The Pat O'Leary Line
This is the draft of a chapter from my proposed book about the Pat O'Leary line
Leslie Wilkins
Captain Leslie Wilkins (354), a bankers's agent from Twickenham with two and half years in the TA, and the survivors of his 2/5 West Yorkshire Regiment, were captured at Robecq (Nord-Pas-de-Calais) on 5 May 1940 but in the confusion, Wilkins, CQMS David T Lepper (269) and Pte T A Holland (554) were able to slip away. Shortly afterwards, Wilkins reports that a farmer gave them clothes and sufficient food for three days, and on 9 June, the soldiers set off for the coast, reaching Pihen, near Calais, three days later, where they joined four RE Sappers - G W Holly, S W Legge, F O White and R A Funnell (all later at Saint Hippolyte, Chambaran and Campo 73). None of the men say what happened during their six weeks at Pihen but on 22 June they moved to Rollencourt for another nine days. After an abortive visit to Merlimont Plage in search of a boat, they headed south, passing through Saint-Just-en-Chaussée, the Foret de Chantilly, Meaux, Melun and Fontainbleu to Sully-sur-Loire, and then crossed the demarcation line into southern, unoccupied France, swimming across the river Cher on 13 September somewhere near Bourges, forty-six days after leaving Pihen.
On 15 September, the seven men reached Charost (Cher) where they were arrested and taken to the Caserne Mirabel at Chateauroux. Four days later they were transferred to a camp at Agde where their parole was demanded, and Wilkins charged with inciting troops to escape, defying the authorities, and “posing as a Captain”.
Wilkins says it was 27 October when he was transferred from Agde to Fort Saint-Jean in Marseille (other reports suggest 18 October) where he was “given a certain amount of freedom, on giving my parole, and assisted Captain Garrow in escape measures”. In December, he withdrew his parole and “took up quarters in Marseille” where he “continued to work with Capts. Murchie and Garrow and Mr Kenny”.
On 20 February 1941, a warning was received saying that any remaining officers and other ranks in Marseille were to report at Saint Hippolyte-du-Fort. Rather than hand himself over for further internment, Wilkins left the next day for Perpignan, along with Sub-Conductor T W P Hexley (356) and Richard Illingworth (409), and crossed the Pyrenees from Port-Vendres. They were arrested on arrival and spent the next six weeks in various Spanish prisons – Lerida, Saragossa and Miranda – until repatriated to Madrid and Gibraltar. Wilkins left Gibraltar by sea for Glasgow on 4 July 1941.
Pte T A Holland (554), who says that the story of his escape and travel to Marsellle is “similar in all detail” to those of Captain Wilkins and CQMS Lepper, remained in Marseille after the other two left, and was later transferred to Saint Hippolyte-du-Fort. On 15 May, the Mixed Medical Board passed him as unfit for military service, and he was repatriated to Gibraltar, leaving there by sea for Gourock on 1 October 1941.
CQMS David T Lepper (269), a commercial traveller from York with just fifteen months serving with 2/5 Bn West Yorkshire Regiment, confirms the battalion had withdrawn to Robecq but says this was on 20 May, and that they were over-run and captured on 4 June. He agrees that he and Captain Wilkins escaped that same night (he makes no mention of Holland), and describes a similar route to Agde but says they were transferred to Fort Saint-Jean on 17 August.
Sub-Conductor T W P Hexley (356), a 17-year Army Regular from Birmingham, was serving with 22 Animal Transport Company (Mules) when he was taken prisoner at Gérardmer (Vosges) on 24 June 1940. As a POW he says that he was marched through Saint-Dié, Strasbourg, Colmar and Belfort before local inhabitants helped him to escape at Longuevic (query) – he was given civilian clothes and a bicycle on which he rode through Baume (Baume-les-Dames or Beaune) to Chalon-sur-Saone. He then walked to the demarcation at Montceau-les-Mines (4 October), where there was a large Polish mining community who helped him cross the line to Montceau-Saint-Vincent (assume Mont-Saint-Vincent). He was soon picked up by Vichy gendarmes, who believing him to be Polish, sent him to the English Hospital in Marseille where the many Poles in the city had their quarters. He gives no other details, simply saying that he left Marseille with Captain Wilkins. Hexley left Gibraltar for Glasgow on 21 May 1941.
2/Lt N Richard Illingworth (409) from Woking in Surrey was actually an acting lance corporal in the Queen's Volunteer Rifles who had been captured at Calais on 26 May. He escaped in early July at Loth (north-east of Halle) in Belgium where he passed himself off as French and volunteered to act as interpreter with local Croix Rouge. He acquired civilian clothes and a bicycle and made his way to Brussels, and then Marcq-en-Baroeul, on the outskirts of Lille, where he stayed for a week before setting off for the south. He and an unnamed companion cycled some 500 kilometres to Nevers in Burgundy (where his left his companion) and then on to Mars-sur-Allier where he crossed the demarcation line by swimming across the Allier – his trusty bicycle being taken over at a cost to Illingworth of 50 francs. He carried on to Vichy (28 July) but as the American Consulate was unable to help him, continued through St-Etienne to Tournon (presumably Tournon- sur-Rhone) where he was arrested for not having a tax-plaque on his Belgian bicycle – something he could have avoided by buying a plaque quite easily and cheaply from any of the larger tabacs.
It was at this point that Illingworth assumed officer status in order to avoid a prison sentence, and was instead fined and escorted to Marseille. He maintained his officer role on arrival at Marseille but soon left for Cannes to stay with his uncle, Lt Col Crothers at Le Pin, Cassis-sur-Mer. In February 1941, Illingworth returned to Marseille, where he met James Langley, Richard Broad and the escape line people already mentioned, and left for Spain later that month with Captain Wilkins (354) and Sub-Conductor Hexley (356).
While Wilkins “remained behind at Marseille to help others get away”, Lepper left Fort Saint-Jean on 26 December, travelling with Gnr Gordon Instone (268), Sgt S T Jackson (275), CQMS M J McLear (277), Sgt Robert Lonsdale (278) and Sgt John Wyatt (280) to cross the Pyenees from Banyuls. They were arrested at Figueras on 28 December and spent several weeks in various Spanish prisons before eventual repatriation from Miranda to Madrid and Gibraltar.
Gnr Gordon Instone (268), a 24-year-old advertising manager from Doncaster in Yorkshire, was serving with 1 Searchlight Regiment, RA when he was captured on the beach between Calais and Gravelines on 26 May 1940. He was marched off with some 6,000 (sic) other British POWs through Calais, Boulogne, Marquise, Desvres and Saint-Pol-sur-Ternois to Arras (30 May), and on approaching the town, dived into the river Cauche, where he hid until the Germans gave up searching for him. Over several days, he made his way towards Hesdin, and hid on a farm where, because he caught a severe chill from the river, he was nursed by the farmer's family.
Instone makes no mention but F/Lt Paddy Treacy (175), who had been sheltering on a farm “about half way between Campagne-les-Hesdin and Buire-le-Sec”, and reports meeting Instone on 4 June. He says that on 10 June, they walked to Camiers but on finding the beach heavily guarded, returned to the farm at Campagne-les-Hesdin where Instone had been sheltered, and stayed for two days before the two men went their separate ways.
On 12 June, Instone walked to Etaples where he began to “assemble a raft” but was captured by a German patrol. He was being taken by lorry towards Devres when he jumped from the lorry, returned to Hesdin, and then walked on through Abbeville and Amiens to Paris, where he stayed (no details given) for three months.
On 8 October, he set off for the south but was caught on 18 October at Chalons-sur-Saône, interrogated and put in the town jail. He escaped next day, and reached Marseille two weeks later. His subsequent journey through Spain was made “under the leadership of Sgt Jackson (275)”.
That's what Instone's rather brief MI9 report says but his 1953 book “Freedom the Spur” corrects a few details, as well as adding many more.
His book includes a map showing where Instone made his first escape, passing through Fruges and then heading north-east rather than through Saint Pol towards Arras. He names the family who sheltered him on their farm on the outskirts of Campagne-les-Hesdin as Duvier (possibly Duvuvier - IS9 lists another Duvuvier family in the Pas-de-Calais living at Setques, near Lumbres). Following his escape from the lorry, Instone returned to the Duvier family farm, where he met a French lieutenant called Roger Creplet, who was anxious to return to his wife Louise in Paris, and a few days later, they set off together for the capital.
Roger took Instone to an apartment on avenue Edison, where his parents-in-law lived, and where Instone met Louise. Roger and Louise soon moved to the apartment that Louise had found at 76 boulevard Saint-Marcel, while Instone stayed with her parents, M. and Mme Gerard, until leaving for the south in September. He walked much of the way, finally arriving in Marseille on 8 November, where on the very first day, he met a girl called Simone Devereux, whose mother ran a small hotel. Instone stayed with Simone and her mother for some time before going to the US Consulate, from where he was directed to Donald Caskie's Seamen's Mission. After a few days at the Mission, Instone was arrested and sent to Fort Saint-Jean.
Instone soon realised the advantages of promoting himself to sergeant, and as a fairly fluent French-speaker, became interpreter for Captain Leslie Wilkins (354). He was also reunited with Treacy, and soon became involved with their plans for the escape of a hundred men by boat, a plan that failed through (amongst other reasons) bad weather on the night of their intended departure. Treacy then decided to get himself an Irish passport, and so leave the country (almost) legally, while Instone decided that the only way out for him was across the Pyrenees to Spain. He had already decided on taking Lepper, Jackson and McLear, and Treacy agreed to arrange extra funding if he would include two RAF sergeants in the party, Lonsdale and Wyatt.
Sgt S T Jackson (275), from Bromley in Kent, with six years in the Regular Army, was serving with the RASC on 14 June 1940, when his unit withdrew from the Metz area towards Besançon. They split into small parties, and Jackson was captured on 19 June, and held at Frontstalag 142 in the Caserne Vauban at Besançon. He was employed on working parties, taken out each day by lorry to the railway dumps, and on 14 October, jumped from a lorry whilst on the way to work. He says that he “went off without delay to Dole and crossed the line of demarcation, the river La Loue, two days later just south of of the the town”. He was arrested at Lons-le-Saunier and taken under escort to Marseille and Fort Saint-Jean, leaving Marseille on 26 December with CQMS McLear (277), with whom he “remained until repatriation”.
CQMS M J McLear (277) from Cowley in Oxfordshire, had been in the Regular Army for 23 years, and was serving with 2 Bn South Wales Borderers when he was captured on 8 June 1940 at Sigy-en-Bray , north of Rouen. McLear escaped on 14 July – he says while being taken to work but what he doesn't mention in his report is that he escaped with Cpl D Ritchie (322). McLear says that he went from Sigy, via Saint-Lucien to Rouen on 13 September, while Ritchie gives their leaving date as 28 August, and says that they had been sheltered in Saint-Lucien by the maire up until that point, and that he drove them to Rouen in his car. McLear says that he crossed the demarcation line at Saint-Aignan on 28 September, and on to Chateauroux, where he was arrested and sent to Marseille (18 Oct), Ritchie saying that they arrived on 23 October.
McLear simply says he left Marseille on 26 December by train for Perpignan with five companions, crossing the Pyrenees on foot, and after internment at Figueras, Cervera and Miranda (27 Dec – 22 Jan 41), was released and repatriated.
Sgt Robert Lonsdale (278), from Netherton Colliery in Northumberland, was the observer of 107 Sqn Blenheim R3916, which crash-landed near Airaines (Somme) on 10 July 1940. The pilot, P/O J P North-Lewis, was captured but Lonsdale and gunner Sgt B R George got away. They obtained civilian clothes and food, and walked to Tully, where they were joined by three RA ORs – Sgt I T Hughes (155) (later to escape to North Africa), Sgt A J Cole (178 ) (later passed by the MMB and repatriated) and Bdr Miles (no info) - and continued to Oisemont, where Lonsdale (at least) was captured by a German soldier. Note that Hughes version is rather different from here to Chateauroux, and names Lonsdale's gunner as Bryn Thomas.
On 26 July, Lonsdale escaped from a lorry taking him and some French POWs, jumping out a few miles east of Oisement. He crossed the Seine a few miles east of Nantes, and then the Loire “about mid-way between Blois and Orleans” and on to cross the demarcation line near Chabris on 11 August. He walked to Chateauroux (where I'm guessing he was arrested) (and where Hughes says that he and Cole met Lonsdale again), and travelled from there with some British soldiers, via Toulouse to Agde (15 Aug). He was tranferred to Fort Saint-Jean on 18 October, and says he left Marseille for Spain on 26 December with four (sic) companions.
Sgt John Hugh Wyatt (280), from Christchurch in Hampshire, was the rear gunner of 49 Sqn Hampden P1347 (Hodges), returning from Stettin in the early hours of 4 September 1940 when they got themselves lost and ran out of fuel. F/O Lewis Hodges (345) ordered his crew to bale out, which the radio operator and observer did but Wyatt's intercom had come out, and he was still on board when Hodges crash-landed his aircraft near Saint-Brieuc in Brittany.
Wyatt reports that he and Hodges destroyed all maps, papers and secret instruments, and released their two carrier pigeons before setting off across the fields. They obtained civilian clothing four days later, and on 25 September, crossed the demarcation line a few miles north of Poitiers. They went on through Chateaurault and Toulouse to Bagneres-de-Luchon (1 Oct) where they were arrested by French police. They were interned at Montferran, and then Fort Saint-Jean, Wyatt escaping from Marseille on 26 December with Instone (268), Lepper (269), Jackson (275) and McLear (277) – he doesn't mention Lonsdale . See Chapter ** for more details of Wyatt's evasion with Hodges as far as Marseille.
There is only Instone's book for details of their crossing into Spain and subsequent arrest and detention. He says that he found a guide, a shifty-looking man called Jules, and they took a late night train to Perpignan, arriving there very early the following morning. They then took a taxi to a spot just short of Cerbère, and with Jules leading the way, set off over the mountains, with a view of Port Vendres and the sea on their left as they climbed. They crossed into Spain that evening, and the following morning, were a few miles north of Figueras (Instone says they had just passed a village called Ceret), and were walking along a road when they were stopped and arrested. They were locked in a cell, and that afternoon, driven to Figueras, where they joined a number of British soldiers they had known at Fort Saint-Jean, all hopes of an early repatriation fading at this point. They spent eleven days at Figueras before being taken by train to Cervera, where condition were even worse than Figueras, and next day, taken on to the concentration camp at Miranda de Ebro. They were held at Miranda until 9 March before finally joining a party of twenty-five men being taken to the British Embassy in Madrid, and then on to Gibraltar. Instone (268), Lepper (269), Jackson (275), McLear (277), Lonsdale (278) and Wyatt (280) all l eft Gibraltar by sea for Belfast on 4 April 1941.
While almost everyone complained about the atrocious conditions of the various Spanish prisons they were held in, it should be remembered that Spain was at that time probably the poorest country in Europe, and still trying to recover from a vicious civil war. Conditions at Miranda however, whilst still grim, were generally regarded as better than the civilian prisons. It might also be worth noting that réseau Bourgogne organiser Georges Broussine, who had experience of both, reported that conditions in French civilian prisons were even worse.