By Elizabeth Harrison
This is the story of three generations of Frenchmen in the Lebé family from St Girons in the foothills of the Pyrenees. Andre Lebé is the curator of the Escape Line museum at St Girons, and has retraced the high level escape line route many times into Spain. Every morning without fail he gets on his bike and heads for the museum.
Also connected to the family are the world famous French Chef, Auguste Escoffier; the escape of Capt BC Bradford of 1Bn Black Watch; the 23 year old Ho Chi Minh (later to become the leader of North Vietnam); The New Zealand High Commission in London; an evader who was the first Patron of ELMS; the Britain-Vietnam Association; and finally a visit to the kitchens of the Ritz Hotel in London.
It all started with two old photographs handed to me at an ELMS Reunion at Eden Camp in April 2009 by André, also an ELMS member, and librarian and archivist of the Museé du Chemin de la Liberté at St Girons. One photograph was of his grandfather who died in London in 1915, and had been the Chef Patissier of the Carlton Hotel in London, owned and run by August Escoffier. The other photograph was of the entire kitchen staff, taken in November 1908, on the roof of the hotel.
André said to me ‘Do with them what you like.’ I was stumped – until I got on to the internet and did some research. Regrettably, it is impossible to go into all of the details of these interconnected stories, however the Ritz, the Savoy, and the Carlton Hotels all had close connections with Escoffier. The problem was, that although both the Savoy and Ritz were still large hotels, the Carlton, situated in London’s Haymarket, had been totally destroyed by German bombs during the blitz. The Escoffier Museum in the South of France (Museé de l’Art Culinaire), informed me (wrongly), that the Carlton was replaced by an apartment block.
On a hunch, one day in August last year I visited the Ritz Hotel and met the charming and very helpful PR Officer. I told her about André’s grandfather who was head chef at the Carlton Hotel. Escoffier had not lived at the Ritz but had laid the kitchens out in 1908. They are still the same today. The lady suggested that I came back the next day with the photographs, when she would introduce me to the Head Chef, who would show me around the kitchen. The site of the Carlton Hotel, it was pointed out, now housed the New Zealand High Commission. She also added that there was a blue plaque on the wall, although she had not seen it personally.
So, (as one does), I took myself off to the Haymarket armed with a camera and, in total amazement, read the text of the blue plaque (not an English Heritage plaque);
BRITAIN VIETNAM ASSOCIATION
HO CHI MINH 1890 – 1969
FOUNDER OF MODERN VIETNAM
WORKED IN 1913 AT THECARLTON HOTEL
WHICH STOOD ON THIS SITE
Further research confirmed that Ho Chi Minh had indeed been working, in 1913, in the Carlton Hotel; working in the kitchen, in the Patisserie! This means that he would have been apprenticed to André Lebé’s grandfatherwho was the Chef Patissier of the hotel. This, without going into further details of other visits to collect information from the Ritz kitchens, English Heritage and The Britain–Vietnam Association, was the end of my research on behalf of André. Or was it?
That Christmas André sent me a book to thank me for helping with his family history – ‘Escape from St Valery-en Caux – The Adventures of Captain BC Bradford’. As secretary of the RAF Escaping Society for 22 years, I had read any number of books written by members about their escapes and evasions. ‘Escape from St Valery-en-Caux’ is the most detailed, incredibly well researched book of an escape that I have ever come across.
The book finally completes the story of three generations of the Lebé family: André’s father had a butchers shop in St Girons, and during WW2 was working with the French Resistance and also involved with the escape lines over the Pyrenees. Bradford had travelled to St Girons, crossed the Pyrenees into Spain and back again into France. He later reached North Africa, then sailed the 700 miles from there to Gibraltar.
The book includes many hand drawn maps of Bradford’s harrowing escape route, during which he met up with another evader as he wended his way to Gibraltar – none other than Bob Hodges, the future Air Chief Marshal, and the first Patron of ELMS!
A tangled web indeed, full of coincidences!