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Dunkirk. No Ships Left. What Would You Do?

Stew’s Introduction

Denis Caron
Denis Caron on Dunkirk beach holding his book, ‘Dash for Dunkirk.’ Photo by Janet O’Rourke (November 2017).

I’m very excited to have Denis Caron as our guest blogger today. Denis is an accomplished historical fiction author specializing in military history and World War II (more on that later). His blog describes how a British soldier gave up his seat for a wounded comrade on one of the Dunkirk boats and was unable to catch another ride back to England. Traveling on foot, he ultimately outwitted the Germans and provides an uplifting story about perseverance, fortitude, and resourcefulness.


Did You Know?

Denis mentions how 80,000 British and French soldiers were left behind in Dunkirk. What many people don’t know is how many French soldiers were captured by the Germans during the Battle of France. During May and June 1940 as the Nazis swept into France, approximately 2.0 million French soldiers were taken prisoner. This represented around ten percent of the total adult male population of France at the time. Despite Vichy’s attempt to gain their release (e.g., the relève program), the majority of these men spent the war as POWs in either Oflags (Officers’ Camp) or Stalags (all others). Most of the prisoners were used for manual labor on farms with their wages confiscated by the Germans. After the Liberation, the men came home to a rather hostile environment. Based on prior Vichy propaganda, it was thought the prisoners lived in better conditions than the general French population under the Occupation. The men were held responsible for the French defeat at the hands of the Nazis and considered cowards who surrendered rather than fighting. Members of the French Resistance and Free French Forces were held in higher esteem. It wasn’t until the 1950s that the former prisoners were granted the rights and benefits of being considered recognized veterans.


British troops line up on the beach at Dunkirk to await evacuation. Photo by anonymous (c. May 1940). American Embassy Second World War Photograph Library-Classified Print Collection. PD-United Kingdom Government. Wikimedia Commons.
British troops line up on the beach at Dunkirk to await evacuation. Photo by anonymous (c. May 1940). American Embassy Second World War Photograph Library-Classified Print Collection. PD-United Kingdom Government. Wikimedia Commons.

From 27 May to 4 June 1940, 338,226 men escaped from the beach at Dunkirk. Many of you know how British citizens answered the call with their little ships, putting themselves in the line of fire to rescue people thus increasing the number of lives saved. Prime Minister Churchill called this a ‘miracle’, later using the term ‘Dunkirk Spirit’ to refer to the solidarity of the British people.

The British Army in the UK – Evacuation from Dunkirk. French and British troops on board ships berthing at Dover. Photo by War Office official photographer (31 May 1940). Imperial War Museums. PD-United Kingdom Government. Wikimedia Commons.
The British Army in the UK – Evacuation from Dunkirk. French and British troops on board ships berthing at Dover. Photo by War Office official photographer (31 May 1940). Imperial War Museums. PD-United Kingdom Government. Wikimedia Commons.
German forces move into Dunkirk hours after the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was completed. Photo by Weper Hermann, 13 German Mobile Assault Unit (4 June 1940). Imperial War Museums. PD-United Kingdom Government. Wikimedia Commons.
German forces move into Dunkirk hours after the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was completed. Photo by Weper Hermann, 13 German Mobile Assault Unit (4 June 1940). Imperial War Museums. PD-United Kingdom Government. Wikimedia Commons.

What most of you do not know is the fact that 80,000 British and French soldiers in the Dunkirk vicinity were left behind. Many were captured, others died fighting, and a smaller number attempted to escape to the woods. There simply wasn’t enough time or boats to rescue everyone. If you’re a daydreamer like me, I know you are already picturing this exact scenario in your head.

Bill Lacey - Retired. Photo by SM (date unknown). Daily Mirror UK.
Bill Lacey – Retired. Photo by SM (date unknown). Daily Mirror UK.

Here is the story of Bill Lacey who found himself in just this precarious situation.

‘I watched the last of the little ships sailing away without me, and I knew there was no hope that there would be any more coming back,’ Bill told The Telegraph in a 2010 interview. “I had climbed on to a boat. Then a wounded-casualty had to be taken on board, so I got off to make room for him. When I turned round the boat was going. I was stranded’ he remembered. ‘The gunfire was getting nearer and the Nazis were rounding up the stragglers.’

Three of the armada of “little ships” which brought the men of the BEF from the shores in and around Dunkirk. Photo by Press Agency photographer (c. May 1940). Ministry of Information Second World War Press Agency Print Collection. PD-United Kingdom Government. Wikimedia Commons.
Three of the armada of “little ships” which brought the men of the BEF from the shores in and around Dunkirk. Photo by Press Agency photographer (c. May 1940). Ministry of Information Second World War Press Agency Print Collection. PD-United Kingdom Government. Wikimedia Commons.

This was the deciding moment; either he surrenders to the Germans, or he runs and hides in the countryside. Bill, at the time aged 20, made the critical decision to do the latter.

‘Men were still standing in line on the landing jetty, half-expecting that another boat would arrive in time, but I knew it was pointless. We had fought hard, but we couldn’t fight any more. We were overwhelmed. I could see German troops pouring on to the beach, so I ran in the opposite direction, towards the road, then crossed into a patch of woodland.’

Gradually, as he ran farther and farther into the woods, the sound of fighting on the beach began to fade. Having successfully evaded the German patrols, his plan was to head south in the hope of finding other British troops.

He threw away his weapon and dumped his uniform, he was alone and lost in hostile territory. If found, he would surely be shot on sight.

‘I had to get rid of my uniform, so the first trick I learned was how to steal clothes,’ Bill explains: ‘I raided washing lines in farmyards. Or even easier, farm workers often hung their shirts and jackets across bushes, to dry.’

Days turned into months. ‘I had to learn to stay alive the same way a wild animal would, my only thought was to survive from one day to the next.’

He would go days without food, his weight eventually started to drop till it reached only seven stone (98 lbs).

‘I had to take food where I could find it. I stole from fields and I drank from streams. Then I discovered that in the countryside no one had locks on their kitchen doors. You just needed to be extremely careful, because the heavy latches that the French used made a terrible clunk as they opened. I would have to freeze in the dark, waiting to hear if I had woken anyone. Then I would grab what I could – bread, cheese, milk, anything baking in the oven – and run for it.’

His routine was to sleep during the day and move at night. He had close calls with German patrols once, which forced him to hide under a pile of dry leaves and narrowly escaping a sniffer dog.

After months of evading the enemy, with worn out army boots, he realized he had been walking in a big circle. ‘I started to lose my spirit’ he admitted. Freezing and hungry, reaching an all-time low, he decided to give himself up.

‘If they shot me, I didn’t care anymore. I just wanted this to end. I turned in the direction of Dunkirk, intending to find a patrol and turn myself in. I couldn’t carry on, I hope people realize why.’

Amazingly, as he walked along the coast, he spotted a fishing boat tied to a small pier; a chance for an escape finally came his way. Waiting until dark he sails off for home.

Four months after giving up his spot in a boat to an injured comrade, Bill Lacey finally reached the shores near Devon, England. He was exhausted, dressed in stolen rags, weak from hunger, hair overgrown. His story, mostly unknown, was brought to light by a television documentary in 2000. He then became credited as the last man home from Dunkirk.

Not in my wildest dreams could I have ever imagined spending four months evading capture in the manner that Bill Lacey did. His resilience is incredible and awe-inspiring.

Bill went on the make a full recovery. His resourcefulness was noticed which eventually earned him a position in the special forces, taking part in a number of commando missions including one to capture a German General in Jersey which ended with him being shot and wounded.

He retired as a sergeant in 1964 before taking up a job as a postman.

Bill Lacey passed away on June 10, 2011, aged 91.

The Forgotten Heroes of Dunkirk

Watch the documentary Dunkirk: The Forgotten Heroes.

Denis tells me the film Dunkirk is relatively historically correct. You see, I rarely watch movies based on historical events that interest me. Why? Because they are basically historical fiction with the writers taking great liberties with the actual facts (I guess it’s mandatory to have that car chase and explosion in 14th-century England—though they probably do get the sex right).

Meet Denis Caron

Denis Caron was born in Trenton, Ontario and grew up in England. He returned to his native Canada where he now lives in Kitchener, Ontario. Denis received his college diploma in survey engineering and went on to serve in the Canadian Army and the Air Force. He now works for the emergency services.

Denis has long been interested in the military and in particular, World War II. This was the catalyst for Denis to write his first historical fiction book Dash for Dunkirk (along with Fran Connor). Denis is currently working on his next book which he tells me is about thirty percent completed. He anticipates finishing it by the end of this summer.

During his off-time, Denis enjoys sampling beers, travelling around Europe, and adding to his growing collection of World War II memorabilia. He enjoys relaxing and watching a good movie like Dunkirk.

Denis Caron (left) and his father next to Dunkirk monument. Photo by Janet O’Rourke (November 2017).
Denis Caron (left) and his father next to Dunkirk monument. Photo by Janet O’Rourke (November 2017).

You can find Denis’s book Dash for Dunkirk at Amazon in both paperback and Kindle format.

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Recommended Reading and Viewing

Caron, Denis and Fran Connor. Dash for Dunkirk. Kitchner, Ontario: Productivolgy, 2017.

Franklin, Sidney (producer). Mrs. Miniver. Starring Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures. Based on the novel by Jan Struther. 1942.

Nolan, Christopher and Emma Thomas (producers). Dunkirk. Starring Fionn Whitehead and Tom Glynn-Carney. Warner Bros. Pictures. 2017.

What’s New With Sandy and Stew?

We just received our first shipment of the newly published Volume Two of Where Did They Burn the Last Grand Master of the Knights Templar? It’s always very exciting to have the physical book in one’s hands. This is the fourth book in what I hope to be a series on historical periods of Paris. The next two will be on the German Occupation followed by the seventh book Where Did They Bury Jim Morrison, the Lizard King? A Walking Tour of Curious Paris Cemeteries. We thought about moving on to London after that book but I’m thinking of staying in Paris for one or two more books: perhaps “The Lost Generation” and/or “Montmartre Artists.”

What do you think? You like those possibilities or do you have any suggestions that sound fun? Let us know.

Someone is Commenting On Our Blogs

I had my head buried in the computer the other day trying to make some headway into the next book Where Did They Put the Gestapo Headquarters? when Sandy brought over a couple of reviews that were posted on Amazon for several of the earlier books.

After I read them I was so jazzed. The comments lifted my spirits and confirmed what I said five years ago when I started this little project. If you assemble the right team, don’t compromise on quality, and produce a fun book with a purpose, readers will appreciate it. All we have to do now is get the distributors and book stores to agree with us. Yeah, like that’ll be happening any time soon.

If there is a topic you’d like to see a blog written about, please don’t hesitate to contact me. I love hearing from you so keep those comments coming.

Why Would You Want To Buy Our “Walks Through History” Books?

Simple.

You like to travel and experience history and historical events. You like to see original buildings that had a significant impact on the people and events of the history you’re engaged with. You want to know the stories behind the brick and mortar in front of you.

The walking tour books are meticulously researched so you can go directly to those sites and learn about the building’s history as well as an introduction to some of the more interesting people associated with it.

Thank You

Sandy and I appreciate you visiting with us. We have some exciting things on the horizon and we’ll keep you updated as we go along.

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I Was Looking Forward to a Quiet Old Age

They say that revolutions are for the young. That’s probably a truism when you look at the French Revolution and even to contemporary ones like Egypt’s “Arab Spring.” It may also apply to resistance movements during periods of conflict. When one studies the French Resistance during the German Occupation, it becomes clear very quickly that most resistance members are young (thirty-five or younger).

Etta Shiber. Photo by anonymus (c. 1943). From the book Paris-Underground.
Etta Shiber. Photo by anonymus (c. 1943). From the book Paris-Underground.

That is until you meet Etta Shiber, a 62-year old widow and former Manhattan housewife, who lived in Paris with her best friend before and during the Occupation—with the exception of the time she spent in a Gestapo prison.


Did You Know?

After nearly 600 years in England, a medieval ring belonging to Joan of Arc was returned to France. On the eve of her execution in May 1413, she gave the ring to an English cardinal. Throughout the centuries it was bought and sold multiple times. On 4 March 2016, it came back to France after an organization successfully bid $425,000 at auction. Reportedly, there is sufficient documentation to authenticate the ring as belonging to Joan.


Kitty

Etta and her husband traveled to Paris every year for a three-month stay. While there in 1925, she met Kitty who was to become her best friend. Kitty Beaurepos, the daughter of a London banker, was an English society woman who married young. Moving to Italy, she and her husband had a son but shortly after, her first husband passed away and Kitty moved to Paris. She married a Frenchman but then amicably separated. Kitty eventually opened a small dress shop on Rue Rodier where she catered to Americans and this is where the two women met.

Every year on her annual trip to Paris, Etta would call on Kitty. In 1933, Etta traveled to Paris without her husband but did take her ill brother. Irving became so ill that Kitty had to bring in the best medical help that Paris had to offer. Alas, it wasn’t enough and Irving died (he was buried in the Père Lachaise cemetery). William Shiber died three years later leaving Etta a widow. Kitty invited her to move to Paris and live with her at 2, rue Balny d’Avricourt in one of Paris’s more exclusive neighborhoods (near the Arc de Triomphe).

Exterior of apartment building where Etta and Kitty lived. Photo by Google Maps (date unknown).
Exterior of apartment building where Etta and Kitty lived. Photo by Google Maps (date unknown).

The Germans

For three years, Kitty and Etta’s lifestyle was calm, happy, and without any acrimony. That is, until 1 September 1939 when the Nazis began dropping their bombs on Poland and invaded the country. England and France almost immediately declared war against Germany. Kitty tried to talk Etta into returning to America but she refused. The next day, the two women joined the Foyer du Soldat—the French equivalent of our U.S.O.

For eight months after the invasion of Poland nothing happened. France would sit back as if nothing was amiss—they were in the middle of the drôle de guerre or “phony war.” The French government was confident that any German attack would be repelled by their army and by the Maginot Line. That is until mid-spring 1940 when the German Wehrmacht (army) and Luftwaffe (air force) began to quickly sweep into the neighboring Low-Countries, including France. It took only six weeks for the Nazis to conquer France (almost two million French soldiers were taken prisoner).

Flight From Paris

As the Germans approached the city, almost everyone in Paris fled south or west. They went by car, bike, or foot pulling their belongings behind them. The narrow roads became so congested that going only a few feet would take hours. Within days, the Luftwaffe sent in fighters to strafe the refugees fleeing their city.

Kitty and Etta followed everyone else. They hopped into Kitty’s car and began their slow journey south. Giving up on the main road after several days, Kitty turned the car onto an alternate route. However, by the next day the women decided it best to get back to the south-bound road. They reached it just in time to be attacked from the sky by Luftwaffe planes. Strafing the road, the German pilots killed scores of men, women, and children.

Rather than move on, most of the people (including Kitty and Etta) stayed where they were. Reports of the German troop movements made it clear they were trapped. Eventually, the German parade of soldiers caught up to them. A soldier on motorcycle drove up to the car and told them to return to Paris. So, Kitty and Etta turned around and began to drive back to Paris. Along the way they passed captured French soldiers standing alongside the roads guarded by the Germans. In some cases, these prisoners included English or R.A.F pilots—undoubtedly the ones who couldn’t get off Dunkirk beach.

William Gray

Paris had capitulated without a fight. The French government deserted the city for Bordeaux and declared Paris to be an “open” city. The Germans marched in without a shot being fired during the early morning of 14 June 1940. By the evening, the occupation forces had settled in. Kitty and Etta knew all about the recent events when they decided to stop at an inn to eat on their way back to Paris.

The innkeeper was very nervous. He told them he was hiding an English pilot and they all knew the Germans were hunting down these pilots. His name was William Gray and he had been stranded at Dunkirk. Kitty and Etta decided to take him back to Paris with them since he fit perfectly in the trunk of the car. They took the risk because Etta thought he looked like her deceased brother.

Along the way, they were stopped several times but the German sentries never bothered to open the trunk. They stashed Gray in their apartment. A week after they returned, a Gestapo agent and two French civilians knocked at their door. They were conducting a house-by-house search for downed English pilots. Etta passed Gray off as her sick brother using Irving’s identification papers. Their visitors left but noted that “Irving” now lived in the apartment.

Paris was still relatively empty but their friend, Chancel, was at his apartment when they contacted him for help in smuggling Gray out of the city and into the hands of the Resistance. They were quickly to find out that Chancel ran a refuge for people in hiding. They devised a plan to smuggle Gray to the border and freedom. The plan worked.

Missing Persons Ad

The women decided to go into the human smuggling business full time. They took out ads in the “Missing Persons” section of the German run newspaper Paris-Soir which read “William Gray, formerly of Dunkirk, is seeking his friends and relatives.” The ad attracted attention of Father Christian Ravier who, over time, supplied Etta and Kitty with soldiers hiding in the woods. By the fall of 1940, the women had successfully transported more than 150 men to safety and freedom.

Betrayed

Five months after bringing William Gray to their apartment, Kitty and Etta were betrayed. On the morning of 26 November 1940, a Gestapo agent knocked on their door. Only Etta was home and she was immediately arrested (Kitty would often leave for extended periods of time to make transfer arrangements with the Resistance). Brought to the Hôtel Matignon (one of the sites you’ll visit in my new book Where Did They Put the Gestapo Headquarters?), Etta met Captain Pietsch and Dr. Hager, two Gestapo officers who played the “good guy, bad guy” interrogation game with her. Two hours after Etta’s arrest, Father Christian, and Chancel were picked up by the Gestapo. Kitty managed to elude the hunters but only for the time being.

Prison and Certain Death

Etta was taken to the military prison, Cherche-Midi, where political prisoners were interred (the 120-year old prison located on Rue du Cherche-Midi was demolished in 1966). She was no longer Mrs. Etta Shiber but Prisoner Number 1876. After about two weeks, Etta was released but constantly followed by the Gestapo hoping she would lead them to Kitty. By mid-December 1940, the Gestapo found Kitty (without Etta’s help) and they arrested Mrs. Shiber once more. The Nazis now had the four “ring leaders” in custody.

All four were brought before the Nazi court in March 1941 at the Hôtel de Brienne (14, rue Saint-Dominique). Etta was charged with “aiding the escape into the free zone of military fugitives.” The United States had yet to enter the war against the Germans so Etta got off with a sentence of three years at hard labor. Chancel received five years. The other two were not as lucky. Kitty and Father Christian each received the death penalty.

Etta was transferred to the notorious Fresnes prison where she was expected to serve her sentence. As the weather turned colder, the Germans transferred her to a prison located in Troyes, France. The date was 7 December 1941. Etta was now an enemy of the Nazis.

The Exchange

The fourteen months in captivity since the trial were hard on Etta. She suffered from an irregular heartbeat, high blood pressure, and she had her first heart attack in February 1942. Her second attack came two months later. She dropped almost forty pounds but her smoking habit had been broken. Etta was released a second time and returned to Paris. In May 1942, she learned the reason why the Gestapo had let her out.

Etta was required to check in daily at the Kommandantur du Gross-Paris in the Place de l’Opéra (again, one of the stops in the next book). On 17 May at her daily visit, a German officer informed her that she was to leave that day to return to America. After waiting in the train at Hendaye (France) on the border with Spain for what seemed an eternity (it was actually a couple of days), Etta saw another train pull into the station after crossing the international bridge. A German military band had arrived to greet it along with the black Mercedes cars carrying Nazi dignitaries. Shortly after, a woman walked off the train and headed directly to the lead Mercedes.

Photos of Nazi spies captured by the FBI. Johanna Hoffmann is second from the left. Photos by anonymous (c. 1939). Federal Bureau of Investigation. PD-U.S. Government.
Photos of Nazi spies captured by the FBI. Johanna Hoffmann is second from the left. Photos by anonymous (c. 1939). Federal Bureau of Investigation. PD-U.S. Government.

Mrs. Etta Shriber had been exchanged by the United States government for one of the Nazis’ most notorious spies, Johanna Hoffmann. The famous spy was part of a Nazi espionage ring operating in America. She was caught and convicted of spying and given a four-year sentence in 1939.

Post-War

Etta returned to New York where she lived out her remaining years. She wrote about her experiences in Paris-Underground. Since the book was published in the middle of the war (1943), certain names were changed to protect her friends. Kitty was really Catherine (Kate) Bonnefous (nee Robins). Father Christian was an alias and his real name was never divulged. William Gray’s real name was used in the book because he was safely back in England and the Nazis couldn’t touch him.

Etta died three years after the war ended (no doubt from prison ailments) without ever knowing if her friend Kitty had survived—which she did but with permanent scars on her body to show for her time with the Gestapo. Father Christian was one hour away from being executed when two Gestapo agents showed up to transfer him. Believe it or not, they weren’t with the Gestapo. They were British MI6 agents dressed like and flashing Gestapo identity cards. They had come to rescue Father Christian. He was offered transportation to England but refused. He wanted to return to his village and continue his resistance work. No one ever heard from him again.

When Etta returned to America, she was hailed as a hero. All she said was “I was looking forward to a quiet old age.”

Original cover of “Paris-Underground” by Etta Shiber. Photo by anonymous (c. 1943).Original cover of “Paris-Underground” by Etta Shiber. Photo by anonymous (c. 1943).
Original cover of “Paris-Underground” by Etta Shiber. Photo by anonymous (c. 1943).Original cover of “Paris-Underground” by Etta Shiber. Photo by anonymous (c. 1943).
Studio poster for the movie “Paris-Underground.” Photo by anonymous (c. 1945).
Studio poster for the movie “Paris-Underground.” Photo by anonymous (c. 1945).

Recommended Reading and Viewing

Shiber, Etta. Paris−Underground. New York: Press Alliance, Inc., 1943.

Bennett, Constance (producer). Paris-Underground. Starring Constance Bennett and Gracie Fields. United Artists. Based on the novel by Etta Shiber. 1945.

Notice the date Etta’s book was published? Yep, she wrote it shortly after returning to America and right in the middle of the war. Many of the names have been changed to protect the identities of people who remained in German occupied territories. The book is dedicated to “Kitty.”

What’s New With Sandy and Stew?

Most of the soldiers that Etta and Kitty saved were English. These men tried to get out of France during the Dunkirk evacuation but were never able to get on any of the ships. There were thousands of them looking for a way to return to England.

We have a special blog next week from our friend Denis Caron. The blog is about the last soldier to return home from Dunkirk. You’ll learn about Bill Lacey and his adventures eluding the Germans after being stranded on Dunkirk beach. Denis is the author of Dash for Dunkirk.

Someone Is Commenting On Our Blogs

If there is a topic you’d like to see a blog written about, please don’t hesitate to contact me. I love hearing from you so keep those comments coming.

 It’s Here Now! 

Where Did They Burn The Last Grand Master of the Knights Templar? A Walking Tour of Medieval Paris. Volume Two.

Medieval Volume Two Cover

Learn more here.  Buy here.

 

Why Would You Want To Buy Our “Walks Through History” Books?

Simple.

You like to travel and experience history and historical events. You like to see original buildings that had a significant impact on the people and events of the history you’re engaged with. You want to know the stories behind the brick and mortar in front of you.

The walking tour books are meticulously researched so you can go directly to those sites and learn about the building’s history as well as an introduction to some of the more interesting people associated with it.

Thank You

Sandy and I appreciate you visiting with us. We have some exciting things on the horizon and we’ll keep you updated as we go along.

Follow Stew:

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Find Stew’s books on Amazon and iBooks.

Blogs I Follow

Book Reviews

Please note that we do not and will not take compensation from individuals or companies mentioned or promoted in the blogs.

Stew_Ross_Logo_CMYK

Walks Through History

 

 

Copyright © 2018 Stew Ross