The men brought back by the Shelburn escape line,
and the people who made it possible
This is an extract from my 2019 book "Express Delivery"
Between July 1940 and August 1944, some 1,500 Allied military evaders (including almost exactly 500 American aircrew), crossed the Pyrenees to Spain - these (often disputed) figures are taken from the individual MI9 and MIS-X reports available from the two National Archives. Some of these crossings, especially in the early days of the war, were comparatively easy treks that could be completed in a single day or night but following the German takeover of southern France in November 1942, border security was increased and it often became necessary to use much tougher trails. Even in good weather, some of these high mountain routes took several days and nights, and in the winter months, many were impassable. There had to be a better way.
The Shelburn escape line only existed for a few months but in that short time, was remarkably successful – 119 military personnel (including 94 American airmen) were brought safely back to the UK with only two men lost to the enemy. Although some of the evaders spent many months in enemy-occupied territory, once in the hands of Shelburn, they were generally back in England within days.
The name Shelburn (or Shelburne) was, I am sure, chosen from a random list of names generated by Britain's Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) – other SIS/MI9 missions of the period included Oaktree, Possum and Marathon. The MGB operations for Shelburn were called Bonaparte, and other operations for SIS included Jealous, Envious, Felicitate, Flannelfoot (for BCRA) and Glover - with operations for SOE having a similar selection of unrelated names, such as Mirfield, Easement, Septimus and Scarf.
The Shelburn escape line can trace its origins back to the Pat O'Leary escape line, the first of the major escape lines running through France, and originally known simply as “the organisation” - in the summer of 1942, they organised two evacuations from the beach at Canet Plage when the Polish-crewed felucca Seawolf collected a total of forty-three evading servicemen for delivery to Gibraltar - and to the MI9 Oaktree mission of Val Williams and Ray Labrosse in 1943. Oaktree was originally intended to build on work done by Louis Nouveau for the Pat line in Brittany but many of his contacts had been arrested after the organisation was infiltrated by the French traitor and German agent Roger Leneveu.
Some evaders were brought back to England by French fishing vessels, notably the Suzanne-Renée, which left Camaret-sur-Mer on 23 October 1943 with nineteen airmen on board (see Article), and the fourteen aircrew who returned on the Briez-Izel, which sailed from Treboul harbour (Douarnenez) on 22 January 1944 (see Article). Both these operations were aided by BCRA agent Georges Broussine and his Bourgogne escape line but Broussine was as aware as those in London that while sea evacuations direct to England were preferable to sending evaders on the long trek across the Pyrenees, the use of French fishing boats was never going to be enough. On his visit to London in November 1943, Broussine had discussed the problem with MI9, where he found Airey Neave particularly enthusiastic about the idea of using MGBs but it seems that Neave (understandably) omitted to mention to him that MI9 were about to launch a second such mission of their own.
British gunboats and launches had been visiting the Aber-Benoit estuary area (about 60 kms west of Roscoff) to service various SOE and intelligence networks since October 1941, and in November 1943, they were further tasked with evacuating a group of downed aircrew who had been collected in the Brest area, including four who couldn't be accommodated on board the Suzanne-Renée. However, after the near disastrous Operation Envious IIb of 1 December, together with increased German activity following the extraordinary Operation Felicitate II on Christmas Day (see Article), those pick-up points had to be abandoned.
Lucien Adelard Dumais (born Montreal in June 1905, married and with two teenage children) was a Platoon Sergeant Major in 1 Bn Les Fusiliers Mont-Royal when he landed at Dieppe on 19 August 1942. He was captured that afternoon but escaped from the train taking him to Germany and made his way to Marseille where he was helped by the Pat O'Leary organisation – he was evacuated from Canet Plage on board the felucca Seawolf on Operation Rosalind the night of 11-12 October 1942 (see Article).
Dumais was recruited by MI9 the following year to head the Shelburn mission, given the agent name Yukon, and landed back in France by 161 SD Squadron Lysander on the night of 16-17 November 1943, along with his radio operator Ray Labrosse. For the Shelburn operations, Dumais carried a carte d'identité in the name of Lucien Desbois although the French in Brittany knew him as Leon. To the evaders, Dumais generally presented himself as Captain Hamilton, or sometimes Harrison.
Raymond Joseph Marcel Labrosse (born Ottawa in November 1920) was a signalman in the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals when he was recruited by MI9 as radio operator for Val Williams and they were parachuted into France on 20 March 1943 to set up the Oaktree mission (see Article). Following the arrest of Williams in June, Labrosse joined a group of five airmen who were helped by the Bourgogne organisation and taken across the Pyrenees to Andorra in August, and Labrosse returned to England the following month. After a period of re-training, Labrosse was assigned as radio operator to Lucien Dumais. The French in Brittany knew Labrosse as Claude – although his carte d'identité was in the name of Marcel Desjardins.
The two agents first priority was to establish a secure base in Paris where they could live, and from where Labrosse could operate his radio to stay in touch with London. They also had to find suitable logeurs to shelter the evaders, provide them with food, identity cards - and so much more - until it was time to send them to Brittany. In other words, they had to find someone who knew the city and its inhabitants well enough to establish a series of safe houses, reliable guides and all the other things that a clandestine organisation needed in order to survive and operate.
The only contact provided by MI9 was a hairdressing salon (which I've always thought appropriate as Dumais gives his civilian profession as coiffeur) at 6 rue des Capucines, Paris II where they were to ask for a “Mme Georges”. This was Mme Lucienne Christiane Bodin (aka Marie Christine) and her friend Suzanne Bosnier. On their arrival in the capital, Dumais and Labrosse went to Mme Bodin's salon, and were staying in her apartment at 38 rue des Petit Champs when just days later, both women were arrested. This left the two Shelburn agents homeless and at something of a loss.
The answer to their problems was Labrosse's original Oaktree contact, a man named Paul Campinchi.
Paul François Campinchi was born in Saint-Georges-sur-Cher (Loir-et-Cher) on 10 October 1903. Married to Thérèse (born July 1899 - she spoke much better English than Paul, having studied as a nurse in England) and with a young daughter Jeanne (born 1935), they lived at 19 rue des Ursins, on the Île de la Cité, Paris IV, about a 100 metres from Notre-Dame cathedral . Paul and Thérèse both worked at the Prefecture de Police where Paul was responsible for issuing identity cards, and Thérèse in the anti-venereal dispensary at 3 Quai de l'Horloge.
On 11 January 1943, RAF evader Sgt Reginald Smith (1074) was brought to the Campinchi apartment. Mlle Marguerite Larue (born Apr 1906), one of Campinchi's colleagues at the Prefecture, had been visiting Smith in Livry-Gargan, where he had been sheltered since the previous November, until Smith asked her to help him get back to England. Eight-year-old Jeanne Campinchi was sent to stay with friends in La Pin-la-Garenne in Normandy, and Smith took over her bedroom until 2 February, when Thérèse Campinchi (dressed as a nurse and armed with a medical certificate from Dr Yves Porc'her saying that Smith was a patient from a psychiatric hospital) took him to Quimper (Finistere), and then Carantec. On 5 February, Smith left for England from the north-coast port of Carantec on board the French fishing vessel Yvonne – they were intercepted off the English coast by a British patrol boat two days later and towed into Salcombe, Devon.
Because Campinchi had asked Smith to give his name and details to MI9 in London, Val Williams and Ray Labrosse contacted Campinchi when they arrived in Paris a few weeks later to set up the Oaktree escape line. Following the collapse of Oaktree in June, and a visit by German police to their apartment in September, Campinchi and his wife (along with Genevieve de Poulpiquet who had been lodging with the Campinchis since the arrest of her husband Cesaire in March 1943) left their apartment at rue des Ursins and moved to stay with Genevieve's friend, Mme Olga L'Hoir-Sivry (aka Guette) at 6 rue Nicolet.
Campinchi had a long-held ambition of sending groups of evaders direct to England by sea. His first-hand experience with Reginald Smith, and then with Oaktree – which basically failed because various delays meant the shortening nights made it impossible for an MGB to make a successful crossing under cover of darkness – had not dampened his enthusiasm, so when Labrosse returned to Paris in November with Lucien Dumais, Campinchi saw it as an opportunity to finally realise his dream.
To read any of the accounts of Shelburn available elsewhere, one might think that Dumais appointed Paul Campinchi to work for him. Campinchi, and everyone else involved with reseau François, saw things differently - Dumais was simply their contact with London, the man who could call in the gunboats. To reseau François, Dumais was the last link in a long chain that began where airmen landed in the French countryside, and then centred on Paris where they were sheltered and cared for until word came from Dumais that they could be sent to Brittany. For his work with Shelburn and reseau François, Paul Campinchi was awarded the OBE.