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I first met Edward Stourton in July 2011 when he hiked the annual Chemin de la Liberté with a view to making a radio program, and later a book. After the walk, we kept in touch and in one of his emails, he told me that a Geraldine Wimble had contacted him with some new details about her uncle, an evader named John Hopkins. I pointed out that Hopkins and fellow officer John Rae hadn't crossed the Pyrenees but had made their way to North Africa by boat from Marseille – and since I couldn't see any direct relevance to Geraldine's story, promptly forgot about it. This was a mistake on my part – in my defence, I was at that time extremely busy with a new project but of course that was no real excuse. Fortunately, Edward was not so dismissive and he duly followed up on the story – with some surprising results, as can be seen below ...
John Wainwright Hopkins
by Edward Stourton
While researching my 2013 book 'Cruel Crossing – Escaping Hitler across the Pyrenees' I learnt about an escaper called John Wainwright Hopkins – Hoppy to his friends – who graduated from my Cambridge college, Trinity, not long before the Second World War; his niece, Geraldine Wimble, spotted a mention of the book in a piece I wrote for the Financial Times, and she got in touch to ask whether I would like to see Hoppy's papers. I included a brief mention of his adventures in the book and wrote a longer piece for 'The Fountain', our college magazine, from which this is an extract;
“In 1939 Hoppy was settling into life as a barrister with a place in a London set of chambers and a flat in Camden Hill Square. Concluding that war was inevitable, he secured a commission as an artillery officer and was sent to France as part of the British Expeditionary Force. His RHA battery was attached to the French 9th Army on the Belgian border, and in the rout that followed the German offensive of May and early June 1940 they were – to his disgust – driven all the way back to the Normandy coast.
The drama that unfolded at St-Valery-en-Caux on June 12th 1940 was a sad post-script to the more celebrated evacuation of Dunkirk. Some 10,000 British troops were bottled up in this fishing port near Dieppe by General Rommel and forced to surrender. But the logistical challenge of managing so many prisoners was huge, and there were plenty of opportunities for escape. On 20 June, Hoppy and two other RHA officers, simply ducked out of the line of march in the Pas-de-Calais-Nord and hid in a bush until the column had moved on.
With a small group of fellow escapers he set out to walk back to the French coast in the hope of finding a boat that would take them across the Channel to England. His diary from this period survives, and reflects the near-obsession with food that so many escapers and evaders recorded; Hoppy meticulously listed everything they were given to eat. He had good French (one would expect nothing less of a Trinity man) and was sent to forage for the party .. “Went out and found farmer”, he noted on June 22nd “he took us to his cowshed in village (no Boche about) and gave us dinner of soup, fried eggs, bacon, fried potatoes, beer, coffee (oh! boy!) and a wash. Presented us with 8lbs potatoes, 8 tins bully, 6 packets biscuits; one dozen hard boiled eggs, salt, soap, a blanket, a loaf, 1 lb butter. Payment refused!”
The hospitality shown by the ordinary people of rural France features prominently in most escapers' diaries from this period. After a farmer gave Hoppy's group clothes as well as food he noted “The generosity and kindness of the French peasant almost makes up for their rotten army”. The note of exasperation is rare; for the most part Hoppy's writing reflects the old fashioned British virtues we have come to associate with the war years. On July 1st, after a night spent ducking through woods and sneaking across rural roads, he began his diary entry thus; “What a way to spend my birthday! I hope not any more like this. I know the old people will be drinking my health this evening. I wish they knew I was safe, but I'm afraid they'll be horribly worried”.
Hoppy and his group reached the coast and made several abortive attempts to cross the Channel. They eventually gave up when a large a party of Germans arrived in the area and started constructing an airfield. The diary ends at this point, but the adventure went on; the party headed south for Marseille. On the way down they stopped off at a house where Hoppy had spent a long vacation improving his French during his time at Trinity, and his former hosts gave him 300 francs to help him on his way.
They split up to cross the Demarcation line between German occupied France and the Vichy zone, met at their agreed rendezvous at Loches and eventually reached Marseille in late August. They had been on the run for two months, and for most of that time they had been moving through enemy-occupied territory. For the first month and a half they walked. Once they had crossed into Vichy France they felt sufficiently confident to take trains, but they changed frequently and travelled third class, disguised as French peasants.
Marseille at this time was awash with British soldiers who had been left behind after the evacuation of Dunkirk. It soon became the centre of the first proper escape line which ran people over the Pyrenees into neutral Spain.
But Hoppy clearly enjoyed doing things his own way. At a café near the port he had a chance encounter with an English woman married to a Frenchman. She managed to arrange false discharge papers which identified Hoppy and his friends as Romanians who had fought with the French army and wanted to get back to North Africa, where, according to the paperwork, they had families. On 31 August, They were duly put on a transport ship to Oran with a large number of African troops, and from there they took a train to Casablanca. In Casablanca they bribed the captain of a boat [the Mar Azul] loaded with onions to let them join him on the journey to Lisbon, where they presented themselves to the British Legation. They were flown back to London the following day, 19 September 1940.
In November 1940, Hoppy was awarded the Military Cross for his escaping exploits. A little over a year later he was back in North Africa, and once again on the front line. He was killed on 14 June 1942, not long after winning a bar to his MC and the day after his promotion to major. His commanding officer described his death like this; “His battery was attacked by tanks and Hoppy was distracted with anxiety. We stayed just behind the lines together for some time, when suddenly I missed him. He had gone forward a couple of hundred yards to the guns and was shielding the gunners, who were clambering on to be rescued, because the gun position was hopeless. Unfortunately an armour piercing shot came through his car and severed his femoral artery. He died in two minutes and was the only one on his car to be hit. It was a very gallant act”. He added “He was to my mind a quite exceptional leader. He had a very sound brain and his men loved him”.
So many people had extraordinary experiences during the Second World War that the extraordinary almost became ordinary. That may be why some veterans have been reticent about what they went through. Researching stories like Hoppy's brought home to me just how remarkable those experiences were. We should record and keep alive as many of them as we can”.
The piece was read by another Trinity alumnus, David Natzler, Director General of Chamber and Committee Services in the House of Commons. His interest is explained in this letter to the editor of The Fountain.
“The spring issue of The Fountain carried an article by Edward Stourton on the wartime exploits of a former member of the College, Major John Hopkins MC – “Hoppy” - who escaped from France in 1940 and was later killed in action in 1942 in North Africa. Edward drew on papers held by Hoppy's niece Geraldine Wimble.
The article brought me up short, as I was very familiar with the part that dealt with Hoppy getting out of Marseille to Oran and on to Casablanca. Thanks to Edward and others I contacted Geraldine and have been able to read Hoppy's papers. The diary refers to Hoppy and his companion [2/Lt John Edward Keith Rae] being introduced to a young Romanian who had been in the French army, who procured them false discharge papers and got them onto the next troopship and on to Casablanca. The story was instantly familiar to me because the Romanian was in fact an Austrian, my father Pierre, now 96 and in good health. I had at intervals over the years heard him mention Hoppy and his Welsh companion, and how he had handed them over to the care of the British Club in Casablanca.
My father and I met Hoppy's niece Geraldine for lunch this August and she heard from my father about Hoppy at first hand, almost 75 years after the event: thanks to Edward and to The Fountain. David Natzler."
I feel sure that, as a good lawyer, Hoppy would be pleased that the loose ends of his story have been tidied up like this!