A WW2 Escape from France (June 1940)

During World War II, my mother (who was born in Scotland) served with the British Red Cross in London.  There she apparently met some members of the Royal Engineers (site) who had been attached to the 51st Highland Division (site).  The Division had fought a fierce rearguard action to protect the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) at Dunkirk but was eventually cutoff and forced to surrender to overwhelming enemy forces at Saint-Valéry-en-Caux (history).  One of these Royal Engineers, Captain (acting) Christopher D. Waters, gave her a detailed written account of his (with others) escape from France back to England via Spain and Gibraltar between 12 June 1940 and 23 September 1940.  I have no idea if she was supposed to give it back to him and didn’t, or perhaps couldn’t, but after 76 years of it being largely forgotten in various boxes and storerooms, I thought it deserved to finally see the light of day.  The original text of this true story is reproduced here.

The original document has now been placed with the Imperial War Museums in London, cataloged under the name of Lieutenant Colonel C. D. Waters, MBE (Documents.26270) and is available for study there.

1-51st

Major General Rommel (left),  commander of the 7th Panzer Division, accepting the surrender of Major General Fortune (center), commander of the 51st Highland Division, at St. Valery-en-Caux, France (12 June 1940)

FRANCE

After their capture on June 12th, Lennon [1] and Waters [2] had spent the night in a temporary camp at Saint-Valéry.  They were then taken in lorries, by stages over three days, to near Doullens.  They were then marched for five days to Béthune, at which point they began their escape.

Although we had been considering escape ever since the day of our capture on June 12th, it was not until June 20th that Dennis [Lennon] and I [Waters] decided life as prisoners was no longer tolerable.  We had been subjected to a particularly unpleasant march of 35 kilometres in a broiling sun and we arrived at Béthune feeling dead to the world.  To make matters worse we were herded into a more than unusually unpleasant camp, consisting of a disused sports stadium, where there was no grass or shade, and two enormous latrines at each end.

After being almost sick, and making a rather futile attempt to cook some eggs, it was time to retire to bed; this was actually a more comfortable procedure than usual, as we had been allotted the rifle range, where there was cover and straw – unusual luxuries.  We were not, however, to be deterred by this transient luxury from forming our plans, and after some discussion decided to escape from the column at the first opportunity on the following morning.  Thinking that some form of disguise might assist us, we canvassed round the prisoners for suitable clothes, but could only obtain one beret from a French officer, at the exorbitant cost of 50 Fr (it was worth approximately 10 Fr new).  Having made a few other preparations in the way of provisions, shaving kit, etc., and having told our O.C. that we proposed to depart at the first opportunity, we settled down to sleep.

The prospect did not seem quite so easy in the cold light of the morning and it required considerably more courage to carry on with our plans.  The column marched out of the camp at 6 a.m. with no food whatever and another 35 kilometre march to look forward to; this however made us all the more determined to get away.  Feverishly looking round for suitable opportunities as we marched through the town, we began to get desperate, fearing that our plan was going to fail at the very first stage.  However, to our relief the column began to straggle out, and as we came to the outskirts of the town luck was in our way; the column became more and more disorderly and the fusil mittrailleuse mounted on the lorry in front passed completely out of sight.  For a few seconds there was not a guard in sight, and seizing our opportunity, albeit with great trepidation, we leaped through a gap in the hedge into somebody’s back garden.  Like frightened rabbits we crawled under a bush and waited till the column had passed.  We were going to make quite certain that the column had got well away before we came out from our hiding place, and must have been there at least an hour when the owner of the house, an old peasant woman, came out and found us.  As we expected, she was terrified out of her wits, and entreated us to go away immediately, otherwise “She and all her family would be shot.”  Although it was our opinion that this was a popular superstition, it was little use trying to persuade her so, and it was quite evident that we should have to depart at once.  She did, however, give us an enormous sandwich each and some advice as to the best way out.  Having fully digested both of these, we discarded our service jackets and crawled out along the edge of the neighbouring wheat field.  It did not take us long to discover that this was a hopeless method of progression.  So I put on Dennis’s mackintosh and beret and went for a walk across the fields to try and find some old cloths, while Dennis hid in the wheat.  Fortunately the very first man I met looked as if he was going to be helpful – and he was.  Within an hour he came back with 2 sets of old clothes; he was a really good sort and would have done a lot more for us if we had wanted it.  An hour later we set out in the direction of the coast.

Before our escape there had been much talk about changing into civilian clothes at the first opportunity.  The general opinion was that it was too dangerous, as “You would certainly be shot as a spy.”  But it did not take us more than a few hours to discover that it was absolutely essential if we were to make any progress at all.  The only alternative, of course, was to lie up all day and march across country by night – a very slow process.  We subsequently met escaped prisoners who had done this for the first two or three days, but they soon found it impracticable.  So with our newly acquired clothes – Dennis’s were very ragged but mine fairly respectable – and a sac-des-provisions containing the bare minimum of belongings and a little food, we set forth in what we hoped was the right direction.  Having neither map nor compass we could only steer a rather erratic course by the sun, and after a few hours we began to suspect an error somewhere.  Fortunately we had been told that all French calendars in estaminets, etc. have maps concealed behind them.  It didn’t take us long to acquire one of these, and we found that we had been wasting our time going much too far north.  From then on we decided that we must never again be without a map.

Our plan at this time was to head for the coast in the neighbourhood of Calais to see if we could get a small boat and cross the Channel by night.  If this failed we were to turn off south and make for unoccupied France.  Although violent discussions took place every night, this plan never altered substantially.

It soon became evident that at our present rate of progress it would take us several weeks to reach the Coast and at least 6 months to reach unoccupied France.  Besides this, we were tired of marching, as prisoners, and it was about time we began to live more comfortably.  So we began to look about for bicycles and after trying a selection, we ‘acquired’ two; one was very serviceable, but the other never ceased to give trouble with at least one puncture a day.  That night we congratulated ourselves on a good day’s work, and opened the map of Europe; this soon became a regular proceeding, and caused endless discussion, usually without reaching any useful or definite conclusion.  One thing, however, we were certain of, and that was that we could tear off Spain from the map as being quite unnecessary – we were later to regret it.

We slept in an isolated barn under piles of hay, and were alarmed at the slightest noise.  One’s imagination always works at full throttle on these occasions, and even a Bosch aeroplane overhead might have been looking for us!  Actually we had nothing to fear, as the Germans had no record of the number or names of the thousands of prisoners, and our only danger was that of running into him unexpectedly, or of being given away by the French (actually this latter was, I think, very unlikely, although we didn’t think so at the time).

We left Hazebrouck early next morning, and after a rather unpleasant day, most on a flat tyre, and trying to dodge the Hun, we arrived at the little village of Dohem.  It became more and more evident, as we progressed, that it was simply a waste of time trying to dodge the Germans.  The first one we saw of course terrified us and we immediately dashed into somebody’s back garden until he passed, but we eventually became hardened and realized how unlikely we were to ever be questioned.  After a few days we found ourselves bicycling through literally thousands of them without turning a hair.  We even said “Bon jour” occasionally, but first making quite sure we were not addressing an officer.  Only twice were we spoken to by Germans, on both occasions to be asked the way.  Of course we hadn’t the slightest idea of the way, and anyway we didn’t want to say more than we could help in case we betrayed ourselves by our English accent, so we used to point in the first direction we could think of (the wrong one I hope) and say “la-bas” in a fatuous way.  And they gaily set off without any suspicion at all.  There is no doubt that if we had not been so anxious to get back to England quickly, we could have spread a considerable amount of disorganization throughout the area; particularly by sabotage of telephone wires, etc.  However, the Hun had given this consideration and stuck up numerous notices to say that the penalty was death, and in our present state we were more keen on getting away.

It became increasingly clear that if we really wanted to, we could make this escape quite a comfortable affair, in fact almost a tour of France.  But if we were to stay in farms every night it was essential to concoct some story to hide our identity.  The French peasants were terrified of harbouring escaped prisoners, and we soon discovered that it was hopeless, if not dangerous, to admit one’s identity.  They immediately begged us to leave, otherwise “They and all their family would be shot.”

The story was easy, as there were already thousands of refugees on the roads.  We were simply refugees Belges, but Flemish speaking of course, to account for our rather feeble French.  Thank Heaven we were never asked to speak Flemish – it was the only thing we feared.  A few days later we were about to enter a farm when we heard that there were already Flemish refugees there.  As we had already told our story, we made a hurried excuse and beat it for the next village.

So arriving at Dohem that evening we tried our story out, and found that it worked like a charm.  We found an empty house at the end of the village and asked the owner, a very garrulous old man, if we could sleep in it.  He was all over us and took us along to la grande ferme where we were given an excellent meal and slept a really comfortable night in the barn.  The people at Dohem were really kind and we looked back on this as one of the best nights we spent.

I was very tempted to spend the next day resting here, but Dennis was quite rightly all for pushing on.  The garrulous – and very loud-voiced – old man took us down to the river to bathe and suggested that we should stop and find some work on the farm.  Actually we very seriously considered this, but fortunately we didn’t take his advice, otherwise we should probably still be there.

As we didn’t leave Dohem until about 4 in the afternoon we didn’t get far that day – some village on the main road to Boulogne.  We had some difficulty in finding a farm here, but this was a thing we soon became used to.  Although I think most people believed our story (at least the uneducated peasants) they were usually unfriendly, and we always had to allow an hour every evening trying 4 or 5 farms before we found anyone willing to let us dormir dans leure grange.  Once we were in they nearly always thawed out and sold us milk and eggs, and often made us an omelette.

The particular farm we stayed in this evening had a wireless and we were trying to think how we could listen to the English news without arousing suspicion.  Eventually Dennis said we could understand a “little English” and switched the wireless on; but either there was a Gestapo agent behind the door or the lights fused – anyway the wireless ceased to function.  It was the day of the Armistice (22 June 1940) and we were particularly anxious to hear what England had to say about it.

The following day we expected to reach the coast but were delayed by the inevitable punctures (there is no rubber solution in France).  We spent some time getting through Samer owing to the possibility of guards at entrances to the town, and did not reach the small town of Neufchatel (not to be confused with the Neufchâtel further south) until late in the afternoon.  Here I proceeded on foot through the village until I came upon a German guard who was holding up everyone going towards the coast.  After pretending to go into a house for a few minutes I returned to Dennis and the bicycles, and it occurred to us for the first time that we should be very lucky if we ever saw the coast.  As it was getting late we returned towards Samer, where I went to buy some bread and he looked for a farm.

Our story didn’t work quite so well this time.  Dennis picked on a likely looking farm and started off with the usual formula “Avez-vous une grange du nous pouvons dormer pendant la nuit?  Nous sommes refugees belges…”  “Oh no you’re not” replied the man.  “You’re English – there’s no doubt about that!”  After the first shock Dennis could hardly deny it, and the man turned out to be a Dutch refugee who had fled with his wife from Holland at the German invasion.  We was very friendly, gave us an excellent meal and some new clothes and told us all the local gossip.  Apparently the Germans had already ordered the departure of all refugees from this neighbourhood, and he and his wife were leaving by train the following morning.  Of course we had heard nothing about this, and he even suggested that we should go back with him to Holland.  After some discussion we decided not to do this, as there was little or no chance of getting a boat from there, being in German hands.  But one thing was evident from this; namely that we should have to get away from the coast, otherwise we should be arrested for not having complied with the German order.  So that night we decided to give up the idea of the coast altogether and head southwards to Paris (now in German hands) to see if we could get any help there.  We have often thought since then that we were too easily deterred from our visit to the coast, but from the stories of the other escaped prisoners we have since met, the chances of finding a boat were very small.

We were very sorry to say goodbye to the Dutchman, as he and his wife had been the soul of kindness.  The latter mended our clothes and gave us all kinds of useful things.

On the morning of the 25th we set forth for Paris and after a comparatively uneventful day reached a small village buried in the hills.  I managed to fall off my bicycle, although it scarcely deserved that name now as it was decaying rapidly; in fact it became obvious that we should very soon have to ‘acquire’ a new one.

We had now settled down to the routine of each day’s journey, and we could hardly have done it more comfortably even in peacetime, on so little money.  We carried a loaf or two of bread, plenty of fresh butter and milk and often a few eggs.  Whenever we were hungry we stopped in the shade and ate.  We existed on this diet for days on end, and I for my part have never felt better.  At the moment it doesn’t look as if we shall ever see any butter or a decent bread again, and the mere thought of those days makes us want to be back in the North of France again.

We arrived rather late at our village and did not meet with much success at first, but found a friendly farmer after a search.  We were always compelled to waste valuable daylight in the evening as the Hun had issued an order that everyone was to be indoors by 8 p.m.  It was only by good luck that we happened to hear of this on our first day of escape, otherwise we might have been badly caught out.

The farmer was kind but uninteresting and next morning we set forth through villages which became more and more occupied by Germans.  We could not understand the significance of this, but assumed it to be the massing of troops in connection with the proposed invasion of England, although it was a little difficult to see in what connection.  If we had been able to get back to England soon enough we could have provided the R.A.F. with a lot of useful information, but by now that was a forlorn hope.

Towards evening an opportunity arose to collect another bicycle, but this very nearly led to complete disaster and only by the greatest luck and some good management did we escape undetected.  After a rather feverish retreat we managed to find a pleasant farm in a village already almost entirely occupied by Germans, near Auxi-le-Château.  Naturally we always made a point of avoiding them as far as possible in case of awkward questions, and when one of them came in to the farm and spent an hour milking the cow and making butter, we were compelled to hide in the cow shed, fearing every moment that he would come in.  The owners of this farm, quite a well-to-do family, had fled southwards at the German invasion, and chose this particular evening to return.  However, they welcomed us and gave us food to take away the following morning.  Dennis of course fell in love with the daughter.  The father was comparatively well-educated and I think suspected our identity, as we were only a few miles from the big prison camp at Doullens.  When I asked why he thought England would lose the war, he replied: “Austria didn’t fight, Czechoslovakia didn’t fight, Poland didn’t fight, you didn’t fight (meaning the Belgians of course, I always resented having to feel responsible for Leopold, but one can’t have everything!), France didn’t fight, so why should England fight?”  As he was getting closer and closer and louder and louder I was so overcome by the end of it (and there were a lot more countries mentioned I think) that there didn’t seem to be any answer.

On the following day, June 27th, we set out early just in case there were any repercussions of the bicycle incident.  The moment we left the farm we were horrified to see my old bicycle outside a shop, and all kinds of fearful thoughts assailed us.  There was only one thing to do, and we did it, more or less in a state of complete panic.  Fortunately both bicycles behaved themselves and by lunchtime we had covered a good 30 kilometres without being asked any questions.  But everyone we passed seemed to look at my bicycle in a most enquiring sort of way.

Up till now we had been keeping to side roads, had spoken to very few people and had seen very few signs of damage left by the German advance.  But as there seemed to be so many refugees about we decided that from now on we could take to the main roads, and thereby cover about twice the distance we had been doing.  For the next few days also the wind was in our favour, and we bowled along at a rate of knots for miles and miles.  Besides this it was far more interesting, as one saw more people, and in particular the results of the German advance towards Paris a fortnight previously.

This afternoon we reached Amiens.  We had some discussion as to whether we would go around it or through it, but Dennis had by now determined to make this a sight-seeing tour, so we went through it.  And he was quite right, as nobody was being stopped.  Large parts of the town were in ruins, in particular all the houses round the Cathedral.  But the Cathedral itself was untouched (clever German propaganda?) except some broken glass; fortunately this had been taken out and replaced at the beginning of the War.  Most of the bridges were blown, and we had to make a detour to find one which wasn’t.  At the exit to the town, on the Paris road, there were several Huns looking as if they might be stopping traffic, so here we invented our little ‘charade’ which soon became automatic.  I would stop and pretend my tyre was flat and while we were pumping it up and generally adjusting the bicycle, Dennis would have a good look at the Huns and see if they were stopping people.  Usually it was perfectly alright and we were merely wasting our time, but sometimes we did have to turn back and make a detour.

I shall never forget the road from Amiens to Paris – about 120 kilometres.  Every few yards there was some sort of vehicle, either tank, truck, or civilian car, overturned in the ditch all along the road.  It was always a source of conjecture to us as to how exactly they had got into such extraordinary positions; most of them were upside down.  Actually the Huns must have advanced at a phenomenal speed and simply pushed anything that was in the way into the ditch.  Most of the vehicles had their wheels removed, as of course the rubber tyres were extremely valuable to the Germans.  They must have had a very efficient salvage Company following directly behind their fighting troops.  All other useful parts of the vehicles were also removed, but may have been pillaged by the neighbouring garages.

Every village was a shambles and showed the desperate fighting of the French rearguard as they retired back to Paris.  The Hun had obviously concentrated his full force along this road and didn’t worry much about the surrounding country, and every village on this road must have received the full force of his bombers.  Between the villages there were rather pathetic signs of rearguard actions by the French, and the smell of all kinds of decaying and burning matter was appalling.  Graves of dead soldiers were dotted on each side of the road; what the ratio of German-French casualties was we had no means of telling as the Hun had probably taken more trouble over their graves than those of the French, and what we saw may have had little relation to actual casualties.  But in any case I do not think they could have been very great as there was not sufficient scope for fighting on a big scale.

As we rode past this it made one think how efficient and ruthless the German advance had been.  It was a completely new idea, and nobody would have thought it possible before.  Its success was amazing, and the effects must have been too rapid for the French to have had time to think.  It was mostly due to Air superiority I think, but the Hun must have been prepared for any losses.  All the standard obstacles such as craters, felled trees, demolished houses, and bridges blown, did not seem to have held up his advance at all.  How he overcame them so quickly is a mystery, but his engineers must have been trained to the highest pitch of efficiency.

Refugees were streaming back from Paris and we, of course, were going the wrong way for refugees.  However, we saw several other bicycles going toward Paris and it didn’t worry us at all that our story didn’t quite fit the facts; we were becoming hardened by now.  In any case we invented some paltry story about going to see some friends in Paris, just in case we were asked anything.

That evening we stopped at a small village just off the road, but soon found that there was scarcely a house left standing and only about one inhabitant.  So we decided to try further into the country and stopped at a large farm.  The woman was hospitable, gave us a good meal and said we could stay the night.  I spent a happy half-hour helping a Polish refugee to drive in the cows, while Dennis sketched the farm.  Just as he was about to present the sketch to the woman, a foal (the tamest I have ever seen) calmly sauntered up, took it off the seat and ate it.  Just after this the patron arrived and asked who we were.  He was drunk and staggered out of his car in a most sinister way.  He looked even more sinister when we told him our story, and we felt like the Babes in the Wood or very naughty children.  We then, rather foolishly, decided to tell him the truth, upon which he looked even more sinister, instead of being helpful as we had hoped.  Our imagination was working at full pitch by now and thinking all kinds of fearful things would befall us, we took our leave and fled back to the ruined village.  Actually we suspected he was the mayor of the village and might have Nazi tendencies and report us to the Hun.  But it was probably mere imagination.  We spent an uncomfortable night in the barn wondering whether he would send gendarmes out to look for us.  Two people came past during the night and we distinctly heard them say “On m’avait dit qu’il-y-a deux prisonniers echapes ici.” – so he had evidently been talking.  And two others found our bicycles so there must have been something afoot.  In view of this we decided to beat it at dawn the next morning.  As we rode out we met a large column of German horse-drawn transport – the German army still has a very large proportion of horses.  The day proved uneventful and we rode on, with a following wind, along miles of dead straight road, through scenes of desolation and ruined villages.  As we approached Paris this became less pronounced, and at Chantilly there were no signs of fighting at all.  The French had evidently decided to give up the struggle on this road and retire behind Paris, rather than face such appalling damage and destruction as would have followed.  Near Chantilly we found a deserted house near the main road and spent a very comfortable night with mattresses and blankets.  The house evidently belonged to some quite well-to-do Paris people, but had been pillaged and turned upside down by the refugees.  This was perhaps one of the worst aspects of the War.  Of the thousands of refugees we saw, probably not more than 10% need have left their homes – but of course they could not be expected to know this.  All the remainder suffered far more damage from pillaging than they ever would have done from bombing.  We saw many chateaus and houses completely sacked and looted of everything; the wine cellars were usually the first object and invariably a scene of indescribable chaos.  The discipline of the German Army with regard to looting was very strict and I think rigidly enforced; this looting was done almost entirely by passing refugees.  It was very instructive to see how quickly man would return to the animal stage as soon as law was suspended.

We woke the following day with high hopes, as we were now only 10 miles from Paris, and the next few days might hold all kinds of excitements, and possibly assistance for our return to England.  We entered the City without any difficulty at all and headed straight for Montparnasse where we found a very cheap hotel hidden away in a side street, just suitable for our purpose.  We trotted out the same old story to the proprietor, but were quite unprepared for the form which we had to complete.  We hadn’t even prepared our names beforehand, but after a lot of stuttering and hesitation we managed to concoct a few ridiculous details which seemed to satisfy him.  When he asked us for our papers we had to admit that we just hadn’t got any (“Of course we had lost them all when our house at Ghent was bombed.”) and he didn’t ask any more questions.

There was only one man we knew in Paris, a M. Pourtauborde {or Pourtanborde}, the father of the French liaison officer of our unit.  Dennis professed to know a few high-sounding millionaires but wasn’t quite sure after all if they were in Paris.  So he went off to find the only man we were quite sure about, and I did a round of the principal stations to see if we could get a train south (this proved to be impossible).  Dennis failed to return until the evening, and just as I was getting really anxious and wondering if he had fallen into the Seine or been arrested, he appeared beaming all over his face and describing the five-course lunch he had been given at the best hotel in Paris.  I was disgusted, but decided he had earned his living when he produced 750 Fr, very kindly given to us by M. Pourtanborde.  He had also furnished us with maps and some very useful information about the boundary of German-occupied territory – this subsequently proved invaluable and made our visit well worth while.  The following day was Sunday and we decided that by now it was time we had a well-earned rest; so we spent the day, in real tourist fashion, rubber-necking around Paris.

Not having had any experience of the City before, I was unable to make any comparison with pre-war Paris.  It was already full of Germans, both in and out of uniform, and all were clicking away with their cameras as fast as they could go.  Cinemas had already been opened especially for the German soldiers.  German money had to be accepted, at a ridiculous rate of exchange, but the shopkeepers beamed all over their faces and thought they were doing a good deal over it.  The German tendency was to buy up everything they could see, whether they wanted it or not, and they must have returned to Germany with all kinds of rubbish.

All the important public services were by now entirely controlled by them – the curfew also applied here and everyone had to be indoors and lights out by 10 p.m.  Newspapers were, of course, an excellent opportunity for propaganda, and one could already detect the beginning of the anti-British feeling.  The sensible and educated people realized that they were being fooled, but propaganda is a powerful weapon and it is very difficult not to be influenced by the paper if it says the same thing day after day, particularly if it was a paper you could trust only a few weeks previously.  The less educated were more easily impressed and could even eventually be persuaded that Germany was their ally and England their enemy.  However, as I say, we only saw the very first signs of this feeling in Paris, and it wasn’t until we reached unoccupied France that it began to have any significance.

After a visit to Notre Dame and a tour of the City we finished up at the Champs Elysees and the Place d’Etoiles; the latter so impressed me that I bicycled round and round it, thinking how appalling it would have been if this City had been destroyed.  The Germans all seemed as impressed as I was, and doubtless they were thinking the same thing.  Paris is a superb city; London just doesn’t compare with it, although Paris lacks the spacious parks.  But the laying out of the avenues leading up to the Place d’Etoiles is a masterpiece of town-planning, and would impress even the most ignorant and phlegmatic.  It was a memorable Sunday afternoon, the first on which the Germans had really taken possession of Paris.  Food was scarce, and for the first time since our escape we had to do without butter!

We ate in a second-rate restaurant near Les Invalides, and were only slightly perturbed by two German officers who sat at the table opposite.  They did look suspiciously at us, as we walked out, but I don’t think they suspected our real identity for an instant.  As we returned to our hotel we found several Germans in the bar but were by now quite unmoved by any number of them.  That evening we decided we had spent long enough in Paris, and it was not till then that we had to come to any big decision as to our future plans.  We were all for catching a train south as soon as possible, but could not do this until we reached the unoccupied area.  After that there were two alternatives, either Spain or Marseille.  After much discussion we decided on the former; the task ahead seemed formidable enough, but we had the whole summer to do it in.

So on the morning of July 1st we set forth on the main road to Fontainebleau, although we left Paris by the side streets in case of police supervision.  We were lucky to have got through Paris as early as this, as supervision later on became much stricter and we might easily have been questioned.  Once questioned, and having no papers, we realized of course that we would be sunk.

As we sailed down the main road toward Fontainebleau, still with a following wind (every cyclist will realize what an immense difference this makes) we were alarmed by the vast columns of German vehicles proceeding southwards.  Was this a preparation for the occupation of the rest of France, or was it, as was rumored, the beginning of an advance through Spain to attack Gibraltar!  Or perhaps they were merely returning to Germany, admittedly by a rather circuitous route.  As we approached Fontainebleau the concentration of troops became more and more dense, and we were becoming definitely alarmed, hardened though we were.  At the entrance to the town we encountered a barrier where we at once saw that all civilian traffic was being stopped.  After some quick thinking we turned off down another road, stopped, and had a good look at the sentries from behind the trees.  Unfortunately one of them saw us performing this decidedly suspicious movement, and started walking toward us.  Very alarmed, we immediately turned tail and fled, turning off down a side track into the woods after a few hundred yards.  The track fortunately led around into the town, and we soon found ourselves opposite the famous chateau with its lovely steps.  However, I was in no mood to appreciate architecture and expected a hue and cry, and possibly a few bullets, at any moment.  But of course nothing happened.  After we came out of the town we saw another barrier, but this time there was no turning off, so there was nothing for it but to ride straight on looking as innocent as possible.  The sentry scarcely gave us a glance and we rode out of the town feeling very relieved.

In point of fact we were always over-suspicious of German guards.  The Hun was far too busy organizing his troops to worry about refugees like us, and as long as they didn’t get in his way or go into places where he didn’t want them, I don’t think he cared much what happened.  Fontainebleau certainly appeared to contain an unusual number of troops, partly because of the trees and partly because the Hun always chose the most beautiful parts of France to concentrate his troops, just to make sure that we wouldn’t bomb them.  Doubtless H.Q. was in the chateau – it was all very cleverly worked out.

Fortunately Dennis and I both looked young and innocent(?) and nobody would have suspected us of being escaped officers, although perhaps we didn’t look much like Belgians.  Later on we found our youthful appearance cut both ways, as the French simply wouldn’t believe it, let alone that I was a Captain.  The latter proved such a continual stumbling block that I had to reduce myself to lieutenant (It subsequently appears that the kind British Government had already done this for me.). No French Captain seemed to be less than 35, and they thought I was either trying to be funny or just lying to impress them.

We had great difficulty in finding a farm that evening, principally because this was not a farming district.  Eventually we had to stay in a hotel, much against our will as our money was by no means inexhaustible.  Here we met a young French boy who looked trustworthy, and as we were approaching the frontier into Free France, we thought we might get some information out of him.  But he couldn’t give us any useful advice, and we set forth next morning feeling rather lost, as we had no idea which was the best direction to head for.

The main road was still thick with German traffic, and as we did not want another repetition of Fontainebleau, we decided to strike off due south.  Passing through many villages – and incidentally buying a particularly good supply of butter, eggs, and milk – we arrived that evening at Lorris which was thick with Bosch.  I went into the boulangerie to get some bread, and was promptly asked by the woman if I was an escaped prisoner.  Naturally this shook me a bit, but replied in my most innocent and offended tone that of course I was not.  We subsequently discovered that the Germans had a lot of French prisoners here who were working in the forests and fields under their supervision, and I presume a good many of them had escaped.

That night we spent in the loft of a very pleasant farm.  The woman made us the usual omelette and told us that her husband was a prisoner, but she had no idea where he was.  She and her two kids were running the whole farm by themselves.

The following day we bicycled through miles of forests where we saw many of these gangs of French prisoners working.  For some reason Dennis received a very suspicious look from one of the German guards.  I did not see this, but he said afterwards that he expected every moment to be stopped and asked a few awkward questions.  The guard had probably lost one of his prisoners and was scrutinizing everyone who came by, but it is amazing how one’s imagination will work when one is afraid of being arrested.

After an uneventful day, we reached Aubigny and stopped at a farm a few miles beyond it.  We were now only 12 miles from the River Cher, which was the German boundary, and we were determined to make a break for it on the following day.  First of all we decided to make quite certain that we couldn’t go straight across the bridge at Vierzon, as the Hun was sometimes amazingly casual.  So next morning while Dennis was having his hair cut in Vierzon, I walked down to the bridge, but was disappointed to find two sentries who were stopping all traffic and asking for papers.

There was nothing for it but to explore the river into the country, and if necessary swim it.  We bicycled westwards toward Méry-sur-Cher, where we found a track leading down to the river.  Turning down this we soon reached the meadows, which spread out on either side of the river, but unfortunately had to pass a collection of Huns in doing this.  They looked a bit suspicious but we put on our best innocent look and rode straight past.

As we were pushing our bicycles across the meadows towards the river we heard what sounded very like an alarm back in the village, and a few minutes later we saw a German cavalry officer cantering up the river bank.  Our time was up; a promising escape was to be baulked at the last moment.  Hiding behind a hedge in a state of complete jitters we waited for him to get out of sight and discussed what to do.  However we couldn’t turn back now, and at the first favourable opportunity we pushed on to the farm we had in sight.  Here we stopped and went into the farm, ostensibly to ask for butter, but actually to get some advice about crossing the river.  The old man was evidently used to this sort of thing and took it almost as a matter of course, much to our relief.  He told us that it was more dangerous to cross at night as the Hun increased his patrol out of all proportion.  The only difficulty during daylight was the cavalry officer who patrolled ceaselessly up and down the bank, and might return at any moment.  Just as he had said this we heard a horse around the corner, and as we were standing right on the track, I thought for the second time in 10 minutes that our time was up.  He was bound to question us.  But he didn’t.  He simply rode straight on with a most benign expression as if he was having an afternoon ride for pleasure.

Immediately he had passed, we had a look at the river, and seeing that it was only waist deep, decided it was now or never.  Dennis was in great form and without even troubling to remove his boots plunged straight into the river, his bicycle under his arm.  After removing my boots I followed suit, expecting a bullet in my back at any moment!  The stream was very swift and at one stage I thought I should be swept off my feet; probably not many people have tried this particular trick with a bicycle, but it did not take long to discover that it was a handicap!  The opposite bank seemed miles away, and the stream breaking against one seemed to make enough noise to attract the whole German army.  At last we reached the island, and scrambling across it were relieved to see that the other half of the river wasn’t so bad.  Feverishly looking around to see if we could see anyone, we plunged in again and reached the other bank successfully.  Hooray!  We were over, but still had to cross the open meadows as we weren’t going to rest until we were right out of danger.

Before crossing the river we had been told by superstitious people that the whole river bank was more or less “lined with machine-guns!”  Although we never believed a word of this, we had an uncomfortable feeling that at any moment we might hear the rat-tat-tat and the zip-zip of the bullets, and it certainly drove us on.  As we were crossing the meadows we heard shouting back at the farm and of course immediately thought that the alarm had been given, so we increased our pace still more.  After a few minutes just as we thought we had reached the safety of the woods on the opposite bank, we were appalled to see that there was yet another river to cross.  It was only about 30 feet wide but looked very deep.  After a short and futile discussion Dennis said he was going to swim it, with his bicycle.  Slithering down the bank he collapsed into the water.  The mud gave under his feet and looking round I beheld the pathetic spectacle of Dennis, right up to his neck in muddy water, trying to support his bicycle, with rather a sorry expression on his face.  Deciding immediately that this was no place for me I left him to his fate and went to look for a better place further up the stream; fortunately I found a shallow crossing about 50 yards up, and returned to find Dennis still in exactly the same position.  I could not refrain from unseemly laughter at this absurd sight.  He didn’t seem to mind much, and with a supreme effort he got out and crawled up the bank.  Together we ran down the bank, still in full view of the German side, and waded across the last obstacle.  Having surmounted an almost impossible bank and crawled through yards of brambles we eventually found ourselves in a ride leading out of the woods.  We looked first at ourselves, then at the bicycles and then our kit, but, apart from being soaked, remarkably little damage had been done.  Even the eggs were intact.  Dennis’s trousers were torn, but that was a thing we eventually took for granted.

At last we were in Free France, and our troubles were over (or so we thought!).  We immediately celebrated by shouting English at the top of our voices to everyone we could see.  Naturally they thought we were mad, but we didn’t care – we were free!  We met four Frenchman on bicycles who asked us if they could get back to their homes in occupied France.  “Oh yes, rather,” we replied “Just go down into that wood, swim the river, and you’re there.”  But they were not amused.

We soon got back on the main road and were amazed to see a line of cars stretching for miles.  We were told they had been waiting for days trying to get back into occupied France, but the Germans would not let them go.  Eventually they had to go back, but in the meantime the occupants were camped by the roadside, just waiting.  It was bad luck.

Arriving at the first town, we stopped and celebrated our success at a café.  Of course, we told everyone who we were and we soon became the centre of attention; in fact for a few minutes we really earned the fruits of our hard work!  We suddenly realized it was July 4th – Independence Day, and thinking it particularly suitable, we ordered more drinks all round.  One had the feeling of really accomplishing something, and one could not help reveling in it.

Eventually we set forth again and soon found a little empty house where, with the permission of the owner, we lit a huge fire and dried our clothes.  Next morning, having thoroughly cleaned ourselves up, we set forth for Châteauvieux, where we had been told we could catch a train for the south.

From now on our luck began to change, and after a few days we realized that our travels and difficulties had only just begun.  First of all the weather decided we had been spoilt long enough.  All the way down from Béthune it had been perfect; a north wind had blown us down all the time, and it hadn’t rained once.  But on our first day in Free France it changed, and remained unpleasant for days.  As we had no mackintoshes we could make no progress in the rain, and on this particular day we spent hours sitting miserably under trees and barns.  However, after some very hard work against a strong southerly gale, we eventually reached Châteauvieux – actually it turned out to be our last serious day’s bicycling in France so we couldn’t complain.

Châteauvieux was full of refugees and no hotel accommodation at all.  We were told by the police to apply at the local barracks, the Commandant gave us a ticket for two beds in the local hospital which they were reserving for stray officers and soldiers.  We were the only English there, and I think they were a bit mystified by us, but allowed us in.  So we got our free beds, and very comfortable they were.

We were too tired to find out about the trains that night, and on the following day found we had missed the only suitable train at 7 a.m.  So we resigned ourselves to a day in Châteauvieux – not an interesting town.  That day, July 6th, the news about the bombing of the Dunkerque and other French ships came out in the papers (The Battle of Mers-el-Kébir).  We were mystified by it as were the French, but it did not take us long to realize the full significance of it as it would affect us.  It was particularly tactless of Churchill to have chosen this moment to do it – we said laughingly.  But when we heard that diplomatic relations were broken off, the laugh was definitely on us, and the outlook became distinctly gloomy.

Next morning we left by the 7 o’clock train for Montluçon, and from there we caught a bus to Vichy, arriving late in the evening.  One of the occupants of the bus had asked us to come and have dinner with him in Vichy, so we accepted and followed him to his flat.  Having dined well he offered to accompany us to the station, where there was a train leaving for Nîmes at 4 a.m. (French trains always seem to run at unearthly hours).  During the meal a French captain who was there, advised us to see if we could get any help from the French government now that we were in Vichy; but in view of the Dunkerque and recent international developments we thought it wiser to steer clear of them and push on southwards.  The next 10 days proved how right we were.

On leaving the flat our host unfortunately lost the way, and after wandering about for half-an-hour we encountered some gendarmes.  “Vos papiers, s’il vous plait.”  Of course we hadn’t got any papers and were immediately taken off to the police station.  We told them we wanted to catch the 4 a.m. train, and they replied sweetly that “Of course that would be quite alright.”  But I had an unpleasant suspicion that it wouldn’t be anything of the sort, and it wasn’t.

We arrived at the police station at midnight and were greeted by an official who took our names and said it would alright in the morning but of course we couldn’t possibly go until we had seen the Chef-de-Police, and he didn’t arrive until 8 a.m.  So my suspicions proved correct and all hope of catching the train vanished.  Meanwhile they took us along to a cell and locked the door on us.  As we entered I noticed them having a pretty intensive look at our bicycles, and it gave me a fairly uncomfortable night.  That wasn’t the only thing to cause discomfort; we slept on a stone floor in company with a dead drunk and two Russian refugees; the latter spoke English and were very interesting.  They had fought with the French Army and were now trying to find work on a farm, but had committed the appalling crime being without papers, and so I suppose they were suspected of being spies.  Every ten minutes there was a fearful swish and roar as the latrine in the cell automatically flushed itself; in fact I doubt if I slept at all that night.  But it was worth while for the experience – a night in a real cell!  Needless to say, we did not think quite along those lines at the time.

No light reached the cell and only by my watch could I tell that it was morning.  Much to our surprise the door opened promptly at 8 o’clock and we were ushered forth, looking very dishevelled, into the main room of the police station.  After a wait of almost an hour, during which there was a seemingly endless roll call of all the police in Vichy, most of whom were absent, the great man appeared.  He was a kindly looking old man and we hoped that he at least would give us reasonable treatment.  After some explanation and discussion he beckoned us forward and we were directed into the street, where we found a comfortable car awaiting us.  But they made quite sure we weren’t going to escape by putting two gendarmes in as well, and the great man got in beside us.  As we drove through the town we tried to make chatty conversation, but he wasn’t very interested, and we eventually gave it up; he was much more interested in the traffic control of the town.

We were taken to La Place or the military H.Q. of the town, which was temporarily situated in the Hotel International.  Here we were put in the guard room, where the guard lay sprawling over their beds, and left to our own devices.  After a hurried explanation to the Authorities, the Chef-de-Police departed.  We had expected help from him and he proved nothing but a disappointment.

As we expected, the Authorities now completely forgot about us, or rather none of them wanted the trouble of dealing with us.  The guard room was simply a room off the central hall of the hotel and we could see everything that was going on.  Officers and all kinds of officials passed to and fro all day, but none of them took the slightest interest in us except to stare and sometimes point us out to their friends.  We were gradually becoming furious; the guard-commander was surly and would not let us leave the room except under guard; we were given no food (fortunately we still had a supply of our own); we lay down to sleep on one of the beds, but the captain of the guard appeared and told us to get up – “No-one was allowed to lie down during the day.” he said – but this was palpably untrue as several of the guards were sound asleep.  Dennis answered him back with his hands in his pockets, and was promptly told in the most offensive manner to take them out.  We discussed in great detail what we would do to him after the War, but it didn’t help the present situation very much.  That evening I asked in the usual way to go to the usual place, and the guard-commander, in a most offensive manner, told me to wait.  I thereupon lost my temper, told him how disgracefully we were being treated and ended up by trying to find a suitable word for the whole thing, but by this time my French had become exhausted, and I concluded with a rather feeble abominable.  He thereupon became equally offensive and asked what I had done with all the sailors on the Dunkerque, but of course he was quite incapable of understanding that I could hardly be held responsible for them.  It was all very unpleasant and made me realize how useless it is to get angry on such occasions as these.  Nevertheless, even now I look back on these few days with disgust, and can scarcely believe that French opinion and behaviour could have turned so quickly.

The outlook seemed very black that evening, and we fully expected to be sent off to an internment camp.  It seemed bad luck that after all our trouble to escape from the Hun we were to be treated like this by the French.

We awoke next morning, amid the snores of the guard, feeling depressed, but actually managed to get permission to go and wash.  There were still no signs of food, and even less of any action being taken about us, so later on while the guard wasn’t looking, Dennis boldly sallied forth into the Commandant’s office.  The latter evidently behaved like a normal gentleman, but like all the rest had no idea what was going to happen to us.  “Tomorrow may find a solution.”  Needless to say neither tomorrow nor the next 10 days found any solution whatever.

As we had not been fed for 36 hours even the guard-commander realised that we might possibly be hungry.  So after a tremendous upheaval, during which probably every officer was consulted, it was decided that we could have an hour to go and eat in the town – at our own expense of course.

We duly repaired to a restaurant, and in 5 minutes we realized were sitting next to a German.  Knowing that there were several German agents in the town, this was distinctly alarming, and we began talking French again in our old style.  Life wasn’t going to be quite so easy in unoccupied France after all.

It was already well-known in town that there were 2 British officers being detained there by the Authorities, and it had even found its way into the papers.  Naturally we feared that if the Hun spotted this, Free France or no Free France, he might order the French to hand us back again.

On returning to La Place we found that we were now becoming an information bureau for English news.  A young and very pretty girl was awaiting our return, and having introduced herself, asked us if we knew anything of her English fiancé who was last heard of at Dunkirk.  Unfortunately we could shed no light on this, but volunteered to do everything we could to trace him when we got back.  A few days later we renewed our acquaintance with her and during our subsequent stay in Vichy she proved a most charming and kind companion.  Although we continually refused offers of money, on the last night before we departed, she gave Dennis a letter for her fiancé, and in it concealed a 1,000 Fr note for us, which of course we didn’t discover until she had left.  As her family were refugees from Lille and were none too well off themselves, such generosity was wonderful.

We now decided that if anything was going to happen we must take the necessary action ourselves, otherwise we should just sit here for the rest of our lives.  Dennis there-upon demanded to see the American Ambassador; strangely enough they allowed him to go, without a murmur.  He returned later to say that he had found 3 Englishwomen who had promised to do what they could through an influential American whom they knew.  The latter appeared at the guard room within half-an-hour and introduced himself in broad American.  He was a Mr. Raldiris, had spent 25 years of his life in France, and “reckoned he’d wasted his time.”  We were naturally delighted to find someone who would help us, and what was more we took an instant liking to him as being the really broad-minded and sensible type of American, with a tremendous sense of humour.  For the next few days he never ceased to give us help and service, and although nothing eventually came of it, it was certainly not his fault.  He would wait for us every day at an appointed time outside the very smart Hotel Ambassadeurs, where most of the French Government was staying, and would never be in the least bit embarrassed by the two ragamuffins (our clothes were every tired by now) who appeared on very ancient bicycles.  Then we would chat, and every now and then he would whisper “Come around the corner – Gestapo, Gestapo” in real detective style.  He had a disconcerting habit of shaking your hand about 15 times before you really took your leave, and between each handshake would tell a real American story.  Most of these were about the 600 m.p.h. “planes that America was shipping over to England;” but we always suspected that one of being a fishing story.

That evening as we sat in the guard room, feeling decidedly more hopeful, we were amazed to see two officers of our division being escorted in.  They looked even more ragged than we, and had been caught by the police just outside Vichy.  They were intending to catch a train for Marseille, but like us had been guilty of having no papers.  The French, like all the continental countries it appears, have an absolute mania for papers.  Anything will do, as long as it has a nice red seal on it and a little Gothic writing to help.  They were quite incapable of understanding that if you were an escaped prisoner of war you had naturally thrown away any identity papers, which you may have had, long ago.  We had to explain this is great detail to every official we met, and still he would ask “But haven’t you got any papers at all?” in a shocked voice.  Incidentally the British officer and O.R. is not issued with any identity paper at all, and an identity disc does not impress an official.

Major P. and Capt. B. were about as British as anyone could imagine.  They could scarcely master a word of French between them, and what they could had such an appalling accent that they might as well have admitted their nationality without further ado.  They had an amazing story to tell of how they had been arrested a second time by the Germans but allowed to go free again.  They had rashly admitted their identity to a refugee who immediately went and gave them away to the local Huns – this was in occupied France.  Quickly changing their story they told the Hun they were Belgian refugees!  Asked if they could speak English, B. replied: “A leetle” (this he always narrated with great glee).  Despite the fact that they searched his kit and found in it a complete suite of battle dress and an English novel called the Escape Club they believed their story, and after making them scrub the floor and peel some potatoes they allowed them to go.  The Germans in question must have been very indulgent or very stupid – the latter I think.

On the following day we were all moved to a temporary camp for French soldiers awaiting demobilisation, just outside Vichy.  It consisted of the local Stadium adapted for that purpose.  Here they gave us quite good accommodation and food, and strangely enough complete freedom.  The official attitude was certainly improving and it began to look as if they might give us some help after all.

The next few days we spent trying to pull all the strings we could think of.  Dennis worked diplomatic wonders and managed somehow to see one of the most important people in the Foreign Office.  I sometimes expected him to return and tell me that he had spoken to Laval himself about it.  Incidentally he did say “Good-morning” to Dennis one day as he passed; but it was nothing to be proud of as we had our own opinions about this particular government and its ‘leader’.

At the same time we worked away at other sources of potential help – firstly the American Embassy; they were polite and courteous and even wired to the War Office for us, but I doubt if the wire ever got there.  Every day we arrived at the Embassy at 4 p.m. sharp, but there was never any news or real assistance; it was always “Come again tomorrow and there may be some news!”  Secondly there was the Portuguese Ambassador, to whom Raldiris had given us an introduction.  A really charming man, educated in England, and very interested in us.  He wired to the British Embassy in Portugal, and got the reply “Why don’t they go to Gibraltar?” but no hint or suggestion of assistance.  A more stupid or senseless answer I can scarcely imagine.  They might as well have asked why we didn’t charter the nearest aeroplane and fly to England.  But as each wire took 2 or 3 days we were not prepared to argue this out.

Various other people whom we met promised to “See what they could do for us.” – that hard-worn old phrase – but we gradually began to see that we were being steadily let down by everybody.  By now the French Government had started to pass the baby – a most convenient way of getting rid of a difficult problem.  You went to one department and were told that the “Matter was now out of our hands, and you must go see so-and-so.”  I don’t know how many times this happened – we lost count – but I do know that during our 12 days’ stay in Vichy we passed from Police to Military to Foreign Office to Minister of the Interior.  And it was always the same old story “Come back tomorrow and we may be able to help you.”, “Tomorrow may find a solution.”, etc., etc.  In fact it became increasingly obvious that the French Government really had no idea what to do with us.  To clap us in the gaol perhaps seemed even to them rather ungrateful after we had fought for them, but on the other hand they could scarcely countenance our proposed escape out of France officially.  But I felt that if we kept on pestering them too long they might get fed up, take the easy road and put us in the internment camp.  In point of fact I often wonder if anyone gave the matter any thought whatever, as they were at that time busy forming the New Constitution for the New France, and talking as hard as they could go about the honour of the country, the new spirit of France, etc., etc., and were unlikely to have much time to spare for people like us.

The remainder of our time in Vichy was spent sightseeing, drinking in cafés, and in one or two excursions into the country with our charming young chaperone!  In fact almost a real summer-holiday.  My birthday I remember as being an extremely pleasant day spent in such an excursion, with a bottle of champagne to celebrate, and plenty of luscious fruit to eat, as we sat by the river – on a perfect summer’s day.  Vichy was, of course, crowded out now that it had become temporarily the capital of France, and the shops and hotels were doing a roaring trade.  It was all very interesting to see how hard La Nouvelle France could work to get itself in order again, and yet seem to spend its entire day sitting in cafés.  Interesting from our point of view at any rate.

One day while we were attending one of our meals at the Stadium we were astonished to see our friend the ‘German’, being brought in.  He turned out to be a naturalized South African and British subject, but German-born.  He told us, in good English, of the terrible experiences he had had since leaving Alsace some weeks previously, where he had been living with his family.  Having lost his family by some misadventure – he presumed they must have reached Portugal or even be on the way to South Africa by now – he had been arrested several times by the French on suspicion of being a German spy but released on each occasion as his papers were in perfect order.  But wherever he went he was looked on with suspicion and one day he encountered some particularly offensive Frenchmen – actually in Vichy I think.  They decided to ‘test’ him by making him repeat the words “Hitler ist ein ______” (some very offensive word followed here).  Being a fair-minded man he wasn’t going to do this just for some unpleasant Frenchmen, even though he was no great friend of Hitler’s.  After repeated refusals they became violent and kicked him; worse treatment followed when he was hit on the head, had his hair pulled, his face punched, and finally nearly all his money amounting to some 20,000 Fr removed from him.  He was knocked temporarily unconscious and must have then suffered a lapse of memory as he talked vaguely about wandering about the country for days, covered with blood, and sleeping in nothing better than ditches until someone found him and took care of him.  This latter may have been exaggerated, but he was at least 55 and it was amazing that such treatment had not killed him.  He was in a terribly nervous condition and almost cried with delight at meeting anyone who could speak English.  It seemed an almost unbelievable story in these days, but I am sure it was true as he told it with such sincerity and one could not help being very sorry for him.  When he had regained some of his strength he told us all about himself – he had evidently been a very prominent man in the early days of the revolution in Germany, but had no respect for Hitler’s methods and after some disagreement left Germany for good.  Since when he has been to most European countries; brought up a son who is now a Rhodes Scholar; became a naturalized South African and settled in that country.  He told me with great pride that Bernard Shaw once stayed with him there.

After two or three days, during which time he complained to the French Police about his money and succeeded in persuading them for the umpteenth time that he was not a spy, he was allowed to go.  But we were to see him again.

We had now decided that if we received no help in the next two days we would depart under our own steam, without any papers, to Marseille.  This was a change in our original plan, but we had been told that there was a British representative in Marseille and so we thought it worthwhile going out of our way to see him.  Besides which there was just a possibility that we might get a neutral boat to take us on.  We also heard a disquieting rumour that all the inmates of this camp were to be moved to a regular military camp within a few days, and it looked very much as if we might go with them if we didn’t clear out.  On the following day this rumour proved to be true, and we busied ourselves making preparations to disappear without attracting more attention than we could help.  We asked the Camp Commandant what was to become of us next day, and we got the inevitable reply “Come back first thing tomorrow and I’ll let you know.”  We were so used to this by now that we just roared with laughter, but it sounded a little too ominous to be worth risking and we decided to go before it was too late.

After the usual arguments and discussions which always took place before any major decision was reached, we decided after a careful reconnaissance of the station and train timetables, to catch the 4:30 from Vichy next morning.  So we crept out in our stockinged feet, with our bicycles, just as dawn was beginning to show, and a few minutes later nervously entered the station.  But there were no suspicious gendarmes or detectives about and the whole thing was just too easy, as we had already suspected.  We had been told by almost everyone in Vichy that you couldn’t possibly get into a train without papers, but the fact remained that not one of them had actually tried.  We were beginning to learn at last that what 99% of the people we met had to say about police supervision was not true.  A few minutes later the trained puffed out of Vichy and we were on our next stage.  As was always the case when we were on the move, our spirits rose and we really felt we were getting nearer home, even though we were going in precisely the opposite direction!  The journey took 15 hours, but when we reflected that it would have meant a fortnight’s bicycling, we endured the heat and stuffiness of the carriage cheerfully.  Not that I would have disliked the road journey.  The Rhône valley, which I had not seen before, was magnificent, and in any other circumstances it would have made an ideal cycling tour.

As we sat watching the scenery we wondered what the Camp Commandant – a diminutive and rather petty lieutenant – had to say when he found his four British inmates had disappeared.  He probably dashed off to report it to the Authorities (whoever they were by this time), who equally probably replied “Thank Heaven for that.  We needn’t worry about them anymore.”  But we still thought they might possibly have warned the police at Marseille, where we be most likely to go.  Needless to say however, they had not, and we walked straight out of the station, with no bigger worries than the fact that our bicycles were not on the train, but were expected on the following one.  Feeling very bold we walked straight into the first hotel we saw and managed to get a luxurious room for 30 Fr.  For the purposes of the hotel register we called ourselves Americans, and derived some amusement from trying to talk French with an American accent.  We were tired that evening and after a light supper decided to postpone all further operations till the next day, and retired to bed.

I took a great liking to Marseille and thoroughly enjoyed the 5 days we spent there.  The weather was perfect and after some reconnaissance on our bicycles we found a perfect spot for bathing, here we spent whole afternoons, sitting on the rocks, discussing life in general, eating peaches and wishing we were back in England.  The town itself has a certain fascination, or perhaps it is the number of different races and kinds of people that flock the streets; the market, indescribably dirty, and its tiny narrow streets; the old harbour with the hundreds of yachts and small boats anchored there; behind it the fort and Notre Dame de la Garde perched up on top of the hill; and behind that the mountain ranges stretching for miles, all against a perfect cloudless blue sky.  It was marvellous.  Perhaps the fact that we were there at such a time, less than a month after our escape, seemed incongruous and made it all the more romantic.  Probably very few people would call Marseille romantic, but I can imagine that after a long journey by boat or train, and arriving perhaps in dirty weather, it would appear far from beautiful.  But to us it was glorious, and we spent hours sitting in cafés on the Vieux Port watching the people and the view, and wondering how long it would take to climb up to Notre Dame de la Garde; until one day we did it, and our efforts were repaid with a simply magnificent view.

Needless to say we were not entirely on pleasure bent, and on the first morning after our arrival, our bicycles having arrived safely, we set forth for the British Consulate.  This, of course, was no longer functioning officially and as there had been a tendency to unpleasantness with the French, and even demonstrations outside, the Americans had taken the building under their protection.  But as a consulate it was powerless – even the telephone line had been cut.  All the British representatives could do was to give us a certificate of identity under the American Consulate.  This turned out subsequently, however, to be a very useful bit of paper, principally because it had a large American seal on it, and nobody troubled to read the contents which stated that we were ‘british’ subjects (in small print and not even a capital B, so that no attention would be drawn to it – the Americans were very good about this).

Meanwhile we were told that there was a Sailors Mission at which we could stay and we went straight off there.  It turned out to be a veritable colony of stranded British subjects, run by a padre {Reverend Caskie}, who welcomed us to his flock.  Here we were given excellent food and a comfortable bed, in fact “Everything to make your stay in Marseille happy and comfortable.”

That afternoon we met our South African friend again, quite by chance, and he was as usual delighted to see us.  He had been arrested again on the way down, but released and was now trying to get help from the British representative and had cabled for money.  He was in a desperate condition and wanted us to sign his Will as he talked of committing suicide – in fact he completely broke down and we felt more sorry than ever for the poor man.  Naturally we didn’t sign the Will, but took him off to the Consul, who gave him permission to live with us at the Sailor’s Home.  From then on he was much more cheerful and never ceased to thank us.  Knowing Marseille, he took us to a café he had evidently frequented before, and here we discovered the famous Formidable – large mugs of beer which more nearly approached real beer than anything we had found in France before.  The Formidable became a standing institution every evening and a very pleasant one.  Here we met some Polish officers who were trying to get to England; they gave us valuable advice and help and proved to be most charming people.  We subsequently met them on the train to Spain and I have every reason to believe that they will reach England long before us as their papers were apparently in order.

During this time we were trying to get Spanish and Portuguese visas, but as it involved depositing 1,000 Fr with Cooks we were naturally trying to get the Consul to do this for us, as we could scarcely afford it on the funds we had.  There was apparently some hope of an arrangement with Cooks about this, but needless to say there was endless delay and we were as usual impatient.  Meanwhile there had been unpleasant rumours that all the officers and soldiers were to be taken from the Seaman’s Mission and looked after by the French Government in the comfortable quarters of Fort St. Jean on the outskirts of Marseille.  The rumour rapidly became a fact and we received a rude shock when on the morning of July 24th a police inspector appeared at breakfast and explained the procedure.  He was quite amiable and told us that we should still have the freedom of the town, etc., etc., but nevertheless Fort St. Jean sounded much too like a prison for us.  He showed no signs of having any guard about him, nor was there anyone outside the building, so we hurriedly swallowed our breakfast, threw our belongings into our bags and within 5 minutes we were safe in the crowd of Marseille.  We decided to get as much money as we could from the Consul and then leave Marseille, papers or no papers, for Spain.

During our stay in the Sailor’s Home we had met two other men with whom we often discussed plans, and we had gradually formed a syndicate of four in case we should have to move in a hurry, as indeed we did.  In normal circumstances it was found unsafe to proceed in any number greater than pairs, as in tended to arouse suspicion; but on this occasion it looked as if our future plans might necessitate a small boat, and for anything but the shortest distance this would require a crew of four.  Hawkins [3] was a pilot-officer in the R.A.F. and could be counted on a very useful man where any navigation or sailing was concerned, while Mayoux spoke French fluently and had a working knowledge of Spanish.  So we counted ourselves lucky to be in with two such people.  Incidentally these two had discovered a Greek boat in the docks and had managed to get on board and ask the Captain if he could take them.  He was apparently very friendly and said that he would have done so willingly, but he did not think he was leaving for at least a month.  Dennis and I had also explored the docks one afternoon, dressed up as near stevedores as we could.  We had some difficulty in getting through the strictly guarded entrances, but our certificate of identity worked wonders.  It was a nasty moment when we had to produce it, but we held our thumbs over the word ‘british’, and seeing that it had American Embassy printed in large letters on the top he immediately let us through without troubling to read it.  In any case, of course, it was no more a permit to enter the docks than a cigarette card would have been; and yet they had the reputation of being very strict about permits.  It only shows what a magical effect a nice official looking bit of paper has on the official mind.  The docks had proved disappointing and the only likely looking ship was the (also Greek) Alexandria, but unfortunately she was at anchor in mid-harbour and we saw no means of reaching her.  So we returned after a fruitless afternoon.  That had been two or three days previously, and we were now confronted with the much more difficult problem of crossing the frontier, without papers, into Spain.

We managed to borrow £2 (350 Fr) each from the British Government via the Consul, but needless to say the proposed arrangement with Cooks for the 1,000 Fr seemed to have been delayed ad infinitum.  It was now too late to negotiate for visas on our own as it would have taken 2 days, and we feared that the police would be on our trail by then.  And in any case we had been repeatedly told that Spanish and Portuguese visas were useless without an exit visa from the French authorities, and this we knew we could not get.  So having prepared ourselves for the journey, taken a last look at Marseille, and taken leave of the padre and friends at the Sailor’s Home (we had to risk returning there later on in the day to do this) we caught the 7 p.m. train for Perpignan.  We had lost Hawkins and Mayoux that afternoon but were relieved to find them on the train.  They had been making a final effort at the Greek ship but the Captain still did not know for certain when he would sail and they did not think it worth the risk of waiting.

After an uneventful journey through the night and an unpleasant wait in Narbonne we arrived at Perpignan early the following morning.  Here for the first time we found that we had to show our papers!  Looking hastily around to see if there was any other way out, we held a hurried consultation and decided to risk the American identity certificate.  I went first, with some trepidation, but as usual it worked like a charm and the others followed with equal success.  It was a wonderful piece of paper, and had been well worth going to Marseille for!

From Perpignan we took the road for the frontier and after a few hours steady bicycling, with a stop for lunch at Port-Vendres, reached Cerbère, the frontier town in the early afternoon.  The weather was superb and the little towns dotted along the coastline here looked perfect against the deep blue of the Mediterranean.  To the right rose the Pyrenees – mountain after mountain stretching for miles, and we began to realize the height of the obstacles we might have to cross.

For some reason the events of the next few days left rather a confused and dream-like impression on my mind, very much like the days leading up to the disaster at Saint-Valéry on June 12th .  I suppose it was for the same reason – lack of sleep, though on a much lesser scale.  The preceding night in the train had been pretty well sleepless, and the two following did not give us more than two or three hours sleep altogether.

On arriving at Cerbère we held a hurried consultation and decided that our first efforts must be to try and get hold of a small boat and row round the frontier by sea.  Mayoux went off to sound some fishermen about the possibility of hiring a boat or bribing one of them to take us round by night.  Although he met with every sympathy there was no-one willing to undertake this risk and the outlook in this direction was not at all promising.  We were advised, however, to try the tunnel , to which we had already given some consideration, but a preliminary reconnaissance showed that there were two gendarmes sitting at the entrance, and nothing short of jumping on a train as it was about to enter the tunnel would have been possible.  Besides which we had no idea what sort of guard we should encounter at the Spanish end.

It was now getting late and we were beginning to arouse suspicions by our rather obvious intentions, so after a hurried meal, we decided to go back in the Port-Vendres direction and see if we could get hold of a boat we had noticed in one of the bays.  This would mean further to row of course but we calculated that we could do it under cover of darkness.  However to our disappointment it turned out, after a search of the beach in the gathering darkness, that the boat was no longer there.  It was now almost dark so it was decided that we should have to postpone operations till the following day, and after hiding our bicycles as best we could we lay down in the open to sleep.  Never have I spent such an unpleasant night.  The mosquitoes were appalling and every inch of one’s body had to be covered, including one’s head, with the result of course that one was then overcome by the heat.  We were all relieved when the dawn came; for my part I had scarcely slept at all.

There now seemed only one alternative – to abandon our bicycles and a good deal of our kit and cross the mountains on foot, and having decided on this we proceeded to make the necessary preparations.  It was with regret that I parted with my bicycle but there seemed nothing for it – it had carried me about 500 miles across France and stood up to it with scarcely any attention, except of course the inevitable punctures.

The day turned out very different from what we had expected.  After tackling the first ridge, we found ourselves descending into Cerbère again (we had started some way back).  Soon we met an old man working in the vineyards and after questioning him he affirmed that there was no need to go trudging about the mountains when it was perfectly easy to get out of the country without any papers at all!  This seemed so fantastic that we naturally didn’t believe it, but the walk over the first ridge had been so unpleasant that we decided to try the experiment.  The Customs House stood up on the mountain on the opposite side of Cerbère, so it meant going down into the town again, which we duly did.  On the way down we met a gendarme and spent an unpleasant few minutes wondering if he was going to arrest us.  But no, it all seemed too good to be true.  He was most obliging and helpful and said he would take us down and show us the best way up to the Custom House; scarcely believing him, and expecting at any moment to be lead back to the police station, we followed him down.  But he was as good as his word and after pointing out the quickest way he took his leave.  Here was a man who was supposed to be guarding the frontier calmly showing four dishevelled looking tramps the best way over.  It was incredible.  But more was to come.

Arriving at the Customs House we asked if we could go through.  “Well, you’ll have to wait until 2 o’clock when the customs officer comes up, but he’s sure to let you through.” was the answer.  This was too good to be true, and we sat down to lunch in the company of a voluble Frenchman whose permanent job seemed to be advising people how to get into Spain without being caught.  It was amazing.  He promised us a guide and told us we must be ready to start at 7 that evening.  And we hadn’t even shown the only paper we did possess, our American identity certificates, although we did say that we were English.  Doubtless they would not have allowed Frenchmen to leave the country like this, but nevertheless we had given no proof of our nationality, and in any case nobody was “Supposed to leave the country without papers.”

The customs officer duly appeared, a rather tired old man in civilian clothes who immediately sat down in the shade and began to read a novel.  He took not the slightest interest in us, and when asked if we could go through, just nodded his head rather irritably, as if annoyed at being asked such a trivial question.  It struck me as being quite typical of the French that while the Government in Vichy was spending days making all sorts of laws about who could leave the country and who could not, here at the frontier was a doddering old man who didn’t even ask for any papers and had probably never heard of Vichy.  We had been repeatedly told that there was no hope of getting out without a Visa de Sortie, but I don’t think the old boy here had even heard of such a thing.  Of course, the laws being made by the Government were probably to some extent designed to bluff the Germans, but nevertheless it was quite typical of the French not to trouble to go to the frontier and see what was actually happening.

Having recovered from our astonishment and still scarcely believing our ears, we settled down to an afternoon’s siesta, and by 7, after a hurried supper, were ready to move.  Our guide proved an amiable and confident man, and we set forth at a brisk pace up the mountains.  Just as the night was beginning to fall we reached the first crest and for the first time looked over into Spain.  It was a great moment.  There were still three more ridges to cross, and after a long and detailed explanation of the route, our guide left us.  We gave him 100 Fr and set forth with that feeling of loneliness which one experiences without a guide, even though there were four of us.  Darkness had soon completely fallen and any further progress, until the moon came up, was dangerous, so we settled down to sleep.  It was extraordinarily warm considering the height (about 3,000 feet), but nevertheless I woke up two hours later shivering, but soon got warm again when we started off.  The moon was now up and we continued our rather slow progress over the rocky ground.  It gave one an eerie sensation up there, miles from anywhere, and mountains on every side.  The visibility in the moonlight was wonderful, and we could see the silhouette of the mountains for miles, while behind us the Mediterranean lay spread out like an enormous pond.  Lights twinkled from the villages and towns which lay spread out in the plain ahead of us, and we tried to make out which these were from the map.  This was not a very successful operation as by now we had little idea of our own position.  The guide had advised us to keep to the top of the ridges as far as we could, and this proved very sound advice as we could always see where we were heading for.  As soon as one leaves the ridges in these mountains it is remarkably easy to lose one’s sense of direction; however, the stars were out and elementary knowledge of the Pole Star proved invaluable.  But keeping to the ridges had its disadvantages – sometimes there were literally ‘knife edges’ with a sheer drop of two or three hundred feet on one side which did not tend to make the going exactly fast!  In fact our first resting place turned out to be unpleasantly near one of these; we woke up in the moonlight to find we had been sleeping right on the edge on an almost sheer and seemingly bottomless drop!  Towards 2 a.m. the going rapidly became worse and we began to feel decidedly depressed; it was no use trying to disguise the fact that we were lost.  It was annoying having to waste the valuable moonlight, but there was nothing for it but to await the dawn so that we could get some idea of the best way to proceed.  So choosing a somewhat safer spot than before we lay down to sleep.  I awoke an hour later frozen stiff (it was much colder now and a wind had got up) and walked up and down trying to get warm, meanwhile anxiously awaiting the dawn.  The guide had told us that we must get out of the mountains by 6 a.m., when the Carabineros started their patrol, and we hadn’t got much time left.  Dawn was much later than we expected and it wasn’t till 5 that we could see enough to decide on our route.  We had only one hour to get down on to the plain beyond, and it seemed impossible.  Scrambling down the mountain-side we soon reached the intermediate valley, and after filling our water bottles at a much needed stream we started up what we hoped was the last ridge.  Fortunately there was a path up here, and after some steady climbing we were surprised to find that we had reached the crest by 5:30.  Looking over the top we were thankful to see that it was indeed the last ridge, and Spain lay spread out before us.  Flinging caution to the winds we set off down the mountain path.  At the bottom of the slope lay what looked like a farm – perhaps we should be able to get some provisions here.  There were people already up and about – in fact almost too many people.  It began to look a bit suspicious.  But too late to turn back; we must take the risk.  At 6 a.m., as we reached the lower slopes of the mountain, the notes of a bugle floated up, and our worst fears were confirmed.  We had run right into a frontier post.  There was nothing to be done as they would certainly have seen us by now; all we could do was hope they would be as casual as the French and let us through.  A vain hope.

An outpost guard was awaiting us at the bottom of the path (he had evidently watched our entire progress down the mountain) and he immediately took us in charge and brought us along to the fort, as it proved to be.  We had paid for our carelessness, and with dejected expressions we followed the guard to our interview with the officer-in-charge.

SPAIN

We had made the fatal mistake of assuming that the Spanish police would be as disorganized and inefficient as the French, but we had been in Spain not more than an hour before we found out how wrong we were.  We soon discovered that the frontier guard had indeed seen us the moment we started down the mountain, so that even if we had avoided the track we should have stood very little chance of getting away, and a very considerable chance of being shot at.

The guard took us in charge and directed us round to the back of the fort where we awaited the C.O., the latter appeared after a few minutes, was courteous and offered us breakfast which we gladly accepted.  Naturally he began to question us, as we have not exactly come into Spain by the usual way.  Unfortunately, as we then thought, we had not prepared any kind of story for such an emergency; this lapse seems quite unaccountable as it was obviously one of the first precautions, and we subsequently decided it was the fatigue and lack of sleep that had made us too careless to worry.  We were therefore somewhat alarmed when Mayoux, who was the only one who could speak the language, proceeded to tell him that we were British officers escaped from France.  We produced the only paper we had, our American identity certificates, but needless to say this did not work the wonders of which we now thought it capable, in fact he was not in the least impressed, and we quickly began to realize that we were in captivity for the third time.

As we ate our breakfast the soldiers gathered round us and stared, unable to believe that four such ragged apparitions could possibly be British officers.  We were having our first glimpses of the Spanish army, and were not precisely impressed.  Their uniform consists of a khaki shirt and jodhpurs, with rope sandals or shoes – usually very untidy and dirty, like the soldiers themselves.  The officers usually appear rather better, and wear much the same as we do, but nearly always extremely badly fitting and too small.  It is of course more difficult to appear smart in this hot and dusty country, but the characteristic untidiness of the whole country does not seem to stop at the army.  They still rely mainly on horse transport, and have many mules to carry their machine guns and mortars, etc.  All their animals are remarkable for being kept very badly, and every horse and mule appeared half starved.  Their only mechanical transport seems to consist of extremely old and decrepit lorries.

It was in one of these that we were now put, together with a number of soldiers.  The sergeant in whose charge we now were, appeared with an evil-looking double-barrelled shotgun, made quite sure that it was fully loaded, and clambered in beside us.  The lorry was well up to standard, the tyres were right down to the last layer of canvas, ready to burst at any moment; presumably they just drove it on and on until they did burst; the tail-board was tied on with a string, the cab wobbled dangerously and it as if it might fall apart from the chassis at any moment, and everything rattled.  But nobody seemed in the least perturbed, and we assumed it must be quite the normal procedure, as indeed it was.

After an appalling drive along what seemed to be nothing more than a dried-up river-bed, we were dumped at the first village we came to, called Vilamaniscle.  Having heard that Spain was the dirtiest country in the world we were prepared for anything, and the village of Vilamaniscle was certainly well up to standard.  Outside the post office we awaited the decision of the Guardia Civil in whose charge we now were.  This was our first view of these gentlemen and their remarkable hats, which appear to serve no purpose whatever, least of all that of keeping off the sun.  The Guardia Civil are the traditional civil police, as opposed to the new party or fascist police, and are quite a different type.  They were on the whole very polite and courteous to us, and always willing to help as far as they could, although, like all Spaniards, they would say anything that suited them at the time.

While our guard was telephoning to find out what to do with us, we sat disconsolately on the pavement trying to find small patches of shade from the blazing sun, for at this time of the year the heat is appalling.  It was our first view of this parched and arid country, so different from the France we had left only the day before; the Pyrenees form a very definite dividing line both geographically and climatically, and nowhere in France had we met this dry heat which shrivels everything up.

But the heat was nothing compared to the flies.  The Spaniards appear to make no effort to deal with these and in this particular village they thrived by the million; this was natural enough as the streets, if one could call them such, were filthy and no effort appeared to be made to clean them up.  Even in the bigger towns there seemed to be little effort to combat the fly, and fly-papers are evidently unheard of.  On market-day in Figueres it was a common sight to see foodstuffs completely obscured by flies – but as usual nobody seemed to mind.

It was now becoming increasingly obvious that we were not going on to Figueres as we had been promised, and our guard eventually appeared and confirmed our fears.  We were to stay in Vilamaniscle until further orders and despite much argument on Mayoux’s part we were marched off to what appeared to be the only possible place of confinement, the ‘village hall’.  Here we were locked in and left to be devoured by the swarms of flies whose habitation we had disturbed.

The situation was not promising, and it looked very much as if internment was going to be our lot, unless they took us to Figueres, where we knew there was a British Vice-consul, there seemed little prospect of getting in touch with the British authorities.  The Spaniards, so we thought at the time, were quite within their rights to intern us for the rest of the war, and the prospect of a Spanish prison was far worse than a German prison-camp.  We sat about disconsolately on the bare forms, the only furniture provided, until the guard re-appeared with his wife who brought us food and wine.  Water is almost unknown as a drink in Spain, and there appears to be an unlimited quantity of the inferior type of red wine – very raw compared to French wines, and as most of us subsequently found, very disturbing to the stomach.  However food and drink were very welcome; the guard then informed us that we were to see the Jefe of the village at 3 p.m. so we settled down to wait patiently.  Needless to say it was not until 5 that the guard returned and we all followed him up to the village, with an extra guard behind just to make quite sure that we weren’t going to bolt for it.

The Jefe was a surly looking devil and shouted his instructions at us at a range of not less than six inches.  It appeared that we were all to fill up identity papers stating our names, ages, professions, etc.  Quite unprepared for this we held hurried consultations as to how much truth we could safely tell, but in view of the fact that we had already given ourselves away there was little to hide.  One thing we were careful to make clear however was that we were not regular officers (quite untrue), and made up various civilian professions to suit the occasion.  We thought this might possibly help in future diplomatic wrangles.  As it turned out it didn’t make the slightest difference, but it seemed to impress this gentleman.  After a lot of backchat and tremendous volubility on his part he promised that we should be taken to Figueres on the following morning.  As to our future prospects, he waved his hand airily and said “Oh, then you’ll sent off to Portugal and so back to England.” but we set no great store by that remark, for how could be possibly know what the higher authorities would do with us?  However, the promise of being sent to Figueres was encouraging, and we departed back to the village hall under escort, with an invitation to dine with the old boy later on.  Meanwhile the guard’s wife became very generous and gave us mattresses to sleep on, for which we were very grateful enough.  The summons to dinner did not arrive until very late, we ate with the whole family who were very good-humoured.  We laughed and smiled pleasantly, pretending to understand what they said, and after a simple meal retired to some much needed sleep.

The following morning saw us washing and shaving at the village pump, under guard, much to the amusement of the villagers.  Of other sanitary arrangements there were none, and we had to use a ruined building for that purpose.  I mention this sordid fact only to show that the Spaniard has no idea whatever of sanitation and cleanliness.

After endless delays, and with the usual delightful unpunctuality, we were escorted down to where we were to meet the transport.  After another long wait we heard the distant sound of singing, and shortly afterwards an army lorry, similar to the one we arrived in the day before, hurtled round the corner and came to rest with a scream of brakes and tyres.  It was absolutely crammed full of soldiers, all standing up and hanging on to each other like grim death.  We wondered how on earth we were going to fit in, but we did it somehow, together with our guard.  The lorry started off with a fearful jerk and careered on its reckless and perilous journey.  Immediately all the soldiers started to sing again, in perfect unison, and quite spontaneously; they appear to have a fund of literally endless songs, rather like chanting, which can go on forever without becoming in the least tedious, and they certainly sing them well.  This continued all the way to Figueres, and we were very impressed indeed, it was magnificent, although our attentions were almost entirely centred on not falling out of the lorry.  This latter seemed to present no difficulty to the soldiers; it was a matter of practice, rather like skiing.

Eventually we arrived at Figueres, and passing the Gran Hotel, where we had heard the Vice-consul was staying, we drew up outside the police station – or rather the Jefatura de la Frontera, where we were told to get out, hustled into the guard room of the police station.  Here we found many others in the same plight, I think they were mostly Spanish refugees from the Civil War who were returning from France.  After an hour or so we were taken up to the Jefe and Mayoux explained who we were; the Jefe looked gloomy and muttered a few words amongst which we picked out the dreaded campo de concentración and our hearts sank.  Mayoux then asked to see the Vice-consul; the Jefe said there wasn’t one in Figueres, but we knew very well there was and after a lot of persuasion he rang up the Gran Hotel.  Yes, a British representative had just returned from Barcelona (what luck) and would come around that afternoon.  We were ushered back into the guard room in better spirits; but even yet we feared the concentration camp and held lengthy discussions as to whether we would escape before we got there, or await a more favourable opportunity.

We had no Spanish money, so we were taken to eat at the local soup-kitchen, where we were given an immense bowl of beans and broth.  On our return to the guard-room we tried to snatch a little sleep in one of the cells, but very soon discovered the inevitable lice; the prospect of a night there was appalling, and we sat gloomily looking into the street, where a small child was pulling the wings off a half-dead bird.  The guard was watching this edifying sight with an amused smile.  Our first views of Spain were not inspiring.

Eventually we were summoned to the office again and met the British representative – a Mr. Rapley, who evidently was only temporary pending the appointment of a new Vice-consul.  He looked at us suspiciously, and particularly at Mayoux who was fairly obviously not of British birth, while his accent also betrayed him.  However his attitude was perfectly correct, as we might easily have been communists trying to get into Spain under false pretences, and this of course is what the Spaniards were so frightened of.  The effects of the Civil War were still very obvious, and they did not attempt to conceal their fear of elements subversive to the new regime.  In fact there were said to be 2,000,000 political prisoners at that time.

However Rapley was soon convinced that we were genuine and began to plead with the Jefe.  The latter was quite reasonable and said he would wire to Madrid for instructions; meanwhile we would be allowed to stay in a small hotel opposite the police station and report ourselves every morning.  Our luck was in, and we expressed our gratitude to Rapley most effusively.

The occupants of the hotel regarded us with great interest and we became quite friendly with an officer who eventually turned out to be governor of the local prison, he gave us a Fascist salute whenever he saw us and we wondered if it would pay us to return it, but we feared he might think we were laughing at him.

We were allowed the freedom of the town but were forbidden to go outside it; however one of the first things we did was to reconnoitre a way of escape in case we should need it, and we soon discovered how thoroughly policed the town was.  Every road had a guard on it and there was little hope of getting past these without being asked for one’s papers.  We also explored the station and its approaches, for we had given some thought to jumping a train if necessary.  Meanwhile we saw many signs of the Civil War; many buildings in Figueres had been bombed and the work of rebuilding had scarcely begun.  There was an enormous dump of worn-out and shattered cars.  There were bullet marks on many of the buildings, including the Gran Hotel; and the general tone of the town proclaimed that things were not what they were.  For this was Cataluña, which had put up a stubborn resistance to the new cause, and always prided itself on being independent of the rest of Spain.  So now they were treated with extra special care, and were not allowed to forget for one moment that they were defeated.  The Catalau tongue was forbidden in public; as also was the traditional dancing and festivities on the Rambla.  The place was dead.  Prices were appalling.  The peseta was equivalent to about five pence and many prices were prohibitive to the ordinary inhabitant.  Food was scarce, butter was unheard of, the bread was course and brown and tasted musty.  There was no beer, and all drinks were subject to the Subsidio al Combatente tax.  Everywhere were pictures and posters of El Caudillo (Francisco Franco) smiling down at you, with the usual slogans of Arriba España and Viva España, and all the rest of it.  Plato Unico was instituted, on Mondays, but in the big hotels this was a mockery.  In fact all was modelled on the Nazi line.  But despite all these wonderful new ideas and taxes there was nothing to show; the people were discontented, the cafés almost empty, the local prison full, and the standard of living lower than before.

Propaganda was strongly anti-British; the principal outlet was of course Gibraltar and there were offensive notices, pinned up on the trees by the local Falangist youth, to the effect that Gibraltar must be returned to Spain where she rightly belonged.  The newspapers were the same, in varying degrees, and any blame for poor conditions of living was laid on the British.  One day there was no bread, so the papers announced that we had sunk their supply ship.  Another morning we opened the paper to find that our Cabinet ministers were now reduced to eating grass for lack of better food.  London of course was a mess of ruins after the first few raids, while the Italian conquest of Somaliland was greeted with tremendous enthusiasm.  The local paper shop displayed German and Italian papers, but of any English literature there was no sign.  We derived much amusement from all this, but were rather horrified to see one day a picture of a German officer giving orders to an English ‘Bobby’.  This of course was displayed very prominently, and it was not until we read the lines below, in very small print, that we discovered it had been taken in the Channel Islands some months previously.

But it was all very impersonal and the Spaniards themselves, at any rate in that district, bore no grudge against us and we ourselves became quite well-known in the town and were treated very well.  No one showed any signs of being rude to us, and in fact I think they were all for us, although of course they dared not say so.  No one could trust his neighbour, and it seemed that Gestapo methods were much the same as in Germany.  We, of course, were careful what we said, but were often tempted to pull the notices about Gibraltar off the trees; but it wouldn’t have helped our position.  However, we used to amuse ourselves when at cafés by toasting loudly to “Hell with Hitler.”

We soon got tired of the Fonda del Mallol.  The food was bad, and we were all ill for the first few days, being unused to the oil in which everything was cooked, and the raw wine; and the heat was terrific.  We soon gave up reporting to the police station, and as nobody worried we decided to go to another hotel, partly for better conditions and partly to find out just how close a watch the police were keeping on us.  Mr. Rapley suggested that we should join him at the Gran Hotel, as the manager offered to have us at special cheap terms, to this we quickly agreed and soon found ourselves in luxury, though still in our old rags.  However the consulate provided us with 250 pesetas each and we were soon looking like perfect gentlemen; they of course were also paying all our expenses, and in fact doing us very well as far as comfort was concerned.

We were always impatient however, and were beginning to wonder if anything was being done about us at all.  The Vice-counsel from Barcelona had been up and wasn’t too hopeful; he told us we ought never to have said we were soldiers, and we cursed ourselves anew.  Dorchy, whose job as press attaché to the Embassy had been forbidden (The Germans had 90 press attaches in Spain, which accounted for the notable bias!) came up and promised to get us out by fair means or foul, if necessary.  The new Vice-consul, Mr. Whitfield, arrived and we got to know him pretty well – a charming man with a great sense of humour.  He was always complaining how abominably the authorities treated him and put every obstacle in his way, as indeed they did, but he took it very well, and pursued his work with limitless energy.  He did not trouble to disguise his feelings about the new regime, without needlessly prejudicing his position.  One morning the paper so infuriated him that he tore it up and threw it out of the window.  It was he who instituted the evening toast consigning Hitler to the nether regions.  He always just us amused and interested; the Duke of Windsor’s passage through Spain {June – July 1940} was always a thorn in his flesh.  He and Mrs. Simpson had left a trail of trouble behind them, and Whitfield spent days trying to rescue one of her maids from France.  Two enormous lorries had to be hired to take all the luggage from the Riviera to Lisbon, and endless formalities gone through to ensure that the drivers were not in the pay of Soviet Russia.  Incidentally we seriously considered smuggling ourselves to Lisbon on one of these.

One day we had the surprise of our lives when we heard that Raikes and Hogg [4], who had escaped a week before us from the Huns, had arrived and were locked up in the local prison.  A few days later I was also amazed to hear that my cousin was in a French concentration camp at Saint-Cyprien, just over the border.  It was evident that many British soldiers had come over the border and been either locked up or taken to concentration camps without being able to get in touch with Whitfield, and of course the Spanish authorities could not be bothered to do that.  Some arrangement should have been made to prevent this and warn them that Spain was almost impossible to cross without being caught.  At one stage there was a spate of them coming over, and Whitfield was in despair trying to get them out of the jug.  We had been in luck being almost the first arrivals, and were in fact the only ones who had not seen the inside of a Spanish prison or concentration camp.

At the instigation of Whitfield, we spent some of our time buying food and necessaries for Hogg and Raikes and one afternoon I went up with Rapley to see them.  This was a most illuminating experience; visitors were allowed about ¼ hour to talk to the prisoners, this performance was carried out through wire grills, and a bar ran along the front to prevent one getting close enough to pass anything across (all food, etc. was sent in baskets and inspected before being sent in) and a guard was posted at the end as an additional preventative; it did not however prevent Rapley giving them some money which he somehow managed to do while the guard wasn’t looking.  As there were about 50 people all trying to talk at once one had to shout at the top of one’s voice to make oneself heard.  I have never yet seen a closer human resemblance to a monkey-house.  15 minutes was not long enough to talk, but they seemed to be bearing up under the disgusting prison conditions; most of the prisoners were evidently political and had been there since the end of the Civil War, so that Raikes and Hogg were popular guests there, for of course they all wanted England to win the war and put an end to the Fascist regime when they would be quickly liberated.  The prison conditions were evidently foul and abominably overcrowded; the place abounded with flies and lice and there was nowhere to sit down; they had to sleep on the bare stone floor, and as for sanitary arrangements, they were so inadequate as to be almost useless.  We were very sorry for them, but there was nothing we could do, and after a fruitless interview with the Governor, who waved his hands and said “I must obey my orders.”, we left.

We were becoming profoundly bored with Figueres and were as usual considering escape.  Actually our situation was much improved as we had at least got into communication with our families and been sent money; English papers and books from the Consulate also relieved the tedium.  But that didn’t get us any nearer home, and we were becoming very dissatisfied with the Consulate and Embassy for not letting us know what the situation was.  We had received no answer to our letter to the English Ambassador, written 3 weeks previously, and even Whitfield was left completely in the dark; needless to say, he was as angry about it as we were, but was unable to do anything.

However something evidently had been happening, for on August 22nd a policeman appeared and informed us that we were going to Gerona with Raikes and Hogg.  This sounded bad, as we thought it would mean the prison or concentration camp, but were reassured to hear that we were all going to stay there in a hotel.  Why we couldn’t stay in Figueres no-one could understand, except that Gerona was the capital of the province and the orders evidently came from the Governor of Gerona.

Raikes and Hogg duly appeared looking somewhat dishevelled and after affectionate farewells to the hotel staff who had been very kind to us, almost their only residents, we were escorted off to the station in the local taxi.  Petrol incidentally as 12/6 a gallon, so motor traffic was not precisely abundant.

A plain cloths detective accompanied us in the train to Gerona, where we duly arrived and were escorted to the Hotel Peninsular, evidently the hotel of the town, a pseudo-modern but shabby building, entirely out of place and unsuitable.  Here we were handed over to a new stooge, a most unpleasant and sinister looking man whom we soon christened the black stooge, on account of his black hair, glasses, eyes and clothes.  Sleek just wasn’t the word to describe him.  Rapley had come with us and after various negotiations he returned to Figueres.  We had been given to understand that we should be allowed to go out into the town, but as soon as he had gone the black stooge reappeared and told us we were to be confined to the hotel and were not allowed to telephone or communicate in any way with the outside world.  We were naturally disgusted at this treachery, and Mayoux was unfortunately rather rude to him, and asked him if the Spanish ever kept their word!  This naturally infuriated him, but it was worth watching.  We thought it advisable to apologise for this later on.

We immediately wrote off to Whitfield and informed him that dirty work was afoot, posting the letter via a passer-by out of the window.  The stooge and his assistant sat at the entrance to make sure we didn’t go out, and we had the greatest pleasure in keeping them up until 3 a.m. that night, just out of spite.  They subsequently tried to get their own back by accusing us of having drunken orgies.

We spent exactly four weeks in this hotel.  The only fresh air we could get was by sitting up on the roof, which commanded an excellent view of the city.  Here we used to sunbathe for hours on end, except when the wind was in the wrong direction and the smoke of the town drove us downstairs again.  The black stooge and his assistant eventually disappeared, with orders to the hotel manager to report us if he saw us going out.  Despite this we used to slink out when he wasn’t looking and wander around the town.  However someone must have seen us as the black stooge reappeared one day and threatened with dire oaths to cast us into prison if we did not obey orders.  He also forbade us to talk to anyone in the hotel, but this was too absurd, particularly when people came and talked to us.  The telephone rule was relaxed and we frequently rang up Whitfield or the Consulate at Barcelona to find out if anything was being done to obtain our release.

Life was uneventful and our impressions of Spain were naturally limited to the confines of the hotel.  We made several friends, most notable of which was Juan, a young Spanish officer of the Ski Corps (they have them in the Pyrenees) whose mother was English.  He had been educated in England at Stonyhurst, and became a naturalized Spaniard at the outbreak of the Civil War, when he fought for the Fascists.  His father was murdered by the Communists, and his collection of books, one of the largest in the country, burned around him.  He told us how he took infinite pains to avenge this, by obtaining an entrance to the prison, as a visitor, where he knew the gentleman responsible for this was locked up.  With a chair, the only article of furniture in the cell, he belaboured the said Communist and apparently nearly killed him.

He entertained us well and used to bring some of his girlfriends, and we danced to an ancient and decrepit gramophone.  The Manager however, a surly fellow, objected to this, and before long the black stooge was in again accusing us of further orgies!  So he forbade us to talk to them, and even ordered them not to see us anymore.  So that was that, but Juan continued to talk to us, as of course the army was in a strong enough position not to worry about trifles like that.  Every Saturday the local garrison marched past and we had a good view of their equipment – very primitive and poorly turned out.  But we gathered that the soldier is really tough and can march for miles in blazing sun or freezing cold, both common enough, with very little food and sleep.  The military attaché, whom we subsequently met, said he was very impressed by what he had seen of this.

The hotel had an unfriendly atmosphere, but as there were now six of us we formed the larger proportion of the permanent residents so it didn’t matter to us.  There was a popular bar attached where we spent much of our time and money; occasionally we made surreptitious efforts to turn the wireless on to the English news, and it was then one discovered how thick with stooges the place was.  They all leapt up from various corners and shouted across at us, forbidding us to do it.  The only way was to get Juan to come and do it for us.  The only people we were really friendly with were the waiters, who complained to us how glad they would be when England won the war.  One of them even wanted to come back with us and join the army.

We had to find some outlet for our energies and were eventually reduced to ragging in the school-boy style, and throwing water at each other’s windows across the courtyard.  This was not popular either, and I well remember Dennis being chased at full speed down the passage, clad only in a pair of pants, by a furious hotel night-porter.  Hawkins was always in trouble, his best effort being to fall through the skylight above the lift shaft; he made a habit of sunbathing on this, until one day it broke, and only by the greatest good luck did he manage to hang on to the edge while we rushed to his rescue.  Glass fell all the way down the shaft and created a panic, so that the manager immediately rung up Whitfield at Figueres who came rushing down to Gerona, only to find that Hawkins was suffering a few cuts.

After a fortnight of this we again began to get desperate and started thinking, for the umpteenth time, of escaping on our own.  Someone suggested writing to the military attaché in Madrid, so we penned a desperate letter saying that we should escape if nothing happened in the next few weeks.  A few days later he rang up and told us for God’s sake not to do anything so silly but to wait patiently; he would soon have us out.  This was the first intimation we had had that the Embassy knew anything about us, and so of course we were enormously pleased and duly celebrated.  Up till then we felt that we were being entirely neglected, and possibly that the Embassy had not even heard of us.  This was the only thing we had to blame them for, if only they had let us know weeks ago that something was being done, however slowly, we should have been saved weeks of anxiety and useless talk of escape.  Not that our worries were of much import to the Embassy, but we might in fact quite easily have gone off under our own steam, ignorant of the fact that we were a test case – as we subsequently discovered.  And that would of course have scarcely improved the negotiations of the Embassy.

So we waited patiently and promised freedom duly arrived exactly 4 weeks after our arrival in Gerona; the black stooge appeared with the good news that we were going to Madrid and must be ready to catch the 7 o’clock train on the following morning September 19th.  It seemed strange hearing any good news from that dreadful man, but it was true.  After exuberant farewells to our friends – we weren’t worrying about not talking to anyone now – and having completely flooded the passage between our bedrooms with a final water fight we retired to bed in high spirits.  The following morning saw us in Barcelona where we were met by one of the consular staff, and after various negotiations with the police we were taken to see the Consul himself, and after a short talk went to the Hotel Bristol where we were to stay the night.  We were very disappointed that we were not allowed outside the hotel, and so had only a limited view of this famous city.  The balcony however looked out on the main square, and some excitement was provided by a fire in the shop next door.

That evening we were amazed to hear that Jimmy [5] and Trythall [6] with 9 other ranks, were also arriving.  We had heard previously from Whitfield that they had also found their way into Figueres prison, and now they were being released and sent to join us.  They all arrived that evening looking remarkably well despite the rigours of prison life.

We had now become a large herd of 17 and were shepherded on the following evening, by the Consular staff to catch the night train to Madrid.  We travelled in comparative luxury in reserved carriages and arrived at Madrid at about 10 the following morning.  Here we were met by a member of the Embassy staff who informed us that we were catching the night train to Gibraltar, and were to stay in the hotel in the meantime.  After further police negotiations we duly repaired thither and regaled ourselves with an enormous and sumptuous lunch.  As usual we were confined to the hotel, and so saw very little of Madrid, but in any case there would have been no time.  That afternoon we were visited by Sir Samuel Hoare (British Ambassador to Spain) himself who asked various questions about our escape and Brigadier Torre-Torre, the Military Attaché who had evidently done all the diplomatic work to get us out.  After a hurried dinner we were bundled into the Gibraltar train, which was already crammed full of soldiers bound for Morocco, and had some difficulty in forcing our way into our reserved carriages.  We were now under the escort of two stooges, but they were at the other end of the train and weren’t in the least worried about us.

In the early hours of the following morning we peered out of the window, hearing some commotion.  To our surprise a Guardia Civil was crouching underneath the stationary train with his revolver trained at something we couldn’t see.  After smothered curses and some yells from the other end of the train he leapt to his feet and hared off at full speed down the line in hot pursuit of what we supposed must be an escaped prisoner under escort.  It was a remarkable sight and quite typical of the New Spain.  Train journeys were great experiences; plain clothes stooges appeared periodically and inspected everyone’s papers with the utmost care.  We happened to travel with some British subjects on one of the trains, and the stooge was completely baffled by the passports they presented, and spent hours trying to decipher all that wonderful stuff on the first page.

More stooges appeared at odd intervals and poked your baggage to make sure you hadn’t any chickens or potatoes on board (there were forbidden between Figueres and Barcelona for some particular reason).  Sometimes they used to peer underneath the carriages and on the roof, to make sure there were no improper travellers.  As this was exactly what we had been considering doing for the last month, we felt we were well out of it!  Hawkin’s face always fell when he saw this, as he had always maintained that it was just too easy to tie yourself to the axle and travel for miles like that.

We saw some magnificent scenery between Barcelona and Madrid, particularly just at dawn when the colours were really wonderful.  Between Madrid and Gibraltar the country is less spectacular, but the colours of the soil are remarkable.

We were due in at Rosas, the junction north of Gibraltar at 11 a.m. the following morning, but the train was exactly 12 hours late, due partly to a train smash a few hours previously, and partly to the rottenness of the line on the last stages of the journey, when the average rate of progress was approximately 10 miles an hour.  We noticed that the line was being repaired in a truly Spanish fashion, in a most casual way.

At Rosas we were met by a bus and taken to the frontier post where we saw the last of the stooges.  After turning out the frontier guard and various negotiations between numbers of officials, most of whom we were too tired to notice, we arrived in Gibraltar after midnight on September 23rd.  We were again on British soil, our escape was accomplished and were we pleased.

Waters departed Gibraltar on 9 October 1940 and arrived in England on 27 October 1940.

1-1

Captain (acting) C.D. Waters (1940)

[1]  (John) Dennis Lennon, MC, CBE, was born in 1918.  In 1940 he was a second lieutenant in the 1st Field Squadron, Royal Engineers (site); attached to the 51st Highland Division.  He later served in France, North Africa, and Italy.  After the war he became an architect and interior designer, whose work included the interior of the RMS Queen Elizabeth II and refurbishment of the Ritz Hotel (London).  He died in 1991 and his wife, Else, died in 2010.

[2]  Christopher Dalmahoy Waters was born in 1915 and joined the Regular Army in 1935.  By 1940 he was an acting Captain (66053) and second-in-command of the 1st Field Squadron, Royal Engineers; attached to the 51st Highland Division.  An abbreviated account of his escape was provided to the War Office on 28 October 1940 (WO/373/60-405).  Lieutenant Colonel Waters, MBE, OBE, retired from the Royal Engineers in 1959 and died in 1969.

[3]  This is believed to be Flight-Officer Ronald Hawkins, based on similarities between this account and his own account of his escape from France in 1940: “The sailors home was opened in an unofficial sort of way for stranded British subjects, so I, getting fed up with sleeping out, went there on the same day that I got my 346 francs: at the home there were 30 men, at least 20 being from the British army, and four of that 20 were officers.  I stayed at this establishment from the 22nd-25th July, trying to obtain a boat to leave Marseilles, but on the morning of the 25th the local police made a round up and took away some of the people from the Sailor’s Home for internment at Fort St Jean, so I made a hasty exit and, as the roads leading out of the town were well watched and guarded, took a train to Perpignan with the Frenchman previously mentioned and two British Army officers.  From Perpignan, we proceeded to the frontier town of Cerebere and, on the night of the 27th July climbed the Pyrenees into Spain.  I consumed some mountain water, which I afterwards learned had been a breeding place for mosquitos and, a day afterwards developed a fever and diarrhoea.  On this day we were captured by Spanish soldiers but luckily, after being detained for a night in the village where we were caught, were taken to the Frontier Commission at Figuras, at which town there is a British Consular agent, who we managed to get word to.  He obtained our temporary release from the guardroom and put us up at a hotel in the town.  After this it was just a matter of waiting until Sir Samuel Hoare, British Ambassador in Madrid, had arranged for our official release and removal to Gibralter, which was entered via Gerona, Barcelona and Madrid on September the 23rd.”  Hawkins was killed in action on 5 October 1943 while flying a mission near Ghent, Belgium.

[4]  Captain Peter P. Raikes and Lieutenant Horace Stephen M. Hogg (71067), 26th Field Company, Royal Engineers.  Captured at Saint-Valéry, they escaped twice while in France, and crossed the Pyrenees in to Spain from Osséja (France) in August 1940.  Raikes was killed in a Vichy French air raid on Gibraltar on 25 Sept 1940.  Lieutenant Colonel Hogg, MC, was born in 1917, retired from the Royal Engineers in 1959, and died in 1996.  An abbreviated account of his escape was provided to the War Office on 28 October 1940 (WO/373/60-414).

[5] Jimmy Johnson was Christopher Waters’s first cousin. He went to France with the 1st Battalion, Royal Welch Fusiliers as a company commander. After being wounded by a sniper, he was captured in 1940 at Robecq, southeast of St Omer. Colonel Johnson, who died in 2002, was awarded an MC for his escape to Spain and received the DSO in 1945 for his leadership and gallantry in command of the 2nd/4th Battalion King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry in Italy. He was appointed OBE in 1954.

[6]  Captain Harold R. Trythall, Royal Artillery (86040), was killed in the same Vichy French air raid on Gibraltar that killed Raikes.

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