre des Corps it is a short walk or train ride to St Martin-le-Beau where they crossed the river and demarcation line before walking to Loches to catch the bus for Chateauroux, where Suzanne left them, then Toulouse and the overnight train to Marseille.
Barclay's report says they crossed at Azay-le-Rideau but I think this is wrong. Nitelet says they crossed from St Martin-le-Beau which is on the north side of the Cher and very close to Azay-sur-Cher on the southern bank. Bufton's report says they crossed the Cher by boat at a point six miles from Tours (both Azay-le-Rideau and St Martin-le-Beau are about that distance) before walking to a farmhouse from where they were driven to Chateauroux. Read says they walked to Loches. Dimes says they crossed the Cher by boat with a guide that put them on the road to Loches. Neill and Clapham also say they went through Loches, and this was the usual route for parties guided by Cole and Lepers and the crossing near St Martin was one that Suzanne Warenghem knew well. In her report dated April 1944, Suzanne says they crossed at St Martin-le-Beau, guided across on foot by their regular passeur Besnard, before walking to Loches and catching a bus to Chateauroux.
In Marseille all thirteen men are recorded in Louis Nouveau's volume 44 of Voltaire but only some of them stayed on in his apartment. The soldiers were housed elsewhere in Marseille that night, perhaps with Dr Rodocanachi, and moved on next day to Nimes where the ORGANISATION had several safe houses more usually used by escapers from St Hippolyte.
It was on 2 November that Paul Cole had his confrontation with Pat O'Leary, Francois Duprez, Mario Prassinos, Bruce Dowding and Andre Postel-Vinay in Dr Rodocanachi's apartment. After Cole's escape, O'Leary went to Louis Nouveau's where he met the airmen, and Barclay noted his swollen hand. Barclay and Alex Nitelet apparently had quite different opinions about Cole and they argued about him that evening but whether this discussion was prompted by O'Leary questioning them about their convoyeur's behaviour is not known.
While the soldiers went to Nimes, the airmen stayed on at Louis Nouveau's for two nights before being taken by train to Perpignan, the one exception being Alex Nitelet who also went to Nimes but not apparently with the soldiers. They stayed the night at a hotel in Perpignan - possibly the ORGANISATION's regular safe house at the Hotel de la Loges run by Paulette Gastou and her family and where Bruce Dowding (aka Andre Mason) lived - before crossing the mountains, walking by night and hiding by day, with a party of five Poles and their Spanish guide to Figueras. Next morning, Spanish railwaymen helped them catch a goods train to Barcelona where they reported to the Consulate 8 November.
It seems that I have this last date slightly wrong. In October 2017, Malcolm Fleming sent me a copy of the Emergency Certificate issued by the British Consulate in Barcelona for his uncle, Patrick Henry Bell, dated 7 November 1941.
There is some confusion about Nitelet's crossing of the border to Spain. His report says that "his party" was sent to Nimes but the soldiers who went there don't mention him, whilst Crampton makes a point of saying Alex was not with the other airmen when they crossed the mountains. Nitelet says that after three days at Nimes he went to Perpignan and was guided through Le Perthus to Figueras, which is the most direct route but possibly a different one to the other airmen, who don't specify their route, or just in a separate party. Either way, from Figueras he was also helped by Spanish railwaymen onto a goods train that took him to Barcelona and the Consulate so perhaps they met up again at Figueras. Vincent Brome in "The Way Back" suggests Nitelet stayed on in Marseille for a few days for treatment by Dr Rodocanachi.
The soldiers were sheltered in Nimes where they stayed for the next eight days or so before moving to Canet Plage. Canet Plage is the beach resort for Perpignan and perhaps best known (in this context at least) as the departure point for the Pat Line's most ambitious sea evacuations the following year but Solange Lebreton's [aka Chouchette] Hotel du Tennis, and (since August) the nearby Villa Anita, were used as safe houses by the ORGANISATION long before that. Just before the move Dimes reports the soldiers were joined by Sgt Grey and Sgt Paignton RAF.
I believe these were Sgt A H Graham (644) and Sgt J S Paton RAF (645). Paton was shot down with Melville Dalphond (907) but he describes his crossing from Banyuls quite differently - he is probably the Sgt Payton that "Fighter Pilot" says Barclay met at Madrid. Graham had baled out of 53 Sqn Hudson AM777 on 14 September near Brest, been sheltered then taken to Paris in the third week of September where he met Paton and Pte Walter Phillips (680). The three men were taken to Marseille and were in the Rodocanachi apartment on 2 November when O'Leary confronted Paul Cole. The two sergeants travelled in separate parties but both made it safely to the British Consulate in Barcelona. Although Paton went on to contract diptheria in Madrid, both men left Gibraltar on 30 December by sea for Gourock.
Ted Dimes soon left Canet Plage with the mysterious Sergeants Grey and Paignton for Ax-les-Thermes where they joined a party of French and Belgians and crossed into Spain. They reached a small Spanish village on 13 November and took a train to Barcelona and the British Consulate. Neill and Clapham spent eight days at Perpignan and Canet Plage before they left with Pow, Reid, Ross and an unnamed Dutchman to join a party of French and Belgians on the coast near Port Vendres. They crossed the Pyrenees to a small Spanish village (probably Vilajuiga) where they were given tickets and identity papers by their Spanish guide and caught a passenger train to Barcelona. Pow, Reid, Ross and the Dutchman were all arrested on the train but Neill and Clapham, who were travelling with their guide in a different carriage, made it through to the British Consulate on 18 November.
Pow, Ross and Reid were held in prison at Barcelona for a month before being transferred to Miranda del Ebro and it was another six weeks before the British Embassy secured their release.
S/Ldr Harry Bufton left Gibraltar by sea for Milford Haven 8 December 1941. F/Lt George Barclay hitched a ride home from Gibraltar in a Catalina to Stranraer on 9 December 1941. P/O Oscar Coen and P/O Alex Nitelet left Gibraltar by air for Plymouth on Christmas Day 1941. L/Bdr Edward Dimes, Sgt Kenneth Read and Sgt Patrick Bell left Gibraltar by sea for Gourock (with Arthur Fraser and my father) on board the Polish liner SS Batory on 30 December 1941. Sgt William Crampton left Gibraltar by air to Pembroke Docks on 8 January 1942. Pte Archie Neill and Pte John Clapham left Gibraltar by sea for Gourock 21 February 1942. Pte Andrew Pow, Pte Joseph Ross and Pte Robert Reid left Gibraltar by sea for Gourock 4 March 1942.
Information from various published sources including 'Fighter Pilot' and E&E and other reports
held at the National Archives, together with additional detail from other unpublished sources