The story I am about to tell covers a period of nearly 18 months, from my flight from Paris in June 1940 until my arrival in Spain at the end of October 1941. It was a time for me of very interesting, though rather unpleasant, experiences. I think that the importance of this story lies chiefly in the fact that it adds yet another example to the long and ever growing record of German inhumanity during the war. On the highway between Paris and Orleans I have seen German aircraft diving and machine-gunning defenceless civilians and dropping shrieking bombs on us; this was merely to spread panic because none would call women and children military objectives. It is unforgettable to see a tiny child killed by machine guns or crouching over the body its dead mother. Those, like me, who witnessed it will remember every time we see a German uniform.
After the Armistice I returned to Paris to continue my studies. I often planned an escape into a neutral country but I took too long over it – early one morning on the 05 December 1940 I was arrested by the Germans. I expect that many people will have heard about the camp for British women and children in Besançon. It was absolutely disgraceful. The Germans had arrested every person with British nationality, regardless of their health or age, that is to say the women, children under 16 and men over 60. The younger men were already interned. Old people of 90 were forced from their homes, invalids were dragged from their beds, expectant mothers and babies were also. Babies were born on trains and many mothers and babies lost their lives as a result. The Germans made no exceptions. We were taken to an old French barracks at Besançon, unprepared, filthy, and infected with bugs. We used to go bug hunting in the cracks of the walls with a red hot poker. The sanitary conditions were unspeakable, absolutely primitive and the food was so bad and filthily prepared, that it was practically inedible. We lived under these conditions for five months during which time the death rate was very high. In the first fortnight of captivity up to three hundred were known to have died.
At the end of April 1941, thanks to the vigorous projects of the Swiss Red Cross, we were all transferred to Vittel, about 35 miles west of Epinal. The conditions were better with no more bugs or straw mattresses, and clean water. However, the spirits of the internees sank lower with gradual boredom taking hold. You have difficulty concentrating on anything and lack the courage to find an occupation. As conditions in the camp improved, boredom increased as there was nothing for us to do and depression affected many and a craving for freedom increased. We gave our German captors problems and trouble but complaints were always answered with, ‘Here you are not in a rotten democracy, but in a Nazi Camp, you will do what you are told’. I do think that all internees were very grateful to the Red Cross (Swiss, British, American and French). The British forwarded regular parcels of food and cigarettes.
I always had escape at the back of my mind and spent most of my time painting portraits of my fellow internees so as to have a little money to aide my escape. As the winter of 1941 drew on I decided I could wait no longer and forged myself a French ID card with drawing paper and India ink. Much of the security was barbed wire with guards and I became very scared that if I was captured I would be sent to a camp in Germany. The fences were searched to find a possible escape route, and after 11 months I saw a chance and slipped through the fence. I walked many miles from Vittel as I knew the Germans would not discover my absence until roll call the next morning. I had also not cut the wire. I took with me a small attaché case containing food which I had saved. My first visit to a rail station I found no trains for two days. The following three days I travelled short distances by train and bus and on foot. Throughout my travelling I was helped by the French people. Not once was help refused even though the penalty for helping me was death or at best torture and a concentration camp. They would also not accept payment stating, ‘We are proud and honoured to help England in any possible way’. I left the camp with 2000 francs and reached Switzerland with about the same amount having only to pay for train and bus fares.
The last part of my journey to Switzerland was assisted by a young French Gaullist who offered to guide me over the Jura Mountains. We set off in mist over wide deserted moorland. The Swiss borderlands were rugged, eerie and open, leading to mountains with early snow falling. The tracks and roads had all been potholed by the Germans and we arrived at the frontier without seeing a soul. The sun shone as I stepped into Switzerland. I felt free of Germans. I stayed 10 months in Switzerland. I obtained my visas to return to England but with events on mainland Europe and the German occupation, Switzerland had become isolated and cut off.
The Swiss people were very pro-English, but entering Switzerland illegally with no visas, I had to observe their security rulings and formalities. Finally, I set off by train on my way to Lisbon. I quickly travelled by train through France with valid documents and after a day I arrived in Spain.
In Spain conditions were bad. People with money could buy anything while the millions of poor folk had nothing. I gave away my sandwiches to the railway porters at Port Bou the frontier town, and they took them with gratitude. Devastation was everywhere, poverty and hunger can be seen everywhere. Travelling was difficult, trains were few and irregular, extremely dirty and absolutely packed. New control papers were needed for each train. I could not speak Spanish but many Spanish could speak French. One Spanish lady said, ‘I wish I could come to England with you, you have bread’. I asked her if she thought we would win the war and she said, ‘I do’. But was concerned about who would help Spain recover after the war.
On the 5th day of my journey I arrived in Portugal. Straight away I saw that the Portuguese were very favourable to the English. You would hardly know there was a war on. The streets were brightly lit, no rationing of either food or clothing. I waited 4 weeks to get a plane home. It was a great feeling stepping out of the plane on to English soil after three years away, and how impressed I was to see how calmly and normally England was carrying on under wartime conditions. The main change was so many men and women in uniforms. I realised that the English people really were unshaken and with this quality alone we would win the war.