- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Dalkeith History Society, Dalkeith Midlothian.
- Location of story:
- Dalkeith, Midlothian
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 05 July 2004
I was taken to the Bureau and handed over to the Commandant of the Fort who told me there were sixteen British prisoners in the Fort and that, so long as I obeyed regulations and maintained discipline, I would be well enough treated. I was put beside the other British fellows (two officers and fourteen men) and given a pallet, pillow and two blankets. The bedding stank and was simply lousy so I did not use them. We were confined to one room at first, but as time went on we were allowed to wander about pretty much as we wanted to. I got fed-up doing nothing and started to work in the Cook House. We got two meals a day in the Fort, one at 11.30 in the morning and the other at 6.30 in the evening and a glass of wine with each meal. It was terrible stuff. They were not particularly good meals, but we were always ready for them. When I had been a week in the Fort I met the Rev. Mr Caskie, the tartan pimpernel was I/C of the Seamans' Mission, and through him on 28th July I got my first letter written for home. Mr Caskie was doing magnificent work in Marseilles, helping refugees in every possible way, and I am very grateful for what he did for me.
August dragged slowly past and by the end of the month I was restless and dissatisfied. Have I ever been anything else? We had little news and the inactivity and lack of occupation were getting on my nerves badly. One morning word got into us that there were three American Red Cross boats in the harbour, and I started to get all sorts of wild ideas into my head. There was now no strict discipline over us and we did pretty much as we liked. That morning two other fellows and I scouted round to see if there was the slightest possibility of a break-out. We found a place where we could climb the wall, drop onto a narrow ledge on the other side and there was a 50 feet drop on to rocks which would bring us to a point near the Lower Gate. We decided to risk it and that night we made a successful break-out after darkness. We made straight for the Docks, but could not get near them. The Entrance Gates were heavily guarded by gendarmes and military. We hung about for a good while trying to find a way in, but very reluctantly, had to give it up and go back to the Fort. We got in the same way as we got out. We broke out again the two following nights, but could not get near the boats at all. They sailed out on the fourth day, and we were left at St. Jean.Under the terms of the French-German Armistice the Foreign Legion was to be disbanded, and men who had completed their term of service were to be discharged and others sent back to North Africa to rejoin their Battalion. Fort St. Jean was largely used as a depot for the Legion and every day men were passing through either to be demobilised or sent back to Africa. We mixed quite freely with them and they were very friendly. One fellow did not want to go back to Sidi-Bel-Abbis and he was scrounging round the Fort trying to get civilian clothes so as he could get out and back to his home. After a good deal of consideration I arranged to swap clothes with him, and take another chance. It seemed to me that anything would be better than lying around the Fort and running the risk of falling into German hands again. We only got the French controlled wireless news and it was anything but reassuring. All sorts of rumours were going the rounds and Africa seemed to me to be a bit healthier than Marseilles.
Another British fellow, Cabey, was working on the same lines as myself for getting away, and eventually we both managed to get fixed up. I exchanged my clothes with a Legionnaire and got his uniform, papers etc. The papers stated he was "Le Soldat Veia" going to rejoin his Unit in North Africa. On the Saturday morning we fell in with the rest of the Legion and were marched down to the Docks where a troopship "La Ville Verdun" was anchored. When we were about to board the ship it was discovered there were not enough life boats and belts so the white troops were not allowed to embark. The Singhalese troops were taken aboard and the rest of us marched back to the Fort. Cabey and I were in a rotten fix, and had we been found out would have been badly punished. When we got back to the Fort the soldiers helped us to evade those in authority. All that day we hid about the Fort keeping out of the path of officers and others in authority. At night one of the soldiers told us that another troopship the "Sidi-Bel-Abbis" was sailing in the morning and we ought to have another try. We again marched to the Docks on the Sunday morning and after a great deal of shouting, confusion and delay the ship sailed slowly out of Marseilles with Cabey and myself safely on board. From Marseilles to Oran it took us two-and-a-half days. Whilst on board Cabey and I managed to get an old pair of trousers, a shirt and coat and a pair of sandshoes. We stowed the garments in our pack, and at Oran we passed through the Customs with the rest of the Legion. After getting through the Customs we made for a public toilet and there discarded our uniform for the civilian clothing. In Oran we made for the British Consul Office, but found he had left the town the previous week. The Polish Consul was still in the town and we made our way to the Legation. Unfortunately he did not speak English, but we managed to fix up an appointment for 7 o'clock in the evening when he would have an interpreter. We drifted about Oran all afternoon and met some of the Legion. They told us they were leaving for Casablanca at 2.30 a.m. and suggested that we risk going with them. We decided on this and so did not go near the Polish Consul in the evening. In the early morning we went to the Station and after successfully evading the guards by mixing up with the French-American "demobilisees" we got on to the train. We had to dodge Ticket Inspectors at the various stations, and did this by hiding in the train latrines and standing on platforms whilst the train was stationery. We were caught once, but managed to convince the Inspector we were "demobilisees". After a foul journey the train arrived at Casablanca early on the Friday morning of 13th September.
It is not my intention here to describe places, but I shall never forget Casablanca. It is a beautiful modern city with lovely parks and a superb swimming pool. The streets and squares have a splendid appearance and the buildings and shops which are all white are the last word in style. The French are justly proud of their finest Empire port and its development was largely the work of Marechal Lyautey, of whom there is a splendid statue in La Place Lyautey. At first Cabey and I did not trouble about the beauty of the town. We were dirty and unshaven, and felt we must have a clean-up before we began our exploits again. We went into a hairdresser shop where we had a hair-cut, shave and general clean-up. Our bill came to 27 francs and we had only 15 between us. The man was decent and did not make any fuss about the 12 francs difference. After we left the shop we made for the American Consul, and told him our story. He was very good to us, gave us each a good suit and underwear and enough money for a cheap hotel. Every week during our stay in Casablanca we received 325 francs per week which enabled us to live in a cheap hotel and get two proper meals each day. The hotel was clean and quite comfortable and we began to enjoy our stay. The weather was perfect, hot sunshine, blue sky and blue sea. We felt ourselves grow stronger as the days passed and our nerves settled down so that the troubles of the past weeks faded into the background. We were, however, trying various methods of getting a visa to leave Casablanca. We said we were Rumanians and Czechs, but there was nothing doing. The Spanish-French frontier was closed and only special visas were being issued. We then decided to try for Dakaar to join the free French, and were actually on the point of starting when we heard De Gaulle had withdrawn so that scheme went up in the air. Next we planned to try to get to Martinique as Czech "demobolisees", but we got word through a special source that no Czechs were going to Martinique so again we were held. We hung around days on end trying to pick up news which might help us, and about the middle of November we heard that a neutral ship was to be in port shortly. There was a giant chance we might get a passage on it and accordingly our spirits rose high. Various people have said to me since I came home that I ought to have stuck around in Casablanca until after the War, but it never even entered out heads to do so. Both Cabey and I were dead keen to get home again to our own people, and hanging around a foreign port with nothing to do grows very boring after a week or two. Consequently the neutral ship began to occupy a large place in our minds. The docks at Casablanca were even heavier guarded than at Marseilles. There was a high wall running round and on top of this wall large cement pillars. Also an electric wire ran round the wall except for one small space. We were told that it would be simply impossible to get into the Harbour, but we had been told it would be impossible to get out of Fort St. Jean and we had managed that. We made up our minds to have a try at this chance of getting away, and nothing would put us past it. On the Sunday night we walked round the outside of the Harbour, and on the Tuesday we went to a place where we could see the whole outlay perfectly and so spot lights and danger places. This place I can reveal now was a flat occupied by a British Agent. It overlooked the harbour. The boat was in the harbour by this time and we were given her name and description. On the Wednesday night another British fellow joined us, and we spent the remainder of that day making plans. Again our special friend tried to persuade us to give up the scheme, but we would not, so after darkness on the Thursday night we made our way to the point of the Harbour Wall which we had decided upon as the best place. We fastened two Legionnaire belts together, and after "a great deal of scrambling all three managed to make it. We then drew lots to see which of us would go through the wire first. I drew third and lay shivering on the top of the wall whilst the first fellow started off. It seemed ages before we got the signal that he was safely over. The second fellow crawled slowly forward and I was left alone. Again I heard the signal and knew that the other two were safe. Slowly I crawled forward and even yet I cannot tell how I managed it. I felt the other two fellows catch me as I came down, and we stood together for a bit until gradually our nerves calmed down. The most dangerous part of the job was over, but we were by no means out of difficulty. The main guard was posted only thirty yards from us so we crawled along on our hands and knees keeping well in the shadow. As we got farther away from the guard our confidence increased and we walked along upright to where the boat lay. What we did not know was that there was a German sub tied up beside the boat we were making for. We had been given a special card with a number on it, and were to show this to the crew. The boat was a 300 tonner, a bit on the dirty side, but she had all the glamour of a luxury liner to us as we scrambled aboard. We showed our ticket and everything was made o.k. for us. We were taken to the captain and we wrote down exactly where and how we had got in, and drew a rough plan. The next morning the captain, who was the only member of the crew allowed ashore, took this plan to our special friend, and that night four other British fellows joined us. We were hidden away in a specially prepared place, under the floor of one of the cabins, and early next morning, 20th November, the Harbour Authorities came aboard and searched the ship. We heard them tramping overhead for a considerable time, and then they left. Shortly afterwards the engines started to throb and the boat moved slowly out of the Harbour. As Casablanca faded in the distance we began to breathe freely again. After a day and a half at sea we sighted a British destroyer which steamed to meet us. A boat was sent out from the destroyer to our ship and blithely we scrambled into it. Soon we were aboard the destroyer where we got a great welcome from the crew, and sat down to a real English meal of roast meat and potatoes. We were given £1 each from the ship's funds and as many cigarettes as we wanted. We enjoyed our short trip to Gibraltar immensely, and we were very sorry indeed to part from our new friends. At Gibraltar we were sent to billets with the North Devons, and there got fitted out with uniform again. We were fully a week in Gibraltar when a boat came into the harbour, and she lay for a week until Saturday, 7th December. On the Saturday morning we were told to get ready and embark on this boat for home. We did so right willingly, and a week later, Saturday, 14th December under a still grey winter sky we sailed up the Firth of Clyde. As I watched the outline of the hills grow clearer and nearer I felt that all the hardship, all the danger and disappointment and setbacks had been well worthwhile. I was in my own land again, and a free man.
My tale is nearly finished now. We disembarked early on the Sunday and travelled to London. On the Monday we were interviewed at the War Office where we signed a paper promising not to divulge our story to any newspaper or wireless official until after the War. I travelled to Edinburgh on the Monday evening where I jumped on the train and went home to Dalkeith for a couple of days before proceeding to Aberdeen to rejoin the "Gallant Gays".
This story is donated on behalf of Dalkeith History Society, in Dalkeith,Midlothian.
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