Roland Hector Lepers
My father's French courier from Bethune to Marseille
This page updated 29 Mar 2014
Roland Lepers was just nineteen years old when he began working with the ORGANISATION in Lille. Initially he wanted to go to England and join the Free French Forces in London but after taking his first 'parcel' to Marseille he was persuaded to stay in France and continue his work as a convoyeur.
Lepers had already separated himself from his family and was lodging at various times with Jeannine Voglimacci at 1 rue de Turenne, La Madeleine, and the Damerment family at Marquette with his girl-friend Madeleine. In January 1941, he was asked to take a British fighter pilot, Sgt J W B Phillips, who was being hidden by Mde Voglimacci, to Marseille. Phillips had escaped 27 August 1940 from the Facilite Jean d'Arc in Lille where he had been recovering from wounds sustained when his 54 Squadron Spitfire was shot down 24 May 1940. It was Phillips who first introduced Lepers to a British Army sergeant named Harold Cole who was being hidden nearby by Madeleine Deram at 50 rue Bernadette, along with two other Englishmen.
On 17 January 1941, Lepers took Sgt Phillips and two young French boys south by train to Montescourt-Lizerolles before going to Jussy and leaving the Zone Interdite by walking across the frozen river. They went on by train via Paris to Tours, where they spent the night, before being helped to cross the demarcation line to the ZNO at Bleré by 'the Commandant'. From there they walked to Loches to get the train to Chateauroux, Montpellier and finally Marseille. Lepers and Phillips went to the American Consulate but finding no help there, continued on to Perpignan and the Pyrenees. Lepers remembers Banyuls-sur-Mer but Phillips records crossing from Maureilles-las-Illas, a small village some miles inland. Lepers took Phillips into the mountains and then left him to find his own way down into Spain while he returned to Marseille. Phillips was arrested by the Gardia Civile in Figueras and spent several weeks in a succession of Spanish prisons before being repatriated to Gibraltar. On 14 May 1941, Sgt Phillips was flown to England by Sunderland, landing at Mount Batten, Plymouth.
Lepers returned to Marseille to look for some way to get himself to England. He finally found Captain Charles Murchie in the Petit Poucet café. Lepers explained his situation but Murchie convinced him that the best way to help England win the war was to bring more servicemen down from the north. His first mission for Murchie however was to bring Murchie's French wife from Lille, which he did two weeks later, using the same route as before. Then Murchie asked Lepers if there was anyone in Lille that he could trust to organise parties of evading servicemen and Lepers explained that the only Englishman he knew was an army sergeant named Cole. Murchie asked Lepers to bring Cole to Marseille. Allowing for about two weeks between each trip, this would put Cole's first visit to Marseille as late February at the earliest - Cole later told Peter Hope it was in March.
Le Petit Poucet, just off the Canabiere at 23 Boulevard Dugommier, became a regular rendezvous point for convoyeurs from the north (and later Switzerland) to deliver their parcels to the ORGANISATION in Marseille. The owner, Henri Dijon and his wife, and his assistant Alexis Benzi, became essential agents for the ORGANISATION - and all three were included in the wave of arrests of March 1943 that almost destroyed the Pat O'Leary Line. All three were deported to Germany but survived to be liberated - M et Mme Dijon from Mauthausen in April 1945 - and Alexis Benzi from Linz.
I am not convinced that it was Murchie's wife who was brought down from Lille - I think it was more likely to have been Harry Clayton's wife Ninette.
This was about the time when the ORGANISATION's crossing points for the demarcation lines were changed and a regular routine established. Contact had been made with the Abbé Pierre Carpentier in Abbeville - the Abbé provided the local ID cards and temporary Ausweisse needed to cross the Somme from the ZI to the Occupied Zone. From Abbeville, the parties would go by train to Paris where many stayed the night at the Hotel Flamel on rue Nicolas Flamel, and ate at the nearby Chope de Pont Neuf (the site is now a branch of the Societe Generale Bank). The Commandant at Bleré had been arrested but Lepers was put in touch with M Besnard of the Café Pont de Chardon at St Martin-le-Beau. Parties would take the train from Paris to Tours, and then the small local train to St Martin where M Besnard would take them over the demarcation line to the ZNO by ferrying them across the river Cher in his boat. From the south bank of the Cher they would walk to Loches as before and continue by train to Marseille.
There is the possibility of confusion about who brought which groups since Roland Lepers wasn't the only courier taking parties from the Lille area to Marseille in 1941. Harold Cole brought Pte James Smith on the same route in May (and Smith later used it several times himself until his arrest in August) and other parties report meeting the priest at Abbeville, some staying overnight in Paris and many crossing the demarcation line near Tours.
The next group of servicemen that I know Roland Lepers took included my father. Three British soldiers (Pte Peter Janes, Pte Arthur Fraser and Cpl Fred Wilkinson) three RAF fighter pilots (F/Lt Denis Crowley-Milling, Sgt Rudolf Ptacek and Sgt Pilot Adolf Pietrasiak) and one Polish cadet (Henryk Stachura) met up with Lepers and Harold Cole at Bethune railway station on 1 September 1941. They went to Abbeville and Paris the first day, stayed at the Hotel Flamel and ate at the Chope de Pont Neuf, then Tours and St Martin-le-Beau the next before walking overnight to Loches, a train to Chateauroux and another to Toulouse to catch the overnight train for Marseille. See 'Six Days in September' for more details.
Lepers' next group consisted of three British soldiers (L/Bdr J Heather, Gnr H Fryer and Dvr J Strachan) and two RAF fighter pilots (F/Lt A L Winskill and Sgt/Pilot L M McKee) and this time Roland and Cole were joined by Roland's friend Madeleine Damerment. They left the Pas-de-Calais on 22 September and again the route was the same to Marseille.
Lepers' final group was probably the largest ever taken on this route and consisted of seven RAF airmen (F/Lt R George Barclay, S/Ldr Henry Bufton, P/O Oscar Coen, Sgt Ken Read, Sgt William Crampton, Sgt Patrick Bell and P/O Alex Nitelet) and six soldiers (Gnr Joseph Clapham, L/Bdr Edward Dimes, Spr Robert Reid, Pte Archie Neil, Pte Joseph Ross and Pte Andrew Pow). Again their couriers were Harold Cole, Roland Lepers and Madeleine Damerment, and from Paris to Chateauroux they were joined by Cole's fiancée Suzanne Warenghem. They arrived in Marseille on the morning of 2 November 1941. See Article for more details.
It was after this last trip that Cole had his confrontation with Pat O'Leary in the Rodocanachi apartment. Cole had been suspected of embezzling funds from the ORGANISATION - claiming expenses for his helpers in the north but then keeping the money for himself. Now O'Leary had Francois Duprez, their northern 'banker' to whom Cole had supposedly being giving all the money, brought down from Lille. Cole managed to escape from the flat but his time with the Marseille group was over.
Various members of the group left for the north to warn the ORGANISATION there about Cole's treachery, including Roland Lepers. Unfortunately, before he could leave Marseille, Lepers was arrested on 10 November (his 20th birthday) and spent seventeen days at Fort St Nicolas where, coincidently, he met Ian Garrow. On his release he got as far as Abbeville station before getting caught again, on 20 November, trying to cross into the ZI. This time he spent five days in gaol before being freed to continue his journey home.
On 6 December, Lepers was going to Madeleine Deram's house when he saw German police arriving to arrest Cole and Mde Deram. Next day he went to see Francois Duprez at his office. While he was talking to Duprez, German police arrived to arrest Duprez but Duprez covered for him sufficiently to leave without suspicion. On the way out a man whispered that he should not go to the Damerment house, and so Lepers found Madeleine and they both left for the south. Madeleine Deram survived a German prison. Francois Duprez died at Sonnenburg concentration camp in April 1944.
Roland and Madeleine Damerment went to stay with a friend of Madeleine's at Tulles until the ORGANISATION contacted them and arranged their passage across the Pyrenees. They crossed the mountains in separate parties in March 1942 courtesy of the Ponzan-Vidal organisation. Madeleine got to England via Lisbon and Roland from Gibraltar (where he saw Pat O'Leary) but they met up again in London. They separated when Roland declined to marry Madeleine and she subsequently joined SOE.
In 1943, Madeleine Damerment's parents, Charles and Madeleine resumed helping and sheltering evaders at their home on rue de l'Eglise until they were both arrested on 21 March 1944. Mme Damerment was released on 1 September but Charles Eugene Damerment died in a German concentration camp in February 1945.
On 28/29 February 1943, Madeleine Damerment, France Antelme and Lionel Lee were dropped by parachute near Chartres, and an SD trap. Madeleine Zoe Damerment was executed at Dachau on 13 September 1944 together with fellow SOE agents Noor Inayat Khan, Yolande Marie Beekman and Eliane Browne-Bartroli Plewman.
After training in Canada, Roland Lepers joined the Free French Air Force in England and went on to pilot Boston and B-25 Mitchell light bombers with 342 Lorraine Squadron 2 TAF.
In early June 1945, Lepers was suddenly asked to fly his aircraft to Paris. He was taken to a small chateau in St Cloud to confirm the identity of Harold Cole who was being held there after his arrest in Germany by Peter Hope of MI5 a few days earlier.
On 21 June, Roland Lepers was back in London to marry Fortuna Billmeier at Marylebone church - the wedding guests included Pat O'Leary and Ian Garrow.
My grateful thanks to Roland and Fortuna Lepers for providing much of the new information used in this article.