WW2 French Resistance on the Somme

by Evelyn McKechnie

During the Second World War the skies above the Somme in France were filled with Allied bombers heading into the heart of Germany.  Flying above the old Great War western front lines, they were often hit by flak or by night fighters. Germany’s main night fighters were the Messerschmitt Bf-110G, the Junker Ju-88G6, the Dornier Do-217J and the Heinkel He-219A Uhu (Owl) and they were very successful.  The Allies reformed their tactics in an attempt to reduce the night fighter effectiveness but that did not stop thousands of airmen being shot down. If an airman survived an attack they would parachute out into the night sky and were often helped to freedom by members of the French ‘escape lines.’

The Comet Line

Some of these airmen’s stories are well documented, as were some of the escape lines and helpers. The most well known escape line was the Comet Line, which was founded in Brussels where it had most of its safe-houses. It became a collaboration between ‘helpers’ from three countries – Belgium, France and Spain.  It was named Comet because of the speed of its operation.

Emblem of the Comet Line

The first to escape with the help of Comet was not an airman but Private Jim Cromar from the 1st Gordon Highlanders, 51st Division in 1941. He died in Aberdeen in 2004. He had been taken prisoner on June 11th, 1940 with his unit at St. Valery-en-Caux after a retreat from the Maginot Line. He was wounded but escaped 14 days later on 25th June 1940.

Private Jim Cromar

The evaders who travelled along the Line were mainly aircrew of about twenty different nationalities. The line was ‘blown’ a number of times but always regrouped with new members.

Some resistance helpers who worked alone are known; others provided aid and support and then faded into obscurity after the war. This was for reasons of personal security and to protect their families, livelihoods within their communities. Many of them never revealed their actions. In order to ensure secrecy ‘helpers’ often gave false identities or code names; some had moved house with the specific intention of operating ‘safe houses’ away from the areas of their homes and families, then returned home after the war.

Most escapers and evaders were aware of their helpers’ need for anonymity, and so the identities of many brave, selfless people may never be known. However now, generations later, amongst forgotten belongings, some families are beginning to discover clues to the clandestine actions of their forebears.

Those who helped escaping aircrew paid a high cost for their allegiance to the escape lines. Many were captured, tortured, and executed. Others simply ‘disappeared’ into the concentration camp system of the Third Reich. 

THE POSSUM ESCAPE LINE

One of the lesser known escape lines was the Possum Escape Line. In Mailly-Maillet, Contay Forceville, and Hebutérne, just four small villages close to Auchonvillers on the Somme, ten civilians, part of the Possum Escape Line, were taken to concentration camps and only three survived.

Possum Escape Line

René DHAILLE – Arrested in Amiens on 15 April 1944. Sent to Dachau 1 July 1944. Liberated 29 April 1945

Léopold ROUSSEL  –  Arrested in Forceville on 16 April 1944. Died in ‘Train of Death’ to Dachau, 2 July 1944

René MUCHEMBLED – Arrested 16 April 1944 Mailly-Maillet. Died resisting arrest.

Lucien DELACROIX – Arrested 3 May 1944 in Contay. Sent to Dachau 15 July 1944. Died in the deportation

Jean GRAPOULET – Arrested 5 August 1944. Sent to Buchenwald on 18 August, 1944. Died in exile on 12th June 1946 in Prague

Edmond JADOUX – Arrested in Mailly-Maillet 6 August 1944. Died in Buchenwald, 15 September 1944

Noël LAVAQUERIE – Arrested in Mailly-Maillet 6 August 1944. Deported 16 August 1944. Liberated 11 May 1945

Michel BLONDEL-  Arrested in Mailly-Maillet 6 August 1944. Sent to Buchenwald 22 August 1944. Liberated 13 May 1945

Jules GUÉANT – Died in Flossenburg, 20 March 1945

Victor DELPLANQUE – Arrested in Mally-Maillet 16 August 1944. Sent to Buchenwald on 18 August 1944. Died in 3 March 1945

RAY SHERK, RCAF – one of the last to be helped by the Possum Line

One of those who they helped to escape to freedom was Ray Sherk. Ray Sherk landed by parachute at Hawthorn Ridge, Beaumont Hamel, Somme on Sunday morning 11 am on 15th March 1944. It is documented that he could hear the church bells chime. He was shot down twice escaping the first time also.

The first time was in 1942, when Ray had to make a forced landing over North Africa. He was captured walking to El Alamein, sent to Italy and had his 21st birthday as a POW. When Italy capitulated in September 1943, Ray fled to the mountains hiding in a cave with his friend Don McLarty. Pretending to be shepherds, they hiked through the Apennines, and after 45 days they came across the Canadian Seaforth Highlanders. Ray returned to operations with the RCAF Squadron 401 in February 1944.

RCAF Ray Sherk

Escape on the Somme

Ray’s escape on the Somme is an amazing story of the bravery of the French Resistance. Ray Sherk was one of many airmen helped to escape by Léopold Roussel, a primary school teacher and his wife Renée, members of the Possum Escape Line.

These helpers showed remarkable courage because not only were they up against the Gestapo but also the hated Milice, the paramilitary force created by the Vichy Regime with German aid to help fight the French resistance.  The Germans also offered 10,000 francs to anyone helping to track down an airman. 

Léopold Roussel forged Ray’s identity papers and he was also given 3000 francs (about £10). His friend René Muchembled walked with Raymond Sherk (RCAF) and another escaping airman, Lt Carpenter (USAAF) from Hebutérne to Mailly-Maillet. They caught a bus to Amiens, then trained it to Paris. Travelling by bus arriving in Bordeaux on 23 March 1944 they then went on by bus into the Pyrenees and across the border into Spain by foot.

The BBC announced Ray Sherk’s successful return in code “The Sky is Blue”in both English and French.  He was a regular visitor to the area and owed his life to the many brave French men and women who aided his rescue and so many others. He died in 2016 aged 94 years.

LEOPOLD ROUSSEL

Léopold Roussel was arrested on 16th April 1944, the same day that his friend René Muchembled was shot, trying to resist arrest. He was 33 years old.

Léopold’s friend René Muchembled’s grave in Mailley-Maillet

It was not long after helping Ray Sherk to escape. Léopold was taken to the citadel in Amiens, where he was tortured before being transferred to Compiègne. He was then deported on the ‘train of death’ from Compiègne en route to Dachau on 2nd July 1944.

Léopold Roussel –
photo credit: Mr Dany Dheilly Hérissart

There were over 2166 prisoners in the train of cattle wagons being transported in hellish conditions. They could not sit as they were crammed in 100 to a wagon. The heat was recorded at 34 degrees centigrade that day, only 1630 survived with 536 dead. One of those was Léopold who died of asphyxia within hours of the train setting off.  Most died of the men died within two hours bleeding from the nose and ears, suffering from hallucinations. The Germans would not let the Red Cross remove the dead bodies and they were trained all the way to Dachau, nor would they allow water to be given by the Red Cross. In one wagon, which was metal, there was only one survivor out of the 100 men packed in.

Many of the survivors gave horrific accounts of the suffering which is unimaginable, their breaths coming in gasps with the life draining out of them by each second. Many fights took place in the cars, and while oxygen deprivation causes stupor, it is thought that the men fought each other because of carbonic anhydride (not to be confused with carbon monoxyde).

Carbonic Anhydride was produced because of the exhalation of the men and the fermentation of the straw that lined the floors of the railcars. This caused the men to provoke many arguments and fights as they struggled to breathe – they became violently mad.

“The panic reached its peak; eyes wide with suffering: the struggle to survive. When my back touched the wall of the car, it made me cry out in pain. My nostrils pinched back and my tonque was so swollen that it took an immense effort to breathe the vititated air” {1}

Léopold’s death in the train is documented by a survivor:

At the start of this trip, our comrade, Léopold Rouselle, gave final proof of this great spirit of solidarity and devotion. He tried desperately to take of and comfort those who were sicker than he. He was a man who spent himself without counting the costs, up to the limit of all human possibility. He gave all he had in the care for other and collapsed of exhaustion after only a few hours. There was nothing we could do to keep him from doubling over, nothing we could do to save him. The loss of consciousness was fatal’. {2}

The French Resistance had tried to blow the train twice but failed. It was cited as a crime against humanity at the Nuremberg Trials with testimony from the survivors.

Léopold’s wife had also been arrested with him but was released. She never remarried and lived in Mailly Maillet until she died 2010. Renée is buried at Mailly-Maillet Cemetery.

Renee Roussel’s grave in Mailly-Mailly Cemetery

Both Léopold and his wife Renée received the Medal of Freedom from the USA for helping a total of 15 airmen.

Léopold Roussel plaque

Léopold Roussel is remembered today in the village of Forceville by an inscription on the memorial in the town square and also on a plaque on the outside of the town hall. There is also a small flower holder on the wall outside the Roussel’s house which was only yards from the original school.

On speaking with the local historian of Forceville, apparently after the war, rifles were found in the attic of the Roussel’s house.

The Medal of Freedom (pre-1963 medal),
highest honour that a US President can give to a civilian

ROSINE WITTON

Rosine Witton was also a member of the Comet Line. She was eventually arrested by the Gestapo and sent to Ravensbrook concentration camp for two years. Her concentration camp uniform can be seen in the museum at Auchonvillers. She survived to be awarded the George Medal, Legion of Honor, Croix de Guerre and the Medal of Freedom from the USA.

Rosine Witton

The photograph shows Rosine and UASF 8th Bomber crewman Doug Hoehn and Alfred Martin taken while they were evading the Germans in Arras. They are at the rear of the Secours Nationale, 16 Rue De Bapaume in the city of Arras in May 1943.

She passed away in 1995 and her medals have been donated to the Imperial War Museum in London. A very courageous woman, she helped save numerous airmen from capture. Her concentration camp uniform was given to Andre Coillet, an avid collector of memorabilia and artefacts from both wars. His collection is now with Avril Williams in Auchonvillers in a brand new museum.

Rosie Witton’s Concentration camp uniform in the Andre Coillet museum at Auchonvillers

THE CITADEL IN ARRAS – 218 shot

There was great horror throughout the Western Front of the Somme during the Great War, but also during the Second World War for the civilians. Many of the helpers of the downed airmen were not sent to concentration camps but shot.

218 people of all backgrounds were shot from 1941 to 1944 in the moat of the Citadel of Arras.

The youngest of these was 16 and a half years old, Julien Delval, and the oldest was 69, Henri Queval.  Julien was shot the same day as his older brother. The last two people shot were Soviet soldiers.

Among those shot were:

1942 – Irénée Chevalier (51) from Alette

Georges Haudiquet (37) from Beussent

The notice of the death sentence given out to Irénée Chevalier and Georges Haudiquet (37)

Also in 1943 from the neighbouring villages to Auchonvillers:-

Alexander PHALEMPIN (30) from Hébuterne
             Roger SAVUAX (22) from Hébuterne
             Francois DARRAS (33) from Hébuterne    
          Francois ROGER (40) from Gommecourt

The Wall of Remembrance is in the moat of the citadel in Arras 218 wall plaques
with the name of each victim.

Moat and plaques at the Citadel in Arras

The execution post is still there plus a plaque which states:

“You who come into this place, keep your memories in the memory of their martyrdom”


The only monument in this memorial is a pole, a replica as accurate as possible from that to which were attached to the victims

If you travel to the Somme to remember the sacrifices of the Great War, take some time to remember the sacrifices of the civilians, many of whom suffered a horrific fate trying to help the Allied airmen during the Second World War. Like Léopold Roussel, his friend Réne, like Irénée and Georges.

The monument at Beussent with the names of Irénée CHEVALIER and  Georges HAUDIQUET

{1}{2} – The Death Train – Christian Bernadac

Lest We Forget

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Published by spotonlocations

Scottish based company designing travel apps for historical locations. Travel apps that will take you on amazing journeys to destinations in history where famous events took place. Scotland, Castles, Clans, WW1 & WW2

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