Catherine Bonnefous, Etta Shiber, and some of the men they helped
This article first posted 01 July 2020
Lt Colin D Hunter (172) (who gives his home address as Glenfintaig House, Inverness-shire, an exceptionally fine house on the shores of Loch Lochy) had served for four years with the Cameron Highlanders when he was wounded and captured with his unit at Saint-Valéry-en-Caux on 12 June 1940. After two days of marching, Hunter, along with Colonel Ian Barclay (who had also been wounded), asked to be sent to a hospital, and the two officers were sent to Forges-les-Eaux. Three days later, as his wound was healing, Hunter and several others (including Captain Derek Lang (174) who mentions both Hunter and Ian Barclay in his own report) were sent to a POW camp near Formier, and then marched to another camp near Aumale, then Domart and on to Doullens. At Doullens, Hunter reports that his wound had turned septic, and on 19 June, he was taken to a hospital in the town run by the French. On 10 July, the patients were transferred to the Jeanne d'Arc school to make way for German wounded expected to arrive after the forthcoming invasion of England.
While he was at Jeanne d'Arc, Hunter put an advertisement in “Le Matin” telling anyone who saw it that he had been wounded and was in hospital at Doullens. He received a reply from “a lady of French nationality”, followed by a visit when she brought “a magnificent amount of food, clothes, sheets, medical supplies and books” to the hospital, and subsequently visited him, on average, once a fornight. She also brought an American friend who worked through the Aide-aux-Soldats Society in Paris.
On 28 August, the lady brought civilian clothes for Hunter, and took him in the boot of her car to her flat in Paris. A week later, she brought Cpl Hood-Crees (219) to join him. Whilst in Paris, Hunter reports that he and Hood-Crees received 1,750 francs from the American Embassy, and that he was able to send a message home saying that he was safe and with friends.
Cpl G Hood-Crees (219), a company director from Folkestone with three years in the TA, was serving with 5 Bn The Buffs (Royal East Kent Regiment) when he was captured near Doullens on 28 May 1940. On 3 June, because he had been wounded, Hood-Crees was taken to a German aid station in Doullens, and later to a civilian hospital in the town. Whilst he was there, he was visited by Mme B (an Englishwoman married to a French wine merchant, and actively engaged on welfare work on behalf of the French Prisoners Aid Society), who brought him a suit of civilian clothes.
On 8 September, Hood-Crees left the hospital by the back door of the kitchen and says that he went to Mme B's flat in the town. Next day, Hood-Crees was hidden under the tonneau cover of Mme B's car and driven by her, with her friend Mme S, to Mme B's flat in Paris, where he joined 2/Lt Colin Hunter (172). Hood-Crees stayed for three weeks in Paris (the delay due to Hood-Crees developing sepsis in his wound) before he and Hunter left the capital by train for Bordeaux, and Libourne, 18 miles NE of the city. Five days later, they walked to La Réole, and from there went by train to Marseille.
Mme B was English-born Catherine (Kate) Bonnefous (née Robins 5 August 1886), and her friend was American widow Etta Shiber. The two middle-aged women were living in a large apartment at 2 rue Balny d'Avrincourt in Paris. In her 1943 book “Paris Underground”, Etta Shiber calls her friend Kitty Beaurepos, refers to Hunter as Lt Jonathan Burke, and Hood-Crees as Cpl Lawrence Meehan. She says that they first helped a pilot that she calls William Gray, who they had picked up on the outskirts of Paris shortly after the Germans took the city. They took him back to their flat, and later drove him to friends of a friend (M. Chancel) who lived on the demarcation line - although I have not been able to put a real name to the evader. She explains that this route was closed shortly afterwards when their friend's group was betrayed to the Germans.
Hunter says that he and Hood-Crees left Paris on 26 September for a route through Libourne already established by Kate's husband (named by Shiber as Henri Beaurepos), and on to Marseille. They reported to the American Consul on 30 September, and stayed at Chateau Combert (query) for a week before moving to stay with a French couple. Hood-Crees was taken to hospital to have some shrapnel removed from his body.
Three weeks later, Hunter reports the arrival of Capt Derek Lang (174) and 2/Lt John Buckingham (355), sent by the same lady in Paris. Lang and Buckingham had met Mme Bonnefous, who Lang describes as “another Nurse Cavell in every way”, by chance at the American Embassy in Paris on 19 October, and she had directed them to her friend at Libourne, as well as giving them a letter of introduction to a “rich wine merchant” in Marseille.
Hunter says that towards the end of November, the lady in Paris (Kate Bonnefous) arrived in Marseille, having used the same route as he had. She was trying to raise some money to pay for the evaders she was sending through. Etta Shiber explains that Kate had numerous wealthy French friends in the “Free Zone” who she thought might support her efforts, saying that she set off from Paris with another four British soldiers (see below) that “Father Christian” had brought her. Hunter says that he took Kate to Cannes to see an Englishman about raising a loan, and that while he stayed to complete the arrangements, Kate returned to Marseille. She then telephoned him that night to tell him that her American friend in Paris (Shiber) had been arrested, and she had to return to the capital at once, and Hunter took the money to her in Marseille the following evening.
There seems to be a misunderstanding here as Shiber describes how Kate returned to the apartment with 25,000 francs, and the promise of more if they needed it, although she may have made a subsequent trip – or trips.
Hunter comments on conditions in Marseille, and Captain Frederick Fitch (181) who worked extremely hard on routes to Spain. He also describes how, on the morning before the Mixed Medical Board sat, applicants were paraded in front of the Medical Officer at Fort Saint-Jean. Hunter was immediately turned down but afterwards recalled, and it was suggested to him that if he left his glasses behind, without mentioning that he normally wore them, he might stand a better chance. Next day (14 Dec), he appeared before the MMB and told them that his eyesight had been ruined. He was sent to an eye specialist (in the same hospital) where he disclosed his whole story and that he was anxious to get home. Hunter says that the specialist was very sympathetic, and “wrote down sufficient evidence” for him to be passed as unfit for service. Twenty-two men appeared before the Board, and Hunter says that only one was turned down, although when they went before the Armistice Commission, another two men were rejected, including Fitch, who “immediately left for Spain”.
Hood-Crees says that on their arrival at Marseille on 25 October, they found the French police were scrutinising everyone at the barriers so they approached the Chef de Gare, who smuggled them out of a side door. They went to an address given them by “Mrs B” (Kate Bonnefous) where they shared rooms with some demobilised French officers. Hood-Crees was admitted to the Hôpital de la Conception on 10 November (his report says 10 October) under the name of Georges Francois, where all the staff knew his real identity, and did all they could to help him. He left the hospital on 15 November and went to stay with Monsieur “C”, where he was joined by Derek Lang (174), John Buckingham (355) and Lt Hunter, and where they remained until their repatriation.
The Medical Board was convened on 14 December where Hood-Crees says that seventeen of them were examined and passed as unfit for further military service, with the exception of Captain Fitch (181). He reports that the board consisted of five doctors, “a Swede representing Germany, an American (sic) for us, and three French doctors. This examination was obviously perfunctory as many of us were practically fit”.
Hunter (and presumably Hood-Crees) left Marseille on 27 December by train via Perpignan, Figueras (where they were met by British Consul) and Madrid to Gibraltar, arriving there on 2 January. Hunter says “the four officers in the party” left Gibraltar on 5 January aboard the armed merchant cruiser HMS Derbyshire, arriving at Greenock on 18 January 1941. Hood-Crees left Gibraltar by sea on 14 February, arriving at Gourock on 24 February.
While Hunter and Hood-Crees were still in their Paris apartment, Etta Shiber says that she and Kitty went to Conchy-sur-Canche (in answer to a reply to an advertisement that Kitty had placed in the Missing Persons column of Paris-Soir), and brought back a soldier she names as Captain Jesse Handsby. She says that Handsby left with Burke and Meehan (although no mention is made by Hunter or Hood-Crees), Kitty taking all three men to Libourne herself. Shortly after their departure (and Kitty's safe return), “Father Christian” (assume abbé Edouard Régnier) arrived from Conchy with four more English soldiers. The soldiers were sent on that same day, put on an evening train to Bordeaux.
I don't know who “Jesse Handsby” may have been but suspect the four soldiers were Pte R T Emmott (550), 6018847 Pte R W Squires, 3965331 L/Cpl R W Krahn (both Royal West Kent Regiment and later with Detachment W) and Gnr William Henry Taylor (LIB/1771), who Emmott says had joined them at this time.