Donald Darling

MI9 ESCAPE Lines 1940 – 1947

There were many unsung heroes in WW2, working unseen to help the Allied cause. People who quietly, secretly and in personal danger assisted allied evaders. Many were based in neutral countries such as Spain, Portugal and Switzerland and, because of this neutrality, received little in the way of recognition, thanks, medals or commendations to show for their patriotism and courage.

A picture of Donald Darling
Donald Darling

One of the ‘key players’ in the 1930s was Donald Darling who was based on the Iberian Peninsula. Darling had a vast knowledge of Spain and Portugal following his work with the diplomatic service and SIS.  He was a French and Spanish speaker who possessed great knowledge of the Basque and Catalan areas and a practical knowledge of the Pyrenees from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic. Spain was ‘officially’ neutral although Franco cooperated covertly with the Germans allowing many Gestapo and German Intelligence organisations great freedom to roam. Spain was, in fact, very much a Police state. German aircraft took advantage of the many airfields based near to the extensive Spanish coastline. Many of the Spanish ports in the regions around Gibraltar housed Italian shipping that often provided ‘mother ships’ for Italian charioteers and frogmen; saboteurs who proved to be a problem for Gibraltar. 

In mid-July 1940, on a hot summers day in London, two men were having tea and toast in a small sitting room in St James’s Street. The elder of the two, with a vast amount of intelligence experience under his belt, was the Assistant Chief of SIS Col Claude Dansey. The other was Donald Darling. Dansey quickly came to the point. Darling was to be ‘officially’ the Vice Consul in Lisbon. Dansey then went on to explain that since the fall of France and the evacuation from Dunkirk, England had lost all communication with Western & Northern Europe. There were no sea, land, air or radio links between England and most of Europe and it was vital to know what was happening. France was the key country, with land borders to many others – and the key to France was Spain. Darling’s job was to go to France and Portugal and organise overland links into France. Dansey gave Darling 24hrs to think about it. Two days later Darling was in Lisbon.

Spain and Portugal were awash with security organisations from many countries and everyone was watching each other with suspicion. Many who were thought to be spies were playing games; others were masquerading under the cover of ‘umbrella’ organisations; the Gestapo often operated under cover of the German Red Cross. No one was to be trusted. Foreigners in Spain and Portugal, especially diplomatic staff, were placed under heavy scrutiny by the local police; hotel rooms were vulnerable to searches so sensitive belongings were kept ‘on the person’. Sir Samuel Hoare, the Spanish Ambassador, had his instructions from Churchill to ‘keep Spain neutral’, and was very uncomfortable with the activities of Darling and SIS. 

Darling operated under the covert name of Sunday. Airey Neave was Saturday and Monday was Sir Michael Cresswell who was based on the Embassy in Madrid. Once settled in Lisbon, Darling made plans for a route to and from France. His first contact was Jorge Taronja, who lived in Barcelona, had properties and farms along the foothills of the Spanish Pyrenees and seemed to know everyone in the area. Other contacts included refugees from Franco, who operated along the border area, and a group of scouts who had formed mountain patrols to ‘hold orienteering competitions’ in the lower Spanish Pyrenees. It was later found that a number of these ‘adult’ scouts had also joined the fledgling SOE; at least six of them were later to die in Mauthausen concentration camp. 

Later in 1940, Darling was made aware of an organisation, based on the Seaman’s Mission in Marseille, that was assisting evading allied troops, many from the BEF, and of the roles there of Garrow and Caskie. The arrival of Captain Jimmy Langley in Portugal helped establish a link with the group in Marseille. Langley, who had been an escaper from a hospital in Lille, had subsequently made his way to Marseille and so had a vast knowledge of the operation there. A Jewish group, who had an escape line from France into Spain, took messages from Darling to Garrow and within a week there was a reply. Darling used his covert links with the smuggling fraternity to provide guides for Garrow’s organisation in Marseille giving him an additional route into Spain across the Eastern Pyrenees via many safe-houses owned by Jorge Taronja, complementing the efforts of the Q ship HMS Fidelity that operated a coastal route.

Darling switched his focus to the Iberian Peninsula, the key locations being Madrid, Lisbon, Barcelona, Bilbao and Gibraltar. His main ‘holding areas’ became Lisbon, Madrid and Gibraltar.

At that time the ‘Postman’ line, which later in 1942 become the Comète line, began delivering aircrew evaders across the Western Pyrenees.  Darling arranged their onward safe passages to Gibraltar and Lisbon. In Gibraltar the aircrew were billeted at the RAF Coastal Command depot; SOE and senior escape line organisers were accommodated in Darling’s flat on Main Street, Gibraltar; other evaders who arrived by sea, usually by HMS Tarana, were met at the Mole in the harbour and taken to hotels or flats on Main Street. 

Darling was recalled to London in mid-June 1944. The flow of evaders had decreased due to allied bombing of railways and bridges and the resulting inability of escape lines to move them, therefore many evaders remained in safe-houses or, in the case of aircrew, were hidden in the Freteval Forest, the Ardennes and Brittany. 

On arrival in London Darling was met with accusations, relayed by Samuel Hoare the Spanish Ambassador, that he had been involved with ‘subversive and revolutionary’ elements in Spain. Darling defended himself, his actions justifying his means, and after several weeks the heat died down. During this time a number of escape line helpers had also arrived in London, following hair-raising escapes from the Gestapo, all demanding to return to their work in France and Belgium.

Briefings and de-briefings with MI9 and IS9 at Beaconsfield resulted in Darling being despatched to Paris on liberation of the city to establish The Paris Awards Bureau to investigate claims and counter-claims and ascertain the veracity and credentials of the helpers and the helped. Brigadier Crockatt, head of MI9 at Beaconsfield, had specified that the Bureau should include the Americans, which was controversial as they had no involvement prior to late 1942 and would therefore have no working knowledge of early escape lines such as Postman/Comète, O’Leary and other main lines and players before 1943. However, the large numbers of American aircrew evaders, post 1942, justified American representation in the Bureau. Darling was given the acting rank of Major in the Intelligence Corps and was supported by 16 clerical staff who were officially ATS/WAAF personnel. In addition Lt Gilles Lefort joined the team as a French liaison officer. Lefort had worked in French Military Intelligence, had dropped into France on operations and had knowledge of the escape lines. 

Darling’s journey to Paris and his new base in The Hotel Palais Royal was not without incident, having travelled to Boulogne through minefields in an MGB, then onwards to Paris with a sleepy driver who nearly crashed the car. Despite the regal title, working conditions in the hotel were Spartan – no heating, no hot water, broken windows, poor food and winter fast approaching. 

By early 1945 the staff had increased to 65 and growing, but so were the problems. Word had spread throughout France that anyone who assisted escapers or evaders should report to the hotel, register, and leave a contact address, then their case would be investigated. The workload of the bureau increased out of all proportion. The problems were manifold, including: registrations by known collaborators or by others with no proof of involvement; refusals to co-operate for fear of being denounced should the Germans return; love affairs between evaders and their helpers resulting in paternity claims or Allied servicemen who had not gone home.

In the pre-computer age cross-checking of information was time consuming involving information from interrogation/debriefing reports from London and recommendations from senior officers and Sgt pilots – which rank took precedence if there was dissent? Additional information was sought from other aircrew, who were now lost somewhere in the system, or even dead. Distinctions had to be made whether the helpers acted in civilian or military roles as it informed their entitlement to specific decorations. The problems compounded and the staff were worked off their feet. The obvious solution was to request the key players of the escape lines to identify their members but this proved difficult because many were thought still to be in concentration camps in Germany, or even dead. Meanwhile, Germany was still fighting.

Gradually the key players started to return to assist in the task. Francoise Dissard arrived from Toulouse to identify and confirm members of the Pat Line.  It was thought that, as a doctor, Pat O’Leary had remained in Dachau after its liberation, to help tend the sick which caused some consternation at the Bureau. 

Fabien de Cortes turned up, together with Nancy Fiocca [Wake]. Mme De Jongh arrived from Brussels with concerns about her daughter Andrée and remained to help. Labrosse arrived from Plouha. Father Inaki Uresti arrived from the Basque country to identify Basque members of Comète who could only speak Basque. 

At 03:00hrs on a summer morning in 1945, Darling was woken by the hotel staff to be told that a lady was waiting to see him. There, on a low chair in the foyer, sat Andrée De Jongh in her concentration camp uniform. She had arrived at the station in Paris, courtesy of the Red Cross and, without money, had made her way on foot to the hotel eager to support her helpers. De Jongh was given a room and clean clothes and urged to rest, which she was reluctant to do. Darling later drove Andrée De Jongh to the French / Belgian border where he handed her into the care of her mother in a waiting car belonging to the Belgian Awards Bureau.

As people returned from the countryside and the concentration camps emptied, the problems increased. People found their homes demolished, or occupied by other tenants; former prisoners were physically and mentally ill, disorientated and had no belongings; there was political in-fighting and local conspiracies and suspicion; all were problems that landed at the door of the Bureau to sort out.

Pat O’Leary finally arrived, to the relief of everyone, although he was very emaciated and worn out. It was difficult for some of his countrymen to believe that he was actually Belgian – a man with an Irish name, working for the British in France, holding a commission in the Royal Navy but captured on land in France – and yet he had no identification documents! Fortunately Darling was able to vouch for him.

The main players began their identification and confirmation of escape line helpers. In addition many former concentration camp inmates brought with them denunciations of men and women who had collaborated in the camps. By Christmas 1945 the team was still continuing with their work but the pace had slowed. The fourteen-hour days had shortened and Donald was able to go out visiting various locations in France to confirm reports. 

In the Spring of 1946, the Bureau’s work load was contained and Darling was asked to move to Germany to set up a new Bureau to track down the Rat Lines being used by escaping top Nazis. There were routes to South America, Egypt, Iraq and many other locations. Another task was to deal with Resistance groups. 

He decided to make a new start, although still continuing with answering family requests and visiting helpers until 1949. The Paris Bureau was finally closed in 1946. In 1947 he accepted a job in Brazil working with the Foreign Office. 

Sadly, after working with the escape lines from 1940 until 1949, and continuing to assist individuals after that date, Donald Darling is now comparatively unknown outside of the escape line world, despite the fact that he was probably the most knowledgeable person on the personnel and operations of the escape lines in Western Europe. Perhaps the best, but most ironic, accolade he received was when speaking, several years later, with a new acquaintance at an embassy dinner about the records of the escape lines in 1946, he was told, ‘You need to contact a chap called Donald Darling, he did a fantastic job during the war and later in Paris at the Awards Bureau in The Hotel Palais Royal’.

Darling’s name was known by all helpers and evaders. He compiled most of the reports for awards and certification. His name will remain synonymous with the legendary Hotel Palais Royal. Sadly on his return to England Donald Darling was offered no further work by the diplomatic or intelligence Services, he appeared to have been discarded by his former masters. 

Information researched from a number of sources including: FO records; Archive PRO records; ‘Secret Sunday’ by Donald Darling; and interviews with individuals.