Escape networks

How railroad worker Jacques Kapell crossed over into the unoccupied zone:

”I was taken prisoner in June 1940 but released on 10 September because I was from Lorraine.

I was thoroughly convinced that the only reason they let me go was to draft me into the German army later. First I went to Knutange, near Thionville in Moselle, but in my mind the idea grew to cross the new border and the demarcation line as soon as possible in order to escape from the Germans.

I left on Sunday, 2 March 1941. I packed some clothes, my father gave me what little French money he still had and that was very hard to obtain. I walked two hours before two German soldiers stopped me.

I told them that the Wendel factory in Hayange had sent me to the one in Moyeuvre and that I had missed my connecting train in Hagondange, that a kind man had driven me to Mallencourt and that he had shown me the way to Moyeuvre, saying that it was only a 15-minute walk.

One of the soldiers was very suspicious and kept on asking me questions, hoping that I would contradict myself. At a curve in the forest, the least suspicious one said to me, ‘See that little path? That’s the one taken by people who want to cross over to the other side, but we have our eyes on it and nobody’s ever been able to succeed.’

Three hundred meters from Moyeuvre they turned around and resumed their patrolling. A few minutes later I turned around and, sometimes crawling, sometimes bending over, took that little path until finding myself in Joeuf, where I spent the night at the hotel at the railway station. The next day I went to the town hall, where I was able to have them issue me an identity card, changing my last name from Kapell to Capelle, born and living in Joeuf.

In the afternoon, after the hotel-keeper gave me some food tickets, I headed for the Jura. Along the way I met a young men who, like me, wanted to cross over into the free zone. We boarded a bus in Besançon, got off at the next stop and walked into a café across the street from the bus stop. The owner stared at us. Half an hour after we had sat down at the table a man walked in and told us that the Germans had searched the bus and taken away all the young men inside.

My companions and I exchanged worried looks, which must have been obvious. The café owner, who was observing us, called us and offered to hide us in a shed.

At sunset a man came for us and led us through fields to a house outside the village.

The next morning I saw the smuggler that had been pointed out to me. He advised me to wait because we had to ford a river, which for the moment had crested.

On the third day the smuggler gathered us together. There were 10 or 12 of us, including two escaped prisoners.

We left at midnight. We walked for two hours before coming upon woods surrounded by a horseshoe-shaped road where the Germans were patrolling. Fifty meters from the woods the smuggler said, ‘This is the first road you have to cross. Then you’ll enter the woods and take the little path that will lead you to a stream you’ll have to cross. Then you’ll reach the other road.’ After that, he left us.

Crossing the stream was very hard. We were up to our waists in water and the current was very strong. We had to help a little boy who was accompanying his father. Half an hour later we crossed the second road and at around seven o’clock in the morning reached a little village where we went our separate ways. I headed for Lyon. On 2 April 1941 I set out for North Africa, exactly one month after leaving home. Two months later we were advised that there were no more departures for Africa. We were therefore liberated.”

Jacques Kapelle in Les cheminots dans la bataille du rail, Maurice CHOURY, Librairie Académique Perrin, 1970


Crossing over into Spain

Maurice de Cheveigné joined Free France via Spain:

“Three Scotsmen who escaped from the 51st Highland Division, which the Germans had cornered at Saint-Valéry-en-Caux, showed up at the Perpignan intake centre. I’m the one they asked how to cross over into Spain because I can speak English.

We left together. Our goal: the British consulate in Barcelona. On 5 September 1940 we took the train to Banyuls. The map showed us which road went south. It climbed the mountain and turned into a dirt road. Daybreak was ice cold. We could gradually catch a glimpse of Spain as the sun came up. There was no road but switchback trails formed by the trampling of sheep’s hooves. Around one turn a patrol of ragged soldiers politely picked us up.

There were two Civil Guards in the village. They gave us something to eat and drink. But for the night they locked us up in a calabozo, a little shed in the village square used as a hiding place.

In the morning a bus was waiting to take us to Figueras escorted by the Civil Guards. They put us in a cell for the night. Most of the prisoners were from the French army.

On Saturday the 14th we were moved. Escorted by soldiers, we climbed up to Castillo, a war-scarred fort overlooking Figueras. They put us in the cells of the casemates that were still standing.

Cattle cars were waiting for us at the Figueras railway station. The train stopped for a long time at the Barcelona marshalling yard in the middle of the night. Then they put us on another train to Cervera. A week went by.

Zaragoza. A huge modern prison that was even more crowded than the other ones.

The next day a similar train and a new group of Civil Guards dropped us off  in Miranda de Ebro at six o’clock in the evening. There was a labour camp there guarded by soldiers.

They shaved our heads and put us in wooden barracks. We slept on the floor wrapped up in thin, dirty blankets. There were lice. It often rained. The food went from bad to worse. There was more and more water and fewer and fewer vegetables in the soup.

Every morning and night we had to attend roll call and the flag ceremony outside, to the shouts of ‘Arriba Espana! Arriba Franco!’ We had to work. On the morning of day four I came down with a fever, terrible chills and a sharp pain on my right side  as though somebody were putting a knife through my lower ribcage. I couldn’t breathe. Infirmary. Doctor. Diagnosis: pleurisy. Three weeks in bed. The fever eventually went down.

And then one day they moved me to the Hospital Militar Disciplinario de Pamplona, a prison hospital. On 4 December the Guardia Civil came to fetch me. I bid emotional farewells to my Spanish friends and to Marcel Moschos [a young Frenchman who had been badly beaten after attempting to escape].

That night I found myself back in Zaragoza prison. Four days later they called my name at last. My guards took me to Puerta del Sol, where the Seguridad General was.

On 17 December 1940 I was in the plush setting of His British Majesty’s embassy! Christmas dinner. Holly, mistletoe, Christmas pudding, oranges, tangerines, cakes… Around 20 former inmates of the Generalissimo’s jails were around the table.

Twenty-four hours later I arrived at the Algéciras railway station. Then I took a bus to the border with Gibraltar.

On 5 January 1941 I boarded the HMS Argus, an aircraft carrier. To avoid submarines, the convoy made a wide detour in the Atlantic.

On 15 January 1941 the convoy made a majestic entrance into the Clyde. The foreigners were grouped together, taken to the Glasgow railway station and put on a night train to London.

The Royal Victorian Patriotic School for Young Ladies, which had been requisitioned and turned into a sorting centre, welcomed us. Military Intelligence courteously looked me over every which way, asked me everything I knew, what I saw, who I was. Then its ‘Free France’ equivalent did the same.

Major Churchill-Longman asked me if I wanted to join the English or the French. The composure, resolution, coherence – and humor! – of the British nation made them a desirable team. But I was a romantic and let the label Free French win me over: French and free, that sounded good to me.”

Maurice de Cheveigné in Radio Libre