Lieutenant-Colonel F. A. A. Blake
National Archives catalogue reference - WO 208/3307/63
REPORT BY LIEUT.COLONEL F. A. A. BLAKE, R.A., MILITARY ATTACHE, BRUSSELS, ON EVENTS SUBSEQUENT TO THE 9TH MAY, 1940, RESULTING IN HIS CAPTURE BY THE GERMAN ARMY, ESCAPE AND HIDING, AND EVENTUAL ARRIVAL AT GIBRALTAR AFTER PASSING THROUGH UNOCCUPIED FRANCE AND FRENCH NORTH AFRICA.
At about 5 a.m. on the 10th May, 1940, heavy anti-aircraft fire, and the sound of bombing from the direction of the Brussels aerodrome announced the commencement of the long expected attack on Belgium.
The Assistant Military Attache, Major McKenzie, and I, proceeded at once to our office, 57 Rue de la Loi, to prepare for the arrival of the British Military Mission to the Belgian Army, and G.H.Q. Advanced Signal Centre, which was part of Plan "D" of which I was in possession of a copy.
At about 10 a.m. Colonel van Canbergh, King Leopold's A.D.C. came to fetch me to guide me to Belgian G.H.Q. which was located in one of the forts at Antwerp.
On arrival there I was much struck with the preparations going on, and the constant traffic passing across the single approach to the fort across a drawbridge over the moat. Furniture and stores were being brought in, telephone lines being laid, and so on. It was clear that the Belgian General Staff had made no special preparations in advance to ensure that their G.H.Q. would be ready to function at a moments notice. It may be suggested perhaps that they considered that the only way to keep the location of their G.H.Q. secret was to confine themselves to pin-pointing it on the map, and leaving all the rest until the actual outbreak of hostilities.
It appeared that the question of accommodation for the British and French Military Missions had only occurred to the Belgian G.S. at the last moment, and what they were allotting for these Missions was of a most miserable and inadequate nature. My general impression on this morning of the 10th May was not at all favourable.
I saw Colonel Neefs, head of the 2nd Bureau, for a few minutes. He was as uncommunicative as usual, and I did not waste much time with him. I had long before decided that in spite of all my efforts to cultivate him he would always be evasive and difficult. On the date in question he had nothing to tell me except that operations were proceeding satisfactorily!
I next saw General van Overstraeten, who struck me as being very nervous. He confessed to me that two very important bridges over the Albert Canal opposite Maastricht had not been destroyed, but he insisted that the destruction of these bridges was imminent and that there was no real danger! He maintained that the Belgian Army in general was holding its own comfortably.
I gained the impression, however, from his manner and speech that the situation was somewhat different; that the Belgians had, in more ways than one, been surprised, and that they were trying to hide this fact from us.
Shortly afterwards I expressed this opinion to Colonel Hautcoeur and Captain Quiénard of the French Military Mission, who both agreed with me.
Before leaving Belgian G.H.Q. I saw General Michiels, Chief of the General Staff who had taken over this appointment from General van den Bergen some two months before, having been G.O.C. 7th Division. I was most unimpressed with him. He was obviously only a figure-head, and it was further quite clear that General van Overstraeten was the virtual Commander-in-Chief. That this would be the case in the event of hostilities had been foreseen long before and reported by me. On my return to Brussels I found that General Needham and the remainder of the British Military Mission had arrived, and were waiting to be guided to Belgian G.H.Q. I carried out this duty myself, introducing General Needham to the principal Belgian Staff Officers. General Needham was good enough to detail one of his officers, Captain Durham, as liaison officer between himself and my office.
In the meantime G.H.Q. Advanced Signal Centre had arrived and had taken over the accommodation already earmarked for them.
For the next few days work was incessant and my personnel had very little rest. The telephone was manned day and night, and my office was continually at the disposal of the C.in C., his C.G.S. and Corps Commanders for conferences.
Admiral-of-the-Fleet, Sir Roger Keyes, arrived on the 11th May and proceeded at once to Belgian Army G.H.Q. for personal liaison with King Leopold. He was provided with a car from the Royal Palace for his sole use during his visit.
On 14th May the C.in C. held a conference, at which were present Generals Pownall, Brooke and Barker and other Staff Officers. I was kindly allowed to remain in the room, and after the conference Lord Gort spoke to me privately for a few minutes.
As a result of what I had heard and been told, I realised the painful truth that although the B.E.F. was well established on the line of the river Dyle, events on our right were such that a withdrawal, including the evacuation of Brussels was imminent.
I informed the Ambassador, Sir Lancelot Oliphant, of the situation as described to me, and advised him to prepare to leave his Embassy at short notice.
Admiral Keyes who had been visiting my office daily, informed me that King Leopold had ordered his Government to remain in Brussels whatever happened, and he, Admiral Keyes, hoped that the British and French Embassies would remain too.
It can only be surmised that the Admiral anticipated the Belgian Government remaining in the capital until the Rear Guards commenced their withdrawal through the town.
On the 15th May, however, the Belgian Govt. announced their intention to proceed to Ostende forthwith, and accordingly the British and French Embassies prepared at once to follow.
The personnel of the Embassies left Brussels at 2 a.m. on the morning of the 16th May in some 15 cars for Ostende. I was allotted the duty of guiding the column by as safe a route as possible, and this I did, avoiding the main highway through Alost and Ghent. The column reached Ostende at about 10 a.m. The rest of the day was spent in making contact with the Belgian Govt. No previous preparations had been made for the move to Ostende and there was considerable chaos in the various offices.
The following day, 17th May, I proceeded to Brussels with Major McKenzie, and two Belgians, van Hogaerden and Gérard, who had been enlisted by Major McKenzie for the Hopkinson Mission. My intention was to acquaint myself with the situation since we had left the capital, as in the back of my mind I did not think it was wise for the Ambassador to prolong his stay at Ostende.
We were unable to enter Brussels as our Rear Guards were already falling back and the bridges were about to be blown. I asked one of the officers of the Royal Engineers at a bridge if he could guarantee me two hours, but he replied that his orders were to blow the bridge when the last man of the Rear Guard had crossed or the enemy arrived, whichever the sooner. As the Rear Guard was then crossing, the available time limit was obviously too short. I tried an alternative route, but this also failed.
It was most gratifying to see the orderliness of the withdrawal, and the quiet and steady bearing of the British troops.
After leaving the outskirts of Brussels the road between Hal and Soignies was shelled. It was clearly unobserved fire, but indicated all the same that the German advance was progressing.
At about 4 p.m. we reached Renaix where Advanced G.H.Q. was now located. I was able to have a few minutes conversation with General Pownall and gave him such information as I had. The C.G.S. spoke about the almost complete lack of situation reports received from the French. He said that their arrangements for liaison were most inadequate. He told me that he knew, however, that the Germans had effected a crossing over the river Meuse between Sedan and Dinant, but he did not know in what strength. He considered the situation extremely grave on the French 9th Army front, and feared that a very dangerous situation would arise if the French troops failed to hold the Germans in this sector. He also told me that General Mason-Macfarlane was organising a force to block a possible German advance along the road Cambrai - Arras.
The general situation on the 17th May was thus made perfectly clear to me.
It was late in the evening when I reached the coast and reported to the Ambassador. Early the next morning, the 18th May, I again went to report to the Ambassador. The Belgian Government, British and French Embassies were, however, already moving to La Panne, and I joined them there. Major McKenzie and Van Hogaerden left me to look for the Hopkinson Mission and I saw them once more, namely, on the following day at Bruges. At La Panne all was more or less chaos, and I strongly advised the Ambassador to move, preferably to Le Havre without delay. The refugee traffic had been piling up steadily for several days, and I considered that it would soon become quite out of hand.
Early in the afternoon Monsieur Bargeton, the French Ambassador, requested me, in the absence of the French Military Attaché, to help the Comte de la Chauviniere, 2nd Secretary, to see Monsieur Janson and some other members of the Belgian Government safely across the frontier on their way to Le Havre. In carrying out this duty it became even more clear that the refugee problem was assuming terrific dimensions, and I was further convinced that the respective embassies would be well advised not to delay any longer at La Panne.
On our return to La Panne we gave a brief resume of the situation to the Ambassadors, but they had already decided to proceed to Dunkirk. We arrived at Dunkirk before nightfall and were fortunate in finding accommodation at the Hotel du Chapeau Rouge. That night the enemy selected Dunkirk for its first serious air bombardment, and quite an appreciable amount of damage was done in the barracks and dock area. The next morning, 19th May, I again advised the Ambassador to proceed to Le Havre forthwith. The column of Embassy cars was an encumbrance and I felt that we should be well advised to get the staff established in the locality to which the Belgian Government was proceeding, after which the Ambassador and I would have a freer hand for such further work as would be required in Belgium.
The Ambassador agreed with this reasoning, but decided that he must first telephone to the Foreign Office for instructions. He also knew that Monsieur Bargeton was anxious to return to Belgium for personal reasons, as he stated that there would be no French Embassy accredited to the Belgian Government on French soil and he would therefore lose his appointment.
As a result of the Ambassador's telephone conversation with Lord Halifax, and after talking matters over with Monsieur Bargeton, it was decided that he and Monsieur Bargeton were to return to Bruges, I driving Sir Lancelot, and that the remainder of the British Embassy Staff were to follow the Belgian Government to Le Havre where we were to join them later.
Sir Lancelot accompanied me in my car, and we also took Gerard, the enlisted Belgian with us.
The journey to Bruges, as anticipated, was very tedious, and there was great congestion of traffic. On arrival there in the evening we failed to locate any member of the Belgian Cabinet, even the General Staff were very vague as to the Cabinet's whereabouts, and we then proceeded to our respective Military Missions where we spent the night.
The next morning, 20th May, we found the Cabinet, and at about 8 a.m. a conference was held at which were present the British and French Ambassadors: General Laurent, French Military Attaché; Monsieur Pierlot, Belgian Prime Minister; Monsieur Spaak, Belgian Foreign Minister; General Denis, Belgian Minister for National Defence; and myself.
When we were all seated Monsieur Pierlot asked the Ambassadors to state the nature of their visit and what they had to communicate to him and his colleagues.
Sir Lancelot replied that he and Monsieur Bargeton had no special communication to make to the Belgian Cabinet, but that they had come to Bruges in order to remain in contact with them, it being considered that some useful purpose might be served by this. He further suggested that the Belgian Cabinet had perhaps a statement to make to himself and his French colleague.
For about half an hour, then, Sir Lancelot and I had to listen to a somewhat heated argument between the Belgians and the French, most of the talking being done by the Belgians, who complained bitterly that the French were doing nothing to prevent the invasion of Belgium. It was clear that the two sides were at loggerheads and that no useful purpose was being served by such recrimination.
Sir Lancelot indicated to me that we had obviously wasted our time in coming to Bruges and that he proposed to proceed to Le Havre as soon as possible.
After the conference, when the French had left, we went to the room of Colonel Gilbert, Chef de Cabinet to General Denis, and here Monsieur Pierlot spoke to General Weygand on the telephone. After this telephone conversation he was in a more affable mood, and we said goodbye, adding that we expected to see him again in a few days.
Sir Lancelot and I, with Gerard, left Bruges at about 1 p.m. and I selected the most direct route to Le Havre, intending to reach that place during the night, or by dawn the next day, 21st May.
The traffic congestion continued to grow worse. We passed through Poperinghe, Cassel, St. Omer and Fruges, and eventually reached Hesdin at about 8 p.m. Here, as on several previous occasions, we found a solid block of vehicles.
A French Mobile Guard told us that the road Hesdin - Abbeville was completely blocked. He did not know at the time that the German spearhead had already reached this road. He advised us to proceed to Montreuil, and there turn South to cross the river Somme at St. Valery, afterwards following the coast road.
We arrived at the outskirts of Rue at about 2 a.m. where in the maze of traffic we found a British Officer commanding an anti-aircraft battery, who told us that he had had to put his guns out of action and abandon them as the Germans had reached the Forest of Crécy, and were holding all the Somme bridgeheads. He hoped to get his men to Boulogne but was not very optimistic of his chances in being able to do so.
On learning this we managed somehow to turn the car round and proceeded in the direction we had come. The traffic had been piling up and piling up behind us, and after a few miles we were forced too far West, and eventually found ourselves at Fort Mahon. Here we halted and were able to find food and rest as we were much exhausted. Every assistance was given us at the farm of Monsieur and Madam Grenu, where incidentally all our personal belongings were left later on, and where perhaps they still may be.
During the course of the 21st May all efforts to leave Fort Mahon failed. The roads were completely blocked and the Germans were all round us. We tried to get a boat to run us to Dieppe, we also tried to buy a small rowing boat, but none of the fishermen would help us.
On several occasions, in spite of my being in uniform, we were taken for German parachutists, and spent many anxious moments being threatened by frightened and excited peasants who were armed with shot guns and other weapons, and who covered us while demanding immediate verification of papers.
Having failed to find a way out of Fort Mahon we had no alternative but to await developments. On the 22nd, however, the Germans entered the locality in force. We were sitting in my car at the time, under some trees in a paddock belonging to M. Grenu, and about 10 yards from the road. A German motor cycle combination with a machine gun passed at a slow pace, but fortunately we were not seen. We immediately left the car and took cover on the far side of it, and a moment later a German tank passed, following the motor cycle combination. We then scattered. At nightfall I met the Ambassador at the farm, and taking with us what we could in the way of provisions we went into hiding in the sandhills. We lay hidden there for 3 days, a period of great trial for the Ambassador in view of his advanced years.
On the 25th, Gérard, who had succeeded in changing into plain clothes, and who still had his Belgian papers, met us and told us that he had arranged with the Mayor of Fort Mahon for Sir Lancelot to be accommodated in the Mayor's house. The night before, I had arranged with the farm-hand of M. Grenu to remove everything out of my car, including the removal of number plates, and the A.A. badge, etc. and to hide all the articles as well as the baggage in the farmhouse. This was fortunately done in time as the Germans removed the car during the 25th. The Ambassador was very upset at having to leave me, but we decided that it was for the best, and so, after saying goodbye, he accompanied Gérard to the village. There was no doubt in my mind that he would be taken prisoner by the Germans eventually, and I also knew that he had it in his mind to give himself up and to claim diplomatic immunity.
Knowing the German character too well I was not prepared to follow such a course myself. Having seen the Ambassador to temporary safety, Gérard arranged for a local Frenchman to take out some plain clothes to me as there was obviously no other way of escaping than disguised as a civilian.
These clothes consisted of a peasant's blue cotton jacket and brown corduroy trousers.
At dawn on the 26th I buried my uniform, papers, etc., in fact everything which might possibly identify me, and disguised more or less as a peasant I made my way across the sandhills to a café in Fort Mahon, as instructed by the man who brought me the clothes.
At the café I saw Gérard, and met a man who turned out to be a Belgian plain clothes policeman, who took me to a house on the front which he had found empty two days before, and in which he was already living with a French soldier and a Belgian Reservist.
My plan was to stay in this house until nightfall, when I intended to make my way to Le Crotoy further South West, where I was told were some small boats, one of which I intended to take to ferry myself across the mouth of the river Somme, or otherwise to attempt to swim across if there was a reasonable chance in my being able to do this.
All seemed well for the moment. I was given food and a room in which to rest, for which I was very grateful in view of the anticipated exertion intended for that night. Unfortunately German soldiers burst into the house during the afternoon and arrested all of us except the policeman who had gone out with Gérard. The soldiers were mere schoolboys, typical young Nazi gangsters, and were led by the usual type of square-headed, close-cropped bullying type of Prussian N.C.O. We were told to account for ourselves and to show our papers. As I had nothing I said I was a peasant from Dunkirk, that I was 51 years old and had lost everything in the flight from the North. This appeared to satisfy them for the moment, but nevertheless we were all marched off to a bivouac to be interviewed. The interview, however, never materialised.
We were given some food, a bottle of wine, and some French Army cigarettes, and spent the night in the open at the bivouac, closely guarded. The next morning, 27th May, we were given some very nasty-tasting bean coffee and some black army bread covered in mildew. We were then removed in a lorry to the nearest Kommandantur which was at Quend Plage. At the Kommandantur there was no desire to cross-examine us either, and were then driven some 30 miles to the prisoners' bivouac as Hesdin, almost within a stone's throw of the point on the road which I had been held up on the 20th May.
There were many British prisoners, some of them in a most pitiful condition who had been marched that day without a halt from St. Omer. Many of the wretched men could hardly stand up, but it was wonderful to see the fine spirit they maintained.
I had perforce to mingle with the French and Belgian civilians as I was now committed to a new role, and could not deviate from it.
At dawn on the 28th May we were all formed into a long column and marched to Frévent. The British troops brought up the rear, and the German escort behaved like bullies and cads as only Germans are capable of behaving. For example, French civilians in all the villages brought out pails of water, and in certain cases milk, so that we could quench our thirst on this boiling hot May day. When the head of the British column appeared, German soldiers kicked over the pails, and any person wishing to give a British soldier a drink was threatened with instant death, and there was no doubt that the Germans meant business.
Later, when a mid-morning halt was called we were all ordered to the side of the road and the British troops came through us, ranks closed up tightly. There was to be no halting for them.
At the bivouac at Hesdin a Frenchman told me that 2 British soldiers had been shot down on the march that day as they were unable to keep up.
I did not actually see such an act, but an hour or so after we had resumed the march I saw the Germans lifting a very limp British soldier into an ambulance. At the side of the road where he had been lying was a small pool of blood, and I had no doubt at the time that he had been shot by the Nazi soldiers.
I found myself in the company of 2 young French civilians. Their names were Alphonse Fraudin and Roger Robine. Actually they turned out to be wireless telegraphists from the aerodrome at Marck, who when surrounded by the Germans there, had somehow or other contrived to escape and to find some plain clothes. They had later on been captured in the Forest of Crecy while attempting to reach the river Somme.
What we all three made a special note of on this day's march was the use being made by the Germans of the Red Cross flag on their ammunition supply column lorries. These flags were laid across, and covered the whole of the bonnet. There was no doubt about the nature of the ammunition boxes inside the lorries.
We reached Frévent about noon, and after a short halt there where civilians' papers were examined - I made myself scarce during this proceeding - we were put into lorries and driven to the civil gaol at Doullens. The exhausted British troops were made to march, but they kept up their spirits wonderfully, and I was glad to hear some of the well-deserved compliments they received from the French and Belgians.
There were some six thousand of us confined within the walls of the Doullens gaol, and conditions were bad. We had a daily ration consisting of a tea-cupful of warm water and grease, called soup, and a small packet of ration biscuits. There was a great shortage of water.
During the first night the Germans tried to terrorize the British troops by rushing about where they were resting, shouting and firing their revolvers. It was gratifying to listen to the troops' laughter at this ridiculous behaviour. There appeared to be no German Officers about, in fact when an Officer was to be seen he was invariably in a car. On the march and in the bivouacs N.C.Os. were in command.
We remained at Doullens all through the 29th, and on the 30th May we were marched to Foncquevillers.
Here the Germans had made absolutely no arrangements about feeding their prisoners, and had it not been for the villagers who came out with pails of soup, and what foodstuffs they had been able to collect, we should have been in a sorry plight.
The following day, 31st May, the march was continued to Bapaume where much the same lamentable conditions were repeated, with the water situation slightly worse. At Bapaume everything of value was removed from the prisoners, watches, cigarette cases, money, etc. What little money I had on me was not discovered. It seemed as if Bapaume was one of the central depots for loot.
The next day, 1st June we marched to Cambrai.
By this time my two French companions and I had got to know the ways of the Germans, and we had decided that the time was getting ripe for us to leave the column. It seemed to us that Bourlon Wood might perhaps offer a suitable opportunity. Before we reached the wood, however, I overheard two of our guards talking about civilian prisoners. One of them said that he had learnt that civilians who passed the inspection at the Kommandantur at Cambrai would be released. I therefore felt justified in advising my companions to wait and see what happened at Cambrai before attempting an escape such as we had been contemplating.
At Cambrai all prisoners were confined in the barracks. The next morning 2nd June most of the British prisoners were entrained for Germany. Belgian prisoners were entrained for Belgium, and French civilian prisoners marched to the Kommandantur. Here papers were asked for, and only those with papers were allowed to go. I overheard an Officer, though, giving instructions that if a man without papers could be vouched for as to identity by another man, he would be allowed to go. It was a simple matter for me to arrange for such identification with another man, and in a few minutes I was free and at liberty to go anywhere except towards the front.
In company again with Fraudin and Robine who had got out before me as they had some sort of papers, I set out to look for a farm, which we decided had to be clear of the main highways, and as far as possible away from a village. By 6 p.m. we found such a farm at Baralle, about half way between Cambrai and Arras.
The owners of the farm were Monsieur and Madame Alfred Lestocard. Staying with them was her father Monsieur Savary; also a Monsieur Henri Guidez with his wife and daughter, and an unmarried sister, Marie Guidez, a married sister, and a widowed sister.
In spite of these many people to feed we were at once asked to come in. Everything possible was done for us and we slept in one of the barns. In return we did what work we could on the farm.
All the above-mentioned party had made a short evacuation on the approach of the Germans and had got as far as Fleurs, but had returned to the farm a few days previously, and were fortunate in finding it much as they had left it.
Other farmers who evacuated were less lucky. It was accepted by all the local people that Flemish peasants had come in on bicycles and had driven away in the largest carts they could lay hands upon, these carts being filled to capacity with household effects which they had looted. Cattle and horses were also driven across the border.
Fraudin and Robine, being wireless experts, soon built a receiving set, and were thus able to get the news. I was still listening in with this set in November, though the battery was very weak by then.
On the 26th June my companions set out for their homes at Coutances and Lisieux respectively. I intended to accompany them as I had ideas of making my way to the Channel Islands and thence home. Madame Lestocard, who in the meantime had learnt that I was British and had no identity papers, and no money, begged me to stay on, saying that it was merely courting disaster to attempt to go anywhere in such uncertain circumstances. I knew she was right, but at the same time I warned her of the risks she was running herself, and all her family. She said that during the war of 1914/18 as a girl of 20 she had been behind the German lines, and hating the Germans as only the people of the North of France can, she was prepared to do anything and risk anything for a British Officer.
She added that she hoped her husband would come up to scratch, but that as he was a terrible drunkard he might be indiscreet and talk too much. His loathing of the Germans however might be sufficient to restrain him. Having cleared the air with Mme. Lestocard I remained on at the farm, and in fact did not succeed in making good my next stepping stone until 15th November.
The son, Camille Lestocard, a lad of 17, who had been sent off on his bicycle by his parents on 16th May, and who had gone to Brittany, returned home on the 28th June.
My life at the farm, when all the others had gone, became one of complete hiding owing to the usual danger of wagging village tongues. If people asked about me, the reply was that I had left long ago. There was only one man in the village I used to see as he was known to be absolutely safe. If anybody else came from the village I had to hide in the room which had now been given to me. The old grandfather who disliked all foreigners, was hated by his son-in-law and grandson, and was looked upon as rather a nuisance by Mme. Lestocard - he had lived with them for 17 years - fortunately died in August. It had frequently been feared that he might give me away. I had several very close calls when German troops came to the farm to verify the papers of the occupants, but I always managed to escape detection. All of us in the house were in a constant state of vigilance.
Henri Guidez came back to the farm for 3 Sundays running to build a dummy wooden wall in the attic for me to hide in in an emergency. He was a carpenter by trade and made a most excellent job of it.
Marie Guidez secured a camera one day and came in from Cambrai to take my photograph for an identity card which it was hoped would be obtained eventually.
All these sort of things took a long time, the photograph for instance took a month, and meanwhile I was constantly trying to work out a plan for getting South. I had much leisure for this, as owing to the coming and going of people to the farm throughout the day I spent the greater part of my time in my room.
Close relations of the family I was allowed to meet, and people such as Lestocard's brother, his sister, various nephews, etc., notably one Leon Lebrun, made a variation in my life and helped me to keep in touch with the outside world.
Eventually a Monsieur Fernand Grard of Sin le Noble, near Douai, an old friend of Lestocard who came regularly to the house, and in whom they all had great faith was confidentially told about me.
He at once insisted on meeting me, and said that he would do what he could. He realised that without suitable clothes, an identity card and some money, all of which were unobtainable at the farm, I had very little chance of making a successful escape.
Anyway he decide first of all to find me quarters in Douai, as he considered there was now a greater element of safety in a town than in a small village.
I was by now in possession of a photograph which Mlle. Guidez had made for me, and within 10 days Mons. Grard brought me a correct identity card in which I was shown as being Monsieur Jean Duvivier, born at Marseilles on 10.4.1889, address: 9 Rue de la Cuve d'Or, Douai, (a street completely flattened out by the air bombardment), and my profession was that of a cattle dealer. Mons. Grard then found a family at Douai which was prepared to take me in and on the 16th Nov. he arrived at Baralle to fetch me.
We travelled together on bicycles, and after saying goodbye to the Lestocard family who did not hide their emotion at my departure, we arrived at Douai in the later afternoon. There I was taken to the house of a dental surgeon, Monsieur Victor Desal, 9 Rue Foucques, who welcomed me, as did his wife and daughter.
I soon settled in at Douai, where conditions were completely different to those I had had to put up with at the farm. I was very well looked after, and I had no longer to hide at a moment's notice, although going out of doors had to be avoided.
Shortly after my arrival I met Serjeant-Chef Robert Menet of the 43rd Regiment of Infantry. He was an escaped prisoner, an old friend of the Desal family, and anxious to reach England to join the Free French Forces.
We immediately got to work to try and find the best means of reaching the U.K. Mons. Grard made it his business too as he was determined that I must leave the occupied zone as soon as possible.
A Monsieur André Thoreau was brought to the house by Mons. Grard. He claimed to be in touch with the H.Q. of the organization at Lille which was dealing with the problem of evacuating British officers and men left behind in France.
He took all my particulars, and some days later announced that I would be fetched and sent home by aeroplane. He assured us that a regular service had been working since July, and that already some 900 British had been got away without difficulty.
I also met a Monsieur Jean Nivart, 211 Rue Championnet, Paris 18ieme. who had come to Douai for a few days on some private business and who gave me his address in case I should ever need him.
I waited for about 10 days, always ready at a moment's notice, day and night, but there was no call for me.
Monsieur Desal then obtained what he believed to be the address of the H.Q. of the organization referred to above, and with Menet went to Lille. There he saw the Mother Superior of the Convent, who professed to know all about me, and expressed surprise that I had not yet been fetched. She said that someone would call for me within the next 3 days.
A further week went by and still no one came, so it became fairly clear that all we had been told up to the present was sheer nonsense.
On Monday, 9th December, the Germans started their old tactics of the last war. They rounded up some 600 men, mostly under 40 years of age, but some even up to 60 years old, and despatched them by train to Germany at 2 hours notice. Many of them did not even have time to say goodbye to their families, or to collect some extra clothes.
It was apparent that Douai was becoming unhealthy, as were probably other towns in Occupied France.
Menet and I decided not to wait any longer, but to make our own arrangements to go South. Mons. Desal had provided me with a lounge suit which he purchased in the town, had my old shoes mended, and gave Menet and me each 750 francs. He wanted to give us more but we refused to accept it.
Menet had made arrangements with Monsieur Mugnier, the manager to the Douai branch of the Boucheries du Nord for us to travel in one of their lorries containing hides for the tannery at Amiens, and thus to get through and out of the Zone Interdite.
We left the house before dawn on 14th December and proceeded to the pre-arranged rendezvous where we got into the lorry, after which the hides were loaded on top of us, and we left for Amiens. It was a very anxious moment at the barrier when the lorry was stopped for the examination of papers, and the contents of the vehicle, but the driver, who incidentally charged us only 100 francs each, was a very cool-headed man. He knew who to handle the Germans and his load was not disturbed. From Amiens we travelled by train to Paris, and arrived there the same evening.
We were not asked for our papers during the journey.
In Paris we spent two nights with Menet's brother at Bois-Colombes. He was an electrical engineer living in rather straitened circumstances.
Our object in stopping in Paris was to try to obtain information as to how to get through the second line of demarcation, the one separating Occupied from Unoccupied France.
After Menet had failed to make any progress in his search I suggested that we should visit Mons. Nivart.
We did so, and he immediately set to work to help us.
He took us first to a Monsieur Bachman, a Swiss watch-maker, who most kindly arranged for us to be accommodated in a hotel nearby without having to enter our particulars in the registration book. He also took us to a restaurant opposite the hotel where he arranged for us to be supplied with food, and without food tickets, as we had none. He gave both hotel and restaurant proprietors, who were friends of his, to understand that no questions were to be asked, and that he would pay for everything.
Mons. Bachman then told us to wait and to be patient.
Within two days Monsieur Nivart had, though Monsieur Cazeau, head waiter at Maxim's Restaurant, Rue Royale, obtained for us an introduction to Monsieur Berniot, Rue Gione, Bourges, Cher, who it was said would be able to arrange for our passage through the German lines into unoccupied France.
We left Paris on the morning of 18th December and travelled by train to Bourges via Cosne in order to avoid the heavily controlled station at Vierzon.
There was unfortunately only one train a day from Cosne to Bourges and we missed the connection. We had rather an anxious time at Cosne as local residents told us that the place was full of Gestapo agents. We succeeded in avoiding suspicion, however, and left before dawn the next morning arriving at Bourges also in the dark.
Mons. Berniot lived at the opposite end of the town to the railway station, and after a long walk through what soon became apparent to us to be an important German garrison, we found his house. As we were unaware of his feelings towards England we said that we were both French and wished to go and see our wives and families at Toulouse. He appeared to be satisfied that we were not Germans and told us to go to the Hotel du Cheval Blanc. On reaching the hotel we made discreet enquiries and wee told that a lorry driver called Jacques worked a daily service across the boundary and that he charged Frs. 100 per head for a single journey. We were also informed that this service had been functioning for some two months without interference by the Germans. We found that there were already some 20 prospective passengers waiting, and that some of them had a considerable amount of luggage. There was much coming and going at the hotel which seemed to us to be extremely dangerous if this method of crossing the border was to be kept secret from the enemy. We waited however and when night came took a room. At the end of two further days waiting we learnt that Jacques had been arrested on the day we arrived. Sergeant Menet immediately went to see Monsieur Berniot who spent the whole of the 22nd December finding out from his friends whether any of them could tell him of another "passeur". In the evening he took us to a cafe from where we proceeded in a lorry to a wood-cutters cottage near the demarcation line. At about 10 p.m. the wood-cutter guided us across the fields between the German outposts. He charged Frs. 100 per head for this service. The night was dark, the ground was very stoney, and there were a fair amount of Verey lights being fired as well as machine guns, also the wood-cutter had been drinking and we had some difficulty in keeping him quiet. He knew the way over though, and we reached the other side, after doing about 1000 yards, without mishap. We found a village some 3 miles off where a farmer let us sleep in his barn.
Before dawn next morning we walked on until we came to the station of a narrow gauge railway, and I travelled free by train to Issondan as an escaped French soldier, there being several of these, and the station-master showed very little inclination to issue tickets, asking us merely to sign our names on some official form. I felt that by travelling in this way I was less likely to excite suspicion. At Issondan Sergeant Menet and I caught the express from Paris, which had passed the control at Vierzon, and we travelled to Perpignan. We had an idea that crossing into Spain might be a reasonable proposition.
At Perpignan we drew a blank, and went on to Port Vendres. Here we had no further luck, and were in fact warned that the place was full of Gestapo.
As we were running very short of money by this time we decided to go to Marseilles where we arrived on Christmas Day at about 6 p.m. and found the place deep in snow. We felt the cold rather severely as we were not very warmly clad.
With our few remaining francs, and after much searching, we found a little room in a small shabby hotel where I registered as per my French identity card. The hotel was the Hotel du Nil.
The following day all offices were still closed, but on the 27th December we went to the Greek Consulate thinking that as the Greeks were our allies they might help us to continue our journey. I was told to return on Monday, 30th Dec. as the Consul was absent. The Consul refused to see me on the 30th Dec. although I declared myself to be a British Officer, and we were ordered in a peremptory manner to leave the premises of the Consulate.
I then decided to try my luck at the American Consulate. I was received politely, and told to go to the former British Consulate General where I would find the American Consul-General, Mr. Fullerton, himself.
They received me very well, said they would verify my identity, and also assured me that they would let me have some money. I also met Mr. Fullerton who was very cordial and told me that he would let London know of my safe arrival through the American Embassy at Vichy.
In the meantime I had succeeded, on the 27th December with my French identity card, in obtaining a ration book, and it was now possible for me to go to any restaurant for a meal.
Opposite our little shabby hotel was a bar, called the Bar Henri. It was so cold out of doors that we went a good deal of time in this bar. It was much frequented by British Officers and Men but I still continued to pose as a Frenchman as I was not too certain of how the land lady at Marseilles.
Early in January, 1941 I did however disclose my identity to a Captain C.P. Murchie, R.A.S.C. and No.939118 Flight Sergeant H.K. Clayton, R.A.F. of A.C.2. The latter was also posing as a Frenchman under the name of Monsieur Robert Delvalle, and had a French identity card. These two offered to help me to get away, Captain Murchie saying that he was in charge of an organisation which he had taken over from a Captain Fitch who had since escaped from France.
On the 11th January I received a Passport Certificate from the American Consulate. In making out my application for this I had taken the precaution to show my date of birth as 10.4.1889 in order to pose later as a British civilian over military age.
On the 14th January Captain Murchie informed me that he had arranged for a passage for me in a boat which was believed to be going to Casablanca and from which I should be able to escape when she was controlled by the British naval authorities at Gibraltar.
I met him and Sgt. Clayton at a pre-arranged rendezvous at 9.30 p.m. and was later introduced to Mr. Kenneth John Logan, of Inverness, a Chief Engineer of the Merchant Navy.
We only had what we stood up in as no luggage could be taken. What little gear I had to leave I gave to Sergeant Menet when I bade him goodbye, and thanked him for all his help. At about 10.30 p.m. Logan and I were taken to the docks by a villainous looking individual of mixed nationality.
We got into the dock area without being molested by the police and boarded a ship called the Sidi Bel Abbes where we were handed over a member of the engine room staff. He was the only member of the crew who knew we were on board.
We were first hidden in a small ship's cupboard, until 4 a.m. when he sailor took us through the engine-room, up to the boat deck, and hid us in the dummy funnel of the ship.
We stayed in the funnel throughout the Italian Commission's inspection of the ship, and were again fetched by the sailor at 2 p.m. after we had been at sea a few hours. It was amazing that we were not arrested as we had to pass within a few yards of the bridge, and go below to the troop-deck accommodation in a hold in the stern of the ship. It was at this moment that we learnt to our dismay that the ship was bound for Oran and not Casablanca. We had practically nothing to eat while we were at sea, and were in constant danger of being questioned about our presence in the ship.
Late on the 16th our sailor told us to be back in the funnel by 4 a.m. next morning. We succeeded in getting there without being seen, but at 7 a.m. in broad daylight, the sailor came to fetch us, saying that the funnel was going to be painted and if we stayed any longer we should be found there. We returned to the hold, again escaping arrest.
We berthed at about 9 a.m. and all passengers had to go to the boat deck to disembark from a special gangway on to the roof of the customs house where they were to be controlled by the French Sûreté and the Armistice Commission. Logan and I hid in the lavatory when the passengers in the hold went up on the boat deck. We remained in hiding for about an hour, during which time the police searched the ship, but fortunately did not investigate the lavatory accommodation.
Eventually, our sailor who had mounted guard in the hold, told us that the way was clear, and we quickly emerged from our hiding place, crossed the hold, and slipped down a small gangway to the dock without being stopped. So far so good, we had escaped from bring caught as stowaways.
To get out of the dock area was a further serious problem as it was all heavily wired, all exits were carefully guarded, and passes were examined.
After wandering about for some time we fell in with an Arab who offered to get us out. He took us along practically the whole length of the dock to the gate allotted to the control of the naval authorities.
As we reached the gate a car arrived from the town and the driver stopped to show his pass to the naval sentry. The Arab beckoned to me to carry on and rushed up to the sentry, who was already examining the car driver's pass, to further draw his attention away. Passing round the far side of the car, Logan and I walked through the gate and our immediate troubles were over.
The Arab continued to help us, and after guiding us to various establishments, including Barclay's Bank, and the then already closed British Consulate, we eventually arrived at the Swedish Consulate in the charge of Mr. George Gower Gautray, a British subject, who has lived practically all his life in Algeria.
Mr. Gautray was in Algiers at the time, but his French wife directed us for the time being to the Rev. Paquin, a Canadian priest, who was a friend of his.
Father Paquin helped us to obtain accommodation in a hotel and for three days the police left us alone. They then sent for us, and I gave them a long explanation of how we could do nothing about complying with the formalities and regulations until the Consul returned to advise us. They were very polite and sympathetic and took no action against us. I had by this time dropped my French nationality, and with my Passport Certificate issued at Marseilles, had become Mr. F.A. Blake of London, a private secretary to a business firm, who, having been on the firm's business in Paris at the time of the invasion had been unable to return home, and had in consequence become a refugee. Also I was over military age, having been born in 1889. Mr. Logan and I were old friends, and his situation was somewhat similar.
Everything appeared to be working well for us, when on the very day Mr. Gautray returned from Algiers we were arrested as suspected persons by Monsieur Laboussiere, a plain clothes police officer of the Sûreté.
He took us to the Sûreté, and then to the headquarters of the Oran Division in the Chateau Neuf. There we were examined by himself and Captain Camille Forest of the 2nd Bureau. We told our story, maintaining that we were civilians, and refused to deviate from it. We said that we could not tell them the name of the boat we came over on as we did not know it, and that we left the port by merely showing our British papers to the control and saying that we were going to the Consul. They knew that most of what we said was untrue, but they had no proof against us, and we stuck to our story implicitly.
We were then locked up in the police station of the 1st Arrondissement, near the Surete, where all the police officials were as pleasant to us as they dared be, except the Commissaire himself, Monsieur Guyard. Our statements were reduced to writing.
The next day we were taken by a policeman to an office where criminals records were kept. The usual French procedure is to handcuff prisoners so marched about the town, but we went up in a friendly way with our policeman, and he obviously trusted us not to try and escape from him.
Our finger prints, measurements, etc., were duly recorded, and we were then taken to the Correctional Court to be charged.
I told my story as before, stressing the point that I only wished to return to my home and was prepared to travel via the Cape, or the United States, and to accept any risk in fulfilling my purpose. That I had arrived at Oran was a great misfortune, and I apologised to the authorities concerned for the trouble I was giving them.
I was told that I was liberated provisionally for 10 days, at the expiration of which I was to return to the Court for my sentence.
I then had to act as interpreter for Logan, and he was dealt with as I had been.
On leaving the Court the policeman said that we had to return to the police station, and on arrival there we were promptly locked up again.
With great difficulty we succeeded in getting in touch with Mr. Gautray who worked continuously for 3 days to get us out of our filthy cell. As no further charges appeared to exist against us and no one could tell us why we were still confined we had feared of being eaten alive by the hundreds upon hundreds of lice with which we were now completely covered.
Mr. Gautray eventually obtained our transfer to the Chateauneuf where conditions were somewhat better, but we were guarded day and night by Tirailleurs Algeriens with fixed bayonets, and could not move outside our hut without a soldier accompanying us.
Sharing the hut with us were three young Frenchmen from Brest, charged with having arrived illegally in French North Africa, and four British, (three soldiers and a ship's engineer called McLaren) who had known Logan in Marseilles. These four British were removed to a concentration camp near Algiers early in February.
On the 2nd February Captain Forest sent for Logan and myself and told us that he had decided to set us free, but that we were confined to the limits of the Oran tramway service. He gave us each a pass signed by himself, and asked us to report to him at his office twice a week.
We took up accommodation at the Hotel Touring Club, 10 Rue du Fondonck, and remained there until our departure from Algeria in October.
Our first interest was to rid ourselves of the army of lice which by now had become almost unbearable. We were also able to buy a few articles of clothing with what money we had left, but we had to be extremely careful in all our expenditure.
I wrote to Mr. Felix Cole, American Consul-General at Algiers, explaining our situation, and he supplied us, on our monthly receipts for £10, with Frs. 1760 a month each. This enabled us to live at the hotel, but our daily board equalled almost the whole of our allowance.
On the 5th February, Logan and I appeared again before the Correctional Court.
Prior to the assembly of our judges the Clerk of the Court had a short talk with me, during which I was able to tell him that we had only just been released from custody in spite of the judgment giving 12 days previously. We were kept waiting until all the cases for the morning had been dealt with and the Court was empty except for the Bench, the State Attorney, and ourselves.
Our previous evidence was again repeated, and further questions asked, after which the Bench requested the State Attorney to state whether he had anything against us, or not. He replied in the negative, and the Bench then announced that we were acquitted of the charge in view of our having arrived legally on French Territory and not having left it since then.
Thus a further obstacle had been overcome thanks to this pro-English attitude.
I commenced to see a great deal of the Rev. Paquin who, being a Canadian, I felt I could trust.
After very careful manoeuvring I eventually disclosed my identity to him, and he promptly introduced me to the Rev. Father Thery, a French priest working for the 2nd Bureau, and his sister Mme. de Winter. The help that Father Thery and Mme. de Winter gave me is detailed in an annexure to this report.
I was told to be patient and discreet, and a way would be found for me to return home, Father Thery laying a great deal of stress on his devotion to Britain and our fight for freedom.
Through Father Thery my identity was made known confidentially to General Charbonneau, commanding the Oran Division, and to the 2nd Bureau as a whole. I was told that everything would be all right, but that I must at all costs, preserve my civilian status, and if I succeeded in doing this there would be no danger of my having to go to a concentration camp.
The attitude of Captain Forest changed completely, he welcomed me as a friend, invited me to lunch to meet his wife and children, and told me to come to the Chateauneuf to see him only when I felt inclined to do so, or if he asked me himself to pay him a visit. His "volte face" during the Summer is referred to in an annexure to this report.
I was never actually introduced to General Charbonneau.
Up till the month of June Logan and I were continually following up schemes to escape from Algeria. With the exception of one scheme they were all unsound, and only this one to our knowledge succeeded. As regards this scheme, it was one in which Mr. Schraa, (a Dutch ship's officer) and some nine other Dutch and Norwegian sailors got away in a small boat to Gibraltar. We had hoped to go with them but they must have distrusted us, and slipped away without letting us know they were going. We later heard through Mr. Gautray that they had arrived safely at Gibraltar.
Towards the end of June, however, through Lieutenant Cordier of the 2nd Bureau, my identity was made known to the American Consul at Algiers, and applications were submitted by Logan and myself to the Prefect of Oran to be repatriated at our own expense.
My relations with Lieutenant Cordier form the subject of a separate annexure. He gave all possible help to Logan, the Rev. Paquin, the Rev. Mercier - another Canadian priest - and myself, and did everything to get us away.
The French civil administration is about as inefficient as it could possibly be, and we encountered delay and obstruction everywhere. Both Mr. Gautray and Mr. Cole gave wholehearted support and the obstruction was eventually overcome.
In anticipation of receiving the necessary French Visas we applied to the Spanish Consul at Oran for Visas to proceed through Spanish Morocco to Tangiers. In accepting our applications, the Consul advised us to telegraph to the British Embassy at Madrid to ask for support for our case.
This they did, at what seemed to us considerable cost, in view of our very limited cash. The telegram did not have the desired result as it only brought forth a reply asking us to certify that we were British subjects. We still had enough money to send another telegram to certify that we were indeed British subjects. Madrid, however, was still not satisfied, and again wired asking us this time whether we were clergymen and if not what we were.
Realising the futility of further communications of such a nature we gave it up and looked for help in other directions.
There were in Oran by this time two American Vice Consuls, Messrs. Rounds and Knight, whose activities are dealt with in an annexure to this report.
I succeeded in persuading Mr. Rounds to get through a letter from me to H.M. Consul-General at Tangiers.
In this letter I was able in an indirect way to indicate my identity and to explain the actual difficulties confronting us.
Progress was now being made, and we soon had Vichy's authority to leave Algeria, but by land route only, and the Spanish guarantee to provide us with Visas providing that we produced the French Visas first.
We thus had two out of the three Visas necessary.
Rabat, however, was adamant, and refused to allow us to pass through French Morocco in spite of Vichy's authority to leave French territory. The situation appeared so unfavourable that I had already put in an application to the Government of Algeria for permission to cross the Sahara in order to reach Nigeria.
After Rabat's second refusal, Mr. Cole took more serious action, and the Moroccan Government reluctantly agreed to our passage through the country on condition that there was to be no halt anywhere.
We made all our preparations to leave on Saturday, 11th October. The visas were only valid for 3 days when once issued, and so we had to collect them all, and buy our railway tickets, completing all other necessary arrangements within one day, leaving two days for the journey.
All our plans had been kept a dead secret from the many friends we had made during our stay at Oran. We had wished to avoid all form of gossip. Consequently, when we said such goodbyes as we were able to, our friends displayed the most intense astonishment that we were actually leaving for the U.K., it having been considered that we were to all intents and purposes interned.
Having just received our October allowances from Mr. Cole we celebrated our departure by buying 1st Class tickets, and at 6.50 a.m. on the 11th October took the express train to Morocco.
Our journey lay through Sidi Bel Abbes, Tlemcen, Oujda, Meknes and Petitjean, and we arrived at Tangiers on Sunday evening 12th October at 8 p.m.
There we were met by the Rev. Mercier who, having experienced less difficulties with the Rabat authorities had preceded us 10 days earlier. We stayed the night at the Hotel de Bretagne. I visited the Consulate-General the next morning and met the Acting Consul-General and Colonel Ellis.
They arranged for Logan, Mercier and myself to proceed to Gibraltar that afternoon in the tug-boat Rescue.
We had a most kind and hospitable reception at Gibraltar, and everything possible was done for our comfort.
I was able to renew my acquaintance with the General the Viscount Gort, who presented me to H.R.H. The Duke of Gloucester, who was carrying out an inspection of the garrison.
I made a written report on the naval and merchant shipping activity at the port of Oran for the Naval Intelligence Staff.
At 5 a.m. on Tuesday, 21st October, 1941, I went on board H.M.S. Foresight to return to the U.K. On arrival in London on Monday, 27th October, I reported myself for duty to the Director of Military Intelligence, The War Office.
Further Notes by Lt.-Col. F. A. A. BLAKE, R.A.
formerly M.A. BRUSSELS.
Morale in Occupied and Unoccupied France, and in French North Africa
In reading this appreciation it must be remembered that I left Occupied France in December 1940, and except for 1 month in Unoccupied France spent the remainder of my time, until October 1941, in Algeria.
With very few exceptions, which are mainly caused by fear, the whole of Northern France is solidly with us. They are also great believers in the army of General de Gaulle.
Anti German by tradition, they know that their salvation lies in a British victory, and their faith in this victory is unlikely to be shaken by any acts of German frightfulness.
This defeat they attribute rather to bad politics in the past, treachery of their leaders, and fifth column activities, to inefficiency of their armed forces or unwillingness on the part of the soldiers and airmen to fight.
They look forward to the day when the British Army returns to the Continent, and large numbers of Frenchmen are busily secreting war material for the day when they hope to assist in the annihilation of the common enemy. In the meantime they bear their misfortunes with fortitude, and are prepared for worse things to come.
They are convinced that French is bound to have another revolution sooner or later, probably after the war when the Germans have been disposed of. All French patriots have been preparing lists of persons guilty of associating with the Germans, and who they state will have to pay with their lives for their treachery.
The Polish population of Northern France is very unpopular. There have been a large number of betrayals to the Germans for which Poles have been responsible, and the French allege that the Germans cultivate the Poles, knowing that through them useful information can be obtained.
The intention of those Frenchmen I met in the NORD and the PAS DE CALAIS is that after the war all Poles, Spaniards and Italians are to be cleared out of the country.
Some refugees as one meets from ALSACE are very pitiful. I happened to come across three or four. All told the same tale of how they had to leave their homes at half an hour's notice, packing a small handbag under an armed German soldier's supervision (maximum weight 60 lbs, and no jewelry or specie), and with not more than Frs. 5000 loose cash, despatched by train to Unoccupied France. Everything that they had left behind had been confiscated by the Germans. These wretched people have little hope of recovering any of their property, but one marvels at the way in which they keep up their morale.
Looking for tracts dropped by the R.A.F. is a very popular pastime in the North of France. The wireless news is so effectively interfered with by the Germans, the danger of attempting to listen in is so considerable, and the newspapers are so blatantly "made in Germany", that our news in the form of tracts is what the French most value.
I saw only 3 tracts between June and November 1940. Even one a week would have hardly satisfied my French friends who set such value on these little news sheets. I heard rumours that the R.A.F. had also dropped small packets of tea, wrapped up in tracts, over LILLE, which had caused the greatest delight to the French and annoyance to the Germans. Other towns were hoping that they would be favoured in a similar fashion.
It is perhaps difficult to appreciate how little these enslaved people know of what is going on in the outside world, how dangerous it is to discuss the war in public, and how anxious they are to obtain really reliable news.
As regards tracts to be dropped enclosed in small packets of tea or coffee, or loose, it is suggested that a page, or pages, of the French papers published in London should be reproduced in miniature by photographic process. Since my return to London I have seen examples of such a process in the records of M.I.1., by which a foolscap sheet of type can be reduced to 2 inches by 3 inches and remain perfectly legible to anyone with normal eyesight.
On reaching Unoccupied France one observes that a very different atmosphere appears to reign. The people are thankful that they have been saved, if only for the present, from a German occupation. They are more resigned to the military defeat the country has suffered, and feel in general that the war for them is over. They know that a German victory would entail the loss of some of the rich Departments of the North, but as their homes would probably not be taken from them they are less concerned in the ultimate settlement. Vichy propaganda reaches them easily, but they do not respond gladly to the call for collaboration with the enemy, nor do they believe all the accusations against "perfidious Albion". They are easily swayed though, and the news of a British victory, such as occurred in Italian North Africa and Ethiopia this year, soon rallies the wavering one.
Food is a serious problem, and the population is considerably above normal owing to the presence of refugees from the North; factors which have a bearing on lowering the morale of a people who are less accustomed to rigours and sacrifices than their fellow-countrymen of the Occupied Departments.
Algeria presents a more complex problem owing to the mixed population of Frenchmen, of whom many are Jews, Spaniards and Arabs. The Arabs are not openly pro-British, but they are beginning to appreciate the loss of French prestige. If North Africa has to be occupied by a foreign Power they would far prefer ourselves to the Germans. I found from experience that if an Arab recognises you as being British he is at once friendly, and would give any help he could.
The Jews are openly pro-British, and with few exceptions they look forward to the arrival of British troops whom they hope to welcome one day.
Very few Spaniards are pro-British, but they are more concerned with the eventual annexation of the Department of Oran to Spanish Morocco which they are convinced will be realised as the result of a German victory.
The French as a whole are rather undecided. They are more in favour of a British success than a German, but few will say so openly owing to the fear of being victimised. They dread the threat of war extending to Algeria, and they hold the firm belief that Great Britain wishes to dispossess them of Algeria as other French colonies have been taken in the past.
The naval action at MERS EL KEBIR in July 1940 has done much to foster anti-British propaganda.
Their immediate fears are a British landing to forestall a German occupation, or an Arab rising caused by discontent due to the shortage of food and clothing. A sweeping British victory in Libya would do much to set the spark to an Arab revolt, and if such a situation should arise the French would in all probability accept a British occupation to save them from the horrors of Arab atrocities. The distrust, however, would continue to exist that the occupation would ultimately develop into permanent acquisition.
In sharp contrast with the feeling in Northern France, the patriotic Free French are not appreciated in Algeria, and the appearance of General de Gaulle's troops on their borders, even in very small numbers, would be sufficient to rally even the most pro-British sympathisers to the call, which Vichy would obviously make to them to resist any form of occupation by British troops.
Should such an occupation be desirable a combined British-American force would have the best chances of success, as the presence of Americans would restore confidence in any promises which might be made that Algeria would be restored to France after the war.
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