Early Escapers
The first escapers' exploits did not necessarily affect subsequent escape line history but they do put some of the later stories into perspective and (as far as I know) only Derek Richardson and Saul David have mentioned them in published works before. These are just some of the men (and three women) who showed great personal initiative from the very start and quickly made their way home. A few were able to cross the Channel in small boats - or scheduled steamer - whilst others went through France to Switzerland or Spain and Portugal. In most cases they slipped through gaps that were soon closed behind them - in the modern parlance, they seized the opportunity and dared to win.
It should be noted that the MI9 reports from the National Archives at Kew are the only sources used for many of the following accounts and independent corroboration has not been possible. Some of the stories are confirmed from other MI9 files but generally these very early escapers' stories have not been otherwise verified. However, whilst I have excluded much extraneous detail, I have no reason to doubt the basic facts presented. I have also retained some of the original phraseology which may, or may not, be accepted at face value. These are just some chosen from many …
Captain A D Taylor (4) was Adjutant of 15 Hussars when his unit was surrounded and captured at Boukhout in Belgium on 18 May 1940. Taylor and others were marched off in a column but later that day he was able to escape by simply crawling through a hedge and lying still. Using a compass borrowed from his commanding officer, Taylor set off towards Ghent but soon decided to retrace his steps and head for France. He actually returned to the spot where he was captured and was able to search his own tank in the hope of picking up some spare kit. He was stopped and questioned by German soldiers on several occasions but with one exception managed to convince them he was a Belgian farmer. The one time they actually detained him he was able to escape into a café shortly afterwards. He made his way to Cuinchy where he had been billeted earlier and obtained money and food from friends before going on to Abbeville where he was arrested at Grand Pont and identified as being English. However he was put in with some French civilian prisoners and escaped again when they were all marched off en masse. He made his way to Etaples where he met Grant, the golf professional at Le Touquet who entertained him at the Balmoral Hotel. Grant also pointed out that the Sailing Club might be a good place to look for a boat. This proved to be the case and Taylor spent the next day rigging a rowing boat that he found with sails and oars. That night he set sail into the Channel and was soon intercepted by a British naval vessel trawling the coast for stray soldiers. He was taken aboard, landed at Dover and in London being interviewed by MI9 just three and a half weeks after capture.
Highland Light Infantry 2/Lts Tinn, Hardey and Campbell (5/6/7) got back even quicker. The three men were captured with their unit near Rex Poede on 30 May but escaped together next day whilst being marched towards St Omer. Their guards were apparently rather bored with looking after the hundred or so captured officers and with their escape covered by others the three men weren't missed until it was too late. Using a map and compass that the Germans had failed to take from them they made their way to the coast near St Philippe where local people supplied them with food and clothing. They soon found an abandoned life boat but had to get a local blacksmith to fashion rowlocks for it. Then they simply put off and rowed, first to Calais and then out into the Channel where they were picked up by a Dutch freighter which transferred them to a British pilot boat which brought them back to England. They were back in London within twelve days of their capture in France.
2/Lt James Thompson Stevenson (9) of 5 Bn Manchester Regt was in the same column as Tinn, Hardey and Campbell and comments on their escape. He wasn't able to get away for another two days by which time the column had passed St Omer. He and Brigade Signals Officer 2/Lt Webley slipped through a gap in a hedge near Fletchin but that evening were recaptured by a German soldier with a shotgun and taken back to their previous evenings' overnight stop. They joined another column and set off again the following morning following the same route towards St Pol. Webley apparently decided he had had enough of escaping but Stevenson found that RA Captain Peter Barrow (10) was willing to give it go and the two men dived through the very same gap in the hedge Stevenson had used the previous day. Using a compass that Barrow obtained from an officer who had only just been captured and not searched, and a map that Stevenson had been given by a soldier who realised their plan, the two men set off for the beach at Etaples. It took them five days to reach Etaples which had been briefly occupied by the German heavy mechanised units before moving on for Paris, leaving only a token occupation force. Stevenson and Barrow finally found a rowing boat at Etaples harbour and set out from Paris Plage early in the morning of 15 June. After first aiming for some ships' lights they spotted during the night - which they fortunately did not reach as they were probably German E Boats - they were picked up at noon the next day by the British destroyer HMS Vesper some 15 miles from Dover and landed that evening.
One of the most laconic of these early reports is that of 2/Lt T S Lucas (24) of the Queen Victoria's Rifles. He was captured at Calais on 2 June and marched off in a column late that night. At around two-thirty in the morning, at a point where the column turned left, Lucas turned right, got into some bushes and went to sleep. At dawn he set off to walk to the coast, reaching the shore at La Chatelet that afternoon. He then walked along the beach to Wissant where he found a dinghy complete with oars. He also found an old Frenchman who got him beer and bread and helped launch the dinghy late that night which Lucas then rowed across the Channel. The following morning, Lucas was about half a mile from Dover when a British minesweeper came out, picked him up and landed him back in England.
The very first official RAF escapers cannot claim much credit for their remarkable escape. Acting F/Lt Frederick Oliver Barrett (14) was pilot of a 226 Squadron Fairey Battle that was shot down by ground fire on 13 June after a fight with Me109s following a bombing raid near Montmerail, east of Paris. Barrett was hit by cannon fire and injured in the right arm while both his Observer Sgt Asker and Gunner LAC Kirk survived unhurt from both the combat and resulting wheels-up landing. The three airmen were picked up by French infantry who dressed Barrett's wound and sent all three men to hospital at nearby Provins. At one o'clock next morning, as soon as Barrett had been operated on, the three men were put into an ambulance with Miss Ursula Lloyd Bennet and driven by Miss Penelope Otto (25/26). They set off for a hospital at Auxerre and were advised to try the Nogent road but soon ran into German motorised forces near Villenauxe. Asker and Kirk were told to take off their coats, cover themselves in bandages and pretend to be concussed. They were all kept in the ambulance overnight while the Germans blew up the Nogent railway line. At dawn the girls were courteously interrogated (sic) and then sent in an armed convoy for St Quentin. In the Troyes district the convoy was turned back due to an expected counterattack and on returning to Villenauxe, as the convoy was directed to turn left, driver Otto turned right, followed by a second ambulance driven by Miss Marjorie Juta. The two ambulances continued at high speed through enemy territory until they reached French lines and safety back at Provins where Barrett and his crew were left at the hospital and the ambulances returned to their Headquarters. Barrett was later evacuated from France by sea from La Baule whilst Asker and Kirk rejoined their squadron. The three women belonged to the British Mechanised Transport Corps and were members of the Chateau de Blois Ambulance Corps which had five ambulances given to the French by American donors in Palm Beach. They later took their vehicles to Bordeaux then Arcachon and were evacuated from Arcachon on board the cruiser HMS Galates 21 June.
Two pairs of men seem to have made the simplest of escapes after being captured at St Valery-en-Caux on 12 June 1940. All four escaped their marching columns of prisoners - probably the same column - at or near Forges-les-Eaux three days later. From that point on they simply overtook and then kept ahead of the main German forces travelling west. RQMS N Griffiths (RA) and Dvr A Baker (RAMC) (50/51) wore civilian clothes found in abandoned buildings, rode on stolen bicycles and made their way to Caen, which although occupied, had a refugee centre where they picked up news of the latest German advances. They reached the coast at Granville on 23 June where they were guided to a boat on which they spent the night before setting out early next morning to reach the Isles Chausey at about midday. Dvr F Johnson and Dvr A Day (54), both Royal Engineers attached to the Highland 51st Division tell much the same story and describe joining a small party and boarding a fishing smack from Granville which sailed at two in the morning for Chausey. Neither pair of men mention the other but their stories are so similar from this point (although their dates do not match exactly) that it is reasonable to suppose they may have travelled together. From Chausey, Johnson and Day boarded a small pleasure steamer which left at 3 o'clock that afternoon for Jersey where all four men were accommodated at the Royal Yacht Hotel in St Helier before catching the evening's overnight Southern Railway mail steamer to Southampton.
This sounds so easy in retrospect and today it is hard to imagine that ferry services were still operating despite the war being so close but Griffiths and Baker were back reporting to the Security Officer at Southampton at 10 o'clock in the morning of 25 June (Johnson says 28 June), just thirteen days after capture. They were only just in time, military personnel and equipment had been withdrawn from the Channel Islands by 20 June and thirty thousand Islanders evacuated by 23 June. The German invasion, Operation Grüne Pfeile, began 28 June with an air raid on Sark, Jersey and Guernsey and the first German forces landed at Guernsey airport 30 June - all four main Islands were occupied within three days.
One of the most determined of these early escapers was 2/Lt William Herbert Dothie (35) of the Royal Artillery. Dothie arrived at Calais a few days before the Germans. He was commanding a searchlight battery on the outskirts of the town and had been part of a patrol sent out to deal with two tanks reported at nearby Marck when they were cut off from their unit. After swimming out into the Channel to try and reach a British destroyer, he returned to find the beach deserted and his clothes gone. Wearing a blanket found on the beach, he went to a nearby house where he was given a suit of clothes. Armed with a rifle he also found, he returned to his old headquarters and collected some discarded rations. Two days later he was captured by two German soldiers who had followed his tracks across the fields. Along with another thousand or so troops, he was marched in a prisoner column from which he escaped five days later at the deserted village of Boursies, not far from Cambrai. He moved into an abandoned farm and lived there for the next fortnight, dealing with German visitors seeking eggs and (perhaps) convincing his neighbours that he was entitled to be there. After careful consideration he decided to make for Brittany using maps he found in the house and riding a bicycle stolen from a neighbour. He spent the next weeks travelling and reconnoitring the coastline north and west from St Brieuc (including the Plouha beach later known as Bonaparte to the Shelburn escape line in 1944), his journey only interrupted once by a German officer who ordered him to bury a dead pig because of its offensive smell and rewarded him with a hot meal and coffee. He finally found a boat near Brehec which he duly sailed to Jersey but was unable to land due to the current and so moored himself to a siren buoy. Unfortunately his line frayed in the night and he awoke to find himself adrift but eventually made St Helier where local fishermen told him the Islands had already been occupied. After several more days at sea he beached his boat back on the mainland at St Martin's Bay, near the tip of the Cherbourg peninsula. On reaching the small village of Digulleville a lady approached him and offered her assistance. She and her husband fed and sheltered Dothie for several days before he moved on to make new friends of the fishermen at Port Racine who then introduced him to man from Cherbourg who arranged for him to work on his cousin's farm at Omonville-le-Petit for a fortnight until the neighbours grew too anxious about his presence. Then he met a fisherman who was able to supply a very small boat which Dothie sailed until the wind dropped and he was returned to the port. He then found another boat, this one with a petrol engine, for which Dothie was able to steal three cans of fuel, and in which Dothie put to sea yet again on 31 July. Late the next day he sighted the Needles but was unable to land because of the tides. He was finally picked up in the western approaches to the Solent at eleven o'clock in the morning of 2 August by the patrol boat Aquamarine.
In August 2017, Tom Macomber emailed from Virginia to tell me that William Dothie had written a book called Operation Disembroil, published by Robert Hale in 1985, detailing his adventures.
Bdr George Melas (38) was a light antiaircraft gunner captured at St Valery-en-Caux 13 June 1940. Twelve days later he and L/Bdr Alan Bellamy (112) escaped one of the many lines of march taking prisoners to Germany. This in itself is not so remarkable and similar stories are repeated many, many times but Melas did so much better than most. He and Bellamy escaped near La Basse and made their way to nearby Auchy-les-Mines where a French family sheltered them. The family were obviously very nervous about this dangerous situation and Melas soon realised that he at least would have to move on. After deciding that escape from the northern coast was by then impossible, he set out alone to cycle to southern France by way of Paris. He had been given civilian clothes and grown himself a moustache as disguise and duly rode to Moulins before crossing the demarcation line to Vichy where he visited the Greek Legation. He then took a train to Marseille and applied for a new Greek passport (Melas was actually Greek by birth) complete with visas for Spain and Portugal and took a train to Lisbon. This sounds so simple and perhaps it was but if that is true then why didn't more men try something similar. George Melas was back in England being interviewed by MI9 less than two months after capture.
Alan Bellamy left the Pas de Calais shortly after Melas and in October was helped by escape line pioneer Lt William Sillar to cross the Pyrenees from Banyuls where, like so many others, he was arrested by Spanish and sent to Miranda del Ebro concentration camp. He didn't get back to England until December 1940.
Major John Ronald Mackintosh-Walker (40), a Seaforth Highlander commanding 4 Battalion Camerons, and Major Thomas Gordon Rennie (39) of the Black Watch, were also captured at St Valery-en-Caux. They were marched as far as Lille before they made their escape and the two men then proceeded to cycle to Marseille, the journey taking them four weeks. In Marseille they visited the American Consul, who lent them 10,000 francs, and the British Consul who lent them £5 each. They also acquired visas for Spain and Portugal (but not a French exit visa) They continued to the border town Cerbere and after careful reconnaissance, crossed the Pyrenean foothills to Port Bou where they met the local Thomas Cook representative who arranged with a friend in the Spanish police to have their papers stamped as though they had arrived by train. This then permitted them to continue their journey to Barcelona, Madrid and Lisbon quite openly. They were flown home from Lisbon on 4 August.
Postscript: It was Major General Thomas Rennie (later KIA) who commanded the reformed Highland Division when they marched in to liberate St Valery-en-Caux 2 September 1944, with Lt Colonel Bill Bradford and Lt Colonel Derek Lang (two other successful escapers after St Valery) commanding 5 Black Watch and 5 Camerons respectively.
From the apparent ease with which these two fairly senior officers were able to obtain the necessary paperwork to satisfy the Spanish and Portuguese officials, I have to assume they received significant help from British, and also perhaps American, diplomats. Similar assistance was given to Wing Commander Basil Embry and his travelling companion Bdr Albert Bird, that same month. Bird was loaned a diplomat passport and driven across the frontier by the Consul General himself, but such help was not generally available to escapers and in any case this kind of paperwork formality was about to be changed. The French, Spanish and Portuguese authorities soon made documentary requirements so complicated and transitory, changing the rules on an almost daily basis, that most escapers were quite unable to fulfil them - although there are many colourful tales of those that tried …
See 'Wingless Victory' for Basil Embry's version of his escape with Bird - see 'Surrender on Demand' for more details of conditions for crossing the frontier to Spain at this time.
The return of Cpl A MacDonald, L/Cpl J Wilson and Pte W Kemp (47/48/49) is another story of dogged determination and I like to think these three men displayed the typical bulldog spirit of the British fighting man - in fact they were Scottish.
MacDonald and Wilson had already served ten years in the TA before the war began whilst Kemp had been a policeman. All three were serving with C Company of 8 Bn Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders when their unit was captured near Vignacourt, south-east of Abbeville, on 7 June. They were first driven to join another 500 British and 5,000 French prisoners of war and then marched across country. On 14 June, as they approached Cambrin, east of Bethune, they slipped from the column to begin their long trek south. The first priority was to get some civilian clothes and these were soon supplied by a young French boy who produced blue trousers and blouses plus berets and a haversack for each man. With this disguise the three men decided to travel by day and rest by night both to aid navigation and to avoid the problems of the newly imposed curfew. On their travels they encountered German soldiers but each time were able to convince them they were Belgian refugees, a story reinforced when they acquired a perambulator which they filled with discarded pots and pans and pushed ahead of them. Reaching Aumale on 21 June, they found three bicycles in an abandoned cycle shop which speeded up their progress until they reached Fromental where they were arrested by German troops and taken to Ecouche to join 3,000 French prisoners. They tried sticking to their story of being Belgian until interrogated by French speaking German officer who couldn't understand a word of their Gaelic. When he finally produced an atlas, Kemp took the initiative, pointed to the Ukraine and somehow managed to convey the idea that they were Russians, a story they were to use several more times in their travels, and they were released. Continuing on foot once more, they were heading for Vihiers when they stopped a bus and tried a new tactic. They told the driver they were Americans in the French Foreign Legion and convinced him to take them to Niort. From there they hitch-hiked to Bordeaux and, arriving on 4 July, decided it was a good day to visit the American Consulate - unfortunately the Consul declined to help them. They continued south through Mano and Leon where they repeated their story of being American Legionnaires to the Maire but he was no help either. They finally reached Bayonne 10 July and with the help of a French Sergeant named Roger Panetta, made their first crossing into Spain where they were promptly arrested by a Spanish soldier who had them escorted back to France that night. At 6 o'clock in the morning they tried again further west but were caught again the following morning and returned once more, however one of the Spanish officers told them of a better route to try next time which would avoid the border guards and take them to San Sebastian. They duly set off late the next day only to get themselves lost and back in France again. Finally they and Panetta swam across the Bidassoa river that is the natural boundary near Irun and walked to San Sebastian where, on 15 July, a helpful Spanish policeman directed them to the British Consulate. They arrived back at Gourock by sea from Bilbao 28 July 1940.
Note: This last crossing sounds very similar to the route later used so successfully by the Belgian Comete escape line.
One man who covered more miles than most was AC2 Richard Clifford (58). Clifford was posted to an aerodrome at Nantes only to find it had been destroyed by the British before leaving. Clifford duly found a Hillman motorcar and sufficient petrol to drive himself and some refugees he met on the way, first to Toulouse then Perpignan, Ax-les-Thermes and St Girons in their attempts to cross the Pyrenees, each time being turned back by French or Spanish authorities. They then tried Argeles and Port Vendres, on the Mediterranean coast, where Clifford was arrested but soon escaped again. Then he went to Marseille where he stayed two weeks at the Seamen's Mission which in late June 1940 was run by a woman caretaker. He found several stranded American sailors there and a few British soldiers but still no way out of France. He went back to Perpignan and heard that the British Consul from Barcelona would be visiting the border town of Le Perthus but was not able to find him. However he did meet up with a Czech who suggested they both make for Switzerland. They were arrested near the border at Annercy but Clifford was again able to escape and finally make it across the frontier into Switzerland where he reports it was very easy to travel. He then contacted the British Consul in Geneva who arranged to have Messrs Thomas Cook and Sons provide all the necessary papers for him to travel back through France once more, this time by rail, to Spain and on to Lisbon. Clifford was flown back to England 26 August 1940.
After posting this story I found mention of AC2 Richard Trenchard Clifford in a story written by his sister Cathleen Teeceon on the BBC WW2 site at which gives further details of Richard Clifford's particularly enterprising escape.