A Jersey Escape

Jack Douay MBE

In the early days of the war, as in all the later ones, fate played an important role in favouring an escape, or bringing it to an unhappy end.  Time was an important factor. With as little as a few hours’ notice, a free area could become occupied for the next four years! 

In June 1940, I was living with my parents in Carteret, a small seaside village on the west coast of the Cherbourg Peninsula. On the 16th June, my father decided that as we lived only 40km from Cherbourg, an important naval port, the Germans were bound to head our way, and I, being 17, had better find myself somewhere else to go. We still hoped that the allied armies might succeed in stopping them somewhere, perhaps the Loire. Father, therefore, drove me and my bicycle 80kms south to Avranches at the foot of the peninsula, so that I could ultimately reach some unoccupied territory.

On the 17th, I heard on the radio that Prime Minister Petain had asked the Germans for an armistice. The Germans were very close to Avranches, and already well advanced towards the Loire bridges. I departed Avranches on my bicycle travelling due west towards the north Brittany coast. I was convinced that the advanced German troops couldn’t cover the whole area, and would concentrate on ports such as Cherbourg and Brest.

After cycling all day, I caught up with German convoys at Dinan, heading for Brest and at the same time collecting in distraught, disheartened, and disorientated French troops. I left Dinan on the morning of the 18th; there were few Germans left, and I headed for the coast at Val-Andre where I had some friends. This is where chance plays its part; that same day there was a small Boulogne fishing boat refuelling by the quayside and preparing to sail in the night for Jersey on its way back to Boulogne. I managed to get myself on board and arrived in St Helier on the 19th at 1900hrs. All those wishing to travel to the UK were being evacuated in a large variety of ships, and I was able to step on to a small tramp steamer that landed in Weymouth the next morning.

This is the perfect illustration of how well things can go when everything fits perfectly into place. I was lucky not to be stopped by the Germans who were confronting all young men to ensure that they weren’t soldiers in civilian clothes; then in finding a boat ready to take me on board, the very day I reached the sea; and lastly, having two uneventful crossings. Mine wasn’t the last boat, another sailed two days later taking two more escapers. Then after that the route was stopped.

However, three other inhabitants of my village of Carteret, Andre Courval, Henri Letourneur, and Clement Milet, were just starting their escape. The three were older than me, in the armed forces, and had no wish to become prisoners of war. They had changed into civilian clothes then headed home to Carteret.

They contacted a local fisherman, Emile Valmy, who agreed to take them to Jersey on the night of 25/26 June. He had already taken the future Admiral Thierry d’Argenlieu and others to Jersey the previous night, and they had immediately found a boat to the UK. The Germans were now more organised in the French Ports, although they hadn’t yet started accompanying fishermen out to sea as they did later on. Arriving at Gorey (Jersey), on the 26th June, the three men were taken to the farm of a solicitor, Mr Richardson, where they worked while waiting for a boat to the UK. But on the 27th, the Germans landed on Jersey, evacuation ceased, and all men had to register with the Germans. This illustrates how vitally important the time factor was in those early days. 

The three men hid on the farm, then later moved to the farm of Mr Doublards who also assisted their escape and arranged for the loan of cycles from a friend (cycles were a great asset to escapers); every effort was then made to find a boat. Eventually, a 5m motor boat was found in the port of Le Rozel, 2km from the farm.

On the 19th August, a hazardous inspection of the boat revealed that the four plug holding cylinder tops, and the magneto had been removed from the engine. Mr Richardson again came to the rescue, and directed them to a Mr Lefreve, a former employee at the French Embassy in London, who located a magneto and put them in touch with a Mr Levoguer, who worked in a garage and agreed to help make the plug holding gear, as well as steal over 100 litres of petrol from the Germans. 

Mr Doublard then, anxiously but bravely, drove his horse and cart carrying the stolen petrol hidden under potatoes, back to the farm, fearful that both his potatoes and cart stank of petrol and would give them away. A Jesuit monk supplied a compass, tide timetable and nautical chart. Mr Richardson provided the keys to his son’s boat house at Le Rozel, telling the group to help themselves to any tackle they may need. They were very meticulous in their planning, making wooden plugs to fit bullet holes in the boat, and preparing Molotov Cocktails in case a German launch came alongside.  

Exactly two months after their escape from France, on the night of 26/27 August, the three quietly took all their kit and equipment to the boat. Unnoticed by the Germans, they filled the petrol tank, fitted their new plug holding caps, and installed the magneto while sculling out of the harbour, but the current was gradually drawing them nearer to the coast so they had to start the engine, which stopped immediately due to the fly wheel splashing the bilge water all over the engine, and short circuiting the wiring. The bilge had to be bailed out and the engine dried before starting up again.

By this time the Germans had been alerted by the noise, and began sweeping the sea with a searchlight. Fortunately the boat was out of visible range, and an RAF bombing raid in the vicinity quickly made the Germans switch off the light. This provided precious time to start the engine again and set off. They were amateurs, sailing in one of the most dangerous seas in the area, working on night navigation in the, justifiably feared, tide race between the Channel Islands and the French coast and avoiding abundant submerged rocks – they had a few close misses!

Luck was, however, with them. They encountered no German sea or air patrols, and were in sight of the English coast by the evening of the 27th – then their engine broke down again! Unable to fit the mast and sail which they had taken from Mr Richardson’s boathouse, they drifted all night long in a choppy sea, getting no coastal responses to the four rockets they fired. Next morning they got the engine going again and sailed along the coast until, towards midday, 36 hours after their departure from Jersey they reached Dartmouth harbour which they entered having previously decorated their mast with the Union Jack and the French flag. They were of course taken in charge by the authorities, from who they finally discovered that the reason that no-one had come out to meet them at sea, was because they were sailing straight through a large minefield. 

All three men joined the Free French Forces; Clemont and Andre became flight mechanics in two Free French Bomber Squadrons, and saw considerable action both overseas and in the UK. Henri joined the Navy and took part in numerous Atlantic and Russian convoy patrols. All three men survived the war and were present in 1947 when the Carteret Municipality ceremonially named some of their streets after the actors of those 1940 events: Admiral Thierry d’ Argenlieu; Emile Valmy, the fisherman who had twice risked the run to Jersey; and rue des Quatre Volontaires. 

Well known to all the inhabitants of this small village at the time, it became obvious as the years passed, that practically no one remembered who these four were. That is why in June 2004, Clement Milet and I, alas the only two survivors, were present when the Marie, in a simple and friendly ceremony, unveiled an additional plaque bearing the names of those four young men who had left Carteret to continue the fight. 

We who annually commemorate the escape routes of Europe, and remind the younger generations how many men and women owed their lives and freedom to the devotion of families who made their escape possible; it is important that we should also know that a solid bunch of British residents of Jersey enabled three determined Frenchmen, not only to hide on the occupied Island for two months, but also to prepare and successfully bring off an extremely hazardous and dangerous evasion.