Secret Papers (Pat Line, Escape & Evasion in WWll France)
London Portrait Magazine 00-11-1984
A remarkable bundle of top secret MI9 correspondence between World War ll SOE chiefs and the family of one of Britain's most extraordinary agents has recently been discovered. The papers, rescued from a bonfire, relate to the famous escape line co-founded by Capt. Ian Garrow, DSO, and record the meticulous concern shown by War Office chiefs for the families of their agents operating behind enemy lines. Christopher Long reports.
[This article was written in 1984. Since then much more research by the author and many others has vastly improved our knowledge of Pat Line and its founders, workers, escapers and evaders. Much more too in now known about many parallel lines (e.g. Comète, Dutch-Paris, Marie-Claire, Shelburn, etc). For fuller and more accurate accounts please see: Pat Line amd Ian Garrow.]
By Christopher Long
The first War Office communication received by Dr Alistair Garrow was a telegram identical to thousands of others delivered to anxious families all over Britain in the days that followed Dunkirk.
Dated June 25, 1940, it regretted to inform the Scottish doctor and his wife that their son, Captain Ian Garrow of the Glasgow Highland Light Infantry, had been reported by his unit as "believed missing". Further particulars would be forwarded as soon as received.
The last communication they received was a letter dated May 7, 1943, and written by Brigadier N. R. Crockatt, an illustrious chief in Britain's wartime Special Operations Executive [SOE/MI9]. It read:
"I expect you saw the announcement in The Times yesterday of the award of a DSO to your son. I am sure I need not tell you how delighted we are about this and how well deserved it is..."
It referred to:
"... the magnificent work he carried out under the most trying circumstances and with complete disregard for his own safety."
Between these two very contrasting communications is a thick bundle of small, neat, war-economy envelopes all marked 'Secret' or 'Most Secret' sent trustingly through the normal post and tracing the career of Capt. Ian Garrow during the intervening three years [see the full collection in thumbnail form].
What is fascinating however is that while the War Office SOE chiefs [notably Maurice Buckmaster and Brig. Crockatt] persisted in their official stance that Garrow was still 'missing' from 1940-43, they were able to comfort and involve his worried parents by a careful choice of words and the subtle implication that he was not only alive and well but also the subject of intense interest to the War Office.
And not surprisingly. It was Garrow, after all, who founded the line (later to be known as the Pat O'Leary Line) which got hundreds of escaping and evading Allied servicemen and agents back to Britain.
The best known of these was Airey Neave (on the run from Colditz), but 40 years on there are hundreds of others who owe their lives to Garrow's clandestine operations: operations known to only a handful in London and known to still fewer in Marseilles where he operated under the very noses of the French Milice and the German Gestapo [and Abwehr].
Capt. Ian Garrow DSO who established the secret escape line that allowed 600 Allied escapers and evaders to get back to Britain between 1940 and 1943. But the price for such freedom was high: 100 workers on the line suffered or died at the hands of the Gestapo. Among them was Dr Georges Rodocanachi, the author's uncle, whose flat in Marseilles became a safe-house and Garrow's headquarters.
In Scotland no-one knew anything at all except that Dr and Mrs Garrow, if they had been good at cryptic cross-word puzzles, might have had a fair inkling of their son's activities. The secret MI9 letters were designed to make sense to someone who could read between their most secret lines.
Briefly, Garrow and four of his men had found themselves cut off from their unit in the chaos of Dunkirk in June 1940. Stuck behind German lines their only hope of survival, it seemed, was to head south towards the relative security of southern Vichy France. From there they hoped, they might be able to get back to England via Spain.
Two months later, in August 1940, they had trekked six or seven hundred miles, arriving in Marseilles. Garrow immediately turned himself in to the authorities and was placed in the mess-cum-prison of Fort St Jean beside the Vieux Port where he had, as an officer, much freedom to come and go.
While there, or wandering around the port, Garrow saw hundreds of other escapers and evaders similarly stranded among the flotsam and jetsam of the war and who had ended up in limbo in Marseilles comparatively safe from the Gestapo in 1940 but unable to escape from France.
The Rev'd Donald Caskie OBE, (d. 1983) whose Seanmen's Mission at Rue de Forbin in the port of Marseilles was the foundation and inspiration for the 'Pat' escape line. He was imprisoned in seven gaols and condemned to death, though released just before the liberation of Paris.
He decided that there had to be a way of getting them home to 'live and fight another day'.
Almost immediately he met some influential and useful people with similar ideas.
A Canadian civilian, Tom Kenney [a.k.a. Lt. Johnson] and an English woman Elisabeth Haden-Guest were the first. Then he met Nancy Fiocca [Nancy Wake], a journalist. Finally he met two vital people, the Rev'd Donald Caskie and Dr George Rodocanachi.
Caskie, a Scottish Presbyterian minister, was already hiding Allied servicemen on the run at his Seamen's Mission in Marseilles.
Dr George Rodocanachi in his consulting room in the 1930s.
Rodocanachi a British doctor of Greek ancestry, who lived worked and represented British interests in Marseilles, was similarly busy 'fixing' the escape of threatened Jews [around 2,000 of whom were ingeniously passed by him as unfit for labour in work camps in Germany and thus able to reach the USA. Some of these were undoubtedly Jews who Varian Fry was tasked to evacuate to the USA].
Between them this team set up their headquarters in the large and elegant flat owned by George and Fanny Rodocanachi [née Vlasto] who also supplied the finance necessary.
Garrow went into hiding there, along with an endless succession of young, eager and boisterous young servicemen who were hidden in back rooms and taught to be neither seen nor heard while escape plans were made to get them smuggled across the Pyrennees.
The flat offered good cover because the consulting rooms naturally attracted a lot of coming and going.
Nevertheless, the risks taken by all concerned during 1940-43 were staggering. Gestapo activity became more and more intense as the 'line' grew more extensive throughout France, and the daily nightmare of being betrayed by collaborators, traitors or a single mistake by anybody grew ever greater.
'Achille' (Francis Blanchain), Mario Prassinos, Hugh Woolatt, Airey Neave and Louis Nouveau. This unique picture of Pat line organisers and British servicemen, was taken at the home of Louis Nouveau at 28a Quai de Rive Neuve, Marseilles in 1942.
At the centre of this growing network was the six feet tall Garrow who spoke no French and who would have stood out like a beacon had he been 'visible'.
By the time the first escapers were getting back to London, SOE already knew about the vital line in Marseilles. It was absolutely essential that Garrow should not be revealed hence the necessity of continuing to regard him as 'missing', a word that also implied 'presumed dead'.
The Seamen's Mission at 46 Rue de Forbin, Marseilles, pictured during the 1940s. Here the Rev'd Donald Caskie first sheltered Allied servicemen adrift in France. His work inspired Garrow to found what later became known as Pat Line.From that moment on the [MI9] letters to Dr and Mrs Garrow in Glasgow arrived thick and fast.
Lieutenant-Commander Patrick Albert O'Leary, RN cover name for Albert-Marie Guérisse. This picture was 'snapped' by a Marseilles street photographer in 1941 and O'Leary is clearly unhappy about it. The fact that it survived suggests, unsurprisingly, that it was 'acquired' from the photographer for security reasons. 'O'Leary' was formerly a medical officer in the Belgian Cavalry. Following the arrest of Capt. Ian Garrow he led the first and most successful of the escape lines adopted by MI9 and SOE passing himself off as French. Earlier, Garrow fixed the escape of O'Leary from imprisonment in St Hippolyte du Fort. Eventually O'Leary returned the compliment. Operating under SOE/MI9's code-names of 'Joseph' and 'Adolphe', O'Leary was later to become one of the most highly decorated veterans of World War ll.
Not long after Garrow took up residence with the Rodocanachis, a Belgian doctor, serving with the Royal Navy on a requisitioned French vessel, was captured on the French coast when a secret mission went wrong [see: HMS Fidelity]. That man was Commander Pat O'Leary (real name Albert-Marie Guérisse, codenamed 'Adolphe' and 'Joseph').
Garrow heard about his capture by the enemy and arranged a brilliant escape bid which successfully sprung O'Leary from gaol and led to O'Leary becoming the Scarlet Pimpernel of World War ll. For his work with the 'line' O'Leary became a legend in his lifetime and the man most highly decorated for valour in the history of Europe.
It was fortunate that O'Leary arrived when he did because within months a double-agent called Fari lured Ian Garrow from his safe hideout at the Rodocanachis' flat for the first and last time. He was led straight into the hands of the Gestapo and arrested.
Jean de la Olla, a vital and loyal agent for Pat Line. He was betrayed and arrested, like Louis Nouveau and Pat O'Leary, by the French traitor, Roger le Neveu.
That he was not tortured, killed or made to serve out the 10 years' hard labour imposed on him was almost certainly thanks to O'Leary, Fiocca and others who arranged another brilliantly daring escape for their erstwhile leader. This escape would be worthy of a film all to itself.
In the meantime the Garrows were kept informed in the War Office's now familiar, cryptic style.
Garrow's parents were even sent a photograph of their son, taken while he was imprisoned, and smuggled back to Britain by secret agents. It was then passed on to the Garrows to provide the first concrete proof that their son was alive and well.
This extraordinary photograph of Capt. Ian Garrow and companions 'somewhere in France'. It was smuggled out and taken by courier to SOE headquarters in London. It appears likely that the background of this photograph was 'adjusted' by MI9/SOE to disguise the location. When Germany extended its occupation of France in the South Zone (Vichy) in November 1941, Garrow had been moved with others at Mauzac prison in the Dordogne and feared that the Germans would now transport them to camps in Germany. A message was smuggled out to O'Leary who then hatched an audacious and successful plan to spring them from jail. [Subsequent to the appearance of this article, research suggests picture was taken on the 'Roucas Blan', near the house of the Martin family at Endoume, Marseilles, which also provided a hiding place for Allied escapers and evaders. Bottom left is Louis Nouveau, just above him is Ian Garrow and in the centre Elisabeth Haden-Guest. The identities of the other are still not clear.]
As an example of the War Office's approach, the letter that accompanied this photograph, dated 7 November 1941, read:
"... enclosed is a photograph taken in August in which you will recognise Capt. Garrow. Our latest advices are that he is in the best of health and spirits. You will appreciate that we cannot give you fuller details about the photograph, such as how or where the group was taken and so on. Please do not show the photograph to others. We hope, but cannot promise, to be able to get a letter through from your son to you..."
The risks taken to obtain such a picture under the noses of his gaolers and back to Britain were phenomenal.
Lt-Col. James 'Jimmy' Langley, MBE, MC who, as a lieutenant in the Coldstream Guards, lost an arm at Dunkirk and was passed by Dr Rodocanachi, in February 1941, as 'unfit for further military service'. By March 1941, repatriated on a destroyer, he was a key figure at MI9 in London, alongside Airey Neave.
Following his escape from Fort Mauzac, Garrow was able to make use of the escape line he himself had set up for others and arrived back in London via Barcelona and Madrid. He was back in England early in 1943.
Meanwhile, and for several months thereafter, O'Leary, the Rodocanachis, Caskie, Fiocca and many others continued their extraordinary work, getting hundreds of men home again.
But, later in 1943, the line was betrayed and most of its personnel were arrested by the Gestapo.
Fanny Rodocanachi (née Vlasto) in the late 1920s or early 1930s.
O'Leary ended up in Dachau in appalling circumstances and was awarded the George Cross and the DSO., but survives to this day in Belgium. [He died in 1989, after this article appeared].
Caskie too survived the war and died early in 1984 [having written his account of these events in The Tartan Pimpernel].
George Rodocanachi was arrested, tortured and died within a few months in Buchenvald.
Garrow himself never truly re-adapted to life in peacetime and, while all concerned earned themselves the highest honours the Allied powers could award them, Garrow's contribution has perhaps been somewhat overlooked.
Early in 1984 the entire secret correspondence between MI9 and Garrow's parents turned up on a bonfire in Scotland and found its way into my possession.
They shouldn't have survived at all, of course. But, 40 years later, their survival gives us a remarkable insight into the way SOE treated its agents and their worried families with concern, compassion and considerable finesse.
Dr George Rodocanachi photographed for an identity card in 1943, shortly before he was betrayed, arrested and sent to his death at Buchenvald in Brandenburg, Germany. The stress and personal price paid for all his work in 1941-43 is quite evident.
Only the picture of Garrow himself (above with caption) appeared in the original published article.
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