Searching for the Dutch-Paris Escape Line
France fell apart under the onslaught of the Normandy Landings. Communications and transportation lines were broken throughout the country as the Resistance did its best to sabotage the German response to the invasion. Although some parts of the country passed the summer of 1944 peacefully enough, the region of the Alps along the Swiss border was boiling with a brutal sort of guerrilla warfare between the Germans and their collaborators and the maquisards of the Resistance. There was a such a high level of random violence in western Europe during the summer of 1944 that it made it almost impossible for organized, clandestine networks to operate.
On the 7th of July 1944, two of John Weidner’s lieutenants, we’ll call them Jacques and Armand, left the safety of Switzerland to find out what was happening to the rest of Dutch-Paris. They had heard disturbing rumors about Brussels and had lost track of one of their colleagues, Mouen.
They took their bikes with them, crossing through the frontier near St-Julien and riding from one Dutch-Paris safe house to another on the way to Annecy to gather the news. In Annecy they took a train that had to take a circuitous route to Lyon, stopping at St-Andre-le-Gaz. The night before the maquis had occupied the village and blown a train. That morning the Germans took the first thirteen young men they could lay their hands on and shot them in reprisal. They were still terrorizing the town when the train pulled through.
Our men arrived in Lyon at 10:00 pm on the 8th of July and went directly to the usual restaurant, but no one there had any news of Mouen other than a guess that he’d gone to Toulouse. They spent Sunday fruitlessly trying to contact various people and then took a train to Paris on Monday.
In Paris they found out that Mouen had definitely been there on June 30, but without Paul, and that several of their friends had been arrested. They also found out that it was impossible to get a train any further north than Nancy. They tried that, but after going 15 km in 3 hours and hearing that Nancy was heavily occupied, they returned to Paris.
Again, they tried to find a Dutch-Paris colleague who also worked for the Dutch Red Cross. When they finally did, it was only to learn of more arrests and several deportations of Dutch-Paris people to the concentration camps. It was the last time they would ever see him because he was arrested himself six days later, leading to his death in Buchenwald.
On the 13th of July our men boarded a train back to Lyon. After a long day during which the tedium was interrupted by three aerial attacks on the train, they arrived in Dijon only to be told that the rail lines to Lyon had been destroyed. The train kept moving slowly through the night, but could go no further than Chalons. There they joined up with three other men to hire a taxi to Lyon. The taxi driver was jittery and told them a long story about how another taxi driver had been summarily shot because one of his passengers had a weapon.
They set out on the 14th of July, the national holiday of the French Republic, with tricolor flags flying along the roads. But outside of Tournous they ran into a roadblock. All would have been OK if a plainclothesman at the road block hadn’t told the soldiers to search the taxi. They found some ammunition.
Suddenly there was shouting, rifle butts were being slammed into everyone who was in the taxi and they were all marched into a nearby home turned into a German HQ. The men were pushed up against the wall with great brutality and told to keep their arms high.
After a couple of hours like this they were called in for interrogation. Jacques was asked about some ration coupons that had been found in the car. Fortunately, his false documents had him as a police inspector so he was able to use that to make up a convincing story for himself and Armand, who he claimed was his superior. Three hours later the two of them were marched out of the house and behind a building, where their German guards shot into the air to scare the others and then told them to run. They considered themselves lucky to have escaped and been able to take a few of their possessions with them because “these “messieurs” were great thieves.”
A few hours later these same “messieurs” passed them in their new vehicle (the stolen taxi) and gave our men a ride to a town from which they managed to get a train to Lyon. They spent two days there trying to get news of Mouen and leaving messages for him, then left for Switzerland on the 17th. It took them three days of zig-zagging train routes and occasional mountainous bike rides to get back to the Swiss border. Once there a woman fed them and took them to the crossing point, only to see a German patrol in the nick of time. They tried again a few hours later and made it.
Jacques considered the mission to be a failure, but remarked that they had had more luck than most. He was right. The Paul who hadn’t been with Mouen in Paris had been caught up in a general razzia in Belgium in June and was deported to Germany as slave labor until the Allies liberated him the following spring.