Lt Richard E H Parkinson - the last man to escape from Saint Hippolyte
This article first posted 03 July 2020
Saint-Hippolyte-du-Fort is a small town in the Gard, about 50 kilometres miles west of Nimes, and site of the French internment camp that was used to hold Allied internees from early January 1941 until 17 March 1942. During that time, there were literally scores of escapes (although not all were successful), with the men crossing the Pyrenees to Spain.
On 10 October 1941, 2/Lt Richard E H Parkinson (611) and F/Lt Robert A E Milton (1039) escaped from Saint Hippolyte.
Parkinson, from Horncastle in Lincolnshire, was serving with 4 Bn the Royal Sussex Regiment, and towards the end of May 1940, was in a defensive position at Caestre (NE of Hazebrouck). When the battalion was pulled back from their position, Parkinson was left in charge of a detachment to act as rearguard, and later instructed to withdraw to Mont-des-Cats (near Godewaersvelde), where he rejoined the rest of his Company. He then lost contact again when he and two privates, Nixey and Marsh, went looking for their transport. Parkinson and his men aimed for Poperinghe, where they heard the battalion was in line but were unable to reach them, and so headed for the coast. In the Foret de Nieppe, south of Hazebrouck, they met Cpl B Bell (412), who was in civilian clothes, and in a “shocking condition” having been without food for five days following capture in the forest and the subsequent shooting by German troops of the other seven men from his RWK regiment, which Bell only survived by feigning death himself.
The four men went south, past Saint-Omer towards Wizernes but on 8 June, were fired upon by a German cycle patrol, and 6400442 Pte James Albert Marsh was killed. A few days later, near Licques, they were joined by two men from the Royal Warwicks, and from the village, an English cobbler from Calais took them to Guines where his sister-in-law kept an estaminet, where they rested for few days. On 18 June, they were spotted by more German troops, and in the confusion, Parkinson and Bell lost contact with the other three men. Parkinson and Bell spent the next month or so in the Pas-de-Calais, hoping to find a boat but in July decided to head south. At Boubers-sur-Canche, Parkinson was told about four other British personnel hiding out at the nearby village of Conchy-sur-Canche, where they found Capt Charles Murchie (681), Dvr S D Boyd (518), Sgt Rudy Knight (986) and Bdsmn R W Poole (166). Murchie told Parkinson about an organisation that was helping “stragglers and escapers”, and advised him to remain in hiding so Parkinson rejoined Bell at Boubers, where they stayed until October.
Murchie went to Lille, and kept in contact with them but Parkinson began to lose faith, especially after hearing that Boyd, Knight and Poole had left for the south. When their village was suddenly searched by the Germans, Parkinson and Bell went to Conchie, where the curé (assume Edouard Régnier) put them in touch with the organisation, and Mlle Cecile Hermey (of 75 rue de la Barre, Lille) took them to Lille, and the organisation headquarters in Roubaix. Three weeks later, Parkinson and Bell were taken south by Mr Young, a Welsh blacksmith from Lille, travelling via Paris and Vierzon (where railwaymen helped them across the demarcation line) to reach Marseille on 22 November (Bell says 29 Nov). They were both interned at Fort Saint-Jean, and transferred to Saint Hippolyte on 9 January 1941.
Sqn/Ldr Whitney Straight (787) had managed to get himself passed as unfit by Medical Board on 9 September, and was waiting to be repatriated, and it had been arranged that the only other officer left at the camp, Lt Winwick Hewit (1063), would stay behind to co-ordinate any future escapes. Of course the guards were well aware of the two officers' intentions – Parkinson had helped so many other men get away, and two of Milton's crew, Griffiths (480) and Burridge (562), had escaped from the camp earlier – so careful planning was required.
Having established that none of the guards could be bribed, Parkinson and Milton began to join Whitney Straight, who had been going out with football parties and sun-bathing. Each day they chose a spot further and further away from the football, and then made a point of not escaping, until one day when they simply walked over a hill and ran for it. They made their way to Nimes, arriving there next day, and contacted Gaston Negre and Pat O'Leary. Parkinson reports that Negre had taken over from Mr Nutter as their main contact in Nimes because the American was being too closely watched by the police. They stayed with Gaston Negre at rue Port de France, in the centre of Nimes, for fifteen days, where they were joined (on 20 October) by RAF Sgts Campbell (634) and Jack Worby (633) (from Wellington R1699). Parkinson says that it was O'Leary who arranged for them to be taken to Spain via Andorra, and they went to Ax-les-Thermes. After four days of waiting for the weather to improve, they set off anyway but deep snow and a guide who got them lost, persuaded the four men to return to Nimes.
When they tried again on 17 November, they were joined by Pte Walter Philips (680) who had been brought to Nimes from the Rodocanachi apartment in Marseille two weeks earlier. That also happened to be a day when a party of men from Saint Hippolyte were being taken to the Mixed Medical Board in Marseille, and their gendarme escorts would obviously recognise the two officers on sight. Not knowing about the group coming from the camp, when Parkinson and Milton walked onto Nimes station, they “ran slap into the whole party”, and while Parkinson managed to “sidle off”, Milton was caught.
The party for the mountains now comprised Parkinson, Campbell, Worby, Philips and a “Lieutenant Tremargat” from HMS Fidelity. They crossed the frontier that night from Laroque-des-Albères, and walked non-stop to Figueras. They jumped a goods train from Figueras to Barcelona, Tremargat being left behind, and Philips saying that the guard let them travel although knowing they were British. Parkinson and Worby climbed into a different wagon to the others and were delayed after being shunted into a siding. They changed to another train but were seen and hauled out at the next station where they managed to convince the station master they were British aircrew who had been bombing Berlin. This apparently impressed the man sufficiently to put them back on the train, in a better hiding place, and under the protection of the guard. He also gave them five pesetas for their fare and instructions on taking a train to the British Consulate, which they reached on the evening of 19 November, Tremargat turning up the following morning. Parkinson left Gibraltar by air for the UK on 20 December.
Richard Parkinson was the last successful escaper from Saint Hippolyte, and although F/O Brian Hawkins (879) and Sgt Leslie Pearman RAF (928), who had been held at the camp, escaped from the hospital at Nimes on 1 March 1942, they were both recaptured at Perpignan.
As already mentioned, Whitney Straight (787) had been passed as unfit for military service by the Medical Board on 9 September (claiming problems from injuries sustained in Norway, and with a certificate from an ear specialist in Nimes), and on assurances from the US authorities that repatriation would take place in due course, Straight made no further attempts to escape, and also deterred others from trying in case they jeopardised the chances of the “reformees”. However, there was considerable delay before repatriation arrangements were made, and it wasn't until 15 January 1942, when a letter signed by Admiral Darlan was received authorising the repatriation of 43 reformees, including Straight. They were supplied with passports valid until 7 March 1942, and the party was free to go “subject to transport arrangements being made by the US authorities in Marseille”. They left Saint Hippolyte on 5 March, and got as far as Perpignan, where they found the station had been evacuated of all civilian staff, and a company of Gardes Mobile dispersed on the platform. They understood that they were being turned back on the orders of the Vichy government. F/Lt F W Higginson (872), who had arrived at Saint Hippolyte on 25 October, and was also due to be repatriated, says this was in reprisal for an Allied air attack on the French Renault works (at Billancourt on the night of 3-4 March), and Straight was assured by the US authorities that repatriation was only postponed.
On 17 March 1942, the internees at Saint Hippolyte were transferred to Fort de la Rivère.
88370 Captain Richard Edward Hope Parkinson MBE was killed at El Alamein on 4 November 1942 - he was 21 years old.