- Detachment W
Detachment W takes its name from the Vichy French 15th Military District unit assigned after April 1941 to supervise interned Allied soldiers and airmen found in the Unoccupied Zone. With the capitulation of French armies and the withdrawal of British forces at Dunkirk, many Allied servicemen were left adrift. Where the Germans successfully rounded them up as [End Page 263] captives, lax security permitted some to escape. Marseille and, eventually, Lisbon represented the gateway to freedom and home. Once over the border into Vichy, the soldiers became subject to internment, not POW status. Time after time, British soldiers noted the lack of anti-British feeling on the part of the French—in contrast to the attitude of the Vichy government.
The United States assumed the role of protecting power for British interests, initially providing relief to indigent Britons in the south of France. Soon these responsibilities expanded to cover the successful evaders encamped in Marseille. The Rev. David Caskie, a Scots Presbyterian minister and refugee from Paris, soon joined the throng. Appalled by what he encountered, he received his superiors' approval to provide aid to the soldiers from the Seamen's Institute, just incidentally providing notice to the homeland of their survival. He was soon recruited to help organize their escapes from France.
The Italian occupiers of the Rhone valley assumed overall responsibility for holding Allied soldiers, delegating to the French the details of internee supervision. Repeated French assurances that the internees would be kept under close control and repeated escapes (often with the "assistance" of the supervisors) led to increasingly more severe incarceration conditions. The French initially sought to hold several hundred "guests" in the Fort Saint-Jean in Marseille, later in Saint-Hippolyte-du-Fort (Gard), and lastly Fort de la Revere (Alpes-Maritimes). Several British field officers among the internees assumed command of the group to organize the evasion and escape efforts.
The author makes exhaustive use of escapees' files in the Public Record Office, newspaper accounts, oral history interviews, and memoirs to provide details of the organization of escape, the support of sympathetic French and Spanish people, and the efforts from home. Airmen who had been shot down over France in 1940 evaded capture, returned home to fly again, and in a few cases were shot down a second time only to make their way to the Unoccupied Zone once again. Richardson explores the various methods used to communicate between the internees and home. Some involved subterfuge, others used the postal system. From an operational standpoint, the value of this work lies in the comprehensive coverage of the variety of evasion and communication techniques. Those responsible to train soldiers, and especially airmen, in "E&E" will find this a valuable resource.
Reviewer's disclosure: The reviewer offered the author the use of his consulting firm to facilitate orders from the United States where currency availability might adversely affect readers' ability to obtain the work.