The Pat O'Leary Line

This is the draft of a chapter from my proposed book about the Pat O'Leary line, its primary aim being to provide context for the other chapters mentioned, some of which are based around articles already posted on this website

Between Prison Escapes

On 17 March 1942, the internees of “Detachment W” were transferred from the French internment camp at Saint-Hippolyte-du-Fort (Gard) to more secure quarters at Fort de la Rivère (Alpes Maritime), in the hills above Monaco. The last men to escape from Saint Hippolyte, did so on 10 October 1941 (see Chapter **), and the first successful escape from Fort de la Rivère didn't take place until 23 August 1942 (see Chapter **) - but the Pat Line wasn't idle during those ten months.
By the end of 1940, about 140 Allied servicemen had left France and crossed the Pyrenees to Spain, many with help from the organisation in Marseille. The flow of men continued through 1941, so that by the end of the year, a further 277 servicemen had crossed into Spain (including 132 escapers from Saint Hippolyte) and were on their way home. Note that these numbers include 14 men brought out by the Belgian Réseau Comète, but do not include the 115 men repatriated by the Mixed Medical Board.
These figures come from the reports compiled by MI9, which are numbered more or less sequentially (1 to 3122) as the returning men (and three women), including those repatriated by the MMB, were interviewed in London (although most of the last 1,200 men were actually liberated in France). For example, Sgt Norman Mackenzie RAF (MI9 699) was guided across the Pyrenees from Banyuls on 10 December 1941, directly to the British Consulate in Barcelona. He was taken by car to Madrid, and left for Gibraltar on 3 January but then his onward journey was delayed until 4 March, when he left by sea for Gourock, and was interviewed in London on 13 March 1942.
Of the first 700 MI9 reports, the first fifty or so describe a variety of means used to get back to England, including boats from France, men being brought back from Norway, and seven soldiers being repatriated from Switzerland. The next 350 are almost all soldiers who either evaded, or escaped after capture at Saint-Valery-en-Caux, and include 48 men who had subsequently escaped from Saint Hippolyte. July 1941 saw the return of F/O Harry Burton (433), the first airman to escape from Germany to Sweden, and Sgt Gallimore (376), the first of many aircrew to be repatriated after landing in neutral territory; and in August, eleven soldiers (MI9 455-464) who had escaped from German POW camps to Russia, were returned to the UK.
The next 400 reports, in addition to those helped by the Pat Line, include 154 men returned from neutral countries (mostly airmen who had been interned) and 58 men brought out by Comète – the remainder being men who returned by various other means, including eleven soldiers liberated from the Vichy French camp at Laghouat, Algeria, five aircrew picked by the LRDG in Libya, Seaman Albert Penny (1038), who escaped from an Italian POW camp to Vatican City, and two men, Lt Thompson RNR (824) and S/Sgt Sheridan RASC (978), who escaped Japanese captivity from Hong Kong to China.
The last man who can be credited to the Pat Line is Sgt Robert Kidd RNZAF (MI9 1207) who crossed the Pyrenees on 25 March 1943 along with 2/Lt Grady Roper (#27) and T/Sgt Miles Jones USAAF (#29) (see Chapter **). The two Americans were flown back from Gibraltar on 25 April, and interviewed by MIS-X in London that same day while Kidd was flown back on the night of 17-18 May, and interviewed by MI9 on 19 May 1943.
The arrest of Ian Garrow on 10 October 1941 meant that O'Leary became de facto head of the Organisation, and he soon set about transforming their rather amateurish operations into something far more professional. In February 1942, leaving Mario Prassinos in charge in Marseille, O'Leary crossed the Pyrenees, a Ponzan Group guide delivering him to the British Consulate in Barcelona, and made his way to Gibraltar where he met Donald Darling (newly arrived from Lisbon) and James Langley of MI9, who was flown out from London. O'Leary was provided with a radio operator for the first time - Langley had brought a man called Drouet - and he and O'Leary were landed back in France by the British Q-ship Tarana (Operation Abloom) on 18 April. Having radio contact meant that O'Leary could co-ordinate with London (and so Gibraltar) to start organising collections from the French Mediterranean beaches – a major improvement over sending men across the Pyrenees . He was also able to help organise prison breaks, and perhaps more importantly, get those escapers away safely – a total of 65 soldiers and airmen (including 34 former internees) being taken directly to Gibraltar by sea, beginning with Operation Bluebottle in July (See Chapter **).
These were the “headline” events but after mountain crossings were interrupted due to a particularly harsh winter, the Line resumed helping men across the Pyrenees in the spring of 1942, with increasing numbers being delivered by guides from the Ponzan Group to the safety of the British authorities in Barcelona rather than leaving them to be arrested and interned by the Spanish - perhaps the best known being the men brought from Switzerland who had escaped from POW camps in Germany.
The Ponzán Group, named for its founder, the Spanish anarchist, Francisco Ponzán Vidal (1911-1944), took several hundred people across the Pyrenees, including some passed to them by the Pat Line. Unfortunately, only two notebooks containing the records of 311 names (and other details) have been preserved, and I am deeply grateful to the late Stuart Christie for sending me what he says are exact transcripts of those books, except for the removal of home addresses. The last entries are for Sqn/Ldr Royce Wilkinson (750) and his companions, who crossed in June 1942.
Whilst I have identified 27 names as being military personnel passed on by the Pat Line, they generally travelled with others, and I cannot name their companions any confidence.
It should be noted that Antonio Tellez and Stuart Christie's otherwise excellent book “The Anarchist Pimpernel, Francisco Ponzan Vidal (1936-1944)”, with the Pat Line not being their primary interest, includes a number of commonly accepted factual errors about the Organisation, and should not be relied upon as source for information about the Pat Line.
On 2 November 1941, Harold Cole was confronted in the Rodocanachi apartment and exposed for embezzling the organisation's funds, and on 6 December, he was arrested at his home in La Madeleine by German police. Within a few days, many key helpers in the north and in Paris were also arrested by the GFP (see Chapter **), leaving that part of the organisation in turmoil. After learning that André Postel-Vinay had been arrested in Paris, O'Leary went to the capital to see Postel-Vinay's sister, who told him that Cole had personally assisted the Gestapo to arrest her brother. O'Leary then went on to Lille and La Madeleine, where Francois Duprez's wife told him about Cole's arrest, and so many others, including her husband and Bruce Dowding. Whether it was returning from this trip or another occasion isn't known but O'Leary also visited Toulouse and the Hotel de Paris where the Mongelards introduced him to the Ponzan group, who took O'Leary to Barcelona in February 1942, on his way to Gibraltar.
The winter of 1941-42 was the coldest in Europe of the twentieth century, and after Cole's final delivery of men to Marseille at the end of October, the last of whom reached Barcelona on 18 November, further crossings became increasingly difficult. Over the next three months, the Organisation sent the two men that Cole had abandoned at Toulouse, RAF Sgts Hugh Wilson (673) and Wallace Dyer (692), who joined a party brought from Lille which included P/O Z Groyecki (667), Sgt J Budzynski (686) and L/Cpl P H Kincaid (679) of the Black Watch, and crossed from Port Vendres on 13 December. On 27 December, Oliver James (682) and Bill McGrath (683) also crossed from Port Vendres (see Chapter **), and in January, Capt Richard Aston (702) – these last three men going from Marseille (where they had been sheltered by Louis Nouveau) to Toulouse before their departure for the mountains. Normal operations were only resumed at the beginning of March when a Ponzan Group guide took Major Robert Challenor (711) (see Chapter **), F/O Mieczyslaw Taras (721) and SOE agent Ben Cowburn, across from Banyuls, soon followed by a party that included Roland Lepers and Madeleine Damerment.
16 April 1942 saw the arrival in Toulouse of L/Cpl Sims (783) and Cpl Wheeler (740), two Commandos who evaded after the raid on Saint-Nazaire on 28 March, and who almost certainly stayed at the Hotel de Paris; and in Marseille, Airey Neave (676) and Hugh Woollatt (638) were the first of several men brought from Switzerland, with seven others following over the next three weeks (see Chapter **).
The Hotel de Paris (Stanislas and Augustine Mongelard) had become a regular safe house for the organisation by this time (see Chapter **), with the first people I know to have stayed there being Pat Line agents Andrée Borrel and Maurice Dufour, who stayed for two weeks at the beginning of February 1942 before leaving for the Pyrenees.
As already mentioned, April also saw the return to France of O'Leary, with HMS Tarana (Lt-Cdr E B Clark RNR) delivering him and his radio operator on her first mission for the Gibraltar-based Coast Watch Flotilla. According to his post-war report, one of O'Leary's first actions was to recruit Robert Leçuyras (aka Albert) and Guy Berthet (two ex-police officers from Paris); and Alex Wattebled (aka Jacques) and Francis Blanchain (Achille) - although Blanchain had first come into contact with the Organisation the previous year when he was one of those arrested at the Noailles Hotel in July (see Chapter **). This was also the month when O'Leary says he went to Lyon to see George Whittinghill and organise his communications with SIS station chief Vic Farrell in Switzerland.
On the night of 28-29 May 1942, radio operator Alex Nitelet was landed by Lysander (Operation Tentative) to a field near Issoudun (Centre).
July saw the first Pat Line sea evacuation - Operation Bluebottle when HMS Tarana collected seven Allied servicemen from Saint-Pierre-Plage (see Chapter **).
On the night 15-16 August, the second Operation Bluebottle collected two evading servicemen (and others) from the beach at Saint-Pierre-Plage; and on 23 August, the first five men escaped successfully from Fort de la Rivère (see Chapter **).
17 August 1942 saw first the first raid by USAAF B-17 heavy bombers when they attacked the Rouen-Sotteville rail yard; and on 19 August, some 5,000 commandoes were landed on the beaches at Dieppe for Operation Jubilee.
On 5 September, there was a mass escape of 58 internees from Fort de la Rivère, with 25 men getting away successfully (see Chapter **). Two of the escapers (and one evader) were collected from Sormiou on the night of 19-20 September (Operation Nectarine), and another five from the beach at Canet Plage by Seawolf on the night of 21-22 September (Operation Titania), together with the five men who had escaped earlier, and 11 evaders (see Chapter **).
On the night of 11-12 October, Seawolf collected the remaining 18 men who had escaped from Fort de la Rivère, along with Richard Watson (who had escaped from Fort de la Duchère), and another 13 evaders (plus others) on Operation Rosalind (see Chapter **).
That same month, George Whittinghill was recalled by the US State Department, and so towards the end of October, O'Leary went to Switzerland to meet Vic Farrell in Geneva. Farrell asked O'Leary to evacuate one of his intelligence agents, a young man named Fabien de Cortes. Farrell provided his address in Lyon, and Fabien promptly offered to work with O'Leary.
On the night of 3-4 November, Seadog landed radio operator Tom Groome at Port Miou (Operation Portia). On 11 November, the Germans entered southern France, and the following day, German troops arrived in Marseille. On 27 November, nine men were released from the Camp de Chambaran (see Chapter **), and the following day, two more men escaped. It was also at about this time that O'Leary sent Mario Prassinos to England, and Louis Nouveau (who refused to leave the country) to Paris.
On 6 December 1942, the last four men escaped from “Detachment W” before their transfer from Chambaran to Italy; and Ian Garrow was rescued from Mauzac (Dordogne).
On 7 December, five two-man canoes set off from HM Submarine Tuna (N94) to attack shipping in Bordeaux harbour (Operation Frankton).
And all the time, more men were arriving from the north ..