World War Two created a whole host of heroes in the battle to beat the Fascist Powers in Europe. But many of the heroes remain unknown. Here, Brian Fleming, author of a recently published book on unsung heroes of World War Two (Amazon US| Amazon UK), explains some stories of amazing people whose actions saved the lives of people in great danger from the Nazis.
For some reason, I have always been particularly intrigued by the doings of unsung heroes. Perhaps it is as a result of their invariably modest attitudes towards their achievements or maybe the fundamental unfairness that sometimes permeates accounts of events is the cause. My curiosity prompted me to write The Vatican Pimpernel: The Wartime Exploits of Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty (Amazon US| Amazon UK).[i] A fellow Irishman, who while working as a priest working in the Vatican during World War 2 established what became known as the Rome Escape Line. O’Flaherty and his colleagues rescued many Allied servicemen and others who were on the run from the Nazis and Italian Fascists. My interest in this case was that his story was relatively unknown in Ireland despite the fact that at least 6,500 individuals were saved by the organization. There were reasons for this to be the case, most particularly because his own modesty. Researching The Vatican Pimpernelbrought me in contact with stories of other escape lines and I have realized an ambition to explore some of these in Heroes in the Shadows: Humanitarian Action and Courage in the Second World War (Amazon US| Amazon UK).[ii]
On this occasion rather than give an extensive account of one escape line, I have provided a chapter on each of four escape lines which allows for a fairly comprehensive outline of the activities of each one. The first chapter, however, is not about an escape line strictly speaking. In it, I recount the activities of diplomats in various parts of Europe who used their positions to save thousands of individuals. Of these, Raoul Wallenberg is by far the most famous but there were others whose heroic deeds need to be better known
Aristides de Sousa Mendes
One interesting example is that of the Portuguese diplomat Aristides de Sousa Mendes. Under the dictator Salazar, Portugal, like its neighbor Spain, was determined not to become involved in WW2. Sousa Mendes, a lawyer by profession, served in his country’s diplomatic service and took up duty as Consul General in Bordeaux in 1938. The following year, Salazar, anxious not just to remain neutral but to be seen to be so, issued an instruction to his nation’s diplomats that visas were not to be issued to various categories of people. Essentially this covered all refugees who might be seeking access to Portugal. Exemptions could only be granted with sanction from the Foreign Ministry in Lisbon. It is clear that from the very start that Sousa Mendes was uncomfortable with this restrictive approach. He began to make exceptions without prior clearance and put forward, to the authorities, retrospective justification for his actions. The numbers involved were quite small but the situation changed radically in 1940 as French resistance to the Nazi invasion began to collapse. Millions fled south, many to avoid conflict but others, notably the Jews, had far more specific reasons to leave France. Hundreds approached the consulate in Bordeaux seeking assistance.
Sousa Mendes became indisposed in mid-June with what he described subsequently as a breakdown. Clearly he was in a very difficult situation caught between his instructions from Lisbon and his humanitarian instincts. Happily the latter proved decisive and he emerged from his illness with an emphatic decision. ‘From now on I’m giving everyone visas. There will be no more nationalities, races or religions.’[iii]For the next few weeks this is precisely what he did. Obviously Salazar’s government could not tolerate such defiance and he was recalled, an instruction he complied with but not in any great hurry. Estimating the numbers he saved is difficult as visas often covered more than the individual holder but included family members such as children. Some have suggested that between him and his colleague Emile Gissot in Toulouse, 20,000 were saved. Certainly a figure of 10,000 would constitute a conservative estimate. The noted Holocaust scholar, Professor Yehuda Bauer has described the role played by Sousa Mendes as perhaps the largest rescue operation by a single individual during that period. Subsequently the career of Aristides de Sousa Mendes was destroyed on the direct instructions of Salazar. Sadly he lived in relative poverty for the remainder of his life and his actions were airbrushed from history. Eventually the truth began to emerge and a campaign in the US by a group including the diplomat’s son, John Paul, bore fruit in 1986 when 70 members of congress wrote to the then Portuguese Prime Minister asking that the good name of Aristides de Sousa Mendes be restored. Two years later the Portuguese parliament unanimously adopted a motion striking out all charges against Sousa Mendes and marked the decision with a standing ovation. Further recognition has followed in Portugal and in Bordeaux where he made his wonderfully courageous decision.
Escape lines during WW2 tended to specialize in particular target groups. Some focused on ensuring the safe return home of members of the Allied Forces so that they could re-join their regiments, whereas others prioritized the needs of civilians who were seeking to evade capture by the Nazis and Fascists.
Pat O’Leary was the name used by the leader of a prominent escape line centered in the South of France. In reality, he was a Belgian doctor whose real name was Albert Marie Guérisse. When his native country was invaded, he made his way to Britain and enlisted in the Armed services. In early1941, he arrived in Marseille and made contact with Ian Garrow, a member of the Seaforth Highlanders who had been unable to reach Dunkirk in time to evacuate. Making his way south, he had begun to establish an escape line with a Scottish-born clergyman called Donald Caskie amongst others. The arrival of O’Leary was a major step forward as he brought new skills to the endeavor, including an ability to speak French fluently and the training he received in undercover work whilst in Britain. Indeed, he became the central figure in the organization and it became known as the ‘Pat Line’. He immediately set about expanding the line in terms of the number of ‘safe houses’ that were available in which to lodge escapees while ways of getting them out of France were organized.
There were about 50,000 personnel who, like Garrow, failed to make the evacuation at Dunkirk. Many remained at large and others, whilst captured initially, managed to escape. The main objective of the line was to locate and repatriate these so that they could return to active service. In order to do this, the organization had to extend its presence throughout France as far as possible and to set up a route through Spain so that evacuees could be brought to Gibraltar and home from there. Establishing a large organization throughout war-time France was a risky operation. There were Nazi spies both in that part under the control of the German authorities and Vichy France, the so-called un-occupied region. Recruiting helpers was always difficult as the authorities were constantly seeking to penetrate organizations favorable to the Allied cause. Despite this, an extensive escape line stretching from north of Paris to Gibraltar was soon in place.
Getting escapees over the Pyrenees and through Spain was difficult. Spain, under the control of General Franco, while nominally neutral, was favorably disposed towards the Nazis especially when they had the upper hand in the conflict. As a result, there were plenty of Nazi undercover agents in the country and the authorities turned a blind eye. Donald Darling was appointed by the British authorities to facilitate evacuees heading for Gibraltar and he soon had a fairly efficient operation in place. In this, he was helped by a diplomat stationed in the UK embassy in Berlin and a number of favorably-disposed locals.
Of course, ensuring the safe passage of escapees through France was even more difficult. Operating over such a distance and involving so many volunteers led inevitably to failures. The line was penetrated by Paul Cole, an Englishman and former soldier. He had a number of early successes in bringing people down to the South of France and eventual freedom. This was a typical tactic by the Nazi authorities to allow an agent acting on their behalf build a positive image. In late November 1941, Cole’s real role became clear and he was confronted but escaped. He betrayed some of the lines leading supporters in the North of France, costing approximately fifty to be arrested, tortured and executed.
Despite this very serious setback, O’Leary and his team re-built the organization and evacuations to Gibraltar continued. In the main, these were by way of the Pyrenees but, for a period, sea evacuations were carried out successfully. They also managed to organize jail breaks including some spectacular ones, so that particular vital personnel could return home to resume their duties. On 2March 1943, O’Leary himself was betrayed by a volunteer named Roger le Neveu. He suffered serious torture in prison but survived. For obvious reasons an organization such as the ‘Pat Line’ kept no detailed records so estimating how many were assisted is not straightforward. It is likely, however, that about 2,000 individuals were helped by O’Leary and his colleagues.
Assisi has been a focus of pilgrimage and religious practice for Christians over the centuries. As such, for those seeking sanctuary from the effects of the war it was an obvious destination to seek out. Indeed the local bishop had set up a committee to care for refugees at an early stage. Padre Rufino Niccacci was, at the time, Father Guardian of the local Franciscan seminary. In June 1944 the Allies, after protracted battles, eventually reached Rome. A few hours later, Padre Rufino was woken by a colleague close to midnight with a message to call to see the bishop immediately, which he did. As he had no involvement with the committee for the welfare of refugees, he was surprised to be asked to bring a group of them to Cardinal Della Costa in Florence, who would arrange for them to leave Italy via the port of Genoa. His surprise became astonishment when it was explained that this was a group of Jews, including a Rabbi. Rufino had never met a Jew and indeed, it was believed that no one of that faith had ever been in Assisi. The task was successfully completed and Rufino was destined to learn a lot in the next few months as he looked after increasing numbers of Jews arriving in the area to seek sanctuary. As escape via Genoa became unavailable, he hid them in the many religious houses in Assisi, supplemented by many locals who were willing to accommodate some in their private homes. A dangerous game of cat and mouse ensued between him and the local Nazi forces and, despite many near misses, he ensured that all in his care survived the war. Given the nature of these events it is likely that many locals were aware of what was going on but he and his charges were never betrayed. Interestingly, it is probable that the Nazi commander in the area during the final months of the occupation had some inkling of what was afoot and chose to turn a blind eye.
These are just three of the cases detailed in Heroes in the Shadows. There are others recorded there and elsewhere and, indeed, many individual heroic acts that are long forgotten. War invariably provides ample evidence of humankind’s capacity for appalling brutality. It is important not to forget that many possess the necessary moral courage to resist such examples of man’s inhumanity to man and a willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice in doing so.
[i]Fleming, Brian The Vatican Pimpernel: The Wartime Exploits of Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty(the Collins Press, 2008 & 2014, Skyhorse Publishing, 2012).
[ii] Fleming, Brian Heroes in the Shadows: Humanitarian Action and Courage in the Second World War (Amberley Publishing,2019).
[iii]Paldiel, Mordecai Diplomat Heroes of the Holocaust (KTAV Publishing, 2007) p. 74.