Heroic tales of daring escapes from behind enemy lines during World War 2 have been detailed in a new book by a North-east historian.
Gordon Highlanders, desperate to reach Gibraltar, spent months on the run in Nazi-occupied territories, evading the enemy and working in tandem with the Resistance.
It was these secret escape routes – documented recently in the Channel 4 series WWII’s Great Escapes: The Freedom Trails – that Stewart Mitchell, a volunteer researcher with the Gordon Highlanders Museum, has written about in his new book.
St Valery And Its Aftermath recounts some of the stories of Gordon Highlanders who were captured in France in 1940.
Stewart said: “These escape routes saved many escaping Allied servicemen and refugees from a terrible fate.
“Although some examples of the people involved are portrayed in the Channel 4 series, what is not covered is the amazing experiences of a number of Gordon Highlanders, who were fortunate enough to be helped by Resistance groups and couriered over the Pyrenees to neutral Spain and on to Gibraltar.
“From there they could be returned to Britain and return to the fight against the Nazis.”
Many Gordon Highlanders found themselves on the run following the capture of the 51st (Highland) Division in the town of St Valery-en-Caux in June 1940.
Stewart said the Resistance – French and Belgian residents who secretly ran these ‘escape lines’ to freedom – helped the soldiers evade the enemy, sometimes for months, and “at great risk to themselves and their families”.
Two escape lines were used by the soldiers looking to flee prisoner of war camps – the Comete Line and the Pat O’Leary line.
These routes typically ran from Brussels and Lille through Nazi-occupied France and Belgium.
Aberdeen man James Cromar was the first success of the Comete Line. He was wounded on June 11, 1940 in the battle to hold St Valery, and after treatment in a hospital in Lille, he was taken to Alost in Belgium to convalesce.
Stewart said: “Security here was not very strict and he was able to abscond and escaped to Brussels where he met up with Tom Farquhar, a friend from his own battalion.
“He was escorted all the way to the south of France by a Belgian, using the rail network and false papers.
“They travelled through Paris and Bordeaux and on to Saint-Jean-de-Luz, on the Atlantic coast, only five miles from the Spanish Frontier, which they crossed on foot with the help of a gang of smugglers who were in league with the Belgians.”
Another Gordon Highlander who sought the help of the Resistance was Alex Moir, from Aberdeen.
Stewart said: “The men and women who ran these escape lines were incredibly brave and despite having no military training took it upon themselves to assist escapees.
“Probably the most celebrated benefactor assisting escaped British servicemen was the Reverend Donald Caskie, a Church of Scotland minister.
“He set up the Seaman’s Mission in Marseilles, which was the perfect cover for his clandestine activities with the Pat O’Leary Escape Line, for which he was dubbed The Tartan Pimpernel.
“Alex Moir, from Aberdeen, was selected by Donald Caskie to sail with some Polish soldiers to Gibraltar, but their ship was searched by the police before it sailed from Marseilles and Alex had to jump over the side and swim across the harbour to avoid being caught.
“He did eventually cross into Spain and made it back to the UK via Gibraltar, for which he was decorated with the Military Medal. He returned to the Regiment and served with the 5th/7th Battalion Gordon Highlanders in North Africa.
“Unfortunately, this was one campaign too far for this brave soldier. He was killed on November 3, 1942 in the Battle of El Alamein.”
St Valery And Its Aftermath is available to buy at the Gordon Highlanders Museum in Aberdeen now.