The Pat O'Leary (or PAO) Escape Line
Some of what follows may be obtained from the literature and the general story well known but it is still very difficult to give an overall impression of the way the PAO or Pat Line operated, not the least because it was continually changing. Most books on the subject are littered with random stories of individual events and so my research is aimed at putting these into perspective and adding useful detail. By examining all the literature and comparing it with official records, as well as comparing notes with other researchers and talking to some of the surviving personnel, I have been able to build up a more comprehensive appreciation of the way the Pat Line evolved.
Two of the earliest recognisable members of what became known as the Pat Line were Ian Garrow (see Article) and Donald Caskie, both based in Marseille. Garrow was a captain in the Highland Light Infantry who had brought a small group of men south from Evreux to be repatriated. Garrow and his men were arrested in July 1940 after crossing the demarcation line near Loches and sent to Belabre camp and later to Monferran-Saves at Ile Jourdain near Toulouse before being transferred to Fort St Jean on 18 October. Already in Marseille was Captain Frederick Fitch (who had been working with Lt William Sillar and then F/Lt Paddy Treacy, a twice downed fighter pilot who had escaped three times from the Germans before being arrested by the French) Captain Charles P Murchie (who took charge when Fitch left for Spain in December) and Sgt Harry K Clayton, an interpreter in the RAF who had escaped from a German POW camp, come down from Lille with Murchie and been working at passing on British troops ever since (see Article). Caskie was a Scottish minister who had fled his parish in Paris just ahead of the German occupation and who wanted to help the many Allied servicemen who had flocked to Marseille. Caskie took over the Seamen's Mission at Rue de Forbin that quickly became a magnet for displaced servicemen needing food and shelter whilst Garrow worked with Murchie (who left for England in April 1941) at ways of getting them out of the country.
The security of this all-too-obvious 'safe house' was appalling but the French authorities at first tended to turn a blind eye in the apparent belief that both it and Garrow were just fronts for something more complex. As more contacts were established through the Mission, more people came forward to help in Murchie and Garrow's ambitious plans to get men out of the country and safely home to Britain. Prominent amongst those early volunteers was Dr Georges Rodocanachi who, in addition to medical aid, offered to entertain British officers at his home where he came into contact with Garrow. Dr Rodo was not the only one offering tea to British officers and through a friend of a friend Garrow, Tom Kenny and Lt James Langley were soon introduced to flamboyant anglophile Louis Nouveau who extended invitations of his own. Up until January 1941 when they were transferred to St Hippolyte du Fort near Nimes, British servicemen were technically interned at Fort St Jean but officers could give their parole and so spend much of their time freely wandering the city. In fact many officers actually lodged in the town, only reporting weekly to the Fort.
These were the embryo beginnings of World War II's first truly organised escape line. Dr Rodocanachi's apartment would become a safe house and headquarters to Ian Garrow and later Pat O'Leary whilst Nouveau would contribute funds and act as courier as well as safe house keeper. There were many other major contributors to the line who started in Marseille, Canadian Tom Kenny (see Article) Australian Kenneth Bruce Dowding (himself an escaper from Germany after capture at Dunkirk) New Zealander Nancy Fiocca (née Wake) and so many Greek contributors that the Germans are said to have referred to the line as 'Acropolis' in their files. There were British, French, Belgian, Norwegian, Polish and even German born agents working the Line.
Meanwhile in London the Intelligence services began to recognise the importance of retrieving British servicemen. In December 1939, MI6 had established a new branch, known as MI9, under Major Norman Crockatt, to assist escaping prisoners of war and they soon began directing their attentions to the escape lines. In Lisbon Donald Darling (later known to the French as Cheri) adopted the codename "Sunday" and in Madrid Michael Creswell was "Monday" whilst the London office was taken over in early 1941 by "P15" James Langley, himself an escaper who had been repatriated through Marseille. In 1942 Langley was joined by another escaper (and Pat Line parcel) Airey Neave who became "Saturday".
|By the time my father's party arrived at Marseille in September 1941, the Line had a well practised routine. Stray soldiers, or more importantly by then airmen, were collected in the north by a network of passeurs, formed into groups and accompanied south by courier. Harold 'Paul' Cole (see Article) and Roland Lepers (see Article) were regulars by this time and they would deliver their parcels to a rendezvous ready to be taken into hiding before going on to Perpignan and the Pyrenees. Garrow had his headquarters at the Rodocanachi flat and O'Leary, who had recently been accepted into the organisation, was living with him. By the end of the year the Line would be in turmoil with Garrow in prison and multiple arrests in the north following the exposure of Cole and his arrest and apparent betrayals in early December but it continued to run and even expanded its efforts the following year to include large scale sea evacuations.
|Patrick Albert O'Leary was the nom de guerre of a Belgian army doctor named Albert-Marie Guérisse. After the fall of France and his own country's capitulation he made his way to Gibraltar and volunteered for hazardous service. He was accepted on board the converted French merchantman Le Rhin, renamed Fidelity, with an otherwise French crew (and 'Corsican' captain) all of whom adopted Scottish or Irish names and posed as French Canadians. Fidelity was refitted in England and returned to Gibraltar to make runs to the southern French coast dropping and collecting agents. Her first mission was to deliver Bitner and Egbert Rizzo at Canet Plage the night of 25 April 1941. Rizzo was headed for Perpignan to set up the TROY escape line for SOE DF section and Bitner to the Lille area for the Polish INTERALLIÉ organisation. The next night O'Leary and three French seamen went ashore at Cerbere to bring a group of Polish officers out but that operation failed when the four men were left stranded by the tides and arrested by French officials. NCO Ford escaped but O'Leary, Fergusson and Rogers were captured and as 'Canadians' sent to St Hippolyte du Fort. Fergusson was the first to escape and then Rogers, with O'Leary's help, went over the wall. O'Leary himself, helped by Lt Richard Parkinson, Lt Winwick Hewit and prison guard Maurice Dufour, a friend of Andrée Borrel, finally escaped one night in early June 1941. He went to Marseille where everyone at the Fort knew there was an escape organisation run by a man named Garrow and soon made contact. Garrow wanted O'Leary to stay in Marseille and help with the organisation since he had such good credentials: he was a military man, he had undercover training (courtesy of SIS whilst Le Rhin was being refitted at Barry Docks as the Q ship Fidelity) and unlike Garrow, he spoke French fluently. Consequently a message was sent by courier to London requesting that he stay and on 2 July 1941, a BBC radio message was received at the Rodocanachi flat saying that "Adolphe doit rester" meaning that Adolphe (Lecomte) the name on O'Leary's false papers, should stay. O'Leary retained the name Lecomte when he travelled to the north but used the name Joseph Cartier in Marseille and it so was as Joseph (or Josef) that many subsequent escapers knew him.
|O'Leary credits Richard Parkinson with helping some 50 men escape from St Hippolyte. He began within days of arrival by taking the entire six-man crew of a 9 Squadron Wellington and delivering them to Murchie and Clayton in Marseille - he later took some parties all the way to Perpignan. After helping so many others, Parkinson left the Fort for the last time on 10 October 1941 with F/O Bob Milton - coincidentally about the same time that Ian Garrow was arrested in Marseille. Milton was recaptured in Nimes (see Article) and returned to St Hippolyte but Parkinson got through and was flown home to England from Gibraltar on 20 December. Captain Richard Edward Hope Parkinson MBE was killed at the battle of El Alamein the following November - he was twenty-one years old. Bob Milton finally escaped from Camp de Chambaran near Grenoble with his friend Hewit on 28 November 1942 and it was O'Leary himself that guided them and SOE agent Dick Cooper over the Pyrenees to Spain.
|Louis Nouveau's records
|It is very tempting to start any research into the number of men rescued by the Pat Line with the records kept by Louis Nouveau is his Volume 44 of Voltaire and so the number of 154 (or 156) frequently appears. Louis more correctly describes them as visitors and closer study will quickly reveal that the total number is not likely to correspond with the page number of the last entry. First of all numbers 2 thru 23 are missing as Louis says he only started the records after roughly thirty men had passed through. The first man Sgt Philip Herbert is well remembered and Peter Janes number 24 is listed because he left his own diaries with Louis complete with his name and home address on the front of the envelope. However number 25 Guy Lockhart actually stayed before my father arrived as shown from his and F/O Forde's MI9 debriefs.
|In fact Lockhart (see Article) arrived at Marseille in company with F/O D N Forde on 10 August 1941, although Forde is not recorded as having stayed at Nouveau's, whilst Peter Janes did not arrive in Marseille until 4 September when he was in the company of others, some of whom stayed with Dr Rodocanachi. So we are able to add the names of Pte Arthur Fraser, Sgt Rudolf Ptacek RAFVR and Henryk Stachura to Louis' list as (say) numbers 21, 22 & 23.
|Further perusal will show that some of the entries refer to agents of the Line or other organisations rather than evading servicemen. Mario Prassinos (27) Ian Garrow (28) guides Juan Castellio (44) and Salvador Aguado (45) "terrorists" Jean Hulzenhauts and Joseph Hantson (46 & 47) Pat O'Leary (51) "secret agents" M Benoit (57) Virginia Hall (61) and Cuisenier (62) and possibly Van den Merret (63) Virginia Hall again (68) Drouet (98) Barnabé (99) René Debrets (107) Josef Mirda (110) 'Jacques' Wattebled (111) Mirda again (145) Jean de La Olla (146) and O'Leary again (147) Norbert Fillerin and d'Astier de la Vigerie.
|From the above it can be seen that whilst some 21 names should not be included as escaper-evaders it is also likely that others have been omitted through not having been entered in Louis' absence, something that happened more as time went on when Louis worked away as a courier. Not that this in any way diminishes Louis' contribution or suggests it is safer to harbour agents rather than evaders but rather the reverse, certainly in the case of the "terrorists" if they were in fact the two Belgian hitmen mentioned in Brome who had their photographs widely distributed to the security forces at the time, or SOE agents like Ben Cowburn or the incredible Virginia Hall. André Simon (103) also an SOE agent, had recently escaped from prison at Chateauroux and was on his way out of the country via the PAO whilst Cowburn (Benoit) was on his way home after tangling with Mathilde Carré - he was parachuted back into France the following April.
|So how many people did use the PAO ?
|A major problem with trying to establish the number of people who used the Line is in deciding just what dates to use as cut-off points. Whilst it seems reasonable to credit Murchie or Garrow with the Line's creation, exactly when could the Line be said to be operating as a recognisable entity? Sometime in late 1940 would appear to be a rough answer but as the Pat Line is best known as running from the north of France perhaps it should start with the first organised party taken south from the Lille area. This will not however exclude those people who used only parts of the Line such as escapers from POW camps in Germany and Italy who made it to Switzerland, like Michael Duncan, Barry O'Sullivan, William Bach, Airey Neave, Hugh Woollatt, John Predergast, Henry Stewart or Anthony Deane-Drummond, later sent from Geneva to join the Line at Marseille, nor Richard Watson who escaped from Fort de Duchere - or of course the thirty Fort de la Revere escapers.
|Garrow was interned at Fort St Jean in October 1940 but by December was working with the organisation run by Murchie and Clayton along with Captain Leslie A Wilkins, Tom Kenny, Donald Caskie and others to get Allied servicemen across the Pyrenees into Spain (where most were arrested and sent to the notorious concentration camp at Miranda del Ebro near Vitoria for varying amounts of time) or out by ship to North Africa (not always the quickest way home either - many men who got to North Africa in late 1940 were imprisoned by the French in Algeria until the end of 1942). Also in December at least one "conducted party" of servicemen (incl. St Valery escapers Pte D Bain and Cpl D Hepworth, and Gnr L C Chandler from Dunkirk) left Lille with a French guide who got them safely to Marseille - where they were interned and sent to Fort St Jean. In early January 1941, all prisoners at Fort St Jean were transferred to St Hippolyte du Fort after which Garrow, working as their liaison with Marseille, went underground with the help of Henri Fiocca and later moved to the Rodocanachi apartment. By the end of the month the Line was organising guides for the routes across the Pyrenees with Donald Darling's friend Michael Pareyre (Stylo Parker) in Perpignan and had established contact with British officials in Madrid and Barcelona - they had also been introduced to Louis Nouveau. February saw some of the first indications of a regular route from the north being established via Paris and Tours with parties being delivered to Caskie's Mission and put in touch with Murchie rather than simply surrendering to the French authorities for internment.
|When Pte James Smith (see Couriers page) arrived in Marseille Garrow was able to tie together the two ends of this Line. Smith had been captured at St Valery, escaped in Belgium, come down with a party from Lille in the January and been arrested shortly after crossing the demarcation line near Tours. He escaped at Nimes with L/Cpl G Evenden whilst en route to St Hippolyte and returned to Lille to warn his friends there that their Line was insecure. In early May Smith arrived Marseille in the company of Harold 'Paul' Cole who had been visiting the city since February after being introduced to Charles Murchie by Roland Lepers. Cole was based in Lille where he had been rounding up stray servicemen. Cole and Smith escorted escapers Dvr R McLelland and Pte Edwin Street to Marseille and Smith was recruited by Garrow to return once more to Lille to organise and escort more parties coming south.
|Equally difficult is to choose a closing date. Many people claim that the Line continued to the end of the war through the work of Marie-Louise (Françoise) Dissard in Toulouse. When the Germans entered Marseille on 12 November 1942 they made operations from there almost untenable, forcing O'Leary to move his headquarters to Toulouse and preventing any further sea evacuations.
|1942 saw sweeping changes in the way the Line operated with new personnel being recruited, prison breakouts and sea evacuations organised, and with London taking an active role in the Line's activities. In February, O'Leary began using a group Spanish guides in Toulouse, run by Francisco Ponzan-Vidal, to get him across the Pyrenees. He was driven from Barcelona to Gibraltar to meet with James Langley who flew out from London, and Donald Darling who was newly transferred from Lisbon. Mario Prassinos was in charge of the Line in O'Leary's absence with Jean de La Olla responsible for rebuilding the northern network following a wave of arrests in Lille and Paris. Also, in March 1942 the two hundred and thirty-nine (Detachment W) inmates at St Hippolyte were transferred to the more secure Fort de la Rivere at la Turbie in the hills above Nice.
|O'Leary returned to France on 18 April 1942, landed at Canet Plage from HMS Tarana along with Drouet, the Line's first radio operator, who had been especially trained in England. Unfortunately Drouet did not work out and he was replaced by Alex Nitelet (see Article) who was landed near Issoudin on 28 May by Lysander. The aircraft bogged down on landing and the pilot, John Mott (who had already been shot down once and returned to England in 1941) was captured. Mott escaped again in 1943 by jumping from an Italian train whilst being transferred to Germany. Nitelet was a one-eyed Belgian ex-fighter pilot who had been shot down and injured over the Pas de Calais the previous year. He was returned on the Pat Line along with George Barclay and the Line's first American, Eagle Squadron pilot Oscar Coen, in Cole's last delivery to Marseille (see Article). Nitelet brought details of a sea evacuation planned from Port Miou in June and O'Leary took this opportunity to return Drouet on the Polish crewed HMS Seawolf. This was the first of several sea evacuations that were to include escaper evaders as well as agents and Polish personnel from France, and for which radio communication was essential.
|Alex Nitelet and a locally recruited operator Roger Gaston, sent regular radio traffic from the Rodocanachi apartment and two other rented addresses in Marseille until Nitelet was arrested in August along with Gaston Negre, Pierre Lanvers and a local café owner called Charles following a parachute reception near Nimes, and Roger Gaston arrested in September after being detected (Roger Gaston was deported to Germany and was liberated from Dachau in 1944 - he died in 1991). Fortunately O'Leary was able to secure the services of Philippe Valat - BCRA radio operator for Edmond Salles - for the two big evacuations from Canet Plage. Valat was arrested in Marseille just days before Operation ROSALIND (see Article). At the beginning of November, Tom Groome was landed at Port Miou from HMS Seadog and he also transmitted from the Rodocanachi flat in Marseille, from Paul and Melda Ulmann's home in Toulouse and from Charles and Pat Cheramy's house in Montauban until he, his courier Danielle 'Eddie' Reddé, and the Cheramys were arrested on 11 January 43.
|In October 42, being temporarily without radio contact, O'Leary went to Switzerland to communicate direct with London through Victor Farrel, the British Consul in Geneva. Whilst he was there, Farrel asked O'Leary to evacuate a particularly valuable and tough young intelligence agent named Fabien de Cortes from Lyon. Fabien then offered to work for the Line until his departure. When O'Leary returned to Marseille in November he found everything had changed again following the German's occupation of the previously non-occupied part of France. Louis Nouveau and Mario Prassinos were too well known to continue there so Mario left for England via the Pyrenees whilst Louis moved to Paris leaving Robert Leycuras (Albert) in charge of the Marseille area, along with Fabien de Cortes. In July of that year Alex Wattebled (Jacques) and Francis Blanchain (Achille - soon to leave for England himself) had been introduced by Paul Ulmann to Marie-Louise Françoise Dissard and Mifouf in Toulouse and now O'Leary set up his new headquarters there while Stanilas (Ourson) and Augustine (Oursonne) Mongelard continued to house evading servicemen at the Hotel de Paris (see Article).
|The German occupation of the former ZNO also prompted O'Leary and Françoise to try and rescue Ian Garrow from Mauzac before he could be transferred to Germany, and almost certain death. Mauzac concentration camp, on the Dordogne river, was used by the French and Germans as a transit camp for resistance workers and collaborators. This complicated operation was carried out on 8 December with the help of Nancy Fiocca, who had supported Garrow throughout his imprisonment, Paul Ulmann, who supplied Garrow's counterfeit prison-guard uniform, and Jean Bregi who drove Garrow and O'Leary away to his home at Lunas les Bergerac. After three weeks with Françoise Dissard, Garrow and Alex Nitelet (who had been 'released' from Chambaran the previous November) were taken across the Pyrenees to the British Consulate in Barcelona at the end of January.
|In February 1943, O'Leary and Françoise organised another prison break - this time from Castres, about 65 kms east of Toulouse, where Gaston Negre, Pierre Lanvers and Charles, from the parachute drop, and radio operator Philippe Valat were held along with a couple of evading airmen. They were quickly dispersed to safe houses in Toulouse and Marseille.
|The End of the Line
|On 12 February 1943, Louis Nouveau and Suzanne Gerard were arrested at St Pierre des Corps whilst bringing five US airmen from the B-17 42-24584 SUSFU, shot down over Brittany in January, from Paris to cross the demarcation line near Tours. Unknown to O'Leary, they had been betrayed by their courier Roger Leneveu - aka Roger le Legionnaire. Two weeks later Leneveu arrived in Toulouse and arranged to meet O'Leary and Paul Ulmann at the Super Bar café where they were promptly arrested by the Gestapo. The arrests of Fabien de Cortes, Alex Bensi, the Martin family and many others soon followed. Within weeks Henri Fiocca (Nancy's husband who had financed much of the Line's activities) was also arrested - he died two months later at St Pierre prison in Marseille.
|After the arrests of the Cheramys and Tom Groome in January, of Louis Nouveau, Georges Rodocanachi, Stanislas and Augustine Mongelard in February, and of Pat O'Leary, Paul Ulmann, Fabien de Cortes, Alex Wattebled, Jean de La Olla, Norbert Fillerin, Constantin Dimpoglou and Henri and Alexandrine Dijon (of the Petit Poucet) in early March, the Pat Line was effectively broken.
|The last evaders who can be credited entirely to the Pat Line were Sgt Robert Kidd (1207) 2/Lt Grady Roper (#27) and T/Sgt Miles Jones (#29) (see Article) who accompanied Nancy Fiocca, Danielle Reddé, Renée Nouveau and Philippe Valat across the mountains to Spain at the end of March. However, I would suggest setting the effective ending of the PAO as 22 April 1943 when Françoise Dissard sent T/Sgt Arthur Cox Jnr (#47) across the Pyrenees with Robert Leycuras, Edmond Coté and Georges Zarifi (nephew of Georges and Fanny Rodocanachi). From that point on I prefer to call the line "Françoise" in honour of the redoubtable Marie-Louise Dissard, who maintained it so successfully until the end of the war.
|A major source of information has been the MI9 debriefs of returning servicemen held in the National Archives at Kew and the MIS-X records in the US National Archives in Maryland. They vary in usefulness, some are extremely brief and others quite verbose but a major source of confusion are dates that can vary in accuracy - two men travelling together may provide quite different dates for their arrival at any given point. Another problem can be the originator's sense of security, he may have been unwilling to provide the names of his helpers fearing any security breach could bring reprisals against people who risked more than just their lives for a stranger. Separate appendices were raised to detail names and addresses of helpers but often these are no longer available. Another factor to be considered is the judgement of the interrogating officer - details are included that the originator could not have known at the time showing these are not literal transcripts but rather edited versions - and it is not known what parameters were used to judge relevance.
|Making up groups that travelled together is not as easy as one might suppose. Many men seem quite reluctant to name fellow travellers whilst others only name a few. Airmen in particular seem to remember fellow airmen better than soldiers who they seldom mention at all whilst soldiers often name airmen in their parties but not necessarily fellow soldiers unless from their own regiments. Many also give the impression of having travelled alone when in fact they were in the company of others. Take the example of Pte Laming who escaped from Frontstalag 142 at Besancon in October 1940 and made his way to Marseille apparently alone when later and even briefer accounts from Dvr Jackson - whose entire report reads "My escape, after capture at Besancon on 18 June was made in company with Pte Laming with whom I subsequently reached Spain from where I was repatriated." - and L/Cpl Cope whose journey was "in the company of Pte Laming" and Pte Maybank whose escape was "similar to that of Pte Laming whom I accompanied". Then we find Pte Wight who also escaped with Laming and Cope plus Sgt Newell and then Pte Borst who describes the exact same story, then Gnr Barham who says he escaped with Borst and Maybank plus Cpl Fox. In fact Gordon Laming escaped that afternoon with just three others (see Article).
|In the case of memoirs, the older the book the more security conscience the writer tends to have been but over time memories fade and so more recent publications cannot necessarily be relied upon either. Some books are of course better researched than others but the date of research still has bearing on the availability of relevant information. Perhaps George Barclay's book "Fighter Pilot" is the best example of a combination of original, contemporary writings combined with thorough research by an editor who really got to know his subject and since Barclay's experiences in France were often so similar to my father's well documented ones I feel qualified to compliment Humphrey Wynn on his excellent account.
|As time went on the amount of detail included in the debriefs was often reduced and so their usefulness to a researcher looking for escape details tends to diminish as more reports end like that of Sgt W H Mills in mid 1942 with "from St Etienne I was helped through to Gibraltar" and only (perhaps) Louis Nouveau's records or a mention by another evader left to provide a clue. This made discovering details of the 1942 sea evacuations particularly difficult - not helped by Darling, Langley and Neave only naming Operation BLUEBOTTLE (see Article) and inferring that all evacuations were carried out by HMS Tarana when the most successful evacuations were Operations TITANIA and ROSALIND (see Article) which were carried out by Seawolf. However with a resurgence of interest in this field, more detail is slowly emerging from private memoirs and interviews with the survivors as well as newly released government papers on both sides of the Atlantic.
|I want to thank Derek Richardson, Michael Moores LeBlanc, Sherri Ottis and Philippe Goldstein for sharing some of the key information mentioned above.
|Readers may have noted that much of my research is directed at the servicemen who used the Line rather than those who worked on it. This is unfortunate because there were so many brave and resourceful people who contributed, many of whom paid heavily for their commitment but so far as I'm aware, the only files on helpers are held at the US National Archives (NARA) in Maryland and I am limited in the resources at my disposal. For every person named above there were a hundred, and perhaps many more, men and women from every walk of life who risked everything. I do have a totally inadequate list of some of the people who worked the Line and would welcome any further contributions. It should also be noted that Allied servicemen only made up a small proportion of those helped out of Occupied France - a typical list of people guided across the Pyrenees in 1941/42 shows servicemen making less than five per cent of the total.