F/Sgt Walter William Drechsler (1093)

This page first posted 15 May 2024 - amended 19 May 2024
F/Sgt Walter William Drechsler (born 14 June 1918), a student from Saskatchewan in Canada, was the bombardier (bomb aimer) of 150 Sqn Wellington BJ877 (Randle) which was returning from Essen in the early hours of 17 September 1942 when they were hit by flak, and Randle ordered his crew to bale out.
Sgt William Randle (936), rear gunner Sgt Robert Frost (937), Sgt Dalton Mounts RCAF (938) (an American pilot travelling as a passenger) and navigator/observer Sgt William Brazill (1014) all evaded successfully via the Belgian Comete line, with only wireless operator Sgt Norman Graham being captured.
Drechsler was the first to leave the aircraft, and he landed in a market garden about 10 miles north of Louvain (Belgium). He abandoned his parachute and Mae West in the garden, and set off in battledress and the bedroom slippers he had been wearing under his flying boots. He walked across country, and by early morning had reached the outskirts of Lubbeek, about 5 miles east of Louvain, where he met two Belgians who were out shooting. Drechsler didn't speak any French, and they quickly realised he was an RAF airman and brought him civilian trousers, sweater and shoes, with Drechsler just keeping his blue RAF shirt, before directing him towards Louvain. Whilst walking along the main road, Drechsler was stopped by a passing cyclist who realised he was English (sic), took the airman to his home, gave him a meal, and put him on a train to Brussels.
Drechsler reached Brussels at about four o'clock that afternoon. He says he got off at the wrong place but met a Belgian ex-officer who told him that if he came back to same square at ten o'clock that night, he would help him. Despite waiting in the square until midnight, the man didn't show up, and so Drechsler asked a well-dressed civilian for help. The man took Drechsler back to his house on the outskirts of the city, and let Drechsler sleep there until the following afternoon. He also gave Drechsler a suit, hat and scarf, a satchel of food and a railway ticket to Mons. He then took Drechsler to the station, put him on a train for Mons, and told the other people in the compartment that Drechsler was a deaf mute.
From Mons, Drechsler took a train to Dour (about 10 miles south-west of Mons) and started walking. His lack of French meant he was unable to ask for directions but he managed to cross into France (on 19 September) unaided. He walked to Avesnes (Avesnes-sur-Helpe), and then to La Capelle (La Capelle-en-Thiérache), where he took a train for Hirson.
When Drechsler was stopped by a French customs officer at Hirson station, he showed him a letter from his helper in Brussels stating that he was English, and asking all true Frenchmen to help him. In response, the officer took Drechsler back to his house, where Drechsler stayed the night. The officer also gave him food, new shoes, a suitcase and 500 francs, and advised Drechsler to go to Rheims (Reims). Drechsler spent the next two days walking to Rheims, and on failing to find any help there, continued along the road through Epernay to Fère-Champenoise, then Arcis-sur-Aube, at which point he began taking short cuts through fields and by-roads. By the time he was somewhere east of Troyes and west of Bar-sur-Seine, he was getting sick through lack of food and the effects of sleeping rough, and managed to find shelter on a farm where he slept overnight and all next day in their barn.
Drechsler continued to Montbard (south of Troyes), and then west of Arnay-le-Duc and past Chagny to the east, to cross the demarcation line “where it runs along the highway south of the Foret de Givry” (south-west of Chalon-sur-Saone). He then carried on through the Foret de la Ferté to Martailly-les-Brancion (Saone-et-Loire), where he was sheltered in a cafe for 17 days.
Drechsler says that the morning after he arrived, his host brought a friend who was a member of a De Gaullist organisation, and the friend was able to put him in touch with a doctor who was helping an escape organisation in Lyon. On about 30 October, Drechsler was taken by train, with a delay in an unnamed village for four days, to Lyon, where he arrived on about 3 November 1942. The intention had been to take Drechsler to the US Consulate but he says this was abandoned when the US broke off relations with Vichy following Operation Torch, the Allied landings in North Africa on 8 November.
Drechsler stayed in Lyon for six weeks, living with a postal official named Eugene Denis (at 74 Boulevard des Brotteaux), whose son (Henri) was trying to help Drechsler. He was visited by a Jewish doctor called John (this was Doctor Jean Rousset, a close contact and trusted friend of SOE agent Virginia Hall) who eventually put him in touch with a French group that Drechsler names as the “Jeannine Vocabule group”, which was breaking up and leaving France.
It was the middle of December when Jeannine took Drechsler by train to Marseille, where they met Milo Poison, who took Drechsler to Perpignan, where they stayed with relations of his. Two days later, they all went to Toulouse where Drechsler met the rest of the group, and stayed three days in a small hotel (not the Hotel de Paris).
Drechsler names the group members (as far as he could remember for his 1 March 1943 interview with MI9) as Jeannine (now in UK), Poison (in Spain), Blesse Wayle (a Jew from Alsace, now at Gibraltar), Mark O'Reilly (in Spain), Jean Franc (at Gibraltar) and Marcel (at Gibraltar), and says that while they were at the hotel they were joined by a Belgian girl and two Frenchmen. It was the morning of Christmas Day when they left Toulouse by train to Tarascon-sur-Ariége, from where guides paid by the group, took them to Andorra.
"Jeannine” was Gabrielle Cecile Martinez Picabia (born 29 June 1913) aka Gloria aka Jeannine, and the others, with the exception of Harry Hemet (or Hemmet) and his unnamed Legionaire friend, were all members of the S.M.H./Gloria organisation, of which Mlle Picabia was co-founder along with Jacques Legrand (aka S.M.H.) who had been arrested in Paris, probably on 15 August 1942.
“Milo Poison” was H Loisin (aka Raymond); “Blesse Wayle” was Philip Weil (aka Blaise); “Mark O'Reilly” was George Bailly; “Jean Franc” was Andre Frank (aka Julien); “Marcel” was Andre Le Tensorer; and the Belgian girl was Emily Delcomb (aka Eleanor). For some reason, Drechsler doesn't mention Jean Le Gad (aka Olivier) who was also in the party with him.
Note the spelling of these names (and their variations) is from file KV2/1312 Picabia and cannot be guaranteed: “Philip Weil” for example was (according to RPS file WO 208/3698/70) Philippe Weyl (born 3 Aug 1922) who arrived in the UK on 15 Mar 1943. Other spellings found in the file include Franck rather than Frank, Le Tansorere or Le Tansoreur rather than Tensorer, and Legad rather Le Gad ..
Sonia Purcell's excellent 2019 book “A Woman of No Importance”, about Virginia Hall, mentions her links to Gabrielle and the WOL intelligence circuit in Paris - Miss Hall had changed the name of the S.M.H./Gloria organisation to “W.O.L.” in July 1942 because she considered “S.M.H.” to be compromised.
“WOL, one of the most active circuits in Paris, was another part of Virginia's kingdom. Since its radio operator had been arrested in March, it had been bringing her vital intelligence on German coastal defences to transmit to London. The information was of such quality she had been authorised to pay a hundred thousand francs a month in expenses to the joint circuit chief Jacques Legrand .. even though WOL was not part of SOE - although it was backed by MI6, and Legrand himself had once worked for Sylvain [SOE agent Pierre de Vomécourt aka Lucas]. Virginia had also taken comfort from the fact that its other joint chief was Gabrielle Picabia, who had served with her in the French ambulance corps in 1940.”
Unfortunately it was the infiltration of WOL by Abwehr agent Abbe Robert Alesch that allowed him access to Virginia Hall and her friends in Lyon, and while most of WOL was destroyed (following the arrest of Jacques Legrand, and a notebook with names and addresses found in his possession), it was the Allied landings in North Africa on 8 November 1942 that finally persuaded Miss Hall to leave without further delay. She crossed the Pyrenees to Spain later that month, using (according to Purcell, and I have no reason to dispute this) a particularly tough route south from Villefranche-de-Conflent, skirting the Canigou Massif, to San Juan de las Abadesas.
Drechsler's MI9 report tells us very little about his crossing of the Pyrenees but in file KV2/1312, Gabrielle Picabia describes it in great detail.
“As we had no instructions and no money, we decided to leave France about November 1942, and I went to get Frs. 20,000 in Lyon.
O'Reilly went to the Pyrenees to see a Padre in Angoustrine [Angoustrine-Villeneuve-des-Escaldes, about 5 kms from the Spanish border] who used to help people to cross the frontier. He had got the address of this Padre from a Padre in Lyon who was able to visit Aron every day in prison [Jean Aron, assistant to Philippe de Vomécourt (Gauthier), had been arrested in October]. When O'Reilly got to Angoustrine, he found that this Padre could not help any more. A young Belgian called Emily Delcomb (working name Eleanor) from the Belgian service who had to leave Belgium and had come to help the Padre in Angoustrine told O'Reilly that nothing could be done and that she herself had to hide because of the Gestapo. O'Reilly promised to help her also if he found a way.
Then O'Reilly got in touch with somebody in Marseilles who told him that he might find a guide in a little village of the Pyrenees Orientales, Tarascon sur Ariege. So he went there and managed to make arrangements with a very nice young Frenchman who was a Communist and who told him that he would find guides for us, he himself also being a guide.
The arrangement was settled about December 15th, 1942. Just before I had met in Marseilles a friend of my brother, called Harry Hemet who had been working for the American Information service in Marseilles and who asked me if he could join us. He had a young friend, a Legionaire who wanted to join his regiment in Africa and who also wanted to come.
We all: Eleanor, Olivier, Julien, Blaise, Raymond, Marcel, Harry Hemet, the Legionaire and myself met in Toulouse on December 23rd waiting for O'Reilly to tell us when to start. We left Toulouse by train on Xmas Day at 4 a.m. and reached Tarascon by 8 a.m. without any difficulty. This morning train was never searched by either the French or the Germans.
In Tarascon we had to wait until 6 p.m. O'Reilly and I went to see the guide to settle everything with him. They wanted to charge us Frs 15,000 per person but as we explained our situation they did not want to take anything from us. However, we gave them altogether Frs 15,000 finally which left us with 2 Louis d'ors, each worth Frs 5000, which came from Julien's aunt.
Our itinerary was: Tarascon sur Ariege to Andorre through El Port de Siguer, crossing the valley of Andorre to St Julien [Sant Julia de Loria] where we would find a Spanish guide to cross the Spanish frontier and then on to Seo de Urgel [Seu d'Urgell] where we had to take a bus to Barcelona in the morning which was never searched.
We started at 6 p.m. with the first guide. Before beginning the climb we had 10 km to walk along a road. We passed the first German and French sentries on the road very easily because it was Xmas Day and we had split up into twos. We had food and spirits with us and 1 kilo of sugar each.
Then we met the second guide at 9.30 p.m. later than had been arranged as we had lost our way. Instead of having two hours rest we had to start immediately.
That guide got a great shock when he saw two women in the party and therefore did not take us the short cut where we would have had to climb immediately up to the mountain top and walk along the crest, but took us through the valley past the German customs house without any difficulty and then we began to climb. By that time it must have been about 11 p.m. They made us walk exceedingly fast as they thought the Germans might see our foot-steps in the snow and follow us with dogs.
We asked the guide if we would have to climb the whole night but he was very reassuring. After we had climbed about two hours, the Legionaire began to faint and could not go on. Drechsler [the first time he is mentioned] was marvellous helping to carry the Legionaire. We had had no food since lunchtime so we stopped for 10 minutes to eat and drink.
Then we started again and as the Legionaire could not go on, the guide decided to leave him in a little cave with food and drink, matches etc. and the guides were going to take him back the next day when they returned.
We again climbed for 2 or 3 hours and then reached the first little refuge, a shepherd's hut, where we could rest for 10 minutes. Everybody was all right but I was very tired and had to be helped by two of the boys.
When we were going to start again the Legionaire appeared and he seemed to be better that any of us. We went on. The snow was beginning to be deeper but it was not difficult to walk. When we had walked for quarter of an hour, Eleanor suddenly fainted and also Olivier. We revived them and the guide carried her for 5 hours and Marcel helped Olivier.
We reached the second refuge about 8 a.m. There we rested for an hour, having to nurse Eleanor. After that she was quite well and could walk by herself.
We reached El Port de Siguier by midday. It was the frontier to Andorre. Just before we got there, Drechsler hurt his knee and we had to bandage it up. The Legionaire was not going at all well and was behind with Harry Hemet. So we waited for them and I think it was there that some of the boys got frozen feet.
The guides had left us, they had been wonderful to us. At El Port de Siguier we expected to meet a Spanish guide but he never came and the French guides had explained to us the way to reach the village about 9 km away and to go to the first farm. We went down on our own and reached the village by 5 p.m. We met nobody whatsoever.
About 4 or 5 km before reaching the village, the Legionaire died. We left him and went on to the village where we asked a young farmer for shelter for the night and also asked him to go and fetch the body of the Legionaire, but he did not want to do it. We were much too tired to do it ourselves. Olivier's feet were badly frozen, also Eleanor's. The other ones had only small frost bites on their toes.
We spent the night at the first village, Cerrat [El Serrat] and went on walking the next day to Ordino. O'Reilly and I left first as we wanted to see what we could do for the injured people. The others were to come slowly after us with Raymond and Hemet. I think Blaise gave Francs 1000 to the farmer to fetch the body of the Legionaire, but I don't think the farmer ever did.
In Ordino where O'Reilly and I got first, we found an auberge called Casa Quim where we decided to leave the injured people and where we decided to spend the night before going on. In the Casa Quim we met a Frenchman who had been there two weeks with frozen feet.
We stayed at the Casa Quim for some days, everybody's feet being rather bad. The Andorran police came to see us twice and wanted an explanation about the body of the Legionaire and two of us and 12 boys from the village had to go with the police to get it. But the body could not be found as it had been snowing pretty heavily. The chief of police was very nice and said that all the injured people could stay as long as it was necessary for them, but the others had to go.
The day after our arrival here, Drechsler sent a letter by a guide to the British Consulate in Barcelona asking for help for all of us. The guide came back saying that he had orders to tell us that the Consul could only do something when we reached Barcelona. So I decided to start alone with a guide we had found, on January 8th. He wanted 3000 Pesetas. As we did not have the money we deposited our watches and jewellery as a guarantee that he would get it. We told the guide he would be paid in Barcelona and we were then going to get our belongings back again.
I crossed the Spanish frontier on the 8th of January near St Julien on the main road about midnight without difficulties. We passed behind the customs houses and had to walk to Seo de Urgel from where there was a bus at 6 a.m. We reached the town about 5 a.m. I took the bus and the guide decided to come with me to get his money. We had no difficulties at all and I reached Barcelona by 2 p.m. As the Consulate was shut I had to wait until 4.30 p.m.
When I went back to the Consulate I was received by a young lady who was at first very nice to me and arranged everything for me to be all right with the Spanish police and told me to come back next day to talk about the guide and my companions. I stayed in a pension to which she sent me.
When I came back the next day she was not so nice and said she could do nothing for my companions. She would send a guide for Drechsler, but as for my companions they would have to go to Miranda. I was very surprised by her attitude and told her I did not think this was fair. I could not see the Consul. Then she decided to send a guide for all of them. I gave the address and she said that all the watches and jewels we had deposited would be sent to us through the diplomatic bag. She said that she would send the money for my guide to Andorra through guide she was sending. She was going to send this guide very quickly. She gave me 100 Pesetas for pocket money and 100 Pesetas to buy a pair of shoes.
After 4 days I left for Madrid. I immediately went to the British Embassy and asked to see Mr. Creswell [Michael Cresswell aka Monday] who was not there. So I saw Mr Hanky [Henry Hankey] who introduced me to a Frenchman called M. Brett. I told him my story and said I had to wait for Mr Creswell. He gave me some money. I finally saw Mr Creswell a week later. I explained to him all that had happened and he said he would do his best for my friends as soon as he knew what had become of them, which he did.
Meanwhile I heard the following things had happened to my companions:
Olivier, Eleanor and the Frenchman we found at the Casa Quim went to hospital in Seo de Urgel two days after I had left.
A week later, no guide having come, O'Reilly decided that Julien, Hemet and Marcel should go on by themselves as their feet were all right. They crossed the frontier and in Seo de Urgel were arrested by the police who was nice and sent them to the Hospital.
Five days after this, some man telephoned the Casa Quim from Andorra asking one of the people to come there.
Blaise and O'Reilly went to see what it was all about and they found a man who told them that he was sent from Barcelona. He asked for Drechsler and as he said they would have to leave immediately, O'Reilly telephoned Drechsler to come. So these three went on with the man, but Raymond was left behind in the Casa Quim as hostage because nothing had been paid there.
O'Reilly, Blaise and Drechsler, after having crossed the frontier into Spain easily, were caught in a farm house and they think someone in St Julien gave them away. They were sent to prison in Seo de Urgel. I think they stayed there 4 or 5 days.
Finally Julien, Hemet, Marcel, Blaise, O'Reilly and Drechsler went to prison in Lerida where they stayed three weeks. Mr Creswell, knowing they were in Lerida, did his best for them to get them out and succeeded, but O'Reilly had to stay a few days longer in prison as there was some confusion about his name.
The five of them (without O'Reilly) came to Madrid where I met them and heard the story. We were told that O'Reilly was released a few days later and went to Barcelona where he still was when I left Lisbon, waiting to come to England.
Raymond, who had been left as a hostage at the Casa Quim, finally got fed up and left clandestinely one night by a window and came to Barcelona with the help of a very nice peasant. This peasant gave Raymond his watch back and promised to hold the other things for me until he was paid back. So they are still with him. Raymond was in Madrid when I left, waiting to come to England.
Hemet, Blaise, Julien, Marcel and Drechsler went to Gibraltar. I have been told by Mr Green that they are on their way to England.
Note: The Frenchman we picked up in the Casa Quim is still with Emily Delcomb and Jean Le Gad in hospital. Jean Le Gad had to have part of one foot amputated as all the toes and part of the foot was frozen. Emily had a big toe amputated and the Frenchman had all his toes on both feet amputated.”
Captain John Mair (SIS) commented in his report of 23 March 1943, that Gloria's escape route was known to them, and having checked, found still to be in use during January and February (1943) and had not, so far as they knew, been compromised.
“We stayed 24 days in a hotel at Ordino, and eventually got in touch with the British Consulate in Barcelona. On instructions from the Consulate, I left for Spain with three of the party and guides. We did not reach our destination in Spain before daybreak, largely owing to the fact that I could only walk slowly because I had injured my leg in helping one of the girls in the party whilst crossing the mountains into Andorra. We were seen by Civil Guards and arrested (about 25 Jan 43)” (WO 208/5582 1093 Drechsler)
Drechsler confirms that he and his companions were arrested at Seu d'Urgell, where he was held in prison for three days. From there he was sent to Lerida where he stayed for 17 days in very poor conditions. Drechsler was released on 12 February and taken to Madrid, where he stayed a further nine days before being taken to Gibraltar on 21 February. Drechsler was flown from Gibraltar to Portreath in Cornwall on 24 February 1943.