The Escaping Society

On the night in April 21/22 1944, a Canadian pilot named Hugh Thomas bailed out of a blazing 218 Squadron Stirling bomber near Laon in northern France.

He bailed out and landed in a tree, his throat bloodied and torn; the secret compass in his collar button smashed beyond repair. He was on the ground in hostile territory. His mood, he recounted later, was a mix of panic, fear, self-preservation and pressure to follow the escape routine that he'd been taught in the RAF.

However, he had one ace up his sleeve: he spoke French. Thus it was that he made his painful way to one house, where he identified himself and asked for shelter. "Go away. My wife is sick," he was told.

Down the road to the next farmhouse he went. Its occupants wouldn't even listen to him.

The next house could have been disaster, for it contained collaborators. He retreated at high speed and eventually came to the farmhouse of the Guillaummette family: a gentleman farmer and his wife (ironically, the daughter of a pioneering French pilot) and their five small children. Without the slightest hesitation -- for the occupying Germans held such things to be a high crime -- they took him in.

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This is a case study of one Canadian airman's experiences in the hands of the resistance, as related to our CAHS chapter by that airman's wife, Jean Thomas, who is also president of No. 600 Wing of the Air Force Association of Canada in Regina.

Hugh remained in the postwar RCAF and ended up at the RCAF's European headquarters in Paris in 1953 (it soon moved to Metz). He was also a founding member of the Royal Air Forces Escaping Society, which existed from 1942 until about six years ago; its purpose was to maintain contact between airmen and their rescuers and to make sure that the latter were cared for. In that capacity, Hugh and Jean spent their vacations travelling through France, rendering care and interviewing "helpers" and their families in order to assess their needs for housing, food and medical care. Though the society was not rich, "we made grants to many of these people," said Jean, quipping, "I guess they felt a tax auditor would be the ideal person to get the facts!"

Thus they were able to meet many Resistance members and learn about their motivations and backgrounds.

And what they learned about them was this: that the most extraordinary thing about them was their very "ordinariness". All across France, for example, the number of Resistance workers included farmers, policemen, priests, housewives, writers, businessmen, accountants, nurses, civil servants, postmen and bankers. Some were rich; many poor. A few were nationals of other countries who happened to live in France when the German army occupied it.

As to why they undertook resistance work, thereby taking enormous risks from an enemy that often was utterly merciless, "the answer was always the same and it was always given with an air of great surprise that the question was even asked. You might have thought it was some high-flown flighty thing about patriotism, but it was beyond that. "Il faut" -- meaning "it had to be done" and then that characteristic French shrug.

"Were they frightened? Of course they were. They were often terrified and not a momentary terror; it went on for years. But they were steadfast and performed great feats of courage."

One quick definition: the Resistance (or Underground) in France should not be confused with the Maquis, which was a separate movement concerned with sabotage. The Underground did what it could in a less-overt way to undermine the German occupation. It was composed of hundreds of small cells ranging in size down to units of just one person. By necessity, the members of cells could not be known to the members of other cells lest a captured member break under torture and identify members of multiple units.

It should be noted that the Nazis had no qualms about the use of torture and executions. Jean told the story of a senior Paris policemen who had helped many Allied fliers get to safety. His maid turned out to be a collaborator who denounced the gendarme, who was dragged from his apartment to the pavement below and killed by Nazis' dogs. "This was to be a dreadful abject lesson to the people of Paris," said Jean. "There is a small marble plaque affixed to his apartment building that testifies to this."

All over Paris, she said, other plaques tell of one, two, three persons killed by the Nazis on those spots. The murders were intended to cow Parisians into subservience. In reality, they had "no effect on the patriots other than to spur them to even greater efforts."

Jean and Hugh learned many unusual things in the course of their work. One resistance veteran was bitter about Canadians because one aviator who had passed through his hands had been dangerously reckless by strolling in the man's garden, under the very eyes of German troops when he should have been hiding. Taken into the care of a priest, the Canadian then ran away. "Goodness knows what happened to him, but he put a lot of people in jeopardy," Jean said.

So although the members of the escaping society felt they "owed a debt" to resistance workers, many of the workers themselves felt they had done nothing out of the ordinary. "Instead, they were so grateful that we had remembered them and had come to visit them."

A peacetime visit of RAF Escaping Society assessors became an event in and of itself. Town officials or policemen would take Jean to resistance members, newspapers would be called and more people found.

By talking to Resistance veterans, Jean learned that postmen were excellent for resistance work as their official duties allowed them to travel freely and talk with people. So did the work of priests, who could travel even more freely. One priest was captured, tortured and lined up before a firing squad. However, he escaped and died only a few years ago.

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As a disguise, Hugh was dressed in a farm worker's outfit, with huge, baggy pants and braces, then fed a meal of bacon and eggs. Hospitable -- but he was also guarded until he could be "checked out" to assure the Resistance that he was not a German infiltrator. His interrogator was an elderly English woman (married to a Frenchman) who grilled him with considerable energy. (Jean notes that downed French-Canadian airmen had a particular burden because they spoke good French, of course, but with (to French ears) a pure, if peculiar, accent. Anybody who could not pass the interrogation was a grave security risk and therefore was killed immediately with a gunshot to the head.

Hugh passed and briefly became a near-member of this family. (When Jean visited the family many years later, Madam Guillaummette produced Hugh's RAF scarf -- on which had been printed an "escape map" of France -- hidden for many years, and offered it to Jean. Jean agonized, "but I saw her face and I gritted my teeth and said no. I said, 'He gave it to you and now it's yours.'" Their eyes met, "and then we had a tiny little cry together."

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The Guillaummette family sent Hugh to a relative who was a garage man. He, in turn, put Hugh onto the back of a truck loaded with vegetables and bound for Paris. His instructions were to act like a bumpkin and tell anybody who'd asked that he'd just hitched a ride. He was "literally dumped" with a Paris contact who took him -- with two other Allied airmen (another Canadian, named "Jerry", and an American from California) -- to the suburban home of a wealthy masonry contractor that was frighteningly close to a German barracks. Getting to the house required some acting: going past the barracks and its sentries at night, the contact jovially laughed and sang; the airmen pretended they had been drinking, too, and uttered only gibberish. The Germans, Jean said, "just laughed at them." Next came a stop at a north Paris apartment occupied by a policeman, his wife and their two children -- where one of them, only nine months old, took her first steps in the arms of an American airman. Two more airmen, one Canadian and one American, appeared, too. Allied raids on the nearby rail yards were common and the whole lot of them eventually moved to a cosmetics factory near a German military camp, whose inmates sometimes used the building as an objective for their training exercises.

The airmen were visited by another Resistance leader with a radio in a suitcase who contacted London and told the airmen they soon would be flown out by an Allied aircraft landing nearby. They were even photographed and given fake ID cards.

Another Resistance supervisor, a woman nicknamed "Maurissette" for her birthplace, Mauritius), showed up to survey the situation.

Five weeks they spent in this hideout, their monotony relieved only by a young nurse named Eugenie Roby (and nicknamed "Bobby") who brought English-language records and some food (acquired on the black market as strict rationing was in effect.). A policeman brought more food and a second policemen brought food and played bridge with them. "Time dragged on and hopes rose and fell," Jean said. The idea of an Allied aircraft landing near them turned out to be a false alarm. One airman busied himself with daily exercises. Another was ill. So brazen did they become that Bobby even took them on a sightseeing tour to see the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame Cathedral and the Chamber of Deputies.

They talked and played cards -- until Morrissette and Bobby finally indicated they were heading for the south of France.

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The big day finally came. Bobby took them to the Metro (subway), which they took to the main rail station, boarding a train a full hour before departure time. Thirty minutes later, American B-17s appeared overhead and dropped bombs nearby: it was June 6, 1944 and the Allied invasion of Normandy had begun. The three airmen and the diminutive Bobby spent the night on the train, sharing the compartment with four strangers "who viewed them with great suspicion".

Around 4 that afternoon, two Gestapo men began roaming the train. So frightened was one American that Bobby took him out of the carriage, fearing he might give them away. One Gestapo man got into an argument with an elderly woman whose papers appeared to be out of date. Hugh used this distraction to flash his papers to the German, who gave them only a cursory glance, then passed on. The nervous American got by them, too.

Reaching Toulouse, the travellers went to a cinema and slept for two hours, then set off for the Pyrenees and the Spanish border. All around them was evidence of the sabotage by the Maquis and Allied aerial bombing. For three days, the entire group holed up in the elegant home of an elderly spinster. Around them, the Germans were searching for airmen, Maquis and Resistance workers. "Nothing seemed real because of the danger,' Jean said.

Eventually, they made their way to a farm, sleeping in a bug-infested haystack and eating wild berries before encountering a Dutch airman who was one of the handful to successfully escape from Stalag Luft III -- "the so-called" Great Escape" only a few months earlier -- and a party of 35 Jews whose guide had been killed.

This emphasizes the inherent danger in that area so near the border of northern Spain. Hugh heard later than the Germans killed 21 women and children in a nearby town in reprisal for Resistance or Maquis activity.

Another guide was found and the escapers, walking single-file, set out for the Pyrenees. Some carried walking sticks, some carried food. They passed several hours later through a Maquis camp, where they got additional escorts. Continuing to climb, they had to avoid German patrols, ford a river and still keep climbing. By the time they reached the summit of the Pyrenees, they were exhausted and out of food. The guide left them, and then the Maquis, and two hours later they crossed the border.

"Nobody minded that they were tossed into a Spanish jail," Jean said.

Soon, the British ambassador appeared to "spring" them and start them on their way back to Gibraltar and then Britain.

It was a small story in the overall sweep of the Second World War, but "I feel people should know of the bravery of our French friends."

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Hugh Thomas returned to Britain, going on instructional duties. In the summer of 1945, he volunteered for service in the Pacific Theatre. But, fortunately, the war ended before he went to action.

 

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