Pte Alex Crowe and his escape from Frontstalag 142
In February 2015, I received an email from Alan Hendry in Wick (Caithness) with a copy of an article he had written about Pte Alex Crowe (233) who, with three other soldiers, escaped German captivity in 1940. The article, which was published in two parts in the John O'Groat Journal in November 2014, is based around a diary that Alex kept throughout his adventures. Further correspondence resulted in Alan sending me copies of his source documents (including the text of a similar diary written by Ron Quickenden) along with permission from Alex Crowe's son Les to use them for an article of my own. Most of the text is taken directly from Alan's much longer article but with some additional information added.
This page posted 26 Mar 2015
In April 1940, Pte Crowe (RASC) was sent to France to work in the 4th Field Bakery at Woippy, near Metz, close to the Maginot line. It was here that the 26-year-old Scotsman from the Pulteneytown area of Wick, met the three Englishmen who were destined to share his later adventures: fellow bakers L/Cpl Ken Melville (from Barrow-in-Furness) Pte Ron Quickenden (from Camberley, Surrey) and Pte Arthur Petrie-Ritchie (from Eastcote, Middlesex).
They assembled their portable ovens and got down to work – but not for long ...
On 10 May, the Germans launched their offensive in the west, pushing through the Low Countries and advancing rapidly into France. Alex wrote of seeing dogfights in the skies as Metz suffered constant bombardment; the 4th Field Bakery's ovens were blown to pieces in the shelling.
It was time to clear out. Alex wrote on 14 June: “Feverish packing – heard rumours of Jerry cutting us off.” A further entry states: “Terrible train journey – saw evacuees in flight.” An enemy plane tried to bomb the train but missed by some 50 yards. They marched until night and slept in woodland. With the enemy closing in, the British officers decided the best hope for the group of around 20 men was to break up into smaller parties. On 18 June Alex wrote: “Germans have us surrounded ... We shook hands all round – promised to see each other in hell, when we knew our position was hopeless.”
Alex and his companions surrendered as they left the woodland, finding they were encircled by German armoured vehicles. A grenade was thrown in Alex's direction and there was an unnerving moment when he thought he was about to be shot. Instead they were made to walk a dozen miles to Besançon and its prisoner-of-war camp at the old military barracks of Caserne Vauban - later known as Frontstalag 142. Conditions there were grim as Alex wrote on 28 June: “This is a terrible time of thirst and hunger – we all feel weak.” A wry observation followed the day after: “We had to smile today – we were issued with one loaf between 79 of us.” Ron Quickenden gives more detail: “The only water was from water carts and it was a hell of a fight. Typical rations for these days weres 10 biscuits, a cup of peas or beans and an eighth of a tin of bully and sometimes soup (cabbage water).”
By the end of July, Alex and his friends were working 12-hour shifts in the bakehouse, located a mile away from the camp in a large supply depot surrounded by an 18ft wall. Alex became aware of a less rigorous system of guard duty during the night and the men began to plan their escape, judging that wet weather would give them the best chance of getting away unseen as the guards were likely to be sheltering from the elements.
That opportunity arose on 20 September – a night of heavy rain. Alex, Ron, Arthur and Ken had managed to acquire overalls and jackets which they wore over their khaki uniforms. They hid in an outside toilet, waiting there for an hour before making their way to an outhouse set against the high wall. Slats in the door enabled them to clamber onto the building's steep roof and they made slippery progress across it, taking care to avoid loose tiles and aware that they could be spotted at any moment.
They went over the wall shortly after 10pm – Alex and Ron first, then Ken and Arthur – and dropped into an alley. As reported by Pte Gordon Laming (see Article) they were the first men to escape from Frontstalag 142 – many more followed ...
Alex wrote: “After walking some time we bumped into a Jerry motorised column but a little bit of bluff got us through [they claimed, in French, to be Polish labourers]. After that we took to the hills which we crossed at 4am then we struck the [river] Doubs.”
They had coffee in a village before crossing the river and finding there was a bus they could catch early that evening. “We had to get off at a place called Arc-et-Senans. This village was full of Jerries but we walked boldly on for several kilometres before running into a barrier across the river Loue. Here again we were dead lucky by spinning them a yarn about going home from work.”
Soon after this encounter, Arthur asked a local woman for some milk and she explained that they were practically on the demarcation line between the occupied and unoccupied zones. “She gave us soup and best of all got her husband to help us across.”
Just over three months after surrendering to the Germans, a return to freedom now seemed tantalisingly close. They crossed the line near Villers-Farlay at 11 o'clock on the night of 21 September: “The moon came up just as we were running into the woods – not a minute too soon.”
Having slept in a hay loft on their first night in unoccupied France, the four friends were ready to resume their journey. It was early in the morning of 22 September 1940, and they were still within clear sight of the heavily guarded demarcation line separating the occupied and unoccupied zones. “We took a last look at the Jerry barrier up the road and set off for Mont-sous-Vaudrey.”
Alex, Ron, Arthur and Ken kept walking south, picking grapes or berries for sustenance. They got a lift on a passing horse and cart, singing to keep their spirits up as they trundled along; later they were picked up by a charabanc full of merry French NCOs “who treated us like heroes”, stopping in every village to sample the local wine and to belt out the French and British national anthems. At one point they signalled a lorry to stop only for it to carry on – which was fortunate, as it turned out to be full of German soldiers. The escapees quickly came to realise that there was a strong enemy presence even in the unoccupied part of France and they would have to be vigilant, avoiding contact with officialdom as much as possible.
With the help of a young Frenchman they were able to travel by rail to Sathonay and by the 25th they had reached Lyon. They checked in to a Salvation Army hostel and the American consul in the city arranged clothes and a cash allowance for them – although it was made clear that there was no way of transporting them back to Britain. The Polish consul also provided 100 francs each before the men left Lyon on 5 October. Two days later, after overnight stays in Vienne and Saint-Rambert, the authorities finally intervened: they were stopped by gendarmes and taken in for questioning. On the 9th they were escorted to Grenoble and, after a week's detention in a camp, were dispatched to Fort Saint-Jean, an imposing seafront fortress in Marseille.
They arrived in Marseille on 17 October and two days later, were joined there by Pte A Colville (186) Sgt Edward Patrick (198) Sgt S T Jackson (275) and Pte R J Smythe (242) who had escaped from a work party at Frontstalag 142 just five days earlier. On 31 October, Alex reports “Barham and company” arriving. Cpl F T Fox (181) Pte J Maybank (253) Pte M Borst (313) and Gnr H J Barham (370) had escaped together from Frontstalag 142 on 25 October after crawling through a sewer. Next day, two more groups escaped - L/Cpl W E Clayton (426) Dvr C Jackson (252) Turley (RN) and Pte George A E Bluett – and in the afternoon, Pte Gordon Laming (225) L/Cpl John Cope (250) Pte Ken J N Wight (299) and Sgt Stan Newell (307). On 13 November, a final group of ten men – including Pte A Westland (391) and Pte Walter McMullen - escaped. The other eight were caught trying to cross the demarcation line and Pte Seth Plant was shot and killed - the remaining seven were sent to Germany. Shortly after that, Frontstalag 142 was cleared of soldiers to make way for women prisoners.
Arthur had struck out on his own by the time Alex and the others left Marseille on December 22, although they were destined to meet up again in Spain. After spending the night at Donald Caskie's Seamens' Mission on rue Forbin, they took a train as far as Collioure and walked to Banyuls-sur-Mer (about four miles from the frontier) before picking up a trail into the snowy Pyrenees that same night. They rested for a few hours in an old fort and then crossed the frontier at around 11am on the 23rd. They were almost immediately arrested (after a few warning shots) by the Spanish Civil Guard and taken by train to a civilian prison in Figueras.
Arthur had left Marseille on 17 December and taken a train to Port Vendres (just south of Collioure) from where he sent a telegram back to his friends in Marseille. He says in his MI9 report that he tried to get to Spain in a fishing boat but came ashore at Banyuls, a few miles down the coast. He then walked over the mountains by himself and was promptly arrested by the Guardia Civil and sent to Figueras ...
And so Alex found himself locked in a cold, dark, overcrowded, lice-infested cell in Figueras (where he found Arthur's name on the cell door) with only bare tiles to sleep on. Next day, the three friends were moved to a military prison where they rejoined Arthur. 25 December brought a dinner of rice and wine, and there was even a candle, courtesy of one of the many new arrivals – but as Alex jotted down, it was still a miserable way to spend Christmas, despite a visit by the British vice-consul from Gerona with a parcel of extra food.
His morale sank even further on 5 January when there was a roll call of men being transported out of Figueras with immediate effect – a step closer to freedom, they hoped. “Ken, Ron and Arthur's names were there but mine was absent,” Alex wrote. “I am left alone in this horrible prison ... I wonder if I'll ever catch up with them again. My spirits are at the lowest ebb.”
His turn came a fortnight later. Alex was taken by cattle truck to Barcelona, then by passenger train to Cervera, and in a prison there he was reunited with his friends: “They were in a terrible plight, as filthy as pigs.” Here at least he was issued with bedding and blankets, and it was a luxury to be able to sleep with his trousers off. “Even the lice couldn't wake me because I was so tired with travelling,” Alex wrote on the 16th. By the 22nd however, Alex was seriously malnourished, admitting: “I'm so weak now I can hardly stand.”
By the 30th Alex was on the move again. He was among a group taken to Zaragoza and on to the Francoist concentration camp at Miranda de Ebro, where the inmates included Spanish republican ex-combatants and regular convicts as well as foreign prisoners. Here he was reunited with his old comrades, who had arrived a week earlier. “They told me that the place was terrible, just what we read about concerning concentration camps.” Alex had all his hair cut off and was issued with prison uniform before joining a work party. He carried gravel back and fore until his head was light, although “dinner was good, plenty of potatoes and sardines”. Nevertheless, as the days went on, he was reduced to exchanging yet more items of clothing (despite the snow they endured at Miranda) for a few pesetas in order to buy soup.
At last, after diplomatic intervention, Alex and his friends were able to walk out of the gates of Miranda on 25 February. There followed a nine-hour train journey to Madrid, where the British Embassy arranged hotel accommodation, then it was on to Malaga and Gibraltar. “I feel in such a good mood that I can even excuse the authorities for making us sleep on the floor,” Alex wrote. His only regret was “leaving those lads in Miranda behind.”
On the evening of 11 March 1941, they set sail from Gibraltar on the SS Strathmore on what would be a six-day voyage back to Britain. Alex, Ron, Arthur and Ken – the self-styled “Escaped Prisoners Incorporated”, who had been through so much together and who would remain friends for life – stayed on deck and watched the Rock fade into the distance.
Even before setting himself the challenge of transcribing the diary in full, Les Crowe had a detailed knowledge of his father's experiences as a prisoner in France and Spain in 1940/41. “I often questioned him about it and he was quite willing to talk about it. He was not one of those people that would clam up. He told me a lot of stories that weren't actually in his diary, for instance how he was treated by the Germans and how he was treated by the Spanish guards, and the real hunger he suffered while he was in Spain.” In physical appearance Alex might have passed for a Spaniard and this became a cause for concern during his time as a prisoner, as there were still bitter divisions in the country following the civil war. Les explains: “The guards were coming into the huts every now and then and picking some Spaniards, and they were never seen again. He said that did frighten him.”
Two days after arriving at Gourock from Gibraltar in March 1941 Alex and his friends were interviewed by MI9. A copy of the summary of that interview – marked “Most Secret” – is one of a number of surviving documents from Alex's war service.
Alex went on to become an officer in the Royal Artillery, serving in a training unit and attaining the rank of captain. Later he returned to the baking trade with E Campbell & Co in Wick then worked at the local post office and telephone exchange before studying for the civil service. He gained a position in the Wick employment exchange and, after spells in Dundee and Stornoway, came back to his home town and worked as a vacancy officer before retiring in 1978.
There is no suggestion that Alex was emotionally scarred by his time as a prisoner. If anything, it toughened up an already robust individual who had been born and raised in the area of Wick known affectionately as the “Backside of Pulteney”. Alex kept in regular contact with Ron Quickenden, Arthur Ritchie and Ken Melville and they would often meet up. “It was great that they kept together like that, all the way through France and Spain,” Les says.
Alex outlived his three comrades. He passed away in April 2010, aged 96, and his wife Mary died the following year. They are survived by Les and his younger brother Norman. Les feels a great sense of pride in his father's actions, as recorded in that well-preserved pocket diary. “I think it's quite important that the townspeople in Wick realise that in their midst they had a person who escaped,” he says. “At the end of the day, as my mother said, he was a true Backsider."
My thanks to Alan Hendry and Les Crowe for almost everything used in this article.