The Scottish Riviera

The Scottish Riviera
The Kindness of Others

On 16 June 1940 the German army marched down the Champs Elysées and set up machine gun ports on strategic corners. France was about to be thoroughly occupied and most of the expatriate community had fled, or were about to flee as and how they could. But not all!

Donald Caskie

From the beginning, Donald Caskie, Pasteur of the Scots Kirk in the rue Bayard in Paris and a citizen of Edinburgh, had made no secret of his feelings about Adolf Hitler.  He was appalled at how the Nazis had promoted racial persecution into a national virtue, corrupted the young and idolised militarism, As news of ever increasing atrocities reached Paris, Caskie denounced them roundly from his pulpit. As the mass of tanks, motorbikes and gunfire came ever closer to the city he knew he must leave.  After ten years of tending his flock he put a bag on his back and joined the thousands of French on the roads, refugees in their own country. As the hoards surged through France heading west and south, German and Italian aircraft machine gunned them from the air as they fled.  There was little or no food to be had en route and shelter was often in cellars or barns.  After having massacred many of those on the roads, the invading troops were now instructed to be courteous and ‘correct’.

After various exhausting adventures and several strokes of good luck Caskie eventually found himself in Marseille, the only functioning port in the Unoccupied Zone. He had intended to find a boat and return to Edinburgh but his journey had resulted in an epiphany – he must stay and do what he could in a tragic land, now torn apart by the conditions of the Armistice. Deeply religious, he prayed for guidance and, knowing he needed more material help, took himself off to the American consul, still operating as the United States had not yet entered the war. The British were permitted to have a British Interests section under the wing of the consulate and one of the consuls now manning the post was Major Hugh Dodds, famous for quitting his post at Nice to guide the Duke and Duchess of Windsor into Spain. The American consuls had been instructed to help British nationals with small sums of money (to be repaid once the war was over) but, on orders from the State Department, on no account to help them or anyone else, especially Jews, to escape.    

Resistance to the new regime had begun as early as 1940 in Marseille, a city which in wartime was a ghost of its former self. British servicemen knew it was their duty to escape and return to England in order to fight again, the alternative being a prison camp – and Marseille was full of such men.  Downed pilots who had used their parachutes, soldiers who had been at Dunkirk or fled from the ports of Nantes or Brest and found their way south, seamen who had been torpedoed, rescued by the enemy and escaped on the way to Germany. All were exhausted, dirty, often wounded and hungry These men, dressed in shabby civilian clothes, given or stolen, like insects who seek a gap in the corner of a trap they, along with many others, gravitated towards Marseille. They were frequently sheltered and fed along the way by those whose courage was beyond praise, for the penalties for aiding such people were well advertised and grim. In this south western corner of France there was a chance to escape to Spain, Portugal or Gibraltar and so to freedom.

Also in Marseille were those who were officially prisoners of war. These were held in the twelfth century Fort St Jean at the west of the old port. Once harbouring a hospice of the Knights Hospitaller of St John of Jerusalem during the crusades, it later served as a prison and Foreign Legion depot. Carved over the entrance and destined for the recruits was a message: ‘Legionnaires, you ask for death, I will give it to you.’ The fort was now home to several hundred British officers and troops. For a prison camp there were strange arrangements.  Doors of cells were left open after parade at 9 am, officers were allowed into the town to eat in restaurants and were even allowed to take rooms there if they had the means. Selling their ration cards on the black market, run by the flourishing Corsican mafia, supplied ready cash for basic needs. The other ranks, once they had done chores, a disagreeable job in a disagreeable environment, were allowed out during the day. This was liberté surveillée, supervised liberty, which made life easier for the Vichy guards.

But the main aim of the majority of those captured was to escape and this they did fairly regularly at Fort St Jean by descending the latrine shute into the sea and swimming to shore. These escapes had varying degrees of success.   

Thus Donald Caskie found himself in the centre of a confused city, known for its organised crime, manned by Vichy police and with the German and Italian Armistice Commissions installed in hotels. He felt his prayers had been to some degree answered when he met with someone who told him of the now unmanned Seamen’s Mission in the Rue de Forbin. Among the thieves, drug dealers, prostitutes and black marketers, the Mission to Seamen (now the Mission to Seafarers) had been a Christian charity catering to the needs of merchant seamen. The Mission was empty, its chaplain having fled. Caskie was allowed to re-open it on the condition he helped bone fide refugees but it was not long before, knocking on its door, came ‘escapers’ who had escaped from prison, and ‘evaders’ – mainly civilians – who had no wish to fall into the hands of the Vichy police or the Gestapo. Caskie could not now avoid becoming deeply involved in feeding and clothing these desperate men and aiding their escapes. The local police tolerated the increasingly suspicious comings and goings at the Mission, feeling that these activities were fertile ground for spying on the growing organisation of the escape routes. Also, some of them were sympathisers. Throughout 1940 and into 1941 escaping became ever more streamlined but also more difficult as the French police tightened their security measures.

Working closely with Caskie was Ian Garrow, a tall, quietly spoken Seaforth Highlander, who was joined in June 1941 by Albert Guérisse whose nom de guerre was Pat O’Leary and who would give his name to particular escape routes – the Pat Lines.

In the summer of 1941 Caskie had a shock when an Englishman turned up at his Seamen’s Mission and handed over the sum of 850,000 francs (around £5,000).  Caskie described the encounter in his book The Tartan Pimpernel:

‘One morning, a dapper gentleman called to see me …

“You need money, I know. I have brought you a little contribution”.

… My visitor was a very charming person but I had become a wary clergyman.

“I insist sir, before I accept money I must know more of you”. The blue eyes glittered in the dark, tanned face. His obvious amusement was slightly irritating. In one sentence he calmed any remaining fears I had. It seems he had instructions from the British War Office “under no circumstances to be repatriated to England as he, and others, were remaining on the Riviera under direct orders”. He had therefore been busy raising funds from French branches of British concerns in France. This money, obtained from firms still operating in the country, was lent on an undertaking from the war office that it would be repaid once the hostilities were over’.

Terrified of being in possession of such a vast sum of money when he knew the Mission was being watched, Caskie took it quickly to his friend, Pastor Heuzy of the Reformed Evangelical Church, who was also involved with the escape lines and who put the money into safe keeping, for it was much needed. Later it was found that the money collected from Riviera sources was entrusted to a female courier with connections to the Marseille mafia – a substantial amount of which then disappeared.

Now the Seamen’s Mission became dangerously involved in the organising of escape lines by mountain and sea for the British soldiers and civilians who were now joined increasingly by Poles, Dutch, French and others determined to leave France.

Left – The Mission in Marseille

The preferred route from Marseille was to be taken off by boat from Canet Plage at Perpignan, from Cassis or one of the calanques or inlets that decorate this part of the coast. Otherwise it was over the high peaks of the Pyrenees via Perpignan or Pau.  Each side of the frontier was a forbidden zone – twenty kilometres in France and 50 in Spain. A residential permit was required to cross this area, and this the escapers did not have.  It took around 48 hours to cross into Spain by the easiest route, walking for periods of two hours with a 10 minute rest in between. Travellers were told to wear espadrilles the guides, mostly Spanish, had white boots in order to be seen in the dark.  The aim was to reach a British consulate or the Madrid embassy before being caught and interned by the Spanish. If a guide was trustworthy, he would leave his party at a Spanish farmhouse where they had a good meal, and go on to Barcelona to warn the British consul he had another group to contend with.  If he or she was less reliable, the group would be left to their own devices, often being caught by the semi-neutral Spanish and sent to prison camps, the worst of which were the dreaded Miranda del Ebro camp in Castile or that in Figueras in Girona.

In August 1942 there was a mass break-out of 30 men from the Fort de la Revère above Monaco. Almost all the escapers made their way to Marseille and the Seamen’s Mission, virtually flooding it with men clamouring to be fed, clothed and shipped out of France.

Right – Fort de la Revère above Monaco

A dockside restaurant called La Daurade became a centre for escape line intelligence gathering. At Le Petit Poucet bar on Boulevard Dugommier escapees waited to be contacted with plans for an imminent departure. The feisty Australian Nancy Wake, the Special Operations Executive’s ‘greatest heroine’, lived in a luxurious apartment in Marseille with her husband Henri Fiocca, where they fed and entertained British officers and escapers. Nancy would become a courier and escort for the escape lines then, escaping herself, train with the SOE in England and return to France, becoming the elusive and much admired White Mouse. Louis Nouveau, a rich, Anglophile businessman, who had his suits made in Saville Row, set up a weekly club at his apartment on the Vieux-Port for British and Allied pilots. Nouveau travelled constantly in the Unoccupied Zone in order to raise funds for the escape lines. In his book Les Capitaines par Milliers, he made the comment that it was generally the rich, elegant and mondaine who were supporters of Marshall Pétain and considered it ‘common’ to be against him. He was always wary of travelling in first class compartments in trains as these were invariably filled with such people.

Dr George Rodocanachi, of Greek descent, was born in Britain and naturalised French. A practising doctor, he also cared for the men hidden at the Seamen’s Mission. He and his wife ran a safe house and, in his role as a doctor, he would issue over 2,000 medical certificates enabling Jews to justify travelling to the United States.  These people, and many others, helped thousands to escape and, often, to fight another day. Both Henri Fiocca and Dr Rodocanachi would become martyrs of the Resistance.

As time went on, and before they were expelled, the British officers working at the American consulate also became involved with the escape lines, and were protected by the ambivalent and uneasy Consul General Fullerton. At the consulate, Hiram Bingham IV was in charge of issuing entry visas to the United States and in 1940 was already working with another compatriot, Varian Fry. Fry was in Marseille to head up the Emergency Rescue Committee and, during his short time in France and with the help of Bingham, managed to smuggle around 2,500 refugees, mostly Jewish, to Lisbon in Portugal, the vital point of embarkation for the United States.

Among the eminent artists, authors and thinkers rescued in this way were the artists Marc Chagall and Max Ernst, novelist Heinrich Mann, elder brother of Thomas Mann and the author and journalist Arthur Koestler. In 1941 having infuriated the State Department by their intransigence, both Fry and Bingham were withdrawn from France.  Now the Jewish escapees had to rely on the kindness of others.

In 1941 the Seaman’s Mission was closed down by the French police under pressure from the Gestapo. Caskie was sent inland to Grenoble where for a time he was allowed to lecture at the university and, as far as he was able, continued his work with the escape lines. But this did not last long. Along with others running the lines, as the result of denunciations, Caskie was arrested and subjected to horrendous spells in prisons in Italy and France. In 1943 Marseille submitted to its own terrible rafle or roundup of French and foreign Jews. The old town was actively searched from house to house and those captured were then deported to the dreaded Drancy concentration camp near Paris and on to the death camps of Germany. Soon afterwards, 30,000 people were evacuated from the north bank area of the Old Port and the ancient quarter dynamited. The hard-to-police narrow alleyways and crammed houses had filled the authorities with unease.  German forces now had the pleasure of occupying Fort St Jean and the Gestapo installed themselves on the rue Paradis.          

When the war eventually ended Caskie was able to return to his church in Paris. The story of his life, The Tartan Pimpernel was published in 1957. He had survived capture and imprisonment, but there were others who had not.

Today the citizens of Marseille walk along the Place Varian Fry, the rue Henri Fiocca and the rue du Docteur Rodocanachi. ‘Pat O’Leary’s’ Pat Line escape organisation has gone down in history, its founder showered with decorations, including an honorary knighthood from the British government. The Resistants of Marseilles deserve to be remembered.

© Copyright: Maureen Emerson 2021