Searching for the Dutch-Paris Escape Line
During the war the grocer in a small town outside Paris organized most of the other notables of the village into an escape line for Allied aviators. They gathered up survivors of USAAF or RAF crashes from across northern France and sent them on to Spain through another escape line. German counter-espionage agents rolled up that other line in late 1943, which caused a certain back up of aviators in the town.
At Christmas 1943, the villagers were hiding 29 Allied aviators, mostly in homes up and down two streets. In fact, there were so many Americans in those two streets that the locals called them the “rue Yankee” and the “rue Américain.” Obviously the resisters were eager to get rid of these guests because the consequences for helping Allied airmen were dire indeed. They tried another line, but it turned out to be a German trap that caught half the men. The French resisters sent the other half to Spain via Dutch-Paris.
You might ask yourself, especially if you’re an historian who has researched this period, how I know that the locals called those two streets “rue Yankee” and “rue Américan.” It’s not the sort of detail that usually shows up in the sort of bureaucratic records that make up official archives. It’s possible that one of the aviators mentioned it in his escape and evasion report, if he spoke enough French to catch on and was especially chatty, but no one did. It is the kind of thing that might show up in a memoir or oral history interview if someone had researched that resistance group in that town. As far as I know, no one has.
So how do I know? I know because an elderly friend of mine told me. He lives in Tasmania; I live in the United States. So we’ve never met, but we do correspond by email because this gentleman was one of the Dutch Engelandvaarders who traveled from Paris to Spain with the help of Dutch-Paris. He’s written a fascinating memoir about his trek, although this detail is not in it. He happened to remember it these many, many years later when something jogged his memory.
And how does this Dutchman who was never in that small French town know what the French villagers called those streets under their breaths during the war? He knows because he spent a grueling three nights walking across the Pyrenees and then a few, more restful days in Spain with some of the 29 Americans who had hidden in that French town for a couple of months. One of the American aviators told him about it. Fortunately our Dutchman spoke English, because the American didn’t speak Dutch.
That’s what you call research serendipity. It is also a long delayed example of how Dutch-Paris gathered its own intelligence. Someone told someone else something interesting, like that the German police did not inspect the documents of passengers on the Paris-Toulouse train on Thursday nights. The second someone told a third someone. And somewhere along the line, the resisters in Dutch-Paris found out what they needed to know to get 16 Allied airmen out of a little town to the northeast of Paris and all the way to Spain.
The greatest number of Dutch-Paris agents to be arrested were arrested because the Abwehr, a Wehrmacht counter-espionage unit, was very successful at eliminating escape lines. They got their hands on a Dutch-Paris courier because collaborationist French police suspected her of black marketeering. They tortured a long list of names and addresses out of the courier and systematically arrested them all. They tortured those resisters to find more of their colleagues.
But a fair number of Dutch-Paris agents were arrested because of bad luck. Pierre from the previous two posts, for example, just happened to walk past a couple of German policemen who were looking for any excuse to arrest able bodied men to deport as laborers on a day when he had a faulty false ID.
A Dutch pastor in Brussels who belonged to Dutch-Paris was arrested because the wrong person overheard Read the rest of this entry »
In the spring of 1944, not too many weeks before the Allies landed in Normandy, a Dutch secret agent and a Dutch priest left the Netherlands. The priest played a leading role in the Dutch social resistance that supported people hiding from the occupation authorities. The secret agent had parachuted into the country on a mission from the Dutch government-in-exile in London. The duo intended to make their way through Belgium and France to Switzerland and then get to London from there.
It hardly needs to be said that they were not traveling legally or under their true identities. But it is a little surprising that two individuals with such strong connections to the underground didn’t have a better plan of how to get across occupied Belgium and France. They effectively made it up as they went until they made contact with Dutch-Paris in Switzerland.
Dutch-Paris provided all necessary false documents for its travelers. The secret agent and the priest, however, had to find their own false papers every time they crossed a border between countries or even between different occupation zones within the same country. This was an expensive way to get false documents, not to mention a risky one. They themselves had no way of knowing whether the false documents the man in the café sold them would stand up under scrutiny or not. For all they knew, the false documents could have been Read the rest of this entry »
Every arrest of a Dutch-Paris resister or a person whom they helped posed a threat to the entire line. Everyone knew that the Gestapo and their colleagues tortured arrested resisters. No one expected anyone to hold out forever. So it was vitally important for Dutch-Paris to know exactly why someone had been arrested. If the German police suspected someone of being a resister, the situation was bad. Everyone else needed to take precautions. But if the local police suspected someone of being a black market smuggler, for example, things were not nearly as dire. Arrested black marketeers were treated differently than resisters and could even sometimes be bought out of jail.
The arrest of Pierre from the previous post caused his colleagues in Dutch-Paris some anxiety. Plain clothes German policemen arrested him because the numbers on his false ID were wrong, but let his companion, another Dutch-Paris courier, go free. Pierre’s companion could not identify what unit the policemen belonged to. If they were Gestapo looking for resisters Read the rest of this entry »
Almost 70 years ago today, Dutch-Paris lost a courier through one of the common accidents of the Second World War. He was not arrested for his substantial resistance activities, or even suspected of them. But he was a young man on the streets of Brussels in the summer of 1944, which was enough to put anyone in danger.
It was June 1944, a few weeks after the Normandy Landings. Our man, whom we’ll call Pierre, and another Dutch-Paris courier were looking for a way to get to Paris. They had been told that all train traffic had been stopped at one station and were walking to another station to inquire about a train to Paris. On the big plaza outside the station two German agents in plain clothes stopped the young men and demanded to see their identification papers. The other courier still had his legitimate ID from the University of Leuven. The Germans accepted it. Pierre, however, had false documents prepared for him in Switzerland. One of the numbers Read the rest of this entry »
During the Second World War the Dutch colony in Geneva grew substantially with the influx of refugees who arrived from the Netherlands through various routes, including Dutch-Paris. After the Swiss authorities allowed them into the country, the Dutch embassy in Bern took responsibility for them. It organized refugee camps in hotels for families, for example, and made regular loans so that Dutch citizens would meet the Swiss requirements for financial independence. Although this has been a subject of controversy in recent years, during the war the embassy received a number of complaints that Dutch refugees had better accommodations and more spending money than refugees from other nations.
Dutch refugees in and around Geneva had a lot of time on their hands because the Swiss did not allow refugees to hold any job that might be taken away from a Swiss citizen. This didn’t stop a number of them from finding jobs under the table, Read the rest of this entry »
Dutch-Paris is known as an escape line, but as a matter of fact they helped many more people to hide from the Nazis than to escape from Nazi held territory. Neither task was easy, but you could make a good argument that hiding someone indefinitely was more difficult than smuggling that same person into Switzerland or Spain.
Hiding people Anne Frank style in a confined space for an indefinite period was certainly possible, but it was dangerous for everyone. And it was also almost unbearable for the people trapped in the attic or basement or false room. It was better to find a place where a fugitive could blend in and live a somewhat normal life. In the case of children, that meant hiding in a boarding school among other children. In the case of young women, Dutch-Paris resisters in Brussels tried to find jobs as domestic servants. Such a job would give the woman room and board, gainful employment and the possibility of moving about the neighborhood without attracting undue notice. Young men were harder to hide because Read the rest of this entry »
During the Second World War, as always, there were people who were looking out only for themselves. They didn’t have any particular political ideals, but they intended to be where the money and the winners were.
During most of the Occupation, that meant being where the Germans were. This didn’t require anything extreme like joining a Collaborationist political party, although it could. It could simply mean doing business with the Germans. I am not talking about the honest businessmen who kept their family factories running with German orders so they could protect their workers from being sent to work in factories in Germany. I mean the sort of business that brings in big profits and gets you invited to fancy parties with lots of food. I mean economic profiteering. It may well have meant being a middleman in the black market on behalf of the Germans. There was always the chance that the Germans would tire of you and ship you off to a concentration camp, but if you avoided that, there was lots of money to be made and good times to be had.
There was also the chance that Read the rest of this entry »
A word of caution to family historians and student researchers who are looking for resisters in the archives (see my posts of 23 December 2013, 18 February 2014 and 4 March 2014). Not all the documents in the archives are the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
In the first place, very few individuals involved in the Resistance knew the whole truth. People’s lives depended on everyone involved knowing as little as possible. You couldn’t give information under torture if you didn’t have it to begin with.
In the second place, every document was written for a purpose but that purpose was very rarely to solicit the whole unvarnished story. The reports written for the American intelligence unit MIS-X that looked for helpers after the Liberation, for example, deal only with the help given to Allied aviators. So you may find a thorough report on how a family helped one American who bailed out over France but it won’t say a thing about the dozens of Jews they also helped because the people asking the questions didn’t ask about Jews.
In the third place, not all resisters wanted to write the whole truth. Survivors Read the rest of this entry »
One of the most dangerous and most exposed jobs in the Resistance was that of courier. Because the German and collaborationist authorities were not as immediately suspicious of women as they were of men, the job of carrying incriminating documents or escorting incriminating fugitives was often given to young women. Just about anything could go wrong on a mission.
Here’s the story of one trip taken by a young Corsican woman living in Paris during the war. She gave up a good secretarial job to work for Dutch-Paris full time. On this particular day in early 1944, Marie-France as she called herself, took the light rail from the center of Paris to a farm owned by a Dutch farmer about 30km southwest of the city. She took the 1:30 train back to Paris with eight Allied aviators. The air raid claxon rang when they got to the Gare Montparnasse, so they had to wait to take the metro. As soon as the all clear sounded, she led her group through the underground tunnels of the metro to the platform they needed.
Standing on the metro platform, she counted her flock. There were only seven aviators. Perhaps she had Read the rest of this entry »