'Conscript Heroes' is the title of a novel my father intended
to write based on his adventures in wartime France.
This is the true story ...
On 25 July 1999 a small battered leather attaché case was found in a dusty drawer where it had lain for more than fifty years. Inside were two soft booklets with the Spanish word Cauldron (exercise book) printed on the front of them, two AB64 army paybooks, one in the name of 6145479 Peter Scott Janes with the Will dated 23 April 1940 and the other still blank, a pile of hand-written foolscap papers headed DIARY and starting 8 January 1934, a book of French poetry (in French), a hard bound notebook and an envelope, postmarked Marseilles-Prado 28 December 1945 containing three more filled notebooks (all of different types) with a stamp on the back suggesting the sender was L H Nouveau. There was also a small collection of faded tourist postcards from Madrid, an autographed one peseta note encased in plastic, a book on Esperanto and an address book with details of people now long dead. The first notebook was headed "You who read this book have no right to ..." and signed Peter Scott Janes, Gibraltar, November 1941. It began "This first part of my diary can only be a remembered résumé of what I wrote in my other books which had to be left in Marseilles."
The three notebooks in the envelope were these same books, returned against all expectation to their owner by M Louis Nouveau after his own miraculous return from Buchenwald concentration camp. The three books are a diary of everything that happened to a young soldier sent to France in April 1940, captured with the Highland 51st Division at St Valery-en-Caux who then escaped from the Germans whilst en route to a POW camp and was sheltered in northern France for more than a year before being taken south on the Pat O'Leary escape line via Marseille to Spain and eventual freedom at Gibraltar.
Peter Janes was my father and he died unexpectedly on 3rd March 1998 aged eighty-one. On going through his things I found a diary that he had written during the latter part of the war covering his time in Italy. In it were mentioned other diaries that he had written during his time in France but which had been left behind there. I told my uncle Donald, Dad's youngest brother about it and he casually told me that Dad had always kept a diary, but after seeing the warning "You who read this book have no right to" had never read any. He then said that Dad had come to his house about a year earlier and, Donald believed, taken his diaries away, probably to be destroyed. Donald died the following year and almost the first thing I found at his home was the leather case in the bottom drawer of his old dresser. Elsewhere amongst Donald's and my father's things I then found various supporting documents, including the letters he sent to his mother from Miranda concentration camp together with her reply, and a collection of photographs (see Photographs) taken in France in 1940 and 1941.
All I knew about my father's experiences during the early part of the war were a few (mostly apocryphal) anecdotes that sketched a rough story of him being captured at a place called St Valery, escaping from captivity and living in the north of France before making his way south disguised as a priest, almost dying crossing the Pyrenees and then being imprisoned in a concentration camp at Miranda del Ebro before getting to Gibraltar and home.
On 21 April 1940 my father was batman to Captain Alec Thomson of the 2/6 East Surrey Regiment when they sailed to Le Havre, France as line of communication troops. That status was changed when Germany invaded France through Holland and Belgian that May. The battalion joined the BEF and was sent north to form a defensive line at the Somme. They were too late, the Germans were already in Abbeville and heading for Rouen. The Highland 51st Division were sent to block their passage and the East Surreys joined them in a defensive line along the river Bresle near Aumale. This line was attacked by dive bombers and quickly overrun by the advancing panzers and the British and French armies fell back to St Valery-en-Caux where on 12 June 1940 they were finally forced to surrender. Captured British soldiers were then marched across France towards Belgium where they were to be put onto barges and taken up the Rhine to POW camps in Germany.
After ten days marching my father reached the village of Divion near Bethune where he was suddenly pulled from the line by two French girls who gave him civilian clothes to put over his uniform and then led him away to a nearby house where his three-week beard (but not his new moustache) was shaved away. Then he was taken a few miles to Colonne Ricouart where he was to stay at 200 rue d'Alsace Lorraine for several weeks, before moving once more to 9 Chemin du Bois, Auchel where he remained until September of the following year.
All the time he was in the army, all his time as a prisoner and all the while he lived in France, my father wrote up his diary with names, dates and places as well as his thoughts and reports on the war as he understood it from listening to the BBC and French radio. Despite the large number of German troops stationed in the area - this was after all the zone interdite or forbidden zone - from the very first day he was taken out and introduced to local people and soon had a wide circle of friends, and in the winter of 1940/41 visited Sains les Pernes where he fell (in his words) badly in love. He also met other British evaders and escapers from St Valery and Dunkirk and from September onwards shared the house in Auchel with another British soldier. After an aborted escape attempt in May 1941, he finally left the Pas de Calais on 1 September 41 as a member of a party taken to the Spanish frontier by what later became known as the Pat O'Leary escape line (see Article) and en route the diaries were left in Marseille for safe keeping. He was arrested in Spain and sent to the concentration camp at Miranda del Ebro (see Article) near Vitoria. He was repatriated by the British authorities five weeks later and taken first to Madrid and then Gibraltar where he wrote the entire story out again in the belief that his diaries were lost forever.
I spent most of the winter of 1999/2000 typing up the diaries (some 100,000 words) but found the story needed some explaining. For instance my father was an ordinary soldier and although attached to headquarters staff, was generally unaware of the tactical situation. I started my research with a visit to the Regimental Museum at Clandon in Surrey where I was given access to the Regimental Diary and the name and telephone number of one of my father's surviving officers. I got in touch with the officer, John Redfern, and explained the situation and he sent me copies of his Captain's personal accounts (as did Alec's son Tom) and the situation maps of the battle at Aumale where they formed a defensive line in front of Rommel's tanks. I then decided to investigate the kind of armour the unit would have encountered and so went to the Tank Museum at Bovington. Whilst there one of the archivists passed me a recently published book by Saul David about the action leading up to St Valery and at the back of that were details of some of the men who had escaped after the surrender, including two names I knew from the diaries. Arthur Fraser was a particular friend of my fathers and it seemed he and his French wife Helene (eldest daughter of the MacLeod family that had sheltered him) were still alive and well. I phoned various Scottish Regiments until I found a man who knew Arthur and had in fact had lunch with him just a few hours earlier. I immediately called Arthur and introduced myself by saying I had a picture of him and Helene taken in January 1941 in the snow and he said that picture had been taken at the back of Helene's house in St Pierre and that he remembered Peter (my father) well. He went on to invite me to visit them and so I was with them both on the sixtieth anniversary of the surrender at St Valery where both he and my father were captured. During my visit Arthur and Helene filled in many details of their lives in occupied France and also of the men's escape to Spain and this was when the name of Paul Cole first came up.
Harold 'Paul' Cole, a British Army deserter, was one of their couriers (see Couriers page) from Lille to Marseille. He was arrested by the GFP a few weeks later after which he is believed to have betrayed many of the escape line helpers and become a double agent for the Germans. He is famously described by Airey Neave (Colditz escaper, Pat Line parcel and later MI9 officer) as "the most selfish and callous of German agents" and "the most successful of our enemies".
A few days later I travelled to France. I went first to the house where my father was sheltered by the Bodlet family at Colonne Ricouart. The family had of course moved by then but I found an elderly neighbour who knew someone who could take me to where the surviving son Alfred lived in nearby Marles-les-Mines. There, having introduced myself and explained what I was trying to do, I showed Alfred my photograph collection - my knowledge of the French language was limited and the only people I met on this trip who spoke any English were the waiter at my hotel and Zenon (Charly) Bartkowiak, a Polish fighter pilot shot down there in 1944 (and helped by Helene MacLeod) so the photographs were my main way of communicating - which included pictures of Alfred's parents and grandparents as well as himself and his sisters, cousins and aunts. He then drove me around the district to show these pictures to his family and friends and also to take me to spot on the road at nearby Divion where his cousins Mathilde François and Solange Devise had rescued my father from the Germans as they marched him on his way to Germany. This enabled me to return to the spot the following morning on the exact sixtieth anniversary of that event. Later that day I drove to Sains-les-Pernes where my father had also spent a lot of time, found the Mairie and introduced myself to the Maire, Jean-Paul Hermant, to show him the pictures. He quickly found a photograph of Bernadette, his late mother-in-law, as a girl and other pictures of people from families he knew. He also drove me around the district introducing me to various relatives of those who had known my father and found addresses of some of the few survivors from that time so I could visit them as well - including Louisa Duhem (née Gournay) at Bethune. Next day Alfred took me to meet his sister Solange at Laforet where she lived with her husband Christian.
Back in England I started searching on the Internet and quickly found mention of Paul Cole and the escape lines on Christopher Long's website and so began a whole new chapter in my research. One of first people I found was a woman in America named Sherri Ottis who was writing a new book (see Bibliography) about escape lines and requesting details from anyone who had travelled the Pat Line. I contacted her in the belief that my father had used the Line and she was quickly able to confirm it. She also gave me a reading list which led to my finding a book called "Safe Houses are Dangerous" by Helen Long. Her book had my father's name in it together with many other details that fitted perfectly with the diaries and I began to realise what a valuable document I had. I also discovered that when the men returned to England they were all debriefed by MI9, the Military Intelligence department concerned with escape and evasion, and that the records of these interviews were now available at the Public Record Office. This enabled me to finally put names to two other members of the escaping party (a Czech and a Pole, both Spitfire pilots) who my father had only referred to by their assumed names of John Love and Archie. The whole party was made up of three British soldiers: my father, Arthur and Fred Wilkinson the Royal Engineers Corporal who shared a house with him, and three fighter pilots: Denis Crowley-Milling, Adolf Pietrasiak and Rudolf Ptacek (see Article) plus a Polish soldier named Henryk Stachura (aka George Brown) along with two couriers, Cole (see Article) and a young Frenchman named Roland Lepers (see Article).
Sherri also told me about a present day organisation for escape line helpers and users that co-ordinates Freedom Trail walks to commemorate the escape routes used during the war. I had just missed the annual "Chemin de la Liberté" dedicated to the Pat O'Leary line but could join a new walk across the Pyrenees for the Belgian réseau Comète. There I found the most amazing collection of people I have ever had the pleasure of meeting, helpers (the inadequate word they use to describe those civilians who daily risked more than just their lives for others) and evaders from sixty years earlier who have stayed in contact all this time and who welcomed me as one of the family simply because I was prepared to spend two days retracing the path they had used so many years earlier. Although not directly connected with the O'Leary line, they have many friends in common and on the last day at St Jean de Luz I met Albert Day, a Canadian aircrew evader who was able to provide me with details of another airman who was mentioned in the diaries. This man's Spitfire had been shot down on 2 July 1941 and his parachute landed quite close to where my father was living, causing him to leave the area immediately as there would obviously be a search for the pilot. Arthur Fraser was even more closely connected as the local resistance brought the pilot to the MacLeod's house where he was staying. It was Arthur who told me the pilot was a Canadian named Robillard and Al Day had actually trained with him, kept in touch ever since and in April 2001 arranged to have me telephone Larry Robillard whilst he was on a brief visit to London and staying with his daughter.
In June and July of 2001 I made another trip to France, firstly in the Pas de Calais revisiting the people I already knew there but also finding some more of the families that helped my dad, and visiting the battle sites near Aumale and St Valery-en-Caux where the surrender took place. I also went to Abbeville where the escape party were issued with false papers to cross the Somme from the zone interdite into occupied France by the Abbe Pierre Carpentier. Carpentier was one of the first people to be arrested after Paul Cole in December 1941 and today the Place Abbe Pierre Carpentier outside his church at St Gilles is dedicated to his memory. I was unable to locate the maison de rendezvous where they stayed in Paris with its mirrored walls so colourfully described by Roland Lepers but I did go to Tours where the demarcation line between occupied France and Vichy France had been and saw the place near St Martin-le-Beau where they crossed the river Cher on the night of 2/3 September 1941 before going on to Marseille. I then went to Montauban to meet Marie-Helene Gournay whose mother and aunt had both known my father at Sains-les-Pernes. Jean-Paul had sent copies of my photographs to her and she and her aunt Marcelle were able to identify the one person I was unsure about (Jean Eviad was a cousin who happened to be passing that day) and also identify the location as being her parents farm at Locon.
From Montauban I drove to Banyuls-sur-Mer, a small town on the Mediterranean coast close to the French-Spanish border where I had thought my father said the escape party had set out to walk across the Pyrenees in the late evening of 6 September. Next day I followed that path, a hike into Spain which took me eleven hours in daylight and can only imagine what it would have been like to try and cross at night.
My final adventure for that trip was to join the 2001 Chemin de la Liberté walk across the Pyrenees from St Girons in honour of the Pat O'Leary line. This four day march is considered one of the toughest of all the Pyrenean crossings. It was on this trek that I met Chris Goss, an RAF Squadron Leader (now Wing Commmander) avid war historian and author who was able to give me addresses in London and the Czech Republic which resulted in me receiving further details of Ptacek and Pietrasiak and their photographs for the first time. Incidentally I returned to St Girons for my second Chemin in July 2002 and found out for myself how treacherous even summer weather in the high Pyrenees could be. After a particularly cold and hard third day of hiking, we climbed into our sleeping bags with an electric storm overhead, gale-force winds and hailstones. At about four o'clock the following morning I found the world closing in on me as my tent sagged under a foot of snow.
July 2003 saw me back in France once more, first in the Pas de Calais where I arranged to meet with Marie-Helene and visit her parents' farm at Locon as well as her aunt Louisa's at Sains-les-Pernes before heading south for the Pyrenees. My father says he crossed the mountains from Banyuls and I had assumed Banyuls-sur-Mer, but further research revealed he actually stayed at Banyuls-dels-Aspres and crossed from Laroque-les-Alberes, some twelve miles further inland and involving a 1,000 foot higher climb. This time I was accompanied by my friend Boris Spence and although the crossing itself is not particularly difficult - a sharp, steep climb of about two and a half hours will see you to the frontier, in the extreme heat we experienced I found it very hard going. Once at the border there is no habitation in sight and so we descended to le Perthus (still technically in France) before returning by a different route the next day. Then it was on to St Girons to join the tenth annual Chemin de la Liberté and my third Chemin crossing. Weather conditions were a complete contrast to the previous year's, it being extremely hot and requiring each walker to drink something like six litres of water a day - fortunately we had periodic access to fresh water en route but still had to carry substantial amounts with us. The final climb on day four up the glacier at Col de la Clauere was followed by a dip in the melt-water supplied Lac de Clauere before the final descent into Spain. I have been returning to the Chemin each year since.
I have been able to add considerable detail to my father's story from many sources, details my father would not have known at the time including much fuller details of the Pat Line people and many of service personnel he met both in the Pas de Calais and particularly at Miranda del Ebro. I have also been able to confirm that he, Arthur Fraser, Rudolf Ptacek and Henryk Stachura stayed with Louis Nouveau in Marseille at one of the most famous safe houses in escape line history, whilst Denis Crowley-Milling, Adolf Pietrasiak and Fred Wilkinson stayed with the equally courageous Dr Georges Rodocanachi.
 

I have edited the diaries down to a more manageable 80,000 words and made a more flowing storyline by combining them with the resumes. The book "Conscript Heroes" was finally published in June 2004 - see below ...
Meanwhile I am continuing with my research of the Pat O'Leary line. If any readers have information they would care to pass on to me, or have any queries they feel I might be able to answer, then please get in touch.
The book - Conscript Heroes - ISBN 0-9528708-7-8 - is available through Amazon
Since first posting this story, several of the people mentioned have sadly passed way : Charly Bartkowiak in 2002, Arthur Fraser in 2004, Helene Fraser, Larry Robillard and Alfred Bodlet in 2006, Al Day and Solange Laplanche-Bodlet in 2007, Louisa Duhem (née Gournay) in 2008. Rest in Peace my friends